The Gospel According To John (MacArthur)—Part 2

Before we dive into the preface of GAJ, we should shore up two points from the first installment: 1) The Modernity of Dispensationalism; and 2) The fundamental nature of the distinction between law and gospel.

Dispensationalism: A Modern Paradigm

Dispensationalism is a Modern movement. It was born in the early nineteenth century. To put that in perspective, the Reformation, which is a relatively recent movement considered against the whole history of the post-Apostolic church, was about 309 years old when Dispensationalism emerged among the Plymouth Brethren in England and Ireland. Dispensationalism made it to these shores in the mid-nineteenth century. By that time, the Reformed Churches had been teaching the Heidelberg Catechism for 150 years in the American Colonies (and later the USA).

From the perspective of the historic Christian church, Dispensationalism is a Modern sect. It is not just another branch of the historic Christian church. The understanding of redemptive history held by some Dispensationalists (to be sure, an extreme sect of Dispensationalism, not held by MacArthur) has more in common with the Ebonite heresy of the first and second centuries AD than it does orthodox Christianity.

Even the more mainstream versions of Dispensationalism, (e.g., the modified Dispensationalists of which MacArthur is one), hold to a reading of redemptive history that is at odds with that taught by the Epistle of Barnabas (c. AD 120–30), Justin Martyr (c. AD 150), and Irenaeus (c. AD 170–80). Those three were covenant theologians who stoutly defended the unity of the covenant (of grace) against Jewish, Marcionite, and Gnostic critics of Christianity. They appealed explicitly to the covenant. They would have been horrified by the notion that an earthly Israelite people were at the center of God’s redemptive plan. They saw Christ at the center of God’s redemptive plan. Indeed, apart from a few sects (e.g., the Albigensians), nothing like the Dispensational view of redemptive history had any purchase in the mainstream of the church, East or West, until the nineteenth century.

There were plenty of (historic) premillennialists (traditionally known as chiliasts) in the ancient church, but they were not of today’s pre-tribulation, Dispensational premillennialists. They had no concept of a future millennium featuring a restored temple and sacrificial system. They understood with Hebrews that Christ’s priesthood had fundamentally changed the priestly system and his once-for-all death was the end of the sacrificial system forever. None of the magisterial Reformers was a chiliast. Contra MacArthur’s repeated suggestion that, had he the opportunity, Calvin would have become a premillennialist, Calvin was well aware of historic premillennialism, and he repudiated it utterly.23 We may be certain that would have been just as offended by the Dispensational doctrine of a restored sacrificial system as he was by Rome’s restored sacrificial system.

After Augustine, most of the church held his view of the millennium, and the magisterial Protestants were all what we would today call amillennial. Historic premillennialism made a comeback among some of the Reformed, briefly, from the last sixteenth century (e.g., Joseph Meade, Johannes Piscator), but it did not last long. Historic premillennialism is a rarity in confessional Reformed churches with European roots and is not terribly common in confessional American Presbyterian church (e.g., the OPC and PCA).

The relative novelty, both chronologically and theologically, of Dispensationalism has meant that none of the earlier Dispensational theologians or schools had much connection to the Reformation church to or pre-Reformation church. I tell my students that they must choose whether they will be historic Christians or Dispensationalists: one cannot be both.

By contrast, the Reformation churches were born chiefly out of the study of holy Scripture (e.g., Luther’s lectures through the Psalms, Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, and the Psalms again from 1513–19) but also, in part, through a renewed study of the church fathers. Some of the early Reformers, notably Johannes Oecolampadius (1482–1531) and John Calvin (1509–64) were serious students of the church fathers and read them in Greek and Latin. Martin Luther (1483–1546) was a trained theologian and read at least some of the medieval theologians as did Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531). The orthodox successors of the Reformers were even more serious scholars of the fathers and medievals, and arguably pioneered modern patristics. The Reformation theologians were deeply affected by their reading of the Fathers and at least some of the medieval theologians (e.g., Bernard of Clairvaux).

The Dispensationalism of MacArthur is relatively untouched by the renewed interest by evangelicals (e.g., Matt Barrett) in the Reformation and pre-Reformation history and theology of the church. This is because methodologically, MacArthur is a biblicist—that is, he takes pride in reading the Bible as though no one has ever read it before. Biblicism is a method of biblical interpretation and theology that works in isolation from the history of the church and the creeds. He and his editors cite other writers, but typically in support of what MacArthur has already said or by way of contrast. His work has never been marked by a serious engagement with the broader Christian past.

