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Tim Challies

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Designer Babies
February 26, 2014

The headline says it all: “The Dawn of the Designer Babies.” Scientists have developed a new technology meant to eliminate genetic abnormalities in newborns. They do this by combining the DNA of three people instead of only two. The procedure has been successfully tested in monkeys and now the FDA is considering whether the trial should expand to humans. At first the procedure would be available only to women who are likely to pass on debilitating genetic diseases to their children. After that? Well, we can only imagine.

The history of technology shows that we would far rather ask the “can we?” questions than the “should we?” questions. We are more interested in ability than morality. Lest we get cocky, we ought to admit that this is true in the small picture as much as the big picture, in the living room as much as the laboratory. Our relationship to technology is such that on some level we tacitly believe technology’s gifts to us must be good. We believe this when the new social network or the new cell phone comes along and we believe this when the new experimental procedure comes along.

According to Fox, this new “experimental technique, if approved for use, would allow a woman to give birth to a baby who inherits her normal nucleus DNA but not her defective mitochondrial DNA.” In order “to accomplish this, researchers would remove the nucleus DNA from a healthy female donor’s eggs and replace it with the nucleus DNA of the prospective mother. After fertilization, the resulting child would inherit the mother’s nucleus DNA — which contains most inherited traits like eye color and height — but the donor’s healthy mitochondrial DNA.”

On a pragmatic level, this makes all kinds of sense. It promises to further eliminate diseases and abnormalities, goals that are well within our God-given mandate of filling this earth and exercising dominion over it. On an ethical and spiritual level it is troubling. The slippery slope implications are especially disquieting because this same technology could be used to craft custom-built, designer children, a specific combination of traits according to the parent’s specifications. Once we allow designer children, we will not be far from expecting designer children. Once we can eliminate genetic abnormalities, it will not be long before we should eliminate genetic abnormalities, where it is considered downright cruel not to eliminate them. When this happens, the disabled and those who brought them into the world will be further marginalized. We could discuss the implications all day long.

But I want to make narrower observations. It never ceases to amaze me how the world breaks down when people will not look to the Bible in order to gain God’s perspective on matters like these. The Bible assures us we are so marred by sin and so full of ourselves, that in order to know ourselves, in order to know God, and in order to know how to live in this world, we must gain God’s perspective through his Word. When we read and believe and obey and trust the Bible, our outlook is absolutely transformed. We are given God’s eyes to see this world.

Crucifixion Not the Cross
February 25, 2014

Last week I compared The Passion of the Christ to the forthcoming Son of God, a film set to release later this week. I meant to point out that we can’t expect a movie to do what God promises only the Word will do. I also wanted to suggest similarities between the two movies and to draw attention to the obvious attempts from the marketing team behind Son of God to apply lessons learned during the brouhaha surrounding The Passion of the Christ. Today I want to dig in just a little bit more. I suppose I am going to be a tad contrary here, but I want to give us something to think about before we buy our tickets.

Now listen: I know many people who read this site have thought about the movie, will go to see it, and will enjoy it. I also know many people who read this site will not go to see the movie because they too have thought about it and are convicted it would be wrong for them to go. I believe this is one of those areas in which Christians need to acknowledge that some will believe the very opposite of what they themselves believe. Convictions will vary, even among Christians of the same theological stripe, which makes it an ideal time to obey Romans 14 and to refuse to pass judgment on one another.

Before moving on, let’s distinguish between two related terms: crucifixion and cross. I will allow David Wells to describe the difference: “The former was a particularly barbaric way of carrying out an execution, and it was the method of execution that Jesus endured. The latter, as the New Testament speaks of it, has to do with the mysterious exchange that took place in Christ’s death, an exchange of our sin for his righteousness.” According to this definition, many were crucified, but only One went to the cross.

Here is what I want to think about: A film cannot adequately capture the reality of what transpired between the Father and the Son while the Son hung upon the cross. If this is true, a film that displays the crucifixion but misses the cross might actually prove a hindrance rather than a help to the Christian faith. Even the best movie will still be hampered by a grave weakness.

Words and pictures are very different media, and in the history of redemption, God has used both. For example, in the Old Testament God used words to record prophecies about the coming Messiah while in the tabernacle he provided pictures of the coming Messiah and what he would accomplish—an altar for sacrifice, a lamb to be slaughtered, incense rising to God. Words can tell truth while pictures can display truth.

When it comes to the cross, God has given us four written eyewitness accounts but no visual accounts. Why is this? The Bible doesn’t tell us. What we do know, though, is that every medium has limitations. While visual media are excellent at conveying feelings, they are poorly suited to conveying ideas. Words are able to tell what happened at the cross in a way that pictures cannot.

