30 Questions To Ask A Sinner

In How Do Sinners Help Sinners to Stop Sinning we began to look at the kind of approaches we need to take when trying to help a sinner stop sinning. Personal experience and the Lord’s dealing with sinners teach us that it’s often better to question than to accuse, at least to begin with. It’s usually more productive if the other person supplies the answers and draws the conclusions rather than us telling them.

So what are good questions to ask? What questions are most likely to produce honest answers, contrite conclusions, and repentant action? Here’s a bank of questions that I’ve built up over the years, some of them from my own experience and some of them I’ve learned from others.

NB: I’m not suggesting that you ask every question every time or that this is the order to follow! That’s where prayerful dependence upon the Holy Spirit comes in as we ask THE Counselor for His wisdom and blessing. So much depends upon the person, our relationship to them, and the situation.

DOUBLE NB: Ask yourself the questions first!!

  • Do you have any spiritual/mental/emotional/physical/moral/relational difficulties?
  • What did you do?
  • When do you do it?
  • When did you start doing this?
  • How often do you do this?
  • How long have you been doing it?
  • When do you find yourself doing this or wanting to do it?
  • What has this sin cost you/others?
  • How has this sin damaged you/others?
  • What do you gain from this sin?
  • What do you think about this sin and its consequences?
  • Do you want to stop?
  • What have you tried?
  • Have you ever succeeded in stopping?
  • Is the problem getting better or worse?
  • What are the usual steps that lead you into this sin?
  • Are there any common factors/places/people that lead to this sin?
  • Have you taken any precautions?
  • Do you know what God’s Word says about this sin?
  • What are you trying to achieve/attain through this sin?
  • Is there anyone else involved in this sin with you?
  • Where and how do you think I can help you?
  • Do you see a way out of this sin?
  • Do you know where this sin will take you?
  • Are you a Christian? Are you a believer in Jesus Christ?
  • What do you understand by “Christian”?
  • How were you converted?
  • What resources do you depend upon in your life? Family, friends, colleagues, Church.
  • What does your devotional life look like?
  • Do you have any other spiritual struggles and temptations?

And remember, people answer questions with their bodies as well as their tongues! Watch for changes in facial expressions, posture, and eye-contact. Listen for changes in tone of voice, volume, hesitation, etc.

What other questions have you found useful in speaking to people about sin? Please add them in the comments.

How Do Sinners Help Sinners Stop Sinning?

Christians are not only called to repentance but are also called to call others to repentance. This is often one of the hardest tasks in the Christian life. How do we approach someone who is sinning in a way that will help lead them to repentance?

An Informed Approach
If we want to help a sinner stop sinning, we need to study sin. We can do this by studying our own sinful hearts and the way sin begins, develops, and expands there. Though probably not on our summer reading list, we can also study sobering and searching books on sin.

A Humble Approach
Remember that you are a sinner. Before we start rebuking sin in others, we must rebuke it in ourself first and most.

A Gentle Approach
Whether the person has asked us for help, we are offering help, or a friend has asked us to help, we need to approach humbly, quietly, and lovingly. Raise the subject in the context of the Gospel of Grace and our own need and experience of it for our own sins and struggles (Gal. 6:1).

A Hopeful Approach
Although the sin may be wide, deep, high, and long, the Gospel is wider, deeper, higher, and longer. The goal is to help the sinner see the seriousness of sin, the misery of sin, and all that God can offer through the Gospel to conquer both.

A Biblical Approach
Phrases to avoid: “I think…In my opinion…I don’t agree…”

Phrases to use: ‘The Bible says…God’s Word tells us…The Scriptures are clear…”

A God-Centered Approach
We cannot fix anyone; only God can. Point the sinner away from yourself and to:

  • God’s sovereignty: He is in this, is in control, this is part of His plan, and He can even work it for your good.
  • God’s holiness: This is both our model and our motive (1 Pet. 1:16).
  • God’s wisdom: God knows all the answers and has a solution.
  • God’s power: especially when we feel our powerlessness.
  • God’s love: Willing to forgive, heal, accept, restore (1 John 1:9).
  • God’s Son: Show them the suitability, sufficiency, willingness, and ability of Christ to save.
  • God’s justice: He won’t stand by and see His law broken and smashed to pieces. 

