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The Character of the Christian
January 28, 2016

Today we continue this series on the character of the Christian. We are exploring how the various character qualifications of elders are actually God’s calling on all Christians. While elders are meant to exemplify these traits, all Christians are to display them. I want us to consider whether we are displaying these traits and to learn together how we can pray to have them in greater measure.

Our topic today is a qualification Paul repeats in both 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6. The ESV translates it as “the husband of one wife,” a common rendering of the Greek which says, literally, “a one-woman man.” There are several ways we could interpret this qualification. Does Paul mean to say that a pastor cannot be a polygamist? Does it mean that an elder must be married? Does it mean that the pastor cannot have been previously divorced and remarried? None of these quite get to the heart of the matter. John MacArthur says, “It’s not concerning status, it is concerning character. It is not a matter of circumstance, it is a matter of his virtue. And the issue here is a man who is solely and only and totally devoted to the woman who is his wife. It is a question of his character. He is a one-woman man. Anything less is a disqualification.”

Similarly, in his book Biblical Eldership, Alexander Strauch reminds us that the first qualification, above reproach, is a summary that is defined by the virtues that follow. He writes, “In both of Paul’s qualification lists, he places the qualification ‘the husband of one wife’ immediately after ‘above reproach.’ So the first and foremost area in which an elder must be above reproach is in his marital and sexual life. … The phrase ‘the husband of one wife’ is meant to be a positive statement that expresses faithful, monogamous marriage. In English we would say, ‘faithful and true to one woman’ or ‘a one-woman man.’” Philip Ryken says Paul “wants the leaders of the church to be living examples of biblical marriage: one man and one woman in a love covenant for life.”

Just as an elder is to be an example of sexual integrity, so the call goes out to all Christians to “abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). This is true whether the Christian is married or single, male or female. Paul commands the whole congregation in Corinth to “flee from sexual immorality” and warns “every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body” (1 Corinthians 6:18). Writing to the gathered church in Ephesus, Paul sets the standard so high as to demand, “Sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints” (Ephesians 5:3). If you are “sexually immoral or impure,” he says, you have “no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Ephesians 5:5). Writing again to an entire congregation, Paul calls such sexual immorality one of “the works of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19).

Of course, as with all of these qualifications, we will not exemplify them perfectly so must always return to the good news of salvation and sanctification through Jesus Christ. Paul also says that even though some in the congregation had been “sexually immoral” and therefore had no inheritance in the kingdom of God, he goes on to rejoice, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). He reminds them that their sexual sin is related to the old man and its evil ways, not the new man and its righteous ways. Still, the call to sexual purity is among the most prominent and repeated commands in the New Testament.

Thus this qualification is a call to devotion—devotion first to God and then to a God-given spouse. It is a call away from adultery to be sure, but also from a wandering heart, wandering eyes, or wandering hands. It is a call on each one of us to be pure and chaste, to be exemplary in character and conduct whether in marriage or singleness. It is a call for the married to pursue and enjoy the sexual relationship with their spouse and a call for the unmarried to willingly submit their sexuality to the will and the care of their loving God.

Self-Evaluation

To strengthen your fight against sexual immorality and your striving toward sexual purity, I encourage you to evaluate yourself in light of questions like these:

  • Even though you are imperfect, can you stand before the Lord and honestly say, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23-24)?
  • Are there any sexual sins you have committed that you need to confess and repent of? Are there any sins you have been hiding that you need to expose? (Psalm 32:3-7)
  • Are there certain settings or contexts where you are especially prone to sexual failure? What precautions have you taken to avoid these settings? Are there radical actions that you still need to take? (Matthew 5:27-30)
  • Does your marriage serve as an example of God’s design and ideal for marriage? Are you in love with your spouse? Do you regularly pursue sexual union with your spouse? (1 Corinthians 7:3-5)
  • Do you regularly indulge in entertainment that displays explicit nudity or sexuality or that debases God’s design and purpose for sexuality? Or do you willingly abstain from every form of evil and refuse to make light of it? (1 Thessalonians 5:22; Ephesians 5:3)

Prayer Points

If we are to gain sexual purity, to maintain it, and to increase in it we must pray. Let me encourage you to pray in these ways:

  • I pray that you would give me the desire and the wisdom to guard my heart from all forms of sexual immorality. I pray that I would be quick to confess and turn from all known sexual sin. [Consider praying through Proverbs 6:23-35.]
  • Men: I pray that I would regard older women as mothers and younger women as sisters, in all purity. (1 Timothy 5:1-2)
  • Women: I pray that I would regard older men as fathers and younger men as brothers, in all purity. (1 Timothy 5:1-2)
  • I pray that you would purify my heart so that the sin of adultery—expressed even in lustful thoughts and glances—would lose all of its power over me. (Matthew 5:27-30) Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)
  • I pray that I would not become despondent when I sin. Please let me take comfort in the knowledge that when I confess my sins, you are faithful and just to forgive me my sins and to cleanse me from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

Next week we will bundle together three qualifications: “sober-minded, self-controlled, and respectable.”