The Mark of a Christian Interpretation of Scripture: Law and Gospel

I touched on these themes in the first installment but did not elaborate and it occurred to me that it would be important to explain clearly what is meant by the distinction between law and gospel because, again, that fundamental Reformation distinction is not a feature of Dispensationalism nor of MacArthur’s school (as an intellectual tradition).24

Luther did not become a Protestant in one shattering conversion experience. He became a Protestant gradually through his lectures on Scripture (under the influence of Augustine’s lectures on the Psalms). When we think of the Reformation, we typically think of the rediscovery of justification sola gratia and sola fide, and sola scriptura—the material principles of the Reformation. There was another breakthrough, however, which is sometimes overlooked but which both Luther and the Reformed said was fundamental to the Reformation: the hermeneutical and theological distinction between law and gospel.

For the millennium preceding the Reformation it was a datum that the Bible is law. The principal distinction that was made was historical—that is, between the old law (or the law) and the new law (or the gospel). In On the Spirit and the Letter, Augustine hinted at a hermeneutical and theological distinction between law and gospel (Luther was right about that) but did not spell it out; nor did he explicitly contrast that way of speaking with the predominantly historical way of speaking.

Thus, when Luther gradually understood what Augustine had been suggesting and combined that insight with justification on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed and faith knowing, assenting, and trusting as the sole instrument of justification, he would articulate a revolutionary understanding of Scripture: Scripture is not all law but rather it is all law and gospel. That is, there are two kinds of words all throughout Scripture: law and gospel. When God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil lest they die (Gen 2:17), that was law. When he promised that the Seed of the woman would both strike the serpent and be struck (Gen 3:15), that is a gospel word.

Luther wrote,

This difference between the Law and the Gospel is the height of knowledge in Christendom. Every person and all persons who assume or glory in the name of Christian should know and be able to state this difference. If this ability is lacking, one cannot tell a Christian from a heathen or a Jew; of such supreme importance is this differentiation. This is why St. Paul so strongly insists on a clean-cut and proper differentiating of these two doctrines. 25

Luther was not alone in insisting on this distinction as basic to evangelical (i.e., Reformation) Christianity. Calvin taught the same distinction, more often expressed as the distinction between grace and works:

Here we should recall to mind the relation that we have previously established between faith and the gospel. For faith is said to justify because it receives and embraces the righteousness offered in the gospel. Moreover, because righteousness is said to be offered through the gospel, all consideration of works is excluded. Paul often shows this elsewhere but most clearly in two passages. For in comparing the law and the gospel in the letter to the Romans he says: “the righteousness that is of the law” is such that “the man who practices these things will live by them” [Rom. 10:5]. But the “righteousness that is of faith” [Rom. 10:6] announces salvation “if you believe in your heart and confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and that the Father raised him from the dead” [Rom. 10:9]. Do you see how he makes this the distinction between law and gospel: that the former attributes righteousness to works, the latter bestows free righteousness apart from the help of works? This is an important passage, and one that can extricate us from many difficulties if we understand that that righteousness which is given us through the gospel has been freed of all conditions of the law. Here is the reason why he so often opposes the promise to the law, as things mutually contradictory: “If the inheritance is by the law, it is no longer by promise” [Gal. 3:18]; and passages in the same chapter that express this idea.

Notice please Calvin’s expression: “the righteousness which has been given us through the gospel has been freed from conditions of the law.” No sane person could accuse Calvin of antinomianism. So what did he mean? He meant that through the gospel we are freely justified apart from our meeting any conditions of works or obedience. The good news is that Christ has done it for us, and we are freely or unconditionally justified by grace alone, through faith alone. This does not mean that there are no consequent conditions (only the antinomians deny these), but there are no antecedent conditions (only the nomists teach these).

He further explained:

Now, to be sure, the law itself has its own promises. Therefore, in the promises of the gospel there must be something distinct and different unless we would admit that the comparison is inept. But what sort of difference will this be, other than that the gospel promises are free and dependent solely upon God’s mercy, while the promises of the law depend upon the condition of works? And let no one here snarl at me that it is the righteousness which men, of their own strength and free will, would obtrude upon God that is rejected—inasmuch as Paul unequivocally teaches that the law, in commanding, profits nothing [cf. Rom. 8:3]. For there is no one, not only of the common folk, but of the most perfect persons, who can fulfill it. To be sure, love is the capstone of the law. When the Spirit of God forms us to such love, why is it not for us a cause of righteousness, except that even in the saints it is imperfect, and for that reason merits no reward of itself?26

The gospel promises are free. The promises of the law rest on our performance of what I called above “antecedent conditions,” which are conditions we must meet before we are justified. Consequent conditions are those obligations we incur because we are justified.

