Review of Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church1
by John M. Frame
The title of this book is alarming, certainly by design. But the subtitle is even more so. Does it mean that the whole American church (all traditions, denominations, locations) is committed to an “alternative Gospel?” Or is it that, though part of the American church upholds the true, biblical gospel, there is within that church a movement (evidently a significant movement) to the contrary?
We should keep in mind that such language makes the most serious indictments. To be Christless is to be doomed to Hell (John 3:36). And if someone preaches an “alternative gospel,” contrary to the gospel preached by the apostle Paul, he is to be accursed (Gal. 1:8-9). People who preach “another gospel” are not Christian friends who happen to disagree with us on this or that matter. Rather, they have betrayed Christ himself. The whole church ought to rise up against such persons and declare that they are not part of the body of Christ and that they have no part in the blessings of salvation. Indeed, if they do not repent, they have no future except eternal punishment.
In my view, many Christians (especially those in the conservative Reformed tradition that Horton and I both inhabit) use this sort of language far too loosely, even flippantly. It is time we learned that when we criticize someone for preaching “another gospel” we are doing nothing less than cursing him, damning him to Hell.
But Horton actually indicates to his readers that his title is not to be taken seriously. He backs away from its serious language:
Before I launch this protest, I should carefully state up front what I am not saying. First, I acknowledge that there are many churches, pastors, missionaries, evangelists, and distinguished Christian laypeople around the world, proclaiming Christ and fulfilling their vocations with integrity. (20)
So evidently “Christless Christianity” is not the gospel of the American church. Many of its members are assuredly not Christless. Further,
Second, I am not arguing in this book that we have arrived at Christless Christianity but that we are well on our way. (20)
Whew! Evidently Christless Christianity is not yet the gospel of the American church, though we are on our way to adopting it.
This is something of a “bait and switch.” Horton scares us to death with his brash title, telling us that we are headed for Hell. But then he backtracks. He says there is really no movement today that could be called “Christless Christianity.” But there are some things going on that could lead the church that way.
What is it that, according to Horton, has put us “well on our way” to denying Christ? We might expect that Horton sees a rebirth of the liberalism J. Gresham Machen complained about in Christianity and Liberalism,2 in which Christ is merely a teacher and example, not the Son of God who died and rose to save sinners. In various updated forms, liberalism is still with us, to be sure. But that is not Horton’s concern in this volume. Rather, he says that for us to drift toward Christless Christianity,
There need not be explicit abandonment of any key Christian teaching, just a set of subtle distortions and not-so-subtle distractions. Even good things can cause us to look away from Christ and to take the gospel for granted as something we needed for conversion but which now can be safely assumed and put in the background. Center stage, however, is someone or something else. (20)
Notice how far we have come. From “Christless Christianity” and “alternative gospel,” to “well on our way,” we are now exploring “subtle distortions and not-so-subtle distractions,” even “good things” that detract from Christ.
What are these subtle distortions? Evidently, what Horton is concerned with is an emphasis. The metaphors of “looking away from” Christ and putting something else on “center stage” have to do with the emphasis we put on Christ.
Now arguing about emphasis in theology is tricky and, as Horton admits, subtle. And it’s even trickier if we argue by way of metaphors. If a person trusts Christ as lord and savior, the person in one sense will always have him on “center stage.” That’s what lordship means. The lord is the one before whom we bow, whom we acknowledge as having supreme power, authority, and personal presence in our lives.3 His actions and words are more important to us than any others.
But in our continuing sinfulness, we do sometimes “look away” from Christ, in the sense that we are tempted to sin, and we do sin. When that happens, have we pushed Jesus from “center stage?” Not in the sense mentioned in the last paragraph. The lord can never be displaced. Nothing can separate us from his love, not even our own sin. But “center stage” is a metaphor, and perhaps in some contexts it can designate, not the position of lordship, but a position of relative emphasis. If the latter, then it is indeed possible for us to push Jesus away from center stage.
But what exactly does that mean? What does it mean to “look away from” Jesus, or to push him (metaphorically!) from “center stage?” Certainly Horton does not want to say that we need to be thinking “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” through every waking moment. Certainly Scripture doesn’t require that. God’s creation is good, and it is perfectly legitimate to think about that creation sometimes and not always of him. It is right that we think often of Jesus, but also of bananas, symphonies, and international affairs. To do that is surely not to push Jesus from center stage, or to look away from him. Horton admits this:
Of course I am not denying… that Christians should have an interest in pressing issues of the day or that there is an important place for applying biblical teaching to our conduct in the world. But with Lewis I am concerned that when the church’s basic message is less about who Christ is and what he has accomplished once and for all for us and more about who we are and what we have to do in order to make his life (and ours) relevant to the culture, the religion that is made “relevant” is no longer Christianity. (145-46)
But “basic,” “less,” and “more” are relative terms. How much is too much? How much is just enough? Must every preacher spend a certain percentage of his time on Christ and the fundamental gospel, and another percentage on other things? Or may the percentages vary from week to week? Some churches have maintained the policy of having a gospel invitation in every service. Is that a good thing?
Is there a precise way to measure what the proper emphasis ought to be? One sometimes hears that preachers fail to emphasize exactly what Scripture emphasizes, in the same degree that Scripture emphasizes it. This is a little closer to Horton’s actual argument. But a little reflection will make it evident that such a complaint is incoherent. No preacher can possibly emphasize exactly, precisely, what Scripture emphasizes. This is the case, not only because of our human frailty (nobody can calculate the Bible’s emphasis precisely) but because of the very nature of preaching. Preaching is not the Bible; it is a communication of the Bible. The only way a preacher could maintain precisely the same emphasis as Scripture would be for him to simply read Scripture from the pulpit, from Genesis to Revelation, in the original languages. But preaching is not the reading of Scripture. Its words are not the same as those of Scripture. The preacher takes the words of Scripture and puts them into different words, in order to communicate with, to edify his congregation. Edifying a congregation may, and often does, require the preacher to give certain topics an emphasis different from that of Scripture itself. And it always involves applying biblical teaching to extra-biblical situations, to our lives.
Given the difficulty of formulating a normative emphasis for preaching, or for a church’s ministry, given the “subtlety” of the question, I would think that we should moderate somewhat the language of our critique. We should be wary of cocksureness and dogmatism. We ought to discuss these matters in an atmosphere of brotherhood, charity, and civility. Certainly we should hold back on extreme language like “Christless” and “alternative gospel.”
But we must get still more specific. What kind of wrong emphasis is Horton concerned about? Horton’s main complaints, I think, can be grouped around a number of twofold distinctions:
1. God and Ourselves
…The focus still seems to be on us and our activity rather than on God and his work in Jesus Christ. In all these approaches, there is the tendency to make God a supporting character in our own life movie rather than to be rewritten as new characters in God’s drama of redemption… we end up saying very little that the world could not hear from Dr. Phil, Dr. Laura, or Oprah.(18)
…we are focused on ourselves and our activity more than on God and his saving work among us… the “search for the sacred” in America is largely oriented to what happens inside of us, in our own personal experience, rather than on what God has done for us in history. (18)
…God and Jesus are still important, but more as part of the supporting cast in our own show. (20)
So the wrong emphasis in his view is an emphasis on ourselves rather than on God and his work of saving us from sin in Jesus Christ. In Horton’s view, modern American churches proclaim God as a means to human happiness (69).
As we have seen, this talk of “focus” or “emphasis” is very vague, so these kinds of charges are very difficult to prove. And given the radical nature of Horton’s charges (or at least his language) we ought to demand a rigorous case.
