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Reading Classics Together

August 14, 2014

Many times over the years I have invited readers of this blog to join me in a reading project, mostly as part of a program I’ve called Reading Classics Together. We’ve read some incredible books together—Holiness by J.C. Ryle, Christianity & Liberalism by Gresham Machen, The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards, The Cross of Christ by John Stott, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices by Thomas Brooks, and a whole lot more.

I think it’s time to begin another classic. In this case, I’d like to return to one of the very first we read together. Of all the ones we have read, it remains my favorite, and certainly the one that has made the deepest impact in my life. It is John Owen’s The Mortification of Sin (or Overcoming Sin and Temptation). It is the absolute best book available on the life-long challenge of putting sin to death. Unless you’ve completely eradicated sin in your life, I know you’ll benefit from reading it.

Will you read it with me?

John Owen is known as being one of the greatest theologians in the history of the church and one who offered penetrating analysis of the human condition. Though his works are reputed as being difficult to read, they always prove worth the effort. Jerry Bridges says, “To read Owen is to mine spiritual gold.” Mark Dever says, “Sin is tenacious, but by God’s grace we can hate it and hunt it. John Owen provides the mater guide for the sin-hunter.” And Phillip Ryken insists that, “John Owen is a spiritual surgeon with the rare skill to cut away the cancer of sin and bring gospel healing to the sinner’s soul. Apart from the Bible, I have found his writings to be the best books ever written to help me stop sinning the same old sins.” Are you getting the theme there?

Here is how the program works: Each week we will read one chapter. Then, on Thursdays, visit my site and I will have an article on that chapter along with a place for you to add your comments or a place for you to link to your own blog (or Facebook or any other place you have been discussing it). The idea is to read the book together, so we can benefit from one another’s insights and have mutual accountability as we press on in our reading.

How do you participate? Simply by getting a copy of the book and reading along. You don’t need to register, you don’t need to comment, you don’t need to do anything other than read one chapter per week.

Buying the Book


I am going to read Overcoming Sin and Temptation, a slight modernization of the work, edited by Justin Taylor and Kelly Kapic. This edition maintains the unabridged text, but provides useful introductions and editorial assistance. For example, the editors footnote difficult or obscure words, update archaic language (i.e. they change “thee” to “you”), transliterate words that Owen provided in the original biblical languages, and so on. They also add helpful introductions to the sections. They maintain the full impact of Owen’s words while removing some of the hindrances experienced by the modern reader.

However, if you would like to read the original, you are more than welcome to do so and will benefit just as much. Here is where you can track down the book:

Let’s Get Started

I plan to post an article on chapter one on September 4, and continue every Thursday after that. There are 14 chapters, meaning the program will last for 14 weeks. All you need to do is obtain a copy of the book and read chapter one prior to September 4.

Why don’t you leave a comment below if you plan to join the program (or if you’ve got any questions).

November 07, 2013

Over the past few weeks Dr. Joel Beeke and I have been teaming up to work our way through a portion of his massive new work A Puritan Theology. We have not been reading the whole book, but just the final eight chapters which deal with practical theology, the “so what?” of systematic theology.

This week, the last week of the program, we read chapter 59 which discusses practical lessons from Puritan theology today. I asked Dr. Beeke a few questions related to the Puritans and some of the lessons we ought to allow them to teach us.

TC: As you near the conclusion of A Puritan Theology, you suggest that a dedication to Puritan writings will serve us by helping maintain biblical balance in preaching. Are many of today’s preachers out-of-balance? What is a biblical balance and why do we need to maintain it?

JB: I do not know how many preachers are out-of-balance, but every preacher must keep watch over himself because we all have a tendency to go astray, both in theology and personality (1 Tim. 4:16).

Balance in preaching includes a healthy mixture of biblical, doctrinal, experiential, and practical ingredients. There are as many different approaches to preaching as there are cakes, but like cakes our preaching must always be a mixture of certain basic ingredients.  

