In chapter 10, MacArthur discusses the Lord’s famous teaching on coming to Him and learning from Him to gain rest (Matt 11:28-30). In the introduction he says, “Jesus’ offer of rest for the weary is a call to conversion. It is a masterpiece of redemptive truth—a synopsis of the gospel according to Jesus” (p.118).
And MacArthur couldn’t be more wrong.
The Yoke of Rest
MacArthur entitles this chapter “He Offers a Yoke of Rest” (p. 116).
In our stress-filled age, nearly everyone wants rest for their souls. We need it. The Lord Jesus gave a very well-known promise about rest when He said:
“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matt 11:28-30).
What type of rest is the Lord talking about? MacArthur says, “This is an invitation to salvation, not just an appeal for believers to move into a deeper experience of discipleship” (p. 117). Further he says, “It is…a synopsis of the gospel according to Jesus” (p. 118). Then he brings up the essentials, “It outlines five essential elements of genuine conversion, all so inextricably linked that it is impossible to eliminate any one of them from the biblical concept of saving faith” (p. 118, emphasis added). Those five essential elements of genuine conversion are the five other subheadings for the chapter: humility, revelation, repentance, faith, and submission.
This is the first and only time in The Gospel According to Jesus (hereafter TGAJ) that MacArthur indicates that there are “five essential elements of genuine conversion.” Of course, he often speaks of the elements of repentance, faith, confession of sins (not mentioned here), confessing Christ (not mentioned here), submission, obedience (not mentioned here), perseverance (not mentioned here), humility, and revelation, which would make nine essential elements of conversion. But in no other chapter does he number the conditions of everlasting life.
For MacArthur to say there are “five essential elements of genuine conversion” is especially surprising since just two chapters earlier, in chapter 8, he said, “there is no four- or five-step plan of salvation” (p. 105). Isn’t “five essential elements of genuine conversion” the same idea as a “five-step plan of salvation”? This looks like a contradiction.
But more importantly, where does the Bible list these five elements as conditions for receiving everlasting life? They are not found in the text MacArthur cites, Matt 11:28-30, nor are they found together anywhere in the Bible.1
Matthew 11:28-30 says nothing about repentance, humility, or revelation, though it certainly speaks of faith as a condition of regeneration (“Come to Me,” compare John 6:35) and of submission as a condition of discipleship (“Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me”).
Before we examine MacArthur’s five essential elements for salvation, notice that the Lord mentions rest twice (Matt 11:28, 29), and with two different conditions for having rest.
The first rest, mentioned in verse 28, is conditioned upon coming to Jesus.
Verse 29 speaks of a second rest, conditioned upon taking up Jesus’ yoke and learning from Him.
Is coming to Jesus the same as taking up His yoke and learning from Him? That is the position MacArthur advocates. Yet the Biblical text does not support MacArthur’s claim.
In the Fourth Gospel coming to Jesus is a metaphor for believing in Him. The Lord said, “You are not willing to come to Me that you may have [everlasting] life” (John 5:40). A bit later He said, “He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out” (John 6:37). Coming to Jesus is believing in Him.
Yet where in John’s Gospel or the entire Bible do we find taking up Jesus’ yoke as a metaphor for believing? A yoke was a wooden implement which had openings for the heads of two oxen to be placed so that they could pull a plow or a cart. A yoke is a symbol of hard labor, not a symbol of faith.
In addition, learning [manthanō/ mathētēs in Greek, the noun form being the word translated disciple(s) in the New Testament] from Jesus is a discipleship concept. It is not a picture of believing in Him.
The Lord Jesus is saying in Matt 11:28-30 that the first rest, the one for those who come to Him, pictureseverlasting life for the believer. The second rest, the one for those who take His yoke and learn from Him, pictures a life of discipleship, which is a life of such fulfillment and joy that it can be said to be rest from the aimlessness and discontentment that characterizes a life without eternal significance.2
The first of MacArthur’s “five essential elements of genuine conversion” is humility. He finds this in a verse that precedes Matt 11:28-30. In verse 25 the Lord says, “You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes.” The wise and prudent are “the Pharisees, the rabbis, and the scribes” (p. 118). “Their sin is not their intellect; it is their intellectual pride.”