He claims that these charges are based on “recent studies” (20), and he says that he will
…offer statistics supporting the remarkable conclusion that those who were raised in “Bible-believing” churches know as little of the Bible’s actual content as their unchurched neighbors. (22)
If there are any actual statistics in this book, I must have missed them. What Horton provides are quotes from sociologists, historians, and psychiatrists, mostly secular, who say some of the same things he does. He quotes Newsweek (35), Karl Menninger (35), Robert Jay Lifton (35), Philip Rieff (36), Neil McCormick (36), Marsha Witten (48) Philip Lee (170) and others. He devotes a number of pages to Harold Bloom, who, he says, is sympathetic to Gnosticism rather than Christianity (170-75). But he never presents their raw data or presents a critical analysis of the arguments from which these people reached their conclusions.4
In the absence of serious argument, I default to my habitual skepticism toward critiques of evangelicalism by non-evangelicals. Horton may think that the very lack of Christian faith among these writers makes them more credible. I beg to differ. To accept conclusions as radical as Horton’s, I need to see at least one careful study by a mature evangelical believer, who is also a careful statistician, and who shows me his/her work. For statistical science is not religiously neutral. When Newsweek, for example, says that Christians are seeking “peace of mind” (35) why should we assume that the reporter is able to distinguish between a mere psychological comfort and the peace that Scripture promises to God’s people (John 14:27, 16:33, Rom. 1:7, Phil. 4:7)? When the reporter notes that Christians seek “personal transformation” (35), why should we assume that he understands the difference between psychological healing on the one hand and biblical regeneration and sanctification on the other? And why should we assume that he understands the relationship between sanctification and psychological healing? A mature evangelical Christian sociologist would at least have these distinctions in mind, and he might understand the ambiguities of the language he cites. But I have no reason to attribute such discernment to Horton’s authorities. We need to remember that the issue here is not only factual (what the churches do) but doctrinal (whether their activities are biblical). So I must ask, by what authority do secular sociologists, historians, and psychologists make judgments about Christian doctrine and preaching?
If Horton had taken the trouble, he might have at least asked the churches and pastors being studied how they would reply to these allegations. With the exceptions of Robert Schuller and Joel Osteen, who even Horton must regard as extreme examples, he has not seen fit to do this.
Speaking, perhaps presumptuously, for “the American church,” let me attempt a reply. For what it is worth, my own perception of American evangelicalism is very different from Horton’s. My observation is anecdotal (just like his, in the final analysis), but based on around 55 years of adult observation in many different kinds of churches including the much maligned mega-churches. In most every evangelical church I have visited or heard about, the “focus” is on God in Christ. There has been something of a shift over the years in what Horton would call a “subjective” direction. But that is best described not as unfaithfulness, but as a shift toward more application of Scripture to people’s external situations and inner life. There is a greater interest in sanctification (not just justification), on Christianity as a world view, on believers’ obligations to one another, on love within the body of Christ, and in the implications of Scripture for social justice.
I don’t see this as wrong, or unbiblical. Indeed, I think this general trend is an improvement over the state of affairs fifty years ago. Scripture is certainly concerned about these matters, and we ought to teach and learn what it has to say. Indeed, a “focus on God” that neglects scrutiny of ourselves does not honor God at all. As Calvin says on the first page of his Institutes, we cannot know ourselves without knowing God, and we can’t know God without knowing ourselves. And Calvin (rather unlike Horton) says that he doesn’t know which comes first. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says as its answer to Question 1, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.” (Emphasis mine.) So it is possible to have a God-centered view of human experience and subjectivity, a human “focus” that detracts not one bit from a biblical God-centeredness.
Consider Ps. 18:
I love you, O LORD, my strength.
The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
My shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I call on the LORD, who is worthy to be praised,
And I am saved from my enemies.
Like many Psalms, this song includes lavish use of the first person singular personal pronoun, “I,” “me,” “my—“maybe 75 occurrences. But will anyone claim that this Psalm is anything but God-centered?
The God of Scripture is not Moloch. He does not demand human sacrifice as the price of honoring him. Misery is not his goal for us. Rather, he delights in delivering and sanctifying his people. “Focus” is not a zero-sum game, where every bit of attention to God must detract from man and vice versa.
So, contrary to Horton, there is a sense in which God is a means to our happiness. Not, of course, a mere means. He is not only a means, not primarily that, but he is certainly that. Scripture presents redemption as precisely a means to our happiness. The story of the Bible is the story of how God came into a fallen world to save human beings from sin and give them happiness with him. Eternal happiness, certainly, but also the blessings of this life. The “blessed” of the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12) is sometimes translated “happy.” Our happiness is based on our reward in heaven (verse 12), but the thought of that reward brings rejoicing in our present life (12). So the New Testament is full of exhortations to rejoice (e.g. Phil. 4:4), not to be anxious (Phil. 4:6-7), to enjoy the peace of God (Phil. 4:7). Jesus even promises his disciples “now, in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:30). The Psalms speak often of a covenant God who rescues his people from danger and leads them into green pastures, beside still waters. Proverbs says that keeping God’s commandments brings length of days and years of life and peace (Prov. 3:1-2). Paul speaks of the contentment God gives to him in the midst of hardships (2 Cor. 12:9-10). The promise of prosperity to those who honor their parents continues under the new covenant (Eph. 6:1-3). Compare 1 Tim. 4:8, 1 Pet. 3:8-12.
It is amazing, certainly, that God, who deserves all praise, worship, and service, comes into history to serve us in this way. In Luke 12:37, Jesus says,
Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them.
Horton himself (194) stresses this verse in articulating his view of worship. He complains that in the worship of Willow Creek Community Church there is no reference to “God’s activity in serving his people” (194). I shall discuss this issue at a later point. But if this is a biblical representation, then it is not unbiblical to say, or even to emphasize, that God is concerned to bless human beings.
To say this does not at all compromise God’s transcendence, holiness and majesty. Indeed, it honors these. One reason God is worthy of praise is that he is big enough to know and care about every detail in the universe and particularly the affairs of his people. Horton complains that the concept of God in the American church has become “vacuous” (23)5 because the church focuses on such things as
Discipleship, spiritual disciplines, life transformation, culture transformation, relationships, marriage and family, stress, the spiritual gifts, financial gifts, radical experience of conversion, and end-times curiosities… (26)
Except possibly for the last item, it seems to me that everything on this list is a concern of Scripture itself and deserves to be emphasized in the church in some degree. The God who is concerned about such things is not vacuous. He is rather majestic and wonderful, because he is great enough to be concerned even with the details of human life. We can argue about the exact degree to which we should emphasize each of these, but that argument is not likely to be fruitful. These are matters that God cares about. Horton may think that to preach on them is something different from preaching Christ, but a more biblical assessment is that these are implications and applications of the work of Christ, and that we are not preaching Christ fully unless we preach on these applications. God sent his Son to die for real people, for us, and that salvation changes every aspect of our lives. So we live by every word that comes from the mouth of God, not only by those that are about Christ in some relatively direct fashion.
Now, certainly there is a kind of selfishness that detracts from biblical discipleship. Scripture warns of this (Luke 12:21; cf. Matt. 6:19-20). The self can be an idol, something we worship in place of God. Choosing an object of worship is certainly a zero-sum game. If Horton can show that the emphasis on human beings in the modern church amounts to idolatry, then his alarming language may be appropriate. But to show that, and to distinguish it from a legitimate concern with the self, is a task requiring some hard reflection, and I have not found that in Christless Christianity.
Scripture also rebukes Christians for our tendency to neglect others in order to please ourselves (Rom. 15:1). This is a sin, and it does detract from our faithfulness to God. But not every concern with self is selfish. It is wrong to covet, but not every desire for earthly goods is coveting. It is not wrong to desire food (Matt. 4:2), drink (John 19:28-29), sleep (Luke 8:23), sex (Gen. 2:22-23, Song of Solomon), children (Gen. 30:22-23, 1 Sam. 1:17, Ps. 127:3-5), or a better dwelling (Prov. 24:27). Horton takes no trouble to make such distinctions, thereby losing credibility for his attack on the American church.
2. Scripture and its Application
Showing how the teachings of Scripture are related to us is what I call “application.” In this sense, preaching, teaching, and theology are all kinds of application. The application of Scripture shows us how Scripture ought to change our beliefs, actions, feelings, indeed every aspect of human life (1 Cor. 10:31). As I mentioned earlier, preaching cannot possibly have the precise emphasis that Scripture has, for its work is not to replicate Scripture but to apply Scripture to its readers.