The biblical ingredient means we must “preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2), giving an exposition of the meaning of one or more biblical texts and rooting all we say in Scripture. Without this our preaching has no divine authority. The doctrinal ingredient means we must declare the “form of doctrine” (Rom. 6:17), including “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) in distinct teachings, especially those teachings summarized so beautifully in the Reformed confessions and catechisms. This gives our preaching clarity. The experiential ingredient brings biblical doctrine to bear on the hearts of sinners—the heart being the source of all our activity (Prov. 4:23). That begins with the heart of the preacher so that he can preach from his heart to the hearts of his listeners. By this means our sermons are simultaneously idealistic, realistic, and optimistic about the Christian life. The practical ingredient brings biblical doctrine to bear on specific matters of direction, exhortation, self-examination, warning, and comfort depending on a person’s spiritual condition. Such preaching aims at calling people to a new life.

If God permits, I hope to publish a book on Reformed experiential preaching sometime in the next few years that will address this very subject, with examples drawn from history.

TC: The Puritans emphasized the importance of catechizing. I grew up in a tradition that largely emphasized the memorization and recitation of catechisms. Is this the heart of catechesis? If not, what is? What do we stand to gain if we recover this emphasis?

October 31, 2013

Over the past few weeks Dr. Joel Beeke and I have been teaming up to work our way through a portion of his massive new work A Puritan Theology. We have not been reading the whole book, but just the final eight chapters which deal with practical theology, the “so what?” of systematic theology.

This week we read chapter 58 which discusses the Puritans and zeal. I asked Dr. Beeke a few questions related to the Puritans and this word that seems to have fallen into disuse today.

TC: When the Puritans spoke of zeal, what were they referring to?

JB: By zeal they meant the fruit of the Spirit, especially love, exercised to a high level in the soul and activity of life. Thomas Manton said that godly zeal is “a higher degree of love,” indeed the burning of divine love. Manton wrote, “Zeal will readily set us a-work to do all we do willingly, freely, and cheerfully” (2 Cor. 9:2). It is distinguished from “carnal zeal” by its lack of hatred and bitter envy (James 3:14), its direction by a true knowledge of God’s Word (Rom. 10:2), and its keeping its focus on piety of the heart instead of superstitious externals (Matt. 23:23; Rom. 14:17). Yet zealous love does include a holy “indignation” because when we love something strongly then we hate all that is against it. The strength of zealous love moves Christians to deny themselves and press on despite resistance. It fills them with “holy grief and anger” whenever God’s truth, God’s worship, or God’s servants are violated.” For example, David wrote, “My zeal hath consumed me, because mine enemies have forgotten thy words. Thy word is very pure: therefore thy servant loveth it. I am small and despised: yet do not I forget thy precepts” (Ps. 119:139–141).

TC: Zeal seems to have been an important concept and an important component of Christian character to the Puritans. What has happened to zeal? Have we simply replaced the word with another, or have we lost the whole concept and emphasis?

JB: Zeal can never completely disappear from true Christianity, for it is, as Manton said, “a fruit of Christ’s death” (Titus 2:14), partly because the marvelous display of Christ’s love inflames His people to love Him, and partly because Christ purchased the gift of the Spirit to make us zealous to serve Him (Titus 3:5–6).

People may use different words for zeal. I hear some Evangelicals use the word passion in a way similar to how the older writers spoke of zeal. The Bible does not use this word in this manner (“passion” in Scripture refers to either suffering or out-of-control desires), but it seems to me that they aim to communicate a similar idea. The older generation would talk of being on fire for the Lord, which is really the meaning of the biblical word “fervent” (Acts 18:25; Rom. 12:11). So the concept is still there.

The danger we face today is that the courage, strength, activism, and resolve of zeal offend our culture of feminized men and tyrannical tolerance.

October 25, 2013

Over the past few weeks Dr. Joel Beeke and I have been teaming up to work our way through a portion of his massive new work A Puritan Theology. We have not been reading the whole book, but just the final eight chapters which deal with practical theology, the “so what?” of systematic theology.

