The book The Gospel for Real Life by Jerry Bridges is a good beginning book on the gospel. In it Bridges expounds the many facets of the gospel in a way that is basic enough for a new believer and deep enough to be refreshing to a more mature believer. He attempts to help his readers bring the gospel further down into their hearts and to be impressed with the “unsearchable riches of Christ.” Bridges states at the very beginning that the book is not intended to be a “theological treatise” but to help believers “preach the gospel to themselves” (11).
Basically speaking, the book is primarily about the various benefits that come to us through Christ. Chapter 1 is titled “Unsearchable Riches.” In this chapter Bridges sets the stage for the rest of the book by presenting his perception of the problem many Christians have, as well as the solution to that problem. Bridges asserts that “we have a truncated view of the gospel, tending to see it only as a door we walk through to become a Christian” (14). He says that the solution is to appreciate better the unsearchable riches of Christ in the gospel and to live our day to day lives realizing that “I am accepted by God, not on the basis of my personal performance, but on the basis of the infinitely perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ” (18).
Chapter 2, entitled “Why the Cross?,” springboards off of Chapter 1 by addressing the bad news of why we need the good news of the gospel. Bridges tries to give the reader some sense of the horror of the cross on pp. 21-23 and then connects that to the sinfulness of mankind. He first explains the Sin of Adam and its effects on the human race (23-25) and then talks about our individual failure to live up to God’s expectation (25-28). Finally, he shows that the reason our sin is such a problem is because of the holiness of God, who is “eternally separate from any degree of sin” (29).
Chapter 3 is called “The Pleasure of Obedience.” In it Bridges speaks of the perfect obedience of Christ on our behalf. He explains the active obedience of Jesus (His lifetime of righteousness earned by His perfect obedience to the Law of God) and passive obedience of Jesus (His obedience to the Father in suffering the undeserved penalty for sin as a representative). He also shows why they are important to us. Finally, Bridges explains the concept of “Union with Christ.” He shows how there is a legal union between Christ and His people that allows Him to represent them in His work, as well as a vital union that actually charges His work to them. This is how we actually benefit from His obedience.
Chapter 4, “Justice Satisfied,” Bridges explains how Jesus’ death on the cross satisfies God’s justice so that there is not contradiction between His justice and mercy in forgiving sinners. Bridges rightly says on p. 45 that the implication of this teaching is that “everyone who has trusted in Christ as Savior can say, ‘God’s justice toward me is satisfied.’” In chapter 5, “The Empty Cup,” is closely related in that Jesus’ death is a propitiation of God’s wrath for our sins. Bridges explains that the best way to understand the word “propitiation” is that God’s wrath is “exhausted” toward us (54).
In Chapter 6, “The Scapegoat,” Bridges shows how the ceremony of the scapegoat and the Day of Atonement in the OT illustrate Christ’s work of propitiation and expiation. As a result, God’s wrath is propitiated, our consciences are cleansed, and our sins are removed from God’s presence. Chapter 7, “Ransomed!,” explains how Christ suffered the penalty of the curse for us as a substitute for us so that we could be redeemed from the curse of the Law. In addition, Christ redeemed us from our former way of life. With reference to the resultant change in lifestyle, Bridges helpfully speaks of an “absolute connection between redemption from guilt and the consequent curse of sin and the release from the dominion or reign of sin in our lives” (79).
In chapter 8, “Reconciliation,” Bridges explains how Christ’s work heals the hostility God has toward us because of our sin. Bridges accurately speaks of God’s holy hatred of sinners, but also the great fact that “God Himself took the initiative by sending His Son to die in our place to satisfy His justice and absorb His wrath” (84-85). Bridges ends the chapter by reviewing the various ways that the work of Christ has been described in the book up to this point and then talks about how the cross brings glory to God because “it is at the cross where God’s Law and God’s grace are both brilliantly displayed, where His justice and His mercy are both glorified,” and also because the cross shows us that there is nothing we can do to contribute to our salvation (89).
Chapter 9, “Right Standing with God,” is Bridges’ answer to what he calls “the most important question we all face: How can a sinful man or woman come into a right relationship with an infinitely holy and just God?” (92). This leads him to discuss the topic of justification by faith alone. He explains how justification is based on the righteousness of God that is freely given to believers in Christ and how that righteousness is appropriated by faith in Christ, which, according to Bridges, includes “renunciation” of trust in ourselves or our own works and “reliance” on Christ and His work alone (97-98). Finally he finishes the chapter by discussing how justification happens at a point in time but is a present reality for those who have trusted in Christ.
Chapter 10 is called “Paul’s Great Exchange.” In this chapter, Bridges discusses how the gospel impacted Paul’s life, primarily in terms of two images. First, Bridges gives the image of a ship that must be willing to lose its cargo rather than sink in the sea. In this case, Paul’s loss is the loss of his own righteousness to preserve his soul. Second, Paul’s righteousness is like garbage that is thrown overboard of a ship because it has no real value. Paul gladly traded his own righteousness for the righteousness of Christ because his own righteousness is of no value compared to the value of Christ and His righteousness. Through these two images, Bridges teaches us that, according to Scripture, our own righteousness is dangerous to us if it keeps us from Christ and worthless in light of the infinitely valuable righteousness of Christ.
