2010 West Coast Conference - Session 1 - Michael Horton
Dr. Michael Horton led things off for the 2010 West Coast Conference. Dr. Horton is J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, and he co-hosts White Horse Inn, a nationally syndicated radio talk-show that explores issues revolving around Reformation theology in American Christianity. Dr. Horton is the author of numerous books, including most recently Christless Christianity and The Gospel-Driven Life.
The title of Dr. Horton’s message was The Church Cries “Uncle” (“Sam” That Is). Horton opened by noting that the Conference title was not the one the speakers would have preferred. It is unfortunate that a Conference must be entitled “Christless Christianity.” Yet many are concerned about the church in America today. Our own missionaries are often in need of being themselves evangelized.
The search of the sacred in America has often taken on a distinctive form. It looks (in one sense) as if the religious business (so to speak) is booming. Particularly compared to Europe, Americans are very religious. A full 92% say they believe in God, and 63% believe the Bible is the Word of God. God, mom, and apple pie - that’s us.
But scratch below the surface. According to a Pew survey, 92% say they believe in God, but far fewer believe in a personal God. Only 79% of self-identified evangelical Christians said that they believe in a personal God. Far from the Bible, most American Christians have their own spiritual play list. Many believe there are numerous paths to salvation. What do our exclusive phrases (e.g., John 14:6) mean in such a culture? Some don’t even affirm a bodily resurrection of Christ.
What does it mean to be born-again if Jesus Christ hasn’t risen from the dead? A subjective affair between the individual and his own construct of God is the extent of Christianity for many. Horton recalled growing up in Van Nuys going to church and having Sunday lunches. His extended family now happily converses about New Age spirituality and other fads. The conversation must remain shallow — spirituality is fine, but being “fenced in” by organized religion is unwelcome. We want it on our terms.
Many cultural icons in America today (Ted Turner, Shirley MacClain, Hugh Hefner, Oprah Winfrey, LaTonia Taylor) were raised in a conservative evangelical culture. Harvey Cox, author of The Future of Faith, says we’re moving “out of belief, and into the age of spirit”. One can compare our cultural icons to Kant, Lessing, Nietzsche — almost all were raised in evangelical homes. Many were children of pastors, and some were even training for pastoral ministry. In some sense, secularism is a Christian heresy. Secularism is happening in the church and has for a long time.
Let’s look at three things that are killing us softly. Three things that are having a tremendous effect on turning us from a historic faith towards a more amorphous spirituality — epitomized by the trivializing of God, our human condition, and the salvation wrought by God in Christ for us. God has a supporting role to play in the movie of our life - but the move is about us.
But of course the Bible is God’s story – it is not about us. And once we realize that it is about God and that He is the hero of the story, we actually find more in the Bible for us than we ever found before.
This word carries the idea of “God within”. In fact, our first parents (Adam and Eve) looked to the “internal voice” of God. Now, we’ve moved beyond doctrine and creeds. We live in an age in which “everyone knows immediately what the Spirit is saying”.
Immanuel Kant said he was certain, above all else, of the “moral law within”. In a sense, he’s right — God has written His law in us. But it is just law — it can only condemn. Kant said there was moral law within and ecclesiastical faiths without. If (Kant said) we could all just get back to our internal moral core, we’d be fine.
Maybe you are humming John Lennon’s song “Imagine” right now. That’s right - nothing new. What’s new is that today evangelical leaders published by evangelical institutions are saying it. But we started moving in this direction a long time ago. Charles Finney’s work was considered a follow-up to transcendentalism by some scholars. From the early 18th century, Americans have far preferred saving others to being saved.
But we need to be drawn outside ourselves. Faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ preached. We are told, by contrast, that many Americans consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious.” That goes all the way back to the 18th century trajectory to inwardness rather than outwardness.
The Bible tells us that salvation is of the Lord. We don’t find God through our cleverness or resourcefulness. Romans 10:5-7 basically says that the righteousness that comes by works seeks to go get God and bring Him to us by our efforts. And the righteousness that comes by faith recognizes that Jesus’ righteousness comes down to us.
But we don’t want a herald to bring good news, we prefer a coach to help us get in shape. Finney taught against the miracle of the new birth, total depravity, justification by faith alone, and the substitutionary atonement of Christ. Finney redefined the Great Commission, noting that the disciples’ job was to “make known the (redefined) gospel to the greatest number of people possible, so as to arrest the attention of the world.”
Which brings us to the third thing that’s killing us softly…..
“Give God this, and you get all THIS from God.” As the bumper-sticker says, “God is my co-pilot.” God is a service provider, the church is a market, and we are His marketing agents. As Andrew Carnegie said, “The business of America is business.” And for Americans this carries over into our religious life. “Accept Christ as your Savior, and you’ll be a better business man.”
But the covenant of grace is exactly contrary to that. When we go to church, we go to the community in which God has placed us, to be with the brothers and sisters to whom God has joined us. Our lives are a mess because we are under renovation. Sovereign grace creates a community, not a bunch of free agents who’ve signed a contract.
Think of the means that God has appointed and it is all grace. Turn it inward though and it becomes a treadmill of works (with a laundry list of to-dos). For example, a survey of those most involved at Willow Creek Church found that the ones who were most involved were least satisfied with the church, and most longing for doctrinal teaching. Yet Willow Creek’s response to the survey was “Ah, now we’ve got it. The more spiritual a person is, the less they need the church. We’ve got to cut them lose and teach them to be self-feeders.”
And others say this sort of thing with phrases like, “Don’t go to church. Be the church.” Being part of a local church may or may not facilitate that. One can get their spiritual information on the Internet, and not need the church.”You ask me how I know He lives, He lives within my heart.” Or: “I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses…..and the joys we share, none other has ever known .”
We are all idolaters at heart. We all have a habit of fashioning gods in our own image. By contrast, Hebrews 12:18-29 tells us “this voice is not like the others. Be quiet when God is speaking.”
We live in an age of miracles - when God’s Word is preached, dead people are made alive. All the kingdoms of the world will end up at the ash heap of history, but the kingdom we are receiving will never fail. Our God is a consuming fire.