Monday, May 11, 2009

Christless Christianity

One of the (many) books that my husband brought home from the Gospel Coalition conference in April was Michael Horton's "Christless Christianity."  It's a blistering critique of the American church, one that I've been interested to read since reading Jared Wilson's praise of it a couple of months ago.  And I'm torn.  

My biggest complaint of the book is this:  I'm not sure you could tell from this text whether the good Michael Horton believes that God is a god of love or not.   Dr. Horton's contention is that awareness of God's holiness and majesty are absent in most of the American church.  That the knowledge of impossible gap between God's holiness and our sin, and our complete helplessness in the face of our sin is missing.  I do not argue any of these points.  But salvation in this book seems to be primarily an escape from God's wrath.  There is little sense that we are being saved into anything positive.  That I should want to avoid having Michael Horton's God angry at me, I am very clear on.  But once I'm assured that Christ's atoning sacrifice has taken care of that . . . then what?  Has works salvation infiltrated the American church?  Undoubtedly.  Is the average American church goer able to articulate the fact that our sin is so great and God's wrath with it such that only Christ's death could deal with the problem.  Maybe not so much.  But my friend Barb wrote this recently about understanding the reality of God's wrath without understanding his love:  
I have always viewed sin as something that we do that falls short of a rule that God made. Sometimes this was an intentional act on our part, sometimes it was unintentional. Either way when we did this God was anywhere from mildly frustrated to totally consumed with rage toward us. Sin ultimately gave us the death penalty. Jesus had to die to allow God to even have contact with us. He had to kill his Son for our screw-up-ed-ness. No wonder he was pissed off.
It's an imbalance which doesn't to leave you with a God that you're looking forward to spending eternity with . . .

That said, I presume that Horton probably figures that the American church doesn't need to understand that God is love.  That our buddy-buddy, I'm-okay-you're-okay, God understands if you just try your best . . . or even if you just try some type of culture needs to get it pounded through their skulls that our sin is serious business that we're talking about.  Horton does a masterful job of tracing out works-righteousness and showing how and why human religion constantly returns to it.
He also does a great favor to the American church by diagnosing the dominant spirituality of our age as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  (This amorphous spirituality is characterized by the beliefs that:
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 feel good about oneself
4.  God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life, except when needed to solve a problem
5.  Good people go to heaven when they die )

By naming Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as the Christ-less, feel-good, self-affirming pablum that it is and then uncovering salvation-by-works (Pelagianism) in many and various forms that it hides itself in the landscape of American spirituality, Horton exposes much in the church that needs to be seen for what it really is and reveals a great deal about why so many American churches produce so little in the way of actual disciples.

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