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May 18, 2015

Zinner
We learned last week that William Zinnser has died. He was known primarily as the author of On Writing Well, a classic guide to composing non-fiction. It is a book that has meant a lot to me as I have attempted to mature as a writer. This weekend I breezed back through all my notes and highlights and found that the ideas that most impacted me can be distilled into 5 simple headings. I also found that the ideas are applicable not only to professional writers like Zinnser, but to anyone who wants to grow in communication skills. Here are 5 things Zinnser taught me:

Be Diligent

There is really no such thing as that fabled “natural writer.” What actually distinguishes the good authors from the great ones is simply their diligence. Good authors humble themselves with the knowledge of how poor they are, and then they commit themselves to endless practice.

  • “Few people realize how badly they write.”
  • “The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.”
  • “Good writers of prose must be part poet, always listening to what they write.”
  • “A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”
  • “Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English.”

Be Ruthless

While Zinsser believes that writing is an act of ego (see below), he also calls for a kind of humility that manifests itself in ruthless editing. If he is known for anything, it is for his constant calls to cut the clutter that marks too much writing (my own included).

  • “Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.”
  • “Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose.”
  • “Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.”
  • “Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away.”

Be Yourself

Zinsser hates writing that sounds unnatural and cannot tolerate people who have a writing voice that is completely separate from their speaking voice. His advice to the writer is simple: Be yourself. His basic assumption is that if your writing appeals to you, it will appeal to others. If you wouldn’t read it, then don’t write it!

  • “You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for. If you lose the dullards back in the dust, you don’t want them anyway.”
  • “You are writing for yourself. Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience—every reader is a different person.”
  • “Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.”
  • “Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation. If you’re not a person who says ‘indeed’ or ‘moreover,’ or who calls someone an individual (‘he’s a fine individual’), please don’t write it.”
  • “The way to warm up any institution is to locate the missing ‘I.’ Remember: ‘I’ is the most interesting element in any story.”
  • “My commodity as a writer, whatever I’m writing about, is me. And your commodity is you. Don’t alter your voice to fit your subject. Develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page, a voice that’s enjoyable not only in its musical line but in its avoidance of sounds that would cheapen its tone: breeziness and condescension and clichés.”

Be Good

He also advocates a growing knowledge of the form and craft of writing.

  • “Readers want to know—very soon—what’s in it for them.”
  • “Good usage, to me, consists of using good words if they already exist—as they almost always do—to express myself clearly and simply to someone else.”
  • “The race in writing is not to the swift but to the original.”
  • “Quality is its own reward.”
  • “The Thesaurus is to the writer what a rhyming dictionary is to the songwriter–a reminder of all the choices–and you should use it with gratitude. If, having found the scalawag and the scapegrace, you want to know how they differ, then go to the dictionary.”

Be Practical

Then, of course, he also provides a lot of very practical advice.

  • “If you want to write long sentences, be a genius. Or at least make sure that the sentence is under control from beginning to end, in syntax and punctuation, so that the reader knows where he is at every step of the winding trail.” (This is a particularly brilliant sentence that perfectly models his instruction.)
  • “The adjective that exists solely as decoration is a self-indulgence for the writer and a burden for the reader.”
  • E.B. White makes the case cogently in The Elements of Style, a book every writer should read once a year…”
  • “Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with ‘but.’ If that’s what you learned, unlearn it—there’s no stronger word at the start. It announces total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is thereby primed for the change.”
  • “You’ll never make your mark as a writer unless you develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning that is almost obsessive. The English language is rich in strong and supple words. Take the time to root around and find the ones you want.”

Much more could be said, of course. Zinner’s book remains a classic and one that bears repeated readings. I will be reading it again this summer with my interns, and am already looking forward to it.

Image credit: Shutterstock

May 18, 2015

The excellent 9Marks: Building Healthy Churches series is on sale today: The Gospel by Ray Ortlund; Evangelism by Mack Stiles; Expositional Preaching by David Helm; Sound Doctrine by Bobby Jamieson; Church Elders by Jeramie Rinne; Church Membership by Jonathan Leeman; Church Discipline by Jonathan Leeman ($4.99 each). The Confessions of St. Augustine in modern English ($0.99); The Quick-Start Guide to the Whole Bible by William Marty ($2.99).

#AskAlcorn - Here are the results of Randy Alcorn’s recent Twitter chat. He answered a whole host of questions.

