Review of The Explicit Gospel

The Explicit Gospel

“So, we have another book on the gospel. The Explicit Gospel is authored by Matt Chandler, pastor of the Village Church in Dallas, TX. The book is scheduled to be released on April 30, 2012. Is this just "another book on the gospel" — basic theology retweaked by a megachurch pastor — or is this something worth reading and pondering? Let's take a look.
Book Review of The Explicit Gospel, by Matt Chandler

The Big Idea of The Explicit Gospel
The book claims that too often, the gospel is assumed, not explicit. The explicit gospel obliterates man-centered religion — the moralism, idolatry, and religiosity that corrupts true Christianity. Chandler describes this explicit gospel, generously sprinkling in plenty of pastoral application along the way. Merely assuming the gospel leads to dangers — big dangers. Chandler's cogent application of the explicit gospel strikes deep at the insipid idiosyncrasies of evangelicalism, delivering a message that is both solidly theological and lovingly confrontational.

Overview of The Explicit Gospel
Chandler organizes the book in three sections:  1) The Gospel on the Ground, 2) The Gospel in the Air, and 3) Implications and Applications. Even if you've been to seminary, you've probably never heard of a "ground gospel" or "air gospel," so lets explain what Chandler means. Ground and air, as he describes them, are vantage points for viewing the gospel. The gospel from the ground is the view of the gospel in our own lives. The chapters "God" (ch. 1), "Man" (ch. 2), "Christ" (ch.3), "Response" (ch.4), discuss the gospel from this perspective. Chandler describes the gospel in the air as "the big picture of God's plan of restoration from the beginning of time to the end of time and the redemption of his creation" (pg. 9). This section of the book deals with "Creation" (ch. 5), "Fall" (ch. 6), "Reconciliation" (ch. 7), and "Consummation" (ch. 8). Although the entire book contains plenty of implications and applications, Part Three of the book is completely devoted to application and implication. Chapters 9 and 10 deal with the dangers of getting too wrapped up in either a "gospel-on-the-ground" or a "gospel-in-the-air" approach. Finally, in chapter 11 he turns to  "moralism and the cross” to round out The Explicit Gospel’s most forceful application.

Is The Explicit Gospel Explicit?
Making a good book title is a bit like good marketing. It has to both describe the “product,” while grabbing people's attention. The word explicit grabs our attention like a Driscoll sermon series. Of course, The Explicit Gospel is about the gospel, so there's nothing alarmingly offensive about it. At the same time, does the word explicit accurately really describe the content of the book? Chandler is on the offensive against "Christian, moralistic, therapeutic Deism" (pg. 8), using the weapon of the gospel. The word "explicit" in relationship with the "gospel" appears just a few times within the book (12x). The book isn't as about the "explicit gospel" as much as it is an explicit (i.e. a clear) description of the gospel.

Is The Explicit Gospel Readable?
Some theology books, notably Reformed ones, are notorious for boredom. The Explicit Gospel is not boring. In fact, reading the book is like listening to Chandler preach. It's funny. It's engaging. It's winsome. It's even a bit harsh at times. I loved these phrases: "Trying to figure out God is like trying to catch fish in the Pacific Ocean with an inch of dental floss” (pg. 13). In describing the college basketball phenomenon of March Madness, he writes, with some histrionics:  "Kids are crying in fear, wives are running for more nachos — it's chaos. It's madness” (46). Chandler has a knack for punchy, forceful, and unforgettable way of expressing things. This book could be one of the easiest 245 pages you’ve read in a long time.

Is The Explicit Gospel Appropriate?
The word "explicit" isn't usually a word that you hear in conjunction with something as sacred as the gospel, so it might raise eyebrows beginning with the title. While the theme of the book is entirely appropriate, some may question at times Chandler's specific manner of expression. For example:

• "Paul doesn't usually roll that way….he's not really a sing-song kind of guy" (13).
• "God was angry and moved me to Abilene for seven years" (14).
• Chandler paraphrases the conclusion of the book of Job like this: "It's like God is saying, 'Oh, how adorable you are! Now put on a cup, dude, because it's about to be big boy time" (14).
• "In the Hebrew [Jeremiah 2:11-12] the essential idea is that they're literally terrified that God might snap and rip the universe to shreds" (33).
• "Here's the funny thing about the Old Testament:  85% of it is God saying, 'I'm going to have to kill all of you if you don't quit this.' Seriously, 85% of it is" (60).
• "I think he's [King David] schizophrenic" (118).

