Three ways to live

Which is your way?

Romans 6 – Summary of study

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 7:33 am on Monday, February 25, 2008

If in Romans 1-5 Paul expounds the meaning of the gospel, then in chapters 6-8 he turns to a very important topic of how the gospel can change our life, especially our struggle with sin. The main question that Paul addressed in Romans 6 is found in v.15: “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?”

Indeed, if we are justified by faith alone (as Reformers have re-discovered), what incentive do we have to live a holy life? Why can’t we enjoy the best of two worlds – the sweetness of sin and the benefits of salvation?

To answer the question, Paul develops a metaphor where sin is personified as a slave master and we as his slaves, obeying all his desires. Righteousness is also personified as a slave master. What happens to us at the point of conversion is that we change slave masters and start serving righteousness instead of sin.

So Paul’s answer can be summarized as follows. You used to be a slave to a bad master, which would eventually lead to your death. Now you have become a slave to a good master, outcome of which is eternal life. Why would you ever want to come back to your former master and continue working for him (to sin)?

Many of us would find this answer unconvincing. So what if I occasionally serve the old master; after all it gives me a lot of pleasure? The new master’s job may lead to eternal life, but is boring and too restrictive!

The reason Christians can think like this is because

a) they don’t see slavery in their former lives
b) they don’t see freedom in their new lives

I think the best person to go if you need help understanding these concepts in the modern context is Tim Keller. He keeps referring to them again and again, in almost all his sermons. I have explained some of his ideas in my earlier post “Gotta serve somebody“. Go and read it. Listen to Tim Keller’s sermons. Think. But until you start seeing slavery in your old life and freedom in the new, you will never be able to completely understand why you should strive to be a good person if you have already been made right with God.

What did Paul really mean? Simon Gathercole on New Perspective on Paul

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 9:38 pm on Sunday, February 24, 2008

Here is a lengthy but excellent article on the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) by Simon Gathercole. Gathercole wrote a book on the subject, entitled “Where is boasting?“, so knows his stuff really well. His explanations are clear and convincing.

See also my earlier post on NPP.

Rob Bell: friend or foe?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 10:27 am on Friday, February 22, 2008

Rob Bell, a founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, is becoming an influential figure in the Christian world; some even call him the next Bill Graham. But he has also been accused by some of heresy, while others associate him with emergent church.

Rob is most famous for a series of short videos entitled “Nooma” (from Greek word “pneuma” meaning spirit). When I first watched some of them, I was quite impressed. But searching the web revealed a lot of negative opinions which suggested the series were not representng the gospel correctly. My personal opinion have swayed back and forth on several occasions, but I think I have finally reached some conclusions I would like to share with my readers:

1) The videos are packaged and presented in a such way that suggests their evangelistic use. However, this should be done with extreme caution. Presentation of Christianity in this videos is rather one-sided, as follows from this three part scoop by Greg Gilbert. In particular, Rob has chosen to focus on God’s love rather than God’s judgment, on what God does for us, rather than what he requires us to do for him. Important to note that I am not completely objecting to this – I very strongly believe in contextualization, which can be defined as giving people a one sided story (to capture their interest) with the intention to come back and tell the rest of the story later. The danger comes when we don’t come back, when we forget to challenge people’s beliefs, to tell them how much God hates sin, how the cross of Christ saves us, and so on. Not doing that amounts to over-contextualization.
2) The videos are great for Christians. D.A. Carson’s recent comment helped me to see this. If you read in all the Christians suppositions into the videos, you will enjoy them. So if you are familiar with and accept all the truths of Christianity but don’t feel it’s real in your life, if all you have is a head knowledge, you might benefit from watching the series. The videos are very well produced and Rob Bell has a gift for “making it real”. I completely agree with Carson that vidoes are empty in the sense of knowledge, but would phrase it in a more positive way – the videos are empty in the sense that they don’t add anything to the head knowledge. Yet they are good at touching you emotionally, making the knowledge get into your heart – something very few other things can do.
3) Despite what I said in point 2), I don’t think Rob’s is only way to make knowledge real. In fact, it’s wrong to think that knowledge and emotion must be separated. I know of plenty good teachers/preachers who can excellently combine the two: C.S. Lewis, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll, to name a few.

