Posted by: Johnold Strey | February 11, 2009

Home Runs from Horton

christless-christianityIn a post shortly after the New Year, I cited three new books as recommended reading for 2009.  Among them was Michael Horton’s newest book, “Christless Christianity.”  Today, while traveling to and from a shut-in visit on the Caltrain, I had the chance to read through a significant section of the book.

As always, I’m not rubber stamping anything and everything any author I cite has to say, but I will say that Horton hits theological home runs on nearly every page.  The segments I covered today are from the chapter titled, “How We Turn Good News into Good Advice” (chapter 4).  Much of this chapter has to do with the proper distinction between law and gospel — a very Lutheran theme, certainly!  Just to give you an idea, among the subtitles for chapter four are “Confusing Law and Gospel: Easy Listening Legalism,” “From Riches to Rags: Losing the Gospel by Taking It for Granted,” “Why the Law Makes Sense and the Gospel Sounds Strange,” and “Commandments, not Suggestions.”  Horton addresses the matter of the confusion of law and gospel and diagnoses this all-too-common problem in American Christianity with unapologetic clarity and precision.

I haven’t finished the chapter yet, but here are some gems from my train travel reading time today.  Italicized words and phrases are the author’s emphases, not mine.

To whatever extent the mood and motives have changed, however, the emphasis [in American Christianity] still falls on imperatives — things to do.  Central Bible Church, Bubbling Brook Community Church, and St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church may give you very different things to do, but doing is what it is all about.  It is amazing what a lot of Christians (including many pastors) seem absolutely certain about and what they regard as up in the air.  Although there is not a single passage in the Bible that tells us what Jesus would do on a whole host of personal and social issues of morality, economics, politics, and law, we often hear confident jeremiads and assertions by the same people who express ambiguity (disguised as humility) about matters clearly addressed and treated as matters of great importance in Scripture. … The emphasis falls on discipleship rather than doctrine, as if following Jesus’ example could be set against following his teaching.  [p. 110]

The proper preaching of the law and the gospel is the real answer to self-righteousness of every stripe.  It is interesting that when the apostle Paul had to write a disciplinary letter to the Corinthian church for its sexual immorality, hypocrisy, strife, and pride, he began by telling them the gospel all over again.  He never assumed it.  In fact, he assumed that if the church is in a particular mess ethically, it probably did not really get the message yet.  Only after once again preaching Christ and him crucified would Paul turn to the practical exhortation to live in the light of their high calling in Christ.  [p. 116]

That my life is not the gospel is good news both for me and my neighbors.  [p. 118]

The more we talk about Christ as the Bible’s unfolding mystery and less about our own transformation, the more likely we are actually going to be transformed rather than either self-righteous or despairing.  As much as it goes against our grain, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation for justification and sanctification.  The fruit of faith is real; it’s just not the same as the fruit of works-righteousness.  [p. 118]

The worst thing that can happen to the church is to confuse law and gospel.  When we soften the law, we never give up on our own attempts to offer our rags of “righteousness” to God.  When we turn the gospel into demands, it is no longer the saving Word of redemption in Jesus Christ alone.  [p. 122]

We need the law and the gospel, but each does different things.  When we confuse law and gospel, we avoid both the trauma of God’s holiness and the liberating power of his grace.  We begin to speak about living the gospel, doing the gospel, even being the gospel, as if the Good News were a message about us ad our words instead of about Christ and his works. … We are not called to live the gospel but to believe the gospel and to follow the law in view of God’s mercies.  [p. 124]

The gospel is for Christians too.  We need to be evangelized every week.  [p. 125]

Just as a mirror exposes our dirty faces but cannot clean them, the law reveals God’s moral will but gives no power to fulfill it.  [p. 128]

The religions, philosophies, ideologies, and spiritualities of the world differ only on the details.  Whether we are talking about the Dalai Lama or Dr. Phil, Isalm or Oprah, liberals or conservatives, the most intuitive conviction is that we are good people who need good advice, not helpless sinners who need the Good News.  [p. 128]

Even as a Christian, my faith will actually be weakened when it is assumed that I already know the gospel and now I just need a steady diet of instructions.  I will naturally revert to my moralistic impulse and conclude that I am fully surrendered or that I cannot pull this off and might as well stop trying.  When my conscience leads me to despair, this exhortation to try header will only deepen either my self-righteousness or my spiritual depression.  In other words, it will draw me away from my location in Christ and gradually bring me back to that place where I am turned in on myself. … It is therefore critical to bear in mind that the law is innate and intuitive, while the gospel is an external announcement.  [p. 130]

Not long ago, I … came across a passage in John Calvin’s work where he observed that many of his Roman Catholic friends were also reacting against the rules and regulations of their youth by saying that we just need to love each other.  “As if that were easier!” Calvin exclaimed. … What Calvin’s contemporaries failed to realize is that love is actually a summary of the law.”  [p. 134]

It is always amazing to me when people suggest that the God of the Old Testament (and perhaps their fundamentalist upbringing) is rule-oriented and judgmental, while the God of the New Testament is loving and lenient.  It is even more amazing when they appeal to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  Not only sleeping with your neighbor’s wife, but lusting in your heart; not only killing someone, but hating your neighbor; not only stealing, but depriving your neighbor of your own material resources: that is what Jesus says the law truly requires of us.  So it is hardly good news when people tell us that God required a bunch of rules but now tells us just to love him and each other.  Defined in this way, loving God and neighbor is a lot harder than following a few rules.  [p. 135]

Like Peter, our Christian life is a roller coaster of faithfulness and unfaithfulness.  Since we always drift back to self-confident triumphalism (remember Peter’s protest, “I will never deny you!” just before he did), we need to hear God’s verdict on our righteousness through the law and his assurance of pardon in the gospel.  Jesus’ example is not good news but a terrifying unless he is first of all the one who saves me from my inability to follow it.  Those who think they can wrap themselves in the fig leaves of their loving intentions and actions toward God and neighbor are in for a big surprise.  “Just love God and people” is not the gospel; it is precisely the holy demand of the law that we have grievously failed to keep.  Where much of the preaching today … offers a false distinction between law and love, the biblical distinction is between law and gospel.  Our love toward God and neighbor is the essence of the law; God’s love toward us in Jesus Christ is the essence of the gospel.  “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).  [pp. 135-136]



  1. Horton is one of the great apologists for true Reformation theology in American Evangelicalism. The “purpose-driven life” is mainly a variant on the “surrendered life” of the Wesleys, Finney, and Watchman Nee, among many others. We cannot have “purpose” from God without remembering constantly His “promise-given life”, in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I always wondered why my “born-again” friends would call a law/gospel sermon (like that of a Billy Graham or Oswald Hoffmann) a “salvation message”, while they were always seeking something much “deeper” and more “mature” than that. They had forgotten Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians to preach Christ and Him crucified, as their justification AND sanctification. Horton sums it up beautifully, that we all need to be evangelized at each Divine Service, and every day of our lives. That will remind us that beyond any doubt we are all “simul justus et peccator” (always saint and sinner). My LCMS parish sets that as a requirement of every worship service, and every sermon.


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