The Explicit Gospel
April 17, 2012
Matt Chandler with Jared Wilson, The Explicit Gospel. Crossway: Wheaton, IL, 2012. 229 pages.
The Explicit Gospel by Matt Chandler with Jared C. Wilson joins the increasingly fashionable array of books on the gospel. Among several others in that crowd, The Explicit Gospel is a useful book with many admirable qualities. Principally, it points us to the matter of first importance, that "Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). I agree with the principle concerns of this book, but I believe the author could clarify and improve his case in several ways. My criticisms and suggestions will come toward the end of this review. But first, allow me to summarize the main features of the book.
The book is divided into two parts, each corresponding to a perspective on the gospel. The first is titled "The Gospel on the Ground" and refers to the gospel as it applies to specific individuals. The second part, "The Gospel in the Air," seeks to demonstrate that these individual salvation stories are bound up in the grand scope of God's unfolding plan to bring all things to consummation in Christ. The "explicit gospel" holds these two perspectives together as mutually regulating and complementary.
The Gospel on the Ground
In "The Gospel on the Ground," the author moves through the headings of God, Man, Christ, and Response. There are many helpful things throughout these chapters. But, the chapter on man, the section titled "The Place of God's Justifiable Wrath" is perhaps most noteworthy. This section is welcome in a book on the gospel. Talk of hell is severely lacking in contemporary theology--especially from books appealing to a wider audience. The author does not shy away from the critical teaching on God's wrath and his need to punish sin in light of his justice. The fullness of the gospel message at the cross cannot be rightly understood without grasping the weight of sin. God's love for us in Christ will not shine brightly until we see the horror of his wrath. But when we do, we come to a clearer understanding that Christ laid down his life to propitiate and expiate our sins. He satisfied the wrath of God in our stead.
Having now accomplished salvation, Christ demands a response. But we ought to understand this response correctly lest we compromise the nature of the gospel. The author understands rightly that the only acceptable response to the gospel is a heart of faith (p. 68), but he warns of the things that Christians can mistake for proper or necessary responses to the gospel. For instance, Christians can quickly forget that the gospel can harden hearts. Not all people will respond to it, and many will receive greater judgment for hearing it. The author draws out this point in his own way: "I'm just saying that I guarantee you there's some old dude in some town that most of us have never heard of faithfully preaching to nine people every week..." I could not help but feel him describing several faithful Reformed churches in my area! Despite the slightly flippant remark, the author is placing due emphasis on the power of the gospel to transform precisely because it is the Spirit who works in and through the message. The call is to proclaim the word faithfully, not change hearts. It is the Lord's prerogative to save.
The Gospel in the Air
In the next major part, "The Gospel in the Air," the author walks through the fourfold state of man: creation, fall, redemption (reconciliation), and consummation. I was encouraged to see consummation treated, since it is often forgotten. We cannot speak about the gospel without first speaking about God's plan in creation. This leads into a discussion of different views on the days of creation, which is important to the gospel, but felt a little out of place inside the scope presented early in the book. Nevertheless, we come to see that, regardless of the variety of orthodox options, God created all things for his own glory.
Behind the author's writing lies an important point; namely, that the gospel, as gospel, is precisely good news because it occurs in the context of the fall. The gospel is necessary because of sin, and Christ must now come to mediate between God and his estranged images. Creation lies under a curse. Life according to this world is vanity, and deep down we ache for real satisfaction.
But the good news of the gospel is that Christ has come to redeem his people to himself. He has taken the form of a servant, setting aside his divine prerogative to suffer for our sake. All of this he accomplished with a view to the surpassing glory bestowed upon him in his resurrection. Through Christ and Christ alone we now have reconciliation with God.
The author speaks of eschatology and consummation with more biblical warrant than is usually seen in other popular treatments of the subject. He writes, "The first thing we should see is that the Old Testament views future redemption as a restoration of life in creation" (p. 160). The author even introduces the concept of realized (inaugurated) eschatology: "Jesus inaugurated the kingdom in his first coming, but he hasn't consummated it yet" (p. 161). The author seeks to orient the reader within this biblical context, stressing that, "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). The capstone of consummation is the resurrection of our bodies, where God's glory reflects the brightest.
