Christless Christianity Unmasked

H. Richard Niebuhr, Professor at Yale from 1931-1962, described the liberal message of the Mainline American Protestant Church as “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a world without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” (The Kingdom of God In America, 193) Sadly, the liberal mainline churches are not the only ones taking this Christ-less / Gospel-less posture in their worship and ministry. In his thought-provoking book entitled Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Baker, 2008), Michael Horton convincingly indicts so-called conservative evangelical churches for doing the same thing, that is, carrying out a Christ-less expression of the Christian faith. What has replaced authentic, biblical Christianity in our churches is what Christian Smith calls moralistic, therapeutic deism. After years of research Smith concludes that this is the religion of America -- both outside and inside the Christian Church (liberal and conservative). Smith sets forth the main tenets of moralistic, therapeutic deism in the following manner:

1. God created the world.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die. (Soul Searching, p. 162-163)

In many churches the true Gospel has been substituted for moralistic, therapeutic deism, a false gospel that says “be nice, be positive, do the best you can, be good to yourself and others, trust God in the tough times, and never doubt God’s love.” This is not only what many of our unchurched neighbors think, but also what many evangelicals believe and articulate when asked to explain their “faith.” This version of Christianity is “moralistic” in that it promises heaven to those who do their best to be positive, happy, and helpful to others. The message is “therapeutic” in that it believes God is our cosmic therapist, always available - free of charge - to provide us with comfort and good advice during life’s challenges. Otherwise, He doesn’t want us to be inconvenienced or distracted from what makes us happy. This version of Christianity is also Deistic in that it fails to understand and acknowledge God as He is revealed in Scripture, namely, as the sovereign, holy, triune God (Father, Son, & Holy Spirit) who “works all things according to the counsel of His will.” Americans in general, and, dare I say, a good number of evangelical Christians in particular, no longer think in historic theological categories. Our only sin is not pursuing a purpose-driven life and our best life now. God’s radical gospel of sovereign grace through faith in a crucified and risen Savior has been replaced by a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, power-of-positive-thinking, God-helps-those-who-help-themselves philosophy. And God-centered, Christ-mediated, biblical worship has turned into an inspirational time of entertainment where teaching on sin, wrath, and judgment are off limits. In short, we have exchanged the God of the Bible for a god made in our own image, a god that we can manage, manipulate and control; a god that makes no demands on us and whose most important job is to keep us happy.

Are you having a hard time believing that sincere, professing Christians really believe this stuff? In chapter three of Christless Christianity Horton sheds light on the ministry of one of the most popular preachers in America, Joel Osteen. Osteen’s congregation has over 40,000 members and his televised services are watched by millions. In addition, millions of his books have sold over the last five years. What is his message? It can be summed up in his latest book entitled Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day. As an alleged Christian pastor Osteen writes that in order to improve your life you must (1) Keep pressing forward. (2) Be positive toward yourself. (3) Develop better relationships. (4) Form better habits. (5) Embrace the place where you are. (6) Develop your inner life. (7) Stay passionate about life. Horton points out that what Osteen presents is not a message of grace, but another way of preaching the law. “These are all things for you to do, without any mention of the Good News of what has been done for us by God.” (Christless, 82) Horton goes on to state:

The best news that Osteen has for us in these books is that by following these seven steps he has been given good parking spaces, the best seat in the restaurant, and an unexpected upgrade to first class on the plane. But the gospel tells us that God has taken all the steps down to us, saving us not from discomfort or the ills that are common to humanity in this present age but from the penalty of sin and death. Clothed in Christ’s righteousness, no longer condemned, we are adopted and made alive in Christ, ‘and if children, then heirs - heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him’ (Rom. 8:17). Chosen by God before creation, redeemed by Christ, justified, renewed, being sanctified, and one day raised bodily in glory - what could be better news than this? (Christless, 99)

In addition to the Christ-less / Cross-less version of Christianity expressed by Joel Osteen and company, there is another version of Christless Christianity that Horton exposes in his chapter entitled “Your Own Personal Jesus.” He points out the similarities between this form of Christianity and Gnosticism, the belief that religion is between the individual and God, without the need of authoritative truth or a mediator. This view teaches that God lives in everyone and it is simply our job to discover and experience Him within. Again, Horton states:

This characteristically American approach to religion, in which the direct relationship of the soul to God generates an almost romantic encounter with the sacred, makes inner experience the measure of spiritual genuineness. Instead of being concerned that our spiritual leaders faithfully interpret Scripture and are sent by Christ through the official ordination of his church, we are more concerned that they exude vulnerability, authenticity, and the familiar spontaneity that tells us that they have a personal relationship with Jesus. Everything perceived as external to the self - the church, the gospel, the Word and sacraments, the world, and even God - must either be marginalized or, in more radical versions, rejected as that which would alienate the soul from its immediacy to the divine. When push comes to shove, many Christians today justify their beliefs and practices on the basis of their own experience. Regardless of what the church teaches - or perhaps even what is taught in Scripture - the one unassailable authority in the American religion is the self’s inner experience. This means, however, that it is not only one’s relationship with Jesus but Jesus Himself who becomes a wax figure to be molded according to whatever experiences, feelings, and felt needs one has decided to be most decisive. No longer constrained by creeds and confessions, sermons and catechisms, baptism and Eucharist in the covenant assembly; the romantic self aspires to unique and spontaneous experience.” (Christless, 170)

Does this sound familiar? The foundation of this gnostic / new age / Oprah-like form of Christianity is not God’s authoritative Word and the objective, saving work of Jesus Christ, but whatever the individual deems important to his or her personal well being. Perhaps one way we see this expressed - even in Reformed circles - is the overemphasis we place upon the personal quiet time. R. Scott Clark, in his book Recovering the Reformed Confession (P&R, 2008) insightfully states that “whether in hearing professions of faith, in house visitation, or casual conversation, Christian piety is reckoned chiefly in terms of the private and the subjective. If someone asks, ‘What is God teaching you these days?’ one has the sense that the expected answer is not to be a summary of this week’s sermon or reflection on the significance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but an insight derived from a special experience or private revelation.” (Recovering, 73) Rather than attempt to correct this wrong-headed “me and Jesus” approach, churches have catered to this attitude, promising to give each member a memorable “worship experience” rather than a faithful ministration of the means of grace.

Michael Horton has helpfully articulated in his new book Christless Christianity what has been burning in my heart for years. In these pages he has disclosed the main problem in our churches, namely, that we have pushed the marvelous good news of the person and redemptive work of Christ to the margins, making room for a man-centered expression of the gospel ... which is really no gospel at all (this also profoundly compromises public worship and discipleship). The way to remedy this problem is to faithfully set forth, Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day, the ordinary means of grace. It is primarily through the reading and preaching of God’s Word and the right use of the sacraments in the covenant assembly that God has promised to communicate Christ to His people. May we at Christ Church Presbyterian always be faithful to keep the proclamation of the gospel central in our worship and ministry.

Pastor Jon