Christless Christianity


Christianity without Christ–sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Yet with increasing regularity much of what we do in the Church-at-large today is man centered and/or works centered and not Christ centered, although it is often disguised as such. I remember reading the term, “Christless Christianity,” for the first time in a biography on Bonhoeffer. It was of great concern to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) before his death by hanging at the hands of Adolf Hitler (who committed suicide a scant 21 days later) at Flossenberg Concentration Camp two weeks before the American liberation of the camp, and three weeks before the end of World War II.

In Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship,” he states the difference between “cheap grace” (which is man centered), and “costly grace” (which is Christ centered) which is part of what is at the core of Christless Christianity:

Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?…

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God. (Quote source here.)

We don’t hear much about this kind of grace today–grace that is costly. As Bonhoeffer stated above, “It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because if justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son . . . Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

Dr. A.W. Tozer (1897-1963), who was also a contemporary of Bonhoeffer’s era, made the following statement regarding Christless Christianity in Man: The Dwelling Place of God,” Chapter 29,How to Try the Spirits”:

Christless Christianity sounds contradictory but it exists as a real phenomenon in our day. Much that is being done in Christ’s name is false to Christ in that it is conceived by the flesh, incorporates fleshly methods, and seeks fleshly ends. Christ is mentioned from time to time in the same way and for the same reason that a self-seeking politician mentions Lincoln and the flag, to provide a sacred front for carnal activities and to deceive the simplehearted listeners. This giveaway is that Christ is not central: He is not all and in all. (Quote source here.)

Dr. Michael S. Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, in his book, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (2008), makes the following statement regarding Christless Christianity in Chapter 1:

Christless Christianity. Sounds a bit harsh, doesn’t it? A little shallow, sometimes distracted, even a little human-centered rather than Christ-centered from time to time, but Christless? 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.” I think that this is the pervasive message across the spectrum today. It can be exhibited in an older, more conservative form, with a recurring emphasis on moral absolutes and warnings about falling into the pit of worldliness that can often make one wonder whether we are saved through fear rather than faith. Heaven and hell still figure prominently in this version. Especially on the “high holy days” of the American church calendar (that is, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Father’s Day, and Mother’s Day), often complete with giant American flags, a color guard, and patriotic songs, this sterner version of “do more, try harder” helped get the culture wars off the ground. At the same time, more liberal bodies could be just as shrill with their “do more, try harder” list on the left and their weekly calls to action rather than clear proclamation of Christ.

Reacting against this extreme version of fundamentalist and liberal judgmentalism, another generation arose that wanted to soft-pedal the rigor, but the “do more, try harder” message has still dominated—this time in the softer pastels of Al Franken’s “Stuart Smalley” than in the censorious tone of Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady,” both of Saturday Night Live fame. In this version, God isn’t upset if you fail to pull it off. The stakes aren’t as high: success or failure in this life, not heaven or hell. No longer commands, the content of these sermons, songs, and best-selling books are helpful suggestions. If you can’t get people to be better with sticks, use carrots.

Increasingly, a younger generation is taking leadership that was raised on hype and hypocrisy and is weary of the narcissistic (i.e., “me-centered”) orientation of their parents’ generation. They are attracted to visions of salvation larger than the legalistic individualism of salvation-as-fire-insurance. Yet they are also fed up with the consumeristic individualism of salvation-as-personal-improvement. Instead, they are desperately craving authenticity and genuine transformation that produces true community, exhibiting loving acts that address the wider social and global crises of our day rather than the narrow jeremiads of yesteryear.

Despite significant differences across these generations and types of church ministry, crucial similarities remain. The focus still seems to be on us and our activity rather than on God and his work in Jesus Christ. In all of these approaches, there is the tendency to make God a supporting character in our own life movie rather than to be rewritten as new characters in God’s drama of redemption. Assimilating the disruptive, surprising, and disorienting power of the gospel to the felt needs, moral crises, and socio-political headlines of our passing age, we end up saying very little that the world could not hear from Dr. Phil, Dr. Laura, or Oprah. (Quote source here.)

