The Gospel According To John (MacArthur)—Part 10

The overarching theme of this series has been that the Lordship Salvation doctrine confuses the law and the gospel.95  Nowhere is that confusion more evident than in his handling of the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16–22:

And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

There is no evidence (so far) that MacArthur has understood a basic aspect of the Reformation: that there are two different kinds of words in Scripture. The first of those is law and the second is gospel. These words are found throughout Scripture, in every epoch of redemptive history. The law says, “The day you eat thereof you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17) or “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am Yahweh” (Lev 18:5) or “Go and sell all you have and give it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven and come and follow me” (Matt 19:21). The gospel says, “He shall crush your head, and you shall strike his heel” (Gen 3:15b) or “I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Ex 20:2) or “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). These are different kinds of words, so they belong to different categories. The law is bad news for sinners and the word gospel means good news. As Luther said,

This difference between the Law and the Gospel is the height of knowledge in Christendom. Every person and all persons who assume or glory in the name of Christian should know and be able to state this difference. If this ability is lacking, one cannot tell a Christian from a heathen or a Jew; of such supreme importance is this differentiation. This is why St. Paul so strongly insists on a clean-cut and proper differentiating of these two doctrines.96

Calvin made this distinction basic to his way of reading Scripture as did his orthodox successors. Theodore Beza spoke for the Reformed tradition when he wrote,

We divide this Word into two principal parts or kinds: the one is called the “Law,” the other the “Gospel.” For all the rest can be gathered under the one or other of these two headings…Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity.97

For more on this distinction see the resources page.

MacArthur introduces his discussion of this passage—which is a wonderfully clear example of how our Lord himself preached the law and the gospel, and thus presents another opportunity to bring clarity to the fundamental problem underlying the Lordship Salvation doctrine—by telling the story of an opportunity he had to witness to a fellow on a plane. After witnessing he prayed with this fellow, but that fellow later fell away. To explain what happened, MacArthur goes to the story of the rich young ruler. When I read his account of what happened my mind went immediately to the parable of the sower:

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear” (Matt 13:1–9)

The reason the fellow on the plane did not manifest true faith and good works is that, apparently, the seed fell on rocky ground. That happens. It is not up to us whom the Lord calls to new life and true faith. That belongs to the Lord. It is ours faithfully to administer the law and the gospel.

When the Lord gives us the opportunity to witness, we should tell people about the greatness of their sin and misery, and then tell them the good news, that Jesus saves sinners. We should call them to repent and to trust in Jesus. In the Reformed churches, we confess (in Heidelberg Catechism 2) that these are two of the three things necessary for a one to know that he might “live and die blessedly.” The third is “how we ought to be thankful for such redemption,” which is how believers seek to glorify God and to demonstrate their gratitude with joyful obedience to their Lord. I would happily pray with this fellow, but I would make no judgment about whether he had been given new life and true faith. That is a judgment for the elders of a congregation to make. He has yet to be catechized (instructed) in the basics of the Christian faith or to make profession of faith before the elders and the congregation. Perhaps he is not yet even baptized. The idea that one can have a conversation, pray a prayer, and then call someone a Christian is unknown to ancient, medieval, and Reformation churches.98

What was Jesus saying to the rich young man? Was he telling him that he, the rich young man, should and could obey God’s holy law in order to inherit eternal life? MacArthur writes, “[o]ur Lord gave this young man a test. He had to choose between his possessions and Jesus Christ. He failed the test. No matter what points of doctrine he might affirm, because he was unwilling to turn from what he loved most, he could not be a disciple of Christ. Salvation is only for those who are willing to give Christ first place in their lives” (emphasis added).99

This is a misunderstanding of the intent of our Lord, the intent of Matthew as he wrote these words, and the intent of the Holy Spirit as he inspired Matthew but it is a common misunderstanding. Calvin wrote,

But, in order to form a more correct judgment of the meaning of the answer, we must attend to the form of the question. He does not simply ask how and by what means he shall reach life, but what good thing he shall do, in order to obtain it. He, therefore, dreams of merits, on account of which he may receive eternal life as a reward due; and therefore Christ appropriately sends him to the keeping of the law, which unquestionably is the way of life, as I shall explain more fully afterwards.100

