A Theology of Sports

Most of my friends know that, I’m an ardent Patriots fan. However, I was happy that Peyton Maning won his second Super Bowl before his retirement. I respect Peyton Manning because he is a consummate sportsman, and I believe those two things are related. Let me use him as an example to illustrate my theology of sports.

In his book, Manning, he writes (pp. 362-364):

Like my dad, I make it a point when I speak to groups to talk about priorities, and when it’s schoolkids, I rank those priorities as: faith, family, and education, then football. For me generally it had always been the big four: faith, family, friends, and football. And I tell all of them that as important as football is to me, it can never be higher than fourth. …

I committed my life to Christ [when I was thirteen], and that faith has been most important to me ever since. Some players get more vocal about it—the Reggie Whites, for example—and some point to Heaven after scoring a touchdown and praise God after games. I have no problem with that. But I don’t do it, and don’t think it makes me any less a Christian. I just want my actions to speak louder, and I don’t want to be more of a target for criticism than I already am. Somebody sees you drinking a beer, which I do, and they think, “Hmmmm, Peyton says he’s this, that, or the other, and there he is drinking alcohol. What’s that all about?” Christians drink beer. So do non-Christians. Christians also make mistakes, just as non-Christians do. My faith doesn’t make me perfect, it just makes me forgiven, and provides me the assurance I looked for half my life ago. …

How do I justify football in the context of “love your enemy?” I say to kids, well, football is most definitely a “collision sport,” and I can’t deny it jars your teeth and at the extreme can break your bones. But I’ve never seen it as a “violent game,” there are rules to prevent that, and I know I don’t have to hate anybody on the other side to play as hard as I can within the rules. I think you’d have to get inside my head to appreciate it, but I do love football. And, yes, I’d play it for nothing if that was the only way, even now when I’m no longer a child. I find no contradiction in football and my faith.

Ah, but do I “pray for victory?” No, except as a generic thing. I pray to keep both teams injury free, and personally, that I use whatever talent I have to the best of my ability. But I don’t think God really cares about who wins football games, except as winning might influence the character of some person or group. Besides. If the Colts were playing the Cowboys and I prayed for the Colts and Troy Aikman prayed for the Cowboys, wouldn’t that make it a standoff?

Why He Plays

First, Peyton confesses his childlike love for football, admitting that he’d “play it for nothing if that was the only way, even now when [he’s] no longer a child.” In other words, he doesn’t play football for the sake of something else, e.g. money, fame, or even a platform with which he could praise God and point people to him; he plays for the joy of football in and of itself. For him, football has intrinsic, and not merely instrumental, value.

This is in contrast to many Christians who defend sports saying that it’s a great way to promote health through exercise, as well as cultivate self-control, discipline, respect for authorities, teamwork, etc. Yes, sports is useful for those things, but it is also good in and of itself.

That’s because our recreation is rooted in God’s good creation. Man is created in the “image of God” (Gen. 1:27), and that means he is to rule over creation as God’s representative. This is seen in the order of creation. In the first three days of creation, God creates kingdoms: light and darkness (Gen. 1:3-5), sky (Gen. 1:6-8), and the land and seas (Gen. 1:9-13), respectively. Then, during the next three days, he creates kings to occupy the corresponding kingdoms: sun, moon and the stars (Gen. 1:14-19), the birds and fish (Gen. 1:20-23), and land creatures (Gen. 1:24-25), respectively.

At the end of it all, as the pinnacle of his creation, God creates man as his royal representative (Gen. 1:26-28). And as such, man is blessed and commanded by God to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen. 1:28). As God creates man in his “likeness,” man begets man in his “likeness” (Gen. 5:1-3). As God “rules,” so man is commanded to “rule” and “subdue” the earth (Gen. 1:28; cf. 2 Chr. 28:10; Neh. 5:5; Jer. 34:11, 16).

This divinely-instituted human subjection of nature is “culture,” which H. Richard Niebuhr defines as “the artificial, secondary environment which man superimposes on the natural.” Rocks are nature; walls are culture. River is nature; canal is culture. Noise is nature; music is culture. And man is charged with the royal responsibility of creating culture from God-given nature.

This, likewise, applies to the nature of man. If running is nature, racing is culture. If play is nature, sport is culture. Sports, therefore, is a fulfillment of the cultural mandate and has intrinsic value. It glorifies the Creator when we enjoy his good creation.