Coming Soon: Visual Theology the Book
January 26, 2016

We live in a visual culture. Today, people increasingly rely upon visuals to help them understand new and difficult concepts. The rise and popularity of the Internet infographic has given us a new way to convey data, concepts, and ideas. But the visual portrayal of truth is not a novel idea. God himself used visuals to teach truth to his people. If you have ever considered the different elements within the Old Testament tabernacle or temple you know that each element was a visual representation of a greater truth. The sacrificial system and later the cross were also meant to be visual—visual theology.

I love to teach, I love beautiful graphics, and I have a deep desire to convey the concepts and principles of theology in a fresh, interesting, and informative way. So does Josh Byers who you already know as the artist behind the series of Visual Theology infographics we have been bringing your way. And today we’ve got an exciting announcement.

Josh and I teamed up to write Visual Theology: Seeing and Understanding the Truth About God. Zondervan will release the book in April, but today it is available for pre-order. The book is big, glossy, and stuffed full of really neat illustrations.

Pre-Order

Visual Theology Book
In this book, we have made the deepest truths of the Bible accessible in a way that can be seen and understood by a visual generation. We have prepared what we see as a theology of the Christian life, a book that explains the “now what?” of living as a Christian. It is ideal for the new or seasoned believer.

If you pre-order the book at any retailer, we are going to send you some gifts: A free high-resolution download of an exclusive Visual Theology Print as well as some exclusive Visual Theology wallpapers for your desktop and mobile devices. All you need to do is order the book and forward your receipt to preorder@visualtheology.church. (See our pre-order page for details.)

Wayne Grudem was kind enough to pen a foreword to the book, and here is what he says about it:

Visual Theology is a delightful read. It combines wise knowledge of sound theology with a readable, inviting style and frequent perceptive insights into practical Christian living. Tim Challies and Josh Byers repeatedly tie their discussion to relevant Scripture passages and then provide a healthy and balanced application to the Christian life.

Another strength of this book is that it takes sin seriously, an emphasis that is sadly lacking in some evangelical writing and preaching today. This book describes practical steps for progressively overcoming sinful habits and patterns in the daily lives of Christians, something that is essential if we are going to grow in Christian maturity.

I often draw diagrams in the classroom because I find that students can more quickly grasp and retain theological concepts when they can see them in a single visual image. But this book has expanded that process far beyond anything I have ever done. The visually inviting infographics in this book are very helpful in synthesizing theological concepts and showing their application to practical Christian living.

I am happy to commend this book, and I expect that it will invite many readers on a pathway toward regular Christian growth and increasing likeness to our Lord Jesus Christ.

—Wayne Grudem, author of Systematic Theology and research
professor of theology and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary

If you order the book now, you will receive your bonus gifts right away. The book itself will arrive in April. And around that time you will begin to see lots of other great Visual Theology material, including even more posters and infographics.

Visual Theology
Visual Theology
Visual Theology

Pre-Order

When the Mormons Come Calling
January 25, 2016

We live just down the road from a large Mormon congregation—or a large church building, at any rate. Not surprisingly, we receive regular visits from the missionaries dispatched to woo and win our neighborhood. Though the individuals vary each time, the pattern is consistent: Two clean-cut Caucasian young men with American accents, friendly and engaging, are eager to persuade us to accept a Book of Mormon and to ask God to give us the inner testimony that it is his true revelation.

These missionaries have a way of showing up at bad times, but I still try to spend a few minutes talking with them. I like to ask where they are from and how long they have been going door-to-door. I like to ask if they miss their families since I know they are assigned to cities far from their own. I like to ask how they know that they are in God’s good graces. There has never been a time when they were impolite or short with me.

These Mormon missionaries always look happy and confident. They are sure they have compelling answers to life’s deepest and most urgent questions—the source of ultimate truth, the identity of God, the purpose of life, the answer to what lies beyond the grave. They look happy and confident, but I know better. I know they are miserable. They are miserable because they are being sent on a spiritually-bankrupt one-year mission to fulfill a man-made law. This cannot generate true joy. They are miserable because they need to adhere to an unbiblical standard of righteousness. This diminishes joy or destroys it altogether. Ultimately, they are miserable because they believe and teach a counterfeit gospel, have not put their faith in Jesus Christ, have not been restored to relationship with the Father, and have not been indwelled by the Holy Spirit. I know they are miserable. How could they be otherwise?