If you have never watched any of the clips, “Rain” is a good place to start:

Romans 5 – Summary of Study

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 10:22 pm on Monday, February 18, 2008

1) What is the main idea of this chapter?

There are so many things in this passage, it’s easy to get lost: “peace with God”/“reconciliation” (vv. 1, 10, 11), “access to grace” (v. 2), hope in the glory of God and for final salvation (vv. 2, 5, 9, 10), joy in suffering (vv. 3 – 4), and God’s love for us (vv. 5 – 8). Douglas Moo in his commentary on Romans thinks that a unifying idea is related to the future:

v. 2b: “we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God”
v. 5a: “And hope does not disappoint us”
v. 9: “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!”
v. 10: “For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!”

2) What is the main purpose of this chapter?

Paul is trying to persuade us of something. The logical statement “If something is true, how much more something else should be true” appears four times! And the portion after “how much more” is what Paul is persuading us about – salvation and eternal life. In other words, Paul wants us to be sure that after been justified, we will be saved!

3) What does it mean to be saved? Is it not the same as being justified?

They are two different things. We are justified by Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection, but we are saved by his life (v.10). Salvation appears to be something that follows justification. Paul refers to justification as a past even (we have been justified) but to salvation as future (we shall be saved).

4) If justification and salvation are two different events, does the former guarantee the latter?

That is the whole point of Paul’s argument. That’s where “how much more” arguments come in.

5) What is the connection between suffering and this hope of salvation?

Suffering helps us better see the hope and be more confident about it. This idea is clearer put in 1 Peter 4:12-16 (NIV)

12 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15 If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. 16 However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.

God’s justification puts us in a privileged position, to be under his grace (and at peace with Him). Hence the sufferings become the marks of us being Christian and give us further assurance of the hope of God’s glory.

6) How else does Paul try to persuade us of the certainty of salvation?

To understand his second argument, we need to understand the meaning of v.12 “all died because all sinned”. One explanation (so-called Pelagian view) is that we all copy Adam’s sin and hence sin just as he did and hence are punished for it by death. Another view is that we experience punishment because we are in Adam’s sin, whether we actually sin or not (although of course we do). This is the view that is being held by evangelicals today.

There is great support for the second view in vv.12-13. Sin deserves death only when it breaks the law, but people were not given the law until Moses. Yet all these people died. Why? They bore consequences of Adam’s sin, and whether they actually sinned or not is irrelevant (although of course they did).

Does it sound unfair to you? It might. But Paul is using this argument to make us more convinced of our salvation. If we were condemned on an individual level, because of our individual sins, the result would still be death. Yet, we could not have been saved on the individual level, since none of us can live a sinless life. Yet, because we were all condemned through Adam, communally, we can now be saved through one person – Jesus, also communally, not because we deserve it but by grace.


What is the Christian view on suffering?

Borrowing these application from one of the Tim Keller’s sermons.

Some sufferings caused by sin and some are not, and very often it’s hard to tell. What’s important is not why it happens to us but what our response should be. According to Paul we are to rejoice in our sufferings, as they are the marks that we have been adopted as sons, and God greatly cares about what we become.

However, we must be careful to stay away from two extremes: masochism and stoicism. The former takes pleasure in suffering. While it does help you rejoice, it is completely against God’s nature. Suffering is evil, there is no point rejoicing in it. The suffering is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Our sufferings are a way to blessings, not the blessings in themselves. Stoicism is another extreme, where we deny our sufferings, pretend they are not there. This is a clear contradiction to Paul’s command.

What’s wrong with both approaches is that we do not learn from our sufferings. If you enjoy the pain or deny it, you would not absorb it and it would not lead to any real change in your character or more assurance of the hope of salvation.

