MacArthur's Leaky Dispensationalism

by Grant Hawley

John MacArthur claims to be a Dispensationalist in both The Gospel According to Jesus (GAJ) and The Gospel According to the Apostles (GAA). There is no doubt that he does hold to the fundamental distinction between the Church and Israel, though he does not always apply this distinction consistently. However, the view he presents in GAJ and elsewhere is not consistent with, and is even hostile to, normative Dispensationalism.

Dispensationalism has come under attack as a result of the Lordship Salvation controversy, as MacArthur recognizes:

The lordship debate has had a devastating effect on dispensationalism. Because no-lordship theology [a pejorative term for Free Grace] is so closely associated with dispensationalism, many have imagined a cause-and-effect relationship between the two (GAA, p. 221).

One of the most obvious examples of attacks on Dispensationalism from Lordship Salvation is John Gerstner’s book, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth, especially chaps. 11-13. Another is Reginald Kimbro’s anti-dispensational work, The Gospel According to Dispensationalism, which patterns its name after MacArthur’s The Gospel According to Jesus. Anecdotally, when I was speaking with a friend about Free Grace, I had encouraged her to look into some of Chafer’s works. The following week, she told me that she asked for them at her church library, and that she was told all of Chafer’s books had been banned in their church after the publishing of GAJ.

It is difficult to believe that the attacks on Dispensationalism that followed GAJ were merely an unintended consequence, as MacArthur implies with the word imagined in the above quote. The words Dispensationalism and Dispen-sationalist are found often in the GAJ (see esp. pp. 31-39, 96, 176-77, 247-48) and yet there are only two short paragraphs (on p. 31) where MacArthur uses those words in a positive sense. Even in those two positive references, he is careful to associate only with one tenet of Dispensationalism, the separation of the Church and Israel (see esp. GAA, p. 223). And these brief paragraphs are sandwiched between an open critique of normative Dispensationalism.

In fact, MacArthur repeatedly and directly condemns many of the fundamentals of normative Dispensationalism. One quote in particular has gained some attention:

There is a tendency, however, for dispensationalists to get carried away with compartmentalizing truth to the point that they can make unbiblical differentiations. An almost obsessive desire to categorize and contrast related truths has carried various dispensationalist interpreters far beyond the legitimate distinction between Israel and the church. Many would also draw hard lines between salvation and discipleship, the church and the kingdom, Christ’s preaching and the apostolic message, faith and repentance, and the age of law and the age of grace (GAJ, p. 31).

This quote is particularly relevant because it appears in the first chapter, entitled, “A Look at the Issues”, and is presented as foundational to his argument. Elsewhere (GAJ, p. 96), MacArthur criticizes the distinction between “the gospel of the kingdom” and “the gospel of the grace of God” found in the Scofield Reference Bible. Throughout the book, MacArthur cites Luke 19:10, “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost,” to suggest that all of Jesus’s teachings were related to the offer of eternal life (cf. GAJ, pp. 33, 46, 80, 94, 96, 103, 239). This reveals MacArthur’s soteriological view of history (the view of Covenant Theology), as opposed to the doxological view of history held by Dispensationalism. His statement, “I came to see Jesus’ gospel as the foundation upon which all New Testament doctrine stands” shows that he applies this non-dispensational principle to the entire NT.

In his criticism of Lewis Sperry Chafer (GAJ, pp. 30-32), MacArthur also perpetuates the widely debunked myth that Dispensationalists teach different means of justification salvation in the various dispensations (by law-keeping in the Age of Law and by grace through faith in the Age of Grace). While there were some statements made by Chafer and Scofield which left some with this impression, those statements were later revised so that their clear intention was evident. To perpetuate this myth, as is so commonly done, is to intentionally misrepresent Chafer's and Scofield's views. Every normative Dispensationalist that I am aware of teaches that justification by grace through faith has been God’s program since the fall of man (see Ryrie, Dispensationalism, pp. 121-40).

