The Gospel According To John (MacArthur)—Part 6

There are real, substantive differences between the way MacArthur writes in The Gospel According to Jesus and the way those of us in the confessional Reformation traditions speak about good works and salvation. This does not mean that MacArthur does not say true things—in chapter two, he says many true and sound things, yet some of the problems noted so far persist.

The Chief Defect

The chief defect of this book is that MacArthur does not use the Reformation distinction between law and gospel. The result is that he teaches what Kim Riddlebarger calls a “galawspel.”55 In his critique of the first edition of GAJ, Riddlebarger wrote,

Tragically, in struggling to combat the serious error of Hodge’s antinomianism, MacArthur has produced some confusion regarding sola fide. For in MacArthur’s system, faith has been combined with obedience to form a kind of tertium quid (third thing) that is neither faith nor obedience, but a combination thereof, a combination that implicitly denies the biblical essence of both faith and repentance.56

To be sure, the third edition is better than the first on this, but remnants of the problem persist.

He begins by criticizing the “typical gospel presentation” for, in effect, not containing the law, entreating sinners to “accept Jesus Christ as personal Savior,” and to “ask Jesus into your heart.”57 He criticizes them for departing from biblical terminology. “The gospel” that Jesus preached, he writes, “was a call to discipleship, a call to follow Him in submissive obedience, not just a plea to make a decision or pray a prayer.”58

Had MacArthur made some basic Reformation distinctions, as I have been arguing all along, this book could have been much more helpful and clear. First of all, had he simply written of Jesus’ twofold message (i.e., law and gospel) he would have saved a lot of ink and electrons. Not every word out of Jesus’ mouth was gospel, and not every word was law. Jesus was a law preacher just as surely as he was a gospel preacher. As Machen complained in Christianity and Liberalism, 100 years ago this year, the theological liberals he was combatting also neglected to make this distinction.

The new law of the Sermon on the Mount, in itself, can only produce despair. Strange indeed is the complacency with which modern men can say that the Golden Rule and the high ethical principles of Jesus are all that they need. In reality, if the requirements for entrance into the Kingdom of God are what Jesus declares them to be, we are all undone; we have not even attained to the external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, and how shall we attain to that righteousness of the heart which Jesus demands? The Sermon on the Mount, rightly interpreted, then, makes man a seeker after some divine means of salvation by which entrance into the Kingdom can be obtained. Even Moses was too high for us; but before this higher law of Jesus who shall stand without being condemned? The Sermon on the Mount, like all the rest of the New Testament, really leads a man straight to the foot of the Cross.59

Like the theological liberals, MacArthur also wants to see Christians doing good works.

What MacArthur should do, however, is complain about the absence of the preaching of God’s holy law in its pedagogical use.60  The law ought to be thundered and preached clearly. When the Israelites heard God thundering at Sinai, they begged for a Mediator, as they should have done. Instead of speaking of Jesus’ gospel as though it were law, here we are in chapter two (pp. 37–48) and he has yet to tell us what is good about the good news. He would serve us, his readers, much better by speaking of Jesus’ message if he wants to speak of law and gospel in the same breath. He cannot distinguish law and gospel, however, because he is committed to conflating them. Were he rooted in the Reformation traditions, he would join us in complaining clearly and loudly about the absence of the pedagogical use of the law, the lack of a clear presentation of the good news, and clear instruction in the third (normative) use of God’s moral law.

Faith Resting And Receiving

As noted above, he also objects to the way that faith is characterized. From a Reformation perspective, the evangelical language to which he objects is mixed. We have spoken of faith as “receiving” and “resting.” In the Belgic Confession (1561) article 23, the Reformed Churches confess:

We believe that our blessedness lies in the forgiveness of our sins because of Jesus Christ, and that in it our righteousness before God is contained, as David and Paul teach us when they declare that man blessed to whom God grants righteousness apart from works. And the same apostle says that we are justified “freely” or “by grace” through redemption in Jesus Christ. And therefore we cling to this foundation, which is firm forever, giving all glory to God, humbling ourselves, and recognizing ourselves as we are; not claiming a thing for ourselves or our merits and leaning and resting only on the obedience of Christ crucified, which is ours when we believe in him. That is enough to cover all our sins and to make us confident, freeing the conscience from the fear, dread, and terror of God’s approach, without doing what our first father, Adam, did, who trembled as he tried to cover himself with fig leaves.