A Realistic Approach
Be realistic about the sin. Call it what it is. Don’t soft-pedal or soft-filter it.

Be realistic about time. Rarely will a person change immediately or perfectly.

Be realistic about the difficulty. There’s going to be resistance, pain, failure, and disappointment along the way.

A Wise Approach
Choose the right place (not Starbucks).

Choose the right time for you and the other person (not too little time, not too late, not too busy and stressed).

Choose the right words: take account of the person’s world, vocabulary, education.

A Questioning Approach
It’s often better to question than to accuse, at least to begin with. Try to get the person to supply the answers and draw the conclusions rather than you telling them. Tomorrow, we’ll look at some good questions to ask when trying to help someone stop sinning.

A Prayerful Approach
Pray without ceasing: before the conversation, during the conversation, and after the conversation. Pray for the person and with the person.

What else have you found helpful in these difficult though necessary conversations?

Check out

Weekend Reading

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman ($2.99)

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Kain ($2.99)

The Elements of Style by William Strunk ($2.99)

First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by J Hansen ($1.99)

Thomas Jefferson (Author of America) by Christopher Hitchens ($1.99)

The Gospel and Personal Evangelism by Mark Dever ($0.99)

How to Set Up Your Desk: A Guide to Fixing a (Surprisingly) Overlooked Productivity Problem by Matt Perman ($4.99)

An Approach to Extended Memorization of Scripture by Andrew Davis ($0.99)

I Am Hutterite: The Fascinating True Story of a Young Woman’s Journey to reclaim Her Heritage by Mary-Ann Kirkby ($1.99)

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The Pastor’s Wife Who Went Crazy

Life As An Ordinary Pastor’s Kid

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Two outstanding podcasts on Faith and Mental Illness from Michael Horton.

Podcast 1: Faith & Mental Illness

Podcast 2: Darkness is My Only Companion

See Michael’s recent blog post on the issue and also this Faith & Mental Illness Study Kit.


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“The Greatest Failing of The American Church Today”

Notice I put that headline in quotation marks. That means two things. First, I didn’t say it; Greg Forster did, in his book Joy For The World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It. Second I may not agree with it; quotations marks around a headline often say, “Hey, we’re not necessarily agreeing with this, just quoting it.”

These qualifications out of the way, what is “the greatest failing of the American church today?” Greg Forster says it’s “the failure of the American church to affirm the goodness of civilizational life” (p. 89). Quite a surprising claim isn’t it?

The context for this remarkable assertion is Greg’s passion for sound cultural engagement which, he says, integrates two things:

First, we must begin with affirmation of the God-given goodness of civilizational activity. Second, the special transformation of our hearts by the Spirit must flow into our civilizational activity, so that we stand against all that is sinful and wrong in the world and pursue a more excellent way. We must integrate these two commissions into a single, unified civilizational life that expresses the joy of God. (88)

Affirmation of our civilization is first and fundamental “for the simple reason that creation comes before fall…Christians say good is primary and evil is parasitic.” Thus Greg concludes, “when we approach civilization, we must always be careful to keep the affirmation of the good in the primary position and let transformation of the bad follow.”

Do you see why I said yesterday that this might make some VanTillians’ hair fall out? Van Til and his followers, (including some of them in the nouthetic/biblical counseling field) start out with antithesis rather than affirmation. They begin by highlighting the evil in the world, the fallenness in the world, the enmity in the world. The world is bad, bad, bad, etc. Slash and burn, fight and critique, expose and ridicule, and so on.

Then, when they’ve wasted the field and strangled every last breath out of any “worldly” thing or idea, they quietly creep back onto the battlefield and start breathing some life back into the massacred corpses via the doctrine of common grace. ANTITHESIS is upfront in big, bold, capital letters. Affirmation is whispered in small (and often contradictory) print (that hopefully no one notices).

