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Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Part II) (Review Thursday #4)

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[For my review of Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG) Part I, click here.]

Having placed Paul within his Jewish, Greek, and Roman contexts in Part I of PFG, N. T. Wright discusses Paul’s worldview in Part II before moving onto Paul’s Theology in Part III. To Wright, four basic components comprise Paul’s worldview: praxis, symbol, story, and question. Since these worldview elements are the subject of PFG Part II, Wright’s treatment of them is the subject of this review.

In chapter 6, Wright discusses praxis and symbol together because “in Paul’s day praxis was symbol, and symbol praxis” (353). What does Wright mean, then, by the combined term, “symbolic praxis”? “The point about symbols [and thus about symbolic praxis],” Wright writes in the next paragraph, “is that they are everyday things that carry more than everyday meanings.” The first part of chapter 6 after its introduction focuses on the symbolic praxes of Judaism, Greek culture, and the Roman empire. This discussion was helpful, especially its discussion of Judaism. Interestingly, Wright argues that Paul like his fellow Jews expanded the land promise God made to Abraham to encompass the entire cosmos (366-367). Fair enough. But as the speakers at Chosen People Ministries’ 2013 conference, The People, the Land, and the Future of Israel, maintained in their presentations, enlarging the original promise does not make the original promise null and void. Ethnic Israel still has a special place within God’s plan for the world, as Paul himself (contrary to Wright) upholds. As for Paul’s uniquely Christian symbolic praxis, Wright rightfully emphasizes the two ordinances (though he calls them “sacraments”), baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Wright’s lengthy discussion of baptism (417-427) is helpful for its emphasis on baptism as

community-marking symbol, which the individual then receives, not first and foremost as a statement about him- or herself, but as a statement which says, “This is who we are.” (421, italics in original)

Nevertheless, Wright wrongly affirms that while baptism’s “primary point … is not so much ‘that it does something to the individual,’ … it does” (426). Wright, along with other sacramentalists (pro-infant baptizers), misunderstands baptism to have a grace-imparting effect, when really it functions as a symbolic re-enactment of the new birth. Although Wright discusses Col. 2:12, which teaches this reality about baptism, he allows his prior convictions about baptism to trump the plain reading of the text. I do not, however, want to end my discussion of chapter 6 negatively. Wright’s brief discussion on suffering (431-436) is excellent; he even refers to suffering as “the final main category of [Paul’s] praxis” (431). Most edifying is Wright’s statement concerning 2 Cor. 12:7-10 — “Exactly in line with the redefinition of power and authority in Mark 10.25-45, Paul believes that apostolic life consists not only in telling people about the dying and rising of the Messiah, but also in going through the process oneself” (433). This is a truth of which I constantly need reminding. I hope quoting it here will help you, as well. This chapter on Paul’s symbolic praxis was thus largely helpful.

Chapter 7 is devoted to the story behind Paul’s worldview. “Story” seems to be one of Wright’s favorite subjects, and he tries to set himself apart by making the debate over Old and New Perspectives on Paul about “whether the underlying narrative which we have seen to be so powerful for so many (not all) Jews in Paul’s day was taken over, modified or simply abandoned” (460). Wright here seems to be setting up a straw man. Although he accuses Old Perspective scholars of making Paul “ditch everything about his previous worldview, theology and culture,” I can think of two Old Perspective (if I must use labels) scholars whom I deeply respect who are guilty of no such crime. Dr. Thomas R. Schreiner’s recent biblical theology, The King in His Beauty, is unapologetically narratival, and Schreiner argues that Paul and the other New Testament writers viewed Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament narrative. Similarly, Dr. James Hamilton in “The Skull-Crushing Seed of the Woman,” which I have reviewed, argues that the Old Testament as a whole is a messianic document whose hope Jesus fulfills. The main argument of chapter 7 is Wright’s construal of Paul’s underlying worldview narrative. From the largest perspective, Paul’s narrative is about God and creation (475-485) — no quibbles there. The more Wright zoomed in, however, the more I found with which to disagree. Zooming into humanity (485-494), Wright sets up his too-heavily-depended-on reconstruction of the story of Israel (495-505). The main problem with Wright’s Israel narrative is his repeated assertion that the story of Israel is “the story of God’s people, of Abraham’s people, as the people through whom the creator was intending to rescue his creation” (495, italics in original). This, as I mentioned in my review of Part I, overreaches the biblical evidence. Biblically, God always intended to rescue his creation (and his people – who in Adam were already sinful!) through the Messiah Jesus, who, yes, admittedly sprang from Israel, from Abraham. But God’s plan was never for corporate Israel to rescue creation but for Israel’s representative (himself by human birth an Israelite), Jesus, to rescue creation. Zooming in even closer to the core of the narrative is Wright’s discussion of Torah (505-516). This helped temper some of Wright’s more extreme statements regarding Israel, but he seemed to confuse (as Denny Burk has argued elsewhere in another context) the meaning with the implication of “righteousness.” Wright consistently renders “righteousness” in Paul’s writings as “covenant membership.” Membership in the people of God, however, is not what righteousness means but what righteousness results in. This chapter’s story concludes with a discussion of Jesus, which I was glad to see included a paragraph (but only a paragraph!?) on the fact that Jesus’ death and resurrection frees us from our imprisonment to sin (518-519). Thus, while there are significant flaws with Wright’s retelling of Paul’s worldview story (I agree more with Schreiner’s and Hamilton’s interpretations), it was nevertheless edifying.

