THE HIGH COST OF SALVATION BY FAITH-WORKS:
A Review of John F. MacArthur, Jr.’s
Faith Works: The Gospel According to the Apostles1
ROBERT N. WILKIN
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society
It is with a deep sense of sadness that I write this review. Reading this book and listening to it on tape have left me feeling depressed.
The theology of John MacArthur is anything but uplifting. He has lost touch with the grace of God.
II. Strengths of the Book
While this book is hardly my favorite read of the year, it does have a number of positive points.
First, the tone is less vituperative than that in The Gospel According to Jesus.
Second, MacArthur graciously acknowledges that he used a ghost writer, Phil Johnson, who “carefully, skillfully pulls my voice out of the air and transforms it into ink” (p.8).
Third, the title, Faith Works, is clever and memorable.
Fourth, the companion audio tape (read by MacArthur) is a nice complement to the written form.
Fifth, the Scripture and subject indices are helpful.
Sixth, the inclusion of a chapter devoted to assurance of salvation (chap 10, pp. 157-73) provides the reader with a candid admission by MacArthur that Puritan theology on this issue was flawed and often damaging (see, e.g., p. 161). It is also revealing to see how MacArthur attempts (unconvincingly) to explain how his view corrects what he considers an unbiblical error. Far and away that chapter was the best one in the book in terms of readability, organization, and practicality.
Seventh, the chapter on the Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, chap 11 (pp. 175-92), provides several other excellent insights into Lordship Salvation theology. There MacArthur explains why he feels the expression eternal security can be misleading and why he feels it is better to speak of the perseverance of the saints (pp. 180-82). He also admits that quantification is impossible (and thereby de facto admits that 100% certainty of salvation is impossible).
Finally, this book will, I believe, result in many people coming over to the Free Grace position. Many people who read what MacArthur writes in this book will be horrified. This book will drive people who doubt their salvation to seek out the truth on assurance and the Gospel.
Where will they turn? MacArthur has made it easy for them to find the truth. He repeatedly cites the writings of Zane Hodges and Charles Ryrie. In fact, he even mentions the Grace Evangelical Society newsletter and journal (cf. pp. 46, 94, 158, 163, 201). He gives us backhanded praise when he says that our newsletter is “the leading no-lordship fraternity’s monthly [actually bimonthly] newsletter” (p. 46)!
III. Weaknesses of the Book
A. Methodological Weaknesses
1. Style and Structure
This book is not well written. Except for two or three chapters (chaps 10 and 11 and possibly 7), the reading is very tedious.
The structure is so flawed that if this were a house it wouldn’t stand up under a drop of rain or a hint of wind. There appears to be no rhyme or reason why the chapters given were included or how they were ordered. There are two chapters explaining what saving faith is (chaps 3 and 9) and two discussing the supposed inevitability of good works in the lives of believers (chaps 7 and 8). The final chapter could well be titled “Potpourri,” for it includes a mix of unrelated material (evidently drawn from sermons).
The book either underemphasizes or fails to include many passages and topics which would have been logical and helpful. Why no discussion of Gal 3:6-14, Heb 10:1-18, or 1 John 5:9-13? Are not those passages some of the clearest passages on the Gospel in the epistles?2
Since MacArthur believes that commitment of one’s life to Christ is a condition of eternal salvation (cf. pp. 204-205, 210), he should have included a chapter in order to prove this. But he does not.
The author also seems to believe that confessing one’s faith in Christ is a condition of eternal life (cf. pp. 25, 206). Thus a chapter or at least an extended discussion on this supposed condition is essential. Yet neither is included.
According to MacArthur, eternal salvation requires counting the cost and paying the price (pp. 204-205). If so, surely more than two pages could be written on this subject. And surely MacArthur could find a passage in the epistles which teaches this. Instead he refers the reader to two passages on discipleship from the Gospels (Luke 14:26-33; Matt 10:34-38)!
If regeneration logically precedes faith, as MacArthur suggests in passing comments (cf. pp. 61, 67), then why not a chapter or extended discussion proving this?
If Rom 8:16 is an essential verse on assurance (pp. 164, 171), why isn’t a detailed exegesis of it given?
If the exegesis of Hodges, Ryrie, Chafer, myself, and other Free Grace writers is flawed, as MacArthur repeatedly suggests (see subject index), does this not necessitate that he interact with our exegesis rather than simply stating (and often misstating) our views?
Why include an appendix on dispensationalism (pp. 219-33) and then fail even to mention the hottest issue in that theological system–so-called “Progressive” Dispensationalism?–especially since it has direct bearing on the Gospel debate.
2. Many Claimed, One or None Cited
Time and time again MacArthur asserts that some, many, or all3 Free Grace advocates hold to a certain position, but then he cites only one (and in many cases none!) who actually holds this position. See, for example, pp. 26, 27, 28, 29, 38, 49, 50, 76, 77, etc.
