The Gospel According To John (MacArthur)—Part 8

In a controversy, the temptation is to become competitive and to try to defeat one’s opponent, rather than to seek the truth. Controversy is an opportunity for the mortification (putting to death) of sin and vivification (the making alive of the new man). In that spirit, as before, let us begin with areas where MacArthur is essentially correct. In Chapter 4, our Lord meets with the Samaritan woman (John 4), and closes with this arresting declaration: “While it is free, it not cheap; the Savior paid the ultimate price so that the thirsty, repentant seekers can drink as deeply as they like.”75 We might quibble about his inclusion of “repentant,” even though it is true enough, but it has the effect of dulling what would otherwise have been a sharp edge. Still, MacArthur is correct: grace is free. What does that mean? It means, properly understood, that grace comes first, irrespective of anything in us sinners or anything done by us.76 There are no antecedent or prior conditions we must meet in order to qualify for grace. There are consequent conditions to grace. One question to be investigated here is whether MacArthur consistently observes this distinction.

Further, his understanding of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well is generally correct. Jesus did have a divine appointment with the woman.77 There was real tension between the Jews and the Samaritans. It was shocking for Jesus to speak to her because she was a Samaritan and because she was female. She was a “spurned outcast.” Our Lord did come to seek and save the lost.78 He is truly no respecter of persons.79. MacArthur is right to infer that she did become a believer and that the first act of her new life and true faith is to tell others about Jesus.80

Yet, were we on the golf course, we should have to penalize MacArthur three strokes: first, for failing to observe the distinction between antecedent and consequent conditions; second, for continuing to neglect the historic Protestant distinction between law and gospel; and third, here we are in chapter 4, more than 60 pages into the work, and MacArthur has yet to say what is good about the good news. One gets the sense in this chapter, were MacArthur not in controversy with antinomian Dispensationalists (e.g., Hodges), that he might have said things a little differently. The ball rolls right to the lip of the cup but, because of the controversy, he cannot tap it in.

Antecedent and Consequent Conditions

We may also forgive MacArthur, to some degree, for neglecting this distinction, as he could easily find modern Reformed writers also neglecting it. Yet, our Reformed forebears typically were better on this score. The point of the distinction is to say that the antecedent condition to the covenant of grace is that, as MacArthur wrote at the end of the chapter, met by Christ himself. In Reformed theology, we say that Christ fulfilled the covenant of works that God made with Adam before the fall. This is one way that we express the Reformation distinction between law and gospel.81 Properly speaking, as Herman Witsius (1636–1708) wrote, faith is the instrument of the covenant of grace and not its condition. He spoke that way because that is the way the Reformed churches speak in Belgic Confession article 22, where we call faith “the sole instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness.” In the act (declaration) of justification, faith is not obedient nor formed by love. Faith is knowledge, assent, and trust. New life and true faith produces obedience and good works. We confess that in Belgic Confession article 24, but in the act of justification, faith is not considered as obedience. It is resting, leaning, and trusting in Christ. Faith is an empty hand, as Luther wrote. We must always be careful not to try to fill our hands, when we are discussing justification, with anything (e.g., good works, obedience, repentance) but Christ. As Calvin wrote in his commentary on Galatians, “When you are engaged in discussing the question of justification, beware of allowing any mention to be made of love or of works, but resolutely adhere to the exclusive particle.”

Consequent conditions are those that follow necessarily from the free grace of justification. Ironically, here it seems that MacArthur and Hodges agree insofar as they both neglect this distinction. MacArthur wants to build what are properly consequent conditions into faith, in the act of justification, and Hodges, the antinomian, neglects them altogether.

Again, Witsius helps us here:

. . . the law of works proposes salvation, upon condition of performing the law. But the law of faith proposes it, upon condition only of believing in Christ. Lest, however he should leave any thing unexplained, [Chamier] observes, that conditions in contracts are of two kinds; some of which may be called antecedent, others consequent. He calls these antecedent, which give rise to the contract, according to the maxim, I give, that thou mayest give, as when one sells a field for a certain sum of money. But the consequent conditions are added to the antecedent, as following from them: which indeed are mutual between the parties, but oblige the one only: so that the other is bound to do no more on their account: As if one having given or sold a plot of ground, should assign an annuity to be laid out upon the poor. Now conditions of that kind, when not performed, usually disannul the contract: and yet they do not constitute it. Nay, there would be no annuity, except the sale were already full and complete.

The obedience that all orthodox Christians desire is a consequence of the sovereign, free gift of new life and true faith and, in that sense, a consequent obligation of the gift of grace. This does not, as one critic objected, make obedience a “second blessing.” The Reformed heard this very objection from their Roman Catholic critics. They answered it this way in question 64 of the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q: But does not this doctrine [of free justification and salvation] make men careless and profane?
A: No, for it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by true faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.

