The title of the book is a pretty jarring oxymoron. What, exactly, is “Christless Christianity”?
First of all, it is not a claim that all the churches in America are Christless. It’s certainly not a claim that we have reached a point where Christ is no longer being preached. Rather, it’s motivated by a concern that there’s this creeping fog of what sociologist Christian Smith called “moralistic-therapeutic-deism.” This has turned God into a tool we can use rather than the object of our faith and worship. I’m concerned that the gospel is being taken for granted, that Christ is a sort of life coach, but not the Savior. With the general shallowing within the culture, there is a shallowing of Christian faith and practice. We don’t really know what we believe and why we believe it.
A lot of byFaith readers are thinking to themselves: “That’s not my church.” Are they naïve or blessed?
Well, [chuckles] I’ve been in PCA churches and United Reformed Churches [Horton’s denomination] where I have heard Christless Christianity. I’m not saying that I’d expect that every week, but I have heard sermons that have had Christ in the text—or at least by implication pointed forward to Christ—yet the text was treated in a moralistic-therapeutic way. That’s why I argue that this isn’t an indictment from a fire-breathing Reformed Christian against Arminians or Roman Catholics or Southern Baptists. This is a concern I have because I’ve experienced it in our circles. It’s not because we’re tolerating heresy, but I think it’s easy to take the gospel for granted, to say, “Okay, let’s move on to something more interesting or more relevant.”
For people who are in churches where Christ is faithfully preached, what’s the take-away? What do you want them to do with the information you present?
First of all, to fall down on their knees in gratitude for being in churches where Christ and Him crucified is the rallying cry, where that message is never taken for granted, where it’s always explored from Genesis through Revelation.
But I’m also hearing from a lot of people—pastors, for example, in very sound churches—who have said: “It’s helpful to know why I hear sermons preached with a non-Christo-centric focus. It helps to explain why sometimes my own preaching isn’t as Christ-focused as it could be.”
We need to be asking the question—when it comes to outreach, evangelism, worship, the songs we sing, the visitation we do, even diaconal ministries: How is Christ being delivered to sinners—even lifelong Christian sinners—in this time and place?
Asking that question, I think, is critical.
And so, we can’t envision a sermon that wouldn’t be predicated on some facet of the gospel?
Right. Which means our preaching needs to be expository. If, as Jesus said, all the Scriptures proclaim Him, then we should be looking for Christ in every passage. We should expect that He’ll be placarded before us.
It makes a big difference if we go to the Bible looking for tips or for “our best life now” or for advice on child rearing, marriage, success in life … . Or, if we go to find Jesus Christ. If we go to find Christ, who is the wisdom of God, then all the wisdom on other matters—marriage, parenting, covenantal life—it finds its proper coordinates in Him.
Switching gears, I wanted to talk about God’s holiness, righteousness, and justice. In the book you cite sermons that “treat God exclusively as the extravagant lover” without reference to these other attributes. Later, you mention a recurring emphasis in sermons that “lost” no longer means “damned,” that sermons intended to be compassionate are actually cruel. Can you elaborate?
I got this idea from an Episcopal bishop, C. Fitzsimons Allison, who argues that it’s actually pastoral cruelty to dress the wound of God’s people as though it were not serious. It’s actually pastoral cruelty when people are struggling with guilt to tell them they shouldn’t feel guilty. It’s pastoral cruelty to hide from them the actual force of that guilt so that it can be addressed.
That’s the wonderful thing about the law and the gospel. The law isn’t just a set of helpful instructions; the law comes to me first of all to strip me of my pretense of righteousness so that the gospel can clothe me in the righteousness of Christ. To summarize Paul’s argument in Romans: If the law hadn’t come along and stripped me naked, then I would have never fled to Christ to be clothed by Him. So we should be grateful when that traumatic experience occurs—of us realizing that we’re helpless, damned, under the wrath of God—because that’s what makes us flee to the hills to Jesus Christ.
I remember a couple of years ago, with the wildfires in San Diego, hearing reports that the fires were getting closer. They got so close that the fire department told us to evacuate. We moved from thinking, “Oh, we can handle this” to “Head for the hills!” The firemen weren’t being mean; they weren’t being intrusive. They were rendering a service, and because they did we were safe.
The problem, I think, is that a lot of pastors, a lot of Christian laypeople who talk to their non-Christian friends do believe, deep down, that there is a judgment to come. But in this culture we have been taught to take this life and our happiness more seriously than we take God and His holiness. Therefore, we look for a god who is usable rather than the God who is actually there.
We need the holiness of God to restore our sense of wonder, and a proper sense of fear in His presence so that we do not presume that we can stand in His presence apart from Christ.
Are we too concerned that people will be offended? Why do we shy away from this part of the conversation?
Part of the problem is our history. It’s not that people deny it. If you ask them outright, “Do you believe in hell?” most people in conservative, Reformed circles would say, “Of course I believe in hell.”
But we’ve had one generation of really bad preaching on hell: the hellfire and brimstone caricature which was a superficial view of sin as taboos: parties, drinking, smoking, dancing … . I think of Saturday Night Live’s church lady as a mascot for that generation—a kind of judgmental moralism—always wagging a finger.