So this is my strategy when the Mormons visit: Preach the gospel. The gospel, after all, is the source of true joy. This is the same strategy I employ when the far-less-polite and far-more-aggressive Jehovah’s Witnesses come knocking. I may try to use the Bible to show where their beliefs are wrong. I may try to explain how the Bible cannot be just another form of God’s revelation, but that it must either be all or nothing, supreme or utterly futile. I may try to convince a Jehovah’s Witness that Jesus is not the first and greatest creation of God, but the second person of the divine Trinity with all the attributes of God. Those are all good things to do. But I wouldn’t want to say any of these things if I didn’t also preach the gospel of grace alone through faith alone by Christ alone.

There are many strategies for engaging with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons and members of other cults. Many of these strategies are wise and helpful. But you have to be careful with them—you can win the argument even while you lose the opportunity. You can win the argument about the authority of the Bible but still lose the opportunity to share the gospel. Ultimately, we don’t want to persuade them of their faulty theology, but to have the Spirit persuade them of their faulty gospel. This will happen only when we tell them the true gospel, the saving gospel, the gospel of grace. We can have utter confidence in this strategy because the gospel is the power of God for salvation. The gospel—the true gospel—is infinitely better and stronger than what they offer. They offer salvation by works, but God offers salvation by grace. This is the difference between heaven and hell.

So when Mormons came to my door the other day I said, “I will gladly listen to you for a while as long as you promise to listen to me.” They said they would return on Saturday. I will listen to them. Then I will tell them the gospel and explain why this gospel is such good news—far better news than what they are offering. And already I’m praying that it would take root.

January 24, 2016

Letters

This week’s letters to the editor were almost all in response to my article Going All-in With Ebooks. I suppose this is not too surprising since Christians in general, and perhaps especially Christians who read a site like this one, tend to be committed readers. Every committed reader has an opinion, and often a very strong opinion, about the change of media we are experiencing today. Here is a representative selection of those letters. I begin with an excerpt of an open letter from Logos, the company I referenced in my article:

The people in my office at Faithlife, makers of Logos Bible Software, read your post “Going All-in With Ebooks” with excitement—and not just because we sell ebooks (including quite a few of them to you, and some of them by you). We read with interest because we are interested in reading. We like books, as do our users, and we like all kinds of books: biography, history, fiction, memoir, and, preeminently, theology and biblical commentary. (Continue reading it here)

***

Hi Tim, after reading your article on transitioning away from a physical book library I was surprised that the issue of lending & borrowing wasn’t addressed. What about when you’d like to loan someone a book on a certain topic, or maybe just pass along a great book that you’ve read but no longer need? I have talked to friends who are dealing with something or want to grow in a certain area and so I say, “Oh have you read such-and-such book? You can borrow mine”. Other times I’ve thumbed-through books at a friend’s house to see if it’s one I’d like to buy for myself. Amazon allows lending for certain titles (not many of the ones I own, however), but that is contingent on the borrower having an e-reader as well.
—Emily V, Jacksonville, FL

Tim: Yes, that is a sad loss when it comes to ebooks. Perhaps it is offset a little bit by the lower cost of ebooks.

***

There is one other large factor keeping me from going all-in with ebooks. I like to loan books that I think are helpful to friends. Currently there is not a good way to loan ebooks. So for topics where I think it would be useful to loan the book, I continue to go with paper.
—Alan S, Cary, NC

***

I read your article and wanted to shout “Noooooo!” thru the computer. I am computer literate and enjoy my Kindle. But there is something about a physical book that is timeless, nostalgic and even dependable. It allows me to hold in my hands, the books of those that have gone before me; to share my library (either for loan or give) at a moment’s notice with someone who would either delight in said book, or it would help them in a circumstance they are in. In the event of any weird technology war or attack, I still have good books at my fingertips. As I said, I like my Kindle, and it has its place…. but physical books have a greater place, in my opinion. Thank you for your thought-provoking blog posts.
—Lisa C, Coeur d’Alene, ID

***

I’m a book nerd, and while I love having books, my Kindle offers the ability to check out many books from my library or purchase a less expensive version of a book. Not to mention that it is much easier to carry an e-reader than several books through airport security, who will stop you if you have more than one book in your bag.
—Beth L, Bartlesville, OK

Tim: I love being able to carry my library with me when I travel. While I was traveling this weekend I was able to access every commentary I own by simply opening Logos.

