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Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church

Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church [Kindle Edition]

Michael Horton , William Willimon
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Is it possible that we have left Christ out of Christianity? Is the faith and practice of American Christians today more American than Christian? These are the provocative questions Michael Horton addresses in this thoughtful, insightful book. He argues that while we invoke the name of Christ, too often Christ and the Christ-centered gospel are pushed aside. The result is a message and a faith that are, in Horton's words, "trivial, sentimental, affirming, and irrelevant." This alternative "gospel" is a message of moralism, personal comfort, self-help, self-improvement, and individualistic religion. It trivializes God, making him a means to our selfish ends. Horton skillfully diagnoses the problem and points to the solution: a return to the unadulterated gospel of salvation.


Argues that popular American religion has essentially become 'Christless Christianity', one that in faith and practice is more American than Christian.

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  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 485 KB
  • Print Length: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Baker Books; Reprint edition (1 Nov 2008)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00B0VMJ8E
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  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Needed Wake-Up Call 23 Aug 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book makes an important point. Many churches, in striving for numerical growth, in trying to be culturally relevant, and in attempting to meet the felt needs of their congregations are pursuing a trajectory that is a departure from the gospel. While the name Jesus is frequently evoked he is often portrayed more as a life-coach and dispenser of good advice than as a Saviour and sacrifice for sin. I have found this book helpful in outlining the forms the departures take and in warning of the dangers. Michael Horton gives many examples which he sets forth in his clear, readable style.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking 12 Sep 2009
This book is an accurate description of popular christian culture today. This shows how people have turned their focus off god onto materialistic desires. this book is very good at explaining how we bring the focus back to god. Many critics may call the style critical and negative however the theology and doctrine taught does need to be examined in order to ensure there is no deception in the church
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars 17 Sep 2014
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Good and on time
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2 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Rather joyless... 6 Oct 2009
I know it's a serious subject but some books seem to make you feel you've learned something even if the subject is gloomy and some just make you feel morose. This book very much was the latter. Not particularly well written, a fair bit of repetition and serious points often made by apparently attacking one or two individuals rather than analysing their work and statements in detail. Not a scholarly text and didn't really contribute much to a subject area that needs above all things objectivity.
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156 of 165 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Horton Dismantles the Alternative Gospel 28 Oct 2008
By Tim Challies - Published on
It is no small thing to take upon oneself the name Christian. Though it was first used as a form of derision when unbelievers mocked the "little Christs," the name was embraced by the earliest believers. The term, even when used mockingly, nicely encapsulated what they sought to do, namely, to imitate their Lord and Savior. Sadly, in the centuries since then, the word has become far too ambiguous and now refers to any number of faiths that, in one way or another, honor or respect Christ or that have some historical connection to his teachings. Amazingly, some of those called by the name of Christ actually deny him--perhaps not his existence but at least his uniqueness and his divinity. In Christless Christianity Michael Horton argues that such denial of Christ may not be too far from home. More and more evangelical churches, he says, are now essentially Christless. "Aside from the packaging, there is nothing that cannot be found in most churches today that could not be satisfied by any number of secular programs and self-help groups." Many churches have tossed out Christ and continue on without him, sometimes not even realizing that he has been lost along the way.

This is not to say that American evangelicalism has already reached a point of no return or that every church has rejected Christ. "I am not arguing in this book that we have arrived at Christless Christianity," says Horton, "but that we are well on our way. ... 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 the power we need to be all that we can be." Jesus has become supplemental instead of instrumental to the church. As the church has focused on "deeds, not creeds" she has become increasingly irrelevant and unfaithful. Church has become just another area in which Americans can live out the American dream. "In my view, we are living out our creed, but that creed is closer to the American Dream than it is to the Christian faith. The claim I am laying out in this book is that the most dominant form of Christianity today reflects `a zeal for God' that is nevertheless without knowledge--particularly, as Paul himself specifies, the knowledge of God's justification of the wicked by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, apart from works."

