Had I just committed the unpardonable parenting crime?

I had finished a conversation with my four-year-old daughter: “We are all sinners,” I looked her straight in the eyes as I continued, “And sin always hurts. It hurts us because we deserve to be punished in hell for it.” I had just told my daughter she was a sinner, condemned by God. Had I cruelly set time-bombs of depression and despair in her little heart by teaching her the doctrine of original sin?

I recently grappled with this question after reading an article by a former evangelical Christian whose pen name is Bill Moeller. Bill recalls how devastated he felt, when he, as a five-year-old, first encountered the doctrine of original sin. He writes, “I stood there in that room all alone, condemned, diminished and stripped of all human dignity.”

“Why had my parents,” he wonders thirty years later, “Embraced and imposed these dogmas on their own flesh and blood? Why didn’t their own parental instincts anticipate, and recoil in horror at the damage those dogmas would cause? I felt betrayed and wounded.” Clearly, from his perspective, teaching a child that he or she is a sinner is about the worst thing a parent can do. He used the words “abusive, degrading and destructive,” even “soul-murdering.”

Yet after reading Bill’s article, I’ve become convinced more than ever that I must teach my children about their sinfulness. Here’s why:

The Bible’s teaching about sin is the only way my children will make true sense of themselves and their world.

The truth about our sinfulness, though unpleasant, is the only way our children will make sense of a world haunted by original beauty and goodness, but now shattered by evil human choices. It sheds light on why their classmate pushed them in the playground, why parents get divorces, and why people are beheading other people in Iran. Equally important, the doctrine of sin allows our children to understand why their own nature is so conflicted—why one part of them longs for what is good, true and beautiful, but over and over again turns to destructive tendencies (Romans 7:15-19).

The Bible’s teaching about sin is part of the larger story of purpose and hope.

Telling our children that they are sinners, and leaving it at that would be cruel and misleading. For the story about human sin and condemnation is only the tear-stained chapter of the gospel. It is sandwiched between two chapters of purpose and hope—of purpose, because God created us in his image to enjoy a relationship with him—of hope, because anyone who believes in Christ can have that relationship and image restored (Ephesians 4:24, Colossians 3:10).

The doctrine of sin is not just a fable Christians have invented to exert guilt and power over people (Much less is it the spiritual version of the Stockholm syndrome, as Bill argues). It is the bad news without which the Good News cannot be grasped (Acts 2:37; Luke 18:13). Rather than wrapping their children in a web of naïve fantasies about themselves and the world, Christian parents must unroll the story of the gospel before them—the story that includes our sin as well as the hope for our redemption and restoration.

Let’s return to the question we began with: Does telling my child he or she is a sinner make me a bad parent? No, because we must talk about sin if we’re going to teach our kids the gospel. But what about Bill’s case? Is it possible for someone to be taught the truths about sinfulness in a way that fosters despair or self-righteousness? Yes, and that’s why it’s important to deal with this topic in a way that is loving, appropriate to my child’s tenderness, and never separated from the hope found in Christ. Let me suggest three ways you can do this.

  1. When your child sins or is sinned against, use the opportunity to teach the gospel.

Children often have a very keen sense of justice. They know when they have been wronged. Most of the time, they know when they have done wrong as well. As parents, we can capitalize on these events to explain why people hurt each other, and what Jesus has done so that people can be made right.

  1. When you sin, model for your kids how a believer deals with it.

Actions speak louder than words. And let’s be honest: our kids see us fail all the time. We can either pretend they don’t see it, or we can take the humble approach and acknowledge our sin. Just the other day I had to ask my daughter to forgive me for reacting in frustration to her. These times of personal of vulnerability can be a tool for teaching our kids two truths about sin. First, everyone—even daddies and mommies—sin. Second, there’s a way believers can deal with their sin—by confessing and forsaking it, and believing that Jesus died for it (1 John 1:9).

  1. Use Bible story books that tell the story of how Jesus conquers our sin.

big picture bibleThe book that does this best, in my opinion, is The Big Picture Story Bible. With bold illustrations, and a text that is both simple and faithful to the storyline of Scripture, this children’s book tells us how Adam and Eve’s sin affected everything in God’s originally perfect world. It contrasts the Garden of Eden with “life outside the garden,” where people hurt each other and hate God. And it points joyfully to what Christ did to restore our relationship with God.

Should I tell my daughter that she’s a sinner? I must, if I will tell her the greatest and truest love story ever told: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).