Excerpts Christless Christianity


I started reading Michael Horton’s Christless Christianity last night. Wow! Get a cup of coffee and make sure your next two or three hours are clear, because you will not want to put this book down. Let me share a couple of startling excerpts from the book.

“As heretical as it sounds today, it is probably worth telling Americans that you don’t need Jesus to have better families, finances, health, or even morality. Coming to the cross means repentance–not adding Jesus as a supporting character for an otherwise decent script but throwing away the script in order to be written into God’s drama. It is death and resurrection, not coaching and makeovers.” 94

“The central message of Christianity is not a worldview, a way of life, or a program for personal and societal change; it is a gospel. From the Greek word for ‘good news,’ typically used in the context of announcing a military victory, the gospel is the report of an appointed messenger who arrives from the battlefield. That is why the NT refers to the offices of apostle (official representative), preacher, and evangelist, describing ministers as heralds, ambassasdors, and witnesses. Their job is to get the story right and then report it, ensuring that the message is delivered by word (preaching) and deed (sacrament). And the result is a church, an embassy of the Triune God in the midst of this passing evil age, with the whole people of God giving witness to God’s mighty acts of redemption.” 105

“When pastors are expected to be coaches sending in the plays and their parishioners are expected to be all-stars to take Jesus’s team to victory in the culture wars, the focus must necessarily fall on what we do rather than on what God has done, on our stories and strategies rather than God’s. But this means that much of our ministry today is law without gospel, exhortation without news, instructions without an announcement, deeds without creeds, with the accent on ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ rather than ‘What Has Jesus Done?’ None of us are immune to this indictment that we are losing our focus upon, confidence in, and increasingly even our knowledge of the greatest story ever told.” 106

“No longer threatened with hell or comforted with heaven, the new legalism is the upbeat and cheerful hum playing in the background. It’s still a form of works-righteousness, with its carrots and sticks. Follow my advice and you’ll really ‘connect’ with God’s best for your life. If you are not happy, perhaps you have fallen out of God’s favor and blessing. Only those who are ‘completely surrendered’ can be confident that they are in God’s Plan A. Now here are the steps to living the victorious Christian life. Are you following the steps? Do you have enough faith? Are you praying enough, reading the Bible enough, witnessing enough, serving in the church enough, loving enough? This diet of imperatives becomes just as burdensome and human-centered as the older legalism; it’s just Legalism Lite. And when we burn out on one program, there is always another best-seller, movement, or plan around the corner.” 123

“Even lifelong Christians gravitate toward doing something to save ourselves rather than receive a salvation that has been accomplished for us by someone else. Our default setting is law rather than gospel, imperatives (things to do or feel) rather than indicatives (things to believe). It is the law, not the gospel, that is a ‘Well, of course, but…’ Everyone assumes the law. It is the gospel that is a surprising announcement that none of us had a right to expect.” 131

“It is always amazing to me when people suggest that the God of the OT (and perhaps their fundamentalist upbringing) is a rule-oriented and judgment, while the God of the NT is loving and lenient. It is even more amazing when they appeal to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. Not only sleeping with your neighbor’s wife, but lusting in your heart; not only killing someone, but hating your neighbor; not only stealing, but depriving your neighbor of your own material resources: that is what Jesus says the law truly requires of us. So it is hardly good news when people tell us that God required a bunch of rules but now tells us just to love him and each other. Defined in this way, loving God and neighbor is a lot harder than following a few rules.” 135

“Christless Christianity does not mean religion or spirituality devoid of the words Jesus, Christ, Lord, or even Savior. What it means is that the way those names and titles are employed will be removed from their specific location in an unfolding historical plot of human rebellion and divine rescue and from such practices as baptism and communion. Jesus as life coach, therapist, buddy, significant other, founder of Western civilization, political messiah, example of radical living, and countless other images can distract us from the stumbling block and foolishness of ‘Christ and him crucified.’ This gospel may even be tacked on to the end of sermons. The question, however, is whether we are preaching the Word from Genesis to Revelation as a testimony to Christ or as a resource for writing our own story. In other words, the drift toward Christless Christianity can happen through addition as well as subtraction.” 144

“Of course I am not denying any more than Lewis that Christians should have an interest in pressing issues of the day or that there is an important place for applying biblical teaching to our conduct in the world. But with Lewis I am concerned that when the church’s basic message is less about who Christ is and what he has accomplished once and for all for us and more about who we are and what we have to do in order to make his life (and our) relevant to the culture, the religion that is made ‘relevant’ is no longer Christianity. However frequently his name is invoked, a religion that turns on ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ is not the Christian faith. Not thinking that ‘Christ crucified’ is as relevant as ‘Christ and Family Values’ or ‘Christ and America’ or ‘Christ and World Hunger,’ we end up assimilating the gospel to law. When people ask for more practical preaching, for a more relevant message than Christ and him crucified, what they are falling back on is law rather than gospel.” 146

