Have you ever struggled to explain your faith? Could you explain it to a 5th grader? What about five of them in a circle?
Talking about our faith can be daunting. Sometimes we’re so afraid to say the wrong thing that we don’t say much at all. It’s harder if students can’t define “sin,” “salvation,” “faith,” “judgment,” “grace,” or “repentance.”
Here’s an encouragement. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children” (Luke 18:16, NIV). That means God’s message is deep enough for adults to swim in, yet shallow enough for toddlers to splash around in.
So don’t worry: God’s message doesn’t have to be over students’ heads. And if it is, we’re probably explaining it wrong.
The most central thing to all student ministry is always the Gospel. Without it, there’s no ministry. It’s the good news of who Jesus is, what Jesus did, and why it matters. We don’t want to overcomplicate the Gospel. We want to cherish it so much that it overflows in our talks with students. It’s an achievable goal for all of us because we have God’s Spirit in us. He literally gives us the supernatural ability to courageously proclaim the Gospel (Acts 1:8).
But before we think about our students, let’s challenge ourselves too. We must (1) know our need and (2) know the Gospel before we can (3) explain our students’ need and (4) explain the Gospel.
Knowing the Need
Ask: what do your students need most? Good relationships with family? Good direction for school and jobs? Good friends and positive role models? Good life skills for dealing with everyday stress?
Those are important, but none of them are why folks do student ministry. Our students’ biggest need is God.
Why? Because everyone is made for God’s glory (Isaiah 43:7, John 17:3, Colossians 1:16). As we satisfy ourselves with God’s greatness, he is honored (see Psalm 16). That means our true joy is found when all our desires, affections, and efforts are directed to God. We’re meant to make God our ultimate treasure—not family, career, achievement, or pleasure. Anything that competes with glorifying God is wrong.
So if God is our greatest need, what is the greatest problem our students have? Is it rough home environments? A lack of self-confidence? Poverty?
Not quite. The greatest problem our students have is, frankly, anything that gets in the way of them glorifying and enjoying God. In other words, sin.
See, when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they weren’t just breaking a rule. They were denying that God was better than their selfish pleasure! So they pursued their joy apart from God. They rejected that God’s goodness and superiority are enough for us. They “de-Godded” God!
As a result, they developed a taste for false sources of satisfaction outside God. Then they passed that appetite for sin along to the rest of us. That’s why the Bible says sin is more than rule-breaking; it’s our inescapable desire for things outside of God:
Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else. (Ephesians 2:1-3)
That’s our problem. Once the first humans tasted sin, it spoiled their appetite for God. Now we’re all enslaved to desires that dishonor God. We’re stuck.
So where do God’s commandments—in other words, God’s Law—fit in? They reveal his perfection, purity, righteousness, justice, authority, and complete “otherness.” God’s Law reveals him as holy. Think of the Ten Commandments. “Do not lie,” “Do not steal,” “Do not worship other gods”—every command points back to our original purpose: being satisfied with God and glorifying him. Trusting him. Loving him.
And there’s our problem. The Law, besides revealing who God is, also reveals who we are—and not in a good way. When God says, “Don’t lie” (Exodus 20:16), our conscience reminds us we’re liars. When God says, “Don’t commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14), we realize how strong our sexual cravings are. When God says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart,” (Deuteronomy 6:5), we realize how cold-hearted we are to him.
Remember when you were a child and your parents warned you not to swipe an extra cookie? Didn’t that sometimes make you want the cookie more? In the same way, God’s Law can stir up sinful desires and not fix them (see Romans 7:5). God’s rules can’t cure us—they can only diagnose us. ”Through the Law we become conscious of our sin” (Romans 3:20).
Then God’s Law does reveals the consequences of sin. Since sin is basically our way of “de-Godding” God, God has every right to cut us off from enjoying him forever. Paul described that punishment: “God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Romans 1:18).
That punishment comes in two parts: death and Hell. Sin cuts us off from God’s life, making us mortal. And it cuts us off from God’s joy, earning us pain in Hell. Hebrews 9:27 (NLT) says, “Each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment….” Jesus said that someday, “Those who have done good will rise to experience eternal life, and those who have continued in evil will rise to experience judgment” (John 5:29, NIV). The Bible explains it in frightening terms: “But cowards, unbelievers, the corrupt, murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice witchcraft, idol worshipers, and all liars—their fate is in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death” (Revelation 21:8).
Since we all fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), we all are guilty. Even though we were made to enjoy God, we deserve only his anger. We need to be right with God. That’s why our students need the Gospel.
Knowing the Gospel
The word “Gospel” means good news. It fuels everything we do. But before we define it, let’s realize what the Gospel isn’t.
