[Disclaimer: This is my summary AND commentary on Dr. Horton's talk, not just a recount of the talk itself, of which viewers can see it when the video files are up on the WSCal website.]
It has been almost a century since the rise of liberalism, a movement that Dr. John Greshem Machen exposed as being another religion altogether in his book entitled Christianity and Liberalism. In the last century, liberalism has been slowly dying, as seen in the free fall decline in the membership of "mainline denominations." Or has it?
In his talk entitled Christianity and Liberalism Today, Dr. Michael S. Horton takes up the theme of Machen's most famous book, and shows us that liberalism is far from dead. In fact, it is very much alive ... within professing Evangelicals! Like yeast in a dough of bread, liberalism has metastasized throughout Evangelicalism, rendering the churches sick. While outwardly all seems well, yet the body is desperately sick, and Dr. Horton in this lecture of his reveals the true ghastly image of the churches to us.
Horton arranges his talk of the state of Christianity today into two sections: a sociological analysis section and a theological analysis section. Sociologically, Horton quotes Barna research data and research done by sociologists like Christian Smith to show the beliefs and attitudes present in so-called "Evangelicals" (which in cases like Barna merely mean people who assent to certain propositions such as "My relationship with God plays an important role in my life" [certainly nothing Christian about that proposition] and "I have a born-again experience" among others like them). Not surprisingly, the belief of American Christianity has little if anything to do with true Christianity. The term "Moral Therapeutic Deism" has been coined to describe the phenomenon, which is defined as being the belief that 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.
Perhaps more shocking than this is the analysis of sermons in supposed conservative Evangelical churches. A sociologist took samples of sermons preached in the supposed conservative Southern Baptist Convention and compared it with sermons preached in mainline Presbyterian churches, and there was essentially no difference in the sermons preached. Oh sure, there were some differences all right. For example, the Evangelical sermons when preaching on the parable of the Prodigy Son made the younger profligate son the great sinner. The sins which conservatives deemed evil are imputed to the younger son who partied all day, get drunk, watched pornography etc. In the mainline churches, the wicked son was the older son who was just like the Pharisees in being judgmental and not loving. Yet despite the surface differences, what the sermons basically amount to are messages like "You need to change your life", "Stop sinning" etc.
In both cases, Christianity is defined as being about life transformation and sin is redefined. The younger son is not "sinning," but rather he is fulfilling good desires in a wrong way. He is not living up to his potential, or his way is so much less satisfying than God's way, which is to say that if only he lived God's way, he would be happier and more satisfied, or so it is claimed. For modernists, the fault of the older son however must be remedied by emphatizing with sinners and loving and welcoming them into our fellowship.
Sin in American Christianity [and in fact in many parts of the world influenced by the West] is always about others; it is always others that sin, not ourselves. Conservatives blame the liberals and liberals blame the conservatives. So everyone sinned and also no one sinned!
Part of the rise of Moral Therapeutic Deism comes in the recent idea of "authenticity." Everyone must find their own inner innocent child (whatever that is supposed to mean) and be free to be ourselves and be "vulnerable."
In all this, the Gospel message disappears. Horton shared anecdotes (earlier on) of friends who visited supposed evangelical churches on Easter and discovered that there was no Gospel message preached in the service on EASTER. There was no reading of the Law, no confession of sins or anything of that sort, so they reasoned that probably at least in the sermon they would get the Gospel message. Unfortunately, it didn't happen. The Easter messages went along the lines of "4 ways to improve your life" or something like that. All that was preached is the law of Do's and nothing of Christ's Gospel of what He has Done for us.
After this cultural analysis, Horton proceeds on to the theological analysis.
The two main heresies that are prevalent in American Christianity [and many parts of the world too] are variants of Pelagianism and Gnosticism. Pelagianism basically believes in the essential goodness of man and that Man can save Himself. Semi-Pelagianism believes that God take some steps while Man take some steps, a position best expressed in the statement "God helps those who help themselves," a statement which I may add is nowhere to be found in the Bible. Gnosticism on the other hand believes in salvation by knowledge, which in ancient times refer often to secret knowledge.
Together, a variant of these two heresies is formed which deny that we are created good but are now fallen, and that we are helpless to save ourselves.
Pelagianism broadly speaking can be seen in the teachings of people like Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller and all self-esteem, self-help movements. The idea that we can save ourselves can be found in many other religious movements like the New Age movement for example. Revivalism with its mechanical idea of conversion from the times of Charles G. Finney imbibes deeply at this toxic well, and through Finney the heresy of Pelagianism infects Evangelicalism as a whole. After all, if revival is only the result of the proper use of means, then salvation and conversion can be engineered by man and conversion is merely man's choice to "decide" for Christ.
Gnosticism in its broader sense has become the default stance even within Evangelicalism. The typical American, and typical Evangelical, is "spiritual but not religious." Christianity is defined as a relationship and not a religion (as if the two are mutually exclusive). Gnosticism thus manifests itself in the privatization of religion as being that of inner experience. Every person (in Evangelicalism every converted person) has a unique mystical relationship with God that is true because it just must be. While in apologetics, he may be interested in history and the Jesus of history, the Evangelical existentially has no need for the Christ of history, for Christ "resides in his or her heart." The loci of Christianity is not outside us, but inside us. What this means is that each one becomes his or her subjective judge and arbiter before God, and thus is the center of all things spiritual. The divorce of salvation from ecclesiology is as such another sign of gnosticism, as if the church is basically an add-on to the Christian life. So we have supposed Christians being consumers of spirituality and seeing little if any need for the institutional Church, believing that their [subjective] relationship with God is sufficient.
Such an error can also be seen in statements like "Our lives will preach better than anything we say," or we can quote the supposed quote from Francis of Assisi "Preach the Gospel at all things and where necessary use words." The gnostic element is evident in such falsehoods. Instead of proclaiming an external word of the Gospel, the idea of Christianity as inner experience lies behind the lie that our lives are better witnesses than the proclaimed Gospel. Yet the Scriptures are very clear that is is only the [external] Word of God that creates faith (cf Rom. 10:17), not the sharing of our inner experiences.
In light of all this, how should the Church respond? Horton ends off in saying that not to address sin and guilt in capitulation to the zeitgeist is pastoral cruelty. After all, God is not interested in how your "personal relationship with God" feels like, or that you are a reasonably good person. The only thing that matters is belief in the true Gospel, and if we fail to proclaim that Gospel and substitute it for false gospels that are not the Gospel, then the souls of many will be damned. God is not interested in your inner experience of Him and how close you feel to Him. In fact, Scripture makes it clear that Christ is not interested even in how many miracles you have done in His name! (Mt. 7:21-23). You can feel anything you want, do anything you want and say anything you want, but ultimately what matters is whether you have believed the Gospel and be saved. You can call God "Daddy", claim that you are under grace not law, call yourself the King's kids, and still go to hell! The Gospel is outside of us, God is apart from us. Shall we dare to dictate to the sovereign God that He must conform to our spirituality and supposed relationship status we have with Him?
As ministers of the Gospel and as His Church, we must proclaim the Gospel and nothing but this external Gospel of the Word outside of us. This is the only pastoral loving thing to do.