The Gospel According To John (MacArthur)—Part 23

Chapter 21 of MacArthur’s The Gospel According to Jesus is typical of this work. There is much that is true and helpful, there is not a little irony, and there are one or two significant mistakes. Again, as I have said many times already in this series, I agree with much of MacArthur’s critique of modern evangelism and evangelicalism. Much of it is a reiteration of Charles Finney’s nineteenth-century “anxious bench,” a system designed to manipulate people to “make a decision for Christ.” This often goes on outside the visible church, and those who go forward at such meetings too often receive no subsequent discipleship. It is true that much “of modern evangelism is building on the sand. It allows no time for conviction of sin, no opportunity for deep repentance, no chance to understand why we must come to grips with the reality of our lostness, and no occasion for the Holy Spirit to work.”253

In the Reformed tradition, in our catechism, we speak of the three things necessary for a Christian to know, “the first, how great my sin and misery is; the second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery; the third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption” (HC 2). We learn the greatness of our sin and misery “out of the law of God” (HC 3), as distinct from the good news.

He is quite right when he says, “sanctification is a characteristic of all who are redeemed, not a condition of their receiving salvation.”254 For years I have been saying the same thing in response to John Piper’s doctrine of final salvation through works, but not nearly as well or as effectively. Henceforth I will be using that line (with appropriate credit). He is right to say “justification and sanctification are distinct theological concepts” but “both are essential elements of salvation.”255 It is quite true that salvation “includes all God’s work on our behalf.”256 He is right to say that is a mistake to say that salvation is a merely judicial act without consequences for our sanctification and consequent obedience.257 His use of Hebrews 12:14 in this context, however, will be challenged below. The same is true of his use of Matthew 5:20.

I agree that the good works which ought to be evident in the life of the Christian are not merely external. They come from the heart.258 I agree with MacArthur that self-examination is important.259 Self-examination, in the context of what the Reformed churches characterize as the “pure preaching of the good news,” is a valuable exercise. In our tradition, we call believers to self-examination as part of our preparation for the Lord’s Table. That self-examination is not the ground of our assurance before the Lord. In it we seek two things: to be reminded of the greatness of our sin and misery, and to notice, where we can, those evidences of the work of God’s grace in our lives.260 Further, he is right to say “genuine believers receive Christ and continue in him.”261 This is consonant with the biblical and Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.262

Nevertheless, for all my agreement with MacArthur in this chapter, there are also items to criticize. First, let us address the irony to which I alluded above. Again, I agree entirely with MacArthur when he says:

When the Reformers rediscovered the great truth of justification by faith and began to articulate it in their writings, Rome’s response was to argue that this doctrine rendered holy living superfluous. . . . The Reformers answered this charge by showing that sanctification is inevitable in the experience of every true believer. . . . Contemporary Protestantism tends to forget those theological roots.263

Amen! We should start by remembering to qualify the expression, “justification by faith,” with alone. The sola in sola fide is there for a reason. The irony here is that MacArthur himself seems to have forgotten important aspects of the Reformation—for example, the distinction between law and gospel, the neglect of which is reflected throughout this book.

The Protestant Reformers were clearer about the relationship between justification and sanctification than MacArthur has often been in this book. They were clearer about the relationship between good works and sanctification than MacArthur has been. And they were clearer and more consistent in the way they discussed the relationship between salvation and good works. For example, he criticizes the Dispensational Antinomians for teaching that holiness is “unrelated” to the matter of justification and “unnecessary for eternal salvation.”264 As I have re-read these words, I cannot help but think about the “bruised reed” and “faintly burning wick” (Isa 42:3). Related in what way? That was at the center of the Reformation case against Rome. MacArthur does not clarify that right away. Indeed, within this very chapter he seems to contradict some of the helpful things he says.

