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Critical Evaluation of Bonhoeffer on Discipleship (Part 2)

Bonhoeffer’s book on Discipleship is basically an attack against cheap grace using unqualified contradictions, eisegesis, a literal hermeneutic, legalistic standards and unhelpful advise. In my last post, I began my critique with a look at his doctrine of the situational precondition, and noted that it was an unqualified contradiction. In this unusually long post (at least, unusually long for me), I will attempt to ground my bold criticism of Bonhoeffer’s book on discipleship. Although I agree that grace is not cheap, and that discipleship should be radical, I don’t think Bonhoeffer has led us in the right direction. Rather than giving us a dependable paradigm of costly grace, I’m afraid Bonhoeffer bamboozles his readers with confusing rhetoric.

Hermeneutical Creativity: Convenient Eisegesis

Because Bonhoeffer is so eager to denounce cheap grace (which he associates with mere confessional Christianity and abstract principles) he finds a way to link almost every passage to this topic. At several points he simply reads too much into the text in order to create an occasion to scorn his arch enemy: cheap grace. He believes the solution to cheap grace is his doctrine of the situational precondition (see previous post). He sees support for this doctrine in many of the texts. In other places his motives are not clear, but the fact that he sees something in the text which is not there is obvious enough.

For example, Bonhoeffer believes that one of the main points of Mark 2.14 is that the disciples followed Jesus without having any previous relationship with him (57). He believes Mark intended to underscore this very point. According to Bonhoeffer, these disciples followed Jesus before they really had “faith” in Him as the Christ: “The response of the disciples is an act of obedience, not a confession of faith in Jesus” (57). He makes the following conclusion from this misinterpretation: “It was not as though they first recognized him as the Christ and then received his command. They believed his word and command [for them to follow] and [then] recognized him as the Christ—in that order” (226, emphasis mine).

While it is true that this text itself does not give an account of any such “confession,” (Levi does not recite the Chalcedonian or Nicene creed as the climax of the encounter) this observation should not lead us to any of Bonhoeffer’s brash conclusions. Both the horizontal and vertical contexts to Levi’s following not only imply that Levi, at that moment, put his faith in Christ—but it demands it. The disciples did not follow Jesus out of ignorance but confident expectation. It is true that some followed for the wrong reasons, but such is not the context in this passage.

The similar accounts in John’s gospel reveal that the following of the earliest disciples is based on their understanding of the identity of Jesus. It was when the disciples “heard” John the Baptist’s message about Jesus that they began to follow him (Jn 1.37). Though it is not made explicit in verse 36 that the disciples followed because they believed Jesus to be the Messiah (the text only emphasizes John’s proclamation of him being “the Lamb of God”), verse 40-41 reveals that this is exactly why they followed him. “One of the two who heard John speak and followed Him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He found first his own brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah‘” (Jn 1.40-41, emphasis mine).

The same connection is made with respect to Phillip. In the account of Phillip’s initial following, there is not necessarily a “confession of faith in Jesus,” but the next verse reveals that Phillip followed precisely because he believed Jesus to be “Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (Jn 1.45). The confessions seem to become more explicit in each account of Jesus’ first followers. Just a few lines later, Nathanael confesses, “You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel” (Jn 1.49). Perhaps Levi had never met Jesus in person before, but there is no reason to believe he had not heard of the testimony of John the Baptist.

There is no reason to believe that Levi—in contrast to all the other accounts— followed out of something other than faith in Jesus as the Christ. The way Bonhoeffer camps out on his point that Levi followed merely “for the sake of the call” is misleading in this regard (58). He makes this same mistake when he notes concerning Mathew 10.1-4 that “it is not a word or a doctrine they receive, but effective power, without which the work could not be done” (204). He fails to comment, however, that in the following verses Christ indeed gives the disciples commands to preach doctrine: even the word of the kingdom (Matt 10.7, 14, 20). It is not either/or (either word or power) but both/and (they receive both the word of the kingdom and the power to demonstrate its authority).

Moreover, confessions of faith have a place of prominence in the scriptures (Mt 10.32, 16.13-20, Jn 20.31, Phil 2.11, 1 Jn 4.3). Our “confession” of Jesus as Lord goes hand in hand with our believing in him in our hearts (Rom 10.9). Our “confession” of Christ cannot be separated from and pitted against “acts of obedience.” Confessions can be a means of proclaiming the gospel and thus a vital part of fulfilling our commission. Not only is Bonhoeffer’s downplay of confessions and abstract principles reactionary and unhelpful in this regard, but his commentary proves to be the result of eisegesis rather than exegesis. Wanting to remedy cheap grace with his doctrine of situational precondition (ironically, itself an abstract doctrine), he sees things in the gospels which are far from the original intention of the authors who wrote them.

