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Christian Living

November 06, 2013

QuestionA reader of this site recently asked me this question: Is all sin equal in God’s eyes? It is a common question and the answer is of the variety that is always a little bit unsatisfying: It is one of those “yes and no” answers.

There is a sense in which all sin is the same. Every sin is an act of rebellion against God. Any sin, no matter whether it is an angry thought or outright murder, is a declaration of independence from God, a means of saying, “I am going to do this my way instead of your way. I choose my will rather than your will.” In that sense every sin is sufficient to justify an eternity of separation from God. Every sin grieves God and arouses his just wrath. God hates sin because his very nature is contrary to sin. This is not God being mean or arbitrary, but God simply giving us the wages due to our rebellion.

However, it is equally correct to express that some sins are more serious than others. Certain sins are more significant than others because the consequences are more significant. We observe this in the New Testament, in Paul’s description of sin in Romans 1. Here we see the progression of sin so that as people are given over to their sin and rebellion, they progress into sin that is more and more serious. We also see this displayed in the laws of the Old Testament where, for example, the consequence for theft is not as grave as the consequence for murder. There are degrees of punishment for various sexual sins so that some are punished with a fine, some are punished by banishment and some are punished by death. Each is sin, but each is judged to be more or less serious; the punishment accords with the crime. Of course we see it today as well, reflected in our civil laws and reflected in our parenting and church discipline and every other area where laws exist.

Is all sin equal in God’s eyes? Yes and no. All sin is equal in causing us to be separated from God, but some sins are more significant because they bring about more serious consequences.

Allow me one word of caution. The fact that some sins are judged to be more serious than others must not give us license to evaluate our actions on the basis of whether a certain act is a little sin or a big sin. We are commanded to be perfect in the face of all sin and with the Holy Spirit living within us, we never have to sin. And, as Spurgeon warns, the big sins begin with the little sins: “Oh! take heed of those small beginnings of sin. Beginnings of sin are like the letting out of water: first, there is an ooze; then a drip; then a slender stream; then a vein of water; and then, at last, a flood: and a rampart is swept before it, a continent is drowned. Take heed of small beginnings, for they lead to worse.”

October 30, 2013

With the entrance of sin into the world and into our hearts, we have gained some remarkable (and remarkably sad) abilities. One of those newfound abilities is the capacity to lose our wonder, to grow cold to even the most beautiful things. Things that once inspired us, that once moved us, that caused us to marvel or to cry out in praise—even these things can grow stale over time; even these things can become old. One of the great joys and great promises of eternity is that in heaven we will never lose our wonder but will, to the contrary, enjoy ever-increasing wonder and ever-increasing joy. What moves us today will move us even more tomorrow and what causes us to marvel tomorrow will bring even greater wonder in the future. C.S. Lewis captures just a little bit of this in the closing sentences of his Narnia chronicles:

And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

“Every chapter is better than the one before.” If only that were true here and now. It should be, but it is not.

Just recently I realized that I had somehow lost much of the joy in one of life’s great pleasures.

I have had the experience a few times. I have walked into a building—a church or a school or a community center where a group of Christians meets—and I have heard distant singing. I’ve gone to investigate, walking quietly toward the sound, trying to track it down. And as I wandered the halls, I eventually found a gathering of Christians, expressing praise to God through song.

October 14, 2013

Every guy has received a warning about “the second glance.” Here’s how it works: When you see an attractive woman, you are morally responsible for the second glance, not the first. Because you cannot help seeing what is there in front of you, the second glance is the one where you will display sin or virtue. It is here that you make the moral choice—the choice to lust or the choice to direct your eyes and your thoughts to something that honors God.

I have never been completely comfortable with the second glance logic. More on that in a moment, but first we need to see that this is not only a guy thing.

Women can have the same issue or one that is very closely related. For some women the issue is identical—looking with lust. For others it may be something else, such as alighting your eyes on someone who doesn’t fit in and then allowing yourself condescending thoughts about her. It may be thinking unkind thoughts about the immodest woman or the too-modest woman or the woman whose children are dressed so perfectly or so imperfectly. Whether you are a man or woman, you will be tempted at times to allow your eyes to direct you to people who will then take your thoughts in unholy directions. It is a universal problem.

