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Not the way it’s supposed to be

May 10th, 2009

That’s the title of Cornelius Plantinga’s book of a few years ago (Eerdmans, 1995) which continues to be such an accurate commentary on our common life and our personal lives. We shouldn’t be surprised at the big news this weekend that MPs are just as greedy as the rest of us when it comes to claiming for expenses, but we need to say clearly that it’s “not the way it’s supposed to be”.

The concept of sin has slipped off our radar. In the past, people hated sin, feared it, fled from it, and grieved over it. But the shadow has dimmed. When someone says “You’ve sinned!” it is often spoken with a smile and a knowing look that signals an inside joke. Plantinga points out how that we have adjusted our language, even within the church, when it comes to sin. “Let us confess our problem with human relational adjustment dynamics, and especially our feebleness in networking” or “I’d just like to share that we need to target holiness as a growth area”. Nobody talks about sin, repents of it or confesses it openly. When it comes to sin, people mumble. And the only place where it is acknowledged openly is on the dessert menu. Pavlovas, cheesecakes and chocolate ice-cream are sinful. Telling lies and being greedy are not. As Plantinga says, “The new measure for sin is caloric.”

The Bible has a clear picture of how it is supposed to be. It’s called shalom. The biblical writers, especially in the Old Testament, dreamt of a new age in which all human crookedness would be straightened out and all rough places would be made plain. It’s an age when the foolish would be made wise and the wise, humble. The deserts would flower, the mountains would drip with wine, weeping would cease, and people could go to sleep without weapons on their laps. People would work in peace and would work fruitfully and purposefully.

We all have a notion of a world and a society in which things are as they ought to be. We might disagree on the details. Would there be heavy metal music? Or would it only be audible to its own fans? But government officials and public representatives would always tell the truth, would not be greedy, and would be totally trustworthy in all their deeds and actions. That’s how it’s supposed to be.

But all of us have disturbed shalom in some way or another. Sin is human vandalism of God’s shalom. And we all have played our part. It is a desperately difficult problem to fix, so difficult that it required the death of God’s Son. But there is an answer.

To speak of sin by 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 partly depressing, partly ludicrous caricature of genuine human life. To concentrate of 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 centre of the Christian life is not our sin but our Saviour. To speak of sin without grace is to minimise the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the fruit of the Spirit, and the hope of shalom. p199

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