Tag Archives: Christless Christianity

Challenges Facing the Canadian Reformed Churches

As most readers know, last September I accepted a call to the Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania.  We’ve applied for our visa and are waiting for the approval to come through.  I expect, however, that within six months we’ll be moving to Australia.  That means a farewell to the Canadian Reformed Churches is imminent.  As my departure approaches, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the CanRC, who we are, where we are, and where we’re going.  I think to myself:  if I were to come back in 10 or 20 years, would I still recognize these churches?  I see several significant challenges facing the CanRC.  Below I’m going to discuss three of the most prominent.  I have written about each of these challenges separately, but here I’d like to address them together and identify the common denominator.

Challenge #1 — Nominalism and Christless Christianity

One of the greatest challenges that faces many immigrant churches is getting past their identity as immigrants or the descendants of immigrants.  This is well-documented and it has challenged us as well.  Still today, in many of our communities, we are known as a “Dutch church” and we sometimes think of ourselves as such too.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with having a Dutch heritage — in fact, we can even celebrate it.  The problem comes when that’s what defines us.  We go to church merely because that’s what the descendants of Dutch immigrants do.  The church becomes a social club, rather than the gathering of Christian believers and their children.  Closely related to that is the phenomenon Michael Horton has described as “Christless Christianity.”  In his book of that title, he described much of American evangelicalism as Christless, but his critique bears upon us as well.  At least some CanRC people are very comfortable speaking about God and debating points of theology but become quite uncomfortable when it comes to speaking about their Saviour Jesus and a personal relationship with him through true faith.  Jesus is more of a concept to think about and debate, than a person with whom you relate and to whom you may even speak.  To complicate matters, an emphasis on “covenant obligations” misunderstood only as strict moral imperatives has sometimes led to a twisted conception of Christianity as a system of law-keeping.  Law and gospel become hopelessly confused.  For these reasons, and others, the spirituality of some in the CanRC has far less vitality than one would hope for.

Challenge # 2 — Undermining the Authority of Scripture

There is an ongoing debate in the CanRC regarding origins.  We need to recognize that there is a story behind this debate.  The back-story began with unbiblical ideas about hermeneutics and the nature of Scripture.  Those advocating openness to a variety of positions regarding origins come at these questions from a certain standpoint.  They have their presuppositions or pre-commitments.  Those of us resisting this openness also have our presuppositions.  These (typically non-negotiable) presuppositions determine where you’ll land.  The challenge is, when it comes to hermeneutics and the nature/authority of Scripture, are we going to start with Scripture itself?  Or do we approach Scripture as autonomous judges with criteria we’ve developed ourselves for ascertaining how and when Scripture will speak to us?  You see, the real issue is not fundamentalist “creation science” vs. mainstream science.  The issue is:  will we take the Word of God on its own terms and have it as our starting place and ultimate authority in every endeavour, including science?

Challenge # 3 — Maintaining a Reformed Identity

What does it mean to be Reformed?  I was sometimes asked what “Reformed” means when I was a missionary.  My answer was always:  “back to the Bible.”  Reformed people are historically people of the Word.  Yes, some of what we do in our churches is culturally conditioned.  But much more is biblically conditioned, arising from careful reflection on and application of the Word of God.  There is a sound reason why a Reformed worship service in Brazil looks virtually the same as a Reformed worship service in Canada or the Philippines — because they all want to follow Scripture.  It seems to me that some are too quick to want to throw out certain aspects of our Reformed identity without really asking the questions that need to be asked.  Why do we this or that?  Why do we say things this way in our confessions?  What are the reasons?  What’s the history behind it?  In general, our age is not known for careful reflection and deep thought.  Unfortunately, this sometimes spills into the church too.  Some get carried away with their own preferences, their own feelings, their own desire for a certain type of “worship experience.”  We see other churches who seem to attract a lot of interest, who also seem to captivate some of our people and draw them away, and we begin to wonder if we shouldn’t emulate them in some respects.  Along the way, our Reformed identity begins to get watered down and sometimes almost completely obscured.  If our traditional Reformed identity is more cultural than biblical, this is no big deal.  But if it’s the other way around, we have a challenge on our hands.

