Three ways to live

Which is your way?

Living in line with the gospel

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 7:30 pm on Tuesday, July 31, 2007

I have tried to establish a link between behavior and the gospel in my earlier post “What is the gospel?”, which I realized might sound a bit abstract. So I want to try to illustrate this idea with the following simple example.

Imagine that you received a letter from a stranger who claims to be a dying millioner and says he wants to transfer his whole estate (hundreds of millions of dollars) to you. What a amazing gospel (Good news)! In his letter he states that there was no particular reason he has chosen you – it is not that you were better or worse than anybody else or that you did something special. His choice was precisely because you were nobody.

So what is the meaning of this gospel? On one level, it’s just a piece of excellent news through which you became rich. But you should also recognize that it is much more than that – from now on it will affect many parts of your life.

For example, if tomorrow a friend comes and asks you to lend him $100, it would be strange for you to refuse. I know you might, but it will be inconsistent with your new status as a rich person. I can imagine in response to your refusal, your friend might say that you do not behave in accordance with the gospel. Rich people usually do not feel as stingy about their money, do not think twice about eating in a expensive restaurant or staying in a nice hotels.

Now, what if somebody comes and asks you to give him $100, even though he has done nothing to earn it and is not planning to give it back. Again, you might refuse, but stop and think for a moment. How did you become rich? Is it because you deserved it? Clearly not. Then, why would you think it’s wrong to give people money when they did not deserve it? Again, you are not living in line with the gospel.

What does it mean to live in line with the Christian gospel? It’s to think out its implications to all possible aspects of your life. And, as should be clear from the above example, there are two Gospel aspects that will have the most influence:

1) Our new status as part of God’s family, after we accepted the Gospel. How does our status of being God’s sons (and daughters) affect the way we live now?
2) The way we received this status. What should our attitude to others be if we understand that we have done or deserved absolutely nothing to receive this status?

You gotta serve somebody

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 8:05 pm on Saturday, July 28, 2007

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

This is an excerpt from a famous Bob Dylan song “Gotta serve somebody”. It is said that John Lennon disliked Dylan’s implication that there is no third way to live (either serve God or devil) and wrote a paraphrase to the song, entitled “Serve Yourself”. While he never actually performed it, the lyrics can still be found on internet. Here is a short excerpt:

you gotta serve yourself
ain’t nobody gonna do for you
you gotta serve yourself
ain’t nobody gonna do for you
well you may believe in devils and you may believe in lords
but christ, you’re gonna have to serve yourself and that’s
all there is to it

Knowingly or not, both Bob Dylan and John Lennon picked up on a common Biblical theme that we all are serving something or somebody. Most secular people, as apparent from John Lennon’s response, prefer to think that they either don’t serve anything or in the worst case are serving themselves. But while it’s true that ultimately we are all trying to serve ourselves, we do it by serving other things that can give us what we want.

The word “serving” here is important. Very often people do not realize that by trying hard to get something they are in effect allowing it to control their lives. For example, if you try to be really successful at your work, you will realize it will start to dictate to you when to wake up and go to sleep, whether or not to take a vacation, what books to read, etc. You are no longer free – your work has become your master. Bible speaks of such things as idolatry – you create idols (work, money, relationships) to get something for yourself, but these very idols in turn start to control you.

What’s even worse, the idols you create mold you into their likeness. For example, the work might dictate to its adherents that they should dress in a particular way, keep their phones on all the time, be aggressive when it comes to competition, do pleasing things for boss, say things they do not mean, etc. In essence, you lose not only the freedom, but also your true self.

Yet, there is a master that if you serve him makes your true self come out – love. Most people agree that when you are in love you are certainly not free – your lover get to tell you what time he/she wants to see you, whether you can go out with the members of the opposite sex (hint: you cannot!). And yet, it makes you show how beautiful you truly can be. Love makes people more courteous, generous, polite, tender – sometimes you are surprised that all these things were really inside of you. In love you can get a short glimpse of what your true self is really like.

But it’s short; the hyper feeling of love wears our and we go back to our normal selves and continue to serve our work, career, money, fame. Yet, there is a master even greater than love that while enslaving your behavior makes your true self come out in all its radiant beauty – Jesus Christ. I can see that this may sound as a paradox to many. Christians are called to be Christ-like, so how can they be true to their own selves? I will let you think it over for now, and I shall further comment on this topic in one of my future posts.

