Saturday, March 21, 2015

Book Review: "The Brothers Karamazov" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

A fascinating novel, full of deep conversations and interesting, emotionally hysterical characters. Dostoyevsky is a master storyteller and author--none can deny it--and he keeps you page-turning with suspense. His characters and themes are complex and rich, making you think. This novel is undoubtedly a work of genius.

It is hard to choose just one theme that the book is ultimately about. Dostoyevsky discusses the nature of morality, that it cannot exist without God, and that if there is no God all things are lawful; the problem of evil; the use of justice, mercy and the restoration of criminals; the place of the Church in society, the relationship between old Russia and the new West, and many other things.

Regarding the nature of morality, Dostoyevsky hits the nail squarely on the head when he observes that without God there is no such thing as right and wrong and that all things would be lawful. Atheism inevitably leads to nihilism. He aptly describes the opposition to this self-evident truth: "Rakitin says that one can love humanity without God. Well, only a snivelling idiot can maintain that."

His discussion of the problem of evil is classic, but it leaves one half full, because Dostoyevsky merely raises the problem and gives no attempt at answering it. This, of course, was his purpose. His raising of the issue is extremely valuable and challenging, but expect no resolution here, not even an attempt at it.

Overall, The Brothers Karamazov is extremely sentimental. Much is written to move the heart, and does so, but Dostoyevsky seems to believe that such sentimentalism is the essence of Christianity. That may be a harsh and exaggerated criticism. I don't deny but agree with Dostoyevsky that the truth of God is profoundly mysterious and sublime and moves the feelings of man in ways rational thought cannot. Christianity acknowledges and speaks to this mysterious truth and nature within us, but these things are not the essence of Christianity. It is mysterious and sublime that there is an eternal God who is the very ground of righteousness in which human beings live and move and have their being. Christianity depends on this foundation, yes, but the essence of Christianity is something else: it is the death of Christ for our sins and the righteousness God provides for us through faith in Him.

The Christianity presented in the book is Eastern Orthodoxy, which is, I am convinced, unbiblical. What you will hear much of in the novel is the idea that Christ upholds man's free will, provides a basis for right and wrong, and that what is ultimately required of humankind is to recognize their responsibility to the world and to love and show kindness to everyone. By doing this one will be redeemed and perhaps redeem others. You will not find true Christianity in this novel, but only these humanistic ideas wrapped in biblical language. Though the Bible clearly teaches that sinners are justified and forgiven by the death of Christ through faith alone, we don't hear a word of this in The Brothers Karamazov, but only that we may atone for our own sins by penitence and good deeds. Jesus is set forth as our great example, rather than our atoning Savior.

The existence of God, the nature morality, the importance of justice, etc. all are propaedeutical to the message of Christ. Certainly if there is no God, and no morality, and no justice, Christianity is impossible, but Christianity is a great deal more than all of these. Many people stop at resolving these preparatory questions, thinking that in them they have discovered Christ, when in fact all of these are laying the foundation for the true message of the Bible, which is that we are all unrighteous sinners who have failed to obey God's requirements, and that even so, God has shown His love for us in coming to earth to die on the cross for our sins that we might be forgiven, justified and reconciled to Him by His blood through faith alone. This gospel is the sweet sound of amazing grace that "saved a wretch like me."

The Brothers of Karamazov is a powerful book which stimulates much deep thinking. It ought to be read. But it ought to be read with an understanding of what true Christianity is. Jesus Christ will be found in the pages of Bible, in the preaching of the prophets and apostles. What will be found here in this novel is a brilliant picture of mankind, an illustration of the various paths mankind may choose to walk, and a very entertaining story.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Book Review: "The First Epistle to the Corinthians" by Clement of Rome

Clement's letter is perhaps the earliest piece of Christian literature outside of the New Testament. It's flow of thought is easy to follow, and Clement is clear in what he is seeking to say. There was sedition in Corinth, stirred up by some ambitious members of the congregation against the elders, and Clement calls the troublemakers to repentance. The entire letter is an exhortation to humility, peace and unity. Many examples from the Old Testament are pointed to by Clement to encourage the Christians to repentance.

As I analyse this letter, my opinion is that the soteriology of the letter is confusing. Any person reading the letter would not arrive at a clear understanding of the work of Christ and the way of eternal salvation. There is one passage in the letter that seems to agree very well with the New Testament teaching of justification through faith. It is this:

"And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen." (Ch. XXXII)

This is very good indeed. But a little leaven leavens the whole lump, and throughout the majority of the letter we find warnings and exhortations that seem to contradict this statement of justification through faith. Clement repeatedly warns his readers that obedience to God's commands and righteous behavior is the way to eternal blessing, and that for those who spurn obedience to God's commands destruction is what they will receive. Thus, if a reader was to find hope in the passage quoted above, it is immediately smothered by the consideration of God rewarding him with good or evil based upon his personal behavior.