Back to the question: Is it only the second glance that counts? Yes and no.

October 09, 2013

If I had any doubt about the potential evils of the Internet, they were permanently erased when I wrote a book about pornography, and followed it with one on life and faith after the digital explosion. In the aftermath I received email after email describing what pornography and other online dangers had done to individuals and to families. Since I have traveled around speaking on the subject of technology, I’ve learned even more about just how harmful it can be to allow children or teenagers free reign when it comes to their devices and their access to the Web. We are handing power tools to children and acting surprised when they get badly hurt.

My children are growing up fast—my son is 13 and my daughters are (almost) 11 and 7. They are asking for and in some cases even needing greater access to computers. Their friends are starting to get their first cell phones. My son just opened a Facebook account. Even my seven-year-old loves to write emails to her grandmother.

I am getting nervous. I know all the facts about what they may encounter out there, but have done too little to protect them.

I am about to strengthen my plan to protect my family. I thought it might be helpful to share this plan and this journey with you, both to get your feedback on it, and to allow you to see how it progresses. I intend to report back in a month or two to let you know what we have learned along the way.

Goals

I have four main goals:

Goal #1. I want to guard my children from seeing or experiencing what they don’t know exists. I want the innocent to remain innocent. In other words, I do not want my children to see pornography or to experience dangerous situations before I have been able to discuss these things with them. I have already had several of these discussions with my son, but not yet with my daughters. I believe this is a talk to have with them when they are old enough—probably around 11 or 12.

Goal #2. I want to prevent them from seeing or experiencing what they may desire once they learn that it exists. I am under no illusion that they will never want to see what all the buzz is about  and what their friends will inevitably be discussing. So I want to make it as difficult as possible for them to access dangerous or pornographic material, even if they want to.

October 07, 2013

In some Christian traditions they are emphasized to the point of exhaustion; in others they are so diminished as to barely exist at all. Whatever we believe about the spiritual gifts, we at least need to acknowledge that the Holy Spirit gives a great range of gifts to his people and that they are given to glorify God as we use them to serve one another (read 1 Corinthians 12).

Yet since we are sinful people, we can take even the good gifts of the Holy Spirit and use them as a means of discouragement. This can happen in at least two ways: when we envy the gifts given to others or when we assume that others should share our giftings. In his book Accidental Pharisees (which, incidentally, is currently $2.99 on Kindle), Larry Osborne refers to the first of these as gift envy and the second as gift projection.

Gift Envy

Whatever gifts I have been given, evangelism is definitely not among them. But I know people who have this gift. They are the ones whose hearts leap with excitement when they think about standing on a street corner and preaching to a crowd of strangers. They are the ones who have the ability to make every conversation a gospel opportunity and to do so without making it weird. They come to prayer meetings with a long list of people to pray for that they have met and evangelized in just the past week. They love to strike up conversations on planes or busses or wherever else they find a captive audience. They have met every person in the neighborhood and told them all about Jesus. They make it seem so easy.

I am not so gifted. My ideal flight is the one where the seat next to me remains empty so I can settle in with a good book. I am pretty sure I would pass out if I tried to do street preaching. When I attempt to steer a conversation toward the gospel, it always feels so unnatural. It’s not that I don’t want to do the work of an evangelist and not that I haven’t done it plenty of times in the past. It just comes with great difficulty and with little skill.

When I look at those friends who are greatly gifted in this way, I am tempted toward guilt and from guilt it is only a short step to envy. I hear them describe all the opportunities they had, they created, they took, and I feel my heart sink a little. I can begin to envy this gift, to wish I had it. Why shouldn’t I be gifted in this way? I want to reach the lost, I want to be a skilled evangelist, I want to share the gospel with friends, family and neighbors.

September 27, 2013

I love the theology of Paul’s epistles, learning who this God is that we trust and serve. And I love the practical view of Christian living that always follows this unfolding of the person and works of God. Sound theology always finds expression in the way we live.

