Welcome to the online home of Tim Challies, blogger, author, and book reviewer.

Tim Challies

Challies on FacebookChallies on Twitter


September 20, 2006

Having just read a book about prayer, and having sought recently to increase the presence of prayer in my life, I turned a few days ago to the topic of persistence in prayer. I soon found something I had written about this in the past and thought I would share it with you today, hoping that it will prove beneficial to you as it has to me.

It is the Lord’s delight to give us what we ask of Him in prayer. With David we all ought to cry out, “O God, hear my prayer; give ear to the words of my mouth” (Psalm 54:2). If Christians did not believe in the efficacy of prayer, there would be no reason for us to ask anything of God. He tells us that we can have this confidence. “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” (1 John 5:14,15). While most Christian pay lip-service to the superlatives in that sentence (“whatever” and “anything”) very few really believe it.

The fact is that our prayers are often hindered. There are times when it feels like our prayers are reaching the ceiling and going no further; times when we are lying face-down on the floor and feel that our prayers are rising no higher than the fibers of the carpet. While we can be sure that God does hear our prayers, there are times when He chooses not to heed or answer them. What is especially tragic is that I am the only one who can hinder my prayers. You are the only one who can hinder your prayers. I cannot hinder your prayers anymore than you can hinder mine. And while we may have done much to hinder our prayers, we are not necessarily even aware of this. Allow me to present six ways we can hinder our prayers so that God will not answer them. This list is incomplete, for there may be other ways our prayers are hindered, but it contains the most likely and significant ways.

Selfish Motives

All humans are selfish. It is part of our human nature that we naturally regard our own interests ahead of the interests of others. And sadly, we often regard our own interests ahead of God’s. In the passage we read above, 1 John 5:14 and 15, the apostle tells us that our confidence comes from asking “according to his [God’s] will.” James similarly exhorts “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3).

So the first hindrance to our prayer is our motives. We must ask in accordance with God’s will. We must ask only for things that are consistent with the character and nature of God. We must ask for things that are for the spiritual benefit of ourselves or the person we pray for.

Turning Away From Scripture

If we are not spending time immersing ourselves in Scripture and are not obeying what we have learned, we should not expect God to answer our prayers. Our defiance in ignoring the life-giving Words of the Bible may hinder us from having our prayers answered. Solomon goes so far as to suggest that prayers made from such a hardened heart are an abomination to God. “If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination” (Proverbs 28:9).

When we read the Words of Scripture, we ask and encourage God to speak to us. He provides the understanding we need to live lives that bring glory to Him - lives that are increasingly consistent with His standards of grace and holiness. If we thumb our nose at the importance of this discipline and if we disobey what He teaches, He will not answer our prayers.

Unforgiving Hearts

The Christian has been forgiven for the greatest of offenses. He has been forgiven for knowingly, purposely and unrepentantly transgressing the Law of God. And yet we are often slow to forgive our fellow man for the smallest of transgressions, for even the biggest of the sins committed against us are as nothing compared to how we sinned against God. God does not honor this attitude. In Mark 11:25 Jesus says, “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”

Our ongoing assurance of pardon before the Father is in some way dependant on our willingness to forgive others. We must be attentive to our hearts, to ensure that we are not harboring hatred and resentment towards others. If we have this attitude we should expect our prayers to be hindered.

Family Discord

It is God’s will that families live together in peace and harmony. It is, of course, impossible for us to live in perfect peace, but God demands that we maintain close relationships and that we seek harmony in our family relationships. It is foremost the responsibility of the father, as the head of the household, to ensure that there is not discord within the family. When this discord exists, especially in the relationship of a husband to his wife, his prayers may well be hindered. The apostle Peter, a married man himself, exhorted husbands to live with their wives in an understanding way, being sensitive to their needs, “showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7).

The relationship between a husband and a wife is to reflect that of Christ to His church. It is to be a relationship of absolute love, adoration and sacrifice. If Christ gave His life for the church, how can a husband do any less for his wife? This is, of course, impossible when the relationship is strained or broken. Thus a man should examine his relationship with his wife to ensure this is not a hindrance to his prayers.

Unconfessed Sin

Just as unforgiveness can hinder our prayers, so can sin in our lives that we have refused to confess before God. “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Psalm 66:18). Before we conclude that God has simply not heard or prayers or that it is not His will to give us what we ask, we need to examine our hearts to see if unconfessed sin stands as a barrier between ourselves and God.

While we need to continually examine our hearts, we need also to ask God to reveal our sin to us. We should ask those closest to us what they have observed in our lives. While God most often reveals sin through the reading of and meditating upon His Word, we should realize that if we do not learn our lesson from Scripture, He may have to resort to harsher tactics where our sin is revealed before others, even publicly. While this may be difficult and humiliating, He does so because He loves us and does not wish for this sin to continue to corrupt us and to stand as a barrier between Himself and us.


God wants us to have confidence in His ability and willingness to provide what is necessary for us to attain to godliness. He wants us to believe that He can and will do what He says. Thus when we doubt - when we ask expecting rejection and when we ask almost hoping for rejection - we will hinder our prayers. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:5-7).

Our prayer cannot be separated from our faith. If we are to ask God, we must ask with expectancy, believing in our heart of hearts that God can and will give what we want, provided that what we want is really what we need! We are to ask with confidence and expectancy.


The eighteenth chapter of Luke is premised with the following words: “And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” Jesus goes on to share the parable of the persistent widow. It is a parable designed to teach the importance of persisting in prayer. It is God’s desire that we persist in our petitions before Him. When we ask and do not receive, we need to examine ourselves and question why our prayers are being hindered. Are we asking selfishly? Have we turned away from God, harbored unforgiveness in our hearts or ignored sin in our lives? Or have we allowed discord to creep into our families? These questions can lead us back to the Word of God and guide us to an examination of our hearts.

September 19, 2006


Gaithersburg, MD - From Sovereign Grace Ministries, based in Gaithersburg, Maryland, comes news of an exciting new competition. Throughout the Fall, Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) will travel the length and width of America, visiting malls and megachurches across the nation seeking The Successor®.

The ministry expects more than 10,000 young men to vie for their chance to become The Successor®. Of the thousands of candidates, eighteen will be chosen to travel to Gaithersburg where an eighteen-week competition will gradually reduce the number to one. The winner of this competition will be named The Successor® and will become apprentice to C.J. Mahaney. He will be groomed to succeed Mahaney as leader of Sovereign Grace Ministries.

Mahaney serves on the Council of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and on the boards of The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) and the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation. He is the author of The Cross Centered Life; Christ Our Mediator; Sex, Romance, and the Glory of God: What Every Christian Husband Needs to Know, Humility: True Greatness, and Living the Cross Centered Life. He is no stranger to such competitions. In 1998 he conducted a similar competition to choose his successor as Senior Pastor of Covenant Life Church. Surprisingly, there was only one applicant and, after a long and grueling competition with himself, Josh Harris was declared The Successor®.

