September 2009


Here’s the second part of the post I started last week on good works.  This part comes after a wonderful discussion, which has given me some helpful insights on the letter.  Any reading this who are fellow NC State/Meredith students are encouraged to come.  It has been fun and insightful.
The first part of this post can be found here.

A basic recap:  Many strands of protestantism have been quite uneasy with the notion of “good works,” envisioning the rather ugly strand of medieval catholicism which contained elements of earning or even purchasing salvation.  In rejecting these excesses, we sometimes miss the message of Paul, who was very concerned that faith work itself out with good, christian service.  This series is an exploration of the nature of good works in Titus, noting as I did previously that good works is more than simply small, discrete good deeds.  In addition, I’d like to note that good works can mean something broader, perhaps akin to our usage when we use a phrase like, “my life’s work.”

With that established, we may move forward into Titus 2.  Paul begins with the statement, “but you, teach that which fits with healthy (or sound) doctrine.”  He then launches into things which fit with sound doctrine.  He makes a distinction between the two: doctrine and practice.  However he also weaves the two together.  In this case, we have behavior which is expected of various groups of people, divided here by gender and age.  In these divisions, I see Paul’s pastoral sensitivities.  While we are all one in Christ (Gal 3:28) different people are subject to different expressions of the fallen nature.

These instructions on christian behavior work their way back to doctrine in verse 10.  One of the reasons for christian service and behavior is to “adorn the doctrine of God our savior” (this instruction is given to slaves, but I think Paul is applying a general principle to a specific situation).  Our behaviors and attitudes are to make the christian faith attractive.  We then launch back into an exposition of doctrine, “For the grace of God appeared, bringing salvation to all people.” Notice the connecting for.  He continues, saying that this grace trains us to reject ungodliness and live upright lives.  Furthermore, we do these things in eager expectation for the revealing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.  We then get a glimpse of God’s purpose in sending Christ, “to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”  There are allusions here to some of Paul’s other writings.  Galatians 1:4 is paralleled, as is Ephesians 2:10.  I’m convinced these allusions do matter, and allow us to bring those letters to bear on what Paul is saying here.  That said, I haven’t yet figured out how that works out.  I’m thinking I’ll explore it more on a post devoted to good works in general.  Chapter 3 is chocked full of allusions to other Pauline writings.  At the very least, there are parallels worth exploring.

In summing up this post, Titus 2 shows us that doctrine and practice, while certainly distinct, belong very closely together.  Our christian service and behavior is intended to make the christian faith attractive to others.  This outward expression is only possible because “the grace of God appeared.”  Christian service must not be divorced from recognizing the God’s grace working in us.  Nor can good works be dismissed with a notion of cheap grace, since us being empowered to do good works is a central reason for the grace of God appearing!  I’ll be exploring that idea more in subsequent posts.

~alex

In this 2-3 part series I want to look at what Paul has to say in Titus about, “good works.”  As I’ve noted before, we’re going through Paul’s letters in the bible study I’m a part of, so it’s a perfect time to reflect on this letter.  Since the book itself may get split into two weeks, I see no reason to constrain myself to a single post.  :-)

Since the reformation, many in the protestant church have been wary of “good works” because they bring back memories of a rather distorted form of catholicism, which indeed did have some elements of earning (or buying at points) your salvation.  Much of the protestant rhetoric was framed in this context.  It was against these excesses that much of protestant theology was formed.  I fear that at times we’ve been so zealous for faith we’ve neglected it’s proper outworking.  In this examination of Titus, I’m hoping to get closer to letting Paul’s writing guide us on the topic.

First of all, I don’t think Paul’s teachings on “good works” in anyway contradict his teaching on “justification by faith.”  Understood properly, one is a direct result of the other.  In fact, throughout Paul’s writings, we see very clearly that one of the reasons God saves us is so that we can do his work on the earth, which goes all the way back to our original vocation as given in Genesis.  I want to look at how how this plays out in Titus.

Paul begins the letter with doctrine, which is not strange for him.  1:1-3 give a giant picture of God and his mission for and in his people.  After the greeting, he then moves into practical instructions for Titus.  He gives qualifications for elders, covering everything from family life to alcohol and business, and finally their doctrine.  Next we move into the first passage where works are explicitly mentioned, although the theme arguably started earlier.  Here, Paul sharply denounces the heretical groups within the Cretan church, which seem to largely be comprised of some mixture of Judaism and paganism.  The “circumcision group” is explicitly named; Paul is thus opposing the claim that gentile converts have to obey torah after coming to faith, especially laws pertaining to circumcision and food.  He may have other opponents, but these dominate his thinking.

