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January 07, 2009

A few days ago somebody posted at Amazon a rather unique review of my book. Though he gave the book only one star out of five, I was far from upset or outraged when I read it. I was more perplexed. In fact, I didn’t quite know what to do with the review and thought maybe I’d post it here to see if someone can explain it to me. Because, frankly, I’m confused.

The author, going by the name Arktophylax, posted it under the heading “Horrible Self-Congratulatory Conformist Liberalism.” Here is what he wrote:

The author attempts at transcending pseudointellectualism but is unable to discern what constitutes orthodox Christian spirituality and his own distorted, incomplete psychological development and off-putting androgyne tendencies. There was a distinct lack of appropriately masculine tone to the whole book sure to alienate those orthodox Christians who still believe in a “manly Christianity” instead of the New-Age, gnostic, nihilist revision of Jesus. Overall, the theology reminds one of a limp-wristed, liberalized neo-deism with heavy doses of left-wing psychology. In all harshness, a most infelicitous theological scribbling by a liberal solipsist confusing his own mentality with that of normative Christianity. There is definite potential in this author if he outgrows the comfortable belief-systems of liberal-modernity he is still unconsciously enshackled to in his personality.

Addendum: Confusing one’s own ego with revelatory capacity is the fall of religion. This is a common symptom among today’s “post-modern” Christians—the insipid, bloodless psychological atmosphere of little boys self-complacently playing video games, little girls playing tea-party, or, the air of laid-back coffee-houses, rather than the harsh tragedian desert where Jesus taught a new revolutionary way of self-denial and self-sacrifice. A person can read a book and tell whether the author has tasted noble suffering or whether the author has led a modernist consumerist life of easy self-contentedness and egocentric domesticity; whether they use their intellect to play intellectual games or offer blood-bought truths, and nobly-endured suffering is the key to Christianity. The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity by Leon J. Podles comes highly recommended in this context.

January 05, 2009

Today I want to step into dangerous territory and discuss free will. This is a massive topic with implications that stretch to almost every part of the Christian faith. I want to look at just one small part of it. I want to deal with a statement I’ve heard and read time and again. I came across this most recently when reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. “Free will,” he says, “though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.” If God had not given us free will, such people say, we could not truly have loved him. Our love would be the love of robots, of automatons, love that would be neither genuine nor sincere. It would be a meaningless, forced love which in reality would be no love at all. This is what we are told. I want to suggest today that the Bible does not tell us one way or another. This may be a valid inference, but it is one that is not explicit in Scripture and, hence, one we should be hesitant to declare with great confidence.

I am writing today knowing that I could be wrong and inviting you to show me if that is, indeed, the case.

My line of reasoning will go like this. If this statement is true, it casts doubt on the manner and sincerity of the Christian’s love of God in heaven. Therefore, if this statement is untrue of the heavenly man, it may also be untrue of the earthly man.

It was Augustine of Hippo who first described the four states of man. They are most easily understood when put into the form of a table like this one:


Adam and Eve were in what Thomas Boston calls a state of “primitive integrity,” able to choose whether they would sin or not sin. They were able to sin but were also able to not sin. The choice lay before them and we know which path they chose. Adam’s decision cast man into a state of “entire depravity” in which people can no longer make such a choice. Man is now able to sin and unable to not sin. There is not a person on earth who can go a lifetime without sinning; neither is there one who would wish to. Our very natures have become sinful. However, those who are born again, who are regenerated by the Spirit of God, are in a state of “begun recovery” (again, according to Boston) and every moment of every day face a choice. They are able to sin but are also able not to sin. Experience and observation shows that Christians sometimes make one choice and sometimes make another. Their new natures give them the ability to choose to not sin, but the old man constantly fights back, pushing to choose what is sinful. But all the while Christians look forward to the day of “consummate happiness” in heaven when they will be able to not sin and unable to sin. God will grant them the ability to not sin and will remove any vestige of desire to sin. This is one of the great promises of heaven, that “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away (Revelation 21:4).”

It is this final part of the grid that causes me to wonder if our love truly had to be entirely free for it to be genuine. After all, as Christians we look with great anticipation to the day when our sin will be taken away and we will no longer even be able to sin. At this time will our love for God be more genuine or less genuine? Will we love God more or less than we love him now? When we read Scripture and, with great anticipation look to the passages that describe heaven, we can only conclude that our love for God today is only a shadow of the love we will have for him in that day. And yet it will be a love that is restricted by our sinless natures—a love that will not allow us to ever sin or even consider sin.