Unlike MacArthur, Calvin understood the distinction between law and gospel. He saw that the rich young man did not yet know the greatness of his sin and misery.101 It is partly true to say that our Lord set a test—but not for the purpose of testing the genuineness of the faith of the rich young man. His problem was not that he was the victim of “easy believism” or a “decisional” approach to evangelism, but that he thought that he could keep the law. So far, MacArthur is not able actually to help the rich young man, because MacArthur apparently agrees with him. Like the young man, he too thinks salvation is for those who do enough when, in fact, salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone (Eph 2:8–10). Salvation is the free, unconditional (as a prerequisite or an antecedent) gift of God to helpless sinners. This is the basic message of the Exodus from Egypt. The Lord did not save willing and obedient Israelites from the Pharaoh and his armies. He saved a stiff-necked and rebellious people, who were flinging insults at Moses right up to the moment God sovereignly parted the Red Sea. They demonstrated no willingness at all. Indeed, they demonstrated the exact opposite of willingness—unwillingness. Yet, God saved them from Pharaoh and so he has saved all his elect, not for anything in them or done by them but purely and only out of his free favor earned for his elect by Christ.

Thus, MacArthur is quite wrong when he says that the young man had the right motive.101 He did not. He came seeking to qualify himself, not to be saved and given eternal life as a free gift. Calvin rightly interpreted this passage very differently from the way MacArthur does, saying that “Christ did not take into consideration what men can do, but replied to the question, What is the righteousness of works?”102 The point of Christ’s pedagogical use of the law with the young man is so that he (and we) might learn that “we are all destitute of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23), nothing but cursing will be found in the law; and nothing remains for us but to betake ourselves to the undeserved gift of righteousness.”103

We should agree with MacArthur that the young man came to the right source.104 “There is no other name given under heaven whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). MacArthur, however, reads our Lord’s question, “why do you call me good?” as an indication of his divinity, which is a traditional view. Calvin takes it not that Christ is teaching the young man about his divinity, but that he is merely confirming his teaching.105 MacArthur is wrong to say that the young man had the right attitude.106 Had he the right attitude, he would have taken the posture of the tax collector (Matt 18:13) and said to Jesus, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Instead, he came asking what he could do. The tax collector knew, by the conviction of the Holy Spirit, the greatness of his unworthiness and inability. He knew that the only thing he could do was to beg for grace and mercy. That is the prayer of the sinner who knows what he is. It is hard to understand how on one page MacArthur writes that the young man had the correct attitude and then, a couple of pages later, says that the young man was filled with pride.107 It is also difficult to understand not only how these two positions cohere, but how they cohere with his correct assessment that the young man did not confess his guilt.108 He is exactly right to say the “man could not escape the demands of the divine standard.”109 Amen!

Just when he seems to be heading for the Reformation, as it were, MacArthur’s Lordship agenda and his refusal to distinguish law and gospel, like the mafia, grabs him by the lapels and drags him back into confusion. He diagnoses the young man’s problem as a refusal to submit to Christ.110 Most certainly Christians must seek to obey the Lord, but they do so only as a consequence of their free salvation, not as a precondition. We do not obey in order to be saved, but because we have been saved. This is why, as Calvin noted, the gospel comes as a prologue to the Ten Commandments. As the law comes to us in Exodus 20, it is in, as the Reformation churches say it, in the third use (tertius usus legis), as the norm of the (new) Christian life. The sin of the antinomians is that they deny the third use.

How should we explain the incoherence of his approach to the rich young man? If MacArthur’s real quest is to explain why a fellow, who prayed the sinner’s prayer on the airplane did not persevere, then he is using the wrong diagnostic tools. To a man with a hammer, everything looks like nail. Surgeons want to cut, and bomber pilots want to call in an airstrike. The right passage for this issue is the parable of the sower. The right diagnostic tool is the distinction between law and gospel. What the young man needed, as MacArthur himself says, is to know, in effect, the greatness of his sin and misery. The discipleship that MacArthur and I both desire to see comes as a consequence of new life and true faith. MacArthur’s fundamental mistake is to identify the young man’s problem as a refusal to submit and obey. His fundamental problem is that he needed to be regenerated (John 3). When God the Spirit grants new life and true faith, hearers respond appropriately, like the tax collector. They acknowledge their sins and they flee to Christ for refuge. Could anyone doubt that the tax collector was willing to obey Christ with all his heart? Did anyone really need to tell him to obey the Lord who graciously saved him? MacArthur himself seems to acknowledge as much by his appeal to Zaccheus (Luke 19).111

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

The series so far.