Paul gives a dense statement in 1:15 that helps explain the matter of works.  “To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; both their minds and their consciences are defiled.” Here he echoes the teaching of Jesus who communicates a similar point in Luke 6:45, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”  The problem with his opponents is that even though they claim to know God, they betray this claim with their actions.  They are guilty of all sorts of things, as Paul points out early in 1:10.  They are defiled, and thus everything they set out to do is defiled.  A bad tree cannot produce good fruit, only a good tree can.  Likewise those who are not pure cannot “do purity.”  Paul doesn’t remind Titus of how that happens, but the point is clear.  Proper good work is impossible for those whose “minds and consciences are defiled.”

A brief aside on the word “work.”  For me, when I hear the words, “good works”, I immediately picture in my head small, quite discrete “good deeds.”  Giving money to someone in need at an intersection, or helping someone study even though you’re tired, etc.  While I think that kind of thing is very important to his message, I think the word here can connote something a little bit broader than a collection of “discrete good deeds.”  I think that it can also mean something bigger, like labor, or even the word, “work” in the singular (my life’s work as an example).  The greek word for work often shows up in the context of labor.  It would be beneficial for us if we melded together the concepts of moral good deeds and solid, hard work/labor back together.  I think these ideas are much closer than we imagine in scripture, perhaps even two sides of the same word ;-)  (disclaimer: I’m a Greek newbie here).

Entering in this book giveaway

Maybe, just maybe ;-)

The bible study I’m a part of took a look at Paul’s letter to Philemon this week, so I’m going to reflect here a bit after my study and our discussion.  I definitely have a lot to grow in terms of bible study participation.  I neither communicated well nor listened well.  Hopefully that will change as the study progresses. 

First, I had this letter memorized in the NIV (from participating in teen bible quiz), so I was most familiar with that translation.  As I ventured out beyond the NIV, I tried to look at some other translations, and the underlying Greek.  Verse 5 in particular jumped out to me, which I rendered as, “I hear about the love and faithfulness that you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints.”  That doesn’t quite bring out the distinction between Jesus and the saints (Paul uses two different words which can be translated as toward), but this seemed more vibrant than the NIV’s “because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints.”  Notably, I think Paul is commenting on Philemon’s love and faithful loyalty toward the saints and toward Jesus.  Philemon is demonstrating loving faithfulness in his actions toward God and God’s people, enough so for Paul to hear about it. 

Verse 6 also made more sense as I studied it further, “I pray that the fellowship/partnership (gk koinonea) of your faith would effectively grow toward the knowledge of every good thing that’s ours in Christ.”  Seeing the Greek word koinonea excited me, because it brings out tones of not just partnership, which Tom Wright highlights, but also of rich, Christian fellowship.  Both the ESV and the NIV render the beginning of the verse to like this, “I pray the sharing of your faith would be…” To me, the term “sharing your faith” seems foreign to the New Testament but very common in contemporary evangelical lingo.  Perhaps that’s why Tom Wright, Eugene Peterson, and the TNIV translate along the lines of “partnership” instead of “sharing your faith.”  For me, this fits in better with the rest of the letter, which is not primarily concerned with evangelism (though evangelism is important!) but with the reconciliation of a runaway slave to his master, which will hopefully result in liberation for Onesimus.  Among other things, this would mean that Onesimus could continue helping Paul in Philemon’s place (verse 13)  Verse 7 brings out the depth of joy and affection which Paul feels toward Philemon.  It’s clear that Philemon is a very dear friend in the Lord, and that Paul is deeply encouraged and joyful because of his vibrant, godly life. 

This, I think forms the basis of the appeal for Onesimus.  He appeals on the basis of love (verse 8), on the basis of a deep affection and encouragement (verse 7), and on the basis of a shared partnership and fellowship in the gospel (verse 6).  This is why Paul can make a very bold appeal to Philemon.  Of course, this love is not just toward Philemon, but also toward Onesimus, whom he calls, “my very heart.” (verse 12)  Paul cares deeply for both, and for their sakes and the sake of the Gospel he makes the appeal for reconciliation (there’s interesting connections here with 2 Corinthians, perhaps worth exploring elsewhere).  Paul also drops subtle hints of their equal standing before God, which he develops elsewhere in Colossians and Ephesians.  He wishes that Onesimus could “take your [Philemon’s] place” in helping Paul, and urges Philemon to welcome him back, “as much more than a slave, and a brother in the Lord!”  The deeply subversive nature of the christian gospel fascinates me.  Paul recognizes the legal and practical bases on which Philemon could punish or even kill Onesimus, but he urges him to consider the Gospel, to consider what I have done for you, to consider our koinonea in the faith.  These clearly trump the reasons which come from an earthly point of view (what about the other slaves; our economy is based on slavery! etc).  Paul persuades christianly.  He doesn’t lord his authority over Philemon (though he does remind him of their past together).  That’s one thing I think we need to learn from Paul: how to persuade christianly.  As christians, we have to learn not to beat people up with scripture (or anything else).  Instead we have to argue on the basis of love and affection.  We have to persuade in the shining light of what Jesus has accomplished.  To beat people up or “lord over people” in the name of Jesus, even for something good, is to undermine the faith we declare (especially when we beat up our brothers and sisters!).  God, help us sort this out!