It is improper to make sweeping statements about what those you oppose believe and then not back it up with sufficient evidence. The minimum evidence would be to cite pages in works by several different authors. Yet MacArthur rarely cites more than one person–and often he cites no one!
3. The Pejorative “No-Lordship” Label
In any debate labels are important. Witness the abortion debate. Depending on who is talking, a person against abortion on demand could be called “pro-life” or “anti-choice.”
While it does not surprise me to see hardened people using misleading and pejorative labels like “anti-choice,” I don’t expect such “loaded” terminology from one who claims to be a minister of the Gospel of Grace. Rather, I would expect such a one to refer to his opponents in an accurate and irenic manner. MacArthur does not.
We call our position the Free Grace position. We call their position just what they call it: Lordship Salvation. Certainly there is nothing derogatory in either of these designations.
MacArthur selects a cumbersome, misleading, and pejorative label for us. He has coined a host of designations, all of which include the words no-lordship. He speaks of “no-lordship doctrine” (pp. 39, 50, 97, 123, 173, 198, 202), “no-lordship theology” (pp. 50, 56, 91, 96, 106, 107, 124, 173, 188), “no-lordship teaching” (pp. 37, 108, 163), “the no-lordship gospel” (pp. 25, 26), “the no-lordship position” (pp. 33, 155n), “no-lordship advocates” (pp. 32, 69), “no-lordship people” (p. 140), and “no-lordship apologists” (p. 140).
Is such a label accurate? Do we really believe in “no-lordship”? Of course not. Nor does MacArthur attempt to show even one Free Grace writer who denies the Lordship of Christ.
Is the label simple? Hardly!
Is it irenic? It is about as irenic as calling those who oppose abortion “anti-choice.”
Is it helpful? I doubt MacArthur gained any points with people on his side by this ploy. He certainly lost points with anyone sympathetic to our side and most likely with many who are unclear on the issue.
I was personally deeply offended by this.
I doubt if he would like it if we called his view no-grace theology.
The fact that he chose to adopt a derogatory designation for us makes me question his sense of fair play.
4. Misstating Other’s Views
When stating what others believe, it is best to quote them to prove you are treating their views fairly. In this book MacArthur often states the views of Zane Hodges and Charles Ryrie without quoting them. He merely cites pages from their recent books Absolutely Free!: A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation4 and So Great Salvation.5
The difficulty with this practice is that the reader cannot be confident that the views of Hodges and Ryrie have been fairly represented without looking up page after page in the books cited.
As it turns out, MacArthur’s representations are not always accurate. Sometimes they are downright misleading. Here are two examples:
Example #1. On p. 29 MacArthur says that Hodges believes that “it is dangerous and destructive to question the salvation of professing Christians (AF 18-19, 91-99).” Yet that is not a fair representation.
Note these words by Hodges–words found on one of the pages cited by MacArthur:
To be sure, there is much reason to think that there are multitudes of people in churches today who have never really been saved. But this is due to their failure to understand the gospel offer, or to accept it.6
Hodges admits that there are many who profess to be Christians who are not. He does not say that it is destructive to question the salvation of professing believers for any reason. Clearly, the quotation just given shows that he believes it is proper to question the salvation of those who are not clear on the Gospel message.
Rather, Hodges said that it was destructive to question the salvation of someone on the basis of his or her works! He wrote:
But lordship thought is not satisfied simply to insist that some conversion experiences are not valid. Nearly everyone would agree to that. Instead, lordship doctrine even goes so far as to disallow an individual’s claim to personal trust in Christ on the grounds that their life is so unworthy that the claim could not be true.7
Example #2. On p. 29 MacArthur also said that Hodges believes that “it is possible to experience a moment of faith that guarantees heaven for eternity (AF 107), then to turn away permanently and live a life that is utterly barren of any spiritual fruit (AF 118-19, italics supplied).” The material MacArthur chose to italicize is a significant misrepresentation. Nowhere does Hodges speak of “a life that is utterly barren of any spiritual fruit.”
In a recent GES newsletter article Zane Hodges stated his opinion on the issue of whether a believer could ever live an entire life without producing any spiritual fruit:
The idea that one may believe in Him and live for years totally unaffected by the amazing miracle of regeneration, or by the instruction and/or discipline of God his heavenly Father, is a fantastic notion–even bizarre. We reject it categorically.8
Note that Hodges directly denies what MacArthur said he believes!
5. Contradicting Himself
In several places MacArthur contradicts himself.
One glaring example is when he claims, “No advocate of lordship salvation I am aware of teaches ‘that every Christian will live a basically successful life until the end'” (p. 179).