The Common Denominator

Far more could be said about each of those challenges, but let me conclude by identifying the common denominator shared between each of those challenges.  Each of them emerges when the Word of God is ignored or disbelieved.  You cannot underestimate how important the Word of God was for the Reformation of the church in the sixteenth century.  Literacy, printing, and vernacular Bible translation were God’s gifts to allow his church to recover his Word and reform accordingly.  Today I fear we are in grave danger of taking these gifts for granted.  Look at the challenges again.  True spiritual vitality can only exist where people love the Word of God, read it for themselves, treasure it as it’s preached, and embrace its gospel promises.  The Word is the answer to challenge #1.  Challenge #2 has to do with the authority of the Word.  When God’s people humbly submit to his Word as their starting point and their ultimate authority in absolutely everything, they will not get carried away by the wisdom of this age.  Similarly, when it comes to a Reformed identity, the Word is everything.  It must sovereignly determine our worship, our piety, and our polity (church government).

How do we address these challenges?  It starts with each of us examining ourselves and our attitude towards the Word.  Do we really love the Word of God?  Is it delightful for us to read and study it personally?  Do we love to hear the voice of our Saviour speaking through the preaching?  Do we humbly submit to that Word as children respecting their exalted Father, as subjects respecting their majestic King, as creatures respecting their sovereign Creator?  Healthy, joyful, gospel-centered, outward-looking, God-honouring churches are produced by the Word of God and its impact on individual believers.  No good for ourselves or others will ever come from neglecting the Scriptures.

I know that this might come off as quite negative about the Canadian Reformed Churches.  I certainly don’t want to leave the impression that all is dark and hopeless.  I see many positive and promising developments in our churches too.  Yet the challenges that I’ve been discussing are not to be sloughed off or casually dismissed.  One only need to see where our Dutch sister churches are to recognize that, left unaddressed, these challenges will lead down the same road.  I don’t want that to happen, for I love the Canadian Reformed Churches.  For 40+ years, these churches have been my spiritual home.  By God’s grace, in these churches and through them, I have come to know the Saviour and believe the gospel.  I have much to be thankful for as a CanRC member.  I pray for these churches to flourish and continue to grow to the glory of God — and I pray that this growth will be on the only solid foundation available, the infallible and inerrant Word of God.

Satan Loves Christless Christianity

“The devil doesn’t mind ‘family values’ as long as what you ultimately value is the family.  Satan doesn’t mind ‘social justice’ as long as you see justice as most importantly social.  Satan does not tremble at a ‘Christian worldview’ as long as your ultimate goal is to view the world.  Satan doesn’t even mind born-again Christianity as long as the new birth is preached apart from the blood of the cross and the life of the resurrection.

Pastor, Satan doesn’t mind if you preach on the decrees of God with fervor and passion, reconciling all the tensions between sovereignty and freedom, as long as you don’t preach the gospel.  Homeschooling mom, Satan doesn’t mind if your children can recite the catechism and translate the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ from English to Latin, as long as they don’t hear the gospel.  Churches, Satan doesn’t care if your people vote for pro-life candidates, stay married, have sex with whom they’re supposed to, and tear up at all the praise choruses, as long as they don’t see the only power that cancels condemnation — the gospel of Christ crucified.  Satan so fears that gospel, he was willing to surrender his entire empire just to stave it off.  He still is.”  (154)

Preaching Potatoes


new-potatoesIn his book The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, C.F.W. Walther interjects many interesting historical anecdotes.  In the twenty-fourth lecture, he speaks about the devastating effect that the Enlightenment had on Lutheran churches in Germany.  This was an era of Christless Christianity. Walther writes:

During this awful time matters finally came to such a pass that rationalistic preachers, to counteract the idea that they were superfluous in this world and to prove their usefulness, would treat from their pulpits subjects such as these:  Intelligent Agriculture; Profitableness of Potato-raising; Tree-planting a Necessity; Importance of Genuine Sanitation; etc.  Rationalistic books of sermons in which subjects of this description are treated with grand pathos will show you that I am not slandering the rationalists of that age.  (258-259)

Walther goes on to relate how Joachim Spalding wrote a book in 1772 in which he insisted that these sorts of subjects are indeed improper for the pulpit.  Instead, Spalding said, ministers have to preach “exclusively practical ethical lessons.”  In other words, the problem was not that the ministers were preaching “deeds and not creeds,” but that they were preaching the wrong kinds of deeds.   Spalding was simply proposing more Christless Christianity, substituting ethics for agriculture and sanitation.  Walther concludes that it is no surprise that many true Christians abandoned the Lutheran church in this era.

