It happened in the church office. I was sitting there with the pastor and minister of education, planning a new Bible memorization program for our children, grades K through 6. I had been given the role of explaining the verses. On the list to teach were the passages from The Romans Road plan of salvation, which begins with “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”(Romans 3:23 NIV) and, “The wages of sin is death…”(Romans 6:23 NIV). So I asked, “How do you want me to define sin?”
There was an awkward silence. Then the minister of education stood up, found a manual, thumbed through it to the right spot and slowly read, “Sin is anything that displeases God.”
“Do I have to say that to kindergartners?” I asked. That seemed to me only a small step from saying that you have made God angry so He is going to kill you.
By the close of the meeting, I had been dispatched to find an alternative definition to use when explaining sin to children. Our church was located near a major seminary and we had both faculty and graduate students as active members, so discussion on the topic was not hard to initiate. Though lively debate took place, it did not result in a more child appropriate definition.
I remember confiding later to a friend, who had a three year old son, “I refuse to tell children they have all displeased God and the wages of displeasing God is death. Would you tell that to your son?”
He replied something to the effect, “God is the one who said it and we have no right to question Him.”
I was not convinced that is what God said. Finally, I went to Scripture for myself and this is what I found.
“Sin is lawlessness”(1 John 3:4 NIV). All right, I thought, if sin is lawlessness, then the next logical question would be, “what is the law?” When Jesus was asked about the law, He answered: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt 22:37-40 NIV).
Well, I reasoned, if the law is loving God and my neighbor, then lawlessness is failing to love God and my neighbor. That makes sin about not loving. What would happen, I wondered, if this was inserted into The Romans Road? “All have ‘failed to love’ and fall short of the glory of God,” and “the wages of ‘failing to love’ is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I decided to pursue this approach, but realized I needed to start with “the glory of God,” because it is from there that we fall short. This is what I told the children:
Way back in the beginning, when God made humans, he decided to make us like himself. He did this because God is love, and God wanted us to be able to love too, so he could love us and we could love him back, and everyone could love one another. You see, if everyone loved one another, the world would be a wonderful place, filled with the glory of the God who is love. So God breathed his breath of life into the first human, and he became a living soul.
But humans chose to be unlike God. They chose not to love God or one another, and the life God breathed into them began to die. Soon the world was no longer filled with the glory of God’s love, but instead with unloving things. The Bible calls these unloving things “sin,” and it is this sin that made us fall short of the glory of God and brought death into the world.
Now all humans do unloving things. Everyone – grownups and even children. Have you ever done something unloving to your brother or sister? Have you ever done something unloving to your mama?
At this point, I watched the children for their response. Much to my amazement, even the kindergartners unanimously admitted they had done unloving things to their families. It was one of those exhilarating teaching moments when you see comprehension light up eyes across the room. They heartily agreed those unloving things made home not such a wonderful place, and some eagerly elaborated with examples from personal experience. They seemed to understand that their failing to love made them fall short of the glory of God.
I was stunned. Before, whenever I tried to tell children about sin, the response was looks of empty bewilderment. Consequently, “failing to love” has become my go-to definition for sin, whether referring to children, adults or myself. It is piercing and all encompassing, exposing the root and depth of all sin, whether personal or corporate, against humans or God. Have I failed to love? Definitely. And because of it, I have fallen short of the glory of God.
Lately I have been contemplating The Romans Road again and its message of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. I was rereading its final passage, Romans 5:1, and continued on to the next verse. It ends with the phrase, “and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2 NIV). I had never noticed it before. There was that same phrase, “the glory of God.” In Romans 3:23 it is coupled with the word “fall,” in Romans 5:2 with the word “hope.” A trip to Strong’s Concordance confirmed they are the same Greek phrase.
Then I remembered the famous benediction of Jude 1:24-25. It refers to both God’s glory and our falling, and also speaks of our being faultless in his presence. “To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy…” (KJV). I bowed my head in worship. Our salvation is about more than freedom from the wages of sin. It is about participating in the glory of the God who is love. Herein lies the gospel: though we fall short of the glory of God, that glory can be ours through our Lord Jesus Christ. This truly is good news for children and adults.