Three ways to live

Which is your way?

Love the sinner, hate the sin?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 7:15 pm on Sunday, September 30, 2007

I have come across an article in Singapore The Straits Times newspaper today (Home section) entitled “Homosexual friends: Let’s fight the hypocrisy”. In it, the author describes her befriending a gay man while studying in a university in UK, which slowly changed (for the better) her attitude toward homosexuality.

Whether homosexuality is a sin is a topic of many debates. But what mostly disturbed about the article is the author’s shallow understanding of a very important Christian concept “love the sinner, hate the sin”. Here is a quote:

Having been brought up in a conservative background, I had always subscribed to a notion “love the sinner, hate the sin”. Gay people were alright, I thought, as long as I had nothing to do with their “wrong” lifestyles.

Well, “sinning people are alright as long as I don’t do what they do” attitude is not what “love the sinner, hate the sin” means. Nobody, in my opinion, gave a better definition than C.S. Lewis in his The Weight of Glory:

It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization–these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit–immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously–no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner–no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.

Are you looking for a good study bible?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 7:25 pm on Saturday, September 29, 2007

Holman Bible Publishers have just released a very good study bible called “Apologetics Study Bible“.

In case you don’t know, a study bible is a bible with short notes explaining the text. In this particular instance, the notes are related to Christian apologetics (defense and explanation of Christian beliefs). Here are some of the articles included:

  • Can we still believe in demons today?
  • How can modern medicine relate to the Old Testament?
  • Are the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses compatible with the Bible?
  • Does the Bible teach there is a purgatory?
  • Is God a male?
  • What does the Bible say about abortion?

and many others…

List of contributors is also very impressive:

  • Norman Geisler
  • Craig Blomberg
  • Josh McDowell
  • Hank Hanegraaff
  • Ravi Zacharias

just to name just a few.

To see for yourself, here are some sample pages. If you would like to order online, Rejoice is offering it at 50% off.

Hosea 12-13 – Summary of Study

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 7:28 pm on Monday, September 24, 2007

There is little new revelation in Hosea 12-13 in addition to what we have already learned in chapters 1-11. Yet, the passage provides an insightful viewpoint on the problems Israel was facing.

1) Hosea 12:1-8

The main theme in this passage appears to be deceit, which is first mentioned in 11:12. Israel was deceiving Assyria and Egypt, by signing treaties with both (v.1). Then there is example of Jacob deceiving his brother vv. 3-6, merchant deceiving his customers (v.7).

The idea of mentioning Jacob’s example is the accusation that Israel has inherited all the bad traits of their ancestors, without any good ones. Despite being as deceitful as Jacob was, they should seek God the way he did. Jacob faced the consequences of his deceit and returned to his land, in the face of danger from Esau. In all his deceit he was looking for God’s blessing – and he found it. So should Israel do now.

2) Parallel between Jacob and God in vv. 12-13.

This seems to be a play on words tended for (or cared for). Jacob tended sheep to get a wife, while the Lord (through Moses) tended Israel. It is as if the Lord’s goal is to get a wife also, and this is certainly consistent with the Hosea 2 which state that the kind of relationship the Lord seeks with his people is similar to a relationship between husband and wife.

3) Chapter 13.

Two prominent themes here are idolatry and judgment. Hosea again emphasizes that God takes idolatry seriously. Practicing it is equivalent to bowing down to idols (or kissing them). The outcome – nothingness, complete uprootedness and disappearance, like a mist or a smoke.

The four beasts mentioned in the vv.7-8 are exactly as the same in Daniel 7, but in a slightly different order. They designate four kingdoms of the Earth (Daniel 7:17) and traditionally have been interpreted as Babylon, Assyria, Greek and Roman empires. Indeed, God have destroyed and tortured Israelites by allowing other nations to attack them.

The meaning of v.14 is not clear. Some Bible translations take it to mean that God will rescue Israelites, which is clearly out of context of the whole passage. Other translations take it to mean that God actually is asking death to unleash its powers. The main support for the first interpretation is the Paul’s mentioning of this verse in 1 Cor 15:55. Also, it is quite uncommon for Hebrew to take “Where” questions as calls for actions. Rather, it is more often used to mean a rhetorical question.

