The Gospel According To John (MacArthur)—Part 19

“Most of the current controversy regarding the gospel hinges on the definitions of a few key words, including repentance, faith, discipleship, and Lord.”186 So writes John MacArthur in his chapter on repentance.187 He notes that our Lord’s preaching of the Kingdom of God begins with a call to repentance (e.g., Matt 4:17; Luke 5:31 and he might have added Mark 1:15).188 He observes fairly that much modern evangelical Dispensational preaching and teaching omits this basic biblical call. He sides with fellow Dispensationalist H. A. Ironside (1876–1951) against his fellow Dispensationalists Lewis Sperry Chafer and Charles Ryrie, among others.189 About the split of opinion among Dispensationalists he is quite right. Further, he is right to note that certain groups mischaracterize the verb to repent (μετανοέω) and the noun repentance (μετάνοια) merely to mean a change of mind. Though he does not explain the error, it is the etymological fallacy.190 The sense of a word is not determined by adding up its letters or by its etymology. It is determined by its context, its use, and the author’s intention.191

What is repentance? MacArthur says, “it always speaks of a change of purpose, and specifically a turning from sin. In the sense in which Jesus used it, repentance calls for a repudiation of the old life and a turning to God for salvation.”192 It is not, he writes, merely a sorrow for sin (though genuine repentance includes this), but it is a “redirection of the human will, a purposeful decision to forsake all unrighteousness and pursue righteousness instead.”193 In support, he quotes and cites Reformed theologians Louis Berkhof (1873–1957) and Geerhardus Vos (1862–1949).194 On the definition, MacArthur is with the Reformed against the Dispensational antinomians.

That said, it is not as though there are no problems with his account of repentance. Though he cites Vos and Berkhof, it does not appear that he quite grasped how they understood repentance. For example, in the passage MacArthur quotes, Berkhof himself says, in effect, that repentance accompanies true faith. Berkhof wrote, “True repentance never exists except in conjunction with faith.”195

Further, MacArthur writes: “Nor is repentance merely a human work. It is, like every element of redemption, a sovereignly bestowed gift of God.”196 It would be better to say simply that repentance is a divine gift. It is wrought, subjectively within us, such that we do repent, but the adverb merely suggests that it is partly a human work. His citation of Acts 11:18 is apt. It was God who granted to the gentiles repentance that leads to life. Repentance is not the fruit of God’s work and ours. Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC) 87 explains:

What is repentance unto life?

Repentance unto life is a saving grace, (Acts 11:18) whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.

Repentance is a saving grace (i.e., a gift). It is God, as MacArthur acknowledges, who grants this gift. Further, this explanation comes after WSC 86, which asks,

What is faith in Jesus Christ?

Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.

Faith is the logically prior gift to repentance. Faith, as confessed by the Reformed, is not repentance, because faith looks to Christ alone for salvation, freely offered and given in the good news. New life, true faith, and union with Christ lead to repentance, but faith is not repentance. As has been noted previously in this series, MacArthur habitually in this work confuses the order of teaching (e.g., “repent and believe”) with the order of salvation—that is, the logical (not temporal) order in which God the Spirit sovereignly and freely applies the benefits of Christ to his elect.

Yes, our Lord commanded everyone to repent and believe, and repentance is a necessary fruit of new life and true faith, but it is not a prior condition of faith, nor is it instrumental in our salvation. Whereas true faith looks to Christ and his righteousness, repentance considers the law and one’s sin. These are distinct things. It is the regenerate who believe and it is believers who repent. That (logical) order matters.

Remember that the Reformation was, in part, about repentance—or penitence. The medieval church had come to require a certain degree of penitence for a person to be justified and saved. Who, in this life, is sufficiently repentant or penitent?

MacArthur’s account lacks these distinctions, as (or because) it lacks the biblical and Reformation distinction between law and gospel, which we have observed repeatedly in this review. Thus, it is too much to say, as MacArthur does, that repentance “has always been the foundation of the New Testament call to salvation.”197 The call to repentance is essential, and believers do repent. There is no such thing as an impenitent Christian. In Heidelberg Catechism (HC) 87, the Reformed confess:

87. Can they then not be saved who do not turn to God from their unthankful, impenitent life?

By no means, for, as the Scripture says, no unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or the like shall inherit the Kingdom of God.

The impenitent cannot be saved, not because they are not sufficiently sanctified, but because they do not believe. They have not turned to God. Those who have turned to God, by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide)—they are at war with the old man and their sin.

