Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church

Martin Downes

Christless Christianity
By Michael Horton
Baker (November 2008)
272 p.

There are certain books that, even within a few pages, give you the distinct impression that they must be read, and re-read, with great care. Michael Horton's latest volume Christless Christianity : The Alternative Gospel of the American Church is that kind of book.

Horton's analysis of what is wrong with so much that passes for Christianity in the United States, and which of course is being exported across the globe, is clear sighted, substantiated by the evidence, and devastating in its implications. Old errors are alive and well and the good news of God's grace in Jesus Christ is being supplanted by them.

Some twelve and a half years ago R. C. Sproul wrote:
    "We need an Augustine or a Luther to speak to us anew lest the light of God's grace be not only overshadowed but be obliterated in our time."
It is precisely with that same concern, and in that same vein, that Horton has directed his aim at a "Christless Christianity" that draws us away from God's astonishing sovereign grace. This appalling trade-off leaves us with a Christ that we may still call a Savior, but "we really save ourselves by knowing and following the steps of the new birth and victorious living" (p. 54).

This "Christianity-lite" is no more than the redux version of the old errors of pelagianism and gnosticism, a heady brew of works-righteousness and subjectivism, but all tailored to the needs of those reared on 21st century aspirations and expectations.

"Christless Christianity" is anti-gospel error with a smile. It has enough truth, or perhaps words associated with the truth, to maintain plausibility, and enough error to pander to the cravings of our sinful hearts and minds. Our ability to obey is massaged, our spirituality is pampered, but our sins, true guilt, total helplessness, our need for Jesus Christ and his substitutionary death are neglected, ignored, and replaced.

Horton writes:
So much of what I am calling "Christless Christianity" is not profound enough to constitute heresy. Like the easy-listening Muzak that plays ubiquitously in the background in other shopping venues, the message of American Christianity has simply become trivial, sentimental, affirming, and irrelevant...I think our doctrine has been forgotten, assumed, ignored, and even misshaped and distorted by the habits and rituals of daily life in a narcissistic culture. (p. 21)

Instead of a gospel that is grace all the way down, "Christless Christianity" is "moralistic, therapeutic deism" (p. 40). Even though it may try to distance itself from the old legalism of the fundamentalists, it is in fact a gentler form of legalism with an irrepressible confidence in human ability. It is law, and not gospel. This whole approach is typified by the dazzling self-help moralism of Joel Osteen:

"Osteen seems to think that we are basically good people and God has a very easy way for us to save ourselves--not from his judgment, but from our lack of success in life--with his help. "God is keeping a record of every good deed you've ever done," he says--as if this is good news. "In your time of need, because of your generosity, God will move heaven and earth to make sure you are taken care of." (p. 70)
Indeed the pandering to works is astonishing:
Make no mistake about it, behind all of the smiles there is a thorough-going religion of works-righteousness: "God's plan for each of our lives is that we continually rise to new levels. But how high we go in life, and how much of God's favour and blessing we experience, will be directly related to how well we follow his directions." (p. 86)

But it is not only the Joel Osteens and Robert Schullers of this world who confuse law and gospel, the same is true in the writings of emergent guru Brian McLaren (p. 110-4). The good news for Osteen is how to become a better you.  For McLaren it is following a new way.  But for both the work of Christ outside of us, apart from us, and crucially for us, is being jettisoned. Horton rightly says "Jesus and the community, his work and ours, blend into one saving event" (p. 114).  

If the Reformation gave us a clearer grasp of the biblical offices of prophet, priest and king, "Christless Christianity" by way of contrast, majors on Jesus the prophet and teacher, is muted on Christ the king, and has no real need for the high priestly suffering of the Son of God.

One could be forgiven for thinking that Christless Christianity is merely a withering critique of all that is wrong with the pragmatic, pelagian, individualistic, market and emergent driven American church landscape. However, at every turn Horton points us, to borrow the title from another of his books, to a better way. As well as having a polemical edge this book is spiritually enriching. It is as we are reminded of our sinful depravity and helplessness, as we are humbled, that we are led again and again in the book to the sheer grace of God in Jesus Christ, to his atoning blood, glorious resurrection, and total sufficiency. Indeed Horton directs us to preaching Christ, to the churchly means of grace, as God's provision for burned out souls.

Michael Horton is an astute observer of the evangelical church scene and its relationship to culture.  The difference between his assessments of the data, and that of a George Barna or a Willow Creek, is ultimately rooted in a different theology and a different ecclesiology.  Claiming to be orthodox on paper counts for little if your approach to church life and the gospel effectively undermines the truth.  The sections of the book that deal with the doctrine of the church ought to leave us with some serious thinking about what the church is before God, and what the church must do in the world.

"Christless Christianity," leaves no orthodox doctrine untouched.  God is reduced to our fellow sufferer, our sympathizer.  Sin has become bad feelings and poor self image.  Christ has become our example and our teacher.  Eternity has become time, the world to come eclipsed by the here and now.  Scripture becomes a self-help manual.  The true biblical world-view has been inverted.  God's holiness no longer stands in such stark contrast with our sin, and therefore his justice and our eternal condemnation no longer remain our most pressing issue.  By this route, atonement and justification need not be denied because, frankly, they are now irrelevant.

Let me end this review with a striking passage that I think encapsulates the reason why evangelical church life is so desperately faddish, frantically pursuing a boom and bust cycle of spiritual experience:
Similarly today, the preaching of the law in all of its gripping judgment and the preaching of the gospel in all of its surprising sweetness merge into a confused message of gentle exhortation to a more fulfilling life. Consequently, we know neither how to mourn nor how to throw a real party. The bad news no longer stands in such sharp contrast with the good news; we become content with so-so news that eventually fails to bring genuine conviction or genuine comfort but keeps us on the treadmill of anxiety, craving the next revival, technique, or movement to lift our spirits and catapult us to heavenly glory. (p. 63)

Martin Downes is the minister of Christ Church Deeside (North Wales, UK).