Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church
Author: Michael Horton
Publisher: Baker Books (272 pages)
I wish to thank the fine people at Baker Books for sending me this review copy.
Has mainstream evangelicalism gone Pelagian and taken captive to consumerism, pragmatism, self-sufficiency, individualism, positive thinking, personal prosperity, and nationalism? Dr. Michael Horton thinks so. The author of Christless Christianity is Professor Dr. Michael Horton, Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary, California. Dr. Horton has good and accurate insights on the situation of popular mainstream evangelicalism. I agree with much of the opinions he has expressed. Mainstream evangelicalism is going in the wrong direction. We need to be Christ-centered, not human-centered. Otherwise, evangelical churches will see the same fate as most mainline churches.
I have read and reviewed another book of Dr. Horton’s, Introducing Covenant Theology, and gave him two thumbs up for that one. In Christless Christianity, Michael Horton takes an extremely critical approach and leads the reader through his critique of the less-than-desirable theologies in some of our mainstream evangelical Christian leaders. This is only the second book of Dr. Horton’s that I’ve read and I hope he has taken a more positive approach in his other books. I think the tone and the approach he takes is less-than desirable because it takes on a very condemnatory tone. I know that Dr. Horton is concerned about the state of today’s evangelical church. I am too. However, after you hear a person rant on and on about the same subject, it gets tiring after a while. This is how I feel about this book. This book is basically a rant against what’s going on in today’s misled evangelical Christianity and it feels far from being a book on theology.
I fully agree with Horton’s view of law and gospel, on the theology of the cross, and on the monogeristic position that we are helpless and cannot save ourselves. I have absolutely no disagreement with Horton on these theologies. However, I think he is picking on the wrong target. I am also glad he is speaking up against the false promises in today’s feel-good therapeutic and prosperity gospel theologies. Furthermore, I have never been a fan of Robert Schuller and prosperity gospel preacher Joel Osteen because I think their theology is wrong-headed. To be fair and just, I am coming to their defense because I think Dr. Horton has gone too far and is even unfair at times in his critique of them. He labels today’s mainstream evangelicals as “revivalists”. This is the wrong term to use. In chapter three’s “Smooth Talking and Christless Christianity”, the author basically spent most of the entire chapter critiquing Osteen’s teachings. Horton feels that Osteen is really a “positive thinking” Robert Schuller-type who shameless advocates a theology of glory, and is selling a gospel that teaches people how to be a success in life.
Another beef with this book is that it misleads the reader into thinking that most of our modern-day evangelicals are spouting a message that humans are sinless and do not need Christ to save us from our sins. That is simply not true. Many, if not most, evangelicals do preach on the seriousness of our sins, some times a little too much. Many accurately divide law and gospel. Moreover, other than our traditional-orthodox evangelical protestants, some of the mainstream evangelical churches are likely the last remaining bastions where law and gospel is still proclaimed and rightly taught rather than the wrong-headed antinomian approach.
Revivalist preachers like Charles Finney, whom Dr. Horton harshly criticized, was painted as a Pelagian, or at best, a semi-Pelagian who was fixated on human self-will. Horton says of Finney:
“Where American Transcendentalism and Romanticism (the nineteenth century’s equivalent of the New Age movement) attracted Boston’s intellectuals, Charles Finney and his revivalistic legacy represents “an alternative Romanticism,” a popular version of self-reliance and inner experience, “taking up where Transcendentalism left off.”… And revivalism in its own way was popularizing this distinctly American religion on the frontier… Efficiency was the rule for success in religion as in business, and ever since evangelicals have judged new movements by whether they “work” in terms of subjective experience and moral transformation.” (p. 52).
Finney’s sermons were anointed by God’s Holy Spirit and his messages have brought a deep conviction of sin and were used by God to lead many souls to salvation or recommit their lives to Christ. On the contrary, it was not popular but it brought a conviction to many souls, as did the sermons of John Wesley. Finney’s and Wesley’s sermons have encouraged many to live their lives to the glory of God. People with an Augustinian-bent can believe that the human will can play a part in the sanctification process but not in justification. Sanctification is the only place where synergism is active in the Christian’s life. However, what many of our pro-Augustinian Calvinists (and Lutherans included) misinterpret about “revivalist” evangelical preachers is that when they put the emphasis on how the human will plays a big part in the sanctification process of the Christian, they also assume that evangelicals are saying that it also has a part in justification. There are many mainstream evangelicals who do not see the power of human will playing a part in one’s salvation.
At times, in one’s zeal for evangelism, a revivalist’s plea to the sinner to accept Christ comes across as decision-theology. I have to admit that some evangelicals who are theologically untrained do give the wrong impression that it is in the power of one’s will that enables one to choose salvation. However, we should not allow our theology to blind us to the point where we deny that the human will does exist and can have a part in the life of a Christian.
I believe that one can choose to reject God’s sanctification process due to our curved-inward nature that is hopelessly inclined toward sin, selfishness and self-idolatry. However, our human will to say “Yes” to God’s salvation is made possible only through God’s gift. Before I was theologically trained myself, I did not realize this important piece of theology, so, I can sympathize with some of my friends who ignorantly teach this to parishioners in evangelical churches. Some of it may just be an issue of semantics but some of it is definitely due to a wrong understanding in theology.
The author also took the approach of trying to teach what unorthodox Christianity is like rather than what orthodox Christianity is supposed to be like. Have you heard the analogy of how to recognize a genuine dollar bill from a counterfeit? When one wants to teach someone how to recognize a counterfeit $100 dollar bill from a genuine one, the teacher should have the student should learn what characteristics makes a genuine $100 dollar bill, not what makes a fake one. The student is not able to learn effectively from studying a counterfeit one. If you enjoy what seems like endless ranting about what is wrong with today’s evangelical church, you will enjoy this book; but if you want to learn about what is authentic evangelical theology, I would suggest you find another book.
Horton labels preachers like Osteen as semi-Pelagian New Age teachers. Some of today’s teachers may be self-deceived but they are not as dark as Professor Michael Horton would seem to portray. I wish more theologians as theologically astute as Dr. Horton could write books that help us to properly understand evangelical theology rather than continuously rant about what is not genuinely evangelical. It would just be more edifying to the entire body of Christ.
There are very few books that I have reviewed and had to stop before reaching the end. This is only the second one ever because I could not endure the negative tone. It is not easy to read. However, I did manage to review this one but not the other. Please do not misunderstand my intentions for this review and commentary, for which I give the book a thumbs down. Christless Christianity is available from Amazon for $13.59 in hardcover.