The Second Helvetic Confession (1566), under the “Marks of the Church,” speaks of resting on Christ even as we acknowledge him as the only head of the church. See also the French Confession (1559) articles 20–21 and Westminster Shorter Catechism 33.

The language of “receiving” as the act of faith in justification has deep roots in the Reformation. In his Scholia on Romans, even before he had worked out the Protestant definition of faith, in the act of justification, which would not occur until 1519, Luther was already speaking of our “passive justification.” Our theologians regularly wrote of “faith apprehending” (fides apprehensiva) Christ and receiving him—in Heidelberg 60 we say, “if only I accept/receive/embrace such benefit with a believing heart.”

It seems likely that the language of “inviting Jesus” into one’s heart comes from the Pietist tradition, but that is only a guess. We should affirm the intent of the language, and the call to the sinner to “close with Christ” as the English Reformed said. After we preach the law, we offer Christ freely to sinners and we call on them, inviting them to trust in Christ. There is nothing wrong with that, but absent is a clear presentation of the law—how is the sinner to know the greatness of his sin and misery? It is also true, as Bob Strimple once said in class, “If someone wants to accept Christ, you should not say, ‘Wait, I have not preached the law yet.'”

MacArthur speaks of the gospel as the call to discipleship.61 No, the call to discipleship is a consequence of the gospel. The gospel proper is an announcement of Good News about what Christ has done and what God has promised to needy sinners. The failure to make this distinction mars the whole work so far.

Believers Repent

Two more notes before we get to those areas of agreement. He correctly writes, “Jesus’ message liberated people from the bondage of their sin while it confronted and condemned hypocrisy.” Amen! It was, as he writes, “an offer of eternal life and forgiveness.” He then, however, qualifies the offer: “to repentant sinners.” He goes on to stress Jesus’ warnings to the disciples about the cost of discipleship (to use Bonhoeffer’s language). MacArthur is right to say that modern evangelicalism has ignored these warnings, and the scandals to which he points were real and damaging to the Christian witness.

Does faith justify because it is repentant? Does repentance make faith justifying, saving, or true? Here I do not think that Phil Johnson has understood my critique of GAJ. There is no question that Jesus unequivocally preached a call to repentance. There is no question, for those of us in the Reformation traditions, whether the message of repentance must be preached, or whether Christians must live penitent lives. Heidelberg 87 states explicitly that those who are impenitent cannot be saved. MacArthur is right to say that the call for repentance is entirely biblical. After all, the Gospel of Mark records Jesus’ saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Nevertheless, MacArthur’s account is confusing because he omits some qualifications. As Riddlebarger writes, “Berkhof makes the precise point that MacArthur omits.”62

According to Scripture repentance is wholly an inward act, and should not be confounded with the change of life that proceeds from it. Confession of sin and reparation of wrongs are fruits of repentance. Repentance is only a negative condition, and not a positive means of salvation. While it is the sinner’s present duty, it does not offset the claims of the law on account of past transgressions. Moreover, true repentance never exists except in conjunction with faith, while, on the other hand, wherever there is true faith, there is also real repentance. The two are but different aspects of the same turning: a turning away from sin in the direction of God. Luther sometimes spoke of a repentance preceding faith, but seems nevertheless to have agreed with Calvin in regarding true repentance as one of the fruits of faith. Lutherans are wont to stress the fact that repentance is wrought by the law and faith by the gospel. It should be borne in mind, however, that the two cannot be separated; they are simply complementary parts of the same process.63

Faith does not justify because it is repentant. It justifies because it looks to Christ. If we say that faith justifies because it repents, then we have returned to the pre-Reformation mistake of making faith formed by love.