As I understand it, Augustine would agree with me here. He would say that the ability to sin is not essential to free will. After all, God is free but without the ability to sin. The angels are free but without any ability to sin. And, as we’ve established, we will be free in heaven, but not free to sin.

All of this to say that I simply do not find that we need to believe that the only love worth having is a love that can choose not to love.

But feel free to tell me if and how I’m wrong here…

December 27, 2008

Christians love their conferences. Calvinists love their conferences. Put the two together and, well, you’ve got an awful lot of events in any given year. Many major ministries offer their annual conferences along with a selection of regional conferences; churches offer small conferences designed to serve a local constituency; ministries like Together for the Gospel and The Gospel Coalition offer bi-annual conferences designed to attract and coordinate pastors or ministry leaders from around the nation and around the world. If you live in the United States, it is likely that you do not have to travel very far to find a great conference in the coming year.

All of this got me wondering: how many conferences do you anticipate attending this year? I’ve changed up the poll on this site so you can vote and let us know how many you’ll be at least attempting to attend.

Do note that if you are reading this via RSS, you’ll have to click through to the site to actually answer. All voting is anonymous…

December 24, 2008

A couple of days ago I was a guest on a radio program, discussing my favorite books from 2008. At one point the host asked what books I am looking forward to reading next year. I thought I’d share just a short list here. This is based only on books that have been announced or that I’ve somehow discovered in my online wanderings.

As you probably know, 2009 marks the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth. Hence we are going to see several Calvin biographies. It is actually surprising how few there are today; I’ve little doubt that this will be remedied next year. So for those of us who are indebted to Calvin but who know little about him, next year should offer a bounty of good resources. I hope to read at least two or three of those biographies.

2009 also marks Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday. The New York Times says “Throw in the fact that the next president of the United States, like Lincoln, is a former state legislator from Illinois, and an African-American who says he has been reading the writings of the man who wrote the Emancipation Proclamation and you have, well, Lincoln-mania.” Because his birthday is in February, we can expect several biographies and other resources in the early months of the year. It’s not like we are suffering from a lack of top-notch biographies on Lincoln, but I expect to see the field grow even more crowded. Ronald C. White’s A. Lincoln: A Biography looks as if it may be the best of the bunch.

There are two books releasing on almost the same day (and for almost the same price—only $0.01 separates them) titled Finding God in The Shack. I’ll probably read them.

We will undoubtedly see a deluge of good Christian books next year. Some of the ones I am looking forward to are:

  • The Bookends of the Christian Life by Jerry Bridges and Bob Bevington (disclosure: I’ve already read it and written an endorsement for it. It’s a very good book)
  • Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will or How to Make a Decision Without Dreams, Visions, Fleeces, Impressions, Open Doors, Random … Liver Shivers, Writing in the Sky, etc. by Kevin DeYoung. Of the writing of books dealing with God’s will there is no end; but this one looks both interesting and unique.
  • Big Truths for Young Hearts: Teaching and Learning the Greatness of God by Bruce Ware.
  • The Disappearance of God: Dangerous Beliefs in the New Spiritual Openness by Albert Mohler.
  • This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence by John Piper. He waited many years to write this book and I’m looking forward to reading it.

How about you? What books are you looking forward to reading next year?

December 22, 2008

On Saturday night, Aileen and I joined some friends to take in a performance of Handel’s Messiah. And what a performance it was. It featured the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. It was, in a word, sublime. Conductor Noel Edison clearly understood the piece (I guess I should say “the oratorio”) and wonderfully separated gravitas from joy. As the piece moved from prophecy, to the life of Christ, to his death and to his impending return, the music rose and fell, swelled and crept back in all the right places. If the world has ever seen a more powerful piece of music than Messiah, I don’t know what it would be.

As much as I love the “Hallelujah” chorus, it is merely the beginning of Messiah’s most beautiful part. It is in the third part that the soprano declares “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth.” It is here that the chorus and the soloists combine to share the gospel message. “Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” It is here that we hear the promise of new life to those who are found in Christ. “Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” And it is here that Handel puts to music the words of the elders and the living creatures and the angels as they sing “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” It is here that we, those who have been redeemed by Jesus, look to the future with hope, waiting anxiously for the day when Christ returns.

The year 2008 is drawing to a close. Last week the Boston Globe’s feature “The Big Picture” told the story of the year 2008 in photos (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. Warning: some of the more violent photos are quite graphic). With three galleries each containing 40 photos, they pointed back to the year’s most important moments. And what a year it was. As with every year since Adam and Eve disobeyed God, it was a year of both triumph and terror. Looking at the Globe’s photos, it seems that terror has prevailed. In one photo a boy and girl, a brother and sister hug one another at the funeral of their father, a police officer who was gunned down in the line of duty; in another, the foot of a suicide bomber lies close to the camera, with carnage in the background; in another still, a young Kenyan boy screams as a baton-wielding police officer approaches his ramshackle home, seeking his father. While some photos share moments of joy, far more share moments of pain and death.

