A Bit to Read
Michael Horton, professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary in California and minister in the United Reformed Churches, has added another book to his long list of publications. His latest work is Christless Christianity, with as subtitle: “The Alternative Gospel of the American Church.” Unlike some others of his books, this one is an easy read.
Horton’s thesis in the book is that North America still knows something of the gospel, but has actually lost awareness of its depth, its power and its comfort. Jesus Christ has been reduced to little more than a moral example. As He did good to all men, so we ought to do good to all men. As He helped the poor and afflicted, so we need to help the poor and afflicted. As He forgave those who hurt Him, so we need to forgive those who hurt us. The emphasis in the Christian faith lies, then, not on the work of redemption that God has performed for us in Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary, but the emphasis lies instead on what we can and must do in following Christ’s example, and bringing about a better society through our efforts of benevolence, sharing, self-denial, and the like. Christ as the one anointed by the Father to atone for sin (recall, Christ means anointed) has been cut out of the Christian faith simple because people don’t accept the reality of sin. Well, that last sentence isn’t quite true. People have changed the definition of sin. Instead of ‘sin’ being rebellion against holy God and so offending your Creator, ‘sin’ has become that you’re not treating your neighbour well. Religion, then, is not so much about how you relate to God (let’s say, the vertical dimension) but about how you relate to your neighbour (and that’s a horizontal dimension). For your relation to holy God one needs a Mediator who comes from God, namely, the Christ, the Anointed One. But if God isn’t there (or you don’t need reconciliation with Him), your relation with the neighbour is the only one that truly counts, and that’s something for which you don’t need a heavenly Messiah. So you end up with a Christianity (= Christian actions of love and peace and gentleness and kindness, etc) without the Christ and His atoning sacrifice.
There’s the question: is Horton’s understanding of North American religion accurate? Has the Christian faith in North America in fact lost the Biblical understanding of the Christ? In my opinion, Horton is indeed correct. The recent inauguration of President Obama offers us a clear illustration of the point.
Shortly after Mr Obama took the oath of office as President of the United States, Rev Joseph Lowery offered the following (edited) prayer1:
We pray now, oh Lord, for your blessing upon thy servant Barack Obama, the 44th president of these United States, his family and his administration. He has come to this high office at a low moment in the national, and indeed the global, fiscal climate. But because we know you got the whole world in your hands, we pray for not only our nation, but for the community of nations.
Our faith does not shrink though pressed by the flood of mortal ills.
For we know that, Lord, you are able and you're willing to work through faithful leadership to restore stability, mend our brokenness, heal our wounds, and deliver us from the exploitation of the poor, of the least of these, and from favoritism toward the rich, the elite of these.
Bless President Barack, First Lady Michelle. Look over our little angelic Sasha and Malia.
We go now to walk together as children, pledging that we won't get weary in the difficult days ahead. We know you will not leave us alone.
With your hands of power and your heart of love, help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nations shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid, when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream…
1 The full text is readily available on the web.
It’s especially the closing paragraph that caught my attention, for here are a row of phrases quoted directly from the Bible. On the one hand I greatly welcome that, for the Bible alone can serve as light on the path President Obama now must walk. On the other hand I lament how the Bible has been quoted here. For the work of Christ on the cross has disappeared.
Micah prophesies in the midst of life’s brokenness, a brokenness resulting from the fall into sin and characterized by the tensions between Cain and Abel. He tells Israel that “the law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem” (Micah 4:2), and the result will be that God “will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.” Because of the mighty effect of God’s redeeming word, “nation will not take up sword against nation” anymore; instead, people “will beat their swords into plowshares” (4:3). Micah adds that “every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid” (4:4). The prophet’s point? It is God who through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ (as foreshadowed in the sacrifices-of-blood of the temple – that’s Zion) will raise nations above war. Those redeemed by Jesus’ blood shall also be renewed by His Holy Spirit so that they bring forth the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, etc. So something of the peace that characterized Adam’s and Eve’s existence in Paradise will be restored. This picture comes into focus in the Pentecost church where people readily sold their extras to give to the poor and where persecutors like Paul were changed by Christ’s Holy Spirit to sit at one table with those he used to persecute. The full fulfilment of this prophecy is described in Revelation 21 when the apostle speaks of the New Jerusalem, where “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (21:4). The curse that God pronounced on mankind after the fall into sin (see Genesis 3:15ff) shall be taken away because the God against whom we sinned will Himself send the Saviour in the person of Jesus Christ.
Again, the reference to “justice [rolling] down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream” comes from Amos 5:24, where the Lord God commands Israel to repent of their self-styled worship of God, and display the practical consequences of the faith in daily living. It’s a call the prophets repeated without end since no man could achieve this kind of society – until the Lord Jesus Christ came to obey the law perfectly. By His Spirit sinners are changed so that we begin to reflect that kind of justice and righteousness in the public squares of daily living. The point then is again that the human heart needs the renewing work of Christ’s Spirit. That, ultimately, is what Amos sought.
Back to Lowery
When Lowery in his prayer quotes these passages of Scripture back to God and asks Him to bring about peace through President Obama, he’s missing God’s recipe for this peace. God’s recipe for this peace lies in Jesus Christ. Since peace was lacking because of our fall into sin, Christ laid down His life on the cross to reconcile sinners to God and so to each other. This same Christ has ascended into heaven, then poured out His Holy Spirit whose task it is to apply the redemptive work of Christ to sinners. Peace shall come on earth not through human effort (not through Mr Obama either), but has already come through Jesus Christ. The best Mr Obama can do, also in his role as President of the United States, is protect “the church and its ministry in order that the kingdom of Christ may come, the Word of the gospel may be preached everywhere, and God may be honoured and served by everyone, as He requires in His Word” (Belgic Confession, Article 36).
Where is the reality of sin in Rev Lowery’s prayer? And where the reference to Christ’s atoning work on the cross? It’s gone the same way with Rev Lowery as it has (as Horton claims) in average North American Christian thinking: it’s disappeared. Sin as rebellion against God is understood no longer, God’s holy judgment on sin is forgotten also, and so the need for Christ’s death on the cross (and resurrection) is not appreciated. Not Christ’s work on the cross forms the heart of the Christian faith anymore, but His healing of the sick and His feeding of the hungry and His comfort to the widows forms the new heart of Christianity. That’s the example we need to follow (with God’s help, to be sure), and that’s what Rev Lowery asks God to make President Obama do. Then nation will no longer lift up sword against nation, and tanks will be beaten into tractors, and every man and every woman will sit under his or her own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid anymore. That’s “when black will not be asked to get in back” anymore, “when brown can stick around… when yellow will be mellow … when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right.”
It’s Christless Christianity. Indeed, Horton’s book is worth reading and contemplating.
January 30, 2009