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And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. (Matthew 11:12, NKJV)

What does this verse mean?

  • Why was this question migrated? In the Christian circles I'm in, the verse is mentioned frequently. I'm most definitely not an expert theologian or capable of doing my own Greek interpretation but would very much like to put my understanding on a much more solid basis. Because good answers need not rely at all on knowledge of Greek or Hebrew, I would very much like to see this question moved back to a broader audience. – nickalh Dec 1 '14 at 11:45
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    @nickalh This site is the way to address this question to a broad audience. The alternative is that it would be outright closed on C.SE because it does not have any scope. In order to ask this question there it would need to be addressed to a specific theological framework. Without that it is what (for lack of a better term) we call "truth questions" which are off-topic entirely. – Caleb Dec 1 '14 at 12:32
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    See also What is the meaning of "violence" in Matthew 11:12? for a specific treatment of the work "violence" in this verse. Answers to this question might want to concentrate on the way all the concepts in the verse tie together rather than that specifically. – Caleb Dec 1 '14 at 12:35

10 Answers 10

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The Greek text of Matt. 11:12 states,

ΙΒʹ ἀπὸ δὲ τῶν ἡμερῶν Ἰωάννου τοῦ βαπτιστοῦ ἕως ἄρτι ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν βιάζεται καὶ βιασταὶ ἁρπάζουσιν αὐτήν TR, 1550

which may be translated into English as,

12 since the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of Heaven is forced, and the forceful grasp it.

Matt. 11:12 has a Synoptic parallel in Luke 16:16, of which the Greek text states,

ΙϚʹ Ὁ νόμος καὶ οἱ προφῆται ἕως Ἰωάννου ἀπὸ τότε ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ εὐαγγελίζεται καὶ πᾶς εἰς αὐτὴν βιάζεται TR, 1550

which may be translated into English as,

16 The Law and the Prophets prophesied until John. Since then, the kingdom of God is preached and everyone forces [themselves]1 into it.

Exegesis

Two general interpretations exist of this verse and its Synoptic parallel.

  1. βιασταὶ (and its Synoptic parallel πᾶς) refers to the enemies of the kingdom of God/Heaven who plunder and spoil the kingdom.
  2. βιασταὶ (and its Synoptic parallel πᾶς) refers to those entering the kingdom of God/Heaven (i.e., believers).

As Wilke noted (translated by Thayer), the interpretation that “the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence sc. from its enemies, agrees neither with the time when Christ spoke the words, nor with the context.”2 Likewise, Meyer commented (translated by Christie), “If others have adopted the idea of a hostile violence with which the Messianic kingdom is persecuted, or violently crushed and arrested (by the Pharisees and scribes), their view is partly an anachronism, and partly forbidden by the connection with Matthew 11:13 and with what goes before.”3

The Lord Jesus Christ was speaking to the multitudes.4 Those multitudes previously went into the wilderness to hear John the Baptist preach the gospel of the kingdom,5 for John was the antitypical Elijah, the prophet who prepared the way for the Messiah to preach.6 Then, to the same multitudes, the Lord Jesus Christ was preaching the gospel.7 Those multitudes were forcing their way into the kingdom after witnessing the works of the Lord Jesus Christ: the blind receiving their sight, the lame walking, the lepers being cleansed, the deaf hearing, and the dead being raised.8

The phrase «εἰς αὐτὴν βιάζεται» is arguably the key to interpreting Matt. 11:12 as it elaborates its meaning. Similar phrases are used by other Greek authors to indicate a group of people forcing their way into a place.9 In this case, it is believers who are forcing their way into the kingdom of Heaven/God.


References

Meyer, Heinrich August Wilhelm. Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Gospel of Matthew. Trans. Christie, Peter. Ed. Crombie, Frederick; Stewart, William. New York: Funk, 1884.

Wilke, Christian Gottlob. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Being Grimm Wilke’s Clavis Novi Testamenti. Trans. Thayer, Joseph Henry. Ed. Grimm, Carl Ludwig Wilibald. Rev. ed. New York: American Book, 1889.

