I really like Matt Chandler’s preaching. He’s a little edgy, and has that Baptist almost screaming things at times. But I benefit from much of what he says. He also experiences similar reactions to the gospel as I did in small city Florida. He just experiences it on a much larger scale in the Big D. His frustrations with people being inoculated for the gospel ring true in my time in Florida.
I’ve read Jared Wilson’s blog for some time now. I like how he tries to keep the gospel central. You have to like a guy who moves to Vermont to pastor a church, especially when he adopts the local sports teams. That’s good missional thinking, right?
Well, they wrote a book together. Matt was the primary author, and Jared helped him out. The book is The Explicit Gospel, and it has blurbs filled with praise from the likes of Rick Warren, D.A. Carson, Mark Driscoll, David Platt, Ed Stetzer and more. A literal hodge-podge of famous (and some might say infamous) pastors. Incidentally, CavCorollary #167 is don’t believe the blurbs.
I am half way through the book, and thought this would be a good time to process it. The first half focuses on “the gospel on the ground.” The second focuses on the “gospel in the air”. Think trees versus forest. It is the same gospel, but from different perspectives, or angles.
“If the gospel on the ground is the gospel at the micro level, the gospel in the air is the story at the macro level. … One crucial thing that viewing the gospel on the ground helps us do is distinguish between the gospel’s content and the gospel’s implications. … On the ground, the gospel comes to us as individuals.”
The gospel on the ground, according to Chandler, distinguishes between the gospel and its implications. It focuses on the personal aspects of the gospel instead of the cosmic aspects of the gospel. We need both. But we need to distinguish them or we get all messed up. This is one of the problems that he mentions in some “gospel” preaching- they talk as if the implications of the gospel (social justice, good works, community etc.) were the gospel itself. So they distort and obscure the gospel as a result.
But let’s get back to the beginning.
Chandler’s main point is that many churches are not explicit about the gospel. They mention Jesus a lot, but they are not clear about the content of the gospel. People aren’t hearing about God’s glory, their sin and Christ’s redemptive and reconciling work. His premise is that churches need to explicitly preach the gospel, to consistently show these things from the Scriptures lest we lapse into the common moralistic therapeutic deism that fills so many churches today.
“We carry an insidious prosperity gospel around in our dark, little, entitled hearts.”
So, he starts with God’s glory and sovereignty so we know who we are dealing with in the gospel. There is a focus on God’s incomprehensibility, as well as His revelation of Himself to us in the Scriptures. In terms of His omniscience, he hits both the macro (God’s transcendent knowledge) and the micro (God’s immanent knowledge). He explains the folly of us trying to play God’s counselor with a story of his 4 year-old daughter claiming they are lost on a trip to San Antonio. We easily, and arrogantly, forget that God’s knowledge far exceeds ours and that He could benefit from our help. The gospel is God’s plan for our salvation. We don’t and can’t improve it. His work in our lives is the result of His wisdom- it is the absolute best way for Him to accomplish His purposes in our lives.
In this context, he alludes to what John Gerstner called the problem of good. We question all the time about the difficulties and afflictions we experience as though the Judge of all the earth has failed to do right. We don’t question why good things happen to such pathetic sinners as ourselves. We are not amazed at both common and saving grace. Spiritually, we are part of the moocher class. We’ve become the Occupy Heaven group. We want it all to be about us, not God. But God is passionately committed to His glory. Unlike us, God is no idolator!
Yet, here I found some factual errors. Are there not editors who are supposed to catch these things. I challenge anyone to find “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever” in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Show me! It is in the Westminster Standards, but it’s the first answer of the Shorter Catechism (slightly different from the first answer of the Larger Catechism). I don’t know why this stuff irritates me so. But this is a simple fact to check, but some guy new to the Confession will look in vain and conclude that either Chandler is lying or the reader himself is an idiot. Things like this undermine one’s credibility. Been there when I haven’t done enough fact checking for a sermon illustration.