“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 brining 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. Having been served by God in the public assembly, the people are then servants of each other and their neighbors in the world. Pursuing their callings in the world with vigor and dedication, they win the respect of outsiders. Because they have been served well themselves–especially by pastors, teachers, elders, and deacons–they are able to share the Good News of Christ in well-informed and natural ways. And because they have been relieved of numerous burdens to spend all of their energy on church-related ministries throughout the week, they have more time to serve their families, neighbors, and coworkers in the world. 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. Prayer more. Witness more. Give more. Get involved in this cause or that movement to save the world. Their calling by God to secular vocations is made secondary to finding their ministry in the church. Often malnourished because of a ministry defined by personal charisma and motivational skills rather than by knowledge and godliness, these same sheep are expected to be shepherds themselves. Always serving, they are rarely served. Ill-informed about the grand narrative of God’s work in redemptive history, they do not really know what to say to a non-Christian except to talk about their own experiences and perhaps repeat some slogans or formulas that they might be hard-pressed to explain. Furthermore, because they are expected to be so heavily involved in church-related activities (often considered more important even than the public services on Sunday), they do not have the time, energy, or opportunity to develop significant relationships outside the church. And if they were to bring a friend to church, they could not be sure that he or she would hear the gospel.” 190,191

“The best way of reintegrating the marks and mission is to start with the gospel itself. I have to say that, at least in my experience, traditionalists and radicals both emphasize our activity over God’s. We come to church primarily to do something. We come to serve rather than to be served. Many traditionalists oppose seeker-driven approaches to mission by insisting that what matters in the service is not what we get out of it but what we put into it. God is the audience (receiving our worship) and we are the actors, according to many advocates of traditional worship. Seeker churches typically view themselves as resources for personal improvement, and the Emergent Church movement considers the church a community of world-transforming disciples. For all of their differences, each of these models practically ignores the central point that God’s mission is to serve us through the marks of preaching and sacrament and that the body will be built up in Christ together and bring its witness and good works to its neighbors in the world.” 198

“The biblical covenant originates in God’s gracious decision, redeeming work, and effectual calling through the gospel, placing us in a family of siblings we did not choose based on our own affinities, hobbies, musical preferences, or political views. The American covenant originates in the individual’s choice, moral transformation, and contract with God to be an imitator of Christ.” 205

“A church that is not outward looking, eager to bring the Good News to the ends of the earth, is not really bringing it to those already gathered into Christ’s flock. A genuinely evangelical church will be an evangelistic church: a place where the gospel is delivered through Word and sacrament and a people who witness to it in the world.” 205

“But please, let’s stop using ‘gospel’ and ‘evangelical’ for anything and everything we think is best in achieving the common good!” 207

“The Bible is the constitution for God’s covenant people, not a textbook of general principles. ” 207

“Nothing we have done, are doing, or can do is radical. It is the same old story of human striving. But in the public assembly of his people, God is at work raising the dead. Through Word and sacrament, Christ’s kingdom is breaking into this present age in the power of the Spirit. This in-breaking is not propping up this present evil age, but it is sowing the seeds of the age to come. It comes not to improve people or societies but to kill and make alive in Christ. Whatever we might need in society, the church doesn’t need a cultural shift; it needs a paradigm shift from our agenda to God’s.” 209

CS Lewis responds to the question by Billy Graham’s Decision magazine ‘Do you feel, then, that modern culture is being de-Christianized?’
“I cannot speak to the political aspects of the question, but I have some definite views about the de-Christianizing of the church. I believe that there are many accommodating preachers, and too many practitioners in the church who are not believers. Jesus Christ did no say, ‘Go into all the world and tell the world that it is quite right.’ The Gospel is something completely different. In fact, it is directly opposed to the world.” 217

“Preaching is central, not because we value the intellect to the exclusion of the emotions and the will, but because it is God’s action rather than our own. The God who accomplished our salvation now delivers it to us. So the argument that an emphasis on preaching tilts toward intellectualism is wide of the mark. The real issue is not whether we give priority to a particular human faculty (intellect, will, or emotion) but whether we give priority to God’s action over ours. In preaching, we are addressed—we are not in charge but are seated to be judged and justified. In baptism, too, we are passive receivers–we do not baptize ourselves but are baptized. In the Lord’s Supper, Christ gives himself to us as our food and drink for eternal life; it is a banquet set for us-the meal has already been prepared, and Christ even serves it to us through his ministers. We are fed; our filthy rags removed, we are bathed and clothed with Christ and fed for our pilgrimage to the City of God.” 218

“Writing as a self-professed Jewish Gnostic, Harold Bloom has approvingly characterized American religion generally as Gnostic; an inner word, spirit, and church set over against an external Word, Spirit, and church.” 221

“In contrast to the logic we have followed in Romans 10, evangelical theologican Stanley Grenz argues that evangelicalism is more a spirituality than a theology, more interested in individual piety than in creeds, confessions, and liturgies. Experience gives rise to –in fact he says, ‘determines’—doctrine, rather than the other way around. Evangelicals follow their heart–their converted instincts—‘to accept the biblical stories as in some sense true as they are told.’ The main point, however, is how these stories can be used in daily living–hence, the emphasis on daily devotions.” 221

