Singapore churches are preaching the half gospel

Lord anoint your servants to preach the good news of JesusI find Michael Horton’s books invigorating. I have read his “Putting the Amazing Back into Grace” and “Power Religion” of which I would warmly commend the former. But I have not read his more recent books titled Christless Christianity and the Gospel-Driven Life but they should be thought provoking stuff.Michael is currently the  professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California, and the author of many books. Recently he was interviewed by Mark Galli from Christianity Today.

I am posting excerpts from this interview on some issues raised in these recent books to strengthen my claims that preaching in Singapore is too man-centered and imperative-driven and needs to return to being God-centered and indicative-driven or gospel-driven. What people have been receiving is a half gospel. The interview will clarify what I mean.

Here are some excerpts from there:

ARE OUR SERMONS IN CHURCHES TODAY CHRISTLESS:

What is at the core of the temptation to practice a Christless Christianity?

When the emphasis becomes human-centered rather than God-centered. In more conservative contexts, you hear it as exhortation: “These are God’s commandments. The culture is slipping away from us. We have to recover it, and you play a role. Is your life matching up to what God calls us to?” Of course there is a place for that, but it seems to be the dominant emphasis.

Then there is the therapeutic approach: “You can be happier if you follow God’s principles.” All of this is said with a smile, but it’s still imperative. It’s still about techniques and principles for you to follow in order to have your best life now.

In both cases, it’s law rather than gospel. I don’t even know when I walk into a church that says it’s Bible-believing that I’m actually going to hear an exposition of Scripture with Christ at the center, or whether I’m going to hear about how I should “dare to be a Daniel.” The question is not whether we have imperatives in Scripture. The question is whether the imperatives are all we are getting, because people assume we already know the gospel—and we don’t.

But aren’t many churches doing good preaching about how to improve your marriage, transform your life, and serve the poor?

The question is whether this is the Good News. There is nothing wrong with law, but law isn’t gospel. The gospel isn’t “Follow Jesus’ example” or “Transform your life” or “How to raise good children.” The gospel is: Jesus Christ came to save sinners—even bad parents, even lousy followers of Jesus, which we all are on our best days. All of the emphasis falls on “What would Jesus do?” rather than “What has Jesus done?”

Why is this such a temptation for the church?

It’s our default setting. No one has to be taught to trust in themselves. No one has to be taught that what you experience inside yourself is more authoritative than what comes to you externally, even if it comes from God. Since the Fall, it has been part of our character to look within ourselves. And it is part of our inherent Pelagianism to think we can save ourselves by following the right instructions.

In such a therapeutic, pragmatic, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps society as ours, the message of God having to do all the work in saving us comes as an offensive shot at our egos. In this culture, religion is all about being good, about the horizontal, about loving God and neighbor. All of that is the fruit of the gospel. The gospel has nothing to do with what I do. The gospel is entirely a message about what someone else has done not only for me but also for the renewal of the whole creation.

ON WHATS A GOSPEL-DRIVEN LIFE (IS HE TAKING A DIG AT THE PURPOSE-DRIVEN LIFE?):

What specifically do you mean by “a gospel-driven life”?

Because I live in San Diego, I think of a sailboat decked out with all of the latest equipment that tells you where you are and where you need to be. It plots your course, but it’s a sailboat, so you need wind in your sails. You start out, and it’s a beautiful day with wind in your sails. You’re out in the middle of the ocean when the wind dies down. You’re just sitting there dead calm. And your radio tells you that a hurricane is approaching. But all of your sophisticated equipment will not be able to get you to safety. What you need is wind in your sails.

A lot of Christians, especially people who have had dramatic conversion experiences, go sailing out of the harbor with wind in their sails. They are so confident in Christ and what he has done for their salvation, and that gospel wind is in their sails. Yet after two years, they have heard just one imperative after another. They have lots of course plotting, lots of books on how to do this and that. They’ve read every manual on spiritual disciplines. They have heard their pastor tell them they need to pray more, to read the Bible more, to evangelize more. Now they are dead in the water. There’s no wind in the sails.