This week we read chapter 57 which discusses the Puritans and casuistry. I asked Dr. Beeke a few questions related to the Puritans and this strange word that I had never encountered before.

TC: I guess we need to begin here: What is casuistry and why did the Puritans focus on it?

JB: Casuistry is teaching people how to know what God wants them to do in specific situations, and how to live with peace of conscience before God. It addresses particular “cases of conscience” or ethical and spiritual questions. The Reformation of the sixteenth century brought a renewed understanding of justification by faith alone and sanctification by the Holy Spirit, but these very doctrines raised questions such as, “How do I know if I have justifying faith?” or, “What does it mean to please God at my job?” Therefore the Puritans, as heirs of the Reformation, developed answers to such questions based upon the Word of God.

TC: What was the place of counseling for the Puritans? Was it something they did primarily in the corporate worship service or was it done one-on-one and in private?

JB: The answer is both. William Perkins, who wrote a foundational treatise on preaching, said that the preacher must apply the law and the gospel to the several specific spiritual conditions in which people find themselves. Someone who is ignorant and unteachable needs far different treatment than someone broken under the guilt of sin. Some listeners need milk, and others strong meat. Fifty years later the Westminster Assembly, in the Directory for the Publick Worship of God, said the minister “is not to rest in general doctrine,” but “to bring it home” in specific applications, including teaching the truth, refuting errors, exhorting for obedience, warning against sin, applying comfort, and directing self-examination. As a result of such an approach to preaching, Puritan sermons were full of practical counseling.

At the same time, the Puritans recognized that a pastor must counsel families and individuals in a more personal way. Some Puritans did more of this than others. John Owen said some people in a church will face particular spiritual difficulties, such as “the terror of the Lord” on those convicted but not yet converted, backsliding into sin after conversion, great and long-term afflictions, feeling abandoned by God, and horrible temptations from Satan. It is part of a pastor’s calling to understand their cases and the right spiritual medicines to heal them, to give such people attention and concern with patience and tenderness. Personal work is very fruitful both for comfort and rebuke. Richard Baxter said, “I have found by experience, that an ignorant sot that hath been an unprofitable hearer so long, hath got more knowledge and remorse of conscience in half an hour’s close discourse, than they did from ten year’s public preaching.” Preaching the Word is the primary means of grace, but personal counseling plays a significant role as well.

October 17, 2013

Over the past few weeks Dr. Joel Beeke and I have been teaming up to work our way through a portion of his massive new work A Puritan Theology. We have not been reading the whole book, but just the final eight chapters which deal with practical theology, the “so what?” of systematic theology.

This week we read chapter 56 which discusses the Puritans and conscience. I asked Dr. Beeke a few questions related to the Puritans and the way they understood matters of conscience.

TC: In order to ensure we are all on the same page, can you define conscience? What exactly is it the Puritans were talking about when they discussed matters of conscience?

JBThe conscience is an echo in the human mind of the verdict of the righteous Judge. William Perkins said that “conscience is a part of the understanding” that sets itself either for or against their actions. William Ames, a student of Perkins, wrote that conscience is “a man’s judgment of himself, according to the judgment of God of him.” Regardless of what we love with our affections or choose with our will, there is a part of our understanding that judges us and makes gives us a sense of moral approval or guilt according to our understanding of right and wrong. So when the Puritans considered cases of conscience, they were discussing questions about how to know what is pleasing to God in specific situations, and most importantly how to know that the divine Judge accepts you as righteous in His sight.

TC: What would the Puritans identify as the function of conscience? Why do we need it and what does it do for us?

JB: Conscience impresses a man’s mind with the moral authority of God, and as a result produces a sense of anxiety and misery, or peace and joy, that anticipates eternity. Ames said that conscience binds a man with such authority that no created thing can release him from it  Though our conscience may be misinformed, still it speaks with a divine authority that we may disobey but we find difficult to ignore. It reminds us that God sees all we do, and that He is either delighted or angry with our persons, and pleased or displeased with our deeds.

