Because the MacArthurite sect of Dispensationalism (we might say post-modified Dispensationalism but not quite Progressive Dispensationalism) intersects only occasionally and tangentially with the Reformation, the defenders of Lordship Salvation assume that any critique of the system is necessarily a defense of Zane Hodges’ antinomianism—a non sequitur. The distance between the MacArthurite system and the Reformation is greater than they think, and of a different sort than they think. His approach to Judas in chapter 9 of GAJ illustrates the distance and nature of the gulf. In this chapter, his foil is the doctrine of the so-called carnal Christian. He writes, “Opponents of lordship salvation admit that one of the reasons they exclude obedience from the concept of saving faith is to make room in the kingdom for believers whose lives are filled with sin.”120
According to this doctrine, as R. Kent Hughes describes it, Romans 7 describes a “carnal Christian.”121
This teaching maintains that these people are truly saved because they have accepted Jesus as Saviour. But they are not living as they should because they have not yet accepted Jesus as their Lord. He is in their lives, but he is not yet on the throne of their hearts! These people have the best of both worlds. They are saved and, therefore, get to go to heaven when they die, but they live as if they were lost.122
This doctrine is the ugly stepchild of the second-blessing approach to theology, which has found many manifestations in the history of the church. In this manifestation, it appears in revivalism, wherein a preacher persuades members of an audience to come forward, pray a prayer (at the anxious bench) and to be declared a Christian by the revivalist. Should the “convert” go on to live impenitently, he is said to be a “carnal Christian.” This approach only makes sense under the assumption that there are two classes of Christians—Christians who have not achieved the “higher life” and those who have.
There are not two classes of Christians. There is only one class: sinners saved by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone (solo Christo). Romans 6 and 8 describe the norm of the Christian life, and Romans 7 describes the ordinary experience of the Christian life. According to the Reformed theologian Caspar Olevianus (1536–87), a contributor to the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), all Christians in this life are but partly sanctified. We all stand only by grace and on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ. We are all pilgrims heading for the heavenly city (Heb 11:10). A Christian pilgrim is a sinner, but he is a penitent sinner—that is, because he has been saved sola gratia, sola fide. He lives in union with Christ as a graciously adopted son. Insofar as he is a new man, he wants to obey and he seeks to mortify sin and the old man.
According to the Reformed understanding of conversion, it is not a one-time event. There is a moment in which God the Spirit (John 3) sovereignly, freely grants new life and with it true faith, union with Christ, and adoption, but conversion was traditionally confessed by the Reformed to be a life-long process. The churches teach:
88. In how many things does true repentance or conversion consist?
In two things: the dying of the old man and the quickening of the new.
Notice that the churches use conversion as a synonym for “true repentance” and repentance is treated as the ordinary fruit of new life and true faith. The two parts of the Christian life (conversion) are mortification and vivification, the putting to death of the old man and the making alive of the new.
There are not Christians who have no interest in either of these. We say that the first part of the Christian life, mortification, means, “Heartfelt sorrow for sin, causing us to hate and turn from it always more and more,” and the second part of the Christian life, vivification, means, “Heartfelt joy in God through Christ, causing us to take delight in living according to the will of God in all good works.” Should someone be impenitent in their sin—that is, should one “not turn to God from their unthankful, impenitent life” they cannot be saved in that state because “as the Scripture says, no unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or the like shall inherit the Kingdom of God.” (HC 87–90)
We do not say that sinners cannot be saved. Of course, sinners are saved. Those, however, who refuse to acknowledge their sin, who are not grieved by them, who have no interest in sanctification, are not yet born again, have no true faith, and remain under the wrath of God.
So, a confessional Reformed approach to the issues that MacArthur raises in this chapter takes a different trajectory than the approach taught either by Zane Hodges or MacArthur. We exist in a different, parallel universe, and we live, read Scripture, and think according to a different paradigm.
