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May 26, 2015

You are familiar with the name John Newton, I am sure, and with the broad strokes of his life—how he went from captaining a slave trading ship to becoming a Christian and composing the great hymn “Amazing Grace.” What fewer people know about is his 40 years of pastoral ministry. Newton the pastor is the subject of Tony Reinke’s new book Newton on the Christian Life: To Live Is Christ. I recently asked Tony to tell us why he wrote this book and what we can expect to gain by reading it.

MeJudging by the title, this sounds like it could be a book that applies only to really smart people. Is it a book that ordinary Christians should read? Why?

TonyJohn Newton was a practical man, so I aimed to write a practical book. In the words of one biographer, Newton was a man of utility — he had zero patience with pie-in the-sky theory and speculation. He helped ordinary Christians navigate the challenges of their busy lives, and I hope this book does the same.

SeriesNewton is proof that the deeper we are willing to go into the mess and the hurt of this world to help people, the more we move away from detached, cerebral theology and toward hands-on, real-world pastoral care. And this was his world, as noted historian Bruce Hindmarsh put it so well in an interview, “Pre-modern life was pre-analgesic, pre-antiseptic, and pre-anesthetic. People hurt all the time.” It was into this relentless physical pain that God raised up Newton to serve as a spiritual cardiologist.

Newton was a student of the human heart’s response to the soreness and pressures of daily life: he studied his own heart’s responses, and then he studied Scripture to apply God’s promises to daily life. He was a realist to the max.

If the Ask Pastor John podcast is my attempt to ask the perplexing ethical questions to Pastor John Piper, this new book is something of an Ask Pastor John Newton — my attempt to ask Newton the most puzzling questions we face in the Christian life. I found his answers in his letters.

So don’t let the wig on Newton’s head undermine his value for our generation. Bible counselor Ed Welch recently said that in reading my book he felt pastored by John Newton, and this is exactly what I hope every reader experiences — a personal encounter with one of the church’s greatest ministers, who in turn helps us to commune with the living God.

MeSo it’s not quite a biography, right? If not, what is it?

TonyRight, my book is not a biography (I certainly could not improve on Jonathan Aitken’s work). Newton’s life was formed by a few monumental events, and those events shaped all of his instruction on the Christian life. So I recount key anecdotes and biographical highlights in order to show how those events illuminate his broader pastoral care.

I call my work “pastoral synthesis.” I want us to be pastored by Newton, and to this end I started by gathering together all of Newton’s many published letters — about 1,000 of them in various collections from over the centuries (and many of them preserved in old, rare, and fragile volumes in libraries around the world).

What I’ve found is that my generation (and younger) are unlikely to read old letters, even those by Newton. To serve the church, we need willing researchers to volunteer for the heavy work of collecting all the letters, identifying Newton’s key answers to the perennial questions of the Christian life, and then developing all that into a guided tour that allows the unique voice of Newton to frequently emerge. I was honored when Justin Taylor and Steve Nichols nominated me for the task and invited me to publish in their incredible series (Theologians on the Christian Life).

MeIf you had to distill all of Newton’s counsel to a central point, what would that be?

TonyTo live is Christ — this is my subtitle and I’m convinced this is the core of all Newton’s pastoral counsel. Newton’s heart and mind was engrossed by the person of Christ.

December 10, 2014

Sexual asssault is all over the news today. Headlines in the United States tell of a long list of woman who have accused Bill Cosby of assault, and tell of college campuses where rape is shockingly common. Headlines in Canada tell of reporter Jiam Gomeshi and his ugly history of sexual violence. It is my sincere hope that these stories spark new and better discussions about the prevalence of sexual assault, how we can prevent it, and how we can respond to it.

Though the incidence of sexual assault is high, the rate of conviction is low. The majority of sexual assault goes unreported and the majority of those who commit sexual assault go unpunished. While the law needs to protect those who are unjustly accused, in cases of sexual assault it seems like the process of law can actually re-victimize the victims. And this helps explain why victims can be so hesitant to report the crime, and why accustations can take many years to come to light. The sin is awful and the aftermath can be excruciating.

Pastor Justin Holcomb has given a great deal of attention to this topic over the past few years, and I recently spoke to him about sexual assault in light of today’s headlines.

MeThe law states that a person is considered innocent until he is proven guilty. Yet in many cases it is very difficult to prove sexual assault simply because it is one person’s word against another’s in a context in which there are no witnesses. Is there a solution to this, where we take seriously a person’s charge of sexual assault, yet while still requiring the burden of proof?

HolcombThe burden of proof is to determine if a crime has been committed, but we do not need to same burden of proof to determine if we should serve and care for the person claiming that they have been sexually assault.

