I love the scene in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King where Frodo and Sam are making their last, desperate effort to destroy the one ring in the depths of Mt. Doom. What makes the final destruction of the ring so incredibly magnificent and satisfying is the context. Before that, we have been taken on a long journey that has introduced us to the magnitude of evil, despair, and ruin brought about by the ring and its influence. You don’t simply go from a peaceful, idealistic life in the Shire to the triumphant destruction of the ring. The story would have lost its grandeur and appeal if author J.R.R. Tolkien had not shown us the evil and despair.
But now consider the story communicating ultimate reality to us as revealed in the historical narrative of Scripture, and consider these words from D. A. Carson:
There can be no agreement as to what salvation is unless there is agreement as to that from which salvation rescues us. The problem and the solution hang together: the one explicates the other. It is impossible to gain a deep grasp of what the cross achieves without plunging into a deep grasp of what sin is; conversely, to augment one’s understanding of the cross is to augment one’s understanding of sin.
To put the matter another way, sin establishes the plotline of the Bible.
In order to be Gospel-focused and Christ-exalting in teaching children, we must help them grasp the nature and role that sin plays in the narrative of Scripture. Not doing so is a little like going from the peaceful Shire directly to Mt. Doom—the depth of the problem and magnificence of solution will not be sufficiently understood, appreciated, and praised.
Consider for a moment our kindergarten curriculum Jesus, What a Savior. The first 12 lessons move through a narrative of the Old Testament, highlighting key redemptive themes. One of the themes, repeated over and over again, concerns the nature and role of sin (represented by a darkened and dirty heart visual).
- Sin entered the world when Adam and Eve rebelled against God and His command.
- Because of Adam and Eve’s sin, all people are born with a sin nature and are sinners.
- Sin is failing to honor, love, trust, thank, obey, and praise God as we should.
- Because God is holy, He is right to be very angry at sin.
- God has decided that the right punishment for sin is death and hell.
- We are completely helpless to save ourselves from our sin.
- Only God is able to save us from our sin.
Bleak, depressing, dark, and gloomy. Some teachers express concern about focusing on sin in this way—especially since the lessons do not immediately jump to Jesus and His redemptive work on the cross. Why not spare children from all this “bad news”?…Ponder again the beginning illustration from The Lord of the Rings, but especially in light of D. A. Carson’s words:
There can be no agreement as to what salvation is unless there is agreement as to that from which salvation rescues us. The problem and the solution hang together.
I believe there is a place in our children’s formal instruction in which we give them time to consider the nature and problem of sin as revealed in the Old Testament narrative. Let them see the people of Scripture repeatedly fall short of God’s perfect laws and commands. Let them soberly reflect on God’s response to sin. Have them be shocked at the high price of forgiveness—the shed blood of animals. Teach them that all of that blood could never, ever, completely solve the problem of sin. Encourage them to recognize their own sin, and experience some measure of desperation—understanding that they are helpless to solve the problem. If, in our formal teaching, we always immediately jump to Jesus as the solution to our sin problem, we may inadvertently diminish the majesty and grandeur of His triumphant work on the cross.
but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.—Romans 5:8-10
Tips for the Classroom When Teaching about Sin
- When teaching lessons and stories that deal with sin, keep your tone serious and appropriately grieved. Do not convey the stories in a morbid or dramatically scary manner.
- Pray for the demeanor of humility in your teaching.
- Encourage the children to recognize their own sin.
- Allow time for children to ponder and reflect upon the problem of sin.
- Even if the lesson does not explicitly connect to Christ and the Gospel, end the lesson in a manner that points to the only hope for sinners—trusting what Jesus has done.
- Allow for discussion afterward. If you discern that a child is troubled by what he has heard, or seems to be genuinely grieving his sin, talk with him. Share the hope of the Gospel, and also talk with the child’s parents.