In Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church, Michael Horton diagnosis well what is ailing much of contemporary Christianity. He argues, “it is not heresy as much as silliness that is killing us softly. God is not denied but trivialized—used for our life programs rather than received, worshiped, and enjoyed.”
While not “profound enough to constitute heresy,” Horton believes that “Christless Christianity” is equally dangerous given the ultimate consequence of its encroach. “Like the easy-listening Muzak that plays ubiquitously in the background in other shopping venues, the message of American Christianity has simply become trivial, sentimental, affirming, and irrelevant.”
When God becomes irrelevant, He is in essence denied.
Could it be that our churches are being more influenced by the world than the gospel? Has the world, with its sinful pattern of existence (cf. Romans 12:2), so influenced the church that it seems fair to ask, “Is the church reaching the world, or the world the church?”
Horton further elaborates on this spiritual sickness by asking a series of rhetorical questions:
Christ is a source of empowerment, but is he widely regarded among us today as the source of our redemption for the powerless? He helps the morally sensitive to become better, but does he save the ungodly–including Christians? He heals broken lives, but does he raise those who are ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ (Eph. 2:1)? Does Christ come merely to improve our existence in Adam or to end it, sweeping us into his new creation? Is Christianity all about spiritual and moral makeovers or about death and resurrection–radical judgment and radical grace? Is the Word of God a resource for what we have already decided we want and need, or is it God’s living and active criticism of our religion, morality, and pious experience? In other words, is the Bible God’s story, centering on Christ’s redeeming work, that rewrites our stories, or is it something we use to make our stories a little more exciting and interesting?
What I love about Horton is that he doesn’t dabble in periphery issues. Like David Wells (The Courage to be Protestant), G.K. Beale (We Become What We Worship), and others concerned about the increasingly man-centered bent of the American church, Horton is calling us to nothing less than a paradigm shift in how we understand contemporary evangelicalism. And his analysis, if we’re honest, is spot on. I personally feel the sting of his critique as I consider ways in which I’ve made the gospel, God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, and church a means to my end of having “a better life now.”
So what’s the remedy? What would Horton have us do?
Resist and Reclaim
We must resist this alternative gospel. We must discern it in the culture and in our churches and then, by grace, resist it. This resistance is more than “Just say no,” but certainly not less. We must be resolved to embrace no alternative to the biblical gospel.
We then need to reclaim the centrality of God in our Christianity. We combat the narcissism of the culture (and our own lives) by eradicating it with God. “The answer to narcissism,” Horton explains, “is not more talk about us, but bringing God’s Word to the world.” And that Word is a testimony to Him. Horton illustrates by reference to the apostles:
The apostles were too overwhelmed by Jesus Christ and the events that had taken place in history to be preoccupied with focusing on their own spiritual autobiographies. They knew that it was their testimony to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection that had the power to convert people from death to life. Without in any way denying their inward transformation or experience, even this was the result of the gospel. It was not by following a formula of steps that they were born again but ‘through the living and abiding word of God … And this word is the good news that was preached to you’ (1 Peter 1:23,25). Their testimony was to Christ, not to themselves.
In the words of John the Baptist, “Christ must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). And this decrease of self and increase of Christ will happen when, resisting the cultural captivity of the church, we feel and think like the apostle Paul when he declared, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).
For more on the way forward, be sure to check out Horton’s follow up to Christless Christianity: The Gospel-Driven Life: Being Good News People in a Bad News World.