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Tim Challies

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June 2007

June 19, 2007

The Dangerous Book for BoysYears ago I found a beat-up old box that contained a stack of musty books. I suppose they must have belonged to my father or grandfather and that they had long since been forgotten. They were interesting books, clearly targeted at boys of a different age. They had stories of pirates, heroic tales of valor and suggestions for activities that would appeal to any boy. It seems that books like this were all the rage once upon a time. Children needed to entertain themselves and this type of book gave them the suggestions they needed to keep busy.

June 18, 2007

Over the weekend a member of a mailing list I subscribe to asked an interesting question. Reflecting both on some of the highly-publicized “defections” of former Protestants to Roman Catholicism and some he has witnessed personally he asked “What is the appeal of Roman Catholicism?” I have sometimes wondered the same. Why is it that many Protestants eventually convert to Catholicism? To put things in context, my experience shows that a far greater number of Roman Catholics become Protestants than the other way around. I do not think the conversions to Catholicism represent an epidemic. Still, it is worth thinking about.

I think it is interesting and important to note the type of person who leaves Protestantism and turns or returns to Rome. It is my experience that the people who make this transition are not people who are simply Bible teachers or students of the Bible but are people who are enamored by philosophy. It is not the expositors who cross the Tiber, but the philosophers. For the man who regards the Bible as the highest source of authority and who loves to search the Scriptures and to share what the Spirit teaches Him in its pages, Rome offers very little. However, for those who love philosophy, it can be argued that Rome offers far more.

In my experience more people return to Rome than turn to her. It is not unusual to see people experience an apparent conversion but, after a period of time, to return to the Church. Just recently I heard from some friends we hadn’t spoken to in some time and were surprised to learn that their family news included the baptism of their youngest child and the first communion of one of their older children. While they consider themselves Protestant, their roots are Catholic and it seems they have either succumbed to family pressure or have not lost their convictions about certain Roman Catholic beliefs. This reminded me of another friend who did the same thing. Despite being saved and being baptized in a Baptist church, he still had his children baptized in a Catholic church. Clearly something in the Catholic system goes very deep into the soul and captivates people. There are some portions of the Catholic teaching that is difficult to leave behind.

Here are several ways I believe Protestants can become enamored with Catholic theology. I will also, very briefly, suggest some solutions:

History - The Roman Catholic Church has done a masterful job of presenting itself as the one, true church. It claims to have an unbroken line of succession from the Apostles and claims that it most accurately represents the faith of the early church. Most Protestants are not sufficiently educated in church history to refute or even to disbelieve these claims. Thus Rome seems to offer the privilege of returning to the church at its most basic and its most pure. This shows how important it is that we, as Protestants, educate people so they know that Catholicism is a perversion of biblical doctrine and the teaching of the early church. We cannot afford to give up this ground.

Harmony - Roman Catholics often point to the “hundreds of thousands” of Protestant denominations as evidence of the superiority of Rome which seems to have much greater unity. This view is simplistic and ignores the fact that the Roman Catholic Church has many factions and parties. Still, as Protestants we have to cede that disunity within the church has served to harm rather than to assist our witness to Roman Catholics and to others who need to hear the gospel. The solution, though, is not to band together despite the gospel but to make the gospel the point of our greatest unity.

Authority - The Roman Catholic Church offers a kind of security that is missing in Protestantism. Because in the Roman system ultimate authority is the realm of the pope and the Church, its members are absolved of much of the hard work of searching the Scriptures and seeking to properly understand and apply them. Protestants believe in the right and responsibility and privilege of each person to interpret the Bible with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. The Roman Church teaches that a person’s greater responsibility is simply to obey what the church stipulates. As Protestants we need to teach what a joy and privilege it is to have the Holy Spirit present with us so that we can search the Scriptures and have confidence that what we learn is true. Yet we need to understand that we cannot go it alone. We need to rely on the assistance of other Christians before us.