Upon arrival in Gaithersburg, contestants, who will live together in a dorm-like setting, will be divided into two teams: Team Humility and Team Servant. Each week the teams will be assigned a task and required to select a Servant Leader to lead in the task. The winning team will receive a reward while the losing team will face elimination. Rewards are expected to vary from opportunities to meet backstage with Bob Kauflin during the GLAD reunion tour (GLAD will be opening for POD on their upcoming tour) to time alone with C.J. on the shores of Lake Mahaney (which is to say the reservoir immediately behind Covenant Life Church).

sgm.jpgEach week the losing team will meet in the Spurgeon Room where a showdown will take place that will see Mahaney fire the weakest contestant. Elimination will proceed in two phases. In the first stage, every one of the members of the losing team will be confronted with their successes and their failures. They will be given the opportunity to plead their case. The Servant Leader will then select one or two team members he feels are most responsible for the loss and they will accompany him to the Spurgeon Room where they will face a final showdown with Mahaney. After further examination by C.J. and his assistants, one contestant will be fired. Because the words “You’re fired!” are no longer in the public domain, Sovereign Grace Ministries has trademarked the phrase, “Would you please serve us by serving somewhere else!” and these are the words it is expected Mahaney will use to declare his decision and remove a contestant.

The eliminated contestant will be immediately sent home while the others will continue in the competition. He will be given an opportunity to say his final words as he is driven to nearby Baltimore Washington International Airport.

Serving as Mahaney’s assistants will be the stern-faced Carolyn McCulley and the long-serving Bo Lotinsky. They will be his “eyes and ears” on the ground during competitions and will be expected to provide updates to Mahaney. They will be present in the Spurgeon Room during the elimination showdowns and will be free to scold contestants or to ask questions of them.

While the details of individual tasks remain a closely guarded secret, rumors have long circulated on the Internet that one would involve re-organizing “the world’s best bookstore” which is in the lobby of Covenant Life Church. Currently selling primarily books, teams will be expected to integrate the most exciting, humble and discerning Christian potpourri and Bible-zines, thus raising the store’s profitability. Another task will involve redesigning the covers of C.J. Mahaney’s books to increase the visibility of overtly religious iconography.

When only four candidates remain, they will face a long and grueling series of interviews with a wide variety of church leaders and theologians. Each of these interviewers will provide their assessments of the candidates to Mahaney. The two weakest candidates will be fired, leaving two finalists. These two will embark on a head-to-head competition which will ultimately determine the winner. While details are sketchy, it is expected that one finalist will be required to teach a day-long course defending cessationism at the Sovereign Grace Pastor’s college while the other will have to teach a course defending continuationism at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

The season finale will be held live in the Covenant Life Church auditorium. Mahaney, McCulley and Lotinsky will be given a final opportunity to grill the remaining two candidates. And finally Mahaney will announce his decision. The winner will become The Successor® and will eventually succeed C.J. Mahaney as leader of Sovereign Grace Ministries. He will be hired at an extremely average salary and will be expected to move into the Mahaney home for at least one year. He will accompany Mahaney to conferences, preaching engagements and pick-up basketball games, thus learning the skills he will need to successfully serve as leader.

Because of SGM’s complimentarian beliefs, the competition is open only to men. Additionally, only men aged eighteen to thirty will be considered. While evidence of the early onset of male pattern baldness will not be considered a necessity, most industry insiders expect that it will be regarded as an asset.

Television rights to the competition have been sold to the Trinity Broadcasting Network and the show is expected to air coast-to-coast. It will be slotted between This Is Your Day with Benny Hinn and Daily Affirmation from Lakewood Church with Joel and Victoria Osteen.

Stay tuned for details of Sovereign Grace Ministries’ coast-to-coast search for candidates coming this Fall. You could be The Successor®!

September 17, 2006

As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, many Muslims throughout the world are terribly upset by comments made by the pope during a recent speech. While speaking to a group of university professors in his native Germany, the pope cited the words of a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s founder, as “evil and inhuman.” He has since offered a less-than-complete apology, saying that he is deeply sorry for the reaction his words have caused. “At this time I wish also to add that I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims,” he said on Sunday. “I hope that this serves to appease hearts and to clarify the true meaning of my address, which in its totality was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with great mutual respect.” Of course apologizing for a reaction is no real apology, but we’ll leave that aside for a moment.

I found it interesting that the Vatican released a statement shortly after the speech in which Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said the pope’s position on Islam is unmistakably in line with Vatican teaching that the church “esteems Muslims, who adore the only God.” To equate Allah with the God of the Bible is absolutely absurd for they bear only the slightest resemblance. Christianity and Islam are as different as any two religions could be.

Regardless, Muslims around the world are protesting. Here in Canada a news outlet spoke to Adnan Husain, professor of history of Islam and interfaith relations at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Husain said he’s concerned about the ramifications of the pontiff’s comments, which he said reinforce widespread and incorrect stereotypes about Islam. “I am very concerned about how this reinforces stereotypes, but particularly, how it sharpens a sense of religious conflict and cultural clash during these times when there is a stated war on terrorism taking place.”

Now I don’t often attempt to do P.R. for the Muslim world, but I can’t help but feel that Muslims could help destroy those “widespread and incorrect stereotypes about Islam” by reacting to this situation with calm. They could react peacefully, calling for dialogue and charity. In short, they could react in the way most Christians do when God is slighted and blasphemed. They could react with righteous indignation rather than burning anger. And yet, here is what the press reports:

“Palestinians used guns, firebombs and lighter fluid to attack four Christian churches in the West Bank town of Nablus. Gunmen opened fire on a fifth church in Gaza.”

“In India, angry Muslims clashed with police during a protest in Kashmir. More than 20 were arrested.”

“In the town of Tulkarem, a 170-year-old stone church built 170 years ago was torched before dawn and its interior was destroyed, local Christian officials said. In the village of Tubas, a small church was attacked with firebombs and partially burned, Christians said. Neither church is Catholic, the officials said.”

“An Iraqi insurgent group threatened the Vatican with a suicide attack over the Pope’s remarks on Islam, said a statement posted Saturday on the Web. “We swear to God to send you people who adore death as much as you adore life,” said the message posted in the name of the Mujahedeen Army on a website frequently used by militant groups. The message’s authenticity could not be independently verified. The statement was addressed to “you dog of Rome” and threatened to “shake your thrones and break your crosses in your home.”

This is just a sampling of what the press is offering. There are also plenty of pictures of burning churches, and angry, screaming Muslims holding placards denouncing the pope. To be fair there are several other organizations that have accepted the pope’s apology and no longer display such outrage. But the violence continues as do the threats and the anger.

