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Tim Challies

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March 08, 2010

As anyone knows who has studied the life of Jonathan Edwards, he dedicated a large portion of his ministry to thinking, writing and teaching about the freedom of the will. And, of course, he eventually published a classic work dealing with the subject. In writing the book he thought back to the days when revival had swept his church, his community and the area around it. And as he reflected on the individuals who had been swept up in the revival, or those who had made professions of faith in the years following, he became aware of a fundamental flaw in many of these professions. “Self-controlled individuals, as he had observed in his parishes for the past fifteen years, would acknowledge guilt for particular sins, but not guilt for their fundamentally rebellious hearts.”

Little has changed. I have met countless people who consider themselves Christians and who admit to sin in their lives and feel guilt and remorse for individual sins, but who seem unable or unwilling to admit the incontrovertible fact that their hearts are in rebellion against God. The Bible tells us in plain terms that we are not sinners because we sin, but we sin because we are sinners. And I don’t think we can overstate what a fundamental difference this is! We do not need to seek forgiveness merely for the sins we commit, but for our fundamentally evil and rebellious hearts—hearts that, in their natural state, hate God and are fully and completely and gleefully and willingly opposed to Him.

In his oh-so-good biography of Edwards, George Marsden summarizes Edwards’ assessment of this problem. “Guided by conscience, they saw particular sins as failures of will power, which might be overcome by exercising greater self-control.” When sin has been defined merely as individual acts of the will, it is possible for humans, even devoid of God’s help, to overcome those evil acts and deeds. An unbelieving man who explodes in anger or a woman who grumbles against her husband can overcome those sins in their own power. Unbelievers can throw off addiction and poor behavior through an act of the will. But they can never address the heart of the issue. While they may make cosmetic changes, they can never overcome the deeper issues because they can never change their hearts.

May 07, 2008

Yesterday I wrote about sin, asking if sin is primarily something we do or something we are. Some questions arose in light of that article and I wanted to carry on a bit of discussion by looking further at the doctrine of human depravity. I have shared most of this in the past but felt it was well worth covering again. It is easy to see this doctrine as one that is terribly depressing and deflating, but when we properly understand depravity I think we can also find it very liberating. It gives us cause to praise God for His grace.

Total Depravity

The doctrine of total depravity be defined something like this: “Total Depravity is a theological term primarily associated with Calvinism, which interprets the Bible to teach that, as a consequence of the Fall of man, every person born into the world is enslaved to the service of sin. In other words, a person is not by nature inclined to love God with his heart or mind or strength, rather all are inclined to serve their own interests over those of their neighbor. Put another way, even with all circumstances in his favor a man without God can do nothing but work for his own destruction; and even his religion and philanthropy are destructive, to the extent that these originate from his own imagination, passions and will” (I don’t recommend Wikipedia for theological precision, but in this case they offer quite a good definition). Because the purpose of this article is not to defend Total Depravity I will not offer biblical support for it. I hope to write such a series of articles in the future.

When we say that mankind fell in Adam, we affirm that as our federal or representative head, Adam’s sin was passed on to each of us. Adam represented the human race, and when he decided to forsake God, he did so on behalf of every one of us. This is similar to a head of state declaring war on another nation - his declaration means that each person within his nation, each person that he represents, is now at war with the foreign country. Job laments “Or how can he be pure who is born of a woman?” (Job 25:4) No one who has been born of man can escape this radically sinful nature. Nature tells us that like begets like; a dog can only give birth to dogs, not to cats or frogs or birds. Similarly a sinful person can only bring forth other sinful people (which helps us understand why Jesus needed to be conceived of the Holy Spirit).

Another affirmation we make in the Christian view of the fall is that there is a sense in which the first sin is ours in the same way in which it was Adam’s. While we did not actually take the piece of fruit and eat it, God foreordained our relationship to Adam long before Adam fell so that from the moment of our conception we are sinful. We are not innocent until we commit our first sin, but are condemned, sinful people from the moment our lives begin. Psalm 58:3 tells us that “the wicked are estranged from the womb; They go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies.” Before we are even born we are already sinful, and deliberately go astray as soon as we are able.

How Sinful Are We?

And so it is that humans are sinful from the moment life begins. But how sinful are they? Like many Calvinists today, I am convinced that a term such as Radical Depravity or Radical Corruption is superior to “Total Depravity.” I believe these terms contribute to clarifying the matter, for by total depravity we do not mean that people are as depraved as they could possibly be—they are totally corrupt in some ways but not in others. It is here that it is helpful to distinguish between extent and degree.