***

Hi Tim; I went all in on e-books several years ago. I haven’t read a book in the archaic format in close to 6 years. I started on Nook format but eventually bought a Galaxy Tab. With the Tab I can have my Logos library and all of my books on the same device. Since I DON’T use the device for anything but reading I don’t have the distractions that Michael Hyatt mentioned. With a tablet I can also bargain hunt, when a new book comes out that I’d like to read (kind of rare for me since I spend most of my time trying to read classics) I can compare pricing between Kindle, Nook, Kobo, Google Books etc. I never need a night light, and can dim each of the apps for late night reading that doesn’t keep my wife awake. I also use it as my Bible. It is my 3rd tablet and I just transfer my Logos account to the new device each time and all of my notes and books come with me. Yes it is true that it is a bottom of the line device, I buy the least expensive version of the Tab each time I have, but I can put in up to a 64GB micro sdcard into it and have more than enough storage for all. Unlike a Kindle Fire or Paperwhite, I am not locked into Amazon’s ecosystem. I say, “Go ahead, jump in with both feet!”
—Steve S, Hamilton Branch, CA

***

Interesting in light of that this year I am trying to concentrate on reading my physical books so that I can get more of them off my shelves. That is a more visible way for me to see that I am actually accomplishing something with my reading. Though I don’t mind reading on my Kindle, it’s not as tangible to see the progress of books being completed. I’d like to get rid of a bunch of my physical books and so am working primarily on reading them this year. I figure once i get through most or all of my physical books, then I can focus more on the Kindle books. I still prefer physical books but see the benefits of ebooks.
—Debi M, Southfield, MI

***

I too have a Kindle but have found myself still drawn to the experience of reading paper books. Although both give a physical experience, each paper book has a unique feel - the texture of the paper, the font of the words, the physical weight of the book, that enhance the reading experience in a way that an e-book does not. In support of Michael Hyatt, I would like to add to his argument that “Ebooks result in less retention and comprehension. Comprehension assumes you can map a story or an argument in your mind. The digital format works against that.” Although you argue that ebooks have enhanced abilities for highlighting and exporting notes, I think our minds have a physical map of the story in a paper book, especially for those who have more photographic memories. For example, when I am remembering an important passage or sentence from a book, especially in my Bible, I can often recall if the passage was on the left or right page and if it was towards the top, middle, or bottom. I believe having this physical marker helps link my spacial memory to the story in a way that scrolling through an ebook does not, and therefore enhances my memory and engagement with the text. Do you agree or disagree? Do you hold a different position towards primarily reading the bible electronically and if so why?
—Justin H, Iowa City, IA

Tim: I generally read the Bible on paper, though I haven’t noticed any difference between reading it on paper versus electronically. Really, I currently read it on paper because I’m using the ESV Men’s Devotional Bible and don’t have that on Kindle.

***

It will be interesting to see how your transition to ebooks goes, if you choose to go down that route. One of the big obstacles for me and ebooks is the lack of “casual visibility” and ability to share. While hosting company, the books on one’s living room shelf can often start conversations (“This looks interesting; what’s it about?”) that result in “You are welcome to borrow it.” With electronic media, the visibility is typically nonexistent and sharing problematic at best, potentially illegal. Just another factor to consider, if you haven’t already. Appreciate the wisdom you share on your blog.
—David M, Beaver, PA

Tim: This is true. But, again, the presenting issue that sparked this is our lack of space for bookshelves.

***

Your concerns about going all-in on e-books mirror my own. Organization and long-term accessibility are the two key problems. Think about how difficult and time-consuming it is to manage your music and photos in programs like iTunes or Picasa. As for long-term accessibility, think how quickly technology moves these days, far faster than during the ‘80’s or ‘90’s. What happens when Logos goes under? What happens when Amazon abandons its current file format for another one, decides not to provide backwards compatibility in its new devices, and demands you pay for books you already purchased? That’s the hook - you don’t own those books on your Kindle. You own a license to access them on Amazon’s terms, for now. Planned obsolescence is the business model of the tech world (see: Apple), and every year is going to bring a new service, file format, device, etc. that you will have to have in order to maintain what you currently enjoy. Granted, organization can be a problem with hard copies of books, just as with electronic copies. But I don’t think it’s as bad, or as costly in terms of money and time. And no matter how technology changes, or what companies go under, you can always pull out a hard copy of a book and read it. Finally, I think you’re giving short shrift to the cognitive issues explored in books like The Shallows. If we tend to associate a certain delivery format with a certain level of content and cognitive function (i.e. screens = internet LOLz and passive TV consumption, no serious thought necessary), it will affect our retention of information and thinking patterns.
—Charles B, Hattiesburg, MS

Tim: Of all my concerns with moving to electronic formats, the long-term compatibility is probably the most pressing.