Ignorance - There is startling ignorance among Protestants about what Catholic theology and practice. Many Protestants are taught things about Rome that are simply not true. Thus when they meet Catholics or experience Catholic worship they are unprepared for what they experience. They are surprised to hear many of the same words, to share many of the same elements of worship. Many of the most important differences between Catholic doctrine and the theology of the Bible are quite fine and subtle. Those who know little more than “Catholics believe in salvation by works” can be easily wooed by the reality of Roman Catholicism. It is important that Protestants know Catholicism as it really as rather than being taught a mere caricature.

Ritual - Protestantism, especially in its more “popular” forms, has become very de-ritualized. While there are some forms of Protestant worship that maintain a greater amount of ritual (Anglican churches, for example, and even certain forms of Presbyterianism) most are very casual. What is meant to be casual can, to some, appear flippant and disrespectful. Conversely, Roman Catholic worship has the outward appearance of being much more serious and, in many ways, more respectful. This attracts certain people, and perhaps especially those who have been accustomed to worship that is based more on ritual. The solution here is not to return to ritual, but to return to a sense of gravity that marks times of corporate worship as being different from times of entertainment and amusement.

I think, though, that the ultimate reason is this: the Roman Catholic Church may well be Satan’s greatest masterpiece. I acknowledge that these are fighting words but I will stand by them. The doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church offers salvation to no one. This is not to say that there are no true Christians within the Catholic churches. Rather, it is to say that these people are saved despite Catholic doctrine, not because of it.

The concept that we can do nothing to earn or merit or contribute to our salvation is repugnant to the natural man. Yet a religion of no grace at all may also prove repugnant. Catholicism manages to offer enough grace to give it a semblance of biblical orthodoxy, yet still attributes to man a portion of the work necessary to save himself. It masterfully interjects just enough grace that it can be said fairly that Catholicism is a religion of grace. Yet it also requires works so it can also be fairly said that it is a religion of works. If we believe what the Bible teaches—that our works merit nothing before God, then we know that we need to reject Roman Catholic theology as being not just unbiblical, but anti-biblical. Catholic theology is brilliant for its mimicry of biblical theology but when we examine it closely we see that it must be rejected. It is but a clever counterfeit of what Scripture teaches.

There will always be some Protestants who leave for what they perceive as the greener pastures of Rome. Yet preventing people from being attracted to Rome really should be remarkably easy. We need Christians to simply teach the Word, to teach Christian doctrine, and to provide the historical context that will show that it is the invisible church, the true believers, who are the true successors of the Apostles. We need to share the gospel and be shaped by the gospel, and then leave the rest up to God.

June 17, 2007

Today is Father’s Day and I thought I’d share something I posted here before—an article I wrote for my dad three years ago on this day.

Like most boys I idolized my father. When I was a child you would have had a difficult time convincing me that there was anyone smarter, faster or stronger than my dad. I really did believe it when I told my friends that “my dad can beat up your dad!” And it may well have been true. Dad was a landscaper, and for eight months of every year he spent just about every waking hour hauling loads of soil from his truck to the gardens and manipulating enormous rocks to make sure they looked just right. Though this took a physical toll on him, it left him stronger than an ox. When he and I used to wrestle, I could make absolutely no headway against him. I would run at him and hit him with all that I had, but even with a full head of steam I could not knock him off-balance. He would just grab me with his rough, leathery hands and toss me aside like I was barely even there.

Dad had working man hands. I’ll never forget those hands; they were hard as rock. Holding dad’s hand was like holding a sanding block and just about as uncomfortable. As he labored day-in and day-out, his hands built up so many rough calluses that they soon became as hard as dried leather. They were scarred with the evidence of so many bumps and bruises inflicted on job sites. I saw in his hands an ideal, for to me they represented a hard-working man who labored diligently to support his family. I felt pride when I compared his hands to those of men who spent their lives at desks - there really was no comparison - and looked forward to the day when my hands would be hard and callused like dads’. I believe there is something inside each of us that really wants nothing more than to carry out God’s original command to humans which was to till the soil and to care for the earth. Dad had the privilege of doing that every day and the even greater privilege of loving nothing more.

