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July 14, 2013

Today I am beginning a new Sunday series entitled “The Puritans.” I have a growing fascination with Puritan writing and thought it might be valuable to introduce you (and me!) to some of the most important Puritan writers. I will focus primarily on men whose works I have read in the past. Because I do not have the expertise to introduce the men or their work, I will be relying on experts like Joel Beeke and J.I. Packer to guide me. I begin with the Prince of Puritans, John Owen.

John Owen was born in 1616 in Stadham, England, the second son of Henry Owen. He entered nearby Oxford University at age 12 and studied the classics, finishing in 1635 with a Master of Arts. It is said that during these years he studied for between 18 and 20 hours each day.

When he was 26 years old he began to write. He became a popular and prolific writer and in 41 years would complete over 80 works, many of them becoming Christian classics.

In 1644 Owen married Mary Rooke. She bore him 11 children, but, sadly, only a daughter survived into adulthood. In the same same year he married Mary he also openly converted from Presbyterianism to Congregationalism.

Through his writing and preaching, Owen gained a wide reputation in England. After the execution of King Charles I and the appointment of Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan, as Lord Protector, many new opportunities for influence opened up to Owen. He accompanied Cromwell on trips to Ireland and Scotland to help reform religious institutions and to convince the people of the rightfulness of ending monarchy in England. Back in England, Owen was installed as vice-chancellor of Oxford University, while still serving as a consultant to Cromwell.

Owen lost favor with Cromwell in his last year as Lord Protector when Owen opposed him becoming king. And soon after, when Cromwell was replaced by his son Richard, the many prominent positions Owen had held began to be distributed to others. Even so, he continued to pastor, write and preach as he had opportunity, and his library of works continued to grow.

July 11, 2013

Within the library at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is a special climate-controlled room equipped with a waterless fire suppression system. It is a room specially built to house rare treasures, and of all the items in the collection, none is of greater importance than The Works of William Perkins. These three precious volumes are the next of the twenty-five objects through which we can trace the history of Christianity, for the books, now 400 years old, have a fascinating provenance and a remarkable significance.

PerkinsThe Protestant Reformation forever transformed Christian doctrine, recapturing the gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone. Though the Reformation began as a reformation of doctrine, doctrine can never be entirely separated from its implications and applications as they work themselves out in daily life. Following in the footsteps of the Reformers was a movement that came to be known as Puritanism. One of the great concerns of the Puritans was working out the implications of Reformation theology through godly living and the pursuit of practical holiness. J.I. Packer says, “Puritanism was an evangelical holiness movement seeking to implement its vision of spiritual renewal, national and personal, in the church, the state, and the home; in education, evangelism, and economics; in individual discipleship and devotion, and in pastoral care and competence.”

William Perkins is considered “The Father of Puritanism,” for he was among the first, the greatest and the most influential of the Puritans. Perkins was born in 1558 in Warwickshire, England, and as a young man indulged in all manner of sin while harboring a fascination for the occult. He earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Christ’s College in Cambridge and it was while he was a student that he experienced a sudden and radical conversion that began when he heard a woman chastise her child by threatening to hand him over to “drunken Perkins.” This small incident caused him great humiliation and in his sorrow he turned to Christ.

He turned his studies toward theology and after graduation was ordained as a minister. He proved an exceptional preacher and a kind, insightful pastor. He was later elected a fellow of Christ’s College, a post he would hold until his death, and proved an able teacher as well. This combination of strengths gave him wide authority and wide influence among his peers.

In time, Perkins as a rhetorician, expositor, theologian, and pastor become the principle architect of the Puritan movement. His vision of reform for the church, combined with his intellect, piety, writing, spiritual counseling, and communication skills, enabled him to set the tone for the seventeenth-century Puritan accent on Reformed, experiential truth and self-examination, and their polemic against Roman Catholicism and Arminianism.

As a fellow of Christ’s College he mentored and taught such eminent theologians as William Ames, Richard Sibbes, John Cotton and John Preston. His writings outsold even those of John Calvin and other Reformers so it could rightly be said that he “moulded the piety of a whole nation.”

July 08, 2013

A dear friend is one of life’s greatest gifts, one of life’s greatest blessings. I can chart so much of my life, my personal growth, through these precious relationships, these precious friendships. So many times these faithful friends have given wisdom at a moment of weakness, help in a time of trial, strength that is not my own.

I sit here in my little office, surrounded by my books, for books are among my dearest friends. David Gentry once said, “True friendship comes when the silence between two people is comfortable.” Few things are more comfortable, more enjoyable, than sitting among these friends. It is like a party for introverts, where no one has to say a word and there is not a single moment of awkwardness. The silence is beautiful.