Paul calls the gospel “the power of God unto salvation,” and I don’t think he meant the power of God just unto conversion. The gospel remains the power of God unto salvation until we are glorified. Calvin once said we need the gospel preached to us every week, and the Lord’s Supper to ratify that promise, because we are partly unbelievers until we die.

‘Paul calls the gospel “the power of God unto salvation,” and I don’t think he meant the power of God just unto conversion.

In The Gospel-Driven Life you use news as a metaphor. Why?

I stole it from the apostles! Their dominant metaphor for the gospel message is “good news.” The content is that God has done all the saving, no thanks to us. Someone asked Martin Luther what we contribute to salvation, and he said, “Sin and resistance!”

The gospel is not even my conversion experience. If somebody asks me what the gospel is, I’m not going to talk about me; I’m going to talk about Christ. All of the testimonies we find from the apostles’ lips are not testimonies about what happened in their hearts. They are testimonies about what happened in history when God saved his people from their sins. That’s the gospel. Although the gospel makes all sorts of things happen inside of me and gives me the fruit of the Spirit, the gospel itself is always an external word that comes to me announcing that someone else in history has accomplished my salvation for me.

Someone comes with instructions and says, “Here’s what your life could be like if you do x, y, or z.” Good news is, “Let me tell you what has happened!” The gospel is not good instructions, not a good idea, and not good advice. The gospel is an announcement of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.

So what is the first step in living a gospel-driven life?

Become a recipient again. Mary and Martha, the two sisters and disciples of Jesus, had different relationships with Jesus. Martha busied herself with many tasks, and she was getting mad at Mary for making her do all the work. Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet, learning from him. Jesus rebuked Martha for criticizing her sister and said Mary had chosen the better part.

First and foremost, disciples are recipients of Jesus Christ’s teaching. His teachings are really teachings concerning his person and his work. He has accomplished our salvation. He has accomplished our redemption. So first, allow the gospel to soak in again.

Then allow the imperatives that arise out of that to be our reasonable service. Instead of trying to live the victorious Christian life, instead of trying to get into God’s favor by following tips and formulas, let’s receive the gospel and then follow the commands of God’s law when it comes to directives. Then our sailboat is perfectly equipped. Now we have the wind in our sails—the gospel—and we also have God’s own wisdom to guide us in that gospel-driven life.

If we understand what Michael Horton is saying in this interview, we will understand why our churches of full of tired Marthas running around on an empty tank in the kitchen, and who will end up in churches that cater for Marys.

For the full interview go to Christ the Center article in online Christianity Today.com.

And read a related article which I posted recently on the indicatives and imperatives of the gospel.

15 thoughts on “Singapore churches are preaching the half gospel”

  1. Horton is er….

    After condeming others of programs and instructions, he is coming out with his own program and instruction to live a ‘gospel-driven life’.

    May be he is too free and just want to make a voice in the already noisy market, so that he is heard and able to sell a few of his books.

  2. Hi Joshua,

    I don’t think he’s coming out with his own “program”. I’ve been following Horton for over a decade and while I disagree with many things he believes, his message for years has been to put the gospel back to the center of the Christian life and preaching. I think he’s spot on on that.

    I also think it’s thoroughly unfair and wrong to hint at his motives (wanting a voice in the already noisy market). We don’t know them and we should be giving him the benefit of the doubt.

  3. Alot hinges on the definition of “The Gospel of Jesus Christ” and so it seems to me that because it is can be a multi-faceted Gospel, some churches/preaches pick on their favourite aspect or what their personal bent is towards. The Full Gospel of Jesus Christ requires preaching, if possible, the multi-faceted Good News that Jesus came to declare and manifest in Himself – that the kingdom has indeed arrived, that we have abundant life, that the poor be fed, the demonised be set free, the Holy Spirit will come after His ascent, etc, etc, etc.