The “Literal” Hermeneutic

Not only is he hermeneutically creative in his approach to the text, but in addition to this, Bonhoeffer’s “literal” hermeneutic is exceedingly crass. He believes that Jesus’ command to the rich young ruler to sell all his goods must be applied to all Christians. He calls this the “literal interpretation” (84). Any other interpretation does violence to the scriptures “by interpreting them in terms of an abstract principle” (84). His best textual support is to suggest that this is an implication of the disciples question, “Who then can be saved?” (85).

The author’s crass approach to interpretation especially sticks out in his comment on Luke 10.29. He concludes that asking questions is wrong (77-78). Why? Because that is what the lawyer did who was trying to justify himself. He interprets Jesus’ parable as Jesus’ way of saying “You must not ask questions—get on with the job!” (78). He gives further unqualified application to the reader: “Perhaps you still think you ought to think out beforehand and know what you ought to do. To that there is only one answer. You can only know and think about it by actually doing it. You can only learn what obedience is by obeying. It is no use asking questions” (78). This position hardly seems to be the point of the parable.

This crass approach is common to all the author’s interpretations.

He thinks Christ condemns anger without qualification: all anger is wrong (127). What about Jesus’ anger when he drove the people out of the temple? What about Ephesians 4.26?

He also takes “literally” the command of Jesus in Matthew 5.29-30 to tear out our eyes and cut off our hands if ever we find ourselves using them to lust (132).

He believes it is wrong for a Christian to participate in any governmental retribution because of Jesus’ commands to resist evil (143). What about Paul’s endorsement of the government’s God-given right to execute precisely this kind of retributive justice (Rom 13.1-7)? Bonhoeffer lands contrary to the New Testament when he argues “there is no inner discord between private and official capacity. In both we are disciples of Christ, or we are not Christians at all” (148).

Also, according to Bonhoeffer, we are not to rejoice in any of God’s “good gifts” to us if they are not spiritual “because the world and its goods make a bid for our hearts” (176). In addition, he argues that anytime we use our possessions “as an insurance against the morrow we are dethroning God and presuming to rule the world ourselves” (178-79). What about the example of Paul who sold tents so that he might have money to live without being a burden to the Corinthians?

The author does not seem eager to test his conclusions by the analogy of faith.

In short, Bonhoeffer ultimately gives a serious indictment against all whose approach to the scriptures do not apply the call of Christ given to people in the New Testament in this literal way (225). If one does not see all Christ’s imperatives—regardless of context—as imperatives for every Christian, then Bonhoeffer beleives such a person actually denies that Christ is still alive (225). For him, there is no such thing as discerning which commandments were contextually specific. As far as the author is concerned, all such hermeneutical principles are based on “a complete misunderstanding of the situation of the disciples” (227). However, through and through, Bonhoeffer’s approach lacks clear bridges from the text to his specific interpretations—from which come all his confident conclusions. His “literal” interpretations and creative insights help him to preach against cheap grace, but they do little to help the reader get a grasp on the actual intent of the biblical author. To summarize, one might coin his approach as contextually insensitive, systematically uninformed, and implausibly crass.

Legalistic Standards and Unhelpful Advice

The author is also often guilty of his own harsh criticisms. For example, he tells us that the “third would-be-disciple” in Luke 9.57-62 thought that “certain conditions” must be fulfilled in order to be a disciple—as when people say “first you must do this and then you must do that” (61). He criticizes this as a way of reducing “discipleship to the level of the human understanding” (61). Ironically, he insists on the very next page that “if we would follow Jesus we must take certain definite steps”! (62). He then proceeds to give us the first step and tells us how we might make discipleship possible! In another place he criticizes anyone who would place a chronological gap between faith and obedience: “If, however, we make a chronological distinction between faith and obedience, and make obedience subsequent to faith, we are divorcing the one from the other,” yet he does precisely this with his doctrine of the situational precondition (64)! The only difference is that he reverses the chronological order, making obedience a chronological prerequisite to learning faith (63,75).

These unqualified contradictions abound throughout the book.

Men are called to “decide” to follow Christ “willy-nilly,” “and that decision can only be made by themselves” (94). Yet, somehow this “willy-nilly” choice which they must make only “by themselves” is at the same time “no arbitrary choice” nor is it a “choice of their own” (94-95). Huh?

He is not concerned with “ideals, duties or values,” but he is, on the other hand, concerned with the “virtue of discipleship” and the “quality” of being “extraordinary,” (96, 153, 159, 190).

Obedience to God and obedience to the OT law were never meant to be “divorced from one another,” yet following God in the person of Christ might demand the neglect of obedience to the law since Christ emerges as an opponent of the law (61, cf. 60, 121-22, 125).

Bonhoeffer expresses his pre-meditated plan of action for true discipleship—which is nothing more than that all his actions be “un-premeditated” (159-60)! All our prayers are to be unpremeditated and entirely spontaneous, yet he helps us pre-mediate the very words which we are to pray, namely the exact words of the Lord’s Prayer (163, 165)!