It is impossible. Why so? Because the one thing (new life and true faith) necessarily leads to the other (the fruits of thankfulness). Just a few years before the Heidelberg Catechism was published, Guy de Bres (who was martyred for the gospel in 1567) wrote,

Therefore, far from making people cold toward living in a pious and holy way, this justifying faith, quite to the contrary, so works within them that apart from it they will never do a thing out of love for God but only out of love for themselves and fear of being condemned. So then, it is impossible for this holy faith to be unfruitful in a human being, seeing that we do not speak of an empty faith but of what Scripture calls “faith working through love,”60 which leads a man to do of himself the works that God has commanded in his Word (Belgic Confession, article 24).

The result of the legal (nomist) approach to good works is that we never do a thing out of love for God but only out of love out of self and fear. In Reformed theology, we call that servile fear. That is not a godly or pious fear but a fear of consequences. New life and true faith is fruitful because it is powerful. So we confess that good trees produce good fruit. No one has to tell the orange trees in my yard to produce fruit. Imagine what my neighbors would think should they find me in lecturing my other citrus trees, “Look here tree, you had better get on with it. I am waiting.” That is absurd and a good reason to call the fellows in the white coats. So it is with the Christian life. Believers produce fruit. They learn to love God’s law (including the fourth commandment) and they seek to obey it out of gratitude, in union with Christ, as adopted sons not in order to be justified or saved but because they have been justified and saved sola gratiasola fide.

Were a good man to give a million dollars to his drunken neighbor, that is a scandalously free gift to an unworthy recipient. The law says that we are unworthy, but the gospel says that Jesus loves us anyway. As the giver of the gift he has the right to impose conditions consequent to the gift, and we, the grateful recipients of the gift, are to respond thankfully. Those conditions do not turn the gift into a wage (Rom 6:23). A gospel man is content to allow the conditions of the covenant of grace to be consequent. The nomist insists on inserting them into the gospel itself, lest the sinner get the wrong idea, that justification and salvation are truly free.

Removing The Scandal Of The Gospel

No one would ever accuse MacArthur of being an antinomian, and therein lies a part of the problem in this work. At the beginning of this installment, I noted that MacArthur almost gets it right. What is the issue with the opening quotation? He did not write “sinners” or “seekers” but “repentant seekers.” It is true that seekers with true faith are repentant, but it is not true that it is repentance that makes faith what it is. Believers repent—to deny that is antinomian—but Jesus did not offer salvation to the woman on condition of repentance. He offered it to her unconditionally, hence the scandal.

The gospel is not only confused with the law but the scandal of the gospel is removed. No one would read this book and ask, “Should we persist in sin that grace may abound?” (Rom 6:1) or “Is the law sin?” (Rom 7:7) People did, however, hear the Apostle Paul’s gospel preaching and ask those very questions. This is why Martyn Lloyd-Jones famously wrote, in his commentary on Romans,

You’ve got a very good test whether you are preaching the Gospel in the right way. What’s that? Well, let me put it like this to you: If your presentation of the Gospel does not expose it to the charge of Antinomianism you are probably not putting it correctly.

The gospel of free salvation (deliverance from wrath) and free acceptance of God is scandalous. It is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks (1 Cor 1:23). It is a stumbling block to moralists and legalists (i.e., those who think that they can, in some way, contribute to their justification). It is foolishness to the rationalists (i.e., “Greeks”) for whom the idea of free justification and salvation makes no sense. Luther called both the moralists and the rationalists (they are really, at the bottom, the same) “theologians of glory.”

MacArthur is so worried (e.g., p. 64) that Hodges (and the antinomians) might be able to capitalize on this passage, that he has to remove the scandal. What Jesus did here was to invite a scandalously sinful woman, to salvation freely without any preconditions. Of course, this encounter is not a complete account of the Christian message, but the very act of his speaking to her (John 4:7) is an act of prevenient grace. Jesus approached the helpless, needy sinner first. He characterizes himself not as law but as a “gift” (v. 10). MacArthur is right to note the reversal here: Jesus, who was thirsty, now offers water to the woman who is thirsty (but does not know it yet).83

MacArthur removes the scandal by torturing the gospel out of the word “drink.” The good news is that Jesus obeyed in the place of sinners. He died for them. He was raised for them. Jesus is for helpless, hell-deserving sinners! The clear sense of “drink” here is faith in the Reformation sense of “knowledge, assent, and trust”—and especially the latter aspect— but MacArthur has to wedge obedience into “drink” by speaking of “commitment.” Well, “commitment” is ambiguous here. Does commitment mean obedience and repentance? Are they constituents of faith in the act of justification? If so, then perhaps the Medieval theologians and the Council of Trent were right to say that faith is “formed by love”? Fortunately for us, the Reformation utterly repudiated “faith formed by love.” MacArthur writes, “Can we concede that the verb ‘drink’ conveys the idea of appropriation apart from commitment? Certainly not.”83 That leaking noise you hear is the scandal of the gospel slipping away.

