The Explicit Gospel by Matt Chandler (Crossway, 2015), 240 pp. $8.78
The “gospel” is a hot topic in evangelicalism today yet Matt Chandler is concerned, and rightly so, that Christians are not always using the word to mean the same thing (p. 13). Chandler wants to sharpen our definition under the heading “The Explicit Gospel,” however he seems to use the term in at least two ways. First, he fears that too many church goers have assumed they understand the good news but have never been taught explicitly what the gospel entails. They have confused the true gospel with “Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (pp. 13, 203). Such people need a clear, “explicit” presentation of the good news. This leads to the second use of the “explicit” gospel, that of the “full gospel” (p. 111) (not to be confused with the full gospel of Pentecostalism). The full gospel has two prongs, the first of which the author calls “the gospel on the ground” and the second he terms “the gospel in the air.” The book is then divided into three parts, the first devoted to the gospel on the ground, the second to the gospel in the air and the third to implications and applications.
In the first section, the “gospel on the ground” is described as what evangelicals traditionally have understood the gospel to mean – the gospel of redemption involving God, man (sin), Christ and response. Chandler’s understanding of this prong of the gospel is solid and helpful. Despite a couple of crude remarks (pp. 28, 41) he richly points the reader to a God-centered approach to the Lord, the Bible and a godly life instead of a man-centered one (pp. 32-35). We must be careful to not worship God’s good gifts but the Giver Himself (p. 36). Chandler emphasizes the horribleness of sin, man’s depravity and God’s wrath (pp. 40-51), and demonstrates that the law can diagnose our sin problem but not cure it; only the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ can appease God’s wrath, atone for our sins and make us right before a Holy God. But this good news demands the response of faith (pp. 84-85). Chandler makes clear that the preaching of the gospel on the ground will not always awaken hearts – more often it hardens hearts (pp. 63-82) and thus our ministries will be judged by God on our faithfulness, not on numbers (pp. 72-77). Chandler exposes the modern mistake of some who avoid presenting the explicit gospel, choosing rather to just “hang out” and live incarnationally. He states, “We are never, ever, ever going to make Christianity so cool that everybody wants it. That is a fool’s errand” (p. 80). Amen! The gospel must be verbally presented or people will never understand the message (pp. 80-82).
Chandler’s gospel on the ground is the theological, biblical gospel of redemption that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, saves people’s souls, and brings forgiveness and reconciliation. Chandler does well in this section. I do disagree strongly, however, with one off-hand remark revealing his non-cessationist understanding of revelation: “He [God] speaks to us in dreams and in visions and in words of knowledge—but in no way that runs contrary to Scripture” (p. 30). This is the view taken by many Christians today, including Chandler’s neo-Calvinist friends, but I believe is not supported by Scripture.
The second part of the book handles what Chandler calls the “gospel in the air.” By this he means that the full gospel includes cosmic restoration (pp. 16-17). Biblically, the author bases his understanding that renewal of the universe is part of the good news almost exclusively on Romans 8:22-23 and Revelation 21:5, with some support from 2 Corinthians 5:17-20.
Although he devotes 83 pages and four chapters, I believe Chandler mostly circled the subject rather than concisely explaining what he means and how this works. He largely left the reader right where he started – in the air.
It is discernible that the author believes the church should engage the culture, have a social agenda, and work with the Lord to restore the cosmos. But he never really interacts with Scripture to prove that this is either part of the gospel or a biblically-mandated mission of the church. Unlike others who hold this view, he did not discuss the so-called cultural mandate, examine the Old Testament example of Israel, or turn to Matthew 25. Nor does he attempt to exegete the book of Acts or the epistles concerning the “explicit” commission given the church. Rather Chandler makes broad assumptions, offers truncated and out-of-context Scriptures, and confuses the Lord’s present ministry with His eternal ministry. Let’s look at some specifics:
- Chandler believes correctly that the Lord is the creator of a perfect universe that has been cursed due to the fall of man. But he teaches that because of the cross-work of Christ the Lord is now presently in the process of reversing the curse (p. 137). This was the “gospel of the kingdom” that Jesus preached. And Jesus’ earthly miracles were not signs of His identity as the Son of God and Messiah, as the Gospels clearly state (John 20:30-31), but a revelation that “God, through Jesus, is making all things new, that He is restoring what once was unbroken” (p. 107). He thus intermingles the purpose of Christ’s first coming with that of His second (see pp. 137-138).