Footnotes

1 βιάζεται is declined in the middle or passive voice.
2 p. 101
3 p. 225
4 Matt. 11:7
5 Matt. 11:7-9
6 Matt. 11:10, 11:14 cp. Isa. 40:3; Mal. 4:5-6
7 Matt. 11:1
8 Matt. 11:5
9 Aelian (Claudius Aelianus), Various Histories (Ποικίλη Ἱστορία), Book 13, Ch. 32: «ἐγὼ ἐπὶ τὴν ἀρετὴν ἥκειν βιάζομαι». Polybius (Πολύβιος), Histories (Ἱστορίαι), Book 1, Ch. 74, §5: «τῶν δὲ θηρίων βιασαμένων εἰς τὴν παρεμβολήν»; Book 2, Ch. 67, §2: «κατ᾽ οὐρὰν προσπίπτοντες εἰς ὁλοσχερῆ κίνδυνον ἦγον τοὺς πρὸς τὸν λόφον βιαζομένους»; Book 4, Ch. 71, §5: «τοῦ βιάζεσθαι καὶ πολιορκεῖν τὴν πόλιν». Thucydides (Θουκυδίδης), The Peloponnesian War (Ιστορία του Πελοποννησιακού Πολέμου), Book 1, Ch. 63, §1: «ἔδοξε...δρόμῳ βιάσασθαι ἐς τὴν Ποτείδαιανβιάσασθαι ἐς τὴν Ποτείδαιαν»; Book 7, Ch. 69, §4: «βιάσασθαι ἐς τὸ ἔξω». Xenophon (Ξενοφῶν), Cyropaedia (Κύρου Παιδεία), Book 3, Ch. 3, §69: «βιάσαιντο εἴσω».

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  • Well presented answer. Thanks for the references. – elimad Dec 9 '16 at 10:58
  • Good answer. I was thinking it was talking about the persecution of the prophets from the foundation of the world until that day of John the Baptist. But this answer makes more sense to the context. – diego b Jan 3 '18 at 21:28
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In the larger context of the Matthew passage you cite (11:1-20), Jesus' focus is on John the Baptizer and John's ministry as Messiah's forerunner (see also Mark 1 and Luke 3). John's commission from God was to prepare the way for the Lord, and in essence John's message was a message (and baptism) of repentance.

The common people flocked to John, and John had many disciples, some of whom included even tax collectors and soldiers (Luke 3)! Generally speaking, however, the religious leaders within Judaism in John's and Jesus's day were not so enamored with John--and later, Jesus.

Remember the question Jesus asked the chief priests and elders?

"'John's baptism--where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?' They discussed it among themselves and said, 'If we say, 'From heaven,' he will ask, 'Then why didn't you believe him?' 'But if we say, 'From men,' we fear the people; for they all regard John as a prophet. And answering Jesus, they said, 'We do not know.' He also said to them, 'Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things'" (Matthew 21:25-27; see also Mark 11:30 and Luke 20:4)

Clearly, the religious rulers held both John and Jesus in low esteem, even contempt. They were loathe to leave their comforts, familiarity, and yes, even their power and influence as elders within Israel for what they perceived to be a radical--blasphemous even--threat to the religious status quo. Rather than conform to the teachings of John and Jesus, they resisted them with passion and zeal. We know, of course, that the crucifixion of Jesus was the ultimate act of violence against the kingdom of heaven and its king, but what of their general resistance combined with their insistence that John and Jesus conform to them and not vice versa?

Here is where the violence of which Jesus spoke in Matthew 11 had its genesis. Those unrepentant leaders in Judaism thought that since they had "the prophets and the Law" (Matthew 11:13), they were in the right, while those "upstarts" John and Jesus were wrong. In other words, from their perspective, "If it ain't broke, don't [try to] fix it!"

Jesus' response to their inability and unwillingness to "get with the program" introduced by John and developed further by Jesus' teaching, revealed their ignorance of John's significance in the grand scheme of things.

"'For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John,'" Jesus said (v.13, my emphasis).

Jesus was in no way derogating the prophets and the Law; rather he was simply drawing attention to the transition taking place with the entrance of John the Baptist (again, "until John") and with his own entrance onto the world stage. Remember, John was the forerunner. He was like the king's point man whose job was to pave the way, so to speak, for the arrival of the king to a town or city. Like a public crier he would shout out, "The king is coming! Make way for the king!"

If there were obstacles in the road (e.g., fallen tree limbs, huge potholes, or other impediments) or possible dangers (e.g., protesters, an angry mob, or even potential assassins), the forerunner would address these issues and, presumably, either take care of them himself or assign others to do so. The primary obstacle in John's day was a plethora of sins and a dearth of repentance, especially from those who should have known better.

John the Baptist, Jesus' cousin, was just such a forerunner. In a sense, his job was to prepare citizens for the coming of the king. When the king finally arrived, the forerunner would fade into the background. John said, quite perceptively,

"He [i.e., Jesus] must become more important, while I become less important" (John 3:30 CJB).

Unfortunately, both John and Jesus met with only resistance from many (if not most) of the leaders, elders, priests, scribes, and rabbis of their day. And herein was the violence revealed. The resistors claimed the kingdom of heaven for themselves, wresting it from "those radical upstarts, John and Jesus," and ultimately killing the more-important of the two.