In this sense, it is wrong to distinguish “interpretation” from “application” in preaching.6 Often people think that interpretation shows the original thrust of the biblical words to its original audience, while application relates the passage to us today. But a closer look reveals that even in expounding the “original thrust of the biblical words” we are putting those words into categories that are meaningful to modern hearers and readers. There is no point in the preparation of sermons and lessons at which we can ignore the contemporary audience.
The distinction between Scripture and its application, and the important role of each, seem to elude Horton in this book. There is a constant polemic in the book against people who try to “make Jesus and the gospel relevant to people in our own time and place” (144). But certainly, when most people talk about making the gospel relevant, what they mean is simply applying it in the sense above. But Horton senses something nefarious about this project. He replies to such people,
But what does it say about Jesus Christ if the relevance of his person and work cannot stand on its own? Sure, Christ came as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), but can he help me get that promotion at work or relieve my stress? (144-45)
In the first place, yes, Jesus can help me get a promotion and he can relieve my stress. As we saw in the previous section, God is concerned about human happiness, even in the details of our lives. But why does Horton need to take “relevance” only in this sort of way? Making Scripture relevant is also finding contemporary words7 to describe and illustrate justification by grace through faith alone, a project Horton himself often engages in.
What does Horton mean by his question, “what does it say about Jesus Christ if the relevance of his person and work cannot stand on its own?” Here, he evidently fails to distinguish between objective and subjective relevance. Objectively, Jesus is relevant to us, whether we preach and teach about him or not. But “making him relevant” as the phrase is generally used, is about subjective relevance, namely helping people to understand and apply the objective relevance of Christ. “Making him relevant” communicates his objective relevance for all to appreciate, in their own languages, in their own cultural and individual situations.
Does Horton really think that we should make no effort to apply, to communicate the relevance of Christ to people today? He has little sympathy with those who are concerned about communicating the gospel. He quotes George Barna, who says that Jesus was a “communications specialist” and commends Jesus’ various methods of communicating with people. Barna makes various comparisons between Jesus’ communications methods and those of modern advertisers. Horton replies,
The question that naturally arises in the fact of such remarks is whether it is possible to say that Jesus made anything new. (47)
I confess I cannot find any reasonable correlation between Barna’s remarks and Horton’s reply, unless Horton is rebuking all interest in communication. Barna’s comparisons between Jesus and modern advertisers are a bit crass, but not entirely wrong. There are parallels between divine communication and human communication. But even if we reject Barna’s examples, it seems to me that for the sake of the gospel we ought certainly to take pains in learning how best to communicate it. That’s what the preaching departments of seminaries, including the seminary where Horton teaches, try to do. If we forswear all interest in communication, these departments have no reason to exist. The notion that “God’s relevance stands on its own” will not help young preachers as they struggle to learn how to communicate with their congregations.
Horton is particularly adamant against those who preach to “felt needs:”
Only when God’s law—his holiness, majesty, and moral will—creates in us a sense of our moral offensiveness to God does the gospel communicate deeper answers that our felt needs and cheap cravings only mask.(34)
Evidently, felt needs and cheap cravings are not far apart for Horton. Why?
We need to recover that sense so pervasive in other periods: namely, that even Christians do not know what they really need or even want and that attending to their immediate felt needs may muffle the only proclamation that can actually satisfy real needs. (240) Compare 97, 246).
I agree with Horton that this can happen. But I don’t think that it necessarily happens. Many felt needs of people today are recognized in Scripture as real needs: the need for good marriages, confidence in the future, personal integrity, for example. Others, such as the need for political harmony, a safe environment, good education are not specifically addressed in Scripture, but are certainly subject to the application of biblical principles. When churches show that the gospel addresses these needs, they can accomplish a lot of good. They should make clear, of course, that these needs are rooted in deeper needs, or they will not be addressing the felt needs adequately. But I don’t think the answer is to forbid the church from talking about anything that people are presently concerned about.
The communication and application of Scripture are essential to the church’s ministry. It is unbelievable that Horton seems to be discouraging them.
3. God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility
Horton’s aversion to communication sometimes seems to arise from an erroneous view of the relation between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Horton says,
No more translating the gospel! The gospel is an offense at precisely the same points and for the same reasons as always. Efforts to translate the gospel into contemporary language actually aim at making the gospel not only more understandable but more believable. The problem is that the gospel is so counterintuitive to our fallen pride that it cannot be believed apart from a miracle of divine grace. (240)
This comment is terribly confused.8 It seems to be saying that since salvation is by grace we need not make any effort to translate it into contemporary language. Should we, then, preach in Hebrew, or Greek, or Serbo-Croatian? Should we make the gospel as obscure as possible so as to avoid catering to fallen pride? Should we present it as something irrational, in order to maintain the offense of the cross? Perhaps we should not preach at all, in order to let God do the work.
This sounds as though human effort necessarily compromises God’s sovereignty. But that is a serious theological error. In some areas, God does all the work and we do nothing, examples being creation out of nothing and the gift of saving grace in Christ. But in many other areas, God works through created means, particularly through the work of human beings. For example, it is God who will gather his elect to himself; but, according to the Great Commission, he will do this through human beings who go and make disciples of all nations. Certainly that includes translating, interpreting, applying, and communicating the gospel message. In this case, divine sovereignty and human responsibility are not a zero-sum game, in which each detracts from the other. Salvation is God’s work from first to last. But in part of that process he employs human beings to do his work. And that employment brings glory to him, rather than detracting from his glory.
Another dimension of the sovereignty/responsibility issue arises in Horton’s critique of Joel Osteen. I will certainly not defend the main thrust of Osteen’s preaching, and I think many of Horton’s criticisms of him carry weight.9 Osteen is surely preoccupied with realizing human potential rather than with sin and grace. (Of course, what he speaks of is God-given human potential and God-redeemed human potential, not autonomous human potential, as we might assume from Horton’s discussion.) But Horton seems to want to take the critique farther. He says that for Osteen,
God may be the source of this blessing [accomplishing our dreams—JF] in an ultimate sense, since he set things up, but whether we actually receive God’s favor and blessings depends entirely on our attitude, action, and obedience. (84)
I think the word “entirely” overstates Osteen’s position, but certainly he does believe that our attitudes, actions, and obedience are necessary to receive the full blessings of God’s grace. Here I think Osteen is quite right, though Horton associates his position with Pelagianism and Gnosticism. Scripture often teaches that obedience is the road to the fullness of God’s blessing, indeed that obedience is the mark of a living faith. See Matt. 5:1-12, 43-45, 6:2-6, Gal. 5:6, James 2:14-26. Paul presents the proper balance:
…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phil. 2:12b-13).
God’s work in Christ is sufficient for our salvation. But there is also the “working out” of salvation, its application to all aspects of human life. God works sovereignly in both aspects of salvation. But in the second aspect he employs our efforts, our attitudes, actions, and obedience to achieve his sovereign purposes. Certainly it is not wrong to say that the best life for a human being now (to allude to the title of Osteen’s book) is a life in which we grow in obedience. Nor is it wrong to say, as I indicated earlier, that there are earthly blessings as well as heavenly blessings to those who live God’s way.10 Further, it is not wrong to say that we should “think positively” about God’s favor on us and his good purposes for us, even though all of us are called to endure suffering. Nor is it wrong to say that since we are created in God’s image and receive gifts of the Spirit we have “potential” we should seek to realize.
In Osteen’s preaching and writing, there is not nearly enough emphasis on the source of this potential in God’s saving grace. But Horton scarcely acknowledges at all that such potential exists, that there is biblical ground for thinking positively about ourselves, or that our obedience plays a role in appropriating the blessings of salvation. If he did, he would give Osteen at least some small degree of credit, rather than reading him in the worst possible sense, as a pure representative of Pelagianism. So, rather than a carefully thought-out critique of Osteean, Horton merely presents an opposite extreme.
