You have got to be careful how you search for Matt Chandler’s new book “The Explicit Gospel.” It’s an interesting choice of titles. It has a commendation from Mark Driscoll whose most recent book could certainly have used the term explicit in the title as it had a lot to say about sexual positions for married couples. Chandler’s book has the most racy name but attempts to make the gospel clear.
Why does this book matter?
The list of commendations let you know a little about the circles this book has come from: DA Carson, Mark Driscoll, Mark Dever are conservative evangelicals from North America connected with the Gospel Coalition network of churches and leaders. Perhaps Chandler’s book could be described as the gospel that the Gospel Coalition espouses. This book is a big deal not just because of who commends it, but because it comes with its own branded tour bus with a multi city itinerary. The rock star imagery is noted by Chandler Its also the first chance to see what the new head of the Acts 29 network (Mark Driscoll recently stepped down from leading this) thinks about evangelism. Mark Driscoll gave this book a rave review:
“Matt Chandler is one of the best Bible preachers on the earth…”
Those of us in the UK know about the high standards Pastor Mark has for preachers so I guess from this commendation Driscoll believes Chandler to be a brave and truthful preacher. I am not sure how well Pastor Mark has researched his comment that Chandler is one of the best preachers on the planet – but perhaps he is better acquainted with the preachers of Sierra Leone, Albania, Tasmania and Nepal than I give him credit for. It was encouraging to see the inclusion of Rick Warren with the following commendation “If you only read one book this year, make it this one. It’s that important.” I know Rick reads copiously so this is high praise indeed. So it was with eager anticipation that I dived into my review copy from the generous team at IVP UK.
5 things to enjoy
1. Personable and engaging
I have listened to quite a bit of Chandler’s preaching and there’s lots to like. He often has a very fresh use of language – he has a very down to earth turn of phrase that I find refreshing and often heflpul. He also has a pastoral heart – part of me wonders whether his own experience with cancer – which he talks about openly and often has given him a deeper and richer experience of God and of the church. You get the idea Matt would be a good person to hang out with, someone you could trust.
2. Willingness to think bigger
The book is divided into two sections – Part 1 “the gospel on the ground” and Part 2 “the gospel from the air.” The gospel from our point of view and the Gospel from God’s vantage point if you like.
Chandler describes the difference between the two in an interview with Ed Stetzer:
Chandler states the “gospel on the ground” looks at the gospel up close (individual salvation) and then the “gospel in the air” pulls way back and looks at our faith from 30,000 feet (meta/mega-narrative). Whenever you de-emphasize one you take what is robust and awe inspiring and make it smaller than it is. I think this is harmful to people and to the church.
We’ll dial into the gospel on the ground later in this piece, but the “gospel in the air” that Chandler presents is a helpful corrective to a lot of the “gospel” preaching I hear from the conservative stable. If you compared this book with Mark Dever’s “The Gospel and Evangelism” you would find the gospel in the air offers a wider canvass. A more expansive vision of the gospel – one that I and many others have been championing for a while now. The structure is Creation, Fall, Rescue and Consummation but there is mention of the new heavens and the new earth and resurrection that is often missing in the gospel according to conservatives. In many expressions of the gospel creation and the church are completely ignored and Chandler’s “gospel in the air” helpfully seeks to address this.
3. One degree shifts
When you read a book I guess trying to work out whom the intended audience are is a key part in assessing its success. I get frustrated when I get a review of one of my books where someone says they don’t like it because it didn’t scratch where they were itching – often the fact that the book was aimed at someone else could go half way to explaining that. If Chandler’s book helps to lift some conservatives out of an overly pietistic and individualistic approach to evangelism then in my mind it has succeeded. I can think of many friends for whom what Chandler is saying will be a one degree shift they might be willing to make that will help them engage with a fuller and deeper gospel.
4. Not guilt by association
Chandler moves in circles where pastors discourage their congregations to read books that come to difference conclusions on things like social justice or the social implications of the gospel. Chandler recently spoke at the together for the gospel conference alongside Mark Dever who at the same conference in previous years has argued pastors ought to protect the flock by discouraging them from reading books on social justice. I have written elsewhere on how controversial Tom Wright seems to be in Gospel Coalition circles but Chandler cites NT Wright at length. This is a brave move for someone in his position and is to be commended.
5. Passion for evangelism
There is an unmistakable passion for evangelism present in this book . Chandler believes the gospel is worth sharing clearly and often. He has an infectious enthusiasm for preaching the gospel and as an evangelist I enjoy reading that. Chandler is the leader of a huge US church which is seeing conversions and for this we can only rejoice. He is very keen that the gospel we preach does not lead to “moralistic therapeutic deism” that Christian Smith and Kenda Creasey Dean analyse as having a major influence over the teens of the US church.
