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August 25, 2014

As English-speaking Christians, we have a vast array of hymns available to us, and we each have our list of favorites. In my assessment, the best hymns are those that are universal and timeless, speaking to all Christians in all times, places, and situations. They are firmly grounded in Scripture and drawn out of, or toward, the gospel of Jesus Christ. And they are inevitably coupled to a great melody.

Here are my picks for the ten greatest hymns of all-time. Apart from the first, they are in no particular order.

And Can It Be? by Charles Wesley. I begin with what I consider the greatest hymn by the greatest hymn-writer. Wesley’s “And Can It Be?” simply delights in the goodness of God while marveling at his saving grace. It captures every Christian’s experience of wandering, of beholding Christ, of rejoicing in his salvation, and of the great hope of entering his presence at last. “No condemnation now I dread; / Jesus, and all in Him, is mine; / Alive in Him, my living Head, / And clothed in righteousness divine, / Bold I approach th’eternal throne, / And claim the crown, through Christ my own.”

A Mighty Fortress by Martin Luther. It is bold, it is triumphant, it expresses great faith in God and great defiance toward sin and Satan. I think Satan hates it when we sing this: “The prince of darkness grim — We tremble not for him; / His rage we can endure, For lo! his doom is sure, / One little word shall fell him.”

All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name by Edward Perronet. There are few hymns more triumphant than this one, and especially so when sung to the “Diadem” melody. It calls upon each of us, and everything else in all of creation, to pay homage to our great God. It anticipates the day when that will happen. “All hail the power of Jesu’s name! / Let Angels prostrate fall; / Bring forth the royal diadem, / To crown Him Lord of All.”

Oh, For a Thousand Tongues by Charles Wesley. In this hymn Wesley proclaims that one tongue simply is not enough to express his praise and his adoration before God. If he had a thousand tongues, he would use them all to proclaim who God is and what he has done. “He breaks the power of canceled sin, / He sets the prisoner free; / His blood can make the foulest clean, / His blood availed for me.”

August 13, 2014

I have watched the avid outdoorsman, the fisherman, come slowly drifting by. He goes by morning after morning, day after day, always at the same time, always casting into the same locations. He is patiently waiting for the big one, waiting for that hard strike, that long battle that will land him his prize.

I do not fish, but I do read, and I find them similar. The avid reader takes in book after book, day after day, searching each one, looking carefully for those few but important ideas. Four hundred pages—or eight hundred—is a small price to pay for an idea. It is a small price to pay for knowledge that leads to application that leads to life change.

Sometimes you need to do a lot of reading to come away with one really good idea. Some books yield nothing but nonsense; some yield nothing but ideas you have come across a thousands times before. But then, at last, you find that one that delivers. There is such joy in it. Such reward.

The fisherman is rewarded when at last he has his fish. He takes a picture of it, weights it, takes it home, has it mounted, and displays it for the world to see. The reader is rewarded when at last he has his idea. He takes that idea, he thinks about it, he talks about it, he weighs and considers it, and he integrates it into his life.

No wonder, then, that we love to read. We read to discover that prize. We read to learn, and we read to live.

August 11, 2014

Gallons of virtual ink have been spilled over the weekend as people have discussed the latest news in the ongoing saga of Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church: both he and his church have been removed from Acts 29, the church-planting network he helped establish. This is only the latest incident in a long, steep, and very public decline. The news has been reported in Christian outlets, all over the local Seattle media, and as far afield as Huffington Post, TIME, and the Washington Post.

As the situation comes into focus through scandal after scandal, it becomes increasingly clear that there are, and always have been, systemic issues at Mars Hill. Many of those issues are directly related to the sins and weaknesses of the church’s founder and leader.

I am much too far outside the situation to comment on the particulars; there are many places you can go to get caught up and to learn details, with Wikipedia as good a place as any to begin. One area that I haven’t seen anyone explore yet is what the news means to the wider movement that has come to be known as New Calvinism. I want to think about how it pertains to the majority of us who know Driscoll only by association as a prominent voice in a movement we share. What should we learn from it?

