Three ways to live

Which is your way?

What is Christianity?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 8:21 am on Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I find this, well, scary…

Romans 9-11 – summary of study

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 7:46 am on Sunday, July 27, 2008

At our bible study we’ve been looking at Romans 9-11 over the past three weeks. Instead of doing individual posts on each study, I decided to do just one summarizing the whole content.

The chapter are rather famous for many controversial lessons that can be derived from them. However, most of these lessons have nothing to do with the Paul’s actual intent. Paul is trying to address an apparent contradiction in the fact that Jews, a chosen people of God, fail to respond to God’s message. On the other hand, Gentiles, not a chosen people, appear to accept it. Does it imply a failure of God’s plan or his change of mind? Can we trust such a God then?

Here is Paul’s logic:

God’s word did not fail – God did promise eternal blessings to Israel, but indeed these were really meant only for spiritual Israel, a state within state, a remnant of God’s chosen people (Rom 9:6). And don’t think this is unjust, because:
1) Based on justice alone we are all destined to death, so only by mercy we can stand. God is free to distribute this mercy as he pleases, without being unjust (Rom 9:14-29).
2) Jews themselves are partially responsible, because they pursued righteousness by works, not by faith.
3) And the reason why Jews failed to pursue righteousness by faith is not because it was not clearly presented to them. The message descended and lived among them. It was later preached to them (Rom 10:18).

Everything that was and still happening is there for a good reason, to bring Israel and the whole world back to God.

Now, to controversies. In developing his train of thoughts, Paul (intentionally or not?) highlights several tensions. For example, from chapter 9 it appears that it is only up to God to decide to who will be saved. Yet chapter 10 blames Jews for not accepting the message. Here is another tension: Rom 11:17-22 seems to suggest that a Christian (a shoot grafted in the olive tree) can be cut off if he does not continue in God’s kindness. This stands in contrast with what we saw earlier in Rom 5:9 and Rom 8:29, which seem to imply that God is surely planning to accomplish his work in us and bring us to salvation.

So it is not surprising that this passage has become a “battleground zone” between Calvinistic and Arminian doctrines, particularly on the issue of election and perseverance of the saints. In summary, the argument goes around the following question: Who is responsible for a person’s conversion and the following sanctification? God alone (Calvinistic view) or both God and man (Arminian view)?

The truth is, both doctrines have substantial support in some parts of Romans and there are also some parts they cannot properly explain (they try, of course). So whatever view we decide to keep, we should not be too sure (and often too proud) to think that the other view is total nonsense. It is not.

Another important point is that while the Calvinistic view is quiet narrow (it is all God), the Arminian one actually allows for a spectrum of personal involvement, some of which lie really somewhere in between the two views. For example, some believe that while God needs to open our eyes to understand his message, we are free to close them, because of God’s given freedom of choice. Other may believe that God in some cases may choose to do the whole work himself, while in other cases expect some personal responsibility.

There is difference in attitude between churches that follow Calvinistic or Arminian doctrine. The members of Calvinistic churches (most Presbyterian, some Baptist) often characterize themselves in being sure that God will save them, since they have been elected. They may look down on other people who claim to be Christians but are not as sure. They stress the need to do good works, but not to earn God’s favor or to cooperate in their salvation, but as a gratitude to what God has done, or to become more sure of their election, or simply out of desire to change. They live out their lives out of continued dependence on God, understanding that all good that they have (or will have) comes from Him.

The members of Arminian churches (mostly Methodist, some Baptist) are less sure. They do hope they will be saved and do everything they can to make it more certain. No, they don’t try to earn God’s favor by doing good works, they do understand that no one can make God save them. They simply do not want to presume too much on God. They live out their lives out of continued dependence on God, afraid that they might lose him through their disobedience.

Dostoyevsky on capital punishment

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 6:21 am on Saturday, June 28, 2008

With so much discussion on capital punishment, this excerpt from Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” provides a fresh perspective. It is a bit lengthy, but well worth the read. And, by the way, Dostoevsky knows what he is talking about – he himself was sentenced to death and underwent a ‘mock’ execution.

