Saturday Book Review: Matt Chandler

Saturday Book Review: Matt Chandler December 15, 2012

This review comes to us from Mark Stevens, our friend down in Adelaide who blogs at The Parson’s Patch, and he explains the context for this review.

Before I begin my review of Matt Chandler’s new book “The Explicit Gospel” I have to confess a few things. Firstly, earlier this year I read Scot’s book “The King Jesus Gospel”.  Surprisingly it was the first book I read dedicated to asking the question, “What is the Gospel?” Every book I had read up until this point either assumed the gospel was a known entity or devoted only a chapter or even a paragraph to asking (and answering) the question. Secondly, earlier this year I had the privilege of sitting in Scot’s class at Tabor Adelaide where he taught for 5 days on the King Jesus Gospel. After 5 days I was thoroughly convinced and converted. To me Scot’s argument makes sense and more than anything I like his starting point (What did Paul mean when he used the word Gospel).

That being said I tried to read all of the preparation literature with an open mind. As part of the pre-reading for the course we were handed Matt Chandler’s “Explicit Gospel”. I want to say from the outset, it’s not that I disagree with what Chandler is saying, like Scot I just don’t think he explains the gospel in a way that does justice to the gospel! Maybe I should explain.

How does Matt Chandler define the gospel?

Matt Chandler’s ‘Explicit Gospel,’ represent a Soterian approach to the gospel. Soterians, according to Scot, equate the word gospel with the word salvation leading to emphasis on a personal salvation. The good news is good news about HOW we are saved. The Soterian gospel is common amongst evangelicals like Chandler because often, ‘when we evangelicals see the word gospel, our instinct is to think (personal) salvation’.[1] I contend, because the soterian-gospel outlined by Chandler begins with the problem of sin it can only find its logical conclusion with salvation. The good news is only good news in relation to the bad news of sin. Please don’t mishear me, sin is a problem. I just don’t think it is where the gospel begins. One thing I note is sorely lacking in Chandlers’ book is any interaction with what Paul meant when he used the word Gospel; and I don’t just mean the meaning of the word. I am talking about the socio-scientific stuff as well.

Matt Chandler’s Explicit Gospel

What is the explicit gospel? According to Chandler, it is the gospel in its purest form, lived out unashamedly in and for the world. The gospel is the story of how the glory of God is reinstated after the fall. As I understand it this is a very reformed way of explaining the gospel. Am I correct?

Chandler explores the gospel from two vantage points he names ‘the gospel on the ground’ and ‘the gospel in the air.’[2]

‘The gospel on the ground’ explores the character and nature of God and fallen man, the intervention of Christ, and the appropriate response of man to Christ’s work on the cross.’[3] Within this framework, Chandler is presenting the good news as information about how a person can be saved. Chandler depicts the gospel as a deep chasm between God and man that God, in Christ, has bridged the gap; an approach that Scot, in his book, identifies at the heart of a soterian gospel.[4][5]

Interestingly Chandler suggests that the Bible isn’t about us at all. ‘From beginning to end, the Scriptures reveal that the foremost desire of God’s heart is not our salvation but rather the glory of his own name.’[6] I find this a strange argument but perhaps it is the Barthian in me that has always believed that God’s desire for our salvation is born out of his desire to be the God of humanity. Chandler’s argument seems to suggest that God is first and foremost concerned with protecting his own image.

Essentially what Chandler goes on to argue is that unless you have the right belief about God, Christ and the state of humanity you can never receive the good news, ‘Believing the news that God is holy, that you are a sinner and that Christ has reconciled you to God by his life, death and resurrection is what justifies you.’[7] What this ignores, in my opinion, is what Scot picks up that when Paul and the other apostles gospelled this is not the story they told. They didn’t jump from Gen 3 to Romans 3 (to quote Scot).

If the gospel on the ground is about getting right what one believes about God and the fallen state of humanity; the gospel in the air explains what the gospel means for creation and redemption and how the gospel is understood within the greater purposes of God’s plan. Chandler outlines the gospel in the air under the themes of; creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. Chandler contends ‘The context of the gospel message is not our benefit or our salvation; the context of the gospel is the supremacy of Christ and the glory of God. This story of the good news is personal, but it is also cosmic.’[8]  Although Chandler claims to look at the bigger picture what he does is ignore the story of Israel and more importantly the story of Jesus in relation to the gospel (in the Gospels). Is it any wonder there is very little about the story of Jesus in Chandler’s argument other than how his death and resurrection relate to fixing the problem of sin? As I said, for the most part I don’t disagree with what Chandler says I just don’t think it is the gospel!

