The Gospel According To John (MacArthur)—Part 15

In chapter 15 of GAJ, MacArthur’s critique of Dispensational antinomianism (and particularly of the “carnal Christian” doctrine, which we addressed last time) turns to the parable of the sower (Matt 13:24–30). He complains about the undisciplined character of so much of contemporary evangelicalism: “I am convinced that the popularized gospel of our day has made all this possible—even inevitable.”147 He criticizes “the notion that faith is nothing more than believing a few biblical facts.”148 “If,” he objects, “repentance, holiness of life, and submission to the lordship of Christ are all optional, why should we expect the redeemed to differ from the heathen? Who is to say that someone might not believe a believer, just because that person lives in stubborn rebellion against God? If people say they believe, shouldn’t we just take their word for it?”149

Again, our author reminds us that this is an intramural Dispensational disagreement. The Reformed churches are clear that true faith is knowledge, assent, and trust (Heidelberg Catechism, 21), and that true faith issues forth repentance, holiness of life, and submission to Christ’s lordship. As far as the Reformed churches know, this is basic Christianity.

To address these issues, he turns to the parable of the wheat and tares:

He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn” (Matt 13:24–30).

The disciples asked our Lord to interpret the parable. He said,

The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear (Matt 13:37–43).

In his commentary on this parable, Calvin echoes one ancient, respected strain of interpretation—that our Lord is speaking of the nature of the visible church in the time between the ascension of our Lord and his return. He takes “world” as a synecdoche—that is, as a figurative reference to the church. He assumes an identity between “the Kingdom” and the visible church, which, pace Leon Morris’ comment on this passage, is a generally sound assumption.

In this case, however, I think MacArthur is probably correct that the message of the parable is not about the mixed composition of the church (though, contra the Baptists, the visible church, despite their best efforts is mixed in this age, until the parousia). Rather, as Chrysostom and others have suggested, this parable is about eschatology, or rather about rejecting an over-realized eschatology. Chrysostom said,

This the Lord spake to forbid any putting to death. For we ought not to kill an heretic, seeing that so a never-ending war would be introduced into the world; and therefore He says, Lest ye root out with them the wheat also; that is, if you draw the sword and put the heretic to death, it must needs be that many of the saints will fall with them. Hereby He does not indeed forbid all restraint upon heretics, that their freedom of speech should be cut off, that their synods and their confessions should be broken up—but only forbids that they should be put to death.150

MacArthur complains, “As simple as it is, many Bible students miss the point entirely. Although the field is clearly said to represent the world, a surprising number of commentators see the field as the church. To them, the parable is a message about false elements in the church and divine permission to leave them alone until the Lord and the angels sort out the true from the false in the final judgment.”151 The parable might seem simple to MacArthur, but it says something about the fundamentalism of his theological and hermeneutical method that the number of interpreters who disagree with him does not seem to have given him pause. The weight of interpreters in favor of the view that he dismisses is heavy indeed. When we consider all the evidence, it is probably true that the intent of the parable is not to speak to the composition of the visible church. That said, Calvin, Ryle, Augustine, et al. did not adopt their view because they wanted to give support to antinomianism or because they wanted permission to leave the ungodly in the church. Rather, they were aware of the crisis created by the Novationists and later the Donatists, who troubled the church with their over-realized eschatology.

No one could reasonably accuse Calvin of being indifferent about church discipline. Indeed, the Reformed churches that followed in his wake confess that the use of church discipline is one of the marks of the true church.152 By my lights, it is almost certain that MacArthur’s own congregation lacks at least one of the marks of the true church—the pure administration of the sacraments.153

Nevertheless, MacArthur is right that “we are not to root out the tares or demand that they live by the spiritual principles of the kingdom.”154 It would be interesting to see him address the Christian Nationalism movement, some of the adherents of which seem to want to do the very thing that parable warns against.

Further, MacArthur agrees with the Reformation churches that what distinguishes the wheat from the tares is “the spiritual fruit they bear.”155

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

The series so far.


  1. GAJ, 137.
  2. GAJ, 137.
  3. GAJ, 137.
  4. Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels, Collected out of the Works of the Fathers: St. Matthew, ed. John Henry Newman, vol. 1 (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1841), 499. The quotation is taken from homily 46.
  5. GAJ, 140.
  6. Belgic Confession article 29
  7. E.g., Belgic Confession article 34 says, in part: “For that reason we detest the error of the Anabaptists who are not content with a single baptism once received and also condemn the baptism of the children of believers. We believe our children ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as little children were circumcised in Israel on the basis of the same promises made to our children. And truly, Christ has shed his blood no less for washing the little children of believers than he did for adults. Therefore they ought to receive the sign and sacrament of what Christ has done for them, just as the Lord commanded in the law that by offering a lamb for them the sacrament of the suffering and death of Christ would be granted them shortly after their birth. This was the sacrament of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, baptism does for our children what circumcision did for the Jewish people. That is why Paul calls baptism the ‘circumcision of Christ.'”
  8. GAJ, 141.
  9. GAJ, 142.


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