“In all of this we clearly recognize that the message cannot be separated from the methods, and soteriology cannot be separated from ecclesiology. We must distinguish but we can never separate Christ’s person and work (message) from the way we receive him (the medium). Once your faith is focused on what happens inside you instead of what happened outside you in history, it is easy to say that what you really need are good resources for private experience and moral improvement rather than any external Word. However weak and foolish in the eyes of the world, God’s methods and structures, clearly prescribed in Scripture, are consistent with the message. Preaching is not a bully pulpit for either our personal threats or helpful suggestions; it is a saving advent of Christ by his Spirit through his Word.” 224

“Unlike voluntary associations (book clubs, political parties, or fans of the opera or garage bands), the church is not made up of people I chose to be my friends. God chose them for me and me for them. They are my family because of God’s election, not mind. Gathered to be redefined by the kingdom of Christ rather than by the kingdoms of this age, we are then scattered again into the world as salt–not huddled together in Christian societies for moral transformation and ecclesiastically sanctioned political causes, but dispersed into the world as doctors, homemakers, plumbers, lawyers, truck driver, citizens, and neighbors.” 226

“Until we reevaluate our commitment to the revivalistic paradigm itself, we willview the church as consumers who have signed a contract for spiritual services rather than as sinner who have been incorporated by God’s grace into a covenant community.” 227

“In fact, the main purpose of singing in church is not to epxress our inner experience, piety, and zeal but to serve each ther by making ‘the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col 3:16). We hear the Word, sing the Word, and meditate on it in the fellowship of saints. We teach this Word daily to our children in family instruction and as we live out our confidence in Christ before our children. All of this is so vital because to trust in Christ alone is to swim against the stream of human nature.” 229

“The church is not the gospel. Whether packaged in high church forms (with the church as an institutional place) or low church versions (the church as transformed individuals), the idea is rife among us today that the church is engaged in a redemptive mission, extending Christ’s saving life and mission in the world. But if we are ever to get the focus off us and back onto Christ (much less, to properly interpret Scripture), we will have to stop giving ourselves so much credit. We do not redeem; we were redeemed. The incarnation is not a prototype for us and our incarnational living and ministry in the world; it is a unique event of a unique person, of which we have been made witnesses rather than co-agents. Neither as a sum total of born again Christians nor as a historical institution with a postal address is the church the savior; it is always the sinful body that is saved. The church does not testify to its own holiness or zeal but to Christ, who ‘justifies the ungodly’ (Rom 4:5).” 230

Dietrich Bonhoeffer summarizing American religion
“God has granted American Christianity no Reformation. He has given it strong revivalist preachers, churchmen and theologians, but no Reformation of the church of Jesus Christ by the Word of God…American theology and the American church as a whole have never been able to understand the meaning of ‘criticism’ by the Word of God and all that signifies. Right to the last they do not understand that God’s ‘criticism’ touches even religion, the Christianity of the church and the sanctification of Christians, and that God has founded his church beyond religion and beyond ethics…In American theology, Christianity is still essentially religion and ethics…Because of this the person and work of Christ must, for theology, sink into the background and in the long run remain misunderstood, because it is not recognized as the sole ground of radical judgment and radical forgiveness.” 238

“If we are slaves, it is not to an external oppressor but to our own trivial desires. We are willing captives—until God appears on the scene and utters his solemn command to the powers and principalities we have enthroned: ‘Let my people go!’ 239

“…people remain hopelessly trapped within their own inner psyche and resources, suppressing the truth about themselves that might drive them to Christ. No longer objectively guilty before aholy God, they only feel a sense of guilt or shame that they deny by changing the subject to something lighter and more upbeat. No longer saved from damnation—which is the source of their deepest sense of anxiety—they are now saved from unpleasantness. We are the walking dead, forgetful that our designer-label fashions of religion and morality are really a death shroud. To paraphrase Jesus, we go throug life like corpses with lipstick, not even aware that all of our makeovers and self-improvement are just cosmetic (Matt 23:25-28). Our fig leaves may have become more sophisticated (and expensive), but they are no more successful in covering our nakedness in God’s presence than the homespun wardrobe of our first parents.” 241

“A church that is deeply aware of its misery and nakedness before a holy God will cling tenaciously to an all-sufficient Savior, while one that is self-confident and relatively unaware of its inherent sinfulness will reach for religion and morality whenever it seems convenient.” 243

“When our churches assume the gospel, reduce it to slogans, or confuse it with moralism and hype, it is not surprising that the type of spirituality we fall back on is moralistic, therapeutic deism. In a therapeutic worldview, the self is always sovereign. Accommodating this false religion is not love–either of God or neighbor–but sloth, depriving human beings of genuine liberation and depriving God of the glory that is his due. The self must be dethroned. That’s the only way out.” 247

Horton finishes the book with a quote from Dorothy Sayers. Interesting enough I recorded this quote in my notes from Sayer’s book Letters to a Diminished Church, which you can read here(see 20).
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