- It isn’t your personal story of how God changed your life.
- It isn’t a religious way of life.
- It isn’t just Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
- It isn’t just a sales pitch to non-Christians.
- It isn’t simply the idea that God loves you or wants to have a relationship with you.
The Gospel is an unchanging message filled with God’s power to save us (see Romans 1:16). Simply put, this is the Gospel:
God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to die and rise from the dead, so that he could forgive and grant eternal life and joy to anyone who turns from sin and trusts Christ.
Where do we get that definition? From Jesus! “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations…” (Luke 24:46-47, ESV).
Let’s break down Jesus’s statement in four parts.
“It is written”
Key: the Gospel is God’s unchanging plan to make us right with himself.
When God give us his Law, a lot of people started to assume that if they tried their hardest to obey, they would have life and joy with God. Some people do that today—trying to please God with church, Bible-reading, praying, and donating. But they forget that we’re “dead in sin” (Ephesians 2:1). God’s commands can’t change our hearts and bring us back to God.
So when Jesus said that the Gospel “is written,” he was getting at something huge: God’s Law was never his final word to us. God knew that, in order to make sinful people right with him, he had to write a different way of being right with him. He had to write his laws not on paper, but on our hearts (see Hebrews 10:16). He had to step in and change us! Paul explained why:
For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are. (Romans 3:20-22, NLT)
The Law says, “Do stuff to be right with God.” The Gospel says, “Believe in Christ to be right with God!”
“that the Christ should suffer”
Key: the Gospel says Christ died in our place.
We broke God’s standards, so God sent a stand-in. God sent his sinless Son to live a perfect life and suffer the consequences of sin anyway. Through that, God put himself in our shoes and actually paid our punishment so that we can go free.
When Jesus was dying, he said, “It is finished” (John 19:30)! Christ endured the God’s anger against sin so that we wouldn’t have to.
A lot of people assume that God forgives people who are sincere. But “sincerity” isn’t the same as “sinless.” God can’t ignore any sin, so Christ had die for sin under God’s Law in order for God to forgive us while staying holy and perfect (see Romans 3:25-26).
But God’s plan wasn’t complete. Christ took we deserve, but how do we get what he deserves—life and joy with God, a reward for perfection? Something else had to happen to take us out of our sin (see 1 Corinthians 15:17).
“and on the third day rise”
Key: the Gospel says Christ rose from the dead.
Jesus took our death and now gives us his life, since he rose from the dead. Paul put it this way: “Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was” (Romans 6:25, NLT).
What kind of life is Paul talking about? Two things. First, it means that through Christ, we can live beyond the Law—since the Law was satisfied when Jesus died. We have a new relationship with God based on his Spirit living in us and changing us, not on his Law simply telling us what to do.
It also means that we literally get to live forever and enjoy God, like we were meant to. Believers who die are instantly taken to be with God (2 Corinthians 5:8), having endless joy (Psalm 16:11). And someday, like Jesus, we will be raised from the dead with perfect bodies too (see 1 Corinthians 15). Wow!
“repentance and forgiveness of sins”
Key: the Gospel says that we must turn (repent) and trust (believe) to be right with God.
How do you say “yes” to all that Christ offers? It’s simple (but not easy). We have to turn away from all those false sources of joy—sin—and trust that Christ is enough for us. We must plead guilty of sin. And we must trust Christ to give us forgiveness and new life, through his death and resurrection.
Amazingly, because Christ did everything God’s Law requires of us, that simple allegiance of faith is enough for God to look at us and say, “You are right with me!” The moment we truly trust Christ, God accepts us fully. That’s why the Gospel is a message of grace—something that the Law could never give!
If you believe and trust the Gospel in this way, you’re set! Christ has given you everything you need to live forever in an awesome relationship with him (2 Peter 1:3-4). God saves you through faith, not your own effort (Ephesians 2:8-9). And even though you’re a work in progress, Christ’s gift to you means that God can already accept you as “perfect” (Hebrews 10:14)!
Explaining Our Need
Time to review. Remember:
- God is our biggest need.
- Thus, sin is our biggest problem.
- Thus, the Gospel is our only solution.
That means that, no matter how unqualified we feel, if we have the Gospel, we have the greatest weapon for ministry with our students! People skills, awesome snacks, games, and friendly advice are great things, but none of them address the root problem or need. But if we have the Gospel, we can do more good in our students’ lives than all the mentors, teachers, coaches, and role models in the world.
Unfortunately, rarely do our students wake up thinking about what sinners they are! Sin comes in all shapes and sizes—sometimes visible, sometimes invisible—but always lethal.
