The Gospel According To John (MacArthur)—Part 7

In chapter three, MacArthur turns to Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in John 3. Since I have been primarily critical of his methods and conclusions, let me begin with some areas of agreement. When he writes, “the central theme of the Old Testament is redemption by grace,” he is exactly right.65 When he speaks of the unity of revelation, he is right. Acknowledging the unity of revelation is a start, but it is more than just what he says, it is the unity of the covenant of grace.66 He is also right that the Old Testament prophets frequently indicted the Jews over their lack of regeneration. This is a frequent theme, both in the major and minor prophets, which forms the background to Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus in John 3.

Further, MacArthur is essentially correct about the necessity of regeneration (i.e., the Spirit-wrought sovereign endowment of new life) in the elect by God.67 He is right that, when Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, he was yet unregenerate. He needed the new life that only God, sovereignly and freely, gives to his elect.

He is also right to note that nominalism is a problem in the church.68 He indicts his antinomian Dispensational opponents specifically, but it has been a perpetual problem in the church for a very long time. By nominalism, I mean the existence of persons in the visible church who are merely nominal Christians (i.e., Christians in name only). This became an increasing problem when Christianity became the state religion of the Empire in AD 380, and it continues to be a significant problem in megachurches, like MacArthur’s Grace Community Church. It is very easy for people to drift in and out of megachurches, to consider themselves Christians, without having to reckon with the greatness of their sin and misery, without “closing with Christ,” as some of the English Reformed used to say.

It was against the state-church setting that the Reformed churches confessed, in Belgic Confession article 29, not only three marks of the true church (“the pure preaching of the gospel;” “the pure administration of the sacraments,” and “the use of church discipline”), but also the seven marks of the true Christian:

As for those who are of the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians: namely by faith, and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once they have received the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ. They love the true God and their neighbors, without turning to the right or left, and they crucify the flesh and its works. Though great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their lives, appealing constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of the Lord Jesus, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins, through faith in him.

This contrast between MacArthur’s approach and that of the Reformed churches is instructive: for us, the first mark of the true Christian is not obedience, but faith. Only then do we turn to speak about good works. Does that make us antinomians? May it never be! It means that we distinguish law and gospel and we understand that good fruit (i.e., obedience) comes from good trees (see Belgic Confession article 24). It means that we recognize, consistently, that we are justified by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith (“embracing,” “leaning and resting”—articles 22 and 23) alone (sola fide), on Christ alone (solus Christus). We recognize that obedience and good works are always and only the fruits and evidence of unconditional, free, sovereign gift of new life (regeneration), true faith, and union with Christ. We confess in Heidelberg 65, as has already been explained in this series, that though the preaching of the law in its first use is essential in bringing the elect to new life and true faith, it is through “the preaching of the holy gospel” by which we mean the message of Christ’s righteousness accomplished for us, in our place, as our substitute through which the Holy Spirit ordinarily works to create new life and true faith in his elect.

MacArthur’s account, however, as with the earlier parts of the book, is marred by his apparent rejection of the Reformation distinction between law and gospel. We are three chapters into a book on the gospel according to Jesus, and we have yet to learn exactly what the good news is. This is because instead of consistently speaking of Christ’s twofold message (i.e., law and gospel), MacArthur includes the law under the gospel, thereby creating an intolerable confusion.

He characterizes Jesus’ message to Nicodemus as “the gospel,” but then says, “but Jesus was not bringing this self-righteous Pharisee a message of easy-believism.”69 He claims, “Jesus was demanding that Nicodemus forsake everything he stood for. . .”70 As we will see, Jesus did no such thing. Later, he criticizes Zane Hodges for refusing to make obedience “an element of saving faith.”71 We will return to this momentarily. Jesus was not, at this moment, demanding anything of Nicodemus. MacArthur’s legal orientation is so powerful that he misses the utter simplicity (even though he remarks about how simple Jesus’ message is) of Jesus’ message to Nicodemus. The pharisee lacked new life. He was spiritually dead in sin, and Jesus told him, with startling and remarkable boldness, about his spiritual condition. Nicodemus needed to be born again/from above.

