The Gospel According To John (MacArthur)—Part 24

Chapters 22 and 23, “The Cost of Discipleship” and “The Lordship of Christ” do not add anything that MacArthur has not already said. Essentially, chapter 22 is a rejection of the Christian life of discipleship as a second blessing.273 It is interesting to see perhaps the last major modified Dispensationalist rejecting the “Higher Life” approach to the Christian life, since it has played such an important part in the history of Dispensationalism for more than a century.274 So far, I think it is clear that I agree with MacArthur that the Christian life is not a second blessing, nor is there a higher life.275 There are not two classes of Christians, the ordinary ones and those who have had a second blessing. These schemes were a serious error when the Gnostics, the Montanists, and other heretical groups first formulated them. The passage of time has not made them orthodox.

Christians confess Christ.276 That is the moral will of God and the normal course of events in the Christian life. There are not two kinds of Christians, those who confess and those who do not. Christians take up their cross (Matt 10:38);277 yet, Christians are in a covenant of grace. MacArthur affirms that Peter’s failures did not disqualify him, but MacArthur’s argument would be strengthened, not only if he had embraced the Reformation distinction between law and gospel, but also if he had abandoned his Dispensationalism altogether for the Reformed account of the covenants of works and grace.278 These categories are the redemptive-historical corollaries to the Reformation distinction between law and gospel. There are not seven “dispensations” in the history of salvation. There are two covenants, one before the fall (the pre-fall covenant of works), and various administrations of the one covenant of grace after the fall. In the covenant of works, God promised Adam eternal life on the basis of his obedience to the moral law, represented by the prohibition (Gen 2:17) not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The covenant of grace was articulated after the fall (Gen 3:15) pointing to Christ, who would bruise the serpent even as the serpent would bruise his heel (on the cross). Behind these two covenants lies the eternal covenant between the Father and the Son on which our Lord reflected in John 17. The Father gave a people to the Son, whom he would redeem. Those people are the elect, for whom he obeyed, whom he saved, and for whom he is coming again.

For our purposes, the great pedagogical benefit of adopting this way of explaining Scripture is that the biblical categories of law and grace are clearly distinguished. Outside of Christ, everyone is under law, that is, a covenant of works. This covenant demands that everyone “do this and live” (Luke 10:28). As the Lord said to Moses, “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am Yahweh” (Lev 18:5). Paul articulated this principle in Romans 2:13, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” Before he was in Christ, he imagined that he could meet that test: “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me” (Rom 7:10). When did the commandment promise life? It promised this first in the garden. The inverse of “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die” is “the day you pass the probation you shall enter into life.” The second tree was called “the tree of life” for a reason.

The covenant of grace is another kind of covenant altogether. It operates on a different principle. Both covenants promise eternal life, but the covenant of works promises life “upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.”279 The covenant of grace, however, depends on the righteousness of another, what Luther called an “alien” righteousness. That other was Christ. It was he who was promised in the garden. It was the pre-incarnate Son who came to Adam after the fall. He made the promise of his incarnation, suffering, and death. It was he who walked between the pieces (Gen 15:17). It was he who led the Mosaic, old-covenant church out of Egypt, through the Red Sea (Jude 5; 1 Cor 10:1–4). The old-covenant, Mosaic church was baptized into Moses—but they were fed with Christ in the wilderness. The rock who followed them, from whom the water flowed, was Christ. This is not spiritualizing—this is the way the New Testament understands the types and shadows. In Christ all the promises of Scripture are yes and amen (2 Cor 1:20). All the types and shadows find their fulfillment in Christ:

And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:25–27)280

This is what Paul means when he says that we are not under law but under grace (Rom 6:15). Paul premises his moral instruction for the Christian life on the reality that believers are no longer under the covenant of works, but under a covenant of grace. This point is essential to my critique of GAJ. Because he lacks these categories, MacArthur lacks the explanatory power they provide. Thus, at least rhetorically (and sometimes theologically), he places the Christian back under the law principle (the covenant of works). Paul, however, grounds our new life and grateful obedience not in the law principle (“do this and live”), but in the grace principle, the covenant of grace. The Christian—the one who has been given new life (regeneration), true faith, and union with Christ—can never be under the law (the covenant of works) for his salvation or his standing with God. Christ has done it all. What covenant theology offers MacArthur and his followers is a coherent, stable, Reformation understanding of the history of redemption and the application of redemption.281

