The Gospel According To John (MacArthur)—Part 14

No chapter in this volume, so far, relies on MacArthur’s debt to Dispensationalism more than chapter 11, where he addresses the parable of the soils in Matthew 13.

The Problem Of Dispensationalism

He begins by recalling our Lord’s words, which he addressed in chapter 13, from Matthew 11:28–30. He moves to a summary of chapter 12. He sees the words of the Pharisees, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons” (Matt 12:24), as the turning point in Jesus’ ministry. He writes, “Israel had rejected their King and refused the kingdom he offered. It was a full and final renunciation.”141

With this we are given a Dispensational (though not identified as such) account of the history of redemption, the purpose of Jesus’ coming, and the nature of the kingdom of God/heaven. Footnote number 1 in this chapter seems important: “The Jewish concept of the kingdom of God was rooted in such Old Testament promises as Daniel 2:44, ‘The God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure forever.'”142

As a Dispensationalist, even a leaky one, MacArthur sees in this text confirmation of his commitment to the fundamental Dispensational hermeneutical principle, “literal where possible,” which is in service of the even more fundamental commitment, namely,

. . . the promises of an earthly kingdom given to Israel as a nation must be fulfilled literally in a future, millennial kingdom (on the analogy of the literal fulfillment of the messianic promises relating to Jesus). Dispensationalists accept that believing Jews—as individuals—find their place in the church during the dispensation of grace, but the promises made to the natural seed of Abraham await the premillennial return of Christ with his church for their fulfillment. Then will be initiated the dispensation during which the material blessings promised to Israel will be bestowed—and will be characteristic, though not to the exclusion of the spiritual dimension.143

In short, according to the Dispensationalists (Rowdon cites modified Dispensationalists such as Chafer and Ryrie), the central focus of salvation history is a national, earthly, people: Israel. In this reading, Matthew 12:24 is a crucial verse because this is the moment at which our Lord decided that the earthly, millennial Kingdom had been offered and rejected. As MacArthur has it, Jesus has turned his back on corporate Israel. He “no longer proclaimed to Israel that the kingdom was at hand. Now the call He issued was for individuals—Jews as well as Gentiles—to surrender in faith to the yoke of his lordship.”144

Remarkably, however, MacArthur also says,

What is the kingdom? In Scripture it is usually called the kingdom of God; Matthew refers to it as the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom—God’s rule over the earth and in the hearts of people—exists in mystery form. Christ does not exercise his full divine will as King over all the earth, though He is ultimately sovereign. He rules as King only among those who are redeemed, but not in a form that is visible to an unbelieving world. This aspect of God’s kingdom is utterly missed by those who were looking for a political monarchy.145

His Dispensationalism drives him to these conclusions. The Reformed did not come to the same conclusions, because they did not start where MacArthur begins (with the Dispensational focus on national Israel). Compare MacArthur’s reading with Calvin’s account of the same passage. It never occurred to the Reformer to read the gospel this way or to think about the kingdom of God this way.

Second, I say remarkably because, in a book in which the Nomist Dispensationalist MacArthur excoriates Antinomian Dispensationalists for denying the lordship of Christ, his Dispensationalism drives him to downplay the lordship of Christ. As many Dispensationalists have said to me over the years, according to MacArthur, Christ is not really ruling now. He must say this because he knows a priori the exercise of his “full divine will” entails an earthly, Israelite kingdom.

The Presence Of The Kingdom

The writers of the New Testament knew nothing of the theory that the ascended Lord Jesus is not now, in his ascension, exercising his “full divine will as King over all the earth.” Indeed, the New Testament says the very opposite: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). According to Peter, Christ is not waiting for a future earthly millennium to exercise his “full divine will as King over all the earth.” He is doing it now.

According to Peter, in contrast to MacArthur, King David was not the ascended King of all. Jesus of Nazareth is King of all. He is at the right hand of the Father, which is a royal position of power. He is making his enemies his footstool (Acts 2:35; Ps 110:1). According to the New Testament, the ascended Jesus is the sovereign King of Psalm 2, whom the kings of this world ought to kiss, lest they perish. He is ruling in the midst of his enemies. According to the New Testament, the Psalmist was speaking of the ascended Lord Jesus:

He who sits in the heavens laughs;

the Lord holds them in derision.

Then he will speak to them in his wrath,

and terrify them in his fury, saying,

“As for me, I have set my King

on Zion, my holy hill” (Ps 2:4–6)

At his coming every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil 2:10; emphasis added).

Had MacArthur an inaugurated eschatology, instead of a futurist, Dispensational premillennialism, then he could say that Christ’s Kingdom has been inaugurated with his coming and shall be consummated at his return. That is how Paul thinks and speaks in Romans 14:17, 1 Corinthians 4:20; 6:9–10; 15:24, 50; Galatians 5:21 etc.  This is why the New Testament writers quote Psalm 110 so frequently. It is why Jesus quoted Psalm 110 of himself.

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord,

“Sit at my right hand,

until I put your enemies under your feet”’?

If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” (Matt 22:41–45)

Jesus said that he is the fulfillment of Psalm 110. He is sitting on his throne, ruling all things, at the right hand of the Father. Peter wrote to the suffering churches of Asia Minor about the ascended Lord Jesus, “who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him” (1 Pet 3:22). Angels, authorities, and powers are all subject to him.

