At long last – a review of The Explicit Gospel by Matt Chandler with Jared Wilson. A big thank you to Crossway Books for the review copy. Part of the reason this took me so very long was that I couldn’t quite explain the parts of the book that left me disconcerted. I think now I can explain why I had that niggling feeling, or at least refer to someone who can.
I was very excited to read this book simply based on its title. I do think we need an “explicit” gospel preached from our pulpits, but I guess what I anticipated was a bit different. I was hoping to hear a call to return to the preaching of the cross and forget all the false gospels that abound (seeker-sensitive, prosperity preaching, word faith and of course the ever-ambiguous emergent messages). Especially after he so publicly confronted narcissistic exegesis at the Code Orange revival. Instead, the book calls for preaching the cross, but also for being partakers in restoring the world. The former is great, but I think the latter lacks biblical support (at least in the way it is explored in this book).
Like Chandler, I do think far too many church goers have never heard an explicit gospel message and a call to return to an explicit and correct gospel is imperative. Souls are at stake after all. I had the privilege of hearing Dare 2 Share founder Greg Stier speak recently and I cheered when he said that the gospel isn’t only for the unsaved, it is also so important for Christians who are being sanctified to hear it again and again.
So let’s dive in. I attempted to ignore Rick Warren’s endorsement on the book jacket and started reading. Chandler’s book is separated into three parts: Part 1 – The Gospel on the Ground, Part 2 – The Gospel in the Air, and Part 3 – Implications and Applications.
Chandler writes that it was hearing testimonies of people who grew up in church (while baptizing them) that had never understood the gospel. Some had never even heard it. A stinging indictment of the church, since our primary mission ought to be to “preach Christ crucified” just as the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians.
I think Chandler correctly identifies “moral therapeutic deism” as a false belief many hold instead of the actual gospel. The gist, as he put it, was “that we are able to earn favor with God and justify ourselves before God by virtue of our behavior.” Of course this is the basis of most religious systems: work hard enough at being good and maybe you’ll get in.
Christianity however is radically different. It challenges us to accept the fact that we cannot ever be good enough, and demands repentance from our sins. In brokenness and humility we are offered the free gift of salvation by grace through faith in what Jesus Christ did (in his perfect life on earth and his death, burial and resurrection). Being a Christian means placing our trust in what Jesus accomplished for us, rather than trying to save ourselves through various rites, rituals or rules.
Sadly, Chandler writes, “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.”
He defined the “assumed gospel” saying, “For some reason — namely, our depravity — we have a tendency to think that the cross saves us from past sin, but after we are saved, we have to take over and clean ourselves up. This sort of thinking is devastating to the soul. We call this the ‘assumed gospel,’ and it flourishes when well-meaning teachers, leaders, and preachers set out to see lives first and foremost conformed to a pattern of behavior (religion) and not transformed by the Holy Spirit’s power (gospel).”
A few years ago Colossians 2:6 finally clicked for my mom and it has been a crucial reminder for both of us ever since. In the ESV it reads, “Therefore, as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” She said to me, “How did we receive Christ? In faith. So we’re supposed to live in faith too.”
God’s grace saved us, but it also sanctifies us. Remaining dependent on him is essential.
But so often we try to walk in our own strength. We try to keep our list of rules and regulations for him, and in my experience the results begin with arrogance and self-righteousness, and end with abject failure to live up to those rules.
Another danger, according to Chandler is attempting to bargain with the Almighty. “We have nothing with which to negotiate with him, nothing to bargain with. But it has been my experience that most evangelicals believe Christians are in a bargaining position. We carry an insidious prosperity gospel around in our dark, little, entitled hearts. We come to the throne and say, ‘I’ll do this, and you’ll do that. And if I do this for you, then you’ll do that for me’.”
Throughout Part 1: Gospel on the Ground I found myself mostly agreeing with Chandler, although I occasionally wished he would label error more strongly. However, in Part 2: The Gospel in the Air, I became uncomfortable and would like to offer caution to readers of the book.