When we say humans are totally depraved in extent, we mean that their depravity has reached every part of their being. It extends to every part of them - their mind, body and spirit are all corrupt. When we speak of a total degree of depravity, we indicate that something is exactly as bad as it could possibly be so that there is not even a tiny bit of good left. The doctrine of total depravity speaks to extent, not to degree.

Consider an illustration of three glasses of water. The first glass contains clean, pure water and represents Adam in his perfect state before the Fall. Now consider a second glass which contains this same clean, pure water. We can put one drop of deadly poison in that glass and it renders that entire glass poisonous so that if you were to drink it, you would quickly drop dead. That one drop extended to every part of the glass even though the entire vessel is not filled with poison. This represents humans after the Fall. While they are not wholly corrupt, the corruption they do have extends to every part. And finally consider a third glass which is filled entirely with poison. From top to bottom there is nothing but deadly poison. This represents Satan, who the Bible portrays as being absolutely corrupt so there is no good left whatsoever, but this does not represent humans here on earth. Humans are not as depraved as they could possibly be.

The Equalizer

Total Depravity is the great equalizer of humans before God. Even when we compare the most sinful man to the young boy who was saved long before he even knew how to get into serious trouble, we see that all men are equal before God. The Bible teaches that we are not sinners because of the degree of our depravity, but because of the extent. The degree exists only because of the extent.

The extent of my depravity is just as great as that of the worst sinner the world has ever known. The thoughts of his heart were continually evil, and so were mine. He hated God, and so did I. As one who came to trust Christ as only a child I had little opportunity to express this hatred and resentment, yet the Bible teaches that it was there all along. Titus 3:3 tells us that “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.” These words are as true of a child as they are of an adult. Even my sweet little two-year-old redhead downstairs passes her days in foolishness, disobedience and malice towards both God and men. There are none who are truly innocent before God. Ephesians 2:1-3 tells us as much where it says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

Were it not for Scripture’s clear teaching on Total Depravity, I may have cause to boast or to consider myself somehow more innocent than a person who instigated and endured much pain and suffering before being drawn to the Lord. Yet the Bible teaches me that my depravity, even as a child, was as great in extent as anyone’s. It was only His grace that kept me from being as corrupt in degree. If God delights in saving us, who are depraved in extent, we know also that God can save anyone despite the degree of his sin. If I compare myself to another and find him more in need of a Savior than I, I have made the mistake of comparing my sin to his, instead of comparing my sin to God’s perfection. God does not judge us by comparing one to the other, but against His perfect Law.

Total Depravity is not “mere” doctrine, but is truth that should and must impact every believer’s life. This truth is the great equalizer, for it shows that the best and worst of men are all equally corrupt in light of God’s perfect standard. “The man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it-he will be blessed in what he does.” (James 1:23) God had to stoop just as far to grab me as He did the lowliest criminal, for we were equally dead, equally depraved and equally in need of His grace, His life. The miracle that brought me to life is the same miracle that must bring every sinful man or woman to life. We are equal as we fall to our faces before the cross. An old song by the French Canadian band The Kry says it well:

Down at the cross come and leave your pride
Lay everything at His feet
For all of us He was willing to die
Even when we were weak
When we were still without strength
When we were set in our ways
When we were filled with hatred for Him
Still He was willing to die for you and I

Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom
Let not the strong man boast in his strength
Let not the rich man boast in his riches
For all men are equal down at the cross

This is the biblical teaching on depravity. All humans are corrupt in extent—every part of us testifies to our imperfection, but thanks be to God, not in degree. And before us lies a decision. God tells us that when we die we can anticipate either becoming perfected, so once again we will be like that glass of water that is crystal clear, free from any poison of corruption or being cast out of His presence where we will become like that glass of poison, as corrupt and evil and filled with hate as we could possibly be.

October 20, 2006

Friday October 20, 2006

Conference: Jacob Hantla will be liveblogging the God is the Gospel Desiring God Regional Conference this weekend. John Piper will be speaking. Check in for updates.

Reformation: The Synod of Dordt poster from Reformation Art is now ready and looking good. “It is an impressive 24” x 36”, printed on 100 pound cover stock paper and treated with an aqueous protective coating.”

Church: You know the church is in a sad state when it relies on this kind of gimmicks to draw people in and keep them there!

Evangelism: The Reformed Evangelist has a link to a Way of the Master video which answers Rob Bell’s “Bullhorn Guy” film.