With regard to the reporting of sexual assault, there are two major issues to consider—false reporting and under reporting. While under reporting is a major concern, false reporting is not. Actually, false reports are quite rare. The figure often used by sexual violence experts for estimating falsified reports is 2 percent, which is a slightly lower rate than other crimes.

This tells us that if someone is claiming they have been sexually assault, our default response should be to believe them, listen to them, and assume they are telling the truth. 

MeIt is well established that many victims of sexual assault refuse to go to the police because they know that they will face a grueling and humiliating process of questioning to establish whether they truly were victimized. Is there a way we can take charges seriously, yet while protecting the dignity of those who may have been the victims of assault? Why do so many victims of sexual assault choose not to charge their attacker, or perhaps even to tell anyone else about their experience? Is there something we, as Christians and as churches can do to help people speak up?

HolcombAccording to the FBI, sexual assault is “one of the most under-reported crimes due primarily to fear and/or embarrassment on the part of the victim.” 

Given the horrific nature of sexual assault and the shame it brings to victims, it is not shocking that it is one of the most underreported crimes. The fear of intrusive and revictimizing court procedures pre- vents many sexual assault survivors from reporting their assaults. Most sexual assault victims choose not to report their assaults. Factors that keep a victim from reporting the crime include shame and embarrassment, self-blame, fear of media exposure, fear of further injury or retaliation, fear of one’s own family and community response, and fear of a legal system that often puts the victim’s behavior and history on trial.

Research on attitudes toward sexual assault has demonstrated that individuals in our society hold many prejudices about and negative views of sexual assault victims. So, victims often suffer not only from the trauma of the assault itself but also from the effects of these negative stereotypes. The result is that victims feel socially derogated and blamed following their sexual assault, which can prolong, continue, and intensify the substantial psychological and emotional distress the victim experiences. It is clear that negative reactions from family, friends, loved ones, and society have a harmful effect on victims. 

Because sexual assault is a form of victimization that is particularly stigmatized in American society, many victims suffer in silence, which only intensifies their distress and disgrace. There is a societal impulse to blame traumatized individuals for their suffering. Research findings suggest blaming victims for post-traumatic symptoms is not only wrong but also contributes to the vicious cycle of traumatization. Victims experiencing negative social reactions have poorer adjustment. Research has proven that the only social reactions related to better adjustment by victims are being believed and being listened to by others.

Christians can listen to them and tell them, “I believe you. I’m sorry that this sin and crime happened to you.” They can also offer to help: “If you want to report this, I’ll go with you so you are not alone.”

MeOne of the tricky issues related to sexual assault is the issue of consent—consent to participate in sexual activity in general or specific sexual activities. Is consent given one time at the outset of sexual activity, or must consent be given on an ongoing basis? How should we think Christianly about consent?

July 08, 2014

A short time ago I shared some resources meant to help parents as they prepare to have “The Talk” with their children. But even after looking at those resources I had some questions I wanted to ask, so I spoke to Dr. Chris Richards, who together with Liz Jones has authored Growing Up God’s Way, a book with editions for both boys and girls, that helps prepare young people and their parents for adolescence and adulthood. Dr Chris Richards is a Consultant Paediatrician in Newcastle upon Tyne. He is the Director of Lovewise, which produces material for teaching about marriage and relationships from a Christian perspective in schools and church groups. He is married and has four children. He is a deacon at Gateshead Presbyterian Church. Here is what he had to say about preparing children to grow up in a world like this.

MeAs a parent it feels like we are facing unique challenges in what seems to be an increasingly sexualized culture. Are our challenges today substantially different from the ones people faced in the past? What makes today different from days gone by?

Chris RichardsCR: The Enemy is the same, though he has a different approach to damaging each generation and, thereby, assaulting God’s honour. Today, the battle for the hearts of the rising generation of young people is fiercest in the area of sexual purity and the temptations to disobedience have never been more intense or alluring. Here are just three of many reasons for this:

Growing secular practice and presuppositions. For generations marriage has been the chief social building block of our society. Respect for marriage was implicit and most children were raised under its beneficial wing. In accordance with the Seventh Commandment, sexual purity, both before and within marriage, was held up by society as both laudable and ideal. Even if there was hypocrisy, sexual immorality was described as such and its practice led to public shame. How different today! Marriage is held in low repute, and is neglected by the majority, whilst sexual purity is denigrated and illegitimacy is no longer a cause for shame. Recently, our Governments have attempted to redefine marriage. Those who defend and teach the rightness of traditional marriage are labelled as judgmental and old-fashioned. Added to this, fewer children today benefit from the advantages and witness of being raised by a married mother and father. We have a generation of children who are confused about how they should live and more urgently than ever need to know why sexual purity should be treasured and why marriage is such a blessing.

