Holiness By Grace

Holiness By Grace by Bryan Chapell has been one of the most influential books on sanctification and living the Christian life that I have read. Chapell reminds us that not only are we saved by grace through faith, but we are also sanctified by grace through faith. To often we flee from the Grace of the Gospel to a “Christianity” that is marked by our striving in our own strength to live a holy life. This life is marked by discouragement, frustration, disappointment, shame, and guilt. Chapell reminds us that the power and motivation to live out the Christian life come from the Gospel of Grace. We aren’t performing, we aren’t trying to get God to like us or be pleased with us, or delight in us.  The joy that comes from knowing that in Christ, God delights in us and is pleased with us gives us strength and motivation to respond to what God has already done for us in Christ, instead of trying to secure it ourselves. I would highly recommend reading this book.

Interpreting the Parables in the Gospel of Mark

Dr. Hans Bayer, Professor of New Testament at Covenant Seminary, did a lecture on Interpreting the Parables in the Gospel of Mark. If you have 52 min. and 28 sec. it would be worth your time checking it out here. This is just a broad introduction to interpretation of parables in Mark, but I hope it will encourage you to spend more time in the parables in Mark.

Bayer has a forthcoming book on the Theology of Mark, that is on my “To Buy” list. Keep an eye out for it too.

How does all this fit together?

Have you ever looked at the Bible and thought, “How does all this fit together?” This is an honest question and many theologians have used the diversity of the Scriptures to force their views of disunity on Scripture. However, is there a theme that displays the unity of diversity in the Bible? Dr. John Frame of Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando highlights how Reformed theologians have found the covenant motif as a helpful way to see unity in Scripture:

Traditionally, these writers have found in Scripture two major covenants, sometimes called the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. The former embraces the pre-fall period. In it God offers an eternal life of blessedness (symbolized by the tree of life) to Adam and Eve on the condition that they abstain from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. After the fall into sin, God sets forth the covenant of grace: a promise of redemption through the divine Messiah received through faith alone. 

The covenant of grace, in turn, encompasses, on the traditional view, all the post-fall historical covenants, including those with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, and the “new covenant” effected by the blood of Jesus himself, of which the earlier covenants are but anticipations. 

On this understanding, the whole Bible, diverse in content as it may appear at first sight, can be seen as a story of God making covenants and man responding to them. The books of law show what God expects of his covenant people. The books of history indicate man’s actual response. The psalms contain the praise, the laments, the questionings, the blessings and cursings that should be on the lips of a covenant people. The wisdom books contain applications of the covenant lawsuit against the covenant-breakers while at the same time promising covenant renewal. The Gospels and Acts present the history of the new covenant, which is applied to believers and to world history in the Epistles and Revelation (John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, p.146-147)

I found this explanation helpful and I pray it blesses you. If this is true and I believe it is, how will we respond to the contra-conditional and covenantal love of our Triune God?

Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! (Psalm 34:8 ESV).

Completely and Unreservedly

Great post by Derick Thomas over at Reformation 21.

Completely and Unreservedly

From the post:

Within weeks of my conversion I came across Stott’s latest publication (published in 1972), Your Mind Matters. I vividly recall reading these words, “one of the most neglected aspects of the quest for holiness is the place of the mind.” In Basic Christianity, Stott had urged that in addition to a disciplined study of Scripture, Christians ought to “read good Christian books.”

Tolstoy & Dostoevsky: On Genuine and Lasting Change (2 of 2)

Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment are wonderful novels displaying the human condition in all its beauty and complexity. Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky fundamentally describe humanity in different ways, one positive and another negative. This blog series is an attempt at uncovering what the authors were trying to communicate in regards to what is wrong with humanity and what will make it right. Last week we looked at Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and this week we are looking at Dostoevsky’s outlook on humanity in Crime and Punishment.