At the cross we encounter something no picture can tell. Its reality cannot be displayed. Even the eyewitnesses of the cross, those who saw it all unfold, walked away ignorant that day, needing words to explain what had happened there. When we see the crucifixion, our eyes see excruciating physical suffering; when we read about the cross, our hearts recoil at soul-crushing spiritual suffering. When we see the crucifixion, our eyes see soldiers punishing an innocent man; when we read about the cross, our minds grapple with God the Father pouring out his wrath upon his sinless Son. When we see the crucifixion, we see a man stripped naked and slowly dying; when we read about the cross we see Christ Jesus clothed in our unrighteousness. When it comes to understanding the cross, only words will do, only words are sufficient.

The False Teachers
February 23, 2014

Last week I set out on a new series of articles through which I intend to scan the history of the church—from its earliest days all the way to the present time—to examine some of Christianity’s most notorious false teachers. Along the way we will visit such figures as Arius, Servetus, Fosdick, and even a few you might find on television today. We continue this morning with a false teacher whose teaching can still be found today, though most often in a reduced form. His name is Pelagius.

Pelagius

Historians believe that Pelagius was born in Britain around the year 354. We know little about his early years, but do know that at some point he became a monk and in that capacity journeyed to Rome. While in Rome, Pelagius began to write theological works, though, except for a few fragments, these have been lost and are known to us only through quotes in the writings of those who refuted him. He began to promote a rigorous asceticism, apparently out of concern for the moral laxity he saw among many Roman Christians. This austere lifestyle made him attractive to many Romans and he soon gained a considerable following. One person in particular, a lawyer named Celestius, became a devoted follower and promoter of Pelagius’ teachings.

It is said that at one time Pelagius heard a quote from Augustine’s Confessions—“Command what you will, and give what you command”—and blamed such teaching for the lack of morality in the church. He believed that Augustine was teaching doctrine contrary to a biblical understanding of both grace and free will and believed such teaching turned man into a mere automaton. Contrary to Augustine, “Pelagius taught that human beings have a natural capacity to reject evil and seek God, that Christ’s admonition, “Be ye perfect,” presupposes this capacity, and that grace is the natural ability given by God to seek and to serve God” (Theopedia).

When the Visigoths attacked Rome in 410, Pelagius and Celestius fled together to Carthage in North Africa. Pelagius’ influence began to spread there as well, causing concern for Augustine who responded by publishing several works that refuted and counteracted Pelagius. After a couple of years in Africa, Pelagius moved to Palestine and Augustine promptly warned Jerome that Pelagius was spreading a seditious heresy. Jerome, too, labored to prevent this false teaching from spreading in the East.

In 416 the church in North Africa held two separate synods to examine Pelagius’ teachings and both of them condemned him. Their results were sent to pope Innocent I for his decision, and upon receiving them he excommunicated Pelagius and Celestius. However, less than two months later, pope Innocent died and he was succeeded by Zosimus. Pelagius and Celestius asked Zosimus to reconsider the previous pope’s decision. When he did so there was alarm in North Africa and yet another synod was immediately convened to beg him not to repeal the prior pope’s sentence until it could be proven that the two men had clearly denounced their false beliefs.

31 Days of Purity
February 20, 2014

Men, I want to offer you a challenge. You too, women, but allow me speak to the men first. Beginning on March 1, I am going to begin a program I’m calling 31 Days of Purity. This is for all of us—for those who are young and those who are old, for those who are married and those who are single, for those who struggle mightily in the area of sexual sin and for those who may barely struggle at all. I would love it if you would commit with me to 31 Days of Purity—thirty-one days of considering what God’s Word says about sexual purity and thirty-one days of praying that God would help us fight sin and pursue holiness in this area.

Will you join me?

What If I Don’t Struggle?

A little while ago I wrote an article titled When You’re at Your Best, Plan for Your Worst. My point there was that even if you have gained significant victory in this area, thank the Lord, but don’t stop battling. What I said there still applies:

There is a kind of weakness, a kind of vulnerability, that may come when we are convinced of our strength. It is when we are not being tempted, it is when we are standing strong in the Lord’s grace, that we ought to consider the times we will be weak and tempted and eager to sin. We need to assume such times will come and we need to use the moments of strength to put measures in place that will protect us when we are weak.

Also, even as you pray for yourself, you can partner with a friend who may not be experiencing the same victory. Encourage him along. There is every reason for you to join us, even if you are not struggling in this area. 

