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What is Sin? Dr. Cornelius “Neal” Plantinga

Home » What is Sin? Dr. Cornelius “Neal” Plantinga

Guest: Dr. Cornelius “Neal” Plantinga | Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Plantinga about sin. Topics of conversation include:

  • How to define sin
  • Why sin is not directly addressed in churches today
  • How our sin offends and grieves God
  • Understanding the difference between degrees of sin
  • Resources for further reading on the topic of sin.

Dr. Neal Plantinga holds a PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary and served as the president of Calvin Seminary from 2002-2011. Dr. Plantinga is the author of several books, including Engaging God’s Word: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living (Eerdmans, 2002), Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists (Eerdmans, 2013), and Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Eerdmans, 1996).

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Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:17):

We live in a world of brokenness. We constantly hear horrific things. School shootings are becoming all too common. We hear of wars and rumors of wars in Russia and with China. We grow fatigued of hearing about divorces and fractured relationships. We’re stunned to know that over 60 million babies have been killed through abortion. Add to this catastrophic natural disasters. Tsunamis take out hundreds of thousands of lives and cause nuclear plants to fail, risking many more. Earthquakes in Turkey cost tens of thousands of lives. Hurricane force winds and waves beat against levees until they fail. We live in a world of absolute destruction, and we often feel like things just aren’t right. The world around us gropes for answers. Sadly, they often miss the point. Perpetrators are often called victims. Natural disasters are entirely the result of carbon emissions, even though ancient writings talk about floods and droughts.

Brian Arnold (01:14):

The truth is, all of these problems, natural and moral, come down to sin. We are sinners living in a fallen world, and things will go from bad to worse, as Paul tells Timothy. We need a robust view of sin if we’re going to understand ourselves, our world, and our hope that is found only in the Lord Jesus Christ. Well, with us today to talk about sin is Dr. Neal Plantinga. Dr. Plantinga earned his PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary, and served as president of Calvin Seminary from 2002 to 2011, as well as several stints in pastoral ministry. Dr. Plantinga is the author of numerous books, including Engaging God’s Word: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living, Reading for Preaching—which I must say, I found very delightful—and, for our topic of conversation today, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. Dr. Plantinga, welcome to the podcast.

Neal Plantinga (02:08):

My pleasure.

Brian Arnold (02:10):

So I always ask our guests one big question, and today the question is pretty simple, and yet very complex—what is sin? And let’s just kind of go straight at it. How do you define sin?

Neal Plantinga (02:21):

Lots of ways to define it, but a simple biblical definition would be—any thought, word, or deed that displeases God.

Brian Arnold (02:34):

And so that, obviously, yes, then encompasses so many different things. I love the basic kind of definition. It’s very similar to the one I use with my kids, to get them to understand the significance of sin, and disobedience, and rebellion against God as fallen creatures. And that we not only sin just because we sin, but we’re sinners, and we sin because we’re sinners. So you wrote this book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, and if I recall, you talk about bringing this doctrine out of the moth balls of kind of the theological closet. How, or why, rather, do you think sin has been relegated to kind of a peripheral thing in the churches?

Neal Plantinga (03:19):

That’s a sad story of 20th century Christianity, that the only reality that we have to understand, in order to understand grace, is sin. And yet lots of churches have put the pause on this topic, have refused to talk about it much, or talk about it only superficially. One of the reasons, I think, is that a lot of American Christianity is a little bit in bondage to the desire to add people to the congregation, to make many more seekers join the church. And if you have sin on the agenda, it can sound discouraging or depressing. So a lot of preachers have really soft pedaled it. And I think that’s a mistake.

Brian Arnold (04:16):

And it does seem like if we want to be very over…do some overgeneralization, a lot of the early 20th century to the mid 20th century, there was a lot of theological liberalism, which relegated sin to a different level, because people didn’t want to talk about man’s sin and God’s wrath. And then, yeah, you get the seeker-sensitive movement of the eighties and nineties, in particular, which is—let’s attract people into the church by reminding them that there’s a God out there who loves them. And, of course, that’s not a bad thing. But it misunderstands the character of God, and man’s fundamental problem and plight, which is sin. So—

Neal Plantinga (04:59):

One of the most spectacular things about God is that God loves us while we are still sinners. In other words, that God is a God of grace. And you can’t make any sense of grace unless you have a robust view of sin.