Yet behind his love for working with plants and rocks and soil, I think dad always felt a twinge of shame and regret. He grew up in an affluent family, one which had a long history of politicians and lawyers. My grandfather was a Supreme Court judge, and dad’s uncles were members of parliament. Surely, dad felt deep inside, landscaping was not a profession suitable for a man from such lineage. Finally succumbing to the pressure he had created in himself, he returned to school, upgrading his two Bachelor’s degrees to a Master’s. For several years he worked diligently, studying languages, history and theology. A strange thing happened. As the months turned into years I noticed that his hands no longer felt like leather. The longer he labored in school, the softer his hands became. Before long his hands were much like mine - soft and free from calluses.

Dad graduated with a Master’s degree and tried so hard to be happy in an office job. He tried his hand at a few things and it wasn’t so much that he wasn’t good at them as that he just did not enjoy what he was doing. He found himself thinking nostalgically of burying his hands in fresh topsoil and sculpting beautiful gardens where there had been nothing but weeds and chaos. Finally it became too much and one day dad went and bought himself a great, big pickup truck. He returned to sculpting the soil he had left behind.

Now whenever I see dad he has dirt under his fingernails. His hands are once again as hard as dried leather and I can’t imagine my son feels any more comfortable holding his hand than I did so many years ago. As he returns shamelessly to the task for which God created Him, his hands again bear evidence of his labor.

It occurs to me as I write this that one day we are all going to stand before God and it’s as if He is going to reach down to each of us and feel our hands. He has assigned to all of His children the same task, and it is a difficult one. We need to take His message into all the world, diligently and shamelessly proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ. If our hands are not as rough as sandpaper and do not feel like old leather, perhaps we are not being diligent in that labor. If our hands bear no scars, perhaps we have not received the cuts and bruises that are bound to come to those who go forth on His behalf. Our hands must bear the evidence of our labor.

June 16, 2007

John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing GraceWhile not everyone knows the name of John Newton, everyone knows his song and at least a bit of his story. Immortalized in the words of “Amazing Grace,” the most-recorded song in history, everyone knows that John Newton was wretched and miserable until saved by a grace that forever transformed his life. Two centuries ago, fewer people knew his song, but far more knew his story. That story is told again and told afresh in Jonathan Aitken’s new biography John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace.

June 15, 2007

Evan Almighty

A week from today, the movie Evan Almighty will hit theaters across the continent. A projected summer blockbuster, it is the sequel to 2003’s hit comedy Bruce Almighty which starred Jim Carrey and pulled in over $200,000,000 at the box office. Evan Almighty is, I believe, the most expensive comedy ever made with a budget said to exceed $175,000,000. Clearly the studios are expecting it to be as successful as its predecessor.

I did not see Bruce Almighty. It struck me as utterly blasphemous and I could not bring myself to watch it. I was surprised, and shocked even, to hear how many Christians watched, enjoyed, and recommended it. A couple of times I got close to clicking the “Buy” button on “Video on Demand” but just couldn’t pull the trigger. I wanted to watch it just to see what the fuss was all about; I wanted to analyze it and review it as objectively as was possible. But I couldn’t. Here’s why:

Carrey stars as Bruce Nolan, a television reporter in Buffalo, New York who lives a normal life with his sweet girlfriend Grace (Jennifer Aniston). But Bruce isn’t satisfied, and after a particularly bad day where everything goes wrong, he blames God. After spewing a tirade of curses God’s way, God (Morgan Freeman in a gentlemanly white suit) responds and challenges Bruce to take over and see if he can run things better. Of course, there are some conditions; Bruce can only have the “almighty” powers for 24 hours and only in the Buffalo area. This doesn’t stop Bruce, and he responds to his newfound powers with selfish, childlike zeal. Like a kid in a candy store, Bruce sets off making one hysterical, yet disastrous, decision after another. He pulls the moon closer to the earth so he can have a more romantic evening with Grace, unaware that his actions cause a tidal wave in Japan and responds to the prayers of the world with a mass-email “yes” that creates millions of lottery winners, riots, and mayhem. Ultimately, Bruce proves he is only human, and cannot possibly fill God’s shoes, although he has a great time trying.

