Monday, November 03, 2008

Christless Christianity

Is God perhaps a supporting character in your life movie, however strong and important a character he may be, or have you been rewritten as a new character in God’s drama of redemption? If the former, then the focus is on us and our activity rather than on God and his work in Jesus Christ. “Us and out activities” may be all very fine things. Perhaps we’re fixing our marriages, becoming relevant to the culture, making disciples, doing what Jesus would do, overcoming addictions, even blogging and destroying apostate thought in all its forms. We have a “purpose driven life,” and “purpose driven churches.” We are putting biblical principles in action and seeing “success” in our lives. Better kids, better marriages, and we even make it to every church function in the calendar year. Awesome worship music, and even “awesomer” preaching (they even say “Dude”), all of course ever so “relevant” to our culture. Shoot, this aint your daddy’s Christianity, our kid’s pagan friends actually have fun at our churches. We’re doing just fine, thank you. Oh, by the way, where’s Jesus Christ in all of this?

Judging by the tremendous “commercial, political, and media success, the evangelical movement seems to be booming. But is it still Christian?”, asks Mike Horton in his latest book, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church. Of course we still say we believe in Jesus, salvation by grace, the Bible, and the resurrection. That’s not in question. But when our teaching and practice is analyzed, what does that say we believe? Horton thinks “that the church in America is so obsessed with being practical, relevant, helpful, successful, and perhaps even well-liked that it nearly mirrors the world itself. Aside from the packaging there is nothing that cannot be found in most churches today that could not be satisfied by any number of secular programs.” The regular diet the sheep are fed in many of today’s churches is, “Do more, try harder.” Horton’s concern “is that we’re getting dangerously close to the place in everyday American church life where the Bible is mined for ‘relevant’ quotes but is largely irrelevant on its own terms; God is used as a personal resource rather than known, worshiped, and trusted; Jesus is a coach with a good plan for our victory rather than a Savior who has already achieved it for us; salvation is more a matter of having our best life now than being saved from God’s judgment by God himself; and the holy Spirit is an electrical outlet we can plug into for the power we need to be all we can be.”

Horton doesn’t deny that there are some churches, pastors, evangelists, and distinguished laypeople who are proclaiming Christ and fulfilling their vocations with integrity. He’s not addressing them, and thinks they would join him in his worries. He is also not saying that we have arrived at a Christless Christianity, just that we are well on our way. He is not questioning American Christianity at the level of zeal either. But it’s a zeal without knowledge. It’s not that we have our doctrine but are not living it. Rather it’s that we are living out our distorted doctrine quite well. Our creed is closer to the American dream than to the historic Christian faith, says Horton.

In Christless Christianity Horton offers a massive amount of statistics showing that those raised in “Bible believing churches know as little of the Bible‘s actual content as their unchurched neighbors.” But despite this, Christ is everywhere in this subculture, “but more as an adjective than as a proper name.” We are swarmed by “Christian things” while Christ has been reduced to mascot of that subculture. We take Christ’s name in vain for our own personal crusades and talking points, we trivialize his word in countless ways, and then express moral indignation when a movie trivializes Christ. We like to pretend we are persecuted by evil Hollywood and the Democrats. “But if we ever were really persecuted, would it be because of our offensive posturing and self-righteousness or because we would not weaken the offense of the cross?” Horton contends that his and other’s experience has shown that “believers who challenge the human-centered process of trivializing the faith are more likely to be persecuted--or at least viewed as troublesome--by their church.” Horton’s bigger concern is not that God is taken lightly in American culture, but more-so that he’s not taken seriously in the faith and practice of believers.