For Horton, again, the relation between divine sovereignty and human responsibility is a zero sum game. Any recognition of human effort detracts from God’s sovereignty, and vice versa. I cannot regard this understanding as biblical.
4. The Objective and the Subjective
The above discussion casts some light on another theme of this book, one which Horton develops in many of his writings. Horton often emphasizes his view that the gospel focuses (again, note the relative term) on the “outer” rather than the “inner,” what happens outside of us, rather than what happens within us, the objective rather than the subjective. He quotes Goldsworthy,
The pivotal point of turning in evangelical thinking which demands close attention is the change that has taken place from the Protestant emphasis on the objective facts of the gospel in history, to the medieval emphasis on the inner life. The evangelical who sees the inward transforming work of the Spirit as the key element of Christianity will soon lose contact with the historic faith and the historic gospel. (152)11
As he accused Osteen of Pelagianism, Horton has a historical category for those who focus on the inner life:
Gnosticism identified God with the inner self, but Christianity has focused all of its resources on God outside of us, who creates, rules, judges, and saves us in our complete personal and corporate existence. It stands to reason that in the Gnostic scheme the inner self could stand above (even over against) not only the external church but its external ministry of preaching and sacrament, discipline and order, catechesis and communion. After all, it is not the public, historical, visible, and messy world that concerns Gnostics but the private, spiritual, invisible, and manageable world of the inner spirit. (186)
So those who “focus” on the inner life are “Gnostics,” or perhaps “well on their way” to Gnosticism. Horton is not sparing of the “Gnostic” label for anyone who gives attention to the inner life. (Osteen is both Pelagian and Gnostic, as Horton sees him.) I think this is quite inappropriate. Gnosticism, as Horton says, “identified God with the inner self.” Do we really want to say that Osteen does this? Or any other evangelical preacher Horton discusses?
In general, it is wrong to discuss “subtle” (Horton’s term) questions by the ruthless application of historical models. Horton is, of course, primarily a historian, so he leaps to analogies with historical movements like Pelagianism and Gnosticism. But these movements themselves took varied forms, and neither is a perfect match for any movement existing today. It is not fair to bring up such a historical movement as if it presents a complete parallel (and therefore serves as an adequate critique) of some modern development. Issues like this, especially issues that could result in someone being called “Christless,” deserve more careful reflection than this. But in this book, it seems that any time someone reflects on the inner life, Horton plops the Gnostic label on him.
When Chuck Smith says “We meet God in the realm of our spirit,” Horton finds Gnostic influence (178). That is extremely doubtful. The distinction of spirit and body is biblical (though theological use of it requires some clarification), and it has been common in all traditions of the church including the Reformed. The “spirituality of the church” has been a significant concept in American Christianity, and though I have some problems with it I suspect that Horton approves of the notion. I don’t accuse Horton or others who agree with this concept of Gnosticism. He should not accuse Chuck Smith either.
And on 182, he implies that it is Gnostic to say, as in the gospel song, that Jesus lives “within my heart” (182). But the Westminster Confession of Faith 18.2 mentions as its third ground of the assurance of salvation that the Spirit witnesses with our spirits that we are the children of God (Rom. 8:15-16). Jesus does indeed live in us in and through the Spirit. Is the Confession Gnostic?
Biblically, this loose attribution of Gnosticism to anyone who focuses on the inner life is quite wrong. As I indicated earlier, Scripture is about both God and man. In Scripture, God seeks his own glory, and he also seeks human happiness. The two don’t contradict one another. It is not a zero-sum game. Psalms like Ps. 18 that reflect most deeply on human need of God are among the most God-centered. God delights in the happiness of his people.
Much of that happiness is what we might call “inner” happiness. God grants relief from anxiety (Phil. 4:6), inner peace (verse 7). David deals with his anxiety over evildoers in Ps. 37 and 73, working out his “envy” of the arrogant (73:3). He concludes that it is good for him to “be near” to God (verse 28). (If that statement weren’t in the Bible, Horton would certainly accuse it of Gnosticism.) Jesus tells his disciples not to let their heart be troubled (John 14:1). The fruit of the Spirit is a revolution in our inward character (Gal. 5:17-24). Need we argue that true faith in God is a matter of the heart (Matt. 23:25-26)?
By his Spirit, Christ is in us (Rom. 8:10-11, Col. 1:27) and works in us (Phil. 1:6, 2:12-13). He does “live in our heart” by the Spirit. Against Horton’s emphasis in Chapter Five, our relation to Christ is fully personal. Is this Gnosticism? Perhaps the Gnostics took such language and distorted it for their own purposes, the destruction of the creator-creature distinction. But for the most part Horton writes as if it is wrong (Gnostic) even to reflect on our inner relationship with God. Clearly the distinction between Gnosticism and biblical inwardness requires a more careful analysis than Horton provides. What is needed here is not only the gifts of a historian, but also the gifts of systematic theologians and exegetes.
On 178, Horton cites Philip Lee as saying,
Whereas classical Calvinism has held that the Christian’s assurance of salvation was guaranteed only through Christ and his Church, with his means of grace, now assurance could be found only in the personal experience of having been born again. This was a radical shift, for Calvin had considered any attempt to put ‘conversion in the power of man himself’ to be gross popery.12
There is so much wrong with this quotation, I must number my objections. (1) This is another example of many in Horton’s book that try to resolve theological issues by history (“classical Calvinism” vs. “popery”) rather than Scripture. (2) To speak of being born again as a ground of assurance is not to put conversion in the power of man. The new birth is precisely not in the power of man, and Calvin would never have said that it was. (3) Certainly Christ is the ground of our assurance, but how does he assure us? To say that he assures us only through the external institution of the church is as papist as can be imagined. (4) The actual Reformation ground of assurance is three-sided, as in the Westminster Confession of Faith, 18.2: the “divine truth of the promises of salvation,” the “inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made,” and “the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God.” (5) Lee’s statement says nothing about the promises, which are central. (6) The other two grounds mentioned in the Confession are inward and subjective. Both have clear biblical support. See 2 Pet. 1:5-11, Rom. 8:16-17.
Horton also quotes Lee as saying that the new birth was the opposite of “rebirth into a new and more acceptable self”; it was the death of the old self and its rebirth in Christ.13 Certainly the new birth involves out death and resurrection in Christ, but that resurrection is to “newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). The old self dies, but the new self is certainly more acceptable: acceptable to God and to discerning believers.
Salvation in the Bible is not only justification, being declared righteous for Christ’s sake, but also sanctification, being transformed from within by the Spirit of God. Horton does refer occasionally to sanctification in the book. On 62, he notes rightly that sanctification, like justification, comes through the gospel (here as opposed to “gimmicks”). On 109, he says, “when faith alone receives the gift, it immediately begins to yield the fruit of righteousness.” True enough, as far as it goes. But unlike justification, sanctification is not simply given to us once for all. Scripture does not tell us merely to receive passively the gift of sanctification. Rather, there is a race to be run and a battle to be fought. Scripture constantly exhorts us to make efforts, to make the right choices. As I emphasized in section 3, there is not a zero sum here between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Rather, God energizes our efforts and brings them to fruition. We work out our own salvation, knowing that God is working ”in” us.
Scripture refers over and over again to sanctification and the inner life. Horton’s references to it are almost entirely negative. If the argument about Christless Christianity is an argument about focus, it seems to me that Horton’s own focus needs rethinking.14
5. Theology of the Cross and the Theology of Glory
Another way Horton discourages the application of Scripture to our inner life and to our everyday life is by the Reformation contrast between theologies of glory and of the cross.
Horton explains that God intends to glorify his people “up ahead” (91) but not in this life. (I agree that in general our glorification is part of the next life rather than this one. But I wonder if Horton has considered in this regard John 17:22, 2 Cor. 3:18, Eph. 3:13, 1 Thess. 2:20, 1 Pet. 1:8? As elsewhere in this book, Horton oversimplifies.) In this life we “share in Christ’s suffering and humiliation.” To accept such suffering is to hold the theology of the cross. To seek glory on earth is to hold a theology of glory. It is “the offering of the kingdoms of the world here and now” (96). In a number of places, he equates the theology of glory with Gnosticism. We recall Horton’s criticism of anyone who seeks happiness from God here and now. They are, in his estimation, Gnostics, or theologians of glory.