Creation is not utilitarian. God created not only trees that are “good for food,” but also those that are “pleasant to the sight” (Gen. 2:9) for our enjoyment. One fruit tree would have sufficed to satisfy our hunger, but God gave us hundreds to delight our senses (Gen. 2:15-16). Everyone could have been given an equal, basic athletic ability necessary for survival, but God created some men like Eric Liddell, the Olympic gold medalist who claimed, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure” (Chariots of Fire). He created men like Peyton Manning, who can throw a football 80 yards down the field with greater accuracy than I can manage within 10 yards. Manning uses his extraordinary talent to play the game for the sheer enjoyment of it, and there is something profoundly right and good about that.

How He Plays

Of course, not all human culture is good in and of itself. The gladiatorial games were also a sport, but certainly not a good one. As Jeremy Treat writes in his helpful article, “More Than A Game,” sports can go wrong in two ways. It can be “[twisted] into a bad thing (sin as immorality) or … [made into] an ultimate thing (sin as idolatry).”

In a sinful world, sports can degenerate into an arena for violence, cheating (performance-enhancing drugs, spygate, deflategate, etc.), greed, selfishness, and vanity. Manning appears to be aware of this, and reasons that there are “rules to prevent [violence]” in football. He steers clear of twisting football into an immoral sport, recognizing that he “[doesn]’t have to hate anybody on the other side to play as hard as [he] can within the rules.”

Sports can also become an idol when it is received, not as God’s good gift, but as his replacement or rival. So athletes as well as fans can find their identity and meaning in sports rather than in God. In the current “malaise of immanence,” as philosopher Charles Taylor describes our secular age, sports offers a religious experience—a glimpse of “transcendence.”

So Harold Abrahams, the foil to Eric Liddell in the movie Chariots of Fire, describes his reason for running, “I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my whole existence. But will I?” The answer, of course, is that he will not. Though he wins the race, he loses his soul, because he has turned a good thing into an ultimate thing. He has replaced the Creator with the creature, the Giver with the gift.

Manning well understands this when he writes that football can never be higher than his fourth priority, after faith, family, and friends. He lives by this when he refuses to pray for victory, but rather prays “to keep both teams injury free,” and admits, “I don’t think God really cares about who wins football games.”

Peyton Manning was a superb quarterback, but he was an even better sportsman, and the latter is unquestionably the greater accomplishment. Even in the way we watch and play our sports, let us be constrained by our love for God.

Fasting for Foodies

Enjoying Food

When is the last time you really enjoyed food? When is the last time you really paused to savor every crunch of that toasted bread and whiff of creamy butter, the juicy sweetness of strawberries tinged with refreshing piquancy, and the cleansing, thirst-slaking purity of cold water? If it’s been a little while, it may be that your surfeited appetite no longer appreciates the finer tastes in life.

Those in Florida cannot welcome the warmth of Spring like a Winter-weary New Englander, and those who are always full cannot delight in food like those who fast. This is why, if you’re a foodie (or anyone for that matter), you should consider fasting.


But fasting is difficult, because we’re a nation of gluttons. Christians of old used to understand the danger of gluttony (it was numbered among the seven deadly sins), but people nowadays are more concerned about gaining weight than about the more fundamental problem of gluttony.

And you don’t have to be overweight to be a glutton. Weighing in at a whole 125lb, no one would accuse me of being a glutton, but the truth is I fight the sin of gluttony daily, when I’m tempted to grab that one extra chocolate-covered almond, or two, or three, or when I scarf down a bowl of noodles and pour a second helping before the noodles have traversed the length of my esophagus.


By exercising restraint when we eat and/or by fasting from food altogether, we counteract this mindless indulgence and rightly order our physical appetites. But isn’t eating good food harmless? Why be so legalistic? John Piper puts it pointedly:

The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie. It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but endless nibbling at the table of the world. It is not the X-rated video, but the prime-time dribble of triviality we drink in every night. For all the ill that Satan can do, when God describes what keeps us from the banquet table of his love, it is a piece of land, a yoke of oxen, and a wife (Luke 14:18-20). The greatest adversary of love to God is not his enemies but his gifts. And the most deadly appetites are not for the poison of evil, but for the simple pleasures of earth. For when these replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable, and almost incurable (A Hunger for God, p. 18).

