When we think of missions, what do we picture? People groups in faraway lands? Perhaps major urban centers and cultural hubs like Los Angeles or New York City? If you really want to get ambitious, maybe the province of Quebec? But how many of us really think of church-folk—especially those in the Bible Belt–as a mission field?
As the pastor of The Village Church, Pastor Matt Chandler has seen firsthand that there is as great a need for the gospel in Texas as in Kathmandu. But where in many contexts the gospel has simply never gained a foothold, in churched cultures, the problem is that the gospel is assumed and supplanted by something else altogether—moralistic, therapeutic deism.
The moralistic, therapeutic deism passing for Christianity in many of the churches these young adults grew up in includes talk about Jesus and about being good and avoiding bad—especially about feeling good about oneself—and God factored into all of that, but the gospel message simply wasn’t there.What I found was that for a great many young twentysomethings and thirtysomethings, the gospel had been merely assumed, not taught or proclaimed as central. It hadn’t been explicit. (p. 13)
It’s this desire to see the gospel proclaimed as central that has been the driving force of his ministry and is the heart of his book The Explicit Gospel (written with Jared Wilson).
The Gospel on the Ground and the Sinfulness of Sin
Divided into three parts, The Explicit Gospel examines the gospel from two perspectives before moving into its implications and applications. The first part, “The Gospel on the Ground,” is the essentially the gospel as man’s need for salvation (what one theologian might derisively call the “salvationist” view of the gospel). Here, Chandler uses the God-Man-Christ-Response motif to help readers catch the sense of wonder at the nature and character of God and horror at the awfulness of our sinful condition:
The universe shudders in horror that we have this infinitely valuable, infinitely deep, infinitely rich, infinitely wise, infinitely loving God, and instead of pursuing him with steadfast passion and enthralled fury—instead of loving him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; instead of attributing to him glory and honor and praise and power and wisdom and strength—we just try to take his toys and run. It is still idolatry to want God for his benefits but not for himself. [The universe] shudders because [it] is the theater of God’s glory and the Scriptures portray this theater as having the instinct itself that it is there to showcase worship. When we, who have been placed as stewards over God’s creation, go rogue and worship not the Creator but the creation, the theater is shaken by this blasphemous treason. (pp. 39-40)
“The universe shudders,” and this reader couldn’t help but do the same when reading this passage. Chandler gets just how bad sin truly is—he understands, as Owen put it, the sinfulness of sin; but he equally understands the grace of God, reminding us that it is all of grace that any hear the message of Christ’s atoning work and are saved. “Blessed are the eyes that see and the ears that hear because the Spirit of God has opened them to do so,” he writes. “The power in the gospel is not the dynamic presentation of the preacher or the winsomeness of the witness. . . . The power in the gospel is the Spirit’s applying the saving work of Jesus Christ to the heart of a hearer” (p. 77).
Chandler gets the gospel exactly right in is understanding of the God-Man-Christ-Response pattern—but he also rightly reminds us that this is not the only way the gospel is revealed in Scripture.
The Gospel in the Air and the Hope of Glory
Part two of The Explicit Gospel looks at the gospel as “the Gospel in the Air.” Here, Chandler uses the Creation-Fall-Reconciliation-Consummation motif to describe the gospel. And as with the gospel on the ground, his exposition is insightful and eminently quotable as he paints a picture of the sheer grandeur of the gospel. The gospel in the air gives us this conception of the scope and the ambit and the greatness of the gospel,” Chandler writes.
If the Bible gives us a wider context than personal good news for personal sin requiring personal response, let’s be faithful to it. At the end of the biblical story, the gospel’s star figure says, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). If his word is true, we must take his reference to “all things” seriously. As Lloyd-Jones says, “The whole universe is involved.” (p. 90)
And indeed he does take the “all things” seriously. Chandler navigates through the Creation-Fall-Reconciliation-Consummation pattern with great skill and efficiency. He is serious about wanting the reader to see that “when we look at the gospel from the air, through the grand narrative of the Scriptures, we see that the gospel is not just about God’s forgiving us of sins and giving us eternal life, but also about what we are being forgiven for and what eternal life is like. . . . It is imperative that our gospel take the shape of the Scripture’s epic vision of God’s redemptive plan. It is imperative that we embrace a gospel that is scaled to the glory of God” (p. 172).