Sadly Chandler does not explore the gospel outside the framework of Creation, fall and redemption. There is little to no discussion on the word gospel in the Greek and certainly no exploration of how the Gospels might inform one’s understanding of the gospel. This is the point I find most surprising. In Christ do we not have the gospel being lived out before our very eyes? Furthermore, at no point does Chandler interact in any depth with 1 Corinthians 15 or recognise its importance as the earliest use of the word gospel.[9]  Chandler does not interact with the historical use of the word ‘gospel’ in its first century context as Scot’s approach encourages one to do.

Chandler’s presentation of the gospel is framed within a systematic doctrinal understanding of salvation. For me it is a little too neat. It smacks of trying to control what people believe instead of leading them to Jesus. Soterians  begin with the problem of sin which leads to an argument always in search of a solution. The cross is at the centre of the gospel message and therefore, the ultimate answer to the problem.[10][11]  As Chandler states, the cross is the “central tenant of all we believe about salvation” and the death of Jesus the wrath absorbing cross of Christ was the plan of God before creation”.[12] His soterian gospel deals only with salvation and ignores the larger gospel story of Israel and Jesus the Messiah as the fulfilment of Israel’s story.

It is my opinion that Chandler’s approach to the gospel does not begin with good news. It starts with the bad news first; we’re all in trouble because we have failed to understand the gospel. He states, “How can you grow up going to church every week and not hear the gospel? I quickly decided that these people had heard the gospel but didn’t have the spiritual ears to truly hear it, to receive it.”[13] Like all books read for this assignment Matt Chandler is trying to get it understand and outline what he believes the gospels to be, “I want to spend my time with you trying to make sure that when we use the word gospel, we are talking about the same thing”.[14] Unfortunately, if you disagree with Chandler there is little room for you in the Kingdom of God.

At the heart of Scot’s approach to understanding the gospel is a desire to understand what Paul meant when he used the word Gospel. Using 1 Corinthians 15:1-21 as his framework McKnight argues that one is able to discern the content of the gospel as Paul himself understood it.

At the beginning of ‘The King Jesus Gospel’ McKnight quotes N.T. Wright’s view of how he sees many people’s explanation of the gospel. The quote emphasises McKnight’s own judgements:

‘I am perfectly comfortable with what people normally mean when they “the gospel”. I just don’t think it is what Paul means. In other words, I am not denying that the usual meanings are things that people ought to say, to preach about, and to believe. I simply wouldn’t use the word “gospel” to denote those things.’[15]

Both Scot and Matt Chandler seek to explain the gospel. Both claim to do so in light of what Paul really said. However, I would conclude that Chandler fails to employ a method of framing the gospel that is true to what Paul really meant. Not only does he fail to recognise the influence of his own tradition and experience he also fails to address his own preconceptions of the word. In doing so the gospel, the story of Jesus the Messiah as the filling up of Israel’s story and the birth, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus as the content of the gospel out of which salvation flows, is missed.

And that leads me to my final question. Does a person, me included, Scot, and even you, have to believe what Chandler believes to be considered Christians? Is there any room for those of us who disagree? I just think there might be more to the gospel than Gen 3 and Romans 3!

Mark Stevens

[1] McKnight, S, The King Jesus Gospel, (Zondervan, 2011), 29

[2] Chandler, M, ‘The Explicit Gospel’ (IVP, 2012), 15

[3] Ibid, 15ff

[4] Ibid, 53

[5] McKnight, S, The King Jesus Gospel, (Zondervan, 2011), 29ff

[6] Chandler, M, ‘The Explicit Gospel’ (IVP, 2012), 33

[7] Ibid, 83

[8] Ibid,, 90

[9] On page 13 Chandler uses Paul’s use of the word gospel as a springboard to what he wants to say. At best it is illustrative.

[10] Ibid, 101

[11][11] Ibid, 53ff

[12] Ibid, 58

[13] Chandler, M, ‘The Explicit Gospel’ (IVP, 2012), 12

[14] Ibid, 15

[15] Wright, N.T., ‘What St Paul Really Said, (Eerdmans, 1997),41 as cited by McKnight, S, ‘The King Jesus Gospel’ (Zondervan, 2011)

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  • Cris

    Just curious, does Chandler allow for any room for social implications of the gospel at all?

  • Mark, thanks for the review. How the soterian gospel porponents miss the vital aspect of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah within both Jesus’ and Paul’s gospel is so baffling. Especially with “Jesus the Christ/Messiah” permeating Paul’s letters. As Gentile believers we are “in the Christ.”

  • scotmcknight

    Cris, yes. He sees two kinds of gospel: from above and from below, and the big ideas from above include restoration of the cosmos, kingdom, etc, and within that he sees social action. It’s not a big theme for him. But I would say he’s got the standard Reformed/evangelical approach.

