The Explicit Gospel
by Matt Chandler
Crossway, 2012. 237pp.
“How can you grow up going to church every week and not hear the Gospel?” This book is the result of Pastor Chandler’s wrestlings with this very question. Is it possible that the Gospel has been distorted to be more about self-fulfillment than reconciliation to a holy God? More about being the best you can be, or at least feeling good about yourself, than being reconciled to a holy God? Do we really see the Gospel as central to life and godliness or is its importance just 'assumed'?
In The Explicit Gospel, Matt Chandler takes the reader back to the nitty-gritty of the Gospel—what it means not only for salvation but for an ongoing Christian life. Its antithesis is the 'assumed Gospel' [aka "Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" as coined by author Christian Smith] in which we see the cross as necessary to save us from our past sins but then we must earn favor with God and grow in our Christian lives by good behavior and/or conformity to a set of rules. This is not the good news of the gospel.
To explain the scope of the Gospel, Chandler divides his teaching into two parts. The first deals with the Gospel as it relates to man's individual redemption for the glory of God. He calls it the Gospel 'on the ground'. It includes a right understanding of God's glory as the purpose of redemption, man's desperate need, Christ's substitutionary death to atone for our sin, and man's necessary response of faith. This overview of the basics of salvation provides the believer a fresh appreciation of this great salvation in which we stand and for the unbeliever, it gives a careful explanation of what the good news is all about.
But this is no dry redundant treatise. There are thoughts here to challenge even the well-seasoned believer. Consider these:
"When we who call ourselves Christians realize how utterly self-sufficient God is all within himself—the three in one—the gift of Christ to us and for us becomes all the more astonishing…a God who is ultimately most focused on his own glory will be about the business of restoring us, who are all broken images of him. His glory demands it."(32)
"…the foremost desire of God's heart is not our salvation but rather the glory of his own name. God's glory is what drives the universe; it is why every thing exists."(33-4)
"We are allergic to the idea that everything exists, including us, not for ourselves but for the glory of God." (34)
"We worship God when, while we partake of his good gifts, something occurs in the deepest parts of our soul that forbids glory terminating on the gift itself or on our enjoyment of it but that runs deeper into and extends out to the Giver." (36)
"To discount, disguise, or disbelieve what God does in response to the falling short of his glory is, in itself, falling short of his glory."
"The grace of God by definition is unearned. You can't deserve it."(42)
"But to discount the enormity of God's severity, as if we aren't really that bad and really deserve mostly kindness, is to discount the enormity of God's holiness." (44)
"We deserve his[God's] wrath, and even though we persist throughout our lives in foolishly demanding what we think we are due, he refuses to give us what we deserve."(53)
"The cross of Christ exists because mankind—loved by God, created by God, set in motion by God—betrayed God and prefers his stuff to him."(55)
"If you don't talk about sin, if you don't talk about blood, if you don't talk about the cross in those ways, then don't talk about the gospel, because the gospel is bloody and horrific."(59)
"If we don't understand the bad news, we will never grasp the good news." (59)
"…replacing the centrality of the cross with something more appealing, something we think is more weighty…isn't so much to rectify an imbalance but to idolatrously elevate ourselves."(59)
Re: our Response
"The religious, moralistic, churchgoing evangelical who has no real intention of seeking god and following him has not found some sweet spot between radical devotion and wanton sin; he's found devastation. The moralism that passes for Christian faith today is a devastating hobby if you have not intention of submitting your life fully to God and chasing him in Christ."(70)
"I meet a lot of people swimming neck deep in Christian culture who have been inoculated to Jesus Christ. They have just enough of him not to want all of him. When that happens, what you have are people who have been conformed to a pattern of religious behavior but not transformed by the Holy Spirit of God." (73)
"We always have to be a little bit wary of the idea that numeric growth and enthusiastic response are always signs of success. The Bible isn't going to support that. Faithfulness is success; obedience is success." (75)
"We are never, ever, ever going to make Christianity so cool that everybody wants it. That is a fool's errand. It is chasing the wind."(80)
"The spiritual power in the gospel is denied when we augment or adjust the gospel into no gospel at all. When we doubt the message alone is the power of God for salvation, we start adding or subtracting, trusting our own powers of persuasion or presentation."(81)
"Even works of righteousness, if not done through faith, are works of self-righteousness and therefore filthy rags. Be very careful about going to church, reading your Bible, saying prayers, doing good deeds, and reading books like this through anything but faith in the living Lord. Because the result of all that is belief in a phony Jesus and inoculation to the gospel. You can end up knowing the jargon and playing pretend. Be very careful. Watch you life and your doctrine closely (I Tim.4:16). Some of you are so good that you've deceived yourselves. God help you." (85)
The second part of Chandler's explanation of the Gospel deals with what he calls the Gospel "in the air". Here he looks at the big picture of redemption that extends beyond personal salvation to the restoration of all creation. With sections titled: Creation, Fall, Reconciliation and Consummation, Chandler looks at the broad narrative of Scripture and of God's overarching purpose from the beginning of creation to subject all things to Himself through Christ and to restore even the physical creation. He intends for those reconciled to Him to be agents of reconciliation in the world. This perspective of the Gospel prevents its becoming a man-centered benefit. Ultimately redemption is for God's glory.