This is a theme that many authors, particularly in the last decade, have been picking up on to varying results. Chandler displays a grasp of the grandness of the gospel, without forsaking the message of that is intrinsic to the gospel.
The Danger of an Unbalanced Gospel
In the final part of the book, Chandler addresses the implications and applications of the gospel to the Christian life. And it’s here that The Explicit Gospel is at its most powerful. Chandler has been blessed with a keen ability to cut right to the heart of the dangers we face when we overemphasize one aspect of the gospel story over another.
If we remain “on the ground” too long, we miss out on God’s grand mission, our faith devolves into a “rationalized” one built more on intellectual accumine than Spirit-fueled tenacity, and a self-centered gospel. Ultimately, when we’re on the ground too long, Chandler argues, the gospel becomes all about me. “This is just a short slide away from the worst forms of sectarianism and isolationism,” he writes. “This is a great way to become prideful and arrogant, to rationalize disobedience to the Great Commission and the Great Commandment” (p. 188). Simply, if we only see the gospel as personal, we’ll begin to see it as only private—and if it’s only private, then it’s completely irrelevant.
Equally dangerous is remaining “in the air” too long which, he argues, leads to syncretism, a Christ-less gospel, becoming ensnared by the idol of culture and, inevitably, the abandonment of evangelism. Ultimately, “when we stay in the air too long, we can mistake a sketchy ‘redemption of all things’ for the whole story” (p. 193).
Something subtle but dangerous happens when the gospel is put purely in terms of God’s restoration of all things: it becomes easy to embrace the biblically deficient “social gospel,” . . . Red flags should go up, for instance, when we see the phrase “Be the gospel” or hear the unfortunately oft-repeated line, “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words” . . . Really, the issue is not with the meta-narrative or social justice but with those who stay in the air too long and leave the atoning work of Christ behind as they press into God’s call to care for the poor, the widow, and the orphan, engaging in works of justice and mercy in only vaguely biblical or theistic ways. (pp. 189, 193)
Chandler’s corrective on this point is one that is desperately needed today. Much of my time is spent engaged in “social justice” related activities (such is the nature of working at a Christian non-profit) and this sort of talk is rampant in those circles. Social concern is a good and glorious thing, to be sure, but it should not be conflated with the gospel.
On Tone and Temporariness
While I had few if any concerns about the content The Explicit Gospel, I did have one regarding its tone. It reads like the definitive Matt Chandler sermon series. If you know Chandler’s cadence and rhetorical style, it’s incredibly effective. You know exactly where the emphasis ought to be with each statement; in fact, reading the book I frequently found myself “hearing” it in his voice. That Chandler and Wilson were able to capture this at all is extremely impressive. However, for those unfamiliar with Chandler’s style, it could be confusing, if not downright frustrating.
Secondly, although Chandler’s message is bang-on and the communication of it is incredibly effective, reading it I was left with a deep sense of—and I’m not sure if there’s a better way to put this—temporariness about it. The Explicit Gospel is a book that is very much rooted in the context of its time and Chandler’s ministry, for better or for worse. And truth be told, I’m not sure that this is an entirely bad thing. I love the fact that this is a book written for a specific need that exists right now. Chandler and Wilson don’t come across as trying to write the definitive book on the gospel. They’re writing something to help believers in the 21st century come to grips with the gospel in their day. And maybe that’s enough.
Regardless of questions of rhetorical style or contextual ties, The Explicit Gospel is bound to be a great blessing to all of its readers as it challenges us to be “be men and women who understand the difference between moralism and the gospel of Jesus Christ” (p. 221). Read this book and drink deeply of the riches of God’s grace as found in the explicit gospel.
Title: The Explicit Gospel
Author: Matt Chandler with Jared Wilson
Publisher: Crossway/Re:Lit (2012)