Horton’s argument in the book is “not that evangelicalism is becoming theologically liberal but that it is becoming theologically vacuous.” Today it is becoming more and more common to see Christianity as about “spiritual and moral makeovers” than about “death and resurrection--radical judgment and radical grace.” The Word is a resource for how to get what we’ve already decided we need, rather than a “criticism of our religion, morality, and pious experience.” God’s word is something we use to make our life story more exciting. And so “Jesus has been dressed up as a corporate CEO, life coach, culture-warrior, political revolutionary, philosopher, copilot, cosufferer, moral example, and partner in fulfilling our personal and social dreams. But in all these ways we are reducing the central character I the drama of redemption to a prop for our own play.” Liberals, conservatives, Arminian, Calvinist. Those labels cease to matter when the message is “What would Jesus do,” rather than “What has Jesus done.” And so Horton’s “aim is not to target any particular wing, movement, person, or group. We are all victims and accomplices in our own captivity.” Horton then is “writing about ‘us’--all of us who profess the name of Christ…”

The above illness is defined by sociologist Christian Smith as “Therapeutic Moral Deism.” Horton follows Smith in this diagnosis. After a “remarkable” study of teen spirituality in America, Smith observed that most teens said that their faith is “very important” to them, yet they are “stunningly inarticulate” about the content of that faith. The separation of deeds from creeds of course moves everything into the inner person. Moralistic, therapeutic deism is defined by Smith as: (i) God created the world; (ii) God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other; (iii) the central goal in life is to be happy and feel good about oneself; (iv) God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when needed to solve a problem; (v) people go to heaven when they die. Horton shows through persuasive, detailed, and ubiquitous analysis that the above has infected the American church. He identifies one main cause as our “default setting”: (semi-) Pelagianism. Horton contends that the gospel of Jesus Christ is unnatural to our Adamic ears. It is easily forgotten. All too often we treat God as giving us that initial “oomph” and then we go out and accomplish the rest, treating our religion as a do-it-yourself guide for personal satisfaction. God saves us and then we go our and save our cars by placing Jesus bumper stickers on them. Or perhaps we’re more ambitious and we go out and “take back America for Jesus!”, sanctifying the unjustified. The good news becomes good advice.

As default (semi-) Pelagians, we often turn the good news into good advice. Horton lists main ways of how we do this, the most prominent is to confuse law and gospel. Briefly, the law is “do this” and the gospel is “done.” Of course this isn’t to deny sanctification, or “doing” things. But Horton’s critiquing our emphasis and focus. One way in which we can see the gospel turned into law is in the popular saying, “Living the gospel.” The gospel is something done by Jesus in history and announced to us, not something we do. Emergent church leader Dan Kimball is on record as saying, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary use words.” Kimball says “Our lives will preach better than anything we can say.” Horton rightly points out that “this is just more bad news, not only because of the statistics we have already seen, which evidence no real difference between Christians and non-Christians, but because in spite of my best intentions, I am not an exemplary creature. The best examples and instructions--even the best doctrines--will not relieve me of the battle with indwelling sin until I draw my last breath. Find me on my best day--and attitudes--and I will always provide fodder for the hypocrisy charge and will let down those who would become Christians because they think I and my fellow Christians are the gospel. … I am not the gospel; Jesus Christ alone is the gospel. … We do not preach ourselves, but Christ. The more we talk about Christ as the Bible’s unfolding mystery and less about our own transformation, the more likely we are to be actually transformed rather than either self-righteous or despairing.”

This reminds me of the very last SCCCS conference. On the last day a movie was played where a nice, white, all-American man threw a birthday party for a prostitute at a diner. She never had anyone do anything “nice” for her, and most people treated her as trash. But this man did what other’s had not done. Of course the man was supposed to be a “Christian,” but he may just as well have well been a Mormon missionary. The movie ended with the girl walking out of the diner and we see a Catholic church off in the distance. After the movie one of the speakers, a PCA pastor, stood up and said, “I would have no problem playing that for the sermon on Sunday morning, because that was the gospel.” Look’s like Horton’s worries are confirmed, even among (what are supposed to be) “Reformed” ministers of the gospel.

