Embracing The Reformation Doctrine Of Salvation Is Not “Wearying From The Battle”

John MacArthur is the old lion of modified Dispensationalism, which has been a gateway for many into the Reformation, but which has also been an obstacle to the Reformation.

State Of The Controversy

One way in which that has been true is his continued advocacy of the “Lordship Salvation” doctrine. In 2019, during a conference, he responded to some online criticisms of the so-called “Lordship Salvation” doctrine. Then, on December 27, 2022, he published them:

The next formidable battle was over The Gospel According to Jesus. In that book I attempted to defend the lordship of Christ. I made the case that Jesus is Lord and should be acknowledged as such. And yet I recently read a tweet from one of the graduates of my own seminary. The graduate tweeted, “I seek to free as many as possible from the soul-enslaving, freedom-killing, conscience-afflicting, assurance-destroying, law-gospel confusing errors of lordship salvation.” This graduate has apparently wearied in the battle.

Jude writes that “Certain persons have crept in unnoticed” (Jude 4). These “certain persons” could be anyone—professors in seminaries, Sunday-school teachers, writers, theologians, even pastors. But Jude makes it clear that they will creep in and sit in pews and preach in pulpits, acting as representatives of God. But we’ll recognize them when they fall away from us.

Were it the case that all MacArthur did was to “defend the Lordship of Christ” and to make the case that “Jesus is Lord and should be acknowledged as such,” no confessional Reformed folk nor any adherent of the Reformation doctrines of justification and salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) would have objected, but object they did and for good reason. That MacArthur casts this controversy as he does is instructive.

First, it tells us that he has not heard or understood the concerns that confessional Reformed have articulated since the publication of Michael S. Horton, ed., Christ The Lord (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992). Thirty-one years is a long time to misunderstand one’s critics. If you have not read this volume (and especially if you are in the Dispensational/Lordship/”Free Grace” orbit), you should read it.

Let us be clear about one thing: The Reformation churches (e.g., the Reformed and Lutheran) always affirmed the Lordship of Christ. He is Lord. The Reformation churches always insisted on the abiding validity of the moral law of God as the norm and rule of the Christian faith. It was, after all, Luther who gave us the adjective antinomian to characterize his opponents who denied the third use of the law as the abiding norm for the Christian. The Reformation churches teach the abiding validity of God’s moral law in their catechisms. For example, the majority of the third part of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) is devoted to the exposition of the moral law of God.

For the confessional Reformation churches, the question was never whether Christians must obey the moral law of God. The questions were “why?” and “to what end?” According to the Reformation churches, Christians obey God’s holy law not in order to be justified and saved (which is what the Lordship Salvation doctrine teaches) but because we have been justified and saved by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide). We confess that we obey out of gratitude, in union with Christ. Our good works are necessary as fruit and evidence of our salvation, but not as the ground or instrument of our salvation.

Who Is The Antinomian?

The subtext of MacArthur’s complaint is that orthodox Reformed critics of “Lordship Salvation” have gone soft on the moral law or are antinomian. Let us consider who upholds the abiding validity of the moral law. The Reformed churches can point to detailed expositions of the moral law, including the second and fourth commandments. See, for example, these resources on images of Christ and the rule of worship. Does Grace Community Church uphold the Heidelberg’s doctrine (Q. 103) or the Westminster’s Confession’s (ch. 21) doctrine of the Christian sabbath? If not, who are the antinomians here anyway? We need not speculate. On this very question MacArthur says:

There are no prescriptions or Sabbath rules anywhere in the new covenant. There is no instruction about behavior on the Sabbath anywhere in the New Testament. In Acts 15, when the Jerusalem council decided what would be required of Gentile believers in the church, they did not require them to observe the Sabbath. The apostles never commanded anybody to observe the Sabbath. They never chastise anybody for not observing the Sabbath. They never warned believers about Sabbath violations.

This is the antinomian position on the Sabbath. Perhaps MacArthur himself has wearied from the battle?

Dispensationalism Versus The Reformation

I do not actually think he has, but I do think that he substantially misunderstands the Reformation understanding of the relations between justification and sanctification. He has assumed his view to be the standard of orthodoxy and then condemned his critics as antinomian. This brings us to a second and perhaps more important point.

One of the major reasons that MacArthur writes and speaks as he does about this issue and others is that he does not belong to any of the Reformation traditions. The movement of which he has been a part his entire ministry was never part of the Reformation traditions (Reformed and Lutheran). His tradition, Dispensationalism, though it crosses denominational boundaries, arose out of the holiness tradition.

In the Reformation and particularly in the Reformed wing of the Reformation, we have always understood that there are three aspects or parts of the Christian faith: guilt (law), grace (gospel), and gratitude (sanctification). The law teaches us the greatness of our sin and misery. The gospel declares good news to us helpless sinners, and the Holy Spirit graciously and sovereignly works sanctification in us, conforming us to the image of Christ as a consequence of the grace of justification. Progressive sanctification is the fruit and evidence of our justification. According to the Reformation, the whole of salvation is God’s gracious, free, unconditional gift.