Prince Myshkin: “Yes—I saw an execution in France—at Lyons. Schneider took me over with him to see it.”
Servant: “What, did they hang the fellow?”
Prince Myshkin: “No, they cut off people’s heads in France.”
Servant: “What did the fellow do?—yell?”
Prince Myshkin: “Oh no—it’s the work of an instant. They put a man inside a frame and a sort of broad knife falls by machinery —they call the thing a guillotine-it falls with fearful force and weight-the head springs off so quickly that you can’t wink your eye in between. But all the preparations are so dreadful. When they announce the sentence, you know, and prepare the criminal and tie his hands, and cart him off to the scaffold—that’s the fearful part of the business. The people all crowd round—even women— though they don’t at all approve of omen looking on. And I may tell you—believe it or not, as you like—that when that man stepped upon the scaffold he CRIED, he did indeed,—he was as white as a bit of paper. Isn’t it a dreadful idea that he should have cried —cried! Whoever heard of a grown man crying from fear—not a child, but a man who never had cried before—a grown man of forty-five years. Imagine what must have been going on in that man’s mind at such a moment; what dreadful convulsions his whole spirit must have endured; it is an outrage on the soul that’s what it is. Because it is said ‘thou shalt not kill,’ is he to be killed because he murdered some one else? No, it is not right, it’s an impossible theory. I assure you, I saw the sight a month ago and it’s dancing before my eyes to this moment. I dream of it, often.”
Servant: “Well, at all events it is a good thing that there’s no pain when the poor fellow’s head flies off”
Prince Myshkin: “Do you know, though,” cried the prince warmly, “you made that remark now, and everyone says the same thing, and the machine is designed with the purpose of avoiding pain, this guillotine I mean; but a thought came into my head then: what if it be a bad plan after all? You may laugh at my idea, perhaps—but I could not help its occurring to me all the same. Now with the rack and tortures and so on—you suffer terrible pain of course; but then your torture is bodily pain only (although no doubt you have plenty of that) until you die. But HERE I should imagine the most terrible part of the whole punishment is, not the bodily pain at all — but the certain knowledge that in an hour,—then in ten minutes, then in half a minute, then now — this very INSTANT—your soul must quit your body and that you will no longer be a man — and that this is certain, CERTAIN! That’s the point—the certainty of it. Just that instant when you place your head on the block and hear the iron grate over your head—then—that quarter of a second is the most awful of all.

This is not my own fantastical opinion—many people have thought the same; but I feel it so deeply that I’ll tell you what I think. I believe that to execute a man for murder is to punish him immeasurably more dreadfully than is equivalent to his crime. A murder by sentence is far more dreadful than a murder committed by a criminal. The man who is attacked by robbers at night, in a dark wood, or anywhere, undoubtedly hopes and hopes that he may yet escape until the very moment of his death. There are plenty of instances of a man running away, or
imploring for mercy—at all events hoping on in some degree—even after his throat was cut. But in the case of an execution, that last hope—having which it is so immeasurably less dreadful to die,—is taken away from the wretch and CERTAINTY substituted in its place! There is his sentence, and with it that terrible certainty that he cannot possibly escape death—which, I consider, must be the most dreadful anguish in the world. You may place a soldier before a cannon’s mouth in battle, and fire upon him—and he will still hope. But read to that same soldier his death-sentence, and he will either go mad or burst into tears. Who dares to say that any man can suffer this without going mad? No, no! it is an abuse, a shame, it is unnecessary — why should such a thing exist? Doubtless there may be men who have been sentenced, who have suffered this mental anguish for a while and then have been reprieved; perhaps such men may have been able to relate their feelings afterwards. Our Lord Christ spoke of this anguish and dread. No! no! no! No man should be treated so, no man, no man!”

With Osipov on the nature of God – my response

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 5:01 am on Saturday, June 14, 2008

Osipov’s way of explaining God of justice vs. God of love dilemma is that only the second statement (God is love) is correct, see the earlier post. It turns out this is not necessarily a view that Russian Orthodox church holds. According to my brother Kirill’s comments, Russian Orthodox view is more balanced (God is a God of love and justice at the same time). And this is the view I agree with. However, as Kirill pointed out, there is a grain of truth in Osipov’s view. While God maybe a God of justice and love, he has chosen to treat us, Christians, those who are truly converted, with love only. To true Christians God is a God of love. Hence God never punishes us, only disciplines.

Just in case you are wondering how Protestants explain the paradox, I like Tim Keller’s view, which he mentions again and again in many of his sermons. God is just and loving at the same time. But the whole weight of his justice fell on Jesus so that all we (i.e. those who accept Jesus sacrifice) receive is love.

With Osipov on the nature of God

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 7:54 am on Saturday, May 31, 2008

According to Osipov, understanding of the nature of God is a core difference between Western and Orthodox Christianity. At the heart of the question is an apparent inconsistency that many notice when reading the Bible. From the Old Testament, God most often often appears as a judge, punishing sinners and upholding the righteous. Yet, from the New Testament we see God as a God of love, willing to sacrifice his own son for us. Jesus, himself, willingly dies for people who don’t deserve it. Does not look like the God of Old Testament.