The truth is that our appetite for food is connected to other physical appetites, and what we do with, and to, our body has spiritual implications. As embodied creatures, “our mind is helped by what comes to us embodied in concrete form; fasting helps to express, to deepen, and to confirm the resolution that we are ready to sacrifice anything, to sacrifice ourselves, to attain what we seek for the kingdom of God” (Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Prayer, p. 85). Fasting helps us understand viscerally (literally), that God, not food, is our most fundamental need, that we do “not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4).

Paul writes, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything. ‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’—and God will destroy both one and the other” (1 Cor. 6:12-20). So we are to “exercise self-control in all things” and “discipline [our] body and keep it under control” (1 Cor. 9:25-27).

“Our human cravings and desires are like rivers that tend to overflow their banks; fasting helps keep them in their proper channels” (Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, p. 56). By subduing our appetite for food, we can restrain other appetites that threaten to control us, whether it is a minor obsession with coffee or serious addictions to cigarettes, alcohol, or pornography.

A Picture of A Godly Foodie

I have a good friend, who, every time he sits down in front of a meal, slowly lowers his face toward the plate and waves his hand over the food toward his nose. He does this in order to get a whiff of the wafting aroma before giving thanks to God for the food. I think this is a perfect picture of a godly foodie.

“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). When you eat your meal(s) today, remember and thank God for Christ, our ultimate Bread of Life (John 6:22-59). And when you fast, likewise, acknowledge that your spiritual dependence on the Bread of Life is even more profound than your physical dependence on daily bread. Only when our appetites are rightly ordered and submitted to God, will we truly enjoy food to its fullness.

Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

A Controversy In Wheaton

This week, Wheaton College placed Professor Larycia Hawkins on administrative leave for claiming on Facebook that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.” The administration explained that professors must “engage in and speak about public issues in ways that faithfully represent the College’s evangelical Statement of Faith.” Hawkins also wore a hijab through the entire season of Advent to express her solidarity with innocent muslims being victimized by retaliations against Islamic terrorists.

Of course, expressing solidarity with innocent muslims is to be commended. There have been over 40 documented cases of anti-muslim threats, shootings, and vandalisms in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks on November 13th. These hate crimes should be condemned, and Christians, as always, must promote justice for all.

Miroslav Volf’s Allah

However, human solidarity is one thing, theological clarity is another. Hawkins’s assertion was partly based on Miroslav Volf’s arguments in Allah: A Christian Response. Not surprisingly, Volf came to Hawkins’s defense, insisting that “her suspension reflects enmity toward Muslims, taking on a theological guise of concern for Christian orthodoxy.”

Volf contends that saying that “Muslims and Christians worship the same God” is not the same thing as saying “that Christians and Muslims believe the same things about that one God” or “that Islam and Christianity are the same religion under a different name, or even that Islam is equally as true as Christianity.” In other words, describing an object differently is not the same thing as describing a different object. Worshiping the right God is not the same thing as worshiping the right God rightly. Since Christians concede that Jews worship the same God as they, even though Jews reject the Trinity and the incarnation of Christ, Volf maintains that Christians cannot, for selfsame reasons, deny that Muslims worship the same God.

“Allah = God” Is an Unhelpful Equivocation

As Volf’s attempt to clarify proves, for most people, the statement that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God” implies a certain parity that is theologically compromising. In its bald formulation, the statement requires too many qualifications to be helpful, especially in the abbreviated context of social media. It is an equivocation that attempts to build solidarity at the expense of clarity.

Orthodoxy entails right worship. Aaron fashions a golden calf to represent YHWH, the God who rescued Israel from Egypt (Exod. 32: 1-6), yet this is still condemned as idolatry. There is no neat distinction between right belief and right worship.

Strictly speaking, even the Jews do not worship the same God that we do. Our God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Three in One and One in Three. Our God is Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Jews reject these foundational doctrines.

God’s redemptive plan unfolded progressively throughout history, and this progressive nature of God’s revelation demands greater accountability from the later generations. “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).

“Whoever believes in [Christ] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18). “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Stating that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God” obfuscates this reality and hinders mission.

How to Engage Muslims

How, then, should we engage Muslims, Jews, and other unbelievers? Scripture teaches that faithful witness simultaneously corroborates what is right and critiques what is wrong in other religions.

When John declares that Jesus is the “Word” λόγος (logos), he is contextualizing the gospel by co-opting the Greek philosophical notion of “animating reason.”However, he qualifies his use of the term by adding that “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn. 1:14). In its philosophical usage, the logos could not have become flesh. So John’s use of the word is uniquely Christian.

