Friday, March 6, 2009

Why Most Marriage Helps Don't Help

I'm reading Christless Christianity by Michael Horton. This is a very good book. Horton is professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Westminster Seminary in California. The premise of his book is that much of American Christianity has given up the gospel of the imputed righteousness and substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ for a false gospel of "moralistic, therapeutic deism." The reason for this is because we are more concerned with having our best life now and making for ourselves the glory of Heaven without the cross it takes to get there. Mankind is legalistic by nature, and moralistic, therapeutic deism is how Horton describes the legalism that has crept into the Christian gospel message. Moralistic, therapeutic deism is described through the following points:

1. God created the world.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Horton believes the above points describe much of Christianity in America today. Much of what passes for Christian teaching and sermons are really nothing more than ten steps to a better you. Horton writes: "Of course no one has to explicitly deny any article of the Christian creed in order to shift the focus from the public truth content of Christianity to the subject, pragmatic, and therapeutic categories of 'how-to' religion. Christ may still be called Savior, but we really save ourselves by knowing and following the steps of the new birth and 'victorious living.'"

According to this view, it's not so much that God saves anyone as that God provides the tools for his people to work their own salvation by following the steps - moralistic.

Horton continues: "When we adopt a human-centered approach that assimilates God to our own experience and happiness, the world is no longer God's creation; is too, like God, exists for our own personal well-being. Everything that exists is there for us to consume for our happiness. So, for example, drugs and sexual promiscuity are not wrong because they offend God, according to most of these sermons, but because they cannot compare with the joy and happiness of living God's way. They're not wrong as much as unfulfilling; they wear off. . . . In these sermons, another recurring emphasis is that human beings are victims and being lost no longer means damned but lacking direction in life."

According to this view, man's problem isn't that God's wrath is on him because of sin, but that man doesn't know how to make life work out rightly. And the good news isn't that Jesus has come to remove the wrath and pave the way to Heaven, but that God has given us all the help we need to make life work out rightly - therapeutic. And oh, by the way, Heaven is thrown in after all.

More Horton: "God is basically the ideal Secretary of Homeland Security - Homeland defined as my own personal happiness, or national health, whether defined by the political left or right. Of course, when the affairs of the universe center on me and my happiness, this generic deism becomes therapeutic, especially focusing on 'God as daddy' and 'God as sufferer.'"

According to this view, God is deconstructed and rebuilt in man's image. Instead of a God who lays down a demanding law that will kill all transgressors, God is seen as sky santa who is always available to lend a helping hand when called on, but doesn't show up unless beckoned - deism.

The rest of the book fleshes out moralistic, therapeutic deism using real life examples from real life preachers and churches. I agree with Horton's assessment of things, and I'll tie it in with gospel-centered marriage now.

Christless Christianity
puts words to my concerns with much marriage counseling. Horton has written far better than I ever could the reason why certain "marriage helps" are so subtly dangerous. Why is it that so many marriage helps don't help? The most recent one I wrote about was Love Dare. That study is still selling like hotcakes. But to what end? Is Love Dare popular because it shows its readers how to use marriage to make much of God? Or is it popular because it shows its readers how to use God to make much of marriage? After reading the book and watching the movie twice (which I thought was okay), I fear it's the second option. In fact, in my review, I listed as one of my concerns how believing the gospel was relegated in the book to one more step among 39 others. Then I see in Horton's book that this is exactly the kind of step-by-step therapeutic counsel that he is warning against.

Most marriage helps don't help because they fall into the moralistic, therapeutic deism category. God wants you to have "your best marriage now" and he has given you all the steps you need to make it happen. Why go through life stuck in an unfulfilled marriage? God is here to help you with that. Just turn to him and he'll give you the kind of marriage you've always dreamed of. Or not.


Anonymous said...

Dude, i have to get the book now.

Jenny said...

Okay, I have to say that I love the movie. This is why. So many people are so concerned with their own happiness that they forget to look at what is going on in other's lives. I got the message that it is not about me, but the other and with Christ's help, I can look at someone else. It is just a movie and one that, I think, has a good message.
I visit with many women about their marriages. I stress that it is really not about their relationship with their husbands, but about their relationship with Christ. How are they treating their husbands and are they demonstating Christ's love to them.
You are right it is not about being in a gloriously happy marriage, but about being in love with Jesus Christ.
There are some good tools out there, and it is okay to use them. What must be stressed is Christ and relationship with Him.

Jess said...

Good post Darby. Chuck has been telling me about "Christless Christianity" and how he wants to get the book.

danny2 said...

i think point 2 (of the 5 describing MTD) is pretty interesting. you see this in the many interfaith "prayer" gatherings that take place.

somewhere along the line, evangelism became the process of pleading with others that we are almost just like them, instead of pointing out that Biblical Christianity is nothing like man's religion.

Anonymous said...

You state...
Mankind is legalistic by nature. One of your quotes that comes to my mind time and time again is that, "Men by nature are legalists and lusters". I guess this explains why the multitudes are drawn to moralistic deism which allows man to "do something" toward earning his salvation rather than trusting in what Christ has already done on behalf of those who are His.
It's easy (but sad) to understand how the legalist in us is so easily drawn to all the new-age traps that have gained such popularity such as yoga, Reiki, hypnotism, etc. These all work hand in hand with the counterfeit Christianity that you are speaking about.
I subscribe to a quarterly publication entitled the Free Grace Broadcaster that is distributed by Mt. Zion Church ( It consists of teachings on a particular subject written by various Puritan authors. The current one is on "Substitution". The chapter by C.H. Spurgeon entitled "The Great Exchange" states this...
"My Son, the pure and perfect shall stand in thy stead and be accounted guilty; and thou, the guilty, shall stand in my Son's stead and be accounted righteous". May God grant us the humility to accept so great an exchange. To God be all glory.