J. Kevin Butcher*
By writing The Gospel According to Jesus, in a sense John F. MacArthur has done the evangelical world a favor. He has raised to a level of national consciousness the contemporary confusion in the Church over the most basic issue of all-the nature of the Gospel.
MacArthur rightly suggests that there are two different gospels espoused in Christendom today (p. xiv), and he also correctly implies (by quoting Gal 1 :6-8 [p.17]) that these two gospels cannot simultaneously be correct. One of them is false and corrupt. One of them is not the Gospel according to Jesus (p. 15). Because the doctrine of salvation is “the base of all we teach” (p. xvi), and “a matter of eternal consequence (p. xiv), MacArthur is also profoundly accurate in concluding that the Church must seek clarity on this issue once and for all.
We are not dialoguing over semantic differences, MacArthur affirms. The question, then, that MacArthur’s book seeks to answer is: “Which gospel is which?” Again, while asking the question proves to be extremely helpful, it is in answering it that MacArthur deeply disappoints the evangelical world. The problem is not his style. The text is clear, articulate, and obviously written from the heart. The tone, though biting at times, nevertheless comes across as sincere. Even his conclusions, though an obvious problem to those of us with a different view, are not the most disturbing element of his work. The major failure of The Gospel According to Jesus lies in its inability to conclusively and convincingly defend the view of the Gospel it claims to support.
MacArthur states his positions with a persuasive vigor throughout, but he errs in so many foundational areas of his argument that the ultimate value of the book is seriously affected. The remainder of this review will explore several of these fundamental errors in methodology and reasoning and will attempt to show how they invalidate MacArthur’s conclusions.
II. Inaccurate Understanding of the Free Grace Position
MacArthur’s first error involves a problem of perception—he doesn’t clearly understand the other view. He does well when he states his own position, describing “Lordship Salvation” as a gospel that requires a faith that commits all (cf. pp. 169ff), a repentance that gives up sin (cf. pp. 159ff) and a submission to the “mastership of Christ” (cf. pp. 203ff) before eternal life is apprehended. The Lordship gospel, according to MacArthur, speaks of a “salvation that is a gift, yet costs everything” (cf. p. 140). But the “other” view which might be referred to as the “Free Grace” Gospel is misrepresented on several counts.
1. Confused with Antinomianism
First, the Free Grace position is confused with antinomianism. MacArthur suggests that the mainstream of the Free Grace Movement views the obedient Christian life as “optional” (p. 17) and that the behavior of individuals has “no relationship to their spiritual status” (p.16). By quoting men like Lewis Sperry Chafer, Charles Ryrie, and Zane Hodges, in the context of such comments, it is implied that these men (as well as the view they represent) are only concerned with populating heaven, showing a disdain for holiness and a consistent Christian walk.1
Yet even a cursory glance at the writings of these men reveals a deep love for Jesus Christ and a desire both to live and teach the importance of a holy lifestyle. They, as well as the mainstream of the Free Grace Movement, are anything but antinomian in theology! However, what they are not willing to concede is that commitment to holiness provides either grounds for, or indispensable proof of, justification.
2. Linked With Various False Gospels
MacArthur lumps the entire Free Grace Movement together with those who preach the health and wealth gospel (p.30). Decisionism—the notion that signing a card, raising a hand, or walking an aisle grants eternal life—is also suggested to be a mark of the Free Grace position (p. 21). Invitations like “ask Jesus into your heart” are implied to be the catch-phrases of the majority of those who espouse this position (p.21).
However, the Free Grace position declares that eternal life, not a healthy, wealthy life, is the product of faith in Christ. And while the call of the Grace Gospel is to a decision, it is only to the biblical decision of trusting Christ alone. Though it is true that there are those who inadvertently communicate the Gospel through unclear language, the primary invitation of the Free Grace view is “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.”
MacArthur’s generalizations and misrepresentations do much more to undermine his credibility than to advance his argument.
3. Labeled as “Easy Believism”
Probably MacArthur’s greatest misunderstanding of all is represented by the label “easy believism.” He seems to assume that the Free Grace position thinks it “easy” for proud, unregenerate, spiritually blind, absolutely depraved, self-righteous man to trust an unseen, crucified, and resurrected Jesus alone for eternal life (p.77)!