Who can enter into salvation? Those who, like children, are dependent, not independent. Those who are humble, not proud. Those who recognize that they are helpless and empty. Aware that they are nothing, they turn in utter dependency to Christ (p. 119).
Doesn’t this statement contradict the main point of TGAJ and of this chapter? MacArthur has been arguing that everlasting life is only for those who deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow Christ till they die. But why would someone who recognizes that they are “helpless and empty” and “aware that they are nothing” ever presume to save themselves by works? Working for Christ (taking His yoke upon you) is not dependency, humility, and helplessness. It is sweating, working, and helping.3
This section on humility illustrates the inconsistency of MacArthur’s position, an inconsistency born of his days before he studied the Puritans in 1980. He often makes comments that make it seem like he believes in salvation by faith alone, but just as quickly contradicts himself and teaches salvation by works.
The other four items in MacArthur’s list (humility, repentance, faith, and submission) are all conditions placed upon the person who wishes to be born again. Revelation is not that kind of condition, at least in the way it is stated.
Possibly what MacArthur means here is that in order to be born again a person must be open to Divine revelation (see his comments on the need to be open on pp. 71, 87, 105, 119).
However, MacArthur does say, “The only people who receive it [personal knowledge of the Father and the Son] are those who are sovereignly chosen” (p. 120), which obviously reflects his commitment to Calvinism and unconditional election.
Only by special revelation from God—that is, only from Scripture—can a person come to faith. Paul said that in Rom 10:14. However, contra MacArthur, anyone, not just the so-called elect,4 can receive revelation from God through His Word and believe and be born again.
MacArthur himself notes, “the word repentance is not specifically used here” (p. 121, emphasis his). Yet he says, “that [repentance] is what our Lord is calling for.” He says, “‘Come to Me’ demands a complete turnaround, a full change of direction” (p. 121).
MacArthur makes this claim without providing any support. He does not mention or explain New Testament passages in which the expression coming to Jesus occurs. He fails to demonstrate that Jesus’ use of the exhortation “Come to Me” in Matt 11:28 or elsewhere is a demand for “a complete turnaround, a full change of direction.”
While the English expression come to Me is found in many places in the New Testament, the exact Greek expression in Matt 11:28 (deute pros Me) is only found here.5 Thus we need to look at uses of this same idea using a different but synonymous Greek verb (erchomai).
In John 6:35 the Lord said, “He who comes to Me [ho erchomenos pros Me] shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.” Coming to Jesus there is a synonym for believing in Him, not a synonym for repentance (see also John 5:39-40; 6:37, 44, 45, 65). That is, coming to Him in the first half of the verse is synthetically parallel with believing in Him in the second half.
Three texts speak about allowing children to come to Jesus (Matt 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16). They either refer to people of that day literally allowing children to approach and listen to Jesus, or else they refer to allowing children to believe in Him. Either way the Lord meant that children should be evangelized.
If MacArthur could show a text in which coming to Jesus refers to repentance, then that might support his interpretation here. But he can’t do that, and he doesn’t even try to show that. There is no verse anywhere in the Bible which indicates that coming to Jesus refers to turning from one’s sins.
MacArthur goes on to define repentance as “turn[ing] from self and sin to the Savior. This is not an invitation to people to enjoy their sin” (p. 121). So one must turn from his sins and reject his sins and turn to Christ and follow Him in order to be born again. How he gets that from this passage, or from the New Testament concept of coming to Jesus, is impossible to see.
Having identified coming to Jesus as repentance, how will MacArthur find faith in this passage?
Amazingly, having just said that the call to “Come to Me” is a call to repentance, he now says,
“Come to Me” is tantamount to saying “Believe in Me.” In John 6:35…to come to Jesus is to believe in Him (p. 121).
Apparently it can mean both. How? Because, “Faith is the flip side of repentance” (p. 121).
So here is what MacArthur expects the reader to understand: any time the word repentance or a synonym occurs, faith and repentance are both meant. Likewise, any time faith or a synonym occurs, faith and repentance are both meant.
