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Tim Challies

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July 25, 2011

Norway has experienced a nightmare—3 hours of abject terror. On Friday afternoon, right around 3:30, thirty-two year-old Anders Behring Breivik ignited a bomb outside government offices in Oslo, killing at least 7. As the bomb exploded, he was on his way to Utoya Island, about 20 miles from Oslo, the location of a youth camp run by a political party. Dressed in a police uniform, he asked to address the group (there were some 700 people at the camp) before opening fire on them. He killed at least 86, gunning them down in cold blood. By 6:30 PM Breivik was in police custody, having taken almost 100 lives in 3 short hours. In the meantime, the eyes of the whole world had shifted to Norway and millions were wondering just who would do something like this, and why.

Within hours of the event, news headlines were proclaiming that this was the work of a Christian fundamentalist or extremist. The Atlantic splashed this headline on their site: “The Christian Extremist Suspect in Norway’s Massacre.” The Washington Post said, “‘What we know is that he is right wing and he is Christian fundamentalist,’ deputy police chief Roger Andresen said Saturday morning at a televised news conference. ‘We have not been able to link him up to an anti-Islamic group.’ He said that the suspect had not been arrested before, and that police were unsure if he had acted alone.”

Was this the work of a Christian? Was this terror consistent with a man who claims to be a follower of Christ? Many believe that it is.

The declaration that Breivik is a Christian seems to have come largely from his Facebook profile where he assigned himself the labels “Christian” and “Conservative.” That was enough for many people, and especially for those with an anti-Christian agenda. Frank Schaeffer immediately jumped online and said, “I told you so!”, writing on his blog, “In my new book ‘Sex, Mom and God’ I predicted just such an action. I predicted that right wing Christians will unleash terror here in America too. I predict that they will copy Islamic extremists, and may eventually even make common cause with them.” Carl Trueman gets it right when he says

If a man doesn’t hesitate to use his parents’ sex lives to get a cheap laugh and sell a few books, one should not be surprised if he sees yesterday’s events in Norway as a great opportunity for puffing his own prophetic insights, trying to flog a few more copies of his own recent book and demonstrating that the Left too can have as tenuous a grip on logic, evidence and argument as Glenn Beck (who would ever have thought there was link between Tim Keller, Bill Edgar and religious terrorism?). Yes, you guessed it, Frank Schaeffer has done it again. Just goes to show that every cloud has a silver lining — if you are sufficiently self-absorbed, that is.

How are we, as Christians, to understand this event? How are we to think about the media declaring that this is the work of a Christian?

Before we do anything, we ought to be in prayer for those who have been so deeply affected by Breivik’s acts of terror. A whole nation has been left reeling; tens of thousands are in mourning, having had a friend or family member gunned down. As Christians we know where hope lies and we know that only the Lord can bring true, lasting hope and healing. And so we weep with those who weep, praying for the people of Norway, asking that the Lord would bring comfort.

In what remains of this article I simply want to trace my own thinking on this man and on these events. Here is how I have thought it through.

June 30, 2011

Love Wins and Rob BellIt has been almost 4 months since the release of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. This is a book that has ignited a great debate on the subject of hell. It has also ignited discussion on the way this debate has been handled, and particularly so by those of us who considered this a dangerously unbiblical book. In the past couple of weeks I have had a lot of opportunity to think about Love Wins—about how it appeared on the scene, how we reacted, and some of the lessons we would do well to learn. Let me share a few of my thoughts on all of this.

We Got Gamed

Love Wins was published by HarperOne—a company with an excellent and well-funded marketing department. I am convinced that their marketing plan involved you and me (and let me define “you and me” as conservative and/or Reformed Christians—exactly the kind of people who tend to read this blog). They drew us in and played us perfectly so that we did exactly what they wanted us to. We reacted with horror—very vocal horror—to the book and its implications. The first hint of the book’s content, the video trailer, was carefully crafted to suggest the purpose of the book but not state it explicitly. This generated a lot of buzz not just about the book’s contents, but about what Bell may have meant in the trailer. It was a brilliant marketing move that ignited a massive amount of discussion and controversy. The first people knew of the book was that it was controversial.