Implications and Applications
After describing his picture of a balanced, explicit gospel, the author addresses several dangers that lurk for those who focus on one aspect at the expense of the other. First, if we stay "on the ground" too long, we can make the gospel an individual thing at the expense of God's grand plan of redemption and consummation. We can rationalize faith such that we forget about the real transformation the Spirit works in our lives. The gospel can become an information transaction rather than true discipleship. Even worse, the gospel can become self-centered when we forget that Christ is at the center. Second, the danger of focusing too much on the "gospel in the air" is that it tends toward a vapid social gospel, which eventually gives way to syncretism, and then, a gospel void of Christ. We lose the distinctives of Christianity and forget the Church's mission to make disciples of all men baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Moralism undergirds many of these errors. The author writes, "...unless the gospel is made explicit, unless we clearly articulate that our righteousness is imputed to us by Jesus Christ, that on the cross he absorbed the wrath of God aimed at us and washed us clean--even if we preach biblical words on obeying God--people will believe that Jesus's message is that he has come to condemn the world, not to save it" (p. 208). Furthermore, if the gospel is not made explicit, people may even resort to works righteousness. We must have a proper understanding of God's grace in the gospel. And so we are encouraged to arm ourselves with the "weapons of grace" and to take seriously the biblical teaching that believers are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (p. 216).
I appreciate the author's concerns. He has done an admirable job in refocusing on the biblical gospel, and he has done so with redemptive-historical sensitivity. Nonetheless, the book has a number of features worth mentioning to the patrons of this particular site. Early into the book, the author mentions the Westminster Confession of Faith when it should have said the Westminster Shorter Catechism (pp. 34 and 36 in an advance proof). Though the point being made is a good one, this generally innocuous error is one small example of how the book would have been improved by sustained exposure to the Reformed tradition and, particularly, the categories Reformed theologians use when speaking about the gospel. Several books of this stripe have surfaced in recent years, and many struggle to describe aspects of the gospel by creating new categories. It seems more natural to speak about the gospel using categories arising from Scripture. For instance, Scripture often speaks in terms of Christ's once-for-all accomplishment of redemption in history, but at other times refers to the ongoing application of that redemption to individual believers. These are the categories of redemption accomplished and redemption applied, or if you prefer Latin, historia salutis and ordo salutis
As necessary as these categories are for any thorough treatment of the gospel, this particular book centers on the difference between two theological disciplines. The first part of the book, "The Gospel on the Ground," emphasizes elements of systematic theology, whereas the second part of the book, "The Gospel in the Air," focuses on elements natural to biblical theology. Systematic theology is concerned with looking at divine revelation as a finished product in order to "systematize" or categorize topically subjects such as "justification" or "adoption." Biblical theology, on the other hand, looks at the redemptive-historical contours as God's eternal plan unfolds. As Geerhardus Vos, the father of Reformed biblical theology, wrote, "Biblical Theology deals with revelation as a divine activity, not as the finished product of that activity." [Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (Banner of Truth, 1975), p. 5]. "The Gospel on the Ground" and "The Gospel in the Air" are unnecessarily novel categories that seek to explain the basic features of these traditional disciplines.
As much as this portion of the book sought to draw out the redemptive-historical contours of the gospel, it is weak on a few points. For example, Mosaic sacrifices were types and symbols that pointed forward to Christ. They did not save, but they mediated the very grace of Christ as believers partook of them by faith (cf. Westminster Confession of Faith, 7.5). This is the wonderful truth of the trans-testamental gospel--that in his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has become the savior of all God's people. Conceded, the author alluded to the foreshadowing significance of Mosaic sacrifices, but for him, they had no real significance other than as meager pedagogical tools (pp. 67-68).
Nonetheless the book would have profited most from an exaggerated emphasis on the following point regarding historia salutis (redemption accomplished): Christ's death and resurrection became the pattern according to which the Spirit applies redemption. Hence, the gospel is made most "explicit" in the resurrected Christ. It is to him and him alone that we look for salvation, and we ought not focus simply on the fact that he accomplished redemption, but also on him as the archetype of that redemption. It is only with this in mind that we can hear the author's concluding exhortation in its full significance: "May we never assume that people understand this gospel but, instead, let's faithfully live out and faithfully proclaim the explicit gospel with all the energy and compassion our great God and King has graciously given" (p. 222).
NOTE: The reviewer was working with an advance copy of the book still subject to editorial changes. Page numbers may not correspond to the published edition and emendations may have been made in the course of final edits.
Mr. Camden Bucey is the Shelf Life editor for reformation21 and is a PhD student in Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.