Which leads us to our sinfulness. Chandler is a bit too reductionistic here. It calls all of it idolatry, the quest to worship something other than God. Oh, we are idolators! All idolatry is sin, but all sin is not necessarily idolatry. A minor point.
He balances the kindness and severity of God. Our tendency is to default to one or the other. Liberals the former and fundamentalists the latter. He doesn’t mention Rob Bell here (he alludes to Bell’s first book later), but that is part of the background. God is ruthlessly severe toward sin. The Bible contains both promises and warnings, or in covenantal terms- blessings and curses. While he continually affirms the horrible reality of hell, there are times when he is less than clear. The particular issue that is unclear is whether or not God is present in hell. His presence (if He’s not, He’s not omnipresent) is what makes it hell. He is present to execute justice, the curses of the covenant of works. Hell is intensely personal, not just some impersonal and bland place apart from God. Perhaps I’m being overly charitable. “There is a chasm between us and presence of God that manifests the withdrawal of God’s presence and goodness from the reality of hell.” Such a concept is a theological impossibility, like the pseudo-tasks people ponder. Can God create a place where He isn’t? Nope.
“Till sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet.” Thomas Watson
The gospel makes no sense apart from the reality of sin’s punishment. God’s love, rightly understood, does not rule out God’s wrath. He protects His glory, and those He loves, from all that seek to destroy them. That is what love does- it hates evil and loves good.
He then moves into the redeeming, reconciling work of Christ which is the answer to God’s goodness meeting our sinfulness. He rightly wants to keep the cross central to Christianity. He focuses on the one controversial area- the penal satisfaction. Here he alludes to Chalke and McLaren’s claim of it as child abuse. I applaud him for this.
But there are passages in the chapter whose meaning is uncertain. For instance, what law did the high priest write (pp. 56)? He seems to deny that the Father forsook the Son by referring to Psalm 22 which starts with, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He says “God does not turn his back on Jesus, ever.” Odd to me.
There are more unclear statements, like ” the plan known about within the Godhead since the beginning.” This plan was not merely known by God, but made by God. Yet later he affirms that the Cross was God’s idea. The editors should be noticing these things. In one place there is a sentence that makes no sense.
“The other goat, the scapegoat, is vanquished into the wilderness, carrying away the sins of Israel.”
Vanquished makes no sense. It means “to conquer or subdue by force; to defeat; to overcome.” Banished is the word they are looking for in this context.
“No, the invitation is bound up in the gospel message itself. The explicit gospel, by virtue of its own gravity, invites belief by demanding it.”
He ends with the response for which the gospel calls. He has a very good section here that talks about our focus on faithfulness instead of fruitfulness. The problem is that we look for fruitfulness. But Isaiah 6 and the Parable of the Sower indicate that fruitfulness are not guaranteed. Often the gospel hardens people. That God’s word does not return void does not mean everyone will convert. Mentioning this in a small group 21 years ago got me in lots of trouble with a pastor who didn’t want to start the Calvinism conversation yet. Faithful preaching is the goal, and there is no guarantee of the results. All pastors struggle with this. I see relative fruitlessness at times and wonder if I’m being faithful. Not a bad question to ask- am I being faithful. But faithfulness is not determined by the presence or lack of fruitfulness. The Spirit works according to the purposes of God, not according to ours.
“One of the things we don’t preach well is that ministry that looks fruitless is constantly happening in the Scriptures. … The power in the gospel is not the dynamic presentation of the preacher or the winsomeness of the witness, although the Spirit does empower and use those things too.”
Chandler, with Wilson, make some much needed corrections for the church in the first section of The Explicit Gospel. In that sense, this is a book that should be read. But it is not a perfect book. So far there are errors of fact, theological faux pas and some very fuzzy thoughts. These don’t undo the positives of the book, but they do make it harder to read. And that is unfortunate.