However, there is not a shred of evidence that supports the idea that faith is the flip side of repentance.6 Nor does MacArthur try to provide such evidence.
Have you ever seen a coin that was cut in half and then put back together? I have. You can separate the face of the coin from the back of it. You end up not with one coin, but two half coins.
Well, if the front half of the coin is faith and the back half is repentance, then justification is by faith plus repentance, not by faith alone. You can’t have it both ways.
Notice how short this section is in relation to the other sections, especially the section on submission which follows. Nine lines on faith.7
Fifty-three lines on submission.
Thirty-four lines on repentance.
The tiny amount of space MacArthur devotes to faith speaks volumes. Faith clearly is not very important to MacArthur. If it were, he wouldn’t have only given it a handful of lines. Submission and repentance, however, are vital based on the fact that he gives ten times as much material discussing those issues than he does discussing faith.
Tenney famously called John’s Gospel The Gospel of Belief. The reason he did so is because the verb believe (pisteuō) occurs 99 times in John. Over and over again the Lord says that the one who believes in Him has everlasting life, shall not come into judgment, shall never hunger or thirst, shall never die (John 1:12-13; 3:14-18; 5:24; 6:35, 37, 39, 45; 11:16).
Nor was this merely the teaching of the Lord Jesus, although that would be enough since He is, after all, the Lord. But His Apostles followed their Lord and also taught that justification and regeneration are by faith alone. The Apostle Paul famously said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved…” (Acts 16:31). He said that he was “a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him [Jesus] for everlasting life” (1 Tim 1:16). He said that salvation, that is, the new birth (Eph 2:5) is “by grace…through faith…not of works” (Eph 2:8-9). He said three times in one verse that “a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal 2:16). Over and over again in Gal 3:6-14 he said that justification is by faith alone.
The Jerusalem Council was a meeting of the early church to settle the issue of whether Gentiles had to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses in order to be born again (Acts 15:1) and even in order to be sanctified (Acts 15:5). At that meeting the Apostle Peter, speaking of Cornelius and his household (Acts 10:34-48), the first Gentile converts,8 said,
“God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us…purifying their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:7-9).
Peter spoke of faith and believing. He did not mention repentance or submission.
James said that God “brought us forth by the word of truth” (1:18), that is, by believing the message of everlasting life sourced in Jesus Christ. He too did not mention repentance or submission.
I love the old Baptist hymn “Whosoever Surely Meaneth Me.” That song is based on John 3:16 and Rev 22:17 (from the KJV). The Lord Jesus said that “whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, KJV). The issue was and remains belief in Jesus or lack thereof.
Often an author saves the best for last. That is certainly MacArthur’s view in this chapter. He thinks the key element in the new birth is submission.
The first lines are telling: “Salvation does not end there. Another element of genuine conversion is submission” (p. 122). The word there refers back to the preceding section on faith. Thus when he says, “Salvation does not end there” (p. 122) he means salvation does not end with faith in Christ. He then adds, “Another element of genuine conversion is submission” (p. 122). That is an amazing statement. Submission (and repentance, pp. 120-21) must be added to faith in order for a person to have salvation:
The call to surrender to Jesus’ lordship is part and parcel of His invitation to salvation. Those unwilling to take on His yoke cannot enter into the saving rest He offers (p. 122).
MacArthur’s discussion of the yoke (pp. 122-23) is very helpful. He clearly shows that it is an implement for work.
He is also correct that “the imagery [of learning from Jesus]…[is reminiscent of] a pupil who submitted himself to a teacher [and] was said to take the teacher’s yoke” (p. 122).
The problem is that MacArthur equates the call to discipleship with the call to everlasting life. For him following Jesus is required to be born again as this section and the title of the book’s first chapter shows.
Notice that we find no discussion of the difference between coming to Christ and taking His yoke upon us and learning from Him. How anyone could think those two things are identical is hard to fathom, unless, of course, his theology demands it.
In this section on submission MacArthur is teaching works salvation. He is saying we must work for Christ to be born again. This is Nike evangelism: Just do it.
