The Gospel According To John (MacArthur)—Part 4

In his introduction, MacArthur asks what is perhaps the central question in this debate: “What is the gospel?”36 He says that it is not merely an academic question (and all God’s people say, Amen!). He is exactly right when he writes, “And nothing matters more than what Scripture says about the good news of salvation.”37 He continues by reiterating his concern about “the message,” which as we will see, he uses as a synonym for the gospel, of modern evangelism. The message of modern evangelism, he writes, “is not the gospel.”38 He is opposed to the message because it “holds forth a false hope to sinners. It promises them that they can continue to live in rebellion against God. Indeed, it encourages people to claim Jesus as Savior, yet defer until later the commitment to obey him as Lord.”39 Here he cites Lewis Sperry Chafer, whom we have already discussed, and others. Reinforcing my contention that this debate is an intramural Dispensational debate to which Reformation Christians are (or should be) observers. He complains that modern evangelism “offers false security to people who revel in the sins of the flesh and spurn the way of holiness. By separating faith from faithfulness, it teaches that intellectual assent is as valid as wholehearted obedience to the truth.”40 This message is, he says, “cheap grace.”41 It has produced “hideous scandals” among well-known evangelicals.42

He laments that he has regularly re-baptized people “who once made a decision” but who “yet experienced no change.” What is needed, he says, “is a complete reexamination of the gospel.” His solution is to go back to the New Testament to recover the gospel as Jesus preached it.43 He turns to Paul’s condemnation, in Galatians 1:6–9, of those who condemn the gospel, which he rightly takes as a warning to anyone who would tamper with the message of salvation and corrupt it to make it a “different gospel.”44

He acknowledges that his doctrine of Lordship Salvation has been labeled by critics as “another gospel,” but, in this introduction anyway, he gives no recognition of what the actual problem was that Paul was addressing in Galatians. Was it easy believism or antinomianism? There is no evidence in Galatians that Paul was addressing the same issues as MacArthur. Paul himself tells us in Galatians 1:14 that the issue was Judaism. He tells us a bit more about the issue in Galatians 2:4, when he mentions certain false brothers who “slipped in to spy out our freedom” to bring Paul and Titus into slavery of having to be circumcised for religious reasons. Paul was determined to preach the same gospel to the circumcised and to the uncircumcised (Gal 2:7–8). Paul, it seems, was not a Dispensationalist (of course, we already knew that from Eph 2:14). Paul even says that he stood up to Peter, who, to his shame, had refused to fellowship with the Gentiles (because they were uncircumcised, because he feared “the circumcision party,” Gal 2:12). Finally, Paul tells us exactly what the issue was: “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners,’ and yet we know that a person is not justified by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we all have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by works of the no one will be justified” (Gal 2:15–16; ESV). That is good news indeed.

So, the controversy to which Paul was speaking in Galatians 1:6–9 was not licentiousness, though he spoke to that both in Galatians and elsewhere, but the corruption of the gospel by confusing works with faith or law with gospel. The good news is that sinners are justified by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) and not because or to the extent that they are penitent and obedient. This is not to say that Christians may be impenitently disobedient. There is no such thing as an impenitent Christian, that is an oxymoron, but it is clear from the introduction that what troubles MacArthur is not that the gospel is not being preached but that the law is not being preached either in its first or third uses. Had MacArthur approached the issue on this basis, Reformation Christians could say amen. Sinners need to hear the law preached thundered in all its holy awesomeness so that, like the Israelites at Sinai, they too might cry out for a Mediator to stand between them and God (Ex 20:19), who is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29).

Those who have been graciously given new life (regeneration) and true faith in Jesus the Savior, want to obey him. As Luther said, before the law has even said, “do,” the Christian is already doing because he wants to serve the Savior out of gratitude. After all, if a person really has been given new life and true faith then he is already, by the Spirit, through faith, mystically united to the risen Christ. He is bone of Christ’s bone and flesh of his flesh, as it were. Those revivalists, of whom MacArthur is so critical, were needlessly fearful of speaking to new believers about what Christ demands of those to whom he has given new life.

The Reformed, when we follow our own confession of God’s Word, face no such problem. Of course, new plants and tender reeds need to be nurtured and curated gently but, as we say, with Augustine, good trees produce good fruit (Belgic Confession, article 24). Sanctification and good works (not perfection in this life) are the (super)natural order of things.

In that light it would have been much more helpful had he titled his book, The Law According to Jesus since this is what really seems to animate MacArthur. Jesus was a law preacher and so should we be.