The Best Idioms in the World - This is an amusing list of some of the best (and weirdest) idioms from across the world.

The Pastor and Social Media - Pastors (and others) may do well to read these comments by Nicholas Batzig. “I have to insist that to write off this medium wholesale … is shortsighted at best. Similarly, judging others for their use of social media is shortsighted at best as well.”

In Flight - If you’re at all interesting in air travel you will probably enjoy this article in which you’ll gain a pilot’s-eye view of a flight from London to Tokyo.

The Gathering Storm - Al Mohler borrows a line from Winston Churchill and warns of a different kind of battle that is fast approaching.

That Little Word - Andrew Wilson discovers the final question and answer in the Heidelberg Catechism, and it is worthy of reflection.

The Power of False Memory - The recent attacks in Manhattan show how quickly we can develop false memories.

A twig is brought to any form, but grown trees will not bow. How few are converted in old age! —John Flavel

Flavel

 

May 17, 2015

I was interested to read through a new little booklet written by Ian Hamilton, pastor of Cambridge Presbyterian Church in Cambridge, England. In this work he means to show that Calvinism is both deeper and richer than the well-known 5 Points (a.k.a. TULIP). Calvinism at its best is also experiential, a word which Tom Nettles once helpfully described in this way: “An experiential theology, or experimental Calvinism, pursues the purposeful application of every doctrine to some area of life that needs further conformity to Christ’s perfect humanity.” Hamilton explains further:

Calvinism is natively experiential. Before it is a theological system, Calvinism is deeply affectional, God-centered, cross-magnifying religion. A man may loudly trumpet his adherence to the distinctive tenets of Calvinism, but if his life is not marked by delight in God and His gospel, his professed Calvinism is a sham. In other words, there is no such thing as “dead Calvinism.” Such is a theological oxymoron for one simple reason: Calvinism claims to be biblical religion, and biblical religion is not only profoundly theological, it is deeply experiential and engagingly affectional! Wherever men and women claim to be Calvinists, their lives and their ministries will pulse with life—the life of living, Spirit-inspired, Christ-glorifying, God-centered truth.

Hamilton goes on provide 8 fundamental features of the experiential Calvinist, and looks at the subject from a confessionally Reformed perspective. I would disagree with some of the finer points, such as his insistence that Reformed worship necessarily adheres to the regulative principle. Still, I found each of his points is very helpful.

  1. The experiential Calvinist honors God’s unconditional sovereignty. God’s sovereignty is never seen in Scripture as an excuse for believers to become passive. God’s sovereignty does not suspend human responsibility but rather embraces it. [This] is shown chiefly in God’s people giving themselves to consistent, faithful, heartfelt prayer. Nothing more honors God’s unconditional sovereignty than prayer.
  2. The experiential Calvinist cherishes God’s grace. Calvinism supremely rejoices in and placards the grace of God. … Experiential Calvinists are jealous to magnify the grace of God because it opens to us the heart of the God of grace.
  3. The experiential Calvinist has a deep sense of the sinfulness of sin. It is the greatest tragedy of our age that the supreme focus in much of the Christian church today is man, not God! Man and his needs, not God and His glory, is the organizing principle and central concern of much that passes for evangelical Christianity. Perhaps the greatest difference between us and our Reformation and Puritan forefathers is that they had high views of the glory of God and therefore deep views of the sinfulness of sin.
  4. The experiential Calvinist lives before God’s face. Experiential Calvinism has one preeminent concern: to glorify God. He recognizes that the only verdict that counts is God’s.
  5. The experiential Calvinist shapes all of life by the revelation of God’s unimpeachable holiness. The experiential Calvinist is … an obedience-loving believer. God’s commandments are his happy choice. … This piety is rooted in a love for God’s law. The experiential Calvinist loves God’s law. Experiential Calvinism seeks to give God’s holy law the place in the believer’s and church’s life that God’s holy Word gives it.
  6. The experiential Calvinist is content and satisfied with scriptural worship. Submission to the unconditional sovereignty of God is seen practically in submission to the authority and sufficiency of his holy Word. This means that the experiential Calvinist seeks to have his life and the church’s life contoured by “every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3). This means that our worship can (and must) never be shaped and informed by the fads and fashions of the moment, but by the abiding precepts and principles of God’s Word. Historically, this has come to be known as the regulative principle.
  7. The experiential Calvinist pursues godly catholicity. From its inception, the Reformed faith was a multifaceted faith. To be sure it had a well-defined core of nonnegotiable doctrines. But it did not have and has never had one public face or particular theological expression. The Continental Reformed tradition, centered upon the Three Forms of Unity—the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort—is no less Reformed than its British and American Reformed counterpart within the tradition of the Westminster Standards.
  8. The experiential Calvinist cultivates communion with God. … Experiential Calvinism cherishes communion with God and understands that this communion requires two things: that we “receive” His love and that we “make suitable returns unto him.” The Father’s love is received “by faith” through Christ. “The soul being thus, by faith through Christ, and by him brought into the bosom of God, into a comfortable persuasion and spiritual perception and sense of his love, there reposes and rests itself.” But there is more: “God loves, that he may be loved.” So, we are to make “returns” of love to the Father. (Note: The quotes are from John Owen.)