In reality, however; the Free Grace position acknowledges that trusting in Jesus Christ alone is hard. For pompous man to admit his sinfulness and cast all his confidence upon the work done in his behalf by an unseen Substitute is a task of the greatest magnitude. Indeed, it is an impossible task without the humbling, convicting work of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, “easy believism is a label that cannot be accurately attached to the Free Grace Movement.
The Free Grace Movement is unwilling to concede that the difficulty in salvation lies in man’s need to surrender himself totally to God as part of the act of saving faith.
4. Simply “Believing the Facts”
Finally, a corollary to this misreading of the Free Grace view is MacArthur’s constant diatribe concerning “the believing of facts” (pp. 16ff). Proponents of the Free Grace Gospel are presented almost as if they were a group of unfeeling history professors proclaiming mere historical facts and promising eternal life to all who would simply affirm their accuracy. Again, this is a misrepresentation.
Certainly the Gospel consists of a set of facts and it is crucial that any presentation of the Gospel relate the correct facts (cf. 1 Cor 15:1-4). However, the concern of the Free Grace Gospel is not to ask for simple historical affirmation, but to call the individual to personal trust in the significance of these facts for himself. The moment the unbeliever recognizes his own sinfulness and believes that Christ alone has provided complete forgiveness through His death—in other words, at the moment of personal trust in Christ alone for salvation—that person is justified and receives the gift of eternal life.
This definition of “believing the facts” is a far cry from MacArthur’s demeaning reference to “intellectual acquiescence” to historical data (p. 31). The former accurately reflects the Free Grace view of the Gospel. The latter does not.
Thus The Gospel According to Jesus begins with a major difficulty in that it is based upon a false premise—a misrepresentation (or at least a misunderstanding) of the view of the Gospel it is seeking to disprove. Attempting to torch a straw man does nothing to support the position of Lordship Salvation.
III. Inadequate and Improper Methods of Validation
1. Improper Use of Proof-Texting
MacArthur too often neglects sound exegetical technique by simply substituting what is commonly known as proof-texting. While it is true that a certain amount of “proof-texting” is acceptable in a work of this magnitude, The Gospel According to Jesus makes this practice the rule rather than the exception. In addition, it is done without adequate validation. For example, MacArthur states a premise: “Every Christian is a disciple” (p. 196). Then he proceeds to list several verses (in this case Matt 28:19-20; Acts 6:1,2, 7; 11:26; 14:20,22; 15:10; Luke 14:28-30, etc.), some accompanied by a line or two of commentary, but most simply surrounded by assertive language that appears to question the intelligence of any who would doubt that these verses prove the point.
2. Dramatic Overstatement
Another favorite argumentative technique is the use of “dramatic overstatement.” At key moments in his argument, MacArthur quotes proponents of the Free Grace Gospel (often slightly out of context) along with their apparent interpretation of a particular passage. His goal seems to be that of shocking his readers into a reaction away from such a perceived “aberrant” view of the text.
For example, Hodges is quoted (p.23) in such a manner that it is implied that he would doubt James’ obvious negative answer to the question “Can that faith save him?” (2:14). There is no attempt to exegetically explain Hodges’ view of James as a whole, the context of chapter 2, the meaning of terms such as save, the grammar of the text, or even the translation of the question itself. All of these are crucial to Hodges’ argument.
In fact, this is not simply a “dramatic overstatement” but a “dramatic misstatement,” because Hodges does affirm a negative answer to James’ rhetorical question, albeit with a different conclusion than MacArthur would desire. (Hodges suggests that James is denying that faith alone can save the physical life from death.2 The Lordship view believes that eternal salvation is in view.) MacArthur’s emotional tactic of dramatically overstating (or misstating) an opponent’s view of a crucial text may evoke the desired reader response, but it is a poor substitute for exegesis.
3. Commentary Counting
“Commentary counting” or “source stacking” is another of MacArthur’s replacements for in-depth, interpretive work.
In crucial sections of his argument, he often quotes a well-known speaker, author, or theologian in an attempt to validate his view of a particular text or theological point. For example, James M. Boice helps “prove” to the reader that salvation (justification) and discipleship are one and the same (p.30). John Stott gives us the “real” interpretation of Luke 14:28-30 (p.197). A quotation of A. W Pink is the ultimate proof of the doctrine of perseverance (p.98).
