Sin. It’s one of those topics that we are all skilled in the practice of, but often try not to think about a whole lot. Too often, our concept of sin is narrowed by a set of concerns for personal redemption and our consideration of its devastating power is abbreviated by the belief that our sin has been paid for at the cross by Christ.
This thin conception of sin has devastating effects on Christian engagement in society and the degree of empathy many Christians have for those who commit obvious, flagrant sins. Cheap grace can only abound when the severity and pervasiveness of sin throughout our individual lives and the fabric of society are underappreciated.
The tragedy of much contemporary and theologically orthodox Christianity, particular among evangelical Protestants, is that a faulty definition of sin has led to thin ethics. Sin is sometimes popularly perceived of as something that is paid for by the cross and then entirely behind the Christian. To a degree this is true, Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross provided a path for the elect to be redeemed. Forgiveness for sin is now available for those that repent and put their faith in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection as the hope for eternal life. All of this is true, but it neglects some of the ongoing effects of sin in even the lives of Christians and especially in the world around us.
Cornelius Plantinga’s book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, is an important book for understanding the nature and effects of sin. The book was originally published in 1995, and won multiple awards. It is both excellently written and exceedingly positive. This is the sort of book that should remain in print because of its enduring value as an accessible and theologically precise systematization of the doctrine of sin.
The key concept for Plantinga is Shalom. The Hebrew term shalom refers to holistic flourishing of the world across multiple dimensions. From a human perspective, shalom entails right relationship with God, non-human creation, and humanity. This flourishing existed only for a short time in the beginning of creation, which we see described in Genesis 1 and 2. We have the promise that it will exist later in the New Heavens and New Earth, as depicted in prophetic passages like those at the end of Revelation and in several sections of Isaiah. We live in a world right now that has had its shalom disrupted.
With the idea of holistic flourishing in view, the concept of shalom becomes both clearer and more complex. Sin is no longer a transaction between God and humanity alone, but a transaction that has implications for a whole web of relationship. Ultimately, sin’s penalty is due to the offence of God’s character (Ps 51:4), but its substance may be primarily disruption of the human-creation or human-human relationship.
When we begin to understand that sin is a disruption of shalom, the cycles of Judges begin to make sense. The people of Israel were oppressed, the repent, God sets them free, they fall into sin. That sin has both personal implications (separation from God) and social implications (disruption of systems and relationships). Thus, we can see that God might be justified in desiring to begin society all over again if “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. . . . For all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth.” (Gen 7:11–13) Sin isn’t just a personal violation of God’s law, it also entails distortions of all of human relationships.
Plantinga’s book begins from unquestionably orthodox foundations in the Reformed tradition. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be explores dimensions of sin as it is seen in both personal and social dimensions. He approaches the topic by describing sin categorically. It is a form of corruption, which requires a concern for spiritual hygiene. Its corruption permeates life and society. Sin is a parasite on the good in this world. It is an attack on God’s Kingdom and his common grace. Sin finds its way into human interactions and life in unbelievably difficult ways through addiction, a little-considered dimension of sin. (Usually addiction is dealt with as a simple failure in will-power.) Sin can also be a form of flight from the responsibility to deal with faults in shalom and neglecting our call to restore it.
Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be is a Christian classic. It’s taken me years to get around to reading it, but it’s a book that is consistently found in the footnotes of other significant texts. The book was named the Christianity Today book of the year for 1996, because of its theological acumen and its clarity. Plantinga’s book is one that is accessible to any reasonably theologically engaged Church members.
If this book were published today, it would likely be viewed with suspicion because it explores the social implications of sin. This begins to sound a bit too much like social justice for some people. If the fear of considering the impact of sin on holistic flourishing of creation by some Christians will have hugely negative influences on the ability of future generations of Christians to appropriately relate to society. We are already seeing this happen as younger generations, recognizing the implications of Christianity for social ethics, are drawn to non-orthodox versions of Christianity because (despite denying central tenets of the faith) they often have a better (or at least more engaged) attitude toward the social implications of Christianity.