The first I heard of Driscoll, at least to my recollection, was after the publication of his first book, The Radical Reformission. This—late 2004 or early 2005—was the time when most of us first heard his name, and when we began to read his books, to listen to his sermons, and to look him up on YouTube, even if only for sake of curiosity.

As I read his book in 2005, and followed it with Confessions of a Reformission Rev in 2006, I felt both admiration for what Driscoll taught and concern for how he taught it. I loved most of his theology, but was concerned about his coarseness.

In 2006 Driscoll was more formally introduced to the New Calvinism with his inclusion in the Desiring God National Conference and even then he was a controversial figure. When Piper invited him again in 2008 he recorded a short video to explain why he had extended the invitation. These words stand out: “I love Mark Driscoll’s theology.” While Piper did not deny the concerns, he loved Driscoll’s theology and loved what the Lord was doing through him.

Many of us felt the same way. We didn’t quite know what to think about the man, but we loved his theology. We loved what he believed because we believed most of the same things.

Bear with me as I artificially divide Driscoll’s ministry into three parts: theology (what he said), practice (how he said it) and results (what happened). So many of us had genuine concerns over the second part, but were willing to excuse or downplay them on the basis of the first and third. Yes, he was crude and yes, he sometimes said or did outrageous things, but he never wavered in publicly proclaiming the gospel and both his church and his church-planting movement continued to grow. We were confused. We did not have a clear category for this. We had concerns, but the Lord seemed to be using him. So we recommended his podcasts, or bought his books, even if we had to provide a small caveat each time.

In retrospect, I see this as a mark of immaturity in the New Calvinism, in what in that day was called the Young, Restless, Reformed. It was the young and the restless that allowed us to be so easily impressed. To large degree, we propelled Driscoll to fame through our admiration—even if it was hesitant admiration. (You can read an article I wrote in 2008, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mark Driscoll?, to see how I did this; reading it today, it seems awfully naive and immature, doesn’t it?)

In those early years I traveled to quite a few conferences and had the opportunity to hear from several of the church’s elder statesmen—men who have had long and faithful ministries within the church. At every conference Q&A someone would inevitably ask, “What am I supposed to think about Mark Driscoll?” I heard many answers, but time and again I heard mature leaders express concern. Many of them were convinced he did not meet the biblical qualifications to be a pastor and, therefore, should not be in ministry. Some of them said, with regret, that they were convinced his ministry would eventually and inevitably explode into scandal at some point.

August 07, 2014

I love a church that prays. I love being a part of a church that prays. Every Wednesday night we gather—often a packed-out room full of us—to bring all our petitions and all our praise before the Lord. Far more often than not it is a sweet time of seeking the Lord together. I usually lead these meetings and along the way I’ve learned a few things. Here are some ways you increase the likelihood that your prayer meeting will miss the mark.

Go Unprepared. The best prayer meetings are the ones that have been prepared. Sometimes that preparation involves putting together a list of items you will pray for at the meeting. Sometimes that preparation involves a brief devotional or another means of getting people to think about the Lord before they begin to pray. Sometimes that preparation simply involves praying—praying for the prayer meeting. Either way, I’ve learned that prayer meetings are at their best when the leader has prepared himself and when he is able to bring direction.

Dominate. Sometimes a leader fears silence during prayer meetings, so immediately fills any silence with yet another one of his own prayers. Or he is so sure of his ability to pray that he will go on and on. And on. But there are some people who thrive in silence, who need it for their own private prayers, or who need a few minutes to work up the nerve to open their mouths and pray out loud. (A shout-out to my fellow introverts!) Lead the meeting, but don’t dominate it. And learn to embrace the silence. That silence isn’t wasted.

Only Ask. Without a deliberate effort to be thankful—to consider all the good things God has done and to thank him for them—a prayer meeting will always be dominated by requests. Of course God wants us to bring him our requests. He commands it! But when we focus equally on thanksgiving for answered prayer, we set a tone of expectation that God will hear our requests and respond to them. (This is probably one of the most difficult things to do, at least in my experience!)

Don’t Address Your “Tics.” Some people have prayer tics, little quirks that no one has ever told them about. I have heard people use the phrase, “Father God” a hundred times in a single three-minute prayer, without the smallest inkling that they have done so. Some people preface every prayer request with “just.” “I just pray that you will just grant us…” The thing is that even if you aren’t aware of your tics, everyone else is; you may be oblivious to them, but they are a distraction to others. So, as the leader of a meeting, be sure to ask someone if there is anything you are doing that you ought to stop.

