Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Book Review: Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church by Michael Horton (2008).

There's good news and bad news.

The Gospel has been known as "Good News." It's hard to quibble that God's free gift of reconciliation to Him and eternal life with Him through His effort (not ours) (see Romans 5:11) should engender celebration.

A former classmate of mine, Dr. Michael Horton (Ph.D., Oxford) argues that the works-oriented message of American churches amounts to a counterfeit gospel. Not just an imposter of the Good News, it's bad news. Very bad news. Dr. Horton writes:

"So once again we see that [Joel] Osteen has not abandoned the legalism of previous generations. If anything he intensifies it. But his followers do not recognize the tightening noose or the mounting burden because he makes it sound so easy. It is not easy, however, to be told that our health, wealth, and happiness--as well as our victory over sin and death--depend on the extent of our determination and effort."

By contrast, a good measure of the book explicates how incredibly beneficent the Gospel message is. "[T]he gospel is a particular kind of Word...Good News." An "indescribable gift!" (2 Cor. 9:15.) Likewise, "In Romans 10, Paul is telling us not only that Christ's work in the past is sufficient for our redemption, but Christ himself" promises to continue bringing His gift through his ambassadors. Properly understood and applied, this message amounts to the "easy yoke" Jesus promised in Matthew 11:28-30, Dr. Horton argues.

Dr. Horton points to Paul's example. Unlike many American churches, Paul never assumed that his audience knew the Gospel message--he repeated it often--probably because it's so counterintuitive, and the alternative so seductive. "Yet if moralism--self-help salvation--is our default setting, we need to be regularly preached and taught out of it."

In roughly equal measure, Dr. Horton critiques how the Gospel has been contorted into self-help messages and exhortations to do more. "Often in popular preaching today it seems that the goal is to get through the interpretation of the passage in order to arrive at the contemporary application, which typically evidences the preacher's own hobbyhorses and recent diet of reading or movies. Usually application equals law--to-do lists--rather than using the passages to actually absolve sinners of their guilt and rescript them in their new roles of those who have been transferred from the covenantal headship of Adam to Christ." This works-orientation leads to bad results, making it even worse news. "When my conscience leads me to despair, the exhortation to try harder will only deepen either my self-righteousness or my spiritual depression. In other words, it will draw me away from my location in Christ and gradually bring me back to that place where I am turn in on myself." Dr. Horton continues in this vein: "Calling us to accomplish great things for God is part of the hype that constantly burns out millions of professing Christians."

Dr. Horton asserts this drift may be intentional or unintentional. "No matter what we hold on paper as sound evangelical doctrine, a steady diet of moralistic preaching, youth ministry, Sunday school, devotional literature, and outreach will always produce churches filled with practicing Pelagians [works-oriented]." He further contends that the left and right are equally responsible.

While generally superb, Christless Christianity has some shortcomings. First, it's somewhat repetitive. For example, while accurate, its repeated reliance on a single verse, Isaiah 64:6, that our best efforts are "filthy rags" before God--no fewer than seven times--was unnecessary. In addition to overreliance on certain verses, he repeats his themes often.

Second, Dr. Horton generally goes after easy targets. His excoriation of the nonseminary-trained Osteen is nearly total, but ultimately ineffective to change the theology and practice pervading American churches today. While Dr. Horton rejects the "deeds, not creeds" orientation of the so-called Second Reformation and Church Growth Movement churches, he does not go after their purveyors as zealously as Osteen (and to lesser extents, Brian McLaren and George Barna). If anything, Dr. Horton inconsistently employs "kid gloves" with those most responsible for the "Alternative Gospel" he so ardently rejects.

An important work, it's recommended to those interested in learning what's good about the Good News, and the bad news about what's passed off as Good News.

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