A Murderer 

Crime and Punishment and Anna Karenina differ in many ways. Dostoevsky is focusing in on a poor urban area of St. Petersburg as opposed to the aristocratic quarters of Moscow or the countryside. This setting brings with it a darker look at the effects poverty can have on a society and the psychological stresses it puts on individuals. Crime and Punishment is a murder mystery, but the murderer is not the mystery, the psychological motive of the murderer is the mystery. Although there is a cat and mouse chase between the criminal Raskolnikov and the detective Porfiry, the reader is trying to figure out why Raskolnikov killed his neighborhood pawnbroker and her younger sister. Raskolnikov is an intelligent student who is currently taking a break from the University. Most of his time is spent in his poor apartment, the size of a closet, thinking through what he is about to do and then after the act, why he has done it. Raskolnikov has this theory that there are two types of people, the ordinary and the extraordinary. The ordinary are those who follow the customs and laws of the present in a citizen like fashion. The extraordinary are the few in history that lead the masses out of an old way of doing things into a new way. If the extraordinary way involves people dying, so be it, the future state of humanity will be better for it. Raskolnikov used Napoleon as an example of one who is extraordinary, forgetting armies in Egypt and taking thousands of lives in the name of human progress. Raskolnikov sees himself as a Napoleon type, an extraordinary human. His target is a pawnbroker who rips off poor people to the advancement of her wealth. He hopes to take the cash and goods from this pawnbroker and give them to the poor. Raskolnikov kills the pawn broker and is forced to kill her younger sister as well because she showed up at the wrong time. Its as if the younger sister is just a casualty of war, the cost of doing justice to the neighborhood. Joseph Frank comments on Raskolnikov while he is in this state of mind: “It is not only that his ideas run counter to the instinctive promptings of his moral-emotive sensibility; these ideas momentarily transform him into someone for whom moral conscience ceases to operate as part of his personality” (Frank, 489).

As the novel unfolds, clearly Raskolnikov did not murder the pawnbroker as a twisted way to execute social justice. He killed her because of his ego. Frank goes on to explain, “…he killed not for the altruistic-humanitarian motives he believed he was acting upon but solely because of a purely selfish need to test his own strength” (485). Raskolnikov comes to this awareness and is horrified by it. The reader is thrown through an emotional seesaw by seeing the dichotomy of Raskolnikov’s character. On the one hand he gives away money to the poorest of the poor so they can live and on the other hand, he takes the life of the rich in his neighborhood so his ego can live. There is this back and forth of what seems to be selflessness and selfishness, but even the small flickers of selflessness are shown to be a sham by Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky shows us a man who is beyond repair, even his best actions are as filthy rags compared to genuine goodness. But, there is Sonya!

A Harlot 

Sonya is the daughter of a drunk unemployed man with a large family. The children are starving and her father is not a good provider. There seems to be no immediate work for Sonya outside of prostitution and by sacrificing herself, her father continues to drink and her family is fed. Sonya is a complete outsider and one of her only friends was the pawnbroker’s daughter. She is sad over the lost of her friend and humiliated by her desperate situation. Raskolnikov comes to know her father and ends up being there at their home when Sonya’s father dies of an accident related to his drunkenness. Raskolnikov is aware of Sonya’s occupation and later comes to her because he feels like he cannot confide in anyone else. There they are in Sonya’s room, harlot and murderer, and Raskolnikov wants to know how she has the power to continually give sacrificially of herself so others can flourish? A Christian, Sonya shares her faith through the personalized reading of Lazarus’ revivification in the gospel account. This affected Raskolnikov and would eventually help lead him to repentance. Through a series of events, Raskolnikov finds himself back at the room of Sonya and she challenges Raskolnikov to repent and to embrace suffering. He has no other options outside taking his life and being a fugitive, neither are reasonable in light of what he has done and what Sonya has offered him. He has transgressed the law and is not above it, and yet someone close to him who owes him contrary to what he receives sticks with him through it all. He is an ordinary man and will only find resurrection through the unmerited love and affection of another. It is this type of grace Raskolnikov experiences from Sonya. She should have avenged her friend’s death and yet she entered Raskolnikov’s suffering, even by following him all the way to Siberia where he was imprisoned and eventually converted. Writing on this, Ernest Gordan wrote:

“By her faith the power of Grace that brought Lazarus from the corruption of the grave is repeated in the experience of Raskolnikov. He has the assurance that by this Grace he will be forgiven at the Last Judgment. He is thus liberated from the bondage of sin, guilt, and fear (Ernest Gordon, xiii).