It would be “pseudo-theology,” not to take Jesus’ imperative for the rich young ruler as “literally” applying to all who wish to follow Christ, but at the same time “Jesus does not forbid the possession of property in itself” (84, 174). Can someone say Hermeneutical schizophrenia?

In addition to incoherency and bad hermeneutics, much of Bonhoeffer’s teaching and advice are unhelpful. He creates many false-dichotomies. For example, Bonhoeffer defines self-denial as “to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us” (88). Though we are to make it a priority to follow Christ down a certain road, we can never focus our attention on that road. Though disciples are to make it a priority to be “extraordinary” people, the moment one would try to reflect on what all this extraordinary lifestyle might include, Bonhoeffer’s says “he would no longer be following Christ” (159). This is because “if we gaze at the road instead of at him who goes before, we are already straying from the path” (190-91).

On the contrary, it would seem that where a certain “road” or lifestyle (such as an “extraordinary” one) overlaps with following Christ (since he is the one who commanded such roads and lifestyles) it is not only helpful to focus on such particulars, but it indeed becomes necessary. Bonhoeffer seems unaware at this point that his whole book has just this aim: to help us focus on what discipleship really is, and what specific things it might entail! Even his doctrine of the situational precondition for faith is an in-depth analysis of the initial stage or “road” of discipleship. His advice to follow the road but never look at it, or to be “extraordinary” but never focusing on the “extraordinary” is unhelpful because it is impractical and impossible. If we are not to focus on the “extraordinary” why does he set apart so much of his book to get us thinking about it? I could imagine how Bonhoeffer would feel if he were to find me pitting his focus on “discipleship” itself as only a distraction from focus on Jesus and his will alone.

In a similar fallacy, Bonhoeffer teaches what I would call the doctrine of oblivious discipleship. What Christ means by our making sure we do not display our righteousness “before men, to be seen of them” is that we are to hide our good works from ourselves (158). In fact, this includes our being unaware of our good deeds: “We must be unaware of our own righteousness” (158). All of our good deeds must be “entirely spontaneous and unpremeditated” (159, emphasis mine). We are to be “unreflective” in all our actions (160). For Bonhoeffer, just the concept of faith “excludes all reflection and premeditation” (163, emphasis mine). Bonhoeffer seems unaware that his doctrine of oblivious discipleship is self-contradictory, for in the very act of teaching us that all our works must be done in this specifically defined way (in a state of oblivion) he has caused us to pre-meditate a grand plan for discipleship! It seems obvious that he has spent an unusual amount of energy thinking, reflecting, and pre-meditating about this himself, as he gives much of his book to this theme of oblivious discipleship.

Bonhoeffer also continually juxtaposes all standards of Christian living and patterns of righteousness against single-minded obedience to Christ. There is no “standard of living that separates a follower of Christ from the unbeliever” (184). The Christian duty is “not some eccentric pattern of Christian living, but simple, unreflecting obedience to the will of Christ” (153). Similarly, he forbids us to interpret or apply any texts of Scripture because we should rather do and obey them (197). “If we start…offering interpretations, we are not doing his word” (197). In this manner, he sets interpretation along with any textual reflection against obedience: “The word we had was not Christ’s, but a word we had wrested from him and made our own by reflecting on it instead of doing it” (197, cf. 225-226).

The author remarks that people are not converted through “unquenchable longing for a new life of freedom,” but rather by that which was affected by the cross and is affected by Christ (231). However, it is my conviction that part of repentance (which is necessary for conversion) is a longing for Christ and a longing to be delivered from bondage to our sin. Our conversion is part of that which was affected by the cross and is affected by Christ—and this would include our faith and repentance. This is an important truth which his false dichotomy undermines.


In conclusion, though I sympathize with his desire to present a radical paradigm for the Christian life, I found Bonhoeffer’s five pronged attack on cheap grace to be unhelpful. There were two reminders in Bonhoeffer’s book which stand out to me as worth reading. The first was a reminder that suffering is part of the Christian life—even of the essence of Christianity (90-92). The other was his description of conversion as a relinquishing of all our assumed rights (95-96, 141-42). Apart from these two reminders and several miscellaneous one-liners, Bonhoeffer’s book was frustrating. Most of his book is full of self-contradiction, hermeneutical hyper-crassism, legalistic standards and unhelpful exhortation. In general, though his book presents a challenging and radical paradigm for the Christian life, it was surprisingly disappointing.

Critical Evaluation of Bonhoeffer on Discipleship

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. Translated by Chr. Kaiser Verlag Munchen and R.H. Fuller, Revision by Irmagard Booth, New York, NY: Touchstone, 1995. 316 pp. $13.00.


One does not need to read between the lines in order to see the chief concern of Bonhoeffer’s popular book, The Cost of Discipleship. He is transparently determined to convince the reader to abandon the cheap grace mindset and to embrace the more radical paradigm of costly grace. The message of the first chapter, “Costly Grace,” sets the tone for the entire book. All that comes after this chapter is in a sense an echo of or a working out of this main thesis: grace is costly.

