Many years ago, at an ecclesiastical meeting, there was a worship service. The minister preaching was retired but something of a hero in the denomination. He and others had stood for the truth when many others had taken an easier and more comfortable path. According to a friend with whom I was sitting, the minister was also in the habit of preaching one text and one sermon with some some frequency which was, “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” (Rom 1:16a) and that was his text and sermon for that worship service. My friend remarked that though the preacher was not ashamed of the gospel, he did not always remember to tell them what the good news is.
So it has been with GAJ. I keep waiting for the author to tell me what the good news is, and what is good about the good news for sinners. It has been a few years since I read GAJ, and the title of chapter 10, “He Offers A Yoke of Rest,” looked promising. MacArthur’s foil in this chapter, however, is that form of evangelical piety focused on gaining, as people say, “decisions” for Christ. Think of the big evangelism rally where people are called to come forward to the stage to “invite Christ” into their hearts, etc.
In contrast, MacArthur says, “Scripture never once exhorts sinners to ‘accept Christ.'”129 In a footnote he says, “Receiving Christ in the biblical sense is more than simply ‘accepting’ Him or responding positively to Him.” “The gospel invitation,” he writes, “is not an entreaty for sinners to allow the Savior into their lives. It is both an appeal and a command for them to repent and follow him. It demands not just passive acceptance of Christ but active submission to him as well.”130 All the confessional Reformed agree with him when he writes, “The great miracle of redemption is not that we accept Christ but that He accepts us.”131 He is certainly right to say that the portrait of a “would be redeemer. . . anxiously awaiting an invitation to come into unregenerate lives” is quite contrary to the biblical portrayal of Christ.132
His antidote to what is essentially an Arminian approach to evangelism is to turn to Matthew 11:25–30, where our Lord prays and says,
At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
MacArthur calls this an invitation to salvation, and so it is. The prayer, with which our Lord begins this passage, acknowledges God’s sovereignty, which much (Arminian) evangelism denies. We agree with MacArthur that “God himself is the determinative factor in salvation.”133
Still, as I read his account, as much as I agree with him there is something missing: Jesus does really make what the Reformed call a “well-meant” or “serious” or “genuine” (serio) and free offer of the gospel to all. This was the language of the Synod of Dort:
Moreover, the promise of the gospel is that whosoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel (2.5).134
As many as are called by the gospel are sincerely called. For God has most earnestly and truly declared in His Word what is acceptable to Him, namely, that those who are called should come unto Him. He also seriously promises rest of soul and eternal life to all who come to Him and believe (3/4.8).135
Synod spoke of “the promise” of the gospel, but MacArthur, in his zeal to refute the Antinomians, speaks mainly of the commands. To be sure, there is a command to repent and believe, but there is also a promise and an offer to all who do believe. To them he promises, as we confess, “rest of soul and eternal life.” In Reformed ears, MacArthur’s rhetoric sounds or reads more like that minority in the Reformed world that rejects the free offer of the gospel as Arminian, which is strange given that the Synod of Dort both refuted the Arminians and taught the free or well-meant offer of the gospel.
In the free, well-meant offer, we publish the good news to sinners everywhere, in all languages, sincerely, genuinely, that whosoever will may come. We call them as Jesus called them, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Rest from what? From weariness and burdens. As Calvin explained in his Harmony of the Evangelists, Jesus was speaking here to those who know the greatness of their sins and misery through the law. The burden here is the load of guilt and the crushing weight of the wrath of God. There are many who are not interested in that rest, and Calvin catalogues different types. The offer is intended specifically for those “who are overwhelmed by their sins, who are filled with alarm at the wrath of God, and are ready to sink under so weighty a burden.”136
As concerned as Calvin was about the antinomians and hypocrites of his day, he also remembered “those whose consciences are distressed by their exposure to eternal death, and who are inwardly so pressed down by their miseries that they faint . . . “137
Thus far, in this work, MacArthur has shown virtually no awareness of that class of persons. Indeed, over the years I have become aware of a number of people, whom I take as representatives of a much larger group, whose consciences have been greatly burdened by this aspect of the Lordship Doctrine. So anxious have its advocates been to refute the antinomians in their midst that they never asked themselves what it was that created the antinomian movement in the first place.