The point is, if you want to undo stereotypes the best way of doing so is not to blame a person who supposedly reinforces a negative stereotype, but in reacting in a way that different than the stereotype. The stereotype of Muslims tells us that they would react to the pope’s words with anger, violence and calls for blood. Sure enough, many Muslims reacted with anger, violence and calls for blood. So who is reinforcing the negative stereotype?

September 16, 2006

King for a Week is an honor I bestow on blogs that I feel are making a valuable contribution to my faith and the faith of other believers. Every week (or so) I select a blog, link to it from my site, and add that site’s most recent headlines to the sidebar on this site. While this is really not much, I do feel that it allows me to encourage and support other bloggers while making my readers aware of other good sites.

This week’s award goes to a site that wins it on a technicality. Way of the Master Radio is not actually a blog. As you may have guessed from the name, it’s a radio broadcast. Yet, because they use a blog to post the new shows and because they offer a podcast of the previous day’s show, I thought it would qualify as King for a Week. WOTM Radio is a daily broadcast featuring Todd “Freakishly Tall” Friel with occasional appearances by Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron. The show covers issues relevant to the contemporary church and also broadcasts daily attempts to evangelize unbelievers which showcase the Way of the Master technique to get people to consider how they have broken the Laws of God. Todd combines a great sense of humor with a thorough knowledge of the truth to create an enjoyable listening experience. I have listened to many of their podcasts and am glad to commend them to you.

In the coming days you will be able to see the most recent shows listed in the sidebar of my site. I hope you will make your way over the site, look around, and listen in to the Way of the Master podcast. I’m sure you’ll find it worth while.

I continue to accept nominations for King of the Week. If you have a site you would like to nominate, feel free to do so. Thanks to those of you who nominated this week’s honoree.

September 15, 2006

God, Max & Me - I’ve felt a little bit brain-dead this week. Grieved by the shallowness of my devotional life and my difficulty in making sufficient time for it, I recently decided to try a whole new approach. I now wake up an hour earlier than I used to but leave my Bible on the shelf. I get up a good long time before the sun comes up and head outdoors with just my iPod which I have loaded with hymns, classical music and Max McLean’s recording of the ESV. I walk the darkened streets of Oakville for a time I affectionately call “God, Max & Me.” To this point I have really enjoyed this time and I’m grateful for the technology that allows this. It is awfully difficult to drag my tired carcass out of bed at such a ridiculous hour, but it has proven well worth it. I am surprised at how much I am enjoying listening to the Bible instead of reading it. I can easily walk for an hour, listening to Scripture, listening to hymns and praying and return home wishing I could spend another hour doing the same. I assume my body will eventually adjust to waking up earlier as since I began doing this I’ve had trouble thinking, writing, working and generally staying awake! But even so, it has been worth it.

Sermon CloudSermoncloud - Here’s an interesting idea. Sermoncloud is a site that provides “advanced sermon syndication.” “Sermon Cloud is a website for a community to interact with sermons. What are the powerful sermons people are listening to? Who are the up-and-coming preachers of the day? Where are the messages about themes that you need to hear? How can you find a great preacher in your home town? Sermon Cloud was designed to help you with all of these questions. Sermon Cloud users help let each other know which sermons they amen. An ‘amen’ is a recommendation of the sermon. Users can post comments about their interaction with these sermons (even the comments can be designated as helpful or unhelpful).” As sermons are recommended, they become apparent to a wider audience, thus suggesting that better sermons will be heard by more people. Obviously the usefulness of the site depends, in large part, to the quality of the sermons. To this point it appears that many of the pastors are engaged in biblical preaching. But certainly having more preachers who deliberately and humbly exposit the Scriptures would increase the value of the site.

Clarity and Mystery - Just this morning I was discussing Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy with some friends. We had read his chapter on “God Incomprehensible” and we noted that a book about knowing God began with a chapter affirming that God is incomprehensible. Yet Tozer is careful to state that while we can never know all there is to know about God, He has still revealed much about Himself and we can know these things with confidence. “ ‘What is God like?’ If by that question we mean ‘What is God like in Himself there is no answer. If we mean ‘What has God disclosed about Himself that the reverent reason can comprehend?’ there is, I believe, an answer both full and satisfying. For while the name of God is secret and His essential nature incomprehensible, He in condescending love has by revelation declared certain things to be true of Himself.”

We spoke of the Emerging Church Movement and of the way they celebrate doubt over certainty. This is something I was struck by (read it here) several months ago after hearing Brian McLaren speak. A faith which measures maturity by doubt rather than confidence is, frankly, ridiculous and unscriptural.

Interestingly, when I returned home I opened up my RSS reader and found the following on Phil Johnson’s blog:

This morning, I taped a one-hour interview with John MacArthur on the Emerging Church Movement. He spoke with his usual candor about various trends in the post-evangelical wasteland. He said one of the worst tendencies of the “emerging” spirit is the way it exaggerates and venerates mystery at the expense of the Bible’s clarity. Denying the perspicuity of Scripture has the same practical outcome as denying the truthfulness of Scripture. The essential message of Scripture is not unclear or uncertain, and Jesus Himself bore testimony to that fact repeatedly.

It is also worth quoting John Frame who writes the following about doubt:

[T]he Bible presents doubt largely in negative terms. It is a spiritual impediment, an obstacle to doing God’s work (Matt. 14:31; 21:21; 28:17; Acts 10:20; 11:12; Rom. 14:23; 1 Tim. 2:8; James 1:6). In Matthew 14:31 and Romans 14:23 it is the opposite of faith and therefore a sin. Of course, this sin, like other sins, may remain with us through our earthly life. But we should not be complacent about it. Just as the ideal for the Christian life is a perfect holiness, the ideal for the Christian mind is absolute certainty about God’s revelation.

We should not conclude, however, that doubt is always sinful. Matthew 14:31 and Romans 14:23 (and indeed the other texts I have listed) speak of doubt in the fact of clear special revelation. To doubt what God has clearly spoken to us is wrong. But in other situations, it is not wrong to doubt. In many cases, in fact, it is wrong for us to claim knowledge, much less certainty. Indeed, often the best course is to admit our ignorance (Deut. 29:29, Rom. 11:33-36). Paul is not wrong to express uncertainty about the number of people he baptized (1 Cor. 1:16). Indeed, James tells us, we are not always ignorant of the future to some extent and we should not pretend to know more about it than we do (James 4:13-16). Job’s friends were wrong to think that they knew the reasons for his torment, and Job himself had to be humbled, as God reminded him of his ignorance (Job 38-42).