In 1 Thessalonians 4 Paul encourages one church toward a life that is pleasing to God and he encourages them in three ways: to be sexually pure, to work hard, and to love one another. And as he discusses love for one another, he draws out four interesting little principles of love within a local church.

God Is Our Teacher

The first and most foundational thing to know about love between Christians in a local church is that God serves as our teacher. Paul writes, “you yourselves have been taught by God to love.” In the school of love, God is the instructor.

How does God teach us to love? That’s easy! More than anything else, he teaches us by example, and the cross of Christ is the best and highest possible example of love. This church was already excelling in love for one another so that Paul could say, “You have no need for me to teach you about love.” Yet he could still call them to love all the more. He was not dissatisfied by what he knew of their love for one another, but knew that when the cross is the example, Christians always have room for greater growth.

September 17, 2013

I often use this blog as a place to think through questions that have been perplexing me or ideas that just need some reflection. I don’t really know what I think or what I believe until I have processed it through the written word. For a few weeks now I have had a note in front of me saying, “see evidence of God’s grace in what that person could have been.” That’s weird, I know, so let me explain.

I’ve explained before that at Grace Fellowship Church we have tried to be deliberate in developing a culture of encouragement rather than discouragement, of pointing more to evidences of God’s grace in one another than in the too-obvious evidences of human depravity. We succeed better at some times than others and find this an area that requires constant rekindling. Still, we trust that this church community remains an encouraging place to be and a place where we actively look for grace.

I have been reflecting recently that some of the greatest evidences of God’s grace in the life of the Christian are the things that person could be or inevitably would be without the active presence of the Holy Spirit and without a commitment to the pursuit of holiness. Sometimes we see evidences of God’s grace in what a person is or has become; sometimes we see evidences of God’s grace in what that person would otherwise be.

I think of the young man who was raised with very few advantages, whose family has seen generations of addiction and failure, and yet who has been saved by grace and has become the one exception. Literally, the one exception. Of all the things he could be, he has chosen instead to be a Christian and to live like one. And it shows.

I think of the woman who grew up as part of a broken family and who was once convinced that she, too, could only fail at marriage. And yet by God’s grace she has endured difficult times, has built stability into her marriage, and has one of those God-glorifying, Christ-displaying marriages that will last till death parts them.

September 12, 2013

Yesterday evening I enjoyed a mid-week prayer service at a little Presbyterian church down here on the coast of Scotland. Before prayer the minister spent a few minutes leading a study on Revelation 12, and as is so often the case when I listen to the teaching of God’s Word, there was one idea above all the others that arrested my attention and got me thinking.

Every Christian is told to pursue a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We have all seen the consequences of dead religion, of people who claim to worship Jesus, but who do not seem to know him. They relate to Jesus like they relate to the king or president or to a fictional character. There is nothing real about it.

But we are told time and again that we have the joy and the responsibility of relating to Jesus in a personal way. He is real. He is alive. He is a genuine person. We can and should and must relate to him personally.

However, as much as we emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we tend to view Satan and his evil forces as an abstraction. We believe that we need to relate personally to the Savior but that we can relate impersonally to the enemy as if Jesus is a person while Satan is merely an idea. What the minister said yesterday was simply this: You need to have a personal relationship with Satan as well.

We need to be careful here, obviously. We do not equate Jesus and Satan in some yin and yang kind of relationship. They are by no means equal. Jesus is creator and Satan is created; Jesus is the conquerer and Satan the conquered; Jesus is alive forever while Satan knows his time is short and that he must soon be thrown into the pit.

But until then, Satan is alive and on the prowl. He despises those who have that personal relationship with Jesus Christ and both desires and seeks their destruction. So until the time Christ returns and casts Satan into that pit forever, we need to relate to him as well. This does not mean that we pray to Satan or even speak to him, but it had better mean that we pray to Christ about him and pray to Christ against him.

We need to believe that Satan exists, that he is powerful and that he will stop at nothing to hurt, hinder and destroy us. He is not an idea. He is not a theory or hypothesis or explanation. He is real, and it is crucial that we remember and believe it.