He is the King of whom Psalm 2 and Psalm 110 speak. He has not failed. The Kingdom is here and it has two aspects, secular and sacred. In his general providence he is ruling over all things, in all his power. He made the Roman empire to fall. He has been raising and dashing empires since and he will until he comes again. The institutional church is the visible expression of the sacred aspect of his Kingdom, where the keys of the kingdom (Matt 16:18–20) are exercised. We do not now see everything under his feet but we will. Paul says, “Because it is necessary that he rule (βασιλεύειν) until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Cor 15:25). Paul does not say that he will really begin reigning when the earthly millennium begins. He is reigning now. We do not learn the nature of his Kingdom a priori but a posteriori. i.e., after the fact.

Yes, some Jews were expecting a glorious earthly kingdom and demanded it of Jesus. This is why they murdered him and called for Bar-Abbas instead: they wanted earthly power and conquest now but Abraham was not looking for an earthly but a heavenly city, the builder and maker of which is God (Heb 11:10) and neither were the Apostles. As Hebrews says, Jesus is at the top of Mount Zion, as it were, thundering and reigning now (Heb 12:24, 25).

When Paul speaks of “the mystery” in this context he says that “the mystery” is that “a partial hardening has come upon Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved. . .” (Rom 11:25). The mystery, in the doxology of Romans 16:25, is “my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ.” In Ephesians 1:7–9, the mystery is that we have “redemption through” the blood of Christ, “the forgiveness of our sins…making known the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him. . .”

That God the Son became incarnate is the mystery. That was the plan and it has come to pass. It was this that the prophets were searching:

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look (1 Pet 1:10-12).

So much so that, as Paul says, the very dividing wall between Jew and Gentile on which Dispensationalism rests, has been torn down. For the sake of context I quote the passage in full:

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Eph 2:11-22).

The Parable Of The Soils

His account of the parable of the soils seems almost an afterthought in this chapter. The only useful thing I can say is that he seems to treat a parable like an allegory in which this thing (e.g., a kind of soil) stands for that thing. In the sovereign providence of God, there are different responses to the preached Word. The native soil to which it is preached is hard, stony, and shallow. It is only by the unconditional, sovereign, electing grace of God that anyone ever believes.

Positively, had MacArthur spoken simply of fruit and evidence, which he does briefly in this chapter,146 rather than adopting a nomist position, many of the concerns that orthodox Reformed folk might have, setting aside his Dispenationalism, would be alleviated. The Protestants wrote so frequently about the fruit of faith and the good works as the evidence of faith that the Council of Trent (session 6, 1547) took note and condemned it: “If any one says, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely fruits of and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.” This is the normative Reformation view. In 1980, when confronted by the errors of Norman Shepherd on the doctrine of justification, R. C. Sproul asked, “What’s the matter with the traditional view that good works are necessary for sanctification or are necessary as evidence of authentic faith?” Sproul’s remains a very good question for our day and for MacArthur’s response to Dispensational antinomianism.

Sproul was calling for the traditional Reformation way of speaking, which Norman Shepherd abandoned. So it is in this case. Good works, submission to Christ’s Lordship, and obedience are necessary as fruit and evidence of our new life and true faith but that is all they all. Had MacArthur spoken consistently in the Reformation way, much ink and many electrons might have been saved.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

The series so far.


  1. GAJ, 127.
  2. GAJ, 127, fn. 1.
  3. H. H. Rowdon, “Dispensational Theology” in Sinclair B. Ferguson and J.I. Packer, ed. New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 201.
  4. GAJ, 127.
  5. GAJ, 128.
  6. GAJ, 136.


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  1. I was a MacArthur guy for almost 30 years. Had all the stuff, commentaries, my own tape library, this book you’re addressing and the other one, According to the Apostles, CD’s ect.
    But when I discovered the reformed historical apostolic church I had to wonder why he felt it necessary to publish his own commentaries and biblical notes rather than just draw from the reformers and church fathers. I know now.

    Also I’m running into a lot of theonomy folk these days, especially among the younger ones. Seems it’s replacing the YRR movement. Seems to me theonomy mirrors this connection to Israel’s theocratic government as well as wanting a realized earthly rule now.
    You’ve addressed both. What are your thoughts on how they in many ways seem connected.
    A total misunderstanding of final consummation ?

    • Hi Victor,

      Well, the Reformed are still writing commentaries too. It’s fine to write commentaries but one problem with being Dispensationalist is that it does cut him off from the history of the church. He quotes Reformation (and post-Reformation) documents occasionally but he hasn’t taken the time to understand them. It’s cherry picking but because he doesn’t take the time to understand them, he often gets them wrong. He’s methodologically committed to what scholars call “biblicism,” i.e., the program of reading the Bible in isolation from the Christian tradition. It leads to problems, e.g., denying the eternal generation of the Son (he’s apparently changed his mind on that) and Lordship Salvation.

      Yes, lots of people are scared about what’s happening in the culture and they’re looking for quick fixes. The theonomists promise that they have the answers for everything. It’s superficially attractive: “let’s just get back to God’s law.” They’re not always very explicit what they’re about. What orthodox Christian denies that God’s moral law is the standard for human life? The problem is that their program is about the Mosaic judicial laws. They want the government to impose them. That’s a Judaizing program. It’s no different that requiring the church or the state to impose the ceremonial laws. Both expired with the death of Christ and were abrogated. The only parts of the judicial laws that continue to instruct us are those that reflect the “general equity,” or the natural law but the theonomists reject natural law.

      So the Westminster Divines said (WCF 19.4):

      4. To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.

      The theonomists pretend that the divines didn’t say “expired.” They pretend that the divines said the exact opposite.

      It’s a mess but people don’t always think clearly when their fight or flight instinct has kicked in.

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