But it is slightly more probable that the second interpretation is correct, as it much better fits the context. The reason why Paul reverses the meaning may sound something like this: “The Lord asked this rhetorical question and at that time the answer was no. Yet, in Jesus he provided a yes answer”

Application:

God’s execution of judgment will lead to many things that may be classified as evil, e.g. ripping pregnant women open, dashing little one (small children) to the ground in Hosea 13:16. How can we accept a God that appears so mean that he would allow such things? What did small children so to deserve this?

We partially touched on this subject in the earlier study. There we talked about election and how God may have prepared some people for destruction while others for his glory, without explaining his choices to us. Yet, for most of us it is difficult to accept.

To better understand the relationship between God and Evil, it’s useful to note that there are two kinds of evil: physical (calamities, illnesses, accidents) and moral (adultery, murder, deceit). God’s relationship with moral evil is clear – he is completely against it and never uses it to accomplish his goals. The moral evil is under Devil’s control for a short time, but his power will eventually be broken.

Yet God’s relationship with physical evil is more complicated. He is clearly against it (it was not part of the original creation but a result of the fall). But here is the paradox: while God is against evil he actually can use it to accomplish his goals.

One may suggest that God does not participate in evil, he simply allows it. There is no doubt this is often the case. Yet, it does not account for all kinds of evil – there are many parts in the Bible implying that God may actually be the initiator of evil, not just a bystander. In solving this paradox we have nothing better to go on but Rom 9:19-24 and the book of Job.

The following are a few important questions often raised by non-Christians with respect to evil:

1. In the 17th century, Pierre Bayle (1647–1706) formulated the following argument: If God were all-good, he would destroy evil. If God were all-powerful, he could destroy evil. But evil is not destroyed. Hence, there is no such God.

There is a simple answer to this argument. God is all-powerful but he is not self-contradictory. He hates evil and yet gave use freedom to choose which will often cause evil. He cannot destroy evil without destroying our freedom first.

2. While sometimes we see purpose in suffering (criminal gets his punishment, character strengthening), it seems that there is a lot of suffering with no good purpose (death in a road accident, earthquake,etc.). An all-good being (God) must have a good purpose for everything. Hence, it is argued that there cannot be an all-good God.

However, it is logical to assume that, since God’s mind is infinite and man’s mind is finite, man will never fully comprehend the divine intellect. So even if we do not know God’s purpose, he may still have a good purpose for evil. Moreover, we do know some good purposes for evil: to warn us of greater evil; to keep us from self-destruction; to help bring about greater goods; and to defeat evil. If a finite mind can discover some good purposes for evil, surely an infinite good and wise God has a good purpose for all suffering.

On praying to icons

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 12:22 am on Saturday, September 22, 2007

The topic of praying to icons is a highly debated one. For many, including myself, it has an appearance of idolatry, e.g. thinking that it is the icon that answers the prayers rather than God. And, from my personal experience, this is exactly how many people think of icons – as mini gods.

So, it was quite a revelation for me to hear that this is against the original intentions of the Russian Orthodox church, which recommends praying on the icons, rather than to them. The icon should help you pray to God, rather than distract you from Him. One common way to avoid distraction is to shut yourself off from the world by closing your eyes, refusing to listen and just concentrating on your thoughts. The Russian orthodox way is to leave your senses open and use natural objects, such as icons, to keep your mind focused on God.

They are pros and cons in both cases, but I see the value of icons in this case. When I pray, I find it difficult to stop the flow of irrelevant thoughts. Also, many complain about difficulty of staying awake when praying at night with your eyes closed. I guess having an image in front of your eyes might help in concentration. But does this benefit outweigh the danger in following into idolatry?

