What is the gospel? Greg Gilbert provides an answer across eight brief chapters in his book entitled after that question. Writing for 9Marks Ministries, Gilbert is senior pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church. In this work he attempts to define the gospel as briefly, but still thoroughly, as possible.
The author begins with Scripture, foregoing a mere lexical word search on “gospel,” moving directly to the Pauline presentation of the gospel in Romans 1-4. This produces a gospel which can be reduced to (at bare minimum) four categories: God, man, Christ, response. While not all of these four categories need to be explicit in a gospel presentation (for the apostles’ teaching was never so formulaic or reductionistic), none can be completely absent either, without being less than the gospel of God.
These categories are briefly surveyed in the initial chapter then each receives further development and elaboration in its own ensuing chapter. God’s sovereign role as the righteous Creator is the fundamental building block for all of reality and for relationship to him. Man is created morally good, but rebels against God’s authority and sinfully severs the relationship between Creator and creature. Fortunately, this is not the end of the story. Jesus Christ the Savior is God incarnate and comes to endure penal substitutionary atonement in behalf of fallen, sinful humankind – suffering the penalty for our sin and exchanging it for the reward which his perfect obedience merited. This is grace, and humanity will respond to that grace in faith and repentance or in persistent sinful rebellion.
Three further chapters help to elaborate upon some of the implications of the gospel. Gilbert discusses the relationship between the gospel of the cross and the kingdom of Christ, showing that one’s response to the gospel is evidenced in one’s membership in the kingdom, particularly its current outpost in this world: the church. He then helpfully disambiguates several ideas which are often confused with the gospel and explains how the power of the gospel works in believers’ lives to produce obedience rather than license.
In evaluating What is the Gospel? three strengths and three weaknesses will be surveyed and discussed, as well as questions which may remain for readers upon completion of the book.
This book presents much strength and will be useful in multiple teaching and witnessing contexts. Three strengths of this book include: condensed brevity, clear and helpful illustrations, and practical usefulness.
Condensed brevity. What is the Gospel? presents a brief, book-length argument for the centrality of the cross of Christ, with its many implications, as the beating heart of the gospel. The author does not merely cite a variety of biblical texts as proof for his theological conclusions, but persuasively, penetratingly argues for the incomparability of the cross of Christ. Eventually, language simply fails to supply adequate adjectives to fully describe the importance of the cross.
The initial four chapters effectively draw the reader in to the fundamental structures of the gospel. It would be difficult to remove any one of the four planks supporting Gilbert’s gospel presentation without losing an essential piece of the biblical portrayal of God in relationship with sinful man, saving us from his own wrath, and our necessary response to this good news.
The author clearly has strengths in distilling complex truths into simple (though not simplistic) language, developing helpful literary structures, from the sentence to the discourse level. He writes winsome, thought-provoking, evocative sentences which fit well within the entire discourse. It was a pleasure to follow such a focused, consistent argument on a single, vital subject.
Clear and helpful illustrations. The author has clearly studied and thought deeply on the subject of the gospel of Christ. Quotations and illustrations throughout the book were generally illuminating and strengthened the overall logic of the author’s arguments and their rhetorical force.
The illustrations also provided the sorts of strength which good stories and analogies always give: connection to the audience, practically and experientially relating sometimes abstract ideas to concrete realities, and providing food for further thought (not to mention being fun to read). Particularly enjoyable were the illustrations that many people view God as an “unscrupulous janitor” who merely sweeps sins under the carpet (42) and the idea that most people hold that human nature is basically pure, like perfect quartz covered in mud, rather than shot through with filth (54). The story of his son jumping into his arms at the pool (72) was also an apt analogy for his points on Christian living by faith.
Practical usefulness. The book is eminently readable and does not require a strong theological background to understand the points being discussed. Any issues raised are helpfully explained before being discussed, so the book does not require one to be a scholar in order to understand it. The book may often lead readers to worship the Lord after being reminded of the importance and the greatness of the gospel in fresh and vivid ways. It will also be a valuable resource for quotation in evangelistic sermon preparation and delivery. It is a book which will be useful to new believers, new church members, as well as the unconverted (I’ve given away a copy or two to unbelieving co-workers who expressed interest).