Amazingly, it is not theological liberalism that has drawn the church away from her creed, away from her biblical foundation. Instead, it is a kind of unbearable lightness--a faith that eschews biblical theology in favor of whatever happens to be the flavor of the day. Says Horton, "My argument in this book is not that evangelicalism is becoming theologically liberal but that it is becoming theologically vacuous. ... We come to church, it seems, less to be transformed by the Good News than to celebrate our own transformation and to receive fresh marching orders for transforming ourselves and our world. ... Just as you don't really need Jesus Christ in order to have T-shirts and coffee mugs, it is unclear to me why he is necessary for most of the things I hear a lot of pastors and Christians talking about in church these days."

Horton offers a description of this brand of "Christianity" that pervades so much of the evangelical scene these days. Following sociologist Christian Smith, he calls it moralistic, therapeutic deism. It offers this kind of working theology: God created the world; God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and most world religions; The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself; God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when needed to resolve a problem; Good people go to heaven when they die. Pause to consider much of the teaching you might find on your television on a Sunday morning and you'll see how apt a description this is. Horton traces this through Finney, through modern day Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism and into the pulpits of Joel Osteen and other popular smooth talking preachers. He describes the kind of can-do spirit that allows such preachers to thrive. "When looking for ultimate answers, we turn within ourselves, trusting our own experience rather than looking outside ourselves to God's external Word." And here is where the Osteen's of the world are so skilled--they simply reflect and direct human wisdom back at humans all the while pretending as if they gleaned this wisdom from the Word of God. He shows that such preachers, while appearing to perhaps teach a kind of freedom from the law, actually do the opposite, burdening people with a new kind of legalism. "One could easily come away from this type of message concluding that we are not saved by Christ's objective work for us but by our subjective personal relationship with Jesus through a series of works that we perform to secure his favor and blessing. God has set up all of these laws, and now it's up to us to follow them so we can be blessed." This kind of Christianity makes God merely a means to an end rather than an end in and of himself.

In an insightful chapter discussing "how we turn good news into good advice," Horton shows how Christians are prone to turn indicatives into imperatives. In other words, we take a statement of fact and turn it into an exhortation. This, too, drives people to a form of legalism in which they are ultimately responsible for their own salvation and sanctification, even without understanding or embracing the gospel message. "Across the board in contemporary American Christianity, that basic message seems to be some form of law (do this) without gospel (this is what has been done)." He deals well here with the constant exhortations in the church today to "be the gospel," amazed at the hubris of such a statement. "[Unbelievers] may not like our message anyway, but at least they might be relieved that we have stopped holding ourselves up as the way, the truth, and the life. If the message the church proclaims makes sense without conversion, if it does not offend even lifelong believers from time to time so that they too need to die more to themselves and live more to Christ, then it is not the gospel." St. Francis' exhortation to "Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary use words" has never offended a soul.

Final chapters look to "your own personal Jesus" and the resurgence of Gnosticism and to "delivering Christ," examining the relationship between the message and the medium. Horton notes that men like Barna and so many others are advocating a wholesale abandonment of the institutional church. "Instead of churching the unchurched," he laments, "we are well on our way to even unchurching the churched." Here he speaks of the critical importance of the local church and says "the faithful ministry of Word, sacrament, and discipline is the mission" of the church. "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." He calls for the church to narrow its commission from fixing all of the world's ills to simply returning to the basics. "The church as people--scattered as salt and light through the week--has many different callings, but the church as place (gathered publicly by God's summons each Lord's Day) has one calling: to deliver (and receive) Christ through preaching and sacrament." Of course Christians, the church as people, should pursue justice and peace, but this ought to be done through common grace institutions along side non-Christians rather than through the church as a place. The church needs to mind its own business and get its own house in order.

In the final chapter, Horton calls for resistance. "What is called for in these days, as in any other time, is a church that is a genuine covenantal community defined by the gospel rather than a service provider defined by laws of the market, political ideologies, ethnic distinctives, or other alternatives to the catholic community that the Father is creating by his Spirit in his Son. For this, we need nothing less than a new Christian where the only demographic that matters is in Christ."