Once the fire had ignited, HarperOne quickly battened down the hatches, refusing to send any more pre-release copies of the book—a very rare phenomenon. This means that until the book’s release copies of the manuscript were unusually rare. I take this to mean that the marketing plan was moving along very well and that allowing reviewers to begin writing critical reviews prior to its release date would have been detrimental to sales. A few copies of the manuscript were passed around, but most reviewers had to wait until release day. Until then all people could do was speculate. And we did.

The long and short is that the marketing plan for this book involved you and me and we played our part.

We Responded Immediately & Forcefully

Our response to Love Wins was immediate and furious and began long before the book was released. The earliest responses were based on the video trailer and made some assumptions, which is to say that Justin Taylor’s earliest comments and John Piper’s infamous Farewell Rob Bell tweet assumed some context—that people were familiar with Bell and his steady theological decline. These were essentially insider comments—from one conservative Christian to others—that very quickly ended up going far beyond that demographic. Ripped from their context, many people took them as being self-assured and mean-spirited even though I am convinced they were done out of genuine love and concern for truth. No one guessed that they would go so far, so fast, and that they would draw such urgent and widespread response. These early responses, first Justin’s and then many others, made statements about Bell based on the hints in the trailer rather than the statements in the book. This allowed Bell’s defenders to declare that we were being unfair and too hasty. Social media did its work and soon tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands of people were reading these comments and spreading them through their own networks; people were retweeting and liking and commenting and writing their own blog posts and everything else we do with news today.

Do not hear me criticizing John Piper or Justin Taylor or anyone else here; I think these men would be the first to say that they had no idea of what would happen and that if they had, they would have responded differently (and, in fact, Justin went back and changed his blog post in several ways).

June 29, 2011

I recently added a feedback and suggestion component to this site that allows readers like you to suggest topics for me to consider writing about. This has generated a lot of fantastic ideas, many of which are going to take a lot of study to adequately answer. One that I wanted to address right away is this: Will we be able to see all three members of the Trinity in heaven? Here is the question as asked by Andrew T:

When we get to heaven, will we see all three persons of the Trinity, or only Jesus? Will the Father and Spirit still be invisible? It’s something I’ve been wondering about for a long time, especially since I was raised in Oneness Pentecostalism (UPCI), but have now come to a more orthodox understanding of the Christian faith.

My immediate reaction to the question was a simple “No.” No, we will not see all 3 members of the Trinity in heaven (and here I am assuming not the intermediate heaven, but the new heaven and the new earth). But I wanted to give it some thought and reflection and I wanted to see who else has grappled with the question. And at the end of it all I return to that answer: No, I do not think we will see all 3 members of the Trinity in heaven. Why? Because for 2 of them there is nothing to see. Kind of. Let me explain myself. After I do so, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The Bible makes it clear that as sinners we cannot see God’s face. God is the one who is “of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (Habakkuk 1:13). He is the one “who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:16). Our sin keeps us from being able to come before the holy presence of God. Yet there are several parts of the Bible that hold out seeing God, beholding him, as a great future promise. Matthew 5:8 says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Revelation 22 promises “the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.”

Scripture makes it clear that it is the work of Jesus Christ that allows us to come before the Father. It is Christ who accomplishes the work that makes us holy so we can now be accepted by God. I am certain that in heaven we will see Jesus Christ face-to-face. Christ is incarnated not just for the years of his ministry here on earth, but forever. We will see him as a man eternally. And through his completed work on the cross we can embrace the biblical promise of seeing God’s face.

But does this mean that we will be able to see all 3 members of the Trinity in physical form?

June 20, 2011

I know that it is bad form to turn a sermon into a blog post, but I’m going to do it anyway (hey, it’s my blog!). Yesterday I preached from Genesis 3 and found great joy in going from the garden to the cross. There are lots of ways we can do this, but I chose to do it through the cherubim. Can I ask you to read along? I think you’ll find this a real encouragement.

