The Gospel According To John (MacArthur)—Part 11

One of the unfortunate aspects of the intra-Dispensational argument—that is, the Lordship Salvation controversy—is that both sides appealed to the Reformation, but neither side represented the Reformation theology, piety, and practice. Dispensationalism is a nineteenth-century phenomenon. Its roots are in the holiness movement. To a degree, MacArthur embraces the Reformation—in that way he is departing from his roots and from Dispensationalism. Blessedly, in chapter 8 of GAJ, he finally gives the weary sinner some measure of relief. Truth be told, I do not think I disagree materially with anything MacArthur says in this chapter. Again, the greatest problem in the chapter is what he leaves unsaid. One could infer from this chapter something of what the good news is, but he remains, now one hundred pages into a book about the gospel, reluctant to say exactly what is good about the good news.

When I finished this chapter (again), I made a marginal note on page 107 lamenting that this was not the first chapter of the book. I understand why MacArthur began the book as he did—he wanted to refute the antinomian Dispensationalists with a nomist Dispensationalism. Thirty years on from the original controversy, however, Dispensationalism as a movement is dying. MacArthur himself, the old lion of the movement, gives evidence in the chapter that he is not a very good Dispensationalist. The younger Dispensationalists are moving on to Progressive Dispensationalism, and more than a few have simply abandoned Dispensationalism altogether for New Covenant Theology and Progressive Covenantalism. Some former Dispensationalists are busy reconnecting themselves to the Great Christian tradition, including the fathers, the medieval theologians, the Reformers, and their orthodox successors.112

So, this volume is an artifact not only of the Lordship Salvation debate, but of Dispensationalism itself. In that regard, it would have been better for the Dispensational movement, and for those whom MacArthur sought to correct, had he begun with this chapter. It would have signaled, to a certain degree, that he understood their concerns. It would have said, “I am not a legalist to the core. I have compassion for the lost and I do want to offer to needy sinners a gracious salvation graciously.” It would have also left a better legacy for historians and archeologists when they dig up Dispensationalism in the future.

This chapter was encouraging generally, but particularly for this Reformed reader to see MacArthur remonstrate mildly with his Dispensationalist colleagues about their view of the presence of the Kingdom: “Unfortunately, traditional dispensationalism tends to miss that simple point. Some dispensationalists teach that ‘the gospel of the kingdom’ Jesus proclaimed (Matt 4:23) is distinct from ‘the gospel of the grace of God.'”113 He disagrees with Lewis Sperry Chafer, who taught that “God’s purposes to set up on earth the kingdom of Christ . . . in fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant.”114 According to Chafer, the gospel of the kingdom is for the (physical) nation of Israel only, and has nothing to do with the gospel of saving grace. This is the classic two-track Dispensationalist scheme. I will not likely forget hearing a Dispensational minister preaching at Christmas time say that the problem with Christmas is that it brings us to the gospels, and the problem with the gospels is that the gospel is not in the gospels. I have not entirely recovered from that episode—and it was more than thirty years ago. Is it any wonder that the Barretts and the Abendroths of the world are fleeing Dispensationalism and appropriating historic Christianity?

In contrast, MacArthur writes, “When Jesus proclaimed his kingdom, he was preaching salvation.”115 Amen and amen. Still, as one from the Reformation tradition, I keep asking, “what exactly is the good news of salvation? That is the marginal note on page 101 of my copy. MacArthur writes warmly about the necessity of salvation and the graciousness of salvation. There are lots of tantalizing morsels in this chapter. Were we in a homiletics course and this were a sermon (as this chapter once was), I might stop the student preacher to ask him that very question. The answer, of course, is that salvation is God’s free deliverance of helpless sinners, not for anything they have done, not even because they have forsaken sin, but only out of his free favor (grace) for sinners. That salvation is received only through true faith, the essence of which is trust or confidence (fiducia) in Christ and His promises.

MacArthur is exactly right to say that it is those who know their sin and need for a savior who look to Jesus for salvation. One has the sense, even in this, the chapter with the most gospel warmth so far in the book, that he would not be satisfied with the Auchterarder Creed (1717), against the nomists in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland: “it is not sound and orthodox to teach that we forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ.” This sort of language sets the hair of the nomist on fire, but this is gospel language. It was the language of the Marrow Men (e.g., Thomas Boston, and the Erskines). We do not forsake sin “in order to our coming to Christ” (emphasis added). We forsake sin because we have come to Christ. Sanctification and obedience are not preconditions to come to Christ. They are a consequence of coming to Christ. Believers are penitent. The impenitent cannot be saved.

