Mar 27, 2010

2010 West Coast Conference - Session 7 - Michael Horton

3 Min Read

Dr. Michael Horton gave a second message this afternoon, this time on the topic of Moralistic and Therapeutic Deism. Dr. Horton began with retelling a story of how a mainline theologian who visited a seeker-sensitive church on Easter Sunday heard not the gospel but how his scars can become stepping stones for his success. This man was clearly not evangelized – on Easter Sunday, at a large, prominent, evangelical church.

We have this tendency to turn Christianity into a ladder that we can use to climb up to God. Combine the Gnosticism that Peter Jones discussed with Pelagianism and you get the perfect storm of Moralistic and Therapeutic Deism.


Pelagius did verbal battle with Augustine. The former argued that the Fall was what Adam did; we, by contrast, were not born in sin. Pelagius didn’t think you needed grace at all. Semi-Pelagianism said you needed grace, but free-will got the ball rolling (God responded to man's efforts, providing grace -- "God helps those who help themselves"). Both Pelagianism and semi-pelagianism were soundly condemned by many church councils in the 6th century.

This way of thinking is something we don’t need to be taught. By contrast, we need to be taught out of this Gnostic tendency of turning inward for salvation.

What is moralistic and therapeutic deism? A view that makes God our co-pilot, in which He helps us toward improvement to the degree that we help ourselves. What does He help us to do? Find fulfillment and peace, through an inward focus on oneself.

There is no talk about sin, so salvation is only salvation from our personal struggles. In fundamentalism, sin is reduced to “those things that other people do.” Liberalism, on the other hand, reduces sin to institutional structures.

Ours is a therapeutic age. In a biblical age, man needs God and thus must be saved. In a therapeutic age, man needs to be pleased.


Christian Smith, a sociologist, wrote a book called Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, in which he demonstrated, through detailed research, that American teenagers embraced, by and large, moralistic therepeutic deism. He has a follow-up called Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. In it, he follows the teenagers into their early adult years (young twenties). What do they believe?

1. God created us.

2. God wants us to be kind to others.

3. God wants us to be happy.

4. God can help us to gain happiness.

5. Good people go to heaven when they die and bad people don’t.

A strong majority of Christian young adults believe all of this. In fact, in some cases, the more often the church attendance, the more likely an adult is to believe these things. Remember that this is happening in the church. After all, Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller are both ordained in the RCA.

Another manifestation of moralistic therapeutic deism is the overwhleming popularity of confessions. They have nothing to do with objective guilt (much less an objective, eternal God who is offended) but are instead merely therapeutic and narcissistic.

This declination has been evidenced for many years now. In 1995, Marsha Witten published a book called All Is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism. She is not a Christian. What is this “secular message” that she found, doing research in a manner not unlike Christian Smith? Moralistic, therapeutic deism. She found little different in the mainline churches and conservative SBC churches. Both had a relatively weak concept of God. Rather, they "sold" Christianity to their paritioners based on its temporary benefits. “It feels good to be a Christian.”

In the SBC churches, the pig pen (in the Prodigal Son parable) was the world and the younger brother needed to come home to the church. In the mainline Presbyterian churches, the bad guy was the older brother. In both cases, note how sin is depersonalized and deflected to “outsiders.” It is never specific and in me. Wittman then traces this theme to Charles Finney and George Barna.


Jesus likened His generation to "children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep’" (Luke 7:31-32). In other words, they were not prepared to hear from the God of the Universe.

Our day is no different. But let us faithfully herald the gospel of God, for in it lies His power unto salvation for all who believe.