The most helpful section of the book may have been the discussion of “confusing sin with sins” (53-54). Oftentimes this can be an obstacle to someone’s understanding of the full-orbed teaching of the gospel regarding sin. The gospel doesn’t tell us “nobody’s perfect,” meaning that we all make mistakes but God loves us anyway. The gospel says we commit sins because we are sinners all the way down to our very nature and this state and behavior deserve the wrath of God.
It is difficult to discern any truly problematic weaknesses in the actual content of this book. Gilbert’s presentation is spot-on in many ways. Given the helpfulness of its directness and overall brevity, I hesitate to critique the book simply for not including portions on certain subjects germane, though not central, to the definition of the gospel. However, I see no better alternative. Three weaknesses of this book include: very little discussion distinguishing religion from the gospel, no mention of baptism as part of human response, and very little explanation or argumentation in support of beginning at Romans 1-4 in defining the gospel. To reiterate, these are relatively minor criticisms in light of the overall helpfulness of this work.
Very little discussion distinguishing religion from the gospel. This point is understandably left at the level of implication, noting the scope of the book and publishing space limitations, etc. However, given our current context in the West it may have already become necessary to explain the difference between the gospel and religious moralism. Tim Keller has often raised this point in his teaching at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Too often the true gospel is mistakenly reduced to some merely religious effort at making people more moral in some way, shape or form (better parents, better students, better citizens, better sex lives, etc.). The gospel needs to be helpfully and clearly distinguished from these sorts of misrepresentations and misunderstandings. Gilbert does not explicitly do so, which may prove problematic for some readers.
No mention of baptism as part of human response. Again, this may not be a necessary point in a book which is intended to purely answer the question “what is the gospel?” However, baptism is one of the first faithfully obedient acts which a believer takes and is one of the most significant events in a gospel-believer’s life. It also deeply signifies and symbolizes the gospel as portrayed in the Scripture and as experienced by the believer. It is requisite for church membership, and one might have expected at least a sentence or two on the subject, possibly in the chapter on human response or on the kingdom of Christ.
However, given some of the on-going disagreements even among confessional Protestants regarding the subject (credobaptism vs. paedobaptism vs. Lutheran baptismal regeneration, etc.) and the historical controversies surrounding the subject (Catholic baptismal regeneration, Anabaptists, persecution of dissenters on the subject, etc.) it may have been too deep a topic to delve into without quickly getting in over one’s head (pun intended) and straying too far away from the subject under discussion, the gospel.
Very little explanation or argumentation in support of beginning at Romans 1-4 in defining the gospel. It may be easy for certain readers to understand Gilbert’s impulse to move immediately to the first section of a Pauline epistle when attempting to concisely, biblically define the gospel. However, he may be preaching to the choir with reference to such readers. There are four Gospels in the New Testament. Why not begin with one of them? The reader who might ask such a question only receives Gilbert’s provisional suggestion that the best approach to defining the gospel would be accomplished “by looking at what the earliest Christians said about Jesus and the significance of his life, death, and resurrection. “ (27)
But why choose Romans 1-4 rather than James 2:14-16 or John 20:21 or a whole host of other places where the earliest Christians said things about Jesus? Clearly, Gilbert believes this passage most directly serves the purpose of defining the gospel, but there are some prior theological and methodological issues which drive him to that conclusion. Not all of those issues can be discussed, again, in such a brief volume, but it might have been helpful for some readers to understand more of Gilbert’s reasoning for beginning where he does in this regard.
After reading this book, many will be spurred on to further questions about the depth and riches of the gospel, as well as other implications surrounding the gospel and the Christian life. Particularly, readers may be left with questions about the relationship between the law of God and the gospel, which isn’t explicitly discussed. Readers will be grateful for Gilbert’s discussion of the absolute necessity of “pointing to Christ” on judgment day (82-83) as an ineluctable part of the gospel, but may be left with lingering questions about the commands of God and how to live as a Christian. Many other books have been written on those subjects and hopefully Gilbert’s book leads many readers on to pursue greater knowledge of God and His word.