The deceit of ‘safe(r) sex’ education. The abuse of sexual intimacy has led to unwelcome consequences, including unwanted pregnancy and STIs. The condom is falsely promoted as the means of limiting the damage. ‘Safe sex’ teaching is deceitful in both its moral approach and its efficacy. When it is taught, right and wrong are left outside the classroom. In front of the tender minds of our children and in the name of education and preventative medicine, sexual intimacy is extracted from morality, marriage, and, even, a loving relationship. Standing in such clear opposition to God’s laws, it is not surprising that this approach has been a colossal failure in its stated objectives of stopping the spread of STIs and limiting teenage pregnancy. The promotion of the idea that sex outside marriage can be experienced without consequences in moral vacuum has encouraged sexual experimentation by pupils and a resultant rise, not fall, in STIs. The UK STI epidemic continues unabated after 35 years of ‘safe sex’ teaching.

The power of the media. It hardly needs to be said that films, television, internet and music have been a highly effective way, in the name of leisure and amusement, of spreading messages that are contrary to God’s word. How hard it is for even the most alert and godly parents to guard their children against these messages, which invade our homes with such ease.

MeHow can a parent know the right time to have the talk with their child? Though I am sure it varies from child-to-child, what are some general guidelines?

Chris RichardsCR: The idea of ‘The Talk’ needs to be unpacked. Actually education by parents about ‘sex and relationships’ starts way back through the child’s observation of their parents’ relationship. In a home where parents are happily married, sexual faithfulness will be implicitly communicated to the child without a word being said. The child observes, and their consciences are sharpened, by the good example that they experience. Biblical instruction also lays down such principles as right and wrong, sacrificial care for one another, accountability to God, and the nature of temptation and sin. Teaching about more intimate matters builds on this.

The Biblical wisdom about teaching our children is that ‘The Talk’ actually needs to be ‘talks’. These will not always be premeditated but as the opportunity arises (‘when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way’ Deut 6:7). We should not be so busy that we do not have time for them when questions and opportunities come up. Opportunities may be provoked by a range of things; perhaps a discussion will be provoked by what the child has been told which they instinctively know to be wrong. One of your correspondents remarked that reading through the whole Bible will highlight many dimensions of marriage and sexual relationships, both good and bad.

However, you are still left with the question of how much to say and when, especially about more explicit matters such as pornography and masturbation. When we talk about sexual matters with our children, we walk on tender and holy ground. Discomfort, both of parents and child, is not, as the secularists claim, an obstruction that we ‘just need to get over’, but points to the God-given shame placed on us after The Fall (Genesis 3:7) and provides a defence against improper thoughts which might provoke arousal in the wrong setting. We need to look for guidance from our own and from our children’s consciences about how much to explain and when. This requires sensitivity and wisdom. In how we refer to matters, we can learn from the parents of Proverbs 1-8 that it is possible to refer to the danger of sexual temptation without going into the details that might set the imagination running. 

The format will vary with age and maturity. Generally with early teens the emphasis needs to be on teaching the spiritual and biological facts about sexual purity and marriage. As they grow up, there will be a need for a more interactive format, which will allow the young person to share concerns and questions on the topics discussed. As well as teaching about the rightness of God’s ways, parents will also need to warn their children about the half truths and lies about sex and love that they will hear, and to help their children respond appropriately to challenges from a very difficult cultural environment.

MeOne of the tensions I’ve felt as a parent is speaking to my children about issues they are already grappling with or may soon grappling with, but without saying too much. So with an issue like masturbation, I find myself hesitant to say too much lest I give them an interest in something they haven’t yet considered. Is this a genuine concern? How can we navigate such issues?

November 11, 2013

John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference is now several weeks behind us; the Strange Fire book releases tomorrow. Both have ignited a great deal of discussion about the place, the purpose and the continued existence of the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. Last week I began an interview with John MacArthur (read it here) in which I asked him questions about it all. Today the interview continues and concludes with another series of questions and answers. I ask him why he is focusing so much attention on this issue, how we should relate to those who practice speaking in tongues, whether he would participate in a debate-style conference, whether he believes Muslims are receiving visions of Jesus Christ, and more.

There are many areas of doctrine in which well-respected, godly theologians hold opposing views, and the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit are just one of them. Again, we are thinking here of the best and most gospel-centered of the continuationists. Why focus on this area now when it threatens to inhibit unity and further divide true believers? Why not focus on baptism or eschatology or another issue?

Tim, thank you again for your willingness to host this interview. It is a joy to think through these issues for the glory of the Lord Jesus.

There are plenty of people who think that these kinds of robust theological discussions threaten unity in the church. As you might imagine, I’ve heard from a number of them since the conference.