It was not always this way. It will not always be this way. On Saturday night we partook in the strange cultural experience of hearing the gospel proclaimed far outside the walls of the church. We heard the message that assures us, even as we see such evidence of sin, that better times are coming. Indeed, better times must come. Death has been defeated. It will not be long now before the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. And, oh, don’t we look forward to that day.

December 19, 2008

The name Ryan Ferguson may be familiar to some of the readers of this site. Ryan has appeared at a couple of conferences where he has recited long passages of Scripture. I first saw him at WorshipGod ‘06 where he dramatically recited all of Hebrews 9 and 10 (though he had memorized the entire book). I recently got ahold of Ryan and asked if he would answer a few questions about memorizing Scripture. I trust this brief interview will serve to encourage you either to begin memorizing passages from the Bible or to press on in your conviction that you ought to.

Why did you decide to memorize large passages of Scripture?
It began when I saw a man named Tom Key recite the book of Revelation. He is a professional actor out of Atlanta, Georgia. I was blown away. At about the same time my church had just studied Ecclesiastes so I started memorizing and asked our teaching pastor if I could recite it for the church.

What are some of the passages you’ve committed to memory?
I have memorized the books of Ecclesiastes and Hebrews. I have memorized various Psalms, Genesis 1, and various other smaller sections.

How do you decide which passages you will memorize?
It depends. When I did Hebrews that was a specific choice to serve the people at my church. I memorized it while our church studied for one year. Some of the Psalms I did specifically for the WorshipGod08 conference this summer that centered on the Psalms. Ecclesiastes was a work that God was doing in my heart. I memorized it in response to a time in my life when like Solomon I was asking a lot of questions.

You are known for reciting passages “dramatically.” Is there benefit in memorizing Scripture with dramatic recitation in mind?
Yes, but answering yes doesn’t mean you have to be an “actor.” In a sense we are all actors. Many people will tell a story to kids and do character voices; most of us have played make believe or pretend; any time we make a joke we are acting, that is, we are using text (or words) to make point or get a reaction. If we think of Scripture as more than just recorded words, but specific words written in a specific time to specific people to make a specific point we can understand more than just the denotative nature of the words. We can see the heart behind the words. Everyone does this in one way or another, for example, a wife reads a note from a husband on Valentine’s Day and experiences joy beyond the mere words on the page. She knows those words communicate so much more than just “I love you.” Whenever we receive emails, we don’t just read them we interpret them; we try to figure out what the person is saying, and that, in a sense, is acting. Actors take words on pages and interpret them. So when we approach the memorization of Scripture, it will help to think dramatically; it will help us to think of more than just the written words. Think like an actor; think about what you are trying to communicate with those words.

What are some of the blessings you’ve experienced in memorizing Scripture?
I have heard it said that joy comes through obedience. I would say that I have experienced joy in memorizing Scripture because God has asked me to hide his Word in my heart so I don’t forget him. There is a joy in knowing God’s Word. In a different way, I have been blessed to be able to use the Scripture that I have in my head in specific instances to encourage or exhort a brother or sister in Christ.

What benefit is there in memorizing entire books of the Bible?
If we value Scripture as God’s inspired Word, then I would suggest that the benefit of memorizing entire books is that we get to experience everything God wanted to say through that author at that particular point. For instance if you memorize Ephesians, you get to experience how the Spirit inspired Paul to write the first three chapters declaring truth after wonderful truth about God, and then you would experience the practical power of Scripture in chapters four through six as we have multiple commands given to us about our living. When we have whole books in our minds, we can experience the entire story of that book.

I have also thought that the benefit of having entire books memorized will be revealed if we ever have to endure persecution. If the printed Scriptures are removed from our lives how much will we be able to recreate from the passages we have diligently put into our minds.