what are you listening to“The focus still seems to be on us and our activity rather than on God and his work in Jesus Christ.” And just as Horton stated, we tend “to make God a supporting character in our own life movie rather than to be rewritten as new characters in God’s drama of redemption.” Often we do this on an subconscious level because this type of attitude is pervasive in the church today. In fact, in our way of thinking it is almost heresy to think otherwise, and yet it is this very heresy that is at the core of much of what is done in the church. We tend to live our lives letting God know what we want or being active in the church because we think it is the right thing to do (a works-based salvation which is no salvation at all) instead of turning to him in repentance and seeking what he would have us to do with our lives every moment of every day. The genuine Christian life is a crucified life . . . it is not about us and what we want; it’s about God and Jesus Christ and what he would have us to do through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Just as the focus of cheap grace is on us, so is the focus of Christless Christianity on us–what we do, what we want, what we can get from God. Becoming “a new creation in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17) is often the last thing on our mind in our relationship with Jesus Christ.

In a summary article by Martin Downes, Minister of Christ Church Deeside (North Wales, UK), on Horton’s book, Downes states the following:

“Christless Christianity” is anti-gospel error with a smile. It has enough truth, or perhaps words associated with the truth, to maintain plausibility, and enough error to pander to the cravings of our sinful hearts and minds. Our ability to obey is massaged, our spirituality is pampered, but our sins, true guilt, total helplessness, our need for Jesus Christ and his substitutionary death are neglected, ignored, and replaced.

Horton writes:

So much of what I am calling “Christless Christianity” is not profound enough to constitute heresy. Like the easy-listening Muzak that plays ubiquitously in the background in other shopping venues, the message of American Christianity has simply become trivial, sentimental, affirming, and irrelevant…I think our doctrine has been forgotten, assumed, ignored, and even misshaped and distorted by the habits and rituals of daily life in a narcissistic culture (p. 21).

Instead of a gospel that is grace all the way down, “Christless Christianity” is “moralistic, therapeutic deism” (p. 40). Even though it may try to distance itself from the old legalism of the fundamentalists, it is in fact a gentler form of legalism with an irrepressible confidence in human ability. It is law, and not gospel. . . .

“Christless Christianity” leaves no orthodox doctrine untouched. God is reduced to our fellow sufferer, our sympathizer. Sin has become bad feelings and poor self image. Christ has become our example and our teacher. Eternity has become time, the world to come eclipsed by the here and now. Scripture becomes a self-help manual. The true biblical world-view has been inverted. God’s holiness no longer stands in such stark contrast with our sin, and therefore his justice and our eternal condemnation no longer remain our most pressing issue. By this route, atonement and justification need not be denied because, frankly, they are now irrelevant.

Let me end this review with a striking passage that I think encapsulates the reason why evangelical church life is so desperately faddish, frantically pursuing a boom and bust cycle of spiritual experience:

Similarly 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 such 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 (p. 63). (Quote source here.)

More often then not, our current brand of Christianity often resembles a religious version of the “feel good” psychology that is so prevalent and holds us captive in our society today. As Horton states at the end of Chapter 1 in his book:

My aim is not to target any particular wing, movement, person, or group. We are all victims as well as accomplices in our captivity. In fact, my sense of urgency is motivated by my impression that “Christless Christianity” is pervasive, crossing the conservative-liberal spectrum and all denominational lines. In fact, when I wrote up some of the thoughts in this book for an article in a magazine recently, a Catholic editor exclaimed, “He’s writing about us!”

Actually, I am writing about “us”—all of us who profess the name of Christ both as ministers and witnesses. It would be easier if we could identify one particular writer, circle of writers, or movement as an isolated nemesis. However, no tradition is free of this captivity, including my own, and no person, including myself. There is therefore no position of antiseptic purity that I can pretend to occupy, from which I can mop up the rest of the floor. The most that any of us can do is to say with Isaiah, as he beheld a vision of God in his holiness, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5). (Quote source here.)

I’ll end this post with one final brief statement from Horton in Chapter 1 of his book:

I think that the church in America today is so obsessed with being practical, relevant, helpful, successful, and perhaps even well-liked that it nearly mirrors the world itself. 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. (Quote source here.)

And Jesus Christ is lost in the shuffle. . . .

The solution is found in Revelation 3:14-22 in a statement by Jesus Christ to the Church in Laodicea:

I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

He who has an ear . . .

Let him hear . . . .

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