But I argued in section #1 that God does in fact grant blessings to his people in this life. Certainly greater ones await, and we must not expect God to give us everything at once. But it is not fair for Horton to slap the label “Gnosticism” or “theology of glory” on anyone who seeks a closer walk with God, a more godly inner life, or God’s intervention in the ordinary problems of life.
6. Law and Gospel
In this book, as in previous books, Horton places much emphasis on the distinction between law and gospel. Here, he says that it is the failure to properly distinguish law and gospel that has put the American church on the road to Christless Christianity. “The worst thing that can happen to the church,” he says, “is to confuse law and gospel” (122). What happens is that
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)
Horton distinguishes law and gospel as follows:
It is important to point out that law and gospel do not simply refer to the Ten Commandments and John 3:16, respectively. Everything in the Bible that reveals God’s moral expectations is law and everything in the Bible that reveals God’s saving purposes and acts is gospel. (109)
Certainly “law” and “gospel” are not synonymous. I would define the distinction between them pretty much as Horton does. But Horton vacillates in his definitions. Sometimes, as we’ve seen, he regards any expression of God’s moral expectations as law, but other times, he seems to think that “law” must have an additional element: pronouncement of condemnation. Note:
The bad news is far worse than making mistakes or failing to live up to the legalistic standards of fundamentalism. It is that the best efforts of the best Christians, on the best days, in the best frame of heart and mind, with the best motives fall short of the true righteousness and holiness that God requires. Our best efforts cannot satisfy God’s justice. Yet the good news is that God has satisfied his own justice and reconciled us to himself through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son. God’s holy law can no longer condemn us because we are in Christ. (91)
So Horton is able to criticize Osteen as follows:
There is no condemnation in Osteen’s message for failing to fulfill God’s righteous law. On the other hand, there is no justification. Instead of either message, there is an upbeat moralism that is somewhere in the middle: Do your best, follow the instructions I give you, and God will make your life successful. (69)
He calls Osteen’s message “Law-Lite: Salvation from Unhappiness by Doing Your Best” (69, section title). So evidently Osteen’s moral exhortations don’t really constitute law, even though they “reveal God’s moral expectations.” To preach the law, according to Horton, it is not enough to reveal God’s moral expectations, as his definition on 109 would suggest. Rather, one must preach biblical morality in order to condemn. Otherwise, we proclaim, not law, but only “law-lite.”
This discussion recalls the controversy within Lutheranism as to whether the law should be preached to the regenerate.15 Some Lutherans said that since the law always condemns, it should not be preached to believers, because believers are not under God’s condemnation. Others argued that believers do need the law to expose their residual unbelief and to turn them again to repent and believe on Christ. The second party prevailed. But still a third position prevailed in Reformed theology: that believers need to hear the law simply because they always need to know God’s will. Redeemed people will want to obey God out of gratitude (not works righteousness), and the law tells them how to do so. On this basis, we read the law, not to be condemned anew, but simply to serve the God who has removed from us all condemnation.
In this respect, Horton is more Lutheran than Reformed. He defines law as God’s moral requirements, a definition acceptable to all parties in this discussion. But for him the law must always bring condemnation, so that he doesn’t think one is really preaching the law unless he preaches it as condemnation.
This is to say, for Horton the law may be preached only in the context of justification, for justification is the removal of condemnation. As we saw earlier in this review, he cannot seem to reconcile himself to the fact that redemption involves sanctification as well as justification, our work as well as God’s, the subjective as well as the objective.
So when Osteen presents a message that almost entirely lacks a focus on justification, Horton replies with an emphasis entirely lacking in sanctification. But Scripture also speaks of sanctification, of the believer’s “working out” of salvation, his obedient walk with God. It gives us plenty of “instructions” about that, and as I indicated earlier it promises blessings (“success,” Josh. 1:8). It does indeed tell us how to be happy in this world.16
Now I think if we recognize that God’s law functions in sanctification as well as justification, we will see little need to insist on “separating” law and gospel as Horton insists. Horton demands that the two be sharply separated from one another: that there should be no law in the gospel and no gospel in the law. These are “two distinct worlds,” he says (137). For Horton, law is unmitigated bad news, with no good news mixed in (63, 91). This view is stressed in Lutheran theology17 and has gained an increasing following in Reformed circles.
But as a matter of fact, that separation of law and gospel does not have biblical support. One should ask here, is there anything in Scripture that does not reveal God’s saving purposes? Jesus said that all of Scripture testified of him (Luke 24:25-27, John 5:39). And is there anything in the authoritative scriptures that does not impose a requirement upon us, at least the requirement to believe? But if the whole Bible can be considered law, and can also be considered gospel, how can law and gospel be separate?
Further, the gospel as proclaimed by Jesus and the apostles contains a command, the command to repent and believe (Mark 1:14-15, Acts 2:38-40). The law, on the other hand, is often based on divine deliverance, as in the case of the Decalogue (Ex. 20:2). The law itself is a gift of God’s grace, according to Ps. 119:29.The gospel is the proclamation of the coming kingdom (Isa. 52:7, Matt. 4:17, 23) in which God’s will shall be done on earth as in heaven (Matt. 6:10). It is the announcement that God’s law will prevail. So the law is good news, gospel. And the gospel is law.
To say that law and gospel come together in Scripture, however, is not to diminish the distinction between works and grace as means of salvation. Many have thought that they must separate law and gospel in order to separate works from grace. But the two issues are not parallel. Scripture plainly teaches, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph 2:8-9) This passage speaks of the basis of salvation, not of two different verbal messages.
7. Redemption and Moralism
Now Horton sees a close relationship between the law/gospel distinction and the quest for relevance in the American church that we discussed earlier. He says,
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. Another way of saying it is that we always prefer giving God a supporting role in our life movie—our own glory story—rather than being recast in his unfolding drama of redemption. How can God fix my marriage/ How can he make me a more effective leader? How can I overcome stress and manage my time and finances better? These are not bad questions. In fact, the Scriptures do bring sound wisdom to bear on these issues. But they are not the major questions, not even for lifelong Christians. (146)
I maintain my earlier defense of relevance: that God’s word is to be applied to all areas of life, and that preachers have a duty to help them do this. Horton says that all attempts to make the Gospel relevant are “law” rather than gospel.18 Does this mean that even if a preacher tries to show that the gospel deals with a specific kind of sin—let’s say adultery—that his sermon is law rather than gospel? I find that unpersuasive. Further I maintain my earlier argument (section 1) that God actually wants to serve his people, so that he delights to fix our marriages, help us with finances, etc. He is a God who is big enough to be concerned with small things. To seek from him this kind of help is not to trivialize him or to diminish him or to make him subordinate to me.
In fact, Horton here (though rarely in this book) admits that these are good questions, and he admits that Scripture addresses them. Again, in his view, it is a matter of emphasis.
Nevertheless, he has a rather ugly word for people who preach sermons on such subjects. He calls them moralists. Moralists are people who “miss the point” and trivialize the Bible so that it becomes “life’s instructional manual” (142). The Bible is about Christ and him crucified, Horton says, and so therefore not about moral questions, at least by way of emphasis.
So it is wrong, Horton says, to present (emphasize?) characters in Bible stories as moral examples (148-52).
Instead of drawing a straight line of application from the narrative to us, which typically moralizes or allegorizes the story, we are taught by Jesus himself to understand these passages in the light of their place in the unfolding drama of redemption that leads to Christ. (151)
This is another of many false dichotomies in this book. Horton says that understanding passages in the light of Christ is incompatible with understanding them as providing moral examples. But Christ himself called on the Jews to rejoice in his day, as Abraham did (John 8:56). He commended David’s behavior in supplying food to his hungry men (Mark 2:25).
