Book Review: Christless Christianity by Michael Horton

Michael Horton, Christless Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 270 pages.

Michael Horton is fast becoming one of my favourite authors, not because I always agree with him (I don't), but because he is a compelling and thought-provoking writer. Moreover, Horton is nice; he doesn't caricature and lambaste his opponents. His motivation in writing is clearly love for Christ, His Church and His Word, rather than any rancour against the opposition.  Yet, despite his niceness (and if you've ever listened to the White Horse Inn you'll know he even sounds 'nice'), Horton deftly gets to the core of the problems of modern evangelicalism, unveiling the danger of the hidden trend toward 'Christless Christianity'. I say the 'hidden' trend, as Horton warns us that our Christianity can be Christless even though we pepper our sermons and speech with mentions of Jesus. 
Of course no one has to explicitly deny any article of the Christian creed in order to shift the focus from the public truth content of Christianity to the subject, pragmatic, and therapeutic categories of "how to" religion. Christ may still be called Savior, but we really save ourselves by knowing and following the steps of the new birth and 'victorious living.' (pg. 54)
Horton gives a clear warning concerning how talk of 'translating' the gospel is really accommodation to the world. The message of the gospel is not supposed to be easy or attractive to non-believers; it is only God who makes it so by the drawing of His Holy Spirit. Rather the gospel is offensive to non-Christians  (Gal 5:11). As Horton warns:
No more translating the gospel! The gospel is an offense at exactly 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. And because it is through the gospel itself that the Spirit accomplished this feat, we remove the one possibility for genuine conversion that we have in our arsenal. Lost in translation is the gospel itself - and therefore the only hope of genuine transformation as well as forgiveness. (pg. 240)
Horton warns that Gnosticism and Pelagianism are fast taking over in the (American) evangelical churches. Writing from a European perspective, it would be tempting to focus on Horton's subtitle, 'The Alternative Gospel of the American Church', yet, in all honesty, I fear that we on this side of the Atlantic are not all that far behind the United States. Just a glimpse at the catalogues of French evangelical publishers will show how quickly some ideas are imported from America (whilst other sounder authors, like Horton himself never seem to come; Horton is a prolific, and popular, author, yet only one of his books has ever been published in French!).  The emergent church is beginning to make its mark in Brussels and 'how to' religion is not entirely absent.  Horton brings a timely message for European readers as well; even if the American church has advanced somewhat more down the road of Christless Christianity, let that be a warning to us not to unquestioningly follow in its footsteps.
'Smooth talk and flattery' is part of the staple diet of successful American religion today. And it is always advertised simply as more effective mission and relevance.' (pg 66)
Substitute the word 'American' in the above sentence with 'British' or 'Belgian' and it still rings true to some extent.  Horton does not want the church to be captive to the culture. He is like a doctor diagnosing an illness, but we must look to Christ the Great Physician if we are to be healed.

I'm sure Horton's diagnosis will not be welcomed in all quarters. No one appreciates being told that they have made themselves sick by eating what they enjoy. Yet, that is what Horton is saying; instead of feeding on Christ, many evangelicals are snacking on something with no nutritional value.  And, some aspects of Horton's diagnosis seem counter-intuitive to much contemporary evangelical thought, such as his point that when he raises the possibility that
precisely the most numerically successful versions of religion will be the least tethered to the biblical drama of redemption centering on Christ. (pp 54-55)
Numbers, then, are not necessarily a sign of blessing or success! Church growth (in terms of quantity) then is not the ultimate goal.

Read Horton! Even if everything I have said about him puts you off, he will challenge you to think. Even if you are in whole hearted agreement with everything I've said about him, I think he'll still find ways to challenge you're thinking.

Michael Horton is an author who deserves to be read. His pen is a gift to the Body of Christ. And this book is no exception. Every one can profit from it, and I would encourage any thinking Christian to read it. Yet I would especially urge pastors, elders, and youth workers (and, of course, seminary students) to read and digest this timely warning. Let us be on the alert to the possibility of an evangelical 'Christless Christianity' and pray that God would guard us from it by keeping our gaze and focus firmly fixed on Christ crucified and our churches firmly grounded of Christ, the only firm foundation.