Book Review: Christless Christianity

Michael Horton has written a challenge that needs to be issued to all Christians in America. In his latest book, Christless Christianity, published by Baker Books, Dr. Michael Horton draws stunning comparisons between the evangelical church of today and the liberalism of the early Twentieth Century and even Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, and Gnosticism.

Writing in the foreword, William Willimon has this to say:

This is a tough book, but well written, fast paced, and wonderfully grounded in classical Reformation Christianity. Our poor old, compromised, accomodating church is here subjected to withering theological critique. Here the roots of our current theological malaise are exposed and we see the wrong turns we took when we began taking ourselves more seriously than God.

That phrase aptly introduces the reader to the hard-hitting critique of Horton who sees the church rewriting redemption history to make God a supporting character of our personal dramas rather than allowing the grace of God and the gospel to rewrite us into his story of redemption. Horton puts it this way:

assimilating the disruptive, surprising, and disorienting power of the gospel to the felt needs, moral crises, and socio-political headlines of our passing age, we end up saying very little that the world could not hear from Dr. Phil, Dr. Laura, or Oprah…My concern is that we are 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 Christ is a coach with a good game 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 all the power we need to be all that we can be.

But, make no mistake here, Horton realizes that his critiques of the church, that which he calls Christless Christianity do not go so far as to constitute heresy. In other words, what we see is the slippery slope of slothful Christianity that focuses more on the believer than on the one in whom to be believed. He says this, My argument is not that evangelicalism is becoming theologically liberal but that it is becoming theologically vacuous. Without a theological center, Horton argues that we revert to our natural sinful bent which is self-centered and not God-centered.

Citing Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism as the church’s captor, Horton shows that some of its greatest propents are well-known prosperity preachers such as Joel Osteen and Robert Schuller. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is defined as a belief that holds

1. God created the world 2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and most world religions. 3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself 4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when needed to resolve a problem. 5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Of course, this message rings loud and clear from the Crystal Cathedral, but Horton goes on to suggest that this same message is ringing loud and clear from First Baptist, Second Presbyterian, and Middle of The Road Methodist Churches as well. God is not the God of the universe who demands our complete obedience, instead God is our friend. God becomes more of a Santa Clause figure than a Holy, fear-inspiring, awe-inducing God. Horton’s remedy is a return to strong reformation faith that de-personalizes the message of Christ and centers it instead in the faith community where it is communicated through the preached word, baptism, and the Lord’s supper (the means of grace).

Many evangelicals will find areas of disagreement with Horton as he focuses so much on the community of faith and seems to push us away from “personal relationship with God.” But, lest we throw the baby out with the bath-water, it is worthwhile to note, as Horton does, that “personal relationships” are subjecive at best and often devoid of critical analysis from either the Bible or the faith community.

I strongly encourage you to read this book. Many times during the reading of this book I was driven to my knees to repent of the works-based gospel that I often resort to out of my sinful nature. Horton is reformed to the core and you will not agree with everything he says, but this book will challenge you as it calls all evangelicals to the woodshed.

*For more information & resources concerning this book go to Christless Christianity.  You can also view another article on this book written by the author of this review Churched Teens Have Little Knowledge of the Gospel.