Forget to Pray. We have all been to those prayer meetings that are 90% requests and 10% prayer, or 20 minutes of teaching, 20 minutes of requests and 5 minutes of prayer. Too often prayer meetings are dominated not by prayer, but by talking about prayer. Lead the meeting in such a way that you get to prayer, and get to it quickly. Adequate preparation will help a lot in this regard.

Keep it the Same. While there is comfort in familiarity, there is also joy in freshness. After months or years of doing the same thing in the same way, even the best things can begin to feel boring. Try varying the meeting a little bit—break into small groups, separate the men and women, have someone else lead—whatever it takes. Sometimes deliberate change can bring unexpected blessings.

Be bored. Sometimes prayer meetings are drab because the person leading the meeting seems like he would rather be somewhere—anywhere—else. No one will believe in the prayer meeting more than the leader does. If you aren’t interested, it is unlikely that anyone else will interested. If you don’t believe in the meeting or aren’t interested in it, pray about it until you are. And then lead it willingly and joyfully.

August 06, 2014

Why do married couples have sex? And how can they ensure that they keep enjoying the sexual relationship throughout their marriage? This weekend I read through a pair of recent studies from the University of Toronto that offer some intriguing, though not shocking answers.

August 04, 2014

We are distracted. We are so distracted, and so accustomed to it, that after a while we almost become distraction. We lose the ability to be still. We fear the quiet. We are intimidated by the moments where there is nothing to look at, nothing to do.

Distraction is one of the costs of life in a digital world. Paul Graham says it well: “Distraction is not a static obstacle that you avoid like you might avoid a rock in the road. Distraction seeks you out.” We surround ourselves with devices that bring us so many good gifts, but even these good gifts exact a cost—the cost of distraction. The iPad that allows me to read the Bible anytime and anywhere also barges into my devotional life with notifications and alerts. The phone that allows me to stay in touch with my family while they are far away also wakes me at night with its buzzes and flashes. It giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other.

We are learning. We are learning the costs so that we might also learn the solutions. Here are three of the costs of all of this distraction.

Shallow Living

Distraction leads to shallow thinking, and shallow thinking leads to shallow living. All of this distraction prevents us from thinking deeply. No sooner does the mind press in on a problem and begin to turn it over and examine it and search for a solution, than there is a beep or a buzz or another interruption. If we are unable to think deep thoughts, we will be unable to live deep lives. The best-lived life is the life that flows from deep contemplation, and especially deep contemplation of the deepest truths. Distraction is the enemy of the best kind of life.

Shallow Doing

Distraction leads to procrastination, and procrastination leads to discontentment. Many of our distractions are gladly received. We want them, we welcome them, we miss them when they have been absent for too long. When they don’t come, we go looking for them, mindlessly typing f-a-c-e-b-o-o-k into our browser, hoping for something, anything, to amuse. An hour passes. Two. And we have accomplished none of what we desired, none of what we had set out to do. As distraction increases, productivity declines, and we become discontent with what we have accomplished. Distraction is the enemy of the best kind of productivity.

Shallow Loving

Distraction leads to shallow communication, and shallow communication leads to shallow relationships. Our distraction prevents us from deep engagement with other people. We are always just one beep or one more buzz away from disengaging from a conversation and turning our attention to that text message, that email, that notification. Relationships thrive on deep communication; relationships flounder on trite and inattentive communication. Distraction is the enemy of the best kind of relationships.

The costs lead us to the solutions, and those solutions are so very simple: Take control! Our devices and new technologies have only as much authority in our lives as we allow them. Determine how much authority your device will have, and force it to live within appropriate boundaries. If you don’t own your tools, they will own you.

July 31, 2014

Today I am kicking off a brand new series of articles I am titling The Defenders. Through brief sketches of Christian leaders, I hope to draw attention to believers known for defending the church against specific theological challenges or false teachings. I will be focusing on modern times and have chosen to begin with James Montgomery Boice, a long-time defender of the doctrine of inerrancy.

