Sunday, December 18, 2011

Review of Christless Christianity

I just finished reading Christless Christianity, by Michael Horton (2008). My pastor once referred to it from the pulpit as 'the most important book of the century.' Challies and others have written great reviews already and it has been around for a while now (3 years). However, writing helps me retain what I have read, so if this is a blessing to you, or if it will cause you to pick up the book, then it is worth my time to write and yours to post a blog on it. Thanks to the BSG (the Bible study at my work) for allowing me to lead a discussion through this book at the tale end of the year. Without having to answer to you I probably would have moved on to another book rather than completing it!

Disclaimer: Horton is a little deep. Keep your dictionary handy and persevere, and your vocabulary will grow and you will be blessed by his teaching. He is a smart guy that it is at times a reach for me to stay tracking with him. Having said that, he is a quote machine! He is a powerful writer and as I will mention, he points the reader to Christ and the Gospel.


Horton’s concern in writing this book is that Christianity in America is in many churches being watered down. He explains this form of denying Christ is what he calls “Christless Christianity”.

I am not arguing in this book that we have arrived at Christless Christianity 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.

Horton describes today’s Christianity using the borrowed phrase: ‘moralistic, therapeutic deism’, which 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. (Challies)


My favorite thing about the book is the way Horton points us away from ourselves and to Christ and His Word. In walking us through the ills of our Christless Christianity, he masterfully weaves Gospel truth and proclaims the Gospel of Christ.

Christianity announces the Good News that God in Christ has saved us now from the condemnation of the law, has dethroned the tyranny of sin, and has delivered us from Satan’s oppressive regime. But it gets even better: one day this salvation will be consummated in the gift of resurrection, glorification, and everlasting life free of the very presence of sin, pain, evil, and violence. (p 97)

Not only the message but the gospel’s method of delivery itself is Good News. God did not merely speak about the incarnation. Still less did God speak of the incarnation as a general principle for anything and everything that God does in the world. No God actually became flesh, fulfilled all righteousness, conquered sin and death, and in his resurrection inaugurated the new creation as the firstfruits of the entire harvest. A new power regime is afoot in this passing age: the power of life over death, justification over condemnation, righteousness over the dominion of sin. God’s politics is his work: the cross and the resurrection – and the confident expectation of Christ’s return in glory to make all things new.


In diagnosing the problem with American evangelicalism, Horton does what is unpleasant but necessary: he names names.

As heretical to our post-modern culture as this is, there is a clear Biblical precedent for naming names, calling out those who preach error.  Peter named Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8) and he exposed “the way of Balaam (II Pet.2: 15). Paul named Hymenaeus and Alexander (1Tim. 1:20), Phygelus and Hermogenes (2Tim. 1:15), Hymenaeus and Philetus (2 Tim. 2:17), Alexander the metalworker (2 Tim. 4:14), Paul had some strong words for the sorcerer El'ymas (Acts 13:10). He even called out the Apostle Peter publicly when the issue was crucial for the Gospel (Gal 2:11-14).

Likewise, Horton discusses Finney, Pelagianism, semi-pelagianism, Gnosticism, the Emergent church, Osteen, Meyer, and Barna to name a few.  The New Testament is crystal clear that we are to be on the alert for false teachers and to test all things holding fast to that which is true (i.e. jives with Scripture). He is quick to point out that the problems with the American church are in all major denominations (including his own). He is not pointing to liberalism as the problem, but rather a lack of theology altogher, a vacuum of truth.

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.


One helpful aspect of the book is the way it confronts many of the things we hear so often. Things that are just flat wrong. We are confused in many ways in our thinking. Here is a short list:

  • We are called to ‘Deeds not creeds’

  • Christians need to ‘be the Gospel’

  • ‘Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary use words’

  • Are you going to accomplish great things for God?

  • The Gospel is not about rules; it’s about loving God and each other. (p 134)

  • Religion is personal, between me and God.


Horton’s call is to a slumbering church to wake up to its true mandate in Christ.

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.

Challies points out that Horton is calling 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.

The final chapter is entitled ‘A Call to 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.

I love how Challies closes out his review of the book. I could not have put it better, and in my laziness I do not care to.

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.



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Here is my testimony: mike