The Gospel According To John (MacArthur)—Part 22

Throughout this series, despite my documented concerns about this volume, I have worked to be scrupulously fair. When MacArthur gets things right, I have given him credit for that; and he gets some things right in chapter 20, “The Way of Salvation.” All orthodox Christians must agree with him when he writes, “There is only one gate that opens to the narrow way. Jesus said, ‘I am the door; if anyone enters through me, he shall be saved’ (John 10:9, NASB 1977) and ‘He who does not enter by the door . . . he is a thief and a robber’” (John 10:1, NASB 1977).227 He is just as right to say, “Every other choice is wrong. There is no in between, no third alternative, no other gate.”228

The “two ways” doctrine to which MacArthur appeals is taught in Scripture, in Proverbs 1–8, and throughout the Psalms, beginning with Psalm 1.229 The early post-apostolic fathers regularly used the two-way structure to teach that Christ is the exclusive way of salvation. The path is narrow indeed (Matt 7:13–14).

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (ESV)

It is true that Jesus did not seek multitudes. Sometimes he did plainly chase them away. Jesus sometimes used “hard” words (John 6:60). The cost of discipleship is high.230 The world’s religions are all works-based.231

Biblical Christianity alone recognizes divine accomplishment—the work of Christ on humankind’s behalf—as the sole basis of salvation. Christ’s death on the cross paid the price of our sin (1 Cor 15:3), and his resurrection revealed that he had conquered death (v. 20). Salvation is not a merit system in which people can earn favor with God. No one could ever do enough good works to gain acceptance by God (Rom 3:10–18). Even the law of Moses did not make people righteous; it was given to show how sinful and disobedient we really are (v. 20). As we noted in chapter 19, God through his grace imputes to believers the righteousness of Christ (vv. 21–24). On that basis alone they can stand before him.232

Amen. Christians who would follow the Reformation understanding of justification and salvation should affirm this heartily.

There are other things to be affirmed in this chapter. Modern evangelicalism and evangelism have often been sloppy.233 Easy-believism is a genuine problem.234 Satan is a master of religious deception.235 It is true that “receiving Christ does not mean that we can merely add Jesus to the refuse of our lives.”236 Those “on the narrow way should also expect persecution.”237 There are two destinations, heaven and hell. These are real places, and real people are going to both of them.238

Nevertheless, there are some significant issues with this chapter. The first thing to be noted is the rhetorical tone and tenor of the chapter. Some readers will find my criticism of MacArthur’s rhetoric ironic or hypocritical, since I myself have been the recipient of some fairly strong criticism regarding my “tone.” The failure of the modern American evangelical ethos of “niceness” has been a frequent topic in this space.239

It is quite striking to see MacArthur writing, “This passage crushes the claim of those who say that the Sermon on the Mount is not gospel but law.” First, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time in the volume that MacArthur has acknowledged implicitly or explicitly a distinction between law and gospel.240 He seems to assume that we all know what he means by these terms. He then concludes that one view, which he has not described at all, is “crushed” by the view he advocates. Were a student to submit this paragraph to me in a term paper, I would mark him down for failing to define his terms and for submitting work that—when he writes that “his answer annihilates modern easy-believism”—reads more like a blog post from a first-year seminarian than a serious piece of analysis from a seasoned pastor.241

One of the main lines of criticism of GAJ in this review is that MacArthur has failed to account for the Reformation distinction between law and gospel. When it finally does occur, he does not engage Luther, Calvin, Beza, Perkins, or Machen, but Charles Ryrie.242 To be sure, since Dispensational antinomianism is his primary opponent, it is not surprising that he engages Ryrie, who advocated the antinomian position; but to one writing in a confessional Reformation tradition where the distinction between law and gospel is considered basic to our understanding of Scripture, this way of handling it is disappointing. From MacArthur we do not learn what the distinction is, how it functions, how it should be applied to the Sermon on the Mount, or even how exactly Ryrie applied it to the Sermon on the Mount. Instead, we read that Matthew 7:13–14 “crushes” his opponent’s view. The only things that are crushed here are logic, clarity, and charity.