5 things to be frustrated about
1. Inter Tribal warfare
For a book about making the gospel clear Chandler managed to find a way to make explicit his views on: the role of women and on creation. He played up to my stereotype of the US conservative right wing by bashing people who hold to an egalitarian position on the role of women in church leadership.For all his protestations he has made it part of the explicit gospel. For me that is a key problem we are facing in evangelical circles at the moment – we have made a whole range of issues a test of orthodoxy which previously were not considered to be part of the gospel.
2. Unexamined presuppositions
Chandler’s first section on the gospel on the ground uses the well worn pattern of
- Man (a masculine term deliberately chosen instead of humanity)
No explanation or justification is given for this structure. It is an assumed evangelical shorthand. Surely one of the ways that we “guard the good deposit” is that we have the courage to make sure the gospel we are preaching is the same as that the apostles preached. But Chandler’s exegetical method leaves him wide open to allowing the cultural assumptions of the west and the particular evangelical subtribe he lives in to edit the gospel down to size.
For example take a look at what is included under these different headings:
God – the all sufficiency of God – lots of quotes from Piper and Romans 11 – this feels like a condensed version of “Desiring God” by John Piper rather than an exegesis of what the Bible has to say is important about the nature of God in the gospel
- strangely Chandler is virtually silent on the Trinity
- there is no mention of the idea that people may be aware of the presence of God through general revelation – something even Calvin had space for in his doctrine of revelation.
Man – the sinfulness of humanity is highlighted as if this is the only aspect of biblical anthropology – is the only thing that the gospel has to say about human beings is that they are sinful? No one is asking that sin be minimised but what about human dignity as being made in the image of God. What about though we are evil we still know how to do good?
Rescue – the death of Christ is presented in isolation from the story of Israel, the birth, life and teaching of Jesus and even the resurrection. Jesus is explicitly reduced as a means to an end.
There is no critique of this gospel on the ground. It is presented as a valid expression of the gospel – the fact that it is drawn almost entirely from the book of Romans – Chandler very deliberately describes the process as throwing well known Romans verses at his readers. Is this really true to central thrust of the book of Romans? Is it the intention of the book of Romans to present a timeless gospel message? In order to get this gospel message from Romans you have to fillet out vast chunks. This presentation focuses on what many of us knew as the Roman road Romans 3:23, 6:23, 5:8 and 10:9 with the extra bonus of Romans 11:35-36 to underline the sufficiency of God. Chandler does not engage with the gospels at all. Which is very telling for a book about the gospel.
3. Lack of integration
Now as I recognise, perhaps politically Chandler almost has to expound this version of the “gospel on the ground” in order to be able to say the things he wants to say in the second half of the book. Because unless he has said these things and proved his orthodoxy it is possible in his desired audience will listen to the rest of what he has to say. If that is his strategy I understand. But because there is no critique of the limits of the gospel he has given – I think readers will assume you can take your pick between the gospel on the ground or the gospel in the air. Chandler does not integrate his gospel from above with his gospel on the ground.
Interestingly the gospel from the air uses:
Another four point structure. But once again the entire history of Israel is absent from the gospel message. The chapter on creation spends no time on thinking through what creation stewardship might mean and a lot of time expounding his particular views against evolution theory.What is Chandler’s advice to evangelists – which gospel should we preach Gospel from above or on the road or both? Why does one sound completely escapist and other only marginally less so? This may be a one degree shift for his audience but he has still left some big holes.
4. Missiological Naivety
Now that Chandler has made his two alternative gospels explicit – he does not explain to us why it doesn’t sound a lot like the gospel preaching that we encounter in the early church. Chandler’s gospel can’t be found on the lips of Jesus or in any of the evangelistic sermons in Acts. The rigid four point structures seem a lot less fluid than the contextually aware preaching of Jesus. The parables of Jesus for example don’t fit. Paul’s preaching in Areopagus or Peter’s at Pentecost don’t fit. The premise behind the book seems to be the nailing down of what is to be essential to the gospel – but to be honest the book is weak on the role of the Spirit, the missional task of the church, the place of repentance, even the atonement is not adequately explained. Not a single non-western theologian or thinker or evangelist is referred to. Perhaps Chandler “one of the best preachers in the world” – (I know he didn’t write that about himself but authors get to make a call as to which commendations are printed on their books) could use spending some time with believers from across the globe to have his explicit gospel unpacked by Christians who might be able to make his cultural assumptions, his theological bias and his inter tribal warfare made explicit to him to see the impact it is having on his gospel.
5. Less Explicit UK version
Despite my strong reservations there are many positives – I hope this book is widely read by the audience it was attended to help and that it becomes the starting point for a further conversation about the nature and essence of the gospel for our late modern western cultures.