Berkhof here drew upon the Reformed tradition. In my work on Caspar Olevianus, I found him consistently to associate repentance with the law (“do this and live”) and faith with the gospel (“Christ has done”). Johnson seemed to genuinely not understand the Reformed order of salvation (ordo salutis), the logical (not temporal) order of the application of redemption to the elect by the Holy Spirit. We say that God the Spirit regenerates (gives new life to or raises from the dead) the elect, grants them faith, through faith justification, and it is the justified who are united to Christ and adopted. It is believers who repent. Thus, the pedagogical order (“repent and believe”) is not to be confused with the ordo salutis.

This is what Berkhof was saying: believers repent. Indeed, according to the Heidelberg Catechism, the Christian life is a penitent life:

88. In how many things does true repentance or conversion consist?

In two things: the dying of the old man and the quickening of the new.

89. What is the dying of the old man?

Heartfelt sorrow for sin, causing us to hate and turn from it always more and more.

These are among the seven marks of the Christian according to Belgic Confession article 29. The Canons of Dort reflect at length, under the Fifth Head of Doctrine, on the Christian’s struggle with sin, and thus with doubt and assurance. For example, article 7 says:

For, in the first place, God preserves in those saints when they fall his imperishable seed from which they have been born again, lest it perish or be dislodged. Secondly, by his Word and Spirit he certainly and effectively renews them to repentance so that they have a heartfelt and godly sorrow for the sins they have committed; seek and obtain, through faith and with a contrite heart, forgiveness in the blood of the Mediator; experience again the grace of a reconciled God; through faith adore his mercies; and from then on more eagerly work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.

The Canons of Dort reflect the consensus of all the Reformed in the seventeenth century.

An Intra-Dispensational Dispute

This is a good time to remind ourselves that in GAJ, the Reformation traditions are witnessing an intramural argument between the nomist and antinomian Dispensationalists. This is made clear in the footnotes (as noted before, and is also true in this chapter), which are almost entirely devoted to Dispensationalists such as Lewis Sperry Chafer and Clarence Larkin.

As I re-read this chapter, it was remarkable—in light of MacArthur’s own footnotes which testify to the unholy mess that is Dispensationalism—that he could write,

Dispensationalism is a fundamentally correct system of understanding God’s program through the ages. Its chief element is a recognition that God’s plan for Israel is not superseded or swallow up in his program for the church. Israel and the church are separate entities, and God will restore national Israel under the earthly rule of Jesus as Messiah.64

The entire patristic, medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation churches rise up as one and say: “What?” The only adjective for this view of redemptive history is Judaizing. It marginalizes Christ as the center of redemptive history, the center of Scripture, and the center of the Christian faith. It gives two objects of faith: Christ, and the restoration of the types and shadows—something that the entire church, before Dispensationalism, rejected heartily. The boldness of his departure from historic Christianity on these points is breathtaking.

His Dispensationalism explains why the only way he knows how to speak of “law and grace” is regarding the Dispensations (p. 41). Were he to affirm with Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Augustine, more than a few medievals, the Protestant Reformers, and the Reformed Orthodox, that there is one covenant of grace with multiple administrations, he would be better able to see that the law and the gospel are revealed throughout the Scriptures in all the administrations of the one covenant of grace. He comes very close to this (p. 41) when he says that “elements of both law and grace are part of the program of God in every dispensation.” If only he could see that Moses worked for Jesus (Heb 3:1–6). Moses’ whole function, according to Hebrews, was to point to Jesus as the fulfillment of the promise. Both Moses and the writers of Hebrews would be horrified to learn that Christians were anxiously awaiting the return of the types and shadows, and that they even expected to see Jesus sitting on a throne watching typological priests (whose functions were to point to Christ) offering typological sacrifices in the presence of the holy Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:36). According to the literal sense of Hebrews, Jesus is the lamb, high priest, and the temple (John 2:19).

