The Three Types of Sinners

The Three Types of Sinners

What’s wrong with those kids? Why won’t they just love Jesus? Well, it’s probably because they—like you and me—are one of three kinds of sinners.

Summer is about to end and new Sunday school classes will start soon. Bible clubs will kick into gear. Christian schools will open. Parents will set goals for teaching kids at home.

And all those teachers, I know, are like me. They wonder what kind of class they’ll have. They know much depends on their particular students—and the sin tendencies of those kids.

As I think about the students I’ll teach, I’m reminded of a helpful framework we sometimes use at Serge. It identifies three types of sinners. The Bible includes examples of each of them, and they all need to hear the gospel of Jesus and apply it to their lives.

1. Orphans

Orphans feel alone and are convinced they have to fend for themselves. They don’t trust God to give them what they need or to satisfy their souls with his Fatherly love. Instead, they constantly seek approval from others. Some are timid and others are show offs. They may suck up to the teacher, or they might act up to get laughs from classmates. They’re concerned what others are thinking whenever they sing, answer a question, or pray aloud. (And speaking of prayer, orphans just go through the motions for the sake of others who’re watching. They have no prayer life otherwise.)

Orphans need to learn and believe that their heavenly Father loves his children perfectly and endlessly. Then they will realize that the praise of others is lame by comparison, and will be kind to others rather than selfishly seeking approval from them. In Christ they already have approval. That’s the gospel.

2. Pharisees

Pharisees feel they have to generate some of their own righteousness. They may be smug, either bragging about themselves or gossiping about others so as to look better by comparison. Or they may be anxious, secretly scared that they aren’t good enough and that God is angry with them. Learning a new way to obey God, or getting an assignment like Bible memory, is never a joy to Pharisees. It just gives them one more thing they feel they have to do in order to stay on God’s good side—another gold star to earn or another burden to fret over.

Pharisees need to learn and believe that sinners have complete forgiveness in Christ and are credited with his righteousness. They don’t need to add any of their own righteousness by performing for God. This frees them to serve him in love rather than out of a fearful suspicion that he may be out to condemn them. That’s the gospel too.

3. Idolaters

Idolaters aren’t satisfied with what God gives them. The true love of their life is that they shine on the basketball court, get the best part in the Christmas musical, or fit in with the right group of friends. They’ll say they like Jesus, but only when he’s useful in getting what they really love. They happily come to Bible class as long as the games are fun, the lesson is entertaining, the music is cool, the snacks are tasty, and their best friend is there. If those pieces aren’t in place, they don’t see the point.

Idolaters need to learn and believe that nothing is better than Jesus and that following him is worth the cost. They also need to believe that although the pleasures and worries of this world will always tempt them, in Christ they have grace and mercy to turn away from idols and lay down their lives for him. That’s also the gospel.

What this means for teachers

Of course, students never come in just one type. Hearts are complex and sin runs deep, so every student is actually some mix of each. The point of the framework is not that we label kids, but that we learn to recognize different types of sin and fight them by applying the gospel.

You see, for kids who believe in Jesus, none of these labels is their truest, deepest identity. They’re chiefly not any kind of sinner, but rather people who’re “in Christ.”  Believing that is the first step toward acting like the Christian they are rather than behaving like a sinner. This is why we teach the gospel all the time.

It’s also why we teachers and parents need to believe the gospel ourselves. We too end up acting like orphans, Pharisees and idolaters when we forget who we are in Jesus.

  • Orphan teachers/parents are spiritual do-it-yourselfers. They only pray when they have to for the sake of appearances. They need for every class to look good so that the ministry director, parents, students, and anyone else who may be watching will think well of them. Despite outer appearances, on the inside they’re always asking their students, “You like me, don’t you?”
  • Pharisee teachers/parents are either proud or insecure—or both. They look down on other teachers for being less skilled or less obedient, or they constantly worry about measuring up to God’s standards. In either case, their teaching has little gospel power because they don’t personally feel joy in Christ. They’re too busy asking him, “I’m good enough, right?”
  • Idolater teachers/parents do their jobs for reasons other than love for Jesus. As part of an organized ministry, they’ll only volunteer under the right conditions—where their ego is stroked, their schedule accommodated, and their creativity allowed to blossom. They may have trouble working with others because they’re actually working for themselves rather than for a shared, godly goal.

Too often, those descriptions fit me. So as this school year gets started, I need to remember my identity in Christ before I ever try to teach it to those kids. I need the gospel.

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Thoughts? Please share or comment below. I love feedback and discussion—it’s how we learn from each other! (Pick any name you like, and no one but me will see your email address—and I won’t use it, I promise)

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