The Gospel won’t make sense until our students know that we’re all sinners. How do we do that convincingly, without feeling like we’re judging our students or beating them down?
Answer: the same way Jesus did it.
…a ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: “Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.”’ And he said, ‘All these I have kept from my youth.’ When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. (Luke 18:18-23, ESV)
Notice Jesus didn’t jump at the opportunity to have the rich man “ask Jesus into his heart” or simply say that “God forgives.” This man wasn’t ready for the Gospel, because he thought he was good enough.
How can we imitate Christ’s example in dealing with students? By asking the right questions.
When the rich man asked Jesus how to be saved (“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”), Jesus immediately asked the man to consider what it means to be “good.” (“Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”)
Ask students: do you consider yourself a “good person?” Most people do. But Jesus defines “good” as being total sinless. Jesus made it clear that total perfection is the requirement for being right with God.
To prove to the man that he wasn’t right with God, Jesus used the Ten Commandments. He used God’s Law as a mirror to show the man how dirty he was. We can ask these same kinds of sin questions to students.
- Have you ever told a lie? We all have, right? But did you know the Bible says liars can’t enter Heaven (Revelation 21:8)?
- Have you ever used the words “God” or “Jesus” like cuss words? God hates that, because you’re taking the name of the God who made you and using it like a dirty word. It’s called “blasphemy” and says that he has to punish those who do it (Exodus 20:7).
- Have you ever stolen something? That makes you a thief, doesn’t it (Exodus 20:15)?
- Have you ever had inappropriate physical desires about another person, or enjoyed inappropriate images? Jesus said this is a sin inside your heart (Matthew 5:28).
- Did you know God puts hate on the same level as murder (1 John 3:15)?
- How many laws do you have to break to be a criminal? Just one, right? It’s the same with God’s Law; we only have to sin in one way in order to be considered “sinners” who deserve punishment (James 2:10).
If we look at the Ten Commandments, then technically, each of us is a liar, a thief, and more! It’s no wonder Jesus said “no one is good except God.”
Then Jesus asked the man to sell all his possessions. The man “became very sad, for he was extremely rich.” Jesus knew that even if this man didn’t commit lots of outward sins, he had an even deeper problem: a sinful heart that loved money more than God. Until the man could grasp that, he wasn’t ready to hear the Gospel.
Likewise, when we talk “sin” with our students, our goal is for them to realize that all our sins come from our hearts. We sin because we want to. We really need help! So God wants to change our hearts.
Then, we have to connect the dots. Every act of disobedience has a consequence. Our students have hopefully learned that already through their parents. We can explain to them that because we sin, God has to punish us (Romans 6:23). This is real, painful, and scary, and it happens after we die in a place called Hell (Hebrews 9:27).
The amount of detail we share about that punishment depends on the conversation. But the key is to communicate God’s heart: “It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31, NLT). And that isn’t the end of the story! When they’re ready, we can tell our students that God did something amazing so that he wouldn’t have to punish us—he took the punishment himself instead!
Explaining the Gospel
Once our students understand that they have personally sinned and they are cut off from God, the Gospel will make sense. We can explain that when Christ died, God was actually taking your punishment. God had to punish an innocent person in order for him to forgive guilty people like us. That’s the cross.
Then, when Jesus rose from the dead three days later, he proved that the punishment was over! Jesus living again means we can live with God and enjoy him, just like Jesus does. That guarantees a free relationship with God and eternity in Heaven! The Bible talks about it all throughout its page:
Consider reading some of these passages as background info. Tell students: if they turn from sin and trust Jesus, God guarantees he will forgive them!
A Final Note
Once we explain the Gospel—there are really only three things we can do to help move our students closer to crossing the line of saving faith.
We can correct their grows understanding. Our students will likely need to have it explained to them more than once. We will have to become repeaters, reminders, and explainers so that our students will begin to think along the lines of the Gospel.
We can call them to respond. We are not merely asking them to agree to the Bible or make an emotional commitment that won’t last. They must…
- Turn from sin, asking God for help (repent)
- Trusting fully what Jesus did to save us (faith)
At the end of the day, we saying, “Be reconciled to God!” (2 Corinthians 5:20)—take God up on his offer! God will forgive you and make you his adopted child.
Last, we can cry out to God for them. A famous preacher once wrote, “We cannot prevail with men for God until we prevail with God for men.” In other words, explaining the Gospel helps, but only God can do the saving. So let’s pray and ask God to work.
It’s simple. Know your need, know the Gospel, and explain both of them. Ask students the right questions about sin, and help them connect the dots to the cross. God takes care of the rest.
Image credit: Justine Reyes (CC 2.0)