Icon world

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 7:12 pm on Thursday, September 20, 2007

My own towards icons can best be described as “suspicious”. On one hand, I always thought of it as a bad piece of art, which looks like a childish painting. On the other hand, seeing how icons are used in Russia may equate it to outright idolatry. I have just listened to a lecture by A. Kuraev on the topic of icons, which helped clarify at least some of the issues for me. I checked his explanation with some other websites, such as this one, and they seem to agree. So, here are some observations:


1) Icon painting strikes us by the frontality of the figures. This frontality brings the figures in direct contact with the figure. Also, the main object of the icon can sometimes be disproportionally large, in order to attract the viewer’s attention (see the top figure).

2) Icon painting deliberately disregards the principle of natural perspective in order to avoid the illusion of three-dimensionality. Instead, it gives the impression of complete flatness and the lack of perspective. Some icons use an inverse perspective (see the bottom figure), which may make you see three sides of a building or table. This may have been used to convey the idea of an extreme proximity of God – we see things in inverse perspective when they are right in front of our nose. Another effect achieved by the inverse perspective is that it gives an effect of the icon looking at you rather than you looking at the icon.

3) Icons show no natural source of light and do not represent shadows. The only light in icons is the inner light of sacred figures and the divine light of Christ. A. Kuraev mentions that this conveys the message of inner goodness and godliness that comes out in the life transformed by Christ.

I guess these all make sense, but the question is how many of these original intentions are being understood by people who pray to icons? While the church has awhile back decided there is nothing wrong with depicting Jesus on the icons, since he was fully man as well as fully God, my main problem is with depicting saints. I have seen these been prayed to as if these saints can help you rather than Christ. Even my mom once gave me a small booklet with three icons inside and asked to pray Saint Nicholas for anything to do with exams. This reminds me of pantheism, where people sacrifice to one god to get rain, to another to get health, yet to another for wealth.

Yet, discarding icons completely may be too harsh. After all, when properly understood, they present a very unique artistic way of conveying Christian message.

When Church and state conflict

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 6:40 pm on Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A recent post on Stand to Reason blog raised an issue of what Christians should do when there is an ethics conflict between church and state. While the example provided is rather misguided, it made me think about a better one. Here is the summary of my thoughts:

  1. The law of the church applies only to church members just as the government law applies to all citizens
  2. The church cannot require those who are not its members to obey church ethics. That should resolve all issues for politicians – they are free to acknowledge that abortion is bad (and, of course, prohibit it in their own families) and yet do not impose it on those outside the church in the form of a government law
  3. OK, here is the most interesting point. What should church members do when they are under two law systems?
    1. Understand it only applies to their personal life, not to that of other people
    2. In most cases, there is no conflict. The government may say it’s OK to have an abortion, but that also means it’s OK not to. Since the church prohibits it, Christians should stay away from abortions. If the government says you should pay taxes and church has no say, then Christians should pay taxes. “Give Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s”
    3. The most difficult situation is when there is a conflict. What if church says you must spread the good news and state prohibits you from doing so? What if church says we are equal, yet state tries to segregate people into black and white (US racism)? Typical answer – state has first hand. But should it? I believe that was the real point raised in the blog post.

Christian leaders in Britain went against state on the issue of slavery and eventually won. Martin Luther King Jr. went against the government on the racism issue (and paid for it with some jail time), but his ministry has eventually led to major changes. Jesus has clearly disobeyed the Sabbath law imposed by Israel’s religious leadership. I think this provides a clear enough pattern for Christians.

C.S. Lewis on Faith

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 7:13 pm on Sunday, September 16, 2007

Is Christianity based on a blind faith? How can you believe something if it cannot be absolutely proven? These are some of the questions that have recently come up in our bible study. The following quote (slightly abridged and with a few added emphases) from C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity helps to clarify the meaning of Christian faith.

In one sense Faith means simply Belief—accepting or regarding as true the doctrines of Christianity. That is fairly simple. But what does puzzle people—at least it used to puzzle me—is the fact that Christians regard faith in this sense as a virtue, I used to ask how on earth it can be a virtue—what is there moral or immoral about believing or not believing a set of statements? Obviously, I used to say, a sane man accepts or rejects any statement, not because he wants or does not want to, but because the evidence seems to him good or bad.