Inerrancy

The Christian faith stands or falls on the Bible. It stands or falls on the trustworthiness of the Bible. It is no surprise, then, that the Bible has often been attacked at this very point. A long list of dissenters have maligned the Bible by insisting that it cannot be fully trusted, and asserting that errors have crept into it. The doctrine of inerrancy addresses the Bible’s trustworthiness.

Wayne Grudem defines the doctrine in this way: “The inerrancy of Scripture means that Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.” Said otherwise, “Inerrancy is the view that when all the facts become known, they will demonstrate that the Bible in its original autographs and correctly interpreted is entirely true and never false in all it affirms, whether that relates to doctrines or ethics or to the social, physical, or life sciences” (P. D. Feinberg). If it is true that the Bible is reliable and contains nothing contrary to fact, then it is worthy of our trust and able to guide us in matters pertaining to life and godliness.

It was this doctrine, and the attacks upon it, that drew the attention of James Montgomery Boice.

James Montgomery Boice

BoiceJames Montgomery Boice was the much-loved pastor of the historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia from 1968 until his death in 2000. A prolific author, he penned dozens of books and commentaries, including a massive and influential four-volume work on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. His long pastoral ministry was unblemished and his congregants remember him as a kind and loving pastor. But outside that congregation he is remembered as a fierce defender of the doctrine of inerrancy.

In a stirring tribute to his friend and mentor, Richard Phillips says that Boice’s ministry can be roughly divided into three phases. The first of these phases lasted from the mid-1960’s to just around 1980, and it was here that Boice distinguished himself as a defender of the doctrine of inerrancy. Phillips explains:

These were the years when Boice was wrapping up the education he received in liberal institutions like Princeton Seminary and the University of Basel. In his John commentary, dating from these early years, one will frequently read Boice defending the Bible from the interpretations of liberals like Rudolf Bultmann. These were also the years when Boice was ordained in the liberal United Presbyterian Church, so that the context for his ministry was that of opposition to liberal attacks on the Bible. It is no surprise that Boice’s chief concern during these years was to defend the inerrancy and authority of Scripture, as seen in his leadership of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI).

The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy was founded in 1977 for the express purpose of defining and defending the doctrine of inerrancy. Boice, who that year would publish Does Inerrancy Matter?, was asked to serve as Chairman. The Council met in 1977 and determined they would write a book-length response to Jack Rogers’ Biblical Authority, an influential work championing neo-orthodoxy and denying inerrancy. Boice served as editor for that work and in it he warned “even among evangelicals, Christian doctrine and Christian living are moving progressively away from the biblical standard and from the classical teachings of the church.” In the fall of 1978 the ICBI held their first conference with nearly 300 Christian leaders in attendance. During that conference the Council met repeatedly and wrote what came to be known as The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

July 30, 2014

We’ve got an Amish community not too far from here. It is the place to go when you need to stock up on produce, farm-grown foods, or heirloom-quality furniture. It is also known as the place to go if you really just need to see some Amish people doing what they do. And a lot of people like to do just that—to go and look, to go and gawk.

Even though we’ve got an extensive group nearby, we recently found ourselves in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, North America’s best-known Amish community. (Full disclosure: Our actual travel objective was Harrisburg and the overrated Civil War museum there, but every hotel in the city was completely full.) We did not stop on the road outside Amish farms to watch them do their work, and did not go on a bus tour, but we couldn’t help but see horses and buggies around town, and, of course, plenty of the distinctive Amish clothing.

As we headed north, back toward our home, I started to think about the Amish and why we find them so endlessly fascinating. Though they are small in numbers, everyone knows who they are and everyone knows at least a few of their unique customs; though so much of their religious practice appears insufferable, they are regarded as Christians who love and practice grace. They are the heroes of a million stories, the subject of a thousand documentaries. Why are they so fascinating? I have a few ideas.

The Amish challenge us. In a world where we are so completely dependent on our high-tech devices, the Amish somehow manage to survive without them, and even appear to thrive without them. Where we are convinced that newer is better and that we are only ever one innovation away from joy, the Amish seem plenty happy to do without. If you spend time around the Amish, or if you begin to learn about their ways, you necessarily find yourself asking questions like: Do I really need my smartphone? Are all of these devices really bringing happiness? What have I lost in all of this innovation? The Amish challenge so many of our deeply-held beliefs and assumptions.

