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The Gospel for Real Life

Continuing our series of reviews on books about the Gospel, today I’m going to look at Jerry Bridges’ The Gospel for Real Life: Turning to the Liberating Power of the Cross…Every Day (NavPress 2003).

According to Bridges, the book focuses on combating the problems that many Christians face in their spiritual lives because they’re operating with either a truncated understanding of the Gospel or a utilitarian view of the Gospel, or both (p. 14). So, Bridges sets out to provide an explanation of the Gospel that is neither truncated nor utilitarian, and he is partially successful.

In seeking to offer a less truncated view, Bridges does a nice job unpacking a very traditional (and pretty reformed) understanding of the cross as lying at the heart of the Gospel. Most of the first hundred pages or so really serves as an explanation of the atonement, with strong emphasis on substitutionary atonement and justification. But, he doesn’t stay there. Once he’s finished unpacking the atonement, he does move on to discuss the gift of the Spirit, adoption, assurance, sanctification, and the eschatological telos of the whole story. So, to some extent Bridges succeeds in staying focused on the cross at the heart of the Gospel, while avoiding the truncated Gospel by showing how other important aspects of the good news are connected to the cross.

Bridges is also concerned to avoid the utilitarian Gospel. Having attended far too many churches where baptismal testimonies focus on “how great my life is now that I’m a Christian,” I can definitely sympathize with this desire. So, Bridges directs our attention throughout to the nature and character of God as the focus of the story. But, he does not make the mistake of thinking that this means he can’t say anything about what the Gospel does for us.

Nonetheless, the book has at least four significant weaknesses that made it pretty disappointing. First, although one of Bridges stated purposes was to protect people from having a truncated view of the Gospel, he was only partially successful. That’s because although he did a nice job centering the Gospel in the cross, he did very little to place the cross in the broader biblical narrative that provides the only context in which it can be properly understood. He talked about sin, of course, but said very little about God’s creative purposes, his covenantal faithfulness with Israel, his promises, or even the kingdom. Without these, the good news simply will not be fully understood for being the really good news that it is.

Similarly, although Bridges focuses much of the book on the atonement, I would have liked to see a more robust presentation of all that the cross means. Bridges includes discussions of reconciliation and ransom in addition to substitutionary atonement. But, what about victory, revelation, and healing, among others? If we’re going to celebrate the cross as the heart of the Gospel, let’s make sure we celebrate all of it.

And, unfortunately, as with many books that make the cross central to the good news, Bridges evidences very little interest in the incarnation, the resurrection, or the ascension as having any real role to play in grounding the good news. There seems to be a hesitation in some circles to discuss these as part of the Gospel story because of a concern that they will detract from the centrality of the cross. But, surely we can recognize the significance of all Christ’s life for the good news that he brought into the world, without losing sight of the atonement in the process.

And, connected to the lack of discussion about the kingdom was a corresponding lack of any real talk about the church. The good news that Bridges brings is largely centered on the salvation of the individual. That’s not Bridges exclusive focus, but it’s close. Once again it seems that a legitimate concern to protect one important aspect of the Gospel (its individual aspect) caused him to neglect something else (its corporate aspect).

But, probably the biggest disappointment in the book, especially given its subtitle, was the fact that it actually had very little to say about what the Gospel has to do with real life. He did address sanctification and the Spirit-empowered life of the believer. But, everything remained at a pretty high level of abstraction. What does the Gospel have to do with doing housework or selling cars, raising kids or watching football? If this is the Gospel “for real life,” then let’s talk about real life and how the power of the Gospel touches and transforms every aspect of our existence. That’s what I was hoping in find in this book, and in that I was disappointed.