A regenerate person, i.e., one to whom the Holy Spirit has given new life and true faith, acknowledges Christ for who and what he is: Savior and Lord. There is no such thing as a Christian who denies the Christ as Savior or as Lord. He is both things. We do not “make” him Lord any more than we “make” him Savior. Both the “free grace” Dispensationalists (who agree with MacArthur on the 4th commandment but who deny the abiding validity of the rest of the law as well) and “Lordship Salvation” Dispensationalists are, from the perspective of the Reformation, confused about basic elements of the Christian faith. Neither one of them understands the continuity (unity) of the covenant of grace and its distinction from the covenant of works. Neither wing of the Dispensationalist movements understands properly how to distinguish law and gospel, which was fundamental to the Reformation. In short, both movements are just being what they are, Dispensationalists. If they want to join the Reformational churches, they need to abandon their Dispensationalism and join with the Reformation churches.

Finally, it is unfortunate that, after thirty-one years, MacArthur still seems unable to understand the pastoral cost of the Lordship Salvation model of salvation and sanctification. As a Reformed pastor I have counseled with too many refugees from “Lordship Salvation” churches to think that it is harmless. It is a kind of slavery because, to put it in Reformed categories, it puts believers, were it possible, back under the covenant of works or under the law for acceptance with God. This is a tragic error and quite avoidable. This, after all, is one of the principal reasons we had a Reformation in the sixteenth century: in its desire to stimulate sanctification and good works, the medieval church put believers, were it possible, back under the law or under the covenant of works for justification and salvation.

This is why Luther’s recovery of Augustine’s seminal distinction between law and gospel was so important. This is why the Reformed authors of the Heidelberg Catechism were so clear about articulating that distinction in terms of a covenant of works (“do this and live”) and a covenant of grace (“for God so loved the world”). This way of speaking and thinking, however, is largely alien to Dispensationalists in MacArthur’s world, who are taught to regard covenant theology as some kind of novel aberration. Of course, it is no such thing. The early church fathers articulated the unity of the covenant of grace by AD 130 (e.g., The Epistle of Barnabas). Justin Martyr (AD 150) taught the same as did Irenaeus (AD 180). This is basic Christianity. Augustine did this and even articulated a prelapsarian covenant. The Reformed were teaching covenant theology (against the Anabaptists) by the early 1520s.

MacArthur does not understand that he is part of a tradition that is foreign to the Reformation, and more than that, that is foreign to the Fathers and foreign to the Medieval church. Indeed, I tell my students in our Ancient Church class that one must choose whether one will be a Dispensationalist or a historic Christian. One cannot be both.

One of the criticisms of Dispensationalism, which I find persuasive, is that it makes the incarnation of Christ and the new covenant generally, a parenthesis in the history of redemption—when, in fact, Christ is the center and focus of redemptive history and revelation. From a church-historical and historical-theological perspective Dispensationalism, not covenant theology, is the aberration. It did not appear until the first half of the nineteenth century and it proposed a radical departure from the historic Christian reading of Scripture.

So, as we begin a new year, it may well be that the other bracket of the parenthesis is fast approaching Dispensationalism. Perhaps MacArthur senses it too? The old Dispensational movements (the original version and the modified versions) are quickly being are replaced by the “Progressive Dispensational” movement, which in turn is a gateway back toward one of the historic Christian traditions. It is not easy to see exactly how this Progressive Dispensationalism is really, substantively Dispensational any longer. Does anyone outside the MacArthur orbit even care about Dispensationalism anymore? Evangelicals seem busy discovering and recovering “The Great Tradition,” which certainly does not include any form of Dispensationalism.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. How did MacArthur miss the syllogism:
    The Sabbath was made for Man.
    Man’s physical and psychological natures remain the same.
    Therefore, Man still needs his Sabbath?

    (I suppose, the same way he missed other things …)

    How seriously, by the way, should we take the Epistle of Barnabas? Aren’t it and the Didache Montanist documents?

    • John,

      1. Barnabas was produced at least two decades before the Montanist movement is known to have begun and that depends on an earlier rather than a later date for the origins of Montanism. The Didache is almost certainly earlier than Barnabas (AD 120-30).

      2. Modern scholarship is rather less certain about what Montanism was, so your question may assume things no longer to be assumed.

      3. I see no evidence in Barnabas or in the Didache of Montanist influence and I don’t see contemporary Patristics scholarship treating these as Montanist documents.

  2. Excellent information and a must read for Masters College and Seminary!
    Can you help me with the last paragraph; what do you mean by “Progressive Dispensationalists” being consonant with some “Historic Tradition?” and, can you be more specific regarding Evangelicals interest in the “Great Tradition?” I myself still observe a high interest in the dispensational view of interpreting the bible among the majority of modern evangelical church members.

