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July 03, 2012

A reader of this site recently asked me to explain how I determine whether a book is good and worthy of recommendation or whether it is not. That is a fair question and I was surprised to find that I had not addressed it in the past. I will take on that challenge today. It will be helpful to assume that the book in question is meant to address the Christian life, falling under the broad categories of Christian Living or Spiritual Growth or something similar (I would have very different questions to ask of a general market book or of a Christian biography).

Here are five questions, plus a bonus, that I ask myself as I read.

Does It Draw Its Truth from Scripture?

First and foremost, a good book will have a heavy dependency upon Scripture. Whatever truth it seeks to teach will be ultimately drawn from God through the Bible rather than from any kind of human wisdom or experience. In the Bible God gives us the great privilege of seeing the world through his eyes and seeing life from his perspective. Therefore, whatever we teach about living the Christian life ought to depend heavily upon his wisdom.

This is the key difference between Randy Alcorn’s Heaven and Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven—the first is utterly dependent upon Scripture while the second ignores Scripture in favor of experience. It is the great difference between Kent Hughes’ Disciplines of a Godly Man and John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart—the first teaches manhood from Scripture while the other teaches it from human wisdom and experience. This is not to say that there is absolutely nothing right or good in 90 Minutes in Heaven and Wild at Heart; however, they are innately inferior because they do not consistent lead the reader back to God as he reveals himself in the Bible.

Is It Faithful to the Bible?

Of course not all books that attempt to draw truth from Scripture do it well, so the second criteria is that the books are consistently faithful to Scripture. There are many books that attempt to show what the Bible teaches but do a poor job of it. The authors do not handle the Bible faithfully or they look too narrowly, depending upon isolated verses rather than the grand sweep of Scripture. Consider The Purpose Driven Life, a book that contains a good deal of wisdom but which draws from Scripture haphazardly, and compare it to Sinclair Ferguson’s Taking the Christian Life Seriously. Both are guidebooks to life, but one is far more consistently faithful to Scripture than the other.

Does It Have a Gospel Focus?

Many books written by and for Christians teach how to live the Christian life under law instead of under grace. Instead of teaching true Christian living, they teach law and moralisms. A good book will be dependent upon the joy and freedom of living as those who have been set free from law and will ultimately point people to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ from which we gain the desire and ability and power to live this Christian life. Stephen Artberburn’s Every Man’s Battle is grounded in morality, not gospel; it may be that following rules may help a man overcome an addiction to lust and pornography, but it is far better to point to the gospel, which is exactly what I attempted to do in Sexual Detox.

July 28, 2011

Christianity and Liberalism
UPDATE: If you’d like to read along, Christian Audio has put the audio book on sale for just $2.98 until October 31. Use coupon code CH0811CCClick here to order it.

Several years ago I began a program I called Reading Classics Together. The impetus for this project was the realization that, though many Christians have a genuine desire to read the classics of the faith, few of us have the motivation to actually do so. This has always been the case for me. This program allows us to read such classic works together, providing structure and accountability along with the added interest of comparing notes as we read in community.

Just last week we finished reading Gresham Machen’s Christianity & Liberalism. I was all set to announce the next classic today—the next classic Christian book to read together. I knew what I was going to propose, but I had a last-minute change of heart. As I received news of John Stott’s death yesterday, I thought that this might be the perfect time to read one of Stott’s best-known works, the one that most people consider his finest work.

The Cross of Christ StottI propose, then, that 3 weeks from today we begin reading The Cross of Christ. Here is a brief description of the book:

The work of a lifetime, from one of the world’s most influential thinkers, about the heart of the Christian faith.

“I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross… . In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?”

With compelling honesty John Stott confronts this generation with the centrality of the cross in God’s redemption of the world- a world now haunted by the memories of Auschwitz, the pain of oppression and the specter of nuclear war. Can we see triumph in tragedy, victory in shame? Why should an object of Roman distaste and Jewish disgust be the emblem of our worship and the axiom of our faith? And what does it mean for us today?

Now from one of the foremost preachers and Christian leaders of our day comes theology at its readable best, a contemporary restatement of the meaning of the cross. At the cross Stott finds the majesty and love of God disclosed, the sin and bondage of the world exposed. More than a study of the atonement, this book brings Scripture into living dialogue with Christian theology and the twentieth century. What emerges is a pattern for Christian life and worship, hope and mission.