It seems that in the postmodern climate of our time, the church has adopted the idea that if disagreement over doctrine exists within the church, it is the one who sounds the alarm that is being divisive. But I disagree with that sentiment. In the New Testament, a factious man was someone who taught doctrine contrary to what was handed down from the apostles (1 Tim 6:3; 2 Tim 1:13). Calling for the correction of error in the church is not creating disunity. That disunity exists by virtue of the doctrinal defection. In fact, it is the call for a return to sound doctrine that is the effort of true unity, because real, biblical unity centers on doctrinal truth and is motivated by love.

According to Ephesians 4:3, we are to be “diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Paul doesn’t leave us guessing what the unity of the Spirit looks like; it’s the doctrinal unity delineated in verses 4–6, which comprises a comprehensive theology (“one body” points to a sound ecclesiology; “one Spirit,” pneumatology; “one hope,” eschatology; “one Lord,” Christology; “one faith,” bibliology; “one baptism,” soteriology; and “one God,” theology proper).

All true believers are unified at the core on those distinctives in the Spirit; but it takes time and study to experience that unity in our relationships. That’s why love must energize our quest for practical unity (Phil. 1:27)—love for God and His truth and love for one another. Even in 1 Corinthians 13:6, in the heart of Paul’s discussion about spiritual gifts, the apostle reminded his readers that “love rejoices in the truth.” So, drawing attention to serious error—error that’s being tolerated even in some of the otherwise-healthiest of churches—in order to recover and uphold the truth is a loving thing to do.

While it might be hard for some to understand, it was love that drove me to write this book and have this conference: love for God and His honor, love for His truth, love for His church and her purity, and, in the cases of the prosperity gospel that pervades the global movement, a love for the millions of souls who are trapped by some of the most deceitful false teaching that history has ever seen. It is my earnest desire and prayer to see the church unified. But a unity that knowingly tolerates error is not the unity that Scripture promotes. So, if we want to be truly unified, we have to be willing to confront error for the sake of the truth. And that might mean that superficial unity is disrupted.

Now someone might ask, “But isn’t this a secondary issue?” I would respond by asking, “Is the true understanding of the dignity of the Holy Spirit a secondary issue?” That’s a frightening notion, since the worship of the true God in the true way is our highest priority. And this issue has dramatic implications both for how we view God and for how we worship Him.

As we’ve witnessed over the past hundred years, charismatic distinctives have opened the door to doctrinal deviations that have distorted the gospel to create another gospel that many have embraced to their eternal destruction. As Conrad Mbewe brought to our attention, that false gospel is the face of so-called Christianity in many parts of the world. In light of what’s at stake, it’s hard to believe anyone would claim that the way we think about the Person and work of the Holy Spirit is not vitally important.

Regarding the other two issues you mentioned (baptism and eschatology), I actually have addressed those issues in the past. A number of years ago, I engaged R. C. Sproul in a dialogue about infant baptism at a Ligonier Conference. In that interchange, I contended that there is no New Testament warrant for infant baptism. At the 2007 Shepherds’ Conference, I addressed the issue of amillennial eschatology. Though on a smaller scale, I received the same kind of reaction to that message as I’ve received from charismatics regarding the Strange Fire Conference. So I think I’ve been pretty consistent in talking frankly about these various issues throughout the years.

Having said that, comparing intramural disagreements about baptism or eschatology to the present discussion is like comparing apples to oranges. Such an objection doesn’t take into account both the severity and the ubiquity of the charismatic error on the global level. Errant pneumatology is not ancillary to the charismatic movement. It is the very thing that defines it. And when an entire movement is defined by a heterodox theology that threatens the purity of the church by tolerating and even promoting false forms of the gospel, it must be boldly confronted.

Because of its potential to distort the gospel and to elevate experience over biblical truth, there is something considerably more ominous about charismatic error than those other two issues. Church history bears out that point. While paedobaptist and amillennial distinctives have been variously held by orthodox theologians throughout church history, charismatic theology has a much more sinister spiritual heritage: from the Montanists of the early church, to the Zwickau prophets and Münster radicals of the Reformation, to the Quakers, Shakers, Jansenists, and Irvingites of more recent church history.

There’s a sense in which our response ought to correspond to the threat level posed by the doctrinal issue in question. I’m convinced that charismatic theology poses a major threat, and consequently deserves a strong response.

We often hear today that many believers from a Muslim background—especially those from closed countries who do not have easy access to God’s Word—are claiming they had a vision of Christ and that in this vision he directed them to a place or person where they could hear the gospel. This proclamation of the gospel led to their conversion. Do you believe these stories? Do you consider such visions a valid means that God may work in our world today?