MacArthur need look no further than the mirror. In Faith Works he taught that very thing a number of times:
Any doctrine of eternal security that leaves out perseverance distorts the doctrine of salvation itself. Heaven without holiness ignores the whole purpose for which God chose and redeemed us.9
We remain steadfast.10
Peter is saying categorically that the essence of what it means to be a Christian is to love Jesus Christ. In fact, there may be no better way to describe the essential expression of the new nature than to say it is continual love for Christ.11
See also pp. 109-121, 123-38, 139-55, 157-73, 175-92.
Another example of self-contradiction is when he speaks of assurance as “settled confidence” (p. 157) and yet goes on to give so many subjective tests of assurance that he renders settled confidence absolutely impossible.12
A similar example on assurance occurs after he suggests that some degree of assurance is possible if you can “see Christ’s glory reflected in you–even dimly” (p. 165), and then goes on to give tests of assurance which make assurance impossible. He followed the remarks just cited with sections having the following headings: “True believers walk in the light” (p. 166), “True believers confess their sins” (p. 167), “True believers keep His commandments” (p. 168), “True believers love the brethren” (p. 169), “True believers affirm sound doctrine” (p. 169), and “True believers follow after holiness” (p. 170).13
Examples of MacArthur contradicting himself could be multiplied.14 It seems that deep within he recognizes that what he is saying is biblically and practically flawed and so he knowingly or unknowingly contradicts himself.
B. Theological Weaknesses
1. Unbelievers Are Cadavers?
MacArthur claims that unbelievers are “incapable of any spiritual activity” (p. 67) and are “no more able to respond to God than a cadaver” (p. 64). Indeed, after the latter reference he went on to give a very distasteful illustration of a baby that died, and to compare unbelievers to the dead baby which was unable to respond to her mother’s weeping, shouting, and touching.
Are unbelievers really like that? Ephesians 2:1 does speak of unbelievers as being “dead” in their trespasses and sins. Yet that in no way means that they are “incapable of any spiritual activity” and are “no more able to respond to God than a cadaver.”
Interestingly, MacArthur later contradicts himself on this point, though he doesn’t seem to realize it.
In attempting to explain why Peter did not call Cornelius to repentance, MacArthur says, “it is evident that Cornelius was repentant” (p. 84, italics in original). Clearly he means that Cornelius “was alreadyrepentant” prior to Peter’s message. Yet Cornelius was an unbeliever at that time! He didn’t become regenerate until he heard Peter’s message (cf. Acts 10:44).
Cornelius is a biblical example which clearly shows that unbelievers indeed are capable of responding to God. Consider the message the unbeliever Cornelius received from God via an angel:
“Cornelius, your prayer has been heard, and your alms are remembered in the sight of God. Send therefore to Joppa and call Simon here, whose surname is Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea. When he comes, he will speak to you” (Acts 10:31-32).15
Did God actually speak to an unregenerate person? Yes! Did the unsaved person understand what God said? Absolutely! In fact, God also indicates that He had been hearing the prayers and appreciating the almsgiving of Cornelius, an unbeliever (10:31).
Note also Acts 10:34b-35:
In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him.
Peter was talking about unbelievers like Cornelius! Unbelievers can and sometimes do fear God and even work righteousness. Of course, such righteous deeds (cf. 10:31 re. almsgiving) are incapable of meriting favor with God: “All our righteousnesses are like filthy rags” (Isa 64:6). Yet unbelievers can and do seek God, as Cornelius obviously did.
2. Repentant Faith?
MacArthur repeats in this book a claim he made in The Gospel According to Jesus: that saving faith includes repentance (which he defines as turning from one’s sins to Christ16). Indeed he actually coins the expression “repentant faith” (p. 203).
Concerning repentance, he speaks of the need for “unconditional surrender to the Lord Jesus Christ” (p. 83), for “a radical, 180-degree turning from sin” (p. 83), and for “[counting] the cost of being a Christian” (p. 84).
Interestingly, others who hold to Lordship Salvation have begun to criticize MacArthur on this point. Michael Horton, an outspoken advocate of Lordship Salvation, writes:
MacArthur adds W. E. Vine’s definition of faith as including even “conduct inspired by such surrender” (173-74). If we are justified by faith and if faith is surrender, obedience, and conduct inspired by such surrender, then we are justified by works. The logic seems unavoidable:
We are justified by faith alone.
Faith is surrender, obedience, and conduct inspired by such surrender.
Therefore, we are justified by surrender, obedience, and conduct inspired by such obedience.17
Horton was commenting on MacArthur’s views as expressed in The Gospel According to Jesus. He indicated that these concerns had been brought to MacArthur’s attention and that he understood that MacArthur would correct himself.18 Yet not only was there no admission of error, MacArthur again repeats the same claim.
