Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church, by Michael Horton. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008. 259 pages.
“Michael Horton is J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California. He hosts The White Horse Inn radio broadcast and is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is the author/editor of more than fifteen books.” (Dust Jacket)
Big, bold, red letters that read CHRISTLESS CHRISTIANITY over a picture of DaVinci’s famous image of the Last Supper with Jesus cut out—it’s a cover meant to be striking. The thesis contained within is intended to be just as striking, “My argument in this book is not that evangelicalism is becoming theologically liberal but that it is becoming theologically vacuous” (23). The particular way in which Horton claims Christianity is becoming theologically empty is that it is becoming “Christless.” This does not mean that Christ is no longer present, but rather that his work for us is no longer the focus. Instead Jesus becomes many different things, but none of them is Savior. “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 of these ways, are we reducing the central character in the drama of redemption to a prop for our own play?” (25) It is this thought that Horton examines in detail throughout his book.
In his second chapter Horton fleshes out this thought, providing details and evidence that much of modern Christianity is not actually Christian. Often Horton allows others to make his points for him. For instance he quotes from George Barna, “In short, the spirituality of America is Christian in name only….We desire experience more than knowledge. We prefer choices to absolutes. We embrace preferences rather than truths. We seek comfort rather than growth. Faith must come on our terms or we reject it” (31). Sociologist Christian Smith is cited for his studies in which he claims that the most prominent form of religion/spirituality in America is “moralistic, therapeutic deism” (40). The gist of this works out to the thought “God is nice and we are nice, so we should all be nice” (42). Essentially Horton diagnoses this problem as Pelagianism. One of the sources he cites in substantiating this claim is a study of sermons from the Presbyterian Church and the Southern Baptist Convention by sociologist Marsha Witten, which provides ample evidence for his claims (48ff). Horton concedes that while American Christianity is probably not totally Pelagian, it is at least strongly semi-Pelagian (61-62).
Chapters three through five offer forms that the problem takes and ample examples of those problems. Chapter three is focused on the issue of eliminating the Law and offering the Gospel as really just a lighter version of the Law. Horton sums the matter up this way, “The bad news may not be as bad as it used to be, but the Good News is just a softer version of the bad news: Do more. But this time, it’s easy! And if you fail, don’t worry. God just wants you to do your best. He’ll take care of the rest” (70). Joel Osteen is frequently cited as an example of this. Quotes like, “When I get them to church I want to tell them that you can change” (76), and “We do have rules. But the main rule is to honor God with your life. To live a life of integrity. Not be selfish. You know, help others. But that’s really the essence of the Christian faith” (78), and “You don’t get grace unless you step out. You have to make the first move” (87) are just a few examples of the truth that the Gospel is commonly turned into the Law. Horton points out that much of this problem stems from a failure to realize the severity of sin (75 & 93). Chapter four offers the problem of people turning the Gospel from a proclamation of what God has done for us to advice and exhortation to improve ourselves (105). Horton argues that this happens when what we do becomes more important than faith in the Gospel (deeds vs. creeds) (110-111). He also points out that connected to this mentality is the trap of assuming the Gospel, which robs the Christian of the very faith which drives Christian living (119-120 & 130). In contrast, proper preaching of the Law and of the Gospel will lead to true Christian living (132). Chapter five deals with the transformation of the message of Christ into a subjective matter. He sums up the matter this way, “How can any external orthodoxy tell me I’m wrong? My personal relationship with Jesus is mine. I do not share it with the church. Creeds, confessions, pastors, and teachers—perhaps not even the Bible—can shake my confidence in the unique experiences that I have alone with Jesus” (163). Ultimately, Horton points out that this is really just enthusiasm and Gnosticism (163-168). He also notes how this is entirely opposed to the reality that the Christian message is an objective message preached to us, not found subjectively within (174 & 183).
In chapter six Horton deals with the means by which Christ is delivered and the impact this has on the message. He makes the following observation, “If the central message of Christianity were how to have your best life now or become a better you, then rather than heralds we would need life coaches, spiritual directors, and motivational speakers. Good advice requires a person with a plan; Good News requires a person with a message” (195). Drawing on numerous examples, Horton presents a compelling case that when the message is no longer about God but rather about us, the means of grace are abandoned for other means which ultimately make the church irrelevant, and when the means of grace are abandoned as ineffective, the message will become centered on man and not on Christ (191-217).
The final chapter of Christless Christianity presents Horton’s solution. Essentially this suggested solution is a return to doctrine, with all that it entails. Horton writes, “It begins by challenging not only weak views of God, sin, and grace but the plausibility structures, paradigms, or worldviews that make biblical views increasingly incomprehensible even for most Christian laypeople and pastors” (239). To this end he encourages strong, clear and correct preaching of Law and Gospel (244, 246 & 247). He also stresses the essential nature of the means of grace (249-253). Horton’s contention is that these are the things that make Christianity a missionary faith; “Christianity is a missionary faith precisely because it is a doctrine, an announcement heralded by ambassadors” (256).
While Horton’s style didn’t jump out at me as exciting or fast-paced, he did carefully and amply make and support his points. In fact, if one was going to complain about anything it is that at times the amount of proof Horton provides is almost too much. Outside of that one complaint and a few isolated places where the author’s doctrinal errors creep through (e.g. 183 & 209), there is little a confessional Lutheran will find objectionable. Horton’s emphasis on the means of grace, the proper distinction between Law and Gospel, and his discussion of the theology of the cross will be very welcome by Lutherans. While not always flashy, the substance of the book is quite solid, well thought out, and carefully presented.
Not every pastor may find the time to fit a 259-page book into a busy ministry schedule, especially with so many other fine books that may seem more oriented towards practical aspects of ministry. However, it is hard to envision a pastor whose church is so cut off from the spirit of our times that his church doesn’t have members who are to some extent or another influenced by the emptying of Christianity that Horton addresses. The reality is that our members live in a world where many of the Christians they encounter are exactly of the sort that Horton describes. Contact with people who have such views is bound to impact the way our members view their faith. In addition to offering a deeper insight into such views, Horton also offers a solution that Lutherans can wholeheartedly endorse. It is deeply refreshing to hear someone outside of the Lutheran church trumpet so strongly the importance of the proper distinction between Law and Gospel and the essential nature of the means of grace for God’s working. Perhaps, in the final analysis, it is that refreshing reminder from someone outside our circles of the importance of what we have in our Lutheran heritage that makes this book truly striking.