Excerpted from What Is Experiential Calvinism? by Iain Hamilton.

Image credit: Shutterstock

May 16, 2015

Nick writes about The Pastor’s Dilemma, the fact that an awful lot of seminary students are carrying an awful lot of debt.

Today’s flash deal from Zondervan is PROOF: Finding Freedom through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace by Daniel Montgomery & Timothy Paul Jones.

It’s always fun to meet a quirky person who simply loves what he does. That’s the case in this short film titled Conrad and The Steamplant.

“Go to the ant,” said Solomon. You’ll enjoy seeing how trap-jaw ants have evolved been created. “Their spring-loaded jaws are capable of snapping shut as fast as 60 meters/second (134 miles/hr) and can generate forces over 300 times their body weight.”

It was fun to read The Gospel Coalition profiling Betty McPhee, a dear family friend: Helping Deaf Students to Flourish.

Here are 5 Reasons Why Your Online Presence Will Replace Your Resume in 10 Years. “We’re seeing more and more recruiters use the web as a place to search for talent and conduct employment background searches.”

Thanks to MereChurch for sponsoring the blog this week. They are exactly right: Your Church Needs a Great Website.

The process of history is not haphazard. There is a purpose in it all. And the purpose is the purpose of God. —Leon Morris

Morris

 

May 15, 2015

It is time for a new Free Stuff Fridays, and this week’s giveaway is sponsored by our friends at Banner of Truth. There will be 5 winners this week, and each of those winners will receive the following 3 books:

You Must ReadYou Must Read: Books That Have Changed Our Lives by Various. Have you ever wondered what influences have shaped the preachers, teachers and authors you respect? You Must Read brings together more than thirty well-known Christian leaders and gives them the opportunity to talk about a book that has made a lasting impact on their lives. Their personal narratives and recommendations of the literature that has moulded and matured them combine to produce a book full of interest from start to finish. Contributors include Joel R. Beeke, Alistair Begg, Jerry Bridges, Mark Dever, J. Ligon Duncan, R. Albert Mohler, Jr., John MacArthur, Stuart Olyott, R. C. Sproul , Derek W. H. Thomas, Geoffrey Thomas, and many others. (more information)

Korean PentecostThe Korean Pentecost, by William Blair & Bruce Hunt. In 1977 the Trust published this remarkable account of the first 60 years or so of the modern church in Korea (mainly North Korea). William Blair (1876–1970), in his first term of missionary service, was at the centre of the great revival of 1907, and his account of this and the events leading up to it forms the first part of the book. Blair includes a thrilling description of how the gospel first came to Korea. The account is then taken up by his son-in-law, Bruce Hunt (1903–92)—born in Pyengyang, now the capital of North Korea—who shows how the revival was followed by a baptism of suffering under the Japanese and Communists. During his forty-eight years of missionary service in Korea, Hunt personally knew many of the Korean Christian martyrs. (more information)

Christ Set ForthChrist Set Forth by Thomas Goodwin. Addressing, from an exposition of Romans 8:34, the pastoral problem that many believers stray in their faith by looking into their own hearts for signs of grace instead of looking away from themselves to Christ, Christ Set Forth is primarily a book written to encourage Christians. ‘Turning to nearly any page in this volume, readers will be rewarded with a remarkably pastoral theology of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.’ (Michael Horton) (more information)

Enter Here

Giveaway Rules: You may enter one time. As soon as the winners have been chosen, all names and addresses will be immediately and permanently erased. Winners will be notified by email. The giveaway closes Saturday at noon.