  • Greg D

    I too read “The Explicit Gospel” and couldn’t bear myself to finish it. Aside from the overt soteriological view of the Gospel, it also had a strong Reformed bent to it. Many allusions to the Westminster Confession and various Reformed authors and teachers. With this Reformed bent there is almost always an attitude of arrogance that accompanies it. For example, Chandler writes, “I want to make sure we are all on the same page here, which is to say, God’s page, and talking about what He is talking about when the gospel is mentioned in the Scriptures.” (page 15). I saw Chandler’s gospel as a Reformed gospel with it’s extreme emphasis on God’s sovereignty, election, and right behavior… all attributes of John Calvin’s god.

  • Graham Ware

    You’ve identified several of the key issues I found in Chandler’s book. I was very disappointed and even offended by Chandler’s book. In addition to failing to interact with the Gospels, he fails to explain the relevance of the resurection. His chapter on Christ makes no mention of Jesus outside the penal substitution of the cross.

    But what I found even more distressing was the problematic research and writing methods. He claims in his intro to be a good interpreter of scripture, but creates a canon within a canon (Romans 8-11) and misses context and the broader picture of who Jesus is. His bibliography is frighteningly small and all his sources are within his own tradition. No scholarly commentaries, no non-Reformed systematic theologies, etc. And of course he presents his work as original work, but in my opinion has even plagarized, as he has not cited his sources. The creation, fall, redemption model is not Chandler’s nor is the God, man, Christ, response, but he does not acknowledge his sources.

    Poor form all around.

  • Tyler

    If you focus on key aspects of the Gospel, then you limit the impact of the Gospel. But if you get the big picture, then all the aspects will be contained, shared, and will have their proper impact.

    To focus on something that is great, but is not the main thing, actually limits the thing in itself, and limits the larger message as a whole.

    But to focus on the larger picture puts everything in proper perspective.

    I kind of have a problem with the idea that God’s main interest is to reinstate his own name, and to glean the proper amount of glory he receives. That is definitely a part in it, but I just don’t see that as being the main thing, I think that is one of God’s motives but not his main motive. If it was his main motive then the prophets would speak primarily about glorifying God. The aspect is definitely in there, especially in Isaiah, but the larger picture is simple to make right what was wronged. To right the relationship between God and man and creation, which the part that is included in that is that God receives his worship.

    The main issue is biblical philosophy. One is extremely egotistical, the other is selfless. I think that if we run with one we are missing the Philippians 2:5-11 nature, that while God being worshiped and exalted is appropriate, he didn’t fight for himself. This robs the Gospel of the main aspect that makes Incarnation, Grace, and God’s love mind blowing: That while God is deserving of all these great things, he didn’t grasp them but chose to humble himself in pursuit of humanity.

    Anyone that has ever been in a relationship should understand this. That when your significant other wrongs you, you want to make it right but if you fight for yourself to be righted then you are actually losing in the relationship. So instead of fighting for yourself, you humble yourself, forgive and serve them, and talk about it, without demanding how you should properly be treated.

  • jim

    “Unfortunately, if you disagree with Chandler there is little room for you in the Kingdom of God.”
    Seriously? That’s taking it a bit far is it not?

  • Merv Olsen

    I must admit I’m rather confused by all the `bagging` I read on this blog about the `soterian gospel`. Matthew 1.21 and Luke 2.11 speak about the Saviour. One of my life verses has been Luke 19.10 – Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. 47 years ago He found me! One of the OT names for God is even Saviour!

    When I was an unchurched person I didn’t know Adam from Israel – I was biblically illiterate. Knowing that Jesus had a wonderful plan for my life was all I needed to know then. My plan wasn’t working too well to say the least. I was converted by `accidentally` listening to Billy Graham on a TV replay in 1965. BG said to get a Bible and so I did.

    Of course as I read the Bible and attended church I came to realise who this Saviour is … KING Jesus, LORD Jesus – God’s promised MESSIAH.

    As long as we DO go on to disciple converts into the fuller understanding of `the big picture` I’m still of the opinion from my interactions with people, that we take them where we find them – and later educate/teach them the fuller implications of the `gospel`.

    TGC often gets a roasting on these blogs – I have read Don Carson’s commentaries and books for 20+ years, heard him preach in the flesh here in Brisbane, Australia, and listened to dozens of his sermons via mp3s. He preaches a full-orbed gospel if ever anyone does. He’s always teaching the Kingship of Jesus etc and fleshing out how Jesus fulfills the OT etc. He’s a master at tying the 2 Testaments together!

    Who cares whether we talk about the WORK of Christ (soteriology) first or His PERSON (Christology- which includes His title as Saviour) … as long as we consistently do them both!

  • @jim #7 I think that statement makes more sense in light of my final paragraph in which I ask the question. The feeling I had throughout the whole book was that if I disagreed I was out. Just a reflection.