There are two great errors in discussing the relations between good works and eternal salvation. The antinomian error is to say that good works are not necessary in any way. The nomist error is to say that they are either the ground of our salvation or instrumental to it. The orthodox way is to say that they are necessary as fruit and evidence of our salvation.265 Contra the Antinomians, obedience is necessary but contra the Nomists, they are not necessary as grounds or instruments. The same is true of sanctification or holiness. MacArthur is right to say that it is a necessary consequence of our justification.266 Yet, MacArthur says that the necessity of good works is “an indispensable part of the gospel according to Jesus.” This is inaccurate. Again, as Luther said repeatedly,

The Gospel and the Law, taken in their proper sense, differ in this way: The Law proclaims what must be done and left undone; or better, it proclaims what deeds have already been committed and omitted, and also that possible things are done and left undone (hence the only thing it provides is the knowledge of sin); the Gospel, however, proclaims that sins have been remitted and that all things have been fulfilled and done. For the Law says: “Pay what you owe”; but the Gospel says: “Your sins are forgiven you.”267

According to the Reformers, to which MacArthur just pledged allegiance, the good news is what Christ has done, not what I am doing as a consequence. It would be much more helpful for him to write that our progressive sanctification and its consequent good works are the consequent fruit and evidence of the gospel, not the gospel itself.

Matthew 7:21–23 is a warning to those who profess faith but do not actually believe, who are not, by God’s sovereign grace, united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone. Yet, the way MacArthur writes, one would think that the fundamental problem is the lack of good works.268 The absence of good works is the symptom not the problem. Here, MacArthur has settled for a topical treatment when what the patient needs is heart surgery. He compounds the mistake considerably when he writes, “Periodic doubts about one’s salvation are not necessarily wrong.”269 Who among the Reformers inspired this way of thinking? The magisterial Protestants were united in their doctrine that assurance is of the essence of true faith. This view is summarized in Heidelberg Catechism 21:

  1. 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.

MacArthur’s words are flatly contrary to the Reformation definition of faith. Believers should not doubt. Mere professors of faith should indeed doubt; but believers, by definition ought to have and are entitled to confidence and trust in divine promises, that they are true for believers generally and for themselves in particular. Thus, we say, “not only to others, but to me also.”

At points in this book, it is almost as though MacArthur is writing the anti-Heidelberg. Where the Reformed begin by asking, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” MacArthur seems to ask, “What is your only discomfort in life and in death?” He seems to want us to ask, “Have I done enough?” “Am I really saved?” Those are the wrong questions. We ought to ask, “Do I believe?” and “What has God promised?”

Here it would help this book much if he distinguished with the Reformed between those who have a merely external relation to the covenant of grace and those who have both an external and and internal relation to the covenant of grace sola gratia, sola fide.270 Perhaps his Baptist theology gets in the way here? Yes, there are always mere professors, whom we describe as hypocrites, in the visible covenant community. These we warn sharply to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. To believers, however, we offer comfort and hope, not despair and doubt. Our only comfort is not that we have been good enough or done enough to qualify for eternal life but,

That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me, that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him. (HC 1)

When push comes to shove, the ground of my comfort is that I belong to Christ, that my Savior is faithful, that he has redeemed me, that he satisfied God’s wrath for me, that he preserves me, and that by his sovereign Holy Spirit, he is making me heartily willing and ready to serve him.

I understand that, in this book, MacArthur has gone to war with his Antinomian Dispensational colleagues, but in so doing, what collateral damage has there been from the bombing campaign? What have the phalanx of GAJ -inspired preachers done with MacArthur’s methods and message?

This gets us to MacArthur’s use of Scripture—for example, his quotation of Matthew 5:20. This is a passage that bears careful explanation, not a casual quotation as though the sense is obvious. Jesus is frequently and intentionally less than obvious. He did not intend for us to breeze through his sayings. He intended to make us stop and ponder. MacArthur assumes that when Jesus says our righteousness must exceed that of Pharisees, that he refers to our inherent righteousness. This is a possible sense, but what then? How righteous must we be? To what end? Why that contrast? What was the righteousness of the Pharisees? MacArthur never answers these questions. He assumes here more than he interprets. Calvin is more helpful on this passage than MacArthur:

By confining the law of God to outward duties only, [the Scribes and Pharisees] trained their disciples, like apes, to hypocrisy. They lived, I readily admit, as ill as they taught, and even worse: and therefore, along with their corrupted doctrine, I willingly include their hypocritical parade of false righteousness. The principal charge brought by Christ against their doctrine may be easily learned from what follows in the discourse, where he removes from the law their false and wicked interpretations, and restores it to its purity. In short, the objection which, as we have already said, was unjustly brought against him by the Scribes, is powerfully thrown back on themselves.271

According to Calvin, what our Lord intended was that we understand the law correctly. This is a better accounting of this passage, in its context, than MacArthur offers.