To be sure, the use of “big names” to support his conclusions will probably win MacArthur some converts to his view of the gospel. Unfortunately it does little to actually validate Lordship Salvation. That can be accomplished only by solid exegesis of the biblical text.
4. Failure to Observe Context
Of even more concern is MacArthur’s overall inability to deal adequately with the context of given passages. This important weakness affects his interpretation in every area of attempted textual study.
a. The Gospel Narratives. For example, a major portion of the book (pp.37-155) is devoted to a reproduction of the teaching and life of the Savior. It is in this section that MacArthur obviously hopes to do his best interpretive work. And while he is an effective expositor and does an admirable job of communicating his interpretation of Jesus’ Gospel message, once again his exegetical method is weak, replete with omission and error.
An instance of such neglect occurs in MacArthur’s view of the story of the rich young ruler where he suggests that salvation was rejected because the ruler “was unwilling to forsake all that he had and commit himself to obedience” (p. 79). Such an interpretation totally ignores Mark’s own interpretive comment in his Gospel (10:24), “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God,” a passage MacArthur never even mentions. Mark 10:24 is overwhelmingly attested by the large majority of Greek manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark, although it is omitted in many modern translations based mainly on its omission from two old Egyptian manuscripts of Mark. Even if the verse is rejected on textual grounds, it obviously suggests an approach to the story of the rich young ruler which MacArthur has completely ignored. The story actually revolves around the ruler’s unwillingness to transfer his trust from his riches to Christ, not on the degree of his commitment to obey. To part with all his wealth on the bare word of Jesus, in return for heavenly reward, would have required faith in Jesus as more than a “good Teacher” (Mark 10:17, 18).
There are problems in MacArthur’s discussion of other Gospel stories. For example, in John 4, instead of defining the “drink/faith” metaphor in the immediate context (where simple appropriation is the obvious intended meaning), MacArthur inappropriately superimposes the meaning of the metaphor from other passages (Matt 20:22, John 18:11) upon the text in question (pp. 52ff.).
Also, by retelling the story of Zaccheus (pp. 89-96), MacArthur attempts to prove that good works always follow saving faith, something that Luke does not really say in the text. What Jesus does say (19:9) is that salvation had come to Zaccheus’ home because Zaccheus had become a son of Abraham (which even MacArthur links with simply trusting Christ [p. 95]).
Furthermore, Judas is used as an example of a man who thought he was a believer but proved he was not by failing to persevere in faith (pp.97-105); yet MacArthur fails to produce one text which actually states that Judas had trusted in Jesus or even thought that he had. In fact, MacArthur completely misses the point of Jesus’ words in John 6:64 where He says “There are some of you who do not believe,” a category apparently applied to Judas as well. For v 64 goes on to say that Jesus knew “from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him.” It is eisegesis to draw from Judas’ life an example of a faith that failed, proving a lack of regeneration. Sensible analysis, however, finds Judas to be a classic example of an unbeliever knowingly feigning faith and good works for his own greedy purposes.
The point is clear: The retelling of these Gospel stories reflects MacArthur’s creative ability to read his theology back into the text. This section does nothing to exegetically validate his Lordship conclusions.
b. The Parables. In the same subdivision of his book, MacArthur also struggles with the parables. First of all, building doctrine on parables is a questionable procedure at best.3 But a secondary problem is MacArthur’s failure to apply sound exegetical technique to their interpretation. For example, he chastises Scofield for “reading too much into them” (p. 136) and then promptly does exactly that with the parables concerning the treasure of the kingdom (pp. 134-41).
Assuming that Jesus’ primary point is that the kingdom of heaven is a “treasure more valuable than the sum of all our possessions” (p. 136), it nevertheless goes beyond the scope of the parable to assume that man must give up all he has to enter the kingdom (pp. 135, 141). The logical conclusion of this line of interpretation is to find Jesus suggesting that we “buy” (to use Matthew’s term) the kingdom for ourselves with our sacrificial commitment—a notion that is not only impossible but that also clearly contradicts the rest of Scripture concerning the reception of eternal life!
