Christless Christianity?

hortonI believe a troubling proportion of what passes as “Christianity” in contemporary American evangelicalism is at best sub-biblical, and at worst completely un-Christian. This isn’t necessarily true of the smaller churches scattered hither and yon throughout our fair land, amongst the amber waves of grain, in the shadow of purple mountain majesties. But, I believe it is generally true of the evangelical industrial complex in general, and celebrity ministers in particular.

To be sure, much of this pseudo-Christianity retains the same words, liturgies, creeds, confessions and outward form of orthodox Christianity. But, internally, it bears little resemblance to the true faith. Does this mean most pastors are wicked men, out to lead their flock to the flames of hell? Not necessarily; but make no mistake – such men do exist. I think this situation is more the result of a series of compounding problems:

  1. A drive to become “relevant” to the secular world will result in a subtle, then increasingly deliberate “softening” of the Christian message to avoid “offense.” Thus, the Gospel is increasingly buried under an avalanche of “love.” See my description of evangelism and “the church that’s ashamed of the gospel,” here.
  2. Our cultural climate is producing men in ministry who are timid. Such men are well-intentioned and quite pleasant people. But, they’re often weak, vacillating, hesitant, indecisive, and afraid.
  3. Our society is totally consumer-oriented, and this has filtered down to the churches. Many Christians shop for a church out of convenience and with a mercenary sense of entitlement. They view church like Wal-Mart, and they’ll hit the road or the Safeway down the street if you make them mad. This influences weak pastors to further round the rough edges off their ministries and Gospel presentations.

The end result of these (and other) problems is that you eventually end up with a “faith” that isn’t even Christian at all. God is somebody who just wants to bless. Jesus is the cosmic butler who lives to serve. The Spirit is there to make you feel warm and fuzzy inside. The church exists to fill your needs.

Nearly a decade ago, a sociologist named Christian Smith observed five defining factors which summed up the defacto “creed” of modern “religious” teenagers in the United States, from many different faiths:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Basically, young people would take these propositions, and fit them into whichever faith system they happened to be associated with. The result, of course, is a syncretic stew of blasphemy which has no objective content whatsoever.

If you know somebody who is “religious,” and they’re not grounded and schooled in a very conservative version of their faith tradition, then I’m betting you right now that they’d sum up their religious outlook with some or all of these five propositions. You know somebody who is “religious,” but doesn’t take it seriously. You’re thinking of her right now, aren’t you? You know exactly who you can ask. Try it. You’ll see . . .

This isn’t a modern phenomenon, of course. The Israelites perfected this technique, and repeatedly gave God lip-service with empty cultic rituals, while worshipping pagan gods. They viewed Yahweh as a spiritual 911 operator; somebody they had in their back pocket for a rainy day, but didn’t want to chat with otherwise. For example, consider this (Jeremiah 2:26-28):

As a thief is shamed when caught,
so the house of Israel shall be shamed:
they, their kings, their princes,
their priests, and their prophets,
who say to a tree, ‘You are my father,’
and to a stone, ‘You gave me birth.’
For they have turned their back to me,
and not their face.
But in the time of their trouble they say,
‘Arise and save us!’
But where are your gods
that you made for yourself?
Let them arise, if they can save you,
in your time of trouble;
for as many as your cities
are your gods, O Judah.

 

I suggest you read the book Christless Christianity by Michael Horton. It’s about, well . . . a “Christianity” which has taken Christ off the cross and made Him a cosmic butler. He writes:[1]

My concern is that we are getting dangerously close to the place in everyday American church life where the Bible is mined for “relevant” quotes but is largely irrelevant on its own terms; God is used as a personal resource rather than known, worshiped, and trusted; Jesus Christ is a coach with a good game plan for our victory rather than a Savior who has already achieved it for us; salvation is more a matter of having our best life now than being saved from God’s judgment by God himself; and the Holy Spirit is an electrical outlet we can plug into for the power we need to be all that we can be.

