Monday, March 02, 2009

Book Review: "Christless Christianity"

When I was growing up, evangelicals would point to the declining membership numbers of the more liberal mainline churches and offer them as proof that when churches lose the Gospel, those churches empty. That never really was a very good argument, but Michael Horton, in his new book, Christless Christianity, makes a better argument expressing concern about a more ominous possibility: that churches would lose Christ and the Gospel and keep on going without noticing the difference.

In spite of the title, Dr. Horton (he holds a Ph.D from the University of Coventry and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford) acknowledges that American Christianity has not yet reached the place where it can be referred to as "Christless;" but he does persuasively argue that we are in many instances precariously close. In his critique, he does not let either conservatives or liberals off of the hook. Rather, he argues that both sides of the theological spectrum frequently proclaim views that bear less resemblance to historic Christianity than to a sort of "moralistic, therapeutic deism."

That is not to say that American Christians don't talk about Jesus: we do a lot. However, the Christ we talk about is frequently not the one who is presented in the Bible as the Lord who died on a Cross and rose again for the salvation of sinners. Rather, he is a "life coach" dispensing good advice on how to live. Too many who ask "what would Jesus do" fail to really focus on "what has Jesus done." The result is a graceless legalism that ultimately leads to burnout and/or self-righteousness.

The charge of legalism will strike many contemporary Christians as strange, as they think of their churches as providing something different from the fire and brimstone, as well as the lists of rules, emphasized in churches from their past. However, Dr. Horton says modern churches offer a message of "legalism lite." While the rules are less stringent and the messages are more affirming, the bottom line message is still that for one to be successful, one should "do better and try harder." However, doing better and trying harder will never lead us to the Promised Land. That message will lead many either to self-righteousness or to giving up.

In contrast to the "good advice" given in such churches, Dr. Horton argues that the Bible offers "good news." The good news starts with really bad news: we are sinners, and God is Holy. But God has intervened decisively, doing for human beings what we can not do. The message of Christianity is not "do more, try harder." It is to repent and believe. Not by working, but by His means of grace -- Gospel preaching, baptism, Communion -- we find new life.

Dr. Horton applies his critique to varying movements that he argues ultimately have more in common than they would imagine: the smarmy positive thinking of Joel Osteen, the "emergent church movement," the "church growth movement," and both the religious right and the religious left. He argues that our legalistic message, with an emphasis on what we do and not on what God has done, ultimately leads us to be more offensive, not more relevant. In a particularly poignant passage, he writes:

"Yes, there is hypocrisy, and because Christians will always be simultaneously saint and sinner, there will always be hypocrisy in every Christian and in every church. The good news is that Christ saves us from hypocrisy too. But hypocrisy is especially generated when the church points to itself and to our own "changed lives" in the promotional materials. Maybe non-Christians would have less relish in pointing out our failures if we testified in word and deed to our need and God's gift for sinners like us."

Indeed. I highly recommend this book.

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