There are several points that could be made in answer to this question. Let me begin with just a general comment about how to interpret experience. It is important to remember that, as Christians, we ought to develop our theology from Scripture and then interpret experience accordingly. Danger comes when believers get that backwards—allowing experience to define their theology, and then reinterpreting the Bible to make it fit.

November 04, 2013

John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference has come and gone and the book will be shipping next week. Whatever you felt about the conference, there is little doubt that a lot of work and a lot of discussion remain as we, the church, consider the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. In the aftermath of the event, and with the book on its way, I think we all have questions we’d like to ask Dr. MacArthur. A week ago I asked for your questions and sent them through to him. Here are his answers to the first batch of questions. I anticipate adding a second part to this interview within the week.

TimWhat was the purpose of such a controversial conference like Strange Fire? Why did you choose not to invite one of the best of the reformed continuationists to speak at your event and to defend his position? Wouldn’t that have strengthened the cessationist arguments while also showing an earnest desire for unity?

MacArthurLet me begin by thanking you, Tim, for the opportunity to respond to these important questions about the Strange Fire conference and book. I would also like to thank your readers for their willingness to post these questions.

The goal of the Strange Fire Conference was to sound a trumpet blast in the midst of an evangelical world that has largely grown ambivalent about this vital issue. Sometimes you need to take a strong stand in order to get people’s attention  and we wanted the conference to make that kind of definitive statement. Because the honor of the Holy Spirit is at stake, we were convinced that we could not remain silent.

Our decision not to host a debate at the Strange Fire Conference was intentional. Debates are rarely effective in truly helping people think carefully through the issues, since they can easily be reduced to sound bites and talking points. By contrast, a clear understanding of biblical truth comes from a faithful study of the Scriptures. Our hope is that the conference sparked a renewed desire for that kind diligent study on this important issue.

I also expect continuationists to respond in writing to the things I have written in the book. I welcome that kind of interchange. It allows people to think carefully, over a prolonged period of time, about the arguments on both sides of the issue. It has always been through the written word that theological disputes like this have been grappled with in church history. That requires the kind of devotion and effort that brings serious discussion to the fore. I have taken those pains in Strange Fire, and would hope that others would interact on that same level.

TimThere are some matters the Bible makes absolutely clear (e.g. You must trust in Christ alone for your salvation) and some things that continue to perplex us so that even genuine, Bible-loving Christians can disagree on them (e.g. baptism and the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit). Why does God allow questions like these to remain unclear to us? Why are you taking such a strong stand on what is really just a secondary issue?

MacArthurThese questions remind me of an article Thabiti Anyabwile wrote during the Strange Fire Conference, in which he explained why this issue is so important. He wrote, “First, we have to admit that there’s a correct and an incorrect position on this issue. Somebody is right and somebody is wrong… . Second, we have to admit that how we view this issue substantially impacts the nature of the Christian life. It matters. It’s not an inconsequential idea. Someone worships God appropriately, someone doesn’t… . Third, we have to admit that this issue practically impacts Christian worship and fellowship. It’s not only a private matter, but a corporate one as well.”

I agree with all of that. This is an issue of critical importance because it affects our view of God as well as our understanding of how to live out the Christian life, both individually and corporately.

I don’t think, however, that this issue is unclear in Scripture. The fact that Christians disagree on what the Bible teaches does not mean that there is a lack of clarity in Scripture, but rather in Christians. The Word of God is our authoritative rule for faith and practice—meaning that it is perfectly sufficient for teaching sound doctrine and governing right living. Certainly, an orthodox pneumatology fits under that umbrella.

On the one hand, I would agree that this is a second-level doctrinal issue—meaning that someone can be either a continuationist or a cessationist and still be a genuine follower of Jesus Christ. I have always maintained that position, and I reiterated that point several times during the conference. I have good friends who consider themselves continuationists, and I am confident that these men are fellow brothers in Christ. But that doesn’t excuse the seriousness of the error. In fact, I would appeal to my continuationist brethren to reconsider their views in light of what Scripture teaches.

On the other hand, I am firmly convinced that this secondary issue has the very real potential to taint a person’s understanding of the gospel itself. In such cases, it becomes a primary issue. For example, charismatic theology does corrupt the gospel when it expresses itself in the form of the prosperity gospel. Moreover, the global charismatic movement happily shelters other heretical movements—such as Catholic Charismatics and Oneness Pentecostals. Taken together, the number of charismatics who hold to a false form of the gospel (whether it is a gospel of health and wealth or a gospel of works righteousness) number in the hundreds of millions, which means they actually represent the majority of the global charismatic movement. That is why we took such a strong stand both at the conference and in the book.

TimYou noted that you see this issue clearly resolved in Scripture. Can you explain, briefly, the biblical case for cessationism?