Much Puritan literature aimed to direct people to find peace of conscience through the blood of Christ, and to walk in good conscience day by day. Richard Rogers said that his purpose in his Seven Treatises of spiritual guidance was to show a person how to live such that “he may find a very sweet and effectual [powerful] taste of eternal happiness, even here.” Richard Sibbes said that a good conscience is “a continual feast,” because knowing that God is pleased with us, has forgiven our sins, and delights in our obedience, enables us to suffer and even to die with comfort, freedom, and joy.

TC: What would the Puritans want us to know about the effect of the fall into sin on man’s conscience?

JB: The fall of man brought us under the condemning wrath of God and the enslaving darkness of sin. The first disturbs and terrifies the conscience insofar as it senses the coming judgment. The latter disorders and confuses the conscience.

October 10, 2013

Over the past few weeks Dr. Joel Beeke and I have been teaming up to work our way through a portion of his massive new work A Puritan Theology. We have not been reading the whole book, but just the final eight chapters which deal with practical theology, the “so what?” of systematic theology.

This week we read chapter 55 which discusses the Puritans and meditation. I asked Dr. Beeke a few questions related to the Puritans and the way they practiced meditation.

TC: The word “meditation” has found use in true Christianity, in Catholicism, and in many Eastern forms of spirituality. Along the way it has been used to describe many different practices. What did the Puritans mean by it?

JB: In religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, meditation involves breathing techniques, posture, and chanting certain repetitive sounds (a mantra) to empty the mind and achieve a feeling of tranquility and connectedness with an impersonal divine being. Roman Catholicism has promoted meditation especially in the form of imagining the physical sufferings of Christ in a way that stirs sympathetic emotions, or repeating set prayers to Mary and the saints. The Puritan practice of meditation is quite different from any of these.

Puritan meditation engages the mind with God’s revealed truth in order to inflame the heart with affections towards God and transform the life unto obedience. Thomas Hooker defined it like this: “Meditation is a serious intention of the mind whereby we come to search out the truth, and settle it effectually upon the heart.” The direction of our minds reveals the truest love of our hearts, and so, Hooker said, he who loves God’s Word meditates on it regularly (Ps. 119:97). Therefore, Puritan meditation is not repeating a sound, emptying the mind, or imagining physical sights and sensations, but a focused exercise of thought and faith upon the Word of God.

TC: How deliberate were the Puritans when it came to meditation? Would they ensure they had time in their schedules for deliberate meditation, or did they consider meditation what happened through the course of daily life?

JB: The Puritans did seek to meditate throughout life, as a complement of praying without ceasing. Hooker said that meditation is “the main trade that a godly man drives”—his greatest occupation day and night (Ps. 1:2). Joseph Hall said, “Lord, … that man is truly holy, whose understanding is enlightened with right apprehensions  of thee and heavenly things; whose will and affections are rightly disposed to thee, so that his heart is wholly taken up with thee, his conversation being in heaven; who thinks all time lost, in which he doth not enjoy thee, and a sweet and holy communion with thee; walking perpetually with thee, and laboring in all things to be approved of thee.” Thus Hall encouraged people to see all the world around them as a “stage” to see God’s wisdom and glory, just as Solomon learned from the ant (Prov. 6:6–8) and our Lord taught us by the lilies of the field (Matt. 6:28–30). Thus, Hall said, “There is no creature, event, action, speech, which may not afford us new matter of meditation.” This kind of brief meditation that takes place in the hustle and bustle of daily life they called occasional meditation. Several Puritans wrote entire books of examples of occasional meditation to teach their church members how to do this.

October 03, 2013

Over the past few weeks Dr. Joel Beeke and I have been teaming up to work our way through a portion of his massive new work A Puritan Theology. We have not been reading the whole book, but just the final eight chapters which deal with practical theology, the “so what?” of systematic theology.