Perhaps Chandler's writing is lot like his preaching. Maybe he can get a bit carried away at times, turning a phrase that might confuse the unsuspecting reader. Some may wonder if such phrases, though intended to be humorous, may not quite match the majesty of the very God whom the author is trying to describe.

The Explicit Gospel Applied
Even though the book is about the gospel, Chandler finds a way to weave in application that applies to every evangelical hot-button issue known to the Gospel Coalition. Chandler discusses the social gospel (84, 160), the prosperity gospel (23, 232), women in ministry (213-14), to invitations (59), church growth tactics (34), the reality of an eternal place of torment (217), Rob Bell (216), mainline decline, and just about everything in between. He predictably sides with the conservatives on every issue (something which non-party-liners may take issue with). Chandler's conservatism is not the problem. The question lingering has to do with how all of these issues (plus more I didn’t bother to mention) found their way into a book on the gospel. Yes, the gospel applies to every area of life, but does it follow that we can indiscriminately make everything "a gospel issue," even on things over which Christians can legitimately disagree? Turning the gospel into a trump card is to make the gospel less explicit than it is. If you write book on the gospel, and then import each and every contemporary polarizing topic into the book as an application point of the gospel, you haven’t necessarily solved all the problems. Instead, you might have lowered the glory and grandeur of the gospel to the level of your pet position on the polarizing topics. We must undoubtedly apply the gospel to our lives, but it minimizes the gospel when we spread it too thin. Chandler is free to make his Bible-derived observations on contemporary issues. That's what Bible teachers should do. But it is also important that he define which issues tie directly into gospel truth, and which  matters are less…shall we say?…“explicit.”

The Explicit Gospel Smoothed Out
Somehow, the metaphor of "gospel on the ground" and "gospel in the air" didn't stick that well. I understand the distinction he is trying to make, but perhaps he pushes it too far, making it the basis for the book’s entire organization as well as some hefty application (chs. 9-10). Throughout the book, a tension develops between the two ways of viewing the gospel that could lead to a breakdown in the marvelous complex continuity of Scripture's redemption narrative (Heilsgeschichte). Perhaps we could chalk this one up to an issue of emphasis, and a pursuit of readability over depth.

Is The Explicit Gospel Worth Reading?
Every book has its shortcomings, so lest we focus on the possible downers, it is also important to point out some of the glittering jewels that lie on the surface of this book. Should you read this book? Rick Warren certainly thinks so: “If you only read one book this year, make it this one. It’s that important.” The Explicit Gospel certainly has some commending qualities. Here are three reasons why you should read it:

• It's Insightful. One thing is clear. Chandler has a pulse on the state of evangelicalism. As he explicates the gospel, he is not try to disprove ancient heresies. Instead, Chandler aims at the contemporary corruptions within modern evangelicalism. There are plenty of such corruptions. The author identifies them and addresses them with a rush of relevance.

• It's Applicational. Chandler packs in plenty of important application. Perhaps the most obvious application is to guard against “Christian, moralistic, therapeutic, Deism” (pg. 8), by knowing and heeding explicit assertion of the gospel. Not only does pastor Chandler identify the problems, but he takes aim at them, too. Rarely does he miss. You will find that the application-saturated pages hit close to home, alerting you to areas you need to change.

• It's Understandable. Chandler is a good communicator. He has a knack for explaining big truths in unambiguous ways. You'll find that reading The Explicit Gospel will help you to better understand the glorious truths of the gospel.

The theological discussions in the book may beg for a bit more exposition here and there. The applications may rub a bit harder than necessary. But overall, Chandler provides the contemporary American evangelical churchgoer something to chew on. The gospel, in all its explicit glory, needs to be heard and heeded. The reductionism in our theology has led to a decline in our lifestyle. We need the explicit gospel to bring us back.

So, in conclusion, do we need another book on the gospel? The gospel never gets old. Reading about the gospel is always important. Living out the gospel is essential. So, if you're ready to be challenged, instructed, and informed, do yourself a favor and read The Explicit Gospel. 

–Daniel Threlfall February 17, 2012

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