Brian Arnold (05:16):

So maybe let’s step back to the very beginning of the story. And we see, just two or three pages into the Bible, we are met with human sinfulness. And then the whole rest of the Bible really is God’s rescue mission, of coming—and you just, you know, quoted Romans 5:8, that God demonstrates his love for us, and that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. So the Bible does not try to push sin under the rug. It actually tries to expose it, in order to fix it. So how do you kind of help people in the church, and your time in theological education, have that more robust view of sin? Even thinking maybe biblical theology, and then also systematic theology?

Neal Plantinga (06:02):

If people are students of the Bible, if they have an appetite for Scripture, I can talk with them simply about what the Bible says. And the Bible is clear about sin. It’s what disturbs the way it’s supposed to be. It’s what disturbs God’s plan for human flourishing. And we are culpable for it. It displeases God because it’s a spoiler. It wrecks God’s good creation, and it wrecks even God’s approach to us in grace. If people are not students of the Bible, or don’t take Scripture seriously, then I would talk to them about the fact that you’d have to be numb not to notice that there are terrible things wrong in the world, and that people are often to blame for the things that are wrong. Even people who superficially confess a no-fault morality, if somebody cheats them or lies to them, they will be indignant—which shows that they themselves have a concept of sin.

Brian Arnold (07:14):

And I love that that’s a universal reality. Even going back to the book of Romans—”all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We could even say, “all have sinned and know that they have sinned.” They recognize this in themselves. And, of course, as you mentioned, in interactions with other people, when they themselves have been wronged, it stirs up that justice that God has put inside of us. Which should actually lead them to recognize—wait a minute, if I get upset when somebody sins against me, and God is morally perfect, how must he feel when I have sinned against him as well?

Neal Plantinga (07:51):

Yeah. Well, I think that every Christian needs a concept of what it means to grieve God. We can offend God, we can be scandalous toward God, we can ignore God. We can trespass against God’s law, or come short of God’s law. But because God loves us, when we sin, we grieve God. We make God wounded. And I think that is a personal angle on sinning that I think is healthy.

Brian Arnold (08:31):

Yeah, I’d love to hear you even expand more on that, because I think that’s probably foreign to a lot of people who might even be listening.

Neal Plantinga (08:41):

You know, early on in Scripture, we read that God repented of having created at all. Now that needs a good commentary, to say that God repented of having created at all, but it tells us at least that God is deeply offended and gravely disappointed with how the perfect world he created has deteriorated and fallen victim to sin and corruption. So God has a capacity for being grieved, for being wounded, for being gravely disappointed in people he loves. And I think, for Christians who love God, the knowledge that God is grieved by our sinfulness is a helpful governor, a helpful break on our sin.

Brian Arnold (09:35):

Yeah. And I appreciate you using even the story of Noah. And I’ll ask people, when I’m talking about that story, if they even have a category of a God who, because of human sinfulness, will save eight people on the ark and the rest will be drowned. You know, when we often tell the story of the ark, it’s in kids’ church, and there’s this picture, you know, put up with giraffes’ heads out the window, smiling, and Noah waving on the top with his wife and kids. But it’s a tragic story.

Neal Plantinga (10:10):

It’s a desperate story

Brian Arnold (10:11):

And a seriousness of how God views sin. And then not to confront people with that in the church, or even in our evangelistic opportunities, is a dereliction of their greatest need for us to communicate to them.

Neal Plantinga (10:29):

I think preachers who won’t preach about sin are committing homiletic malpractice.

Brian Arnold (10:34):

Absolutely. Absolutely. And, you know, a lot of it is a reaction to…you know, this is everybody’s favorite person to dump on, on this question, but Jonathan Edwards—Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. And you think about this fire and brimstone preaching and things, but one—the Great Awakening happened. People saw their sinfulness and turned to God. And the second thing is—Jesus wasn’t ashamed or embarrassed to talk about hell. I think that’s where a lot of it comes from, Dr. Plantinga, is there is an embarrassment that people feel today, or just a level of uncomfortability, to say to people that their sins will lead them to hell, but that God has loved them so much he has paid the price to purchase them from that.

