Tag Archives: Tim Challies

Book Review: Visual Theology

Visual Theology: Seeing and Understanding the Truth about God, Tim Challies and Josh Byers, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.  Paperback, 155 pages.

I’ve read and reviewed several systematic theologies.  These books were geared towards pastors, theologians, or theological students.  They follow the same basic structure and, because they’re Reformed, they tend to say the same things in mostly the same way.   Visual Theology has “theology” in the title, and it generally steers in the Reformed direction, but that’s where the similarities end.

Visual Theology is decidedly not directed at the ivory tower – though scholars will certainly reap spiritual benefits if they read it.  Instead, it’s for regular people in the pew.  It also recognizes that some of those regular people are more visual in their learning style.  So, Tim Challies delivers clear prose and Josh Byers illumines with effective infographics.  All up, it’s not only a beautiful book, but also pedagogically powerful.

Conventional systematic theologies cover such topics as God, creation, salvation, and the last things.  Visual Theology is different; it has four parts:  grow close to Christ, understand the work of Christ, become like Christ, live for Christ.  It’s Christ-centered and relationally oriented.  It’s theology that, as Challies says, “is about growing in godliness” (p.12).  You can only grow in godliness in a healthy relationship with Christ.  Visual Theology shows why and how.  I found valuable insights new to me (especially in the third section on hating and fighting sin), but also many familiar truths expressed or illustrated freshly.

As I mentioned, generally this book leans Reformed.  For example, the use of creeds is affirmed (p.85); the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s definition of sin is quoted (p.94); the real spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is affirmed (p.27); and justification is properly defined as a declaration of righteousness (p.33).  Commendably, Visual Theology teaches a monergistic view of salvation which includes unconditional election.

By the authors’ own admission, the book “is not a thorough introduction to Christian doctrine” (p.79).  Some readers will detect gaps.  Allowing for the intent of the authors, but also for full disclosure to readers of this review, let me mention two.  Visual Theology is almost completely positive in its presentation of biblical teachings.  That means there’s not much, if anything, in the way of exposure or addressing of errors.  Next, its relational framework is a plus, but it is surprising that the biblical framework for a healthy relationship between God and humanity is missing.  There’s no explicit mention of the covenant of grace.

I have one noteworthy concern:  the authors are Baptists and this becomes evident in the description of baptism:  “The water of baptism represents the washing away of sin, while going into the water and coming back out represents death and new life” (p.27).  The first part of that sentence is true, and the second part can be true, but more needs to be said.  The authors assume immersion of the believer as the norm for baptism.  As one would expect from Baptists, the sprinkling of babies is not even in the picture, nor is the relationship between baptism and the covenant of grace.  However, this is one short paragraph in an otherwise great book and it is far from being a polemic for the Baptist position.  Discerning readers should be able to chew the rest of the meat while spitting out this bone.

This book could be useful as edifying reading for a Sunday afternoon.  Perhaps it could also be used as a textbook for an adult education class.  For those who might use it in an educational setting, there’s also a website with the infographics available as PowerPoint slides and moreVisual Theology is innovative in its approach, almost entirely reliable in its content, and attractive in its presentation.  You’ll find it both enjoyable and edifying!


Quotable Church History: “Be killing sin…”

This is the seventh in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

Today’s quote comes from the post-Reformation period.  It’s probably the most well-known quote by any Puritan:  “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.”  It comes from John Owen (1616-1683).

Himself born into a Puritan family, God raised up Owen to become one of Puritanism’s greatest theologians.  As a young man he already showed signs of precociousness — he was known to study for 18+ hours each day.  By the age of 19 he had earned a Master of Arts degree from Oxford.  He served later as a pastor, but eventually returned to Oxford to teach theology.  Owen was a prolific writer — the Banner of Truth reprint of his collected writings runs to 16 volumes of about 9,000 pages.  In Owen’s case, prolific equals profound but not always plain.  Owen often expects a lot from his readers.  Some modern editions of his books have rendered him more readable, but those wanting to begin digging into the Puritans ought to look elsewhere (I recommend Thomas Watson).

