The Gospel According To John (MacArthur)—Part 21

MacArthur is right to observe that too many evangelicals have no place for good works in their account of the faith. The question is not whether there is a “relationship between faith and works,” but rather what that relationship is.216 According to the Reformation churches, true faith produces good works.

The Belgic Confession (1561) is probably not well known to American evangelicals but it is one of the confessional standards of the Reformed churches. It is closely related to the better known 1559 French Confession. Articles 22–24 of the Belgic (BC), however, do a marvelous job of explaining how justification and sanctification are related and how good works are the necessary fruit of new life, true faith, and union (or communion) with Christ.

We confess “for us to acquire the true knowledge of this great mystery the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts a true faith that embraces Jesus Christ, with all his merits, and makes him its own, and no longer looks for anything apart from him” (BC 22). Because Christ is sufficient and faith is the only instrument of our salvation,

it must necessarily follow that either all that is required for our salvation is not in Christ or, if all is in him, then he who has Christ by faith has his salvation entirely. Therefore, to say that Christ is not enough but that something else is needed as well is a most enormous blasphemy against God—for it then would follow that Jesus Christ is only half a Savior. (BC 22)

This is why we “justly say with Paul that we are justified ‘by faith alone’ or by faith “apart from works” (BC 22).

“However, we do not mean, properly speaking, that it is faith itself that justifies us—for faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness” (BC 22). It is Jesus Christ who is our righteousness, crediting to us all his merits and all the holy works he has done for us and in our place. “Faith,” we say is the “sole instrument” that justifies us, saves us, and keeps us “in communion with him and all his benefits” (BC 22). Christ is “more than enough to absolve us of all our sins” (BC 22).

In BC 23, we say “our blessedness lies in the forgiveness of our sins because of Jesus Christ, and that in it our righteousness before God is contained, as David and Paul teach us when they declare that man blessed to whom God grants righteousness apart from works.” This is what it means to say that we are justified “freely” or “by grace.” Our free justification before God for Christ’s sake alone is

enough to cover all our sins and to make us confident, freeing the conscience from the fear, dread, and terror of God’s approach, without doing what our first father, Adam, did, who trembled as he tried to cover himself with fig leaves. In fact, if we had to appear before God relying—no matter how little—on ourselves or some other creature, then, alas, we would be swallowed up. (BC 23)

As far as I can tell, from chapter 19 of this edition of GAJ, MacArthur materially agrees with the Reformation doctrine of justification. He says, “Salvation is impossible for sinful humanity.”217 He defines justification as a forensic act, a declaration of God “wherein [God] imputes to a believing sinner the full and perfect righteousness of Christ, forgiving the sinner of all unrighteousness, declaring him or her perfectly righteous in God’s sight, thus delivering the believer from all condemnation.”218 He invokes Luther and quotes him recounting his realization—that “thunderbolt,” the “righteousness of God,” is not inside of us but outside of us, imputed to us and received through faith alone.219 MacArthur affirms his allegiance to “justification by faith.”220 He explicitly warns against confusing justification with sanctification.221 Indeed, in this chapter it is almost as though we have found ourselves in another work since it seems to have had little consequence on or affect upon the rest of the volume.

This brings us back to MacArthur’s definition of faith (ch. 18) and the relationship between faith and good works. Let BC 24 set the Reformation baseline for us—true faith is the product of the “hearing of God’s Word” and “the work of the Holy Spirit,” which regenerates him “causing him to live the ‘new life’ and freeing him from the slavery of sin.”

One powerful Roman Catholic objection to the Reformation doctrine (to be repeated by the Remonstrants a century later) held that this doctrine did not produce sanctification. The Reformed churches responded thus:

Therefore, far from making people cold toward living in a pious and holy way, this justifying faith, quite to the contrary, so works within them that apart from it they will never do a thing out of love for God but only out of love for themselves and fear of being condemned. So then, it is impossible for this holy faith to be unfruitful in a human being, seeing that we do not speak of an empty faith but of what Scripture calls “faith working through love,” which leads a man to do of himself the works that God has commanded in his Word. (BC 24)

True faith, according to James 2:14, produces good works. It produces spiritual warmth and true piety. We do not do good works out of fear—believers are not in a covenant of works but a covenant of grace—but out of love for God and communion with Christ.

