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Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church
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Is it possible that we have left Christ out of Christianity? Is the faith and practice of American Christians today more American than Christian? These are the provocative questions Michael Horton addresses in this thoughtful, insightful book. He argues that while we invoke the name of Christ, too often Christ and the Christ-centered gospel are pushed aside. The result is a message and a faith that are, in Horton's words, "trivial, sentimental, affirming, and irrelevant." This alternative "gospel" is a message of moralism, personal comfort, self-help, self-improvement, and individualistic religion. It trivializes God, making him a means to our selfish ends. Horton skillfully diagnoses the problem and points to the solution: a return to the unadulterated gospel of salvation.

Customer Reviews:

  • Martin Luther of the 2nd Mill As Dr. Steven Nichols calls Him
    Read this with an Awakening.For this is the most accurate and faithful examination of the wayword Bride.So that Once-Again the marvelous gift of Free Grace may Free those who aren't getting from the Pulpit the meal Already Prepared by God. and then Rest and Recieve in the name the only name Jesus by which man can be saved.May God be gracious to use this work to bring about Reformation on this Soil[...]....more info
  • Faith Fallacies
    'The search for the sacred in America is largely oriented to what happens inside of us, in our own personal experience, rather than in what God has done for us in history. Even baptism and the Supper are described as 'means of commitment' rather than 'means of grace' in a host of contemporary systematic theologies.' pg 18

    'Admonishing one another in all wisdom' (Col 3:16) is afforded a biblical context by Michael Horton in modern-day America, deeply akin to John Gresham-Machen's 'Christianity and Liberalism'. Popular culture has inevitably produced popular Christianity. Horton warns further that 'Far from clashing with the culture, American religion appears to be not only at peace with our narcissism but gives it a spiritual legitimacy.' pg 20 Post-modernism has reared preachers in America that are not well-disposed towards historic orthodoxy. The mega-shift in Christianity, argues Horton, is further making evangelicalism 'theologically vacuous'. Horton does make an attempt at assimilating future evangelicalism (pg 173) with a combination of dispensational fundamentalism and liberal modernism, and it is likely owing to their influence within evangelicalism that even unwary conservatives have come to bow the Marcionite knee to a limited acceptance of orthodox doctrines.

    The fact is, and it is most identifiable where culture is apt at measuring the true effect of the church, that gospel preaching has not been christocentric for a while now. Accounts of overcoming significant obstacles through the power of faith are making news headlines everywhere. The concept of 'extra nos' (Puritan 'alien righteousness') that single-handedly sustained biblical assurance to generations of Protestant Christians through catechism, creeds and confessions has run afoul of Gen Xers. But, counters Horton, 'the creedal, objective, and historical faith of traditional Christianity could not be translated into purely subjective terms.' pg 50

    'I believe that all the world, whether they be Muslim, Christian, or any other religion, prays to the same God. That's what I believe'. Pres Bush, quoted on pg 31

    It is precisely the practice of invoking the Name of Jesus for anything and everything that Horton finds disturbing, if not irreverent. Reminiscent of Warfield's appropriation of the heathen way - 'what they kept their gods for was just miracles' - Horton expresses his grief that this type of invasive theology is thriving: 'Apart from a miracle, religious success in this atmosphere will always go to those who can effectively appeal to this can-do spirit.' pg 65 Amongst the false assumptions, Horton continues, are people who have a firm understanding of the basic tenets of the Bible, yet are willing to deny Christian suffering, be it at the expense of glory. To add to the dilemma, Luther's Theology of the Cross has fallen on hard times: 'Even churches formally steeped in a theology of the cross succumb to theologies of glory in the environment of popular American spirituality.' pg 71

    Inspirational wizardry in the form of sound-bytes offer the Christian a never-ending source of therapeutic well-being, successfully exchanging the biblical categories of sin and grace for Christianity Lite. Horton's chapter entitled 'How We Turn Good News Into Good Advice' is the best undertaking I have come across on the problematic debate on the law\gospel dichotomy.

    Warming to Horton's prognosis of the ills that plague the pomo church, the reader recognizes yet another condition prevalent in the scandal of the evangelical mind, 'that once you make your peace of mind rather than peace with God the main problem to be solved, the whole gospel becomes radically re-defined.' pg 39 'But people need to see', writes Horton, 'that self-realization, self-fulfillment, and self-help are all contemporary twists on an old heresy, which Paul identified as works-righteousness.' The irreparable bottom line is that moralism has become the standard for performance - rather than grace. This leads Horton to assert:

    'Ever since the Second Great Awakening, especially evident in the message and methods of evangelist Charles Finney, American Protestantism has been more Pelagian than Arminian.' pg 44 Turning to the melodramatic Finney, Horton recalls how Finney effectively provoked controversy by denying the major biblical doctrines of original sin, justification and imputation. Professor Horton stridently condemns the heresies of Finney, showing the undoubted origin of American semi-Pelagianism when stating brusquely that Finney's revivalism 'was certainly moralistic'. Ever since the American church has been taken captive by moralistic, therapeutic deism.

