I recently met a new friend, Kevin McKay, at the Coffee Exchange in Providence, RI. Kevin is a former intern with Mark Dever and now pastor at Grace Harbor Church. When we sat down, Kevin graciously offered me a gift — What is the Gospel? — and I’m glad he did.
What is the Gospel? is the first book written by Greg Gilbert, Senior Pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, KY. Hopefully this will not be his last. The book is one of a series published by 9 Marks Ministries, and is small, attractive and relatively short — 121 pages. Its presentation makes it easy to pass on.
The author’s goals are ambitious. He seeks to enrich worship in response to the grace of Christ and to build the confidence of Christians for communicating the gospel to others. He is eager to see the gospel pervade all aspects of church life — preaching, worship, prayer, etc. Gilbert also hopes to bring clarity for Christians caught in “a general fog of confusion that swirls around” this topic (17). Additionally, he writes to those who “soften some of the edges” of the gospel to make it more “acceptable to the world” (21) — presumably those creating some of the fog. Finally, he writes to non-Christians, hoping they will give their attention to the good news of Christ’s salvation.
Whether this book accomplishes those aims, we don’t know yet. Only the gospel itself could hope to do all that. What we can say is that Gilbert has written in a way that makes those goals possible. His attachment to Scripture, his avoidance of attention to himself and his firm but humble tone serve his goals well.
As I started to read, I was hoping that he would quote the Scriptures he referenced. And with just a handful of exceptions, he does. This makes it more likely that the seeker he is addressing will engage with the Word of God. Chapter 1 establishes Scripture as the only authority to answer the title’s question and then takes Romans 1- 4 as the pattern for that answer: God the righteous creator, man the sinner, Jesus Christ the Savior and faith and repentance as the response. This pattern forms the four core chapters of the book (2 – 5). Three chapters follow on the kingdom, the cross and the power of the gospel.
Some of the high points come from the book’s clarity and connections. After explaining that Jesus came as a King to inaugurate his kingdom, the author writes:
But here is where the good news of Christianity gets really, really good. You see, King Jesus came not only to inaugurate the kingdom of God, but also to bring sinners into it by dying in their place [emphasis mine] and for their sin, taking their punishment on himself and securing forgiveness for them, making them righteous in God’s sight, and qualifying them to share in the inheritance of the kingdom (Col. 1:12).
His advocacy of the substitutionary atoning sacrifice of Christ as the center of the gospel is refreshing:
To toss substitutionary atonement aside is to cut out the heart of the gospel. To be sure there are many pictures in Scripture of what Christ accomplished with his death: example, reconciliation and victory, to name three. But underneath them all is the reality to which all the other images point — penal substitution. You simply cannot leave it out, or even downplay it in favor of other images, or else you litter the landscape of Scripture with unanswered questions (68-69).
Though the seeking non-Christian is among those Gilbert writes to, he or she will have to be biblically and theologically literate to benefit from What is the Gospel? The paragraph above is clear to the well-read evangelical, but a mouthful of steak for a non-Christian. For some, the terms may be difficult to chew. On the other hand, the sharp-minded seeker may appreciate being spoken up to. If, as Thom Rainer tells us in Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, seekers care about doctrine and deep teaching, then this book may bear a good deal of fruit.
Perhaps the author could have said a little more about the response of our lives. As the evangelical pendulum swings away from a distaste for the “social gospel” and toward a biblical view of mercy, justice and care, we need to understand the relationship of Ephesians 2:8-9 to 2:10. Gilbert seems to have stayed just a short step too far away from the book of James. A more nuanced section on this may have helped the reader see the balance of salvation by grace alone and the works that necessarily follow.
Why read this (short and small) book? It is a clear, humble and biblical statement of what lies at the heart of Christianity. It’s what we Christians continue to live by. It’s what we need to counsel from. It’s what we need for leading our churches well. And it’s what we need to share clearly and graciously with our neighbor. The time you take to read it will be worth it.
D.A. Carson, in his enthusiastic foreword, suggests that we all read this book and then buy a box of them to hand out. I will do just that.