Through all of this I'd suggest the most important statement in the book may just be this: "It is not heresy as much as silliness that is killing us softly." This is where the book may be most useful for the conservative Christians who are the audience most likely to read it. All of us can fall into silliness without tossing aside the gospel. We can hold fast to Christian theology, even while allowing silliness and levity to pervade the very fabric of our church. A once-serious institution can become overrun by programs and purposes that slowly erode the gravity and simplicity of the church's unique calling. This book is a call for the church to return to its biblical foundations and to remain true to those convictions. It is a clarion call and one that Christians would do well to heed. Christless Christianity is an excellent and timely book and one I would not hesitate to recommend to any Christian.
59 of 61 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Vital & Accurate Critique of American Christianity 28 Oct 2008
By rodboomboom - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Horton is a prolific Christian advocate for historic Christianity which is catholic (universal) and relevant for any culture, any time. This he finds increasingly being blurred and almost to the point of taking Christ completely out of the church for many in America.

He correctly builds the case that this slippage is towards not any new heresy, but towards old heresies with new names and slogans and personalities: "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." n Dangerous to attach Christ directly, these anti-Christs then believe falsely they can change the Gospel, but in doing so, change the Christ even to the point of taking Him out of the picture. (see the dustcover shot)

Tendencies of American bred Christianity which is more attuned to sola cultura rather than sola Scriptura evidences itself in confusion of law and gospel, importing of unbiblical methods and paradigms from marketing, management, etc. in Church Growth movement, unbiblical ecclessiology, more focus on the Christian rather than on the Christ, and a fear of the scandal of particularity which the pure gospel preached and the Sacraments properly instituted as mandated are well documented in this work. As he writes: "the Good News concerning Christ is not a stepping-stone to something greater and more relevant."

The excellent wordsmithing is a joy to read, but don't let the smooth and creative turning of the words deceive the reader, Horton has researched his points well and thought through them and thus presents a solid, growing amount of evidence for these charges. Just but one example: "a moralistic religion of self-salvation is our default setting as fallen creatures. If we are not explicitly and regularly taught out of it, we will always turn the message of God's rescue operation into a message of self-help."

He slaps these driftings not onto any one end of the theological range of conservative or liberal, not any one denomination or family of theological inheritance, but finds this cancerous invasion branching out throughout the theological spectrum. His findings indict likely targets such as the Osteen's, Hybels, R. Warren's, Barna's etc., as well what have been more classical, orthodox Christian streams of the Reformation such as us Lutherans. He well provides evidence from their writings, and one can easily pursue this evidence as this reviewer has in the referenced and quoted works and find these charges in abundance unfortunately.

He provides resistance strategy as well that is focused on fixing the problems, which is properly correcting the increasing tendency to make "mission" the overarching dominant in the church, with little effort to make the "message" the "mission" which it should be. This comes with proper practice of the means of grace, rather than means of commitment, and the restoration of the office of the public ministry to be the proclamation of the pure gospel, even in spite of cultural offense and resistance.

I can emphatically recommend this book to be read, digested, discussed and spread. It is much necessary, and will bless the church if heeded.
53 of 59 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars America Evangelicalism's Jesus: MIA? 3 Nov 2008
By Paul Manata - Published on
Is God perhaps a supporting character in your life movie, however strong and important a character he may be, or have you been rewritten as a new character in God's drama of redemption? If the former, then the focus is on us and our activity rather than on God and his work in Jesus Christ. "Us and out activities" may be all very fine things. Perhaps we're fixing our marriages, becoming relevant to the culture, making disciples, doing what Jesus would do, overcoming addictions, even blogging and destroying apostate thought in all its forms. We have a "purpose driven life," and "purpose driven churches." We are putting biblical principles in action and seeing "success" in our lives. Better kids, better marriages, and we even make it to every church function in the calendar year. Awesome worship music, and even "awesomer" preaching (they even say "Dude"), all of course ever so "relevant" to our culture. Shoot, this aint your daddy's Christianity, our kid's pagan friends actually have fun at our churches. We're doing just fine, thank you. Oh, by the way, where's Jesus Christ in all of this?

Judging by the tremendous "commercial, political, and media success, the evangelical movement seems to be booming. But is it still Christian?", asks Mike Horton in his latest book, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church. Of course we still say we believe in Jesus, salvation by grace, the Bible, and the resurrection. That's not in question. But when our teaching and practice is analyzed, what does that say we believe? Horton thinks "that the church in America is so obsessed with being practical, relevant, helpful, successful, and perhaps even well-liked that it nearly mirrors the world itself. Aside from the packaging there is nothing that cannot be found in most churches today that could not be satisfied by any number of secular programs." The regular diet the sheep are fed in many of today's churches is, "Do more, try harder." Horton's concern "is that we're 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 is a coach with a good 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 the power we need to be all we can be."