It is also important to note that MacArthur’s supporting passages for his conclusions in this section come not from the context but from other sections of the Gospels and the Epistles. In addition to that, he too easily dismisses the reasonable view that Christ is the central figure of the parable. After all, the parable of the treasure (Matt 13:44) immediately follows our Lord’s explanation of the parable of the wheat and tares (13:36-43) in which He is the chief figure.
Once again MacArthur seems to have read his theology back into a passage, taking interpretive liberties which have weakened, not strengthened, his position.
c. The Old Testament. Another area of exegetical difficulty involves MacArthur’s use of the OT to support the Lordship gospel. Quoting passages like Isa 1:16-18 (p. 42) and Ezek 33:18-19 (p.165), MacArthur makes no mention of the fact that the audience in these passages, Israel, included many saved individuals. The reader comes away with the impression that God’s call for the repentance of an OT saint, already justified by faith, is exactly the same as the free NT offer of justification by faith to the unbeliever who has no standing with God. To apply these texts to the non-believer in a NT context, with no explanation of the different situations involved, is inexcusable.
d. The Epistles. Though MacArthur doesn’t spend a great amount of time in the Epistles, his exegesis of carefully selected passages from them is equally poor.
It seems incredible that a passage like Col 1:22-23 can be quoted (pp.194, 216) without ever offering an explanation of the key purpose statement in the verse: “in order to present you holy, and blameless and irreproachable in His sight….” Since this phrase may link the “if indeed” of v 23 with the Judgment Seat of Christ instead of the believer’s positional standing before God, this is an omission of the greatest magnitude.
Similar neglect is shown with other crucial texts which MacArthur arbitrarily assigns to the support of his position without any exegetical basis. Second Timothy 2:12 is one such text (p.172). MacArthur interprets this passage to suggest that God will assign to hell any believer who does not endure in faith. There is no discussion of the context and no attempt at defining important terms such as “reign.” MacArthur also suggests that 2:13 (“If we are faithless, He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself”) is a word of condemnation to the faithless (p. 172), exactly the opposite meaning of what is most naturally inferred from the text. The idea of “faithful to judge” is not only strange in a Christian context, but unparalleled.
MacArthur is under no obligation to adopt a Free Grace view of these texts, but more exegetical validation of his views is certainly in order.
5. Inaccurate Definition of Key Terms
Though the above interpretive errors are major and contribute to the ineffectiveness of MacArthur’s argument, probably the most significant exegetical weakness in The Gospel According to Jesus lies in the area of the definition of terms.
Obviously the differences in the two views of the Gospel depend to a great degree on the definition of biblical terms such as faith, repentance, Lord, justification, sanctification, and disciple, to name a few. Unfortunately MacArthur is woefully inadequate in providing accurate, methodologically sound analyses of these important terms.
a. Justification. For example, justification, Paul’s famous term for identifying the instantaneous and judicial acquittal which God gives to men at the moment of faith, is relegated to a mere two pages of explanation!
Even in those two pages (pp.187-88), there is never any attempt to independently or systematically define justification other than in a brief parenthetical phrase. MacArthur’s agenda, rather, seems to be to link justification with sanctification in such a way that the distinct, judicial nature of justification is for all practical purposes lost.
True, MacArthur does give lip-service to the “distinction” between the two terms. But then he immediately attempts to minimize that necessary distinction by quoting D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones as saying we must never think of sanctification as a separate and subsequent experience (to justification).” In fact, according to MacArthur, justification and sanctification are so practically merged that there seems to be no moment in time when the gavel of heaven falls and the unbeliever is declared positionally righteous.
In the opinion of this reviewer, based on the limited comment available in his book, MacArthur presents a view of justification that comes precariously close to the pre-Reformation church.4
MacArthur’s attempts to define this term raise other questionable interpretations. For instance, he refers to Rom 10:10 as an example of faith producing practical, not positional, righteousness.
Moreover, he quotes Rom 8:30 as a promise of progressive sanctification. The text, however, guarantees future eternal perfection to those who have been predestined and justified. The interim process of sanctification is also a work of God but one which only occurs to a varying degree in each believer.
Instead of this menagerie of unfounded proof-texting and forced theological agendas, how much more helpful it would have been if MacArthur had focused on Romans 1-4 and its relationship to Romans 5-8. Then the terms justification and sanctification—both their meaning and relationship to one another—could have been fully explained, not simply assumed, stated, and used to support the Lordship position.
b. Faith. The term faith receives a similar fate. Though more space is devoted to its explanation (pp. 169-78), there is no carefully developed discussion of the linguistic meaning of this crucial word.
