Posts Tagged ‘Cornelius Plantinga’

Living a Christian life is dying a series of deaths

September 4, 2015

Jesus, in the context of John 12 and his fast approaching appointment with the cross, tells his disciples, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, echoes these words: “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.”

Living as high on the food chain as I do, being so far removed from “the land” and the agrarian world of Jesus’ and Paul’s day, I never understood what this meant—aside from the fact that it’s a reference to death and resurrection. Cornelius Plantinga, in this sermon on Jesus’ words in John 12, describes it like this:

Jesus wants us to go down into a death that will cause new life to spring up twenty-fold, but we keep clinging to our old life. We’re like a grain of wheat. Jesus says we’re like a grain of wheat. You know, wheat is a cultivated grass, and for thousands of years people have cultivated those strains in which the kernels cling to the head. And we understand. If the kernels are loose on the head, the wind just blows them off. So for millennia farmers have sown the kind of wheat in which the kernels stick.

That’s the kind of wheat Jesus is talking about, and he says we’re like a kernel that clings to the spike of its old life. The trouble is there isn’t any future there. No glory there. No miracle of multiplication. To get food from wheat, you have to thresh the grain off the head. The grain of wheat “dies” not by falling into the ground. It dies by being stripped from the head. It’s viable off the head, but it will generate life only if it is pulled away from its old source of life and buried in the ground where moisture and nutrients will bring forth its life.

It occurred to me recently while reflecting on Jesus’ words—as it has always occurred to Christians like Plantinga who are smarter than I am—that this applies not only to Jesus’ death and resurrection, and our own death and future resurrection, but also to living the Christian life in general: we all die a series of deaths along life’s journey home to be with God.

It happens all the time in the Christian life! Or it at least it ought to.

For example, I’ve struggled mightily over the years with what I sacrificed in order to answer God’s call into ministry. I had no idea it would be as costly and difficult as it turned out to be: to leave behind a reasonably successful career, to sell a home, to uproot my family, to afford an expensive seminary education, to start over again on the bottom rung of a new career—one which doesn’t pay as much to begin with, or come with as much “prestige,” or feed the ego nearly as well as other careers.

Don’t get me wrong: Professional ministry certainly can feed the ego, as it has fed mine over the years (though please beware of us ministers when this is happening); but when a minister decides to finally do ministry right—or take some halting steps in the direction of doing it right—the job has a way of beating the ego to death. Just stomping it flat!

What’s the poem by Donne? “Batter my heart, three-person’d God…” Please, God, the batter is well-blended, I promise! 😉

And this is true for all Christians. What does our United Methodist Book of Discipline say? We Christians are all ministers, lay or ordained.

My point is, this is a little death I have to die. This little grain of pride—which believes that the world or, worse, God owes me something for “answering the call”—needs to be stripped from the stalk and blown away. Then, when it lands in the earth, who knows what might happen?

But it hurts to “die” in this way: to realize—as if it surprises me!—that I’m not, nor will I be, God’s gift to my profession, or to the United Methodist Church, or to any local church; to learn to say, “Who cares?” and trust Jesus when he tells us that whoever wants to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

I believe that on the other side of every little death we die lies the opportunity to experience more of this abundant life that Jesus promises.

Speaking of which, here’s a great mournful song about dying (as opposed to all those bright and happy songs about dying?) by the Lost Dogs. The lead vocal is by the late, great Gene Eugene.

“To cheapen the grace of God that always comes with blood on it”

January 31, 2014

plantingaMy sermon this Sunday, whose text is James 1:13-18, focuses on sin and temptation. On the last page of his book about sin, Neal Plantinga warns against overemphasizing sin at the expense of grace. “To concentrate on our rebellion… 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 the opposite problem—grace without sin—is far more prevalent in the church circles in which I run. That’s why I especially appreciate this last paragraph of his book:

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 in Golgotha were all about? To speak of grace without looking squarely at these realities, without painfully honest acknowledgment of our own sin and its effects, is to shrink grace to mere embellishment of the music of creation, to shrink it down to a mere grace note. In short, for the Christian church… 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.[†]

No: I’d rather join the struggle of the saints before me to “forgive, accept, and rehabilitate sinners,” including—always including—myself. We live in an age in which many people, in order to perceive the beauty of the gospel, need to be reawakened to the ugliness of their sins.

Even writing that last sentence feels deeply countercultural, if not downright unkind, but—sorry—you can’t have one without the other.

Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 199.

“To live outside the law you must be honest”

January 9, 2014

platingaOr so said Bob Dylan in his 1966 song “Absolutely Sweet Marie.” Theologian Cornelius Plantinga, in his book about sin, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, offers reasons why this is true.

Reflecting classic Christian teaching, Plantinga writes that sin and evil are a privation: they represent the absence of something, namely the good. Like a parasite feeding on its host, they require the good in order to survive.

Nothing about sin is its own; all its power, persistence, and plausibility are stolen goods. Sin is not really an entity but a spoiler of entities, not an organism but a leech on organisms. Sin does not build shalom; it vandalizes it. In metaphysical perspective, evil offers no true alternative to good, as if the two were equal and opposite qualities. “Goodness,” says C.S. Lewis, “is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled.” Here Lewis reproduces the old Augustinian idea that evil “has no existence except as a privation of good.” God is original, independent, and constructive; evil is derivative, dependent, and destructive. To be successful, evil needs what it hijacks from goodness.[1]

Therefore, “good and evil grow together, intertwine around each other, and grow out of each other in remarkable and complicated ways.”[2] He writes that biographers “make themselves students of this phenomenon,” especially in relation to towering religious or moral leaders in history.

Good biographers find character ironies irresistible. Hence the attraction of Martin Luther, one of the three or four most prominent Christians after Paul, a doughty champion of the gospel of grace and a ghastly anti-Semite who wanted his readers to break down Jewish homes and house their occupants in stables. Other ironies appear in other characters including Luther’s most famous modern namesake. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the noblest and most eminent Americans of the twentieth century, adulterated his marriage and plagiarized some of the work that made his reputation. Thomas Jefferson held slaves. The Bible itself gives us such alloyed heroes as King David, a great and godly and wicked man whose name has been blessed by centuries of Jews and Christians.[3]

We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that the “smartest blows against shalom are struck by people and movements of impressive resourcefulness, strength, and intelligence—that is to say, by people and movements gifted by the very God and with the very goodness that their sin attacks.”[4]

1. Conelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995),89.

2. Ibid., 80.

3. Ibid., 80-1.

4. Ibid., 89.