Finally, what about his casual invocation of Hebrews 12:14, “the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord”?272 This verse is sometimes understood to mean, “accumulate a sufficient degree of holiness or you will not be saved.” Steve Baugh has responded to this interpretation and offered an alternative. I will not detail it here. You should listen to it for yourself. Baugh’s account is more faithful to the language, context, and intent than MacArthur’s.


  1. GAJ, 217.
  2. GAJ, 211. Italics original.
  3. GAJ, 210–11.
  4. GAJ, 211. Italics original.
  5. GAJ, 211.
  6. GAJ, 212.
  7. GAJ, 214.
  8. I am thinking here of Heidelberg Catechism 86. “Since then we are redeemed from our misery by grace through Christ, without any merit of ours, why should we do good works? Because Christ, having redeemed us by his blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our whole life we show ourselves thankful to God for His blessing, and also that He be glorified through us; then also, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof; and by our godly walk win also others to Christ.” The fruits of faith are evidences of the work of grace in the believer.
  9. GAJ, 217.
  10. Fifth Head of Doctrine, Canons of Dort.
  11. GAJ, 210.
  12. GAJ, 210.
  13. E.g., J. H. Heidegger, R, The Concise Marrow of Theology (1697), vol. 4. Classic Reformed Theology, trans. Casey Carmichael (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2019), 163–64; R. Scott Clark, “The Logic of Fruit As Evidence.” See also RSC, “Heidegger: Good Works Are Necessary As Fruit And Evidence Of Faith.”
  14. GAJ, 212.
  15. Martin Luther, Luthers Works, Vol. 27: Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 5-6; 1519, Chapters 1-6, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 27 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 183–84.
  16. GAJ, 213.
  17. GAJ, 213.
  18. On this topic see, R. Scott Clark, “Tracing the Paradigm Shift: Two Ways of Being in the Covenant of Grace;” idem, “Baptism and the Benefits of Christ: The Double Mode of Communion in the Covenant of Grace,” The Confessional Presbyterian Journal 2 (2006): 3–19. See also RSC, “Calvin: We Need To Distinguish Between The Internal And The External Relation To The Covenant Of Grace.”
  19. John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, trans. William Pringle, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 281. The pagination of the Logos edition conforms to the printed edition.
  20. GAJ, 211.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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  1. “He seems to want us to ask, “Have I done enough?””

    My wife and I followed Dr Mac for years. This was exactly what we kept asking ourselves. And we kept asking because we did not understand the Gospel. We never understood imputation. Once we understood the doctrine of Christ’s substitutionary life and death from a legal perspective, and believed it to be true, the chains of forever doing enough gave way. It was by reading Bonar’s book The Everlasting Righteousness, that we first understood and believed the legal substitutionary life and death of the Lord.
    Prior to that book, we always thought God wanted us to try harder to prove we were His children.

  2. Dr. Clark, is it not true that, when looked at through a solid law/gospel perspective, Matt 7:21-23 can be explained simply by saying that the reason why they were turned away is vefayaw they made a legal argument as to their right to be admitted — we did this, we did that, as opposed to you did this on our behalf — and Christ sticks the knife in a twists it in his response by referring to them as ‘workers of lawlessness’? I have read and hear this in a number of places. If this is true, I have heard MacArthur butcher this perhaps far worse than what has been done in GAJ. He has a number of sermons specifically on this passage where the entire thrust is that you are not saved because your works are not sufficient. In these sermons he coldly states that your assurance of salvation is directly proportionate to your obedience to God’s commands, with no mention of Christ’s promises in the gospel, as finding assurance by simply taking Him at His word in those promises.

    • Paul,

      It’s important here to read those verses in their broader context:

      Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matt 7:15–23; ESV).