Allow me to do again what MacArthur, in this volume, has yet to do: distinguish properly between law and gospel. Again, the latter is good news. Whether in the types and shadows before Christ or in the light of Christ’s coming, it promises free salvation and justification to helpless sinners. The former convicts and condemns. It demands, in the words of the Westminster Divines, “perfect and personal obedience.”243

The Sermon on the Mount is typically said to begin in Matthew 5:1 and to conclude in Matthew 7:29. To say, as MacArthur does, that the entire sermon is gospel betrays a serious misunderstanding both of the Sermon on the Mount and the gospel. Setting aside the Dispensational antinomian appeal to the Sermon, there are both law words in this sermon and there are gospel words. Remember, the word gospel means good news. The Beatitudes, properly understood, might be called good news. When I say, “properly understood,” I mean that when our Lord said, “Blessed are,” he was announcing an objective state of things.244 The believer is objectively blessed (not necessarily subjectively happy) because they shall be comforted (by Christ). They are blessed because, despite their suffering in this life, they shall inherit the earth (in the new heavens and the new earth). They shall be satisfied. They shall receive mercy. They shall see God. They shall be called (adopted) sons of God. They enjoy the blessing of suffering with and for Christ, and they shall receive a great and gracious reward (Matt 5:1–12).

There is also the third use of the law. Believers are the salt of the earth, and they are the light of the world (Matt 5:13–14), but in Christ, by grace alone, through faith alone, in union with Christ, we ought also to be salt and light. We ought to do good works that our Father might be glorified (Matt 5:16).

The good news is that Christ has come to fulfill the law (Matt 5:17), but he has not abolished the abiding moral law (including the fourth commandment).245 We are commanded by our Lord to uphold the moral law until the end of time (Matt 5:18–20).

Then Christ turns to the proper understanding of the moral law. He exposits the true sense of the sixth commandment (Matt 5:21–26), the seventh commandment (Matt 5:27–30, 31–32), the fifth commandment (Matt 5:33–37), the Lex Talionis (Ex 21:24; Matt 5:38–42), and the fourth through the tenth commandments generally (Matt 5:43–6:4). This section of the Sermon on the Mount is law. To the believer it is the third (normative) use, and to the unbeliever (as when I first encountered the Sermon) it comes in the first or pedagogical use.

Following his exposition of the moral law, our Lord turns to prayer (Matt 6:5–15) and its implications, fasting (Matt 6:16–18), the Christian life (Matt 6:19–34), judging (Matt 7:1–6), prayer again (Matt 7:7–11), and gives another summary of the second table of the law: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12).246

This is the broader and narrower context for the two verses that MacArthur finds so crushing of his opponents. The context of Jesus’ words about the narrow gate is his summary of the moral law. The gate is not our law keeping. I think MacArthur agrees with that, but the question he does not answer unequivocally in this chapter is this: How does the sinner enter through the narrow gate? Is it by our obedience, or through faith in him who has obeyed in our place? It would have been most encouraging to this reader to see him affirm the latter without ambiguity. As it is, we are left to infer it from various things that he has said. MacArthur affirms that Christ is the only door/gate, but how exactly does one enter the gate or walk through the door?247 I agree that it is not by walking the aisle. It is by faith (knowledge, assent, and trust) alone. Faith is the sole instrument by which we lay hold of Christ, the door and gate to eternal life.248

Had MacArthur taken more seriously the criticisms offered in Christ the Lord after the first edition of GAJ, this could have become a much clearer and more helpful book. One way it could have been improved is that MacArthur might have appropriated the Reformation categories of guilt (law), grace (gospel), and gratitude. Believers obey Christ, not out of (servile) fear of damnation but, in union with Christ, in the communion of the saints, in the covenant of grace, out of gratitude. So, when he says, “Entering the narrow gate is not easy,” the ambiguity is removed. As it stands, it seems as though MacArthur has taken away with the left hand what he gave with the right in the previous chapters. Is salvation by grace alone, through faith alone or not? Suddenly, it is not clear again.

Were he writing from a Reformation perspective he might have added an explanatory adverb, experientially. It is true that, in Christian experience, the struggle with sin is hard—the process of sanctification entails spiritual warfare against spiritual wickedness, sin, the flesh, and the devil. If, however, by “hard,” he means to imply that our salvation is uncertain or dependent upon our performance, then he is dead wrong.249 What MacArthur should have written is that the consequences of being given new life and true faith and the resulting experience of the Christian life can sometimes be very hard. It will help us all if those concerned about “easy-believism,” antinomianism, and the like will distinguish between is and through.250 The Christian life is hard, but we are not saved by or through our obedience. Christ is the only Savior. Faith (not our obedience) is the only instrument of our salvation. Rather than writing that “Salvation is a total transformation,” MacArthur would have helped us all had he simply written that salvation leads to a gradual and gracious transformation.251 Dispensationalism has roots in the Holiness movement, but I doubt that MacArthur teaches the Wesleyan (and Remonstrant and Pelagian) doctrine of complete perfection in this life. The Augustinian understanding of Romans 7 tells us that is not going to happen before the new heavens and the new earth. Sanctification and our consequent obedience are always imperfect—according to Paul in Romans 7—in this life. That is why salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (Eph 2:8–10).