But as to our salvation, God wants us to know that we know him (1 John 5:13)…

The Bible celebrates confidence, not doubt. The Emerging Church celebrates doubt, not confidence. You do the math.

September 14, 2006

Yesterday my friend Justin Taylor (I think he’s everybody’s friend, actually. I’ve been meaning to ask him—is there a Reformed author whose Justin hasn’t spoken to just a couple of days ago?), sent me an article entitled “The Ambiguously Cured Soul” that was written by David Powlison and published in the Spring 2001 edition of The Journal of Biblical Counseling. It is a fascinating article and Justin was kind enough to ask if I could post it on my site. Dr. Powlison was equally kind to agree to this. I would encourage you to work through the six-page article before reading the following commentary on it. It is in PDF format and you can access it here.

Powlison frames this article around the story of Amelia, a woman who struggles with lesbian fantasies and whose story appeared in the journal of a Christian counseling center. Here is a portion of Amelia’s story:

The idea of counseling scared the wits out of me. I’d never told anyone my struggle. I’d had lots of friends, was always popular and vivacious. People liked me, but I always thought, “If they knew the real me, I’d be rejected.” So I never let anyone in. They’d think I was some weird and dangerous pervert, though I’d never acted out my fantasies. I never consciously chose to have lesbian desires. It seemed like something that just happened to me as a child, a decision made for me, something I “discovered” inside me, not something I decided.”

So what happened? My therapist accepted me. That allayed my anxieties. As we worked in counseling over the next year and a half, he helped me to understand the reasons for my lesbian attraction. My father had been an alcoholic. When I was a child he beat me often, and sometimes sexually molested me. His anger scared me—it still does. I learned never to trust men, and to look towards women for love. But my mom was mostly helpless and passive through it all, preoccupied with her own troubles. She could never really protect or comfort me. So I spent my life trying to meet my need for love that no one had ever met. That parental combination made me hungry for an intimate, accepting relationship with a woman, a “precious friend” who’d fill the empty space inside.

Counseling taught me a perspective on my past, to see how the pain and disappointment of my family upbringing produced my struggles with lesbian fantasy. I’ve learned to understand why I am the way I am. These realizations about my past have helped me to make better choices in the present. My counselor helped me to learn that only God can fill the void inside me, and can quench my deep thirst for an accepting relationship.

God has been at work in me. Jesus was “tempted in all ways as we are, yet without sin,” and I’ve learned more and more to come to Him, and that He will “never leave me nor forsake me.” I’ve become accountable to my husband and a couple of female friends at church, not just to my therapist. I’ve learned to identify the situations when I’m tempted to old patterns of fantasy, and to resist more effectively. Praise Him that I am changing!

This seems to be a wonderful story of healing. Amelia came to understand the source of the sins with which she struggled and found useful ways of dealing with them when they strike at her. But, while affirming that Amelia seems to be a “sincere sheep, wanting her Shepherd’s presence, and wanting to put secret sin to death, … it appears that her counselor nourished her with a mixture of Bible truths, half-truths, and fictions.” The Holy Spirit was good to animate the biblical truths and to bear fruit in her life. And yet her life now bears an interpretive map that offers confusion and error. Amelia is an ambiguously cured soul.

One aspect of David Powlison’s ministry that has often challenged me is that he gives no quarter to sin. He never allows sin to be shown to be anything other than what it is: an offense to God that arises from a person’s sinful nature. For instance, when speaking of the counselor’s method of helping Amelia understand the source of her sin, he writes, “Knowledge of a person’s history may be important for many reasons: compassion on sufferers, sympathetic understanding, locating the present within an unfolding story, knowledge of characteristic temptations, and so forth. But it never determines the heart’s proclivities and inclinations.” We know this because many people experience similar events in their histories and react differently. One woman may indulge in lesbian fantasies, another may drift from man to man, and another may seem to go through life unscathed.

There is a certain mysterious quality to sin that many modern methods of counseling ignore. “Psychodynamic myth has mingled a significant illusion with elements of Christian truth. To say that her lesbian struggles were caused by unhappy childhood circumstances fails to bow before the riddle, unfathomableness, and culpability of sin. Sin is its own final reason. Any theory that claims to explain sin actually falls prey to sin’s intellectual effects, and wriggles away from both theological truth and psychological reality. Sin is the deepest explanation, not just one more problem begging for different and “deeper” reasons.”

Did you catch that? “Sin is its own final reason.” We can only do so much to explain sin, for ultimately, there is a mystery to sin that we just cannot understand. We can attempt to find reasons for our sin, or look into the past to find its source, but in the end, sin is the deepest explanation and the final reason.

But this is not the purpose of Powlison’s article. The article shows something that has been discussed a fair bit in the Christian blogosphere: so often truth and folly are bound up together. “Things would be nice and tidy if you could always keep the good guys straight from the bad guys. But often it’s not possible. The same person who is a primary means of grace to another may also be a secondary means of confusion—or a primary means of confusion and a secondary means of grace. We consciously aim to disciple others in the truths we know and seek to live - but others easily catch our errors, blind spots, and failings in the bargain!” Where there is sin, and sin exists in all of us, there will be confusion. Where there is truth there is so often error. This ambiguity is constant. There are not always good guys and bad guys. Rather, often the good guys are the bad guys.

To learn more about Dr. Powlison, visit CCEF. You may also be interested in reading his book Seeing With New Eyes. This article has been reprinted as one chapter in that book and the approach is extended and applied to other issues such as motivation, defense mechanisms, feelings, and love languages.

September 11, 2006

A week ago Suzanne Sataline published an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Veneration Gap: A Popular Strategy For Church Growth Splits Congregants.” The article examines several examples of churches that have experienced great trial and turmoil as a result of attempting to become Purpose Driven. The article does not seem to be an attempt to prove that Purpose Driven principles are inherently evil or that they always cause conflict. Rather, it seems that Sataline is attempting to show that the transition from traditional to Purpose Driven can be a difficult one and is not always as easy as people may believe.

Through the article she discusses four churches:

Iuka Baptist Church in Mississippi is a Southern Baptist congregation that lost 40 members after voting to throw a deacon off the board for publicly taking a stand against a transition; Valley View Christian Church in Dallas expanded their sanctuary five years ago to accommodate an influx of new members that would follow their decision to adopt the five Purpose Driven principles. About 200 people refused to get on board with the transition and left to form a new church; First Baptist Church of Lakewood in Long Beach, California has seen attendance fall from 700 to 550 after the pastor led the church through a transition about seven years ago; Brookwood Church in Burlington, North Carolina has had attendance fall from 600 to 275 since becoming Purpose Driven.