What is faith?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 10:32 pm on Saturday, February 16, 2008

I have been writing a lot about faith and what it means to be justified by it, in conjunction with our study on the book of Romans. So I thought it would be helpful to know how Reformers defined the concept of faith. Michael Patton from “Reclaiming the Mind” blog had recently made an interesting post on this, which I found very helpful. Here I provide a short summary.

Three main aspects of faith: notitia, assensus, and fiducia.

1) Notitia. Content of the faith. Reformers understood that you cannot just have faith, you must have faith in something, your faith must always have a content.
2) Assensus. Confidence that this content is true. As Michael puts it, while notitia claims “Christ rose from the grave,” assensus takes the next step and says, “I am persuaded to believe that Christ rose from the grave.”
3) Fiducia. Trust in the content of the faith to the degree that it changes the way you live. Christ died for our sins (notitia). I believe that Christ died for my sins (notitia + assensus). I place my trust in Christ to save me (fiducia).

I agree with Michael that the churches nowadays seem to lack at least one of these. Notitia and assensus without fiducia is the head knowledge and is widespread among nominal Christians. Lack of assensus is blind faith, trusting in something we are not sure about.

The post made me think about what separates the true Christian faith from false? True faith must always have notitia (quite obvious). It must have fiducia – head knowledge that does not change who you are is not a true faith. What about assensus, can a blind faith be true? I don’t know. What I do know is that such faith will be unstable, it will fluctuate depending on your mood or condition. Despite the fact that we can never be 100% sure about anything, whether science or religion, we must be able to live with at least some degree of uncertainty. My understanding of assensus is that it is the confidence in the decision you make by examining all the facts and alternative explanations about something. Building faith on assensus is like building a house on a strong foundation; yes, you can build your house on sand, but it will crumble after first serious storm.

The Reason for God website

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 7:55 pm on Thursday, February 14, 2008

Tim Keller’s new book “The Reason for God” now has its own website. And it’s very well made.

What is heaven? N.T. Wright has the answer.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 2:09 am on Monday, February 11, 2008

Here is an important recent interview with N.T. Wright about correct Christian understanding of heaven. While teaching of Wright are often rather controvescial, here he presents an orthodox teaching that is oh so often missed nowadays.

So what is life after death? Here are the main points:

1) There is no heaven (or hell) right after death. Instead, we enter so-called itermediate state. It is not clear what happens during this state. We will be with God and with Christ, resting and being refreshed, we will be conscious, but compared with being bodily alive, it will be like being asleep.

2) What is more important is the next stage, life after life after death – the final place where we will live forether, which can only be entered after the final judgment. But this place is not some place in the clouds but rather a renewed physical Earth where our current bodies will be resurrected into something completely different.

Free Tim Keller’s audio on the reasons for God

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 7:59 am on Friday, February 8, 2008

If you are looking for any free Tim Keller’s sermons, go here to download his series “The Trouble with Christianity: Why it’s so Hard to Believe it”. Previously sold online at the Redeemer sermon store, these are now made available for free in conjunction will Keller’s upcoming book “The reason for God“.

On a side note, I am really looking forward to the book, which will be released in US on Feb 14. He was originally going to call it “Doubting doubt” (how Keller-like!), but later change the title. In addition to being an excellent speaker, Keller really understands the modern culture. I do hope the book will become life-changing for many of those who doubt.

Are you sure you are saved? True signs 4-5

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 7:43 am on Tuesday, February 5, 2008

4) Authentic affections, which are the true signs of saving faith, are always fruit of some understanding of the mind. To put it in simpler words, true faith always involves the mind. You may be aroused by some verses coming to mind, but it is useless unless your mind is enlightened by the content of these verses. Misunderstanding of the scripture has the same effect as not understanding it at all.

But how can you be sure you have properly understood? Proper understanding should create a sense on the heart of God’s beauty and holiness. So this is not just an intellectual understanding of the doctrine, just the knowledge that the honey is sweet, but the experience of this sweetness, which is the results of true affections.