We agree with MacArthur that just because one has come forward at a rally does not mean that he is a Christian, and it is good that he affirms the perseverance of the saints (see the Fifth Head of Doctrine of the Canons of Dort).123 We agree that there is a material difference between the modern revivalist/evangelical doctrine of “once saved, always saved” and the Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. It is interesting, however, that he affirms something of the fifth head of doctrine of our response to Arminius and the Remonstrants (i.e., the Arminians) but, in this volume, he seems quite unaware of the structure of the Heidelberg Catechism: guilt, grace, and gratitude. In his response to the antinomianism of Zane Hodges et al., instead of turning to the law (guilt), the gospel (grace), and the Christian life lived in union with Christ (to which he appeals once, in the chapter on justification, in the revised edition), his instinct is to put the believers back under the law. The Reformed response, as measured by the confession of the Reformed churches, is to preach the law, the gospel, and to teach the law as the norm of the Christian life, which is lived in the covenant of grace, in union with Christ, out of gratitude. Remarkably, the word gratitude does not occur in The Gospel According to Jesus. This is not merely an indictment of MacArthur but a way of measuring the distance between MacArthurite-nomist-Dispensationalism and confessional Reformed theology.
Christ came to save sinners, of whom I am chief (1 Tim 1:15). He came not for the sinless (Matt 2:17), but helpless sinners. To further illustrate the distance between the way the Reformed talk about salvation and the way that modern (e.g., Dispensational) evangelicals talk about it, when someone asks me, “When were you saved?” I answer, “On Golgotha, in the early AD 30s.” This response has earned me some quizzical looks, but it gives me the opportunity to explain the difference between the accomplishment of redemption and the application of the redemption. Typically, the question is asking about the application of the redemption, but even then, to answer it is a little presumptuous. Jesus is rather clear that we do not know from where the Spirit comes or where he goes (John 3:8). To assume that we know the exact moment that the Holy Spirit regenerated us is to presume to know what Jesus says cannot be known. What we do know is that we believe now.
Both MacArthur and his antinomian opponents come at the question of Lordship from a Baptistic perspective, which reads the history of redemption quite differently from the way the Reformed understand the history of redemption. The Baptistic view sees the New Covenant church as an entirely different entity from what went before. In Dispensationalism, they speak of the “the church age.” In Reformed theology, we do not speak that way. For us, it has been the church age, as it were, since Genesis 3:15, when God the Son, in his pre-incarnate state, came to Adam and Eve, after the fall, and formed the church and gave the gospel promise that he would become incarnate and save his people. Because MacArthur writes from a (leaky) Dispensational theology, he does not view the church as we do nor does he speak of one covenant of grace in multiple administrations as we do.
In the Reformed account, the visible church is now, and always has been, a mixed assembly. All of us (Jacob and Esau, if you will) profess faith but, despite the best efforts of Baptistic theology to put a fence around the church, not everyone in the visible church has been given new life and true faith. Even in the New Covenant, there are, as Olevianus, Beza, and others used to say, “hypocrites and reprobates.” This is the nature of life in the visible church, in a fallen world, before the return of Christ. For MacArthur, in this chapter of GAJ, Judas serves as the prime example of the failure of Zane Hodges’ “easy believism.” For us, however, Judas is a prime example of the reality of hypocrites and reprobates in the visible church. We distinguish between the holy catholic church, which
has existed from the beginning of the world and will last until the end, as appears from the fact that Christ is eternal King who cannot be without subjects. And this holy church is preserved by God against the rage of the whole world, even though for a time it may appear very small in the eyes of men—as though it were snuffed out,124
and the visible church, which can be distinguished from the false church (e.g., Rome) and sects (e.g., most American evangelical congregations):
We believe that we ought to discern diligently and very carefully, by the Word of God, what is the true church—for all sects in the world today claim for themselves the name of “the church.” We are not speaking here of the company of hypocrites who are mixed among the good in the church and who nonetheless are not part of it, even though they are physically there. But we are speaking of distinguishing the body and fellowship of the true church from all sects that call themselves “the church.”125
The marks of the true church are three:
- The pure preaching of the gospel
- The pure administration of the sacraments
- The use of church discipline
We appeal to Judas’ presence at the institution of the Lord’s Supper to illustrate the mixed nature of the church:
Moreover, though the sacraments and the thing signified are joined together, not all receive both of them. The wicked person certainly takes the sacrament, to his condemnation, but does not receive the truth of the sacrament, just as Judas and Simon the Sorcerer both indeed received the sacrament, but not Christ, who was signified by it. He is communicated only to believers.126
So, because the Reformed churches are not Baptistic in our reading of redemptive history and in our view of the visible church, we consider and speak about the history of redemption and the visible church rather differently from MacArthur and Hodges.