This tension many find difficult to resolve. In human wisdom, absolutely righteous God cannot be loving, God who is absolutely loving cannot be righteous. Today’s Christians offer several ways to resolve this paradox.

Orthodox view, according to Osipov, is that the Jews simply misunderstood God in the Old Testament. They thought of him as a God of justice, but God shows his true nature only in the New Testament, and it is love. On the other hand, Western Christianity (again in Osipov’s interpretation) still sees God as more of a judge, maybe a loving judge, but still a judge.

I will post my response in a few days.

With Osipov on Christian theology and sola scriptura – my response

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 5:55 am on Thursday, May 22, 2008

In my previous post I discussed the following three statements made by Prof. Osipov:

1) One cannot treat Christian theology purely as science. To understand God one must first be a Christian, and not just a nominal one but completely devoted to God

2) Western church made a mistake by learning from people who tried to study theology as pure science

3) Since Bible does not often interprets itself well, we need to view it through the spectacles of other interpretation sources, e.g. early church fathers and saints

Here are my thoughts on each of the statements:

1) I think what Osipov says here is biblical. In the article in Grudem’s systematic theology on the clarity of scripture the author says that “The New Testament writers frequently state that the ability to understand Scripture rightly is more a moral and spiritual than intellectual ability “:

1 Cor 2:14

14 The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.

2 Corinthians 3:14-16

14 But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. 15 Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. 16 But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.

John 7:17 (NIV)

17 If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.

2) First of all, what Osipov says here is true. Protestants have accepted many of the teachings that originated from critical (or liberal) Christian thought. The liberal Christianity had become such a big force in the last century’s Germany, that conservative Christianity simply had to use their own tools to fight back. If you ever did a Bible study where you discuss when and by whom has the book been written, you are following techniques originated from liberal thought.

Many of these liberal Christians were not really Christians and hence cannot fully comprehend God. So, why should we borrow their techniques? The original intention appears to stay relevant – a defense to show the world that Bible can stand the critical test – that all the doctrines that have been acknowledged earlier would still stand even if we employ the critical tools. Did the church succeed? Yes and no. On one hand, all major doctrines did stand the test. But the critical study brought up many small (and often unimportant) nuances that considerably fragmented these doctrines, often confusing people. On a positive side, I think even worse outcome would result if the church did no engage liberal Christianity. Russian Orthodoxy was sheltered from these developments and, in some sense, just lucky.

3) I think both parties here agree that Bible needs interpretation. Orthodox church favors interpreters from early church, hoping that these would be closer to the truth. Protestants prefer much later interpreters, armed with more historical knowledge. Both have pros and cons. Ultimately, a good student of the Bible should be aware of all sources, old and new alike.

The necessity of sola scriptura is a different issue. Insisting that the Bible is above all interpretations means that interpretations are dispensable. This often makes people pick and choose the interpreter they like, leading to church fragmentation. On the other hand, putting interpretation on the same level as (or even higher than) the Bible makes it much more permanent and leads to better unity. But what if this interpretation happened to be wrong in the first place?

With Osipov on Christian theology and sola scriptura

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 5:48 pm on Sunday, May 18, 2008

What is Christian theology? Do we understand this term correctly? How can we know God? These are the questions that Prof. Osipov keeps coming back again and again in many of his talks.

In Osipov’s definition, Christian theology is much more than studying God and his revelation. You don’t have to be Christian to do that. Osipov believes that one can never know and understand God until he starts to live in accordance with his law. This seemingly simple and believable statement, however, has two very important implications.

1) Osipov believes that western Christianity and Protestantism, in particular, went in a wrong direction by treating theology as a science, which can be studied by anyone who wishes. The main reason for so much disunity in the western church is because anyone can weight in their interpretation and because the church, in general, often accepts Biblical interpretations from people whose heart is far from God.

2) Osipov just cannot understand the Reformer’s insistence on sola scriptura. In his mind Bible while being the true word of God is not self-explanatory and does not present complete knowledge about God. Many concepts present in the Bible are at best vague or barely mentioned. Why do we keep arguing about the purpose of Lord’s supper or necessity of baptism or about how to organize the church government? Because Bible does not speak clearly about these and hence is subject to interpretation.

What is Osipov’s solution? We need additional interpretation sources. However, these must come from people who walked closely with God rather than those who treat theology as science. Hence the reliance on the early church fathers and later saints of the church (by saints here Orthodox church means people who by their holy life have proved their understanding to be trustworthy).