The Chief Concern: To Attack Cheap Grace

Cheap grace is discipleship-less, cross-less, and Christ-less grace (43). Cheap grace is justification of sin rather than justification of the sinner, but costly grace is a grace which causes men to commit themselves unreservedly to a life of cross-bearing discipleship. His discussion and summary of church history is basically a lament of the church’s abandonment of costly grace for cheap grace (46-53). He gives away the overall intent of his book in this brief treaties of church history and the Lutheran tradition: “To put it quite simply, we must undertake this task [of regaining costly grace] because we are now ready to admit that we no longer stand in the path of true discipleship…although our church is orthodox. … We must therefore attempt to recover a true understanding of the mutual relation between grace and discipleship” (55). To this end he labors in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, attempting to show that grace includes a
radical commitment of obedience to Christ and is not merely an abstract belief which has no demands on the life of the believer.

His fivefold method of defacing cheap grace is a combination of his doctrine of the situational precondition, eisegesis, a “literal” hermeneutic, legalistic standards and unhelpful exhortation. All of these chosen weapons are given exclamation since the author couches them in sharp rhetoric.

The Chief Weapon of Attack: The Situational Precondition for Faith

Bonhoeffer sees a dichotomy between doctrine and discipleship. Discipleship and abstract doctrine are mutually exclusive: “An abstract Christology…[and] religious knowledge…render discipleship superfluous…[and] exclude any idea of discipleship whatever” (59 cf. 62, 248). His pessimism with regard to abstract doctrine helps set the stage for his paradigm of the situational precondition for faith. Bonhoeffer hopes to convince the reader that he or she must simply obey the commands of Jesus—whether they have “faith” or not.

The author finds in his exegesis a unique paradigm for conversion. This paradigm is based on his distinction of a situation in which faith is possible verses a situation in which faith is not possible. The call of discipleship, he teaches, is a call for one to “go out of his situation in which he cannot believe” and “into the situation in which…faith is possible” (62). This is the call of discipleship (or at least it is the first phase of the call). He calls this situation “the road to faith” because only through this situation can one learn to believe (63). He says of one whom Christ commanded to follow, “If he refuses to follow and stays behind, he does not learn how to believe” (62). This is why he must follow Christ: to learn how to believe by means of this “situation.” I have referred to this “road” of followship as the situational precondition for faith, since, according to Bonhoeffer it is a “situation” (in which faith is possible) and a necessary precondition for faith (if he does not follow, he will never even enter the possibility of learning faith). The situation he speaks of is that situation in which the person is following Christ. One must be obedient to the call of Christ to follow because without obedience to this command one never enters into this necessary situation in which faith is possible.

This first step of obedience is not faith, however, but “the road to faith” (63). This step “can never be more than, a purely external act and a dead work of the law,” and it does not have “any intrinsic worth or merit,” though the call of Jesus justifies it (65, 63). “Last, but not least, the situation in which faith is possible is itself only rendered possible through faith” (63). From this “last” description of the situation comes Bonhoeffer’s well-known summary of this doctrine, “only the one who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes” (63). As I will show, this paradigm which he sets up early in his book works as the primary hermeneutical filter in Bonhoeffer’s exegetical attempts throughout the book.

Critical Evaluation Part I

The Situational Precondition Is An Unqualified Contradiction

It must be said at the outset of my evaluation that Bonhoeffer’s chief doctrine of the situational precondition for faith is self-contradictory. Bonhoeffer’s paradigm collapses logically due to a serious violation of the law of non-contradiction. To the question “How do we get faith?” he would answer, “By first obeying the voice of Christ to follow Him so that you might find yourself in the situation in which faith is possible.” This is why he says to the reader, “If you don’t believe, take the first step all the same, for you are bidden to take it” (67). Elsewhere, however, he tells us that one cannot take the first step without faith because the “situation in which faith is possible is itself only rendered possible through faith” (63, emphasis mine). “In the end, the first step of obedience proves to be an act of faith in the word of Christ…unless he obeys, a man cannot believe” (66).

Here it seems to me that he falls into a fallacious line of reasoning. One must obey with action in order to then learn how to believe—but he can only do this with faith. His exhortation is like counseling a man with no means of transportation to drive to the Honda dealership and buy a car. This reasoning seems similar to the circular reasoning of the scientific theory of spontaneous generation: the world exists before it exists in order to create itself. Only with this author, faith exists before the possibility of faith exists because faith is the necessary means to achieving the situational possibility.

Thus Bonhoeffer’s famed summary statement of this doctrine of the situational precondition is actually a self-contradiction when interpreted in light of the context in which he originally expressed it, for what he means is this: only the one who first believes has the ability to then obey, and only the one who first obeys will ever believe. In a nut shell he is arguing that one must first have faith before he is able to obtain it. His chief doctrine and famous saying is thus an unqualified contradiction which teaches that the one who does not have faith obtains faith by means of faith before he or she ever has faith. This discovery thoroughly frustrated me and made me wary of his whole book. I was especially frustrated as I progressed through the book with this caution, finding that many of his arguments fell victim to similar logical incoherency. This discrepancy made much of his book unhelpful to me in regard to the purpose for which it was written. For Bonhoeffer discipleship is costly, but for me, Bonhoeffer made discipleship confusing.


