There’s a cottage industry of books about the gospel, and Matt Chandler’s book, The Explicit Gospel, is the newest one produced. No one is any more satisfied than I in seeing a focus on gospel, an area on which I have been focusing for about a decade. Odd, isn’t it, that the heart of our faith — the gospel — is in need of articulation. Why?
A brief history lesson, and the word “brief” is an exaggeration. Contemporary evangelicalism, and Matt Chandler is part of this messy, murky movement we call evangelicalism, is the result of three shifts, the first of which was colossal. First, the Reformation, which means Luther, Calvin and the (usually ignored) Anabaptists, and this means a greater emphasis on Scripture and the doctrines of salvation, and justification came to the fore. Second, Pietism, which gets off the ground in 17th Century Germany when P.J. Spener said institutional Lutheranism needs renewal, inner and personal that works itself out into the church and society. And there is a long-term legacy of Pietism in the desire for an inner renewal to match one’s orthodox theology. Third, Revivalism, which said Pietism made such an important point that we need to emphasize this more clearly: everyone needs to be saved and so we need to evangelize. So we think of Whitfield, Wesley, Edwards and then later in Finney, on to Moody and Sunday, and then Billy Graham.
Why do you think we have such a flurry of books about the gospel today? What distinguishes Matt Chandler’s book on the gospel or is this yet another attempt to improve the “soterian” gospel?
This history masks a major issue: over time the message or the content of the gospel can get distorted and it can get thinned out and it can lead to a generation of Christians hearing, believing, responding and dwelling in a gospel that needs more than revivalism and pietism, and some of us would argue, needs to get beyond the Reformation (and the creeds), and we need to go all the way back to the New Testament and think again.
I see Matt Chandler in a group of us who really does want to get us out of the thin gospel of our day, created especially in revivalism but stuck in some very naughty habits of thinking it is about us and that it’s reducible to “God loves us” and “you are OK and I’m OK and, in fact, all of us — or almost all of us — are OK” , and he wants to restore the gospel of our day to biblical proportions.
So he begins as does all the soterian gospel approaches (see my book, The King Jesus Gospel, for soterian approaches) — with God, and with “man,” and with Christ and with response, which means his gospel looks like Greg Gilbert’s (What is the Gospel?) and, to be honest, much like every soterian gospel from the days of Billy Graham and Bill Bright onwards to our day. But Chandler’s approach is not the same, and I’d like to emphasize here that these four elements in the typical evangelistic presentation are essentially biblical and important elements in the doctrine of salvation, even if there are a variety of ways of expressing them.
His God is the God who does all things for his own glory. Which means this is going to be a John-Piper-shaped perception of the gospel. Which leads to his beginning with Romans 11:33-36, and this leads Chandler into a battery of texts about God’s glory and God’s inscrutability and God’s supremacy in the Bible. (I would have focused on 1 Cor 15:20-28, where Paul drives from the gospel into the “all in all” theme. Same difference, as we used to say. Perhaps.) This God is to be worshiped, and it is precisely there that our wiring gets messed up.
The God of glory Chandler sketches has not yet touched the ground, has not yet entered into the Story of Israel, and has not yet approached the profound revelation of, say, John 14 — that the one who sees Jesus is the one who sees the Father. In other words, a biblical God is to see the Father in the face of Christ. This God is, to be sure, both inscrutable and incarnate. I don’t see any of the latter in this chapter. The God of glory in Chandler’s chp is a transcendent God, which is true, and this God is also profoundly immanent too.
Our wiring is messed up in that we worship what God has made instead of God. By moving from God to us – as fallen sinners – Chandler’s approach to the gospel becomes soterian to the core. The problem here, though, is that we are idolaters. In King Jesus Gospel I phrase this very same problem as “usurping” in that we have usurped God’s rule in this world. Chandler moves into God’s response to our insurrection: the severity and wrath of God and hell. First, he argues, we have to feel the weight of God’s severe judgment against sin. Chandler has a habit of coupling themes that are uncomfortable to many today to non-acceptance of fuller postures of the Bible and to a claim that those who do accept those themes are the ones who are truly biblical.
God is the God of glory; we are insurrectionists and God’s response is one of wrath and judgment. Next comes Christ, and this means grace – and this is perfect expression of the soterian rhetoric. Withhold grace until liminality is created: God is sovereign, God is holy, you are a sinner, you are in trouble – now enter grace. This is the rhetoric of revivalism, but it is not the rhetoric of 1 Cor 15, or of the gospel sermons in Acts. It is the rhetoric of revivalism. Chandler’s atonement theory is satisfaction and penal substitution, and that’s what Christ accomplishes, and he helpfully ties atonement to the sacrificial system of the Old Testament and the Day of Atonement (but we need to something here on Passover since that is the event Jesus chooses for the death). His gospel is shaped by the cross — life of Jesus, resurrection, vindication, exaltation, Messiah … just not given much place in this part of his book.
Finally, response. The gospel confronts the person with a choice about Christ, and the acts of sacrifice no longer matter (this is about performance and religion). Chandler emphasizes in this chp the importance of witness but at the same time the responsibility of God to make things happen. The power is in the work of the Spirit, not in the preacher and persuasion or in the person. He pushes against seeker-sensitive preaching and finds a good example for proper preaching in Acts 2 – Peter told the truth. He focuses on faith, but not emphatically so, and doesn’t say much about repentance or baptism – or confession. His emphasis, and this is a good one, is that the gospel and response to the gospel are not the same thing.
Here is an issue worthy of discussion: I find a tendency, and to me it was clear in this section of Chandler’s book, that those who approach theology through this sovereignty lens and who speak of God’s grace struggle to make that grace prominent, or say that God does this all because he loves us, and to make that so clear that one doesn’t feel that the proponent is simply passing on the necessary information that God is gracious. I’ll put this clearly: Gilbert and Chandler affirm the doctrines of grace and the love of God, but I don’t find grace or love as important as it ought to be as a driving force of the gospel. (Bryan Chapell, in his TGC chp, however, very clearly had strong tones of grace and love; Greear was closer to Chapell.) Sovereignty of God emphases tend to push love and grace to the margins. Maybe I’m wrong on this, and maybe others have read this chp who would disagree. We are long way here, for instance, from what we find in Phil Yancey’s What’s So Amazing about Grace?
The singular importance of this book is that Chandler, while he has just sketched a soterian gospel in a glory-of-God Calvinist shape, sets this gospel (on the ground) into a gospel from the air (which will focus on the meta-narrative of the Bible from creation to consummation/kingdom). Which means we have to wait for the next part of this book to see if the Story of Israel leading us to Jesus as Messiah/King and Lord and the King and his kingdom, and if the Gospels are the gospel itself.