Sataline mentions an organization called Church Transitions Inc., which exists to help churches move through the transition from traditional to Purpose Driven. She seems to target them as a cause of many of the problems. While it is not directly affiliated with Purpose Driven, Rick Warren does endorse this organization. Warren wrote the foreword to Transitioning, a textbook for the transition written by Dan Southerland who serves as President of Church Transitions. Warren writes, “This is a book to be studied, not just read. To get the most out of it I encourage you to purchase a copy for each of your staff and study it together, one chapter at a time, as many have already done with The Purpose Driven Church. … If you are a pastor or a key leader in an established church—this manual will help you implement the principles of being purpose driven. So go for it!” Here is what Sataline writes about the organization:

Some pastors learn how to make their churches purpose-driven through training workshops. Speakers at Church Transitions Inc., a Waxhaw, N.C., nonprofit that works closely with Mr. Warren’s church, stress that the transition will be rough. At a seminar outside of Austin, Texas, in April, the Revs. Roddy Clyde and Glen Sartain advised 80 audience members to trust very few people with their plans. “All the forces of hell are going to come at you when you wake up that church,” said Mr. Sartain, who has taught the material at Mr. Warren’s Saddleback Church.

During a session titled “Dealing with Opposition,” Mr. Clyde recommended that the pastor speak to critical members, then help them leave if they don’t stop objecting. Then when those congregants join a new church, Mr. Clyde instructed, pastors should call their new minister and suggest that the congregants be barred from any leadership role.

“There are moments when you’ve got to play hardball,” said the Rev. Dan Southerland, Church Transitions’ president, in an interview. “You cannot transition a church…and placate every whiny Christian along the way.”

Philip Ryken, pastor Tenth Presybterian Church in Philadelphia, having read this, writes: “While I am sensitive to the difficulties of dealing with whiny Christians, and while I recognize that there are times when Christians need to go separate ways for ministry, I also seem to recall that there are biblical guidelines for dealing with differences in an open, honest, and charitable way.” Surely there are, but the methods outlined in Transitioning are not all that conducive to reconciliation or negotiation. A person is offered only two choices: get with the program or get out.

I found it interesting that Sataline’s article revolves around numbers. She proves that the Purpose Driven method is fallible by citing statistics showing church memberships falling, sometimes drastically. This is largely the same methodology used by Purpose Driven and Church Transitions to measure success. As if to emphasize the concerns of those who believe that the church growth movement is driven by pragmatism, the author’s bio in Transitioning says “Dan Southerland is the pastor/teacher at Flamingo Road Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida—a purpose-driven, contemporary congregation that has grown from 300 in 1989 to over 2,300 today and launched seventeen other churches.” The author’s sole credential is that he has made the Purpose Driven principles work by seeing the requisite numerical growth. For many who are eager to adopt Purpose Driven principles, this is enough.

That there are churches struggling with a transition to Purpose Driven methodology does not surprise me, for I read the textbook to transitioning a couple of years ago. If The Purpose Driven Church is the “what” and “why” of the church growth movement and all things Purpose Driven, Transitioning represents the “how.” “If the thought of switching from a traditional church to a purpose-driven church leaves you with mingled feelings of excitement and fear, good! It means that, as a pastor, you know the incalculable worth of aligning your church with God’s vision…Transitioning is written for you.” (From the back cover). We also learn from the cover that the book will help a pastor and congregation navigate change and attain rewards that far exceed the risk. Essentially, this book is a how-to guide for changing an existing church from program-driven to purpose-driven. It is written by Dan Southerland, but endorsed by Rick Warren who says that Southerland’s church is “one of the most exciting and encouraging examples of transitioning from being program driven to purpose driven.” (From the foreword) In my review I outlined several concerns with the book and the methodology:

First, the principles within this book are steeped in pragmatism. What works is elevated far above what Scripture teaches. If it works, in the author’s view, it must be good. This is, of course, consistent with The Purpose Driven Church which is modeled as much on Peter Drucker as on the Bible.

Second, the author misuses Scripture. The web site for Church Transitions says the model is “Biblical—based on the book of Nehemiah.” In a vain attempt to lend Scriptural credence to the book, the author bases the process of transition on the model of Nehemiah, who led the Israelites in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Many of these parallels are forced and the Scripture simply does not support the conclusions. For example, when discussing the reality and inevitability of opposition, Southerland writes about Sanballat and his opposition to Nehemiah’s work (see Nehemiah chapters 2 and 4). Of course there is vast difference between opposition raised by a hostile unbeliever and a concerned believer! Southerland, though, groups all those who oppose change as Sanballats. In the Church Transitions model there is little room for the concerns of other believers.

Third, the author does away with biblical models of leadership. One of the necessary steps in moving to a Purpose Driven church is to make the church staff led instead of committee/deacon led. Rather than having a plurality of elders, a church should have a vision team which is composed of dreamers and power brokers, so that the church becomes led by those who dream big and those who have the money and power within the church. But what of the biblical qualifications for leadership? What of elders, deacons and proper church government?

Fourth, the churches the author proposes are custom-built to appeal to a very limited element of society. It is not mere chance that the author’s church had the average age of attender fall nearly 20 years over his transition period. The church was custom made to appeal to a certain element of society at the expense of others. Who is building and planting churches designed to appeal to the elderly? This model would deem a church successful that has driven away the elderly and replaced the pews with people in their teens and twenties.

Fifth, there is little consideration given to whether this transition is right or biblical. We are to blindly accept that it is the way to do church and to begin the process, regardless of what other church members may desire. The first step in transition is creating a vision. This teaching about vision is something that is in-line with the teachings of Schuller, Warren, Wilkinson, Blackaby and the New Age - we are to dream a big dream, call it vision, and raise that up as our standard. Decisions are made and programs are accepted or rejected based on their conformity to this vision. Yet this vision is created by a man. He may ascribe it to God and it may be biblical, but it needs to be regarded as a lower standard than the Word of God!

Sixth, the method is brutal in its dealing with opposition. There is no latitude given for those who oppose the change, even if they object on biblical grounds. Criticism is viewed as inevitable and unfortunate, but ultimately an attack on God Himself. The pastor is cautioned to remain on track with the change and not allow opposers to derail the process.

I wrote these six concerns after reading the book and evaluating Southerland’s methodology and his supposed biblical support for it. It seems that Sataline’s proves these concerns to be valid, for all of them are illustrated in her article. While Purpose Driven principles may seem innocuous, wise pastors and leaders will count the cost before dedicating themselves to them.

September 08, 2006

Bright and early each Friday morning I meet at a local coffee place with a couple of friends. We read a portion of a book during the week and get together once a week to discuss what we’ve read. Having previously worked our way through Os Guinness’ The Call, we have now begun The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer. While only a short book, I have little doubt that it will prove to be profoundly challenging. I have read shamefully little of Tozer in the past and am eager to remedy that oversight.

