The Gospel According To John (MacArthur)—Part 9

Because it seems that advocates of the Dispensational Lordship doctrine suspect anyone who critiques them of latent antinomianism, let me say here that I agree entirely with MacArthur when he writes, “and any ‘salvation’ that does not alter a lifestyle of sin and transform the heart of the sinner is not the salvation God’s word speaks of.”88 The Reformed churches have always confessed that new life and true faith issue change in the Christian. To wit:

24. How are these Articles divided?

Into three parts: the first is of God the Father and our creation; the second of God the Son and our redemption; the third, of God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification.

The entire third part of the Christian faith, or questions 86–129 of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), concerns sanctification (mortification of sin and vivification of the new man, in Christ). So, in the catechism, we confess:

45. What benefit do we receive from the “resurrection” of Christ?

First, by His resurrection He has overcome death, that He might make us partakers of the righteousness which He has obtained for us by His death. Secondly, by His power we are also now raised up to a new life. Thirdly, the resurrection of Christ is to us a sure pledge of our blessed resurrection.

70. What is it to be washed with the blood and Spirit of Christ?

It is to have the forgiveness of sins from God through grace, for the sake of Christ’s blood, which He shed for us in His sacrifice on the cross; and also, to be renewed by the Holy Spirit and sanctified to be members of Christ, that so we may more and more die unto sin and lead holy and unblamable lives.

81. Who are to come to the table of the Lord?

Those who are displeased with themselves for their sins, yet trust that these are forgiven them, and that their remaining infirmity is covered by the passion and death of Christ; who also desire more and more to strengthen their faith and to amend their life. But the impenitent and hypocrites eat and drink judgment to themselves.

87. Can they then not be saved who do not turn to God from their unthankful, impenitent life?

By no means, for, as the Scripture says, no unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or the like shall inherit the Kingdom of God.

To be sure, we are Augustinians and not Pelagians, in that we resolutely deny the possibility of perfection (i.e., “entire sanctification”) in this life (see HC 114 and 115). The Reformed theology, piety, and practice are not Pelagian, antinomian, or nomist.

We say that there are two aspects to Christ’s saving grace or of his benefits to us. Calvin spoke of the “twofold grace” of God (duplex gratia Dei) and his student Caspar Olevianus spoke of the “double benefit of Christ” (duplex beneficium Christi)—free justification (sola gratia, sola fide) and free, gracious sanctification in union with Christ as his adopted sons. These two benefits are distinct but inseparable. Thus, in our tradition, we have never spoken of “carnal Christians” and the like. That way of speaking belongs to Dispensationalism, not to Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

This is all to say that I agree with most of chapter 5 of GAJ, however, the chapter is seriously flawed (as is the book) by MacArthur’s apparent rejection of the Protestant (and even Augustinian) distinction between law and gospel. Had MacArthur accounted for this distinction, this chapter (and the book) would have been transformed, and thus, much more useful.

Why does this matter? Consider two outstanding statements in this chapter: “One of the most malignant by-products of the debacle in contemporary evangelism is a gospel that fails to confront individuals with the reality of their sin” (emphasis added).89 Had he used the word message, this sentence would be unobjectionable because it would be demonstrably true. MacArthur is right that many evangelicals have given up entirely on announcing God’s condemnation of sin as “too negative.” Six pages later he writes, “The gospel according to Jesus is first of all a mandate for repentance.”90 Again, had he simply said “message,” the sentence would be fine. We can see the difficulty of using gospel the way MacArthur does by substituting good news for gospel. Consider “. . . is a good news that fails to confront. . . .” It is too incongruous. The same appears in the second case: “The good news according to Jesus is first of all a mandate for repentance.” The noun mandate is a synonym for command. The gospel is an announcement of good news. The law is a mandate for repentance.

The theological liberals were wrong to say that Jesus was only a prophet or a teacher. He was much more than that, but he was also a prophet and a teacher. Traditionally Christians have spoken of Jesus’ threefold office (triplex munus), prophet, priest, and king.

MacArthur is almost correct about the first thing Jesus is recorded as saying. Mark says: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel'” (Mark 1:14–15).