Horton doesn't deny that there are some churches, pastors, evangelists, and distinguished laypeople who are proclaiming Christ and fulfilling their vocations with integrity. He's not addressing them, and thinks they would join him in his worries. He is also not saying that we have arrived at a Christless Christianity, just that we are well on our way. He is not questioning American Christianity at the level of zeal either. But it's a zeal without knowledge. It's not that we have our doctrine but are not living it. Rather it's that we are living out our distorted doctrine quite well. Our creed is closer to the American dream than to the historic Christian faith, says Horton.

In Christless Christianity Horton offers a massive amount of statistics showing that those raised in "Bible believing churches know as little of the Bible`s actual content as their unchurched neighbors." But despite this, Christ is everywhere in this subculture, "but more as an adjective than as a proper name." We are swarmed by "Christian things" while Christ has been reduced to mascot of that subculture. We take Christ's name in vain for our own personal crusades and talking points, we trivialize his word in countless ways, and then express moral indignation when a movie trivializes Christ. We like to pretend we are persecuted by evil Hollywood and the Democrats. "But if we ever were really persecuted, would it be because of our offensive posturing and self-righteousness or because we would not weaken the offense of the cross?" Horton contends that his and other's experience has shown that "believers who challenge the human-centered process of trivializing the faith are more likely to be persecuted--or at least viewed as troublesome--by their church." Horton's bigger concern is not that God is taken lightly in American culture, but more-so that he's not taken seriously in the faith and practice of believers.

Horton's argument in the book is "not that evangelicalism is becoming theologically liberal but that it is becoming theologically vacuous." Today it is becoming more and more common to see Christianity as about "spiritual and moral makeovers" than about "death and resurrection--radical judgment and radical grace." The Word is a resource for how to get what we've already decided we need, rather than a "criticism of our religion, morality, and pious experience." God's word is something we use to make our life story more exciting. And so "Jesus has been dressed up as a corporate CEO, life coach, culture-warrior, political revolutionary, philosopher, copilot, cosufferer, moral example, and partner in fulfilling our personal and social dreams. But in all these ways we are reducing the central character I the drama of redemption to a prop for our own play." Liberals, conservatives, Arminian, Calvinist. Those labels cease to matter when the message is "What would Jesus do," rather than "What has Jesus done." And so Horton's "aim is not to target any particular wing, movement, person, or group. We are all victims and accomplices in our own captivity." Horton then is "writing about `us'--all of us who profess the name of Christ..."

The above illness is defined by sociologist Christian Smith as "Therapeutic Moral Deism." Horton follows Smith in this diagnosis. After a "remarkable" study of teen spirituality in America, Smith observed that most teens said that their faith is "very important" to them, yet they are "stunningly inarticulate" about the content of that faith. The separation of deeds from creeds of course moves everything into the inner person. Moralistic, therapeutic deism is defined by Smith as: (i) God created the world; (ii) God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other; (iii) the central goal in life is to be happy and feel good about oneself; (iv) God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when needed to solve a problem; (v) people go to heaven when they die. Horton shows through persuasive, detailed, and ubiquitous analysis that the above has infected the American church. He identifies one main cause as our "default setting": (semi-) Pelagianism. Horton contends that the gospel of Jesus Christ is unnatural to our Adamic ears. It is easily forgotten. All too often we treat God as giving us that initial "oomph" and then we go out and accomplish the rest, treating our religion as a do-it-yourself guide for personal satisfaction. God saves us and then we go our and save our cars by placing Jesus bumper stickers on them. Or perhaps we're more ambitious and we go out and "take back America for Jesus!", sanctifying the unjustified. The good news becomes good advice.

