Review by Jason Ragain
Horton, Michael. Christless Christianity. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008.
“Do More; Try Harder.” According to Michael Horton, author of Christless Christianity, this phrase is the pervasive message that is being regularly communicated in our churches today. This deed-oriented faith is not merely found in churches that have embraced theological and practical liberalism; it is becoming more common place in many evangelical churches. The result of embracing this “do more, try harder” message (which is rooted in American pragmatism) is a faith that has become trivialized, moralized, minimized, and irrelevant. Horton does suggest that evangelicalism has not become theologically liberal but rather theologically vacuous (pg 23). In this environment, Christ is viewed as a resource to help improve ourselves and/or our current situation rather than being our Lord, Redeemer, and Savior. In order to be relevant in our American culture, many churches have embraced this pragmatic message and have communicated this new gospel through moralistic messages of self help, self improvement, and privatized religion. By preaching these messages, churches pass on good advice, but neglect the greatest message of all…the Gospel.
In Horton’s critique of the American church, he suggests that at the heart of this American gospel are two ancient heresies that the Church has been wrestling with for over fifteen hundred years. One the one hand, the American church has embraced Pelagianism or semi-pelagianism, which was an ancient heresy that rejected the concept of original sin and communicated that people had the natural ability to choose between good and evil. The result of this teaching was a works oriented religion that demanded people to work harder and to live lives of stoicism and discipline. Horton suggests that the messages of self-help and self-improvement (ie. Preaching of Joel Osteen) fall in line with this ancient heresy. At the root of these self-help messages is the presupposition that man is inherently good and our problem is that we are not living up to our God given potential. If only we do more and try harder, we can choose to do good and avoid evil resulting in a life of happiness and prosperity.
The church has also embraced elements of Gnosticism, which was a major heretical problem in the early church. There were a number of different varieties of gnostic thought and belief, however what made these different varieties common was a belief in a special knowledge one must have to find salvation. According to Horton, we see elements of Gnostic thought in the pursuit of one’s personal and utterly unique special relationship with Jesus. Religion has become a personal matter between the individual and God; apart from creeds and the church. According to Horton, this is the direction the American Church is moving.
Christless Christianity was a very helpful read and should be read so that people begin thinking rightly about the current trends in American Christianity. I consider this text as one of my top ten books for church leaders to read. Even though I think so highly of Horton’s analysis, I do have a couple of concerns that I feel obligated to share.
Horton does a wonderful job deconstructing the alternative gospel of the American Church by providing both practical and theological examples. The problem is that we do not receive any positive examples of churches living out the Gospel rightly according to the author. Additionally, this book is mainly a critique of the American Church and just briefly touches on practical things that we can do to remedy the situation. One can finish the book feeling empowered to communicate the Gospel but feel paralyzed when it comes to empowering the church to live out the Gospel lest one fall into preaching moralism or work oriented religion. Much of this feeling comes from the fact that Horton spends a good deal of the book hashing out the differences between Law and Gospel (Law being the imperatives of the Scripture and Gospel the indicatives), when in my view disjointing the two can be difficult since we are called to believe (imperative) the Gospel and according to Matthew 5:16 we are to let our “light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in Heaven (ESV)”. Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount seems to be communicating a combination of Law and Gospel.
Additionally, I was concerned with Horton’s position on self-feeding. He seems to be very cautious to encourage the laity to self-feed; their role is to receive God through preaching, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. While we shouldn’t be an island in regards to growing in our relationship with Christ, Scripture does provide us with examples of self-feeding. Paul encourages Timothy to train in godliness (1 Tim 4:6-8); additionally, Paul affirms the Church in Berea of their eagerness to receive the Word and their practice of examining the Scriptures (Acts 17:11). (excursus: I should state here that it is evident that Horton’s theological presuppositions are at work in regards to his comment of receiving from God through preaching, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. God is at work in all three, however I am concerned in regards to Horton dismissing human activity…especially when it comes to baptism. Horton appears to be embracing the teachings of covenant theology in that baptism is a ritual we go through in which God supernaturally intervenes to bring us into the community of believers. In other words, baptism is not an external symbol one goes through to communicate to the church his or her decision to follow Christ; rather it is an identity marker from God of one belonging to the elect.)
Despite these minor concerns, I very much appreciate Christless Christianity and its challenge to the American church to step back and consider the current state of Christianity. It is my prayer that the American church abandons a works oriented gospel of good advice, in which deeds are practiced apart from the creeds of faith and, rather, embrace the Good News of Jesus Christ and the practice of allowing our deeds flow out of the creeds of faith.