It’s always struck me as an extremely strange way to try and win an argument or win people over to your side.

Affirmation First
Greg Forster insists that, without affirming everything or toning down our opposition to things that are sinful, we should should put AFFIRMATION up front in big, bold capital letters, and that prioritizing it rather than antithesis “will actually help us bear witness more powerfully against sin, strengthening and empowering our transformative impact.” He present five reasons for this (p. 89):

1. Within a framework of affirmation for the good our opposition to the bad will be more accurate. I agree with Greg that when we pretend that evil is primary when it’s not, we will end up saying things that are not true, the world will notice, and we’ll lose credibility.

2. Affirmation of the good will also make our opposition to the bad more meaningful. You have to start with the good to help people feel the badness of evil.

3. It will make our opposition more graceful. This is what’s baffled me most about Van Tillian apologetics and the way it’s been applied in some nouthetic/biblical counseling. I would have thought that counselors of all people would grasp the basic human psychology of keeping opposition within a framework of affirmation, indicating a desire to build up our neighbours rather than look down and tear down.

4. It will allow us to criticize aspects of our civilization as members of it, rather than as outsiders. “If we don’t place ourselves within American civilization before we criticize it, we’re just busybodies. sticking our noses into other people’s societies.”

5. It will make our opposition more effective. #1-4 will make our opposition more accurate, meaningful, graceful, integral, and therefore more effective in pushing back evil.

A Great Failure (But Not The Greatest Failure)
I don’t agree with Greg that “the failure of the American church to affirm the goodness of civilizational life is our greatest failing today.” That’s overstating a good case. I do agree with him that it’s a great failure, even a very great failure. And I also agree with him on the need to prioritize affirmation for all five reasons that he gives.

That’s going to give many of us painful whiplash, because we’ve been barreling down the antithesis road for so long. But where’s it got us? And where’s it taking us? Isn’t it worth at least considering if we’ve got this wrong and if it’s worth trying another road or direction?

Joy For The World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It by Greg Forster.

How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence (And Can Begin Rebuilding It)

How did Christianity lose its cultural influence and how can it begin rebuilding it again? That’s the question Greg Forster asks in Joy For The World. And his answer is implied in the title – joy! Yes, real, unique, holistic, Spirit-produced Christian joy is THE most vital tool for engaging our culture AND changing it.

Greg begins with memories of his largely non-Christian childhood, in which his most memorable experiences of joy were associated with Christmas when it expressed a truly Christian, Jesus-centered spiritual celebration. None of these brief annual encounters with Christian joy created or resulted from a real Christian faith, but Greg argues that they made him more receptive to the Christian message later on, prepared him for faith, and even made him a better person in the meantime.

Although he doesn’t want to make his experience the rule for everyone, he insists that his experience is quite common.

I don’t think it’s unusual for people outside the church to be powerfully changed by the way they encounter the joy of God through Christians’ participation in their civilization.

He then clarifies what he means by the joy of God:

I’m not talking about an emotion. I mean the state of flourishing in mind, heart, and life that Christians experience by the Holy Spirit.

This, says Forster, is what’s so missing from today’s culture.

I think Christianity is losing its influence in contemporary America because people outside the church just don’t encounter the joy of God as much as they used to.

This book then is a challenge to Christian to “help our neighbors encounter the joy of God through the way we behave in society.”

This really is quite revolutionary, isn’t it. So many of our evangelistic and apologetic methods are so heady, so rational, so intellectual, so logical…and so miserable and angry and joyless and ineffectual.

But don’t think that this is some shallow and superficial book that just appeals to the emotions at the expense of truth. The author is a Yale PhD, a program director at the Kern Family Foundation, and a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. The book itself is a demanding read and will probably become required reading in many Christian colleges and worldview courses.