Horton went so far as to charge MacArthur with teaching an essentially Roman Catholic view of justification:
MacArthur, it seems, is so disturbed by the antinomianism of his opponents that, in order to make what he calls easy-believism more untenable, he insists that the believer is justified by knowledge, assent, and obedience (or, at least, “the determination of the will to obey truth”), rather than by knowledge, assent, and trust. Granted, the formulation is different from official Roman Catholic teaching, but it merely moves the element of works into the definition of faith itself. This leaves the impression that, if a believer is repeating the same sin, he or she must not be justified yet, since “repentance is a critical element of genuine faith” (p. 172) and “faith is not complete unless it is obedient” (p. 173).19
And a few pages later he adds,
Not only does MacArthur seem here to repeat the Roman Catholic confusion of justification and sanctification; he actually makes the forensic declaration depend on a real moral change in the person’s behavior. First, the robe is “the reality of a changed life” not the declaration of a changed status, as the Reformers would have understood it. Second, “the son cannot receive all the blessedness of the father’s table until he is robed in the right robe. And so there must be more than a declaration involved.” In other words, God cannot declare one righteous before there is moral change. The legal declaration depends on moral transformation in MacArthur’s statements here, just as surely as in Trent’s.20
When one defines repentance as unconditional surrender and turning from sin, to speak of “repentant faith” and to say that faith includes repentance is to teach salvation by works.
3. Baptism and Salvation?
While MacArthur does not believe that baptism is a condition of justification, he does appear to believe that all “true” Christians will be baptized. Concerning the view of the NT authors he writes, “Only those who were baptized were considered Christians. That is why the Ethiopian eunuch was so eager to be baptized (Acts 8:36-39)” (p. 208).
This is an astonishing claim. Yet the only proof he offers that the NT writers considered only baptized individuals as Christians is the case of the Ethiopian eunuch.
That the eunuch wanted to be baptized so that he might prove to Philip (and ultimately Luke) that he was really saved is impossible to establish from the text. In fact, the text suggests the opposite.21Philip baptized the eunuch because he was already convinced that the man believed the Gospel.
One wonders what MacArthur does with Acts 10:44-48. Clearly Cornelius was known by Peter (and Luke) to be a believer before he was baptized. To suggest that Peter wouldn’t consider him a Christian until he was baptized is ridiculous.
MacArthur is close to teaching baptismal regeneration. There is a fine line–some might even say no line!22–between saying that all who are believers will necessarily be baptized and saying that baptism is a condition for eternal salvation.
4. The Word Insufficient for Assurance?
MacArthur asks, “Should Christians seek assurance through clinging only to the objective promises of Scripture, or through subjective self-examination”? (p. 162, italics original). He then answers in this way:
If we opt for the objective promises only, those who profess faith in Christ while denying Him by their deeds (cf. Titus 1:16) can claim an assurance they have no entitlement to. But if we say assurance is available only through subjective self-examination we render full assurance practically impossible and make assurance a wholly mystical affair.23
Shortly thereafter (p. 163) he quotes an article by me in The GES News in which I argued that the promises of God are sufficient for assurance.24 He responds by saying, “That extreme [position] cannot be supported practically or biblically” and “the no-Lordship approach to assurance is too objective” (p. 164, italics original).
MacArthur’s position is fascinating. Neither the objective promises of God nor the subjective works which believers do are sufficient, by themselves, for assurance. However, when “the objective and subjective grounds for our assurance are applied to us by the Holy Spirit” (p. 164), the result is what MacArthur calls “well-grounded assurance” (p. 164) or “full assurance” (pp. 157, 160, 162, 166).
He never explains what “full assurance” is. He seems to imply, however, that it might approach 100% certainty. He speaks of degrees of assurance (p. 158, “The greater our sense of assurance, the more we can savor that glory in this earthly life”) and even of “firm and settled confidence” (p. 157, italics added).
However, how could a person ever settle the issue of assurance if self-examination of his works plays any role in assurance?
Even if we were to grant that 100% certainty could be obtained by a combination of objective promises and subjective works, that would mean that one would never again need to look to his works once he settled the issue. He would forever thereafter know he was a “genuine” believer and hence the objective promises would then be all he needed.
However, MacArthur feels that self-examination is to take place over and over again. One is never to cease self-examination for the purpose of gaining assurance until he dies: “We are commanded to examine ourselves regularly–at least as often as we participate in the Lord’s Supper” (p. 162)!
Ultimately MacArthur’s position on assurance is only cosmetically different from that of the Puritans of whom he himself wrote:
Most of the Puritans taught that believers could not expect assurance until long after conversion, and only after a life of extended faithfulness. They tended to make assurance dependent on the believer’s ability to live at an almost unattainable level of personal holiness. I have profited greatly from reading their works, but I often wonder how many of them were able to live up to their own standards.