As default (semi-) Pelagians, we often turn the good news into good advice. Horton lists main ways of how we do this, the most prominent is to confuse law and gospel. Briefly, the law is "do this" and the gospel is "done." Of course this isn't to deny sanctification, or "doing" things. But Horton's critiquing our emphasis and focus. One way in which we can see the gospel turned into law is in the popular saying, "Living the gospel." The gospel is something done by Jesus in history and announced to us, not something we do. Emergent church leader Dan Kimball is on record as saying, "Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary use words." Kimball says "Our lives will preach better than anything we can say." Horton rightly points out that "this is just more bad news, not only because of the statistics we have already seen, which evidence no real difference between Christians and non-Christians, but because in spite of my best intentions, I am not an exemplary creature. The best examples and instructions--even the best doctrines--will not relieve me of the battle with indwelling sin until I draw my last breath. Find me on my best day--and attitudes--and I will always provide fodder for the hypocrisy charge and will let down those who would become Christians because they think I and my fellow Christians are the gospel. ... I am not the gospel; Jesus Christ alone is the gospel. ... We do not preach ourselves, but Christ. The more we talk about Christ as the Bible's unfolding mystery and less about our own transformation, the more likely we are to be actually transformed rather than either self-righteous or despairing."

This reminds me of the very last SCCCS conference. On the last day a movie was played where a nice, white, all-American man threw a birthday party for a prostitute at a diner. She never had anyone do anything "nice" for her, and most people treated her as trash. But this man did what other's had not done. Of course the man was supposed to be a "Christian," but he may just as well have well been a Mormon missionary. The movie ended with the girl walking out of the diner and we see a Catholic church off in the distance. After the movie one of the speakers, a PCA pastor, stood up and said, "I would have no problem playing that for the sermon on Sunday morning, because that was the gospel." Look's like Horton's worries are confirmed, even among (what are supposed to be) "Reformed" ministers of the gospel.

One of the dangers that lead to the above is what is called "the assumed gospel." We all "get" the gospel, we're just not living it. Of course Horton decimates this idea with his massive stock pile of statistics marshaled throughout each chapter as well as the theological rejoinder that, actually, we don't "get" it; or, at least, that we easily forget the gospel. We're wired for law, see. "The gospel is so odd, even to us Christians, that we have to get it again and again," says Horton. Treat Christianity primarily as a means of "getting your marriage" on track, and you'll be welcomed in the public sphere. If religion is private therapy to improve our lives and make us better, it has an important place in society. If you "treat it as public truth--Good news to the whole world--and it provokes offence. Moral and spiritual enlightenment is one thing; redemption by a one-sided divine rescue operation is another." When we assume we know the gospel, we slip right into our (semi-) Pelegian moralism all too easily. We need the gospel again and again. Every single Lord's day. Rather than the constant burden to "do more" in our lives and church, we need first and foremost to be reminded of what was done for us. Only if this gospel has been properly preached can the Christian go out and love his neighbor and minister to others in the body.

But all too often our religion places one demand on us after another. We are constantly "transforming all areas of life" or looking for that next set of principles that we can put into action so as to this time be "on fire for Jesus," that we get burned out. Do this, do that, place a fish on your car and make sure to invite your entire neighborhood to go see The Passion of the Christ. "Get involved" in this ministry and that ministry. On top of that make sure to be a "Promise keeper." Sing your heart out to Jesus on Sunday morning. Give your all to God . We forget that God gives to us. He invites us to church so he can feed us and clean through Word and Sacrament. We get so busy so "doing things for the kingdom" that we've forgot the King and what he did, and continues to do, for us. Horton does not deny the good things that Christians can and should do. But he laments that it is taking place minus the constant bombardment of the gospel. "Christianity Lite." "Christ as adjective" for my car or my coffee shop. Look at me take back my neighborhood by serving "Christian coffee" at a "Christian coffee house." After a day's work I drive home in my "transformed" Suburban with my WWJD bumper sticker. I've got to be faithful like Abraham, devoted like Moses. Quote-mine Joshua's life so I can be a Joshua at the office. And, of course, we should all "dare to be a Daniel." This is moralism. The constant preaching of this burns us out. We need a rest. We can do more when rested.

Horton offers the story of David as an example of how the Bible presents its stories and how therapeutic moralism cannot be gleaned from the proper reading of the Scriptures. He cites Graeme Goldsworthy's comments on Martin Luther's own comments on David's victory over Goliath:

"The important point to note is that Luther has made the link between the saving acts of God through Christ. Once we see the connection, it is impossible to use David as a mere model for Christian living since his victory was vicarious and the Israelites could only rejoice in what was won for them. In terms of our interpretive principles, we see David's victory as a salvation event in that the existence of the people of God in the promised land was at stake."