His advice to seminary students? Do not try to understand God without trying to live a holy life, doing otherwise puts you in a great danger. There is nothing worse than knowledge puffed up by pride. And don’t start with the Bible, but with saints and early church fathers. Read the Bible through the spectacle of their teaching.

Well, as usual, I will give my response in the next post. Meanwhile, your comments are welcome!

With Osipov on salvation – my response

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 8:00 am on Friday, May 9, 2008

See the original post first.

I really applaud Orthodox emphasis on the fact that we must understand that we utterly need Jesus before we can be truly saved. To be fair, the understanding of our own sinfulness is an integral part of Protestant gospel presentation as well. To give an example, consider an excerpt from Martyn Lloyd-Jones book “Spiritual depression”, about which I blogged some time ago:

Yet the correct teaching is that we are saved by faith and not by works. Why so many miserable Christians do not see it? Because they don’t see a need for it. Many people do not see themselves as sinners. That kind of person thinks of sin in terms of action, or what he/she does. Sometimes they put it quite plainly: “I have never really thought about myself as a sinner: but of course this is not surprising as my life has been sheltered from the beginning.” Such people have heard it preached that Christ has died for our sins and they say that they believe that; but they have never really known its absolute necessity for themselves.

Such people need to be convicted of sin. “There is no one righteous, no not one, all have sinned and fell short of the glory of God”. The way to know yourself as a sinner is not to compare yourself with other people (you can always find those worse than you), but come face to face with the Law of God. The Law of God is not just “Do not steal, do not murder”. It is also to love God with all of your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Here is a test for you and me: “Are you loving God with all your being?”. If not, you are a sinner. You can be innocent of all gross sins and yet be guilty of being satisfied with your life, having pride in your achievements and feeling that you are better than others. If you have never realized your guilt before God you will never have a joy in Christ. “Not the righteous, sinners Jesus came to save”. “They that are whole have no need of a physician, but they that are sick”.

Sounds similar to Orthodox view, doesn’t it? Yet, the Protestant gospel presentation has a second part that is practically missing in the Orthodox tradition. Consider what the doctor says next in his book:

God has said that He will punish sin, and that the punishment of sin is death and banishment from the face of God. Before man can be reconciled to God, before man can know God, this sin of his must be removed. God, because He is righteous and holy and eternal, could not forgive the sin of man without punishing it. He said He would punish it, so He must punish it, and, blessed be His name, He has punished it. God has punished our sins in Christ, in His body on the cross, so he can now forgive us.

In other words, Orthodox Christianity is very clear about the fact that we cannot save ourselves and in need of a savior. Yet, they do not elaborate how this salvation actually happens. They prefer to treat it as a mystery, something unexplainable that can only happen by God’s grace after we have understood our need for this grace and put our complete trust in God.

I do believe that Bible is clear on how we are saved – by reconciliation with God achieved by Jesus’ sacrifice. But I can say two things in defense of Orthodox view:

1) Very often Protestants concentrate on the second part of gospel presentation (reconciliation), almost skipping the first. A partial understanding of your own depravity can come from ‘we are saved by faith, not by works’, but you can believe in salvation by faith alone without feeling utterly sinful. Many think why bother about your own sinfulness if we already reconciled with God. The doctor speaks about exactly such people. This grave mistake is much less likely to happen in the Orthodox gospel presentation.

2) You don’t need to understand how you are saved in order to be saved. It is not the belief in Jesus’ sacrifice for our sin that saves us, it is the sacrifice itself. So Orthodox incomplete gospel presentation is still a Christian gospel presentation by which you can be saved.

What is surprising that Bible does talk about another belief, which is necessary to salvation, belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Rom 10:9 says ‘That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’. Yet this part is often missing in both Protestant and Orthodox gospel presentations.

Are there any drawbacks in not knowing how exactly you are being saved? If you can think of any, leave a comment!

With Osipov on salvation

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 8:00 am on Friday, May 2, 2008

What does it mean to live a spiritual life? How can we be saved? These are the topics that Prof. Osipov discusses in his talk “Foundations of Spiritual Life”.

Here are the key signs of true spiritual life, according to Osipov.

1) We need to understand our sinfulness. Yet the phrase `I am a sinner’ has lost its true meaning in the modern language; too many people say it without understanding. Osipov suggests a different way – we must understand how ill we all are. Only then we can understand our absolute need for a doctor. Who feels this way? Almost nobody. Many Christians prefer to think of themselves as basically good people who try to live according to God’s commands. Wrong, says Osipov! As long as you see yourself this way, you don’t need Christ. Healthy don’t need doctor and will never accept Jesus for who he truly is. Until we can see how envy tortures us, how much we depend on approval of others, how money exercise the power over us – until we can see and feel this we cannot claim to be Christians.

