Friday, July 6, 2012

Book Snap: "The Explicit Gospel"

Today's entry is a guest piece written by Tekton reader Ross Harriman.
            I’ll admit at the outset that I have relatively little experience with many popular Christian teachers or their writings in the past few years. The few times I have read them or heard them speak, if there has been anything positive to say, it has been mostly rehash of things I have heard a hundred times and read twice as often. For example, last year I read Francis Chan’s Crazy Love and I remember having an overall positive evaluation of the book, but I wish I could remember what was in it. It has been hard for me to figure out what distinguishes it from almost every other popular work of its kind. In that light, I came to Matt Chandler and Jared Wilson’s The Explicit Gospel without high expectations, but admittedly with piqued interest.

            As a symptom of my frequent aloofness towards most popular Christian teachers of today, I knew practically nothing about Matt Chandler before reading this book, except that several schoolmates were apparently fans. He is the lead pastor of The Village Church in the DFW metroplex and he apparently produces one of the most heard podcasts on iTunes. A few months ago, he became the new president—after Mark Driscoll’s resignation—of the Acts 29 Church Planting Network. These points and others clearly demonstrate his wide sphere of influence and thus the large audience already inclined to give this book a read, especially since it is the man’s first book.

            As for Jared Wilson…uh…well…I’m confused. I knew truly nothing about him before reading this book and I know barely more afterward. He is credited as a contributor (it is by Chandler, but is with Wilson), but my confusion rests with the nature of his contribution. His name is on the cover—in smaller print under Chandler’s—and he is on the book jacket, but you would barely know that much from the endorsements and reviews of this book. Everyone seems to recognize this book as Chandler’s baby and Wilson is at best an honorary uncle. Even so, in respect to how they titled the book, I refer to both of them as authors in the absence of clarification as to what Wilson did.

            This book piqued my interest because it is supposed to be a crystallization of what Chandler and Wilson consider to be the gospel, and I guessed it would also encapsulate how many others conceived of it. It was also of interest to me because I recently completed my own study of the content of the proclamations of the gospel in Acts and I have given some brief glimpses to its content as described in the epistles. I wanted to see how my findings compared with Chandler and Wilson. The results were as I anticipated. With those prefatory notes out of the way, let us dive into the review of the book itself.

            The Explicit Gospel seeks to address the all-too-common phenomenon of people growing up in the Church without hearing the gospel. The gospel is more assumed than expressed/explicit (hence the title). The gospel is not a central aspect of teaching in many congregations, even though its story is central to the Christian identity. What exacerbates the problem is that the “assumed” gospel is often wrong anyway, taking the form of what Christian Smith [in Soul Searching] labeled, “Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” The rest of the book aims at distinguishing the actual gospel from this false-yet-assumed gospel. Chandler and Wilson use two frames of reference in performing this task of articulating the gospel: the Gospel on the Ground and the Gospel in the Air.

            The distinctions are fleshed out more in the subsequent chapters, but the basic difference between these frames of reference is that the former is the gospel operating at the micro, individual level effecting human atonement transformation while the latter is the gospel operating at the macro, cosmic level effecting the restoration and transformation of God’s creation as a whole. Each framework involves a four-part narrative. The Gospel on the Ground’s narrative is God-Man-Christ-Response. The Gospel in the Air’s narrative is Creation-Fall-Reconciliation-Consummation. The realization of both aspects of the gospel alone is an important positive of this book as the gospel often gets reduced to one or the other (a reduction which contributes to the formation of self-centered Christianity on the one hand and a Christless social gospel on the other).

            When one turns to Chandler and Wilson’s articulation of the gospel, starting with the chapter on God, it becomes clear that for those who have already had a basic theological education, the information is just rehash. When this observation receives confirmation from subsequent chapters and their liberal use of illustrations to explain, one could thus get the impression that this book targets people who have not had such an education (though it is said on the book jacket to be for both the churched and unchurched). More on this issue later.

