Kunte Kinte was abducted from his village in Africa and sold into slavery in the United States. He was treated horribly by his master. After running away several times, his master disabled him. Alex Hailey’s famed TV series Roots was a jarring introduction to the evils that often accompany slavery.
When you think of slavery, what comes to mind? Is it the millions of men, women, and children kidnapped by fellow Africans and sold to Europeans to work the colonies? Or maybe you think of the Hebrews escaping across the Red Sea from their Egyptian masters? Or Spartacus leading the revolt against Rome? Or modern-day Christian women being sold into slavery by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq? Whatever image of slavery comes to mind, it is most likely a grim one. When we think of slavery, we think of the very worst kind of human existence possible. But when the Bible describes us as slaves to Jesus Christ, is that what we should think of?
In the first chapter of The Gospel According to Jesus (hereafter TGAJ), John MacArthur argues that the Bible’s description of Christians as slaves tells us something about the nature of saving faith. In sum, slaves were subservient to their masters, hence MacArthur believes that to be born again one must surrender to Christ as Lord. Is MacArthur right?
A Word about Words
MacArthur begins by examining two words, Lord (kurios) and slave (doulos), and rightly sees the sovereignty of the Lord Jesus in the former term and our status in the latter term. He suggests that many New Testament translations have de-emphasized the word doulos by translating it as servant, rather than as slave, which he thinks minimizes its impact.
However, as is his practice throughout TGAJ, MacArthur makes pronouncements that are not backed by Scripture, such as this one:
Doulos speaks of slavery, pure and simple. It is not at all a hazy or uncertain term. It describes someone lacking personal freedom and personal rights whose very existence is defined by his service to another. It is a sort of slavery in which “human autonomy is set aside and an alien will takes precedence of [sic] one’s own.” This is total, unqualified submission to the control and the direction of a higher authority—slavery, not merely service at one’s own discretion (italics added).1
On the one hand, MacArthur is right that doulos sometimes refers to a common slave. On the other hand, he fails to mention that it often refers to a king’s official or to people who are officials for God Himself.
The leading dictionary of New Testament Greek lists two main senses of doulos: “1. male slave as an entity in a socioeconomic context, slave” and “2. One who is solely committed to another, slave, subject” (BDAG, p. 260AB, emphasis original). But under the second definition BDAG lists two types of uses: “a. in a pejorative sense,” and “b. in a positive sense” (p. 260B). Under the positive use of doulos BDAG lists “α. in relation to a superior human being…of a king’s officials” and “β. especially of the relationship of humans to God” (p. 260B).
When MacArthur talks about being a slave, his explanation does not appear to have any positive sense at all; yet BDAG lists slavery to God as a positive thing, just as being one of “a king’s officials” is certainly a positive thing. Indeed BDAG lists being apostles and Christian prophets as positive examples of being a doulos (p. 260C).
MacArthur’s interpretation of what it means to be a slave does not fit with many texts of Scripture. For example, MacArthur says that Christians lack personal rights. However, Paul asserts that he and Barnabas, both slaves of Christ (Acts 14:14; Rom 1:1; Gal 1:10; Phil 1:1; Titus 1:1), had rights:
Do we have no right to eat and drink? Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working? (1 Cor 9:4-6, emphasis added).
Also, MacArthur says that, since believers are slaves, they lack personal freedom. By contrast, Paul spoke of the freedom that believers in Christ have:
If any of those who do not believe invites you to dinner, and you desire to go, eat whatever is set before you, asking no question for conscience’s sake (1 Cor 10:27, emphasis added).
Accepting or declining an invitation certainly sounds a lot like freedom of choice for believers. And don’t believers also have freedom in the matter of marriage? Aren’t believers free to choose whom they wish to marry? Paul says they are:
A wife is bound by law as long as her husband lives; but if her husband dies, she is at liberty to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord (1 Cor 7:39, emphasis added).
When MacArthur says that Christians have no personal freedom or rights, he is misstating the meaning of doulos while ignoring contexts that do not support his explanation.