Similarly, Paul’s sermons use the cultural framework of his audience, but also disabuse his audience of false ideas. Preaching to Jews in a synagogue in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:16-41), Paul begins by affirming Israel’s salvation history from the election of the patriarchs, to the time of judges, and later, kings (vv. 16b-25). Then, he cites extensively from the Old Testament to prove that Jesus, whom the Jews had rejected, lived, died, and resurrected to fulfill the Davidic promise (vv. 26-37), and calls them to repentance (vv. 38-41).

When addressing a pagan audience, however, Paul takes a decidedly different course. In Lystra (Acts 14:15-17), recognizing that his audience are polytheists who believed that gods and humans intermingled to produce demigods, Paul begins by delineating the differences between divinity and humanity (v. 15a-c), then proclaims that there is only one true God “who does what is good” ἀγαθουργῶν (agathourgōn). This rare word occurs only twice in the entire New Testament (cf. 1 Tim. 6:18), and invites comparison to καλοκάγαθος (kalokagathos), the title given to Zeus, “the one who does what is good and faithful.” In using the term, Paul simultaneously contextualizes the idea of the one true God and confronts the idolatry of his hearers, insisting that God, not Zeus, is the one who providentially cares for them with “rain from heaven and crops in their seasons” (v. 17).

Still more striking is Paul’s speech in Athens. He quotes the Cretan poet Epimenides and the Cicilian poet Aratos, and incorporates various Stoic and Epicurean beliefs (Acts 17:22-31). However, Paul issues an unflinching challenge to their worldview when he asserts that the Creator God is the Lord of heaven and earth who will judge the world with justice through a man whom he has raised from the dead.

Volf proffers Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (15th century) as an example of “a towering intellect and an experienced church diplomat” who “affirmed unambiguously that Muslims and Christians worship the same God,” but this is patently false.

In his book, Cribratio Alkorani (A Scrutiny of the Koran), Nicholas of Cusa writes unambiguously that “the God of the Koran is not the Great God in whom, because He is the Creator of all things, every rational creature ought to believe” (Kindle Location 2027) and “that the Muhammadan sect … is in error and is to be repudiated” (KL 29). The stated goal of his writing is to prove “even from the Koran, that the Gospel is true” (KL 61), and the way he labors painstakingly to sift truth from the lies is consistent with Scriptural precedent.

Islam, like any other religion that sets itself up against the gospel of Jesus Christ, is a complex mixture of truth, half-truths, and lies. The simplistic statement that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God” does not do justice to this complexity.

What’s at Stake?

What exactly is at stake in this debate? Why is Volf, Hawkins, and others so eager to affirm that “Muslims and Christians worship the same God?” For Volf, the answer, ostensibly, is to preserve future peace, for “two supreme divine beings always means war.” In other words, how you answer the question “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” will determine whether we have “a justification for cultural and military wars” or “a foundation for a shared future marked by peace rather than violence.”

This is essentially what Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued in The Social Contract (trans. H J. Tozer, Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1998, 137-138):

Those who distinguish civil intolerance from theological intolerance are, in my opinion mistaken. The two kinds of intolerance are inseparable. It is impossible to live in peace with people whom we believe to be damned. To love them would be to hate God who punishes them. It is absolutely necessary to reclaim them or to punish them. Wherever theological intolerance is allowed, it cannot, but have some effect on civil life, and as soon as it has any effect on civil life, the sovereign is no longer sovereign even in secular affairs. From that time, the priests are the real masters. The kings are their officers.

But Jesus never forced belief on anyone, and he even rebukes his disciples for wanting to call down fire from heaven to consume those who had rejected their message (Luke 9:52-56).

Moreover, Volf himself challenges Rousseau and contradicts the claim of his article in his book, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World:

[T]hough it is true that Christian religious exclusivists make a clear distinction between the saved and the damned, the consistent among them also—and without contradiction—reject the distinction between moral insiders and moral outsiders. The Golden Rule, a succinct summary of all Christian moral obligations, commands: ‘In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you’—do to all others, not just to a select few (Matthew 7:12). As the story of the Good Samaritan powerfully illustrates, the command to love one’s neighbors is universal (Luke 10:25-37); it applies to friend and foe, good and evil, saved and damned. To love the damned is not to hate God but to obey and emulate God, who makes the sun to shine on the good and the evil (Matthew 5:45) and who loves those who have made themselves God’s enemies (Romans 5:6-7).