A whole bunch of people my age were raised on that kind of scolding, which really isn’t a biblical view of sin or of God’s holiness. It’s a fear of hell, not a fear of God. It’s sin defined as breaking taboos, not as an offense against a holy God.
Then you had a whole generation that said: “If we come back to your church you better stop being mean; you’ve got to stop pointing your finger at us.”
This is a shift from Saturday Night Live’s church lady to Saturday Night Live’s Stuart Smalley, who comes along with his pink sweater and says, “You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you.” Now [we’re using] warm, affirming tones. We’re adding a soothing sampler of conservative craving for virtue along with a New Age longing for peace of mind.
These all converge as Muzak in the background. Both are atrocious forms of both the law and the gospel.
So how does an evangelical church present God accurately to someone who doesn’t know Him?
First of all, we can’t put all of the weight on the sermon. The sermon is the most important part of the service, but we have to see the Word of God as communicated not only through the sermon but through the singing, liturgy, prayer, and sacraments.
Paul speaks of the Word of Christ as dwelling in us richly through singing. Children often learn the faith more by singing than in Sunday school. Do the songs we sing cause the Word of Christ to dwell in us richly?
Is the liturgy moving us from confession of sin and a declaration of forgiveness to corporate prayer, to the reading of Scripture, to preaching, and the Lord’s table? Are these things regular aspects of our worship, or do we focus more on what we do than on what God does in the service?
There are a lot of well-meaning folks who say—and they’re speaking against the consumer-driven worship service—that worship is about what we do for God; we’re serving Him; we’re the ones worshiping. And I want to say to them: It’s not that we’re consumers, but we’re not worker bees either. It’s better than that. It’s better than we could have ever imagined. The God of all the universe—who looks after the movement of the planets—became flesh for us, not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.
People may be startled at the concept that we’re the ones being served on Sunday.
Paul says in Romans 10 that there are two kinds of messages: There is the “righteousness by works” message. This asks how can we go up to heaven and pull God down? Or how can I descend into the depths to pull Christ up from the dead?
But the righteousness which is by faith recognizes that Christ’s presence doesn’t depend on our cleverness or activity. He is present by His Word. God comes down to us; there’s a logic in Romans 10 where Paul says that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of Christ.
So how will they hear without a preacher? How will he preach unless he is sent? God is sending news from the battlefield—not only has He has accomplished victory, He is sending runners. He’s not saying, “Okay, I did my part, and now you finish the job.” He is sending heralds to tell us the good news. And by this good news the Holy Spirit regenerates us, brings us to saving faith and repentance, and keeps us in that faith.
So we come to church, first of all, to be served. And only those who are served can serve. So if we have, as we do now, a situation where the sheep are expected to be shepherds, and where every member is supposed to find a ministry, then, when people walk into church they get a shopping list of things to do. When they sit down and hear a sermon, there’s another shopping list of things to do.
We end up harming the church in two ways. (1) People aren’t really saturated with the gospel, so they dry up on the vine. (2) We don’t get them out into the world. We keep them cooped up in the church where their good works are only serving other Christians. I love the line from Martin Luther. He was asked what’s the place of good works if all is of grace. Luther replied, “God doesn’t need your good works, your neighbor does.”
God is circulating His gifts in the world to us and then through us for our neighbors. But we’re damming up that movement by trying to send our gifts up to God when He wants to send His gifts down to us, and then out to the world.
Changing the subject again, I’d like you to talk about the “narrow mandate” of the Church. What is it, precisely, that the Church is supposed to do?
There’s a distinction that I think is so important for us to make between the Church as the people of God, and church as a place where people come. In other words, if this feeding is going on—this serving of the Lord’s, then [the people] will become robust witnesses who go out into the world.
The Great Commission and caring for the physical and spiritual welfare of the saints—that’s all that the Church is commissioned by Christ to do.
But Christians—the Church as people—in that sense the Church is called to be parents, husbands, wives, children, doctors, lawyers—you name it. We’re all called to work alongside non-Christians, to make a good shoe and sell it at a fair price, to provide service to our neighbors who need us.
When Reformed people hear that the Church’s narrow mandate is to proclaim the good news the first reaction may be: Sure, but we need to make mature disciples, we want to be theologically deep people. How, within this narrow mandate, do we grow people spiritually?
This is going to come as counter-intuitive to a lot of us, but it’s really found there in our confessions. We say that a true church can be found wherever the Word is rightly preached, the sacraments are rightly administered, and there is church discipline. That’s the narrow mandate I’m talking about. If you ask a lot of people today—even Presbyterian and Reformed people—they’d say “to transform the world, to transform business, to transform the arts and sciences, politics.” But that makes everything about ut, not about God and His drama of redemption. How do you know where a church is alive and present in this world? How is Christ’s kingdom made visible through the Church? It’s where there’s faithful preaching, faithful administration of the sacraments, and faithful care of the spiritual lives of the members.
Richard Doster is the editor of byFaith. He is also the author of two novels, Safe at Home (2008) and Crossing the Lines, both published by David C. Cook Publishers.