In 1656 Owen published an exposition of Romans 8 entitled Of the Mortification of SinYou can find this book available for free online.  In this book Owen shows at length how Christians are to wage war on sin and do violence to it in their hearts and lives.  You could think of it as an extended explanation of how to apply Heidelberg Catechism QA 89.  In older editions of the HC this question reads:  “What is the mortification of the old man?”  Answer:  “It is a sincere sorrow of heart that we have provoked God by our sins, and more and more to hate and flee from them.”  “Mortification” is an antiquated word for killing.  So, at a certain point in his book, Owen says it:  “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.”

This is speaking about the life of a redeemed Christian.  A Christian who has been saved by God’s free gift of grace in Jesus Christ needs to set himself or herself to the task of sanctification — the process of growing in holiness.  While we are passive in things like our election, regeneration, and justification, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to be active in our sanctification.  God calls us to be active in this.  Thus Owen gives Christians this imperative or command:  be killing sin.  It is something to which we need to apply ourselves.  We must strangle sin in our lives.  If we are not constantly murdering our wickedness, it will rise up and murder us.  It will destroy our lives.  Why?  Because it is the very nature of sin to kill and destroy.

By now you might recognize this quote as self-evidently biblical.  However, if it isn’t, consider one of the verses Owen was expositing.  Romans 8:13 says it most clearly:  “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”  Putting to death the deeds of the body equals “be killing sin.”  Not killing sin and having sin kill you equals “if you live according to the flesh you will die.”  Colossians 3:5 also urges Christians to plunge the knife into sin, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”  We’re to do that, the Holy Spirit goes on to say, because on account of these the wrath of God is coming.  If you don’t slay sin, your sins will slay you in the end.

Often when I’m tempted to sin I recall these pithy words of John Owen, based on God’s Word.  They’ve often been a help in seeing sin for what it is.  Sin presents itself to us in deceitful ways.  It promises what it will never deliver.  It promises to enrich your life, but this is a deadly lie.  Faced with sin, tell yourself the truth:  “Be killing sin or sin will be killing you.”  That’s reality and we ignore it to our detriment.

Now if you want to learn how to murder your wickedness, you could turn to Owen.  Sadly, as I mentioned, Owen is not going to be digestible spiritual food for everyone today.  Let me then recommend a readable summary of Owen’s teaching on this.  You’ll find it in section three of Visual Theology by Tim Challies and Josh Byers.  The clear prose of Challies is complemented by the effective infographics of Josh Byers.  It’s hard to beat on this topic.

 

 


Four Essential Pictures

I’m currently reading Tim Challies’ book Visual Theology.  This book presents many theological basics not only with text, but also with infographics.  This kind of approach aims to help those who learn best with visual helps.  I’m appreciating the book in many respects and will probably write a review in the near future.

As good books do, this one got me to thinking, particularly about the place of pictures in Reformed theology.  While we don’t believe it’s lawful to make images of God, this doesn’t rule out diagrams or other visual helps.  In fact, embedded in our theology are several essential pictures.  Even apart from an actual picture, these doctrines come across to us via some particular image we’re to hold in our minds.  Let’s look at four important doctrines and the associated pictures.

Covenant

In Scripture, the covenant of grace is portrayed in terms of a relationship.  When you think “covenant of grace,” you should immediately picture a relationship.  In Ezekiel 16 and Hosea 1 (and elsewhere), God speaks in terms of a marriage relationship with his people.  In the New Testament, this is taken over into the relationship of Christ (the groom) and his church (the bride).  While there may be contractual elements in the covenant of grace, the essence of it is a relationship.

Regeneration

The Bible gives several pictures of regeneration and one of those is a heart transplant.   When you think “regeneration,” you can picture someone receiving a new heart.  The Holy Spirit uses this picture in Ezekiel 11:19, “…I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh…”  This one picture does not exhaust everything the Bible says about regeneration, but it is one helpful conceptual peg on which to hang the doctrine in your mind’s eye.

