Is American Christianity Christless?


I can’t seem to escape the works of John M. Frame at the moment (not that I would want to).  As well as reading “The Doctrine of God” I’ve come across two papers by him in Ecclesia Reformanda (The journal of British Reformed Theology) where he critiques the work of Michael Horton’s Christless Christianity. (I’ve not read this work, though I have found Horton’s “God of Promise” very useful and I have quoted him elsewhere on this blog on the relationship between grace and works.)

Horton’s book has the sort of health and wealth prosperity message in mind, where church becomes a place of management speak in self-help seminars, focussed on enjoying life and doing good things. His accusation is that this sort of Christianity is Christless.

Frame is not convinced by Horton’s argument. In his final section of his critique, Frame shows where Horton confuses two messages in the book.  The first is the need to focus only on the work of Christ to the exclusion of what Christian believers do and enjoy. The second message is to acknowledge these good and enjoyable things but not to overemphasise them. Horton’s second message obviously contradicts the first.

Frame outlines the way of thinking which can resolve this conflict in Horton’s message:

In my view, the key to this is to think, not in terms of ‘Christ and other things,’ as Horton does, but of ‘Christ and the applications of his work.’ The relationships between Christ and other things vary considerably, and are very complex. Horton does not succeed in giving us anything near an adequate presentation of this complexity. But in regard to ‘Christ and the applications of his work,’ the matter is clear. This formula unambiguously sets forth the content of Scripture and the entire work of the church. Anything the church does that fails to serve and promote Christ and the applications of his work is indeed Christless, and a church that fails to promote Christ and the applications of his work is truly apostate. Any church that refuses to implement an application of Christ’s work compromises the truth of Scripture.

Yet the phrase ‘Christ and the applications of his work’ also implies a hierarchy of focus or emphasis. Some applications are more central  others, and they ought to receive more attention in the church. Justification by grace through faith alone is a central application; the mode of baptism is less central, though advocates of one particular mode will see it as an application of Christ’s work.

To speak of ‘Christ and the applications of his work’ is not to speak of two different things. For there is no Christ without these applications. To believe in Christ is to believe in the Christ of Scripture, the Christ who became incarnate, taught, worked miracles, died as our sacrifice, was raised to glory, and will come again to judge the living and the dead. It is also to believe that his atonement secures our effectual calling, regeneration, conversion, justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, and glorification. So it secures the Spirit’s presence in order that we may serve Christ and receive his guidance in all areas of life. To believe in Christ is to believe in all of this, and also to believe in the law of love, his new commandment to his disciples (John 13:34-35). To believe in Christ is to seek his glory in all areas of life (1 Cor. 10:31-11:1).

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9 Responses to Is American Christianity Christless?

  1. Charlie says:

    It’s difficult to judge the answer to your question without knowing either of the authors you mention or really knowing the American context. But I do recognise the kind of Christianity you describe in your second paragraph. I can’t imagine why an evangelical theologican (which take Frame to be) would want to defend that kind of religion. The gospel reduced to self-help and self-indulgence is a horrible thing.

    • neilrobbie says:

      Hi Charlie

      I didn’t mean to give the impression that Frame defends health and wealth preaching, where these are the hope and aim of Christian ministry. Frame is sceptical about Horton’s sweeping criticism of American Christianity. He picks holes in Horton’s argument and provides solutions to the way in which we can talk about the work of Christ and the applications of his work, some of which are the joy and blessings of healing and material prosperity.

      Does this help?

      • Charlie says:

        Not entirely (although thanks for replying). I really don’t think that “material prosperity” is one of the things that Christ died to bring us. I don’t see that anywhere in the New Testament. Healing, yes, (assuming they are not offering offering guaranteed physical healing) but not wealth.
        It may be legitimate for someone to say that God has “blessed” them in material terms, but this is an expression of thanks for common grace. It’s a huge step from there to claim that the money is one of the fruits of the work of Christ.

      • neilrobbie says:

        Hi Charlie, I think I agree. Christ didn’t die to make us wealthy but he did die to redeem our wealth.

        I’d want to make the distinction between the direct and indirect work of Christ’s on the cross. Christ’s work is applied directly to people with respect to healing; by his stripes we are healed, eternally and sometime temporally. The work of Christ on the cross applies indirectly to personal wealth. Money and goods, possession are part of creation, God gives us everything we have, some Christians are rich and all the money Christians receive is redeemed with us, indirectly.

        1 Timothy 6:17-19 As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future,

        The problem with health and wealth prosperity gospel is not health and wealth per se, as these are applications of the work of Christ where they are found., Rather these things become the gospel and people set their hearts on them rather than on Christ.

        1 Timothy 6:9 those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.

  2. Hi Neil,

    I actually read Dr Horton’s book and live in the States. As I read the book, I found myself agreeing with him on almost every point. The church, by and large, has abandoned the message of The Cross. That was the main point of the book. To follow up on your answer to Charlie, I would say that a large segment of the church is not talking about the work of Christ, period.

    I wrote an article in my blog about it called “Whatever Happened to the Message of The Cross.

    Thanks for the post, and sorry about the World Cup!

    • neilrobbie says:

      Hi Not for itching ears,

      I clearly need to read Christless Christianity before I can comment on it. I posted the above extract from Frame’s paper to help me remember the link between the work of Christ and the applications of that work.

      John Frame argues (in summary from his abstract) that Horton’s basis for his evaluation of American evangelicalism is itself doctrinally corrupt and that he misrepresents the targets of his criticism. Frame goes onto outline 10 assumptions Horton makes which find no basis in scripture nor in any major theological traditions. He points the spot light back on Horton and suggests we critique his “rather idiosyncratic brand of Protestantism.”

      You’d need to get hold of the paper to follow Frame’s logic in his analysis of Horton’s writing.

  3. étrangère says:

    Neil – next time you pass through Brum or see someone from Brum (do you have an apprentice doing MMTC by any chance?), could you pass this paper to me to borrow, if you’ve finished with it for the moment? I’ve been quite heavily influenced by Horton, but have had an inkling that he’s a bit reductionistic – I would be very interested in Frame’s identification of those points you mention. Sounds immensely helpful for weighing up. I can be reached by anyone at MMTC (give to one of the 4 Bournvillians there) or the City church office, where I sometimes work.

  4. neilrobbie says:

    Hi Rosemary, I’ll finish reading the current edition and send the journals down to MMTC with my MT.

    • étrangère says:

      Thank you v much!

      Though as I’ve failed to get into his Lordship trilogy, perhaps this is doomed. Still, a journal article can’t be more incomprehensible than his Apologetics one, can it, and that was ok…

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