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by: Cornelius Plantinga Jr.

Human misery is nearly as old as the human race, but equally old is the story of God’s grace, that is, God’s mercy to the undeserving. According to Genesis 1 and 2, God had called human beings into fellowship with himself and had blessed them with a world of delights. The fruit of the garden, the companionship of bird and beast, and the joy of love were God’s gifts to creatures made in his own image and able to respond to God with gratitude. As we know, the primal pair of human beings risked and lost their estate in a folly of epic proportion, and thus brought upon themselves and their descendants both the judgment and the mercy of God.

In a few words of great sorrow and mystery, Genesis 3 says that after Adam and Eve had disobeyed God “the eyes of both were opened and they knew that they were naked” (v. 7). Their shame was primal, an archetype of the sinner’s distress at being exposed. For the first time, human beings had something to hid and something to fear. After the fall, human nakedness began to symbolize not only guild, and not only exposure to lust. As many people know from dreams, nakedness also began to symbolize vulnerability to ridicule. What fallen people fear is that our threadbare self, with all its deficiencies and deformities, will be undraped before others’ eyes, before God’s eyes, before our own eyes, and that we will then want the mountains to fall on us and the hills to cover us.

Fallen people can’t stand scrutiny. As the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, Adam and Eve couldn’t look at each other anymore. They especially had trouble looking into each other’s eyes for fear of what they might see there.1

But then a wonderful grace note. After the sorry pair of humans has tried to patch themselves up with fig leaves, the narrator tells us that “the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them” (3:21). Genesis 3 tells us of God’s curses on a fallen creation, but in this one verse it also tells us that God cloaks human beings with mercy in a world grown chilly from their own sin. God outfits human beings with durable clothing they should never have needed—a piece of kindness that launches the history of God’s grace from Genesis to Revelation.

Thus Genesis 12 tells of God’s call to Abram,2 and of God’s promise not only to him, but also to the whole world. From Abraham’s line of people God will make “a great nation,” chosen to bless “all the families of the earth” (v. 3). Genesis 15 and 17 then describe God’s covenant of grace with Abraham, “an everlasting covenant” that promised a land and a son, Isaac, generated from the barren loins of the aged Abraham and Sarah. God promises above all to attend faithfully to Abraham and to his descendants, “to be God to do you and to your offspring after you” (17:7). In a ceremony to ratify the covenant, fire passes between the halves of slain animals (ch. 15), and, in a sign of the covenant, God requires the circumcision of male babies (ch. 17). The mysterious ceremony and sign apparently have to do with the binding solemnity of the covenant, each symbolizing that life and the transmission of life are at stake...

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Cornelius Plantinga Jr.

Cornelius Plantinga Jr. was the president of Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, from 2002-2011. Plantinga received his Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1982. He is the author of many books, two of which have won Christianity Today’s Book of the Year, Engaging God’s World (2002) and Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (1996). First Things praises the work by saying “This breviary of the cardinal sins recasts traditional wisdom in lively engagement with the follies and fads of a culture that, with a dreary lack of imagination, fancies itself beyond sin.” 

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