As we might expect, the Puritans’ demanding preaching led to a widespread lack of assurance among their flocks. Christians became obsessed with whether they were truly elect, and many lapsed into morbid introspection and utter despair. That explains why so much of the Puritan literature is written for people struggling with the question of assurance.25
Even some who agree with MacArthur on Lordship Salvation and on the need to look to one’s works for assurance find his articulation of how one gains assurance to be dangerously flawed. Commenting on MacArthur’s explanation of assurance in The Gospel According to Jesus,26 Horton writes:
While MacArthur may not intend for readers to come away from his remarks prepared to conclude that they are not Christians because they find themselves committing the same sins repeatedly, I do not think this is an unwarranted conclusion based on his comments.27
Shortly thereafter he adds:
MacArthur, as we have seen, not only takes the focus for our assurance off of the finished work of Christ, but even raises questions about the focus for faith itself. Is faith resting in Christ’s life and death or in ours? We must be careful not to react to the antinomian threat by driving the sheep back to themselves, away from Christ.28
5. Trust Includes Surrender?
MacArthur claims that trusting the Lord Jesus Christ for eternal life “necessarily involves some degree of love, allegiance, and surrender to His authority” (p. 50).
No wonder MacArthur can’t offer anyone 100% certainty of salvation! If “some degree” of love, allegiance, and surrender is required in order to believe in Christ, how much is enough? How would one ever know if he had yet loved or yielded sufficiently?
MacArthur recognizes that his words open him to the charge of making works a condition of eternal life. He attempts to blunt that charge by saying that works are the inevitable result of faith, not a part of it (p. 50).
His defense is flawed, however. Note that he said that trust “necessarily involves some degree of love, allegiance, and surrender to His authority.” Works are not only externally observable acts. Works are also inner attitudes such as love, allegiance, and surrender. Compare Gal 5:19-23 for examples of attitudes which represent negative works (e.g., jealousies, envy) and positive works (e.g., love, joy).
6. Saving Faith Is a Unique Kind of Faith?
MacArthur illustrates what he calls “natural faith” or “everyday faith” in this way:
We drink water out of a faucet, believing it is safe. We drive our automobiles in freeway traffic, trusting that the brakes will work. We submit to the surgeon’s knife and the dentist’s drill by faith. When we drop film off at the drugstore, we trust that the prints will be ready at the promised time (cf. SGS 118). We believe in the basic integrity of our governmental leaders…29
He then gives two reasons why he believes saving faith is a different kind of faith than that.
His first argument is as follows:
To begin with, natural faith rests on an object that is not necessarily reliable. The water might actually be tainted. The brakes could fail. Surgeons do make mistakes. The drugstore may not deliver your prints on time. The president probably will default on some of his campaign promises. But when we believe unto eternal life, we trust something more real and Someone more trustworthy than anything or anyone we could ever comprehend with the natural senses. Our senses may lie; God cannot (Titus 1:2). People fail; God does not (Num. 23:19). Circumstances change; God never does (Mal. 3:6). So the faith described in Hebrews 11 is focused on an infinitely more dependable object than any of the day-to-day varieties of faith.30
This argument is patently porous. Free Grace proponents argue that what makes saving faith saving is the Object of the faith, not the faith itself.31 Thus the fact that certain objects of faith may be untrustworthy fails to prove that saving faith is a unique kind of faith. In fact, MacArthur’s argument actually supports the Free Grace view that what makes saving faith saving is the object, not the faith.
His illustration points up the need to find a completely dependable object of faith when it comes to the issue of our eternal destiny. We have such an Object: the Lord Jesus Christ. Since we have such an Object, “natural faith” or “everyday faith” would be sufficient according to MacArthur’s own illustration!
However, what of MacArthur’s second proof? He goes on to say,
Also, the nature of faith is different in the spiritual realm. Natural faith relies on the physical senses. We tend to believe only what we or others can see, hear, taste, and feel. When we trust the water, our brakes, the surgeon, the drugstore, or the president, we do so because our senses and human experience tell us these things are generally worthy of our confidence. Hebrews 11:1 faith, on the other hand, is a supernatural conviction–a solid, unshakable assurance that is contrary to human nature. It includes a capacity to lay hold of spiritual reality imperceptible to the natural man: “A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Cor. 2:14).32
Is he right that faith in Jesus Christ does not involve our senses? If that were the case, people could and would be saved without hearing the Gospel! Yet in Rom 10:14 Paul asks “And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?” In v 17 of Romans 10 Paul concludes, “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”
I will always remember the humorous illustration I heard
Dr. Adrian Rogers give in a seminary chapel message. He said, “If the hyper-Calvinistic view [of saving faith and salvation] were true, then the preacher would just whistle the tune to “Just As I Am” and the elect would recognize the tune and come forward.”33
What about the passage to which MacArthur refers, 1 Cor 2:14?