Gospel coalition

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 7:02 pm on Saturday, July 28, 2007

You have probably noticed that I blog a lot about the Gospel and its implications to our lives. Most of my ideas come from listening of hundreds of Tim Keller’s sermons as well as seminary courses downloaded from Biblical Training website. Hence you should understand my excitement about the newly started Gospel coalition website (many thanks to “Between Two Worlds” blog for pointers). The goal of the Gospel coalition is to educate general public on the Gospel and its implications for church life. A deal-breaker for me is that the main contributors are the very scholars and preachers I came to respect the most – Tim Keller, Don Carson, John Piper.

The website is not completely finished yet, but you can already benefit from many short audio and video interviews posted.

Bible Study Commencing

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 11:25 am on Saturday, July 28, 2007

Do join us for our first bible study on the book of Hosea on 1 Aug, Weds! Meeting at 5th floor, 8-10pm, K H Kea Building (next to Bras Basah Complex). Click here for directions.

Between Two Worlds Blog

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 5:47 am on Saturday, July 28, 2007

Where do I get ideas for writing? Very often from reading other Christian blogs. The one I visit the most at this point of time is “Between Two Worlds“, started by Justin Taylor. As the title of his blog states, the posts are an interesting mixture of theology, philosophy, politics, and culture. Be sure to check it out!

What does it mean to believe and how do you know when you do?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 9:08 am on Thursday, July 26, 2007

I was doing a word study on the Hebrew and Greek words meaning “to believe”. Here is what I found:

1) The verb “to believe” is closely related to the noun “faith”; basically “to believe”=”to have faith”
2) At the heart of the meaning is the idea of certainty. So, to believe means to be very certain about something. This is in contrast with modern English meaning, which can range from certainty to a guess, as in “I believe there will be good weather tomorrow”.
3) As a logical consequence of 2), having certainty about something often results in action, as you put your trust in it
4) The degree of certainty may vary, e.g. you can have little faith or faith to move mountains.

How do you know you believe in something (in the biblical sense)? I often find people to be poor judges of their faith, tending to overestimate it. The easiest test, quite independent from personal opinion, is to see whether your faith naturally results in a corresponding action. I am intentionally highlighting the word “naturally”, because

1) It is possible that outside circumstances, a punishment or a reward can make you behave in a certain way even though you don’t believe you should. In this case your behavior is not a sign of the faith.

2) You can force yourself to behave in a certain way precisely because you lack faith. This often happens when Christians do not have certainty that God has accepted them as they are, and hence are trying to make up for it with “good behavior”, “acts of righteousness”, as to earn God’s favor. This is the basis for so-called “salvation by works”. Compared to 1), here the action is a sign of having no or little faith.

So, does this mean that if we cannot detect a trace of reward expectation or punishment fear, or lack of faith in our behavior, then it is natural? Well, again, I find people (including myself) to be poor judges of why we do things. Most of us like to think that we do not steal because we are good people, but take away the potential punishment (as often happens in times of war, revolution), and the true character sadly shows up.

I would like to propose the following two tests. They might not work ideally in all circumstances, and may sometimes misclassify some natural behavior as unnatural, but I find them more reliable than others:

1) The natural behavior lasts. This is in contrast with the punishment or reward-based behavior, which only lasts until this punishment or reward is withdrawn. The natural behavior is caused by great inner certainty and hence depends little on outside circumstances.
2) The natural behavior is easy.
Here by easy I don’t mean it does not require any effort, but that regardless of how much effort it requires, you can accomplish it with joy. This is in contrast with trying to compensate for the lack of faith, which is emotionally straining, and makes you lose joy as you feel you are never good enough.

While I was trying to be general in my description so far, the Christians, in particular, are called to believe (have absolute certainty) in the gospel. For a Christian, every trace of unnatural behavior should be a sign that he does not believe the gospel nearly as much as he might think. How to change? Admitting this unpleasant truth should be the first step. In the words of boy’s father from Mark 9:24, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” And He will help.

Taking light from wherever it comes

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 7:09 pm on Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Jonathan Edwards, a American preacher, theologian, and missionary, is famous for his fire-and-brimstone sermons and causing the first Great Awakening revival in 1730. The intensity of his preaching sometimes resulted in members of the audience fainting, a surprising fact if you read carefully his sermons that are rather dull and extremely intellectual – not something that is likely to cause people to faint.