But of course, the greatest theme we see here is the theme of reconciliation.  The ministry of reconciliation which we have been given is astounding.  As God made his appeal through the apostles, “be reconciled to God!” so he continues to do into the present age.  We are to be his ambassadors, his peacemakers, his agents of reconciliation.  Undoubtedly, this won’t be easy.  Sin is nasty.  The full fruition of sin in the fall works out into a fractured and divided humanity.  We have blood feuds which go back generations.  Yet, we must hear God’s desire for reconciliation, and prayerfully step between the slave and his master, all in the name of Jesus, motivated by His love and power.  The world desperately needs this news.  Reconciliation won’t be quick or easy.  Indeed, we won’t see its full fruition until the parousia, until God puts the whole world to rights, but we absolutely have to anticipate it now, because our labor is not in vain:  Happy are the peacemakers, because they will be called children of God. 

I wanted to record a few little bits as I go along reading N.T. Wright’s book on Justification. More will be coming as I continue to read through the book. Hopefully I’ll get to write a review of the whole book once I finish.

I just finished up his bit of exegesis on Corinthians. His reading of 2 Corinthians 5 I found challenging, as I often do when I read Wright. I think he’s correct in his exegesis, but it does fly in the face of how I’ve heard that passage read and read it myself for years. However, it makes much more sense of the text. As I recall, the argument is basically that the end of 2 Cor 5 (especially the "that we might become the righteousness of God" part) is the climax to the 3 chapter long expose on the nature of his apostleship. The we here functions first to refer to the apostles. The point of becoming the righteousness of God is not so much we’re not going to hell, or we’re pardoned from sin, or that we’re going to heaven but that through the apostles (and in turn the whole church) God is making his plea of reconciliation to the world, God is displaying his covenant faithfulness in us (faithfulness to the covenant is Wright’s definition of righteousness as understood in second temple Judaism and early Christianity). We have made the primary focus of this passage what Paul has made the implicit, underlying assumption. Paul is not talking primarily about what happens to us when we become Christians, he’s rather discussing his apostolic calling, and indeed the call of the entire church. By dying and rising with Christ, by the washing of baptism and the seal of the Holy Spirit, in the power and wisdom of the Spirit we call out to the world: "be reconciled to God!" As usual, Wright’s reading of the text, though not always agreeing with the Protestant tradition which I’ve grown up in, does give me the "Aha!"’ moment. Scripture makes much more sense than it did before.

His comments on Ephesians, too were interesting. In our Protestant zeal to divorce soteriology (how we get saved) from ecclesiology (our beliefs about the church), we’ve lost the New Testament’s very high ecclesiology. Frankly, it’s hard for me to reconcile Paul’s picture of a glorified church with our rather spotty track record over the past 2,000 years. I suppose that’s another part of learning to live with the eschatological tension, the tension which groans in the present because we’ve experience a down payment of what’s to come. I do find it comforting that the primitive church was far less perfect than we sometimes imagine it. Paul too, as he wrote Ephesians, knew that the church was not perfect. He knew that racial tensions were rampant, and that false prophets and teachers abounded. His letters to the Corinthians showed how "colorful" the church could be. Yet he still paints the broad, view of a jew+gentile church, one which is seated in heavenly places with Christ, which is, indeed, the bride of Christ. It’s a fascinating picture which Paul paints for us, and understanding the jew+gentile tension certainly helps it resonate more deeply within me.

Thanks for reading!

[This was composed for and originally posted on my campus ministry’s website: http://xa-ncsu.com/blog/post/38 on August 26, 2009]

A few words are in order before I dive into the text. First, welcome! I’m hoping that this blog will be, among other things, a delightful record of our study of God. More than that, I’m hoping that it will be a challenging record of God’s study of us. As we gaze upon God, we are hopefully challenged, inspired, amazed, and humbled. We feel love and love; receive grace, and give it. What I hope to highlight in this post, primarily through the letter of Galatians, is the familial aspects of the Trinity. More specifically, I want to examine the role the Holy Spirit plays in God’s family. Hopefully this will help us as a group relate better to the person of the Holy Spirit, and better understand his role as a member of the Trinity.

Because I’m drawing mostly from Galatians, a little bit of context for the letter is due. This is one of Paul’s first letters, written to a young and budding group of believers in Galatia, a church which Paul himself had founded. The church was budding, but also had problems. While the church was predominately Gentile (non Jewish), a group of people, presumably Jews, were throwing young Christians into confusion. These people were insisting that faith in Jesus was not enough, that what truly marked God’s family was the Jewish law, especially circumcision. This was causing all sorts of dissension within the church, creating division rather than unity. Paul spent most of his effort addressing this problem.