Calvin’s orthodox successors taught the same thing again and again, so it is mystifying why anyone would claim that the law/gospel distinction is a Lutheran distinctive. For example:

In What Does The Law Differ From The Gospel? The exposition of this question is necessary for a variety of considerations, and especially that we may have a proper understanding of the law and the gospel, to which a knowledge of that in which they differ greatly contributes. According to the definition of the law, which says, that it promises rewards to those who render perfect obedience; and that it promises them freely, inasmuch as no obedience can be meritorious in the sight of God, it would seem that it does not differ from the gospel, which also promises eternal life freely. Yet notwithstanding this seeming agreement, there is a great difference between the law and the gospel. They differ,

1. As to the mode of revelation peculiar to each. The law is known naturally: the gospel was divinely revealed after the fall of man.

2. In matter or doctrine. The law declares the justice of God separately considered: the gospel declares it in connection with his mercy. The law teaches what we ought to be in order that we may be saved: the gospel teaches in addition to this, how we may become such as this law requires, viz: by faith in Christ.

3. In their conditions or promises. The law promises eternal life and all good things upon the condition of our own and perfect righteousness, and of obedience in us: the gospel promises the same blessings upon the condition that we exercise faith in Christ, by which we embrace the obedience which another, even Christ, has performed in our behalf; or the gospel teaches that we are justified freely by faith in Christ. With this faith is also connected, as by an indissoluble bond, the condition of new obedience.

4. In their effects. The law works wrath, and is the ministration of death: the gospel is the ministration of life and of the Spirit (Rom. 4:15, 2 Cor. 3:7).27

Remember, Ursinus studied with Philipp Melanchthon (d. 1560) for about seven years. When he became Reformed and began teaching in Heidelberg, he did not have to adjust his law/gospel distinction at all.

Ursinus’ colleague, Caspar Olevianus (1536–87) echoed Ursinus:

For this reason the distinction between law and Gospel is retained. The law does not promise freely, but under the condition that you keep it completely. And if someone should transgress it once, the law or legal covenant does not have the promise of the remission of sins. On the other hand, the Gospel promises freely the remission of sins and life, not if we keep the law, but for the sake of the Son of God, through faith.28

The verb “retain” signals that he was consciously retaining the Lutheran distinction between law and gospel. He was announcing a hermeneutical principle.

He followed Luther on this just as Calvin had, and as had Calvin’s colleague and successor, Theodore Beza (1519–1605):

We divide this Word into two principal parts or kinds: the one is called the ‘Law,’ the other the ‘Gospel.’ For all the rest can be gathered under the one or other of these two headings . . . Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity.29

Beza, sounding very much like Luther, wrote that in 1558, not in a technical work but in a popular confession for the laity.

For the purposes of this review, besides Luther’s famous quotation, perhaps none is more appropriate than William Perkins’ (1558–1602) words about distinguishing law and gospel as a matter of preaching:

The basic principle in application is to know whether the passage is a statement of the law or of the gospel. For when the Word is preached, the law and the gospel operate differently. The law exposes the disease of sin, and as a side-effect, stimulates and stirs it up. But it provides no remedy for it. However the gospel not only teaches us what is to be done, it also has the power of the Holy Spirit joined to it. . . . A statement of the law indicates the need for a perfect inherent righteousness, of eternal life given through the works of the law, of the sins which are contrary to the law and of the curse that is due them. . . . By contrast, a statement of the gospel speaks of Christ and his benefits, and of faith being fruitful in good works.30

Perkins’ concern is my concern. What happens when we ignore or deny the distinction between law and gospel? It leads to disastrous interpretations of Scripture whereby, for example, Romans 2:13 is not taken (as the Reformed have traditionally taken it) as an expression of the law or the covenant of works (do this and live), but as a promise to Christians that if they are sufficiently sanctified or obedient, they will be justified. Thus, the gospel is turned into law. We also see this interpretation of the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16–22. Where the Reformers understood Jesus to be preaching the law to the young man, to teach him the greatness of his sin and misery, some have taken it as an implicit promise to the man that 1) he can obey; 2) if he obeys sufficiently, he will “obtain eternal life.”

The series so far.


23. R. Scott Clark, What Would Calvin Say About Premillennialism?; R. Scott Clark, What Did Calvin Say? (re-post).

24. E.g., I did an electronic search of John F. MacArthur Jr., ed. Rediscovering Expository Preaching (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1992), and found not a single occurrence of the phrases “law and gospel” or related phrases “grace and law” or “law and grace.” More importantly, there is no chapter devoted to this topic. The phrase “law and gospel” and related phrases do not occur in GAJ. By contrast, the word obedience occurs 115 times in the 3rd edition.