More to Come…

My next post will be entitled “Critical Evaluation of Bonhoeffer, Part II” and will look at more of Bonhoeffer’s 1) hermeneutical creativity, 2) literal hermeneutic, 3) legalistic standards, and 4) unhelpful advice. It would be good for the reader to bear in mind that I am by no means critical of Bonhoeffer himself; only his attempt to articulate a biblical and helpful theology. I happen to greatly admire Bonhoeffer, and I would recommend biographies on his life more than his own writings. Whatever I might say about his book, his life would put my petty picking at his ideas to shame.

Sin is Complicated: A Review of Plantinga’s Book on the Doctrine of Sin

Plantinga, Cornelius, Jr. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995. 202 pp. $13.99.

A Captivating and Balanced Perspective

There is a reason why Cornelius Plantinga’s treatment of the doctrine of sin has, after more than a decade since it won Christianity Today‘s Book of the Year Award back in 98, continued to be a standard book in college and seminary classrooms. Using vivid imagery, ample illustrations that captivate the reader, balanced perspective and witty logic, all within a Christian worldview, Plantinga’s treatment of the subject of sin is as entertaining as it is enlightening. One finds it easy to agree with the author’s opinion that the subject of sin needs “constant sharpening” due to a widespread dumbing-down of the notion in contemporary culture. In popular magazines, for example, over indulging in food, as in a “Peanut Butter Binge” or “Chocolate Challenge,” is considered sinful while “lying is not” (x).

“Know Thyself,” said Socrates – Even Christians—many who have a biblical awareness of the doctrine of the fall and even total depravity—tend to be more aware that they are desperate sinners in need of God’s grace than they are of their own particular sin-chemistry and how it might be working itself out in various areas of their own lives. We Christians all too often mistake our abstract theological understanding of sin in general for knowledge of the particular forms that nature takes in our day to day lives and the lives of loved ones; like a pastor who finds his escape from the pressures of family responsibilities in long hours of preparation for a sermon series on sin. Christians tend to have more expertise when it comes to dealing with the sins of their unbelieving culture than in knowing their own sin chemistry and how best to overcome it; like a Christian lawyer who becomes so critical of the corruptions in the legal field that she becomes vulnerable to apathy and irritability which in turn takes a toll on her marriage.

The author helps all to see the contours of that most deceitful and often most subtle enemy that reaps destruction without giving a news flash that it has come and gone, leaving the sinner hung out to dry. Therefore, just about anyone will benefit from reading Plantinga’s breviary of sin. Unbelievers will be likely to get a smack in the face as the reality of sin becomes unavoidably clearer with every chapter. Believers will benefit, among other ways, by recognizing the sins Plantinga so vividly describes in their own lives with every new lens the author uses to sharpen our vision from a different angle.

Note: Although Plantiga’s approach is to treat sin from a different angle in each chapter, I will only comment on three of his chapters: chapters 1, 2, and 8. His ten “angles” which correspond to the ten chapters are as follows: 1) Sin as Vandalism of Shalom, 2) Sin as Spiritual Hygiene and Corruption, 3) Sin as Perversion, Pollution, and Disintegration, 4) Sin as The Progress of Corruption, 5) Sin as a Parasite, 6) Sin as a Masquerade, 7) Sin as Folly, 8) Sin as a Tragedy of Addiction, 9) Sin as Attack, 10) Sin as Flight [from God and fellow man].

Sin as Vandalism of Shalom: Why it gatta be like diss?

With his pithy maxim, “God is for shalom and therefore against sin,” Plantinga manages at once to be both simple yet profound (14). This is the basic idea of his first chapter and rightly so. It is the perfect place to start. Unless one is able to recognize that God is not a kill-joy; that he is not out to make rules against sin arbitrarily, but that he actually has the good of his entire creation in mind—how will one properly appreciate the motives for divine imperatives? To understand God’s motives behind his rigid imperatives is to better identify with his more ultimate concern. This axiom may be the most profound statement in Plantinga’s entire book.