Instead, MacArthur strings together a series of loosely connected ideas and theological presuppositions in an attempt to prove that faith is something other than simple trust. For example, to prove that a definition of saving faith includes the idea of “commitment,” MacArthur states the premise that it does, then jumps to James 2 and the statement that “faith without works is dead” (pp.170-71). But James’ statement doesn’t define faith as including commitment or works, it simply defines the condition of a faith that is not accompanied by works.
MacArthur employs similar methodology when trying to make general “obedience” to all of God’s commands a synonym of faith. To prove his point, he quotes passages that speak of “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5) or refer to faith as an act of obedience (Rom 6:17) (p.174). However; this begs the question. These texts don’t show this meaning for faith; they simply suggest that whatever faith is, when it is exercised it is an act of obedience. For example, in the matter of receiving eternal life, God has commanded all men to obey Him by trusting in His Son. The moment that command is obeyed with a response of simple faith, eternal life is bestowed.
MacArthur further suggests that the use of the present tense of the word believe in the Gospel of John proves that true saving faith “keeps on believing.” This is a commonly held fallacy. The Greek present tense does not demand a continuous nuance, but receives its aspect from the context and the nature of the action itself.
Ironically, in all of his attempts to define faith, MacArthur ignores the chief medium that Jesus used (and the one that would have seemed most likely, given the title of his book)—the miracle stories in the Gospels!
For example, in Mark 5 Jesus commands Jairus, “Do not be afraid; only believe” (v 36). Obviously fear and faith are set in stark contrast—Jairus was to “depend on” and “trust in” Jesus to heal his little girl. The opposite is being afraid that Jesus could do nothing and that all hope was lost. Jairus’ daughter is healed in response to this simple trust.
A similar case is Mark 9. In v 19 Jesus rebukes the disciples, calling them a “faithless generation,” not because they were not committed to Him, but because they didn’t depend upon Him for the power needed to heal a demon-possessed boy. To drive home His point, Jesus goes on to release the boy from the demon’s power in response to the wavering, but sincere, belief (trust) of his father. Once again, simple dependence upon Christ is rewarded with the Master’s healing touch.
These miracles illustrate that according to our Lord, the term “believe” implies resting in someone else’s work, not producing works of our own. The fact that MacArthur overlooks such basic biblical evidence in his treatment of fundamental theological concepts drives home the inadequacy of his work in the area of defining the crucial terms under discussion.
IV. Theological Weaknesses
A third major area of difficulty in The Gospel According to Jesus lies in the area of theology. Several major theological categories are either given too little attention or simply explained inadequately.
1. The Doctrine of Assurance
The doctrine of assurance is a case in point. For example, on p.23 (one of only three references to this crucial doctrine, the others being pp.98, 172), MacArthur says: “Genuine assurance comes from seeing the Holy Spirit’s transforming work in one’s life, not from clinging to the memory of some experience.” While it is true that the presence of a religious experience does not give one assurance of regeneration, it is also true that firm assurance can never be drawn from observing one’s own life.
The problem of self-examination is that the question will always linger, “How much of the Spirit’s work must I see before I can know that I have eternal life?” This is a question that MacArthur never answers. Even if this problematic question could be answered with any degree of certainty, several others would immediately present themselves. (1) What about times when the Spirit’s work is not quite as evident? (2) Is the believer truly capable of a proper evaluation of the Spirit’s work in his or her own life? (3) How can one be sure that one’s works are produced by the Holy Spirit and not one’s unregenerate flesh? These are very real questions produced by MacArthur’s view of assurance which he nowhere addresses.
It may be added that John Calvin emphatically warned against the teaching that we must examine our works for assurance of salvation.5
On p.98, MacArthur produces more confusion by linking assurance with perseverance. First he states his premise: “True believers will persevere.” Then after quoting two proof-texts, 2 Tim 2:12 and 1 John 2:19, he suggests that any believer who gets discouraged in the Christian life to the point of apostasy gives definite proof that true justification never occurred.