In chapter 8, Wright discusses how Paul’s worldview addresses five of the six worldview analysis questions (because the sixth, “why?” “will take [Paul], and us, from worldview to theology” [538]).

  1. Who are we? Wright’s understanding of Paul’s answer to this question is rather good: “We are the Messiah’s people, defied by our membership ‘in’ him, marked out by our sharing of his pistis, celebrating our status as having died and been raised ‘with’ him, living in the ‘age to come’ which he has inaugurated” (544). Of course, there is the troubling notion of what “sharing Jesus’ faith” means (which will come out fully in Part III), as well as a continued emphasis on the Israel story, Wright’s understanding of which I have already critiqued above.
  2. Where are we? Wright’s answer is the standard Christian answer: We live in the time when Jesus has already inaugurated God’s kingdom without yet consummating God’s kingdom. (Wright already answered this question in short form by saying that we are “living in the ‘age to come’ which he has inaugurated” above.)
  3. What’s wrong? Death — which is a right answer but not the best answer. Death is the result of sin. Sin is the ultimate problem. Here I (and Paul!) disagree with Wright.
  4. What’s the solution? The resurrection from the dead, which Jesus will accomplish at his second coming on the basis of his own resurrection from the dead in his first coming. Again, this right solution points beyond the problem of death to the larger problem of sin. The reason we won’t die in our resurrection bodies is because death itself will be destroyed by virtue of the new heavens and the new earth being free from the very presence of sin.
  5. What time is it? We live now in “messianic time, a new sort of time” (558, italics in original). What does Wright mean? “Maturity lies in the celebration of messianic time within the muddle and mystery of the present age” (562). To use Paul’s clearer language: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:4-5). We have spiritually died and spiritually been raised with Christ, which our baptism declares, and until he returns to resurrect our bodies we strive to live in the newness of life his resurrection has given us by faith.

To conclude, I reiterate a point from my review of Part I: as a historian, Wright is flawless, and flaws his appear only as we move from history to theology (and in this section, in worldview analysis). Almost halfway through Part III, I can say that the mixed bag of good and bad theological points only grows from here, but Wright’s book is proving to be a profitable read, as Schreiner and Hamilton have found to be the case with his earlier works, which I myself haven’t read. The most helpful takeaway from Part II, I believe, is this: Wright rightly emphasizes the importance of Paul’s (Christian) worldview, and it is important for all of us Christians to have a worldview based on the Bible that interacts with the worldviews around us in our broader culture. I hope to use Wright’s discussion of Paul’s worldview in Part II of Paul and the Faithfulness of God to help me refine and articulate better my own worldview, which I pray is as close to Paul’s as possible.


Walking the Wise Way (Wisdom Wednesday #3)

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One of my favorite poems is Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” It begins,

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth; (lines 1-5)

Frost is talking metaphorically about one’s life journey. Throughout life, you make choices that determine your “way.” These choices can be simple and bear little consequence. What shirt will I wear? Do I want fries with that burger? Those choices can be more complex and have significant consequences. Do I stay single or get married? Do I attend college after high school or immediately embark on a career? The most important choice of all has eternal consequences. Will I take God at his word, the Bible, and follow Jesus as my Savior and Lord? How you answer this question will determine not only your eternity but the rest of your life. And the wrong answer could easily lead to the “worldly grief” that “produces death” instead of “repentance” (2 Cor. 7:10, ESV, as are all subsequent Bible references), which is the kind of regret Frost expresses at the end of “The Road Not Taken”:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. (lines 16-20)

Frost’s regret is expressed in his “sigh” and in the fact that he has entitled this poem, nostalgically as it were, “The Road Not Taken.” A major theme in Proverbs is the “two ways” to live life, the wise way and the foolish way. The foolish way leads to regret, like Frost’s road “less traveled by,” and ultimately eternal death, whereas the wise way leads to joy, like Frost’s “road not taken” presumably would, and ultimately eternal life. Which way will you choose? That is the question Proverbs poses to us.