    A preacher should not and would not run out of sermons to preach if preaching the FULL gospel of Jesus Christ.

  4. Maria: that is spot on!

    I guess a lot of the misunderstanding comes from having a wrong perception of what Paul truly says is “the Gospel that is the Power of God unto salvation”. The Gospel that Paul is talking about is the Good News about Christ that unveils the Righteousness of God because of what Jesus has done on the Cross. To make a long story short, the Gospel is all about what God has already done through Christ, and not about what man needs to do FOR God… That alone, compels people to respond to the message and causes them to do things for God 🙂

    Jesus be lifted up! 🙂

    Pleasant day to you all! 🙂

  5. @Joshua, is it christian capitalism? Write a book which tells ppl to read Bible more (instead of just “theological” books), or put up a program which teach us how to avoid programs.

    Regardless of intentions, it’s just sound so errr… hilarious or what Malaysians will say “syiok sendiri” (self satisfaction is the nearest translation I can find).

  6. @Steven, yes and clearly so. Publishers need to chunk out new products to keep going. That’s the case even if the new books are nothing more than just duplication of what already available in the market. Contracted authors just write what is in the market in their own language and call it their own work.

    A good example is the reactionary books on the ‘new atheists’. I was at Kinokuniya yesterday and saw dozens of apologetic books written by different authors on that same topic. And of cos, the ‘new atheists’ also have dozens of authors writing the same thing on the other side. So both sides are stimulating their own respective market.

    Talking about “not of the world” yet these Christian publishers are playing into the hands of consumerism. Cutting more trees to print books which have nothing new to say in order to fuel the consumerism milieu among the Christians. Money need to flow and these publishers and authors are here to make sure that happen. No less different from how secular businesses are run and how they conceive and play into the market; allowing the market to determine what works and what not, instead of making a difference. There goes all the talk on “not of the world”.

    Do you know what’s the irony? Horton himself wrote about this previously in his ‘Where in the World is the Church’. Yet he is already playing into ‘the World’. In the end, ‘kap siaol’.

  7. Hi Joshua,
    Good Presbyterian that you are, I suppose you have read a few of Michael Horton’s books. Does he really come off as mercenary as you make him out to be? Perhaps we ought to give him the benefit of the doubt, being of your tribe and all that. I would like to think he has a burning message he urgently wants to get out to Christendom. But I have read only two of his books so I do not speak with knowledge and facts.

  8. Dr. Horton will be the featured speaker in a Conference on Theology on January 29-30, 2010 in Manila, Philippines. The theme of the conference will be “Putting Amazing Back into Grace.” If anyone happens to be in the Philippines sometime during those two days, you’re most welcome to attend! More info here:

    http://reformationph.com/

    Warmly in Christ,

    Pastor Nollie

  9. Agreed with Prof Horton. Yet, there is certain things i don’t agreed with him.

    He is a theologian. No doubt he is a professor, academician etc. Yet, he is not entirely right/true talking about Singapore’s churches. Half true is like half boil egg.

  10. to be fair, perhaps we should ask, “are singapore churches…”
    it takes an entire lifetime to unpack the meaning, signficance and impact of the Gospel. it is ONE event that triggers and released power that shakes the cosmos. a lot to say lor…!
    One act / word of GOD the Transcendent cannot be easily captured, defined and contained no..?
    but yes Kenny i grew up in church and one day just felt we are working the wrong angles: focusing on behavior modification and not heart transformation – something we cannot do in effect!

    So i needed to welcome myself to the ministry of powerlessness (in human terms)!

    bless the hearts of all pastors — and may GOD’s greace explode these same hearts !

  11. Hi Jenni,
    Yes I hesitated with the title, but the tabloid in me won over the fair and rational self.

    The Gospel has ramifications beyond what evangelicals and reformed believers purport….certainly beyond our concerns of self and community.

    From behaviour modification to heart transformation- hmm…… must remember the phrase.

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