What About Women?

Women, you can be involved too. I would love it if you would follow along, read what God’s Word says, and then pray for the men in your life: your husbands, your sons, your grandsons. What a blessing it would be to them if you will pray for them in an area in which Satan seems to be winning so many battles. Also, if you are struggling in the area of sexual purity, you’ll easily be able to adapt the devotionals and prayers to your own use.

How Does It Work?

Men, here’s how to get started.

First, pray about people who might join you in this challenge, and then ask them. I am convinced this time will be especially encouraging if you ask a friend or two to join you and if you make it a point to pray with and for one another.

Son of God the Movie
February 18, 2014

In late 2003 and early 2004, we were told that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was going to change the world. We saw breathless slogans like, “perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2,000 years.” Rick Warren, whose book The Purpose Driven Life had made him a household name, predicted “a spiritual tsunami” would hit when the film released. When he saw this tsunami coming, he planned a two-week preaching series leading up to the movie’s release, booked 47 theatre screens so members of his church could attend with their lost friends, invited a long list of celebrities and billionaires to a premier showing, and prepared a three-week small group curriculum for follow-up. He claimed that his church rode this tsunami to incredible results: “Over 600 unchurched community leaders attended our VIP showing; 892 friends of members were saved during the two-week sermon series. Over 600 new small groups were formed, and our average attendance increased by 3,000.”

It is hard to overestimate the buzz, the excitement, and the anticipation prior to The Passion. Do you remember it? I do.

Back in 2004, I was a member of a Southern Baptist church that tried to ride the Passion wave by mimicking just about everything Rick Warren did. The pastors raised tens of thousands of dollars from the congregation, then bought movie passes, booked theaters, distributed tickets, formed small groups, bought Warren’s follow-up curriculum, and waited to transform the city. Giving away the tickets was the easy part—people gladly accepted free movie passes to the film everyone was talking about. All the tickets went, but as far as I know, not a single person—not even one—came to any of the follow-up studies. No one was saved. Nothing happened. All the time, energy and resources gained nothing.

In the film’s aftermath George Barna got to work and found that the results we saw were far more typical than what Warren reported. “Among the most startling outcomes is the apparent absence of a direct evangelistic impact by the movie. Less than one-tenth of one percent of those who saw the film stated that they made a profession of faith or accepted Jesus Christ as their savior in reaction to the film’s content.” Either The Passion was not actually a great opportunity for evangelism, or most churches botched it.

Ten years later it is indisputable that all the talk of The Passion of the Christ being a powerful tool for evangelism was far more hype than reality. The marketing slogans earned Mel Gibson hundreds of millions of dollars, and brought lots of money to marketers and merchandisers. But the claim that it was the best outreach opportunity since Pentecost is downright embarrassing. For all the good the movie did, we may as well have just written checks to Mel Gibson and skipped the movie.

Yet here we go again. We are just a couple of weeks away from the next The Passion of the Christ: Mark Burnett’s Son of God. Based on the 2013 miniseries The Bible, it is being marketed much like The Passion before it. B&H has just announced a new small-group Bible study from Rick Warren titled Son of God: The Life of Jesus in You. The press release quotes Warren as saying, Son of God is “the best movie I’ve seen on the life of Jesus in years.” The release also says, “The film has made headlines in the build-up to its Feb. 28 nationwide release as churches and organizations across the country have been renting out cinema multiplexes to show the film on every screen the night before its official release.”

The False Teachers
February 16, 2014

This morning I am setting out on a new series of articles that will scan the history of the church—from its earliest days all the way to the present time—and pause to examine some of Christianity’s most notorious false teachers. Along the way we will visit such figures as Pelgius, Servetus, Fosdick, and even a few you might find on television today. We will begin this morning with one of the very first, and certainly one of the most dangerous, false teachers: Arius.

Arius

Arius is said to have been Libyan by descent, and he was probably born around 256 AD. We know little about his early days except that he studied under Lucian, the presbyter of Antioch. He later returned to Alexandria and became a presbyter there where he quickly became both prestigious and popular.

Arius’ difficulties began in 318 when he clashed with Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria. Alexander believed in the co-eternality of the Word of God while Arius taught that the Word was created by God. Because Alexander understood this as a dangerous threat to the church, he publicly condemned Arius’ teaching and removed him from all church posts. However, Arius refused to accept Alexander’s judgments and appealed to the people of the city and to other eastern bishops. In this way the dispute spread and became a severe threat to church unity. Seeing this danger, and wishing to avert division within his empire, Constantine called the first Christian council: the Council of Nicaea.