  3. Thanks Scott for this well-written, clarification. I am the TMS graduate that MacAthur slanders in his blog article. I fully stand behind and renew my 2019 New Year’s Resolution (“I seek to free as many as possible from the soul-enslaving, freedom-killing, conscience-afflicting, assurance-destroying, law-gospel confusing errors of Lordship Salvation).

  4. 30 Years ago MacArthur had years more to come of denying the Eternal Generation of the Son.

  5. Scott, thank you for this critique. In some respects, there is much about MacArthur to be admired, respected, and appreciated, such as his willingness to believe that the average person in the pew is capable of understanding and wants to understand the original languages in which the Scriptures were written, and the historical background and context regarding those languages and the events and topics that the Scriptures describe or address. Unlike, some seminaries, which teach that getting technical is a no-no, especially where the Hebrew and Greek are concerned, any pastor who does this judiciously and not with the intent to flaunt his credentials should be commended. Then of course, there is MacArthur’s willingness to take a stand on certain controversial issues for which generally orthodox believing Christians across all traditions – Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and others – should be willing to be in agreement, and find common cause, when and where appropriate, in addressing. Again, when he sets positive example, he should be commended.

    Nevertheless, you highlight what I find a troubling, recurring theme within Mr. MacArthur’s ministry, and that is his seeming unwillingness to identify his own myopic (?) stances on matters. An example of an issue not related to Lordship Salvation to which this may be applied is the term “charismatic”. Depending upon the person and his or her age, the term “charismatic” can mean differing things. Is it the precursor umbrella term for what we now call contemporary worship? Does it apply solely, as the old guard, like MacArthur and his allies do, to principally the Faith Healer, Word of Faith and Prosperity Gospel movements, a la Kenneth Hagin, Oral Roberts, and Earl Pauk, among others? Or, can it apply to those non-cessationist, but generally orthodox, believing churches and denominations that arose out of the Pentacostal-Holiness movement, which may have a more “lively” worship service, but also at the local church level, have unfortunately been more susceptible to the false doctrines of the WF/PG teachers? I am at that age (approaching 50), where I have seen “charismatic” applied in any number of these ways. Yet, while if one only casually listens to MacArthur and understands these distinctions, you get the sense that he is either unwilling or unable to make these distinctions. It is only after listening carefully for a while that you realize that he is primarily addressing the WF/PG teachers. However, I still have a lingering doubt that a generally orthodox, non-cessationist denomination, such as the Church of God – Cleveland, TN, is in view also, simply because it is not cessationist. Then, if there is a criticism of his position of throwing everyone who may remotely being considered charismatic as being WF/PG but are not, then just ignore the criticism. I realize that this is not the issue that you are addressing in your post, but it does seem helpful to note, based on your comments, that his two big areas of the past 20+ years – Lordship Salvation and the Charismatics – there seems to be a common trend there.

    • David S.: Reformed churches certainly can and should criticize MacArthur’s “Lordship Salvation” doctrine. However, because he is wrong about that doesn’t mean that he is wrong about the excesses of the Word of Faith doctrines and practices. As to the confusion, all “Word of Faith” adherents of which I am aware are non-cessasionist but all old-line Pentecostals who are are also non-cessationist are not necessarily “Word of Faith”. Much of MacArthur’s argumentation has been against the demonstrated excesses of the Word of Faith movement. However, from a Reformed perspective, the old-line Pentecostals share with the Word of Faith adherents what we Reformed believe to be error in their non-cessasionist beliefs. Unfortunately, because of the popularity of the charismatic music and worship styles in evangelicalism, such practices are seeping into Reformed churches. My PCA church uses as one of its two hymnals “Hymns of Grace” which is a MacArthur production. In addition, we often have bulletin inserts with music from contemporary Christian artists. We Reformed can argue against charismatic doctrine and practice of many varieties but before we do so too forcefully, we should examine those elements of charismatic worship we have adopted.

    • David,

      Following Luther, the Reformed said that justification is the article of the standing or falling of the church. So, it gets priority. They also, however, vigorously contested “the sects,” i.e., the Anabaptists, who were advocating in the early 16th century what we today know as “continuing revelation” or Pentecostalism. Indeed, in his treatise against the ABs, Guy de Bres spent a fair bit of time describing what we would think of as Assemblies of God worship service and then criticized it quite strongly as denying the sufficiency of Scripture for the Christian faith and the Christian life.

      I’m with de Bres. I understand that the health & wealth movement doesn’t represent all Charismatics or Pentecostals but all of them (Charismatics, Pentecostals) necessarily deny the sufficiency of Scripture and thereby deny one of the planks of the Reformation, sola Scriptura.

      I don’t think that JM necessarily grasps the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura either since he has long advocated a type of Biblicism, which is not to be confused with sola Scriptura. He represents a type of fundamentalism which wants to make Scripture speak to questions to which it does not intend to speak. E.g., see his reaction to T. David Gordon’s essay some years ago on the limits of the sufficiency of Scripture. I addressed biblicism and that controversy in Recovering the Reformed Confession.

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