Matt Chandler with Jared Wilson, The Explicit Gospel. Crossway: Wheaton, IL, 2012. 229 pages.
The Explicit Gospel by Matt Chandler with Jared Wilson is another book in what is seemingly a popular line of “gospel-centered” texts. Matt, the teaching pastor of The Village Church in Dallas, is mainly concerned with those who simply assume what the Gospel is and whose understanding of Christianity is one heavily influenced by “moralistic, therapeutic deism”. Sociologist Christian Smith formulated this idea after his study of American teenagers and religion. Despite wherever this belief took root, it has effectively influenced the twenty and thirty-somethings crowd both in Matt’s church and across the American church landscape, particularly in the South where majority of homes are church-goers.
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)
Matt outlines in two sections what he terms as the “Gospel on the Ground” and the “Gospel in the Air”. These two together form what he believes to be a more “explicit” presentation of the Gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16) and also the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 1:3) Camden Bucey in his review of this book believes that these categories are “unnecessarily novel”, not because they seek to redefine but because they try to make the basic elements of traditionally known disciplines simpler. So, while someone could say that Matt is simply talking about systematic theology (ground) and biblical theology (air), I believe his illustrative terms serve the book well. I believe this because of the audience in mind. He is a pastor and is writing with a pastoral concern. Illustrations or illustrative terms free the minds of those reading or listening to connect more difficult ideas to everyday life.
So, do the churches in America understand what the Gospel really is? It is difficult making broad generalizations using personal feelings based on bad experiences or on information about a particular locale. In once sense it seems as if there is a need for a Gospel renaissance because there are those who are preaching and teaching (while their people are believing) that which they deem most important about the Gospel, sometimes for the sake of a false ecumenicalism. On the other hand, the focus here is America without the consideration of fruitfulness all over the world because of the Gospel. One thing is for sure: we all need the Gospel. All day. Every day. Until He comes. Therefore, I believe, for the time, that Matt and Jared’s book is helpful for these kinds of discussions. How is it helpful?
The Gospel on the Ground
In this first section Matt works through the headings of God > Man > Christ > Response. This is a systematic approach and one that is normally described as that which deals with the personal salvation of man. God reveals Himself, fully in the gift of His Son Jesus, and man responds to this gift believing and repenting or continuing in rebellion towards God. This approach has also been deemed more soterian or “salvationist” by Scot Mcknight (see here for a helpful understanding of his bookThe King Jesus Gospel) because it is more about how someone gets saved then it is about the one who saves. I think Matt and Jared strike a good balance though in response to such criticism. He writes,
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 strength – we just try to take his toys and run. It is still idolatry to want God for his benefits but not for himself. (Kindle, 13% emphasis mine)
What is also particularly important is the lengthy discussion on the wrath of God. This is important because there is no good news without bad news. It is not to merely highlight it though or to try and scare people.
Even if you could scare people into a semblance of Christian religion, they would not be true worshippers, because their fear of God – which is a good thing – would not be shaped by their love for God…No, to highlight only the breadth of the chasm is not to bridge it. So, why highlight it at all? Because you can’t understand the cross of Christ without understanding the weight of glory of God and the offense of belittling his name and what the due punishment is for that offense. (Kindle, 17%)
The understanding demands a response. There is not a middle ground of understanding. God’s self-revelation concerning His Son Jesus and salvation is either to be believed or rejected. To not believe is to reject it. The Gospel softens the hearts for some to believe but it will also harden the hearts of those who refuse. It is not mere ascension to what it means but it is to be believed and carried through into obedience. The good news though it is not how well we do in response to the Gospel but that we always glory in what Christ has done on our behalf. The Bible gives us this clear view of how He saves individuals, those created in His image, but there is another part of the narrative that needs to be mentioned.
The Gospel in the Air
If the Gospel on the ground is about how God reveals Himself and saves individuals through the cross of His Son, Jesus, then the Gospel in the air is about the overarching theme of Scripture as it is revealed and also as it continues today. This progression is typically seen in the form of Creation > Fall > Redemption > Consummation which deal with the major events in the grand scheme of the Bible. Also termed “Biblical theology”, there has been an increase in this area as well which is very encouraging as more and more are seeing more fully how God has revealed Himself through the Scriptures concerning all things.
The gospel in the air gives us this conception of scope and the ambit and the greatness of the gospel. 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 cure 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.”
The beginning of the Gospel is how God created and for what purpose He created. Matt focuses well on the importance of showing that God’s creation was good. (Gen. 1: 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, and 31) God’s good creation then fell due to disobedience towards God. This is why there is a need for a redemption and reconciliation. There is also an end in view where God, who has been redeeming His people with a covenant promise, brings all things to completion, the “new heaven and new earth” (Rev. 21:1). This eschatological emphasis is sometimes missed because of the tendency to focus on the present but Matt does well to integrate an inaugurated eschatology in that God’s Kingdom has come but it is not complete yet. This brings the reader into the context of the Bible, showing that there is indeed a bigger picture in mind.
Implications and Applications
In the final section of the book, Matt outlines the dangers of being on the ground too long, being in the air too long, and the problem of moralism and the cross. While the contention is that both presentations in their own right are good and necessary (because the Scriptures contain both), he also wants the reader to realize that must be held in balance and with equal importance.
Dangers of being on the ground too long:
- Missing God’s Grand Mission
- A Rationalized Faith
- Self-Centered Gospel
Dangers of being in the air too long:
- A Christless Gospel
- Culture as Idol
- Abandoning Evangelism
Remaining here too long produces a gospel that is social and one that is basically saying the same thing as all of the other religions.
I was speaking with someone just a short time ago and they asked me what I thought about how the book read. I told them that I thought it was easy to understand and that Matt (with Jared) made his points well. She told me then that she had a hard time reading it because she kept hearing Matt saying what was written because it was written like he speaks in his sermons. This is understandable being that it is his first book. You can hear the quips and the style in which he preaches in the text. Yet, this causes a difficulty when trying to formulate the greater argument and putting it all together because it creates some disjuncture in continuity of thought. If the tone by Matt and Jared was intentional then it works well because those who are familiar with him will be able to follow him better due to familiarity. However, it can be frustrating if the opposite is true.
On another point, I couldn’t help but think about the way that I personally go about buying and reading books. If it is a classic text or exhaustive reference book then I usually buy it hardbound to add to my library. If, however, the book is a newer writing that focuses on a more contemporary issue within a context that will soon change I will probably buy it on Kindle (if I buy it at all). For The Explicit Gospel, I think the context (not the subject matter) has a temporary feel to it (agreeing with Aaron Armstrong). It is not as if the book will not stand the test of time as to what the Gospel is. I think it will because the Gospel will never change and I believe Matt and Jared present the Gospel correctly. Some of the language and references, however, will soon fade with time. Yet, I know that Matt’s preaching, by the Holy Spirit, is bearing fruit and will continue to because God honors those who faithfully proclaim it. If the book is to simply serve the current generation only then I pray God uses it greatly as such.