Imitation is a major means of sanctification in Scripture. We are to imitate God (Ex. 20:11, Lev. 11:44, Matt. 5:48, 1 Pet. 1:15-16) and Jesus (John 13:14-15, 34-35, Phil. 2:5-11, 1 Pet. 2:21, 1 John 3:16, 4:9-11). We are to imitate the apostles as they imitate Christ (1 Cor. 4:16, 11:1). The Israelites in the wilderness are negative examples in 1 Cor. 10:6 and Heb. 4:11, as are Sodom and Gomorrah in Jude 7. Timothy is to be an example to other believers (1 Tim. 4:12). Hebrews 11 presents many “heroes of faith” as examples for us. James refers to the prophets and Job as examples of suffering and patience (James 5:10-11) and to Elijah as a man of prayer (verses17-18).
So the qualifications of church officers in 1 Tim. 3:1-13 and Tit. 1:5-9 are primarily qualities of character, so that these officers can be examples to the flock (1 Pet. 5:3). When Horton confesses on 117, “…I am not an exemplary creature,” he perhaps unintentionally disqualifies himself for church office.
Horton is right to say that Bible characters foreshadow Christ in various ways. He is also right in saying that these characters, except Jesus, are sinners like us and justified only by the grace of Christ. So, of course, not everything they do should be imitated. And insofar as we should imitate them, we should imitate them as examples of living by faith. But, given these qualifications, we should be encouraging, not discouraging, preachers to point out parallels between the lives of these people and our lives today. Preaching this way does not deserve to be called moralism.
Nor certainly does the use of biblical examples deserve this condemnation from Horton:
Regardless of the official theology held on paper, moralistic preaching (the bane of conservatives and liberals alike) assumes that we are not really hopeless sinners who need to be rescues but decent folks who need good examples, exhortations, and instructions…
This insult is quite undeserved. Horton says that to use a biblical character as an example for Christians today is a denial of the gospel. (Or is he again criticizing an “emphasis?” Hard to say.) That is nonsense. And it shows again that Horton has no ear for the complexity of biblical salvation, for the distinction between justification and sanctification. Obviously we are not justified by following anyone’s example, only by trusting in Christ. But in the process of sanctification we often have need of examples and, for that matter, exhortations and instructions as well. Scripture itself provides these, and we ought to be thankful for them.
I think what has happened here is that Horton has locked on to a certain theory of preaching and has neglected to look at what the Bible actually says. And at this point the theory is so unscriptural that Horton’s condemnations reflect back on himself rather than hitting his targets.
I agree with Horton that preachers sometimes refer to Bible characters without an adequate appreciation of their place in the history of redemption. Certainly it would be wrong to preach on David and Goliath and conclude that all believers have the power to kill literal giants (cf. Horton, 148-49). But that is just to say that Scripture passages must be understood in the context of the whole Bible. It certainly does not forbid all use of Bible characters as examples.
Horton should have thought about this enough to understand that there is an opposite extreme. I once had occasion to sit for some months under the preaching of a couple of Horton’s students. Their sermons typically developed some too-clever way at making their text “point to Christ.” Beyond that, they offered no illustrations, no applications except a general “repent and believe.” I hope Horton doesn’t regard this kind of preaching as ideal. But had he merely recognized that there were two extremes he would not have used rhetoric that condemned only one, but would have tried to do some careful analysis to define a middle position.
8. Redemption and Other Things
Not only does Horton draw a dichotomy between redemption and morals, but also between redemption and a number of other subjects. He says,
The central message of Christianity is not a worldview, a way of life, or a program for personal and societal change; it is a gospel. (105)
Gospel, he says, is “an announcement of something that someone else has already achieved for us” (105). Now we have already seen that Scripture also includes imperatives under “gospel,” the command to repent and believe in Christ. Other questions also arise. Given all the books, chapters, and pages in Scripture, very few of them are devoted to “announcement of something that someone else [Jesus, of course– JF] has already achieved for us,” if only because that achievement was accomplished only at the end of Jesus’ earthly life. Before that, there were many other things (creation, redemptive history, Psalms, wisdom literature, prophecy), but no gospel in Horton’s sense, though certainly their fundamental purpose is to anticipate the gospel. Further, the books of the New Testament from Acts to Revelation are not mere announcements of Jesus’ work. As we have seen, they apply the work of Jesus to various aspects of human life.
I’m willing to say that the gospel, as Horton defines it,19 is the most important content of Scripture, but it is by no means the only content of Scripture. For one thing, I’m disappointed that Horton disparages “worldview” as a content of Scripture. As a Professor of Apologetics, he of all people should understand that the Bible presents a worldview that is utterly unique among all the religions and philosophies of the world. No other system of thought recognizes that the world is created out of nothing by a supreme being who is both absolute and personal (tri-personal!) and who relates to his creatures as lord.20 Most non-Christians have no idea that the Bible contains a distinctive metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. And if the gospel (the gospel!) is to be presented to them clearly, they must understand that it presupposes a way of thinking about the world that is unique in the history of thought. In one sense, then, worldview is part of the gospel. In another sense, worldview is the gospel’s presupposition. But to speak, as Horton does, as if we must choose between the gospel and its worldview is to have a very abstract concept of gospel indeed.
And certainly, as I have shown, the gospel is also a program of personal and societal change. The gospel is not given simply to be understood, but to be obeyed (2 Thess. 1:8, 1 Pet. 4:17). A faith that does no good works is not true faith in the gospel (James 2:14-26). Many pages of the New Testament are given over to ethical teaching. And the gospel is not only a program for personal change, but societal as well. Scripture condemns over and over again the injustices of society: oppression of the poor, dishonoring of parents, murder, adultery, theft, corrupt courts that promote false witness.
This discussion is sometimes caught up in eschatological debate: is the Kingdom of God only future or is it in some sense present now? Sometimes it is waylaid by debates about the roles of church and state (as Horton’s exposition of the “two kingdoms” view on 206-217). But apart from these debates, isn’t it obvious that when people come to trust in Christ they seek to bring biblical standards to bear in their workplaces? Paul says, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31) Can we possibly exclude from “whatever” our work in politics, the arts, or finance? And can we possibly forbid the church to give us guidance in our attempts to improve society?
What does it mean to be engaged in politics to the glory of God? That is not always easy to define. I would agree with Horton that Christians often exaggerate their expertise on social issues; sometimes nonbelievers can do a better job of gathering the relevant facts. But if I am charged with the work of planning national health care, I certainly must ask how biblical principles apply to that. When a believer produces a sculpture, it may be difficult for him to see how his faith is relevant to each stroke of his tool; but he certainly doesn’t want critics referring to it as a symptom of modern nihilism.
Horton here again is arguing for an emphasis, certainly; I cannot believe he intends to absolutely prohibit the use of Scripture to guide us in “secular” activities. But as he presents his argument, he gives no encouragement at all to Christians who are seeking to apply their faith to the world in which they live. Over and over again, he presents this task negatively, as one that doesn’t deserve consideration, as opposed to his rather abstract conception of the gospel.
9. Giving and Receiving
Horton also criticizes the view and practice of worship in the American church. He begins by distinguishing “two scenarios:”
In the first, God gathers his people together in a covenantal event to judge and to justify, to kill and to make alive. The emphasis is on God’s work for us—the Father’s gracious plan, the Son’s giving life, death, and resurrection, and the Spirit’s work of bringing life to the valley of dry bones through the proclamation of Christ… In this preaching the people once again are simply receivers—recipients of grace…(189)
In the second scenario, the church is its own subculture, an alternative community not only for weekly dying and rising in Christ but for one’s entire circle of friends, electricians [JF:??], and neighbors. In this scenario, the people assume that they have come to church primarily to do something. The emphasis is on their work for God. The preaching concentrates on principles and steps to living a better life, with a constant stream of exhortations: Be more committed. Read your Bible more. Pray more. Witness more. Give more. Get involved in this cause or that movement to save the world. Their calling by God to secular vocations is made secondary to finding their ministry in the church. (190)
In the first scenario, God gives and man receives. In the second scenario it is the reverse.