Reading this I was reminded of the movie In The Valley of Elah. In a scene where the movie gets its title, Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), retired MP, tells the young son of the detective he's working with to solve his son's murder, the story of when David meets Goliath in the Valley of Elah. Hank is a outwardly religious man. Surely loves God, his country, Mom, and apple pie. He prays before every meal. He's a paradigmatic therapeutic, moral deist. He gives the young boy, also named David, a "life lesson" from the biblical David's life. What is gleaned from the text?: Face down your monsters, look them in the eye, exhibit courage even when all the odds are stacked against you. (Deerfield was obviously no Aristotelian, that's for sure.! But I digress...) Even Hollywood understands what "Christians" have turned the Bible into! Jones's bed time story could easily been stolen from the preaching of almost any church across the country. That's what happens when the Bible is turned into a plan for "Your best life now."

Horton confronts modern evangelicalism, issuing a warning call to the catholic Church. Christless Christianity stands in the same league with Machen's Christianity and Libealism. It's a modern day counterpart. His scathing indictment is backed by thorough analysis and myriad examples. His conclusions hard to deny. He uses the insights of sociologists and statisticians like Barna, Bloom, Lee, Mullen, Noll, Smith, Witten, and many others. He also uses as fodder such names as Charles Finney, Joel Osteen, and Brian McLaren to make many of his main points. The danger here is in thinking that us Reformed escape Horton's critique. But we don't. Reading his book I was shown that I am and have been guilty of following a Christless Christianity. I am no better than the Arminians we critique on this blog for example. Until I get to heaven, I will constantly forget and water down the gospel. Am I better because my (semi-) Pelagianism is outwardly denied even though I repeatedly fall back into it through my actions and my assumption of the gospel?

So this isn't just a book to self-righteously give your "evangelical" friends. Even showing your moralism by treating Horton's book as some kind of "plan" or "set of principles" that will get their life on track. This is a book you get and read and apply to yourself first. This is a book for all of us, and all of us need to read it and take its warnings seriously. So, take a break from "transforming" your neighborhood for Jesus and get acquainted with the gospel all over again. Step outside of your narcissistic personalizing of Jesus and get the focus back on an actual historical event that comes to us by way of announcement. Bring back the idea that we go to church to get served rather than primarily to serve. Knock off the self-feeding and get fed. "For the time is come for judgment to begin at the house of God."
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Was John Frame's Review of Christless Christianity On Target? 27 Nov 2009
By Trevin Wax - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church by Michael Horton is a book that slipped by me. I read several good reviews. I saw it in the bookstore.

But because I am an avid listener of Horton's radio show, The White Horse Inn, I thought I would be already (overly, perhaps) familiar with the gist of the book. So my attention was diverted elsewhere.

Then, several weeks ago, John Frame, professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, wrote a scathing review of the book. Frame devoted so many pages to debunking Horton's thesis that I became very intrigued. What is up with this book that it would cause such consternation from someone who agrees with Horton in so many areas?

So I decided to pick up the book for myself. It is always a dangerous thing to read a book after you've read an extensive review. There is always the possibility you will see the book through the eyes of the reviewer and not be fair to the author. But in this case, I think Frame's review (though helpful in some respects) is unfairly tilted against Horton. After having read it for myself, I believe Horton's book deserves careful consideration by all who are concerned about the current direction of evangelicalism.

Christless Christianity can best be described as "prophetic." It is a wake-up call to the American church to shake off the slumber of consumerist complacency. It is a rallying cry to put Jesus back in the center of our preaching, worship, and devotion.

Because Horton's work is prophetic, he occasionally makes judgments that may be too sweeping (as he himself admits [27]). But criticizing him for occasional generalizations is like taking Isaiah to task for condemning Israel's false worship. Come on, Isaiah! Surely you don't mean that all our offerings are in vain? The nature of a prophetic book is to passionately call people to renewed faith, and Horton fulfills this role admirably.