Lastly, MacArthur’s criticism of specific writers is reserved exclusively for Dispensational scholars. Examples of those he criticizes include Chafer, Ryrie, Hodges, Constable, Scofield, Wilkin, and Thieme. He never criticizes the views of any non-dispensationalist. Indeed, he favorably quotes from nearly forty non-dispensational and often quite anti-dispensational scholars for support in his disparagement of Free Grace. Many times, the specific works MacArthur criticizes were written in defense of Dispensationalism (e.g., English, Chafer, Larkin, GAJ, p. 96). The reasons stated above, along with one major purpose of GAJ being to proclaim a non-dispensational view of Jesus’s earthly ministry, has led many (including me) to conclude that it is as much an attack on normative Dispen-sationalism as it is an attack on Free Grace. This intention is especially clear in his statement, “Frankly, some mongrel species of dispensationalism [which he has defined as the Dispensationalism of Ryrie, Chafer, and others] ought to die, and I will be happy to join the cortege” (GAA, p. 221). It is reasonable to regard such a statement as hostile to Dispensationalism.

In GAA MacArthur is careful to express that it is only “one arm of the dispensationalist movement” that promotes the Free Grace message (p. 34). Later, he openly states that it is the Dispensationalism of Chafer that has yielded Free Grace theology:

Who are the defenders of no-lordship dispensationalism? Nearly all of them stand in a tradition that has its roots in the teaching of Lewis Sperry Chafer. I will show in Appendix 2 that Dr. Chafer is the father of modern no-lordship teaching. Every prominent figure on the no-lordship side descends from Dr. Chafer’s spiritual lineage. Though Dr. Chafer did not invent or originate any of the key elements of no-lordship teaching, he codified the system of dispensationalism on which all contemporary no-lordship doctrine is founded. That system is the common link between those who attempt to defend no-lordship doctrine on theological grounds (GAA, p. 35).

This is precisely the point that I have been making.

In his appendix entitled “What is Dispensationalism?” MacArthur is careful to define his version of Dispensationalism as dealing with the separation of the church and Israel only. He states, “ Dispensationalism is a system of biblical interpretation that sees a distinction between God’s program for Israel and His dealings with the church. It’s really as simple as that” (GAA, p. 219, italics original). It is, then, only by excluding all other elements of Dispensationalism that MacArthur can call himself a dispensationalist.

In a recent interview, MacArthur called himself a “leaky dispensationalist” and has often stated plainly that he is much closer to covenant theologians than he is to most Dispensationalists. In that interview with John Piper and Justin Taylor, MacArthur stated:

When I wrote [GAJ] I didn’t know anybody outside of my circles really, and I didn’t know how this book would be received. But Jim Boice agreed to write the foreword, and John Piper wrote an endorsement that was absolutely stunning to me, because I was really not moving in Reformed circles at that time. I was a leaky dispensationalist. That was my world, and I realized that I was much more one of you than I was one of them (Piper and Taylor, Stand, p. 129).

In other words, the more MacArthur is entrenched into Lordship Salvation, the more he finds himself siding with non-dispensationalists over and against Dispensationalists. This can also be seen in his regular appearances at the Ligonier conference and other anti-dispensational groups. It is strange, then, that MacArthur would state that the connection between the two was simply imagined (GAA, p. 221). If the cause-and-effect relationship between Dispensationalism and Free Grace is imagined, as Dr. MacArthur asserts, why would he have been so adamant about rejecting many aspects of Dispensationalism in his books about soteriology? Why would MacArthur find himself more closely allied with anti-dispensationalists? And why would MacArthur adopt an expression like “leaky dispensationalist” to define his own view? Surely MacArthur recognizes that the connection between Dispensationalism and Free Grace is more than coincidental.

Grant is Pastor of Grace Bible Church in Richardson, TX. He also has a campus ministry at the Univ. of N. Texas in Denton. He and his wife Tamara live with their son, Rock, in Allen, TX.

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