Whatever else could be said, and much has been said against Dispensationalism in all its forms, MacArthur is, and remains, a steadfast Dispensationalist and he is arguing with antinomian Dispensationalists. As I wrote in the essay, to which Johnson objects, I write again: the Reformed are unwilling draftees in this battle.

Areas Of Agreement

Some of the things MacArthur says in this chapter are true. Jesus is both Lord and Savior. We do not make him Lord (p. 43). It is not possible to reject Christ as Lord and receive him as Savior. He is right to say that the Antinomians (Hodges et al.) are wrong, that easy-believism is wrong—even though he says the gospel rules it out (p. 46). The gospel does not rule it out, but the consequent obligations of the covenant of grace do. As I have already said, there is no such thing as an impenitent Christian (p. 46). Saving faith is more than mere knowledge and assent (pp. 46–47). The Reformed agree that good works are “not necessary to earn salvation” but “true salvation will not fail to produce good works that are its fruit.” Amen.

The series so far.


55. I do not know where Kim first used or published this term.

56. Kim Riddlebarger, “What Is Faith?” in Horton, ed., Christ the Lord, 104–05.

57. GAJ, 37.

58. GAJ, 37.

59. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (New York: MacMillan, 1923), 38.

60. The Heidelberg Catechism treats the pedagogical use of the law, whereby we learn the greatness of our sin and misery, as the first use. The Lutheran confession tends to treat the civil use as the first use. For more on the uses of the law see “Law, Gospel, and the Three Uses Of the Law. See also, “The Three Uses of the Law” and More From Calvin on the Three Uses of the Law

61. GAJ, 37.

62. Riddlebarger, “What Is Faith?”, 104.

63. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 487.

64. GAJ, 40.


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

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Dr. Clark, at the very end you say “true salvation will not fail to produce good works that are its fruit.”

    How many good works are necessary to prove that the salvation was true? How good do they have to be?

    • Hi Paul. Producing good works as a fruit is not the same as having to do enough good works to pass final justification. Your question has an excellent implied criticism of some neonomian schemes, but not the Reformation scheme.

    • Paul Nute: Prove to whom? As long as the Lord knows the truth of the matter, does it make any difference if anybody else does? If you look to the quantity or quality of your works as the evidence of your salvation, you are looking in the wrong place. Look to the works of Him in whom you have faith.

    • People seem to get confused about the difference between good works as evidence that one HAS BEEN saved and good works as a necessary part of faith in order TO BE saved at the final judgment. Rome and legalists, of many sorts, teach faith formed by love, or a faith that includes good works as a requirement of saving faith. The Reformers all insisted that true, saving faith is saving because of its trust in Christ alone, who has done all that is required for us, in our place. First the law is preached to show us our sin and misery in not being able to perform the perfect righteousness required by God’s law, and that we are unable to gain acceptance with God by our attempts at performing it. If we understand this, we should be incredibly grateful and love God for Christ’s perfect sacrifice to atone for our sins and his perfect obedience credited to us. That response of gratitude and love will produce a hatred of sin and a desire to please God, NOT TO BE saved at the final judgment, but to demonstrate our love and gratitude that we HAVE BEEN saved. It is the evidence of fruit, as a good tree produces good fruit, the Christian who HAS BEEN saved will want to please God as the normal RESPONSE to amazing salvation we have through Christ’s sacrifice and perfect good works credited to us when we trust in Him alone. The Christian life will always be one of repentance and sorrow for our inability to please God because, in our best efforts, we cannot do what we want to, as Paul demonstrates in Romans 7. Our best efforts can never be enough. But our hope for acceptance with God is not in our imperfect obedience, but in the perfect obedience of Christ alone. Romans 8 and 9.