MacArthurThe full answer to this question would require a lengthy response; and I spend several chapters in the book making the case. But since you asked me to be brief, I’ll do my best to stay concise. I find it helpful to shape the case for cessationism around three questions: What?, When?, and Why?.

First, what were the miraculous and revelatory gifts (like apostleship, prophecy, tongues, and healing) according to the Word of God? Scripture gives us a clear description. But when we compare that biblical description with the modern charismatic movement, we find that the latter falls far short. Though charismatics use biblical terminology to describe their contemporary experiences, nothing about the modern charismatic gifts matches the biblical reality.

October 29, 2013

John MacArthur Strange FireJohn MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference has come and gone and the book will be shipping in just a couple of weeks. Whatever you felt about the conference, there is little doubt that a lot of work and a lot of discussion remain as we, the church, consider the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. In the aftermath of the event, and with the book on its way, I know a lot of you have questions you would like to ask Dr. MacArthur. These may be tough questions. They may be critical questions.

I have asked, and he is eager to answer your questions.

So if there is something you would like to ask John MacArthur about the Strange Fire conference or book, if you have a question, and perhaps especially if you have a tough question, please leave a comment below. I will collect some of them and send them through so he can provide an answer (which will appear here in a week or two).

I would ask only that you pause for at least one moment before you hit the “Post” button. In that moment, consider your tone and perhaps whisper a quick prayer for wisdom. In that regard it might be helpful to imagine that Dr. MacArthur is sitting across a table from you, willing to hear your concern. And then ask that question, even if it is a tough one.

Ask QuestionsNote: Below each comment you will see “vote up” and “vote down” buttons represented by an up arrow and down arrow. Feel free to make use of those buttons to help elevate another person’s question (though there’s no guarantee I will send through those questions…).

July 30, 2013

Yesterday I shared the first part of an interview with Paul Washer. I asked him about the people and the books that have most influenced him, about “The Shocking Youth Message,” about his experience as a missionary in Peru, about family worship and about humility. Today, I begin the final part of the interview by asking what encourages him and what concerns him about the New Calvinism. (Note: Reformation Heritage Books has dropped the prices on the Kindle editions of the first two volumes in Washer’s “Recovering the Gospel” series. The Gospel’s Power and Message is $2.99. The brand new The Gospel Call and True Conversion is down to $4.99).

MeYou are often associated with what has become known as New Calvinism. What are some things you see that encourage you and concern you as you look at this movement?

Paul WasherThis is a hard question to answer because there are so many definitions of “New Calvinism.” Some use it as a title of honor and others as a derogatory remark. For this reason, all such titles are misleading if not outright dangerous. In the last decade, there have been many young men and women who have embraced the doctrines of the Reformation. If we are speaking of these, then I do see some encouraging signs and some concerning ones. I’ll begin with those that are encouraging.

First of all, this generation’s renewed interest in the great doctrines of the Scriptures that were clearly set forth in the Reformation is encouraging. Evangelicalism has suffered a great deal because of its abandonment or neglect of biblical truth in favor of pragmatism. Christianity is a “truth” religion. When its truth becomes undefined, Christianity becomes vague and powerless. Even worse, it quickly becomes syncretistic and absorbed with worldly culture. The return of some of today’s evangelicals to a proper definition of truth is heartening.  Secondly, this generation’s rediscovery of the FiveSolae of the Reformation — Sola Scriptura, Solus Christus, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, and Soli Deo Gloria — is encouraging. These doctrines are non-negotiable essentials to a biblical Christianity, a sound foundation that has often resulted in reformation and revival among the people of God. Thirdly, this generation’s recognition of the importance of church history is encouraging. The belief in “sola scriptura” does not negate the necessity of comparing our interpretation of Scripture to that of the great confessions of the Church and the countless godly believers that have gone before us. This is one of the most effective means of detecting how much of our own culture has crept into our interpretation. Fourthly and finally, this generation’s rediscovery of the great theologians and preachers of the past is encouraging. We must admit that the superficiality, lack of discipline, and hunger for entertainment and ease which abounds in our culture is not an incubator for great thinkers with deep spiritual experience. When we read the works of the great saints of history, we are able to draw from a well deeper than our own, to recognize how far we have fallen, and to set our sight on a ground higher than that which our own time would demand or even expect.

While I see much that is encouraging, I also see much that troubles me. In many ways, a movement will pass through the same errors and dangers of any one of the individuals who are a part of it.

My first concern is the tendency toward extremes. When a young man begins to take seriously the importance of doctrine, he can be led astray by extremes and by overemphasizing one doctrine to the demise of another. Possessing a correct interpretation of each individual doctrine is not sufficient; we must also learn to hold each doctrine in harmony with the others.