Proverbs exhorts us to choose to walk the wise way of pursuing God. According to Proverbs 21:6, “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the heart.” We can justify anything we do, but what matters is whether God justifies us. As we read elsewhere in Proverbs,

Those of crooked heart are an abomination to the LORD,
but those of blameless ways are his delight. (11:20)

The way of the guilty is crooked,
but the conduct of the pure is upright. (21:8)

In other words, God delights in the pure, the blameless, the upright; he hates the crooked and justly condemns them as guilty. The wise way is the way of loving God and loving others, to sum up the Old Testament as Jesus does in Matthew 22:34-40. The foolish way is the way of rebelling against God and harming others.

When taken in the context of the whole Bible, the foolish way is the road we’re all traveling from birth. The Ephesian Christians, prior to their conversion, Paul writes, “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:3). Paul here tells us that we’re all naturally under God’s wrath, we’re all an abomination to him, because we’re all foolish and crooked; to use Paul’s phrasing in Ephesians, “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh,” which means we were living in rebellion against God. And James adds that the cause of human conflict–failure to keep the second greatest commandment–is our “passions” (Jas. 4:1). We’re all sinful, all foolish, all on the way to hell.

But the good news of the gospel is that Jesus offers a way–the only way–off of the path of folly and onto the way of wisdom. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said,

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matt. 7:13-14)

Jesus calls everyone to enter by the narrow gate, to take the road that isn’t taken by most othersAnd Jesus himself is the gate by which we embark on the wise way: “So Jesus again said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. … I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture'” (John 10:7, 9).

How do we take the road not taken? The gospel breaks into the world of Frost’s poem by giving hope, hope that you can get onto the wise way no matter how many times you’ve taken instead the foolish way before. As Paul promises, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13). Everyone. No matter how foolish and sinful you are. If you call on the name of the Lord to save you, if you repent, turning away from your sin, and trusting Jesus to save you from your sin by his death and resurrection, you will be saved.

And fellow Christians, following Christ on the way of wisdom means following him in holiness. Paul exhorts us: “train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7). Peter concurs: “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). Ultimately, God himself speaks to us throughout Scripture to equip us “for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17). Fellow Christians, let us walk by faith in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit the wise way set out for us in Proverbs and in all the books of the Bible, to the glory of God the Father.

Having Hope of Eternal Life

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This past Sunday, it was my privilege to preach Titus 1:1-4 at the church my father-in-law pastors in Aberdeen, Mississippi. Paul wrote this letter in order to tell Titus how to put the Cretan churches into order (1:5). Titus was to appoint elders over the various churches (1:5-9), to silence false teachers that had arisen among the churches (1:10-15), to instruct the believers on how to relate to one another (2:1-15) and how to relate to the rulers and authorities over them (3:1-8), to prevent divisions in the churches (3:9-11), and to model generous giving for the Cretan Christians (3:12-15). Paul begins, however, with a description of the purpose of his own ministry (1:1-4). In Titus 1:1-4, we see that Paul’s ministry has a threefold purpose:

  1. to bring God’s elect to faith (v. 1),
  2. to help God’s elect to grow in godliness with their knowledge of the truth (vv. 1-3), and
  3. to be a means of God’s grace and peace (v. 4).

As we read Titus 1:1-4 two thousand years after Paul originally wrote the letter, the questions we need to ask ourselves pertain to Paul’s purpose as an apostle. As we read this passage, we should ask ourselves, “Do I have faith? Do I have a knowledge of the truth that accords with godliness? Do I have God’s grace to feel peace?” Ultimately, these questions can all be summed up by asking ourselves if we have what Paul in v. 2 calls “hope of eternal life.” These questions all have to do with assurance of our salvation. So the application of Paul’s apostolic purpose today is discerning whether you are truly saved. For us today, Paul is basically telling us the three things we need to have biblically-grounded assurance that we are truly saved:

  1. Faith
  2. Growth in godliness
  3. God’s grace giving you the peace of assurance

Do you have faith?