By the end of Genesis chapter 3, the Lord has passed judgment on the serpent, on the woman and on Adam and he has banished them from the Garden of Eden—banished them from his presence and from the place where they could have access to the tree of life from which they could eat and live forever as sinful immortal beings. Before the entrance, to ensure they could never return to the garden, he placed a flaming sword and the cherubim.

What is a cherubim? Cherubim have gotten a bit of a bad rap, I think. When we think of cherubs we tend to think of cute, pudgy little angels that help children go to sleep. According to the Bible, though, the cherubim are terrifying warriors who are guardians of the things of God. They are described as having the general appearance of men, but also of having the face of a lion or the face of an eagle—fierce creatures, predators. They have wings—sometimes two pairs and sometimes just one. These are creatures who are created specifically to protect and to fight and to destroy. You do not want to meet a cherubim and you do not want your kids to be thinking about them when they are trying to get to sleep!

It was cherubim that were mounted on the top of the Ark of the Covenant; their wings stretched out over the mercy seat. It was from here, from the mercy seat, under the wings of the cherubim, that the Lord spoke to Moses so that in the Old Testament we read of God being the God who is enthroned between the cherubim. These are holy creatures, creatures who are near the presence of God. They aren’t cute; they aren’t pretend. They are powerful, they are strong, they are holy, they will utterly destroy any unholy thing that comes near the presence of God. They are the ultimate guardians. This is their job and they do it with perfection!

Do you see how unholy Adam and Eve have become? How unholy we have become? Between us and God we must now have this kind of a creature to keep us away from him, to guard his presence from our pollution, from our sin.

So there was the Garden and the tree of life—the tree that Adam and Eve and all their children could eat of and live. And now there between them were the cherubim with the flaming sword. The way was barred. No man could now approach God. No man could approach God and eat and live forever. Man must die. He must die and return to the dust from which he was taken. No man could brave those cherubim and live. This is where Genesis 3 ends. But, thankfully, the Bible continues. And as it continues, we meet the cherubim again. So just quickly, let’s follow those cherubim. We will follow them…

June 14, 2011

Part of the joy of blogging is in interacting with other people through the comments. When I write an article, and especially an article on a difficult topic, I am always aware that I have not said it all. There are always ways in which what I have said can be improved.

This was the case yesterday with the article “I Am Unalarmed.” I’d like to draw your attention to a few of the (many) comments that I found very helpful as I continued to think through the topic.

The first came from Mark J. LaCore who wrote this:

I would ask you not to oversimplify your response to the oversimplification of the statistics.

I am 55 years old and have been an active believer for 38 years. My wife and I have been just about as passionate about our relationships with Christ as it is possible to be. We spent years in churches that did the best they could to preach the gospel, and we have served whole-heartedly in those churches as we raised 4 children to adulthood, all the while consciously and actively praying for them, living in integrity to the best of our ability, modeling the grace and love of Christ to them and others, and doing all we could to ensure that they would not be so turned off by the church that they would become one of the numbers in the statistics you have quoted.

Two of those four children actively follow the Lord and serve in the church. Two of them have utterly rejected Christ and the gospel.

It is a source of great joy that those two love the Lord and give themselves to service and (for the one with children of his own) are raising kids to do the same. But it is a source of tremendous heartache to us, who know the gospel, know the power of Christ in us, and who long to see our other two sons brought out of darkness and into light.

All four were raised in the same house, in the same atmosphere, by the same parents. The first and the third reject Christ; the second and fourth walk with him.

We could second-guess the way we raised them, wish things had been done differently, and beat ourselves up over some failure in the past, but we know there is no value in doing so. We simply pray, thanking God for two that love Him, and asking that He who is sovereign would yet choose the other two, and call them, and give them to Christ for His glory and their joy.

I do not in any way disagree with you that a gospel-saturated environment creates the sort of atmosphere that gives a child ample opportunity to hear the good news and respond. But it is also critical to remember that it is God who elects and calls and saves, and no amount of ensuring the right environment will guarantee that any child will believe as an adult.

I appreciated this comment because I felt it is complementary to all that I was saying. In an early draft of my article I had spoken at some length about the fact that God is sovereign and that “no amount of ensuring the right environment will guarantee that any child will believe as an adult.” Amen. Ultimately we do what the Lord commands and trust him with the results.

