Saved Without a Doubt: How to Be Sure of Your Salvation. John MacArthur, Jr. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1992. 187 pp. Paper, $7.99.
John MacArthur claims to publish this book out of a pastoral concern for those in the churches who lack assurance of salvation. It is out of the same pastoral concern that I would discourage the use of this book for such a purpose-it will never work!
Actually, the reader will soon discover that MacArthur is more concerned with those who think they are saved (but may not be) than with those who doubt that they are saved (but really are). By the end of the book, only those who reject the author’s assertions will be sure that they are saved.
The reason assurance will be elusive is that the book focuses on the subjective evidence for salvation to the minimalization of the objective grounds. The first third of the book includes three chapters discussing the objective grounds from Romans 5 and 8. Chapter 2 digresses to handle problem passages which are sometimes used to argue that Christians can lose their salvation. Predictably, in three of the four (Gal 5:4; Heb 6:4–8; John 15:1–6), MacArthur argues that the subjects were not Christians to begin with-an unacceptable conclusion when contexts are considered!
It is most telling when MacArthur criticizes discussions on assurance which focus “almost exclusively on objective grounds” (p. 11). If we evaluate his theology of assurance based on how he proportions the material, then it is clear that his real basis of assurance is the subjective evidence. Exactly twice as much of the book (the last two sections) is devoted to topics such as tests of salvation (1 John), growth in Christ (2 Peter 1), victory over sin (Romans 6–8), and perseverance (Jas 1:12).
I was temporarily encouraged that MacArthur began the body of the book with John 5:24, which he says, “may be the most monumental statement ever made in the Bible relative to the security of salvation” (p. 15). But it merits only one sentence of explanation! Just one more page is used to discuss the promises of salvation from the Gospel of John. This short-handed treatment is inexcusable, considering the number of such promises in John. The promises of God must form the only sure and objective basis for any real assurance.
What is both disturbing and confusing about MacArthur’s approach is that he speaks out of both sides of his theology. For example, he declares that salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone (pp. 82, 89), but also conditions it on commitment to Christ as Lord for all of life (p.151). He teaches that rewards are a motivation and consequence of how we live our lives (pp. 128–29), but also holds that most rewards passages are tests of genuine salvation (p. 152). He explains that 2 Pet 1:1–11 shows that assurance comes from adding virtues to our initial faith (pp. 111–27), yet holds v 11 as a promise of rewards instead of entrance into heaven (pp. 128–29).
The chapter on perseverance is most confusing. There the reader is told to look back at his faithfulness in trials to see whether he is a true Christian (p. 152). But this is irrelevant to MacArthur’s understanding of perseverance, which teaches that all who are true believers will persevere through trials and love for God until the end. And what is his advice if you are wondering whether you will endure to the end? Well, he teaches you will, of course, if you “made the proper commitment to Christ,” because God will preserve you (p. 152). Logically then, there is no assurance until the end. Just as a student who wonders if he can do the school work necessary to graduate will not know until he graduates, so salvation depends on performance and perseverance, with no ultimate assurance. “Only the faithful are of the faith” (p.150). Of what comfort is this circular reasoning to an already confused believer?
The book comes with a study guide in the back which does little to clear up the book it discusses. An example of one of the exercises: “Ask God to help you objectively evaluate your Christian life in light of the tests of 1 John” (p. 168). These eleven tests include sensitivity to sin, obedience, rejection of the world, eagerness for Christ’s return, sinful patterns in your life, love for other Christians, the experience of answered prayer, and suffering rejection for your faith. How is objectivity even possible for such tests?
The book is a compilation of MacArthur’s sermons. His methodology is theological exposition rather than exegetical exposition. Quotations from the Puritans and the use of proof-texts without explanation of context abound.
I am concerned about where MacArthur’s theology comes from and where it will ultimately lead him (not to mention his followers!). Of special concern is how he defines justification as “made right with God” (p. 61), which evidently fits his system better than the Reformation definition of justification as “declared right with God.” His definition echoes the theology of Rome (see Paul Holloway’s article “A Return to Rome: Lordship Salvation’s Doctrine of Faith,” JOTGES 4 [Autumn 1991], 13–21).
There is no reason to buy this book other than to see what this popular teacher is promoting so that you can warn other Christians. A Christian seeking a book on assurance would do well to read instead Charles Stanley’s book, Eternal Security: Can You Be Sure? (Oliver Nelson, 1990; Reviewed in JOTGES, Spring 1991).
Charles C. Bing
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society
Burleson Bible Church