When I get a break from school between quarters, you would think that I would let my brain rest a little bit. The problem is, my “Books To Read” pile continually grows throughout the year. Unfortunately, I am unable to read books for leisure as fast as I would like to and end up trying to furiously ingest as many as possible in the few free moments that I have between one quarter’s end and the beginning of the next.
I am close to completing my second book in the last few weeks. The book is titled “Christless Christianity” by Michael Horton. I have listened to Horton’s radio show, the White Horse Inn on several occasions and have accrued about 3 or 4 of his book, none of which I have ever read. As a professor at Westminster Seminary California, Horton falls into the Reformed school of thought.
It’s hard to say what I would classify myself as when it comes to theology and all of the other –ologies that relate to the church. If you would look at my bookshelf, you would see the classics, like C.S. Lewis, Bonhoeffer, Schaeffer, and others. You would also see some of the Emerging types like McLaren, Pagitt, and Bell. Just to completely confuse people, I have some John MacArthur as well. I have never been one to believe that I need to agree with every word that someone writes to learn something from them.
Anyway, back to Horton. Horton takes on the likes of the prosperity gospel preachers (Robert Schuller, Joel Osteen, et.al.) and also the Emerging church (McLaren, Pagitt, et.al). He does it tastefully and with purpose. The book is not a “bashing” for the sake of bashing, but is an analysis of what Horton and others have observed happening within the church in the West. We have become very good at seeing the church as the source of positive information that isn’t so positive in comparison to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Having just celebrated Advent and Christmas, and having also preached a sermon on Simeon from Luke 2, this is something that resonates with me. Even if we stop during the Christmas season to celebrate and remember that “Jesus is the reason for the season” (sorry, but I hate that phrase….though I understand the premise), we still seem to forget the reason why Jesus came.
We can be pretty quick to point out the Jesus came so that we might have eternal life, but that’s really just one of the benefits. The real reason that he came was because we were incapable of saving ourselves. Somehow or another, this message has been lost in the church. We seem to think that following Jesus and his example is enough to save us when in reality, it is only his grace that can do that. We are sinners, each and every one of us. We can’t save ourselves. I would venture to say that we can’t even really do anything good except for the fact that we are made in the image of God and it is that image that shines through, whether we consider ourselves followers of Christ or not.
Horton is pretty clear that a move away from a Christianity of “creeds” and a move toward a Christianity of “deeds” ends up looking more like self-salvation than it does “being the church.” Here’s one of the cases where there is a tension to me, and it seems to be one of the tensions that Horton himself sees. This is the difference between how the Apostle Paul explains things and the way that James, the brother of Jesus, explains things. Paul says that we are not saved by works, lest anyone should boast. James says that we need to show our faith through action: grace evokes deeds. So which one is right?
Yes. That’s the answer. They both are. Here’s the tension, we need to be constantly reminded of the fact that we don’t perform deeds in order that we be saved. Instead, we perform deeds BECAUSE we have been saved and are continually being saved. I have never liked the idea that “I was saved” because it seems like such an event that is final. I know myself and the fact that reformation, sanctification, justification, and all of those other fancy theological terms don’t happen to me in the blink of an eye. I am dying to myself daily and sometimes, my old self has a resurrection of sorts. It’s three steps forward, two steps back.
Horton is encouraging (maybe pleading with) us to not forget our creeds. We need to remember that strategies, purpose statements, and other well-meaning innovations do not save us. We are saved only through what Christ did that we were unable to do on our own. When we read the Bible as a sort of horoscope for the day rather than a story of grace, forgiveness, and redemption, we misuse the Bible. When we fail to realize that the Bible is God’s revelation of himself to us and instead see it as seven easy steps to be a better person, we miss the point.
I haven’t finished Horton’s book, but I can guess how it ends. We, the church, need to be “missional” as we go about making disciples of all nations, but we also need to remember the grace that we have received. We can’t stop living that grace and preaching that grace. We can’t start thinking that the salvation that comes from Christ is something that we’re worthy of or deserve. The moment we do that is the moment that we no longer need Christ in our Christianity. The moment that we do that is when Christ’s purpose for coming to the earth, dying the way that he did, and resurrecting the way that he did, is unnecessary.
While I could die on a cross (though I don't expect that I would go silently), I wouldn’t expect that I would be resurrecting any time soon thereafter. Christ came and lived a perfect life and took on my sin. Whereas sin entered the world through one man, the one man, Jesus, came into the world that salvation might enter the world through one man as well.
Around Easter time, there’s a saying that has become popular in the church: it’s Friday, but Sunday’s comin’. Around Christmas time, I think that we need to remember: it’s Christmas, but Easter’s comin’! As much as we celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus, he didn’t stay there (sorry, Will Ferrell! He’s not still wearing his golden fleece diapers!). Christ came to fulfill the purpose that his Father had for him in becoming the atonement for sin. That’s something that I could never do on my own.
Thank God for Christmas, but thank him even more for Easter! It’s Christmas, but Easter’s comin’!