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Matt Chandler on How to Preach the Explicit Gospel

To transform lives, the gospel needs to be clear in every sermon, on every text, on every subject.

Editor's note: Don't expect subtlety from Matt Chandler. Listening to him preach, you don't get the sense that's his personality, and the challenges he has faced in recent years with cancer don't lead someone to be less intense about what matters in life. What matters to Matt is the gospel, and in his new book The Explicit Gospel he lets us know how to preach it straight up. Okay, Chandler, don't mince words; how should we proclaim the good news in a way that changes lives?

PreachingToday.com: What is the difference between preaching the explicit gospel and a non-explicit gospel?

Matt Chandler: If you're preaching the gospel explicitly, then you have at your center the work of Christ, and the work of Christ is what fuels moral transformation. Second Corinthians 3:18 says, "And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit." How are we transformed? Beholding what? By beholding Jesus and his work for us, his imputed righteousness, his wrath-absorbing death, and his resurrection.

Colossians 3:1-2 says: "Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth." So you've got this refrain throughout the New Testament that the way to obey the law, the way to moral transformation, is to fix your eyes on Jesus Christ, to look at what he's accomplished. So when you preach the explicit gospel, you're bringing everything back to that.

The illustration I use for this is a river that is a distributary. A distributary gets all of its water from another river. Its highs and lows are completely dependent upon another river. The life that exists in a distributary is dependent upon another river.

I must not preach in a way that puts people's holiness on them and not on what Christ has done for us in his life, death, and resurrection.

I liken that to the gospel and the commands of God in the Scriptures. The only life that the commands of God have is tied back to the gospel. You can't do the law; that's why Jesus had to come. Whether you're talking about commands regarding marriage, sex, whatever, those commands need to be framed with who God is and what Christ has accomplished for us. Those commands become implications of the gospel message. So that's what it means to preach an explicit gospel.

If we preach a non-explicit gospel, we want to see similar results but use other means to get there. I don't have anything against pragmatics, except that pragmatics won't change the heart. We are relying on pragmatism if we preach a sermon of "Four steps to accomplish this," or "Three steps to get to that," but fail ultimately to weave into that message who Christ is and what he's done for you. This was your state before he did this for you, and this is the opportunity you have if you hide your life in Christ.

Although pragmatic sermons might offer good, sound, logical steps, they aren't going to transform the heart. Pragmatic sermons are dull tools we use to try to chisel away at people's lives. And just like the Old Testament Law, they're not ultimately going to transform people.

Why did you choose the book title Explicit Gospel?

The gospel has become like that catch-all drawer that everybody has in their house. Everybody "preaches the gospel," but are we saying the same thing as the Scriptures when we use that term? The word Explicit says there's something here that is purely gospel, and then there are implications of the gospel.

What do you hope preachers will take away from this book?

I had two hopes in writing the book.

The first is that preachers will understand and preach the gospel more clearly, so that people can be set free from the bondage they walk in because they misunderstand sanctification and justification.

Second, I hope pastors preach the massiveness of the gospel. The gospel is not just about individual salvation. Christ has come to reconcile all things to the Father. There is a fracture in evangelicalism between those who say the gospel is about personal salvation and those who say the gospel is about social justice and the kingdom of God. It's unfortunate because you see both of those components in the Scriptures under what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. So I want to bridge the gap between those two camps and say you don't choose one of these.

You write that preaching the explicit gospel is not a way to grow a church. What sort of results should we expect from preaching the explicit gospel?

I'm not anti-church growth, of course. When we preach the explicit gospel, we're going to see fruit—people will be drawn to the gospel message and converted by it—but the gospel is always going to be offensive to some. To say to people that the world is broken and that they are part of that brokenness is always going to be offensive. In the explicit gospel you make clear what the offense is.

Ultimately we hope God will make the church grow. We need to be faithful to sow seeds and water them, but ultimately we have to trust the fruit to God. If you preach the gospel, the church grows. It grows numerically as people are converted, and it grows exponentially in holiness as people are motivated out of a love and gratitude for Jesus Christ to conform themselves to his image.

Does preaching the gospel every week mean we're preaching an evangelistic sermon every week?

All sermons are in some sense evangelistic in that you're heralding the good news. Even when you're calling someone to holiness, the sermon should have elements of what Christ has done for us and the forgiveness he made possible. Pick any of the Ten Commandments; every person sitting in front of you has failed. No one in that room has kept that commandment. There are just different degrees of failure.

So even if you're trying to push your people towards holiness, there had better be a reminder in there of what Christ has done. There better be at the center the diagnostic of the law: "Let me tell you why you fall short of this commandment, why this is in your heart, maybe not in your action, but in your heart."

And so our preaching can be evangelistic every week in that we can do it in a way that brings about a great depth of theological understanding in your people. It's a false dichotomy to frame sermons as if they're either evangelistic or doctrinal. We can preach in a way where both happen simultaneously.

You're not preaching John 3:16 every week; you're preaching the gospel out of hard texts. You're preaching the gospel regardless of text or topic. In your unpacking of the deep things of God, you're reminding people how tied to the person and work of Jesus Christ this is, why God would even care about something like this, and what God is after when he commands things like this. You're rooted in the river, the life-giving source of the gospel.

How can someone grow up in church hearing the gospel, but not hearing the gospel?

I talk with 20-somethings at our church who say that when they heard the gospel from their pastors as they were growing up, it was overpowered by other messages: Don't drink beer. Don't have sex. Don't watch R-rated movies. Now, if I'm talking to a 16-year-old, I absolutely agree with all of that. Don't watch shows that rot out your brain. Don't drink; it's illegal. But ultimately we can't let those messages overpower the message of the gospel.

The gospel can't be an add-on. We can't say, "Here are all the things you'd better not be doing. Oh, and by the way, God's made provision for you in Jesus Christ." Our central message, our explicit message, is the gospel message, and then the gospel flows into these other areas.

In our desire for holiness in our people, we must not try to get holy living through unholy means. I must not preach in a way that puts people's holiness on them and not on what Christ has done for us in his life, death, and resurrection. Our duty as proclaimers of the gospel is to show people they do not have the ability to obey the law, and then show them their refuge is in Jesus Christ.

Matt Chandler serves as Lead Pastor of Teaching at The Village Church in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex and serves as president of Acts 29, a worldwide church-planting organization.

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