***

Consider the short time we have on this earth. Of those “things” you will leave behind to your children and your children’s children, consider the margin notes, the worn covers, the name and dates on the inside covers. Or maybe even the notes you write inside them when you gift them.
—Robert T, Ware, MA

***

I just want to mention one lesser known blessing as regards e-media / e-books. They are helping get the Gospel out to unreached people in faraway lands and this including lands that are hostile to Christianity. For this reason I think that e-books and really anything “e-ish” ought to be encouraged. In lands where there are no other believers, no bibles, no churches, no Christian books, people are coming to know the Lord and as such are being discipled by e-media.
—Raj R, Syracuse, NY

Tim: I received several letters from people expressing similar things. Ebooks represent a revolution in the developing world as well as in parts of the world that are closed to Christian literature. The more we develop the technology and books, the more they will benefit.

***

I enjoyed reading your article about ebooks, and I am frankly surprised that it has taken you this long to take the leap. I have followed the print vs. electronic page debate for years, knowing that sooner or later there won’t be a debate anymore. Ebooks are replacing print. We should face reality. I wouldn’t advise young people to go into the printing business today.
—Gordon J, Chadron, NE

Tim: I am not quite as convinced. I think electronic books will eventually dominate print books. But I think it will take some time.

The Fear of God
January 22, 2016

In his book The Forgotten Fear, Albert Martin lists eight “specific directives for maintaining and increasing the fear of God in our hearts.” What follows are his eight directives along with summaries of each point in his own words (lightly tweaked). Consider following these strategies for your own growth in Christlikeness.

1) Be certain that you have an interest in the new covenant. The argument you ought to press before God should be that Jesus Christ has died as the Mediator of the new covenant, and that one of the blessings promised in that covenant is that God would put His fear into your heart. Pray, “Lord Jesus, on the basis of Thy shed blood I plead for an increase of Thy fear. Give me as much of Thy fear as the blood of the covenant warrants and has secured for me.”

2) Feed your mind on the Scriptures in general. There is an inseparable relationship between the special revelation God has made in Scripture and the fear of God. And this relationship is such that, for all intents and purposes, the fear of God can be used as a synonym for the Word of God. The overall effect of every truth of Scripture is to feed the fear of God. In one way or another, the individual who absorbs the most Scripture, spiritually assimilating it into his heart, life, and very being, is the one who will know most of the fear of God.

3) Feed your soul with the reality of the forgiveness of God. When we discover that this great God, holy and just and omniscient as He is, actually forgives sins, and that all of His glorious attributes have been fully engaged to grant me a just pardon and full acceptance, how can we help but fear Him? The measure to which the fact and wonder of forgiving grace sinks into your soul will be the measure of your fear of God. Therefore, if you would have the fear of God sustained in your heart, feed your soul on God’s forgiveness.

4) Learn to feed your soul on the majestic greatness of God. By that, I mean those aspects of His character and attributes such as His absolute sovereignty, holiness, power, omnipotence, and immensity. As we contemplate His majestic greatness, it is unthinkable that any rational creature would not fear such a God. If a creature knows God as He is revealed, he cannot help but fear Him. The principle for us as God’s people is this: If you would grow in the fear of God, then you must feed your soul on the majestic greatness of God.

5) Seek to cultivate an awareness of God’s presence. To walk in God’s fear is to cultivate this awareness of His presence. You cannot fear a distant and a forgotten God. If God is feared, it is as a God who is near and who is remembered. God is there. David’s setting Him there [in Psalm 139] did not put Him there; He was already there. But it is the recognition that He is there that becomes the transforming experience in our lives. May God therefore help us to cultivate this awareness of His presence.

6) Seek to cultivate the consciousness of your obligations to God. One indispensable element of the fear of God is that in each situation the Christian realizes that his relationship to God is the most important relationship he has. Our first prayer every morning should be, “Lord, help me this day to walk in Thy fear.” Jesus came to implant the blessings of the new covenant in the hearts of men so that they will fear Him to the extent that, even if they must sever the deepest of earthly ties, they will be willing to do it for His sake.