Well, I think I still take that view. But what I did not see then— and a good many people do not see still—was this. I was assuming that if the human mind once accepts a thing as true it will automatically go on regarding it as true, until some real reason for reconsidering it turns up. In fact, I was assuming that the human mind is completely ruled by reason. But that is not so.

For example, my reason is perfectly convinced by good evidence that anaesthetics do not smother me and that properly trained surgeons do not start operating until I am unconscious. But that does not alter the fact that when they have me down on the table and clap their horrible mask over my face, a mere childish panic begins inside me. In other words, I lose my faith in anaesthetics. It is not reason that is taking away my faith: on the contrary, my faith is based on reason. It is my imagination and emotions. The battle is between faith and reason on one side and emotion and imagination on the other.

When you think of it you will see lots of instances of this. A man knows, on perfectly good evidence, that a pretty girl of his acquaintance is a liar and cannot keep a secret and ought not to be trusted; but when he finds himself with her his mind loses its faith in that bit of knowledge and he starts thinking, “Perhaps she’ll be different this time,” and once more makes a fool of himself and tells her something he ought not to have told her. His senses and emotions have destroyed his faith in what he really knows to be true.

Or take a boy learning to swim. His reason knows perfectly well that an unsupported human body will not necessarily sink in water: he has seen dozens of people float and swim. But the whole question is whether he will be able to go on believing this when the instructor takes away his hand and leaves him unsupported in the water—or whether he will suddenly cease to believe it and get in a fright and go down.

Now just the same thing happens about Christianity. I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it. That is not the point at which Faith comes in. Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.

Summary of Study: Hosea 8 to 11

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 10:35 pm on Thursday, September 13, 2007
There are several themes in Hosea 8-11 that we have already seen in chapters 1-7. These include:
a. Broken law (8:1,12,9:17)
b. No knowledge of God (8:2-3)
c. Leadership issues (8:4a, 9:15)
d. Idolatry (8:4-6,11,9:1,10,10:1-2,5-6,11:2)
e. Sell out to other nations (8:8-10)
f. Relying on man’s strength (8:14,10:13)
g. Broken relationships between people (9:9,10:4)

The calf of Samaria, mentioned in Hosea 8:5 and 10:5 explains quite a bit about what kind of leadership problems existed in Israel at that time. To see this, read 1 Kings 12:26-33 (NIV).

In addition to household idolatry (Baal worship), it seems that Israel was also practicing idolatry instituted right from the top. This why the leadership as well as the priesthood have been accused in Hosea 4-5, why the sinning was in the beginning confined to Israel and only later moved to Judah, why Bethel (or Beth-Aven), mentioned in Hosea 4:15, 5:8 and 10:5, was a place for sinning (it is where one of the calves was placed). In Deuteronomy 12:1-14 God three times repeats that Israel is supposed to worship in one place (later turned out to be a Jerusalem).

We can summarize the Israel’s problems in just one line, as follows:

Israel did not worship God properly.

a. They tried to worship him in their own way and in their own place, rather than where and how God commanded them
b. They worshiped him alongside other Gods (violating the first commandment!)
c. They worshipped him while doing evil to other people, withdrawing mercy and justice.
d. All this happened because they did not know or understand God.


Application. What is the right way to worship God for Christians?

1. How can we avoid idolatry (worshipping God alongside other things, e.g. money, work, people’s approval)?

Assume you have something of seemingly no value (like an old jewelry) and suddenly found out it was made by a famous master and now costs millions. What’s going to happen? Well, your whole attitude toward it will change. You will begin to admire it, think how you can use the money, no longer causal with it – buy a safe to keep it. If it needs repair to enhance its value, you would do it even if it costs a few thousands dollars. What has just happened? You were led into worship.

Applying the same dynamic to God, in order to avoid idolatry we must assign God not just a high value – the ultimate value.

2. How can we avoid repeating the mistakes of worshipping God while violating his other commands?

One way is to make clear to ourselves that God does not need our worship. If we think he does, we will always think we are doing a favor to him by our sacrifices, despite our negligence of other commands. God seeks worshippers not because he needs it but because we need it. God cannot go hungry or thirsty; he can survive and fulfill his plans without our money or our service.