The way to bring about the sort of sanctification and obedience that MacArthur wants is not by being confusing about law and gospel or by being ambiguous about the role works play in our salvation. It is by preaching the law and the gospel and trusting the Spirit to do his sanctifying work in the lives of his people. Walter Marshall’s classic work, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification (London, 1714) is a marvelous antidote to both nomism and antinomianism.252

Notes

  1. GAJ, 203
  2. GAJ, 203.
  3. GAJ, 206–7.
  4. This is an allusion to chapter 22.
  5. GAJ, 204.
  6. GAJ, 204.
  7. GAJ, 209.
  8. GAJ, 202.
  9. GAJ, 204.
  10. GAJ, 206.
  11. GAJ, 207.
  12. GAJ, 207–8.
  13. See RSC, “Resources on of Nice and Men.”
  14. For more on the law and gospel distinction, see RSC, “Resources on the Law/Gospel Distinction.”
  15. GAJ, 205.
  16. GAJ, 202, fn. 1.
  17. Westminster Confession of Faith, 7.2.
  18. Thus, “happy” is an unsatisfactory gloss for μακάρις.
  19. For John MacArthur’s view that the fourth commandment is no longer binding, see his sermon, “Understanding the Sabbath,” September 20, 2009, https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/90-379.
  20. I think I understand what MacArthur means by complaining about “praying some prefabricated prayer” (p. 205), but the Lord’s Prayer, which occurs in this section of the Sermon on the Mount, is just as prefabricated. As one who was raised outside the church, it was helpful to me as a young Christian to learn some written prayers. Calvin produced a collection of prayers for various purposes and there are at least two prayers (the confession of sin in Morning Prayer) and the collect in the second Sunday in Advent for illumination) in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer that every Christian ought to know.
  21. GAJ, 203.
  22. For the Reformation doctrine of salvation sola fide see Belgic Confession articles 22 and 23.
  23. It is an academic point but his use of the etymological fallacy regarding ἀγωνίζομαι on page 205 is an excellent illustration of how not to interpret biblical words. On this, see James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (London: Oxford University Press, 1961); Moises Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning: An Introduction to Lexical Semantics, rev. and expanded (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994).
  24. See RSC, “Salvation Sola Gratia, Sola Fide: On Distinguishing Is, With, And Through.”
  25. GAJ, 206.
  26. Walter Marshal, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, (London, 1714).

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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8 comments

  1. Hi Dr Clark,
    The essay makes a good distinction between law and gospel. And we often hear the law described.
    But can you pls recommend a list of sermons that don’t just describe the law, but where the law is actually preached to sinners? Would something like Sinners in the hands of an angry God, be “law preaching”? Thx.

  2. Is Antinomian gospel rooted in Arminianism, or is it a twisting together of it and Reformed doctrine? One does their part by exercising their free-will in a one-time decision and therefore God is obligated to do His part – “Once saved always saved” (Which is not the same as Perseverance of the Saints)?

    • Diane
      GET 1. (The WHOLE CHRIST) by Sinclair Ferguson.
      ALSO 2. (SALVATION by GRACE) by Matthew Barrett
      Just read 1. doing it at SS.
      2. reading it now.
      Excellent books for getting the Reformed faith right.
      Hope this helps.
      Old Mike AZ

  3. I once heard MacArthur preach- tilte his sermon from Matthew 5 as the Sinfulness of Sin. He actually preached it as Jesus expounding the law. I think he actually got that right. But didn’t apply the gospel rightly to it.
    He confuses people in preaching a free salvation, but then adds ones duty to live up to it for assurance

  4. Thx Diane. I’m glad to hear that helped you. I have got half way through that book 3 times and given up as I found it so repetitive. I don’t know why I struggle with reading it so much, but I have tried.

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