Dr. Michael Horton; J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, host of The White Horse Inn and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine adds Christless Christianity to his previous works, Putting Amazing Back into Grace, Too Good to Be True, Introducing Covenant Theology, and A Better Way.
Can there be Christianity without the Christ? Dr. Horton skillfully and correctly shows that in modern day America and many of its churches it is more than possible, it is sadly becoming the norm. Horton argues, with convincing proof, that the “the regular diet in many churches across America today: [is] “do more, try harder.” (pg. 17) He builds a case, over the course of the first five chapters, that clearly shows that modern evangelicals like Joel Osteen, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, and George Barna are not creating new heresies but returning to old false teachings that have been around since the church was born. Horton diagnoses the malady as “moralistic, therapeutic deism,” which he identifies as having roots in Pelagianism, (the moralistic footing) and Gnosticism, (the therapeutic footing). Chapter 2, aptly titled “Naming our Captivity” (mention is given to Luther’s Babylonian Captivity of the Church) presents Horton’s discussion of Pelagianism. In reality Horton suggests that the American church is more subject to semi-Pelagianism. “Much of Christianity in America, as elsewhere, stops short of being fully Pelagian…semi-Pelagianism says that salvation is a process that depends on the coworking of God and humans.” (pgs. 61-62) Horton asserts that Pelagianism, or the softer semi-Pelagianiam is man’s “default setting.” Gnosticism, enthusiasm, or “spirituality” is dealt with in reference to Dr. Horton’s claims, in chapter 5, also aptly named “Your Own Personal Jesus.”
Horton presents a lengthy discussion of modern evangelicals and their failures to involve or invoke Christ in his discussions in chapter 3, titled “Smooth Talking and Christless Christianity.” This chapter and the one that follows titled “How We Turn Good News into Good Advice” are Horton’s most convincing proofs of the removal of Christ from the church in America. Quoting Osteen, Hybels, Warren, Barna and several church growth proponents, Dr. Horton uses their own words to show that his diagnosis is based on careful observation of the symptoms of the disease. Interestingly, in chapter 4 the author shows how this removal of Christ is accomplished by confusion of Law and Gospel (legalism), taking the Gospel for granted and then provides a discussion of properly distinguishing Law and Gospel, and why both are necessary in the life of the church, in the life of Christians.
While Dr. Horton applauds churches and pastors for preaching Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 1) and maintaining an emphasis on the means of grace, Word and Sacrament, there is ample indictment across the theological spectrum in this work. The disease has infected most, if not all, confessions in America. “Even Lutheran young people who were active in the church could not define grace or justification.” (pg. 42)
Dr. Horton indicates that there is a sequel planned for this work. However, from this reviewer’s perspective this book stands on its own quite well. It identifies how American culture, and old heresies, has influenced the church to the extent that Christ becomes secondary. In fact, as shown, Christ becomes nothing more that a “life coach.” He is not Redeemer and Savior, but good moral and therapeutic example. The answer to the problem, the captivity, of the disease that infects much of the church is faithful preaching of the pure Gospel (Christ), as well as the law, along with administration of the Sacraments that Christ has instituted for salvation and its assurance. These means are emphasized well throughout this book.
This book is recommended reading for pastors, laymen, for the whole church. Reading Christless Christianity will be of benefit and will encourage those who are faithful to Christ and His Word.
The Rev. Ted Bourret is Pastor of Salem Lutheran Church, Gurley, Nebraska and St. Paul Lutheran Church, Potter, Nebraska, and a regular contributing reviewer of QBR.