I finished a book a few weeks ago by Michael Horton called Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2008). The book is intended to diagnose and describe formidable problems facing the evangelical church in the U. S. In blogging terms, the book is a ‘rant,’ but it’s a powerful one. (Horton promises a “more constructive sequel “ to propose solutions (p. 27), and I look forward to that book.)

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.)

1 comment:

Steve Martin said...


That was a very powerful, self-critical post.

I admire your honesty in an area that is extremely easy to not be.

It is pretty tough to find good Law/Gospel preaching these days, where the law isn't held out as a way to make you better, but is used as a means to kill off the hearer to any pretensions of righteousness.

And then have the gospel handed over, also unmitigated, and totally free of anything that you need to do, or add.

This kind of preaching seems very foreign, but once you understand the freedom of God to forgive 'real sinners', and the gospel really hits home and brings your freedom into high relief...there is no going back.

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