I sit here and I survey my friends, counting my blessings.

Two of my first friends were Ashamed of the Gospel and Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace?. Both came into my life on the very same day. The first challenged me, calling me away from a church where the gospel was minimized and to a church where the gospel was right at the very center. The second challenged me to recover those great doctrines of the Reformation I had once held dear but had begun to forget.

Lenski said, “It is the best and truest friend who honestly tells us the truth about ourselves even when he knows we shall not like it.” One of my closest friends, The Holiness of God, loved me enough to level with me and tell me I had far too low a view of God. He encouraged me to see God as so much bigger and higher and brighter. I have spent many afternoons in his company, learning, growing, being challenged anew.

July 07, 2013

The final post in this Hymn Stories series highlights the work of the man who may be the most popular hymn writer yet: the great reformer, Martin Luther. Among his voluminous works, Luther wrote some 36 hymns. “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” however, is far and away the most well known.

Based on Psalm 46, the hymn is a celebration of the sovereign power of God over all earthly and spiritual forces, and of the sure hope we have in him because of Christ. After its publication, it gained immense popularity throughout Reformed Europe.

It was … the Marseillaise of the Reformation. It was sung at Augsburg during the Diet, and in all the churches of Saxony, often against the protest of the priest. It was sung in the streets; and, so heard, comforted the hearts of Melanchthon, Jonas, and Cruciger, as they entered Weimar, when banished from Wittenberg in 1547. It was sung by poor Protestant emigrants on their way into exile, and by martyrs at their death. It is woven into the web of the history of Reformation times, and it became the true national hymn of Protestant Germany. (Louis Benson)

The hymn became closely associated with Luther himself, as it embodied in its words and melody so much of the character of its author — bold, confident, defiant in the face of opposition. This association is symbolized in the monument to Luther at Wittenberg where the first line of the lyrics were engraved on the base.

There are at least 7 documented theories on the time and circumstances in which the hymn was written. Benson concludes, along with several other historians, that the most likely story is that it was written in October 1527 as the plague was approaching. The evidence for this date is the printing history surrounding it (no copies beforehand, and a growing number of copies afterwards).

There is debate about where the tune came from. In times past, it was believed to have been borrowed by Luther, perhaps from an old Gregorian melody. More recently, however, scholars are inclined to believe that Luther wrote it himself. (The story that the tune came from a tavern song that was popular in Luther’s day is the result of a misunderstanding of German musical terminology.)

There have been many attempts to translate the hymn into English. The two most enduring are Thomas Carlyle’s “A Safe Stronghold Our God Is Still” and Frederic Henry Hedge’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” Hedge’s translation being far more popular.

A mighty fortress is our God, A bulwark never failing;
Our shelter He, amid the flood Of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe Doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and pow’r are great, And, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide, Our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, The Man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth is His name, From age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

And tho’ this world, with devils filled, Should threaten to undo us;
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim — We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, For lo! his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly pow’rs — No thanks to them — abideth:
The Spirit and the gifts are ours Thro’ Him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go, This mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

June 30, 2013

Few of the hymns I have covered in this series were written in connection to particular events that occurred in their authors’ lives. “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” is an exception as it was composed in the aftermath of the untimely death of the author’s beloved friend.

In the spring of 1858 revival was taking place in Philadelphia. The movement grew out of midday prayer meetings coordinated by the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Rev. Dudley A. Tyng, a young Episcopalian minister, soon came to be recognized as its leader. Though there was some controversy over his anti-slavery preaching, Tyng was known and loved for his zeal for the work of God. Among the interdenominational leaders who gathered around him was the Presbyterian minister George Duffield, Jr.

On Tuesday, April 13th, 1858, Rev. Tyng was studying at his country home when he went to the barn to check on his mule which was driving a machine that shelled corn. As he patted down the animal, the sleeve of his gown got caught in the cogs of the machine, and his arm was severely injured. The the arm was soon amputed, the wound became mortal, and Tyng died the following week.

Before he died, however, he was asked by friends if there were any messages he would have them give to those who had participated with him in the revival work. Tyng responded briefly, beginning with the words, “Tell them, ‘Let us all stand up for Jesus.’”

In the days and events following Tyng’s death, these final words were invoked several times and became a resounding exhortation to all who had been affected by his ministry. When George Duffield, Jr. preached to his own congregation the next week, he focused on Ephesians 6:14 (“Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth…”) and concluded his sermon with a hymn he had written. It began with the line, “Stand up, stand up for Jesus.” The hymn was soon picked up by Presbyterian and Congregationalist publishers, and it quickly became an established work.