            As noted earlier, the Gospel on the Ground proceeds through the phases of God-Man-Christ-Response. It is difficult to follow the train of thought because there is no attempt to trace it clearly. But judging from their various statements it seems to go as follows. God is awe-inspiring, worship-inducing, and the creator of all that has ever existed, does exist, and ever will exist, who created because of his glory (which is a confusing answer to the question of why God created the universe). Humans deny the glory of God through worshiping whatever is not God (i.e. denying that God is God and that something else is instead). Furthermore, we are unable by any means available to us to make atonement for our sins. Thus, we earn the wrath of God in response. However, Jesus steps in and voluntarily absorbs the wrath of God on the cross, thereby atoning for the sins of the human race. Because of Jesus, humans do not have to receive the penalty of their idolatry and can instead freely receive God’s grace through the response of faith. Please note that this summary is a rather smoothed-out version—in the sense of making the connections clearer and presenting the logic in a more concise fashion—of what they write.

            The part on the Gospel in the Air, while having its own set of problems, seems to be the stronger of the two presentations of the frameworks. Here, the outline of the narrative is Creation-Fall-Reconciliation-Consummation. They use Romans 8:18-24 as the paradigmatic text for viewing this narrative of the restoration of creation as a whole, though of course many other texts come into play. Unfortunately, around half of the first chapter does not even relate to the gospel and the chapter would not have missed this half if they had removed it. The other half is not particularly bad and there is a beam of good insight here concerning the miracles of Jesus as signs of the right order of things. [107] The chapter on the Fall could have been an interesting exposition on the effects of the Fall on creation, but it was actually focused on the effects of the Fall on the human quest for shalom, which seems more appropriate for the previous part. The Reconciliation chapter is actually good overall with its recognition of the fact that Jesus’ ministry was focused around the kingdom of God and its inauguration through him. There is also an acknowledgment that “The hopes of God’s children throughout the Old Testament are not simply about individual salvation—although that is obviously in view—but about national redemption, covenantal restoration, and ‘real world’ reconciliation.” [137] There is furthermore a realization that the cross was not just about individual salvation (as indicated in passages such as Colossians 1:20). The rest of the chapter consists of implications and discussion of how to do missions, a subject best left for another chapter. Easily the best, though, is the chapter on Consummation, an appropriate reminder of the eschatological nature of the gospel. God’s plan in the New Testament, consistent with statements in the Old Testament, is not to bring people to abide in heaven for eternity, but to bring heaven to earth in a renewed creation that will involve the resurrection (Matthew 6:10; 19:28; Acts 3:21; Romans 8:18-24; 1 Corinthians 15; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21).

            The final part is dedicated to implications and applications, warning against focusing on either gospel perspective to the exclusion of the other, and comparing moralism to the message they have outlined. Though they outline other dangers, I have already noted the gist of their warnings. There are a few points of disagreement I have with their assertions concerning the nature of the Christian message, but it is essentially sound criticism against an easy yet persistent target in moralism/legalism.

            In terms of general presentation of the gospel, the book is more good than bad, yet incomplete (more on that statement later). It is a rather encouraging strength of this book that Chandler and Wilson recognize both dimensions of the gospel. They will at least be able to communicate that important message to the large sphere of influence this book is already set to have. There are, however, some problems.

The most frustrating problem with this book is a frequent lack of focus. Chandler and Wilson go on several tangents in the course of a book that is supposed to be about the gospel. For example, in the chapter on Creation, there is a long tangent on being “agnostic” toward science and ranting against evolution (including bad arguments against it, such as claiming it violates the first and second laws of thermodynamics). It simply reads like padding and a distraction from the task of developing the content to articulate the gospel message at the cosmic level. In another case, when discussing the dangers of “a gospel in the air too long”, they decide to bring up their disapproval of the egalitarian position on gender roles (especially in church leadership), claiming that this position is, “a concession to our culture, a way of rejecting biblical values and saying, ‘The Bible, when all is said and done, is not our authority. The culture is our authority.’” [194] I don’t know about you, but Chandler and Wilson sounds to me like people who have read through the biblical analyses and arguments of Gordon Fee, I. Howard Marshall, Scot McKnight, Ben Witherington, and N. T. Wright among many others and interacted with them thoroughly before coming to this verdict. Of all the illustrations they could have chosen of turning culture into an idol, they chose this issue as one of their two illustrations. This lack of focus plays out frequently in this book as several sections read like collections of meditations rather than points connected to the central message of the book. In fact, the entire Response chapter lacks development of thought and focus on a central subject.

