Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church is a 2008 book by Michael Horton arguing that the American church is heading for a version of Christianity that eagerly accepts Christ’s offer of salvation but considers it to be just another benefit in a life spent pursuing the American Dream. Christless Christianity is a form of religiosity that whittles away the difficult terms of discipleship and embraces only those elements of the Bible that the flesh finds pleasant. In many ways, Christless Christianity resembles what others have called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the belief that being “good” or “nice” is all that is necessary to please God—the work of Christ is unnecessary.
Christless Christianity is a watered-down version of Christianity that is quickly replacing doctrinal purity, while professing itself to be biblical. Christless Christianity presents the Bible as if it were a collection of Aesop’s fables—a bunch of unrelated stories with a nice moral at the end of each. Such an approach ignores the grand theme of Scripture—God’s redemption of sinful mankind—and the centrality of Christ in Scripture. Rather than creating self-denying disciples (Matthew 28:19), the message of Christless Christianity creates adherents who are “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power,” as 2 Timothy 3:4–5 says.
The Bible warns that, as history draws to a close, much of the opposition to truth will come not from outside the church but from within the ranks (2 Peter 2:1–2; Acts 20:29–30). External opposition is usually easy to identify as an enemy. But internal compromise is like rot that may not show externally for quite some time; when the decay finally becomes noticeable, it has destroyed what was once solid. Christless Christianity is internal rot. It tries to use the name of the Lord Jesus Christ as a means to better oneself. It turns His church into little more than a platform for self-help seminars and self-affirming messages. At the heart of Christless Christianity is self-worship, dressed up in Bible verse pieces to make it appear spiritual.
Many evangelical churches today are moving closer to embracing a Christless Christianity. Since “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18), some church leaders de-emphasize the cross. In an effort to be “seeker-friendly,” some pastors may speak often of “God,” but rarely discuss the person and work of Jesus Christ. When the Lord Jesus is mentioned, He is presented as merely the ticket to God’s blessing for our earthly lives. Some even go as far as denying the person of Christ in favor of what is called the Christ Consciousness. In other words, Christ Himself was little more than a good moral teacher, and it is His “teachings” we should seek to follow rather than the Son of God Himself. Of course, in Christless Christianity, not all of Jesus’ teachings should be followed equally. Those espousing a Christless Christianity focus upon Jesus’ words that appeal to their humanitarian ideals, not the ones about taking up the cross to follow Him (Luke 9:23; Matthew 8:34; 16:24).
In his book Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church, Michael Horton writes, “My concern is that we are getting dangerously close to the place in everyday American church life where the Bible is mined for ‘relevant’ quotes but is largely irrelevant on its own terms; God is used as a personal resource rather than known, worshiped and trusted; Jesus Christ is a coach with a good game plan for our victory rather than a Savior who has already achieved it for us; salvation is more a matter of having our best life now than being saved from God’s judgment by God himself; and the Holy Spirit is an electrical outlet we can plug into for the power we need to be all that we can be” (page 19).
Christless Christianity masquerades as the real gospel of Jesus Christ, and, for countless seekers and those ignorant of the Bible, it appears to offer everything they are looking for. It gives them “all this and heaven too,” while requiring nothing of them in this life. Christless Christianity has gutted the heart of Scripture and kept the outline, presenting that as the whole truth. The popular prosperity teaching, which is not the gospel at all, has helped usher in this wolf in sheep’s clothing (see Matthew 7:15). The unbiblical prosperity theology has convinced millions that the God of the Bible exists to make all their dreams come true, and Jesus is their key to unlocking their own awesome potential. The thousands of “converts” to this ideology may think they have decided to follow Jesus, when in fact they are following a “Christ” of their own making.
We cannot remove Christ from Christianity. Galatians 1:6–9 addresses the problem of the church giving heed to perversions of the gospel: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!”
Paul goes on to identify the motivation behind distorted teachings such as Christless Christianity: “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10). Many who are tempted to accept the precepts of Christless Christianity may have a sincere desire to encourage and uplift the downtrodden, but they err when that all-encompassing encouragement is presented as the whole gospel. The person and work of Jesus must have the preeminence, and the preaching of the cross is paramount (1 Corinthians 2:2).
Christless Christianity is the result of man’s desire to please his fleshly nature, ignoring the clear teaching from Romans 8:7–8, “The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.” Our fleshly nature does not want to deny itself and obey Jesus as Lord (Mark 8:34). But, because people also want God’s favor, Christless Christianity gives them a way to have both. By reducing the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) to a series of tweetable affirmations, Christless Christianity gives people what their “itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3).
Yes, the preaching of the cross seems like “foolishness to those who are perishing,” but 1 Corinthians 1:18 goes on to say that “to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” A Christian must fix his eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:2). A Christless Christianity is not Christianity at all.