Discernment: The Point (Breakpoint’s blog) has an interesting article about The Lost Tools of Discerning.

August 21, 2005

This is the second part in a series examining The Radical Reformission by Mark Driscoll. The first article, which you can read here, served as an introduction to the book. In the introduction to the book, Driscoll introduced himself in a brief biography and then provided three formulas that explain how different churches react to the competing forces of gospel, culture and church. He showed that Gospel + Culture - Church = Parachurch, Culture + Church - Gospel = Liberalism and Church + Gospel - Culture = Fundamentalism. “This book focuses on issues related to the scriptural content of the gospel and the cultural context of its ministry, and I write out of my sincere love as a pastor for Christians, churches, lost people, and culture” (page 22).” You will recall that Driscoll defines Reformission as follows: “a radical call for Christians and Christian churches to recommit to living and speaking the gospel, and to doing so regardless of the pressures to compromise the truth of the gospel or to conceal its power within the safety of the church” (page 20). The goal of Reformission is “to continually unleash the gospel to do its work of reforming dominant cultures and church subcultures” (ibid).

Today we will look at Part 1 of this book, which is comprised of three chapters. I will provide an overview of the content of each of the chapters and then a little bit of analysis. It should be noted that each chapter follows a pattern. Driscoll begins with remembering the teachings of Scripture; he then repents of values, beliefs and behaviors which are sinful; redeems the future by obeying God; and reflects with God through the study of Scripture, both alone and in community with others.

eat, drink and be a merry missionary

Uppercase titles must be a throwback to modernism, as many books meant to appeal to a postmodern generation eschew them, preferring the lowercase. The Radical Reformission features lowercase chapter headings opposite trendy photographs of beer, cappuccinos and the like.

I’ve written two sentences and I am already off-topic. The first chapter is subtitled “imitating the reformission of Jesus.” It begins with a brief and somewhat irreverent overview of the store of redemption as told in the Bible. Here is a small sample. “[God] starts over with another decent guy named Noah, who nevertheless ends up having a bad day, gets drunk and passes out naked in his tent like some redneck on vacation” (page 28). Or again, “And to top it all off, God comes to earth. He has a mom whom everything thinks is a slut, a dad whom they think has the brilliance of a five-watt bulb for believing the “virgin birth” line, and brothers who likely pummel him frequently, because even God would have to get at least one wedgie from his brothers if he were to be fully human. The God-man goes through puberty and likely goes through that weird vocal transition in which, in the course of one syllable, a young man can go from sounding like Barry White to sounding like Cindy Brady.” (page 29).

He goes on to relate a story of when he was challenged by a homosexual friend to visit a gay bar. He went with his friend and learned “that reformission requires Christians and their churches to move forward on their knees, continually confessing their addictions to morality and the appearance of godliness, which does not penetrate the heart and transform lives” (page 35). In short, God does not seek merely to create a team of good and decent people, but to create a movement of loving, holy missionaries who are comfortable around lost sinners and who look far more like Jesus than many pastors do.

Moving on to share the story of “the woman at the well,” Driscoll says that “Reformission is ultimately about being like Jesus, through his empowering grace” (page 39). We have to know that neither the freedom of Christ nor our freedom in Christ is intended to permit us to dance as close to sin as possible without crossing the line. Instead, they are intended to allow us to dance as close to sinners as possible by crossing the lines that seperate the people God has already found from those he continues to seek. Does this mean that Christians are more likely to sin? No, because the way to avoid sin is not to avoid sinners but to stick close to Jesus.

and now, the news

To begin the second chapter, Driscoll tells the reader about Street Talk, the radio program he co-hosted for six years. The hosts boasted that they would never back down from a difficult question. Eventually the show came under fire from within the church when they addressed the issue of oral sex. What he learned from his experience is that “as the gospel moves into new cultures in our day, and as new cultures emerge, we must struggle to sift out what is cultural and what is scriptural” (page 47). He poses a large list of questions that may have been foreign to previous generations, but which Christians must be prepared to answer. Examples are “can I continue being a professional blackjack player now that I am a Christian?” and “Can I get breast implants as my husband’s Christmas gift?”

