A Tale of Two Sons:
MacArthur Revised

by Bob Wilkin

Beware of Dogmatic Assertions That Are Not
Backed by Scripture
Dr. John MacArthur, Friday April 18, 2008

Back in April, Pastor Bob Vacendak and I went to hear a message on Luke 15 by Dr. John MacArthur. He was in Dallas to show his appreciation for KCBI Radio station and also to promote his new book on Luke 15 and his new TV show Grace to You.

In my dissertation on repentance I argued that the younger son coming to his senses, his repentance, represented him coming to faith in Christ and being born again. (I argued at that time that in certain contexts like Luke 15 repentance was a change of mind about Christ and thus was a synonym for faith in Him.) About 10 years later I became convinced of the view of Zane Hodges that the younger son was born again before he left home. He was a son before he left. He didn’t become a son by returning. His coming to his senses represented a believer turning from his sinful ways to get back in fellowship with God.

Dr. John MacArthur’s position on The Parable of the Prodigal Son has two main components. First, the younger son’s turning from his sins was what a requirement for him be born again. Thus MacArthur was arguing that turning from sins is a condition of eternal life. Second, the older son represents the unbelieving Pharisees. The Pharisees legalistic attitude toward tax collectors and sinners keeps them from being born again. So, too, the older brother’s legalistic attitude toward his repentant younger brother kept the older brother from being born again.

Many questions were not answered. If we must turn from our sins to be born again, is that not what the Pharisees believed? Did not the Pharisees believe that a tax collector could get into the kingdom if he gave restitution to all he wronged and ceased to be a tax collector? Wasn’t their objection that Jesus ate with people who were still active tax collectors who had not given any indication of prior repentance?

And why did Jesus call these two young men sons, if one of them never was a son and the other didn’t become a son until he strayed and then turned from his sins? In what sense are unbelievers sons of God?

Those two points by MacArthur are fairly standard, though flawed, understanding of the parable. But I was struck by a number of unusual and yet dogmatic assertions that MacArthur made on points not at all clear in the text, and in some cases clearly contracted by other passages in Luke. Here are some examples of his mystifying dogmatic assertions from that night:

  1. He stated that the father in the parable is Jesus. MacArthur failed to explain how he arrived at this conclusion. Nor did he discuss the possibility that God the Father is in view. Why would Jesus present Himself as the father in the story? Wouldn’t He be more likely to present Himself as a shepherd (15:3-7)? Wouldn’t he be more likely to present God the Father as the father in this parable?

  2. MacArthur said that the key elements in the story are honor and shame. Yet he never explained how he arrived at this conclusion. The text itself never mentions either honor or shame.

  3. The older brother, according to MacArthur, hated his father and hated his brother. This assertion was made without the word hate appearing in the text and with only the scantiest of evidence (verses 29-30).

  4. The story lacks an explicit ending, but has an implicit one. The implicit ending, according to MacArthur, is that the older brother picked up a plank of wood and repeatedly struck his father, whom MacArthur said represents Jesus, on the head until he killed Him. I’m not making this up. MacArthur felt this is clearly what Luke intended the reader to conclude since the Pharisees later had Jesus crucified on a tree.

  5. The younger son, MacArthur said, is the absolutely worst sinner that Jesus could possibly conceive of. This would mean that Jesus considered him a worse sinner than Judas, Jeroboam, Jezebel, Hitler, Stalin, or Jeffrey Dahmer. Evidence for this young man being the worst conceivable sinner was not well developed, to say the least.

  6. A first century Pharisee would not eat a meal with anyone other than another Pharisee, according to MacArthur. Yet the chapter preceding the one MacArthur was discussing contradicts this statement. Luke reported that a leading Pharisee had a meal with Jesus and His disciples (Luke 14:1ff.), none of whom were Pharisees. See also Luke 5:27-32 where another group of Pharisees ate with Jesus and His disciples in Matthew’s home.

  7. Jewish first century tax collectors, according to MacArthur, did not go to the temple, did not go to synagogue, and were totally irreligious. In addition, they hired what MacArthur called goons to protect them and to get money out of people. That neither the text nor anywhere else in the NT says anything to this effect was not mentioned. Also not explained was the fact that neither Matthew (Luke 5:27-32) nor Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), both tax collectors, fit his description. Nor did MacArthur explain the fact that tax collectors came to John the Baptist and that in one of Jesus’ parables three chapters later in Luke a tax collector was indeed in the temple praying (Luke 18:9-14).

I’d estimate there were about 5,000 present to hear MacArthur that night. The audience clearly was very favorable towards him and towards what he had to say. Yet much of what he said didn’t make sense. I think this shows the danger of being a powerful speaker with a strong following. Whatever the famous gifted communicator says is accepted as true in spite of it not matching up with what the text says.

Here are a few lessons I came away with that night.

First, we must be on guard whenever we hear God’s Word taught. It is our responsibility to be active listeners. We must not automatically accept whatever a speaker says, even a solidly Free Grace one. We must evaluate whatever anyone says against the entire council of God’s Word.

Second, whenever we teach God’s Word, whether to our children, to a Sunday School class, or to a congregation small or large, we must be careful to teach only what the Biblical author (human and Divine) actually intended.

Zane Hodges was well known for evaluating every passage against the entire book in which it appeared and indeed against the entire Bible. One of his colleagues at Dallas Theological Seminary once said of him, “If I were ever on trial for my life, I’d want Zane Hodges defending me because he leaves no stone unturned when he is seeking the truth.” On numerous occasions when I heard Zane speak I remember thinking he had erred in his exegesis on some point. So I’d ask him what I thought was a killer question. On each occasion he came back with an answer that made me realize he had already considered my possible objection and that he had a reasonable Biblical response. He modeled for me the need to be thorough and careful in our study and preaching of God’s Word.

Third, we must be especially careful when dealing with texts that are either evangelistic or which many wrongly assume are evangelistic. In such texts we should go out of our way to avoid saying anything that can call our whole message into question. Many of the things MacArthur said that night were not in any way crucial to his Lordship Salvation view. He seemed to be making things up so as to make his exposition more colorful and entertaining. But his whole message, indeed his entire theological position, was put in a bad light for those who recognized that much of what he was saying was clearly wrong.

Finally, the bigger the audience you are in, the more carefully you must listen. I suggest taking notes as a way to cause you to listen better. There is a sort of peer pressure that can lull the listener into unquestioning acceptance of what is said. As people around you clap their hands, shout Amen, nod their heads, and lean forward in anticipation of what is to come, it becomes hard to avoid getting pulled out to sea by the current of the crowd. One of the reasons I take notes when I hear people speak is because I want to be able to see it as well as hear it. I find that when I see what has been said, it is easier for me to evaluate it.

I’m still in shock over the loss of Zane (November 23, 2008) and my Mother (December 6, 2008). But one thing they both taught me was to think, to use the mind God gave me. Christianity is ultimately a battle for the mind (Rom 12:2). Transformation comes from the renewing of our minds. But for transformation to occur, we must be taking in the Word. Taking in cleverly devised stories that masquerade as the Word will not transform us for good.

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