This is a lively and erudite discussion of a somber but necessary topic. Few preachers today discuss it, yet there is probably no concept today which requires greater emphasis. We are all about grace and love. However, we cannot understand grace if we do not get the perverse and manifold nature of sin. As it has been said in a quote attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971), this is the one Christian doctrine that can be empirically verified!
Sin is the culpable distortion of God’s created order (shalom), states the author, who is currently Senior Research Fellow at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Calvin College in the United States. However, sin isn’t simple. It’s an extremely complex phenomenon with a thousand faces. And it interacts intricately with diverse behavioural concepts such as crime, folly, and addiction. In itself, sin could function as a parasite, corruption, or masquerade.
Sin as Parasite
As a parasite, sin depends on God’s created order, which is good, in order to thrive. In the words of the author, “Sin is an uninvited guest that keeps tapping its host…”(p.89). Sin’s parasitic nature is obvious when we consider the nature of a sin like pride. A measure of self-regard is proper in a human, given that we are made in God’s image. This is good. The sin of pride, however, seizes upon this truth and distorts it. It elevates me beyond others in my thinking. Rather than seeing myself as a creature of God who is subject to God and equal with other humans, I consider myself as superior to them. In this way, the sin of Pride feeds on what is noble in humanity (self-regard), while distorting it. Also, when we consider the intellectual power and logical reasoning that goes into some sins like fraud, forgery, or robbery, we are amazed at the parasitic nature of sin. Here are God’s good and precious gifts being tapped and funneled to godless ends.
Sin is also corruption. It corrodes both God’s universe and creatures. The term total depravity has historically been used to describe the wide-reaching effect that sin has on the human personality. It pollutes our minds, will, and emotions – everything. Sin is “a polluted river that keeps branching and rebranching into tributaries” (p.53).
Sin as Masquerade
Not only is sin parasitic or corrupting, it also assumes a false identity. Sin wears a mask, pretending to be what it isn’t. As Plantinga notes, a liar might claim he tells lies in order to make people feel good. Or a wife who knows that her smuggling and pilfering husband is living beyond his means tricks herself into believing that he is just being blessed by God. These are marks of self-deception, a notable form of sin’s masquerading nature. “First we deceive ourselves, and then we convince ourselves that we are not deceiving ourselves.” (p.107)
Interestingly, even religion is one mask which sin often adorns in this game of deception. During Jesus’s earthly ministry, He rebuked the Jewish religious leaders, the Pharisees, for encouraging people to disregard filial commitment on the pretext of worshiping God.
And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)— then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” (Mark 7:9-13)
James, one of the early apostles, also pointed out how easy it is to conceal selfishness and greed under the façade of piety. In James 2:15-16 he wrote:
If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?
We could cite the numerous atrocities that have been committed throughout history in the name of God, but it is enough to point to the contemporary activities of Boko Haram and ISIS, both of which claim to serve a religious cause. Quoting the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, he notes that, “nothing hides the face of our fellowman more than morality, and nothing hides the face of God more than religion. When we are most religious, we may be most at risk of losing touch with God” (p. 107).
A Pattern of Attack and Flight
In addition to what has been discussed, human sin displays a pattern of both attack and flight from God’s shalom. On the one hand we vandalize the beauty and order of God’s world, on the other we flee from our responsibility in it.
The spectacle of attack is as old as creation. Adam and Eve attack the authority of God by rebelling against Him. Cain attacks God’s favour upon his brother Abel. It works its way in the envy of David by King Saul, who clearly saw in David a potential rival. We see at play here the trio of Resentment, Pride and Anger, all nurtured by Envy. So the cycle moves through society and individual hearts, until the Saviour himself is caught in the process and crucified out of envy. But through his death and resurrection, hope was born.
Aside from attacking God’s creation, We evade our role in the world through a series of conforming, conniving or minimizing behaviours and attitudes. Think of neighbours who refuse to come to the aid of someone who is being robbed in the street, or an irresponsible man who impregnates a lady and refuses to take care of her and the baby. Our modern entertainment driven culture is also a culprit in this flight from shalom. For it trivializes the weightiness of reality. In fact, as the author states, “Our flights of amusement cost us more than time and money. They may also cost us our grasp of the distinction between reality and illusion.”
The danger with such an obsession with amusement is that “serious activities such as education, the dissemination of news, political debate, and reasoned public life gets shaped, shortened, lightened, and, in the worst cases, trivialized by the requirement that they entertain us.” And not even the worship of God is left out. Smiling preachers, upbeat music, short services, chatty and excited audiences, motivational and non-threatening talks – these are features of the contemporary worship service. In such a clime, to quote Neil Postman, author of the book Amusing Ourselves to Death, “there is no ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no theology, and, above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence.” (Amusing Ourselves to Death, p.126).
It is not all gloom and darkness, however. For after the darkness of Gethsemane, there is the victory of the empty tomb. We may note in coclusion with the author:
God wants shalom and will pay any price to get it back. Human sin is stubborn, but not as stubborn as the grace of God and not half so persistent, not half so ready to suffer to win its way…to speak of sin without grace is to minimize the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the fruit of the Sprit, and the hope of shalom. (p.199)
This is an important book, desperately needed for our times.
Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996. 202 pp.