We want to figure out the Amish. We are fascinated by the Amish because we so badly want to figure them out. Where they proclaim that they have great uniformity in their lives and laws, we see great contradictions. Their faith appears contradictory: They speak about the grace of Christ but live by law; they extend grace to those who harm them, but shun those who leave them; they rejoice in their salvation, but do not share Christ with others. Their laws appear contradictory: The men can have buttons, but the women must use straight pins; connecting to a phone network attaches them to the world, but connecting to a road network does not; they rely on doctors and lawyers, but will not allow their own children to be educated beyond eighth grade. When I see the Amish, with all their strengths and weaknesses, all their grace and legalism, I look for a key that unlocks it all. I look for knowledge that makes it all make sense.

The Amish recall a simpler time. Where life today is marked by endless complexity, the Amish are known for their quiet simplicity. As they go about their lives, they draw us to a simpler time. In some ways the Amish live in the best of both worlds—the world today and the world of centuries ago. They live their day-to-day lives in that simpler world, that quieter world, that slower world. But, when necessity dictates, and law permits, they take advantage of modern innovations. They use horse-drawn buggies to get to their worship services, but hire drivers to take them to the store. They have no electricity in their homes, but give birth and die while connected to modern medical equipment. Their simplicity attracts us. It draws us.

July 24, 2014

A recent headline proclaimed that buying a car ranks among most people’s least favorite activity. Many would rather suffer pain or be deprived of a favorite pleasure than to have to endure the car lot and the car salesman. Recently, inevitably, it was my turn to face the pain. With our old minivan ailing and a long roadtrip looming, I had little choice in the matter. I had procrastinated as long as I could.

Now there are various strategies involved in buying cars. Some people only buy really, really used cars and drive them until they can wring out the last little vestige of value. Then they rub out the VIN, drive it into a lake, and start over. Not surprisingly, these people tend to be pretty handy, and comfortable under a hood. Other people buy only new cars, drive them until the new car smell has faded, and then swap them for something newer. As you would expect, these people tend to be pretty comfortable with their checkbook.

I hold to the philosophy of buying new and driving until the serious problems begin—maybe seven or eight years with the right brand, all the scheduled maintenance, and a little bit of luck. I hold to this position largely because I consider cars magic. They exist far beyond the boundaries of science and reason and firmly within the realm of wizardry. I have no idea how they work and live with the fear that if I touch anything beyond the gas cap, I will disrupt the sorcery and cause a total breakdown. I am in awe of them, and terrified when they begin to show signs of aging. When a hear that strange whir or unusual clunk, I just assume that the engine is about to blow. (Cars still have engines, right?) Our old car was making a lot of those whirs and clunks and related sounds. I had lost all confidence in it, so it was time to go shopping.

When Aileen and I walked into the dealership and began looking at that new van, the salesman did a great job of introducing us to this amazing new vehicle. He showed us lots of buttons and screens and described all the different ways the van would beep at us while we drove it. I am quite sure it is nearing sentience and, with a software update or two, should be able to drive itself and even parent my children. He opened the hood so we could admire the engine and I nodded dutifully, pretending that I actually had some idea of what I was looking at. I think I fooled him. “Mmm. Look at that. It’s shiny.” He didn’t notice the beads of sweat trickling down my face. “Tell me more about the beeps.”

What really impressed us about this van was its reliability. He convinced us that this vehicle is very possibly the greatest and most reliable car ever made by the hand of man. He assured us that the car would never break down, that the warranty would prove bulletproof, and that if we were simply to buy it today, all our wildest dreams would come true.

We were an easy mark, I guess, and before long he convinced us. We shook his hand and he led us into the office of the finance manager. Now, the finance manager’s job was to figure out how we intended to pay for this vehicle and to verify that we actually had a reasonable likelihood of doing so. However, it quickly became apparent that he could pick up a few commission dollars by selling us an extended warranty. Suddenly we were being told that we had just agreed to buy the worst car ever built, that it was probably going to break down before we even got it out of the parking lot, that the warranty is absolutely laughable, and that we would never sleep soundly at night unless we agreed to that third-party, $3,000 extended warranty plan. “Your life will not be worth living if you walk out of here without that extended warranty.”

