While it probably is a little tacky to have a quote in a review almost as long as the review itself these paragraphs provide an excellent summary of Michael Horton’s focus in Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church:
Imagine two scenarios of church life. In the first, God gathers his people together in a covenantal event to judge and to justify, to kill and to make alive. The emphasis is on God’s work for us – the Father’s gracious plan, the Son’s saving life, death, and resurrection, and the Spirit’s work of bringing life to the valley of dry bones through the proclamation of Christ. The preaching focuses on God’s work in the history of redemption from Genesis through Revelation, and sinners are swept into this unfolding drama. Trained and ordained to mine the riches of Scripture for the benefit of God’s people, ministers try to push their own agendas, opinions, and personalities to the background so that God’s Word will be clearly proclaimed. In this preaching, the people once again are simply receivers – recipients of grace. Similarly, in baptism, they do not baptize themselves; they are baptized. In the Lord’s Supper, they do not prepare and cook the meal; they do not contribute to the fare; but they are guests who simply enjoy the bread of heaven. As this gospel creates, deepens, and inflames faith, a profound sense of praise and thanksgiving fills hearts, leading to good works among the saints and in the world throughout the week. . . .
In the second scenario, the church is its own subculture, an alternative community not only for weekly dying and rising in Christ but for one’s entire circle of friends, electricians, and neighbors. In this scenario, the people assume that they come to church primarily to do something. The emphasis is on their work for God. The preaching concentrates on principles and steps to living a better life, with a constant stream of exhortations: Be more committed. Read your Bible more. Pray more. Witness more. Give more. Get involved in this cause or that movement to save the world. (189-90)
Horton’s argument is that most evangelical churches in the United States no longer follow the first scenario but are patterned after the second. One of his points is that America has moved from Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” and her legalistic frown to Al Franken’s “Stuart Smalley” and his reassurance that you are liked and you can do it yourself. Yet the problem is that both are legalism and neither conveys the true gospel. The second may be legalism with a smile but the message remains the same.
He surveys a number of different teachers and movements to show all the ways that the American church has traveled to get to this point. On one hand we have George Barna’s therapeutic deism. On the other we see Joel Osteen’s new Gnosticism. Men like Brian McLaren have turned the gospel from good news to good advice. In all of this false teachers and false prophets promise you that you can have your own personal Jesus; not the one who died on a cross for your sins and rose for your justification two thousand years ago but one who acts like a Santa Claus and rewards you if you’ll just be good.
In all of this Horton argues that this is just the same old Pelagian heresy that the church has fought since the time of Augustine but repackaged and relabeled in terms friendly to the average independent American. This is not a gospel that tells you what God has done to save you and how he calls you to worship where he serves us through his means of grace and only then sends us out to do good works on the basis of God’s saving work. Instead this is a gospel that promises you just need to try your best and God wants to bless you if you can just do a little more to make it possible for him to do so. There is no total depravity in this message. This is rather a celebration of the human spirit and power.
I think that this is a book that Christians need to pick up and read. The warnings in this book are important in drawing our attention away from ourselves and placing it back on Jesus and what he has accomplished. It should warn the church of many current tracks that are just the old liberalism from the 18th and 19th centuries revisited. One negative to this book is that it is intentionally polemic. Horton self-consciously writes to deal with problems that he sees in the church. He does offer some brief solutions and remedies but this book is not intended to be a positive statement of what the church is (fortunately Horton promises that book will be coming soon). So be prepared to mourn after reading this and to repent of the ways that we also turn the gospel from good news to good advice. Then let’s look for ways that we can move the church back to proclaiming the good news of what God has done and what he promises for the future.