Similar to “Onward Christian Soldiers,” it became popular among soldiers of the Civil War, most likely because of its militaristic imagery and language. But, as we noted with that hymn, the connection to worldy battles was not the author’s intent; Christians have often sung soldier songs, because, as God tells us in Ephesians 6 and elsewhere, our lives in Christ are a fight for faith in the midst of spiritual enemies. We are called to stand in the strength he supplies.

Stand up, stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross;
Lift high His royal banner, it must not suffer loss.
From victory unto victory His army shall He lead,
Till every foe is vanquished, and Christ is Lord indeed.

Stand up, stand up for Jesus, the solemn watchword hear;
If while ye sleep He suffers, away with shame and fear;
Where’er ye meet with evil, within you or without,
Charge for the God of battles, and put the foe to rout.

Stand up, stand up for Jesus, the trumpet call obey;
Forth to the mighty conflict, in this His glorious day.
Ye that are brave now serve Him against unnumbered foes;
Let courage rise with danger, and strength to strength oppose.

Stand up, stand up for Jesus, stand in His strength alone;
The arm of flesh will fail you, ye dare not trust your own.
Put on the Gospel armor, each piece put on with prayer;
Where duty calls or danger, be never wanting there.

Stand up, stand up for Jesus, each soldier to his post,
Close up the broken column, and shout through all the host:
Make good the loss so heavy, in those that still remain,
And prove to all around you that death itself is gain.

Stand up, stand up for Jesus, the strife will not be long;
This day the noise of battle, the next the victor’s song.
To those who vanquish evil a crown of life shall be;
They with the King of Glory shall reign eternally.

(I have one delightfully awkward memory of this hymn. We occasionally sang this song in a church I attended many years ago; one Sunday we sang it but it was during a part of the service where we all sat. Everyone was wondering how we could sing “Stand up for Jesus” when we were all instructed by the bulletin to sit; finally one brave lady stood up and the rest of us soon joined her.)

June 27, 2013

As Reformation swept Europe, the Roman Catholic Church faced a crisis. How would Rome respond to these upstart Protestants? Would the Church itself reform, or would it re-affirm the doctrines that had sparked this great rift in Christianity? In the wake of the Reformation came the Council of Trent, an ecumenical council that examined Protestant theology and condemned it as heresy. Rome would continue semper eadem, always the same, unwavering on those fundamental doctrines.

Also in the wake of the Reformation came the founding of The Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, an order of priests that would play a critical role in the history of Christianity. And among the Jesuits, few have had so great an impact as Francis Xavier who is considered by Catholics to be the greatest missionary since St. Paul. Even today pilgrims travel to Goa, India, to venerate him at the Basilica of Bom where his body lies, or to the Church of the Gesu in Rome, where his arm is on display. Francis Xavier’s arm, enshrined in the mother church of the Society of Jesus, is the next of twenty five objects through which we can trace the history of Christianity.

Xavier Arm
Francis Xavier was born in 1506 as Francisco de Jasso y Azpilicueta and spent his early years at Xavier Castle in northern Spain. From his early days he was destined for a career in the church, so in 1525 he was sent to Paris to begin a theological education. After four years there, he and Ignatius Loyola were assigned as roommates. Loyola had experienced a dramatic conversion and soon influenced Xavier to such an extent that in 1534 they vowed together that they would live lives of poverty and celibacy, that they would travel as pilgrims to the Holy Land, and that they would dedicate their lives to missionary work. Ignatius would found the Society of Jesus, and Xavier would be the first to take the order’s vows.

Xavier was ordained a priest in 1537 and three years later departed Rome for the Far East. In the spring of 1542 he arrived at Goa, India, a Portuguese trading port. Several years prior, Catholic missionaries had won a great number of converts, but they had been neglected and had begun to drift away from the faith; Xavier traveled extensively, teaching the existing converts, confirming them in their faith, and baptizing thousands more. He subsequently traveled to Indonesia and even reached Japan where he founded a community of Catholics that survives to this day. As he carried out this work, he distinguished himself from other missionaries by providing for the ongoing pastoral care of his converts, establishing both schools and churches wherever he went.

Xavier’s career as a missionary was to be prolific, but short-lived. In 1552, while attempting to gain admittance to China, he contracted a fever and died at the age of forty-six. While legend once held that he had baptized one million converts, a more realistic assessment might be thirty thousand, a remarkable count nonetheless. He was canonized in 1622 and in 1927 proclaimed a patron saint of missions.