At the council, Arius’ teaching was formally condemned. The debate lasted from May 20 until June 19, at which point the council produced an initial form of the Nicaean Creed which explicitly affirmed the “begotten” position and condemned Arianism. All but two of the attendees voted in its favor and those two, along with Arius, were excommunicated and banished to Illyria. All of Arius’ writings were ordered confiscated and burned.

After being in exile for a decade, Arius sought to be restored to the church, and appealed directly to the emperor. Constantine became convinced of Arius’ return to orthodoxy and soon ordered Alexander, the patriarch of Constantinople, to reinstate him. Alexander was wary of letting Arius back into the church and, according to a letter by Athanasius, prayed that God would somehow prevent it. Very soon after this prayer, before Arius could be reinstated, he died.

Nathan Busenitz summarizes Arius’ impact in this way: “In ancient times, Arius’ teachings presented the foremost threat to orthodox Christianity—which is why historians like Alexander Mackay have labeled him ‘the greatest heretic of antiquity’.” His false teaching, coming as it did in the church’s infancy, truly did represent a grave threat.

His False teaching

Arius’ unorthodox position can be summed up very simply as “there was when he was not.” In other words, he held that God the Son is not co-eternal with God the Father. Instead, he believed that the Son was God’s first creation and that through him everything else was made (Colossians 1:15). This made the Son the only direct creation of the Father and thus unique among all creation as the first and greatest created being, but it also made the Father’s divinity greater than the Son’s. He argued that the opposing view, which would soon be officially established as the orthodox position, was incompatible with monotheism.

February 13, 2014

There is a lot to look forward to when the Lord returns and when we begin life anew in the new heaven and new earth. I guess you could say that infinite pleasures await there—pleasures that will know no end, because time will know no end. The greatest of all these pleasures will undoubtedly be the ability to be face-to-face with God at last, free from all traces of sin and evil. Of all heaven’s treasures, none offers more than this.

But heaven’s greatest pleasure is not it’s only pleasure. Lately I have been thinking about another joy that awaits—the joy of a very different relationship with time. When we are mortal, time is a finite resource. But when ten thousand years is as a day, and a day as ten thousand years, time will be infinite and we will be immortal. That will change everything.

I thought about this last week when I traveled to Grace College in Indiana to speak at a few of their chapel services. I had chosen to accept their invitation and was grateful for the opportunity—I enjoyed speaking to the students and I enjoyed getting to know a few of them. There are few things I like more than spending time with Christian college students. Yet in choosing to accept the invitation, I had to choose not to do other good things for those two days.

One of the most exasperating parts of life in this world is that I must constantly choose the good things not to do. So much of life is not the choice between good and bad, but between good and good. Even in the joy of doing one good thing, there is the sorrow of not being able to do another good thing. Three days spent in Indiana, is three days spent apart from my wife and my children. It is three days away from the people I love; I will never get those days back. I have been given perhaps 7,000 or 8,000 days with my children before they move out to begin life on their own, and in going away, I permanently traded away three of those precious days.

Bad Singing
February 10, 2014

One of the real privileges I’ve had over the past few years is experiencing and participating in worship services at quite a variety of churches. These churches have spanned a few different continents, at least four or five different countries, and a host of denominations and traditions. They have ranged from congregations with hundreds or even a thousand members all the way down to churches with just a handful of faithful Christians.

Yesterday I found myself reflecting on many of these churches and I realized something that surprised me: I am drawn toward a church that sings poorly and am a little suspicious of a church that sings really well. Let me explain.

A few years ago I worshiped at a church that had been established decades ago. This was quite a large congregation where three or four generations were worshiping together and where God’s Word had been faithfully proclaimed for many, many years. It was faithfully proclaimed the day I was there. The congregation has a distinct but unusual style of singing, one established many years in the past and carried on to our day.

These people know how to sing. They sing loudly. They sing skillfully. They sing beautifully. They sing in parts and with minimal instrumentation so that together they raise one voice to the Lord.

But one reason they sing so well is that there are very few among them who are new to the faith; there are very few among them who have not been raised to hear those songs week by week from their youngest days. By their own admission, they are poor evangelists and their church is not attractive to outsiders because it is so bound in a distinct culture foreign to those around them. They sing so well because they evangelize so poorly.

And then I think to another church I visited in the not-so-distant past. This is a church where the singing is, well, not quite as beautiful. Though there are some in the church who know the songs and who know how to sing a hymn or a contemporary worship song, there are many more who simply do not. As the music rises and falls, many of those voices fall and rise. As the songs progress, many in the church can do little more than mumble along and hope to hit at least a few of the notes.