It is this radical love for neighbor demonstrated and fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ that ensures human solidarity and future peace. No facile agreement or superficial identification will do.

Sooner Count the Stars

Sooner Count the Stars: Worshiping the Triune God, Sovereign Grace Music, 2015.

Buy CD

This is my favorite Sovereign Grace Music album ever, which is saying a lot, since SGM has been making beautiful, singable, doctrine-infused music for longer than I have been alive.

Here are some of the highlights:

Sooner Count the Stars (Track 1)

The first track, “Sooner Count the Stars” is a poetic number that extols the goodness of God. The verses employ a series of unconventional images to convey the immeasurable depth of one’s indebtedness and gratefulness toward God:

I could sooner count the stars than number all Your ways … | I could sooner drink the seas than fathom all Your love … | I could sooner turn back time than turn Your heart away.

In climactic praise, the Chorus piles on superlatives that befit the infinitely gracious God: “No praise is high enough, no thanks is deep enough | No life is long enough to tell of all You’ve done | No shout is loud enough, no words are strong enough | No song is sweet enough to sing Your love.” Doug Plank and McKenzie Kauflin’s vocals blend seamlessly, and the harmonica adds a buoyant touch that captures the overflowing joy and gratitude of the worshiper.

Your Name is Matchless (Track 2)

“Your Name Is Matchless” is another great track. Sometimes the mixed Biblical metaphors can be a little jarring, e.g. “For we were enemies, not pilgrims, prodigals at heart,” but if you look past these foibles, the song has a pleasing melody that carries a compelling theological message:

Glory to the name of Jesus, glory to the only name that saves | Ransomed the captives; Your name is matchless.

This Is Our God (Track 4)

The Intro, Interlude, and Verses of “This is Our God” undulate meditatively as the words of the Nicene Creed are lifted from the pages by the music. The Chorus sings fittingly like a profession of faith. It is articulated carefully and deliberately, with the passionate refrain, “This is our God,” soaring above the rest and reaching the highest note of the song.

Blessed Assurance (Track 8)

In “Blessed Assurance,” the driving bass drum and climbing riffs of the baritone guitar create a sense of a powerful, ineluctable march toward a destination, recalling the assurance of salvation that God provides by “put[ing] his seal on us and [giving] us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Cor. 1:22). Kate DeGraide’s vocals pierces the soul in this anthemic declaration of faith, and the folky guitar strumming pattern and choral accompaniment in the Bridge resound like a testimony of the cloud of witnesses in heaven:

This my story, this my song | Born of Spirit, washed in Blood | This my story, this my song | In my Savior I belong.

Lamb of God (Track 10)

“Lamb of God” is a magnificent, Biblical-theological hymn that traces the activities of the second Person of the Trinity as the pre-incarnate Word of God in creation, the incarnate Son of God in redemption, and the glorified Lamb of God in the consummation.

Hallowed Be Your Name (Track 12)

The album concludes with “Hallowed Be Your Name,” where the keys and baritone guitar create an ethereal backdrop to Kate DeGraide’s soaring vocals. The song seemingly transports the listener to the very presence of the Triune God in the heavens.

There’s a folksy intimacy in this album that effectively conveys the fellowship of Christians and their communion with the Triune God. The stated goal of the album is to make listeners delight in the Triune God. It succeeds with flourish.

Buy Sooner Count the Stars HERE.

The Shepherd’s Love

The sermon I preached at Crossway Church (Franklin, MA) on August 23rd, 2015.

“Christ’s consuming love compels us to prioritize Christ’s mission to seek and save the lost.” LISTEN

Luke 15:1-7 

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

The Lost Sheep

The sermon I preached at Grace Community Church (Souderton, PA) on August 2nd, 2015.

“Christ’s consuming love compels us to prioritize Christ’s mission to seek and save the lost.” LISTEN

Luke 15:1-7 

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

Atonement Fully Made for Us

The sermon I preached at King of Grace Church (Haverhill, MA) on July 9th, 2015.

Christ made full atonement for the sins of His people.LISTEN

Ephesians 2:4-10

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

The Love of Christ

“Forgiven much, you will love much; loving much, you will live to the service of Him whom you love. This is the grand master-principle of which we spoke; this is the secret spring of all the holiness of the saints.