I am slowly learning more and more about this great man; my latest discovery was that Edwards made an effort to be aware of the cultural movements of his time. He said in “Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival” that he made it his practice to take light from wherever it came.

Being able to take some good from other people’s beliefs, actions, behavior is an important part of contextualization and something most of us are pathetically bad at. What does it mean exactly? Consider “Harry Potter” book, for example. Some Christians denounced it as devil’s book trying to promote ideas of magic. Others have an ambivalent feeling that it is something entertaining to read but having nothing to do with Christian faith. What would Edwards say?

Josh Moody, a senior pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Newhaven, CT, in his article “What Would Jonathan Edwards Say About Harry Potter?” thinks that after reading the books, Edwards would have discovered that we live in an age that is fascinated by the transcendent—and the paranormal—but that, while intrigued, is totally confused about that realm. Edwards would have seen that the essential question of spirituality—What happens when I die?—is a great vacuum that culture is looking to fill. The series also tells us—and this no less important—that if Rowling’s world is expertly reflecting the light our world can shed on these matters, true understanding is at a pretty low level.

To me, this attitude of seeing positive things in culture and yet challenging it, is reminiscent of Acts 17:22-23

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

If Paul and Jonathan Edwards agree on the way to approach the culture, we need to start paying attention.

A missional church and bible study

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 11:07 am on Saturday, July 21, 2007

A Missional church is a church where evangelism is the core of everything the church does. This concept, while attractive, is very challenging to implement because of different needs of Christians and non-Christians. As a result, evangelistic ministry is usually run as a separate program in the church.

Take, for example, the regular Sunday service. Traditional approach is to keep evangelistic preaching separate from the main services, in a form of “seeker” or “friendship” services. The reason being that while the basics of the faith needs to be explained to non-believers, this may be all-too-familiar to believers. On the other hand, it is also felt that while believers need to be reminded to live a life pleasing to God, non-believers may not be able to appreciate this.

However, this approach to evangelism may no longer be effective today. Many unbelievers no longer want a case to be made for them (they probably heard it too many times, or afraid of being manipulated). Instead, they prefer to see how the church works from inside, and prefer to make their own minds at their own time.

I have recently being thinking whether it is possible to implement the missional principles in the context of our bible studies.

If we are to build a truly missional bible study, how can we conduct it so that both Christians and non-Christians can go away edified?

Below are some thoughts on how we can make the study beneficial for both non-Christians and Christians:

(A) Contextualization as a basis for teaching non-Christians:

  1. Not imposing non-essentials of the faith on the non-believers. This includes Christian jargon, pious talk (false appearance of spirituality), unnecessary customs.

  2. Packaging the message in a way the non-believers can comprehend, without sacrificing the essentials of the faith (sin, repentance). For example, saying that Jesus forgave our sins means little to those who don’t feel they needed to be forgiven in the first place.

  3. Not thinking of non-believers as being always wrong and us being always right. Acknowledging the good in things other people believe or do, and yet challenging them with respect to the wrong things.

  4. Not taking for granted that everybody at the table has exactly the same beliefs. Show respect for people who are doubting and show understanding of what these doubts might be.

  5. Addressing questions that are important to people rather than just important to us.

  6. Acknowledge that something such as ‘Jesus died to take away the sins of the world’ may sound outrageous to a non-believer

(B) Showing Christians how they can benefit from a discussion with non-Christians:

  1. Hearing non-believers’ questions and doubts and learning how to address them can help Christians strengthen their faith and learn how to approach their friends.

  2. Learning how to explain the essentials of the faith helps the person’s own understanding. From my personal experience, I find that you really understand something only if you are able to explain it to somebody else.
(C) Gospel as a unifying factor for teaching both Christians and non-Christians. The gospel gives both groups exactly what they need, i.e. it teaches non-Christians about the faith (obvious!) and Christians about how to live (not obvious!).

The gospel can teach Christians how to live if they see it not only as a set of beliefs by which they are saved, but as the cornerstone for everything they do. The key verse to see this is Galatians 2:14. When I (Paul) saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?”. Note that Paul does not just say to Peter that he violates some “forcing Jewish customs” law. Instead, he implies that the reason Peter does the wrong thing is because he does not completely understands the truth of the gospel. Understanding the gospel can help us become more forgiving, more loving, more generous, etc.

(D) Teaching that there are three, rather than two ways to live. The main reason for such a distinction is to demonstrate a similarity between irreligion and religion (not at all obvious) and the huge divide between them and the gospel.

