The Gospel According To John (MacArthur)—Part 3

In his preface to the anniversary edition of GAJ (2008), MacArthur tells the story of how this volume came to be—emerging from a series of 226 sermons in the Gospel of Matthew, over the span of seven and one-half years.31 For what it is worth, I agree that Matthew 1:21 is likely the key verse in Matthew: “You shall call his name Jesus, for it is He who shall save his people from their sins.”32 That verse, however, along with Matthew 2:15, is among the several passages (e.g., Eph 2:14) which convinced me that Dispensationalism is a mistaken understanding of Scripture. Christ himself, not promises to national Israel, unify Scripture and redemptive history. According to Matthew, Jesus is the Israel of God who went down to Egypt, and whom God called, as it were, out of Egypt. The Dispensationalists are wrong. This is not “spiritualizing” or an allegorical interpretation of Scripture. This is the literal meaning of God’s Word. It is the sense intended by Matthew, the human author, and the sense intended by the Holy Spirit.

MacArthur rightly makes much of serial (lectio continua) expository preaching. When Huldrych Zwingli, and many of the other Protestants, began preaching through God’s Word serially in the language of the people, it was revolutionary. As MacArthur testifies, it was vivifying and transforming for his congregation too. Calvin’s expository sermons are still being read today. Yet, as I have been at pains to note so far, Calvin’s expository preaching occurred in the context of his commitment to the fundamental unity of redemptive history in Christ and in the covenant of grace. Calvin and the other magisterial Protestants were not Dispensationalists (the essence of which is to divide Scripture in ways that the church has not historically done). Calvin’s sermons were part of a broader work—a basic compendium of doctrine (i.e., the Institutes) and biblical commentaries (50 volumes), so that his expository preaching had a core. It did not become atomistic. Can the same be said of MacArthur’s handling of Matthew?

MacArthur Versus Modern and Postmodern Evangelicalism?

“What grabbed my attention from the start was how different Jesus’ evangelistic strategy was from all the popular approaches of the past two or three generations. Modern and postmodern evangelicalism has aimed at making the gospel sound as easy and appealing as possible.”33 As indicated in the introductory installments, one of the pressing questions to be answered from this volume is: what is the gospel? As Luther reminded us, gospel means good news.34 So, it is arresting when MacArthur expresses his dismay at the state of Modern and Postmodern evangelicalism (which confessional Reformed folk share), but fails in two things.

First, he does not seem to realize that his theology, piety, and practice is the product of the very modern Evangelicalism that he decries. Until the rise of Third-Wave Pentecostalism (and the charismatic movement), Dispensationalism was perhaps the dominant movement among American fundamentalists and evangelicals. As I sat down to write this essay, the door bell chimed announcing the arrival of a new book by Daniel G. Hummel, The Rise of and Fall of Dispensationalism: How the Evangelical Battle Over the End Times Shaped a Nation (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2023), offering a retrospective of the movement with which MacArthur has been so closely associated.

Indeed, the easy believism that MacArthur rightly rejects was rejected by the confessional Reformed churches and pastors when it first emerged in the nineteenth century, in conjunction with the so-called Second Great Awakening. More than that, there were confessional Reformed ministers and churches who were concerned about the new methods and excesses associated with the so-called First Great Awakening.35 John Williamson Nevin (1803–86) rightly contrasted the “system of the anxious bench” with the “system of the catechism” in his critique of the anxious bench. The theology and piety of evangelicals came to be inextricably intertwined with Dispensational prophecy conferences and bible colleges.

Second, when MacArthur says “gospel” what does he mean by it? He says worries about evangelicals making “the gospel sound as easy and appealing as possible.” Well, in Reformation terms, the gospel, narrowly defined, is good news. It announces what Christ has done for us. God the Son has become incarnate for us. Christ obeyed for us, in our place, as our substitute. Christ died for us. He was buried for us and raised “for our justification” (Rom 4:25). He is interceding for us, at the right hand of the Father (Matt 26:64; Acts 2:25, 34, 7:55; Rom 8:34; Heb 8:1). The good news is also that he is coming again, once for all, to establish the new heavens and the new earth (Rom 2:16). All of that is good news for believing sinners.