    @Merv – This isn’t a bagging it is a critique of Chandler’s theology (not on him personally). Also, Scot just finished a very positive review of Tim Keller’s new book Center Church to which Keller himself replied. Ironically, I understand how you might feel. I feel the same way at time s with the GC. 🙂

  • Loo

    Thanks, the Reform teaching focus on only one (important) aspect of the story, to the exclusion of rest (the what happens now?), reminds me of a Disney fairytale plot-line where the princess/peasant girl meets her prince charming and they live happily ever after.

    We get saved and should live “happily ever after”, right?, no trouble from there on in. The comments by Piper claiming he would be worshipping God and calling Him good even in the instance that his family were to lay dead all over the road due to an accident come from a gospel view of fairytale plot lines – they stop after the wedding (point of salvation), so, no matter how awful it gets later, it has to be good.

    The gospel is also about how to live in that “happily ever after” – even the not so “happily after” times. It is about the struggles of the new church, the difficulties, the things to keep focused on – namely, Christ – and the things that can steal our joy (Rev. 1 -7). It is both a warning and a calling, and we can’t let it be just a fairytale ending – not yet, not in this lifetime, because we haven’t been whisked away by our Prince Charming yet.

  • @Merv, For one thing it matters so that we are faithful to what the scriptures actually call “the gospel.” If we get it wrong, we will get so many other things wrong. Also, it matters because many people do not get past the “salvation point.” Fortunately, you did. The U.S. is full of people who have made a one time commitment to Christ, claiming the benefits of salvation, but totally ignoring the Lordship of Jesus. In the NT, to be saved is to submit to Jesus as Lord (Romans 10 for starters), not to just agree with a set of beliefs about my sin and Jesus paying the penalty for it. I agree, one doesn’t have to understand everything about the gospel for salvation. In fact, in my view at least, that’s the point. In the NT, Jesus is the risen Lord, and if you are willing to submit to him, you will be saved. It is many of the soterians who expect converts to understand the totality of their depravity, the Holiness and justice of God, the nature of the atonement, etc.

  • scotmcknight

    Merv, the soterian gospel has a very sharp definition on the pages of this blog and it is important that you hear over and over– because I have said it over and over — that the King Jesus gospel teaches both the Person and the Work of Christ. This is not a false dichotomy of either/or but a gospel of first this/second that. Having said that, I see your last comment about who cares to be a cavalier dismissal of the shape of the gospel in the NT. It evidently does matter to Jesus, to Peter and to Paul to frame the gospel through christology, not soteriology, because that is how they gospeled. Who cares? They do, so we do.

    Merv, I would also argue there are not two gospels and we get to choose the one we prefer. There is only one gospel, and it is outlined in 1 Cor 15. That is the one and only apostolic gospel. The soterian gospel is a reduction that detracts from the glory of Christ. The apostolic gospel focuses on Who Jesus is and he is Lord, Messiah, King, Son of God, and Savior. So the apostolic gospel preaches salvation.

  • Ruth Anne shorter

    Merv, you are right on!

  • Two specific criticisms of Chandler are made here; he makes the glory of God paramount and he focuses on a problem (sin) before a solution. Are not both these evidenced in Paul.

    Ephesians 1 makes God’s purpose ‘the praise of his own glory’. The redemptive activity of Father, Son and Spirit finds its goal in ‘God’s glory’.

    Romans, an outline of the gospel, begins with the problem (unrighteousness and a failure to give God glory) before developing the solution (the righteousness of God and a glorified God).

  • Eric V.

    As I read The Explicit Gospel, what I kinda felt like it was saying was that what you would call Christological and Soteriological are the same gospel, just fleshed out differently by others. Christological is the Gospel in the Air, and the Soteriological is the Gospel on the ground. His book seemed to try and speak to the importants of not neglect either vantage point, but to hold both together, because both are the two sides of the same coin if you will. The way I view it is the gospel in the air is the gospel on the ground applied.

    Perhaps, rather than starting out in Genesis 3, he starts in Revelation 13, wich is the “before the foundations of the world, the lamb was slain” passage. With that framework: The lamb was slain to atone for the sins of the world. Sin is to disobey God. I thought his defense of his argument for God’s cheif concern being his glory was pretty clearly laid out in scripture, and you really can “take out these 30, and give 30 more that proves the point” Since God’s glory is his cheif concern, and how he recieves glory is through people submitting to his kingship (faith and repentance), or being crushed for their rebellion (eternal damnation). The only way people can submit to his kingship was through the atoning work of the cross, which makes people willing, desirious to actually submit to his kingship. Sorry for my mixing up the analogies…

  • Ben Thorp

    This does seem much less like a review of the book, and much more of a “ways in which Explicit Gospel isn’t King Jesus Gospel”.