Christianity has a long history of reference to the Ten Commandments to identify sins that need to be exposed, confessed, and repented of. This is basic to a biblical view of sin and salvation.
But in the new post-modern culture, holding unbelievers to this standard does not work so well as a starting point. Better is to work with Paul’s distinction between our old nature and our new nature in the Spirit. His biblical word is according to the “flesh” (old nature). Luther picked up this distinction. He writes that baptizing with water “signifies that the Old Adam should be daily drowned and die with all sins and evil lust and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise, who shall live before God in righteousness and unity forever.”
Paul contrasts the two natures in Romans 8:13: “For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13). To the Galatians, he wrote, “Live by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature.”
Now pour into the natural life all that comes from being self-centered without a relationship with God. In our old nature without God, we have no sense of purpose in our lives and we experience loneliness and lack of fulfillment. That sense of community and fulfillment comes from living the purpose God created us for. The Spirit brings such purpose into our living and strengthens our feeling of love, joy, and peace. You live fulfilled by keeping in step with the Spirit.
The contact with post-moderns is to ask, “How’s your current life working for you? I gather not well. Let me tell you a better way to live.” Shaming post-moderns for not living according to God’s standards will not accomplish much. That approach makes sense only after the Spirit motivates them to become more like Christ. Then with such motivation, the relevant question becomes, What Would Jesus Do?
A basic discussion format could begin with your question, “When people ask who you are, how do you answer? Do you identify yourself by stating your job, or by your relationships with family or friends, or by your hobbies, or by some other identity? Does that identity bring you full life satisfaction? Or are you still looking for something more?”
Then a convinced believer can profess that his or her basic identity is as a follower of Christ. Explain, then, the satisfaction you find in this identity. That will leave them wondering whether and how they might grow in this life-fulfilling identity. They might very well ask you. Be ready to answer. If you are not sure, check out Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life.
So many people out there walking the streets today live with a lot of fear: fear that they will not be successful, or that their inadequacies will be discovered, or that their friends and family might abandon them. Of course, almost everybody fears death. The biblical message offers a powerful answer to the basic fears of life. In Christ, we have forgiveness and God’s acceptance. In Christ, we will have a fulfilling next life after this one ends.
Offering tired biblical clichés will not earn you much respect. Just tell your personal story of how you overcame your basic fears and discovered a greater sense of fulfillment. If your story includes discoveries through a growing Christian identity, you will have made a great witness that is most effective in the current post-modern culture. The rest is up to the Holy Spirit.
How helpful to you is the distinction between sins, which can be listed, and sinful nature, our underlying condition. Do you agree that describing our old nature is a better starting point for witnessing to others?
Shari Wojslaw says
I grew up Catholic. Listed my sins every week in the confessional. I remember thinking I could just say “ditto” because they about the same every week. When i would say the Act of Contrition and then do my penance (also usually the same few prayers) I would feel good for about a minute. Then of course the old sinful thoughts started back. It made me feel hopeless and looking for more. It wasn’t until many years later that I began to experience the fact that I was a child of God and His Spirit was within me. Yes I still have sinful thoughts and deeds but it no longer feels hopeless. It is more like a starting point and a way to reach out to others.
Hi, Shari. Thanks. I wonder if many Catholics still do confession and contrition. Their decline must be similar to mainline churches. One forecaster sees that those churches have about 23 years left before they become insignificant.
This Ash Wednesday I thought through my sins. Same old ones. As a psychologist, I am aware of human weaknesses. What’s accomplished by calling them sins? I don’t feel like a “poor miserable sinner,” in the words of our liturgy. Rather, because I know God’s grace in Christ, I don’t feel much guilt, which is a poor motivator for new behavior. My prayer is the Spirit fill me with more love, joy, and peace so that I experience more Christ-likeness. I ask the Spirit to help me deny myself and figure out what that means in my current situation.
Jim Esmeier says
I agree completely. If we know who we are and our true purpose, we will experience success. Telling our success stories as we direct people to Jesus, the Holy Spirit will bless the effort without threats of punishment.