There is an organic relationship between true faith and good works. They proceed, we confess, “from the good root of faith” (BC 24). Nevertheless,

they do not count toward our justification—for by faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do good works. Otherwise they could not be good, any more than the fruit of a tree could be good if the tree is not good in the first place. So then, we do good works, but not for merit—for what would we merit? (BC 24, emphasis added)

It is God who produces the good works that we do. We do good works but “we do not base our salvation on them; for we cannot do any work that is not defiled by our flesh and also worthy of punishment. And even if we could point to one, memory of a single sin is enough for God to reject that work” (BC 24). Were we to try to make our good works any part of the basis of our salvation “we would always be in doubt, tossed back and forth without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be tormented constantly if they did not rest on the merit of the suffering and death of our Savior” (BC 24).

True faith is not faithfulness but, in the covenant of grace, in union with Christ, it leads to faithfulness.

To that question, MacArthur quotes Louis Berkhof’s discussion of the third element of true faith, “trust” (fiducia). Berkhof wrote, “This third element consists in a personal trust in Christ as Savior and Lord, including a surrender of the soul as guilty and defiled to Christ, and a reception and appropriation of Christ as the source of pardon and of spiritual life.”222 We discussed MacArthur’s use of Berkhof in part one of this series:

As Riddlebarger says, “there is not a word in Berkhof about obedience, or repentance in his definition of faith. MacArthur’s use of the threefold model for faith, as presented here, is outside the classical Protestant understanding of that model.”223

These comments pertained to the first edition of GAJ, but they still seem relevant. On page 189, in the third edition, GAJ retains a similar mistake. The analysis of Berkhof no longer contains the claim that Berkhof included obedience in his definition of faith but in the line just above the revised quotation, MacArthur writes, “Thus faith is inseparable from obedience.” He reasserts this on the next page: “Clearly the biblical concept of faith is inseparable from obedience. ‘Believe’ is treated as if it were synonymous with ‘obey’ in John 3:36,” and yet he correctly says just a few lines down, “Obedience is the inevitable manifestation of true faith.” The confessional Protestants agree with this last sentence, but the former sentence is incoherent with the latter.224

The confusion that we identified at the outset of this series occurs throughout the volume. When MacArthur says “inseparable” does he mean indistinguishable? Faith certainly leads to obedience but it is not at all obvious that by the verb “surrender” Berkhof was affirming the same idea as MacArthur’s Lordship doctrine.

It is true that the gospel must be obeyed (Rom 10:16; 1 Pet 4:17), but how exactly do we obey it? By believing. How do we know this? Look at the second part of Romans 10:16, where Paul quotes Isaiah: “For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?’” (emphasis added). The same is true in 1 Peter 4:17, where the contrast is between belief and unbelief. The same is true in 2 Thessalonians 1:8. Scripture says, “Then they said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent’” (John 6:28–29). It is true, as MacArthur writes, that “faith obeys,” but it is not true that faith justifies or saves through obeying or because it obeys or produces obedience.225

When Calvin called the doctrine of justification “the principal axis (praecipuum . . . cardinem) on which religion turns,” he was following Luther’s lead.226 These questions are too important to be left hanging and they are too important for mere tribalism. GAJ has exercised enormous influence on a great number of Christians, both those who have read the book and those who have been influenced by those who have read the book. Chapter 19, on justification, is a helpful clarification, but chapter 18, on the nature of faith, remains marred and incoherent with chapter 19.


  1. GAJ, 186.
  2. GAJ, 194.
  3. GAJ, 195.
  4. GAJ, 195.
  5. GAJ, 195. In this context it would have been encouraging to see the full expression, “by faith alone.” In his Commentary on Galatians 5:6, Calvin wrote, “Therefore, when discussing the case of justification, beware of admitting any mention of love or of works, but resolutely adhere to the exclusive particle” (Ergo quum versaris in causa iustificationis, cave ullam caritatis vel operum mentionem admittas: sed mordicus retine particulam exclusivam) Ioannis calvini commentarii in quatuor Pauli epistolas ad galatas etc. (Geneva, 1548), 82. My translation. The exclusive particle was the sola in sola fide. William Perkins made the same argument decades later. See Inwoo Lee, “William Perkins on Justifying Faith,” Modern Reformation, February 9, 2022. The expression does occur in GAJ, 191: “Reformers were fond of saying . . . we are justified by faith alone but justifying faith is never alone.” There are no citations in GAJ, but one primary source for this formula is WCF 11.2: “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteous- ness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.”
  6. GAJ, 196.
  7. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing co., 1938), 505.
  8. Kim Riddlebarger, “What Is Faith?,” Christ the Lord, ed. Michael Horton (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2009), 94.
  9. See RSC, “The Gospel According To John (MacArthur)—Part 1
  10. GAJ, 193.
  11. John Calvin, Institutio Christianae Religionis (Berolini: Gustavum Eichler, 1834), 3.11.1.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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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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