Dostoevsky’s Outlook on Humanity 

Dostoevsky’s outlook on humanity is negative, there is nothing in humanity that will enable humans to fix themselves of the curse of sin. Tolstoy’s view of humanity, which was: Humans are able to correct their morality to the degree they align to proper belief structures contrasts Dostoevsky’s view of humanity: The inability to correct human morality outside a human’s experience of monumental grace. What makes Sonya’s grace monumental, is how she differs from Raskolnikov. Frank explains their difference well:

On the one side, there is the ethic of Christian agape, the total, immediate, and unconditional sacrifice of self that is the law of Sonya’s being (and Dostoevsky’s own highest value); on the other, there is Raskolnikov’s rational Utilitarian ethic, which justifies the sacrifice of others for the sake of the greater social good (Frank, 501-502).

What the reader finds in Sonya is a woman who continually thinks outside of herself to meet the needs of others. This was Dostoevsky’s highest value of humanity, and it only came through the experience of monumental grace. Sonya could only offer it to Raskolnikov because she had experienced it in a personal way through Christ. Christ did not abandon her in her suffering, he called her to repentance and then went with her in her suffering all the way to her furthest inner prison. It is this Grace that enabled Sonya to love Raskolnikov as she had been loved, not based on what was deserved, but loving contra-conditionally. Karl Notzel wrote in a German edition of The Gospel in Dostoevsky: Selections from His Works  “In his last great masterpieces Dostoyevsky shows the wounded soul the way to healing, which is to be unavenging. Such a person is thereby immediately immune to attack –– to the helpless amazement of all” (Notzel,192). Sonya is amazing to the reader, and it is her amazement that enables Roskolnikov to repent and embrace suffering for evil deeds. The amount of suffering was no longer crushing in light of the experience of grace, Dostoevsky writes:

But she was so happy that she almost became frightened of her happiness. Seven years, only seven years! At the beginning of their happiness there were moments when they were both ready to look at those seven years as if they were seven days (Dostoevsky, 550-551).

Tolstoy & Dostoevsky

In conclusion, Tolstoy has a positive outlook on humanity in the sense that whatever moral ills humans have, it is not beyond the individual to make itself well. This differs dramatically from Dostoevsky negative outlook on humanity. He views humanity as totally unable to heal itself, there must be an outside force applying pressure. The type of pressure that leaves genuine and lasting change is grace. Grace is defined as receiving contrary to what one deserves. The fundamental difference between the authors is articulated well by Mathews-Green when she writes, “Life is not sugar-coated in Tolstoy’s works; terrible things take place. But it can be argued that he lacks the profound understanding of evil that makes Dostoevsky’s work so powerful” (Mathews-Green, p. 580). Both Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment are powerful, they both offer a way of living that will be more beneficial than if they were not read at all. Yet, I think a hybrid of the two views of humanity would be appropriate for living. To be humble enough to know that true and lasting change will not happen in life apart from experiencing monumental acts of grace; and then to be sober enough to realize that happiness will not come in the realization of inordinate desires, but in a soul that is oriented on God and not on self.

Works Cited in Both Post

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Notzel, Karl; Muggeridge, Malcolm; Paker, J.I. Paker. Gordon, James. The Gospel in Dostoyevsky: Selections from His Works. Rifton: The Plough Publishing House, 2011.

Reynolds, John Mark. The Great Books Reader: Excerpts And Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization. Bloomington: Bethany House, 2011.