If MacArthur were correct, another question would loom large on the theological horizon: Does any believer really have absolute assurance at any given moment, knowing that the next hour might bring a test that results in his own withdrawal from the faith? The fact is, in MacArthur’s view true assurance is impossible before death. But this contradicts the plain sense of 1 John 5:9-13.
2. God’s Sovereignty as Applied to Faith and Works
MacArthur also makes a key theological error in the way he attempts to use the doctrine of sovereignty to defend the Lordship position.
For example, when the Free Grace position suggests that his view of the terms faith and repentance include the element of human effort, MacArthur replies, “Salvation by faith…does away with works that are the result of human effort alone” (p.33; italics mine). He goes on to say that redemption is a “sovereignly bestowed gift of God…If God is the One who grants repentance [or by implication, faith], it cannot be viewed as a human work” (p.163).
In other words, there are works attached to the Lordship gospel’s definition of faith and repentance, but they are allowed as a requirement for eternal life because they are not “human works,” but works that God sovereignly enables the believer to perform.
This argument has a fatal flaw. The distinction between “human” good works and “divine” good works is a theological fiction, and cannot be supported from Scripture. Paul’s point in passages like Eph 2:8-9 and Rom 4:5 is not to distinguish between God-empowered and man-empowered human works, but to show that salvation is wholly apart from human works of any kind.
3. The Power of Sin
Another theological difficulty surfaces in MacArthur’s treatment of sin’s power. Though the doctrine of sin is not dealt with in a categorical manner, a shallow view of the power of sin comes through in the way MacArthur describes the heart of an individual who is either already regenerate or truly ready to receive the Gospel.
For example, those ready to express true faith “no longer love to fulfill the passions of the flesh” (p. 106) or “enjoy their sin” (p. 111). As well, the true believer is no longer “unwilling to obey Christ” and has given up being “consciously rebellious” (p. xiv). “Flagrant” (p.17) sins are a thing of the past.
It is interesting to note that to MacArthur the homosexual or the fornicator (p. 17) who claims Christianity seems far more suspect than the long-term Christian gossip or complainer. (Lists of less notorious sins are noticeably absent!) The implication is that the real Christian only sins in “small” ways and then accidentally, never finds it pleasurable (where then is the attractiveness of sin?), and maintains an innocent attitude of submission to Christ throughout. Not only does this view of “the truly regenerate heart” misunderstand the depth of human depravity (suggesting a form of eradicationism or of a holiness doctrine of perfectionism), but it also directly contradicts the biblical illustrations of lives like Abraham’s and David’s.
Both men made active choices to violate God’s law. In David’s case, his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah went unconfessed for an entire year! And to suggest that an unbeliever can and will develop mature Christian attitudes towards sin as a sign of readiness for regeneration (p. 106) is beyond comprehension.
Clearly, The Gospel According to Jesus fails to provide the reader with a biblical and realistic view of the power of the flesh and man’s inherent sinfulness, both before and after salvation.
4. Substitution and the Cross
One final theological inconsistency. In a book claiming to explain Jesus’ personal view of the Gospel it is inconceivable that MacArthur spends so little time explaining the significance of the work of the Cross! There is a noticeable omission of key Gospel texts concerning Christ’s death (e.g., Mark 10:45). Concepts like the substitutionary nature of the atonement and the finished nature of the work of the Cross are never fully discussed.
In fact, in reading The Gospel According to Jesus one is left with the impression that the crucifixion is almost incidental to salvation; necessary, but not central to man’s acquisition of eternal life. MacArthur’s emphasis is not on man simply receiving what Christ Himself actively accomplished through His death, but on man actively working with Christ to appropriate the benefits of the work of the Cross (again, shades of pre-Reformation theology!).
Thus, man’s devotion, and blood spilled, in taking up the cross becomes the central focus of the way of salvation. Christ’s blood spilled on the Cross is largely ignored. The very least one can say is that The Gospel According to Jesus provides a view of salvation that is out of balance. What man must do should be balanced with and preceded by a theologically adequate discussion of what Christ has already done to provide eternal life. Dr. H. A. Ironside used to say that there are really only two religions in the world: the religion of “do” and the religion of “done.” The true faith is the religion of “done.” It is the biblical Gospel expressed by Christ on the Cross: “It is finished!” All the rest of the religions of men (including, sadly, many forms of Christendom) are religions of “do.” This is the only methodology which would mirror a biblical emphasis and it is notably absent from MacArthur’s work.