As this new gospel becomes more obviously American than Christian, we all have to take a step back and ask ourselves whether evangelicalism is increasingly a cultural and political movement with a sentimental attachment to the image of Jesus more than a witness to “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). We have not shown in recent decades that we have much stomach for this message that the apostle Paul called “a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense,” “folly to Gentiles” (Rom. 9:33; 1 Cor. 1:23).

Far from clashing with the culture of consumerism, American religion appears to be not only at peace with our narcissism but gives it a spiritual legitimacy.

Harsh words. I think they’re warranted.

Notes

[1] This excerpt is from Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008), 19-20.

“Cultural Christianity” as Fakery

mooreRussell Moore explains:

We sang a lot in my home church about being strangers and exiles, longing for a home somewhere beyond the skies. But I never felt like a stranger or an outsider until I tried to earn my Boy Scout “God and Country” badge.

Our troop was made up, as our community was, mostly of Baptist and Catholic children, and we would gather each week at St. Mary’s to talk about what it meant to be morally straight. To work on earning this badge, though, we were shuttled over to the United Methodist church for sessions on what it meant to do our part for Christian America. Afterward, we had an open question and answer session with the pastor. And that’s when I discovered I was embarrassing the preacher, my troop leader, and maybe even my country. I wanted to talk theology.

My pastor was warm and welcoming, but I rarely had the opportunity to sit and ask whatever I wanted, and what was on my mind was the devil. A classmate of mine at the elementary school had watched some horror film on demonic possession, and he told me all about it, eerie voices, heads that turned all the way around, the whole thing. It shook me up. So I asked, “Can a Christian be possessed by a demon, or are we protected from that by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit?”

The Methodist minister had been ebullient to that point, in the way a county supervisor cutting a ribbon at a storefront might be. But now he seemed uncomfortable, shifting in his chair and laughing stiltedly. He hemmed and hawed about pre-modern conceptions of mental illness and about the personification of social structures, with lots of throat clearing between every clause. I had no idea what he was talking about, and there was too much at stake to let him off the hook this easily. I didn’t want to risk projectile vomiting demonic ooze.

My grandmother was Catholic, but could I spare the time it would take to get to her house to round up a crucifix? I asked the question again. This time he was abrupt, and clear: “There’s no such thing as demons.”

Now, I was really confused. “Oh, but there are,” I said. “Look, right here in the Gospel of Mark, it says . . .” The pastor interrupted me to tell me he was quite familiar with Mark, and with Matthew, and with Q, whatever that was. He knew they believed in the devil, but he didn’t. In this day and age, the literal existence of angels and demons wasn’t tenable. This was the first time I’d ever encountered anyone, in person, who knew what the Bible said but just disagreed with it. And he was the preacher. Moreover, I picked up in the nonverbal cues there that he didn’t just find the idea of angels and demons incredible; he found it embarrassing.

That was just the setup. Here is the point:

The “God and Country” badge wasn’t really about conforming us to the gospel, or to the Bible, to any confessional Christian tradition, or even, for that matter, to the “mere Christianity” of the ancient creeds and councils. This project didn’t want to immerse us (or even sprinkle us) into the strange world of the Bible, with its fiery spirits and burning bushes and empty tombs. We were here for the right kind of Christianity, the sort that was a means to an end. We were to have enough Christianity to fight the Communists and save the Republic, as long as we didn’t take it all too seriously.

We weren’t there to carry a cross; we were there to earn a badge. We weren’t to be about Christ and kingdom, just God and country. This notion of Christian America stood in the backdrop of the culture wars of the last generation. If we are to engage in a new context, we must understand what we, perhaps unwittingly, embraced, and how to navigate beyond it.

This “cultural Christianity” that Moore describes is not Christianity; it is a false civic religion that has led, and is still leading, many people straight to hell. This looks to be a great book.

Russell D. Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2015), 11-12.