Driscoll repents for the nostalgia many Christians are prone to adhere to. “A naive romanticism in each of use desperately wants to believe there was a time after Genesis 2 when the world was a wonderful place to live, when things were better and easier than they are today. This powerful delusion enables to excuse our laziness and failure to be about reformission because of the difficult days we live in” (page 50). The truth is, of course, that there have never been “good old days.” The history of the church is one filled with sin and sinners, but with God’s work prevailing nonetheless. Traditionalism, at its best, is informed by a grasp of the best and worst of what Christians have done and believed in the past. At its worst it fail to distinguish between what is biblical and what is cultural, clinging to what is outdated and ineffectual. The result is a church that has all the right answers to all the wrong questions. The opposite to traditionalism, innovation, is equally dangerous, as churches seek relevance at the expense of the gospel.

When the church has removed the stains of traditionalism and innovation, it is ready to contextualize the gospel in a way that is to the content of Scripture and the context of the ministry. Driscoll concludes the chapter by listing several “signposts” that he has found useful in directing people to Jesus. Among them are, “the gospel infuses daily activity with meaning” and “the gospel is about Jesus as the means and end of our salvation” (page 60,61).

shotgun weddings to Jesus

The third chapter discusses evangelism in a reformissional context. What was once considered effective evangelism, methods such as door-to-door and street preaching, are becoming increasingly inappropriate in our cultural context. Driscoll feels that the best approch in our culture is to invite people to see the transformed lives of Christ-followers, for these people are “the greatest argument for, and the greatest explanation of, the gospel” (page 68). He then provides an apologetic for the “belong and believe” mentality popular in emergent churches. Unbelievers are invited to participate in church community and activities and eventually come to faith, perhaps not in a moment, but over time.

Our society seeks experience. We live in an experience economy, where products that are most successful are sold not on the basis of their usefulness, but on the basis of the experience they can provide. But even more than a mere experience, people want to participate in an “immersion experience,” one in which they are not spectators but participants. Thus churches need to allow unbelievers to participate in immersive experiences. For example, “allowing people, while the sermon is being preached, to paint or draw scenes from the sermon text to be displayed after the service, permitting people to come forward for communion when they feel prepared, allowing people in the congregation to call out the songs they would like to sing next, or permitting congregants to interrupt the sermon to ask questions of the preacher” (page 73).

Here, then, are the benefits of reformission evangelism:

  • It blurs the lines between evangelism and discipleship
  • Conversion to Jesus is a conversion of old lifestyles to his mission of reaching the lost.
  • Conversion is more than mental assent to facts, but a conversion of the entire life.
  • Reformission insists that evangelism is more than an activity, but is a lifestyle.

In the “repent” section of this chapter Driscoll repents of self-righteousness and encourages the reader to do the same. He then shows, using various statistics, how people in our society are increasingly desiring community, but at the same time are becoming more and more isolated. “Isn’t it odd,” he asks, “that we are apparently becoming a nation of attractive people who sit at home alone at night with our pets, watching television shows about relationships and taking medication for our depression brought on by our loneliness? Meanwhile, our neighbors, whom we do not know, are spending their evenings in much the same way” (page 82).


There is a lot of content here to consider. Perhaps in the future I should attempt fewer chapters at a time. Regardless, there were a few points of interest I would like to discuss.

First, I am not entirely comfortable with the irreverent summary of Scripture in the first chapter. This seems to me to be an attempt to be cool and engaging more than an effective method of summarizing the history of redemption. Perhaps I am too sensitive about such matters, but I see little benefit in treating biblical truth so flippantly.

Second, Driscoll outlines the pattern he used to begin his church as if it is the Bible’s teaching on church-planting. “When God called me to plant our church, Mars Hill Church, I had worked for nearly two years overseeing a college ministry, but I had never been a pastor or even been an official member of any church. I was unsure of how to begin a church, and so I simply read the Bible and tried to imitate how Jesus gathered the first workers for his ministry. In the opening chapter of John’s gospel, I saw that Jesus began his ministry not with a large crowd, a formal program, or an organized event but rather by informally building friendships with a few men. Once those men trusted him, their friends, family members, and coworkers also became his followers. This simple pattern seemed attainable” (page 66-67). So Driscoll began inviting people into his home and soon gathered what became a growing, thriving congregation.

My concern is that this does not account for the message Jesus brought with him. It would also be difficult to defend this as a normative teaching on the biblical way of beginning a church. Finally, I am not even sure that it is accurate, beyond the statement that Jesus began with a small group of disciples. There seems to be little evidence that Jesus used this “Mary Kay” approach to grow His ministry.

