No doubt, the United States and South Africa are different places in many respects. For starters, we drive on the correct side of the road and they don’t. On a whole Americans tend to be more extroverted and outgoing than we do (something I think we secretly envy about them.) For sure, there are also many things we share in common with the Yanks, which are “good”, like the relative justice and order that the tenets of liberal democracy provide. Then there are those things about the US of A that we imitate that are plain wrong. Topping this list is our tendency in evangelical and Reformed circles to adopt the latest cutting-edge theological and church innovations coming across from the Atlantic via books, the web and celebrity pastor visits. The problem with adopting such trends is that instead of enriching our churches they all too often tend to take Christ crucified for our sins out of Christianity – and replace it with personal moral renewal or an emotional experience or pop culture transformation.
Thankfully, with the bad there is also pastoral and theological good coming out of the States. One voice well worth listening to is confessional and Reformed pastor and theologian, Michael Horton. The following is an extract from an interview with Dr. Horton referencing two of his books, one called Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church and the other The Gospel-driven Life: Being Good News People in a Bad News World.
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.
You can read the rest of the interview here.