    Theology Proper has suffered under the burden of jingoist dimensions. 'Everything that used to be considered a sovereign work of God, through His appointed means of preaching and sacrament, is now attributed to the self (or the evangelist) working through the most efficient steps and techniques.' Literature, such as Peale's 'The Power of Positive Thinking' opened the door to integrating theology and psychology in the 1950s: 'To the pragmatism of revivalism was joined the therapeutic revolution that was sweeping the halls of liberal divinity schools.' pg 53 Relating to our own time, Horton spells it out that Osteen is not alone when he teaches that we are saved by making a decision to have a relationship with Christ. Designed to be humanly possible, no effort is spared to make this 'alternative gospel' happen, which leads Horton to conclude that 'this gospel of submission, commitment, decision, and victorious living is not good news about what God has achieved but a demand to save ourselves with God's help.' pg 74

    Horton, in contrast, delivers the unadulterated message of Christ: 'Instead of accommodating the biblical story to pagan philosophy, as the super-apostles were doing, Paul told the Corinthians: 'For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God...we preach Christ crucified - Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.' 1 Cor 1 and 2, pg 185

    Anthropocentric theology has successfully engineered a salvation where all is forgiven with the common currency of the televangelist at a price that is within easy reach of every consumer, making the view that human beings cannot contribute to their own salvation seem less plausible, ultimately 'relying on our own cleverness and communicative power rather than on God's Word and Spirit.' pg 63...more info
  • A Great Indictment Against American Evangelicalism
    I've read a fair number of books in my lifetime, but very few books really make such an impression on me that I feel compelled to do something about it. Dr. Michael Horton's book Christless Christianity is one of those books. Dr. Horton is a professor of Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California and a host on the weekly radio program, White Horse Inn. I've mentioned this book in previous posts now for the past several weeks (I'm a slow reader). There is even a YouTube video clip that I posted about the subject a few days ago. The impact this book has had on me is more than likely due to the fact that I have experienced, in part, what Dr. Horton talks about. This book is a 'wake up' call to American Evangelicalism that unless we do something soon to change the path we're on, we are in danger of at best marginalizing the gospel, and at worst losing it all together.

    Dr. Horton's premise in this book is the influence of our uniquely American culture (e.g., rugged individualism, pragmatic nature, disdain for anything overly 'intellectual', and our constant drive for the new and novel) combined with the revivalist movement of the second great awakening in the 19th century (beginning with Charles G. Finney), American Evangelicalism has shifted from the bold preaching of the gospel (Christ and him crucified) into a "moralistic, therapeutic deism." This is evident today in the ministry of Joel Osteen (a whole chapter is devoted to critiquing his ministry) as well as the Emergent Church movement of Brian McLaren (a whole chapter is devoted to critiquing this movement as well).

    This moralistic, therapeutic deism eschews the historic creeds and confessions of the Protestant Reformation and instead focuses on personal piety and holiness. American Evangelicalism focuses now on deeds, not creeds. This may seem like a good thing to many Christians. Who really cares about doctrine and theology? What's important is following the example of Christ and living our Christianity in practice. This mindset, if one is not careful, can turn Christianity from an objective, historic faith into a subjective, practical religion. If we lose our moorings from our historic foundation, all we're left with is our personal piety; and if that happens, what distinguishes us from any other religion? What makes Christianity distinctly Christian is the fact that our faith is based on an historic fact: The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, our faith is anchored on what Christ did in his life (fulfilling the righteousness of God), through his death (make atonement for our sins) and his resurrection (provide the means of our justification).

    The moralistic, therapeutic deism of American Evangelicalism essentially assumes the gospel (as Horton asserts) and focuses our efforts on how we can be 'better Christians' (or in the words of Osteen, 'becoming a better you'). This turns our faith into a narcissistic endeavor for self-improvement. The result is because we assume the gospel, we ignore the very means of grace that God provided for our nourishment; namely the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord's Supper). Because Christians aren't taught what they believe and why they believe it, they either suffer burn-out in the process of self-sanctification, or they give up hope altogether in the endeavor of self-improvement.

    What made this book poignant to me was that I can see this happening in the churches I have attended. The focus is on how to live the Christian life through practical tips and 'to-do' lists. The preaching tends to be topical and primarily focused on practical application. Again, this isn't necessarily wrong or un-Biblical, but when practical application is divorced from doctrine and what Christ has already done for us, the church essentially engages in behavior modification.

    I highly recommend this book. My hope is that every Christian, pastor and layman alike, reads this book. We need to recover the gospel before American Evangelicalism fades into insignificance! We need another reformation!...more info
  • Emergent Church
    For anyone who questions what is going on in our Christian churches these days....this is a must read. The emergent church is clearly defined by the author....more info
  • Publisher's Weekly Review is Misleading
    The Editorial Review by Publisher's Weekly is extremely misleading. It does not reflect the true tone or the depth of thought in this book. This is a well-written book that has a fair tone and analysis of the situation within American Christianity. I highly recommend this book to intelligent minds who are not intimidated by facts, figures, and examples to support his analysis....more info
  • America Evangelicalism's Jesus: MIA?
    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 Libealism. It's a modern day counterpart. 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."...more info