The oxymoronic message of modernity.
Michael Horton on what makes the Christian message “Christian.”
When viewing the current evangelical landscape as a whole, I become burdened by the aspirational malaise that seems to have taken over most sermons. There is a veritable epidemic of conflation and confusion of terms emanating from a majority of pulpits, leaving scores of congregants to aimlessly navigate the vague spiritualities of making their life better in the here and now. Jesus might be mentioned in these sermons, but he’s nothing more than window dressing, a doily which embellishes our carefully crafted programs of discipleship through superior spiritual effort. “We are swimming in a sea of narcissistic moralism,” Michael Horton says, “an easy-listening version of salvation by self-help” (71).
That comes from his 2008 work Christless Christianity, a book that has aged like fine wine (which is a funny joke only if you remember that I’m a teetotaling Baptist), in which he takes aim at modernity’s approach to the Body of Christ and the equipping of the saints through its ecclesiastical panache and homiletical babel. Names are named throughout this unblushing invective, as Horton endeavors to put contemporary ecclesiasticism through the refining and reforming sieve of God’s Word. Rather than God’s people being edified and enriched through the faithful proclamation of the good news, we’ve become enamored by the project of enhancing and/or energizing our spiritual and moral effort through the supposed wisdom found within the pages of Scripture. The Word, then, isn’t upheld as a unified document of God’s self-revelation; instead, it’s reduced to a compendium of banal platitudes waiting to be mined by the next up-and-coming pastor-preneur.
Narcissistic moralism and self-absorbed spirituality is the byproduct of countless messages and ministries whose bottom line, whether implicit or explicit, is the effectual application God’s Word has on us. Such a focus on applicable principles which can be gleaned from the Word is downstream from a view of Scripture at which man and his revival is situated at the center. In this paradigm, sermons centered on declaring the glory of God the Father as revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of God the Son, irrespective of chapter-and-verse, are often not considered as stimulating as messages which marshal list upon list of insights which enable us to perform religious responsibilities with bigger, brighter smiles. Horton puts it this way:
Today, the preaching of the law in all of its gripping judgment and the preaching of the gospel in all of its surprising sweetness merge into a confused message of gentle exhortation to a more fulfilling life. Consequently, we know neither how to mourn nor how to throw a real party. The bad news no longer stands in sharp contrast with the good news; we become content with so-so news that eventually fails to bring genuine conviction or genuine comfort but keeps us on the treadmill of anxiety, craving the next revival, technique, or movement to lift our spirits and catapult us to heavenly glory. (63)
The condensation of swaths of modernity’s sermons reveals a strange cocktail of law-infused evangelism, which is itself an oxymoron. Christianity’s evangel is nothing but the announcement of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of the Christ of God for the express purpose reconciling and redeeming the cosmos to its Creator. The church’s task is to declare that work not as needing more involvement from the likes of us, but as being finished in the passion and death of Jesus Christ. “The church exists,” Horton maintains, “in order to change the subject from us and our deeds to God and his deeds of salvation, from our various missions to save the world to Christ’s mission that has already accomplished redemption” (141).
The burden of re-making the world through righteousness is not one which the church bears on its own shoulders. Rather, it is one which the church broadcasts as already accomplished through Christ. All that awaits is the consummation of that good news through the Second Advent. That message is undermined, though, any and every time the focus of the Christian message is taken off Christ and placed on the Christian. When the greater homiletical and ecclesiastical emphasis falls on the church’s work for God rather than on God’s work for the church, you can be sure the evangel has been lost. The faithful proclamation of Christ’s reconciliation and regeneration of sinners through the shedding of his own blood can’t co-exist within programs that leave people more enchanted with their own moral and spiritual progress. One or the other will eventually win out, with the latter often being more easily grasped.
This, I think, is what Paul was talking about when he reminded Timothy to “preach the word” because a day was dawning “when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:2–4). Our fancies are swiftly tickled through the accumulation and articulation of spiritual vagaries wherein our improvement is part and parcel with the Christian message. For however seductive such rhetoric is, though, it does not produce healthy let alone holy congregants. It is, instead, just a gross amalgamation of God’s law and God’s gospel that neither shows sinners the gravity of their failure nor shows them the certainty of God’s grace for them in Christ. If law and gospel are mixed, we castrate the Christian evangel into nothing more than “good advice.” In so doing, Christianity is submerged “perfectly with the culture of life coaching,” Horton says. “It might seem relevant, but it is actually lost in the marketplace of moralistic therapies” (102). He continues:
There are really only two religions in the world: a religion of human striving to ascend to God through pious works, feelings, attitudes, and experiences and the Good News of God’s merciful descent to us in his Son. The religions, philosophies, ideologies, and spiritualities of the world only differ on the details. Whether we are talking about the Dalai Lama or Dr. Phil, Islam or Oprah, liberals or conservatives, the most intuitive conviction is that we are good people who need good advice, not helpless sinners who need the Good News. (128)
If pastors and preachers truly want to make a difference in their assemblies and communities and localities, it starts with boldly declaring the depths of our sin in light of God’s law, to which is appended the resounding message of hope and forgiveness as found nowhere else than in God’s gospel. It is Christ’s work on behalf of sinners which remains the express announcement that has been entrusted to Christ’s church, not the work of the church. Our message and mission bound up in what’s been already finished in him. As the psalmist triumphantly declares, “Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man” (Ps. 66:5).
Grace and peace to you.
Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008).