Mathews-Green, Frederica “On Anna Karenina”  (From The Great Books Reader)

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. New York: Penguin Group, 2000.

Yancey, Philip. “Be Ye Perfect, More or Less: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and the impossible Sermon on the Mount.” Christianity Today: July 17, 1975.

Tolstoy & Dostoevsky: On Genuine and Lasting Change (1 of 2)

How will you face tomorrow? What will atone for all the wrong you have ever done? These are the questions of two major characters in Western Literature, Levin and Raskolnikov. Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment are wonderful novels displaying the human condition in all its beauty and complexity. Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky fundamentally describe humanity in different ways, one positive and another negative. My next two blog posts are attempts at uncovering what the authors were trying to communicate in regards to what is wrong with humanity and what will make it right. Today we will look at Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and next week we will compare and contrast Tolstoy’s outlook on humanity with Dostoevsky’s outlook in Crime and Punishment.

In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy has written one of the best novels of all time; a story of grave individual conflict and societal consequences. Tolstoy’s artistry to depict the human condition and the world in which it lives is not outdone by many. There is a reason why this story continues to grab the imaginations of it’s readers. The settings keep the reader’s interest with force as it travels back and forth from the urban centers of nineteenth century Russia to the aristocratic farmlands. The plot of calamity and resolution is acted out by some of the most memorable characters of Russian literature. Yet, it is not only what Tolstoy brings to the table in regards to masterful descriptions and identifiable characters; it is Tolstoy’s genius of realism that threads all of the parts together to amount to a piece of literature that will continue to mold and shape minds and hearts for centuries to come.

Familial infidelity, unmet expectations, religious skepticism and the chase of inordinate desires light up the pages of Anna Karenina. Tolstoy writes of two families, one that dies and another that lives. Anna kills her marriage to Alexei Karenin by running away with a younger man, Alexei Vronsky. Levin, a countryman, wins the heart of his future wife Kitty, although through much adversity produced by Kitty’s earlier love for Vronsky (Anna’s later adulterous lover). Through these marriages Tolstoy gives us a vision of human experience, that of plight and resolution. Much can and ought to be said about all of these characters, but Levin will be the focus of seeing Tolstoy’s thoughts on humanity.

Levin: Suicide, Skepticism and Reorientation

Levin owns an estate in the country away from what he would call the Babylonian nature of Moscow. His character is conservitive and morally upright, yet he is free enough to chase love until it crushes him. In the beginning of the novel, Levin is devastated by Kitty’s refusal of his proposal because she was enchanted by Vronsky. Later after Vronsky breaks Kitty’s heart with his infatuation for Anna, Levin eventually marries Kitty. However, he is eventually ruined again by unmet expectations for family life and a crippling skepticism that leaves him in suicidal despair because he cannot find answers to the most important questions of faith and the divine. Tolstoy describes this despair when he writes: “. . . Levin was several times so close to suicide that he hid a rope lest he hang himself with it, and was afraid to go about with a rifle lest he shoot himself . . . he lived not knowing and not seeing any possibility of knowing what he was and why he was living in the world” (Tolstoy, 789 & 791). Here is a man who is teetering on the cliff of his existence.  He has a young family he has always dreamed of having and yet there is a darkness over his life that feels like it will never lift. How is Levin changed? How is he restored? What is the solution to the obvious plight of man through Tolstoy’s eyes?

Levin does not give in to his inclinations to commit suicide, he finds the power within himself to continue living even when life is filled with thoughts of death. Then a different type of thought comes to his mind, an epiphany of life changing power: “. . . one should not live for one’s needs – that is, one should not live for what we understand, for what we’re drawn to, for what we want – but for something incomprehensible, for God, whom no one can either comprehend or define” (795). Levin was caught in a web of doubts because he inordinately wanted to have a comprehensive comprehension of who he was in relation to God. Yet, Levin finds relief and restoration through embracing his finitude in comparison to God’s infinite nature. Tolstoy’s vision of humanity’s restoration is that of reorientation to God, but where does the power to do so come from? Levin goes on to answer this question:

“I haven’t discovered anything. I’ve only found out what I know. I’ve understood that power which not only gave me life in the past but is giving me life now. I am freed from deception, I have found the master . . . but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it” (796 & 817).