There is another issue in the introduction, to which I have spoken and to which I have alluded in this essay. MacArthur wrote at the beginning of this introduction that he wanted to be “purely biblical—growing out of Scripture itself rather than just conforming to some popular system of theology…all that really matters is what God’s Word says.”45 Is he passing the test he has set for the rest of us? The reader may judge for himself, but it seems to me, as I have been arguing, that MacArthur’s presentation would have been aided immensely had he been better instructed by the Reformation.

Finally, one of the most striking features of the introduction is that at no point in the introduction, does he define what gospel means or what exactly is good news about the gospel. Contrast his lack of clarity with the Heidelberg Catechism, which, after confessing that it is the law that teaches us the greatness of our sin and misery and our need for a Savior, details exactly what the gospel is:

19. From where do you know this?

From the holy gospel, which God Himself revealed first in paradise; afterwards proclaimed by the holy patriarchs and prophets, and foreshadowed by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law; and finally fulfilled by His well-beloved Son.

20. Are all men then saved by Christ as they perished in Adam?

No, only those who by true faith are ingrafted into Him and receive all His benefits.

21. What is true faith?

True faith is not only a certain knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word; but also a hearty trust, which the Holy Spirit works in me by the gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.

In contrast to MacArthur, the Reformed churches not only talk about the gospel, we say what it is and what is good about it for helpless sinners: “That not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only the sake of Christ’s merits.”

Further, the Reformed churches turn immediately after this to the Apostles’ Creed for their summary of the gospel, which the catechism will explain through question 85. In other words, the Reformed churches are not biblicists. They do not attempt to read Scripture as though no one has ever read it before. They read the Scriptures with the church.

Remember, we are not engaging in a rough draft of a manuscript. We are looking at the third edition of this work, which was published 25 years after the first edition. This edition was published years after the initial controversy and 16 years after substantive interaction in Horton, ed. Christ the Lord, which would seem like a reasonable time in which to account for those criticisms. Yet, here is this foundational, indeed programmatic (by MacArthur’s own testimony) volume for his church and his movement essentially unrevised on this point. We must conclude that MacArthur has simply rejected the Reformation-based critique on this point.

The series so far.


36. GAJ, 19.

37. Ibid., 19.

38. Ibid., 19.

39. Ibid., 19.

40. Ibid., 19–20.

41. Ibid., 20.

42. Ibid., 20.

43. Ibid., 21. For the sake of those who speak of MacArthur as “Reformed,” on this point he diverges sharply from the Reformed churches on the sacraments. We confess:

For that reason we detest the error of the Anabaptists who are not content with a single baptism once received and also condemn the baptism of the children of believers. We believe our children ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as little children were circumcised in Israel on the basis of the same promises made to our children. And truly, Christ has shed his blood no less for washing the little children of believers than he did for adults. Therefore they ought to receive the sign and sacrament of what Christ has done for them, just as the Lord commanded in the law that by offering a lamb for them the sacrament of the suffering and death of Christ would be granted them shortly after their birth. This was the sacrament of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, baptism does for our children what circumcision did for the Jewish people. That is why Paul calls baptism the “circumcision of Christ.”

44. Ibid., 21.

45. Ibid., 19.


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  1. Could part of the mindset for this false teaching center around the notion of “Decisional Regeneration”? There would be no place in this paradigm for the covenant child nurtured in the church not remembering a time when they weren’t trusting in Christ alone for their salvation. Or for that matter, an adult not knowing the time/place/date of regeneration, but also trusting in Christ alone? I remember hearing a pastor say years ago that Martin Luther wasn’t “saved” because there was no historical evidence that he prayed the Sinner’s Prayer.

  2. This is really important. We don’t just find it in JMac, but in Piper, Leithart, Wilson, Fuller, Wright and plenty of others. It’s pietism, and a misdirection from the gospel.

    “By separating faith from faithfulness, it teaches that intellectual assent is as valid as wholehearted obedience to the truth.” This message is, he says, “cheap grace.” It has produced “hideous scandals” among well-known evangelicals.

    He laments that he has regularly re-baptized people “who once made a decision’” but who “yet experienced no change.””

    The Reformed teach Knowledge, Assent, and Trust. The pietists are teaching Knowledge, Action, and Testing.

  3. It seems to be quite common to attempt to remedy various iterations of “falling away” by pouring some degree of faithfulness/obedience back into faith. But faith is essentially belief, and the most important thing about faith is it’s object. Although there is always going to be “falling away” no matter how biblical our gospel might be, Fundamentalism/Evangelicalism has for a long while tended to proclaim a gospel that is shy on content.

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