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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