This is quite a large book, so we will need to read it over 13 weeks. But it is so theologically-rich and its subject so completely foundational to the Christian life that I believe it will prove a joy to read. 

The book comes very highly praised. J.I. Packer says, “This, more than any book he has written, is his masterpiece.” Michael Horton says, “As relevant today as when it first appeared, The Cross of Christ is more than a classic. It restates in our own time the heart of the Christian message” while D.A. Carson insists, “There are not many ‘must read’ books—books that belong on every minister’s shelf, and on the shelves of thoughtful laypersons who want a better grasp of what is central in Scripture—but this is one of them.”

So let’s read it together, beginning on August 18. If you would like to read it with us, simply find yourself a copy of the book and read chapter 1 (and the introduction, foreword, preface, etc.) prior to August 18. Then, on that date, drop by the site and there will be an article here that allows us to discuss that week’s reading. It’s that easy.

If you’d like to preview the book, you can do so at Google Books. Also, if you visit Westminster Book’s product page, you can download the table of contents, the foreword and the first chapter.

Here are some places you can get yourself a copy. This is probably a good book to buy in hardcover and keep for a lifetime. However, CBD does have it available in paperback if you want to save some money.

July 21, 2011

Christianity and Liberalism
Today we come to our final reading in Gresham Machen’s Christianity & Liberalism. Let me apologize once more for disappearing last week. I went on vacation and completely forgot that I was supposed to be posting something about the final chapter. So here we go, a week late.

The final chapter of Christianity & Liberalism concerns itself with the church and the stark contrast between the liberal and Christian conceptions of church. The first couple of paragraphs offer a brief explanation:

It has just been observed that Christianity, as well as liberalism, is interested in social institutions. But the most important institution has not yet been mentioned— it is the institution of the Church. When, according to Christian belief, lost souls are saved, the saved ones become united in the Christian Church. It is only by a baseless caricature that Christian missionaries are represented as though they had no interest in education or in the maintenance of a social life in this world; it is not true that they are interested only in saving individual souls and when the souls are saved leave them to their own devices. On the contrary true Christians must everywhere be united in the brotherhood of the Christian Church.

Very different is this Christian conception of brotherhood from the liberal doctrine of the “brotherhood of man.” The modern liberal doctrine is that all men everywhere, no matter what their race or creed, are brothers. There is a sense in which this doctrine can be accepted by the Christian. The relation in which all men stand to one another is analogous in some important respects to the relation of brotherhood. All men have the same Creator and the same nature. The Christian man can accept all that the modern liberal means by the brotherhood of man. But the Christian knows also of a relationship far more intimate than that general relationship of man to man and it is for this more intimate relationship that he reserves the term “brother.” The true brotherhood, according to Christian teaching, is the brotherhood of the redeemed.

There is nothing narrow about such teaching; for the Christian brotherhood is open without distinction to all; and the Christian man seeks to bring all men in. Christian service, it is true, is not limited to the household of faith; all men, whether Christians or not, are our neighbors if they be in need. But if we really love our fellowmen we shall never be content with binding up their wounds or pouring on oil and wine or rendering them any such lesser service. We shall indeed do such things for them. But the main business of our lives will be to bring them to the Savior of their souls.

He goes on to say, “It is upon this brotherhood of twice-born sinners, this brotherhood of the redeemed, that the Christian founds the hope of society. He finds no solid hope in the improvement of earthly conditions, or the molding of human institutions under the influence of the Golden Rule.” If there is to be any great improvement in society, if there is to be any great change, it will be through people being saved. Liberalism seeks societal change without the personal spiritual transformation. Machen insists “The Church is the highest Christian answer to the social needs of man.”

June 23, 2011

Reading Classics
Today we come to another of our readings in Gresham Machen’s classic work Christianity & Liberalism. This week’s chapter looked to the Bible as the source of the truths we believe. Machen sought to show how liberalism’s understanding of Scripture is as much in error as their view of God and man (which was the topic of the previous chapter).

He begins with a wonderfully concise affirmation of all kinds of biblical truths.