Xavier RelicFollowing his death, Xavier’s body was buried on Shangchuan Island, but the next year was disinterred, proclaimed incorrupt, and re-buried at St. Paul’s church in Portuguese Malacca. Several months later his body was moved once more and this time sent to Goa where it now lies within the Basilica Bom Jesus. All but his right forearm, that is. The forearm, which Xavier used to bless and baptize those who converted to Rome, was detached in 1614 and is now on display in the Church of the Gesu in Rome (though it is occasionally sent on tours so the faithful may have a unique opportunity to venerate him). It is encased within a massive and ornate reliquary.

June 23, 2013

John Newton has made regular appearances on this blog. Over the years I have posted a number of quotes and hymns by him. A few years ago I reviewed Jonathan Aitken’s biography of Newton and provided a short summary of his life and legacy. And most recently I mentioned his influential role in the life of William Cowper and their collaborative hymn writing work.

Since the focus of this series is hymn writing, perhaps we could say a little more about how Newton came to write hymns and what about them made them so influential.

When John Newton was ordained a curate of Olney Parish in Buckinghamshire, England, after a hard past of working as a sailor and slave trader, he gave particular attention to ministering to the people in ways that went above and beyond the weekly worship service. He began arranging spiritual gatherings during the week: one on Thursday afternoons for children, where he would explain the Scriptures to them “in their own little way,” and one in the evenings for adults to allow for extemporaneous prayer and teaching.

For these meetings Newton began to compose little bits of verse to be sung, probably as a way to summarize and impress the Scripture lessons on the minds and hearts of his congregants. Regarding his composition of these hymns, Benson writes

Newton was not a poet and did not pretend to be one… . He was writing for plain people, and made his hymns so simple that these could follow and understand. In all this he took his cue from Dr. Watts. Newton had a ready pen, some imagination, deep feeling, a knowledge of Scripture, and an urgent motive.

Eventually Newton composed over 200 of these hymns and combined them with 68 more from his friend William Cowper to publish Olney Hymns. The book became quite popular in England and America as it captured the spirit and theology of the Evangelical revival that was happening in those days through the ministries of George Whitefield, the Wesleys, and many others.

The hymn “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” was published in Olney Hymns under the title “The Name of Jesus.” It was based on Song of Solomon 1:3: “Your anointing oils are fragrant; your name is oil poured out; therefore virgins love you.”

How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
And drives away his fear.

It makes the wounded spirit whole,
And calms the troubled breast;
’Tis manna to the hungry soul,
And to the weary, rest.

Dear Name, the Rock on which I build,
My Shield and Hiding Place,
My never failing treasury, filled
With boundless stores of grace!

By Thee my prayers acceptance gain,
Although with sin defiled;
Satan accuses me in vain,
And I am owned a child.

Jesus! my Shepherd, Husband, Friend,
O Prophet, Priest and King,
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
Accept the praise I bring.

Weak is the effort of my heart,
And cold my warmest thought;
But when I see Thee as Thou art,
I’ll praise Thee as I ought.

Till then I would Thy love proclaim
With every fleeting breath,
And may the music of Thy Name
Refresh my soul in death!

A recent recording of the hymn is available from Indelible Grace (featuring Matthew Perryman Jones).

June 21, 2013

It is a visual age. Cameras are ubiquitous, software is cheap, computers are powerful, and together they give us a video for every occasion. We, as Christians, have a video for every occasion. I love to watch the ones that tell the story of a husband and wife who had been on the verge of divorce but rekindled the flame, the ones about the godly wife who was willing to reconcile with her adulterous husband, the ones telling about the couple who endured the difficulty of a long and complicated adoption but were able to return home triumphant, holding that precious child in their arms, the ones about the dear, elderly man who found joy and contentment in caring for the wife who could no longer recognize or acknowledge him.

These videos provide a glimpse of God’s grace in the lives of his people and they are inspiring in the best sense. They give us hope that if we were to find ourselves in those situations, we would experience the Father’s kindness and blessing.

And yet, not every story has a happy ending. This world is so broken, so marked by sin, that many of our stories do not end with a kiss, they do not end with fulfillment, they do not end with a clear purpose. I love these videos just as you do, but they tell only select stories, not every story.

For every powerful story of repentance and forgiveness and reconciliation, there are many husbands who break their vows and never repent, who walk away, never to return. There are wives who are willing to grant forgiveness, willing to save their shattered marriage, except that the husband will not have it. There are husbands who are repentant but wives who cannot or will not forgive. These stories are equally real, but we do not make films for them. We don’t see the soft camera shots and hear the music swell dramatically as she gets served with the divorce papers.

