The Gospel According To John (MacArthur)—Part 5

As we engage the book proper, it is useful to remember that GAJ is organized in five parts: 1) Today’s Gospel: Good News or Bad?; 2) Jesus Heralds His Gospel; 3) Jesus Illustrates His Gospel; 4) Jesus Explains His Gospel; 5) Jesus Fulfills His Gospel. These headings are helpful for mapping MacArthur’s concerns and for seeing how he seeks to resolve the problem that he has identified in modern evangelical theology. Arguably the first and fifth sections are the most important since it is in those sections that he lays out his indictment in detail and offers his resolution, but we will work through the text as we find it.

The question he asks in section one is intriguing: is today’s gospel good news or bad? I myself have warned Christians not to confuse the law with the gospel, and thereby turn the good news into bad news. MacArthur, however, has a different concern.

He begins with 1 Corinthians 12:3, “Jesus is Lord,” about which he writes, “That is the central, foundational, and distinguishing article of Christianity.” He appeals to Romans 10:9, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you shall be saved.” He explains, again, the concern that animates this volume:

The belief that someone could be a true Christian, while that person’s whole lifestyle, value system, speech, and attitude are marked by a stubborn refusal to surrender to Christ as Lord is a notion that shouldn’t even need to be refuted. It is an idea you will never find in any credible volume of Christian doctrine or devotion from the time of the earliest church fathers through the era of the protestant reformation, and for at least three and a half centuries beyond that. The now-pervasive influence of the no–lordship, doctrine among evangelicals reflects the shallowness and spiritual poverty of the contemporary evangelical movement. It is also doubtless one of the main causes for evangelicalism’s impoverishment. You cannot remove the lordship of Christ from the gospel message without undermining the faith at its core. That is precisely what is happening in the church today.46

MacArthur is right to say that the sort of antinomianism that has become so pervasive in the Modern, revivalist and post-revivalist evangelical theology and piety, is a mark of our age. He neglects to mention, however, that it was his own tradition, Dispensationalism, that helped to bring it about. The idea that the moral law or the Ten Commandments are “not for today” is deeply embedded in Dispensationalism and, as has been noted in this very series, even manifests itself in MacArthur’s own theology.

Nevertheless, he is right when he says that Christianity has always insisted that Christians recognize Christ as Lord, but he neglects a vital truth. That Christ is Lord is properly basic to Christianity. The idea that one could deny Christ’s Lordship and call himself a Christian is absurd. MacArthur is right about the shallowness of the popular presentation of Christianity in evangelism and Christian teaching but he himself has neglected an equally vital formula: is it not Christ’s office as Savior that actually distinguishes Christianity from all other religions? According to Islam, Allah is lord, but he is not Savior—not in the way that Christians confess Jesus to be the Savior of sinners. Orthodox Jews confess Yahweh as Lord even if they will not pronounce the sacred name. At least some of the ancient gods were said to demand obedience and fealty but none of them proposed to be saviors. Yet, that is what Jesus is to us. His name means, “Yahweh saves his people” (Matt 1:21).

Derke Bergsma (1927–2020) taught my preaching classes when I was in seminary. He used to repeat axioms that he learned from R. B. Kuiper (1886–1966). One of those axioms was: “Men, if a rabbi or an imam could preach your sermon, it’s not a Christian sermon.” When I first heard it, that struck me as profoundly true, and it still strikes me that way today. Jesus is Lord, but what makes Christianity distinct is not a God who demands that we recognize him as sovereign. What makes Christianity distinct is that the God who actually is Lord became man, was born of the Virgin, obeyed in our place, was crucified for us sinners, was raised on the third day for our justification, ascended forty days later, and is seated at the right hand of the Father ruling all things as Lord and interceding for us.

In fact, in my Christian experience (first as a layman and then as a pastor), I have most frequently had to defend Christ as Lord to Dispensationalists. It is Dispensationalists who have frequently said to me, “If Christ is Lord now, he is doing a poor job.” Peter, at Pentecost, while preaching the law to the Jews gathered there, indicted them saying, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36; ESV). One of the points of quoting Psalm 110, which the New Testament does frequently, is to say that Jesus is ascended, ruling, and reigning now over all things. We are not waiting for him to become Lord. He is Lord now.

So, we should agree with MacArthur when he writes, “So the true gospel according to Jesus is a message that cannot be divorced from the reality of his lordship.”47 What we have yet to see, however, is exactly what the good news is.