V. Practical Errors
As one might imagine, the exegetical and theological problems discussed above erupt into a host of practical difficulties.
1. Unclear Communication of the Gospel
Clear communication of the Gospel message emerges at the top of the list. If one adopts MacArthur’s view of salvation, then gone are the days of responding to an unbeliever’s questioning heart with, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31)! Simply quoting John 3:16 or Eph 2:8-9 would also not be enough.
Evangelism “Lordship style” has become a detailed series of explanations of theological terms and texts, conditions and promises. Consider what must be explained: Faith as commitment and obedience; repentance as a willingness to turn from and forsake all sin; submission to Christ as Master; and the relationship between taking up the cross and the work of Christ’s Cross.
The evangelist must also communicate to the new convert that he or she can be sure of eternal life as long as there is a continuance in faith (or, commitment and obedience). In all of this, the evangelist must be sure to communicate that salvation is not of works, but is a gift of God that man can never earn or contribute to. The practical inconsistencies are obvious.
With all of these criteria for receiving eternal life, how does the evangelist know when the Gospel has really been shared? And more importantly, how does the unbeliever know when it has been received? One wonders whether the woman at the well, the Philippian jailer, or the thief on the cross would have understood or had time to believe the complex and cumbersome gospel message implied by the Lordship position.
The Gospel message was meant to be simply stated and easily understood. The Gospel According to Jesus leaves that as a practical impossibility.
2. Security Destroyed
Another practical difficulty with MacArthur’s position is that it destroys the base of security necessary for consistent living.
The Lordship gospel wrongly assumes that “healthy” (non-obsessive) doubts (p. 190) about one’s salvation will actually produce a greater fervency in following Christ. This is a practical impossibility. As an illustration, it is common knowledge that children in the home produce better behavior in the context of absolute assurance of parental acceptance, in spite of their failures. In fact, for a child, there are no “healthy” doubts about the long-term acceptance of their mother and father. Insecurity produces problems with behavior.
So it is in the spiritual realm. When a believer begins to question his or her assurance of eternal life, that doubt is inevitably “nursed,” and doubt becomes the focal point for despair. The ultimate outcome is often a falling away from holiness and practical Christian living.
Only absolute security provides the necessary basis for an enduring, consistent, and fruitful Christian life (cf. Rom 8:35-39). Any theology that suggests otherwise, no matter how viable it sounds, is not capable of being lived consistently in the real world.
3. Spiritual Fruit and Assurance
One final practical difficulty lies in the area of “fruitbearing.” In The Gospel According to Jesus MacArthur insists that external manifestations of spiritual fruit bring absolute proof of eternal life (e.g., p. 23). If that is true then a series of practical questions present themselves.
First, what about the believer whose growth occurs primarily in the inner man, beginning with a regenerated heart and followed by a slow change of attitudes and direction in the mind? Does this individual have assurance even though the fruit is not evident to others? Does the Lordship position allow time for the Holy Spirit to overcome years of sinful attitudes with the inner fruit of love, joy, and peace? Or does true assurance demand change that is both immediate and observable?
Second, if assurance of salvation is based on external works, how does one differentiate between works produced by the flesh and those produced by the Spirit? Did not Paul suggest that an evaluation of the nature of our works should wait until the Judgment Seat of Christ (1 Cor 4:1-5)? If there is no infallible way to determine the difference between works motivated by the flesh and those produced by the Spirit, is assurance through works practically possible?
Third, what about the apparent believer who has seemingly manifested a solid, observable Christian experience for many years and then, suddenly, trauma enters his/her life and a degree of defection from Christianity occurs? At what point in the defection process is the assurance of eternal life lost? At the first moment of anger and unbelief? After a year of bitterness, or after ten years? After fornication or divorce or after a long term bout with gossip? Obviously, assurance of salvation based on the observance of works in one’s life is a position that brings more practical problems than solutions to the life of the believer.
Indeed, in its entirety, MacArthur’s Lordship theology clearly lacks practical consistency. The thinking evangelical must reject it as invalid on practical grounds as well as on biblical ones.
