Thursday, October 24, 2013

Book Review: What is the Gospel? by Greg Gilbert.

Here's my review of this EXCELLENT book.
Essential for any Christian in this post-modern day of dazed confusion.

Gilbert, Gregory. What is the Gospel? Wheaton: Crossway, 2010. 127pp.

The Gospel of Jesus is a matter of eternal life and death. Heaven, hell, and the infinite destiny of men and women rests upon a clear understanding of, communication of, and response to the gospel. Satan knows this, and just as in the garden of Eden, he has set out today to twist God’s gospel into a half-truth. The Gospel of Jesus is often misconstrued today as a model of good deeds for people to follow, or worse still the comforting message of “peace” and “love” when there is actually war, wrath, and enmity between God and man. Christians of vastly diverse theological persuasions rally together to share the “gospel” with the world but in all this excitement few actually agree on the very message they proclaim. Enter Greg Gilbert to unveil the 900 pound gorilla in the room and ask the most basic of fundamental questions, “What is the Gospel?” In typical 9marks fashion (with whom Gilbert has close ties), this book is profoundly Biblical, deeply theological, and painstakingly practical. It serves to help any person think critically about and answer the eternally important question enshrined in its title.
In this short but extremely pointed and meaningful work, Gilbert seeks to dispel the fog of today’s postmodern relativism surrounding the term, “gospel.” In a quite humorous introduction, the stage is set by a plethora of contradictory definitions to the Christian term “the gospel.” The reader is left with the clear understanding that we need an authority on the subject. Gilbert’s work argues that the unchanging Word of God, the apostolic tradition, and the historic interpretation of Christians across the centuries provides clarity. He answers the question of the gospel with real and meaningful application to Christians today.
Since the Garden of Eden, the gospel has been under attack. Gilbert is certainly not thefirst to give a clarion call to listen to God’s Word rather than popular opinion. In 1937, H. RichardNiebuhr described the liberal social Gospel’s message as, “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” In Niebuhr’s day, the historic gospel was under attack by many who sought to redefine it,so he stood for the truthGilberts brief work stands on these tall shoulders and many others thattackle similar issues such as a Biblical worldview of God and man, the centrality of the cross, penal substitution, repentance and faith, and kingdom living as a Christian. Today the same battle rages on and Gilbert’s work stands to unashamedly call us to bow before the authority of God’s inerrant Word to properly define, understand, and respond to the true gospel. “First the bad news: God is your judge, and you have sinned against him. And then the gospel: but Jesus has died that sinners may be forgiven their sins if they repent and believe in him. (36)
The primary thesis of Gilberts book is that the gospel must be defined from the Bible as God-Man-Christ-Response (31). He spends his book detailing the Apostle Paul’s argument from the first four chapters of the book of Romans to define the gospel (27-31). These four categories are used to frame the rest of Gilbert’s book. He insists that any proper understanding or explanation of the gospel must start with a proper understanding of God as the holy and righteous creator (37). Man must be viewed, Gilbert argues, as the damned sinner with God’s wrath remaining upon him (47). Only when we understand our need for saving, does Gilbert unveil his cornerstone to the book. Gilbert holds that Jesus Christ must be revealed as the messiah king who came to die. The atonement, in Gilbert’s view, is the heart of the Gospel (68). Without the centrality of the cross, Gilberts shows that the Bible makes no sense (101). He is careful throughout the entire book to keep the grounding of penal substitution absolutely central to everything. The book calls for the only proper response to the dead but risen king of repentance and faith (71). Finally, after helping the reader beware of false gospels, Gilbert ends his book with practical application of the true gospel.
Critical Evaluation
Helpful Perspectives
Gilbert’s Biblical worldview of God and man were challengingas was his focus on theheart of penal substitution in his definition of the gospel. In the beginning of the second chapter, Gilbert introduces the reader to “god” as a loving old non-judgmental man who is “never judging-only forgiving” (38). I fear that this “god” is known by many in the church I pastor. This is often a fictitious god created in the image of man, because the God of the Bible is the awesome creator God who is holy and righteous not leaving the guilty unpunished (43). God is too pure to look on evil and cannot tolerate wrong (45). He isn’t popular in today’s church, nor is he as appealing to my own flesh because he isn’t interested in my “best life now.”
I was challenged with Gilberts Biblical unveiling not only of God, but also of man. Iwas struck to the core when he compared man’s sin to the breaking of a minor traffic violation.Gilbert said, “most people tend to think of sin, especially their own, as not much more than a parking infraction… but it is a rejection of God himself—a repudiation of God’s rule, God’s care, God’s authority, and God’s right to command those to whom he gave life. In short, it is rebellion of the creature against his creator.” (48) I was challenged personally because I am tempted by my culture and my flesh to give man the benefit of the doubt, and sit in judgment of God —especially when it comes to tragedies and suffering in the world. I generally don’t think of my sin as true sin. I pray that God would make me hate sin, to see the death and condemnation it brings, and to flee from it unto Christ. O for a Biblical worldview to see God for who He truly is and to see ourselves in need of His grace. Until people have a true Biblical view of God as Holy and Man as an utterly deprave rebel, God’s judgment of hell will make no sense and the cross will be pointless. Evangelism must start with a proper view of God and man before moving on to the cross.
