Ashamed of the Gospel. When the Church Becomes Like the World. By John F. MacArthur, Jr. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1993. 254 pp. Cloth, $17.99.
Having been concerned for years about some aspects of the modern church-growth movement, I hoped to find in this book careful analysis of the problems or potential problems. I was partially satisfied.
MacArthur points out a number of problems in the church-growth movement, which he refers to variously as “the user-friendly movement,” “the church-marketing movement,” and “the church-growth movement.” Some of the problems he highlights are: (1) changing the Gospel message from salvation from hell to a message of salvation “from meaninglessness and aimlessness in this life” (p. 47), (2) preaching which is at times biblically inaccurate, (3) avoiding those passages of Scripture which are negative and lack a feel-good message (e.g., p. 133), (4) preaching which is often decisionistic, (5) allowing pragmatism rather than Scripture to drive one’s methodology and theology (pp. 74–79), and (6) aiming at a potentially unworthy goal: numerical growth.
Especially worth noting by our readers is the author’s discussion of divine discipline in the cases of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1–11) and carnal Corinthian believers (1 Cor 11:30). Based on his earlier books, The Gospel According to Jesus and Faith Works, one would expect him to conclude that those who died under God’s judgment must be unsaved. Yet in this book he seems to suggest that Ananias and Sapphira and the Corinthians who died all were genuine believers. See pp. 57–63, especially noting p. 62, where he writes, “God judges His own people before He turns His wrath on pagans.”
While I found myself in essential agreement with the problems MacArthur raised, I also was sorry this book didn’t do more. The book is weakened by the following: (1) failing at times to cite sources (e.g., p. 47, where six quotations are given without reference to sources); (2) failing to show how widespread the problem is (Are all such churches guilty of all the problems cited? Are some not guilty of any?); (3) giving insufficient analysis of the problems raised. (For example, why is a twenty-minute sermon bad? Does some passage of Scripture indicate how long sermons must be? While I would agree a diet of 20-minute sermons, especially if heavily loaded with illustrations and “practical applications,” is not conducive to significant spiritual growth, more analysis is needed); (4) providing insufficient discussion of a major problem in the church-growth movement: the failure to disciple new and untaught believers; (5) attempting to link the church-growth movement exclusively with Arminianism (cf. p. 84), when, in fact, it is far from clear that this is the case. (I imagine some user-friendly churches even proclaim Reformed Lordship Salvation!)
I would have loved to have seen, for example, citations from sermons of those in the church-growth movement. Can it be shown that they garble the Gospel, undermine assurance, muddle motivation, distort the Scripture, etc.? If so, it would be helpful to see actual examples from actual sermons. Unfortunately, this we do not find.
MacArthur’s Lordship Salvation theology is not prominent in this book. Possibly this was because he realized that many in the Free Grace camp are also concerned about excesses in the church-growth movement.
Robert N. Wilkin
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society