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Book Review: What Is the Gospel? by Greg Gilbert

September 7, 2011

Greg Gilbert, What is the Gospel? (9Marks; Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 128 pp.

Last week we began a series of posts looking at the trouble with evangelism—that is, why we so often have a hard time bearing witness to Christ. There I suggested that one of the common reasons is confusion about the content of the gospel message—what it is, what it isn’t, and why it matters.  Westgate’s all-church retreat this weekend will focus on this subject, not merely to bolster our energy in evangelism, but to help us center all of life on the transforming message of the gospel—the good news of what God has done to establish his kingdom and deal with our sin through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

As part of this conversation I want to draw your attention to a book written by Greg Gilbert, formerly on staff at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C., now the senior pastor at Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.  Gilbert has produced this book with the specific intention of clearing away some of this confusion.

He begins by illustrating the relative disarray of ideas about what the gospel is. “Ask any hundred self-professed evangelical Christians what the good news of Jesus is, and you’re likely to get about sixty
different answers” (18).  After supplying several examples, Gilbert states his explicit intention “to offer a clear answer to that question [i.e. What is the gospel?], one that is based on what the Bible itself teaches about the gospel” (20).

He lays some groundwork in chapter one, particularly in terms of why the Bible is the proper authority and source for the discussion (over top of tradition, reason, and experience), and how the Bible itself lays out the general contours of the gospel message. Beginning with Romans, he highlights a common pattern that the authors of the New Testament use when explaining the gospel: God, man, Christ, response (27-31). He summarizes this with four crucial questions (31):

  1. Who made us, and to whom are we accountable?
  2. What is our problem? In other words, are we in trouble and why?
  3. What is God’s solution to that problem? How has he acted to save us from it?
  4. How do I—myself, right here, right now—how do come to be included in that salvation? What makes this good news for me and not just for someone else?

Gilbert recognizes that this summary does not capture the “universe of other promises God has made to those who are saved in Christ,” many of which “may very appropriately be identified as part of the good news of Christianity, the gospel of Jesus Christ. But it’s crucial that we understand, right from the outset, that all those grand promises depend on and flow from this, the heart and fountainhead of the Christian good news” (31-32).

The next several chapters are organized around this summary of God, man, Christ, response, where Gilbert looks at each subject primarily by following key passages in the unfolding biblical story:

  • Ch. 2: God the Righteous Creator
  • Ch. 3: Man the Sinner
  • Ch. 4: Jesus Christ the Savior
  • Ch. 5: Response—Faith and Repentance

In the final three chapters Gilbert tries to offer some clarity as to how the gospel relates to the kingdom, the centrality of the cross, and the power of the gospel for our daily lives.

His discussion of the kingdom in chapter six provides a helpful sketch of some of the key dynamics of God’s kingdom, which Gilbert defines as “God’s redemptive rule over his people” (87). He states, “The Christian life is not just about making sure you avoid God’s wrath. Far from it! It’s about being in a right relationship with God, and ultimately enjoying him forever. That is to say, it’s about gaining what we cannot lose—becoming a citizen of his eternal kingdom” (86). He notes the strong emphasis that the Bible places on living “the life of the kingdom” (i.e. obeying and honoring the king, 96-98), and how though the kingdom is not synonymous with the church, “the church is where we see the kingdom of God manifest in this age” (98). At the same time, he is careful to clarify that there is a “not yet” aspect to God’s kingdom that will only be complete when Christ returns. “The heavenly Jerusalem comes
down from heaven
; it is not built from the ground up” (93).

His chapter on “Keeping the Cross at the Center” is very helpful (and the idea is crucial), but if there’s a fault with the book, it’s that Gilbert is at times given to overstatement to make a point. For instance,
it’s simply not helpful to entitle a section “Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation Is Not the Gospel” and then to say a few lines later, “when you understand and articulate it rightly, the creation-fall-redemption-consummation outline provides a good framework for a faithful presentation of the biblical gospel” (105-106). What Gilbert is trying to avoid are abuses of this framework that marginalize the substitutionary atonement of Jesus, and rightly so. But this could have been stated with less alarm. Moreover, this apparent skittishness toward what’s often called a “biblical-theological paradigm” perhaps betrays a second fault—what comes off as disregard for the broader nuances of the biblical story. For instance, little attention is given to how God moved his promise of redemption forward through Abraham and his descendants, Israel. It’s there, especially where it needs to be—in making sense of Jesus (ch. 4). But it could certainly be more pronounced, lest we jump from Adam to Jesus and allow the very framework and dynamics of why Jesus is qualified to be a substitute and why a substitutionary sacrifice is even a good idea appear to come out of nowhere.

Over all, the book provides a very accessible and well-articulated summary of the core message of the gospel. It does not spend a lot of time distilling the implications of the gospel for the life and mission
of the church—it’s not intending to. Rather Gilbert’s aim is to help readers think carefully about whether they’re building their lives and their churches on the proper foundation—that “Jesus has died so that sinners may be forgiven of their sins if they will repent and believe in him” (36).  And in my estimation, he accomplishes his aim.

SPECIAL NOTE: Our focus this weekend at Westgate Church, whether at our Sandy Island
or at our Sunday morning service back in Weston, is on this subject: What is the gospel?  Though our study is not based on this book, we felt it would be a helpful resource for the congregation, so we are supplying each family with a copy. If you’re joining us in either venue, be sure to pick one up!

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