In this chapter, Edwards comes out especially strong against those who read second meaning into the scripture, trying to find God’s will for their lives. Spiritual understanding of the Bible is something completely different. It is having the eyes of your mind open to see God’s beauty.

5) Truly regenerated by the Spirit people have a solid conviction of the truth of the gospel. They no longer doubt it.

Romans 3:21-4:25 – Summary of study

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 9:39 pm on Saturday, February 2, 2008

This summary covers the last two studies on the book of Romans. I wasn’t facilitating these studies, so just presenting some of my thoughts/impressions of the things that came up during our discussions.

The first four chapters of Romans (and especially 3:21-31) are considered the best place to go to understand the gospel. Yet, in my opinion, there are some things about the gospel that remain unclear after reading. Let me summarize what we can learn.

What is clear:

1) Man’s problem (Rom 1:18-3:21). The law is God’s high standard he requires of us. Yet we are not able to obey the law fully and hence will never be justified by trying to observe it. It does not matter whether the law was revealed to us directly by God (as to the Jews) or is written on our hearts (non-Jews). We simply are not able to do it.

2) God’s solution (3:21-26). Since we cannot fulfill the law ourselves, Jesus has done it for us and through his sacrifice the debt of our sin has been paid and we are justified before God. It is entirely God’s gift, we have done nothing on our part.

What is not completely clear:

3) How we can receive God’s solution. Paul says that justification comes by faith, but he does not really explain what it means. What is clear from chapter 4 is what the faith is not. It is not works (Rom 4:1-8), it has nothing to do with circumcision (Rom 4:9-12) or law (Rom 3:17). As Douglas Moo in his commentary on Romans points out, works is something that we do and deserve to be paid for, while faith is an attitude, a willingness to receive. We can take no credit for accepting a gift.

But what about those who say they believe but never show it, continuing in their old ways? Is that a faith Paul had in mind? If we stop at chapter 4, we just don’t know.

To be fair, Paul comes back to this question (how and who receives God’s justification) later in the book, chapters 8-12. It’s not a simple answer and we will go through these passages in great detail during July-September period. But for now I am going to quote several passages that hopefully clarify things a bit. I am taking them from a recent relevant post at Parchment and Pen blog.

“Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you– unless indeed you fail the test?” (2 Cor. 13:5)

“Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it.” (Heb. 4:1)

“What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” (Jam. 2:14)

The author of post, Michael Patton, summarizes these as follows:

“Faith is the evidence that we have entered into the race. But what we fail to emphasize is often more destructive to the Christian faith than not telling the Gospel at all. We fail to tell people that there is a false kind of faith. There is a faith that crosses the starting line, but never completes the race. Their is a faith that does not save.”

Or, if you prefer, here is what Martin Luther has to say on the topic:

“It is like the case of a man who is ill, who trusts the doctor who promises him a certain recovery and in the meantime obeys the doctor’s instructions, abstaining from what has been forbidden to him, in the hope of the promised recovery, so that he does not do anything to hinder this promised recovery…Now this man who is ill, is he healthy? The fact is that he is a man who is both ill and healthy at the same time. As a matter of fact, he is ill; but he is healthy on account of the certain promise of the doctor, who he trusts and who reckons him as healthy already, because he is sure that he will cure him. Indeed he has already begun to cure him, and no longer regards him as having a terminal illness. In the same way, our Samaritan, Christ, has brought this ill man to the inn to be cared for, and has begun to cure him, having promised him the most certain cure leading to eternal life…Now is this man perfectly righteous? No. But he is at one and the same time a sinner and a righteous person. He is a sinner in fact, but a righteous person by the sure reckoning and promise of God that he will continue to deliver him from sin until he has completely cured him. And so he is totally healthy in hope, but a sinner in fact. He has the beginning of righteousness, and so always continues more and more to seek it, while realizing that he is always unrighteous.”