Christ at the Center
Michael Horton says we need to once again let our lives and churches be driven by the gospel. Interview by Mark Galli Despite the title of one of his recent books, Michael Horton doesn't believe the American church embodies Christless Christianity. But he is convinced that we are sorely tempted by it. So he has written two books—Christless Christianity and The Gospel-Driven Life (both with Baker Books)—to outline the problem and articulate the solution.
Horton is a professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California, and the author of many books (as well as the ghost writer for John Calvin's Christianity Today column this year). CT senior managing editor Mark Galli recently spoke with Horton about the concerns raised in his latest books.
What is at the core of the temptation to practice a Christless Christianity?
When the emphasis becomes human-centered rather than God-centered. In more conservative contexts, you hear it as exhortation: "These are God's commandments. The culture is slipping away from us. We have to recover it, and you play a role. Is your life matching up to what God calls us to?" Of course there is a place for that, but it seems to be the dominant emphasis.
Then there is the therapeutic approach: "You can be happier if you follow God's principles." All of this is said with a smile, but it's still imperative. It's still about techniques and principles for you to follow in order to have your best life now.
In both cases, it's law rather than gospel. I don't even know when I walk into a church that says it's Bible-believing that I'm actually going to hear an exposition of Scripture with Christ at the center, or whether I'm going to hear about how I should "dare to be a Daniel." The question is not whether we have imperatives in Scripture. The question is whether the imperatives are all we are getting, because people assume we already know the gospel—and we don't.
But aren't many churches doing good preaching about how to improve your marriage, transform your life, and serve the poor?
The question is whether this is the Good News. There is nothing wrong with law, but law isn't gospel. The gospel isn't "Follow Jesus' example" or "Transform your life" or "How to raise good children." The gospel is: Jesus Christ came to save sinners—even bad parents, even lousy followers of Jesus, which we all are on our best days. All of the emphasis falls on "What would Jesus do?" rather than "What has Jesus done?"
Why is this such a temptation for the church?
It's our default setting. No one has to be taught to trust in themselves. No one has to be taught that what you experience inside yourself is more authoritative than what comes to you externally, even if it comes from God. Since the Fall, it has been part of our character to look within ourselves. And it is part of our inherent Pelagianism to think we can save ourselves by following the right instructions.
In such a therapeutic, pragmatic, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps society as ours, the message of God having to do all the work in saving us comes as an offensive shot at our egos. In this culture, religion is all about being good, about the horizontal, about loving God and neighbor. All of that is the fruit of the gospel. The gospel has nothing to do with what I do. The gospel is entirely a message about what someone else has done not only for me but also for the renewal of the whole creation.
Is this a new challenge?
Of course it's perennial. That's why Paul said that the gospel is foolishness to Greeks, and most of us in the church are Greeks. But today we have a new situation. We are facing a bewildering diversity of opposition to Christianity that is increasingly explicit—at the same time that not only people in the pews but also pastors and theologians seem the least capable of articulating the Christian faith, much less of offering persuasive arguments for it.