MacArthur goes on to mention five passages (Matt 6:24; 1 Cor 6:19-20; 2 Pet 2:1; Rev 5:9; Rom 14:7-9), evidently thinking that they prove that believers have no freedom and no rights. But none of the verses he cites supports what he is saying.
For example, MacArthur says, “We have a Master who bought us (2 Peter 2:1)” (p. 28). Of course, it is absolutely true that Jesus is our Master (despotēs). Despotēs is used four times in the New Testament of the Lord Jesus as our Master (2 Tim 2:21; 2 Pet 2:1; Jude 4; Rev 6:10). And it is certainly true that the Lord Jesus bought us (agorazō). The word agorazō is used four times in the New Testament in reference to redemption, whether for all mankind (Matt 13:46) or for believers (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23). But the verse MacArthur specifically cites is 2 Pet 2:1, which doesn’t refer to the redemption of believers at all:
But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction.
When MacArthur says, “We have a Master who bought us,” he is referring to believers, not false teachers. Yet Peter is talking about false teachers. MacArthur misses the distinction. The fact that the Lord bought false teachers does not in any way prove that believers have no freedoms or rights.
None of the other passages MacArthur cites indicate that believers lack freedoms or rights either (Matt 6:24; 1 Cor 6:19-20; Rev 5:9; Rom 14:7-9). He is simply citing verses that use the words Master (despotēs) or bought/redeemed (agorazō) without examining whether they prove his point.
Why Such a Revolting Concept?
The title of this section shows that MacArthur thinks being a slave of Jesus Christ is “a revolting concept.” It is true that being a slave (doulos) in the ancient world was a bad thing. No one would want to be in such a position, especially modern people who enjoy a wide range of personal freedoms. But MacArthur’s arguments are misleading. While the New Testament does describe us as slaves, there isn’t an exact equivalence between being the slave of a pagan and being Jesus’ slave. It’s a metaphor. And all metaphors have their proper limits.
The truth is, following Christ can involve hardship and suffering. But to call it “revolting” may be good rhetoric, but poor exposition. On the contrary, being Jesus’ slave is a good thing, not a bad thing. It’s not revolting; it’s an honor and a great responsibility. For the person who understands who Jesus is and what is to come, being His slave is a wonderful concept. Indeed, it’s the very best thing you can be!
To say, “They understood far better than we do what a menial position He was calling them to” (p. 29) is another exaggeration of the slave metaphor. Yes, Christ’s Apostles would experience debasement. But the kind of debasement they experienced was less like a Roman doulos, and much more like what Jesus Himself experienced. Remember that in His first coming, the Lord Jesus Himself came as a slave:
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:25-28, emphasis added).
MacArthur fails to point out here that Jesus first came to serve (though he does later, on p. 34), which is an important omission.
In His First Coming, Jesus came to serve others, not to be served. In His Second Coming the Lord Jesus will come to be served. Will serving Him be revolting? Absolutely not! In fact, if we are faithful in our service for Him in this life, we will actually reign with Him in the life to come (2 Tim 2:12; Rev 2:26). Jody Dillow entitled his book on eternal rewards, The Reign of the Servant Kings. That captures the idea well.
Christians are slaves to Christ. But that kind of slavery is not a revolting concept!
The Problem with a Feel-Good Gospel
MacArthur hopes his emphasis on slavery will help counteract what he perceives as a major problem today, namely, “a feel-good gospel” (p. 30). And what is that? He identifies it with what he calls “the no-lordship message” and “the no-lordship doctrine” (p. 30), the most disastrous form of the “feel-good gospel.” He says that “the whole gist of the nolordship message” is as follows:
You can have Jesus as Savior and Friend here and now and decide later whether you really want to be submitted to His authority or not. It is hard to imagine a more disastrous twisting of what it means to be a Christian (p. 30).
It is unfortunate that MacArthur chose pejorative labels like “the no-lordship message” when the people he is criticizing call our view Free Grace theology. We believe in the Lordship of Jesus Christ and call for people to submit to Him and live for Him. The very name “no-lordship doctrine” is offensive to Free Grace proponents. And it is misleading.