I think it was Kierkegaard who somewhere said that we should not think of worship as a performance of clergy with the congregation as audience, but as a performance of the congregation with God as audience. I have repeated this point in the past, but it amounts to the “second scenario” that Horton condemns. I’m certainly willing to be corrected, and I think Horton has a point here. Certainly in worship God is at work: speaking to us in the word, nurturing us in the sacraments.
But surely that is not the whole story. The biblical words for worship, such as the Hebrew abodah and the Greek leitourgos are action verbs. They can be translated “work,” and they refer originally to the work of priests. But in the New Testament, in Christ, believers are priests (1 Pet. 2:5, 9, Rev. 1:6, 5:10, 20:6). Certainly, worshipers have responsibilities in worship, if only to sing God’s praises with their whole heart and to respond to the word appropriately.
And beyond this, the New Testament says that all believers have gifts of the Spirit that are to be used in the ministry of the church (Rom. 12:4-9, 1 Cor. 12:4-14:25). Consequently, the picture of worship Paul presents in 1 Cor. 14:26-33) is not a picture of a clergyman standing in front of everybody, forbidding them to speak unless spoken to. It is rather a picture of the whole congregation participating, offering suggestions, bringing “lessons.” Similarly, the writer to the Hebrews speaks of worship as a time when believers come together stir up and encourage one another (10:24-25; compare Col. 3:16). It is incomprehensible to me that Horton should discuss the participation of believers in the ministry of the church without discussing these passages, but so far as I can tell he does not.
My conclusion is that in worship, and indeed in the whole ministry of the church, there is both giving and receiving. Why, then, is Horton’s account so imbalanced on the side of God’s giving and our receiving? Part of it is his commendable passion to exalt God’s grace. But another part is what we discussed before, his erroneous view of the relation of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Again, he seems to think that any significant role for human beings detracts from God’s sovereignty, his grace. We saw earlier that this is not the case.
Certainly there are special responsibilities in the church that fall on ordained leaders, elders and deacons. But this does not relieve other believers of the responsibility to edify one another (Col. 3:16, Eph. 4:25, 29) and to represent Christ when we go into the world. As I indicated earlier, we all have a mandate to apply the word of God to the situations of our families and workplaces.
10. Christ and Other Things
There is a tension in this book, perhaps even a contradiction, between two different messages. In the first, there is an antithesis between a focus on Christ and a focus on anything else, so that the latter necessarily compromises the former and puts us on the road to Christless Christianity. In the second, it is fine to focus occasionally on the other things, but not too often. The other things are good in their place, but they should not be overemphasized.
The first perspective leads to the alarming and (in my view) overheated rhetoric about Christlessness. The second leads Horton to backtrack on the rhetoric.
There is in fact a lot of backtracking in this book. I indicated at the beginning that Horton backtracks on his title: he doesn’t really mean that the American church is Christless, only that it is headed that way. After criticizing the church for its emphasis on human fulfillment and happiness, he backtracks as follows:
By the way, I don’t think this means that we simply write off the desire for fulfillment and happiness. The gospel neither meets our narcissistic goals nor denies the truth of which they are a perversion. (34)
He is rather vague, however, as to what the truth is of which our felt needs are a perversion. Nor does he explain why he thinks that the whole American church, when it promotes human happiness, is not presenting true redemptive happiness.
As I mentioned earlier, Horton tends to avoid discussions of sanctification in favor of references to justification. And when authors discuss human responsibility in sanctification, he interprets them as bringing in works righteousness. Yet he backtracks,
Start with Christ (that is, the gospel) and you get sanctification in the bargain; begin with Christ and move on to something else, and you lose both. (62)
This is very vague. What is the difference between these two options? Is it that in the first the person embraces Christ and immediately receives sanctification with no process, no spiritual battle? As I indicated earlier, I believe that is unbiblical. And what does it mean to “begin with Christ and move on to something else?” Does that mean moving from Christ to some other savior and lord? If so, I would agree with Horton. In that case, you not only lose sanctification; you lose everything. But if it means “begin with Christ and move on to his influence in all the areas of life,” I can’t concur with his judgment. And I think that many of the people Horton condemns actually fall under this category.
More backtracking: We have seen that Horton is very critical of any talk of a personal, inner relationship with Christ. But then he says,
It is the Spirit who convicts us inwardly of our sin and drives us outside of ourselves to Christ, not only in the message of the gospel to which he testifies, but in the creaturely, public, and external means that he employs to do so. In this way, Christ and his saving work not only remain outside of us but penetrate our hearts so deeply that we are truly transformed and continually transformed by his grace. Therefore, intimacy and personal fellowship with Christ by his Spirit through the means of grace are not eliminated but secured—but without simply collapsing Jesus into our inner experience. (184)
This is a fine statement, but surprising. Horton evidently has not reflected how this concession affects his critiques of supposed Gnostics elsewhere in the book. Certainly Horton has not taken pains to show that the people he criticizes would disagree with it, or that their practice disagrees with it. Perhaps his point is that they don’t stress sufficiently the external character of the gospel and the means of grace. But it does not seem to me that the American church is oblivious to the means of grace. Nor do I think it biblical to think that the gospel can come only through public proclamation and not also through personal Bible reading and prayer.
After criticizing evangelical worship for emphasizing commands rather than grace, he qualifies his point,
Of course we do receive exhortations in Scripture, and therefore this must be a part of public worship. Law without gospel, however, is death (2 Cor. 3:5-18). (191)
But his argument in context is simply based on the presence of law in this worship, not the absence of gospel (a negative that would be very hard to prove).
The pattern in the above backpedaling passages is that Horton moves from a mood of absolute condemnation to a mood of granting some truth in the other position. The other position would be fine, he seems to think, if it is properly related to Christ. He is making now a subtle point. But he has not given enough thought either to the issue or to the people he criticizes to show that they have not actually missed his subtle point, that they have somehow not properly related law to gospel.
So Horton leaves us uncertain as to whether the practices he condemns in the American church contradict the gospel, or whether they are good practices that could be improved with some greater degree of gospel emphasis.
In my view, the key to this is to think, not in terms of “Christ and other things,” as Horton does, but of “Christ and the applications of his work.” The relationships between Christ and other things vary considerably, and are very complex. Horton does not succeed in giving us anything near an adequate presentation of this complexity. But in regard to “Christ and the applications of his work,” the matter is clear. This formula unambiguously sets forth the content of Scripture and the entire work of the church. Anything the church does that fails to serve and promote Christ and the applications of his work is indeed Christless, and a church that fails to promote Christ and the applications of his work is truly apostate. Any church that refuses to implement an application of Christ’s work compromises the truth of Scripture.
Yet the phrase “Christ and the applications of his work” also implies a hierarchy of focus or emphasis. Some applications are more central than others, and they ought to receive more attention in the church. Justification by grace through faith alone is a central application; the mode of baptism is less central, though advocates of one particular mode will see it as an application of Christ’s work.
To speak of “Christ and the applications of his work” is not to speak of two different things. For there is no Christ without these applications. To believe in Christ is to believe in the Christ of Scripture, the Christ who became incarnate, taught, worked miracles, died as our sacrifice, was raised to glory, and will come again to judge the living and the dead. It is also to believe that his atonement secures our effectual calling, regeneration, conversion, justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, and glorification. So it secures the Spirit’s presence so that we may serve Christ and receive his guidance in all areas of life. To believe in Christ is to believe in all of this, and also to believe in the law of love, his new commandment to his disciples (John 13:34-35). To believe in Christ is to seek his glory in all areas of life (1 Cor. 10:31-11:1).
I usually don’t review books at this length. But I have noticed that the theology of this book is becoming more influential in evangelical and Reformed circles, and I believe there is danger in that. I say that despite the fact that I agree with the book about many things. Most relevantly, I agree with Horton that the evangelical church needs to put more emphasis on man’s sin and the saving grace of Christ, less emphasis on what Horton regards as other things and what I regard as the lower-priority applications of Christ’s work. But he thinks this wrong emphasis is so bad as to put the church in imminent danger of Christless apostasy. I do not.