Whatever it means, notice that it says nothing about two kinds of faith. The issue in the passage is that apart from divine enablement unbelievers do not perceive spiritual truth accurately, not that unbelievers lack a special kind of faith.
MacArthur would have us believe that 1 Cor 2:14 teaches that a natural man can be convinced of the truth of the Gospel and yet not be saved because his faith is mere natural faith. Yet 1 Cor 2:14 teaches just the opposite!
The passage says that the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God! To receive spiritual truth is to be convinced that it is true (“they are spiritually discerned“). No unbeliever is convinced that the Gospel is true! Not one!
How, then, does any unbeliever ever believe the Gospel? He does so because God draws all (John 12:32; 16:9-11), and if he responds by seeking God as Cornelius did,34 God then shines the light upon him (2 Cor 4:4). Natural men can indeed perceive the Gospel rightly; but only if and when the Holy Spirit enlightens them.
C. Exegetical Weaknesses
Exegesis is the science and art of “drawing out” the author’s intended meaning. To do this we must make careful observations and ask key questions of the text.
1. Failure to Prove His Exegesis
In this book MacArthur rarely tells us why his interpretations are correct. At best he mentions a word, phrase, or sentence from the text without explanation and assumes that that settles the discussion. At worst he merely states his interpretation as though it were obvious. Three examples of this follow (the bracketed material after each quote represents my comments on his arguments):
True Christians love Christ. His love for us, producing our love for Him (1 John 4:19), is one of the guarantees that we will persevere to the end (Rom. 8:33-39). Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” “He who has My commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me” (v.21). Conversely, “He who does not love Me does not keep My words” (v.24).35 [These verses do not support his point. Rather, they directly contradict it!36]
God’s own holiness thus requires that we persevere. “God’s grace insures our persevering–but this does not make it any less our persevering.”37 We cannot acquire “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” unless we “press on toward the goal” (Phil. 3:14). But as we “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12), we find that “it is God who is at work in [us], both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (v.23).38[This is a false deduction. The verses cited call for, but do not guarantee, perseverance.39]
Those who argue for a subjective approach will point out that Scripture clearly calls for self-examination. We are commanded to examine ourselves regularly–at least as often as we participate in the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:28). Paul also issued this challenge to the church at Corinth: “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you–unless indeed you fail the test?” (2 Cor. 13:5) Clearly Paul was dealing here with the matter of assurance. The Corinthians were to test themselves to see if they were “in the faith.”40 [That self-examination is commanded by Scripture is irrefutable. However, neither 1 Cor 11:28 nor 2 Cor 13:5 deals with assurance of salvation.41]
2. Mistaking Agreement for Proof
Any theological student who has ever written an exegetical paper knows that citing someone else who holds your interpretation is not proof of your view! Yet MacArthur often acts as though such agreement was proof.
A good example of this appears in the second citation just given (under section 1: “Failure to Prove His Exegesis”).
MacArthur first states his thesis: “God’s own holiness thus requires that we persevere.” He then gives three sentences which he evidently puts forth in order to prove his point.
The first supporting sentence reads: “God’s grace insures our persevering–but this does not make it any less our persevering.” This is followed by two sentences in which he cites parts of three verses from Philippians.
An untaught believer could easily misunderstand the source of the first quote and think it came from Scripture. Of course, MacArthur does indicate in a footnote that the quotation is from Horne’s book Salvation, and it is practically inconceivable that he intended to mislead the reader in this way. However, studies show that over 90% of all readers do not consult footnotes at all! Failure to identify the source of the quotation in the text is a highly unfortunate occurrence in itself.
For the person who recognizes that this is not Scripture and who takes the time to see that it is quoted from Horne, the logical question is so what? Horne’s statement proves nothing. The reader isn’t even given enough material from Horne to see what proof he gives for the statement (or even what he means by it!). All we have is another dogmatic statement!
Many other examples could be given.42 The point is, agreement does not prove one’s interpretation. It is interesting that often when MacArthur cites those who agree with him they too make dogmatic statements which are unsubstantiated by any proof!
3. Failure to Refute Interpretations He Rejects
In addition, MacArthur fails to show why other interpretations are incorrect. He should have stated and then destroyed the proofs given for other interpretations.
Instead, MacArthur routinely fails to mention the proofs cited by his opponents. He merely states a view and then rejects it by a wave of his hand.