Perhaps this truism is profound precisely because it is thoroughly biblical. The principle is made glaringly obvious when Jesus says, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mk 2:27). Salvation is described as “eternal life” not “eternal obedience,” because obedience gives true life while sin destroys it (Jn 3:16; 10:10). Although following Jesus may involve hardship and self-discipline, he appeals to his listeners by tapping into their desire for finding true fulfillment in life (Lk 17:33; Jn 4:10). By highlighting that God is against sin because he is for shalom, the author speaks to the ultimate concern of every human being for having a complete, whole, and fulfilling life. Individuals, as well as societies, all have the ultimate desire to enjoy life to the fullest. Shalom, as the author defines it, includes this fullest sense of life. Desire for this shalom should fuel evangelism because evangelism is the catalyst for shalom. The spread of the gospel begins the process of restoring all of creation back to its maker (2 Cor 5:12-20). The ultimate future for all believers is a restored creation (Isa 2:2-4; 11:1-9; 32:14-20; 42:1-12; 60; 65:17-25; Joel 2:24-29; 3:17-18) and one is to understand that this new creation has already begun in those who are reconciled, for they are reconciled to become an agent of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18).

Because this element of the doctrine of sin is so often underscored in Scripture, every pastor should make constant appeal to the desire of the congregation to have abundant individual and communal life, to establish peace in their communities so far as they can, to play a role in the restoring of God’s creation to its proper ends. Comprehending the shalomic state as the chief and proper end that most glorifies God also makes it easier for one to trust and obey the God who gives life as a reward for such obedience (Rom 2:6-11). This careful clarification about the nature of sin—it is vandalism to the shalom that all humans crave—strikes at the heart of human motivation and is a mighty weapon for mobilizing laity for just about any just cause.

Sin as Corruption: Spiritual AIDS

Defining corruption as “an unhappy cluster of spiritual perversion, pollution, and disintegration,” the author appropriately describes the process of corruption as something similar to the process of the AIDS virus, a “progressive attack on our spiritual immune system that eventually breaks it down and opens the way for hordes of opportunistic sins” (33). In keeping with his thought in the previous chapter, Plantinga also recognizes that these corruptions make life “progressively more miserable” so that the very sin of corruption, as St. Augustine once put it, “‘becomes the punishment of sin'” (33). Certainly this is the biblical teaching. God gives sinners over to their sin as punishment (Rom 1:24-28). The “great law of returns” (68-72) promises that sin will reap destruction (Gal 6:7). General revelation quickly yields specific cases in which one sin or set of sins leads to many more vices—like a spiral of death—and these vices in turn produce various undesired side effects (cf. 130, 134).

The author also gives satisfying attention to the inward nature of sin. The opposite of corruption is “spiritual hygiene” defined as “wholeness of spirit” that fits “the universal design” (34). Basic to such hygiene is internal longing for such hygiene (34). The ideal person, though she may fluctuate in her passion levels for holiness and go through dry spells, “longs to long again” during her wait in the wilderness (34). Furthermore, such a person overflows with gratitude and “passed-on-kindness” (35). Coming to grips with the emotional nature of spiritual hygiene helps one to see that “sin is much more than doing the wrong thing. It begins with loving, worshipping, and serving the wrong thing.”[1]

If this is true, mortal combat with the “diseased root” (33) will involve first and foremost a battle for the affections. If, as Plantinga suggests, sanctification is the cure for corruption, then true gospel ministry must primarily target the human heart in preaching, counseling, small groups, and all other means to life transformation. Holiness must not be thought of primarily in terms of “dos and don’ts,” as though holiness is to be equated with action. Rather, both mortification and sanctification must focus on the human heart above all else. Given the great law of returns and the nature of sin as spiritual AIDS, sin should be presented in the church as something awful and destructive. Testimonies should underscore this aspect of sin; the preacher should look for examples of drastic consequences in the local newspaper; counselors should look for ways to present a horrible picture of the alternative to faithfulness; Christians in general should not be afraid to “scare” people about sin, since such a scare would be appropriate to the nature of sin itself and consistent with the biblical language about sin and its consequences.

Sin as a Tragedy of Addiction: Goin’ for what you Know

The densest of all Plantinga’s chapters has to be the chapter on Addiction. Within the span of about twenty pages, Plantinga tackles some of the toughest questions while critiquing some of the most prevalent thought about addiction (129-149). The category of addiction is certainly biblical. Deacons are not to be “addicted” to much wine, for example. The offered definition of addiction as “a complex…attachment to a substance or behavior in which a person compulsively seeks a change of mood” seems fair enough (130). However, the author seeks to wrestle with the more practical questions about the nature of culpability in relation to addiction. He concludes that one oversimplifies the nature of addiction by thinking of it as either “simple sin” or “inculpable disease” because of the actual complexity of the interplay between external influences and internal culpability. This contention does justice to the complexity of reality and is therefore worthy of acceptance (140). On the other hand, the author certainly takes this principle too far when he suggests that a depressed person who slides into substance abuse may not be culpable for her addiction (144).[2] Certainly external circumstances may reduce the degree of culpability, but they do not erase culpability.

With that caveat, certainly Plantinga is right to think of addiction as not merely a moral malevolence but also a true tragedy. Thinking of it this way greatly promotes pastoral compassion in the local church for those suffering with addictions. As the author himself points out, as a result of this paradigm, “We therefore want to accuse him and also to sympathize with him” (140, emphasis mine). Addiction should be presented in the local church with sensitivity to the suffering of the addicted, the complexity of the causes and degrees of addiction, as well as the culpability of the addict. Furthermore, where possible, pastors should seek to remove the addict from environments and circumstances that tend to feed the addiction.


