Thank you, Tim, for taking time to participate in this interview. I was recently thinking back to how I came to know you. I was first introduced to your blog when I was working for a printing company in Atlanta shortly after becoming a Christian. Soon, I moved to Louisville where I attended seminary, and I continued to read your blog during those years. I think I was intrigued by the fact that you had a passion for theology, but you earned a living at the time building websites. I too was moonlighting as a web designer while in seminary in order to pay the bills while pastoring a small church.
After being called to pastor my home church near Atlanta, we connected in person through our G3 Conference — which you’ve been involved with since the beginning. After getting to know you in person, my appreciation for your work has only increased through the years.
What I would like to discuss with you is the idea of reading and writing for the glory of God.
First of all, in terms of reading, how do you balance your time in the books between academic projects and personal devotion?
Challies: Sometimes I do it very well and other times not so much. I am less concerned with the amount of time given to each of the pursuits and more concerned with the significance I place on them. What I mean, is that I don’t think I need to read 4 hours of the Bible in order to “earn” the right to read 4 hours of other books. When it comes to Bible reading, I try to do that first, before anything else. That sets it as my main priority and elevates the Bible above other books. I try to do my devotions at a time (first thing in the morning) when I am not rushed. Beyond that, I read other books when I have time and as I find myself interested in reading them. I usually try to read the book I’m interested in now, which is why I always have at least 3 or 4 on the go. One of my favorite things to do is to read one chapter of a book, then switch to a second and third book and read one chapter in each of them, then start over again.
Other than the Bible, what book has been the most helpful for you in the area of sanctification (growing in grace)?
Challies: I always point to 3 books, which I suppose is cheating a little, so bear with me. R.C. Sproul’s The Holiness of God gave me just a glimpse of God’s holiness and compared it to my unholiness. In that way, it changed everything. Jerry Bridge’s The Discipline of Grace taught me about the gospel and the importance of dwelling on the gospel every day. It changed everything, too. John Owen’s Overcoming Sin and Temptation taught me why I must put sin to death and how to actually go about it. And yes, it changed everything too. I’ve read thousands of books over the course of my life and many of them have been helpful and edifying. But those three changed me forever. I return to them often because they continue to teach and change me.
What book has been the most helpful in your understanding of the doctrines of grace? Why?
Challies: I’d have to go with James Montgomery Boice’s The Doctrines of Grace. It was a book I picked up “randomly” one day while browsing a local Christian bookstore—a bookstore that had very few quality books in it. Yet for some reason they had a copy of that one just sitting there. I picked it up, read it, and emerged from it with renewed Reformed convictions. I had been raised in Reformed churches but had deliberately wandered into mainstream evangelicalism. That book showed me all that I had walked away from and convicted me that I had abandoned key gospel truths. Shortly after I picked up a couple of similar books, one by Michael Horton and one by R.C. Sproul. From that point there was no looking back.
As you have studied the doctrine of the church, has there been one particular author (other than Mark Dever) who has been helpful in your understanding of what a healthy church looks like?
Challies: Well, there’s definitely been no one more helpful to me than Mark Dever. That said, I mentioned picking up a book by James Boice. That same day I picked up another book—another book that had no good reason to be at that little Christian bookstore. It was John MacArthur’s Ashamed of the Gospel. While Boice’s book addressed the theology I had left behind when I walked away from Reformed churches, MacArthur’s book addressed many of the doctrines of the church I had left behind. At that time I was in a church that was following the principles of church growth. MacArthur’s book was written specifically to combat that way of doing church. So on that one day I picked up two books that did their work within me. One called me to pure doctrine and the other called me to a pure church. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it was not long before we moved on from that church and joined Grace Fellowship Church where we remain today.
What biography of any historical figure (not bound to church history) has intrigued you the most?
Challies: It may sound a bit cliché, but probably Abraham Lincoln. I’ve read lots of biopgraphies of him, but my favorite is A. Lincoln by Ronald White. When I was a child I read a couple of biographies that painted Lincoln as a great Christian figure. I realize now that the story is much more nuanced than that and that many historians have attempted to figure out exactly what he believed and when he believed it. Still, I find Lincoln a fascinating figure and one who exemplified many important traits. He was a man of conviction who stands in sharp contrast to so many of today’s pragmatic leaders. He was a man of both toughness and kindness who stands in sharp contrast to so many of today’s too-hard or too-soft leaders. He was exactly the man America needed in its darkest hour. We could do with leaders like him today.