7) Associate closely with those who walk in the fear of God. Where you have the opportunity and privilege to select your intimate friends, they ought to be God-fearing people. There is a power of imitation, absorption, and contagion between individuals such that you will become like your most intimate associates. That is why God warns us against forming intimate associations with evil men—so that we don’t become like them. Do you desire to grow in the fear of God? If you do, then associate yourself—intimately, not loosely—with those who walk together in His fear in covenantal church membership.

8) Fervently pray for an increase of the fear of God. One of the unalterable laws of God’s kingdom is, “Ask, and it will be given to you” (Matt. 7:7). Or to put it negatively, “You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2). When we pray for an increase of the fear of God, we ought to pray with unshakable confidence that we are indeed asking for something that is in accord with God’s will. Having this confidence, we can pray for this increase in the firm expectation that God will indeed hear and answer such prayer.

Again, for those interested, I have reviewed Martin’s book, The Forgotten Fear.

Image credit: Shutterstock

The Character of the Christian
January 21, 2016

I told you last week about a new series that looks at the character of the Christian. What I mean to do is explore how the character qualifications of elders are actually God’s calling on all Christians. While elders are meant to exemplify these traits, all Christians are to display them. I want us to consider whether we actually do display these traits and to learn together how we can pray to have them in greater measure.

We begin today with the qualification of “above reproach.” This is given in 1 Timothy 3:2 (“Therefore an overseer must be above reproach”) and repeated twice in Titus 1 (“If anyone is above reproach … For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach”—verses 6 and 7). Whatever it means to be above reproach, it is not only for elders or church leaders. Colossians 3 teaches that the great hope and comfort of every Christian is that God himself will one day “present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (Colossians 1:22). Every Christian is to be and to live above reproach. As John MacArthur says, “The reason [this qualification] is called for at the pastoral level is because we are the example which you are all to follow. And if [being above reproach] is part of that example, then guess what is required of you? The same [trait].”

What does it mean to be above reproach? What the ESV translates as “above reproach” is first a legal word that indicates a kind of innocence in the eyes of the law. It means that no one can legitimately rebuke you or make any charges against you that will stick. They may accuse, but your conduct will eventually acquit you by proving you blameless (“blameless” being a far more common translation than “above reproach”). Your life is so consistent that your reputation is credible, you are an example worth following, and you do not make the gospel look fake by teaching one thing while doing another.

Naturally, we want to know the law before which we must be found blameless and the standard we must uphold. In his book Biblical Eldership, Alexander Strauch explains that, “What is meant by ‘above reproach’ is defined by the character qualities that follow the term.” Thus, being “above reproach” is expressed through those other qualities in 1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1, and, by extension, 1 Peter 5. Being above reproach in your marriage means you are “the husband of one wife.” Being above reproach in your thought life means you are “sober-minded.” Being above reproach in your actions means you are “self-controlled.” What we see is that this is a kind of summary attribute and that the blameless Christian is the one who upholds all of God’s revealed will. Of course, being above reproach does not mean being perfect. But it does mean that, when we sin, we confess it and turn from it because our standard is perfection (Matthew 5:48).

The primary means through which you gain this characteristic is taking advantage of God’s means of grace—reading the Bible and deliberately applying it, praying privately and with your family, faithfully attending your church’s worship services, participating in the sacraments, and so on. These are the very means through which God extends his sanctifying grace and you cannot expect to be or remain above reproach if you neglect them.

Self-Evaluation

The most thorough evaluation of your life will come in the weeks that follow as we examine the more precise character qualifications that are summarized by this one. But in the meantime, these questions may be worth thinking through as you consider whether or not you are above reproach.

  • Are there any ongoing sins in your life that would bring shame to you, your family, and your local church if they were made public? Are there any parts of your life you deliberately hide from others?
  • Do you know what sins you are particularly prone to and do you have measures in your life to guard against the temptation to these sins?
  • Are you taking advantage of God’s means of grace? Are you regularly attending church and participating in the life of the church? Do you have times of private and family worship?
  • Do you think your life right now is pleasing to God? When it is not, are you quick to seek the forgiveness of both man and God and to display repentance by making significant changes?
  • If your close friends or people in your church heard charges against you, would their reaction be, “That’s not possible!” or “I knew it!”? What does this response say about you?