MacArthur says that “the yoke of the law, the yoke of human effort, the yoke of works, and the yoke of sin are all heavy, chafing, galling yokes…The yoke He [Jesus] offers is easy, and the burden He gives is light…” (pp. 122-23). His point seems to be this work is easy. It is not difficult.
Regardless of how hard or easy Jesus’ yoke is, His yoke is a yoke. It is an implement of work.
MacArthur may be hinting at what we see in 1 John 5:3, “His commandments are not burdensome.” True. But they are still commands and effort is still necessary. Work is to be done. The point made by the Lord and the Apostle John is that the born-again person is well fitted to the task of working for Christ because of the power of the Spirit in his life.
MacArthur pictures a form of works salvation that isn’t heavy, chafing, or galling. This is work we can do and enjoy. And if we do, then we will gain everlasting life for the work we’ve done for Christ. This idea that everlasting life is by works—whether easy or difficult—cannot possibly be harmonized with texts like John 3:16; 5:24; 6:28-29; Rom 4:4-5; Gal 2:15-16; Eph 2:8-9; or Titus 3:5.
The only “submission” that is a precursor to faith in Christ is a willingness to do what God says we must do:
[Jesus said,] “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40).
Here is another use of coming to Jesus. Again, that expression is a synonym for believing in Him. The vast majority of Jews were unwilling to believe in Jesus for everlasting life because in their minds that was too easy. That contradicted their tradition, just as justification by faith alone contradicts MacArthur’s theological tradition.
Like Naaman, who initially chafed at the condition of healing that Elisha gave him as being too easy (2 Kings 5:9-13), MacArthur is unwilling to submit to the simple condition of coming to Jesus for the rest that is everlasting life. Hence he gives the reader a harder way of deliverance. Yet since it isn’t God’s way, the gospel according to MacArthur is a message that is not true.
Naaman ended up submitting to the condition God gave him through Elisha for healing (2 Kgs 5:14), a condition that initially offended him. Have you submitted to the only way for everlasting life given by God? That is, have you come to Jesus, have you believed in Him for everlasting life? I hope you have. I hope your assurance is based solely on the promise of God to the believer and not at all on your works. I have written this book so you can be sure that you have everlasting life which can never be lost no matter what.
1. In addition, other than faith in God’s revelation concerning Christ (John 3:16; 5:24), none of the other things which MacArthur says are essential conditions for receiving everlasting life are said to be conditions of the new birth or of justification in the Bible. Even if all five elements were found together, they would need to be listed as conditions for regeneration or justification. They are not.
2. It is possible that this second rest (anapausis) is the same rest spoken of by the author of Hebrews (using the related word katapausis in Heb 3:11, 18; 4:1-11).
3. MacArthur believes that “not of works” in Eph 2:9 refers to works humans do independent of God’s enablement (see p. 189). However, Paul does not make that distinction in Eph 2:9 or anywhere. The Lord in John 6:28-29 also ruled out works that people do and He too did not qualify His remarks. Though God gives believers the power we need to obey Him so that He might give us eternal rewards, that is not the same as saying that He does the work without our involvement. We must run, fight, and keep (2 Tim 4:6-8).
4. I believed in election to everlasting life for 25 years (1980-2005). I no longer do. I’ve come to see that the Scriptures do not teach that. What they teach is election to service. For explanation see my book The Ten Most Misunderstood Words in the Bible, pp. 182-86.
5. There are two uses of duete (from duerō) opiso mou, come after Me (Matt 4:19; Mark 1:17). However, coming after Jesus is a much different idea than coming to Jesus. Indeed deute opisō mou is almost always translated as “Follow Me” (KJV, NKJV, NASB, NET, HCSB, ESV, NIV has “Come, follow me”).
6. I wrote my doctoral dissertation at Dallas Theological Seminary (New Testament, 1985) on repentance and salvation.
7. Actually five of those nine lines deal with repentance, not faith. Thus he really only has four lines on faith.
8. The Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8 may well have been a Jew. However, if he was a Gentile, he is generally considered as an individual, not as a group (though possibly some of his servants came to faith as well). Cornelius came to faith with his family and his household (which would include servants and possibly friends and neighbors who came to hear this important message).