Horton does not accuse all Americans of denying the faith. Instead, he warns against being so distracted that we miss the essence of the gospel. We are inclined to turn in on ourselves and tell our stories rather than Christ's. We make worship about our needs rather than his glory. We make salvation about self-fulfillment rather than rescue from sin and its punishment.

Those who are familiar with Horton's work will not find any surprises in Christless Christianity. But nowhere else will you find such a well-written critique of the American evangelical church.

The chapter on Joel Osteen - "Smooth Talking and Christless Christianity" - is the single best treatment of Osteen's theological outlook that has been written. Horton's chapter on Osteen is so devastating that it's like bringing out a bulldozer to displace a stone, or a high-powered fan to move a feather.

Frame was right to point out that there are places where Horton might swing the pendulum too far. Horton's assertion that "Christianity is not a worldview, a way of life, or a program for personal and societal change; it is a gospel" (105) is too restrictive. It is true that the gospel is not a worldview or way of life, but Christianity is indeed a way of seeing the world. The gospel message itself makes little sense unless placed within the broader, biblical framework ("worldview") in which it is announced.

In another section, Horton declares that "the worst thing that can happen to the church is confuse law and gospel" (122). While confusing the theological categories of law and gospel can indeed by dangerous, is this the worst thing that can happen? If so, why did Paul not specifically warn against this confusion of categories in Scripture?

Horton's separation of law and gospel leads him to say that "any form of doing the gospel is a confusion of categories." And yet, Paul himself speaks of "obeying the gospel" (Rom. 10:16; 2 Thess. 1:8). So does Peter (1 Pet. 4:17). Horton's exhortation to carefully distinguish between law and gospel is good. But sometimes he creates such a dichotomy between the indicative and imperative that the complexity of the New Testament texts are flattened.

These quibbles aside, Christless Christianity is well worth your time. Horton is at his best when he is not only demonstrating where we are wrong, but where we should be right. One reason I have always admired Horton is that he recognizes temptations within his own theological tradition.

"Our temptation as Reformed Christians is to pride ourselves on bearing the marks of a true church regardless of whether people actually being added to the church," he writes. (197)

He is absolutely right to insist that "without the marks, the mission is blind; without the mission, the marks are dead" (205).

In the end, Frame's review strikes me as too sweeping (and surprisingly personal). Horton's book, on the other hand, is strong medicine for a sick church. We need to heed many of his warnings if we are to be faithful to the gospel.
170 of 217 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Only Half an Answer 17 Nov 2008
By Michael Kear - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I was quite disappointed in Horton's conclusions in this book. He nailed the problems of the American Church very eloquently and with lots of fervor. However, I disagreed with his bottom line on the answer. He is right about the Pelagianism that has infiltrated most American Christianity. He is right about Charles G. Finney and Joel Osteen and Robert Schuller and TBN. But he is wrong, in my opinion, in thinking that theological correctness is the ONLY answer. Academic orthodoxy is only half an answer. According to Scripture we also need the Holy Spirit.

Horton comes out very strongly against revival, which I found baffling. To Horton, spiritual revivals such as the Great Awakening (Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, David Brainerd) or the first and second Welsh revivals (which brought us G. Campbell Morgan, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and Evan Roberts), are part of the problem rather than part of the answer. For him, the answer lies in a kind of academic neo-scholasticism. Horton believes that right doctrine will bring about the desired result, while revival will only bring wildfire.

I think he is dead wrong. I think you must have BOTH the Word and the Spirit in order to have a Christ-filled Christianity. Orthodoxy can be 100% correct and 100% dead at the same time (as the Pharisees and the Fundamentalists have proven over and over).

I'm going to disagree with Horton, but agree with Edwards and Roberts and Morgan and Lloyd-Jones and Spurgeon and Habakkuk that we need a revival of the Word and Spirit of God. Horton is right about the problems. And he is right about the need for orthodox theology. But he only gives us half the solution. And we need a whole Gospel to revive a lifeless American Christianity.

"O Lord, Revive thy work in the midst of the years, in the midst of the years make known; in wrath remember mercy." (Hab. 3:2).

"I do not understand Christian people who are not thrilled by the whole idea of revival... If you want a perfect exposition of 1 Corinthians 1:25-31, read books on revival." (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones).
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