Pastor Matt Chandler and I have been friends for several years. He’s a godly man, a loving husband, and a devoted father. Matt loves Jesus and the church.
He and I have this ongoing debate about who has the more difficult job in preaching the gospel. Matt preaches in the heartland of America where Jesus is more like a socially acceptable icon, rather than Lord and Savior. Here in Seattle, Jesus is likened more to a friendly hipster who drinks tea, drives an eco-friendly scooter, and listens to Arcade Fire.
Matt has recently released his first book, The Explicit Gospel . It’s a fantastic book, and here, I’m posting a few questions for him on the material as it relates to us personally in our families and in our ministries.
Mark Driscoll: During your time pastoring in Texas at The Village Church, you discovered, to your dismay, that many Christians grew up in the church and just assumed the gospel. For those unfamiliar with your book, what is the difference between an assumed and an explicit gospel?
Matt Chandler: The assumed gospel is really any teaching from the Bible that doesn’t bring people’s attention back to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. People in the heartland are very informed about what the Bible teaches on holiness and what a Christian’s life should look like, but without a love for Jesus and an understanding of his justifying and adopting work on the cross, [they] lack the ability to joyfully pursue God’s commanded holiness.
So they find themselves in a state of self-righteousness because they compare their strengths to other people’s weaknesses and feel better about themselves. If they don’t play this game, which I like to call, “Church as a hobby,” then they get so discouraged trying to be good enough for God that they eventually bail on the church and Jesus because they think they tried him, but never really did.
MD: Some reading this will question whether or not they are assuming the gospel. How would you counsel such a person to help them understand if they have been assuming the gospel or if they have believed or do believe in Jesus?
MC: I would pay attention to what people are celebrating and falling in love with. Is it a pattern of religion? A way of living? Or is it Jesus who is our great treasure and whose life, death, and resurrection fuel the motivation for us to live holy lives? I want to celebrate transformation in the lives of people, but not transformation forged on the anvil of human effort. I want to celebrate the changed lives who have been transformed by regeneration and a heart that loves Jesus more than the old ways of living.
MD: In paraphrasing, you said that the power of the gospel doesn’t reside with the preacher or how well it’s articulated, but rather with the Holy Spirit applying the saving work of Jesus to the heart of the hearer. How can people best appropriate the power of the gospel in their everyday life? (p. 77)
MC: We best appropriate the power of the gospel by believing that the Holy Spirit can and will use the proclaimed Word to transform and save. We get out from under our self-confidence and trust God to do what he says he’ll do. I know you and I are known as great “young” preachers, but the truth is there was a day where we weren’t as quick and articulate as we are now. Some of the old stuff is awful, or at least yours was. Yet the Spirit was doing amazing things through sermons that weren’t the best from guys who were still learning and growing in the ability to preach.
God’s faithful like that. I have my first sermon on my computer, and it’s painful, all of it—exegeses, application, flow of thought, illustrations, theology—it was a train wreck of epic proportions, and the Spirit used it to save, convict, and rescue people that night. Study, pray, pray, study, pray, and preach while praying.
MD: Jesus is prevalent in the Bible Belt as a cultural icon. You believe that he’s been injected into the lives of people to the point that they’re inoculated from the gospel. For those ministering in similar contexts, what advice would you give them in making the gospel explicit in their sermons and ministries?
MC: I spend a disproportionate amount of time deconstructing what people think it means to be saved. I want to, in this context, create doubt if I can. That might sound cruel, but I’ve found that it’s one of the most loving things I can do. People think they are Christians because their parents were, because they were born Christians, are Republicans, are Conservatives, aren’t as bad as their neighbor, or are from Texas. Every one of those responses and more have been given to me as an answer to the question, “Are you a Christian?”
MD: The gospel is more than a message to be sealed in a mason jar and placed in storage after believing it. How would you explain the difference between moralistic deism and grace-driven effort in experiencing transformation? (p. 14)
MC: The chapter answers this question in a pragmatic kind of way. For the purpose of this blog post, I’ll answer that the driving difference between the two is the motivation of the heart. Moralistic deism is motivated by fear or self righteousness, while grace-driven is motivated by all that God has done for us in Jesus. The fuel of one is fear while the fuel of the other is love.
MD: For those of us in more secular environments, the gospel is more thought of as a genre of music than it is a message. How would you encourage someone ministering in such an environment in making the gospel explicit?
MC: I think you try and deconstruct what it is the prevailing culture is trying to disciple them in and show them how Jesus and the gospel can fulfill what the prevailing culture keeps promising but can’t deliver. That’s what you do so well in Seattle and what [Tim] Keller and JR Vassar are doing so well in New York City. I’m hesitant to give a long answer because I’ve been in the South a long time now and don’t want to accidentally put chains on any of my brothers.
MD: Both of us have kids. I know that it’s your desire, along with mine, that they grow up loving Jesus and the church. What is your advice to parents in making the gospel explicit in the life of their family?
MC: Lauren and I try to bring everything back to Jesus and his grace to us, not only his justifying love but his adopting love, and then we want to model that for our kids. We ask for forgiveness from our kids when we fail and gather regularly to talk, pray, read the Bible and answer any questions they have. The kids get to watch us live out the gospel as we’ve had neighbors into our house who are unbelievers and have shared the gospel over dinner.
MD: You said that people are encouraged to assume the gospel when “well-meaning teachers, leaders, and preachers set out to see lives first and foremost conformed to a pattern of behavior (religion) and not transformed by the Holy Spirit’s power (gospel)” (p. 14). How can teachers, leaders, and preachers go about making the gospel more explicit in their ministry?
MC: Teachers, leaders, and preachers need to trust the Spirit’s work in the gospel to transform the lives of their hearers. I think a lot of us believe the gospel can save, but if we don’t move on pretty quickly from it people will use it as a license to sin. Faithful proclamation of the gospel’s power to not only save but sustain and sanctify will go a long way to moving people past moralistic deism and into gospel freedom.
MD: You said, “There aren’t too many books written about how you can toil away all your life and be unbelievably faithful to God and see little fruit this side of heaven” (p. 75) For the faithful minister who is plowing the gospel been discouraged by the lack of fruit, what words of encouragement would you have for him?
MC: I want them to define success by the Scriptures—and not by leading their church to be a megachurch, although I don’t think that’s a bad desire if it’s built upon a love for Jesus and people coming to know him and worship him by the hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands.
I have always been encouraged by the reality in Scripture that, when men think they are failing miserably, they are being used by God to move to ball forward for what God has next. I think of Moses and am deeply aware that few men I know want his ministry. He wanders around the desert for 40 years with grumbling, complaining people (church folk were different back then) and then died while Joshua took them into the promised land. We all want Joshua’s ministry, but without Moses we aren’t at the edge of the promise land.
Play your part well, learn from others, and boldly preach the gospel. God’s at work every day in the lives of your people. Trust him.
Matt Chandler is the lead pastor of The Village Church, which has three locations in the Dallas area. You can follow him on Twitter here, check out his sermons for free here, and grab his book, The Explicit Gospel , here.