My second concern is the tendency to deny or eliminate mystery from the person and works of God. We must remember that the heresies regarding the Trinity (for example) came from two distinct fountains — from those who sought to deny it and from those who sought to explain it. A young man can easily fall into the great danger of giving his own inferences the same weight or authority as Scripture. In doing so, he creates a theological construct with more inference than truth. Our pride would rather eliminate mystery from God and boast of its accomplishment than acknowledge mystery and humbly worship the One whose judgments are unsearchable and whose ways are unfathomable.

My third concern is an empty intellectualism. This occurs when the mental comprehension of a doctrine becomes the final goal rather than the means to a greater goal — the application of that doctrine in our own lives to the glory of God and the benefit of God’s people. When a young man begins to teach things and boast of things that have yet to become a reality in his life, he can become blind to how little he understands the truth he explains and how meagerly he lives what he supposedly knows.

My fourth concern is a theological tediousness that trumps love. If we are growing in the truth and advancing in Christianity beyond our contemporaries (Galatians 1:14), we must ask ourselves, “For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” (I Corinthians 4:7).Our growth in truth ought to lead to our growth in humility and mercy toward others, especially toward those who believe. When a young theologian snickers at a sign that says, “God loves you!” simply because he knows that the one who wrote it does not understand the full complexity of the statement he has written, something is terribly wrong. Jesus said, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 18:10).

My fifth concern is the willingness of this younger generation of reformers to embrace the great doctrines of the Reformation while being unwilling to let go of the unbiblical models of ministry and church life that are ingrained in modern evangelical life. We must realize that much of what is wrong with current evangelical practices has to do with a departure from the biblical theology that was set forth in the Reformation. If we truly grasp these doctrines, especially Sola Scriptura, then it demands that we conform our organizational structures and methodologies of ministry to the Scriptures, not the other way around.

My sixth concern is the comprehension of Reformation and Puritan theology without the practice of their piety and devotion to God. The Reformers were men who knew God and walked with God. Their prayer closets were just as familiar to them as their libraries. They longed to be conformed to the image of Christ. They were by no means perfect men, but they painstakingly sought to conform every aspect of their lives to the dictates of Scripture. The transformation in their theology produced a transformation in their doxology and praxis. The lifestyle of at least some young reformers borderlines on an antinomianism that flaunts its supposed freedoms and shuns rigorous piety as little more than bondage to the Law.

My seventh and last concern has to do with the attempt of many young reformers to appear contemporary, hip, cool or even avant-garde. This flirtatious relationship with culture is dangerous, and it makes it very difficult for the world to take the minister or his message seriously.

MeWhy did you choose to write a series of books on “Recovering the Gospel?” Who should read these books, and what do you hope these books will accomplish?

Paul WasherFirst of all, I chose to write on the Gospel because it is the one controlling passion of my life. In fact, I could preach the same message of the atoning death of Christ every time I step foot in a pulpit and not grow tired of the theme. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the foundation of the church and the greatest revelation of the glory of God. Secondly, there is a real sense in which the Gospel has been lost in the evangelical church. This statement might seem exaggerated to some, but this losing of the Gospel has occurred throughout history, and all the indications point to the fact that it has happened again in our generation. When we compare the Gospel that is primarily preached today to that which was preached by the Reformers, the Puritans, Edwards, Whitefield, Wesley, Spurgeon, and Lloyd-Jones, we see a great contrast. It becomes evident that we have reduced the Gospel to little more than a few spiritual principles or an empty creedal statement. This demonstrates the importance of doing our theology in the context of church history. The great confessions and creeds of the church, as well as some of her most devout preachers and theologians, can help us understand how far we have strayed. Many dear and genuine Christians have told me that they discovered truths in the books I have written that they had never heard before. They are often shocked when I tell them that these truths would have been common knowledge to anyone who sat under evangelical preaching in the past. Thirdly, I wrote this series on the Gospel because I wanted to set forth its great truths in the language of the man in the pew and with copious references to Scripture. The great truths of Christianity do not belong to the professional theologians alone, but to every person who calls upon the name of Christ.

July 29, 2013

Paul WasherYou probably know Paul Washer as the man who preached the infamous “Shocking Youth Message,” a sermon that has tallied over one million views on YouTube. But there is far more to the man than that one sermon. For ten years he was a missionary in Peru and in that time he founded the HeartCry Missionary Society to support Peruvian church planters. He is also a pastor, an author, a conference speaker and now serves full-time with the HeartCry Missionary Society. I recently asked you to help me interview him and today and tomorrow I will share what turned out to be a fascinating interview. (Note: Reformation Heritage Books has dropped the prices on the Kindle editions of the first two volumes in Washer’s “Recovering the Gospel” series. The Gospel’s Power and Message is $2.99. The brand new The Gospel Call and True Conversion is down to $4.99).

