Saturday, January 21, 2012

Book Review: Christless Christianity

Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church. Michael Horton. 2008. Baker Publishing. 272 pages.

What would things look like if Satan really took control of a city? Over a half century ago, Presbyterian minister Donald Grey Barnhouse offered his own scenario in his weekly sermon that was also broadcast nationwide on CBS radio, Barnhouse speculated that if Satan took over Philadelphia, all of the bars would be closed, pornography banished, and pristine streets would be filled with tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The children would say, "Yes, sir" and "No, ma'am," and the churches would be full every Sunday...where Christ is not preached. 
It is easy to become distracted from Christ as the only hope for sinners. Where everything is measured by our happiness rather than by God's holiness, the sense of our being sinners becomes secondary, if not offensive. If we are good people who have lost our way but with the proper instructions and motivation can become a better person, we need only a life coach, not a redeemer. (15-16)

In Christless Christianity Michael Horton argues that many American churches--many American denominations--have lost sight of the most important thing, they've taken their eyes off Jesus Christ. Instead of reflecting on Christ--who He is, what He has done, what He has accomplished already--they are reflecting on what they need to do, how they should act and behave. They've become distracted by works-righteousness, though they may not admit that is what they're doing. But they've shifted their messages from the works and person of Jesus Christ, to focus instead on being relevant and practical. By giving their followers, their listeners, lists of things to do to have a better life now, to be happy, to be successful now. In some cases, major doctrines have been set aside. But in other cases, the changes have been so small, so slight, that you'd think they just wouldn't make that big of a difference. But. Horton argues that anything you add to Christ is not only unnecessary, not only unwise, but dangerous. There is nothing more we need to say or do to gain salvation. Jesus paid it all. We are saved through Jesus. We are saved through his life; we are saved through his death; we are saved through his resurrection. Need a perfect life of obedience to get into heaven? Jesus has done it. For you. For me. For all who believe. He has taken our sin and given us his righteousness. We do not need to piece together fig leaves for ourselves. Christ has clothed us himself. We don't need to add to what he has done. We don't. We need to worship God. We need to keep Christ the center of our faith. We don't need to worry about what we're doing or not doing right. We don't need to worry that we're not doing enough. We don't need to be proud that we're doing so well. Our faith shouldn't be showing off all the things we've done. We need to love more, but we don't love more by trying to love more, by trying to make ourselves more loving, more caring, more compassionate. We love more when we're so focused on Christ that Christ's love spills over into our lives. The more we know him--the more we love him. The more we reflect on Christ, the more we can reflect him to others.

Christless Christianity was an amazing read. I'd definitely recommend it!

My favorite quotes:

I am a Christian not because I think that I can walk in Jesus's footsteps but because he is the only one who can carry me. I am not the gospel; Jesus Christ alone is the gospel. His story saves me, not only by bringing me justification but by baptizing me into his resurrection life. (117)

I think that the church in America today is so obsessed with being practical, relevant, helpful, successful, and perhaps even well-liked that it nearly mirrors the world itself. (16)

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? (24)

Does Christ come to boost our ego or to crucify our ego and raise us up as new creatures with our identity in him? (33)

"How can I, a sinner, be right before a holy God?" is simply off the radar in a therapeutic mind-set. Once the self is enthroned as the source, judge, and goal of all of life, the gospel need not be denied because it's beside the point. But people need to see--for their own good--that self-realization, self-fulfillment, and self-help are all contemporary twists on an old heresy, which Paul identified as works-righteousness. (40)

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. (42)

As much as we might talk about a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, there doesn't actually seem to be much of a relationship at all, except with the self. (43)

Original sin, as G.K. Chesterton observes, is 'the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved'. (63)

"Smooth talk and flattery" is part of the staple-diet of successful American religion today. And it is almost always advertised simply as more effective mission and relevance. (66)

When even good, holy, and proper things become confused with the gospel, it is only a matter of time before we end up with Christless Christianity: a story about us instead of a story about the Triune God that sweeps us into the unfolding drama. (109)

The worst thing that can happen to the church is to confuse law and gospel. When we soften the law, we never give up on our own attempts to offer our rags of "righteousness" to God. When we turn the gospel into demands, it is no longer the saving Word of redemption in Jesus Christ alone. (122)

The gospel is for Christians too. We need to be evangelized every week. It is not by following Christ's example but by actually being inserted into Christ, clothed with Christ, united to Christ--as the Spirit creates faith through the gospel--that we are not only justified but sanctified as well. (125)

The church exists in order to change the subject from us and our deeds to God and his deeds of salvation, from our various missions to save the world to Christ's mission that has already accomplished redemption. He sends us into the world, to be sure, but not to save it. Rather, he sends us into the world to witness to Christ as the only Savior and to love and serve our neighbor in our secular vocations. Evil lies not outside us but inside; it is salvation that comes from outside ourselves. Nothing the church does extends, completes, or fulfills Christ's all-sufficient, once-and-for-all, completed work of living, dying, and rising for sinners. So enough about us! (141)

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. When Christ is talked about, a lot of things can happen, none of which necessarily have any lasting impact. When Christ is proclaimed in his saving office, the church becomes a theater of death and resurrection. (141)

Isn't it amazing that, according to Jesus, the whole Bible is about him and Peter says that the angels long to understand the Good News that is (or should be) brought weekly by heralds, but we decide that someone or something else should be the focus of our sermon and worship this week? (143)

It is just as easy to lose Christ by distraction as it is by denial. (143)

However frequently his name is invoked, a religion that turns on "What Would Jesus Do?" is not the Christian faith. (146)

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)

The gospel changes lives; it is not our changed life. (156)

Where Christ is not King, he is neither Prophet nor Priest. Christ rules his church--instituting its structure and methods--precisely so that he can effectively deliver his good gifts to the world. (205)
Read Christless Christianity

  • If you're a believer looking for a good nonfiction read
  • If you're a believer wanting to grow in Christ
  • If you're looking for the answers--what is the gospel? what is sin? how can I be saved? 
  • If you're looking for a critique of Joel Osteen, the emerging church movement--particularly Brian McLaren, Charles Finney, pelagianism and/or semi-pelagianism, and gnosticism. 

© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible


A. Finlay said...

Becky, I like how you review Christian and mainstream books separately. I wonder how you would rate a book that dances in between these two genres...

hopeinbrazil said...

Great review with intriguing quotes!

Sherry said...

I grabbed a couple of your quotes for Twitter and Facebook. This book sounds like something I need to read.