Other things of note in the letter are Clement's high view of Scripture--that the writings of the prophets and apostles are inspired of the Holy Spirit and without error. Also, he appears to have a strong view of human depravity, that people are born in sin and cannot fully live without sin. He has a strong sense of the nothingness of human beings and their dependence upon God, who both gives and takes away at His will. Clement also makes several statements concerning divine election, but his view on election is not developed enough to know what he believed about it.

An interesting letter, but no substitute nor supplement for the New Testament. I couldn't find one original doctrinal insight made by Clement that couldn't be found in the New Testament. The most interesting parts of the letter are the historical insights Clement provides us about Paul, the apostles, and the early churches. All things considered, I do not believe that this letter is vital for Christians.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Sanctification: What and How

Hello B--,

When it comes to sanctification, I think our differences with the traditional understanding are smaller than they might appear--at least in terminology and general idea. The means of sanctification is where there will likely be disagreement.

The concept of sanctification (or holiness) is multifaceted in the Bible. For instance, as you pointed out, sanctification can simply mean that I am set apart from the world at salvation. All Christians are sanctified and holy through faith in Christ (1 Cor. 1:2, Heb. 10:10). This is absolutely true, yet the Bible also speaks about sanctification in other ways, such as the task of making our actual behavior holy (set apart, different than the unbelieving world and in line with God's will). See, for example, 1 Thess. 4:1-8. So as long as both of these definitions of sanctification are being upheld, there should be no disagreement.

What sanctification is is one thing. The means for obtaining it is another. Regarding the first kind of sanctification we obtain it through faith alone in Christ at salvation. But what about the second kind? It is here that I find myself disagreeing with traditional interpretations.

Typically it is taught that when we become Christians we receive new natures, or the Holy Spirit/Christ/God comes and lives inside of us and automatically begins to change us from the inside out. This, in my opinion, is an unbiblical understanding of sanctification, though it has been preached for so long that it has basically become Biblical in people's minds. I personally can't find in Scripture (when considered carefully) anywhere that teaches sanctification is automatic and is caused by a new nature. This concept strikes me as magical. "I can give you no intelligible reason why I'm being changed, except that I have a new spiritual substance inside me." To be honest, I believe that almost all Christians who hold this view don't actually operate consistently with it, and will always look to other things to explain their sanctified behavior or lack thereof. While people say they have new natures, they will still say that they have to renew their minds, and that when they sin it is because their minds were not in the right place... which is exactly what I see the NT saying about the means of sanctification: it has to do with our minds being renewed, and our behavior follows our thinking.

I believe the Biblical means of the second kind of sanctification is by renewing our minds; that is, getting lies out and getting truth in, and then living our lives in the remembrance and consciousness of the truth. Walking by the Spirit means setting our minds on the things above. Walking by the flesh means the opposite: setting our minds on the old creation and how it functions apart from Christ. I'm not suggesting this is the only thing Christians need to consider and implement, but it is the foundational thing (as you've been hearing me say in my Galatians sermons). When I walk by faith in the truth, I put myself in a position to fulfill the will of God in my behavior. I can now hear all the other commands and exhortations and not be intimated or rebellious, and I have all the motivation I need to say no to sin and yes to what is proper. If, however, I attempt to fulfill those same commands and exhortations when I have a fleshly mindset, I will find myself anxious, rebellious, and will be defeated.

Christians agree on what sanctification is, but in theory we disagree over the means of being sanctified. But in practice I hear most Christians speak inconsistently with their new nature theory, hearing them basically attribute success or failure to the mind. I want to make the experience of all Christians explicit in theory, which will help them fight the right battle: the battle for the second kind of sanctification, which is waged in the mind.

Blessings, B--,

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Book Review: "Commentary on Galatians" by John Calvin

I very much enjoyed Calvin's commentary on Galatians. It is nothing less than fascinating to read a commentary on Galatians from the perspective of the 16th century by the great Protestant Reformer. For the most part, I found myself in agreement with Calvin, especially in the former parts of the letter (ch. 1-4); however, less so in the latter parts (ch. 5-6). Both Luther and Calvin were doing the best they could within the situation they lived, and they really did marvelously and should be commended. But they set the precedent in Protestantism--a precedent that has prevailed for five centuries--of misunderstanding Biblical assurance, repentance, flesh and Spirit, and what it means to take up one's cross and follow Jesus.

