Book Review - What is the Gospel?

At this time in the history of the church we can celebrate that we have unanimously agreed on the core message and content of the gospel! Or perhaps not, says Greg Gilbert in his new book What Is The Gospel? Right from the start he states, “What is the gospel of Jesus Christ? You’d think that would be an easy question to answer, especially for Christians. My sense is that far too many Christians would answer with something far short of what the Bible holds out as ‘the gospel of Jesus Christ’ ” (p. 15). Unfortunately, after all the time the church has had to study the Bible, there is still confusion as to what the core teaching of the gospel is.

Gilbert gives the four-fold outline through which he lays out the gospel:

  1. Who made me, and to whom are we accountable? (God)
  2. What is our problem? (man)
  3. What is God’s solution to that problem? (Christ)
  4. How do I come to be included in that salvation? (response)

First, God is the righteous creator. Gilbert rightly contends that if you don’t get God right then you will not get the gospel right. “Everything starts from that point, and like an arrow fired from a badly aimed bow, if you get that point wrong, then everything else that follows will be wrong too (p. 40).” Since God has created us He has the right to tell us how to live.

Second, at the end of the sixth day of creation God said it was “very good” (Gen. 1:31). When we look at the world around us we realize that creation (man included) has fallen far short of the original goodness in which God created everything. The problem is that man has sinned against God. Gilbert states,

Sin is the breaking of a relationship, and even more, it is a rejection of God himself—a repudiation of God’s rule, to whom he gave life. In short, it is rebellion of the creature against the Creator…. In all the universe, there was only one thing God had not placed under Adam’s feet—God himself. (pp. 48-49).

Third, though man has rebelled against his Creator, God has reached down in grace and provided a way of salvation out from under the curse of sin. A way to restore the broken relationship man’s sin has caused. That way is in the person of Jesus Christ. From the beginning of the Bible God has promised to send a redeemer (Gen. 3:15). God has promised to rescue mankind and bring us back into a right relationship with him. John the Baptist states it succinctly when he says, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).” In this vein, Gilbert strongly supports the doctrine of substitution—that Jesus stood in our place of condemnation before God for our sins (p. 68).

Finally, though Christ has done all the work of the promised Messiah—the Redeemer—there is still a response that is needed. “Repent and believe the good news” is the call of Jesus and the NT writers, says Gilbert (p. 73). A person must put faith in the person of Christ and the message of the gospel, not merely an idea. Faith is reliance in Jesus “to secure for us a righteous verdict from God the Judge, rather than a guilty one (p. 75).”

After laying out this four-fold presentation of the gospel Gilbert moves to a discussion of the kingdom. First, it is God’s redemptive rule. It is “more a kingship than a kingdom (p. 87).” Second, the kingdom is here (Matt. 3:2). Third, the kingdom is not yet completed but will be when Jesus comes. Fourth, for one to be included into the kingdom one must respond to the King. Finally, as a citizen of this kingdom we are called “to live the life of the kingdom (p. 96).” This life is lived as one is part of the church and in the world.

Overall, I loved the book but there are two issues that stand out to me. First, there seemed to be some slight inconsistency in Gilbert’s already/not yet articulation of the kingdom. He defines the kingdom as a kingship (or ruler-ship) and not a kingdom. He affirms that the kingdom has come (I take this to mean it has been established) but then later says,

The fact is that we as human beings are not able to bring about the establishment and consummation of God’s kingdom…. [The] kingdom promised in the Bible will only come about when King Jesus himself returns to make it happen. Christians will never bring about the kingdom of God. Only God himself can do that. That heavenly Jerusalem comes down from heaven; it is not built from the ground up. (p. 92-93)

At one point he affirms the presence of the kingdom but then says it will not come until Jesus returns. It is either partly here or it is not, right? It seems that to Gilbert it is not established because it is not a kingdom realm—as in a present physical location on earth. Surely it is not consummated yet and will not be until Jesus returns. Neither does the church itself bring it into existence or consummation. Jesus establishes the kingdom himself and consummates it. The kingdom grows as the gospel goes. I think I see what Gilbert is saying, but I also think he could have been clearer.

Second, in the second to last chapter, Gilbert goes after what he calls “three substitute gospels.” To Gilbert, these other gospels decentralize the cross in their understanding of the gospel. Of particular notice to me is his inclusion of the creation-fall-redemption-consummation narrative as a substitute gospel. He agrees that it serves well as a narrative grid to interpret Scripture but states it “has been used wrongly by some as a way to place the emphasis of the gospel on God’s promise to renew the world, rather than on the cross” (italics mine, p. 106). While some may use it as such, I don’t think enough people use it in that way to warrant including it in the substitute gospel category. I personally use it as both an interpretational frame-work and a grid to run the gospel through (focusing on cross and the death, burial and resurrection of Christ along the way).

Those two caveats aside (which may be hair splitting), this is a great presentation of the gospel and a good refresher! I will definitely turn to this book as an introduction to the gospel message for those who ask.

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