The reader of Not the Way its Supposed to Be will come away from this book with a greater appreciation for the complexity of questions revolving around the nature of culpability as well as a keener ability to discern the subtlety of sin and how it might easily get a foothold in one’s life while in stealth mode. The preacher will find plenty of juicy illustrations for sermons on sin. All in all, Plantinga’s writing style and taste for relevant questions and interesting illustrations make his book the best I have ever read on the subject.


[1] Paul David Tripp, Instruments In the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2002), 67.

[2] Here the author seems to assume that depression is a mere physical evil, not a spiritual one, for he says: “Cases of intrauterine addiction, for example, belong in the former category, as do any other chemical or process addictions innocently contracted…. Perhaps some addictions in these cases qualify as physical evils rather than as moral evils” (44).

The Heart is the Target: A Review of Tripp’s Instruments in the Redeemers Hands

The Heart is the Target

Although there are many mini-principles that flow out of Tripp’s paradigm, there are a few meta-principles that guide his book. The most important of these meta-principles, and perhaps the principle that all the other principles in his book are intended to carry out is the principle of the centrality of the heart to life-transformation. Tripp believes that the heart of the matter is the heart and that the heart matters more than anything else. He continually drives home that the goal of counseling is heart change. This primary principle can be seen from several angles in his book. Tripp adopts a distinctively Edwardsian view of the heart, for he sees it as a fount of competing desires (79-80). It includes the entire scope of the inner person—spirit, soul, mind, will, and emotions (59).

Tripp’s Language About Worship Underscores A Heart-Centered Approach

Tripp’s language about worship is an attempt to underscore the centrality of the heart in any pursuit of holiness and sanctification. Everyone has certain objects she values more than anything else in life and around which she orders her life; therefore, everyone is a worshipper at heart (44). Since worship is inescapable, the real question is: What will we worship—God’s glory or some “pseudo glory” (98)? Because worship of God is the aim, “The Heart Is The Target” (57). The primary battle in spiritual warfare, for Tripp, is the battle over the human heart (4). Heart-worship directs behavior and is the principle element in motivation (58). The author not only sees the heart as central to the pursuit of holiness but also to the nature of sin. “Sin is much more than doing the wrong thing. It begins with loving, worshipping, and serving the wrong thing” (67). Because the heart is like the steering wheel and gas pedal of a car, directing it where to go and supplying the power to get there, whatever we worship will have an “inescapable influence” over the rest of our lives, whether this influence is direct or indirect (68). This “fundamental biblical principle” explains why some people irritate us and others do not, why some situations press our buttons and make others happy, why some respond one way in a situation and others respond just the opposite—our hearts are different (77-78).
The “Crumbs of Externalism” Won’t Do
After one recognizes the key role the heart plays in both righteousness and sin, it becomes very easy to see why Tripp would loath the “crumbs of externalism” that only address behavior (70). He compares such a grossly limited focus to stapling apples to the branches of trees that do not naturally grow them (63). This fruit-stapling imagery highlights the absurdity of addressing someone’s behavior without addressing the heart issues (63). This basic understanding of human nature will need to be assumed and taught to those to whom we minister because “when most people seek change, they seldom have their hearts in view” (109). The first step in Tripp’s game plan for being an instrument in the hand of the redeemer is to get to know people in need, but getting to know people essentially means “knowing their heart,” and true friendship is the connection of hearts (111). Thus, not only does Tripp keep the heart central to the goal of change but also to the means of change—starting with the first step.
Love Makes the World Go-Round
Tripp’s second most important principle, which is the natural outflow of keeping the heart central to ministry, is the principle of love. This is a result of keeping the heart central because love is first and foremost a heart attitude. Although Tripp never explicitly argues this, we might say he seems to take it for granted based on the wording of the first and second most important commandments (88, 93). Since Tripp defines the heart as including the entire inner person, the heart is also central to the concept of love. When speaking of the importance of loving those to whom one ministers, Tripp often makes statements that might make a Reformed Baptist’s hair stand up on the back of his neck. For example, he says, “The foundation for people-transforming ministry is not sound theology; it is love” (117). The author is aware of the tendency for us as Christians to “lob grenades of truth into people’s lives rather than lay down our lives for them” (118). Sure, counseling involves problem solving, but it must be people focused (126, cf. 116, 134, 137). A woman whose husband has just left her does not need a recap on the Bible’s teaching about marriage and divorce. If that is all a minister can do, he will likely lose his opportunity to help (127). Christians must “mediate God’s presence”(129) by being marked by compassion rather than merely being “theological answering machines” (152, cf. 131).
Emotional Connections are Fundamental To Ministry
There are many other angles from which Tripp keeps the heart central to godliness and sin, and therefore central to ministry and life transformation. He advises his readers to focus first on making an emotional connection to the person who needs help (132). Questions such as “What are you feeling?” are basic to the process of understanding how to help them (133). Whereas some might say, “Your emotions are irrelevant; what really matters is what God says is true,” Tripp does not fall for this trap. He sees emotions as indicators of our interpretations of life—whether they are biblical or unbiblical (196). The key to personal ministry is not always about knowing exactly what to say (184), but those who love will speak when they see a sin problem that needs to be addressed (202). Love is the only right motivation for rebuking and confronting others (220).
Some Disagreements