February 06, 2014

If you were visit Oxford, England today, and find your way to the Angus Library of Regent’s Park College (a part of Oxford University), you might just come across an old, nondescript couch settled there in the archives. This antique couch sits at the top of a stone staircase, beside a plaque warning that this area of the library is a “quiet area.” It looks for all the world like a piece of furniture someone put down for a moment and then forgot to move to a better place. And yet this couch has greater significance than you might guess, because William Carey died upon it in Serampore, India, almost two hundred years ago. William Carey’s couch is the next of the twenty-five objects through which we are exploring the history of Christianity.

Carey CouchWilliam Carey was born on August 17, 1761 and raised in Paulerspury, a small village in central England. At the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to a cobbler in a nearby village and, though Carey had been raised Anglican, a fellow apprentice who was a Dissenter influenced him to leave the Church of England and join a Congregational church. This was just the beginning of an important spiritual pilgrimage.

During Carey’s time as an apprentice and shoemaker he found that he was adept at languages and taught himself Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Dutch, and French. In 1783 he became a Baptist and by 1789 was a full-time pastor at Harvey Lane Baptist Church in Leicester. After reading Jonathan Edwards’ account of the life of David Brainerd, as well as the journals of the explorer James Cook, he became increasingly interested in missions and in 1792 published his most enduring work, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. This book outlined the Christians’ obligation to do missions, shared a brief history of missions, gave statistical data about the world’s need for missions, provided answers to objections against doing missions, and a contained a proposal for the kind of society that could be formed to support such an effort.

Also in 1792 he preached the sermon which contained the quote that has become indelibly associated with his name: “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” In the fall of that same year, he formed the Baptist Missionary Society alongside other charter members Andrew Fuller, John Ryland, and John Sutcliff. Carey sailed to India the following April, and would never again return to England.

Over the next 41 years Carey accomplished or influenced a remarkable amount of work, and for good reason is considered the father of modern missions. He translated the entire Bible into India’s major languages: Bengali, Oriya, Marathi, Hindi, Assamese, and Sanskrit and parts of 209 other languages and dialects. He influenced social reform, including the abolition of infanticide, widow burning, and assisted suicide. And he helped found Serampore College, a divinity school for Indians. But, as Mark Galli says, “His greatest legacy was in the worldwide missionary movement of the nineteenth century that he inspired. Missionaries like Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, and David Livingstone, among thousands of others, were impressed not only by Carey’s example, but by his words ‘Expect great things; attempt great things.’ The history of nineteenth-century Protestant missions is in many ways an extended commentary on the phrase.” Carey expected great things from God and on that basis attempted great things; thousands would follow his lead.

February 02, 2014

Today I am completing a series of articles on the seven ecumenical councils of the early church. These councils commenced with the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and concluded with the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. Between these two events were five more, each of which attempted to understand and establish a unified Christian theology.

In this series we have taken a brief look at each of the seven councils. For each one we have considered the setting and purpose, the major characters, the nature of the conflict, and then the results and lasting significance. We close the series today with the final council: the Second Council of Nicaea.

Setting & Purpose

The Second Council of Nicaea opened on September 24, 787, some 452 years after the first ecumenical council met in that same city. Between 258 and 335 bishops were present, presided over by Tarasius, who was Patriarch of Constantinople. The council had been convened by Empress Irene in order to discuss the use of icons, a practice which had been condemned by the Council of Hieria in 754.

Major Characters & Conflict

Constantine V (718 – 775) had led a campaign against icons that had begun with his father, Emperor Leo III. The campaign culminated in the Council of Hieria in 754. This council claimed to be ecumenical and succeeded in establishing iconoclasm (the rejection and destruction of religious icons) as the orthodox teaching of the church.

When Constantine V died, his son Leo IV took over the throne. He maintained his father’s iconoclasm, though he was less forceful against those who remained in favor of using them, perhaps because his wife, Irene, was an iconophile. When Leo IV died in 780, just five years after taking the throne, Irene succeeded him.

In 784 the outgoing patriarch of Constantinople, Paul IV, urged Irene to call a council to help mend some of the divisions between the Eastern and Western church and to examine the use of icons. She agreed, and soon after appointed a new patriarch of Constantinople, Tarasius, to help her. She also wrote to Pope Hadrian in Rome, asking him to prepare for a council. He agreed, and expressed his support for the use of icons based on his understand of Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers. Though he did not travel to Nicaea, he did send two representatives.

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