For Luther, Calvin and the commentators that have followed them, Paul combats the error of legalism and preaches the pure gospel of righteousness through faith alone until chapter 5 verse 13, at which point it is thought he takes a sharp turn and begins warning the Galatians about another error that can arise due to the gospel of grace: i.e. living sinfully because you are saved by grace (often called "license"). Paul, it is said, changes direction. Chapters 5-6 are no longer addressing legalism but license, and Christians need to watch out that they don't live sinfully lest they also forfeit salvation that way. To remain consistent with the gospel of grace, this is explained to mean that if you live sinfully it proves that you are not really a believer. Thus chapters 5-6 are about assurance: the evidence of salvation, which is a holy life.

It is unfortunate that Luther, Calvin, and so many commentators since them, failed to see that Paul was saying nothing of the sort. He wasn't turning to an altogether different error in chapter 5-6 than the one he had been dealing with beforehand. The entire book of Galatians is about legalism, and chapters 5-6 are no exception. Chapters 5-6 constitute the essential ethical argument for righteousness through faith alone against the false doctrine of righteousness through law. Paul is showing how walking by the Spirit (which means walking with your mind on the things of the Spirit--Romans 8:5--which things are Christ and the new creation--Colossians 3:1-4) actually produces a holy life, and that walking by the flesh (which means walking with your mind on the old creation--human effort attempting to fulfill the law for righteousness) is what produces the vile works of the flesh, which even the Galatians want to avoid. Paul hasn't changed direction at all.

It is such a shame that assurance of salvation has been sought for in our own selves and by the measure of our holy living, because this practically undercuts the power of the gospel to set us free from introspection and to give us joy and peace in the freedom of God's grace--the very thing that produces good works! Assurance, the apostle John tells us, comes only from faith in Jesus Christ, not from the holiness of our lives as is so commonly taught. Assurance is desperately needed by Christians in order to do any good works at all, for our assurance doesn't come from our works, but our works come from our assurance. And yet the very thing we need in order to do good works (assurance) is the very thing that so many tell us depends upon the doing of good works. And ironically, it is actually by evaluating our own good works that assurance is taken from us--and thus joy and peace are taken away, and consequently the doing of good works. Thus the secret of good works which Paul desires for us to see and experience in chapters 5-6 is completely nullified. This is what Christians have historically failed to understand.

Luther and Calvin definitely understood the gospel, and as a consequence of their preaching millions of people have been objectively set free and brought to salvation. But by their common oversights, these same Christians who have been saved because of their preaching have also been gripped by subjective bondage to the doctrine of assurance of salvation by works. We are left with a Church that is going to heaven, but that is struggling unnecessarily on the way there, and is being robbed of its joy, peace and power.

May the Church arrive at a true understanding of the book of Galatians, the doctrine of assurance, and the secret of good works.

Semper Reformanda.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Book Review: "How Good Do We Have to Be?" by Harold Kushner

This book is somewhat of a classic statement on what humanistic religion and wisdom thinks about God's righteous standards. Harold Kushner asks the all-important question and answers for the unregenerate world.

Actually, Kushner spends most of the book not answering the question the title of his book poses, but rather fills the pages telling us how good we don't have to be. According to Kushner, we don't have to be perfect, and contrary to the voice of our conscience God doesn't require perfection from us. Kushner gives no Scriptural justification for this. One is struck with the impression that throughout the book Kushner is merely giving us his own ideas while trying to give the appearance that he is getting such ideas out of the Bible. But in reality he does violence to the Scripture and attempts no real exegesis.

Kushner finally gives an extremely vague answer about how good we have to be - so vague it is almost impossible to relate. Was it that our good deeds must outweigh our bad? Or was it that we must only try to be good? It's hard to say. His answer is unclear, but this is basically the gist of what he points us to: God doesn't require perfection, He just requires you to do the best you can. But how do you know when you've done your best? Who knows.

Such an answer does three things: 1) it violates the teaching of Scripture, 2) it leaves people in inevitable uncertainty about the state of their soul, and 3) it keeps the door open for hypocritical and vain self-righteousness.

I strongly reject the conclusions of this book and encourage those who read this to find out from the Bible itself what God has to say about how good we have to be. Don't be deceived by false teachers who tell you that God requires less than perfection. According to the law of God moral perfection is indeed required (Deut. 4:1-2, 6:4, 25, 18:13, 29:29). Although none of us are morally perfect, this is because are inexcusably guilty. Yet the greatest news in the Bible is that Almighty God loves us sinners and atoned for our sins through the death of the Messiah and His Son, Yeshua. By putting our trust in His atonement we are forgiven and our sins will not condemn us. Only this honors the perfect law of God and shows us the amazing love and mercy of God. God does not compromise His justice, but satisfies it by the cross, which enables Him to justly forgive and justify sinners. This is the truth about God's judgment, and I urge everyone to believe it before it is too late.

Contrary to what Kushner says, we have to be morally perfect in order to be acceptable to God. This is precisely why we need salvation through the holy sacrifice of Yeshua the Messiah.