So, too, the Reformed are at home in most of chapter 23, “The Lordship of Christ,” where MacArthur re-states his arguments regarding Christ’s present status as Lord. Here, again, he seems to distance himself from that wing of Dispensationalism which denies Christ is objectively Lord now. We agree that no one “makes” Christ Lord.282 Jesus is God. No one makes him such.283 He is sovereign, Savior, and Lord.284 That Jesus is Lord—he is the same Yahweh (LORD) who revealed himself to Moses as the “I Am” (Exod 3:14), who manifested himself as the “Angel of Yahweh” (e.g., Gen 16). He is the sovereign Savior and Lord. That is good news for the redeemed; but our submission to him is not part of the good news. Our gradual submission to him is a consequence of the good news and the gracious work of the Spirit in our hearts.

For these reasons and the others explained now at length in this critique, we must again criticize MacArthur’s claim, “The signature of saving faith is surrender to the lordship of Jesus Christ. The definitive test of whether a person belongs to Christ is a willingness to bow to his authority.”285 The signature of true faith is not our obedience. The mark of true faith is “a certain knowledge and a hearty trust.”286 Faith produces obedience, but it is not obedience. Our obedience and good works do not form faith, that is, they do not make it what it is. Rather, they flow from it. We must insist on this distinction even at the cost of being falsely accused by Nomists of being Antinomians. Here we must stand. This is a gospel matter. Our obedience is an indicator of true faith, but our obedience is never perfect. It always wavers, and according to Romans 7, it is not always evident to us. Paul, speaking for all believers, confesses,

For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin (Rom 7:18–25).

These are the words of a believing Christian who struggles with sin—“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”287 What good news does MacArthur have for this fellow? I almost certainly would not hand him a copy of GAJ, where Part 5 is titled, “Jesus Fulfills the Gospel.”288 Here the confusion of law and gospel is crystalized. I am much more likely to hand him a copy of The Marrow of Modern Divinity, or The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, or Thomas Boston’s The Fourfold State of Man, or Luther or Perkins on Galatians, or Rollock on Ephesians. These writers knew how to distinguish between the covenants of works and grace, or law and gospel. They knew that Christ did not fulfill the gospel. He fulfilled the law and announced the gospel. After all, the word gospel means good news. It is the announcement of what Christ has done for us. In the midst of his struggle with sin, as reflected in Romans 7, Paul needs real good news for sinners, not a confusion of the covenant of works with the covenant of grace.


  1. GAJ, 219.
  2. On the synthesis of the Higher Life theology with Dispensational premillennialism in the late nineteenth century, see Daniel G. Hummel, The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2023), 88–105.
  3. E.g., GAJ, 221.
  4. GAJ, 222.
  5. GAJ, 224.
  6. GAJ, 225.
  7. Westminster Confession of Faith, 7.2.
  8. See R. Scott Clark, “What The Bible Is All About;” Dennis Johnson, Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures, ed. John J. Hughes (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007); R. Scott Clark, “Is There An Apostolic Hermeneutic and Can We Imitate It?
  9. See William Ames, The Marrow of Theology, ed. by John Dykstra Eusden. (Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1968), where Ames correlates the covenant of grace not only to the history of redemption, but also to the application of redemption (ordo salutis).
  10. GAJ, 226.
  11. GAJ, 227.
  12. GAJ, 227–30.
  13. GAJ, 231.
  14. Heidelberg Catechism 21.
  15. GAJ, in appendix 3 (p. 274), does affirm the Augustinian reading of Romans 7.
  16. GAJ, 235.

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  1. This is surely correct and important: “The signature of true faith is not our obedience. The mark of true faith is ‘a certain knowledge and a hearty trust [Heidelberg Catechism 21].’ Faith produces obedience, but it is not obedience. Our obedience and good works do not form faith, that is, they do not make it what it is. Rather, they flow from it.”

    One observation about obedience flowing from faith is that faith is prior. A mistake about this occurs in GATJ when MacArthur says that true faith is defined by what it produces. As if faith were only a means to an end. Then, how is it that three things abide, faith, hope, and love, and not one thing?

    • Hi Larry, Yes, I also thought that paragraph summed up the difference between JMac and the Reformed. And it’s a BIG difference, yet one that is hardly ever discussed. I’m afraid, at the moment, Dr Mac has won the day in most churches.


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