That good news has consequences for the way Christians must respond, and for the way they must live their lives. He is Lord, and believers confess him to be what he is (e.g., 1 Cor 12:3). Notice, however, how MacArthur couches his concern that the gospel would be made to sound too easy and appealing. The gospel is appealing to sinners whom the Spirit is convicting of the greatness of their sin and misery. It is, in that sense, easy. What does Jesus mean when he says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matt 11:30)? Is not MacArthur actually thinking about the consequences of the gospel? The Christian life that flows out of our new life, true faith, and union with Christ? MacArthur is right to be concerned that the revivalist system of the altar call and the sinner’s prayer was never an adequate presentation of the Christian faith, but his solution creates as many problems as the revivalist evangelical piety he seeks to correct.

He notes that Jesus our Lord responded to queries about how to gain eternal life “by making salvation sound nigh well impossible” (Mark 10:17–26). MacArthur is close to the truth, but because he lacks that basic Reformation tool in his Dispensational toolbox he misses Jesus’ point. Christ did not make it “nigh well impossible.” He made it impossible, and he did so deliberately because he was not preaching the gospel to the Rich Young Man. Rather, he was preaching the law to teach him the greatness of his sin and misery.

Reformation Christians Are Neither Nomists Nor Antinomians

MacArthur is correct when says that there are “hard truths” in the Gospel of Matthew. The call to discipleship is real and discipleship is hard. Christ put it in the starkest of terms: take up your cross and follow me (Matt 16:24). The cross was the cruel symbol of Roman oppression and the instrument of Christ’s death. It was horrible and hated by the Jews. It was a symbol of death, and Jesus used it metaphorically and advisedly. The Christian life is the dying to sin and the living to Christ. We take up that cross because Christ carried our cross for us up Golgotha. We take it up, not in order to be saved, but because we have been justified and freely saved by the grace of Christ.

So, when MacArthur (p. 10) complains that, in response to the publication of GAJ that some sought to “exclude any mention of Jesus’ Lordship from the gospel message” he was on to something but not in the way he thinks. The gospel message is that Christ the Lord has freely saved sinners by grace alone, through faith alone. If he means that some antinomians sought to exclude any call to discipleship from the Christian message, from the consequences entailed by a Christian profession, then the Reformed agree but because MacArthur himself speaks in confusing ways we cannot accede to his demand to agree with his formulation or risk being labeled antinomian.

Jesus is Lord of all. The problem with the way that both the Antinomian and Nomist Dispensationalists present the issue is that neither is operating within a historic Reformation paradigm. Thus, neither articulates the faith to unbelievers correctly. What we should say to unbelievers is that Christ is Lord of all and that he is a holy law giver, that he thundered from the top of Sinai, and that he demands perfect conformity to his holy law for acceptance. We may not stop there, however, and consider ourselves faithful to the biblical message. We must also preach the gospel to our unbelieving neighbor. We must also tell him that the very same Lord, who thundered from the top of Sinai, took on a human nature from the Virgin Mary, obeyed in the place of sinners, was crucified, dead, buried, and raised on the third day. The good news is that anyone who recognizes the greatness of his sin and misery, and turns to that Jesus in true faith, will be accepted freely, and is saved from the wrath of God.

God is holy. His law is demanding and it has consequences for the new believer, but the gospel is good news of free justification and salvation. We need not choose between them. We will bring our new Christian friend to a confessional Reformed church where he will be nurtured and catechized in the faith, where he will be instructed in Christian discipleship, where he will be introduced to the communion of the saints, and placed under the ministry of Word and sacraments, and taught to pray (the means of grace).

MacArthur is right that there is no such thing as a “carnal Christian” (p. 11). Sanctification is not optional or a second blessing, but neither does it become the ground or instrument of our standing before God. Jesus did preach repentance. That call was, according to the Reformed theologian Caspar Olevianus, part of his preaching of the law. “Repent” is not good news. It means the reckoning with our sins in light of God’s holy moral law (e.g., the Ten Commandments).

Finally, in the preface, there is an implied definition of the gospel but no formal definition. What has been implied so far is both confused and confusing. Thus, GAJ presents us (so far) with false choices, which confessional Reformed Christians and others from the Reformation traditions should not accept.

The series so far.