In this chapter, he considers the tax-collector (Luke 18:10–13) and properly contrasts the self-righteous pharisee with the publican who knew the greatness of his sin and misery—Phil Johnson seems not to appreciate the Heidelberg Catechism much, but were this book more influenced by the catechism it would have been a very different book and much more edifying to the Christian public. In this case, the threefold structure of guilt, grace, and gratitude would have been the correct response to Zane Hodges et al because it addresses the problem of antinomianism without slipping into nomism. Question 87 might have helped MacArthur not to say that the impenitent are “beyond the reach of saving grace.”116 It would have been better to say that so long as they are impenitent. None but the reprobate are beyond the reach of saving grace, and apart from a very short list (e.g., Judas and Hitler), none of us know exactly who the reprobate are.

In this chapter, MacArthur considers the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10), and I quite agree with his account. Jesus is the “seeking Savior.”117 His recognition that Zacchaeus’ determination to give generously to the poor and to make restitution is the fruit of salvation, is just right.118 Perhaps he is closer to the Auchterarder Creed than it seems? Indeed, MacArthur’s Dispensationalism becomes even more leaky when he writes, “Zaccheus”—MacArthur follows the spelling of the NASB—”was a son of Abraham not because he was Jewish, but because he believed. Romans 2:28 says, ‘He is not a Jew who is one outwardly.'” MacArthur may be closer to covenant theology than he suspects, especially if we consider his note that, in his review of Zane Hodges, Witmer remarks about Hodges’ “failure to recognize that profession of faith can be less than saving faith.”118 In Reformed theology, we account for that by distinguishing between the external administration of the covenant of grace (e.g., baptism, the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments) and the substance of the covenant of grace (i.e., Christ and his benefits). As Paul says, one can participate in the external administration (Rom 3:1–4; Rom 9:1–5) without ever receiving the substance. That was true of Esau (another on the short list of known reprobates). It is evidently true even in the New Covenant that there were those (e.g., Ananias and Sapphira, Hymenaeus, Alexander, Philetus, and Simon the Magician) who participated in the external administration without receiving the substance by grace alone, through faith alone. There were “waterless clouds” in the apostolic fellowship (Jude 12).

It is interesting that, in order to address the problems inherent in Dispensational theology, MacArthur is driven to adopt some Reformed categories (as we will see next time). The way forward for Dispensationalists and ex-Dispensationalists is to leave Chafer, Scofield, and even the progressive Dispensationalists behind for the Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

The series so far.

NOTES

  1. Apparently, the only reply out of the biblicistic Dispensational world represented by MacArthur & co is double down on biblicism—the attempt to read Scripture as if no one has ever read it before, not in consolation with the ecumenical creeds and the great tradition but in isolation from it—and to mock those who are trying to become historic Christians again. I am thinking here of the recent remarks by the pastor of a long-time MacArthur-affiliated congregation, in my hometown, who went to town, as we say back home, on Matt Barrett for daring to move beyond fundamentalist, Dispensationalist, biblicism.
  2. GAJ, 100. MacArthur cites the Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford, 1967), 1366.
  3. Lewis Sperry Chafer, Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1922), 132, quoted in GAJ, 100.
  4. GAJ, 100.
  5. GAJ, 101.
  6. GAJ, 104.
  7. GAJ, 105–06.
  8. GAJ, 108, n.3.

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One comment

  1. Dr. Clark,
    Thank you!
    – the Auchterarder Creed (1717), against the nomists in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland: “it is not sound and orthodox to teach that we forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ.”

    Thank you!
    This sort of language sets the hair of the nomist on fire, but this is gospel language.

    Thank you!
    It was the language of the Marrow Men (e.g., Thomas Boston, and the Erskines). We do not forsake sin “in order to our coming to Christ” (emphasis added).

    Thank you!
    We forsake sin because we have come to Christ. Sanctification and obedience are not preconditions to come to Christ. They are a consequence of coming to Christ.

    Thank you!
    Believers are penitent. The impenitent (do not believe in Christ) cannot be saved.

    Isn’t nomism/antinomianism thinking in the Reformed Church, 8.7.23, especially among officers and even pastors? There are those who do not believe in Christ by Grace alone through Faith alone (they are not sons of Abraham) – rather these weasels (Jude 4, 12-13) “participate in the external administration (Rom 3:1–4; Rom 9:1–5) without ever receiving the substance of Christ.”

    The Call to persevere in the Reformed Church (Jude 17-23) requires prayer especially when the abused and oppressed are not protected or comforted.

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