One of the dangers that lead to the above is what is called “the assumed gospel.” We all “get” the gospel, we’re just not living it. Of course Horton decimates this idea with his massive stock pile of statistics marshaled throughout each chapter as well as the theological rejoinder that, actually, we don’t “get” it; or, at least, that we easily forget the gospel. We’re wired for law, see. “The gospel is so odd, even to us Christians, that we have to get it again and again,” says Horton. Treat Christianity primarily as a means of “getting your marriage” on track, and you’ll be welcomed in the public sphere. If religion is private therapy to improve our lives and make us better, it has an important place in society. If you “treat it as public truth--Good news to the whole world--and it provokes offence. Moral and spiritual enlightenment is one thing; redemption by a one-sided divine rescue operation is another.” When we assume we know the gospel, we slip right into our (semi-) Pelegian moralism all too easily. We need the gospel again and again. Every single Lord’s day. Rather than the constant burden to “do more” in our lives and church, we need first and foremost to be reminded of what was done for us. Only if this gospel has been properly preached can the Christian go out and love his neighbor and minister to others in the body.

But all too often our religion places one demand on us after another. We are constantly “transforming all areas of life” or looking for that next set of principles that we can put into action so as to this time be “on fire for Jesus,” that we get burned out. Do this, do that, place a fish on your car and make sure to invite your entire neighborhood to go see The Passion of the Christ. “Get involved” in this ministry and that ministry. On top of that make sure to be a “Promise keeper.” Sing your heart out to Jesus on Sunday morning. Give your all to God . We forget that God gives to us. He invites us to church so he can feed us and clean through Word and Sacrament. We get so busy so “doing things for the kingdom” that we’ve forgot the King and what he did, and continues to do, for us. Horton does not deny the good things that Christians can and should do. But he laments that it is taking place minus the constant bombardment of the gospel. “Christianity Lite.” “Christ as adjective” for my car or my coffee shop. Look at me take back my neighborhood by serving “Christian coffee” at a “Christian coffee house.” After a day’s work I drive home in my “transformed” Suburban with my WWJD bumper sticker. I’ve got to be faithful like Abraham, devoted like Moses. Quote-mine Joshua’s life so I can be a Joshua at the office. And, of course, we should all “dare to be a Daniel.” This is moralism. The constant preaching of this burns us out. We need a rest. We can do more when rested.

Horton offers the story of David as an example of how the Bible presents its stories and how therapeutic moralism cannot be gleaned from the proper reading of the Scriptures. He cites Graeme Goldsworthy’s comments on Martin Luther’s own comments on David’s victory over Goliath:

“The important point to note is that Luther has made the link between the saving acts of God through Christ. Once we see the connection, it is impossible to use David as a mere model for Christian living since his victory was vicarious and the Israelites could only rejoice in what was won for them. In terms of our interpretive principles, we see David’s victory as a salvation event in that the existence of the people of God in the promised land was at stake.”

Reading this I was reminded of the movie In The Valley of Elah. In a scene where the movie gets its title, Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), retired MP, tells the young son of the detective he’s working with to solve his son’s murder, the story of when David meets Goliath in the Valley of Elah. Hank is a outwardly religious man. Surely loves God, his country, Mom, and apple pie. He prays before every meal. He’s a paradigmatic therapeutic, moral deist. He gives the young boy, also named David, a “life lesson” from the biblical David’s life. What is gleaned from the text?: Face down your monsters, look them in the eye, exhibit courage even when all the odds are stacked against you. (Deerfield was obviously no Aristotelian, that’s for sure.! But I digress…) Even Hollywood understands what “Christians” have turned the Bible into! Jones’s bed time story could easily been stolen from the preaching of almost any church across the country. That’s what happens when the Bible is turned into a plan for “Your best life now.”