In the following material MacArthur rejects a view I expressed on saving faith. Notice that he fails to cite any of the arguments I gave for my position. Also note the pejorative language in the first sentence:
How far will no-lordship apologists go in divesting the gospel of its essential content? A recent article in the leading no-lordship fraternity’s monthly newsletter suggested that “a person can place his or her trust in Jesus Christ and Him alone without understanding precisely how He takes away sins.” Therefore, the article stated, “it is possible to believe savingly in Christ without understanding the reality of His resurrection.” The man who wrote the piece maintains that neither Christ’s death nor His resurrection are essential to the evangelistic message. It is enough, he says, “to present only the core truth of the gospel: namely, that whoever believes in Jesus Christ has eternal life.” Evidently he believes people can be saved who have never even heard that Christ died for their sins.43
In the article I pointed out that Peter was already a believer (in light of John 2:11) when he rebuked Jesus for predicting that He would go to Jerusalem and be killed (Matt 16:21-23). Clearly Peter neither understood nor believed that Jesus was going to die on the Cross for him. Yet he was a believer.
MacArthur does not refute this. He gives no explanation of why my reasoning is flawed. He doesn’t even mention my reasoning, so, of course, he is free to avoid the problem of answering it.
I went on in the article to discuss the resurrection. It is also clear that the 11 disciples did not believe in Jesus’ resurrection until after He arose and appeared to them; yet they were already saved!
Possibly my arguments were weak. I don’t think they were. However, if someone is going to criticize a view, it is incumbent upon him to state and refute the argumentation in favor of it.
Numerous other examples could be given, but space restrictions prohibit this. However, even a casual reading of Faith Works shows that MacArthur is not interested in interacting with Free Grace views. In order to interact he would have to tell his readers why we believe what we do. To do that he would have to refute our arguments. (Whether he can’t or just didn’t get around to it, we do not know. However, it is easy to see that he did not refute our arguments.)
4. Citing Verses out of Context
On several occasions MacArthur cites a verse or two, ending before the sentence concludes. This is, of course, acceptable practice, as long as one does not leave out something essential to the flow of thought. However, at times MacArthur leaves off material essential to the argument. Interestingly, it is also material which contradicts what he was trying to say.
For example, on pp. 120-21 he cites Col 1:21-22 in an attempt to show that believers are slaves to righteousness in their experience. The verses cited read: “Although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach.” However, Paul’s sentence doesn’t end where MacArthur does. It continues: “if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister.”
Verse 23 doesn’t fit well with what MacArthur was saying, so he left it off. Actually v 23 disproves the point that he was making–that believers are slaves to righteousness in their experience. Believers will only be presented at the Judgment Seat of Christ as being holy, blameless, and beyond reproach if, in this life, they have continued in the faith.44
Another example is found on p. 58. There MacArthur claims that “grace is not a dormant or abstract quality, but a dynamic, active, working principle.” One of the verses he cites to “prove” this (again verses are given without any explanation) is 2 Pet 3:18. Verse 18 is the second half of Peter’s sentence. Actually, when read in context v. 18 disproves MacArthur’s contention that all believers grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Second Peter 3:17-18 reads:
You therefore, beloved, since you know these things beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked; but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and forever. Amen.
Christians may “fall from [their] own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked.” The antidote is to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord”!
It is interesting that MacArthur unintentionally undercut his own argument when he said that Peter told believers in v 18 what they “should” do: “Peter said we should ‘grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’ (2 Pet. 3:18)” (p. 58, italics added).
In Faith Works: The Gospel According to the Apostles MacArthur has distorted the teachings of Holy Scripture on a number of vital doctrines. The results of this distortion are:
- He exhorts people to look within themselves for assurance of salvation, rather than to the only reliable source, the promises of God.
- He turns the free gift of eternal life into something which must be purchased by sinners.
- Saving faith is transformed by MacArthur from conviction that what Jesus promises in the Gospel is true (i.e., that He gives eternal life to every believer) into a combination of trust in God’s promises, turning from sins, commitment, surrender, and obedience.
- The doctrine of eternal security is denigrated by MacArthur as being a mere appendage to the supposed doctrine of perseverance.
- No mention is made by MacArthur of the powerful motivations of love and gratitude, chastisement, temporal blessings, eternal rewards, and the Judgment Seat of Christ.
- Fear of hell, which God intends to be a thing of the past for the believer, is put forth by MacArthur as a major motivation for Christians to obey God.
- Regeneration, according to MacArthur, logically occurs before faith–meaning that at least in theory there is such a thing as a regenerate unbeliever.
- MacArthur’s view of justification is essentially that of Rome: God justifies the godly, not the ungodly.
- He turns the analogy of faith on its head by bypassing clear passages on the Gospel and on assurance in favor of unclear passages which he can more easily manipulate to develop his conclusions.
- His view of both justification and sanctification are legalistic and mechanical, lacking a grasp of the personal dynamic of looking to the Lord Jesus Christ as one’s Savior, Lord, and Friend.
Recently I had lunch with a colleague in GES and as we ate I brought up the subject of progressive sanctification.
I asked this colleague if he felt there was any special key to living the Christian life. He responded as follows:
There are no formulas given in Scripture. And, while there are rules, the Christian life is not essentially the observance of the commandments. Rather, the key to the Christian life, if we can call it that, is the contemplation of Christ. Our walk with Christ is a personal relationship. It is vital that we focus on Christ, not on the rules. Otherwise we reduce Christianity to a mechanical, legalistic obsession.