I called him on it. “The salesman just told us this was the most reliable van on the market; now you’re telling me it’s a piece of junk that’s going to burst into flames if I look at it wrong. What gives?” He assured me that he was just looking out for me, that he was a friend. I assured him, in turn, that there was, literally, no chance that I was ever going to walk out of there with an extended warranty, unless, of course, he was willing to give it as a gift. Since, you know, we’re friends now.

No wonder we hate to buy cars. At least I don’t need to endure the pain again for another seven or eight years.

As we drove away in our whirring and clunking old van, hopeful that the factory would soon spit out that shiny new one for us, I found myself thinking about the contradiction between the salesman and the finance manager. I was sold on the car’s reliability, but once I was in, well, that’s where I was told the truth (or a version of it, at least).

And I realized that we, as Christians, sometimes pull this very sales trick when we preach the gospel and plead with our friends. We assure our friends that God has a great and wonderful plan for their lives, that putting their faith in him will bring endless and untold blessings. We tell of all the benefits of being a Christian. Well and good.

But when Jesus walked the earth, he was no salesman. He told those who wanted to follow him that the cost would be high. He told them that it would cost them their friends, their family, their finances, their plans, their comfort, and maybe even their lives. He told them that it would cost them everything.

No wonder that our friends are suspicious. And no wonder so many are shocked when they make a profession of faith and immediately meet with pain and mockery and deep questions and the sustained attacks of a Devil who wants them back. They were won with a sales trick—won with only half the truth. They have every right to be disillusioned.

Car lot photo credit: Shutterstock

July 23, 2014

I think we all love the story of the Garasene Demonaic, don’t we? It is the story of a poor, pathetic, hopeless, demon-oppressed man and his life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ. And there is something in the story I find particularly fascinating.

Though at one time in his life this man had been a normal person with a normal life, at some point demons had begun to oppress him. Maybe he was a young man still living in his parents’ home when something about him began to change. Over time his parents and family saw him start to exhibit erratic and downright scary behavior. Or maybe he was a married man and it was his wife who first began to notice that strange behavior. He began to act in ways that were out of character. He began to cry out in weird ways. Though he used to love his kids and cuddle them and tell them stories and play with them, over time he became distant, then even dangerous. Soon she had to protect the kids from their own father.

Eventually his behavior became so outrageous that the people around him acted in the only way they knew how—they chained him and locked him up. But then he grew so strong that he could break those chains and attack anyone who approached him. So they did the only thing left to do and drove him away. By the time we meet him in Mark 5 (and parallel accounts in Matthew and Luke), he is living in the tombs, roaming the hills naked, cutting and brusing himself, crying out in agony of body, soul and spirit. He can go no lower.

And then Jesus meets him. And then Jesus frees him. Jesus sends that horde of demons into a herd of pigs which immediately rushes into the sea and drowns. And then we come to a part of the story I find absolutely fascinating. The nearby townsfolk come running to see what has happened, to see this oppressed man in his right mind, to see thousands of dead pigs floating in the water. And we see two very different reactions to this encounter with Jesus Christ.

When this man has been freed by Jesus, he begs Jesus to be able to go with him. Please let me remain with you, let me learn from you, let me serve you. Where you go I will go. This man saw Jesus and wanted Jesus more than anything.

When this crowd of villagers saw this man freed by Jesus, they had a reaction that was exactly opposite. They begged Jesus to leave. Please go. Get back in your boat and leave and don’t come back. They saw Jesus and wanted Jesus less than anything.

The people wanted Jesus as far as possible, this man wanted Jesus as close as possible. And in those two reactions we see something fascinating: Jesus repulses and Jesus draws. Some people encounter Jesus and find him the most dreadful thing in the world; some people encounter Jesus and find him the most desirable thing in the world. Some beg him to leave and some beg to follow.

When we preach Jesus today, we preach for a response. And there is always a response. Jesus repulses and Jesus draws. But an encounter with Jesus never accomplishes nothing.

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