Horton’s alarmism is persuasive to many people, and I have been moved to try to show them their persuasion is premature. The problem is that the yardstick Horton uses to measure the American church’s allegiance to Christ is not an accurate yardstick. Or, to drop the metaphor, Horton measures the American church with a defective theology.
He comes on to the reader as a generic Protestant Christian with a passion for the historic doctrines of the atonement and of justification by faith alone. He writes engagingly. Naturally, then, other Protestants tend to resonate to his arguments. But Horton is not just a generic Protestant or even a generic Reformed theologian.
As we have seen, Horton’s argument depends on ideas that cannot be justified by Scripture, or by the classic Protestant confessions. Some of these are:
1. Attention to ourselves necessarily detracts from attention to Christ.
2. We should not give attention to the way we communicate the gospel, or to making it relevant to its hearers.
3. God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are a zero-sum game. The idea that man must do something compromises the absolute sovereignty of God.
4. God’s work of salvation is completely objective, external to us, and not at all subjective, internal to us. (Here he backtracks some.)
5. God promises us no earthly blessings, only heavenly ones, and to desire earthly blessings is a “theology of glory,” deserving condemnation.
6. Law and gospel should be utterly separate. There should be no good news in the bad news and no bad news in the good news.
7. Preaching of the gospel must never use biblical characters as moral or spiritual examples. Nor must it address practical ethical issues in the Christian life.
8. A focus on redemption excludes a focus on anything else.
9. In worship and in the general ministry of the church, God gives and does not receive; the congregation receives and does not give.
10. Analysts of the church must compare the Church’s focus on Christ with its focus on other things, rather than considering that many of these other things are in fact applications of Christ’s own person and work.
Horton, as we’ve seen, does not follow these principles consistently; he often backtracks from his more radical positions. But his overall critique of the American church loses all probability unless it presupposes these principles. But not one of them is found in any Reformed confession. (#6 is found in the Lutheran confessions, but it is controversial among other Protestants.) And in my view, none of them are Scriptural.
So Christless Christianity is essentially an evaluation of the American church, not from the standpoint of a generic Protestant theology, but from what I must regard as a narrow, factional, even sectarian perspective. Readers need to understand this. If we remove #1-10 as measuring sticks for the American church, the church does not look nearly as bad as Horton presents it.
There is great danger here of further division within the body of Christ, as if there were not already enough. Arguments over redemptive-historical preaching (#7) have already split congregations apart. When one group presents these principles as the only orthodox position, but others (understandably) are not convinced, and the principles themselves are often unclear, we have a recipe for disaster.
And the church would do well, in my judgment, not to add principles 1-10 to its creed. The results could include intentional irrelevance (1-2), especially on social matters (5, 7, 8), Christian passivity (3, 9), intellectualism and impersonalism in our relation to God (4, 9), artificiality in preaching, not drawing on the richness of Scripture (2, 6-8), elimination of lay ministry (9), and poor theological analyses and evaluations of the church (10).
Horton has mounted a critique of the American church with the most serious implications. He says that if we continue in our ways we will lose the gospel and Christ himself. But he utters these warnings from a position that almost nobody considers orthodox. He is saying that unless the church comes to emphasize exactly what he does, what his factional position dictates, it will soon be without Christ or the Gospel. I cannot regard that position as having any plausibility at all.
So I must render a negative verdict on this book, though commending the author’s passion for the purity of the church and for the gospel. In doing this, I must disagree with many friends and respected colleagues, who have commended this volume lavishly. They should have known better.
1 Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2008.
2 Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923. Horton mentions Machen’s work on 176-77 of the volume under review.
3 I have developed this concept of lordship in the books of my Theology of Lordship series, particularly The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2002), Chapters 1-7.
4 Remarkably, one of his recurring arguments is that the “American church” has given improper weight to secular psychology. If this is true, should we not regard Horton’s argument as a symptom of this very error?
5 This may be unfair, but I sometimes get the impression, here and in Horton’s other books, that many of his judgments of evangelicalism are based on aesthetic criteria of a rather elitist kind. He has a certain idea of what is “profound,” the opposite of vacuous, and he wants a religion that keeps God out of the areas of life he considers trivial. But in the Bible God delights in relating to the trivial. He cares about the falling sparrows, numbers the hairs of our heads, melts the snow in the spring, feeds all the animals in the world. And he cares about the griefs and joys of his people.
6 Compare my longer discussion of the relation between interpretation and application in Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1987), 81-85.
7 All translation is application. If we are forbidden to make the text relevant or apply the text, then we are shut up to reading Scripture to our congregations in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.
8 Consider the sentence, “efforts to translate the gospel into contemporary language actually aim at making the gospel not only more understandable but more believable.” Response: (1) I don’t know if this comment is true, as a description of the usual motives of Bible translators or teachers. (2) Certainly there is a sense in which a truth is more believable when it is better understood. (3) More understandable/believable than what? It would be wrong to try to make the gospel more understandable OR believable than it is in the Bible itself. But it is certainly not wrong to make it more understandable or believable than it is in previous translations. This kind of unclarity abounds in Horton’s book.
9 As I read through this discussion, however, I often found myself saying, “Mike, pick on somebody your own size.” Osteen has no theological training and should not be asked to compete with a Ph. D. in a theological arena. A gentle critique of his main emphasis might be more appropriate.
10 I fully acknowledge the deficiencies of “prosperity theology.” But those deficiencies should not force us to the opposite extreme of denying that obeying God brings blessings in our earthly life.
11 He quotes Graeme Goldsworthy, The Goldsworthy Trilogy (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press, 2000), 137.
12 Philip Lee, Against the Protestant Gnostics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 144.
13 Ibid., 255.
14 A few words on the general relationship between objective and subjective reality. These are distinct concepts, but they are not separable, as if we could have one without the other. “Objective” usually refers to the way things really are, apart from how we would like them to be. “Subjective” refers to our own perception of the objective. These are opposites in a way: it is important that our understanding of God’s world be objective, rather than merely a reflection of our inner imaginations. If our thinking is merely subjective, and not objective, then it does not conform to truth, and it cannot be trusted. But we cannot have one without the other. The only way we can perceive or understand objective reality is by means of our subjective faculties (senses, reason, intuition, etc). And our subjective faculties are themselves objective realities, aspects of our nature that must be taken account of. The notion that we can have “objective” knowledge, assurance, etc. without any subjective involvement is nonsense. Similarly there is no objective salvation from sin unless our inner life, too, is saved and transformed. Salvation in Scripture re-creates the whole person (2 Cor. 5:17, 1 Thess. 5:23).
15 Sometimes this controversy has been described as a controversy over the “third use of the law.” The first use is to restrain sin in society. The second use is to condemn us so that we will flee to Christ. (In the literature, the first and second use are sometimes interchanged.) The third use is as a guide to the believer’s life. Among the Lutherans, some rejected the third use, because for them the law always brings condemnation. Those who favored the third use thought that believers need continuing condemnation so that we will continually flee to Christ. Calvinists favored the third use simply because it declares how redeemed people should behave.
16 Horton quotes Osteen as saying that we receive God’s blessing and favor in return for our efforts and equates this with works righteousness (87-88). Here Horton misses the fact that God’s blessings come in at two points in our salvation: (1) the ultimate initiation of salvation, and (2) the blessings he gives us for our obedience. Clearly Osteen in the quoted context is talking about (2), but Horton reads him as talking about (1) and therefore preaching works righteousness, that is that our works are what move God to initiate salvation.
17 I have criticized the position of the Lutheran Formula of Concord at some length in my article “Law and Gospel,” http://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/2002Law.htm, cf. my The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2008), 182-192.
18 I would have expected him to say that such attempts are “law-lite” (69) rather than real law, because they don’t present God’s condemnation.
19 If we give “gospel” a broader definition, as I did earlier in this review, it is possible to say that all Scripture is gospel. But it is similarly possible to say that all Scripture is law, worldview, ethical guidance, etc.
20 I have expounded this worldview in many places, such as the first seven chapters of my Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2002).