We often look back to J. Gresham Machen and see parallels between the Christless Christianity of his day and ours.  But this is a problem which stretches back over centuries.  Unless the Lord returns, likely it will continue to be a challenge.  Each new generation has to resist the temptation to be distracted from the gospel.

(reposted from Yinkahdinay 06.01.09)

Book Review: the Gospel-Driven Life

Gospel Driven Life

The Gospel-Driven Life: Being Good News People in a Bad News World, Michael Horton, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009.  Hardcover, 271 pages, $19.99 USD.

Last year saw the publication of Michael Horton’s influential Christless Christianity.  That volume was a surgical exposé of how much of North American Christianity is in danger of losing sight of Christ and the gospel.  By its nature it was a negative book, but Horton did promise a sequel in which he would present a positive alternative.  The Gospel-Driven Life is that sequel and Horton delivers on his promise.

According to the Introduction, “The goal of this book is to reorient our faith and practice as Christians and churches toward the gospel: that is, the announcement of God’s victory over sin and death in his Son, Jesus Christ.” (11).  Since the gospel is “good news,” the book attempts to follow the model of a newspaper.  Though this seems forced at points, it does capture the thrust and intent of the Biblical gospel:  it is supposed to be headline news.

There are commendable things to be said about the Gospel-Driven Life.  Above all, Horton ably expresses the gospel and all its riches.  Man’s problem is sin and the wrath of God that sin arouses.  God’s solution is Christ and his obedient life, death, and resurrection.  The gospel is what every believer needs every day.  Says the author, “No less in the middle and at the end than at the beginning, the believer clings to Christ’s righteousness as the only appropriate attire in the presence of a holy God.” (70).

Though this book is intended to be the positive follow-up to Christless Christianity, critique of various religious trends is not absent.  For instance, Horton interacts with Richard Foster and his emphasis on spiritual disciplines.  He makes the helpful observation, “This trajectory of the spiritual disciplines leads us to a host of means of grace besides Word and sacrament, and these other means are actually methods of our ascent rather than God’s descent to us in grace.” (157).  Elsewhere, with a glance at Rick Warren, he notes that it was Christ who lived the purpose-driven life so that we would be “promise-driven people in a purpose-driven world.” (141).

If I would make one critical notation, it would be with regards to this sentiment:  “Christ’s kingdom is its own culture: holy rather than common.  That does not mean that it is an alternative subculture.  In other words, there is no such thing as Christian sports, entertainment, politics, architecture and science.  In these common fields, Christians and non-Christians are indistinguishable except by their ultimate goals and motivations.” (249).  This requires a lot more elaboration to be convincing.  For instance, is it true that there is nothing distinctive about the way a Christian would be involved with politics aside from his ultimate goals and motivations?   While I can agree that the church has no place in the realm of politics, that does not necessarily mean that there is not a Christian way of doing politics, a way guided by the Word of God.

Any blogger knows that the negative posts always get more attention than the positive.  Our nature is drawn to the negative.  For that reason, I suspect that Christless Christianity will be better remembered than the Gospel-Driven Life.  Moreover, to be honest, the first volume was the more engaging read.  The Gospel-Driven Life features some new material from Horton, but there also seems to be some recycling.  The usual suspects make their appearances:  Dorothy Sayers, C.S. Lewis, Martin Luther, and G.K. Chesterton.  If you listen regularly to the White Horse Inn or have read his other books, this one may seem rather repetitive in places.  While I enjoyed it and can certainly recommend it, it was not the best work that Horton has done.

Hart on Frame v. Horton

Daryl Hart adds his thoughts on Frame’s review of Horton’s Christless Christianity.