Another problem with this book, which goes hand-in-hand with its lack of focus, is its lack of demarcation. What I mean by that is a lack of clear demarcation of when Chandler and Wilson are articulating the gospel, and when they are not. When they are discussing God’s knowledge, do they think they are articulating the gospel or just an issue that connects to the gospel? What about when they are discussing evolution or attractional vs. incarnational/missional modes of missionary work? All of these sections and others appear in the midst of chapters which are supposed to be about articulating the gospel. What is even more frustrating is in the chapter on Response, clearly identified by Chandler and Wilson as the last part in the narrative of the Gospel on the Ground, they have a section titled “Response to the Gospel Is Not the Gospel”. Wait, what? So does that mean the entire chapter does not belong in this part of the book? Then why is it considered part of the narrative of the Gospel on the Ground? Where does the gospel end and everything else begin? The book provides no clear answers to these questions. The lack of clarity would make sense if the book was written to people who have enough background to know where to draw the line. But if this group is the audience, what is the point of the very basic expressions of doctrine with illustrations to explain them? If the intended audience is those people who do not have the background, how are they supposed to know where to draw the line between when Chandler and Wilson are referring to the gospel and when they are not? If the intended audience is both, their distinct problems remain. Since the book jacket claims it is supposed to meet the needs of both the churched and unchurched, I would take that statement to imply that the intended audience is both.

The implication of these shortcomings is that the title is somewhat misleading. The gospel articulated here is explicit as opposed to assumed. It is not, however, explicit as opposed to somewhat ambiguous.

            But the most important issue of all is how they articulate the gospel and here I will be drawing from my own study of Acts for comparison. While it is difficult to be clear on where exactly Chandler and Wilson draw lines around what in their book is part of the gospel and what is not, there is one item they clearly identify again and again as central to the gospel. As a sample:

“The cross now stands as the central tenet of all we believe about salvation.” [58]

“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]

“Nothing runs to the center of God’s kindness and severity, demonstrating his justice, his love, and his glory all at once, besides his incarnate Son’s sacrifice on the scandalous cross.” [60]

“From the ground we see the cross as our bridge to God. From the air, the cross is our bridge to the restoration of all things. The cross of the battered Son of God is the battering ram through the blockade into Eden. It is our key into a better Eden, into the wonders of the new-covenant kingdom, of which the old was just a shadow. The cross is the linchpin in God’s plan to restore all creation.” [142-143]

The problem with such statements is that they are incomplete. Yes, the cross is a key point of the gospel. This held true as much in the proclamations in Acts as it holds true today. But in reducing the gospel to the cross—without a strong background and without focus on the important events that occurred after the crucifixion—as what really matters, they have distorted it. In Acts, we see the following elements in the earliest proclamations of the gospel:

·         They used the Hebrew Scriptures to provide the background for the story of Jesus, often coming in the form of the claim that Jesus is the climax of the story of Israel and thus the story of the world.

·         The life of Jesus provided an even more immediate framework for understanding the meaning of his death, resurrection, and exaltation.

·         Jesus’ death was crucial to the plan of God in working out his vocation as the Messiah (which includes his representative and substitutionary roles), defeating the powers of evil, and establishing the inauguration of the kingdom of God/new creation as Jesus had been doing in his ministry.

·         But the cross was not the be-all-end-all event in those regards, since if it was all over at the crucifixion, none of these tasks would have been accomplished, hence the necessity of the resurrection, God’s vindication and affirmation of Jesus as the executor of his salvific work. After all, the apostles understood the ministry from the beginning as being witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 1:22). The apostolic witness testimony of Jesus’ resurrection—and of his life beforehand (hence the stories which produced the Gospels)—was also part of the earliest proclamations.