Well said. But I am not sure that “success” is the right word since it has so many material connotations. Maybe “spiritual success” would work better.
In today’s world, a lot of ideas that multiple generations accept and embrace stem from what they see on social media and the internet. This seems to be especially true in these current times when we’re unable to interact with friends and family we used to communicate with frequently. Those stuck at home, doing WFH, or in quarantine, are being spoon-fed what they should think/believe from what they see on their electronic devices since those devices may be their only interaction with the outside world. I think the Christian community as a whole could do a better job inserting itself into the narratives people are portraying/viewing on social media; but it’d have to be done in a way that is subtle enough not to turn people off from the ‘sexier’ things they are already scrolling past without giving a second thought to. For example, I have an ‘anonymous’ Instagram account that doesn’t link back to me personally, but I use it daily to take part in interacting with people I share similar hobbies and interests with. I make it a point to post daily pictures/posts, but I only subtly interject faith-based commentary and imagery every couple weeks. Today, (at least from the perspective of the internet) I think you need to treat Christianity like a brand in order for it to get imprinted into the recesses of a youth’s brain. Most toddlers know what the McDonald’s ‘M’ stands for before they can talk, how great would it be if that ‘M’ they knew of was replaced with a ‘cross’?
Wow. I have a lot to learn from you. What a great mission outreach. I am guessing you are a Millennial. I have been saying it will take young people to reach young people immersed in the digital world. My message to us older ones is that we can raise up and support young leaders. How could I support you?
Ralph Joeckel (Toby) says
Dave, thank you. I always enjoy your perspective. I explain myself using the word ‘brokenness’.
We are all broken and I recognize my past failures knowing that Jesus heals especially the broken hearted.
Pastor Toby Joeckel
Intentional Interim Pastor
“Brokenness” works. The challenge is to describe what brokenness feels like. I suspect asking “How’s that working for you? would lead to helpful introspection for those you manage to draw into a conversation.
Bill Oehlschlager says
Lots of good points Dave! I’m going to use this in our March newsletter. By the way, I have led lots of Sharing Your Faith workshops all across the country and would be happy to lead one for your congregation sometime. What’s different about my workshop from so many others is that I talk about the five obstacles to belief in God, as I think it’s important for Christians to know what those obstacles are if we’re going to minister to people in a way so as to overcome those obstacles.
Hi, Bill. Glad you can use this one. I am not sure those of us in advanced age can witness well to young adults because their world is so different from ours.
very good perspective!
jeanne menich says
i have always felt that listing sins had a damning quality even if you knew you were forgiven. you concentrate on the damning quality instead of the forgiveness aspect. everything becomes personal instead of spiritual. having come from the catholic faith, i think this is even more true. it was always did you commit a venial sin or did you commit a mortal sin and as a child that becomes very scary because you were sure you were going to hell. ergo, i think the concept you talk about is very impt. i think most people know they are not perfect. they know they have natures that need help. so many people, today, have had no religious moral training and the minute you tell them how sinful they are, they immediately turn you off. actually, from my old catholic background, every time i hear the sin concept i immediately tune somebody out. it has nothing to do with the realization i recognize i am sinful, but more of the pictures of feeling damnation that pervade the thought process. i definitely think using a softer approach brings people to the realization they have to work on their sinful nature and are more willing to do it.
Hi, Jeanne. Well said, especially for those with a Catholic upbringing with its emphasis on guilt. Guilt is also important in Lutheran heritage. Guilt is a very poor motivator. Being motivated in your inner being by the Holy Spirit works much better.
Paul Winningham says
David, I appreciate this approach, and wonder if more might be done with diagnostic/dialogue questions that one might employ [without seeming agenda-driven] in engaging in conversation. Yet I am mindful that the Christian IS agenda-driven…by the Great Commission.
I think dialogue is what I am emphasizing. I doubt that Matthew’s Great Commission motivates much new behavior. Luke’s version is better. Instead of Go, he has Jesus saying Wait. Your are witnesses, now wait in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.