Mark 2:17

It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.

So many say “We don’t feel God’s presence in our life”. Very simple, says Osipov, this is because you don’t need him. Or you need him for something else (blessings, help, encouragement) rather than for the most important thing – to heal you from your sin. How often do we pray, asking “Father, help me to get rid of my envy!”?

2) We must obey God’s commands. No, Osipov does not say we can fully do so. But believing in Jesus and not living according to his commands is self-deceit. In Osipov’s opinion, oh so many problems in Christianity (heresies, wrong teaching, deviations from correct practice) stem from people claiming to be Christians but practicing disobedience.

But the main reason behind obedience is not to achieve perfection, it is to get a better view of your imperfections. To the one who obeys will be open a new world, the world of his own sinful passions, this incurable corruption that penetrates deep inside our soul. Why was I happy today when I learned about my bonus but suddenly became unhappy after realizing a colleague’s bonus was even larger? Why, when trying to help somebody financially I wanted others to notice this? Why? Osipov says that they only way we can notice this dirt inside our souls is by simple obedience to God’s commands.

3) Prayer. It is remarkable what people in the history of the church have been able to achieve by praying. Teresa of Avila reached the deepest stages of intimacy with Jesus. Francis of Assisi, a first person to experience stigmata, prayed all his life to experience the sufferings of Christ. `Nonsense’ says Osipov to all of these examples. That is the wrong emphasis of prayer! Jesus never intended for us to re-live his sufferings or treat him literally as a husband. He wants our obedience! We need to pray to God to heal us from our sinfulness!

I will mention a few of my own thoughts on the topic in my next post. Meanwhile, please share you thoughts on these points!

With Osipov on sin – my response

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 6:23 am on Monday, April 28, 2008

In my previous post I outlined Eastern Orthodox view of sin, represented by Moscow Theological Seminary professor Osipov. Here are my own thoughts on the subject.

1) Definition of sin. The original word for sin in the Bible has the meaning of “missing the mark”, “taking a wrong path”, “breaking a command”. Hence Western Christianity is simply trying to be biblical. However, I do not see anything wrong with defining sin as sickness or slavery. Moreover, I find these extremely helpful, even thought that is not how Bible commonly sees it. Tim Keller once shared about his experience of starting Redeemer Church in Manhattan. Defining sin as breaking God’s command worked well in 1950s during Billy Graham times, but Keller was surprised to find that it leaved New Yorkers completely cold. Yet when he started talking about sin as slavery, people immediately responded.

This makes me think. Evangelicals often pride themselves in being true to the Bible, even when it is not relevant to the culture. Take for example gospel presentation that mentions forgiveness of sins. When reading the Bible I have the impression that forgiveness of sins was a big thing in those time. Yet now most people need a lecture on why it is actually good that their sins are forgiven. So, should we change the way we proclaim the gospel?

Let me push it a bit further. What if Satan, knowing that we constraint ourselves to purely Biblical ways of explaining things, would change the culture in such a way as to make these explanations less and less relevant? A scary thought. But I also understand the danger of making the Bible too culturally relevant that it dilutes the message. Clearly, a great wisdom is required to tread the fine line between the two extremes.

2) Personal and inherited sin. There is a common agreement here between all Christians, although Protestants would usually avoid speculations on what exactly is been transferred from generation to generation.

Personally, I like the Orthodox explanation. I’ve read 6-7 articles in popular evangelical dictionaries and they are too vague on this point. Yes, some corruption of body, mind, soul. etc. is being transferred. Our whole being is affected by sin. While this is true, it is too general for any practical application. Orthodox, on the other hand, emphasize that it is sinful passions that are been transferred, our sinful desires for something bad or too much of something good. Much clearer.

3) Original sin. Again, Western Christianity is staying closer to the Bible on this one. The whole idea of us being guilty of Adam’s sin (or as Edward commenting of my previous post said “the guilt and sin of Adam is imputed upon the entire human race”) is clearly stated in Romans 5. But Orthodox are correct in saying we also inherit corruption from Adam. This is a logical conclusion of inherited sin – if we are to inherit it from our parents and they from theirs, you can easily trace the line back to Adam.

It is unfortunate that Orthodox do not want to see God as the God of wrath and Jesus as the one who saves us from the punishment of sin. Jesus of Eastern Orthodoxy is a healer (e.g. savior from our disease of sin) rather than a savior from our sins. The truth is that he is both. The reason they want to emphasize the healer part is to make people want to get healed rather than just forgiven. But more on this in my future posts.

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