These naysayers acted like a group of children playing games, with one sub-group playing "funeral" and another sub-group playing "wedding feast." One sub-group would try to get the other sub-group to play their game, to no avail. In similar fashion the naysayers would criticize both John ("He was a fasting demon") and Jesus ("He was a gluttonous drunk and party animal who hung out with ne'er-do-wells") and attempt to force both forerunner and king to fit their mold of how things should be.

That kind of behavior may not qualify in our minds today as violence, but we mustn't be too literal in interpreting a metaphor--a trope, all the while forgetting Jesus knew that one day soon the figurative (i.e., the metaphor) would become the literal, thus fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah:

"By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who [among them] considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke [was due]?" (53:8 ASV)

In satisfying their blood lust, Jesus' harshest critics and haters oppressed and judged him, not for a moment thinking that by doing so they were heaping the punishment they deserved on one who deserved not punishment, but worship.

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The verse has nothing whatsoever to do with violence to be suffered by John the Baptist, Jesus or their disciples.

It has to do, rather, with the personal ascesis and self-denial that is necessary for a believer to practice in his or her life if he or she truly desires to follow Christ. As another responder pointed out, the underlying Greek might be better translated as "force" and "forceful", rather than "violence" and "violent". This is the meaning of Jesus' instruction that it is through losing one's life that one saves it (Matthew 16:25; Luke 9:24; Mark 8:35). It is also the key to understanding what He means when He teaches that one must be prepared to despise even one's own family if they are a hindrance to one's faith (Luke 14:26ff).

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It would first be useful to define what the "Kingdom of Heaven" is. In this verse, "Kingdom of Heaven" refers the the ecclesiastical government of the church, which is the kingdom of heaven on earth[1].

If you examine the Greek: καὶ βιασταὶ ἁρπάζουσιν αὐτήν. (kai biastai harpazousin autēn) "and [the] violent (violent men) seize (take it by force) it ("her") " This verse is communicating that "violent" men are seizing control of the church, or plundering it.

This verse refers to the corruption of the Jewish Elders in the governance of the Church.


1 Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven

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  • "In this verse, "Kingdom of Heaven" refers the the ecclesiastical government of the church" I've never heard that idea before! Got any support to back it up? – curiousdannii Dec 2 '14 at 0:09
  • This doesn't show its work, which is a requirement on this site. Don't just tell us what you know, tell us how you know it. – Dan Dec 2 '14 at 5:08
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    @majnemɪzdæn - I see and I understand. It's past the witching hour in my part of the world, I shall return to this answer on the morrow with some edits. – ShemSeger Dec 2 '14 at 5:42
  • Did the church even exist in "the days of John the Baptist"? If so, what form did it take? – David42 Sep 26 '16 at 20:28
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The scripture talks about hard work that brings about the glory of God to the people who are working hard day and night to make the word of God fulfilled in peoples lives. I relate this scripture with the 3rd Chapter in the book of second Thessalonians where Paul said, "He who does not work should not be given food to eat even people should not associate with him or her.Hence, the kingdom of heaven is granted to people who have worked tirelessly for it.

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  • You might want to take a closer look at the chapter context. Jesus references that John would be the least in the Kingdom for some reason. He also mentions the law and how long the law (v13) has been preached. He also mentions the coming of Elijah. Look at Malachi as well as 1 Kings 18:37 where Elijah talks about a return. – alb Apr 29 '18 at 21:32
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I have always turned this scripture over in my head.. because it says “the violent take it by force”.. great comments/thoughts.. I think some people paint Jesus as a hippie- just all about peace, hope and love. Which in His right He is! But He defines how that looks through His Word. Not us. Sorry, side note. Context of what I am trying to convey. This scripture really goes against that grain of thought. I recently read a blog from an African Pastor. I heard it explained the best then I ever have before! I think it’s worth sharing; the Pastor wrote “the aggressive take it by force”. He added that the ‘passive will be forgotten’. His read on it was that if we want to be in or seize the Kingdom of Heaven or our destiny and calling in His will it’s not going to just fall in our lap. We have to be persistent in the Truth. Not give up or loose Hope but rather persist to shine the light of His Truth and all that He is! :-) Studying the Kingdom of Heaven or His Church and it’s mission (the great commission and He is the supreme Liberator) All we have to do is be behind (submitted to) His mission.. doing His mission and He will back up who He is and His express purpose! :)

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As a first-time participant, I can only hope I'm not violating the rules as I understand them. Unfortunately "my answer" can't help overlapping that of user862, who has already provided persuasive evidence favoring interpretation 2 for "biastai" in the relevant context. It would be otiose to recite it again. The only non-overlapping part of "my answer" would be the observation that at least one respected non-specialist centuries ago favored that interpretation. It was Dante, who provided complementary comments about God's role in permitting the forced entry:

Regnum celorum vïolenza pate da caldo amore e da viva speranza, che vince la divina volontate:

non a guisa che l'omo a l'om sobranza, ma vince lei perché vuole esser vinta, e, vinta, vince con sua beninanza.