      The test here is for false prophets. We can see them by their fruits. It’s the false prophets who do the wonders etc. It’s almost as if our Lord were watching religious television in the 20th and 21st centuries. They do “wonders” (and perhaps some of them do actual lying wonders, those are a thing). There will be those prophets who did “wonders” etc but had no actual fruit who said “Lord Lord” but who will not enter. They were never actually believers.

  3. “‘Periodic doubts about one’s salvation are not necessarily wrong.’ Who among the Reformers inspired this way of thinking? The magisterial Protestants were united in their doctrine that assurance is of the essence of true faith.”

    To doubt the promises of God is sin, and sin is always necessarily wrong. Not sure how John could’ve missed that one. I can appreciate his concern to comfort those who struggle but we must maintain that our doubts are indeed sin.

    Regarding assurance being of the essence of faith, as you know the Westminster standards speak of infallible assurance in the Confession and, also, in question 80 of the Larger; whereas question 80 refers only to assurance (not infallible assurance). I’d like to think that people have misconstrued the Westminster standards and in doing so *wrongly* taught that the Confession teaches that assurance of the common kind is not of the essence of faith. I’d like to believe that they have collapsed infallible assurance into common assurance, and that they don’t see the Divines’ distinction that although infallible assurance is not of the essence of faith, true believers are never without the seed of normal assurance. However, and unfortunately, I seem more constrained at times to believe that the Westminster standards did not put forth true doctrine on this point and indeed may have departed (or at least did not clearly affirm) Scripture, Calvin, Heidelberg and Owen. As A.A. Hodge notes in his commentary:

    “The Reformers, on the other hand, went so far as to teach that the special object of justifying faith is the favor of God towards us, for Christ’s sake: therefore, to believe is to be assured of our own personal salvation. Thus Luther Melanchthon, and Calvin taught. This is the doctrine taught in the Augsburg Confession and Heidelberg Catechism. It is not, however, taught in any other of the Reformed Confessions, and, as will be seen below, is not the doctrine of our Standards.”

    Letham on the Westminster Assembly seems to concur that the Divines (following Goodwin) makes “assurance of salvation as very difficult to attain and extremely easy to lose – but cheer up, you will be kept from utter despair!”

    So, do you think Westminster departed from Heidelberg? Or can we slice it so thin as to say that the Divines taught that although *infallible* assurance is not of the essence of faith, there is an assurance that can be identified with saving faith, which keeps genuine believers from utter despair? Again, I’d like to claim that the Divines followed the Reformers and Scripture on the issue, but it’s not easy for me to do.

    Incidentally, my youngest daughter was recently very encouraged by your podcast series on covenant thought, in particular on the distinctions between Moses and Abraham. Thank you!

    • Ron,

      Letham is wrong on this. A. A. Hodge was wrong here too.

      WCF 18.3 says, in part, “This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it: yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto.”

      People have often overlooked that little particle, so. The Heidelberg certainly makes assurance of the essence of true faith in HC 21. The Divines were writing 80 years later, in very different circumstances, and addressing a somewhat different issue. People were, in effect, asking, “If I doubt am I still a Christian?” The Divines said, “Yes, but doubts are a part of the Christian life. Please don’t think that because you have doubts that you’re not a Christian.” “Infallible assurance” is not “so of the essence that….” You’re right to call attention to the adjective infallible.

      The Divines were saying that infallible assurance is of the essence in faith per se but not always in our experience of it.

      Glad the pod series was helpful for your daughter.

      • “People have often overlooked that little particle, so.”

        I certainly hadn’t noticed that before! It makes a big difference. Thx for pointing it out Dr Clark.

  4. *Typo corrected:*

    Regarding assurance being of the essence of faith, as you know the Westminster standards speak of infallible assurance in the Confession and, also, in question 80 of the Larger; whereas question *81* refers only to assurance (not infallible assurance).

  5. “You’re right to call attention to the adjective infallible.”


    Ok, good. I’ve just not seen anyone parse this out that finely, and my interpretation of Westminster on assurance was seeming a bit esoteric compared to so many others.

    Best wishes,



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