NOTES

31. GAJ, 9.

32. Quoted from GAJ, 9. Translation unknown.

33. GAJ, 10.

34. “How beautiful are the feet, etc. We have heard that this is a clear prophecy concerning the promulgation of the Gospel, which is a vastly different preaching from that of the Law, so that we may rightly distinguish between the abrogation of the Law and the proclamation of the Gospel, as is done in the Letter to the Hebrews (3:2 ff.). Teaching the new does away with the old. It is in the nature of new teaching that it must put away the old. Theologians should be most firmly grounded in this insight, lest they teach in a confused way about the Law and the Gospel, as many of the Enthusiasts and papists are doing. The Gospel, however, is a new message proclaiming a good, joyful kingdom in which there is no uncircumcised or Gentile but Christ alone reigns as leader. This is a kingdom of peace and safety. It is a great thing thus to set up Christ in His own kingdom. This is to keep us from having a terrified conscience and thinking of God as a dreadful God, who is the source of fear and terror.” Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 17: Lectures on Isaiah: Chapters 40-66, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 17 (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 210–11. See also LW, 51. 21–22; LW, 75.220; LW, 56.6.

35. For more on this see Tricia Howerzyl’s M.A. Thesis published on this site, “Peace And Purity Provided By Authority: John Thomson’s Defense Of Presbyterian Church Polity.” See also R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008), chapter 3.


RESOURCES

Heidelberg Reformation Association
1637 E. Valley Parkway #391
Escondido CA 92027
USA
The HRA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization


    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
    Author Image

    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


3 comments

  1. Thanks, Dr. Clark. I love me some Johnny Mac, and will forever be grateful for the Lord using him to instruct me in the truthfulness of the doctrines of grace. That behind said I’ve come to agree with your criticisms of the Lordship debate as it seems to blur the lines between justification and sanctification at times, unfortunately.

    Yet, if I may point out, in my experience, this way of misusing the law is not unique to our dispensationalist brethren (though it may necessarily breed it). I find it confusing that in many NAPARC churches, you’ll get a heavy dose of law in preaching with little to no gospel at all (e.g., whispery, understated, or perhaps the gospel is simply assumed).

    I might add this is not just true in “big tent PCA” but can easily be found in the “tiny tents” like the OPC and RPCNA. There is a lack of persuasion that a preacher must proclaim both the law (distinguishing between its 3 uses) and the gospel in every sermon. It’s becoming hard to find preachers that have this conviction (redemptive-historical preachers tend to be much more conscientious to at least get us to the person and work of Christ, and for that, I praise the Lord), to the point, I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps I’m the one mistaken insisting that the law and gospel be preached each and every Lord’s Day.

    • Brandon,

      Amen, brother. Amen. When I first started writing about the law/gospel distinction it was to help the NAPARC world. I only began this series as a response the allegation that I am an antinomian and to explain the distinction between MacArthur’s theology and the Reformed/Reformation way of doing things.

  2. “What has been implied so far is both confused and confusing. Thus, GAJ presents us (so far) with false choices, which confessional Reformed Christians and others from the Reformation traditions should not accept.”

    From Luther:
    “To mix Law and Gospel not only clouds the knowledge of grace, it cuts out Christ altogether.”
    (Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians)

    To me, this is the essence of JMac, Piper on 2nd Justification, Federal Vision, New Perspective, etc. with respect to the Gospel and our Justification; even with the book review of G. K. Beale’s new book, here: https://heidelblog.net/2023/08/review-union-with-the-resurrected-christ-eschatological-new-creation-and-new-testament-biblical-theology-by-g-k-beale/

    I’m struggling to understand why I should lend an ear to Any of their theological positions, as a layperson, when they error so egregiously on the Gospel and Chief Article of the Faith. Those that are learned scholars and hold PhDs, can readily sift through their claims, exegesis, proof-texts, etc. with discernment… Harder to do as a common pilgrim on the way; it’s so easy to get tossed to and fro.

    I know many hold N.T. Wright’s work on the Resurrection as exceptional, yet Wright up-holds the NPP. Likewise, Kim Riddelbarger recommends Moo’s commentary on Romans, yet states Moo’s view of Romans 7 is wrong-headed… http://kimriddlebarger.squarespace.com/favorite-commentaries/
    Just examples of sifting through challenging doctrines as a common dude, with no formal theological training…

    Thankful for the Heidelblog & Heidelcast as a sound resource for Reformation history and theology.

Comments are closed.