Third, I do not sense a consistent pattern in which Driscoll will address the unanswered question from the first chapter, which is Gospel + Culture + Church = . This first section was called “loving your Lord through the gospel” and the second (and final) section is “loving your neighbor in the culture.” I’m wondering if he will adequately explain how reformission provides the solution to the problems presented in the first three formulas.

Fourth, while I understand the emphases on community, mission and relationship that are always present in books of this nature, I am gratified to see there is a real emphasis on theology as well. This is something that has been sorely lacking in many of the other books I have read on this topic. While many giving a passing nod to sound theology, the authors seem to deny this very thing throughout their books. Driscoll clearly seems to appreciate the importance of orthodox theology.

Fifth, I appreciated Driscoll’s comments that the way to avoid sin is not through system of rigid rules and scrupulous conformity to external standards, but through walking closely with Jesus. This is a liberating truth, I am sure. Where I am less sure is that he will give wisdom on “how far is too far.” When does our cultural engagement work against us by denying our profession? Is a visit to a gay bar not a tacit endorsement of the lifestyle and behavior of those present? I foresee a similar concern with the “belong and believe” mentality. At what point do we agree that we cannot allow a person to belong among us? Surely there are times when we need to sever ties with certain people.

Finally, I enjoyed Driscoll’s comments on traditionalism and innovation. I agree that they are equally dangerous and we are prone to adhere to one or the other. He writes about churches that have all the right answers to all the wrong questions. That is a damning indictment of many churches I have seen, as they have the answers only to the questions unbelievers were asking forty or fifty (or one hundred and fifty) years ago. He is equally hard on innovative churches that become so relevant that they are unable to call lost people from or to anything because they have lost what is supposed to make them distinctive.

On the whole I am enjoying the book, but I’m not entirely sure at this point where it is going. I will check in again when I have completed another couple of chapters.

August 06, 2004

I had planned on writing something about procrastination but decided I’d do it later.

I’m funny.

Anyways, I was thinking today about some similarities between The Passion of the Christ and September 11. That’s a strange duo, I can’t deny, but hear me out.

After the Western world was shaken by the events of September 11, many Christians became convinced that this sort of event would drive people back to the church. And sure enough, in the weeks immediately following the event it seemed to be true as pews were more full than they had been in many years. People were shaken to the core and returned to their roots - family roots and often spiritual roots. But it took only a month or two before the people who had drifted in drifted right back out. At the one year anniversary of the attacks, Barna released a study which showed that very few people credited the attacks with having any impact on their religious beliefs. Bible reading, prayer, church attendance and small group attendance remained largely static. Many Christians found this surprising.

The Passion of the Christ was regarded by many as the greatest opportunity for evangelism since Pentecost. Data gathered in the months subsequent to the release of the movie prove that it made no significant impact either on Christians or on unbelievers. In the end it was near-total failure as a tool for evangelism and churches across North America bear this out.

Rather than critiquing these events as means for evangelism or leading people into the church, I believe our response should be to acknowledge anew that God does not adhere to human wisdom. On our own these are the types of events we might assume God would use. But God has ordained that He will use means that seem simple and that seem foolish to bring people into His church. “It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” God does not save lives through movies or through tragedies; He works now as He always has - by the faithful preaching of the gospel to those who are perishing. God’s wisdom uses foolish people to preaching a foolish message in a foolish way. God’s foolishness is so much greater than our wisdom. If we as a church could just learn this lesson we would not be swayed by every program and opportunity that comes our way. We would remain faithful preachers of the Word which contains the power of God to save lives.

June 28, 2004

A few months ago I commented on the articles written about The Passion of the Christ by Brian McLaren and Rick Warren. McLaren took issue with Warren’s assertion that this movie represented the best opportunity for evangelism in the past 2000 years. Warren wrote a respose which boasted about commented about the enormous efforts his church made to ensure everybody and their brother got to see this movie and the amazing results they supposedly achieved.

Just this morning I came across a great article written by another blogger which comments on Warren’s article. This blogger shows that while Warren would have us believe that good leadership operates under this kind of formula:

[Discernment] X [Preparation] X [Cooperation] = [More People in Your Church]

in reality Warren uses this kind of formula:

[Opportunity] X [Obligation] X [Organization] = [More People in Your Church]

In other words, when a great opportunity is perceived by the contemporary Christian “giants” they make pastors of smaller churches feel an obligation to do what they are doing. If these churches just organize themselves accordingly, they will be able to cash in and grow their churches exponentially.

It is just a short little article but it is well worth reading.

And that’s it. It’s Monday and already I’ve burned up my allotment of the word “Warren” for this week!