Maybe my concerns were irrational, but when I thought about the film I just knew there was no way I could watch it with a clean conscience. While it sounded like the moral of the story was somewhat useful (“We are only human and cannot comprehend how or why God does what He does”) the journey to this moral seemed terribly blasphemous, beginning with having a person play the role of God and going on from there. The end doesn’t often justify the means and I knew this would be the case for me with Bruce Almighty. The previews for the film, which were shown constantly on television, showed that the movie also had some vulgar elements (see this synopsis at Plugged In). My conscience just would not allow me to see it. So I didn’t. I couldn’t.

And now comes the sequel, Evan Almighty, the plot for which looks something like this:

Steve Carell (The 40 Year-Old Virgin), reprising his role as the polished, preening newscaster Evan Baxter of Bruce Almighty, is the next one anointed by God to accomplish a holy mission in the hilarious new comedy Evan Almighty. Blockbuster comedy director Tom Shadyac (The Nutty Professor, Liar Liar, Bruce Almighty) returns behind the camera for this next episode of divine intervention. This time, however, his cast grows two-by-two.

Newly elected to Congress, Evan leaves Buffalo behind and shepherds his family to suburban northern Virginia. Once there, his life gets turned upside-down when God (Morgan Freeman) appears and mysteriously commands him to build an ark. But his befuddled family just can’t decide whether Evan is having an extraordinary mid-life crisis or is truly onto something of Biblical proportions…

So while the first film dealt with the way God works, the second deals with faith. It is, in effect, an update of the story of Noah. I don’t know if the filmmaker attempts to reconcile the fact that God has made it clear that he will never again destroy the earth in a flood. I don’t know if this film presupposes that the first flood never really happened. According to this glowing review by a believer it seems the film deals with flooding that occurs because of environmental issues (the reviewer offers this hint: “Check your cinematic and political critiques at the door. Just have some fun.”). Morgan Freeman reprises his role as God, commands Evan to build an ark, and much hilarity ensues.

I have three concerns and these form three reasons I can’t and won’t go to see this movie.

At Christian Answers I read an interesting interview with the film’s director, Tom Shadyac, who is a professing Roman Catholic and who has directed, among other films, Ace Ventura, The Nutty Professor and Liar, Liar. The interview took place after the release of Bruce Almighty and one thing the interviewer said really struck me: “Well, I have to be honest, I laughed so hard at this movie, and I was so touched by it emotionally that while I was watching it, I didn’t think about the curse words and things like that.” And this is exactly why I will not go and watch Evan Almighty. If I go, I know I will laugh. I will laugh at things that are meant to be funny but which are actually dead serious. Only later will I realize what I’ve done. The genre of film will reduce my defenses and allow me to laugh at things that may be blasphemous or vulgar or otherwise unbiblical. So, like Bruce Almighty, I’ll just stay away even though part of me really would love to see this one.

I have a second concern. The promotion for this film has included marketing it to Christians. In fact, the cover of a recent issue of Christianity Today was part of a four-page spread advertising the film and a ministry initiative called ArkAlmighty (which seems to promote good deeds by matching people with a need with someone who can fulfill it). A recent article in the New York Times got it right: “More important than the lesson Mel Gibson taught Hollywood about drunken anti-Semitic tirades (that they’re bad for publicity) is the one gleaned from his 2004 film ‘The Passion of the Christ.’ The movie demonstrated just how many evangelical moviegoers there are and how much money can be made from them.” Christians are proving that they are ripe for the picking and that they will shell over money for just about any project deemed “Christian.” Of course the film’s official site has no mention of the programs they’ve developed for Christians (though they do provide links to environmental programs). The people marketing the film want to have it both ways: they want to market the film to Christians but don’t want unbelievers to know they are doing this. They are taking advantage of this Christian market, trying to lure them in to see a film that looks anything but appropriate for Christians.