The life of holiness is not what the world falsely represents it, a life of preciseness and painfulness, in which a man crosses every affection of his nature. …

We are constrained to holiness by the love of Christ; the love of Him who loved us, is the only cord by which we are bound to the service of God. The scourge of our affections is the only scourge that drives us to duty. Sweet bands and gentle scourges! Who would not be under their power?”

from “The Love of Christ” by Robert Murray McCheyne

The Failed Promises of God

Many Christians live with a lingering sense that God has failed them. In particular, they look to God’s promises in the book of Proverbs and wonder why God did not fulfill His end of the bargain.

“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). Many pastors’ kids defy this maxim.

“The fear of the Lord prolongs life, but the years of the wicked will be short” (Proverbs 10:27). Yet it is an observed fact that the wicked live prosperous and prolonged lives.

As Bruce Waltke notes, the “Proverbs’ heavenly promises seem detached from earthly realities.”

Some prematurely conclude that these promises are false and that Scripture is unreliable. Others facilely defend the promises by arguing that one or more of the prerequisites were not met. “That pastor must not have trained up his children well.” “That short-lived Christian woman must not have truly feared the Lord.” But for a case in point, Jesus Christ lived a life of perfect obedience, yet he suffered terribly and was short-lived (Isa. 52:13-53:12; Matt. 27:43, 46).

A better answer lies in the nature and purpose of Proverbs. Proverbs are epigrammatic in nature. They are, by definition, pithy and witty, and as such, cannot be encumbered with qualifications. For this reason, proverbs are partial and contingent. We can see this even in the common, non-Biblical proverbs: “He who hesitates is lost,” and “look before you leap” are both true in certain contexts, though they advise opposite things.

Likewise, though “honor[ing] the Lord with your wealth … [ensures that] your barns will be filled with plenty” (Prov. 3:10), it is also true that “little with righteousness is better than great revenues with injustice” (Prov. 16:8). The book of Proverbs combines the idealism of a moral teacher with the realism of a sage, and the book must be understood holistically and contextually.

Finally, the purpose of Proverbs is to instill the fear of God (Prov. 1:7). While the book exhorts us to “get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight” (Prov. 4:7), it also reminds us that “no wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the LORD” (Prov. 21:30). There is no foolproof set of wisdom principles that explains the mystery of God’s will exhaustively. The sovereign will of God cannot be tamed or controlled. The certainty of guaranteed results fosters pride and independence, but uncertainty engenders faith and dependence.

Thus, Proverbs is not a manual on how to manipulate God to give you a good life, but an exhortation to fear God and submit to Him by living before the presence of God, under the authority of God, and for the glory of God. It is written not for those who seek to use God, but for those who seek to know Him and His ways. This is why the book almost exclusively uses the covenant name of God, YHWH (translated “the LORD”).

In other words, the book of Proverbs does not offer the black and white “Thou shalt not” of the Law or the “Thus saith the LORD” of the Prophets, but beckons the believer humbly to trust and obey, even in the midst of the uncertainty. For ultimately, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Prov. 9:10).

Not the Way It’s Supposed To Be

Plantinga Jr., Cornelius. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.

One is hard-pressed to find a more polarizing and misunderstood word than “sin.” A slightest insinuation that something is a “sin” provokes angry accusations of intolerant moralism.

This indignance is indicative of the moral subjectivism among today’s regnant intellectuals. What is remarkable, however, is that “people who take a casual attitude toward, say, pornography, tax evasion, or mockery of religion can at the same time show a fierce (even legalist) opposition to sexism, racism, self-righteousness, and air pollution” (103).

But how can an attitude that seems “right” to one person (e.g. a racist or sexist) be called “wrong” by another person in the absence of objective moral standards? Even the most avant garde subjectivists draw the line somewhere.

Defining “sin”
In short, we are profoundly confused about “sin,” and this is what Cornelius Plantinga Jr. sets out to correct with his book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be. As the subtitle of the book indicates, this is “a breviary,” or a brief summary, of “sin,” but it would be a mistake to think that this relative brevity (202 pages) implies a shallow treatment.

Plantinga begins by defining sin as “any act [or disposition]–any thought, desire, emotion, word, or deed–or its particular absence, that displeases God and deserves blame” (13). Yet divine displeasure is not arbitrary, for God hates sin because it violates shalom, which refers to “universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight,” or simply, “the way things ought to be” (10).

What sin is not…
This definition, of course, is offhandedly dismissed by a culture that does not recognize vertical accountability to God. In such a culture, morality is merely a function of horizontal accountability to fellow humans.

