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A Review of “What Is the Gospel” by Greg Gilbert

I’m working my way through several books that have written recently on the subject of “What Is the Gospel.” So, of course, I have to comment on a book actually called What Is the Gospel? (Crossway, 2010). In this brief book (only 127 pages), Greg Gilbert offers a concise explanation of the Gospel and some warnings about contemporary misunderstandings of the Gospel.

Gilbert begins by looking at how Paul explained the Gospel in Romans 1-4. Here he identifies what he sees as the four core truths of the Gospel, which he summarizes as God, man, Christ, and response.

  1. God is the Creator to whom all people are accountable.
  2. Humans have rebelled against God.
  3. God’s solution to humanity’s sin is the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
  4. Humans can be included in salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.

The next four chapters focus on unpacking each of these ideas a bit more. Here he does a particularly good (though brief) job connecting the idea of Jesus as the messianic king coming to establish God’s Kingdom for his people, and Jesus as the suffering servant coming to offer his life as a sacrifice for the people.

In the next chapter he discuss the Kingdom of God as “God’s redemptive rule, reign, and authority over those redeemed by Jesus” (p. 88). And, he does a nice job emphasizing that ultimately the Kingdom is something that only God can bring about. We live as ambassadors of the Kingdom and are called to live Kingdom lives in a broken world, but we can’t actually bring about the Kingdom in the world.

In the seventh chapter, Gilbert argues against several ways of presenting the Gospel that he thinks moves the cross out of the center where it belongs. And here he is primarily concerned with people who call for a “bigger” Gospel – i.e. a Gospel that focuses primarily on believing that “Jesus is Lord”, that creation-fall-redemption-consummation is the Gospel, or that the Gospel is all about cultural transformation. He correctly points out that each of these three approaches can have a tendency to downplay the cross, or even ignore it altogether. But, he also does a good job of not going too far and rejecting these ideas entirely. He simply wants to see that the cross remains central in any attempt to unpack or explain the Gospel message.

As I turn to some critical comments, I need to be a little careful. Some of my criticisms will involve some things that Gilbert didn’t do, or didn’t do enough of. And, to be fair, in such a short book it would have been difficult for Gilbert to address these issues. Nonetheless, in a book on the essence of the Gospel, there are a few more things that I would have liked to see.

First, Gilbert doesn’t do as much as I’d like to ground the Gospel in the narrative of the Bible. My guess is that this is because he is targeting a Christian audience and he expects them to know the story already. But, as I commented early in “Why We Need Thick Gospel Narratives,” I think we need to do a better job in general of grounding people in the biblical storyline that makes the Gospel make sense. Gilbert is aware of that and even comments on that when he discusses the Creation-fall-redemption-consummation approach to the Gospel. But, he doesn’t engage the narrative framework much in this book.

Second, Gilbert says very little about the resurrection or the Spirit in his understanding of the Gospel. He is rightly cross-centered, but to the near exclusion of other important realities. He doesn’t completely ignore them (see pp. 69-70, 96-97), but he comes close.

Third, similarly I would have liked to see Gilbert do more with the empowerment of the Spirit and the transformed life of the people of God as new Kingdom realities in the world. He deals with this very briefly under the heading of “The Kingdom of God”, but it’s clearly not a central issue for him. I’m sure this is at least partly because his concern throughout is to make sure that the cross remains central to the Gospel, so he’s hesitant to spend too much time addressing issues that might shift the attention in other directions. But, surely we can come up with a way of talking about the Gospel that keeps the cross at the center while still not neglecting the rest of the story.

[Update: I just realized that I never actually completed this review by offering a concluding evaluation. Overall, this is a fine, little book. It should be used with its purposes and limitations in mind. It doesn’t say anything particularly new (it wasn’t trying to), but what it does say it says clearly and accessibly. It’s probably targeted at the average church goer who needs to develop his/her understanding of the Gospel a bit more, but with a view toward getting them into something a bit more expansive down the road.]