25. Martin Luther, “Sermon on Galatians” (New Years, 1532) on Galatians 3:23–24. Source: WA 36.25 transl. in Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says (Concordia Publishing House: St Louis, 1959), 2.732. One finds the same sort of language in the 1535 lectures on Galatians translated in Luther’s Works, vol. 26 on Galatians chapters 2–4 passim.

26. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 3.11.17. There are many more such quotations from throughout Calvin’s works here.

27. Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 92.

28. Caspar Olevianus, Ad Romanos Notae, 148; Geneva, 1579.

29. Theodore Beza, The Christian Faith trans., James Clark (East Sussex: Christian Focus Ministries Trust, 1992), 41.

30. William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying, 1592, repr. Banner of Truth Trust, 1996, 54—55. For more on this topic, Resources on the Law/Gospel Distinction.


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  1. Many thanks to Dr. Clark. Many Reformed Christians in China have been blessed by your work.

  2. I have a sincere question. If it does not appear to be it reveals the depth of my ignorance.
    1.) Natural (general) revelation revealed to Adam that all fruit bearing trees in the garden were suitable for food.
    2.) Special revelation revealed to Adam there was one tree from which he was not to eat.

    3.)Natural law (moral law) was an ethical guide for Adam.
    4.)Positive law in the form of the prohibition was an ethical guide regarding fruit from a specific tree.

    1.) It is special revelation: “For in it (the Gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”” (Rom 1:17, ESV)

    Is it dangerous to conclude that the present active imperatives to repent and believe the gospel in Mark 1:15 are positive laws ??? “and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.””

    I am rationalizing that the imperatives can be both special revelation and positive law without without violating the Law / Gospel distinction.

    I am very interested in your thoughts / reply.

    • Part of the essence of a positive law is that they are not intrinsically moral in nature. They are “posited” by God in a respective covenant, and are peculiar to that covenant. The sacramental trees in the covenant of works, circumcision in Abraham / Moses, a bath and a meal in the new covenant, etc.

      Coming into agreement with God’s law in repentance, and entrusting oneself to Christ as He is revealed in the gospel through faith are not otherwise morally indifferent things God posited (making them moral by fiat) in the new covenant. Further, they are not distinct features of the new covenant, but have been requisites since there has been sin and condemnation to reckon with and a promise to believe (i.e. since Genesis 3.)

    • I suppose it did not. I was intending to reply to Octave’s question.

      Thank you for the article / series brother! I listened to the episode where you responded to the call-out and was hoping you’d do this.

  3. Dr. Clark, I bought my copy of GAJ from the Ligonier website after seeing it promoted by the folks at Banner of Truth. Both Ligonier and Banner are “reformed”. In your opinion, why is it that some in the reformed camp hold this book in such a high regard?

  4. Thank you doctor Clark.

    How common is the neonomian, anti-law/gospel doctrine among Reformed churches today? I remember hearing a pretty assurance destroying sermon online from a FCoSC church (the sermon was on repentance), and I know republication is very controversial, both of which can make one wonder.

    • Sam,

      I can’t say with scientific precision. I’ve been around Reformed churches (in the USA and the UK) for 40+ years. The problem was large enough that my colleagues and I published a book related to this. I’ve been a part of numerous conferences on this topic/problem, which suggests that it’s real. My experience tells me that it’s a big problem, that it’s a bigger problem than antinomianism. I’ve not spent much time in the American South, however. My friends there tell me that antinomianism is a big problem there and some of them have formed organizations (e.g., The Gospel Reformation Network) to combat antinomianism and to promote a Reformed doctrine of sanctification.

    • How then are orthodox churches found? Currently I am unable to even move close enough to a confessional church but this might become a relevant question in a few years

      • Sam,

        I look at the church website and listen to sermons when possible. Is the gospel present? Is it clearly preached and taught? To what resources and organizations do they link on the site (caveat lector: church websites are frequently done by lay members and sometimes with little oversight from the session, so the links may reflect the webmaster more than the church itself). It is not inappropriate to email the minister to ask him what he thinks about the distinction between law and gospel. That said, for some 2 or 3 generations in the USA, it those were lost categories.

        I wrote this guide aimed at the North American context but perhaps it helps.

        There are more resources on the resource page aimed at helping people find confessional Reformed congregations in North America.

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