Do you have any warnings or exhortations you’d want to extend to people who are seeking to memorize Scripture?
Yes, and I believe this is key to memorizing. Don’t memorize data!! Our minds while often compared to computers are not computers. We need more than just letters, words, and sentences to be able to connect our minds and hearts to the text. We need to know what it says, why it was written, and what the text is trying communicate. It is very difficult to just sit down and memorize a sequence of words that has no connection or story. For instance, it would be much more difficult to memorize the genealogies in Chronicles than it would be to memorize a narrative section in the book of Genesis. Why? Because we communicate ideas with our words; we don’t communicate words with our words. Many of us could tell a fairy tale to a child that we have not memorized because we know the story; we know the idea. The same is true with Scripture. Memorization is knowing the story and then choosing to use the specific words of any piece of text to tell that story. I hope this makes sense…

What are some longer passages you would suggest for beginners?
Prior to giving specifics, let me first suggest that whatever longer passage you choose, make it a passage of Scripture that God has used in your life and heart. This connection will assist you in your memory work, because it will be connecting God’s powerful Word to your thinking and living. I would suggest the following: Psalm 1, 46, 139, 150, Genesis 1, John 1, I John 1, any chapter in Ephesians, James 1. I would also suggest (and would like to do this) II and III John and Jude because they are short books, but you would still be encouraged by having memorized an entire book.

Describe the methodology you’ve used to file away large passages of Scripture.
I have been asked this in almost every church to which I have traveled. I work in a very specific way, and it may not work for everyone. When I memorize a book, I first put it into a Word document and remove all the verse numbers but leave the chapter numbers. I then break up the book into paragraph form so that it looks and reads more like what I am used to reading. I then memorize one paragraph at a time. When I have one memorized, I add the next paragraph and do them together. I do this process until I have memorized the desired section.

This particular way of memorizing has some inherent problems that people have raised that are valid. I do not have verse recall. I can’t just jump in and tell you Hebrews 7:6. For some people they would rather have the chapter and verse reference, especially those who are counselors. I understand this, but for me it is the way it works. I also believe that sometimes communicating the Word of God to people doesn’t have to be referenced…this is purely my opinion. I believe that God through his Spirit can quicken our mind and bring particular Scripture to mind when needed. It is interesting that in the book of Hebrews the author quotes this way, he uses the phrase “as it says also in another place…” when referencing the Old Testament. He doesn’t even say who wrote it or in what book.

Can you share any final tips and tricks that may be useful?
I am not sure if this is a tip or trick, perhaps it is more of an encouragement. I often hear people say, “I just can’t memorize.” In some instances that statement may be true, but I have started asking people questions to show them how well they do memorize. I will ask questions like the this, “How many lines from movies can you quote?” or “Tell me every phone number you know” or “Tell me the names of every sports team you know” This list of questions could go on and on. We all can memorize. Much of memorizing depends on where you put your attention. I love mountain biking; I study it; I read about it; I look online at blogs about it. I could tell you a lot about mountain biking other than my experience. I have memorized a lot about the topic I love. Developing our memories takes work, time, and discipline. Don’t be disappointed if it takes you a while to memorize Scripture. God has not set up a Bible quiz to determine if you have all your verses memorized this week. God desires that you love his Word. Psalm 19 uses very specific language, language of desire when referring to God’s Word. Love God’s Word, spend the time with God’s Word to hide it in your heart.

Here is Ryan reciting Psalm 22:

And here he is reciting Hebrews 9 and 10:

December 18, 2008

Today we arrive at our third week of reading through Mere Christianity. The first week we read the Introductory bits while last week we read the first book, “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe.” This week we read the second book, “What Christians Believe.”


In Mere Christianity Lewis attempts only to teach only the very foundations of the faith. Hence his look at “what Christians believe” touches only on the most basic but foundational beliefs. In this section we see, I think, Lewis at his best and his worst; we see his amazing brilliance at times but also see where some of his beliefs seem borderline unbiblical.

Lewis begins this book by looking to rival conceptions of God and does a fantastic job of showing the intellectual dishonesty of atheism. When he was an atheist, he says, “my argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.” Atheism turns out to be too simple, too dishonest. “If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.”

In the second chapter, “The Invasion,” he deals with the entrance of evil into the world. He says here that one of the reasons he believe Christianity is that it is a religion you could not have guessed. There is an “otherness” about Christianity; this proves that it could not be the invention of men. As he introduces evil he says “wickedness, when you examine it, turns out to be the pursuit of some good in the wrong way. … Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled.” This is a theme that we see in The Chronicles of Narnia as well. Badness and goodness are not equal forces; badness is simply goodness gone wrong.

In “The Shocking Alternative” he discusses free will and man’s response to God. He says “free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.” Though I understand why people hold to this (it is, after all, a very common belief), I am not convinced that we can easily prove it from Scripture. I am not convinced that God gave us free will because the alternative would be robotic, automated worship. This may be the case, but I don’t think Scripture tells us as much. Lewis also treads on dangerous ground by introducing “risk” in connection to free will, saying that God “thought it was worth the risk” to give people free will. The niwhole idea of risk seems to contradict God’s omniscience and omnipotence. It may be that Lewis sees risk as mere anthropomorphism. If so, I can see some validity in such a statement. However, I do think we are on potentially dangerous ground here. Much of the rest of this chapter is fantastic. Lewis says, for example, that “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.” He begins to introduce Jesus, asking the reader to deal properly with Jesus’ claims and not allowing the reader to see Jesus as merely a good or kind man. He concludes with his well-known “liar, lunatic or Lord” grid.