June 14, 2011

It was not too long ago that blogging was all the rage. Everyone was beginning a blog and everyone was talking about this exciting new medium. Today you are more likely to hear declarations that blogs are defunct, passe, a vestige of an era that has already come and gone. I say “Stuff and nonsense!” Blogs continue to flourish. The very popularity of blogs is proof that there is a lot of room for more of them; we are a long way from the absorption point. We are a long way from the end of the blogosphere.

I am often asked for advice in beginning a blog and I am going to answer a lot of emails via this blog post. Today I want to tell you how I would begin a blog if I had to do it all over again. I’d do it in 6 steps.

#1. Choose a Theme

A good blog will have a defined theme and you will want to then stick with that theme, something that may be especially difficult in those early stages where your enthusiasm outstrips the site’s readership. The theme may be just about anything. It may be wide and it may be narrow; it may be niche and it may be general; it may be a hobby and it may be a vocation. When choosing a theme, there are 2 general directions to take: you can take a position of leadership or you can choose an area of interest through which you can invite other people into your journey of learning about it. 

The theme you choose will help define the blog’s measure of success. Success may come through sheer volume of visitors or it may come through the authority gained within a specific niche or discipline. So choose your theme. Identify an area that is of particular interest to you or an area in which you are an expert. If that area is underserved in the blogosphere, you’ve found what you are looking for.

I always hold out Brian Croft as a guy who has succeeded well at this. He began his blog late in the game but very quickly gained authority by filling a particular niche—practical shepherding. He went from enthusiast to expert. His blog isn’t visited by millions, but it is visited by people within the demographic he wanted to reach.

June 13, 2011

In September of 2006 George Barna released what must be among his most influential studies. Following interviews with more than 22,000 adults and 2,000 teenagers from across America, he revealed that the majority of twentysomethings who are raised as Christians subsequently abandon the faith. The study found that “most twentysomethings disengage from active participation in the Christian faith during their young adult years—and often beyond that. In total, six out of ten twentysomethings were involved in a church during their teen years, but have failed to translate that into active spirituality during their early adulthood.”

Another survey, this one commissioned by LifeWay, found that “Seven in 10 Protestants ages 18 to 30 — both evangelical and mainline — who went to church regularly in high school said they quit attending by age 23.” Still another study from Church Communication Networks said that up to 94 percent of Christian teens leave the church within a few years of leaving high school.

These statistics are alarming, and particularly so to those of us who are raising children and earnestly praying that the Lord would save them. It has often been my prayer that the Lord would save my children while they are young, long before they desire to taste the world’s pleasures as unsaved adults. According to these reports this is unlikely. Statistically speaking, I can have little hope.

Each of these studies appears to show that Christians are doing a very poor job of reaching the children in their midst. Ironically, the statistics are used to support solutions that reach from one end of the spectrum to the other: they vary from more programs for teens to fewer programs to teens to abolishing all programs for all children.

These statistics are widely quoted, widely believed, but I remain unalarmed by them. I remain skeptical about the results. Allow me to explain myself.

Unmasking Hypocrisy

Let me say from the outset that it is tragic when any child abandons the faith; let’s not downplay this. What is equally tragic is that so few of them really had much of a chance to encounter the true gospel—the only gospel that saves. Looking at the evangelical landscape in the United States (where these studies were performed) and in Canada, I see that the majority of children, and probably the vast majority of children, are raised in churches where what they hear is a false gospel or a gospel that has been emptied of all that makes it the power of God for salvation. We should not be at all surprised that children abandon this kind of a counterfeit gospel as soon as they are able to. I would do the same.

June 07, 2011

In a recent sermon I found that I had to touch upon one what I consider of the trickiest passages in the Bible: 1 Timothy 2:15. Here is what this verse says: “Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” Taken on its own, this is a remarkably sexist statement. But I’m convinced there is truth and freedom here if we are willing to go looking for it. Let me take a shot at explaining that passage or at least to show you how I went about trying to figure it out.