The first question you must ask yourself if you are to have a biblically-grounded assurance of your salvation is, “Do I have faith?” By telling us that he is “an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect” (Titus 1:1, ESV, as are all subsequent biblical quotations), Paul shows us both the importance of faith and the nature of faith.

Being the first reason why Paul says he is an apostle, faith is the primary purpose of Paul’s apostleship. In Acts 26, as Paul makes his defense to King Agrippa, he describes his conversion on the road to Damascus, and in this testimony, Paul shares what Jesus commissioned him to do from the beginning:

“At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles–to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.'” (Acts 26:13-18)

When Jesus appeared to Paul on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians, Jesus made Paul a Christian himself. And he commissioned Paul much like he had the other apostles: Paul was to spread the Christian message both to Jews and to Gentiles. This message is a message of salvation, of “forgiveness of sins,” of being “sanctified by faith” (v. 18).

Indeed, faith is important not only as Paul’s primary purpose as an apostle but also as the means by which God “sanctifies” us. (“Sanctified” here designates the aspect of your conversion to Christianity in which God sets you apart to live for him by virtue of your justification, wherein God declares you righteous by faith.) This truth is evident throughout the New Testament, but I will cite only a couple. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28). “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God justifies, declares us to be righteous, when we put our faith in Jesus Christ, when we trust him to save us from our sin by his life, death, and resurrection. We receive eternal life when we believe in Jesus, when we trust him to save us from our sin by his life, death, and resurrection.

We thus begin to see the nature of faith. Faith is your saving response as an individual to the gospel in which you trust Jesus to save you from your sin by his life, death, and resurrection. However, in Titus 1:1, Paul tells us something else about the nature of faith. Those who come to faith are “God’s elect.” Although faith is the action of a person, it is done not because that person mustered it up within him- or herself but because God elected that person to believe “before the ages began” (Titus 1:2). This paradoxical nature of faith is seen also in such passages as John 1:12-13, which says, “But to all who did receive him [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Who receives the right to become a child of God? The person who believes. But of whom is that new child of God born? God. God is sovereign in our salvation, and we are responsible to believe. This paradox is unpopular, but it is biblical. To divorce God’s sovereignty from our responsibility requires either takings texts out of their contexts or, as in the case of Titus 1:1, to rip verses in half. In Titus 1:1, Paul says he is an apostle not for the sake of “faith” nor for the sake of “God’s elect” but “for the sake of the faith of God’s elect.” We are responsible to exercise “faith,” but when we do exercise faith, it is because God has “elected” us before time began.

But when you ask yourself, “Do I have faith?” do not worry yourself over the question, “Am I one of God’s elect?” The Puritans, for all their good theology and good contributions to the church, all too often ran themselves ragged with worry over whether they were among God’s elect. The doctrine of election is not in the Bible to make people fret over whether they are God’s elect. The doctrine of election is in the Bible for two primary reasons: to humble people (we are not the ultimate cause of our own faith) and to comfort people (if you are trusting Jesus to save you, God accepts you ultimately because he elected you before the foundation of the world).

When you ask yourself, “Do I have faith?” also do not mean, “Have I ever professed faith?” To have biblical assurance of salvation, you must not rely on a past religious experience as the foundation of your assurance. Do not rely on whether you have ever prayed a prayer or been baptized (although prayer and baptism are both good things to do in obedience to God’s word). Rather, ask yourself, “Do I have faith now? Am I trusting Jesus now to save me from my sin?” J. D. Greear puts it this way:

The apostle John almost always talks about “believing” in the present tense because it is something we do continually, not something we did once in the past. The posture [of faith] begins in the moment, but it persists for a lifetime. (Stop Asking Jesus into Your Heart: How to Know for Sure You Are Saved, 43)

Are you growing in godliness?