“The Perfect Penitent” deals with the atonement. Here we see a vague outline of Lewis’ thoughts on the atonement; and what we see is not necessarily orthodox (think: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). He warns, rightly I think, that theories of the atonement are not themselves the thing you are asked to accept. But this must not let us off as we attempt to understand it and to understand it rightly. While Lewis has the basics right (“We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity.”) from what I can see, he gets the details wrong.

He concludes this book with “The Practical Conclusion.” Here he admits just how strange this whole thing is—how strange the Christian claims are. He draws an analogy to sex saying, “He [God] did not consult us when He invented sex: He has not consulted us either when He invented this.” As odd as the Christian claims may be, we are not asked by God to do anything less than accept them and to trust in him. This final chapter is a call for the reader to simply believe and obey. Unfortunately, while Lewis affirms “that no man can be saved expect through Christ” he leaves a door wide open, saying “we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.”

As I said, in these few pages we have seen Lewis at his brilliant best. But we have also seen how some of his beliefs were simply not biblical. I suspect we will see more of this as we continue through the book.

Next Week

Next Thursday is Christmas. The Thursday after that is New Years Day. These are about the lowest-traffic days of the year for the Internet and I know not too many of us will be thinking about C.S. Lewis. So why don’t we reconvene on January 8. We’ll read the first six chapters of Book III. That’s about 35 or 40 pages in three weeks; shouldn’t be too hard!

Your Turn

The purpose of this program is to read these classics together. So if there is something you’d like to share about what you read, please feel free to do so. You can leave a comment or a link to your blog and we’ll make this a collaborative effort.

December 15, 2008

The fifth chapter of John presents us with a pitiful scene. It is the Sabbath day and in Jerusalem, gathered around a pool by the Sheep Gate, is a great multitude of men and women. Some of them are lying on the ground, stricken with sores. Others are paralyzed or have shriveled limbs. Still others are blind or lame. All of these people are waiting by the edge of this little pool, for they believe that every now and again an angel stirs the water and immediately afterward the first person to step into the pool receives instant healing. History does not tell us if there is some foundation to this practice or if it is mere rumor. Either way, many wretched souls wait day after day by the edge of this pool, desperate for healing.

Jesus enters the city on this day and surveys the scene before Him. Moved with compassion, he approaches a certain man—just one man in a sea of faces—a man who has been an invalid for thirty-eight long years. We do not know why he chooses this one person out of the crowd. What we do know is that Jesus asks him a simple question; an obvious question and one which is answered by the man’s mere presence. Jesus asks “Do you want to be made well?” The man, who is sick and nearly immobile, answers that of course he wanted to be made well! He would not be spending his days waiting by the edge of this pool if he were not holding out hope that he could be made well. The problem, of course, is that he is helpless, and whenever the waters stir and he has the opportunity to be healed, another person with greater mobility beats him in. He is unable to help himself; he must be bitter, depressed. While others are claiming their healing, this man lays helplessly, missing chance after chance.

The Lord has pity on Him. To this one man he says “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” And in that very instant the man is healed. His legs, useless for thirty-eight years, are suddenly and completely strengthened and healed. He rises up, takes his bed with him and walks away. In this brief instant, Jesus performs one of the thousands of miracles designed to prove that he is the very Son of God.

Is Jesus unjust to heal this man? Is it wrong for Him to do so? Of course not! It is an act of great mercy. Jesus has pity on a poor, helpless man and takes away his infirmity. He turns to a man who has no hope and gives him exactly what he needed. He gives him a new chance at life!

Is Jesus unjust to heal only this man? Is it wrong for him to heal that one person and leave the others still waiting for their miracle? No! Jesus is able to choose the person to whom he will extend an act of such grace. No one can say it is unjust for Jesus to heal just one man. He has mercy on whom he chooses to have mercy.

There is a beautiful parallel between this story and the Father’s work in choosing some for eternal life. In the same way that Jesus was able to choose those whom he would heal, God is able to choose the ones whom he will forgive. He is not unjust to choose one and not another. All are equally helpless before him. God tells us “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.” And for some reason his mercy extends to me—He has picked my face out of this crowd of sick, desperate people who are looking everywhere but at him and has given me new life. I thank God that his compassion extends even to a sinner like me.