It struck me as I reflected on MacArthur’s Faith Works that this is exactly what it is missing.
Faith Works reads more like an instruction manual for a VCR than a letter extolling the virtues of one’s dear friend.
Faith does indeed work for the one who grasps the grace of God. It appropriates for the sinner the free gift of eternal life. It results in a new inner self which is totally holy and righteous.
However, faith does not work for the one who loses sight of God’s grace. One is not believing the Gospel if he is trusting in his own acts of turning from sins, surrender, commitment, and obedience. Either one trusts in Christ plus nothing or he is not trusting in Christ alone!
MacArthur has admitted on occasion that he once believed the Gospel of Free Grace salvation. My prayer for him is that he would return to the grace of God so that he could indeed currently have faith in the true biblical Gospel which really works.
While faith does work, the book Faith Works does not.
2MacArthur instead gives extended treatment to Romans 4:1-5 (99-103); 6:1-20 (110-21); Eph 2:1-10 (63-70); Heb 11:1 ff. (39-52); James 1:21-2:14 (142-55); and 1 Pet 1:3-9 (182-90). While Rom 4:1-5 and Eph 2:1-10 surely are key passages on the Gospel in the epistles, the others are not. None of those even deals with the Gospel! MacArthur has once again turned the analogy of faith upside down.
3N.B. MacArthur often makes sweeping claims with little or no support. The following are two examples: On pp. 26-28 He states nine points which he claims are taught by “those who express the no-lordship position.” However, concerning each of the nine points he cites only Charles Ryrie (and only from one of his works). Similarly, on p. 33 MacArthur says, “Advocates of the no-lordship position frequently suggest that preaching repentance adds something to the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone.” Yet he fails to cite even one person who says this.
13There is one final section entitled, “True believers have the Holy Spirit” (p. 171). The title is misleading. How does one know he has the Holy Spirit? According to MacArthur “the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) [is] the proof that He resides within” (p. 172). As former President Reagan used to say, “There he goes again!”
16See, for example, p. 74: “If we fail to call people to turn from their sins, we are not communicating the same Gospel the apostles proclaimed.” And p. 77: “Repentance in the context of the new birth means turning from sin to the Savior” and “repentance turns from sin to Christ.”
18Ibid., 43. Of course, p. 43 precedes p. 44, from which the above criticism was quoted. However, on p. 43 Horton was talking about MacArthur correcting his views on the same subject: moral change as a requirement for justification.
20Ibid., 42-43. Horton goes on to say, “To his credit, however, MacArthur seems to flatly contradict these very comments elsewhere, namely, in The Gospel According to Jesus (cf. 187).” However, MacArthur’s occasional disclaimers do not eliminate his repeated refrains–as even Horton acknowledges in the chapter cited.
26Interestingly enough, in Faith Works (158n) MacArthur chides me for suggesting in a review that one of the major issues in The Gospel According to Jesus was assurance. He writes, “Assurance certainly was not a major issue” (158n). Yet even other Lordship Salvationists recognize that assurance was indeed a major issue raised in The Gospel According to Jesus!
33Before MacArthur berates Dr. Rogers or me for that illustration, neither Dr. Rogers nor I literally believes that one must come forward to be saved. He was using that language because it illustrated the foolishness of the view that people don’t need to hear the Gospel to be saved.
36John 14:15,21,24 and 1 John 4:19 all say that Christ’s love for us motivates us to love and obey Him. Of course it does! Powerfully! However, if a believer loses sight of Christ’s love for him (by ceasing to read God’s Word and hear it preached, by failure to fellowship with other Christians and partake of the Lord’s Supper, etc.), then his love for Christ will diminish or even fail.
Romans 8:33-39 guarantees eternal security, not that all believers will live godly lives.
41Concerning 2 Cor 13:5 see the article by Brookes in our “Voice from the Past” section in this issue; see also Zane C. Hodges, The Gospel Under Siege: Faith and Works in Tension, Second Edition (Dallas: Redención Viva, 1981, 1992), 107-14; and Wilkin, The GES News, (Oct 1989): 2.
The idea that the examination of 1 Cor 11:28 concerns assurance is totally without warrant. Paul had already repeatedly affirmed that his readers were saved (cf. 1:2; 3:1-3; 6:19-20). He does so in the immediate context as well (cf. vv. 30-34). The term used for sleep in v 30 is only used in the NT figuratively of death, as here, when it refers to Christians. Believers are to examine themselves to see if they have a proper attitude toward Christ and His Supper (as opposed to those Christians in Corinth who came to the Lord’s Supper to gorge themselves on food and to get drunk on wine!).