But for all the intellectual firepower directed at flawed approaches to cultural engagement, the basic message is consistent: the joy of God alone is what makes the church distinct from the world. 

The clincher verse for me was when Greg referenced Psalm 126 and asked:

Consider the relationship in this passage between the joy of God among God’s people and the way the nations respond to God’s people. What do the nations notice about God’s people? “The LORD has done great things for them.” And how do they notice that? “Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.”

Time for some laughter, people!

This book will test you but it will also teach you. You’ll learn a lot about the historical and philosophical roots of today’s culture and the church’s disengagement from it. But you’ll also be challenged to re-think your disengagement or your faulty engagement. It’s a book then for the head as well as for the heart.

Tomorrow I want to look at the most radical proposal in the book. It’s going to make some VanTillians’ hair stand on end, if not fall out.

Joy For The World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It by Greg Forster.

A Very Different and Unexpected Happiness

In the last post we looked at some of the reasons why the pursuit of happiness is such hard work. The first difficulty we noted was having a wrong definition of “happiness.” After all, if we don’t know what happiness actually is, we are unlikely to find it, or recognize it when we do.

When the Declaration of Independence was written, happiness did not mean what it means today – a subjective emotional state associated with a hedonistic and usually selfish pursuit of personal pleasure.

Etymologists have traced the word to the Old Norse language where it originally meant “luck” or “chance,” with Old English adopting and developing it to mean “success” “good” or “contentment.”

In 1725, it acquired a more philosophical or political flavor when Francis Hutcheson wrote about happiness in An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue.

That action is best which accomplishes the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers; and that worst, which in like manner occasions misery.

Community Happiness
That connection between civic responsibility and happiness was at the forefront of 18th century political thought and was what the writers of the Declaration of Independence had in mind in 1776 when they wrote of our right to pursue happiness.

In his 2005 lecture at the National Conference on Citizenship, US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said that for the framers of the Declaration of Independence, “Happiness meant that feeling of self-worth and dignity you acquire by contributing to your community and to its civic life.”

Vocational Happiness
In other words, the pursuit of happiness was more about giving to society than self-gratification. That also jives with the fact that the word “pursuit” was then most commonly associated with a person’s work or calling. You “pursued” your vocation.

Putting this together we can say that, for the Founders, to pursue happiness was to serve one’s community in one’s calling, one’s daily work.

Religious Happiness
However, other documents encourage us to understand happiness in an even broader and deeper sense, to include morality and religion.

For example, the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 affirmed:

The happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion and morality, and . . . these cannot be generally diffused through a community but by the institution of the public worship of God and of public instructions in piety, religion and morality.

This goes beyond the individual, and even beyond the individual’s relationship to society, and includes the individual’s relationship to God.

Article 3 of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 also agrees that “Religion, morality, and knowledge, [are] necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind…”

Historian David McCullough and author of John Adams and 1776 said in a 2006 lecture at Hillsdale College:

When [Adams] and others wrote in the Declaration of Independence about ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ what they meant by ‘happiness’ wasn’t longer vacations or more material goods. They were talking about the enlargement of the human experience through the life of the mind and the life of the spirit.

In We Hold These Truths: Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the Constitution, historian Mortimer Adler concluded that the Founders idea of happiness was the “ancient ethical conception of happiness as a whole life well-lived because it is enriched by the cumulative possession of all the goods that a morally virtuous human being ought to desire.”

And again, in contrast to our selfish ideas of happiness, Adler notes that the Founders saw this moral and virtuous happiness as something we can work together to help others enjoy. He wrote:

The pursuit of happiness must be cooperative not competitive. We do not have the right view of it unless we see it as something which men can help one another to achieve – instead of achieving it by beating our neighbors.”

A Very Different Happiness
In summary, we can say that the Founders view of happiness was community-focused not self-centered; it was about work and vocation rather than leisure and pleasure; and it was religious and moral rather than secular and immoral. How unexpected! How counter-intuitive! How different to today’s version of happiness! No wonder it is so rarely experienced and enjoyed.