As indicated at the beginning, what Jesus is doing here is indicting Nicodemus for his unbelief. In Reformation terms, our Lord was not properly preaching the gospel to him. He was preaching the law to him in the very same way the Old Testament prophets did, like in Jeremiah 4:3–4:

Break up your fallow ground,
and sow not among thorns.
Circumcise yourselves to Yahweh;
remove the foreskin of your hearts,
O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem;
lest my wrath go forth like fire,
and burn with none to quench it,
because of the evil of your deeds.

This is a call to do something, in the same way Jesus’ declaration “you must be born again/from above” is a call to do something, but it is something that no human can do. It is something that must be done to Nicodemus. Jesus was diagnosing Nicodemus’ spiritual problem: death.

True faith is the result of new life. The mortification of sin, the vivification of the new man, and the consequent obedience and good works are the result of new life and true faith. This is what the Reformed churches in the Belgic Confession, understood and articulated with unmistakable clarity—a clarity that MacArthur’s presentation lacks.

This is why it is unhelpful to say, as MacArthur does, that “obedience to Christ is an element of saving faith.”72

Saving faith is true faith and true faith is saving faith, but good works do not make faith what it is. It would be more helpful to say that obedience is the fruit and evidence of saving faith. Neither Heidelberg Catechism 21 nor Belgic Confession articles 22 and 23 mention our obedience as part of faith. The Reformed churches confess the necessity and inevitability of good works stemming from new life and true faith in Belgic Confession article 24 and in the entire third part of the Heidelberg Catechism. In this way, the Reformation way of handling this question is distinct from both of the Dispensational sparring partners in this debate. The Dispensational nomist builds obedience into faith unto salvation and the antinomian Dispensationalist Hodges denies the necessity of good works. They are both wrong and the Reformation was correct.

True faith is an obedient faith, but faith is not true because it is obedient. According to James 2:14, good works are evidence of true faith. That is why James says, “show me your good works.” The Epistle of James is also quite like the Old Testament prophetic denunciations of the Old Testament church. The Jewish Christians to whom James wrote professed faith, but they did not demonstrate it. They did not give evidence of faith. What needed to be justified, according to James, was their claim to be Christians73 That is the Reformation interpretation of James 2.74 He was not offering an alternative to Paul’s doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone. Like Jesus in John 3, and like the Old Testament prophets, he was indicting unbelief.

The series so far.


  1. GAJ, 56.
  2. Ibid., 55.
  3. Ibid., 57–58.
  4. Ibid., 51.
  5. Ibid., 52.
  6. Ibid., 54.
  7. Ibid., 58–59.
  8. Ibid., 58.
  9. MacArthur’s polemic against “religion” (pp. 53–54) would have been helped by qualifying what he meant by it. What he means, evidently, is a merely external religion. James agrees but does not denigrate religion per se: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).
  10. On this topic see Francis Turretin, A Textual Exercise Concerning the Harmony of Paul and James on the Article of Justification (1587) in R. Scott Clark and Casey Carmichael ed. Justification By Faith Alone: Selected Writings From Theodore Beza, Amandus Polanus, and Francis Turretin, trans. Casey Carmichael (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2023), 183–216.


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  1. “closing with Christ” needs to be shielded from synergisms to prevent a Pelagianism that restricts the Lord’s work to offers, and it being what we add to it that closes the “deal.”

    • That seems to be a good point, because “closing with Christ” means complete dependence on His fulfillment of the law and His Sacrifice as the complete propitiation for our sin. It is not a deal, where we do our part by being obedient, in order to close the agreement. Our obedience isn’t part of the saving agreement. We only obey in loving gratitude to the One who has done all that is needed for our salvation.

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