Tozer premises The Knowledge of the Holy on the statement that “what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” While he does not provide a Scripture reference to back this claim (I don’t recall a verse that states, “God spake thus: what thou believest about me is the most important thing about thee…”) I believe he is correct in this assertion. After all, “the history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God.” If no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God, the same is true of individuals. We can never rise above our idea of God.

Why is this important? As Tozer says, “We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God…Always the most revealing thing about the Church is her idea of God, just as her most significant message is what she says about Him or leaves unsaid, for her silence is often more eloquent than her speech. She can never escape the self-disclosure of her witness concerning God.” And he is right, for once we have decided who God is, we chase after that image of God. It is critically important that we learn about who God is through the Scripture, for this is His self-disclosure.

And here are words that gripped me and kept me tossing and turning last night (though one too many cans of Coke may have also contributed): “Were we able to extract from any man a complete answer to the question, ‘What comes into your mind when you think about God?’ we might predict with certainty the spiritual future of that man. Were we able to know exactly what our most influential religious leaders think of God today, we might be able with some precision to foretell where the church will stand tomorrow.” This is a sobering though, for when we survey the leaders of the church today we will find a vast variety of views on God, many of which are clearly unbiblical. We have leaders who deny the Trinity and others who deny the atonement. We have leaders who clearly have never stopped to seriously consider just what they think of God. There are many followers who have likewise never stopped to consider who God is, what He has done, and what He demands of us. And as we can see where the church will be led in the future, we can look at the leaders of families, men like myself, and understand where we will take our families. When I survey my heart and ask what comes to mind when I think about God, I will know where my family will stand tomorrow.

“It is my opinion,” writes Tozer, “that the Christian conception of God current in these middle years of the twentieth century is so decadent as to be utterly beneath the dignity of the Most High God and actually to constitute for professed believers something amounting to a moral calamity.” If this was true of the middle of the last century, how much more true is it in the early years of the current century? And yet, “All the problems of heaven and earth, though they were to confront us together and at once, would be nothing compared with the overwhelming problem of God: That He is; what He is like; and what we as moral beings must do about Him.” But still many Christians do not think deeply about God, about what He is like, or about what we must do about Him. “I believe there is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God.”

This is a serious matter. “Before the Christian church goes into eclipse anywhere there must first be a corrupting of her simple basic theology. She simply gets a wrong answer to the question, ‘What is God like?’ and goes on from there. Though she may continue to cling to a sound nominal creed, her practical working creed has become false. The masses of her adherents come to believe that God is different from what He actually is; and that is heresy of the most insidious and deadly kind.”

And here is Tozer’s charge: “The heaviest obligation lying upon the Christian Church today is to purify and elevate her concept of God until it is once more worth of Him—and of her. In all her prayers and labors this should have first place. We do the greatest service to the next generation of Christians by passing on to them undimmed and undiminished that noble concept of God which we received from our Hebrew and Christian fathers of generations past. This will prove of greater value to them than anything that art or science can devise.”

Having read these words I see, more clearly than ever, the importance of placing myself under the leadership of men who have a high and biblical view of God. If nothing is more telling and more important than what comes into my mind when I think about God, it must also be critically important that I learn from men who think deeply about God and who humble themselves under His word.

September 07, 2006

I try to avoid writing about what feels like gossip. It is far too easy to write about issues that are contentious simply because they attract attention and satisfy some depraved and unsanctified portion of my heart. I know that I used to give in to this desire far more than I do today and I thank God for challenging me on this. Over the past few weeks, several people have asked me about a particular situation with Ligonier Ministries. Others have taken to posting links to exposés about the ministry. To this point, we (myself and David who helps me with moderating the comments here) have deleted these links since they point to a site we feel offers little more than gossip. I have also chosen not to write about it. Recently, though, the story has hit the mainstream. A Florida newspaper published a report on it and since then many bloggers have followed suit. Christianity Today has even seen fit to link to comments critical of Ligonier. And so I thought I would offer what I can on this issue.

On September 5, the Orlando Sentinel featured an article (link) entitled “Lawsuit seeks to block blogger.” Rene Stutzman, a Staff Writer, broke the news that Ligonier Ministries has sued a blogger, Frank Vance, for defamation, seeking unspecified monetary damages. For the past several months Vance has used his blog to post articles harshly critical of Ligonier Ministries, and in particular, its President and CEO, Tim Dick. As Stutzman points out, “In the past five months, Vance’s blog has described Dick as part of a ‘family of nincompoops,’ ‘a very corrupt man’ and ‘a lying, thieving con artist,’ according to the lawsuit.” Vance’s blog, “Contending for the Truth,” is the site that has been at the center of increasing controversy and to which people have often attempted to link from my site.

“Contending for the Truth” exists for the sole purpose of exposing what Vance considers the misdeeds of Ligonier Ministries. The site was begun on May 8, 2006 as a response to something that happened right here at Challies Dot Com. I’ll let Vance give his version of the back story:

On March 9, 2006 Tim Challies started a thread on his blog to report “live” on the Ligonier Ministries National Conference [Note from Tim: A reader of this site was at the conference and asked if I’d consider allowing him to post some reflections on the conference. I was glad to do this. Do note that I was not the one reporting from the conference]. Some discussion ensued there about the fact that RC Sproul Jr was speaking at the conference, even though he’d just been defrocked by the RPCGA just a little over a month prior. To say the least, some people were offended by that (myself included) and posted their objections in that thread. The blog moderators quickly stepped in and squelched any and all discussion of the RC Sproul Jr scandal. They also deleted several posts. Given the hostile environment arrayed against any open discussion on the issue, I didn’t even bother to post there.

Then on March 13 moderator David made the following post:

“Those of you who want to discuss the Sproul Jr. issue can go here [link to the General Forum] to start your own discussion. Once again, this thread is not the place for that.” So, I did just that, at [now defunct link] Hits to that particular discussion thread rapidly climbed to over 4000, far more than any other discussion thread there had ever generated so rapidly.

Then in early April, without any prior notice, Tim Challies jettisoned the entire forum and replaced it with a new one, minus all the content of the old one. His excuse? “Frankly, I am exceedingly tired of having to wade through so much spam and trash and perversion just to keep the forums running. Maybe I’ll investigate another option—one that does a better job of keeping out the trash.”