Chapter 11, “The Gift of God,” Bridges discusses the reformed doctrine of conversion by looking at total depravity and the necessity of the new birth as a necessary precursor to faith in Christ. He completes the chapter by encouraging the reader to pray for the unsaved, trusting that God can convert them, and to worship God because of His great mercy. Chapter 12, “Children of God,” speaks of our adoption as God’s children. Bridges gives a helpful list of some of the ways that God acts as a Father toward believers, including providing, protecting, encouraging, comforting, and disciplining us (132).
Chapter 13, “Confident Assurance,” discusses the assurance of our salvation as a benefit of the Gospel. Bridges lists three means by which God assures us that we have eternal life, namely: 1) The promises of His Word, 2) The witness of the Spirit in our hearts, 3) The transforming work of the Spirit in our lives (136). Bridges encourages the reader not to “stop short of availing yourself of His riches” until we have assurance that we have eternal life (144).
Chapter 14, “We Shall Be Like Him,” addresses the glorious future for those who have trusted Christ. He primarily speaks in terms of being welcomed into God’s presence after death and being conformed to Christ’s image, including with respect to our bodies, at the resurrection. There is a wonderful section at the end where Bridges compiles some statements from 1 Cor. 15 and Rev. 21-22 to help the reader understand the scriptural teaching on the resurrection.
Chapters 15 and 16 both have to do with the implications of the gospel for our lives. Chapter 15 is called “The Gospel and Sanctification” and addresses what is called “Progressive Sanctification.” He begins by discussing what it means for Paul to say that we are “dead to sin” in Romans 6:2 and how we apply that to our lives by believing that it is true and putting sin to death by the power of the Spirit.
The final chapter, chapter 16, is titled “To the Ends of the Earth,” and discusses the missionary motivation in the gospel. Bridges says that “the gospel is not about God and me. The gospel is about God and the world” (166). In this chapter he ends the book by discussing the parallel scriptural themes of the blessing of the nations and the reign of Christ over the nations. He shows how these two themes funnel down to the church and come to a point with the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20). Finally he challenges the reader to respond by praying for the nations, going to the nations, and giving financially so that others can go to the nations with the gospel.
As an overall evaluation, this book was excellent. Bridges began the book with the claim that he was not trying to write a “theological treatise” but to help believers “preach the gospel to themselves” (11), and he accomplished his goal. He did this by talking about the many various facets of the gospel and challenging believers in specific ways about whether or not they are appropriating the truths of the gospel in their daily lives. Usually this was done in a section at the end of the chapter after he has expounded the teaching thoroughly.
In addition, Bridges’ book is clear and easy to read. The order of the chapters, as well as the content within the chapters was well organized, and Bridges is such a clear thinker and communicator that he leaves the reader in no doubt about what he is trying to say. Upon reflection on the book it is evident that it was written by someone who has been thinking about these doctrines for a number of year. He writes in a way that makes it sound like it is easy to him – without a clutter of words or using more words than is necessary.
He also does a good job expounding the doctrines at a medium range level (and this is in keeping with the aim of his book). He is not really primarily writing to unbelievers, otherwise he would have to do more legwork when it comes to proving his statements and dealing with objections, and if he were trying to be more theologically in depth, he would have to go deeper and be more systematic (although to the book’s credit, it really could serve for a basic entry-level systematic theology of salvation).
One critique I would make of the book is that it is so strongly rooted in the reformed perspective that at times it seems to piggyback some of the reformed doctrines into the gospel. The effect is the impression that if one denies the reformed doctrines, one is close to denying the gospel. One example is on p. 124, where Bridges says that growth in our worship of God will be “directly related to your understanding of the gospel in all its fullness, including the fact that the faith by which you believed was a gift from God.” This comes close to implying that if a person were to not believe that faith is a gift from God, they would be altering in some way the gospel.
Another criticism in the same vein is that Bridges neglects to distinguish between our “standing” and our “state.” That is to say, while Bridges rightly focuses on the fact that our standing before God is entirely by grace through faith (to which I heartily agree and amen!), there is never any discussion about how our obedience or lack of obedience can effect the state of our familial relationship with God. For example, if God’s wrath is exhausted toward me, does that mean there is no Fatherly displeasure toward my sin? What about passages that seem to indicate that we can or ought to please God with our obedience (such as 1 Thess. 2:4; 4:1; Col. 1:10, etc.)? These are the kinds of questions that Bridges’ book fails to address.
Finally, there were a number of passages in the book that helped me personally. First, in chapter 3, I found especially helpful the section where he lists out a number of implications of the two greatest commandments. I find that while I am generally aware of my sinfulness in how it taints the best of my actions with mixed motives, at times I struggle to identify particular areas where I sin by breaking God’s commandments. The list on pp. 25-27 was helpful in its great clarity to show me particular areas where I fail to love God and others. In addition, I found Chapter six (“The Scapegoat”) especially helpful in understanding the meaning of the scapegoat ceremony and the way it shows Christ’s work of propitiation and expiation. What a wonderful truth that God has put all my sins “behind His back” (69)!
In conclusion, I found the book The Gospel for Real Life by Jerry Bridges to be an incredibly helpful and quality resource. I would have no problem using this book to teach a basic class on the gospel, or recommending it to another believer or someone who expresses interest in Christianity and wants to understand what it is all about. The only slight reservation I have is that I struggle with the desire for a resource that expresses the gospel in a way that is a little more (small c) catholic and slightly less grounded in a particular theology. Despite that slight reservation, I have been edified by the book and consider it a well written example of a basic explanation of the gospel.
Bridges, Jerry. The Gospel for Real Life. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002, 2003.