MeCan you tell me the five people who have most influenced your faith and the five books that have most influenced your faith?

Paul WasherThe person that I most admire is Jesus Christ. He is the only perfect Person. There is simply no comparison. The difference between Him and all other men is not merely quantitative, but qualitative. He is in a category all to Himself. The most precise and thoughtful scholar is limited in what he knows and wrong in some things that he affirms; the most devoted saint is stained with sin and full of error; the bravest heart among us will fail and break; but Christ is altogether lovely, holy, and unfailing. With regard to saints in history, I have gained the greatest benefit from George Muller, Charles Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, George Whitefield, and John Calvin. But these are only a few. To borrow a phrase from the author of Hebrews, “What more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of…” all the Reformers and Puritans from whom I have benefited: Bunyan, Boston, Brooks, Edwards, Flavel, Goodwin, Murray, Newton, Owen, Ryle, Sibbes, etc.

The book that has had the most influence on my life is the Bible. This goes without saying for every genuine Christian, but it should always be emphasized, even at the risk of redundancy or cliche. It is the Book of books, the very Word of God, and the only written document that possesses the power to save and transform lives. Other than the Scriptures, the most important book in my life has been The Autobiography of George Muller. It sits on the right-hand corner of my desk; its cover is worn, and its pages are yellow and torn from much use. It has been a great help to my faith throughout nearly thirty years of ministry. The second most important book to me is Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. This book sets forth the doctrine of salvation with amazing clarity and insight. The third book is Today’s Evangelism by Ernest Reisinger. As a young man, I always knew there was something wrong with the way I was doing evangelism. God used Reisinger’s book to expose the superficiality of my message and methodology. Halfway through the book, I was full of fear because of the way I had been preaching the Gospel. That day, I promised God that if He would let me live, I would never preach the Gospel in a superficial manner again. The fourth book is actually a collection of books entitled, The Complete Collection of E.M. Bounds on Prayer. The fifth book is Pentecost Today? by Iain Murray, which is one of the best treatments of revival and the power of the Holy Spirit I have ever come across. It most closely resembles my beliefs with regard to this doctrine. Finally, I must also mention a video series that greatly impacted my life when I was a young missionary in Peru — The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul. I watched portions of that series on my knees. At times, I would have to pause the tape and simply lie prostrate on the floor. It was a pivotal moment in my life.

MeMany people first learn about you through YouTube and the “Shocking Youth Message.” Can you tell how that message came about, and how it came to be a YouTube hit? What has the message meant to your life and ministry?

Paul WasherAs I walked up to the pulpit, I was unusually burdened and was unsure about what to preach. It seemed that there were thousands before me who were resting in a false assurance. There was a message burning in my heart, but I knew that it would be offensive. As I began to speak about the influence of culture on the church, the people in the auditorium broke forth in applause. They had no idea that I was speaking about them. At that moment, I took up my text in Matthew 7 and began to preach. It was as though I was being carried and pushed along by strong wind that I could not resist. I felt broken into a million pieces, and yet I was fearless about the consequences. Immediately afterwards, I thought I would collapse, and I was full of fear. Many people were angry with me that day. I remained troubled about the sermon for the next few weeks. While I was preaching, I had no doubts; but afterwards, I was besieged by doubt. Had I done the right thing? Several months passed, and I eventually put the whole thing out of my mind. I never saw a copy of the video, nor did HeartCry put it online.

After several months, we began to receive emails from all over the world. People were sending in testimonies of how they had been saved through “The Shocking Youth Message.” All of us at HeartCry were bewildered. We had no idea what message the people were writing about or if I was the one who had preached it. Finally, one of my fellow staff members went online and found it. I was shocked probably more than anyone. Radio stations began calling and asking for interviews, and debates were going on all over the Internet either for or against what I had preached. Even after all these years, we still receive testimonies from around the world of people who have been converted through that sermon.

The message has affected my life in many ways. Positively, it has allowed me to preach and write about the Gospel and the nature of genuine conversion. Also, it has opened the door for people to see the work that God is doing through the HeartCry Missionary Society and indigenous missions. Negatively, it has led some young reformers to hold an unbalanced view of the kind of preaching that is needed for true revival. The message I preached was hard, very hard, but it was the exception and not the norm of my preaching. There are times when a “hard word” must be preached, even to God’s people. However, the church and the individual believer do not grow by daily helpings of “hard words,” but by being nourished and encouraged by the full counsel of God. The greatest catalyst for spiritual maturity in the truly converted is a greater revelation of the love of God in Christ. Another thing that “budding prophets” need to understand is that a preacher carries a Sword, a basin, and a towel. He is quick to use the basin and towel with great joy. But he is slow to use the sword, and he always does so with tears and fear and scarred knees.