The Nashville Statement

nashvilleThis past week, a group of conservative evangelical Christian leaders released The Nashville Statement. This is a short document which lays out a series of 14 affirmations and denials about the Bible’s position on human sexuality and gender.

This is the critical issue of our day. The secular world is becoming increasingly unhinged and confused about what it means to be “male” and “female,” and whether human sexuality is a subjective individual choice, or an objective fact assigned before birth. And compromising Christians and liberal apostates have become increasingly shrill about their “inclusive” stance on these issues. I’ll write more on this soon.

For now, you need to carefully read this statement and consider what it means. It reflects God’s position on these issues, from the Biblical text. Here is an excerpt from the preamble:

As Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, it has embarked upon a massive revision of what it means to be a human being. By and large the spirit of our age no longer discerns or delights in the beauty of God’s design for human life. Many deny that God created human beings for his glory, and that his good purposes for us include our personal and physical design as male and female. It is common to think that human identity as male and female is not part of God’s beautiful plan, but is, rather, an expression of an individual’s autonomous preferences. The pathway to full and lasting joy through God’s good design for his creatures is thus replaced by the path of shortsighted alternatives that, sooner or later, ruin human life and dishonor God.

Indeed. Now, read the statement here.

Consider the affirmations and denials. Think about them. Think about our society, our culture. What has happened? Has the Western world gone mad?

Also, realize that the only solution for the cultural madness we see is for people to realize this world is not the way God made it, that we ruined it by our rebellion, but that God offers everyone forgiveness, reconciliation, atonement for sin, a citizenship in His coming Kingdom, and a home in His adopted family – if they repent of their sin and believe in the Good News that Jesus brought to the world.

I signed the statement. Perhaps you should, too?

The Ghost of Presbyterians Past

On a regular basis, an allegedly “Christian” leader engages in some form of theological and moral blasphemy. The result is always predictable, and follows a well-known pattern:

  1. Conservatives murmur about theological betrayal in tense, anxious tones, with nervous glances over their shoulders – fearful of an avalanche of leftist outrage,
  2. A “progressive Christian” from an apostate mainline denomination or seminary is trotted out, issues vague platitudes about unconditional love and forgiveness, provides an out of context quote from Jesus, and exits stage right.

Of course, this is not a matter of “conservative Christians” vs. “liberal” or “progressive Christians.” It is a matter of Christianity vs. paganism. It is a matter of two entirely different religions, which just happen to share the same vocabulary.

This is where J. Gresham Machen comes in. In 1923, he published his little book Christianity and Liberalism. It is a powerful book, and so little has changed since his day. Harken to this faithful Presbyterian who, though being dead, yet speaketh:

It is no wonder, then, that liberalism is totally different from Christianity, for the foundation is different. Christianity is founded upon the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men.[1]

Notes

[1] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (New York, NY: Loiseaux Bros., 1923; reprint, CrossReach Publications, n.d.; Kindle ed.), KL 1030-1032.

 

Empty Suits and Unholy Rage – ISIS vs. the Secular West (Part 1)

I originally published this short series on SharperIron.org, and it is reprinted here with permission.

chairThe Problem

Recently, a French political scientist was interviewed on National Public Radio. The terrorist attack in Nice had just taken place. France had been on heightened security alert since November 2015, when 130 people were slaughtered in a series of coordinated attacks involving suicide bombers, assault weapons and hostage taking. Now, just this month, a Tunisian madman who had lived in France for 11 years deliberately ran a 19-ton cargo truck into a crowd along the Nice waterfront on Bastille Day. 84 people died. The 31-yr old terrorist, a man who by all accounts was a drug addict, alcoholic, and all-around petty villain, was surrounded by police and shot dead in the cab of his truck. The media was engaged in the usual post-mortem analysis. What can be done? What should be done? What isn’t working? What would drive somebody to do such a thing? This was the context for Myriam Benraad’s interview with NPR. What should France be doing differently? Her answer was remarkable:

In France, I think there’s a real malaise. There’s a crisis of our political and social model for a number of reasons which I cannot enumerate fully during this interview. But we need to re-enchant our model, whether we’re speaking about the social contract that we’re supposed to embody, the openness and the tolerance and all of these things that have been really helped, I believe, in the last decade.[1]

How do you persuade angry young men, many of them immigrants from abroad, some even EU citizens, that it isn’t a good idea to butcher many people in the name of Allah? What must be done to counteract this propaganda? Benraad recognizes that there is a problem. She also realizes that France (and its coalition partners) have not yet found the solution. She is not alone.