Situations Don’t Have Causal Powers? – The ingredient of Tripp’s book which most commonly strikes me as unhelpful is his insensitivity to the complex interplay between life circumstances and heart chemistry. After telling a long story about his getting angry when his hopes for a nice Cuban meal were spoiled, he concludes: “My anger was not caused by the people and situations I encountered. My anger was caused by completely legitimate desires that came, wrongly, to rule me” (82). Tripp seems to assume that since his heart had a key role to play in determining whether he allowed the circumstances to make him angry, therefore the circumstances did not play a key role in making him angry. He thus perpetuates the false dichotomy common in the Biblical Counseling Movement (BCM) between external causation and internal causation. One’s sin, according to typical BCM mantra, is not caused by external circumstances. Rather, it is caused by internal dispositions of the heart. Although Tripp effectively demonstrates that external circumstances are not always a sufficient cause and explanation for why we do what we do in a given situation, and that “any attempt to examine the causes of conflict must begin with the heart” (78), he does so by denying external circumstances a key role in determining human behavior (77, 82-83).

Situations & Heart-Chemestry Both Determine Action – In contrast to this false dichotomy, situations, as well as heart-chemistry, both play a vital role in determining our actions. I have never seen the need to affirm one to the exclusion of the other. While it is true that, on the one hand, two different people in the same situation may react differently, it is equally true that two people with the same values will respond differently when faced with different situations. A man is more likely to desire unlawful revenge under circumstances in which his wife and children are kidnapped, raped, tortured and burned alive than under circumstances in which they remain safe and unharmed. If he were to seek unlawful revenge under the former conditions, external circumstances would play a key role in explaining what caused his vengeful actions. Giving such circumstances a significant power of causation does not necessarily relieve the man of his culpability.
Furthermore, in contrast to Tripp’s oversimplification, external circumstances have a role in shaping our spiritual chemistry (i.e. our heart) over the years. Explaining a twenty-year-old’s lesbianism merely by recourse to her sinful heart begs the question about whether her life circumstances up to that point have greatly shaped the dispositions of her heart. What if she was molested from the age of 12 by lesbians? Would this not greatly pervert her heart and sexual longings? Because such life circumstances greatly influence the heart, restricting explanations for human behavior to present dispositions without due attention to one’s history and life circumstances is a remarkable oversimplification.[1] Extreme secularists have excused culpability in the sinful behaviors of others on the basis of hard circumstances. Radical fundamentalists have responded by ruling out circumstances from playing a key role in causing certain behavior and the development of human character. This is where I think the BCM has swung the pendulum too far. One does not need to deny external circumstances their power of causation in order to establish culpability.
Unintended Side-Effects: “It’s Not My Fault” – This reactionary error also unwittingly creates a new opportunity for denying culpability. A mother who abuses and neglects her children should take a great deal of responsibility for how bad they turn out. She should not be allowed the excuse, “But circumstances do not determine who we are, and you cannot blame me for how my children turn out. Their circumstances have not caused them to turn out to be rotten, it is a result of their sinful nature.” While a BCM proponent would seem to lack the appropriate paradigm to combat this sort of reasoning and thus be in need of revising its position, a dual explanation theory of human disposition and behavior would automatically render such an excuse as preposterous, irrational, and inconsistent with both Scripture and common sense (Mt 18:6). Although it seems that the concern of those within the BCM has been to keep the anti-responsibility models of secularists from attributing people’s problems merely to circumstance, I am afraid they have in the process allowed for parents who abuse and neglect their children to deny their responsibility in playing a key role in determining how bad their children turn out. In their concern for defending responsibility in one area, ironically, the BCM paradigm has left gaping holes in other areas. Furthermore, although secularists tend to be way off the mark about the answer to the human problem by virtue of their God-less theories, they rightly see that strategies for fixing the human problem are largely circumstantial (cf. 9). Once converted to a Christ-centered worldview through the power of the gospel, a new believer will be forced by way of obedience to Christ into a significant circumstantial repair that may take years of hard and holy sweat.

[1] Some might say, “Well, certainly circumstances play a role, but they do not cause a person to sin.” Language of causation is too tricky for a detailed philosophical inquiry into the nature and language of causation in this brief book review. However, it is worth considering the fact that Christ threatens those who “cause” (skandalise) the little one’s to sin (Mt 18:6).
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