In MacArthur’s account of the parables of the kingdom of God, the nature of saving faith, and in his use of sources, we face three interesting sets of questions and some recurring problems in chapter 13 of The Gospel According to Jesus. His handling of the parables in this chapter is deeply colored by his desire to employ them against the Dispensational antinomians. He begins by quoting a “Calvinist friend” who complained that the “contemporary church often fails to present the gospel clearly enough for the nonelect [sic] to reject it.”156 It is a clever line and true enough but, contra MacArthur, the parables might not be the place we should go to illustrate it.157
How Jesus Himself Saw The Parables
I say that because our Lord Jesus himself said that he spoke in parables not to make the gospel clear to the non-elect but to hide it from them:
Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: ‘ “You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.” For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it (Matt 13:10–17; quoting Isa 6:9, 10; emphasis added).
Jesus explained the parables to his disciples but not to the whole world. This does not mean that we should be unclear about the gospel. The kingdom has come. Contra the Dispensationalists, historic Christianity has always held that Jesus is reigning now. The gospel of Christ’s active obedience, death, resurrection, ascension, present reign, and future bodily return should be preached freely, unequivocally, and clearly to everyone everywhere possible.
What Is The Good News?
Here we are in chapter 13 of a 23-chapter book, ostensibly defending the gospel and setting the record straight, and we have yet to learn exactly what is good about the good news for sinners. Again, we are confronted with MacArthur’s use of the noun gospel. He writes, “The gospel our age has popularized is a sugar-coated placebo designed more to soothe sinners than to convert them.”158 He contrasts the popular “gospel” of our age with the approach of Jesus who “chased the most enthusiastic enquirers away.”159 This is a clever line for a conference but, as this series has sought to show, it is misleading and confusing for the reasons I will explain below. As I re-read this line it occurs to me that it is an indictment of the Church Growth Movement as much as it is an indictment of MacArthur’s Dispensational antinomian opponents.
It is not that MacArthur is entirely wrong. Christian Smith et al., have noted for decades that American evangelical religion is a placebo (an apt word in this context). Previously solid evangelical congregations have traded their inheritance for a mess of therapeutic, moralistic, deism.160 The answer, of course, is not Dispensational nomism, but rather a recovery of full-blooded Reformed theology, piety, and practice. The truth is that the MacArthurite version of Dispensationalism is, at best, a halfway house, an ersatz substitute for the real thing. At the core of historic, confessional, actually Reformed theology is the good news, the article of the standing or falling of the church.
Concern is warranted about what MacArthur thinks the gospel is. He writes,
Some have tried to soften that demand by interpreting it as a call for saved people to take a further step of commitment. But similar words from the Lord in John 12:24–25 make His meaning unmistakable. The subject here is explicitly eternal life and salvation: “Truly, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it; and he who hates his life in this world shall keep it to life eternal” (emphasis added). Forsaking oneself for Christ’s sake is not an optional step of discipleship subsequent to conversion; it is the sine qua non of saving faith.161
According to MacArthur, obedience is absolutely essential to salvation.
He says the same thing again when he writes,
This man is buying treasure. He will liquidate everything to get it. His heritage, his self-righteousness, his money, his education, and all his most precious possessions are mere garbage compared to the wealth he will obtain. He is glad to give it all up for the kingdom. That is the nature of saving faith.162
The only alternative to his view of which he seems to be aware is the antinomian approach of Zane Hodges, whom he cites. The historic Protestant view is not to make obedience either the sine qua non of salvation or a second blessing (as the antinomians have it). According to the Reformation, good works are the fruit and evidence of salvation, and in that sense the way (not the instrument) of salvation. No one has to tell an orange tree to grow fruit. They just do. Do we receive Christ and his kingdom because we obey, or do we obey because we have been given Christ and his Kingdom?
When MacArthur writes “salvation is both free and costly,” he is right.163 What he neglects to tell us, however, is the order in which grace operates. It comes to sinners freely but, to those who have received freely, it costs all.
I know that chapter 19 is devoted to justification, but how does that chapter cohere with this language? Is faith formed by acts of love or are acts of love the fruit and evidence of new life and true faith? Asking how MacArthur defines faith is reasonable in light of the fact that he writes, “Faith as He characterized it is nothing less than a complete exchange of all that we are for all that He is.”164
For MacArthur, it seems as if what Luther called “the joyous exchange” is our obedience for Christ’s kingdom. Contrast MacArthur’s approach to Luther’s:
Who then can fully appreciate what this royal marriage means? Who can understand the riches of the glory of this grace? Here this rich and divine bridegroom Christ marries this poor, wicked harlot, redeems her from all her evil, and adorns her with all his goodness. Her sins cannot now destroy her, since they are laid upon Christ and swallowed up by him. And she has that righteousness in Christ, her husband, of which she may boast as of her own and which she can confidently display alongside her sins in the face of death and hell and say, “If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and all mine is his,” as the bride in the Song of Solomon [2:16] says, “My beloved is mine and I am his.” This is what Paul means when he says in 1 Cor. 15[:57], “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” that is, the victory over sin and death, as he also says there, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law” [1 Cor. 15:56].165
Is faith faithfulness? How do the Reformed churches define faith?
21. What is true faith?
True faith is not only a certain knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word; but also a hearty trust, which the Holy Spirit works in me by the Gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.
Notice that when the Reformed churches define faith, even relative to salvation (not only justification), they do not confess that our good works are the sine qua non but that Christ’s works for us are the sine qua non. They define faith as knowledge, assent, and trust; not obedience. Why not?
First, because Scripture itself does not define saving faith that way. Second, because the Medieval church had come to define faith as faithfulness—that is, as “formed by love.” By that they (and Rome following that doctrine) meant to say that it is our obedience, in cooperation with grace, that makes faith saving. How is MacArthur’s account of faith fundamentally different from that rejected by all the Protestants in the Reformation?
In fact, his definition of faith is not without consequences. He writes, “the kingdom of heaven is only for those who perceive its immeasurable value and are willing to sacrifice everything else to acquire it.”165 The kingdom of God is for those who perceive its value, who have been graciously given new life, who know the greatness of their sin and misery, and who, as a consequence of that new life and true faith, are willing to give all to acquire it. As MacArthur’s language stands, we sinners are in the same trouble we were before Luther.166
- GAJ, 143.
- In GAJ, 145 MacArthur says that the intent of the parables was to “unveil” the mystery of the kingdom.
- GAJ, 143.
- GAJ, 143.
- Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Those categories come from chapter 4.
- GAJ, 143.
- GAJ, 148.
- GAJ, 149.
- GAJ, 144.
- Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 31: Career of the Reformer I, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 31 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 352; Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 78. One might also encourage MacArthur to meditate on the Epistle to Diognetus (c. AD 150),9:4–5, where we find the same doctrine: “In whom was it possible for us, the lawless and ungodly, to be justified, except in the Son of God alone? O the sweet exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous man, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners!” Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Updated ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 547.
- GAJ, 147.
- It is good to see MacArthur write, that the kingdom of heaven “encompasses Christ and all that He offers—eternal life and unending blessing. It is incorruptible, undefiled, unfading, and infinite” (GAJ, 147). Amen. We are only left to wonder how he reconciles this language with his Dispensational approach to the Kingdom that he took earlier in the book.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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