A while back you put out a series of posts on your blog regarding the best commentaries for specific books of the Bible. If you were placed on a deserted island with nothing other than your Bible and one set of commentaries, what set of commentaries would you choose?
Challies: I’d probably go with the Reformed Expository Commentary series—but only if it has been completed by then. (Do you know exactly when I’m going to find myself stranded on this island?) For now the series is still in progress and that would reduce the number I could take with me. So I might go with the Bible Speaks Today set, mostly so I could have Stott’s New Testament commentaries with me. I could read those all days, which is good because I suppose I wouldn’t have much else to do on that island. I suspect I’d come back godlier for the time spent in them.
When you started writing your blog, did you see yourself as developing into an author and conference speaker?
Challies: No, not at all. That was never the intent. And even today, that’s not the intent. I write the occasional book and speak at a number of conferences, but what I love to do most is blog—write articles, prepare book reviews, and collect good material from other sites. That’s my main passion. Actually, I need to be very careful with the books and conferences because they can actually be a distraction from what I consider my main ministry (or business or whatever it is). When I set out to write my purpose was really just to share the occasional article with family and perhaps with friends. It was only later on, as the search engines began to work their magic, that other people began to read my site. That was a surprise to me, but also a surprising joy. It has been thirteen years now that I’ve done it every day!
Many polemical blogs are helpful to the church as a whole, but many Christians are turned off by the tone of some blogging ministries. What advice would you provide someone who feels a passion to defend the faith in the world of the blogosphere?
Challies: You’ve heard it before, but it’s actually true—I know because I went to the Bank of Canada to verify it: The way to detect counterfeit money is not to study bad money but to study good money. You’ll be far better at identifying the funny money if you are an expert in identifying the real thing. This is true of doctrine as well. It’s true of false teachers. The way to identify error is to become intimately familiar with the truth. For that reason I’d like to see blogging ministries, especially discernment ministries, focus on what is good, what is pure, what is holy and lovely. If we teach people to know and love what is good, all that is evil will stand out in ugly contrast.
Suppose you could talk to a room full of new budding bloggers, what advice would you provide them about how they should approach blogging as a Christian?
Challies: First, I’d want them to believe that blogging matters. It really does. It really does make a difference to people—to God’s people. Second, I’d want them to understand that so much of what passes for advice to bloggers is actually gimmickry. The absolute best thing a blogger can do is focus on great content—high-quality articles. A beautiful design, powerful headlines, and beautiful graphics are all wasted if there isn’t quality content behind it. Third, understand who it is that you are writing for and find ways to bless and encourage them through what you write. There is always the temptation to write articles that benefit myself—they point people to Amazon so I can earn affiliate dollars, they increase my “platform” so I can get conference invitations or book deals. But blogging at its best is blogging that is done with a desire to server others, not self.
As an author, you’re always working on a new project. What new book should we expect to see released from Tim Challies in 2017?
Challies: At this point I have no plans to release a book in 2017, though I suspect there will be one in 2018. But, as I mentioned earlier, I am more and more convinced that my main emphasis ought to be on creating one good article every day. By the time I have done that, I have little time and little creative energy left for much else. I will continue to write books, but only at a pace that doesn’t take me away from my main ministry.
What benefits can come from writing, even if you don’t want to write a blog or author books, but you simply journal on a weekly basis?
Challies: There is a sense in which blogging is my meditation. I don’t know what I think, I don’t know what I believe, until I have written about it. Writing allows me to corral my thoughts, to get them down on virtual paper, to take them from vague and unformed to sharp and focused. This is true of what I write for my blog, but equally true for what I write in a journal that only I will ever see. Writing is a valuable practice, whether or not that writing ever becomes public.
Tim, thank you once again for taking the time to answer these questions today.
If you would like to learn more about Tim or find his books, you can visit his website – Challies.com.