Horton confronts modern evangelicalism, issuing a warning call to the catholic Church. Christless Christianity stands in the same league with Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism. It’s at least a modern day counterpart (though, hItalicas Machen's book become unmodern?). His scathing indictment is backed by thorough analysis and myriad examples. His conclusions hard to deny. He uses the insights of sociologists and statisticians like Barna, Bloom, Lee, Mullen, Noll, Smith, Witten, and many others. He also uses as fodder such names as Charles Finney, Joel Osteen, and Brian McLaren to make many of his main points. The danger here is in thinking that us Reformed escape Horton’s critique. But we don’t. Reading his book I was shown that I am and have been guilty of following a Christless Christianity. I am no better than the Arminians we critique on this blog for example. Until I get to heaven, I will constantly forget and water down the gospel. Am I better because my (semi-) Pelagianism is outwardly denied even though I repeatedly fall back into it through my actions and my assumption of the gospel?

So this isn’t just a book to self-righteously give your “evangelical” friends. Even showing your moralism by treating Horton’s book as some kind of “plan” or “set of principles” that will get their life on track. This is a book you get and read and apply to yourself first. This is a book for all of us, and all of us need to read it and take its warnings seriously. So, take a break from “transforming” your neighborhood for Jesus and get acquainted with the gospel all over again. Step outside of your narcissistic personalizing of Jesus and get the focus back on an actual historical event that comes to us by way of announcement. Bring back the idea that we go to church to get served rather than primarily to serve. Knock off the self-feeding and get fed. “For the time is come for judgment to begin at the house of God.”


  1. Amen. Mike is a treasure to the Church. I pray this work will wake many up to the true Gospel of Grace.

  2. Mike is tireless when it comes to writing on this topic. He has writen a number of books dealing with this.

    I have a hard time believing that a PCA pastor would say of the mentioned movie that he would “have no problem playing that for the sermon on Sunday morning, because that was the gospel.”

    That's certainly not typical of PCA pastors that I've become acquainted with. (I'm a member of the PCA) I would say that from my experience, at least in my area of the country,(south east)that the pragmatic, arminian, have it your way style churches are thriving and the more conservative (what ever that is anymore) are dying out. I can see the temptation that many church leaders would have in following the cultural relevance crowd.

  3. Richard,

    "I have a hard time believing that a PCA pastor would say of the mentioned movie that he would “have no problem playing that for the sermon on Sunday morning, because that was the gospel.”

    I was there, and I believe the tapes can still be ordered. I had friends there and my wife was there. We were all shocked.

    On top of that, when I stood up and voiced my disaprval during the Q&A time, *all* the guest speakers virtually laughed out loud at me. This includes the PCA pastor, Brian Godawa (PCA), David Bahnsen, etc.

    I have been a member of the PCA for the past 8 years. I only left because I moved and found the local OPC better for my soul and my family's

  4. That story of the prostitute and the birthday party in the diner is told by Tony Campolo. If I remember correctly he said it happened to him in Hawaii.

    Does anyone know what film it was and whether he had anything to do with the production of it? I have always been skeptical of his telling of the story.

  5. Paul,

    That is really sad. It makes me wonder about the future of the PCA.

    Paul said:

    "I have been a member of the PCA for the past 8 years. I only left because I moved and found the local OPC better for my soul and my family's"

    I have been a member of the PCA for about eight years as well. Unfortunately, there isn't an OPC church in my town.

  6. Lightwalker,

    The film is called "The Least of These." It is indeed based on the Campolo story. I do believe Campolo was involved.

    Here's a friendly review of the film:

    The confusion is evident in the verse chosen to be the film's title: "Whatever YOU DO for the least of these, you've done for me." If that's the gospel, I'm screwed...but my Mormon neighbors might make it in just fine.

    BTW, soon after the conference, one of my friends blogged on his experience:

  7. I have no doubt believing a PCA pastor said this. When I first learned that Reformed churches existed, I ran the gambit of my local PCA, only one was reformed in a sense that you would recognize, the rest could have been saddleback sattelites or Alive! LCMS.
    Everytime I move I am incredibly sad the entire time I am church hunting.
    I was so excited, because my new locale has a dozen or so "reformed" churches, unfortunately these are either bizarre post-mil politcal cults or or some bizarre attempt to mimic willow creek, not to mention a cadre of LCMS purpose-driven churches.
    Eventually, I found an OPC, although I secretly wish they had Christmas.