Vance went on to say that my new forum was a useless “Pile ‘O Crap” and suggested that there was another reason I had dumped the forum, hinting that his article about Sproul caused me to remove it. The truth of the matter is what I mentioned here. It turns out that the forum was getting heavily spammed and was causing incredible stress on the server. The heart of the problem was that I was using the forum as my commenting system for the blog and the combination of the two was causing excessive load on the server to the point that I was using 100 percent of the server’s processor. My host threatened to shut down my site if I did not remedy the problem immediately and even cut off service for several hours at a time to show they weren’t bluffing. The only workable solution was to shut down the forum. Sometime later, I believe it was a few weeks later, in response to pleas from those who enjoyed using it, I installed a new forum and attempted to solve the previous problems. Unfortunately, that proved impossible. The site was soon bringing the server to a crawl and I was being inundated with spam. I made the decision to take the forum down once and for all and to revert to using Movabletype’s internal commenting system. Had I not removed the forum, my site would have been permanently shut down. The decision certainly had nothing to do with Vance and his post.

All this is to say that Vance was dead wrong about the reason I took down the forum. And not only that, but he never contacted me to clarify, instead choosing to create a blog to share his inaccurate understanding of what happened. He has gone so far as to credit me with providing the impetus to enter the blogosphere. Until this point I have ignored him. It is interesting to see the influence he has had on others in their impressions of me. Here are a few quotes taken from his commenters, all of whom are responding to his charge that I am trying to hide the truth about Ligonier and about R.C. Sproul Jr.: “And Challies shut down a forum over it!! (Note he is live blogging for all the biggies).” “Tim Challies is a great example of a cover up artist.” “You’re too much of a shill to let anybody know about them yourself Tim, or even permit anyone else to say anything.” “Tim Challies needs a reality check. Keep up the good work Frank.” “And as to Challies, he has built up a nice live blogging business with these guys. He has a lot to lose, too. And he is young and mesmerized by these big men of God.” “This is off topic but today Challies posted that he is writing a book on…of…all…things…discernment! In light of his obviousw protection of the Sprouls, I find this quite nervy. I am afraid Tim has little credibility in this area.” I have never once, to my recollection, received an email from any of these people asking me to clarify my position or asking why I shut down the forums. None have ever tried to contact me, to properly admonish me, or to clarify the situation.

This proves two things to me. First, Vance is willing to write something libelous about someone else (in this case, about me) without any proof or substantiation. His entire story about me is mere fantasy and fabrication. Secondly, those who allow themselves to be influenced by him are eager to believe what he writes and to have their impressions about others (once again, about me) shaped by him. Does the fact that he was wrong about me mean that he is wrong about other things he has written? Not necessarily, but it certainly does make me think twice about his desire to be truthful. Has anyone looked at Dan Rather the same since we found out about his eagerness to take down George Bush using fabricated evidence? I didn’t think so.

Vance has used his blog to level various charges at Ligonier Ministries and at Tim Dick. Until recently, the posts dealt with R.C. Sproul Jr. and his being deposed by his denomination. Recently, though, Vance also wrote an article in which he accused Ligonier of defrauding Soli Deo Gloria publications, which Ligonier acquired in 2004. He charges that Tim Dick found a way of underhandedly stealing the company from Don Kistler, the man who founded it. “Dr. Kistler’s ministry was stolen from him by, quite literally, nothing more than a cheesy sleight of hand trick. After weeks of contract negotiations a final version of the contract was agreed upon by all parties. However, when it came time for the signing of the final contract, unbeknownst to Don Kislter, Tim Dick secretly switched contracts. The textual difference in that switched contract was small enough to have easily escaped the notice of everyone, yet the implications for Don Kisler were immense.”

This article charging Tim Dick, and thus Ligonier, with fraud has now been widely read and I have had many people ask me to comment on it. What I have pointed out to all who have asked me about it is that Vance writes an interesting article, but one that is entirely devoid of any proof. He levels many charges at Dick and calls him many names. He writes like he has facts at his disposal, but provides no proof. He says only that he has gained his facts from someone who has spoken to Don Kistler. This is, at best, third-hand information. Without proof what he writes is nothing more than gossip. It is unconscionable that, as a professed believer, he would write such a condemnatory article but without offering proof. Regardless of whether what he writes is true, he deserves to be ignored on that basis. To this point I am not aware of any response from Don Kistler as he is currently recovering from a serious stroke.

Clearly one of the responsibilities of the President and CEO of a ministry is to protect the integrity of that ministry and the man who founded it. It should be mentioned that Tim Dick has a personal stake as well, for he is Dr. Sproul’s son-in-law and surely has a deep love and respect for the man. While the press is eager to report this as an issue touching on the First Amendment, in the lawsuit Ligonier makes it clear that they regard it as an issue of slander, libel and defamation. One does not have to read far into “Contending for the Truth” to see that they can make a case for this. The press will be eager to make this into an issue about freedom of speech. They will make it into an issue of the big corporation versus the little man. But, as I understand it, freedom of speech does not provide a person the right to fabricate stories and to slander others. Without proof, this is all that Vance offers. As believers we cannot regard Vance as a victim here, for his attacks on Ligonier and on Tim Dick (and his family) are mean-spirited and clearly not written out of Christian love or concern.

This lawsuit will inevitably raise questions about the teaching of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 6. Paul writes, “When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church?” While I do not know how I feel about legal action in this particular case, especially because I have access to few of the facts, I think it bears mentioning that if a person continually responds as an unbeliever, he may no longer merit treatment as a believer, especially when he continues to do harm to an organization. Also, it bears mention that Ligonier is an entity, a non-profit organization, not a person or individual believer. Neither is it a church. When there is interaction between a person and an organization, it may fit in a different category than the one-to-one interpersonal relationship described in Scripture. A corporation dealing with an anonymous person does not have the ability to deal with such issues within a church setting.

My purpose in writing all of this is not to suggest that I feel Ligonier is a perfect or blameless organization. I have no stake with Ligonier in writing this. While I am acquainted (at best) with several people who work for the organization, I have nothing to gain or lose from them. I am not, as has been charged against me, a “shill” for Ligonier.

There may even be some truth about a misunderstanding in the situation regarding Soli Deo Gloria, though surely suggesting that Tim Dick surreptitiously switched contracts is either a fabrication or a ridiculous oversimplification. My purpose is not to condemn Frank Vance and to suggest he is a liar, though admittedly I do not know where Vance gathered his facts and he is not willing to reveal his sources. My purpose here is to urge caution. We do not know all of the facts and neither are we ever likely to. What we do know is that Frank Vance has shown his willingness to write negatively about me based on mere conjecture and without checking his facts or seeking any kind of reconciliation. He has since written a great number of negative things about an organization that has served Christ for many years. He has done so without offering any shred of evidence or proof. As I read his articles I thought immediately of the Old Testament laws concerning witnesses. Deuteronomy 19:15 reads “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” Already many professed Christians have had their opinion about Ligonier Ministries and R.C. Sproul influenced by the word of only one man. Surely we ought to know better.

Frank Vance has little credibility and, even if what he writes is true, does not deserve to be heard. If he has evidence, he ought to present it. If not, he should retract his comments, shut down his site, and be silent. At the very least, he should examine his motives and ask how his site is serving the body of Christ.