This is why it is so important for MacArthur’s followers to recognize the importance of the threefold distinction in the book of Romans as reflected in the Heidelberg Catechism. The first thing we need to know is the greatness of our sin and misery, and we learn this through the moral law (all of it, not just eight or nine commandments). We need the unvarnished, pure gospel of free justification and salvation through Christ alone, and then we need to know how we ought to live thankfully, in grace, from grace, in union with Christ, and in the communion of the saints. That is the third part of the book of Romans and the third part of the catechism.

It is in light of all this that the Reformed churches (in the catechism) characterize the Christian life as a repentant, or penitent, life:

HC 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, for us, repentance and conversion are the same things. We refer conversion to the Christian life, which is the fruit of regeneration, true faith, and union with Christ. From a Reformed perspective, the absence of mortification and vivification from MacArthur’s response to Dispensational antinomianism reveals the context of the debate and his theology.

HC 89. What is the dying of the old man?

Heartfelt sorrow for sin, causing us to hate and turn from it always more and more.

Because we have been freely justified once for all, and because we are being graciously saved, the Spirit is working in us a growing sorrow for sin and a turning to God more and more. For us, the Christian life is a pilgrimage, not a victory march.

HC 90. What is the quickening of the new man?

Heartfelt joy in God through Christ, causing us to take delight in living according to the will of God in all good works.

The same Spirit who is graciously putting to death in us the old man is also graciously renewing us in the image of Christ. Sin is being replaced, sometimes imperceptibly it seems, with a delight in God and in his holy law.

In light of this discussion it will be interesting to see in chapter 18 how he defines and characterizes faith. Is it “a certain knowledge and a hearty trust” as the Reformed have it in HC 21, or is it faithfulness as the nomists have it?


  1. GAJ, 175.
  2. This is chapter 17 in the revised, expanded anniversary edition.
  3. GAJ, 175.
  4. GAJ, 175–77. Ryrie’s claim that repentance can be a synonym for faith is wrongheaded and confused for reasons to be explained below.
  5. See James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (London: Oxford University Press, 1961); Moisés Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning: An Introduction to Lexical Semantics. Rev. and expanded (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994).
  6. The classic example is our English word nice, which is derived from the Latin adjective, nescius, meaning generally, “stupid.” Determining the meaning of nice by its etymology might be socially disastrous. MacArthur’s account of μετάνοια and μετανοέω participates in this fallacy (pp. 177–78).
  7. GAJ, 178.
  8. GAJ, 178.
  9. GAJ, 179. See Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), 486; Geerhardus Vos, The Kingdom of God and the Church (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1972), 92–93.
  10. GAJ, 177n12, emphasis added
  11. GAJ, 178.
  12. GAJ, 182.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Small technical word choice question

    “They have not turned to God.” Those who have turned to God, by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide)—they are at war with the old man and their sin.

    ‘They have not turned’ can incorrectly include and conclude self agency.
    It is true dead men turn not.

    They, whom God has not turned to himself,

    Psa 80:3 Turn us again, O God, and cause thy face to shine; and we shall be saved.
    Psa 80:7 Turn us again, O God of hosts, and cause thy face to shine; and we shall be saved.
    Psa 80:19 Turn us again, O LORD God of hosts, cause thy face to shine; and we shall be saved.
    Psa 85:4 Turn us, O God of our salvation, and cause thine anger toward us to cease.

    Lam 5:21 Turn thou us unto thee, O LORD, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old.

    • But scripture does indeed command that we turn:
      Acts 26:20 “…declared…that they should repent and turn to God…”
      1 Thessalonians 1:9 “…you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God…”
      Jeremiah 35:15 “…Each of you must turn from your wicked ways…”
      Acts 14:15 “…you should turn from these vain things to a living God…”

    • Yes, Scripture does indeed command us to obey. Those commands are the Law, and not the Gospel. This first use of the Law shows us our sin and misery, it does not give us the ability to obey, but rather drives us to look to the Saviour, who does obey perfectly, and imputes that obedience to us when we believe in Him as our Saviour and trust that we are justified in Him, through His perfect righteousness. After that, the Law becomes our guide. No longer does it threaten condemnation, but rather shows us how we us how we should live in a way that shows our gratitude and love to God for this gracious Salvation.
      Failure to distinguish Law and Gospel is the problem. Only the Gospel tells us what God’s Grace has done for our justification. The Law only shows us what ought to be done and condemns us for our failures if we are so foolish to try to be justified in any way by our obedience. It only becomes the evidence of our gratitude and love to God when we use it to do what pleases a God, trusting only in Christ’s righteousness for our justification. The command to turn, and repent are only met by the response of the justified sinner, as evidence of his love and gratitude to God, and never as a requirement for doing his part for acceptance with God.

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