May 15, 2015

I will eat just about anything. I’m an adventurous omnivore and often walk into restaurants hoping to try something new and different. But there is at least one exception: I simply cannot tolerate shrimp. I hate those bottom-feeding sea bugs and I will do everything I can to avoid them. Sometimes people try to convince me to try shrimp by saying, “But you’ve never had them fried in garlic butter” or “You’ve got to just try them in the grits.” It’s useless. I am beyond temptation there.

Temptation is a common theme in the Bible, but I wonder how often you actually think about the nature of temptation. What does it mean to be tempted? A temptation is anything that promises satisfaction at the cost of obedience. Temptation is when circumstances work together so that you have the ability and maybe even the desire to do something that God forbids. It is money but without work (so you steal), popularity but without kindness (so you gossip), sexual fulfillment but without marriage (so you commit adultery)—it is the satisfaction you want but through disobedience rather than obedience.

We can gain some important insights into temptation from two poignant illustrations in the book of James.

The Fishing Illustration

Here is what he says in James 1:14: “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” We have good desires and bad desires. What James is referring to here are the bad desires, the longings we have for things that God has prohibited. James uses a fishing metaphor and says something like this: You have inner desires that are evil, a product of your sinful nature. Temptation comes when a circumstance engages one of those desires. Here’s the simple formula: Desire + circumstance = temptation.

Your sinful desires give you a hunger, an appetite, for something forbidden, something you think you need, something you think you can’t be satisfied without. Then a circumstance comes along and acts like bait, like a lure. That circumstance dangles the opportunity before you, and you are tempted to take a bite. But what you never seem to see is that buried in that bait is a sharp, nasty hook. First it lures you, and then if you succumb to the temptation it hooks you and drags you away.

What James wants you to know is that you are not an unwilling victim of temptation. Temptation is not a kidnapper who drags you into his van kicking and screaming and takes you where you don’t want to go. You climb in all on your own! You are a willing participant in your own kidnapping, in your own temptation. As John MacArthur says, “The problem is not a tempter from without, but the traitor within.”

The Birth & Death Metaphor

James continues in the next verse: “Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” He switches from the hunting and fishing metaphor to a birth and death metaphor and says something like this: When you jump in the back seat with evil Desire, Desire will inevitably conceive and give birth to a child named sin, and sin will eventually give birth to a child named death. This is an earthy metaphor he uses here. You can’t fool around with your girlfriend and then act shocked when you find she’s pregnant; you can’t fool around with evil desire and then act surprised when you sin.

Again, your temptations always involve your desires. Temptation dangles a circumstance before you, and because you have a sinful nature you will engage in a battle over whether or not to act on your inner evil desires. If you act on that desire it leads you to sin. You go from inner stirrings of desire to outward actions of sin. Those sinful actions always result in death. That’s the life cycle of sin. Temptation engages your desires, acting on those desires lead to sin, and sin leads to death.

You might ask, What about Satan? Isn’t he the tempter? Aren’t you warned about the world, the flesh, and the devil? Yes, of course you are. But that isn’t James’ point here. He’ll talk about Satan later on, but for now he wants you to consider your own inner disposition to sin. When you do something the Bible forbids, or when you want to do something the Bible forbids, you’ve got to look inside and admit your love of sin, your attraction to sin. Temptation is only attractive because of the evil desire that dwells within you.*

How do you stop the cycle of sin leading to temptation leading to death? It is remarkably simple. You do all you can to avoid the circumstances that lead to temptation, and you work at the level of the desires, putting those evil desires to death, so temptation can no longer dangle that seductive bait in front of you. When the desire is dead, the temptation is no longer attractive.

So go ahead and dangle shrimp in front of me. I won’t be tempted. Why? I hate them. I am dead to shrimp! They simply do not entice me. And this is exactly what needs to be true of sin as well. Go after the evil desires, and replace them with good desires, and those temptation will no longer be appealing. 

* Jesus was tempted but without sin. He was truly tempted, but he had no evil desires, no appetite for evil. This means that there was nothing for the temptation to hook onto, and he was never caught. 

Image credit: Shutterstock

May 15, 2015

Today’s flash deal from Zondervan is A God-Sized Vision by Collin Hansen & John Woodbridge ($1.99); you might also consider Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart by J.D. Greear ($0.99). Finally, tomorrow is the last day to take advantage of Monday’s deals.

Overstock Sale - I know I already linked to Westminster Books once this week, but thought I’d do so again since they have some great deals on overstock and imperfect items (including books by some favorite authors).