  1. See also the discussion in part 2 of this series.
  2. Martin Luther, “Sermon on Galatians” (New Years, 1532) on Galatians 3:23–24. WA 36.25 transl. in Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says (Concordia Publishing House: St Louis, 1959), 2.732.
  3. Theodore Beza, The Christian Faith, trans., James Clark (East Sussex: Christian Focus Ministries Trust, 1992), 41..
  4. To anticipate and answer an objection, it is true that Philip evangelized the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26–40), heard his profession, and then baptized him. From this, some have inferred that Christian instruction before the baptism of converts is not necessary and that the process I outlined above is unnecessary. The Apostles themselves, however, did not draw this inference nor did the ancient, medieval, or Reformation churches. There are obvious discontinuities between Philip and us. Philip was an apostolic deacon. We are not. An Angel of the Lord spoke to Philip. He has not spoken to us. The Spirit of the Lord (v. 39) apparently transported Philip to his next appointment. That is not true for us. Even Benny Hinn needs a Gulfstream jet to get to his next “miracle crusade.”
  5. GAJ, 90.
  6. John Calvin Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, trans. William Pringle (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 2.393.
  7. MacArthur seems to understand this on p. 96, when he writes, “Those who do not even sense their own guilt cannot possibly comprehend God’s mercy.”
  8. GAJ, 91.
  9.  Calvin Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, 2.394.
  10. Ibid., 93.
  11. GAJ, 92–93
  12. GAJ, 94–95.
  13. GAJ, 96–97.
  14. GAJ, 93–94; Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony, 393–94.
  15. GAJ, 97.
  16. GAJ, 97–98.
  17. GAJ, 98.


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  1. Dr. Clark, I’m a little confused by one of the last lines of the piece ‘Could anyone doubt that the tax collector was willing to obey Christ with all his heart?’

    Is there any Christian at all that is willing to obey Christ ‘with all of his heart’? Doesn’t every single Christian have sins that he clings to and in fact has very mixed desires, (Gal 5:17) and fails every day to desire to obey Christ with all of his heart?

    • It seems like ‘desires to’ might be a better way of saying it, no? To me ‘willing to’ implies a significantly greater likelihood of doing it (e.g. I am willing to sign the contract, so I go ahead and sign it) where ‘desires to’ implies quite a bit more variability in the outcome.

      • Paul,

        You’re reading too much into “willing.” Read the second half of Romans 7 carefully. Notice how Paul contrasts what he wants to do, i.e., what the new Paul, is willing to do with what sin, the flesh, and the old Paul does. Both things are true simultaneously.

        Check out the Romans podcast series and especially the episodes on Roman 7. They’re right here. As I understand Paul, in Romans 7, he’s saying that it is true that we are new men in Christ and we continue to struggle with sin, sometimes terribly. Paul is still confessing his sinfulness just before he ends the chapter with the doxology! We have to affirm both things: we are new, the old man has died with Christ and we have only a beginning of obedience and sanctification. Rom 6:14 is God’s Word but so is Romans 7. We need to say both things.

  2. I wonder what view JMac holds on Total Depravity/Effects of the Fall? He claims to be “Reformed”, but this sounds an awful lot like Arminianism.

  3. Your rubric is not exactly the book’s title. In fact, Mac’s title is that which proves libelous to the ACTUAL gospel . . . if we’re to accept Scott’s counter thesis. After all, isn’t it good news if fallen men, even that set of men that, by grace alone, have been made aware of their desperate state and absolute culpa for it, are in addition then granted the mere possibility of ultimate deliverance from it, or does it require that the assurance of the atoning blood’s efficacy be one’s irrevocable possession, no matter how much he’s found under the world’s sway, in order for it to be good news?

    • It all comes down to grace alone, through faith alone in God’s promises. John 6:37. “Everyone that the father gives me, will come to me, and I will not reject.” “Therefore, do not let sin reign in your body because you are set free from sin.” Rom. 6. Even so, it is a hard struggle. Rom. 7. But we are promised that, “there is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ.” Rom. 8:1 The Christian’s motive for struggle against sin, and obedience, is gratitude for the undeserved gift of salvation, being assured by God’s promises, of the victory he has in Christ. That is good news, indeed! The problem with MacArthur is that he makes the struggle against sin and obedience our requirement to qualify for salvation. That is not the good news, it is the law.

      Rather God’s promises, that Christ has done it all, is our assurance, just as God promised to Abraham, when God walked through the pieces alone, and then, Abraham’s famous obedience was a demonstration of his desire to obey, out of gratitude. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for.” Hebrews 11:1

  4. Hello, thank you for this series! It’s very edifying. My friends and I listened to many Lordship preachers early on in our Christian faith, so we’re still learning more about distinguishing law and gospel. Your blog posts have been very helpful in that pursuit.

    …God bless you and your ministry.

  5. I always think of Zaceeus as the flip side of the Rich Young Ruler.
    Can’t thank you enough for all I learn from you Professor Scott.

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