There are the adoptions that fall apart at the last moment, the man and woman who had set their hearts on a child, who had fallen in love with him, who had traveled across the world to pick him up, but who had him snatched away. I have watched a family adopt a child only to find that he was so scarred by his time in brutal Eastern institutions that he returned their love with violence, threats, and sexual deviancy so dark they felt they had to relinquish him. There were no cameras to capture the story and to inspire us with it.

June 20, 2013

No one enriches hell more than false teachers. No one finds greater joy in drawing people away from truth and leading them into error. False teachers have been present in every era of human history, they have always been a plague and have always been in the business of providing counterfeit truth. While their circumstances may change, their methods remain consistent.

Here are seven marks of false teachers.

1False teachers are man pleasers. What they teach is meant to please the ear more than profit the heart. They tickle the ears of their followers with flattery and all the while they treat holy things with wit and carelessness rather than reverence and awe. This contrasts sharply with a true teacher of the Word who knows that he is answerable to God and who is therefore far more eager to please God than men. As Paul would say, “But just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts” (1 Thes. 2:4).

2False teachers save their harshest criticism for God’s most faithful servants. False teachers criticize those who teach the truth, and save their sharpest criticism for those who hold most steadfastly to what is true. We see this in many places in the Bible, such as when Korah and his friends rose up against Moses and Aaron (Num. 16:3) and when Paul’s ministry was threatened and undermined by those critics who said that while his words were strong, he himself was weak and unimportant (2 Cor. 10:10). We see it most notably in the vicious attacks of the religious authorities against Jesus. False teachers continue to rebuke and belittle God’s faithful servants today. Yet, as Augustine declared, “He that willingly takes from my good name, unwillingly adds to my reward.”

False teachers teach their own wisdom and vision. This was certainly true in the days of Jeremiah when God would say, “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds” (Jer. 14:14). And today, too, false teachers teach the foolishness of mere men instead of teaching the deeper, richer wisdom of God. Paul knew, “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3).

4False teachers miss what is of central importance and focus instead on the small details. Jesus diagnosed this very tendency in the false teachers of his day, warning them, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23). False teachers place great emphasis on their adherence to the smaller commands even as they ignore the greater ones. Paul warned Timothy of the one who “is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Tim. 6:4-5).

June 19, 2013

One of the great privileges of being a pastor is always having a good reason to speak to the children of the church. I love getting down to their level (i.e. sitting on the floor), talking to them, and hearing about their lives. A question I love to ask them is this: How can I pray for you? We ask this same question on Wednesday evenings when our church gathers for our mid-week service. The children go off to classes to learn about Jesus while adults go and spend an hour in prayer. But before we dismiss the kids we ask them the question: How can we pray for you tonight?

The answers are as likely to be hilarious as they are poignant. Sometimes it is all I can do to stifle laughter as they express what at that moment is so important to them. It might be a friend’s uncle’s daughter’s pet rabbit that has a cold. Or it might be a not-so-subtle critique of an older brother (“Pray that my brother stops being mean to me” while brother is sitting in the very next seat) or an embarrassing criticism of mom or dad. Sometimes the answers pose a kind of a dilemma like when two children each want prayer that their own team will win the upcoming tournament. But then often the requests are real and important and even painful.

I ask the children how I can pray for them because what is important to them ought to be important to me as their pastor. They are learning that when something is important to them, they ought to take it to the Lord and plead their case with him. And who am I to determine what is important enough to take to the Lord? And so I pray for them and count it a privilege.

There is another benefit in praying with and for children. By speaking to them and hearing their prayer requests I get a glimpse of how God must regard some of my prayers. I have greater maturity and (I trust) greater wisdom than the children and this allows me to see just how mundane or funny some of their concerns may be. Yet God is infinitely greater than I am, he sees the end from the beginning, and he still chooses to hear me pray and to take my requests seriously. He tells me to pray without ceasing (1 Thes. 5:17), to pray instead of fretting (Phil. 4:6), to continue steadfastly in prayer (Col. 4:2), and assures me that all the while the Holy Spirit is interceding on my behalf (Rom. 8:26). He hears, and loves to hear, even those requests that show a lack of trust, a lack of knowledge, a lack of insight.

Praying for children and praying with children allows me to serve them, but it also provides the opportunity to get just a glimpse of God as he patiently hears my requests which must be so petty and so simple to figure out. Yet these things are on my heart and if they are important to me, they are important to him.