Back in the 1940’s Donald Grey Barnhouse, a Presbyterian pastor, asked the question, “What would it be like if Satan took over a city?”
Barnhouse speculated that if Satan took over Philadelphia, all of the bars would be closed, pornography banished, and pristine streets would be filled with tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The children would say, “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am,” and the churches would be full every Sunday . . . where Christ is not preached.
In his newest book, Christless Christianity, Dr. Mike Horton warns Evangelicalism in America that Barnhouse’s hypothetical scenario is quickly becoming a reality. According to Horton, the driving mantra of so many Evangelical churches today is, “do more, try harder.” Sermons are filled with seven or twelve step plans for having a happier marriage or better finances. Ironically, as a newer generation reacts against the harsh legalism of their parents, they are merely replacing it with a softer (but more sadistic) form of legalism. Famous TV preachers like Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer victoriously proclaim that they have finally realized that Christianity isn’t about following a lot of rules. But they go on to tell their audience that it is only about “Loving God and each other.” The sixteenth century Reformer, John Calvin, heard similar sentiments coming from some of his Roman Catholic brethren (who were also reacting to the harsh legalism of their upbringing) and remarked, “As if that were easier!” According to Jesus Christ, loving God and your neighbor is the essence of the whole Old Testament Law. Loving God and your neighbor is in the hardest thing that anyone could ever ask you to do!
One famous Evangelical pastor has recently made popular the phrase, “deeds, not creeds.” Evangelicals have their doctrine right, this pastor tells us, they just aren’t living it. Against such sentiments, Dr. Horton argues that many Evangelicals actually do not have their doctrine right, or at least they aren’t preaching it correctly. Evangelicals have confused the important categories of Law and Gospel, turning the Gospel message (which is supposed to be the good news of something that Christ has already done for us), into the Gospel program. If you’ll only live out the Gospel (by reading your Bible every day, joining a certain group at church, and learning how to be a Christ-like example to others), you’ll be healthy, wealthy and wise. The question to be answered is, “What would Jesus do?” rather than, “What has Jesus done?” But Horton says that this is a confusion of categories. The Gospel, by its very nature, is not something that you can do; rather it is something that has already been done. This confusion leads to bad preaching. Rather than preaching Christ and the Gospel, pastors try to mine a Biblical text for “practical” life principles that will help to improve your marriage, your finances, your relationship with your children, etc. As a result, many Evangelical churches today are not saying anything that you can’t hear from Dr. Phil, Dr. Laura, or Oprah (and most of the time, Dr. Laura says it better). All of this leads to what Horton calls a Christless Christianity. It is possible to walk into an Evangelical church on a Sunday morning and walk out without ever having heard the Gospel of Christ preached.
The main consequence of this Christless Evangelicalism is burnout. Horton comments that, when Christ is set up as our example to follow (rather than our savior to cling to in our utter weakness), we start to feel like we have to be spiritual giants. But Horton observes that “I am a Christian not because I think that I can walk in Jesus’ footsteps, but because he is the only one who can carry me.” This problem of burnout only gets worse when churches downplay the importance of our radical sinfulness. When sin becomes nothing more than a handicap, rather than a pervasive depravity in need of the most radical salvation-plan imaginable, the Gospel itself becomes of secondary importance to living according to “spiritual principles.” But so many pastors and congregations don’t realize that we can only live a life characterized by godliness after we are brought to our knees by a recognition of our total depravity before a Holy God, and such godly living is only possible because of what Christ had already accomplished for us on the cross. But so many churches today are more concerned with the immediate benefits of religion, specifically happiness (or your best life now…). Horton quotes C. S. Lewis saying, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” So many Christian leaders, like Osteen, have become preoccupied with now, and they almost completely forget that Christianity is based upon an event that happened 2,000 years ago, and now looks forward to a consummation of that event in the future. Again, as Lewis said, the problem is not that we want too much, but that we want too little. Evangelicals have traded the priceless Gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for better relationships with their coworkers, better finances, and (believe it or not) better parking spaces.
All of this has a direct implication on how Evangelicals relate to the culture. Once we start thinking that you need Jesus to lose weight, stop smoking, improve your marriage and succeed in life, it doesn’t take long before we begin to assume that you need Jesus to run a country properly. That’s when the “culture wars” start getting ugly. We saw a glimpse of this in the last Presidential election. Many Evangelicals refused to vote for Mitt Romney simply because he was a Mormon, despite the fact that he held many of the same conservative views, both socially and economically, as they did. Again, this can be seen as a confusion of Law and Gospel. The Law (thou shalt not kill, for example) is written on the hearts of all men. This is what makes it possible for people of radically different religious (or non-religious) backgrounds to come together and agree on social and economic policies. But when we confuse the Gospel with the Law, we can start to confuse the church with the state, two sovereign spheres ordained by God for two very different purposes. And if America is a “Christian nation”, surely she must have a “Christian” President (I put “Christian” in scare quotes because so few politicians, on the left or the right, who claim to be Christian would actually believe anything close to Orthodoxy).
So, is there hope? Many quarters of Evangelicalism have started to fall down the dark path that Protestant Liberalism fell down almost a century ago, but have they fallen too far? Or is there a chance for a new Reformation? To find out, you’ll have to wait until this Fall, when Dr. Horton releases the sequel to Christless Christianity (which will aim to present the solution to this problem), entitled The Gospel-Driven Life. For now, I will leave you with Dr. Horton’s closing words in Christless Christianity:
The church in America will have to learn what it means to mourn before it can dance. Sticking to the story, fixing our eyes on Christ – even if it means distracting us from what we have diagnosed as our real issues – is the kindest thing a pastor can do for a congregation, the most precious gift we can receive and pass on to our neighbors, and the most relevant mission on earth. In the words of Dorothy Sayers,
“It is the dogma that is the drama—not beautiful phrases, not comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and moral uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death—but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death. Show that to the heathen, and they may not believe it; but at least they may realize that here is something that one might be glad to believe.”