Prayer Points

As we begin to consider character qualifications, we need to acknowledge that they are gifts of God’s grace that we receive and display in obedience to him. As God’s children, he works in us what is pleasing in his sight (Hebrews 13:20-21). So as we aim to be above reproach, we acknowledge that we can be this and have this only through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit who works in us to do and even to have the will to do (Philippians 2:12-13). And this is why we must pray to gain these qualities, to maintain them, and to increase in them. To that end, here are some ways you may wish to pray:

  • I pray that I would joyfully and obediently “do all things without grumbling or disputing, that I may be blameless and innocent, a child of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom I shine as a light in the world” (Philippians 2:14-15).
  • I pray that your Holy Spirit would help me identify sin in my life wherever it exists and to quickly put that sin to death.
  • I pray that I would diligently pursue personal holiness by and through the gospel.
  • I pray that I would be and remain blameless in your eyes and in the eyes of man. Make my conduct match my profession so my life does not display even a trace of hypocrisy.
  • I pray that when I sin I would be quick to seek the forgiveness of both man and God.
  • I pray that if I am ever accused of sin or evil, I would be able to be found innocent, blameless in your eyes.

Next week we will look at the qualification of “the husband of one wife,” and see it as a call upon all Christians to pursue a life of sexual purity and integrity.

Going All-in With Ebooks
January 20, 2016

I am selling my library. At least, I think I am. I’ve made the decision. Almost. It feels just a little too final to actually say it like that. But I’ve got a big library and a small house and something has got to give.

See, back in October I stopped working full-time at Grace Fellowship Church. I removed my office from the church but left the books. They are still there, 30 kilometers away. Sooner or later I need to do something about that. But I just don’t have space for them here at home. It seems like this must be the time to go all-in with ebooks.

Books vs EbooksI already do most of my reading on my Kindle. I’m taking on the 2016 Reading Challenge and intend to read almost all of those 100+ books electronically. Not only that, but I already have most of my commentaries and reference works in Logos. I have thoroughly enjoyed that transition and am very comfortable doing research and sermon preparation with electronic books. What’s left are all of those other books, the Christian living titles, the biographies, the theology texts, the church histories. Many of them are precious to me, friends who helped me become who I am today. I do not easily bid farewell to them.

Am I really ready to make the leap?

Michael Hyatt recently wrote about his decision to put ebooks on the shelf for 2016 and to instead return to printed books. Ironically, this article helped seal my decision. Hyatt gave a whole list of reasons that ebooks are inferior to printed books and, while I read the article with interest, I disagreed with almost all of it. I think he may have fallen into a common trap we encounter when we transition from an old medium to a new one. We tend to want the new medium to mimic the old one and judge the new in light of the old. What we fail to account for are the ways in which the new is superior, in which the new is something entirely new. When cars were first invented, people called them “horseless carriages” and judged them in light of the horse and carriage. But over time they proved their superiority and we forgot all about that older technology. We stopped thinking about the new technology in reference to the old. I think the relationship of book to ebook will eventually prove similar.

Here are Hyatt’s reasons he is sticking with ebooks, along with my responses.

  • Ebooks are out of sight and out of mind. “Physical books occupy physical space. Wherever you keep them—the shelf, the nightstand, the bathroom—it’s hard to avoid them.” Sure, but so is my Kindle. I take it with me and access it every day. In fact, the physicality of books is the very problem I am having with them. A thousand printed books take up a lot of space; a million ebooks don’t take up any.
  • Ebooks engage fewer senses. “That means there is a whole tactile and spatial aspect to reading: how a book feels in the hand, how it lays out the page, and so on.” Yes, but an electronic reading device is also physical. I hold it in my hand and on that device there is a page layout. It, too, engages senses.
  • Ebooks make it easier to get distracted. That is true if you are reading on your iPhone or your iPad. Then, yes, all those text messages and Angry Birds notifications will be awfully distracting. But if you have a Kindle or similar device, there is no distraction factor. Hyatt also says, “Research shows scrolling and swiping dislodge data from our short-term memories more than page-turning.” That may be true, but those studies tend to neglect the ways in which we adapt as we use our devices. The technologies get better and, meanwhile, we adapt to use them better.
  • Ebooks result in less retention and comprehension. “Comprehension assumes you can map a story or an argument in your mind. The digital format works against that.” This, too, may be true, but I am not convinced of it. It also fails to account for those ways in which ebooks enhance retention and comprehension such as exporting notes and highlights to Evernote or a similar system. (See Kindle + Evernote = ♥ to learn how to do this. It will blow your mind.)
  • Ebooks feel too much like online reading. “I read for speed when I’m online. But I’m looking for deeper engagement with a book. And what I find is that a screen is a screen is a screen.” I completely disagree when the screen is on a modern ereader. The screen on a device like a Kindle Voyage or Paperwhite is brilliant for reading and entirely different from the screen on an iPad or other digital device.
  • Ebooks are more difficult to interact with. “I take a lot of notes when I read. I highlight and sometimes take notes in the margins. I can do that digitally as well, but it’s not as fluid.” It is true that ebooks are difficult to interact with, but the flip side is that the electronic notes are much easier to export into a system where they can be retained and otherwise put to use. So yes, the highlighting and note-taking of an ebook is in some ways inferior to that of a paper book, but it is not without its benefits. I do agree as well that ebooks have not been able to recreate the joy of thumbing through a book, and I miss that.
  • Ebooks are more difficult to navigate. “A physical book is perfectly designed to fan the pages and find what you need.” You will get little argument from me here, except that ebooks make up for much of that with the ease in which they can be searched. The searchability of an ebook in some ways mitigates the difficulty in navigation.
  • Ebooks provide less satisfaction in finishing. I think this is a matter of personal preference. For me, the satisfaction is not in closing the back cover but in knowing that the book is now complete (and that I now get to move on to a different book). Do you know what I love about reading Kindle books? The fact that I can with one click mark it finished in Goodreads. Reading + social networking = fun!