He continues, “Matthew 20:22 (‘Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink’) and John 18:11 (‘The cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it’) both use drink in a way that clearly implies full compliance and surrender.” MacArthur’s exegesis of “drink” in John 4 is guilty of what scholars call an “illegitimate totality transfer.” It is like this: If I say, “They were having a ball,” I mean to signal “they were having great fun.” Were someone to try to import that sense of ball into another context, (e.g., “Sally threw the ball to Joey”) that would make no sense. It is the same word formally, but the intended sense is distinct in each context. MacArthur has seized on the formal similarity between a word or an image used elsewhere, in another sense, and then imported that sense to this place without accounting for the context of this place, the sense intended by the author/speaker in this place, or for the difference in speakers. When Jesus used the imagery of drinking he was speaking of himself as the Savior. In John 4 the Savior is speaking to the saved. The Samaritan woman is not the Savior. She’s the sinner. She’s the needy one, and Jesus is offering her freely what she needs.

He continues, “Furthermore, the attempt to define faith with a metaphor is unwarranted selectivity.” Wait a minute. MacArthur himself just insisted that “drink” entails “commitment,” “compliance and surrender.” Now he denies that we may “define” faith with a metaphor. He cannot have it both ways. Is he not defining faith with a metaphor? Of course, a metaphor is not a definition. It is a picture, an illustration. This is why I say that MacArthur has tortured the life out of the metaphor. A picture meant to convey a wonderful truth, that Jesus offers himself to needy sinners who need only to drink (i.e., to believe), has been run through the shredder.

The Continuing Confusion of Law And Gospel

Perhaps the most fundamental mistake MacArthur makes in GAJ is to neglect the Reformation distinction between law and gospel. He misses it here too. After freely and unconditionally offering salvation to the woman at the well, our Lord preached the law to her. He indicted her serial monogamy: “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true” (John 4:17-18). MacArthur reads her response, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet” as a confession of sin.84 Perhaps that is true, but that seems speculative. More likely, she was changing the topic because she turns to the perennial source of conflict between the Jews and the Samaritans (v. 20). Jesus affirms that, for the moment (a point that perhaps MacArthur’s Dispensationalism prevents him from seeing), Jerusalem is the designated place of worship but Jesus continued:

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.” (John 4:21–26)

MacArthur follows the view that sees Jesus as not answering the question of where true worship happens but, read against Johannine usage, a better way to understand this passage is to read “spirit” as a reference to the Holy Spirit and “truth” as a reference to the Son himself.85 In that case, he was answering her question about where but he did so by returning to the gospel: God the Son has become incarnate and has come to earn salvation for all his people, in whom he is sovereignly including the woman at the well.86 The temple (John 2:18), as it were, has come to Samaria, to the woman at the well. Before long, mysteriously, by the quiet, sovereign operation of the Holy Spirit, she too will be worshipping “in the Spirit and in the Truth.”

I agree with MacArthur that, the woman demonstrates her new life (regeneration) and true faith by leaving her waterpot and going to the city to tell others what she had heard and whom she had met (vv.28–29).87 He is the Messiah (v.26). He has come to the unclean and the second class (Samaritans and sinners). Against the standard of God’s holy law, we are all Samaritans, as it were.

MacArthur likes to use gospel as a synonym for message. Once again, he would have served his readers better by speaking of Jesus’ twofold message: law and gospel—by recognizing when Jesus was preaching the law and when he was preaching the gospel.

Yes, the antinomians are wrong, but let us not sacrifice the scandal of free justification and salvation and the gospel mystery of Spirit-wrought sanctification, for fear of being mistaken for an antinomian. Should we be accused of that we should be in very good company indeed.

The series so far.


  1. GAJ, 72.
  2. Ibid., I am thinking here of the language of Westminster Confession Faith 11.1, ” not for anything wrought in them, or done by them…”.
  3. Ibid., 65.
  4. Ibid., 63, 64.
  5. Ibid., 65.
  6. Ibid., 71.
  7. See e.g., Westminster Confession of Faith 7.2
  8. GAJ., 66.
  9. Ibid., 66.
  10. Ibid., 68.
  11. For more on this interpretation see R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008), 272–77.
  12. GAJ, 69.
  13. MacArthur seems to say something like this. See ibid., 72


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One comment

  1. What’s up Dr! These are great. Gotta catch up on this stuff. This will be super helpful when talking to not only my baptist friends but also my non Christian friends. It will help me have a more solid understanding of justification by faith alone and assurance so that I can talk to them about the gospel with more confidence if that makes sense. Thanks for the Heidelblog Dr. Shoutout to the URC. If any of you guys wanna send some your guys(I say that with the utmost respect because of article 31 of the Belgic) but in all seriousness Dr if u guys have any pastors who want to come to the Boston/ souther Mass area I know some CRC people who would love a URC church plant in that area.

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