Christless Christianity

I was recently pointed to a quote from Michael Horton’s book, Christless Christianity. You can read the first chapter online here. I have to admit, I agree with most of what he says in the chapter. The chapter begins with this challenging statement:

What would things look like if Satan really took control of a city? Over a half century ago, Presbyterian minister Donald Grey Barnhouse offered his own scenario in his weekly sermon that was also broadcast nationwide on CBS radio. 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.

That’s not the typical response, but it rings true to me. Does it to you? One time when some friends and I were discussing evangelism, my friend was talking about people who need Christ, and then pulled out his photo ID. “This is a person who needs Jesus.” I was reminded of that myself recently, that I am in need of Jesus, not as a means to an end, but that I simply need Jesus Christ. Sometimes, though, that notion gets lost, and then I try to be good…and then it becomes about me.

A few more quotes from the chapter:

If we are good people who have lost our way but with the proper instructions and motivation can become a better person, we need only a life coach, not a redeemer.

Aside from the packaging, there is nothing that cannot be found in most churches today that could not be satisfied by any number of secular programs and self-help groups.

Let me be a little more precise about what I am assuming to be the regular diet in many churches across America today: “do more, try harder.”

So, in my view, we are living out our creed, but that creed is closer to the American Dream than it is to the Christian faith.

Horton is a Reformed 5 Point Calvinist. I read his book on the topic, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, many years ago. I came away with a respect for the theology, even though I didn’t embrace it. It’s all the more interesting to me, though, that Tom Sine, who is a Mennonite, and who comes from a totally different perspective, said something similar to the last quote above, “For all the talk about the lordship of Jesus, my generation sold the young the American dream with a little Jesus overlay.”

Maybe that’s why I wonder about Christianity at times. Sometimes it seems to be no more than a philosophy of life. One of my good friends detests self-help books. When I was at the bookstore yesterday, it occurred to me how many books were ‘how to’ books espousing their ‘answer’ to some question. It bothered me. I’ve read quite a few self-help books, many of them written by Christians. They have their place, but at some point, all the formulas fall flat. Increasingly, I find myself liking books that don’t have formulas, that point out that most things worth doing are hard and take effort. Jesus didn’t come to answer our questions and give us a philosophy of how to live. He came to be the answer and to give us life.

And with that, I’ll read the rest of Horton’s book as soon as the library gets it in.

3 thoughts on “Christless Christianity”

  1. adam lehman says:


    In a youth ministry conference, I sat through a seminar by Rick Lawrence based on his book, “Jesus Centered Youth Ministry.”

    I’m sure Rick new this, but his book could just be applied straight to churches or christianity as a whole as easily as it could to youth ministry.

    The thing that really strikes me is that such a book (or in your case – such a blog post) is even needed. Satan has done quite a terrific job at making us forget the central element of our faith – JESUS! It’d be like saying you’re driving a car when it’s not turned on and there is no gas in the tank.

    May we find, remember and pursue the center of our faith.

  2. wolf rhino says:

    Thanks for this post.

    “Jesus didn’t come to answer our questions and give us a philosophy of how to live. He came to be the answer and to give us life.”

    That’s so true and so easily forgotten. It’s not about making your life work through Jesus. It’s about giving your life to Jesus.

  3. Seth Daire says:

    I’ve been sensing for awhile, without putting words to it, that if Christianity is a system for making life work, and if the Bible is simply a book of principles, then what do we need God for? The answer appears to be: We don’t.

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