MacArthur’s book hits four main issues: assurance, faith, repentance, and the relationship between salvation and discipleship.
While he never says it in so many words, MacArthur does not believe in assurance. That is, he thinks that no one can or should know with certainty that he is saved. He suggests that it is healthy for believers (regardless of how long they have been saved–or rather, think they may have been saved) to have doubts about their salvation as long as they do not worry obsessively about it (p. 190). (He never explains what constitutes too much worrying about one’s salvation.) He views doubt and worry over one’s eternal destiny as a strong motivation, if not the only motivation, for people to live holy lives (pp.23, 77, 123, 178, 190, 217-18).
Faith is viewed by MacArthur not as an objective reality but as a subjective mist. He suggests that one can believe all the facts of the gospel and still be unsaved (pp. 68, 74)! Faith, he suggests, also must include a complete submission to Christ’s sovereignty over one’s life (pp. 68, 74, 135). Of course, since no one submits perfectly in this life, if that is what faith is, how could any one hope to know for sure he had placed his faith in Christ? MacArthur’s view of faith leaves no room for assurance.
Defining repentance as turning from one’s sins (pp. 162-65). MacArthur suggests that in order to obtain eternal salvation one must turn from his sins and keep on doing so (pp. 58, 111, 162-65). He even admits at one point that this is in part a human work. He says, “Nor is repentance merely a human work” (p. 163). That is, he sees it as a work of God and us. We must cooperate in our salvation, according to MacArthur, by striving against sin our whole lives, never knowing we are saved and always hoping we are turning from enough sins. MacArthur contends that if anyone ever falls they were probably never saved in the first place (pp.77, 84, 123).
The Relationship between Salvation and Discipleship
Obedience to God’s commands is central to MacArthur’s view of both of these subjects. He suggests that one is saved not merely by obeying God’s command to trust in Christ alone, but by obeying all of God’s commands (pp. 33n, 96, 126-27, 174-78). Progressive sanctification is, according to MacArthur, the inevitable result of justification. If one ceases to obey God at some point, he proves he was probably not saved in the first place (pp. 77, 84, 123). How well must one obey to be saved? MacArthur admits that no one can obey 100% of the time due to the flesh which remains with us until we die (p. 174). Yet he fails to say how much obedience is needed (99%?, 90%?, 80%?, 70%?–or maybe God grades on the curve?).
MacArthur says that salvation requires human effort (pp. 33,97, 100, 163)! He argues that this is not teaching works-salvation since our efforts and works alone will not save us (pp. 33, 163). Salvation, in his view, takes God’s works plus our works. However, if it takes our works at all to be saved, then eternal salvation is at least in part by works and can rightly be called works-salvation.
While we may disagree strongly with what MacArthur’s book says, we should not only believe in grace but manifest it as we talk with those who hold errant views of the gospel. While it is apparent from Galatians 1:6-9 that we should not support the ministry of those who distort the gospel, that is not to say that we should be argumentative and belligerent. Let’s demonstrate love and grace in the way we talk to and about those who promote a false gospel.
An expanded review of this book will appear in the Spring 1989 issue of the Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society.