Nevertheless, MacArthur is right to observe about the state of the broad evangelical church, “I fear that there are multitudes like Judas in the contemporary church. They are friendly to Jesus. They look and talk like disciples. But they are not committed to Him and are therefore capable of the worst kind of betrayal.”127 We agree that a real disciple may “fail Christ but will never turn against him.”128 It might be well to remember that the ecumenical church was not Novatianist or Donatist. We have never been perfectionist (Pelagian). We do not hinge the validity of the sacraments on the character of the minister (Donatist) and we do not regard, as the Novatianists did, those who lapse as irredeemable. When the time came, in the second and third centuries AD, to confess Christ or die for the sake of Christ, there were Christians, even ministers, who faltered, who denied Christ. In the third century, the Novatianists split the church when those who had fallen, who had denied Christ rather than be martyred, were readmitted.
The Synod of Dort is wonderfully biblical and pastoral when, in Canons 5.4, it says,
Although that power of God strengthening and preserving true believers in grace is more than a match for the flesh, yet those converted are not always so activated and motivated by God that in certain specific actions they cannot by their own fault depart from the leading of grace, be led astray by the desires of the flesh, and give in to them. For this reason they must constantly watch and pray that they may not be led into temptations. When they fail to do this, not only can they be carried away by the flesh, the world, and Satan into sins, even serious and outrageous ones, but also by God’s just permission they sometimes are so carried away—witness the sad cases, described in Scripture, of David, Peter, and other saints falling into sins.
Because salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, God never abandons his people. He always renews them to repentance, even after they have sinned grievously:
For, in the first place, God preserves in those saints when they fall his imperishable seed from which they have been born again, lest it perish or be dislodged. Secondly, by his Word and Spirit he certainly and effectively renews them to repentance so that they have a heartfelt and godly sorrow for the sins they have committed; seek and obtain, through faith and with a contrite heart, forgiveness in the blood of the Mediator; experience again the grace of a reconciled God; through faith adore his mercies; and from then on more eagerly work out their own salvation with fear and trembling (CD, 5.7).
As a pastoral matter, MacArthur would have done well in this chapter to follow the Synod of Dort and to close his discussion of the difference between Judas and struggling believers by giving some gracious encouragement to the bruised reed and the smoking flax (Isa 42:3; Matt 12:20). Believer, if you have trusted Jesus and are grieved by your sins, be assured, as the Synod says,
So it is not by their own merits or strength but by God’s undeserved mercy that they neither forfeit faith and grace totally nor remain in their downfalls to the end and are lost. With respect to themselves this not only easily could happen, but also undoubtedly would happen; but with respect to God it cannot possibly happen, since his plan cannot be changed, his promise cannot fail, the calling according to his purpose cannot be revoked, the merit of Christ as well as his interceding and preserving cannot be nullified, and the sealing of the Holy Spirit can neither be invalidated nor wiped out.
The same God who called you to new life and true faith by his powerful gospel will preserve you, despite your sins, to the end. He will not let you go, and his Spirit is at work in you to conform you to Christ more and more, little by little, day by day.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
- GAJ, 108.
- R. Kent Hughes, Romans: Righteousness from Heaven, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991). He cites Alan F. Johnson, The Freedom Letter (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974), p. 112 as his example.
- Roger Ellsworth, Opening up James, Opening Up Commentary (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2009), 97.
- GAJ, 109.
- Belgic Confession (1561), art. 27.
- Belgic Confession (1561), art. 28.
- Belgic Confession (1561), art. 35.
- GAJ, 115.
- GAJ, 115.
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