Psalm 50:9-15 (NIV)

What God really wants is for us to give him glory, see earlier post on this topic.

3. How can we avoid a mistake about inappropriate place and way of worship?

God did not give us a geographical location for worship. New Testament is rather unclear about how to do worship because any clear regulation could become a stumbling block to spreading the gospel to other cultures. Yet there is one very important requirement: The only right worship must be through Jesus.

After the death and resurrection of Jesus, he became the new “spiritual” temple. Worship is no longer confined to place and time, but must be done in spirit and in truth about the gospel.

Contextualization – summary of study

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 11:05 am on Thursday, September 13, 2007

Contextualization is adapting communication in the body of Christianity to the culture by selecting some practices, some concepts, some words, as appropriate vehicles to convey your ideas. Some parts of the culture you use and adapt, others you reject. It means becoming like culture in some ways, yet challenging it in other ways.


I did long post on Contextualization back in June, but would like to add a few things based on the last bible study on this topic.

One of the best definitions of contextualization I’ve ever come across is due to Tim Keller:

Contextualization is not giving people what they want. It is giving God’s answers (which they probably do not want) to the questions they are asking and in forms they can comprehend.

Here are the main distinctions between a contextualized and non-contextualized presentation:

  1. Not contextualizing the gospel message means presenting it without any embellishment, whether the recipient finds it relevant or not. The underlying idea is to confront the person with the truth, make him understand that whether he is interested or not, this is the most important message he needs to hear.
  2. In contextualization, the emphasis is on the message being relevant. For example, this can be achieved by presenting a part of the gospel that is relevant to the person or answers some of his/her questions, while omitting the rest of the message, which the person might find irrelevant at the time of conversation. Or by putting the message in the form that the person can better comprehend (simpler language for a common person, embedding in a story, providing a relevant example).

Almost nobody would argue today that contextualization is a must for missionaries. But it’s still an open question whether it is necessary to contextualize inside your own culture. I don’t think the answer is a simple yes or no. What attracts people to Christianity is highly individual. Some are attracted by Christianity being relevant to their problems, others by its distinctiveness from the world, yet others are drawn in by a show of love. I have met people who converted because of one single simple (non-contextualized) gospel message. Yet my own conversion took two months of questions and answers.

When choosing to contextualize, one must be aware of the potential danger of over-contextualization, when we address the people’s needs with the gospel and yet do not challenged their other, potentially wrong, beliefs.

So here is a contextualization plan in a nutshell:

  1. Find out the questions that the person is asking or things that he finds most desirable or relevant
  2. In most cases there will be nothing wrong with these. Most things we desire are good in themselves. What’s wrong is how we go about trying to achieve them
  3. Show how the gospel can address these questions, how it can help achieve the person’s desires in the right (God’s) way
  4. wait for some time
  5. wait some more
  6. maybe a little longer
  7. Challenge the wrong beliefs that the person has. Point out those questions that he is not asking or does not find relevant.

I am planning a series of posts that show how steps 1-3,7 can be done for most common issues that our culture raises. These will include the following:

  1. Typically raised by traditional people – Why do I need Christianity? What’s important is to be good!
  2. Typically raised by modern people – I don’t like Christianity because of all its rules and regulations – I really value my freedom!
  3. Typically raised by modern people – Is Christianity based on blind faith? Or is there a logic to it?
  4. Typically raised by post-modern people – I don’t like Christianity because it claims to have the truth. There is no such thing as the truth – what’s true for me might not be true for you. What’s important is to be tolerant to different views.

How to attend a seminary for free – Part II

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 11:26 am on Wednesday, September 12, 2007

In my earlier post, Want to attend a seminary for free?, I blogged about Biblical Training website that has put online a series of excellent lay and seminary level courses taught by some of the best Christian scholars. Now it seems that Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) is also putting some of its courses online. I do not know speakers very well, except for J.I. Packer (History and Theology of Puritans). DesiringGod blog also recommends Frank James (Church History), Doug Kelly (Systematic theology) and John Frame’s courses on ethics, apologetics, and philosophy.

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