The underlying thesis of the book is that we must maintain both vantage points of the Gospel—its personal aspect and its cosmic implications--if we are to avoid serious pitfalls. The final section of the book deals with the dangers inherent in placing a lopsided emphasis on either vantage point.
On the one hand, when we view the Gospel as primarily for our own redemption we may miss God's mission for us in our unique place and time. In turn God's sanctifying process in our lives through engagement with others may be thwarted and wither into an intellectualized faith with little fruit. This privatized understanding of the Gospel easily turns into a prideful, sectarian, self-serving affair eclipsing our focus on God's glory and purposes.
In contrast, a sole emphasis on the big picture of restoration for the world can lead to a social gospel devoid of the hope of the true gospel. The intent may be to make the world a better place but salvation from personal sin can never be excluded from one's mission. Doing Biblical things to alleviate suffering must not be separated from the message of the Cross, even if it proves to be an offense. In our efforts to be relevant to culture, we may exalt cultural mores above Scripture, thus making culture a kind of idol. Worst of all, evangelism may be completely abandoned in the interests of being sensitive to a post-modern generation. These are all dangers of a gospel 'in the air too long'.
The final and perhaps most practical chapter in this section is titled "Moralism and the Cross". Drawing from personal experience Chandler describes the distinction between the true message of the Gospel, and merely living by do's and don'ts. He uncovers the subtle but pervasive tendency among Christians to think that "God probably needs our help in the work of justification and most certainly needs us to carry the weight of our sanctification, as well." The result? Inumerable Christians burdened with trying to keep the law rather than discovering the delight of Gospel-centered living. Chandler devotes the next fourteen pages to an excellent elaboration on 'grace-driven effort', as opposed to burdensome moralism.
"The marker of those who understand the gospel of Jesus Christ is that, when they stumble and fall, when they screw up, they run to God and not from him, because they clearly understand that their acceptance before God is not predicated upon their behavior but on the righteous life of Jesus Christ and his sacrificial death."(211)
"We must also abandon the idea that our good behavior somehow rubs the spiritual lamp that inclines God, like a genie, to emerge and give us the things we wish for."(211)
"Let's be careful to preach the dos and don'ts of Scripture in the shadow of the cross's "Done!" (221)
Chandler says grace-driven effort will know how to wield the 'weapons of grace'—the blood of Christ, the Word of God, and promises of the new covenant. Grace-driven effort will address the heart, not merely the behavior. It is motivated by more than regret for getting caught. It discovers a new motive for forsaking sin that goes beyond trying to earn God's favor. It is driven by the love of God to obey and to root out the heart of sin, not just its appearances.
One especially poignant illustration compared the believer to a child learning to walk. The loving parent cheers on each step overlooking the falls. The celebration is in the steps! "Moralists see the fall and believe that the Father is ashamed and thinks they're foolish. So, more often than not, they stop trying to walk because they can't see the Father rejoicing in and celebrating his child."(221)
The book concludes with a call to make the gospel explicit in one's relationships, even and perhaps especially, with our own children, and not just assume that its implications are understood.
I consider this a book pertinent to every believer. We must never grow immune to the gore and the glory of the Gospel story. It may poke and prod in spots where we've grown complacent but will leave us with the hope of the Gospel to return to, repentant and ready for commissioning. Get a copy for yourself and your church library!