Are all antinomians merely licentious persons looking for some sort of cover of respectability? There surely have been that sort, and it might have been plausible to think that a temptation under a state church or even a prevailing Christian-looking culture, but is it so in 2023? In my experience, with a few exceptions, those tempted to antinomianism are those who have been beaten up, figuratively, and burdened by legalism in the doctrine of salvation and/or legalism in the Christian life. By the former I mean a doctrine teaching justification or salvation through sanctification and law-keeping. By the latter, I mean the imposition of man-made laws without any foundation in Scripture as a measure of the Christian life.
We should agree with MacArthur when he writes, the “contrast between the wise and the childlike is actually a contrast between works and grace. The Galileans who rejected Christ were oriented to a system of works-righteousness.”138 His list of five elements of true conversion, though, is lengthier than that of the Reformed. We speak of two elements of conversion, mortification and vivification (Heidelberg Catechism, 88–90). MacArthur lists humility, revelation, repentance, faith, and submission.139
All of these are certainly virtues that God works in his elect as he regenerates and sanctifies them, but this list seems to confuse the order of teaching (ordo docendi) with the order of the application of the redemption to the elect by the Holy Spirit ordo salutis (e.g., he speaks of faith as the “flip side” of repentance).140 There are modern Reformed writers who have spoken this way but it is not quite so. It is believers who repent. There is a logical order. There is no such thing as an impenitent believer. Impenitence is the chief mark of unbelief. Believers submit to the Lordship of Christ, but this is a part of the outworking of our mortification (the putting to death of the old man) and our vivification (the making alive of the new). This is the work of the Spirit which necessarily accompanies and follows the life-giving work of the Spirit.
Some of the difficulty may be terminological. When the the Reformed churches speak of conversion, we are speaking of the working out of our salvation with fear and trembling. We are not speaking of a single moment.
One final note, and this is not even peculiar to MacArthur, but I could not help but notice that when he writes of salvation by grace through faith (122) he omits the “alone.” Perhaps this is a little thing. I remember talking with Carl Trueman when he used the same language (without the alone’s), and I added them for him and he said, “I forgot I was talking to Scott Clark.” Fair enough, but it always seemed to me that the old White Horse Inn rule where they would unfailingly say “grace alone” and “faith alone” was a very sound rule indeed. It is rather necessary in this discussion, especially when the question of our salvation is directly in view.
Christ’s yoke is easy and his burden is light because he has sustained the burden of God’s eternal wrath and redeemed us from it (HC 14, 17). He alone has been given to us for “complete redemption and righteousness” (HC 18). The good news is that God the Son has come, he has obeyed in the place of all his people, he has satisfied God’s wrath, he has been raised from the dead, he is interceding for us, and he is coming again to consummate all things. Insofar as we are united to him, we are covered by his righteousness and God is no longer angry with us. The Spirit is working in us and he will complete his work so that, at the consummation, we shall be glorified. He forgives our sins and he does not abandon us, even as he works in us to put to death in us the old man and make alive the new.
There are real consequences for those who bear the name Christian, but our life begins not with the law but with the gospel, which truly is sweet news to needy sinners.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
- GAJ, 116.
- GAJ, 116.
- GAJ, 116.
- GAJ, 116–17.
- GAJ, 117.
- Cæterum promissio Evangelii est, ut quisquis credit in Christum crucifixum, non pereat, sed habeat vitam æternam. Quæ promissio omnibus populis et hominibus, ad quos Deus pro suo beneplacito mittit Evangelium, promiscue et indiscriminatim annunciari et proponi debet cum resipiscentiæ et fidei mandato.
- Quotquot autem per Evangelium vocantur, serio vocantur. Serio enim et verissime ostendit DEUS verbo suo, quid sibi gratum sit, nimirum, ut vocati ad se veniant. Serio etiam omnibus ad se venientibus et credentibus requiem animarum, et vitam æternam promittit.
- John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, trans. William Pringle (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 2.42.
- Calvin, Harmony of the Evangelists, 2.43.
- GAJ, 119.
- GAJ, 118–23.
- GAJ, 121.
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