The way was opened, according to the Bible, by an act of God, when, almost nineteen hundred years ago, outside the walls of Jerusalem, the eternal Son was offered as a sacrifice for the sins of men. To that one great event the whole Old Testament looks forward, and in that one event the whole of the New Testament finds its center and core. Salvation then, according to the Bible, is not something that was discovered, but something that happened. Hence appears the uniqueness of the Bible. All the ideas of Christianity might be discovered in some other religion, yet there would be in that other religion no Christianity. For Christianity depends, not upon a complex of ideas, but upon the narration of an event. Without that event, the world, in the Christian view, is altogether dark, and humanity is lost under the guilt of sin. There can be no salvation by the discovery of eternal truth, for eternal truth brings naught but despair, because of sin. But a new face has been put upon life by the blessed thing that God did when He offered up His only begotten Son.

There is a great danger in doing what many liberals sought to do—reduce the faith to mere experience, an experience of Christ. This was done, of course, at the expense of biblical authority.

The trouble is that the experience thus maintained is not Christian experience. Religious experience it may be, but Christian experience it certainly is not. For Christian experience depends absolutely upon an event. The Christian says to himself: “I have meditated upon the problem of becoming right with God, I have tried to produce a righteousness that will stand in His sight; but when I heard the gospel message I learned that what I had weakly striven to accomplish had been accomplished by the Lord Jesus Christ when He died for me on the Cross and completed His redeeming work by the glorious resurrection. If the thing has not yet been done, if I merely have an idea of its accomplishment, then I am of all men most miserable, for I am still in my sins. My Christian life, then, depends altogether upon the truth of the New Testament record.”

Says Machen, “Christian experience is rightly used when it confirms the documentary evidence. But it can never possibly provide a substitute for the documentary evidence.” Experience is important, but it can never be separated from the truths of Scripture or from Scripture itself.

June 16, 2011

Reading Classics
This morning we come to chapter 3 of Gresham Machen’s book Christianity & Liberalism, a chapter titled simply “God & Man.” There was some great discussion based on last week’s reading and I’m hoping we can generate the same today. I found this chapter quite a lot easier to read and digest and trust you found the same. 

In the chapter’s introductory paragraph Machen sets the scene, looking back and then forward:

It has been observed in the last chapter that Christianity is based on an account of something that happened in the first century of our era. But before that account can be received, certain presuppositions must be accepted. The Christian gospel consists in an account of how God saved man, and before that gospel can be understood something must be known (1) about God and (2) about man. The doctrine of God and the doctrine of man are the two great presuppositions of the gospel. With regard to these presuppositions, as with regard to the gospel itself, modern liberalism is diametrically opposed to Christianity.

Do you think this man was influenced by John Calvin? If we are to understand anything of the gospel—the true gospel—we must first know about God and man and the great relational disruption between them. The trouble is that liberalism has a false conception of God. “It is opposed to Christianity, in the first place, in its conception of God. But at this point we are met with a particularly insistent form of that objection to doctrinal matters which has already been considered. It is unnecessary, we are told, to have a”conception” of God; theology, or the knowledge of God, it is said, is the death of religion; we should not seek to know God, but should merely feel His presence.”

Some liberals insisted that God could only be known through Jesus. Machen quickly shows that Christ Jesus related to God as a person and that he saw the hand of God in nature, in the hearts of men and in the Scriptures. Jesus believed in the real existence of a personal God.

June 02, 2011

Today we begin a new round of Reading Classics Together; over the next 7 weeks we will be reading through Gresham Machen’s classic work Christianity & Liberalism. Everyone is welcome to join us as we do so. The assignment today was simply to read the Introduction (only 10 pages); from this point forward we will be reading one chapter per week until the book is complete. Each week I will jot down a few thoughts about the book and will then leave the comments open so you can share what you’ve learned, ask your questions, and offer your reflections.


Gresham MachenChristianity & Liberalism, like all books, is set in a specific context. In this case the context is the early decades of the 20th century when liberalism was rising and opposing traditional Protestant Christianity. Here is how Machen later described his purpose in writing this book:

I tried to show that the issue in the Church of the present day is not between two varieties of the same religion, but, at bottom, between two essentially different types of thought and life. There is much interlocking of the branches, but the two tendencies, Modernism and supernaturalism, or (otherwise designated) non-doctrinal religion and historic Christianity, spring from different roots. In particular, I tried to show that Christianity is not a “life,” as distinguished from a doctrine, and not a life that has doctrine as its changing symbolic expression, but that—exactly the other way around—it is a life founded on a doctrine.