·         God provided further confirmation of Jesus’ status by exalting Jesus, confirming his status as Lord and Messiah. Exaltation was after all the expected accompaniment of resurrection and vindication.

·         Flowing from the occurrence of the resurrection and the exaltation of Jesus is the declaration of the coming of the kingdom of God in Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, whose presence and work is the primary identifying mark of the kingdom in the present. The consummation of its coming coincident with the new creation is still in the future.

·         Indeed, the primary way in which Christians proclaimed the announcement of the kingdom of God was through claiming that Jesus is Lord/King—with the implication that Caesar is not—and Christ/Messiah, thus the world needs to get with the program.

·         Because the Christians believed Jesus was/is the Messiah, they saw him as the center of the reconstitution of the identity of Israel and the world as a whole.

·         There was a need for a new covenant with a new center and ways to address the problems of faithfulness to the old covenant (caused by what Paul described as “the flesh”). Jesus was and is the mediator and executor of this new covenant from God.

·         We see in this new covenant the universal outreach of God’s grace, which has been there the whole time (since Israel was always supposed to be the means by which God enacted salvation for the whole world for humans and the rest of creation alike).

·         At the same time, Jesus also serves as the universal judge, the one who will set all things to rights, whether that will mean punishment or vindication, removal or transformation, it will involve reparation of the world through him.

·         The call of the gospel requires abandoning idolatry and worshiping the true Creator God we see in Jesus. Humans were created in the image of God and we only serve that function properly in worshiping him, which inherently means worshiping Jesus as Lord.

Some of these elements are in The Explicit Gospel, but others are not. There is little about Jesus as the climax of the Hebrew Scriptures and the story of Israel, a story that constitutes the majority of our Bibles (the sole exception I could find was a set of brief indications on 137). There is also little about the life and teaching of Jesus except some brief mentions I have noted already (plus a mention in the chapter on Consummation). Otherwise, it is only brought up as being a perfect life compensating for our inability to keep the law, which is imputed to us (it is rather noteworthy that the chapter on Christ jumps right to the crucifixion narrative). They have the death of Jesus well-covered, but it is an incomplete picture. The resurrection receives a few references, but they are done in such an offhanded fashion that if these references were removed, the book would be unchanged (there is not even an entry in the index for it). The exaltation and Lordship of Jesus, as well as the kingdom of God, make scattered appearances that combined amount to around 3 ½ pages (though the Consummation chapter does focus on the consonant theme of restored creation). New covenant emphases are almost absent and Jesus’ Messiahship truly is absent. It fares far better with the last three elements of universal scopes of gracious outreach and judgment as well as gospel confrontation of idolatry.

I am not claiming that the book had to include every element with sufficient focus to be the biblical gospel (no summary in Acts features every single one either). Still, one would think that a book purporting to make the gospel explicit would place more of these components at the forefront of the presentation as opposed to the places they do occupy.

In conclusion, if you are looking for a clear, relatively concise, and accurate summary of the biblical gospel, I would not recommend this book. If the subject interests you and you want to see how large group of Christians conceive of the gospel, this would be a good volume for you.

1 comment:

  1. I'm writing a blog post on the gospel right now, and near the beginning I say of one of my reasons for writing it, "I should note that in the last decade or so, American Christianity has been experiencing a resurgence of Calvinism (dubbed the "New Calvinism"), and with it, a greater emphasis on the Gospel in every area of the Christian life. While I'm not a Calvinist, I see this as a very good thing for American Christianity. One thing this has led to for these Calvinists is that it has caused them to emphasize the need to explain the Gospel well and in a fuller way. They have been practicing what they preach through sermons, blog posts, books, and myriads of other ways, and thankfully, they haven't frequently used those opportunities to hammer away at distinct Calvinist perspectives on the Gospel. However, I find it frustrating that when they write or speak on the Gospel in any considerable length that is meant for the laymen, they leave out the cultural context of certain key concepts of any good Gospel presentation."

    Matt Chandler is a part of this movement as well. It would be nice if they would get up to speed on the material, because it's a great cure to "God is my buddy" and moralistic therapeutic deism theology that they themselves decry.