September 02, 2013

It is Labor Day today. That’s Labour Day here in Canada. It struck me this morning that among all the holidays Labor Day is unique in that we celebrate it by ignoring the very thing it is all about. On Christmas we remember Jesus; on Canada Day or Independence Day we think about our nations; on Thanksgiving we count our blessings and give thanks; on Memorial Day or Remembrance Day we remember those who died while serving their countries. But on Labor Day we do all we can to not labor and to not think about labor.

Over the past couple of weeks I have been thinking about labor, about work, and this formula has been in my mind: “disposable time + disposable income = ?” I haven’t known exactly what it equals, but I know it equals something. It has to. It probably equals something a little bit different for each of us.

We live at a time of amazing privilege. Almost all of us have the luxury of disposable income so that after we have paid our taxes and paid our bills and put a check in the offering basket, money remains. For some that amount is far greater than for others, but almost all of us have at least something left over, whether it is enough to head to Disney once a year or just enough to subscribe to Netflix. This puts us in a unique place in human history. Even the poor and middle-class among us have privileges today that rank with society’s elite from days gone by.

And it’s not just money that we have in abundance. It is also time. Many people today survive, and even thrive, on a 40-hour work week. Maybe in your case it is 50 or even 60. Regardless, even with that number of hours you have time to spare, time to dedicate to a hobby or serving at church or hanging out with your family or making use of that Netflix subscription.

When you take disposable time and you combine it with disposable income, something is going to happen. It is too powerful a combination to do nothing.

As I ponder the effect in my life, I keep coming back to the word entitlement. In my life disposable time + disposable income = entitlement. As I have lived in a culture where so many of us have an abundance of time and money, and as I have benefited from doing labor that allows me both luxuries, I feel a growing sense of entitlement. I begin to believe it is my right to have more money than I need and my right to use time in self-serving ways. I find that I begin to desire more of each.

I would prefer that my mind would go to opportunity, and this is how I am challenging myself. Disposable time + disposable money = opportunity. It represents an incredible and unique opportunity to do good, both through serving and through giving. It is an opportunity and privilege to be faithfully and joyfully stewarded.

August 26, 2013

Why sheep? Why not cheetahs or wolves or ligers or another animal with a bit of flair, a bit of class? But the Bible tells us often that we are sheep. We are sheep and God is a shepherd. That sheep/shepherd word picture is at the heart of the best-loved Psalm—Psalm 23. I spent some time with that psalm lately and tried to gain a better appreciation of why God saw fit to tell us we are sheep.

I will admit I am not the world’s foremost expert on sheep. I grew up in the city and even now live in an area of town that explicitly forbids owning livestock. In place of first-hand knowledge, I spent some time reading about sheep. It was funny. And kind of humbling.

Do a little bit of reading about sheep and you’ll soon see they are not survivors. They are not strong and independent creatures, not proud hunters or fierce predators. They’re actually kind of pathetic, entirely dependent upon a shepherd for at least three reasons. Two of these reasons are related to the brain of a sheep and the other is related to its body.

This is a real news story that aptly tells us the first reason sheep need a shepherd: because sheep are dumb.

Hundreds of sheep followed their leader off a cliff in eastern Turkey, plunging to their deaths this week while shepherds looked on in dismay. Four hundred sheep fell 15 metres to their deaths in a ravine in Van province near Iran but broke the fall of another 1,100 animals who survived. Shepherds from a nearby village neglected the flock while eating breakfast, leaving the sheep to roam free. The loss to local farmers was estimated at $74,000.

One sheep wandered off a cliff and 1,499 others just followed along. Can you picture it? 1,500 sheep, each walking off a cliff, one after the other. Soon they were piled so deep that the ones at the bottom were crushed to death and the ones on top were lying on a big downy-soft pillow. It is completely absurd and tells us one important fact about sheep and the first reason sheep absolutely need a shepherd: they are not the smartest animals in the world. In fact, they may well be just about the dumbest animals in the world.

And here’s a second reason sheep need a shepherd: they are directionless. Sheep are prone to wander. Even if you put them in an absolutely perfect environment with everything they need (things like green pastures and still waters), sooner or later they will just wander off. If a shepherd doesn’t manage them, if he doesn’t micromanage them and keep them under constant surveillance, they’ll wander off and be lost.

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