Thus, immorality merely designates a breech of conventional behaviors, attitudes, rights, and obligations concerning other persons. Each ethical and legal system determines for itself who decides right and wrong and what is the law that ought to be obeyed.

For this reason, Plantinga distinguishes sin from immorality, which is culturally relative. Similarly, he distinguishes sin from crime, since crime is statute-relative while sin is not. Many sins, including unbelief, pride, and sloth, are perfectly legal.

There is, nevertheless, a subjective dimension to sin, but it is subjective with regard to one’s faith, not with regard to one’s environment. Even an objectively innocent act can be subjectively sinful if the agent thinks that it is objectively sinful and does it anyway, for that is a willful violation of the perceived will of God. “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23).

Scottish minister Oswald Chambers once said that “the holiest person is … one who is most conscious of what sin is.” In Chapters 2-10, Plantinga canvasses the Biblical and historical Christian witness to describe sin in its various complexions as disorder, contagion, parasite, masquerade, folly, addiction, attack, and flight:

Sin as Disorder (Ch 2)
In the beginning, the universe is a “formless void” (Gen. 1:2), but at creation, God forms and fills. In the first three days, he forms kingdoms, separating light from darkness, sea from sky, and water from land, respectively.

Then, in the latter three days, he fills these kingdoms with kings, creating the sun, moon, and stars, the fish and birds, and the land creatures, respectively. At the end of the six days, as the crown jewel of his creation, God creates man and woman as perfect complements, together to rule over all creation under God’s sovereign lordship.

In light of God’s creative ordering of the universe, sin is an act of uncreation that subverts this divine order and transgresses boundaries. So in the Fall, man infringes upon God’s authority, woman upon man’s, and the serpent upon the woman’s (Gen. 3).

Consequently, the Fall culminates in the Flood, where the creational distinctions are blurred as sky falls upon sea and the waters cover the earth (Gen. 7) (30). If sin is a violation of God’s creational design, holiness, then, “is the wholeness of resources, motive, purpose, and character typical of someone who fits snugly into God’s broad design for shalom” (34).

Sin as Contagion (Ch 3-4)
Leviticus 19 describes both ceremonial uncleanness and moral decay as instances of contamination. Sin is a contagion, a pollutant, that defiles that which is pure. It contaminates a marriage by introducing a third lover. It contaminates worship by introducing an idol (45-46). A “pure” heart, then, is an unadulterated, undivided one (Ps. 24:4).

As a contagion, sin spreads “like the drought that prompts a maple tree to announce its distress by producing hundreds of emergency seed pods, or like a man with AIDS who infects and impregnates a woman, so sin tends both to kill and to reproduce” (54). Parental dysfunction, racism, as well as drug addiction are often passed on from generation to generation.

So, then, sin begets sin. It has a corporate, intergenerational dimension. This fact, however, does not exclude human culpability. The context of sin must not be confused with its cause (64). While “involuntariness may mitigate… it doesn’t necessarily excuse” (22).

An environmental determinism is untenable because it can never conclusively rule out human agency. To not hold people responsible for their sins is to dehumanize them, because those whom we regard as helpless, whether due to immaturity, insanity, addiction, etc., we do not treat as fully human (67).

Sin as Parasite (Ch 5)
Sin also functions more specifically as a parasite, which drains vitality from its host. Like a virus, sin subverts good gifts toward evil ends. So “the same gift that enables a scientist to conquer a disease also enables her to manufacture one and to sell it to terrorists. Using the same thoughtful expressions of praise and caring, a man may inspire a woman he wants to marry or seduce one he wants to conquer” (77).

As C.S. Lewis says, “Goodness is, so to speak, itself; badness is only spoiled goodness” (Mere Christianity, p. 49). Sin is attractive only insofar as it imitates good. “Nothing about sin is its own; all its power, persistence, and plausibility are stolen goods. … Good is original, independent, and constructive; evil is derivative, dependent, and destructive” (89).

For example, anger comes in two forms: 1) “righteous indignation, a virtue of the just” or 2) “smoldering resentment of competitors, the vice of the envious.” Likewise, pride comes in two forms: 1) “proper satisfaction in the achievement of excellence, the virtue of the diligent” or 2) “inordinate self-congratulation, the vice of the pompous” (81).