  1. The reason to emphasize the divide between religion and the gospel is two-fold. First, Christians often sink back into religion while claiming to understand the gospel because they do not understand (or forget) the true implications of the salvation by grace. Second, many non-believers shun Christianity because of their poor experience with the organized religion, such as hypocrisy of the church, requirements to obey certain senseless laws and regulations, seeing believers’ motivation to obey as a selfish way to try to get to haven. They need to understand that these things are as foreign to the true Christianity as it is to them, so should not be an obstacle to believe.

  2. The reason to emphasize the similarity between irreligion and religion is to make non-believers see that salvation by works is the world’s default mode of operation, including their own lives, if we redefine the salvation as success in life. Such a redefinition is quite natural – for Christians the main purpose of their life is salvation while for non-Christians it is usually some form of success or recognition (in work, family, wealth, happiness). The only way to earn success in the world is through hard work. The way to earn salvation in religion is by doing work for God. For non-believers, seeing the similarities between them and religion, and the difference between these and the gospel (you are saved not because of what you do but because what has been done for you by Jesus) will hopefully result in the following pattern of thinking: “I am against religion but so are Christians. Yet while I have been opposing religion, I had never realized I use the same religious principles I disdain (hypocrisy, selfishness in achieving my goals, etc.), but in the non-religious domain. The gospel (just explained to me the way I never heard before) is a radical new way to live and the God of the gospel seems a truly unique God – I better give this a chance.”
(source: Tim Keller’s conference talks on Missional Church)

The difference between religion and the gospel

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 6:20 am on Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Somebody did this very good adaptation of Tim Keller’s examples on the difference between religion and the gospel, or between second and third ways to live (see my previous post on three ways to live).

Religion Gospel
“I obey-therefore I’m accepted.” “I’m accepted-therefore I obey.”
Motivation is based on fear and insecurity I obey God to get to God-to delight and resemble Him.
When circumstances in my life go wrong, I am angry at God or my self, since I believe, like Job’s friends that anyone who is good deserves a comfortable life. When circumstances in my life go wrong, I struggle but I know all my punishment fell on Jesus and that while he may allow this for my training, he will exercise his Fatherly love within my trial.
When I am criticized I am furious or devastated because it is critical that I think of myself as a ‘good person’. Threats to that self-image must be destroyed at all costs. When I am criticized I struggle, but it is not critical for me to think of myself as a ‘good person.’ My identity is not built on my record or my performance but on God’s love for me in Christ. I can take criticism. That’s how I became a Christian.
My prayer life consists largely of petition and it only heats up when I am in a time of need. My main purpose in prayer is control of the environment. My prayer life consists of generous stretches of praise and adoration. My main purpose is fellowship with Him.
My self-view swings between two poles. If and when I am living up to my standards, I feel confident, but then I am prone to be proud and unsympathetic to failing people. If and when I am not living up to standards, I feel humble, but not confident-I feel like a failure. My self-view is not based on a view of my self as a moral achiever. In Christ I am simul iustus et peccator—simultaneously sinful and lost yet accepted in Christ. I am so bad he had to die for me and I am so loved he was glad to die for me. This leads me to deeper and deeper humility and confidence at the same time. Neither swaggering nor sniveling.
My identity and self-worth are based mainly on how hard I work. Or how moral I am, and so I must look down on those I perceive as lazy or immoral. I disdain and feel superior to ‘the other.’ My identity and self-worth are centered on the one who died for His enemies, who was excluded from the city for me. I am saved by sheer grace. So I can’t look down on those who believe or practice something different from me. Only by grace I am what I am. I’ve no inner need to win arguments.
Since I look to my own pedigree or performance for my spiritual acceptability, my heart manufactures idols. It may be my talents, my moral record, my personal discipline, my social status, etc. I absolutely have to have them so they serve as my main hope, meaning, happiness, security, and significance, whatever I may say I believe about God. I have many good things in my life—family, work, spiritual disciplines, etc. But none of these good things are ultimate things to me. None of them are things I absolutely have to have, so there is a limit to how much anxiety, bitterness, and despondency they can inflict on me when they are threatened and lost.

3 ways to Live – The Gospel, Moralism, and Irreligion

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 5:05 am on Monday, July 16, 2007

Tim Keller of Redeemer discusses issues related to the Desiring God 2006 National Conference. Here, he emphasizes the importance of distinguishing the gospel from moralism & religion.

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