Part of the challenge in reading such a book is in filtering the issues that were relevant only or largely in a specific historical context from those that remain relevant today. At one point Machen has a lot to say about education and about how some states are forbidding anything other than a public school education. Today, of course, any state allows a public education or a Christian, private or home education. While this situation may arise again in the future, for now it is not an imminent concern.

It is immediately obvious how this book will be relevant to us today. We live in an era that has been heavily impacted by liberalism and we live at a time when Christians continue to grapple with the relationship of faith to science. The questions and concerns of the early 20th century remain concerns today which means that biblically-based answers from the 20th century will be just as relevant for the 21st century.

Now, let me share a few of the things that stood out to me in this chapter. 

May 26, 2011

Next week several hundred of us will begin reading a classic Christian book together—Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism. Consider this your one-week reminder. And if you haven’t yet heard about Reading Classics Together, here’s your chance to join in with us.

Christianity and LiberalismHere is what Machen said about the book.

In my little book, Christianity and Liberalism, 1923, I tried to show that the issue in the Church of the present day is not between two varieties of the same religion, but, at bottom, between two essentially different types of thought and life. There is much interlocking of the branches, but the two tendencies, Modernism and supernaturalism, or (otherwise designated) non-doctrinal religion and historic Christianity, spring from different roots. In particular, I tried to show that Christianity is not a “life,” as distinguished from a doctrine, and not a life that has doctrine as its changing symbolic expression, but that—exactly the other way around—it is a life founded on a doctrine.

This book has long been a classic defense of orthodox Christian faith against Liberalism. Published in 1923 at the height of the Liberal onslaught against orthodox faith, Machen establishes the traditional teaching of the church on Scripture, God, humanity, salvation, and ecclesiology, are not only defensible but preferable to those propounded by Liberals. It is important to keep in mind the Machen is not talking about modern political liberalism, but the religious liberalism many denominations and seminaries were accepting in the early 1900’s. Named one of the top 100 books of the 20th century by Christianity Today and WORLD, this work remains timely, relevant, and important.

It may be particularly relevant today as we see a resurgence of just the kind of denials that Machen battled in his day.


We will begin reading together next Thursday (June 2). Before then please track down a copy of the book and read the Introduction. Then return here on June 2 and we can share some thoughts and reflections on that Introduction. We’ll read one chapter per week for the next 6 weeks. And then we will be done, just like that.


The book is widely available. You can find it at:

Amazon (print)  |  Amazon (Kindle)  |  Westminster Books  |  CBD Reformed

If you’d prefer to save a few dollars and read it online, you can find it for free at Reformed.org, CCEL, and elsewhere. You can even get the audio book for free.

So get a book, get reading, and check back on June 2.

April 04, 2011

Christians read a lot of books. This is a good thing. Christians read a lot of Christian books. This is another good thing. But it’s also an easy thing, a safe thing. Though I am glad to see many Christians reading many books, I believe there is value in reading not only deeply but also widely. And this means that Christians should read more than just Christian books—we should read books that are in the cultural mainstream.

Let me offer you a few reasons that you should consider reading regularly in the mainstream:

Common Grace

Christians have long understood that God gives a measure of grace to all human beings and not just to Christians. We know this as common grace, grace given in common to all people. The great theologian Charles Hodge summarizes it in this way: “The Bible therefore teaches that the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of truth, of holiness, and of life in all its forms, is present with every human mind, enforcing truth, restraining from evil, exciting to good, and imparting wisdom or strength, when, where, and in what measure seemeth to Him good.” Common grace tells us that Christians do not have the market cornered when it comes to what is true and what is wise.

What this means is that we are wise to read all kinds of books, and not just those that have been sanctified by association with a Christian publisher or Christian author. The Parable of the Dishonest Manager in Luke 16 is one of Jesus’ stranger parables, but its purpose should not be lost on us: “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light” (Luke 16:8). Jesus knew of God’s common grace. He would tell us that truth and wisdom are waiting to be mined in every genre of books.

Cultural Engagement