The circumstances of Levin’s suffering led him to the thought of needing to refocus his desires on God and not on self. Tolstoy’s vision of humanity is seen in Levin’s restoration of life and sanity; Levin is the one who held the power to exercise his faith and the reordering of his being away from himself towards his Creator. The Kingdom of God was within Levin and he was successful in unearthing and appropriating this power.

Can We Really Fix Ourselves?

Tolstoy’s outlook on humanity is definitely positive in the sense that although the world is a broken place, filled with broken people, it is not beyond repairing itself. John Mark Reynolds picks up on Tolstoy’s perception of humanity in a book he edited, titled The Great Books Reader, by writing:

“He shows us most of the errors we’re likely to commit in our personal lives, and he spares us nothing. However, he does not seem to believe in any original corruption . . . any sin that cannot be blamed on upbringing or bad personal choices. Can we really fix ourselves? Can we really see what needs to be seen and do what needs to be done? Tolstoy suggests we can, even though the road will be long and arduous” (Reynolds, 588).

Reynolds is quick to mention Tolstoy does not shy away from using his gift for realism in describing humanity’s personal errors, but at the same time questions Tolstoy’s ability to put forth a realistic solution to the depths of error humanity creates. When many people read Tolstoy, they accept his descriptions of plight solution in the same way his descriptions of plight are accepted. Why is this? Frederica Mathewes-Green writes in her article, “On Anna Karenina” within The Great Books Reader: Lionel “Trilling believes Tolstoy’s expectation – that there is some good in every ordinary person – feels to us like reality because it is the reality we want” (Mathewes-Green, 580). Trilling is talking about the good in which Tolstoy suggests Levin is able to tap into for the reorientation of his whole being as a way of resolution and restoration. If humanity can fix themselves, if the power for genuine and lasting change is within, then why did God need to come from heaven to earth in Jesus Christ to do a necessary work for humanity’s behalf? A biographer of Tolstoy expressed that he had a:

“fundamental theological inability to understand the Incarnation. His religion was ultimately a thing of law rather than of grace, a scheme for human betterment rather than a vision of God penetrating a fallen world” (A.N. Wilson, quoted in Yancey’s “Be Ye Perfect, More or Less: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and the impossible Sermon on the Mount”).

Although Tolstoy might not dive deep enough into the Christian gospel as a means for restoration, he is right in his assessment of the dehumanizing effects of a heart that is not oriented on God. Tolstoy is not the only Russian author who is able to capture the realities of human experience. Dostoevsky, who thought Anna Karenina was a perfect piece of art, goes even deeper into the realm of human depravity and comes out with miraculous new creations of the self in Crime and Punishment. More on Dostoevsky next week!

Reformed Theology? There’s an App for That

Announcing the Ligonier App for iPhone & iPod Touch
by Karisa Schlehr

The new (and free) Ligonier App keeps you connected to the teaching fellowship of R.C. Sproul.

With the Ligonier App, you will be able to:

  • Listen to or watch the Renewing Your Mind daily broadcast and archive.
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  • Enjoy thousands of free messages, articles and devotionals in the Learn section.
  • View learning resources grouped by Topic, Teacher, Scripture or Type. You’ll find great teaching from leading pastors and theologians such as Alistair Begg, Sinclair Ferguson, John MacArthur, Albert Mohler, John Piper, Ravi Zacharias and many more.
  • Stay up-to-date with more articles, devotionals, and Ligonier Ministries news and events from our blog.

Plus, share anything you find with your friends on Facebook, Twitter or email.

Download the free Ligonier App in the iTunes App Store.

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