But I think my greatest and overarching concern is this: this movie, like the one before it, makes light of our faith. When people walked out of Bruce Almighty I don’t think they had a greater and deeper understanding of God. They did not have greater love for and respect for Him. The genre simply could not bring so serious and important and biblical a message. Amidst all of the laughs and vulgarity there would simply not have been opportunity to really help people understand God better, despite the filmmaker’s attempts. And when people walk away from Evan Almighty they will not love God more. I don’t think they will have a greater understanding of the Bible. In fact, I suspect they’ll see the biblical story of the flood as being as fictional as this movie—a quaint plot but completely unrealistic and implausible. Mere fiction. This movie will not and cannot bring anyone closer to God. Rather, it will necessarily project a false image of God, a false understanding of Him. And we’re being told to watch this, to enjoy this, and to bring our families to see it so they can laugh with us.

No thanks.

June 14, 2007

By all accounts it would seem that evangelicalism is currently in the midst of a resurgence of interest in Reformed theology. At conferences and in publications all sorts of people are noting the growing interest in Calvinistic theology, especially (though certainly not exclusively) among younger people. Collin Hansen captured some of this interest in an article he wrote for “Christianity Today” called “Young, Restless, Reformed.” Now certainly simply saying something is happening does not make it so. But I am in agreement that this surge of interest does seem to be genuine and does seem to be widespread (and growing).

I am interested in asking questions of those who are quite new to an understanding of the Reformed faith or who are perhaps simply new to the “banner” of Reformed, even if they have always understand these doctrines of God’s sovereign grace. In particular, I am interested in knowing about how you came to understand the Reformed faith and what resources you depended on to teach you about them. Questions like these come to mind:

As you began to understand Reformed principles, what were your greatest and most pressing questions about this system of theology?

What aspects of Reformed theology most troubled you and were the most difficult to reconcile in your mind?

What resources did you turn to to help you explore the Reformed faith? Was it only Bible study that led you to Reformed beliefs or did you rely on secondary sources as well? Which were the most helpful resources (teachers, books, web sites, etc)?

Are there still questions that remain? Are there certain aspects of Reformed theology that you continue to wrestle with or that you simply do not understand?

How confident are you now in your ability to understand, defend and apply the principles of the Reformed faith?

If there are some people who would be willing to share their experiences, either in a comment or in an email, I’d be grateful.

June 14, 2007

Edward Gilbreath - Reconciliation BluesI often wonder if my Canadian perspective keeps me from really understanding race relationships as they exist in the United States. Things are different here. I live in a city where over half of the population was born outside of this nation. A trip to any public location (or even a walk around the average neighborhood) will show an incredible variety of races and backgrounds and this seems to have been Canada’s historical pattern. To be Canadian is to be diverse. Canada never embraced slavery and never had shockingly unjust Jim Crow laws to overcome. We had no Martin Luther King Jr. and, in a sense, never had as great a need for one. Racism was never systematized here as it was just a few miles south. So when I read about racial issues I read about something that comes from outside of the context I know best.

June 14, 2007

Thursday June 14, 2007

Books: At Desiring God you can find an excerpt from the conclusion of John Piper’s upcoming book on justification.

Music: Bob Kauflin has a long post about “New Songs, New CD’s, and a New Website.”

Music: Also in the world of music, you may be interested in Sing The Word, a series of CDs with Scripture memory verses for children set to diverse types of music.

People: John MacArthur is the second worst person in the world according to Keith Olbermann, host of MSNBC’s “Countdown.”

Style: Christa Taylor designs modest clothes for girls and women that avoid the “modesty by wearing burlap sacks” mentality.