He proceeds with a discussion of the Greek nouns Kyrios (κύριος) and Despotes (δεσπότης).48 We should agree with him that these words do signal “an unquestionable right to command.” It is interesting that he did not also observe that, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the LXX), God’s covenant name, Yahweh, is translated with Kyrios. Thus, in the New Testament, to call Jesus Kyrios is certainly to acknowledge his absolute right of rule but it is to say rather more than that. It is to say that he is the one who was “in the beginning” (Gen 1:1; John 1:1–3) and he who delivered Israel out of Egypt (e.g., Jude 5; some textual variants have κύριος and some have Ιησους, which is the more difficult and thus the more likely reading).

Much is made also of the sense of the noun doulos (δουλος) as “slave.”49 He argues that we have lost our nerve in failing to translate doulos consistently as “slave.” He gives the impression that he alone is being faithful to the true meaning of Scripture while others have been less so. This is part of his attraction as a charismatic personality and leader of a movement, but it is less certain that his argument is as airtight as he would have us think. All slaves in the ancient world were servants, but not all servants were slaves. The world then, as now, was a little more complicated than what MacArthur describes.

We should agree with him that Jesus’ message was frequently and intentionally difficult and challenging.50 Jesus’ ministry would never pass the tests set up by the church-growth gurus. Further, we should agree that though we are called unequivocally and utterly to follow Jesus without question we do not thereby become his friends.51 Our obedience is, as he says, “proof,” or evidence of our claim to be his disciples.

He quotes John 15:14–15 where Jesus says that he no longer calls his disciples “slaves” but friends. Our Lord himself has introduced a degree of complexity in the master-slave relationship, which MacArthur acknowledges. He is correct that Jesus is not “disclaiming” his Lordship, (i.e., setting it aside).52 Bob Dylan (1980) was right, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

Nevertheless, MacArthur shows his rejection of the Reformation distinction between law and gospel when writes,

No message can rightly be called the gospel if it glosses over or denies those truths. The gospel according to Jesus calls sinners to give up their independence, deny themselves, submit to an alien will, and abandon all rights in order to be owned and controlled by the Lord. By confessing Jesus, as Lord (Kyrios), we automatically confess that we are his slaves (doulos).53

It would be more accurate to say, “No message can rightly be called Christian if it glosses over or denies those truths.” His conflation of the noun gospel with the whole Christian message, without recognizing that gospel means “good news,” and without (as yet) telling us what is good about the good news, turns these sentences into a muddle. This is ironic because he himself asks at the head of this section whether “today’s gospel” is “good news or bad?” That is a great question, but his answer so far leaves something to be desired.

Yes, as consequence of free salvation (justification, sanctification, and future glorification) that we received by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, we are obligated to recognize Christ’s lordship and to honor him with our lives. This grateful obedience flows from our new life, true faith, and union with Christ. That we are to respond appropriately to Christ, however, is not the gospel. The gospel is that Christ obeyed God for us, that he has accomplished our salvation, that he has been raised, and that all his obedience is imputed to us so that it is as if we ourselves had done all that Jesus did. If this be antinomianism, then so be it—but of course this is nothing of the sort. This is basic Pauline or Reformation Christianity.

This is why, in the Heidelberg Catechism, the Reformed churches discuss the consequent obligations upon the Christian not in the second part, which is where we explain the gospel (questions 19–85), but in the third part. There we exposit the Ten Commandments and apply them in some detail.

We meet MacArthur’s concerns to affirm and uphold Christ’s lordship and his consequent demands upon the Christian, but we do it without confusing the gospel with our obedience. This is no small thing. This was at the heart of the Reformation. The way that MacArthur speaks about the gospel here is precisely the way that the medieval church had come to speak about it and one of the very causes of the Reformation itself. If this distinction is unfamiliar to the reader, he should consult the resources presented below in the Reformation distinction between law and gospel.

MacArthur’s definition of true faith is also problematic. He writes, “true faith in him begins with an unconditional surrender of the sinner’s heart.”54 We have discussed this previously, but it bears repeating that, according to the Reformed churches,

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 (Heidelberg Catechism, 21).

The language of the Reformed is different from that of MacArthur’s and so is the tone. In our response to the Antinomians (e.g., Zane Hodges et al.) we must not give in to the temptation of nomism. We must not lose what is good about the good news. We must trust the same sovereign Holy Spirit who gave us new life and true faith to bring about the appropriate and grateful response to Christ for his gospel.

True faith does recognize Christ’s lordship. That is part of “holding for truth all that God has revealed to us in his Word.” Remember, when the Catechism was adopted, we had been engaging antinomians for decades. We were well aware of their errors and yet we did not fall into the trap of changing our definition of the gospel and true faith.

The series so far.


46. GAJ, 25.

47. Ibid., 25.

48. Ibid., 25–26.

49. Ibid., 26–31.

50. Ibid., 31–32.

51. Ibid., 32.

52. Ibid., 33.

53. Ibid., 35.

54. Ibid., 36.


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  1. This whole series has been super helpful, and this article in particular. Thank you!

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