Free Grace teachers say that only by following the Lord can anyone have meaning and significance in life. Believers who do not yield to Christ are miserable. Why would anyone want that?
But it is true that Free Grace proponents, unlike MacArthur, do not make submitting to Christ a condition of receiving everlasting life. Submission is a condition for discipleship and for the fullness of life which God wants us to have.
Free Grace preachers use MacArthur’s own term for his position, namely, Lordship Salvation. If we were to call his view the no-grace doctrine, the no-grace message, or the feel-good gospel, we would be using pejorative language that would offend people we hope to reach.
MacArthur does believe that the grace of God is essential for anyone to be born again. His church is called Grace Community Church. His radio ministry is called Grace to You. He speaks a lot about grace. He differs from Free Grace people in that in his view the grace of God motivates and enables “the elect” to repent, submit, commit, obey, and persevere so that they might gain kingdom entrance. In his view the grace of God must be wedded with our works in order for anyone to escape eternal condemnation.
Since the debate between Lordship Salvation and Free Grace Salvation will be discussed throughout this book, there is no need for a lengthy discussion of the differences here. Instead, a few observations about the basic differences follow.
First, the decision to submit to Christ, which MacArthur says one must make to be born again, is just that, a decision. But the new birth is not a decision. Decisionism is wrong in terms of the new birth, as MacArthur himself says elsewhere in TGAJ (pp. 37, 116). Of course, an unbeliever can and should decide to submit to Christ. But submitting to Christ won’t save anyone.
Second, MacArthur points people inward for assurance. He wants people to look for the “telltale mark of authentic saving faith” (p. 32). But the Lord Jesus pointed people away from themselves to Himself (John 3:16; 4:10-14; 5:24; 6:35; 11:25-26). Believing in Jesus’ promise of everlasting life is the true basis of assurance.
Third, salvation, according to MacArthur, is hard work. It is work that does not end until death or the Rapture. But salvation, according to Jesus, is not hard work, it’s a free gift received by faith alone, apart from any work (John 3:16; 4:10; 6:28-29).
Fourth, the message of justification by faith alone is not a “feel-good” message, contrary to MacArthur’s claim. If it were, there wouldn’t be 1.2 billion Catholics, 300 million Eastern Orthodox, and 25 million Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses who reject the Free Grace message and instead believe in salvation by grace through faith plus works. And most of the 800 million Protestants hope to be saved by a mixture of faith and works. Clearly the message of Lordship Salvation is much more popular than the Free Grace message.
Slavery and True Liberty
MacArthur ends the chapter by saying that the gospel is an invitation to slavery (p. 34), and it’s impossible not to see that he makes everlasting life depend upon a mixture of faith and works. How else can you understand the following?
The gospel according to Jesus calls sinners to give up their independence, deny themselves, submit to an alien will, and abandon their rights in order to be owned and controlled by the Lord (p. 35).
Does the law require anything more or less than such complete submission? A bit later MacArthur adds:
But remove that spirit of submission, and the most profound kind of “admiration” for Christ is not even true faith at all. Yielding completely to Christ’s lordship is that vital an element of true saving faith, and therefore the proclamation of His lordship is an absolutely necessary component of the true gospel (p. 36).
Aside from the serious problems this raises for Paul’s argument about justification and the law, a more fundamental question is, what evidence is there that the call to follow Christ is the same as the call to be born again? MacArthur offers no such evidence.
No doubt the Bible teaches that believers are Jesus’ slaves. And MacArthur is right to call attention to this neglected subject in preaching. But he also takes things too far. He exaggerates the analogy between grueling pagan slavery and slavery to Christ, and he wrongly makes submission to Christ as one’s Master a condition for receiving everlasting life without a shred of Biblical proof to support his claims.
1. John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus, Revised and Expanded Anniversary Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 28. All quotations in this article are from the 2008 edition unless otherwise indicated. Hereafter cited as TGAJ.