Neal Plantinga (11:20):

Well, I think that’s entirely right. And that, when we think about what our Savior endured—I’m thinking this week, for example, and will preach on Sunday about Jesus being mocked, and how this is an assault on human dignity. Soldiers who isolate Jesus, who strip him, who put a fake scepter in his hand, and a painful fake crown on his head, and bow before him. These soldiers are committing a grave offense against the eternal Son of God. And they don’t see it, and don’t understand it, but it is nonetheless a huge offense. And I think in Matthew’s account of it, in chapter 27, he says very tellingly that when the soldiers had quit mocking him, they led him away to crucify him. As if crucifixion is simply a way of finishing mockery off.

Brian Arnold (12:35):

Wow, that’s powerful. Yeah, that’s the…it is the epitome of human sinfulness that those who were created by God put the Son of God to death.

Neal Plantinga (12:48):

Right. And so here we see that sin is not just anti-creation. It is anti-grace. Jesus Christ is God’s gift to the world, to save the world. And here human beings are resisting their salvation and, in fact, attempting to cross him out. To make him of no effect. A great part of what’s tragic about sin is not just that it spoils creation, but that it also resists grace.

Brian Arnold (13:23):

Absolutely it does. And it shows just how deep and pervasive the sin problem is in the human heart. You know, for those who who have come to faith in Jesus Christ, it is almost unthinkable that we would’ve stayed in our sins and not turned to him by grace. But for the one who is still living in sin, dead in their trespasses and sin, as Paul says in Ephesians chapter two—they’re following the course of this world. They don’t want the grace of God. They don’t want God. They want to be their own masters of their own fate, and live life according to themselves, which is the cosmic treason. We were created to have relationship with God and follow the Lord, and his will, and his commands, in obedience. And yet we’ve turned, each one of us, like sheep and gone astray. Go ahead.

Neal Plantinga (14:12):

I think it’s important to accent what you just said, in quoting Paul—that we are dead in our trespasses and sins. The grace of God to me is most impressive in that it requires a supernatural act to regenerate a dead human heart. It takes the power of the Holy Spirit to raise a dead human heart and to make it alive, to make it responsive, to make it aware of God, and to kindle love for God. So one of the standards of faith that in my denomination we adhere to is called the Canons of Dort. And in one of the places in the Canons it says that “God’s regeneration of a dead heart is a miracle no less spectacular in power than creation or the resurrection from the dead.” And I think that’s something very much worth thinking about when we confess that, without the grace of the Holy Spirit, we are dead in our trespasses and sins. Not just comatose, not just out to lunch, but dead.

Brian Arnold (15:33):

And for somebody who might be listening, yeah—Ephesians chapter two, one through 10, really lays this out. But the creation piece is Second Corinthians four, where in order for people to see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, the same one who said, “let light shine out of darkness”—Genesis one—has to shine in our hearts. It is that significant, I agree with you, of a miracle to watch the dead come to life. But it is the overwhelming grace of God that allows it to happen, that purchased it, that paved the way in order for sin to be dealt with. If I may, I want to transition us just a little bit, and ask a question that I hear a lot of times come up, as it regards sin. And it is this idea coming from James chapter two—that all sin is kind of equal in the sight of God. And yet in Scripture we have even different words used for sin, whether it’s just “sin,” or “trespasses,” or “abomination.” How do we think about even various levels, if I can use that word, or intensities of sin?

Neal Plantinga (16:42):

It’s an important question. And the answer to it is, I think, not going to be entirely easy. But here’s one thing to say—all sin is equally wrong. So a murder is wrong, but hatred of a person is wrong. They may not be equally grievous in the consequences that each generates, but they are both wrong. So I would say that all sin is equally wrong, but not all sin is equally bad. There are relatively minor sins, and there are truly grave sins. And one way of measuring the difference is whether Scripture is explicit in prohibiting them. And also in how grave their consequences are.