Mark indeed uses the one word (gospel) to comprehend Christ’s twofold message. I have already addressed the broader usage of gospel as distinct from the narrower but it is also significant how Mark characterizes Jesus’ message: “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand, repent. . . .” Before Jesus called for repentance he announced good news: “the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand.” These clauses are in the indicative mood, not the imperative. These are not commands but the basis for the command (mandate) to come.

We see the same pattern in what Calvin called the prologue to the Ten Commandments: “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exod 20:2). Then he proceeds to give the law. It is the same pattern we see in Mark 1:14–15. It is the same pattern we see in the Pauline epistles where Paul gives the gospel indicative, about what God has done for us sinners in Christ, and then gives us moral imperatives (the law). This is not t0 say that there are no “gospel imperatives” but, in these cases, the imperatives are law and the indicatives are good news for sinners.

One of the threads I have followed through this series is to ask how MacArthur’s Dispensationalism (and that of his Dispensational opponents, e.g., Ryrie and Hodges) affect their theology and their rhetoric. Why is it that MacArthur omits the first part of Jesus’ message? Could it be that his Dispensational theology and his eschatology do not account well for the inaugurated eschatology (already/not yet) of the New Testament?  According to the Reformation understanding of the New Testament, the kingdom of God did come with Jesus. It has not reached its consummate state but it is here.91

Two more brief remarks:

We should agree with MacArthur that a man who has left his wife and is living with a girl is of course sinful and we should share his bewilderment at a pastor who does not seem to understand that. For readers from the Dispensational/Bible church tradition: in Reformed churches, should that man remain impenitent for abandoning his wife and committing adultery, he would be recognized as an unbeliever (Matt 18). The Reformed churches follow this procedure regularly, but I was struck by the casual way he assumes that this man’s ownership of a chain of liquor stores is also wicked.92 MacArthur seems to take it for granted that no believer could own a chain of liquor stores. This might be a sound conclusion, but it should not be assumed. It must be shown. There are a host of questions to be sorted out here: Is alcohol inherently sinful? If not, from where should a Christian buy it? Are there approved places for Christians to buy alcohol (e.g., Costco)? Are liquor stores unclean for Christians? If alcohol is not inherently wicked, why may a Christian not own a liquor store? Does owning more than one liquor store change the equation? Indeed, there may be a subterranean world of assumptions beneath MacArthur’s story. It is also a little ironic that MacArthur, who spends a good bit of time in this chapter denouncing Pharisaism, takes what is arguably a Pharisaical approach to a Christian owning liquor stores.

We might doubt MacArthur’s reconstruction of the call of Levi/Matthew even as we agree with him, however, that Christ is for notorious sinners like Matthew the tax collector.93 Neither Mark nor Luke tell us anything about Levi/Matthew’s state of mind when Jesus called him. What we see in both Luke’s and Mark’s narratives (Mark 2:13ff and Luke 5:27ff), is the power of Christ’s call. Mark’s intent is to show that, indeed, the King has come, that He is gathering citizens for His Kingdom, and that by the sovereign power of His Word He has collected the unlikely figure of Levi, the tax-collector. Yet, MacArthur is right about Jesus’ words to the Pharisees.94 MacArthur’s inference from Jesus’ words, “follow me” (Mark 2:14) does not follow from what the narrative says. In other words, this episode does not work well as evidence of his Lordship Salvation doctrine. Like the observation above, his use of the calling of Levi/Matthew might tell us more about MacArthur’s assumptions than what Mark and Luke are themselves doing with this story.

The series so far.


  1. GAJ, 74.
  2. Ibid., 73.
  3. Ibid., 79.
  4. For resources on this approach to eschatology generally see the HB Resource Page on eschatology. See also Geerhardus Vos, The Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church (New York: American Tract Society, 1903). See also the HB Resource Page on redemptive history.
  5. GAJ, 73.
  6. Ibid., 75–79.
  7. Ibid., 78.


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  1. Thank you for this series, it’s have been super helpful! I’m still coming out of LSS and fixing the faulty assumptions and understandings I took with me before I was Reformed. Under LSS, I never had assurance and I was terrified about the state of my soul. Now, I’ve learned to find rest in Christ through your ministry and especially that of Pastor Oeverman in the URCNA (I am aware that you interviewed him on the Heidelblog).

