I relish dynamic, insightful quotes that awaken me from my spiritual slumber and shock me out of the idolatrous lethargy I so often inhabit. Lately, I’ve been re-reading a memorable, if spectacularly unpleasant, book by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. titled Not The Way It’s Supposed To Be: A Breviary of Sin and was struck anew by his piercing musings on the final page.
A quick aside to set the table. John Calvin famously opened his Institutes of the Christian Religion with these lines (note: if you haven’t spent quality time in a dusty library with this masterpiece yet, shame on you, and settle it in your mind right now to do so in the near future. Preferably as you don sackcloth and ashes to express your sincere repentance. Why? This is arguably the single most influential theological work, from a purely historical perspective, in the life of the Western church during the past millenium. Plus, it barely talks about predestination at all!).
Calvin’s basic point is that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves are irrevoccably joined together in our experience, so that we can never gain entrance into the reality of one sphere without the other focusing our blurred gaze. To know God, we must have at least a shred of accurate perception concerning our own hearts and the world He has made. To know ourselves and the good yet marred creation we inhabit, we must interpret it in light of the one true God’s character and purposes (Incidentally, Calvin admits the epistemic starting point in this cyclical process–whether ideal or actual–is unclear). God cannot be recognized from within the domain of de-historical abstractions, nor can the essence of being human be accessed and enjoyed if we ignore our Creator and trade off His glory for mud pies in the slum. Therefore Christians must be people who are concerned–always–with both fields of inquiry (that is, with everything), lest we forfeit everything and become blind, self-deceived fools.
Plantinga’s treatment is marked by a ruthless realism, and he finishes his dark, exposing volume by making precisely the same claim as Calvin–only now with respect to the dialogical relationship that exists between sin and grace in the Christian life. Once again, it would appear that neither theme can be properly compreheneded without serious, sustained reflection on the other. Sin and grace must constantly talk to one another in any Christian theology worthy of the name. Grace must never be shaped in isolation from the radical evil that both surrounds and indwells us all. Yet are we willing to be people who really talk about sin? If we love grace, we simply must be. There is no other path available for those who prize the gospel. But now it is time for me to get off the stage and introduce the main act:
“Evil rolls across the ages, but so does good. Good has its own momentum. Corruption never wholly succeeds. (Even blasphemers acknowledge God.) Creation is stronger than sin and grace stronger still. Creation and grace are anvils that have worn out a lot of our hammers. To speak of sin itself, to speak of it apart from the realities of creation and grace, is to forget the resolve of God. 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. Moreover, to speak of sin by itself is to misunderstand its nature: sin is only a parasite, a vandal, a spoiler. Sinful life is a partly depressing, partly ludicrous caricature of genuine human life. To concentrate on our rebellion, defection, and folly—to say to the world ‘I have some bad news and I have some bad news’—is to forget that the center of the Christian religion is not our sin but our Savior. To speak of sin without grace is to minimize the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the fruit of the Spirit, and the hope of shalom.
But to speak of grace without sin is surely no better. To do this is to trivialize the cross of Jesus Christ, to skate past all the struggling by good people down the ages to forgive, accept, and rehabilitate sinners, including themselves, and therefore to cheapen the grace of God that always comes to us with blood on it. What had we thought the ripping and writhing of Golgotha were all about? To speak of grace without looking squarely at these realities, without painfully honest acknowledgement of our own sin and its effects, is to shrink grace to a mere embellishment of the music of creation, to shrink it down to a mere grace note. In short, for the Christian church (even in its recently popular seeker services) to ignore, euphemize, or otherwise mute the lethal reality of sin is to cut the nerve of the gospel. For the sober truth is that without full disclosure on sin, the gospel of grace becomes impertinent, unnecessary, and finally uninteresting.” (Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Not The Way It’s Supposed To Be: A Breviary of Sin, p. 199)