The Empty Secular Solution

On September 29, 2015, an article appeared in The New York Times which stated, “President Obama called upon a conclave of world leaders on Tuesday to fight violent extremism not just with weapons but with ideas, jobs and good governance, a strategy he has long advocated. There are few signs that it is succeeding.”[2] President Obama announced this was an ideological war, not a strictly military conflict. “Ideologies are not defeated with guns,” he exclaimed. “They are defeated by better ideas — a more attractive and compelling vision.”[3]

What is this “compelling vision” the Western world offers angry young men that ISIS cannot? What “better ideas” was President Obama referring to? This strategy was probably driving the now-infamous statement by State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf that ISIS could be defeated if only their fighters had access to jobs. “We can work with countries around the world to help improve their governance. We can help them build their economies so they can have job opportunities for these people.”[4]

The State Department has admitted “the coalition does not communicate well.”[5] An official lamented that the West was always reacting to ISIS online propaganda, instead of advancing its own narrative. The counter-propaganda effort was a failure, a disaster. The Western world was being defeated in social media by the junior varsity team.[6] ISIS was “expanding like Starbucks franchises.”[7] Something must be done. A solution was nigh at hand – a “full-time coalition communications hub.”[8]

Thus, we now have something called the “Global Engagement Center.” The director of the center explained that his counter-propaganda mission was to expose the awful truth that ISIS “is indeed a vicious awful organization that is rife with hypocrisy and everything else . . . it’s about revealing their true nature so people understand they aren’t what they say they are,’ he said. ‘They’re not paying their fighters what they claim to be paying them, and nor is the quality of life what they’re advocating.”[9] So, for example, the GEC’s Twitter account has graphics of people standing in line for food, with the text, “Under Daesh, the lines of the hungry grow longer.” Another post shows a laptop computer illuminated by the miserable, flickering glow of a tea light candle. “Daesh can’t provide basic services for its people,” the picture warns solemnly.

This is the same approach which Myriam Benraad advocated. Young immigrant men in France are disenchanted. They’re cynical and soured on the life they’ve found in the West. This is why she suggested, “we need to re-enchant our model, whether we’re speaking about the social contract that we’re supposed to embody, the openness and the tolerance and all of these things that have been really helped, I believe, in the last decade.”

Her comments are not remarkable because of their insight. They are remarkable because they betray how shallow and impotent a secular approach to this conflict is. The same could be said about the entire counter-propaganda message being pushed by the Obama administration and its various coalition partners. As Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has observed, “What we are looking at here is a vast collision of worldviews, and one that secular leaders in Europe and in the United States, starting in the White House, seem to be incapable of understanding. At its base, we’re talking about a worldview conflict between Islam and Modernity.”[10] Mohler later remarked that France, because of its unashamed commitment to secularism, is “almost singularly incompetent to know how to respond. There is amongst the French intellectuals now a virtual inability to understand anyone who might operate in terms of worldview from any kind of theological motivation and basic structure.”[11]


Notes

[1] National Public Radio. “French Men Attracted To ‘Anti-System Utopia’ In Drive To Join ISIS,” on All Things Considered. 19JUL16. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/Vr37KO.

[2] Gardiner Harris and Eric Schmitt, “Obama’s Call at U.N. to Fight ISIS With Ideas Is Largely Seen as Futile,” in The New York Times. 29SEP15. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/Ru4yKS.

[3] Ibid.

