The following is adapted from one section of Chapter 1 of my book A Gospel of Doubt, a response to Dr. John MacArthur’s book The Gospel According to Jesus.
The first chapter of the third edition of John MacArthur’s The Gospel According to Jesus is entitled, “Follow Me.” It is a new chapter which was not included in the first two editions of the book. In this introductory chapter, MacArthur emphasizes “surrender to Christ as Lord” (p. 25) and “yield[ing] completely and unreservedly to His lordship” (p. 25).
One of the sections in this chapter is called “The Problem with the Feel-Good Gospel.” This blog will address that section.
What does MacArthur identify as the feel-good gospel?
He says that the feel-good gospel is “the no-lordship message” and “the no-lordship doctrine” (p. 30). MacArthur does not mean that the feel-good gospel denies the Lordship of Christ. He doesn’t even mean that the feel-good gospel fails to promote the Lordship of Christ in the life of believers. What he means is that the feel-good gospel proclaims that a person is born again by faith alone in the Lord Jesus Christ, apart from commitment, surrender, or a promise to obey. MacArthur says, “It is hard to imagine a more disastrous twisting of what it means be a Christian” (p. 30).
I have six problems with calling the faith-alone message the feel-good gospel.
First, the title “no-lordship message” is pejorative and highly offensive. It would be like calling MacArthur’s position “the no-grace message.” We call our position “the Free Grace message” or “the message of life.” Why not call us what we call ourselves?
Second, we do not believe in decisionism. MacArthur does. He says that one must “decide…whether you really want to submit to His authority or not” in order to be born again (p. 30). That is decisionism, though not the kind where one must walk an aisle, pray some prayer, sign a card, or raise his hand. On that sort of decisionism, we agree. Instead, MacArthur thinks the decision to be made is whether to surrender, commit, and follow. By contrast, we do not believe in any form of decisionism. We believe in believism. Whoever believes in Him will not perish but has everlasting life (John 3:16; 5:24; 6:35). We do not suggest that believing in Christ is a decision.
Third, following Christ is a decision an unbeliever can and should make. How many unregenerate people go to church faithfully in America? According to MacArthur, most of the people who go to church faithfully in America are not born again. I would agree with him, but for a different reason. The problem is not that they are not submitted enough or not following Christ enough. The problem is that they are not yet convinced that justification is by faith alone, apart from works.
Fourth, MacArthur points people inward: have you submitted entirely to Christ? Have you turned from all your sins? Are you obeying Him in all areas of life? The Lord Jesus instead pointed people outside themselves, to Him: do you believe in the Son of God for everlasting life?
Fifth, the gospel, according to MacArthur, is hard work. He even has a book entitled Hard to Believe. (The subtitle tells us what is hard about “believing”: “The High Cost and Infinite Value of Following Christ.” Believing in Christ in MacArthur’s understanding does not refer to believing in Christ. No. It refers to following Christ. Since following Christ is hard work, believing in Christ is hard work.) But the gospel, according to Jesus, is a gift received by faith alone, apart from any work, hard or easy.
Sixth, the message of justification by faith alone is not a feel-good message, at least not in the sense MacArthur suggests. Very few people in Christianity agree with that view. MacArthur is not feeling good about the faith alone message. He actively opposes it. The Lordship Salvation gospel is the message which makes people feel good about themselves. People who must buy their own salvation (pp. 143-50) feel good about themselves and their gospel.
However, there is a sense in which justification by faith alone is the feel-good message. When we believe that we are justified, that is, eternally secure, by faith in Christ, apart from works, we know we are secure forever. That is wonderful news. That produces love and gratitude toward the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Cor 5:14; 1 John 4:19). It feels good to know I am His child once and for all. Is it bad to feel good about the fact that Jesus is my Lord and Savior? I think not. In that sense the faith alone message truly is the feel-good gospel.