Book Review: Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin by Cornelius Plantinga Jr.

In Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, Plantinga offers a concise overview of the issue of sin.  Breviary, in this case, ought not be confused with or thought of as synonymous with “introductory.”  This book is deceptive because it is short and its subject is familiar to most people, but it effectively works many angles and will undoubtedly challenge the reader’s view of sin regardless of their theological background.  Whether someone regards himself or herself as a Calvinist, Arminian, Roman Catholic, or some form of Orthodoxy, they will likely find that this book exposes their doctrine of sin as incomplete.


Plantinga’s closing words are perhaps where I would have begun: “The sober truth is that without full disclosure on sin, the gospel of grace becomes impertinent, unnecessary, and finally uninteresting.”  Today’s Christians seem puzzled when they find that people are not interested in hearing their message.  This is largely due to the loss of a doctrine of sin; without a proper understanding of sin, people do not understand the necessity of the Christian message.  G.K. Chesterton began to notice the shift away from the doctrine of sin in his day when prophetically said, “Certain religious leaders have begun in our day not to deny the highly disputable water (the cleansing power of the gospel), but to deny the indisputable dirt (sin).”  Where Plantinga does begin is arguably just as important as where he ended.  Early on, he states the importance of understanding shalom, which he defines as, “the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight.”  In my estimation, we cannot fully understand the problem unless we come to terms with all that we’ve lost.  Shalom is a beautiful portrait of how the world is meant to be and what we all sense the world should be.  It is a mournful reality that so few Christians keep the image of shalom in the front of their minds.  As a result, the importance of this book cannot be overstated because it begins and ends with how things ought to be.  Without this picture and sense of shalom, it may appear from the outside that Christianity simply conjures an abstract problem and offers an invented, abstract solution.  Rather, Christianity identifies the source of all deficiencies in our world and proclaims God’s solution to the problem.  It is for this reason that I would heartily recommend this book not only to Christians from all camps but also to several thoughtful atheist friends who came to mind as I was reading this book.

The reasons for recommending this book are plentiful.  First and foremost, the weight of the issue at hand gives this book significance for every person (not just Christians).  Regardless of a persons’ worldview, they must wrestle with the issues presented by Plantinga.  Secondly, this book is concrete.  There are countless examples, illustrations, stories, and outside references that present sin as the inevitable reality that we all must face.  Plantinga works masterfully from general revelation to the point where even if one rejects his prognosis, they are not likely to refute his diagnosis.  Thirdly, this book concerns itself with the breadth and depth of the issue.  Plantinga concerns himself as far as the Bible does, which is to say, with every aspect of creation.  So many theological traditions focus only on the anthropological burden of sin and neglect a focus on creation or will focus on the latter to the neglect of the former.  Plantinga’s approach is balanced, biblical, and as a result, beneficial.

Being raised in the American Evangelical world, sin was treated as a basic notion that we must sign off on before coming to Christ.  As I entered adulthood, I immersed myself in the reformed theological community where sin was taken much more seriously but still not sufficiently.  Often times in reformed circles, sin is handled as a confrontational weapon and tacitly teaches that sins are merely a personal issue of the sinner.  “Sin is cosmic treason,” proclaims R.C. Sproul; “it is an act of supreme ingratitude toward the One to whom we owe everything.”  Sproul is certainly correct in that assertion but Plantinga reminds us that, “Sin is more than the sum of what sinners do.”  Plantinga indeed affirms the common reformed perspective when he says, “Sin is any agential evil for which some person (or group of persons) is to blame.”  But sin is even bigger than that.  He frames the issue in a unique way, saying, “Shalom is God’s design for creation and redemption; sin is blamable human vandalism of these great realities and therefore an affront to their architect and builder.”  Rather than confronting people with a checklist of commandments, Plantinga simply begins by asking the question, “Have you disturbed shalom or preserved it?”  The power of that question is that it is penetratingly simple and might be the most fruitful generator of conversation, as it puts the asker in the same boat as the answerer.

A common Christian error that I’ve noticed is the tendency towards accepting the condition of sin as finality.  In contrast, Plantinga says, “(Sin) is finally unknown, irrational, alien.”  Sin is not something that God simply teaches us to live with or rise above; it is something to be eradicated.  In many ways, the church gets in its own way on this issue.  I would agree with Plantinga when he says, “At some level of our being we know that goodness is as plausible and original as God, and that, in the history of the human race, goodness is older than sin.”  It is thus the church’s failure that so many Christians lose touch with this sense of goodness.  That is why I would recommend this book to anyone but specifically to pastors and those who will teach.  Christians ought to be ambassadors of hope, offering a restored view of the world rather than peddling a dire picture and offering only lifeboats.

In conclusion, sin is vandalism, futility, foolishness, corruption, perversion, pollution, disintegration, and a reproductive and parasitic addictive folly.  Plantinga draws parallels between sin and addiction and concludes by saying, “The addict therefore needs not just the God who forgives but also the God who heals, not just the good Pardoner but also the Great Physician.”  The gospel is not just changing the label of a sinner but changing the nature of a sinner.  Thus, “the point (of life) is to discover God’s purposes for us and to make them our own…human flourishing is the same thing as glorifying God and enjoying him forever.”  The end is that, “we are to become responsible beings: people to whom God can entrust deep and worthy assignments, expecting us to make something significant of them.”  This book will greatly aid its readers in understanding the biblical metanarrative and their role in God’s restoration of all things.