Love Theologically - Here’s a good word from Mike Wittmer on a common false dichotomy.

The State of the PCA - Bryan Chapell has a long and interesting evaluation of the current state of the Presbyterian Church in America. (Richard Phillips replies.)

Should We Call Them Bullies? - John Knight pulls no punches in this article on bullies, disability, and abortion.

Our Words Will Be Thunder When Our Life Is Like Lightning - That’s a great title for a good article.

Pixar Easter Eggs - This video displays some of the internal cohesion in Pixar movies.

Love is counting someone else’s needs and interests as more important than your own needs or interests or comfort. —Tim Keller

Keller

 

May 14, 2015

The other day, the old Puritan John Flavel took me out back and slapped me around for a while (metaphorically, of course). I have been reading his classic work The Mystery of Providence and he dedicates the second chapter to an explanation of why we need to worship God for his kind providence in our childhood. He wants his readers to acknowledge the privileges that were theirs simply because of the time and place in which they were born.

Along the way he includes a brief but powerful section in which he exhorts parents in the duties they have in raising their children. He wants you, the parent, to seriously consider the responsibility that God has entrusted to you for each one of your children. And, at least for me, each of them felt like a gut-punch. He offers these 8 considerations, asking that you would ponder each one and allow them to motivate you to call your children to respond to the gospel.

  1. Consider the intimacy of the relationship between you and your children, and, therefore, how much their happiness or misery is your concern. Our children mean so much us. You gain joy by them, you place high value on them, you express hopes and longings for them, you sympathize with them in their troubles, and you grieve from the depths of your soul if they precede you into death. Why would you long to have children, and assign such value to them, and find so much joy in them, if, in the meantime, you give little thought to their eternal souls?
  2. Consider that God has charged you to tend not only to their bodies, but also to their souls. You can know this by the clear commands God has given parents (see Deuteronomy 6:6-7; Ephesians 6:4), and also by the commands he has given children since these commands imply the duty of the parents (e.g. Ephesians 6:1).
  3. Consider what could possibly comfort you at the time of your children’s death if, through your neglect, they die in a Christless condition. The most heartbreaking cry is that of the parent who has to honestly admit, “My child is in hell and I did nothing to prevent it! My child is in hell and I helped him go there!”
  4. Consider this question: If you neglect to instruct your children in the way of holiness, will the devil neglect to instruct them in the way of wickedness? No, of course not. If you will not teach them to pray, he will teach them to curse, swear, and lie. Where the ground is uncultivated, weeds will inevitably spring up.
  5. Consider that if the years of your children’s youth are neglected, there is little probability of any good fruit afterwards. You have to make the best use of their most formative years. Flavel uses this brilliant little illustration: “How few are converted in old age! A twig is brought to any form, but grown trees will not bow.”
  6. Consider that you are the instrumental cause of all your children’s spiritual misery, both by generation and imitation, by birth and by example. They are in a state of spiritual death because of the plague of sin which they contracted from you. As David says, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). This further increases your responsibility to see them healed from that plague.
  7. Consider that there is no one in the world more likely than you to be instruments of their eternal good. You have advantages that no others have, such as the insights you gain into their hearts. Because you are with them every day, and because you have so much knowledge of their weaknesses, you have unique opportunities to instill the knowledge of Christ into them. If you are neglectful, who shall help them? No one else can or will take your place in their lives.
  8. Consider the great day of judgment and be moved with pity for your children. Remember that text, “I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God” (Revelation 20:12). What a sad thing it would be to see your dear children at Christ’s left hand. Friends, do your utmost to prevent this misery! “Knowing the terrors of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Corinthians 5:11).

Now, the purpose of these 8 considerations is not to make parents despair, but to help them see their responsibility. Flavel acknowledges, of course, that God is the only one who can bring a child to salvation and that God’s purposes are his own. And yet the Scriptures make it plain that the parents are to raise their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Every parent would do well to ponder these 8 items.

Next Week

We will continue our reading next week with chapter 3: “God’s Providence in Our Salvation.” Read it by next Thursday and check in to see what I (and others) have to say about it.

Your Turn

The purpose of this project is to read classics together. So do feel free to leave a comment if you have something you would like to say. Alternatively, you may leave a link to your blog or Facebook or anywhere else you have reflected on what you have read.

If you would like to read along with us, we have only just begun, so there is lots of time to get caught up. Simply get a copy of the book and start reading…

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