Making the Gospel Explicit: An Interview with Matt Chandler
It’s funny how certain words and phrases seep into conversations even before they are officially in print. In the past year, I’ve been hearing church leaders talk about the need to make the gospel “explicit” in one’s preaching and teaching. No surprise, I guess. The idea of not assuming the gospel is key for the gospel-centered movement, and one of the most gifted pastor-teachers of our day, Matt Chandler, has written a book with Jared Wilson on this very subject.
I enjoyed reading The Explicit Gospel (Crossway, 2012) for two reasons. The first was because of the content. Matt’s style is evident throughout, which means it’s easy to read and theologically rich. It’s a reminder to Christians to keep the gospel at the forefront of our discipleship.
The second reason was because of my personal appreciation of Matt and Jared. I’ve known Jared for several years, and whenever I’ve spent time with him, I’ve come away loving Jesus more. The same is true of my personal interactions with Matt, and I was especially grateful for his willingness to write the foreword to Counterfeit Gospels. These are guys who love Jesus, love His church, and are all about His mission. I’m encouraged whenever I’m around them.
I want to help get the word out about The Explicit Gospel, so I’ve asked Matt a few questions about the book. I hope you’ll be edified by his answers and that you’ll pick up multiple copies of the book to give away. There’s also a small-group DVD curriculum from LifeWay that coincides with the book.
Trevin Wax: You contrast the “explicit gospel” with the “assumed gospel” by using the example of people who have grown up in church suddenly realizing they are not converted. What do you mean by the “assumed gospel,” and why is it dangerous?
Matt Chandler: The assumed gospel is preaching/teaching or leading God’s people in a way that puts their right standing before God solely in their hands rather than in the saving work of Christ. This usually takes the form of sermons and lessons that are based on moralism rather than grace. Such teaching focuses on our ability to obey the moral laws of God rather than the Holy Spirit’s ability to transform our heart. It focuses on behavioral modification. It assumes that we understand that the gospel saves us and sanctifies us.
Trevin Wax: How can we combat moralism without making it seem that behavior is unimportant? In other words, how can we combat behavior-focused, moralistic application without losing the biblical emphasis of growing in holiness?
Matt Chandler: Biblically, we are morally transformed when we see Jesus as more lovely than our sins and idols. Think of Colossians 3:
“Seek the things that are above where Christ is…set your minds on things that are above.”
And then what? Verse 5 says to put to death what is earthly. Paul believes that the way you put to death that which is earthly is to get your eyes on what Jesus has done and who Jesus is. The Holy Spirit transforms us from within as we fix our eyes upon Jesus. He teaches that if we take our eyes off of our “successes” and “failures” and put them on Jesus, we will be transformed “from one degree of glory to the next.”
Trevin Wax: In your definition of the gospel, you recommend two vantage points: the gospel “from the ground” and the gospel “from the air.” Why is it necessary for us to keep these two vantage points in mind when thinking about the gospel?
Matt Chandler: The two vantage points take into consideration all that the gospel is in the Scriptures. Without one or the other, you’ve reduced the gospel to less than it is.
Trevin Wax: Do you see evangelicalism as a whole leaning more toward “from the air” or “from the ground”? What about the gospel-centered movement within evangelicalism? Where are we in danger of moving toward extremes?
Matt Chandler: As a whole, I think we are leaning more toward what I call the gospel on the ground, which is great in that we are moving away from moralistic deism and toward pointing people to Jesus and what His righteousness, atoning death, and victorious resurrection have accomplished for us. But it’s still lacking. God is up to much more in the gospel than simply saving individuals.
Both perspectives can lead to extremes, which is why you have so many tribes within evangelicalism and so much vitriol online. People will look at the errors of either extreme and caution anyone who tries to lead out with a more robust biblical gospel as being on either a slippery slope to liberalism or a slippery slope to having a dead church.
Trevin Wax: What’s the difference between presenting the plan of salvation in a sermon and being “gospel-centered” in a sermon? Are those one and the same? Or do you mean something more when you urge Christians to make the gospel explicit in preaching and teaching?
Matt Chandler: I listen to a lot of sermons, and usually, “presenting the plan of salvation” is an add-on as you wrap up a sermon. Being gospel-centered is attaching the text to the reconciling work of God in Jesus Christ. Whether that attachment is to what God is doing in an individual, in a church body, to the domains of a given culture, or to creation at large is up to the text. One assumes that people understand the gospel and clarifies it at the end in case they don’t. The other weaves the message of the gospel throughout the sermon so that people, by the Spirit’s power, can get multiple “aha” moments as the sermon is preached.
Trevin Wax: What was your biggest surprise as you wrote this book? What truth was made new to you in a way that made your heart sing for joy?
Matt Chandler: It was probably because of my recent brush with cancer, but the chapter on “The Consummation” was extremely moving. Walking through the resurrection, our resurrected bodies, and the new creation took my soul to heights. As pastors, we deal with some extremely difficult situations, and digging into these realities was soothing and stirred in me a ferocious confidence in our sovereign King.