(4/14 update: See part two of his posts on the teleological argument here.)
This book is a strong call to the life of obedience that necessarily follows faith in Christ. But anytime a strong call to discipleship and obedience is issued, it can be misunderstood. I wanted to post a quick look at the underlying assumption of the book: the grace of Almighty God as demonstrated in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. This grace is the righteousness of God that is earned for us in Jesus and credited to us through faith (Romans 3:21-31).
Our constant and consistent sin against a Holy God is a source of guilt and shame among Christians. Chan describes the problem and provides help:
So why, when we constantly offend Him and are so unlovable and unloving, does God persist in loving us? … I do not have an answer to this question. But I do know that if God’s mercy did not exist, there would be no hope. No matter how good we tried to be, we would be punished because of our sins…God’s mercy is a free, yet costly, gift. It cannot be earned. Our righteousness…certainly did not help us deserve it. ..sin is paid for through the death of Jesus Christ, instead of the death of you and me.
Elsewhere: “In the midst of our failed attempts at loving Jesus, His grace covers us…The Scriptures demonstrate clearly that there is room for our failure and sin in our pursuit of God.” (87). The Christian life is lived in constant sin and imperfection, but those failures do not jeopardize our relationship to God because that relationship is guaranteed by Christ’s work credited to us through faith.
Chan points us to love for God as a motivator for Christ-like living (102). He tells us what the solution to our constant, guilt-ridden felt need to justify ourselves before God with our works is not: “…The solution isn’t to try harder, fail, and then make bigger promises, only to fail again. ..When loving Him becomes obligation, one of many things we have to do, we end up focusing even more on ourselves.” And the best solution? “The answer lies in letting Him change you…Jesus didn’t die only to save us from hell; He also died to save us from our bondage to sin” (103).
We need God’s help to change, and we are assured of that help when we turn to Christ in faith. Christ has already purchased everything we need to live for Him.
We run toward Christ, and we are “freed up to serve, love, and give thanks without guilt, worry, or fear” (104). We run to Christ because of what He has done for us, not to earn His favor. As we run to Christ, “we begin to focus more on Christ” and “we are satisfied in Him.” This satisfaction helps us to avoid sin, the satisfaction of our desires with things God condemns. (104)
Do we then sin with impunity? Of course not. No one who has any understanding of their sinfulness and God’s grace can fail to live differently.
When we are focused on loving Christ, it doesn’t mean we do less. I used to do many of the same things I do now, but I was motivated by guilt or fear of consequences. When we work for Christ out of obligation, it feels like work. But when we truly love Christ, our work is a manifestation of that love, and it feels like love. / In reality, none of us will ever be worthy. It is useless to attempt earning it; you will never feel ready…But there really is a God who forgives everything and loves endlessly. (110)
We can stop trying to earn God’s favor and start enjoying the favor Christ earned for us in His life and death. We don’t have to live in guilt and shame. We no longer live in fear. We move forward into new life motivated by our love for God in view of His love for us.
Horton applies his keen, analytical mind in a devastating critique of a church that consumes a “regular diet” of “do more, try harder.” The book resonates with me as I have endured this many times. I have sat through sermon after sermon of “weekly calls to action” instead of the clear and simple statement of the gospel of salvation apart from my own works. (17)
I have found much of what our Southern Baptist churches do to be vulnerable to Horton’s pointed criticism. He says of our theologically vacuous teaching that it “is not profound enough to constitute heresy,” that “ our doctrine has been forgotten, assumed, ignored, and even misshaped and distorted” by our selfish “habits and rituals.” (21)
I am a selfish person who finds himself quite at home in the blatantly narcissistic evangelical culture described in Christless Christianity. I struggle daily (really minute by minute) with the many little self-centered words and actions that I have been in mortal combat with as far back as I can remember.
My walk with Christ has been characterized by starts and stops, setbacks and backslidings. Despite my doctrine, I have strived in my heart of hearts to earn favor with God by my own actions, and that has resulted in hypocrisy. It has also contributed to my backslidings. After all, no one can strive to follow God’s law perfectly without failing, and too many failures in a row will cause anyone to give up eventually. (Psychologists call this learned helplessness.) When I give up, sin is right there with me, seeking to rule over me. “Do more, try harder” just doesn’t help.
Horton diagnoses the primary reason that much contemporary preaching does not change me. First, it doesn’t tear down my pride, so I am vulnerable to self-righteousness. True doctrine teaches:
…the bad news is far worse than making mistakes or failing to live up to the legalistic standards of fundamentalism. It is that the best efforts or the best Christians, on the best days, in the best frame of heart and mind, with the best motives fall short of that true righteousness and holiness that God requires…
In my best moments, I cannot meet God’s standard of perfection. I cannot satisfy God’s justice without help from outside me. (91)
Without the bad news, I have no way to understand the good news of Christ’s work on my behalf. The bad news leads naturally to the goods news of what Christ has done, and away from me.
Second, it applies a pressure to force me to conform to a hypocritical and self-righteous image. The reality is that I can’t.
…despite my best intentions, I am not an exemplary creature…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… (117)
The bad news relieves the pressure to perform for others that I feel so clearly under moral exhortation, and it points the world to Christ instead of to Christ is us. We see his perfection, not our imperfection.
…I am a Christian not because I think that I can walk in Jesus’ footsteps but because he is the only one who can carry me…Jesus Christ alone is the gospel. His story saves me, not only by bringing me justification [making me right with God] but by baptizing me into his resurrection life. (117)
The good news that overcomes my sins it that, “The God who accomplished our salvation now delivers it to us” (218).
We loose ourselves “… with the accent on “What would Jesus do?” rather than “What has Jesus done?” (106). The gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone, based on the promises of Scripture alone, and for the glory of God alone is lost.
Forth, only the gospel, understood in light of our sinfulness, can give us gratitude. Gratitude toward God for what He has done for us in Christ is the motivation for deeds of service (155). “The creed leads to deeds; doctrine fuels doxology, generating love and service to the saints as well as to our unbelieving neighbors” (154). As Horton points out, the Heidelberg Catechism has three sections or divisions: guilt, grace and gratitude, and we would do well to let those divisions of doctrine drive out Christian lives (155).
May God grant His church mercy and let us all discover these truths anew in our time. If we do, the world will never be the same.
(4/14/09: See R. C. Sproul's review of this book here.)
You cannot legislate the poor into freedom by legislating the wealthy out of freedom. What one person receives without working for, another person must work for without receiving. The government cannot give to anybody anything that the government does not first take from somebody else. When half of the people get the idea that they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them, and when the other half gets the idea that it does no good to work because somebody else is going to get what they work for, that my dear friend, is about the end of any nation.
You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it. - Dr. Adrian Rogers, Pator, Bellevue Baptist Church, Lived 1931-2005