Book Review: In the Face of God

IN THE FACE OF GOD by Michael Horton. Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1996. Pp xvi + 241. $18.99. Reviewed by Steven Van Eck.



Michael Horton tackles the topic of spirituality with the vigor approaching a Luther tacking his 95 Theses on Wittenburg’s door. He takes up the cudgel against pop culture’s invasion into the church and the decline of a Biblical informed spirituality. Horton suggests the search for the sacred has ended up with finding more paganism in Christianity than one may want to admit. He demonstrates clearly that culture influences the church so frequently that, sometimes, we can no longer tell the difference. We see it when the church adopts a marketing mentality, substitutes a pop psychology for the gospel, or simply caters to felt needs rather than straightforwardly proclaiming the historic gospel. The result is a spirituality which rejects “confession of sin and dependence upon God alone for complete redemption.”

People want to “experience” God but not through the revelation of God’s Word. A burning concern in the average church does not ask if we are aware of our depravity and sin in the presence of a holy God. NO! We must all go home with feelings of ecstacy, jubilant “worship” and a service that “just makes me feel closer to God.” Horton exposes the gnostic origins of this fallacy which has displaced Biblical worship. Horton illustrates how God has been replaced by the god of self who is worshiped by means of liturgy and sermons which satisfy the new god. Pointing out the gnostic affinity in Pentecostal circles for a “creedless” Christ, Horton also shows the extremist views which fully embody ancient gnostic and pagan views and, yet, are all justified under the mesmerizing rubric of a “personal relationship with Jesus.” Yes, mysticism lives and is embodied in the thought of those who claim the label “evangelical,” but are NOT.

Having strayed from orthodoxy in many points, it is not surprising to see in the church the forms of ancient heresy now hooded and heralded as the wisdom of men for “growing closer to God.” Impatient with old-fashioned doctrine, the clamor today is for more of “what works” or “what Jesus means to me” rather than for a focus on the objective character of God whose saving work in Christ is understood and received by faith alone. Indeed, as Horton notes, the church is moving further away from the self-revealing God in Christ revealed in the gospel. The trend of the spirit of the age is observed in theology, hymns, liturgy and worship “styles.” “Style of worship” is the new buzz-word which really means: what pleases me, or what I want. The question of what Scripture declares on this issue is considered not to be pertinent. Horton deftly analyzes this point and observes, “the contemporary worship style, in which music plays an important part, is now viewed by many as the only means of grace.” He correctly diagnoses the problem many face today where the Word and Sacrament are no longer the means through whichGod speaks to His people with the promise of grace. Somehow the spiritual technicians today have been able to shift the focus of worship from God to the celebrant—the god within each of us. Gnostic inroads have all but paved over the trail that leads the sinner to the Christ of Calvary plainly mapped out in the Scripture.

Errors of the Perfectionist stripe enshrine the Calvinistic churches which once were faithful to classic orthodoxy. Inroads by classically mystical views are not met with protest, but those people who are genuinely orthodox are met withhowling protests because they have transgressed the sacred commandment of “thou shalt be tolerant.” For the sake of tolerance the historic Christ of scnpture is being bundled and sold to people by claimants of “higher knowledge” and offers of spiritual “well-being.” But, the sale is invalid.

Relationships take precedence over redemptive grace in the new spirituality! After all, the individual is most important. Awash with the influence of Romanticism which has cast a glaucoma-like pale over evangelicalism, the church increasingly is in danger of serving up a gospel devoid of the Christ of Calvary. A return to apostolic preaching of God’s Good News is what Horton calls for. If we preach relationships, then we substitute another gospel for the revealed Truth and it will, in the end, bring death, not life and holiness in Christ.

Horton illumines the discussion of the aspects of worship with Reformational insight and cites the contemporary church for its shift from a focus on the glory and majesty of God to the participant’s “experience” of worship which, of course, must be stimulating and celebrative. Little wonder that today’s church wants “up-beat music” rather than stodgy old (and theology-filled) hymns. Even the Holy Spirit serves the cause by displacing the centrality of Christ to give way to the experiences of recipients of the Spirit who seek and receive signs and wonders and repetitively prattle about the Lord “speaking to them.” What was learned from the Reformers has been fully obscured in some places by Holiness, Keswick and Pentecostal theology in which ancient mysticism can clearly be traced.

As astutely as he points out these gnostic tendencies, Horton clearly points us to the “Word of the cross” through which genuine spirituality is realized. This intimacy with God is attained only in the saving work of the Incarnate Son of God whose gospel is declared inScripture. We find this fellowship with God only through forgiveness granted to those who by faith are united to Christ in His death, burial and resurrection.

Horton’s book deserves a place next to the classics of this century — Knowing God by J. I. Packer and an earlier work, Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen. However, the message of these earlier classics, particularly Machen’s, has not been listened to by many as was also true of Martin Luther’s On the Bondage of the Will or Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Perhaps it would be better to liken Horton’s In the Face of God to Luther’s 95 Theses posted on Wittenberg’s door which sparked a Reformation. If Horton’s work were similarly acted upon, we would have a “rediscovery” of the Reformation which was a period in which the church once again was able to seek the face of God in Jesus Christ as He is declared in the Word of God. This is needed today.