It is situations like this that cast a shadow over the blogosphere, for it has given voice to a whole new breed of gossips. People with only a story, no matter how little evidence is provided, can gather an audience and turn the opinions of men and women, even against a man with the long record of R.C. Sproul. There is something wrong when an anonymous gunslinger, who does not have the courage to identify himself beyond his name and his American citizenship, can cause great harm to a ministry with which he is not affiliated. There is something even more wrong with those who allow themselves to be so influenced by such a person.

If you agree with what I have written here, I’d urge you to do (or not to do) three things. First, do not to visit Vance’s site. There is no reason to sort through his articles and the increasingly belligerent and irrational comments that follow them. Second, if you are a blogger, do not link to his site. Links and visits are the currency of the blogosphere and there is no reason to give him either one. Third, and most importantly, I plead with you not to allow a charge to be established in your mind on the evidence of a single witness! Surely a man who has served the church as long and as well as R.C. Sproul, and surely the organization he founded, deserve the benefit of the doubt.

August 29, 2006

John Mark Karr has been cleared in the slaying of JonBenet Ramsey. Clearly a sick and disturbed individual, Karr claimed responsibility for a crime he did not commit. Only a monstrously sick individual would claim responsibility for the rape and murder of a 6-year-old knowing full well that the crime was not his. Some are suggesting that his claim to this murder is a well-constructed plan to ensure that he will not be convicted for child pornography charges brought against him in California. Steve Janke says, “He won’t pay for any crimes he might have committed for the simple reason that it will be impossible for Karr to get a fair trial. Any jury pool is irredeemably tainted by the publicity. And Karr’s lawyer would be right.”

Frankly, this entire case makes me sick. I can barely bring myself to look at pictures of JonBenet Ramsey, the little girl whose parents dressed her like a sultry and seductive teenager and then marvelled that anyone would respond to her in that way. I am sickened by the sexual violence committed against her. Surely this crime is a stark display of the depravity of mankind. But as I continued to see headlines about the case a strange thought entered my mind. It quickly became obvious that Karr was not the murderer and was somehow using his confession as a means to a selfish end. But still I thought, what would be wrong with having him serve the sentence for this crime? If the state of Colorado charged him with the murder and put him in prison for the rest of his days, would the demands of justice be satisfied? Can justice be satisfied if one man serves a sentence on behalf of another, even if this is done voluntarily? The answer is obvious. The demands of justice could not and cannot be satisfied by the wrong man suffering on behalf of the one who has committed the crime. We do not need to look to the laws of our nations to determine this, for our hearts tell us this is so. God has imprinted the demand for justice into the human conscience.

And yet this is just what happened with Jesus Christ, is it not? Jesus committed no sin, and yet He suffered for my sin so that I can be declared righteous. Was this a grave miscarriage of justice or was this, as the Bible indicates, a perfect expression of both mercy and justice? And if John Mark Karr cannot satisfy justice’s demands on behalf of the man who really killed JonBenet Ramsey, why is it that Jesus can satisfy justice’s demands on behalf of the man who actually did?

I thought about this for some time and asked some friends for advice. I shuffled through five or six systematic theologies as well. All the while I felt stupid for not arriving at an easy and obvious answer. But in the end, my first instincts seemed to offer the best answer. It all comes down to imputation.

There are three times we encounter imputation in the doctrines of Scripture. The first deals with the sin of Adam. In Romans 5 we read, “One trespass led to condemnation for all men…by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners.” Paul declares that through the sin of Adam, all men were counted guilty. When faced with the choice to disobey God, Adam served as the representative of all mankind. When he sinned, he sinned on our behalf. Wayne Grudem says, “God counted Adam’s guilt as belonging to us, and since God is the ultimate judge of all things in the universe, and since his thoughts are always true, Adam’s guilt does in fact belong to us. God rightly imputed Adam’s guilt to us.” This word impute is critically important. Grudem defines it as “to think of as belonging to someone, and therefore to cause it to belong to that person.” As the righteous judge, God imputed Adam’s sin to all who would come from the line of Adam. From that moment, all who are born of Adam, all who are sons and daughters of Adam, are conceived and born in sin. We sin because we are sinners.

Imputation is found again in the suffering and death of Jesus. The Second Adam, Jesus Christ was appointed to be the second and greatest representative of the human race. Conceived of the Holy Spirit, Jesus did not have Adam’s sin imputed to him. He was born blameless and perfect in every way. But then, on the cross, sin was imputed to him. He bore our sin. Isaiah 53:6 says, “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Galatians 3:13 tells us that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” Christ bore our sin and even became sin. In the very same way that Adam’s sin was imputed to the human race, our sin was imputed to Christ. God thought of our sin as being on Christ’s account rather than our own, and so actually caused our sin to belong to Christ. Christ bore this sin perfectly and so satisfied God’s demands for justice.

But, thanks be to God, this is not all, for we soon encounter imputation once more. God does more than allow Christ to suffer on our behalf. While Christ died for us and bore our sin, the fact remains that we are guilty of committing countless sins. And so God also imputes to us the righteousness of Christ. Paul says in Philippians 3:9 that he does not have, “a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” The righteousness he enjoys is not his own, but is a gift of God. Christ’s righteousness has been imputed to him and to all who believe. We are now thought of by God as righteous and therefore are now righteous. Praise God.

Based on plenty of thought and reading, I’ve concluded there are several reasons that John Mark Karr could not satisfy the demands of justice on behalf of another. First, God is ultimately the offended party any time a sin is committed. While a sin may hurt, bother, or even kill me, ultimately all sin is committed against God. And since God is the one who is offended, He is the one who determines how justice can be satisfied. Scripture gives no hint that one person may suffer for another, except in the case of Christ. Second, in order for Karr to suffer on behalf of another person, he would first need to have that person’s sin imputed to him. Without imputation, payment for the crime would be little more than a valueless legal fiction. Only God is able to impute sin, for, as we have seen, all sin is committed against God. Karr might be able to pretend that the sin of another person is actually his, but this would be nothing more than make-believe. Only God could actually impute that sin to him. Third, even if God were to do that, Karr could never suffer perfectly and justly for that sin. The demands of justice could not be met in one who was himself a sinner. And finally, even if Karr did have the murderer’s sin imputed to him, and even if he did bear it perfectly, the murderer would still be counted guilty, for Karr has no righteousness to offer him. Where there is sin, there is guilt. Karr is a sinner, just like you and me. He has no righteousness of his own. If he is to be ushered into heaven, he must first, by faith, believe in Christ and have Christ’s righteousness imputed to him.

We depend on Christ always, fully and finally. Only He is able to bear our sin. Only He is able to offer us His righteousness. Only He, if only we believe.