(Paradiso XX, 94-99, Petrocchi ed., Milan, 1966-1967)

The idea of the divine will wanting to be overcome and, once overcome, overcoming by its goodness, recalls other examples of the paradox of power and subjugation: the kenosis of Christ (Phil 2:7) and Mary's "Idou he doule Kyriou" (Lk 1:38), so soon followed by the triumphant "Megalune" (Lk 1:46-55).

(The software apparently won't permit hard returns in mid-phrase or after commas, as appropriate for the Dante verses quoted; maybe that won't matter.)

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The question asks what it means that the kingdom "suffers violence". It seems to mean that the kingdom of heaven (which historically was Israel) "has been subjected to violence". It seems that in Israel's long history it never really experienced much in the line of peace and those who would rule the kingdom did so by force (ἁρπάζω). In fact, Israel was anticipating that the Messiah would bring political and military victory to Israel. That was not to be the case.

Jesus seems to be saying that now the heavenly kingdom will be taken by a pacifist. He, Jesus, will not fight:

John_18:36  Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.

Jesus' strategy was not to submit to Satan to receive the kingdom:

[Mat 4:8-10 ESV] (8) Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. (9) And he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." (10) Then Jesus said to him, "Be gone, Satan! For it is written, "'You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'"

He would not "seize" (ἁρπάζω) the kingdom but rather submit to God and trust God to exalt him:

[Phl 2:5-11 ESV] (5) Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, (6) who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped (ἁρπάζω), (7) but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (8) And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (9) Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, (10) so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, (11) and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Perhaps we should see this as a messianic psalm:

[Psa 75:2-10 ESV] (2) "At the set time that I appoint I will judge with equity. (3) When the earth totters, and all its inhabitants, it is I who keep steady its pillars. Selah (4) I say to the boastful, 'Do not boast,' and to the wicked, 'Do not lift up your horn; (5) do not lift up your horn on high, or speak with haughty neck.'" (6) For not from the east or from the west and not from the wilderness comes lifting up, (7) but it is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another. (8) For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs. (9) But I will declare it forever; I will sing praises to the God of Jacob. (10) All the horns of the wicked I will cut off, but the horns of the righteous shall be lifted up.

[Mat 12:15-21 ESV] (15) Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all (16) and ordered them not to make him known. (17) This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: (18) "Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. (19) He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; (20) a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; (21) and in his name the Gentiles will hope."


The fact that the Jews were expecting the Messiah to raise an army may be reflected in John the baptizer's question:

[Luk 7:20 KJV] (20) When the men were come unto him, they said, John Baptist hath sent us unto thee, saying, Art thou he that should come? or look we for another?

To which Jesus replies by showing that he is fulfilling his Messianic mandate:

[Luk 7:20-23 NLT] (20) John's two disciples found Jesus and said to him, "John the Baptist sent us to ask, 'Are you the Messiah we've been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?'" (21) At that very time, Jesus cured many people of their diseases, illnesses, and evil spirits, and he restored sight to many who were blind. (22) Then he told John's disciples, "Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard--the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor. (23) And tell him, 'God blesses those who do not turn away because of me.'"


Summary: "For those looking for the kingdom of heaven to be taken by violence, you must realize that the kingdom is being assaulted right now, since John, as they embrace the gospel message".

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The Kingdom of God suffereth violence sonetimes from within and without. Violence is physical force intended to hurt, damage or kill OR strength of a destructive natural force. Violence against the church from without include persecution and attack of innocent and defenceles Christians including violent men seizing control of the church and plundering it. Destructive natural forces within the church are teaching of False doctrine, sexual sins and corruption within the body of Christ. Ordinarily these and many more ought to have destroyed the church but we are assured that the church will continue to match on and the gates of hell wil not orevail against it ( Matthew 16: 17-19)

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  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics. Just a few tips for the future. This is an academic site so your answers are expected to be fully supported. When you answer, please site your sources. If it's the bible, please include bible texts (quotes are better but references are ok too). If you use extra biblical sources, please site/quote. Thanks. – alb May 12 '18 at 16:10
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This can be understood in the light of the New Testament claim, that the Advent of Christ provided to all humans a full access to the Holy Spirit, "the Spirit of sonship" (Romans 8:15), so as to enable them to obtain the second, eternal birth in Spirit (John 3:3) and clad their mortality in immortality (1 Cor. 15:53); in fact, exactly this is the entering the Heavenly Kingdom - a mortal becoming immortal through the Grace that was brought to humanity by Christ instead of the Law (John 1:17), superseding the latter (for it was completely and perfectly inapt to transfigure the fallen human nature, but was only as good as to check sin /Romans 8:3/).