  2. So then where does a wretched guy like me fit in, Angela, a guy who came to believe late in life after decades of proud, grandiose, licking-his-lips, entitled, head-held-up-high sinful behavior — the more sleazy the better — so much of which infuses my life each day to this very moment. And I read what you’ve written and, like Dr. Clark, I see that it’s a near perfect distillation of so much Reformed truth, but somehow, oddly, seems a million miles away from my own experience. I cry out to Christ to save me, to cover my hideous life with his precious blood, I know I have no other shot for there is no good in me, I beg Him for grace and for forgiveness — have mercy on me, a sinner! — but then moments later I am diving back into grievous sin. And then I hate myself, and I wallow in shame, I sit up all night crying, but then I wake up and sin boldly, with my tongue out. There is about a zero percent representation in my personal experience of this process you are describing, where I just am so filled with gratitude for what Christ has done for me, that it makes me naturally direct toward some semblance of relative holiness. No, just more of the same bad behavior, bad habits, wretched living. Guilt, shame, crying out for forgiveness and mercy, lather, rinse, repeat. Where does a guy like me fit into your praiseworthy description of the Christian life?

    • Paul, I can do no better than to suggest you read what the Word of God says about how trusting in Christ changes the sinner in Romans 6.

    • Paul,

      It is a struggle for all of us to accept the New Testament’s description of who we are in Christ over against our own assessment. The Apostle Paul struggled with this very thing in Rom 7, where he wrote as a believer about his struggle with sin. He spoke as you do here and yet he was a believer. This is why Rom 7 is between Rom 6 and Rom 8, to account for our experience, our struggle with sin. Paul is remarkably honest about it and yet he doesn’t despair or decide that he is not a Christian. He affirms all of it: the reality of our sin, the reality of grace, and the reality of the mysterious sanctifying work of the Spirit in us. Your sensitivity to your own sins is evidence of the Spirit’s work in you. Were you not united to Christ, you would not be anguishing over your sin.

      So, yes, in a sense, it is lather, rinse, repeat but in that cycle the Spirit is at work and despite your misgivings, he is mortifying sin in you and vivifying the new man. Paul says, in Romans 7, that it is not “I” (the new man) who sins but the old man. He sins despite himself and against his own wishes. It is a remarkable thing. It is a war, which is always ugly, bloody, and frequently dispiriting. Lots of soldiers have wanted to give up but the Spirit will not let us.

      The reality, as he says in Rom 6 and 8 is that the reigning power of sin has been broken. He doesn’t promise perfection but he does promise that, in union with Christ, by grace, we can resist sin. We do sin but we also resist it. Both are true.

      Our perception of ourselves and our experience isn’t final. God’s Word is final.

      This is the last verse of Rom 7:

      Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin (Rom 7:25; ESV).

      Those are the words of a believer—and Apostle who gave his life for Christ, his gospel, and his church—a sinner saved by grace alone, through faith alone.

    • Paul,

      May God grant you relief from these sins and turn you ever to your faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

      The past few weeks’ preaching at my congregation have been in Romans 8, specifically the groaning of creation (vv. 18-25) and the intercession of the Spirit on our behalf (vv. 26-27). May you be encouraged as I was by the latter sermon’s concluding plea to keep longing for righteousness, to keep (re)starting to pray and repent, to keep groaning for help knowing that God the Holy Spirit intercedes on your behalf.

      Remember, too, the hope of the resurrection when you shall have a new body and you shall never again sin! “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” (Rom. 8:24-25)

  3. Thanks to everyone for the kind encouragement. I am reminded regularly of the sorts of helpful things you’ve said and each time I’m given guidance like this, despite having been given the same kind of guidance many times in the past, it’s what I need to hear freshly each time!

  4. Where in scripture would you turn when showing that repentance is not the gospel and does not save? Saying it is one thing, answering objections is another thing completely.

Comments are closed.