Horton calls the prevalent American religion moralistic, therapeutic deism. It is moralistic in its belief that people are basically good and simply need good advice on how to save themselves. It is therapeutic in its diagnosis of humanity's problem as feelings of guilt and the unnecessary burden of living according to rules. God exists primarily for our happiness. It is deistic in its restriction of God's involvement in the world. God has set certain natural patterns in place for our self-realization, but he is not personally offended by our sin. In this religion the distinction between law and gospel is blurred so that no one is confronted with the gravity of their sin and therefore no one is amazed with the wonder of the gospel. People who are impressed with themselves will not be impressed with Christ except insofar as he serves their own personal agendas.It is quite an insightful analysis of much of the church attending western world. There is a mix of secularism and Christianity that ends up being the operational philosophy of most church people. What is preached is often not wrong. Christianity has much to say about morals. It has much to say about healing our minds and hearts. Freedom from guilt is also important. But somehow those things get put together in a very unorthodox way. The central truth that we are sinners in need of salvation gets lost somewhere.
It is important to note that Michael Horton is reformed and he is talking mostly about reformed churches. Catholics sometimes feel they are the only ones who have problems with creeping liberalism. It is everywhere. It is hard to teach the truth about sin in a culture that worships self-esteem. It is hard to explain how profoundly offensive things like pornography and premarital sex are to God when the world celebrates them in so many forms. It is hard to ask people to profess that the cross of Christ is the only way to heaven in a world that wants to make all faiths the same.
Historically evangelical pastors have taken that job somewhat more seriously than Catholic priests. Thankfully that is changing. But even evangelicals have seen mixed success. Not all pastors preach the counterculture parts of the gospel strongly and frequently. Those that do often find people choosing another church with a more watered-down message. Evangelical Christianity does not have an answer to secularism. They are fighting the good fight but on many fronts they are losing.
So what is the solution?
Horton calls the church to return to the ministry of Christ through the ordinary means of grace, Word and sacrament. The church needs to be the church, only then will people be transformed by the gospel of her Head.So close and yet so far. He is exactly right that the church needs to get back to the Word of God. That is scripture, tradition, and the magisterium. We need to embrace the faith and that means all of us embracing the same faith. We can't say God wants us to study His Word with reverence and obedience but we don't agree on what that word actually says. That God is deeply offended by sin but what sin is can change from one preacher to the next.
He is also right to mention sacraments. We need true sacraments, especially a Eucharist and confession. Then we need to go. We need to celebrate them with humility. We need to deal with mortal sins so we can come to the table in a state of grace. Not so we can achieve some worldly goal but so we can receive Jesus.
His is also right to point out the central role of the church. The church does need to be church. That means we need to start by getting a proper understanding of what the church is. The body of Christ. The household of faith. The pillar and foundation of truth. Built on the rock that is Peter. Who has the keys. All of that.
I said evangelicals and Catholics have a problem with this moralistic, therapeutic deism. The perception among both Catholics and Evangelicals is that the catholic church has a bigger problem. That certainly was true. I am not sure it is anymore. Nevertheless, it is hard for an evangelical to see moving to the Catholic model of church as the solution when the Catholic community has this problem worse than they do.
But there are two things being ignored. One is that there is a strong core inside the Catholic church that has not succumbed to this. Certainly there are many Catholic that have gone liberal. Even entire Catholic institutions like universities and religious orders have completely caved in. Still the bishops and the pope remain faithful. You would not expect that naturally but you would expect it supernaturally. That God's promise to preserve His church through the successors of the apostles and the successors of Peter is actually real and He is actually keeping it.
The second thing is that this problem is getting worse and worse in evangelicalism and it is getting better and better in the Catholic world. As a whole evangelicals are getting more liberal and Catholics are getting more orthodox. I expect that tend to continue and become even more dramatic. It is related to the bishops and pope being protected from error by God. Evangelical leaders have no such protection. The younger leaders tend to be more liberal. There will be some faithful remnant churches splitting off but the big picture will be decline. Many protestant churches will go down the road of Anglicanism. The Catholic church would to if it was not for the special graces God gives her. Human organizations cannot remain holy no matter how hard they try.