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 Foundation of Christian Joy

4 Characteristics of Earnest Preaching

So Your Child Is Dating a Non-Christian

A Word To The Introverted Pastor: Be Extroverted on Sunday

Thinking About Vocation (not Vacation)

Finding Hope for An Often-Fatal Genetic Disorder

Who Is The Most Important Person In Your Church

The Pastor’s Wife Who Went Crazy

Life As An Ordinary Pastor’s Kid

The Pastor’s Kid: My Happy Childhood

Special Friendship Between Preschooler and WWII Veteran

22 Facts About Sleep That Will Surprise You (Infographic)


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.


Inspire Her Mind

Unique Surf Photographer

Triple Lightning Strike On Chicago’s Tallest Buildings

Technology Cannot Replace Love

“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.

Why is Happiness Such Hard Work?

The US Declaration of Independence asserts that God has given to all human beings (and government must protect), “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

That last phrase, “the pursuit of happiness,” has often been misunderstood to suggest that we all have the right to happiness. If so, then I can simply wait passively until someone gives it to me or restores it to me. Good luck with that.

However, the word “pursuit” is pivotal and changes everything. If we have the right to pursue happiness, that suggests activity not passivity, something to be worked for rather than waited for. The thesaurus entry for “pursuit” includes words such as “hunt, quest, seek, track, trail, and going all out.” Sounds like a lot of hard and difficult work, right? Happiness rarely finds us; we have to find it. It doesn’t pursue us; we have to pursue it.

Why is that? Why is happiness so elusive? Why do we have to work so hard to find it and keep it?

1. We have mistaken definitions of happiness. Today, there are thousands of definitions of happiness, maybe millions, and they can’t all be right. If we don’t know what true happiness is, we won’t know where or how to look. If we’re looking for something that doesn’t exist, we ain’t gonna find it! Lots of happiness-hunters are chasing a shadow.

2. We look for happiness in inadequate places. Many try to find happiness in someone or something – a friend, a wife, a husband, a job, a car, a vacation. Some limited happiness can be found in these people, places, and things, but none of them is a sufficient source of deep and lasting happiness. Even the happiest marriage ends eventually.

3. We look for happiness in sinful places. Sin, the transgression of God’s law, promises huge happiness. But never delivers. How can it? How can we find happiness by offending and angering the source of all authentic happiness? Guilty consciences make for grumbly minds and groaning hearts.

4. Other people’s pursuit of happiness crosses ours. There are lots of other happiness-hunters out there, each tracking their hoped-for prey with single-minded and blinkered determination. They don’t really care if they spoil your hunt. They have the scent and they are going after the tantalizing prospect without a thought for your life, your feelings, your interests.

5. We don’t realize just how much hard work is required. We put a few minutes and muscles into it, but when the “effort” produces such pitiful return, we give up. Happiness, though, is such difficult and complicated work that there is now a whole scientific field devoted to it - Positive Psychology. As part of a project I’ve been working on the past year, I’ve read a lot of Positive Psychology books and papers, and what’s struck me most in their findings is just how hard human beings have to work to be happy. It’s a complicated and demanding business.

6. We have leaky ships. Sometimes we look at people who have so much to be happy about and they are just completely miserable. There’s virtually nothing in their lives to make them unhappy and yet you’d think they were living in Belsen. Further inspection reveals that they have punctured their lives with envy and discontent. They are holed below the water line through covetousness and dissatisfaction and are sinking fast.

7. We have gloomy personalities.  While some fortunate people are blessed with a sunny disposition, there are others who are just plain sad. Some of this melancholy can be in the genes and some of it can be learned in our upbringing. These “natural” or “nurtural” disadvantages undermine happiness and make it extra difficult to rise above a default negativity.

8. We experience tough providences. How can I be happy when I have cancer…when my child died of leukemia…when my teen was killed in a car crash…when I have such a disabled child…when I was raped…when my husband cheated on me….? And we can add many more terrible painful providences. It’s a broken and fallen world, and for some of us, it has broken and fallen on top of us, leaving us crushed and sad. Pursuit of happiness? Give me a break.

Many, many reasons why this pursuit is perhaps the hardest hunt we will ever be involved in. So hard, that many have understandably given up. Others haven’t even got to the starting line.

Maybe it’s too hard. Maybe Jefferson & Co. got it wrong. Were they mistaken to make something so basic and inalienable that is so rare and unattainable?

What do you think? Is “the pursuit of happiness” worth the effort? Can we overcome all or any of these obstacles? Are there other impediments I’ve not mentioned? We might as well know what we’re up against.