The Explicit Gospel

[You’re reading this review of The Explicit Gospel because I asked Crossway for a review copy and they said yes!]

While this is Matt Chandler’s first book, it is far from my first experience sitting under his teaching. For 3 of the 4 years I lived in Dallas, I went to The Village Church, and was there before, during, and after his journey through brain cancer. As our pastor for our first two years of marriage and last two for my time at seminary, Matt Chandler has had a profound impact on both Ali and me.

Because of the connections between Matt and the lead pastor at CrossPointe Orlando, Chan Kilgore, we had the privilege of being the last stop on The Explicit Gospel Tour. I was able then to not only read the book, but hear Matt talk about it live. We ended up not being able to stay the entire time, but thanks to the live simulcast, still heard Matt’s talk. It was a good summary of the contents of The Explicit Gospel as well as a representative snapshot of what a typical service at The Village was like during the 3 years we were there. Overall, I think this is a great book, though I do have some reservations about it. But to get to those, let’s look at the three main sections in turn.

The Gospel on the Ground

Chandler starts by making a distinction between the gospel on the ground and the gospel in the air. If you remember my review of The King Jesus Gospel, this seems to be Chandler’s way of overcoming a gospel reduction where one is simply left with the plan of salvation. What’s left behind in this scenario is the full story of Scripture that provides the context for the gospel. Instead Chandler takes the topics separately, focusing here on how we usually become acquainted with the gospel and come to faith. As he puts it, “when we consider the gospel from the ground, we see clearly the work of the cross in our lives and the lives of those around us, the capturing and resurrecting of dead hearts” (16). To unpack this, Chandler devotes chapters to God, Man, Christ, and Response.

What follows is kind of entry-point to the gospel in the way that people normally become acquainted with it. Had we been first century Jews, we would have come to believe in Jesus in the context of the grand-overarching story of Scripture. But, since that’s not the case, most people arrive at an understanding of the gospel by realizing there is a God, realizing they have a problem, finding out there is a solution in the person and work of Christ, and then responding appropriately. As you can see, each of these occupies a chapter length treatment in The Explicit Gospel.

Overall, I found these chapters to be classic Matt Chandler, and I recognized many of the anecdotes and emphases from sitting under his preaching for several years. One thing that was a bit disappointing was the almost complete absence of a discussion of the resurrection of Jesus. Some of this is understandable, since as I learned from Jared Wilson on Twitter, his “with” role in this book involved taking Matt’s sermon transcripts and smoothing them out. The resurrection hasn’t really been an emphasis in Matt’s preaching and so its not surprising it doesn’t show up much here. However, I do think is an area where irony creeps in. In trying to present the explicit gospel, one very crucial part is still more or less assumed and its significance not elaborated. Though these chapters are strong, they would be much stronger with more than a passing mention of the importance of Jesus death AND resurrection.

The Gospel in the Air

After the first four chapters, the vantage point shifts to the gospel in the air. As Chandler differentiates in the introduction, “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.” So here, now that we’re looking at the gospel from 30,000 feet, we are able to see the whole scope of creation, fall, reconciliation, and consumation, each a respective chapter in this section. Another metaphorical way of seeing all this is using the technique of in media res, which is used in films that start the story “in the middle of the action.” To bring down the point from above, since we aren’t first century Jews, we usually all come in contact with the gospel in media res and then need to learn how to see it “with a wide angle lens” (89).

The gospel from the air then is about context (90) and Chandler starts with a discussion of creation. I was surprised he got into some discussions related to philosophy of science in his defense of special creation. Then, in the chapter on the fall, Chandler interacts extensively with Ecclesiastes. This was somewhat helpful, but I think he relied too much on translating hebel as “vanity” rather than “vapor” or “fleeting” which is more what the author of Ecclesiastes had in mind. This somewhat undermines his use of Ecclesiastes to illustrate the futility creation has been subjected to (a la Romans 8:18-23). However, it’s not a radical defect, and Chandler does better with the resurrection when it comes to his chapters on how God reconciled everything in Christ and the consummation that still awaits us in the future.

Overall, I think this section was good. Chandler gets the general contours of the gospel from the air, though it could have benefited from a more detailed presentation of how Christ was the fulfillment of the Old Testament people of God’s hope. But there again, that wasn’t a major emphasis in Matt’s preaching and we only briefly moved through an OT book when I was there. His analysis and presentation then of the gospel from the air will probably be satisfactory to the average person and seem too simplistic to the biblical studies major. Consider the wide net he’s trying to cast, that’s probably ok.

Implications and Applications

The final section of the book deals first with the dangers of staying on the ground with the gospel, and then the dangers of staying in the air too long. The final chapter digs into Matt’s teaching on “grace-driven effort” or how we related faith and obedience. As for the dangers of staying on the ground too long, Matt sees three: (1) missing out on God’s cosmic mission, (2) becoming overly doctrine centered to the exclusion of a personal dimension, (3) making the gospel all about us. When it comes to staying in the air too long, Matt see four dangers: (1) syncretism (mixing in other faiths), (2) leaving Christ out of the gospel, (3) making an idol of out culture, (4) abandoning evangelism. All of these are presented as possible dangers, not as necessary dangers for anyone too focused on one gospel perspective or the other. As Matt puts it, “I’m not saying that someone stuck on the ground or in the air for too long will do these things, but rather that history and the Scriptures show us that these things are possibilities that must be guarded against” (178). What we’re getting then in these chapters is pastoral insight into dangers to keep an eye out for, not necessarily descriptions of issues to go hunt down in a person’s life.

In the final chapter, Matt fleshes out his understanding of the Christian life as “grace driven effort.” His rather famous “dirty rose” illustration shows up here as a prelude to the discussion which centers on unpacking the five dimensions of “grace-driven effort”:

  • It uses the weapons of grace (the blood of Christ, the Word of God, the promise of the New Covenant)
  • It attacks the roots of sin instead of the branches
  • It has a healthy fear of God
  • It doesn’t just forsake sin but is absolutely dead to it
  • It advocates “gospel violence” when it comes to putting sin to death

Reading through this gives you a really accurate snapshot of some of Matt’s preaching emphases. This final chapter is a good summary form, but these are points he brings up again and again in his teaching. While they’re not particularly new to me, I’m glad I have them here in written form to have as a resource and reminder.

In the end, I think this is a good book everyone should read. I mentioned my two reservations, one of them significant and the other not quite as much. One book can’t necessarily do it all and perhaps I’m partial to Matt and not being as hard on him as I would had the book been written by someone else. In any case, I don’t see anything here that would mislead a person away from the explicit gospel and so the book lives up to its title. I think it could be made more explicit when it comes to the resurrection, but that shouldn’t stop you from picking this up and giving it a read for yourself.

Author: Nate

I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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