Justification

Whenever you think about justification, you need to think “courtroom.”  The courtroom image is essential to this doctrine.  One of the key ways that people often get justification wrong is by saying that it is God making us right with himself.  However, justification is, in its very nature, a judicial matter.  It involves a judge making a declaration, issuing a verdict.  This is why Romans 1-3 describes man’s condition before God as a judge.  For example, Romans 2:2, “We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things.”  Starting at the end of Romans 3, the Spirit explains how a negative judgment can be averted through Jesus Christ.  After all that, we get Romans 8:1, “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  Condemnation is what we would receive from the Judge if we did not have Christ.  In its essence, therefore, justification involves the picture of a courtroom.

Adoption

Adoption is a beautiful word that pictures family.  Having been purchased by Christ, having been justified by him, we are now included in God’s family as his dearly loved children.  God is no longer our Judge, but our Father and we relate to him as such.  Nowhere is this stated more explicitly than Romans 8:15, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!'”  We’ve gone from the courtroom (justification) to the family room (adoption), and that’s a wonderful place to be!

To summarize:

Covenant —> Relationship

Regeneration —> Heart transplant

Justification —> Courtroom

Adoption —> Family

Reformed theology has more pictures, but those four are crucial to understand.  When you get those, you grasp several basics of the Christian faith.


Book Review: The Next Story

The Next Story: Life and Faith After the Digital Explosion, Tim Challies, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.  Hardcover, 204 pages, $21.99.

This book is a must-read for those in leadership positions in our church and school communities.  There’s not a lot of careful thought going on about technology and how it relates to a Christian worldview.  Technology is often regarded as what theologians used to called “adiaphora” – things indifferent.  You say “potăto,” I say “potāto,” you use your Kindle, I read a traditional book – what’s the difference?  It may start affecting worship too.  Does it really make a difference if a church uses a projector in the worship service instead of hard copy books?  What’s at stake?  These are the kinds of questions that this book will help us address.

The author is a well-known Canadian author with a widely-read blog at Challies Dot Com.  He brings together an interest in technology, a steady set of writing skills, and a good grasp of a Christian worldview.  He’s also written The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment (Crossway, 2007) and this newer book can be considered an extension and application of many of the biblical principles found in that earlier volume.

Let me give you a taste of what you’ll find in The Next Story.  Sometimes pastors will mention the ancient heresy of Gnosticism and its matter-spirit dualism.  The Gnostics taught that physical matter is bad and anything spiritual is good.  Challies illustrates how this thought is being resurrected in the digital era with a contemporary twist.  Cyberspace now “gives us a place to be apart from our bodies” (101) and this is almost universally seen as a good and desirable thing.  Read the book to find out more!

Challies has helpful critiques of Wikipedia and Google in connection with the concept of truth.  He notes that Wikipedia represents a model whereby truth is reached via consensus.  Google, on the other hand, presents us with truth via relevance.  Both present challenges to the Christian view of truth.  This is all found in chapter 8 – the most important chapter in the book.  We all quickly and mindlessly go to Wikipedia for answers, but we have to be aware that it is sometimes inaccurate (e.g. the article on the Canadian Reformed Churches until recently stated that the merger process with the URC has been called off), yet, more critically, it can subtly influence how we regard the very notion of what is true.

Written in an engaging way with many helpful illustrations and anecdotes, The Next Story ought to be on your must-read list.  Most of the chapters also have questions for reflection at the end, a helpful feature for group discussions at book clubs and so on.  I’m just going to make one small critical notation in this review.  I don’t understand why the publisher put this book out without justified margins on the right side of the page.  Challies doesn’t do this on his blog and I’ve never seen a book published by a large house like Zondervan with that feature.  It not only looks unprofessional, it’s also distracting.  If the medium does relate to the message (as Challies rightly argues), then this should be fixed if there’s ever a second edition.