Paul responds by first establishing his authority. Although he formerly persecuted the church, he had had an experience with the risen Jesus that was separate from those of the 12 apostles. He had received revelation directly from Jesus; he hadn’t made up the gospel or gotten it from someone else. Nevertheless, he was in agreement with the other apostles. He had stayed with them on several occasions.

In chapter 3, Paul launches into a detailed examination of the Old Testament. His goal here is to show that everyone, whether Jew or Gentile, is to be part of God’s family. Nothing more is required. In fact, by going further, one is in danger of separating what God intended to be joined. Paul goes back to Abraham, arguing that the promise given to Abraham is not set aside by the Mosaic law. Rather, the law was “put in charge to lead us to Christ.” His entire is argument is beyond the scope of this post, but I believe his goal in chapter 3 is to get to verse 26: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” He wants the Galatians to realize that they are already members of God’s family. Because of Christ’s work, all of those with faith in Christ Jesus are part of the family. Faith becomes the determining marker of God’s family. It’s not circumcision, gender, or social status: only faith.

Chapter 4 begins by noting that, not only are we children, but we have received an inheritance. This inheritance is the “spirit of his son … by which we call out ‘Daddy! Father!'” By the time he returns to Old Testament discussion in verse 21, he continues to discuss family. This time, he uses the story of Hagar and Sarah to illustrate the fact that they are children of the promise, not the children born into slavery. This in turn launches into a discussion of Christian liberty in chapter 5. Finally, in chapter 6 he exhorts them to keep running the race, to focus on the cross of Christ, to not give up or give in.

And where is the Holy Spirit in this? His activity pervades throughout Paul’s thinking and writing. The aspect I wish to bring light to is the Spirit’s activity in the family of God. For Paul, the Holy Spirit is intimately connected with the becoming a Christian, with becoming part of the family. In chapter 4, he declares that, just as Isaac was born by the power of the Spirit, so were we. Also, the Spirit does what the law cannot, impart life. What strikes me is not only how personal the Holy Spirit is, but how active he is in the family of God. The Eastern Orthodox churches, which have historically had a much fuller view of the Holy Spirit than the West, have sometimes caricatured the Western view of God as “two guys and a bird.” But we see the Holy Spirit birthing us as sons and daughters, imparting our very life in God, our breath in God. We see him bearing witness to this with miracles. We see this all on the basis of faith in the Jesus, and not our background. As we try to walk by the Spirit, may we not view him as a mysterious force, or as somehow less a person that the Father and the Son. Instead, may we walk with him as he is, a vivacious, active God who births, marks, and testifies to our membership in the family of God, who empowers us to overcome the sinful nature, and in whom we eagerly await the judgment day, the day where God will put the whole world to rights and fulfill new creation.

So this is my first post in the biblioblogging world. I look forward to joining a community, indeed a conversation, which I’ve immensely enjoyed following thus far. My hope here is to grow in faith as I wrestle with ideas. Writing forces me to think a bit more coherently than I would otherwise. My reflections will likely pertain to biblical studies, but will likely venture off that path at certain points. Hopefully, there will be plenty of exegesis. My hope is to dig into the biblical world(s) and hear the words as they were originally heard. I pray I’ll have ears to hear and eyes to see. To this end I’m studying koine Greek. I’m having a blast so far (and trying not to bug those around me ;-) )

I’ll also be reflecting on the books I read. I could sit in a bookstore for hours, and I give a fair amount of my paycheck to amazon. I’m rather blessed to have access to several university libraries (including the Duke Divinity one!), so I’m hoping this blog will spur on more, quality reading.  I’m hoping too my writing will improve! Being a computer science major means that I don’t have the outlet for the humanities I once had, so keeping my communication skills sharp will be quite helpful. I’ll finish this inaugural post off with a list of what I’m reading or studying:

  • Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision – N.T. Wright
  • Basics of Biblical Greek (and workbook) – Bill Mounce
  • My Utmost for His Highest – Oswald Chambers
  • ESV Study Bible (Strange because I’m thoroughly Arminian and probably more egalitarian than anything else; still a treat to have)

Some unfinished works:

  • Confessions – St Augustine. I’m working through these very slowly
  • Cost of Discipleship- Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Temporary hiatus.

Well, a prayer of dedication is in order. To you, triune God, I devote these writings. May I write as one having insight into the mystery of Christ, which you, O Father, have poured into us by the Holy Spirit. May I think and act as christian, as one who bears the image of the triune God, as one who has been forgiven, and as one who eagerly anticipates the renewal of all things, the parousia, the new creation. To you, blessed God, be all glory, all power, all honor, and all strength. Amen.