This week we read chapter 54 which discusses the Puritans and prayer. I asked Dr. Beeke a few questions related to the Puritans and the way they prayed.

TC: The Puritans are known today for the importance they placed on corporate worship and family worship. Would they also have integrated private worship (or personal devotions) into their lives? What would that worship have consisted of?

JB: The Puritans saw personal devotions as the root of family and public worship. The Directory for Family Worship actually begins by commending “secret worship” as “most necessary” where each individual devotes himself “to prayer and meditation” as a special means of “communion with God.” Pastors and fathers, it said, should exhort “persons of all sorts to perform this duty morning and evening.”

The chief elements of personal devotions are meditation on the Word and prayer to God. Meditation feeds the soul with the Word for each day of serving God. Thomas Manton said, “He that labors must have his meals, otherwise he will faint. Painted fire needs no fuel.” John Cotton said, “Feed upon the Word, and that makes [us] to rejoice in the Word.”

TC: Matthew Henry wrote a very popular book on prayer and among his first directions was “begin each day with God.” What might the Puritans have said if someone suggested that the Bible does not command daily devotions or daily private worship?

September 26, 2013
A few months ago, a conversation with Joel Beeke went in an unexpected direction. We were talking Puritans (what else do you talk about with Dr. Beeke?) and we tried to think of a way we could team up to help people read A Puritan Theology. At that point I had only just begun reading the book, but was enjoying it tremendously and was eager to make it known to others. Yet I realized the price and sheer size of the volume makes it more than a little intimidating.
After some thought we decided to make A Puritan Theology the next of the books I would take on in the Reading Classics Together program. Not the whole book, mind you, but just the last eight chapters which deal with practical theology, the “so what?” of systematic theology.
This week we read chapter 53 which discusses the Puritans and family worship. I asked Dr. Beeke a few questions related to the Puritans and the way they worshipped.

TC: To hear people talk about the Puritans, you would imagine they were harsh toward their children, making them endure endless hours of family worship. Is this accurate?

JB: Endless hours in family worship would have been impossible for most people in the seventeenth-century. In Puritan New England, many people were farmers who had to labor hard to produce food. Children also had much to do in school, household chores, and working alongside their fathers and mothers to learn a vocation. The Puritans also took time for recreation. They enjoyed hunting, fishing, shooting competitions, and wrestling—two New England Puritan ministers were famous amateur wrestlers. They enjoyed music in their homes, owning guitars, harpsichords, trumpets, violas, drums, and other instruments. There was a lot to do; family devotions were one part—albeit the most important part—of a busy daily schedule.

The Puritans aimed at pithy instruction and heart-moving prayer. Samuel Lee wrote that in all our teaching of the family we should beware of boring the children by talking too much. Long devotions overburden their little minds. It is best to hold the attention of children by using spiritual analogies with flowers, rivers, a field of grain, birds singing, the sun, a rainbow, etc. 

TC: The Puritans regarded family worship as a duty. Did Puritan pastors ensure that fathers were carrying out this duty? How would they have helped families do this well?

JB: The Puritans did take this duty seriously. For example, in 1647, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith. Three days earlier, they had adopted the Directory for Family Worship, and required ruling elders and ministers to discipline heads of household that neglected family worship. In another branch of Puritanism, in 1677 the congregational church in Dorchester, Massachusetts, covenanted together to “maintain the worship of God” in their families, “educating, instructing, and charging our children and our households to keep the ways of the Lord.”

Puritan pastors helped families, first, by preaching on this subject; second, by writing books about family worship, and devotional books useful for family worship; third, by writing simple catechisms or promoting an official catechism; and fourth, by visiting each family in the church and catechizing the children. Parents often invited the minister over a meal, after which the minister would lead family worship. Pastoral visits both held parents accountable by revealing the level of knowledge of their children, and modeled what family worship should be.