VI. Logical Difficulties
One more problem area merits our attention. The Lordship gospel as presented in The Gospel According to Jesus presents some difficulties of logic that MacArthur fails to address adequately.
1. “Free and Costly”
For example, MacArthur claims that “salvation is both free and costly” to the unbeliever (p. 140—a tenet that he suggests is a biblical paradox. However, a paradox, correctly defined, is a statement that may seem unbelievable or absurd but may be actually true in fact. Thus, in this situation, to be a true paradox the term “gift” must be able to involve the concept of “necessary cost” to the receiver. This is, however, a logical (as well as theological, cf. Rom 11:6) impossibility. Just as up cannot equal “down,” or it is no longer up, as soon as a “gift” necessitates a price from the receiver; the gift is no longer a gift. It has become a possession purchased by the receiver.
Applied to the question at hand, to say that the gift of eternal life involves necessary cost to the unbeliever is not to state a paradox but a logical absurdity. It is a statement that has no possibility of being true if language is to retain meaning and ability to communicate. Truly, Christ calls the believer to a life of costly discipleship after receiving the gift of salvation. But to imply that the price of commitment is demanded as part of receiving the gift is to portray a gospel of nonsense.
2. Obedience and the Inevitability of Works
Interestingly enough, MacArthur’s Lordship gospel is not only illogical at the core of its theology, but it reduces a certain portion of the NT to a level of absurdity.
For example, if living the Christian life is as “inevitable” in the life of the true believer as is claimed by The Gospel According to Jesus, then why does Paul devote so much attention to long sections of ethical demand in his writing to the early church? If MacArthur is correct in assuming the inevitability of good works, then why would Paul command the Ephesians to have a walk worthy of their calling (4:1)? And why are the Roman believers so strongly urged to present their bodies as living sacrifices, if Paul knew that they would certainly do so (12:1)? Equally, the warning of stern discipline in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11 becomes absurd if it is inevitable that all the true believers in the Corinthian church will submit.
Commands to obey become irrelevant and illogical if obedience is assured. Either the NT honestly exhorts believers to obedient Christian living, understanding the very real possibility of failure, or the strong ethical sections of the Apostles’ writings are reduced to logical absurdity. Unless these and other questions of logic are dealt with by MacArthur in a more detailed and coherent fashion, it is the Lordship gospel that will suffer under the label of absurdity.
If The Gospel According to Jesus is evaluated on the basis of John MacArthur’s ability to communicate, then the book is a smashing success. His style is strong, clear; and persuasive. As well, no evangelical committed to biblical holiness would be displeased with MacArthur’s ultimate purpose in writing this work, that is, to see that the body of Christ once again reflects the character of her Savior.
However; the character of a book (especially a book on the theology of salvation) must be evaluated on a much more critical and foundational level. The ultimate questions that must be asked of The Gospel According to Jesus have little to do with style or purpose. Rather the reader must determine the value of MacArthur’s work based on the accuracy of his conclusions and the validity of the methodology which takes him there.
More precisely, does MacArthur understand the view he seeks to disprove? Does he seek to validate his own view on the basis of sound exegetical and theological argumentation? Does he adequately deal with the practical and logical difficulties presented by his position? Does the reader walk away from The Gospel According to Jesus convinced by scholarly interpretive methodology that the NT teaches the gospel of Lordship Salvation?
The success of The Gospel According to Jesus and its defense of the Lordship gospel must rest solely on honest answers to the above difficult and probing questions.
If Lordship Salvation theology is to continue to gain a hearing in the evangelical world it must be supported by an adequate defense of its views. Among the undecided are those who have long waited for such a work. They are still waiting.
*Pastor, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Detroit, Michigan
1MacArthur does concede (in a footnote, p.31) that Chafer would not countenance “lawless Christian living.” However, such a small notation hardly justifies MacArthur’s overall unfair treatment of those in the Free Grace Movement.
2See Zane C. Hodges, Dead Faith-What Is It? (Dallas: Redención Viva, 1987).
3Illustrating clearly-taught Bible doctrines from the parables is quite acceptable [Ed.].
4See Robert Preus, “Perennial Problems in the Doctrine of Justification,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 45 (1981): 163-79.
5For references, see M. Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance (Edinburgh: Handsel Press, 1985), 28-29.