His goal, to see the gospel plan from God’s point of view is laudable, but I initially found myself disagreeing or not understanding well enough to agree or disagree on his views about the redemption of creation. It is time’s like this I wish I had a seminary degree. Actually, I wish I had a seminary degree on a fairly regular basis, but this was one of those times. Having now read Pastor Gary Gilley’s review of the book I understand what made me cautious.
Chandler argues in this section that a complete gospel, “The Explicit Gospel” he refers to, includes cosmic restoration that has already begun. In other words, that God has been reversing the curse of Eden.
This made absolutely no sense to me, but since I am not the expert I will defer to Pastor Gilley:
Gilley wrote, “Chandler believes correctly that the Lord is the creator of a perfect universe that has been cursed due to the fall of man. But he teaches that because of the cross-work of Christ the Lord is now presently in the process of reversing the curse (p. 137). This was the “gospel of the kingdom” that Jesus preached. And Jesus’ earthly miracles were not signs of His identity as the Son of God and Messiah, as the Gospels clearly state (John 20:30-31), but a revelation that “God, through Jesus, is making all things new, that He is restoring what once was unbroken” (p. 107). He thus intermingles the purpose of Christ’s first coming with that of His second (see pp. 137-138).”
“Without doubt Jesus made provision through His life, death and resurrection, to bring about cosmic restoration but Chandler sees that renewal as already in process. This leads to a present ministry in which Christians can and should be part of restoration of the creation (the gospel in the air): “This is why a whole gospel must be explicitly about the restoration of God’s image bearers and also about the restoration of the entire theater of His glory, the entire cosmos” (p. 111). He calls this work, as many others do, “missional” (p. 144).” Gilley continued.
I do think that on this subject, Chandler is in error. In addition to the biblical problem with these claims which Gilley has laid out, it is pretty obvious just by looking at the world around us that creation is still suffering the effect of the curse. Roses still have thorns, weeds still grow, earthquakes and hurricanes and other natural disasters still claim lives around the world. In fact, the effects of the curse seem to be worsening over time, not improving.
Gilley elaborates on this issue and notes additional problems with Chandler’s view of creation, the millennial kingdom in his review of The Explicit Gospel. I recommend you read through his entire critique.
The emergent-sounding language with words like “missional” and “social justice” were also difficult for me to swallow. Christians do have a mission, we are commanded to take the gospel to all the world. That makes us all missionaries, but lately the word “missional” has come into vogue and is often used to describe a completely unbiblical way of doing church.
5 Pt. Salt has a great piece on the “missional church,” and breaks down Tim Keller’s explanation of how a church is to be missional. Guess what? It isn’t what the Bible says a church is supposed to be. From what I can tell, Chandler runs in the same New Calvinist/Neo-Calvinist(?) camp.
Mike Ratliff also warned about this concept of missional church, from personal experience having seen his church radically altered. One of the big emphases is being involved in the community, something Chandler definitely endorsed in The Explicit Gospel.
Don’t get me wrong, community involvement isn’t wrong. Neither is Christian charity, which I endorse over the idea of “social justice.” But if we make that our mission instead, when the Bible tells us to fellowship with believers and be equipped at church, in order to go out and share the gospel outside of it, we err. There is also a danger then of trying to bring the world into the church (something already practiced by seeker-sensitive and church growth movement churches).
The church isn’t meant to be hounding non-believers into the church pews and true Christianity isn’t going to attract people who are dead in their sins and trespasses and happy about it. The church is meant for the building up of believers so that they are equipped to share the gospel with the people around them. We aren’t called to take over the cities and towns we live in, but we are commanded to share the truth of the gospel to people in them regardless of how those people receive it. Some will accept the message, others will reject it.
The final section about implications and applications was basically an attempt to advocate balance and warn that if you focus on one or the other (the gospel on the ground/in the air) exclusively it will cause problems.
Conclusion: If you decide to read this book, read with caution and with a Bible in your hand as you should read everything.