Some counter that our lives would be drab without sin. Ian Fleming, for one, argues that “the depiction of… sins and their consequences [has] been the yeast in most great fiction and drama” (“Introduction,” The Seven Deadly Sins, p. x), but this is only half true. As Plantinga notes:

Daring thieves, dashing rogues, renegade police detectives, disobedient angels, charming psychopaths–these figures attract us because they are bold, urbane, witty, energetic, or imaginative. … Their sin interests us because it leeches the color, wit, and energy out of normal life and presents these things to us in a novel, risky, and therefore dramatic form (94).

Sin as Masquerade (Ch 6)
Similarly, vice also frequently masquerades as virtue–intemperance as liberty, subversion of relational order as equality, “lust as love, thinly veiled sadism as military discipline, envy as righteous indignation, domestic tyranny as parental concern” (98). Even Satan must masquerade “as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:13) for credibility.

“Self-deception, like a skillful computer fraud, doubles back to cover its own trail” (107). As Lewis Smedes observes, “First we deceive ourselves, and then we convince ourselves that we are not deceiving ourselves” (A Pretty Good Person, p. 74). This is the nature of sin.

Sin as Folly (Ch 7)
Sin is not only wrong, it is also foolish, because it is ultimately futile. The Bible often refers to sin as folly, contrasted with the wisdom of staying within God’s order (Prov. 9). Sin involves missing the mark and straying from the path that God intends for us.

It is fascinating, then, that even “people who prefer not to judge or confess sin nonetheless concede that some objectionable act was stupid, tragic, shortsighted, mistaken, unfortunate, miscalculated, erring, regrettable, or out of line” (114) They recognize that something was amiss.

For example, public figures embroiled in a scandal often confess to a “lapse in judgment” or “inappropriate behavior.” As Plantinga observes, this is a cowardly and ridiculous euphemism, but it is nonetheless an important admission. Though they might not concede that they are sinners, they are in effect conceding that they have been fools (114).

Sin as Addiction (Ch 8)
Sin also functions like an addiction on many levels. Its desire is to master us (Gen. 4:7), so it tends to become progressively obsessive (can’t stop thinking about it), impulsive (do it without thinking), and compulsive (can’t help but do it). It refuses to be contained, works itself into the habits of the hearts, and burrows itself under self-deception (147).

Sin as Attack and Flight (Ch 9-10)
Finally, sin takes the form of an attack against God and a flight from God. As Henry Stob argues, hell is depicted in the Scripture as either very hot or very cold. As Jesus taught, it is “the outer darkness” (Mt. 25:30) and “the eternal fire” (Mt. 25:41). That is because:

Hell is made by those who climb the holy mountain and try to unseat the Holy One who, ablaze with glory, dwells in the light unapproachable. Those who mount an attack on God and cross the barrier of this exclusive divinity die like moths in the flame of him who will not and cannot be displaced. And hell is made by those who, turning their backs on God, flee the light and move toward the eternal blackness that marks God’s absence. Hell, then, is unarrested sin’s natural and programmatic end. Sin is either rebellion or flight, and, when persisted in, leads either to the fiery furnace or to the cold and desolate night. (Henry Stob, “Sin, Salvation, Service,” p. 16)

Plantinga’s account of the various ways in which people flee from God is particularly illuminating. We do so by conforming to, conniving with, and condoning evil, and by compartmentalizing our lives and cocooning into our little worlds where we are oblivious to the needs of our neighbors (182-189).

For this reason, perhaps the most dangerous kind of sin is not the grave offense that alarms all, but the seeming trifle that escapes our detection. As C.S. Lewis wisely notes, “Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts” (The Screwtape Letters, p. 56).

To illustrate, the premium value we place on entertainment in the U.S. suggests that “it has become a diversion not only in the sense of a playful relief from the main business of life but also in the sense of a distraction from it, an evasion of it, a sometimes grim, big-business alternative to it” (190).

Human Sin and Divine Grace (Epilogue)
Thankfully, sin is not the end of the story. As Plantinga writes, “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” (199).

To speak of sin without grace is incomplete, but to speak of grace without sin is imprudent, for to do so is “to trivialize the cross of Jesus Christ…[and] cheapen the grace of God that always comes to us with blood on it” (199).

This is the express purpose of Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: to remind the church that “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” (199).

By leveraging his perceptive insight into culture, Plantinga delivers a compelling exposé of sin. The fluidity of his writing belies the compelling force of his words. His description of the cogency, simplicity, and beauty of divine shalom and the chicanery, vapidity, and depravity of sin inspires deep wonder for God and compassion for the world.

In my estimation, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be is the most penetrating foray into the doctrine of sin since C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. 

Buy Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be HERE.