Gospel-Centered Care for Students: How to Engage in Your Students’ Sin

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Several years ago during my first year as a student pastor, I met a man for coffee who would later become a mentor.

As I anxiously awaited our first meeting, I played out several different scenarios of how our conversation might go. Would he judge me? Would he find out that I am not worthy of his time and reject me? Would he heap more weight upon my shoulders by giving me a list of “things to do”? Would he make me feel uncomfortably content by justifying or marginalizing my sin?

When he arrived, we sat down at a high-top table each with our large mocha Frappuccino’s, extra chocolate sauce, and he cut straight to the chase.

“So, tell me what God is doing in your life?”

My soul began to quiver and with no holds bar, tears ran down my face and I began to confess in detail my sin, how long I had been battling it, and the extent I had gone to hide it.

I finished.

Silenced filled the space between us.

I replayed all the scenarios leading up to our time together. How was he going to respond? Time continued to pass with only the deafening sound of silence ringing in my ears. The dead space between us was like a blackhole sucking me further into guilt and shame.

Then he spoke three words that rocked my world.

“I love you.”

He continued…

“More importantly, Jesus loves you.”

This man reminded me that Jesus knew all my sin before He saved me, that He saved me because of who he is – not because of what I can do for him – and his love for me will never change. This man shared that as the Lord expressed the same love for him, he in turn wanted to extend that love to me.

The reality is, most of our students feel the same way. In their sin, they are afraid of rejection. They are embarrassed. They are filled with guilt and shame. As we minister to students, our responsibility is to respond to their confessions of sin with nothing but the Gospel.

How do we respond with the Gospel and not behavior modification? How do we point them to the ultimate Savior without becoming a small savior ourselves? How do we give due weight to sin without heaping upon them condemnation and shame?

First, it’s important to remember that it wasn’t meant to be this way. Communion with God, community with others, work as worship, and all of creation as the playground of God’s most prized handiwork, man, was how things were meant to be (Gen. 2:5-25).

Only a few chapters into God’s story, rebellion and sin wreck the created order. Out of idolatrous hearts, Adam and Eve chose what was desirable to them and rebelled against God. It was in that moment that man’s neediness was exposed. Though, the man and woman attempted to hide themselves from God, they could not (Gen. 3:1-7).

They were naked and exposed. They were ashamed and fearful.

But God, in his goodness, moved toward them even when they had moved away from him. He sought them out when they were hiding. God went further and promised them a Savior and Redeemer, one who would clothe them in His righteousness (Gen. 3:8-21).

This is good news! Jesus saves our students and clothes them in His righteousness.

Upon establishing that there is only One who can rescue and save our students from their sin, it is good to have a framework for yourself and your volunteers to navigate sin confession conversations.

De-clothing/Re-clothing: Like Adam and Eve, when students find themselves in sin they attempt to hide behind the fig leaves of performance, works, and secrecy. Before addressing the sinful action, it is important to address the heart.

  • De-Clothe: Ask Questions… Lots of Questions. The purpose in asking questions is to move beyond the sin symptom and address the heart sin issue. Most of the time the expression of sin is an outworking of some heart-level sin.

Leading with questions will protect you from giving advice too quickly, thus becoming trite and condescending in your response. Asking questions will help guard against responding with behavior modifying advice. I have found two categories of questions to be helpful in getting to the heart sin.

  1. Discovery Questions. A discovery question will ask in a broad sense, “What happened?” A discovery question seeks to understand the situation. Sin is never isolated. There are always events that surround sinful behavior. It is important to understand the full story. Every conversation is different, but below are a few examples of what discovery questions may look like.
    • What events tend to lead up to the temptation or sinful behavior?
    • How often are you tempted with this sin?
    • How often do you step into this sinful behavior?
  2. Deepening Questions. A deepening question will ask in a broad sense, “How did you respond to what happened?” Deepening questions seek to understand the student’s response to their own sin.
    • How did you feel after you sinned?
    • How do you think the Lord views you right now?
    • What do you think the Lord wants you to do now?

The purpose in asking these questions is for you to better understand the student as you explore the heart behind the action. At this point the student likely feels vulnerable, defenseless, and helpless. This is not a bad thing, and it can be good to sit in this moment with them before moving on.
In John 16, Jesus taught that it is the Holy Spirit who would “convict the world concerning sin.” It is important to remember not to come to the rescue too early. The weight of sin is heavy, and it may take a moment or two for a student to feel its weight. Let the Holy Spirit work out conviction in their heart.

After you have explored the sin and you have allowed the student to sit in this vulnerable and hopeless position for a short time, then it is time to come back around and re-clothe them in the Gospel.

  • Re-Clothe: Recall the Gospel. The glory of the Gospel is that it meets students right where they are. People sin for many reasons and there are many root sins. For the purposes of this article, I will just list three: pride, idolatry, and envy. As you are asking questions, listen for what the motivation behind their sin. This will most likely be their root sin. Upon exploring their sin and their response, you can speak directly to the heart. You can re-cloth someone in the Gospel by using scripture or Gospel narrative.

Examples of re-clothing are below.

3. Scripture-

° Ephesians 1:13–14 (ESV) In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of  your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

° Romans 8:1–2 (ESV) There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.

° Galatians 5:1 (ESV) For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

  • Gospel Narrative- The following are statements that others have spoken to me to remind me of the Gospel:
    • “The God who sustains Saturn and its rings knows your future and is not fearful. He with you and will sustain you.”
    • “Your Heavenly Father is far greater and loves you far better than your earthly father. He knows you and will never leave you. “
    • “I have heard your sin and I love. More importantly, Jesus knew your sin when he was crucified, and he still died for you proving that he still loves you!”
    • “You will one day be without bitterness, without anger, without feelings embarrassment, without temptation, and without longing as you stand in front of the risen Christ, enjoying the inheritance He earned for you.”

May we continue to consider how to most lovingly navigate confessions of sin with our students in a way that would point them to the one Savior who redeemed them and gave them the hope of a future glory.

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