[4] T. Beckett Adams, “State Department spokeswoman claims jobs are key to defeating ISIS,” in Washington Examiner. 17FEB15. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/3WXpDk.

[5] The New York Times. “State Department Memo on the Islamic State Group.” 12JUN15. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/ipNTiK.

[6] See the discussion by Glenn Kessler, “Spinning Obama’s reference to Islamic State as a ‘JV’ team,” in The Washington Post. 03SEP14. Retrieved from https://goo.gl/yw2eRg.

[7] New York Times. “State Department Memo,” 2.

[8] New York Times. “State Department Memo,” 2.

[9] Kristina Wong, “How the US is working to defeat ISIS online,” in The Hill. 25JUN16. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/bWktxW.

[10] Albert Mohler. The Briefing. 12-7-15. Retrieved from http://www.albertmohler.com/2015/12/07/the-briefing-12-07-15/.

[11] Albert Mohler. The Briefing. 8-1-16. Retrieved from http://www.albertmohler.com/2016/08/01/briefing-08-01-16/.

Discerning God’s Will for Our Lives

gdswl

This message is directly specifically at teenagers, but just for kicks, I’ll post it here anyway! It was preached for teen Sunday School at my church this morning. 

There are three basic, looming decisions facing any Christian teenager as their high school days come to a close and they face the prospect of escaping from home (at last!) and starting life on their own.

  • Am I a Christian? Do I live out my own faith or have I just been borrowing from my parents?
  • What career will I choose?
  • Who and when will I get married?

For a Christian teenager seeking to be true to God, each of these life-altering decisions are (hopefully) seen in the context of what God’s will for his life is. Questions such as these will naturally swirl through the mind:

  • What God want me to do?
  • Should I go to college? Which college?
  • Who does God have for me to marry?
  • Will I ever get married? 

We all probably remember wrestling with these issues in our own lives. In this lesson, I take a brief look at what a passage of Scripture has to say about (1) God’s universal will for every Christian and (2) discerning God’s will for our individual lives. The important takeaway is this:

  1. God’s specific will for our lives is predicated on His universal will for Christians. Basically, if we aren’t interested in fulfilling our most basic responsibility as Christians and walking worthy of God, then we’re wasting our time praying to God and asking for guidance and help on specific issues. First things first, after all!
  2. God does not reveal His specific will for our lives in a comprehensive, direct revelation. We frequently can only see God’s providential hand in our lives after the fact, years later, as we look back on life events. He does not provide us with a PDF instruction booklet outlining His specific plan for our lives! We have to make important decisions day by day as we (1) search the Scriptures, (2) pray earnestly for guidance, (3) weigh the counsel of other Christians we respect and finally (4) simply doing what we believe is best in light of all these factors. God will work through these situations to work things together for good.

We may not always appreciate or like what God has in store for us! However, if we can truly call ourselves children of God who have repented of our sins and trusted in Christ as Savior, we can trust God and live by faith as we await His glorious return!

I honestly wish I had much more time to flesh this out. Hopefully it was a blessing to our teens in church, and perhaps even to you. The Gospel of Mark continues next week.

Sermon notes

The Necessity of Theology

It is all too common for preachers, especially some of my brethren in fundamental Baptist circles, to ridicule learning and diligent study of theology. The concept of Seminary is sneered at by some of these men. “You don’t need all that higher learning,” they scoff. “You just need the word of God!”

Charles Spurgeon had a few words for those who, in his day, echoed similar sentiments:

Be well instructed in theology, and do not regard the sneers of those who rail at it because they are ignorant of it. Many preachers are not theologians, and hence the mistakes which they make. It cannot do any hurt to the most lively evangelist to be also a sound theologian, and it may often be the means of saving him from gross blunders. Nowadays, we hear men tear a single sentence of Scripture from its connection, and cry “Eureka! Eureka!” as if they had found a new truth; and yet they have not discovered a diamond, but a piece of broken glass.… Let us be thoroughly well acquainted with the great doctrines of the Word of God.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1945), 196.