Moreover, although the entry to the Heavenly Kingdom is already open, God does not force anybody to enter there without his/her free and desiring collaboration - synergy (θεοῦ γὰρ ἔσμεν συνεργοί /1 Cor. 3:9/), but a person himself should exert his efforts in collaboration with the salvific Grace bestowed freely by God, fight and defeat his sinful inclinations and gain victory with and through Christ, who has defeated the "world" (a.k.a. sinfulness of the world) (John 16:33) and who after the Ascension to Heaven became innerly dwelling in us and empowering us against the evil "Prince of this World" (cf. 1 John 4:4) and through our consent and co-action, acts powerfully in us (Col. 1:29) exactly to this aim: that we, victors in and through Him, may become also co-Kings with Him in the Eternal Kingdom.

That is the sense of "violence" - to be unmerciful against sin in us, against sinful drives in us and violently conquer them, plunder them in Christ, for it is He who plunders the dominion of devil in us (Mark 3:27), but not without our violent and valiant co- or inter- or reciprocal action with our God and Savior Jesus Christ.

Just a metaphor: sometimes infectious wound may not be painful and even be pleasurable, or at least, habituated and slowly festering; but a bitter and unpleasant ointment is the only way to stop the decay and heal it; now, we do not create this bitter ointment, but medical scientists do, but ours is to dare to withstand the bitterness with our free consent and apply the ointment. Similarly, our sweet sinful inclinations can be only overcome by Grace vouchsafed by God, but to participate in this Grace may seem bitter for us, for then we have to abandon the sweetness of the habituated sin deeply dwelling in us, so here is the horrible real suspense and paradoxical mystery of freedom and responsibility: some people still choose sin, even if they know that it is eventually damaging for them, and embrace darkness rather than the saving Light (John 3:19), the others, however, dare to become Christ's valiant soldiers and be violent in fighting the tyranny of sins in themselves through aid of Christ gracefully working in them. (Of such courage also Plato speaks in the "Republic", saying that no man is truly courageous, not even Achilles, unless he dares to fight his passions and evil inclinations).

Thus, not only by Grace - as Augustine in his frenzy of "drunken" excesses against Pelagius day-dreamed - and not only by personal efforts with belittling of the Grace, as this crypto-Judaizer Pelagius day-dreamed in the direction of another extreme, but though the golden middle of the "Kings Highway" (Numbers 20:17) of the true teaching that gives due respect and homage both to the Grace=divine Energy, without which is impossible to conquer evil, and conscious free responsive co-energy with this salvific and evil-conquerng Energy, the "violence", on the part of a Christian, without which free co-operation it is also impossible to conquer evil and enter the Heavenly Kingdom.

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  • @Dovnvoter Please, down vote at pleasure, I care the least for points, but discuss the reasons, that's exiting and interesting! – Levan Gigineishvili Apr 23 '18 at 15:01
  • @Ruminator Thanks for coming to a discussion, but 1) I do not get your syntax: "doctrine of justification where in works are involved but works themselves are inspired by grace and therefore Grace" - something wrong in syntax, maybe "in" is redundant? 2) You write nothing what you do not agree with and what is your own idea of interaction of grace and personal efforts, it seems from your self-assured tone you must have a clever thing to say about it. 3) You ask me to cite passages, which I have done, amply so, but for some reasons unfathomable you haven't noticed them. p.s. I am no Catholic. – Levan Gigineishvili Apr 29 '18 at 8:36
  • A, ok, now I get it right, thanks. If the Catholics say the same, good for Catholics! - at least with this point (yet, I am not quite sure I would agree with the "saints' superabundant grace"-theory with the ensuing tenet of indulgences). Many, if not all, of things said in the Bible are implicit requiring effort of logic and insight. E.g. "cut your hand if it tempts you" is one of such implicit statements, that, if taken literally, will lead to a disaster and self-mutilation. But not only body can be mutilated through Gospel, but also mind, unless a well-grounded logic and reason is applied. – Levan Gigineishvili Apr 29 '18 at 18:49

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