    I had a question. Where does repentance fit into law and gospel? Would it be right to say faith and repentance are two sides of the same coins? I know Scripture often places them together but I also notice the Heidelberg catechism divides them and places repentance in the category of thankfulness. Anything you’d recommend on this issue? Thank you, and God bless!

    • For me, thinking about the law as having three uses is important on deciding how our obedience relates to law and gospel. The general use of the law is as a curb, to inform us of what is morally right and wrong. Secondly, it shows us our sin and misery in failing to meet God’s just demands, and drives us to despair, so we see our need of a Saviour. When the Holy Spirit reveals Him to us, we are astounded by God’s mercy and love in sending His Son, to take our just punishment and impute His perfect righteousness to us, as our representative, when we trust in Him. Our obedience to the law, including repentance, follows as a response of love and gratitude for this marvellous gift. The law always shows us what ought to be done. The gospel always shows us what God has done for us in Christ, who is our perfect representative. Once we are justified, by trusting in Christ, as the One who covers us with His perfect sacrifice for sin and perfect life of obedience, we stand perfectly righteous before God, in Him. Now we respond by repenting of the past, and striving to demonstrate our gratitude to God by using the law as a guide.
      Repentance follows, it is separate, never part of saving faith. Faith is always alone as the instrument that grasps Christ as an empty hand For me, it is key to understand that ONLY Christ’s obedience justifies us before God and it is fatal to mix it with ours. Christ alone can offer the sacrifice and obedience that justifies before God. Our obedience, which includes repentance, is a response, not a contribution, for our justification. That is why keeping law and gospel apart is so important. See Heidelberg Q and A 88 to 91. Christ is our complete Saviour, or no Saviour. Heidelberg Q and A 30.

    • Hi Colin,

      Sorry to delay replying. School is back in session and it’s been busy.

      It is a journey to move from the Lordship Doctrine/Nomist Dispensationalism to the Reformation.

      On faith and repentance, we need to distinguish between the function & nature of repentance and the function and nature of faith and we also need to distinguish between the order of teaching (e.g., “repent and believe”) and the order of the application of redemption to the sinner by the Spirit.

      On the 1st, repentance has the law in view and it is the acknowledgement of the greatness of our sin and misery and a turning away from it. Faith is knowledge, assent, and trust. It believes the Good News and looks to Christ alone for salvation and justification. It is those whom God has give new life (regenerated) who believe and it is believers who repent. Thus, repentance is a fruit of regeneration, effectual calling, and faith.

      It is popular to say, in some circles that repentance is the flip side of faith but I doubt that is a helpful way to speak. Caspar Olevianus helped me when he wrote that repentance is a response to the law and faith is a response to the gospel. They are distinct but not separate. Truly repentance people believe and believers repent but we ought to keep their functions, nature, and order straight.

      Does this help?

  2. Hey Dr. Clark,

    I’m definitely enjoying this series (especially the audio version, as that has allowed me to hear the whole thing).

    You say above, “I have already addressed the broader usage of gospel as distinct from the narrower…” I must have missed this. Where was that discussion? This seems like a key piece as it may come up in discussion with those who agree with JMac.

  3. Dr. Clark,

    The Caspar Olevianus quote is very helpful. In circles where Law & Gospel are mixed up, the words “Repent and believe” can easily be misinterpreted as “Change your behavior AND believe”. Hence where the problem of Lordship salvation originates.

    I am a member of an OPC church, but when I hear “Repent and believe”from the pulpit, I chafe because I think it could very easily be misconstrued in the minds of the hearers.

    • Diane, I couldn’t agree more with your point. Law and gospel seem get mixed up when people get the idea that repentance is doing their part in salvation, as though it is a prerequisite for being saved. Justified, saved Christians repent of their sins, as an offence against the God they love. They love Him because they believe the gospel, that God has done all that is required for their acceptance in Christ. As Dr. Clark puts it, “it is a fruit of regeneration, effectual calling and faith.” The Westminster Confession XV calls it an “evangelical grace.” It follows justification as a response of love and gratitude. It is so sad that many people seem to look to their repentance, as though it is doing their part to be saved. In so much as they do this, it seems to me that they are trusting in something in themselves rather than Christ ALONE!

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