Gilbert took pains to make clear the centrality of the cross to the gospel. This is one ofthe greatest strengths to this book. He unpacked the whole of the Old Testament sacrificial system as being the grounds for Jesus’ sacrifice upon the cross. Gilbert says that the Passover lamb was the symbol of penal substitution pointing us to Jesus. He speaks of the heart of the Gospel as Jesus being the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Speaking of the all the New Testament authors (Jesus, Matthew, Mark, John, Peter, Paul, etc.), Gilbert said, “Do you see what theseChristians were saying about the significance of Jesus’ death? They were saying that when Jesus died… it was the punishment for his people’s sins! (65). The Biblical gospel must be the fact thatJesus saved repentant sinners from God’s wrath in hell. Jesus is our savior from the just penalty of our sin rather than simply the power of it. Gilbert was helpful in his later chapters (103-107) to note and warn of various false “gospels” which masquerade as the true gospel but leave out penal substitution altogether. If Jesus didn’t bear God’s wrath for sinners upon the cross, we are still guilty and hell rightfully demands our souls. Any mention of the good news of Jesus Christ must contain at its heart penal substitution.
Unanswered Questions
For all of the helpful and Biblical perspectives that Gilbert’s work offered, I was still left with a couple of unanswered questions. My biggest issue with his work was the very place he seeks to define his premise from. I agree with Gilbert completely that the Bible is where we should go to define the gospel, but I’m not sure why he didn’t first go to Christ. Gilbert says, “one of the best to start looking for a basic explanation of the gospel is Paul’s letter to the Romans. Perhaps more clearly than any other book of the Bible, Romans contains a deliberate, step-by-step expression of what Paul understood to be the good news (27).” Going to Paul first to define the gospel of Jesus rather than consulting Jesus himself seems a bit like choosing to read my book review of Gilbert’s work while you ignore Gilbert who is sitting on your living room sofa. Any scholar knows the weight of primary sources verses secondary ones. In no way am I saying that the Gospels are somehow more inspired than Paul’s writings… they were all equally inspired by the Holy Spirit. It’s just a bit like reading the biography about someone instead of first consulting the autobiography. Since Christ IS the gospel, it would seem more logical to consult the Gospels first then move on.
By proceeding in the manner he has, I fear Gilbert may have given ammunition to misguided Christians who seek to pit Paul against Jesus. Liberals and those who take to a new perspective on Paul seek to neuter the gospel and insert a good-works Jesus to follow.   They will look at Gilbert’s start with Paul as an ignoring of their warped view of the “gospel of the kingdom”which many isogete from the Gospels.  However a systematic and contextual reading of any of theGospels (such as the Christianity Explored study through Mark’s Gospel) should lead a person to the same gospel premise of God-Man-Christ-Response as Romans 1-4. In fact, Jesus was quite clear about the substitutionary nature of his death, burial and resurrection in John’s Gospel as well.Perhaps it would have been better for Gilbert to start with Jesus in the Gospels to illustrate God-Man-Christ-Response before moving on to spend all his time in Romans.
Finally, I found only a few sentences mentioning the resurrection of Christ from the dead in the whole book (69). Even then, the resurrection was used simply as a proof that penal substitution on the cross worked. While the resurrection is certainly the proof that our savior paid for our sins, I believe there is so much more dealing with the resurrection that was simply ignored. Seeing as we are told directly from 1 Corinthians 15 that our entire faith hangs on the resurrection (not just the cross), it seems a lot more essential to the gospel than Gilbert makes it out to be. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 15:1-5 when Paul defines the Gospel he not only says, “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures”… but even more so that, “he was buried and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures.” Since this is indeed Paul’s own definition of “the gospel,”Gilbert needs to give the resurrection more attention.

                  In all, this succinct book will help any reader to grasp a Biblical understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Readers will dispel the fog of the modern day as they speak about the true Gospel with authority from God’s Word. Gilbert has made a great addition to the 9marks family, and his short book is written in such a way that it is readable by not only pastors, but most normal church folk as well. It will be used greatly by numerous churches around the world to solidify their people’s understanding of the true gospel of Christ.

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