Books vs ebooks For the past few years I have closely followed the evolution of ebooks and digital readers and find I am increasingly comfortable with what I see and increasingly comfortable with taking the leap. This is not to say that I do not have any concerns.

  • The companies. My primary concerns are not with the medium itself but the companies behind it—Amazon and Logos. If I am going all-in with their platforms (Logos for reference and commentary works and Amazon for most other things) I want to have assurance that the companies and their platforms will continue to be accessible and extensible for many years to come. Then again, a paper library is only ever one flood or fire away from destruction. There are few certainties in a world like this one.
  • A split library. My library is already split across two very different platforms, Kindle and Logos.
  • The media. My library is also split across two platforms that are locked and incompatible. This concerns me, and especially as I think back to CDs and DVDs and other media that came and went in very short order.
  • The organization. Kindle offers only a very basic means of organizing a library through collections. I like to have my library organized and Kindle does not offer much help.

So I’m going to do it. I think. Here I go. Probably.

Image credit: Shutterstock

There But for the Grace of God Go I
January 18, 2016

It is a common phrase, and I am sure you have heard it many times over: There but for the grace of God go I. You may hear it especially frequently when a scandal erupts. We look at the person whose life or family or ministry has imploded and say softly, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

It is a phrase of humility, isn’t it? It is a phrase acknowledging that only God’s grace keeps me from experiencing the deepest, ugliest scandal. God has extended his favor to me and I am the joyful beneficiary of this sin-defeating grace. But I don’t much like the phrase. I will grant that there is a sense in which it describes the truth. There is a sense in which I am completely dependent upon the grace of God so that if God does not continually extend his gospel grace to me, I will go completely off the rails. It is all of God’s grace.

But the sanctifying grace that God gives is not a standing-still kind of grace. It is not expressed only through a sovereign and monergistic act of God. There is a kind of surrender in the saying that negates or neglects the simple fact that I am called to battle sin. I am not to passively rely upon the grace of God, as if that grace alone, without any action on my part, will protect me from all sin. God does not confer scandal-busting grace each morning that I just sit back and receive, hoping it is enough to defeat the day’s sin. Rather, he calls upon me to receive his grace and to be obedient to his Word. He gives the grace to obey. This is not a grace I receive passively, but a grace I act on and act out.

The phrase admits a level of defeat, as if the subject of this scandal was doing everything right and then, in a moment, God removed his grace, and left the man crashing to the ground. But that’s never the way these things work. Look closely at any scandal and you will see a long relaxing of standards, a long pattern of declining holiness and increasing sinfulness. The scandalous man had stopped obeying God. In some part of his life he had stopped caring about obeying God.

I don’t want to model my life after a “There but for the grace of God go I” kind of person. I want to model my life after a man who battles hard against every appearance and manifestation of sin. I want to model my life after a man who receives and revels in the grace of God and then exerts every effort in actively, tenaciously putting sin to death. I want to model my life after the kind of man who can humbly say, “That sin is unthinkable to me.”

I know that the root of that sin, whatever the sin, is somewhere within me. I know that without God’s grace I could not only fall into it, but dive headlong. And yet I am not intimidated by the sin because I am fleeing from it, I am putting the very first traces of it to death, I am acting on God’s grace as he so kindly extends it. I am calling out for his help and joining him in this battle, in this war.

There but for the grace of God go I? Yes and no. There I would go if God did not extend his gospel mercy. There I may go if I do not take hold of his holiness-motivating, sin-battling grace.

Image credit: Shutterstock