My first exposure to this well written book was from one of the pastors at our church who lamented that such a book even needed to be written. We are almost two thousand years on this side of the cross and we are still debating why Jesus came. Of course this should not surprise us given the vast importance of the gospel and our fierce enemy who does all in his power to keep mankind in spiritual darkness. So it is with open arms that we welcome Gilbert’s clear presentation of the gospel as found in Scripture.
What Is the Gospel? is part of the 9Marks series of books which has two basic premises: The local church is far more important to the Christian life than many Christians realize and local churches grow in life and vitality as they organize their ministries around God’s Word (p. 11). To this end 9Marks addresses nine practices that are often overlooked today, including a solid biblical understanding of the gospel (pp. 11-12). Gilbert has written this little volume to address this latter neglected issue.
In the opening chapter the author goes straight to the heart of the matter by presenting the New Testament’s teaching on the good news. As Gilbert sees it the gospel can be wrapped around four words: God, man, Christ, response. That is, man is accountable to God; his real problem is his rejection and rebellion against God; God’s solution is found in the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; our responsibility is to respond to this message in repentance and faith (pp. 28-31). Said another way, Gilbert believes the gospel answers four crucial questions: Who made us, what is our problem, what is God’s solution, and what makes all of this good news for me (p. 31)?
Each of the next four chapters each develops one of the above points. In chapter two Gilbert affirms that if we miss the answer to the first question everything else that follows will be wrong as well. Chapter three not only discusses our fundamental problem with sin, it also points to four misunderstandings: confusing sin with its effects, reducing sin to a broken relationship, confusing sin with negative thinking and confusing sin with sins. Chapter four maintains the importance of the substitutional death of Christ. In chapter five Gilbert sees our response to the gospel message as the act of faith alone as understood through the inseparable acts of repentance and belief. He writes, “A Christian is one who turns away from sin and trusts in the Lord Jesus Christ—and nothing else—to save him from sin and the coming judgment” (p. 73). He defines repentance as “turning away from sin, hating it, and resolving by God’s grace to forsake it, even as we turn to Him in faith” (p. 74). And “if we understand repentance rightly, we’ll see that the idea that you can accept Jesus as Savior but not Lord is nonsense” (p. 80). This real change, produced by salvation, will by necessity bear real fruit (p. 82).
Gilbert rejects any idea that the gospel, as he has outlined it, needs supplementation, or even substitution. For example, the popular teaching today that the “full” gospel includes cultural transformation is not Christianity, but moralism (pp. 103-109). The book concludes with a nice chapter on the power of the gospel and our need and privilege to proclaim it.
Despite all the excellent qualities of What is the Gospel? I found his teaching on the kingdom problematic. For example, using Matthew 3:2 he claimed that Jesus said His kingdom had come. First, it was John, not Jesus, who uttered these words and John said that the kingdom was near, not “had come” (p. 88). Gilbert assures us that “come near” could be translated “had come” but he is incorrect. Based on this faulty translation we are told that this means many of the blessings of the kingdom had come (p. 89) and that “the church is where God’s kingdom is made visible in this age” (p. 97). Gilbert does not believe the church is equivalent to the kingdom (p. 95), and that a future completed kingdom awaits the return of Christ (pp. 90-92). But Jesus has inaugurated the rule of God on earth and has begun rolling back the curse of sin (pp. 62-64). The author clearly takes an “already, not yet” approach to the kingdom, but I would have to question his exegesis in this regard, and especially his use of Romans 6 as proof that Christians are in the kingdom (p. 96).
One other matter of concern is his use of J. R. R. Tolkien as one who had professed faith in Christ. As a devout Catholic Tolkien’s understanding of the gospel would be works-plus-faith as found in the sacramental system. Faith alone in Christ alone has been condemned by the Roman Catholic Church. To use a Catholic as an example of a Christian in a book on the gospel is quite confusing at best.
These final two issues aside, I found What is the Gospel? to be a solid and most helpful entry in a debate that is very much alive in the church today. But its greatest benefit will be in the clear presentation of the gospel to those who need better understanding minus the complications that engulf the larger theological discussion.