Brian Arnold (17:46):

I think that is a good way to look at it, even—think about the Old Testament law. Some things came with very kind of minor punishments, but that doesn’t mean you weren’t disobeying the Lord. And that didn’t mean that it wasn’t pretty significant. But at the same time, not everything called for the death penalty, let’s say. And even in our current penal system, we would say the same thing. There are laws that have different consequences to them, but once you break the law, you’re a law breaker, which I think is James’s point, right? Is once you’ve stumbled at any point and broken the law, you are guilty of sin. You know, even with Adam and Eve—it may seem trivial to some people that God would cast them away from the garden because they ate a piece of fruit. But the reality was—it was a heart turn from God, turn towards self, and wanting to follow their own sinful appetites. It was way bigger than just the act of what they were doing. It was the heart behind what they were doing.

Neal Plantinga (18:41):

I think it’s important, not only to say that, Brian, but also to add that even at the beginning when Adam and Eve are guilty, and they are threadbare, and they are cold, and they are wretched, and they are naked, and they know they’re naked, God sews for them skins to warm them in a world grown chilly from their own sin. This is an amazing first instance of the grace of God. They should not have needed something to warm them, and yet they do. And God provides something much better than their own pathetic attempts to cover up.

Brian Arnold (19:30):

And I don’t know if you’d agree with this, but I actually see that as one of the first examples of imputation—of the one who did not need to die—which was the animal dying in the stead of the sinners—and yet they are clothed with the garments of the one who died, as a symbol of what Christ’s righteousness will do for us, as it covers us. And he’s imputed us with his righteousness.

Neal Plantinga (19:57):

I think that’s a very suggestive idea.

Brian Arnold (19:59):

Yeah. Not everybody agrees with me, but I’ve always seen that in that picture. And then, even the recognition that we’re clothed in heaven, you know, it’s something I press on people is—if Adam and Eve were naked in the garden, why are we not naked in heaven? And I think a lot of it is—just as they were covered in the garment, we are going to be covered in these white robes to signify we’re not in heaven on our own. We’re only there because Jesus Christ has paid the penalty of our sin. Which before the fall, they did not need, right? And then after the fall, of course, that’s what they need. But it does…sin ties together the entire narrative of the Bible from beginning to end, of no need for Christ as sacrifice for us until sin enters. And then the whole rest of the story is Christ coming for us to die in our stead. What a beautiful thing. I mean, we’re recording this just before Easter, and excited for the celebrations that will come as we reflect on the need for Christ to come and die. And how grateful I am that he conquered sin in his death, and conquered death in his resurrection.

Neal Plantinga (21:08):

The atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Brian Arnold (21:11):

Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, Dr. Plantinga, what resources would you recommend for our listeners on the topic of sin? This could be everything from just a theological work on this to very practical things about fighting sin.

Neal Plantinga (21:27):

Yeah. I think every Christian who has a little education—and actually, if you have only some education, you can do it too. Every Christian ought to read Saint Augustine’s Confessions. It’s a confession of sin. It’s a confession of faith. It tells you about the soul of one of our faith’s greatest thinkers and theologians. And then I never get tired of suggesting that people read—and reread—C.S. Lewis. He saw deeply into the human predicament, and his descriptions and accounts of human pride, and envy, and anger, and so on, are often right on the mark. So I would suggest those two things right off the bat.

Brian Arnold (22:19):

I love that. I mean, both of them have a way of peeling back the human heart and saying things that we all know are true, that reveal ourselves. I mean, Augustine and the pear tree, for instance. And not even wanting those, but sinning just because he wanted to sin. And Lewis is so good.

Neal Plantinga (22:39):

Yeah, and he ended up throwing those pears away.

Brian Arnold (22:40):

Yeah, exactly. What a remarkable testimony of the grace of God, as we’ve been talking about, even of how God saves him, and pulls him from those things. And then the beautiful testimony of his mother, who prays for him incessantly. So much we can learn from Augustine’s Confessions. And then, yeah—C.S. Lewis is just a master of the human soul, and writing in that kind of way. And then we commend your book to people as well, that I mentioned before. Not everything’s right in the world. And I think everybody knows that. It’s one of the best evangelistic tools we have to just point to the sinfulness of the human heart that we all know is there and present. And what an opportunity to take people from that to the place of mercy and grace at the cross of Christ. Dr. Plantinga, I’m so grateful that you joined us today to talk about this important topic.

Neal Plantinga (23:28):

I was glad to be with you, Brian.

Outro (23:30):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we’ve been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you’re called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can’t join us on campus, I’d like to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you’ve heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at

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