The second question you must ask yourself is, “Am I growing in godliness?” Faith is a good starting point for gaining assurance of your salvation, but “even the demons believe” (Jas. 2:19). Or as Jesus said,

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'” (Matt. 7:21-23)

The Bible is clear: we are saved by faith alone but saving faith is never alone (to borrow language from Martin Luther). As William Mounce puts it, “Faith … naturally and necessarily shows itself in godly behavior” (The Pastoral Epistles, 380). Paul’s point in saying that he is “an apostle, for the sake of … their [the elect’s] knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness” (Titus 1:1) is that saving “knowledge of the truth” is not just an intellectual knowledge of the facts of the gospel. “Knowledge of the truth” “accords with godliness.” In other words, a saving knowledge of the truth leads to growth in godliness. Along with faith, the presence of growth in godliness is meant to give you “hope of eternal life” (v. 2), assurance of your salvation.

In vv. 2-3, Paul tells us two things about eternal life that is meant to comfort us believers:

  1. Your eternal life is rooted in God’s promise from eternity past (v. 2).
  2. Your eternal life is revealed by God’s faithfully preached word (v. 3).

In connection with the second point Paul makes about our eternal life, Paul tells us two things about faithful preaching:

  1. God causes eternal life to be offered through preaching.
  2. God commands preaching to offer eternal life to any who would believe on Jesus for salvation.

Again, we see the paradoxical notion of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. If anyone responds in faith to a sermon, it is ultimately because God’s Holy Spirit has entered that person’s heart and given them that faith (see Isaiah 55:10-11, Mark 4:26-28, and John 3:1-8). However, the preacher is responsible for offering the eternal life that his audience is to receive by faith. Paul makes this same point in his letter to the Romans:

For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Rom. 10:13-15, 17)

God is the One in sovereign control over people’s individual responses to the gospel, but he has commanded preachers to make the gospel of eternal life by faith in Jesus Christ known through faithful preaching of his word.

Is God giving you the peace of assurance by his grace?

However, even if you genuinely believe that you have faith and are growing in godliness, you still may not feel assured of your salvation. Ultimately, if we are to have assurance of our salvation, hope of eternal life, God must give us peace about it by his grace. As Paul says to Titus: “Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior” (1:4). Paul the apostle was to be an instrument of God’s grace and peace to Titus and to the Cretans he served. This points to the fact that ultimately grace and peace come from God. Both grace and peace in salvation and grace and peace in assurance of salvation.

If you genuinely believe that you have faith and that you are growing in godliness but still don’t feel assured that you’re saved, cry out to God in prayer that he would help you discern the state of your soul. Ask him that if you’re not saved, to show you your lostness and to give you the grace to trust him for salvation. Ask him that if you are saved, to feel the assurance of your salvation, to feel that “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:7). “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (Jas. 1:17), and assurance of salvation (or salvation if you aren’t saved) is certainly a good gift. Ask the Lord for help discerning the true state of your soul.

Of course, we recall that as God is sovereign, we are responsible. Paul admonished the Corinthians, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?–unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Cor. 13:5). This self-examination is not wholly individualistic. As you wrestle over the state of your soul and pray about it to God, seek out the help of mature Christian friends, a parent, perhaps, your spouse, or your pastor or another church leader with whom you are close and who knows your life well. Just as God used Paul as a means of his grace and peace in the first century, he can use the mature Christians he has put in your life as means of grace and peace.

I remember the first time I seriously doubted my salvation. I was 10 or 11 and had first professed faith in Christ and was baptized a few years before. But one Sunday night, as my pastor was preaching, I felt convicted over the sin that remained in my life. I realized I wasn’t perfect. I acutely felt the sinfulness of my continued lies, disobedience to my parents, and meanness to my younger brother. That night when I got home, my mom could tell that I was torn up inside, and she asked me what was wrong. When I told her that I doubted whether I was truly saved, she was God’s means of grace and peace to me. She asked me if I trusted Jesus to save me from my sin and assured me of the Bible’s recurring promise that those who trust Jesus for salvation will be saved. She told me how she saw, despite my lingering sin, that I had grown in godliness since professing faith in Jesus Christ. Although I still lied, I didn’t lie near as often as before coming to Christ. Although I still disobeyed her and dad, I didn’t disobey near as often as before coming to Christ. She shared with me the glorious news of Romans 7 and 8: that to be a Christian is not to be perfect but to recognize sin in your life and to fight against it by the Holy Spirit. Through my mom’s encouragement, God by his grace gave me peace about my salvation, and as various doubts have occasionally arisen over the years, I have combated those doubts with the questions Paul invites us to ask in Titus 1:1-4 and that my mom asked me so many years ago:

  1. Are you trusting Jesus to save you from sin now?
  2. Are you growing in godliness?
  3. Is God by his grace giving you peace about the reality of your salvation?
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