Book Review: The Explicit Gospel, Part 1

By | July 13, 2012

I’ve had a challenging time deciding what I think of Matt Chandler’s book, “The Explicit Gospel”. To be honest, I agreed with most of what he said, yet much of the book sat uneasily with me. I’m going to explore the reasons I believe this is the case.

Basically, “The Explicit Gospel” is a summary of conservative evangelical beliefs. As such, evangelicals will likely love it while other Christians are likely to be less enthusiastic to various degrees. Chandler puts himself fully in the conservative camp by means of warning against liberalism and criticizing mainline protestantism if nothing else. Criticism is fine in proper context and so long as it is fair and equal opportunity. However it becomes divisive when one camp criticizes another unilaterally. I find it unfortunate that Chandler falls into this latter case.

As one might expect from the title, this book focuses on “the gospel”. (Chandler defines the gospel as Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of sins.) Chandler argues for the centrality of the gospel to Christianity. The problem I have is that he seems to make the gospel more important than Jesus himself, as though Jesus is just a character in the story. I’m certain Chandler wouldn’t consciously agree with this, yet this is what is communicated. It’s as though “the gospel” is a thing unto itself, and this thing is what is good. In contrast, I see Jesus as the good news. He is the gospel because he is good (because he is God and God is good). In this way, the atoning work of redemption through the cross is a part of Christ, rather than Christ just being a player in the “gospel” of redemption. For this reason, I desire to talk about Jesus and focus on him as the center of Christianity. I still believe Christ’s atonement is a key piece of the story, but I see it in context rather than as the whole story itself. (I realize this may seem like a subtle, technical difference; I hope it makes some sense.)

Chandler divides the gospel into two “perspectives” which he refers to as “the gospel on the ground” and “the gospel in the air”. While he calls them two perspectives, he struggles to connect them as well as I believe he would like to.

The first section of the book covers “the gospel on the ground”. Chandler simply expounds upon “the four spiritual laws“; each of the first four chapters corresponds to one of the “laws”. In chapter one (“God”) he covers the basic qualities of God which Protestants like to focus on: his omnipresence, omniscience, and self-sufficiency. Chapter two (“Man”) talks about how people deserve God’s wrath. While chapter three is titled “Christ”, the topics it covers are the crucifixion, penal substitution, and how a sacrifice is needed to bridge the divide to God, since sinners can’t be in the presence of God. (In other words, my observation is that he talks a lot about things which are related to Christ, but talks very little of Christ himself.) Chandler makes a good point in the forth chapter (“Response”): he discusses how an encounter with Christ necessitates a response. The response can be to move either closer to Christ or to move further away, but some sort of response is required. The only real problem I have with this section is what I previously mentioned: that it almost seems to make a god out of the act and message of the gospel.

Chandler describes “the gospel in the air” in the second section of the book. This section is less clearly organized than the first section. I felt he got off track in the fifth chapter (“Creation”) in which he spent significant time trying to denounce science and evolution. At the end of the chapter he also demonstrates a problem I have with many conservative Christians. In trying to uphold a certain doctrine (total depravity), he skips right over that which is plainly clear to the ordinary person (we are created good in God’s image). He claims he is being biblical in contrast to the members of his congregation, when in reality he is just trying to uphold his theological position and his understanding of the bible. The problem isn’t really that he’s wrong, it’s just that the theology emphasizes one truth to the neglect of another in order to make for a nice systematic understanding of the gospel. I believe it’s more honest and correct to recognize both of these truths. To do so isn’t to be unbiblical, nor are they in contrast to one another.

Chandler spends most of chapter six (“Fall”) looking over Ecclesiastes. He talks about our “pursuit of happiness” or Shalom. The message is basically that the “fall of mankind” broke the world, and we are now going around trying to find fulfillment for the “God-shaped hole” in our hearts.

A problem with “the gospel on the ground”—the gospel as primarily the atonement for sins—is that it doesn’t provide much of a connection as to why one should change their present life or engage in trying to make a positive difference in the world. I get the sense that Chandler’s “gospel in the air” is an attempt to work backward in order to give reason for why the church and mission are necessary. In other words, I feel like Chandler believed first in the need for church and a mission thereof, and his explanation of “the gospel in the air” came from this, rather than this belief leading to a need for church and mission. Granted, this is probably a moot point. I mention it because I’ve heard a slightly different take on this which I think fits better. In any case, I appreciate that Chandler does look at the “bigger picture” of God’s overall purposes for redemption, even if I don’t entirely agree with the details.

In the seventh chapter, “Reconciliation”, Chandler puts forth that cosmic restoration is the reason why church and mission are necessary. The mission of the church is to evangelize and disciple. While he briefly acknowledges the difficulty churches have had in trying to disciple, he doesn’t really offer much solution (of course this isn’t the focus of the book).

Review continued in Part 2

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