- Without doubt Jesus made provision through His life, death and resurrection, to bring about cosmic restoration but Chandler sees that renewal as already in process. This leads to a present ministry in which Christians can and should be part of restoration of the creation (the gospel in the air): “This is why a whole gospel must be explicitly about the restoration of God’s image bearers and also about the restoration of the entire theater of His glory, the entire cosmos” (p. 111). He calls this work, as many others do, “missional” (p. 144).
- Chandler sees the missional mandate in the Great Commission as that which “joins us to God’s mission to restore all things” (p. 145). He bases this missional posture of the church on the fact that the New Testament calls us to the “ministry of reconciliation” in 2 Corinthians 5:17-20. What he misses in this text is that the word “world” is not speaking of the cosmos as is evidenced by Paul defining the world as “people” in the context. Believers have not been given the ministry of renewing the universe but of calling people to reconciliation to God. This fact radically undermines Chandler’s gospel in the air and exposes it as unbiblical.
- Chandler understands that if the gospel includes working with God right now to restore the cosmos then the cosmos, by necessity, must continue into eternity. He thus goes to great lengths to assure the reader that the present heaven and earth will not be destroyed, as Peter states rather powerfully (2 Pet 3:5-13), but simply renewed (pp. 160-165). If the present heavens and earth are replaced by a new heavens and earth (cf. Rev. 20:11), then Chandler’s second gospel prong loses most of its punch. What Chandler misses is that cosmic restoration will come in the form of a new creation, solely an act of God at some distinct point in the future. The Lord is not in the process of restoring the cosmos through His people right now. Chandler very badly mangles Scripture describing the earthly millennial kingdom and offer these features as a picture of eternal life on earth (pp. 158-165). He ignores that in the very Old Testament passages he uses to describe eternal life that people will be having children (Isa 65:23) and will still die (Isa 65:20). While he is correct that in eternity the believer’s home will be on the new earth, his description of life on the new earth is taken mostly from Scriptures that describe the millennial kingdom, not eternal life. In keeping with his confused hermeneutics he draws from N. T. Wright to interpret the New Jerusalem coming down to earth in Revelation 21:1 as being the church, not a literal eternal city (p. 170).
- Concerning creation, while he rejects macroevolution (pp. 97-99), Chandler describes himself as a “historic creationist” (pp. 95-101) who sees a gap between Genesis 1:2 and 1:3. In that gap from the “beginning” until the Lord initiates the seven days of creation could lie billions of years. As his “good friend Mark Driscoll puts it…‘the age of the earth is simply not stated in the Bible’” (p. 100).
Chandler clearly believes social responsibility is a feature of the gospel (gospel in the air) but he seeks balance. He rightly recognizes that the social gospel adopted by past generations of evangelicals led to liberalism (pp. 175, 192, 193). Those churches which get invested in the social agenda become indistinguishable from the world (pp. 190-191), are under authority of the culture instead of Scripture (p. 194), and are tempted to water down the gospel on the grounds to make it more palatable to the world (pp. 194-196). He writes, “If we lose evangelism, we may as well be the Peace Corps” (p. 198). Yet he believes the church is commanded by God to care for the world’s poor (p. 199), mocks social ministry targeting believers only (p. 149), and believes the gospel on the ground leads to the gospel in the air which in turn begins to solve the systemic issues that keep people in poverty (p. 151). He teaches that social ministries bring praise to God but they must be coupled with evangelism and discipleship (pp. 150-151). The missional engagement of the world is part of the two-pronged gospel (pp. 181-188).
Chandler is promoting the same message popularized by Francis Chan (Crazy Love), David Platt (Radical), J. R. W. Stott and many others. That message is that the “full gospel” has two prongs – one doctrinal leading to individual, personal salvation and the other social, leading to cosmic restoration. Chandler takes a more balanced approach than either Chan or Platt but nevertheless his gospel in the air lacks biblical support and takes the church in a direction never mandated or authorized by God. The book has many high points, but its social agenda is too prevalent to recommend.