The Gospel According To John (MacArthur)—Part 25

With this installment we come to the end of the series reviewing and critiquing John MacArthur’s The Gospel According to Jesus. Remarkably, like the Old Testament prophets searching and enquiring “carefully what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories” (1 Pet 1:10–12), so too we readers of The Gospel According to Jesus have been diligently searching this book trying to discern just exactly what the good news is and what is good about it for sinners. Finally, on the very last page of this very last chapter, the author tells us unequivocally what he thinks the gospel is:

This, then, is the gospel our Lord sends us forth to proclaim: That Jesus Christ, who is God incarnate, humbled Himself to die on our behalf. Thus He became the sinless sacrifice to pay the penalty of our guilt. He rose from the dead to declare with power that He is Lord over all, and He offers eternal life freely to sinners who will surrender to Him in humble, repentant faith. This gospel promises nothing to the haughty rebel, but for broken, penitent sinners, it graciously offers everything that pertains to life and godliness (2 Pet 1:3).289

This is mostly unobjectionable, as is the chapter as a whole. It would have been good to see MacArthur clearly side with the dying words of J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937), “I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.”290 Those of us deeply rooted in the Reformation traditions cannot help but notice the absence of any mention here of the ground of our justification before God: the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.291 Indeed, he writes: “Justification may be defined as an act of God whereby He 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.”292 What exactly is the “full and perfect righteousness of Christ”? Does MacArthur agree with Heidelberg Catechism 60, that God “grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me”? In other words: Did Christ enter this world qualified to be the Savior such that all that he did is imputed to the believer, or is it the case that Christ had to qualify himself to be the Savior such that only his suffering (passive obedience) is imputed to the believer? The author never engages this question.

It is also notable that though he has invoked “faith alone” six times in the volume, here in his final summary of the good news, the alone (sola) is absent. Instead, faith is qualified differently. It is those “who will surrender to Him in humble, repentant faith” whom God justifies. How repentant must one be in order to qualify? How surrendered? The questions that have haunted us as we have worked through this volume remain: Does repentance make faith justifying or does faith produce repentance? Does surrender make faith justifying or does true faith lead inexorably to surrender? Frankly, after twenty-four essays, working through this volume painstakingly, I cannot say. It is not clear to me that MacArthur can say. The volume has a schizophrenic quality to it. In chapter 19 he writes more like someone from a Reformation tradition, but elsewhere in the volume he verges on the very “higher life” approach to Christianity that he ostensibly rejects. We hear Paul, Luther, and Calvin when writes, “the work of redemption was done,” and “nothing can be added to what he did,” and “no works of human righteousness can expand on what Jesus accomplished.”293 Amen and amen.

In the last installment I suggested ways in which the theology and rhetoric of the Reformation would have helped this work. From the beginning, to the irritation of some of his more ardent apologists, I have contrasted MacArthur’s argument and approach to the threefold structure (guilt, grace, gratitude) of the Heidelberg Catechism (HC). I could just as well contrast MacArthur’s response to the Antinomians with Paul’s in Romans, from which the framers of the HC learned their lessons. The first part of Romans, after the prologue, is a preaching of the law (the covenant of works) to sinners (Rom 1:18–3:20). The second part is a preaching of the covenant of grace and the good news for sinners (Rom 3:21–11:36). The third part is an explanation of the nature of the Christian life, in the covenant of grace, in union with Christ, in the communion of the saints (Rom 12:1–16:27).294

Sinners are not justified, sanctified, or glorified because they have obeyed. They are justified by divine favor alone (sola gratia), received through faith (knowledge, assent, and trust) alone (sola fide), in Christ alone. Elect, believing sinners, in union with Christ, are necessarily being graciously and gradually sanctified by the Spirit, which produces the fruit and evidence of good works.

Pedagogically the book is fragmented, because MacArthur’s theology is fragmented. Leaky though he be, he is still a Dispensationalist, which is fundamentally an atomistic way to read the Bible.295 By contrast, Reformed covenant theology, the theology of Calvin and his orthodox successors, has a coherent story to tell: there are two principles (covenants), law and gospel, there is one covenant of grace, and there is one unifying story in the history of salvation in which Christ is at the center. Placing Israel at the center of redemptive history, as all forms of Dispensationalism do, is inherently schizophrenic. In the best case, for the Dispensationalist, the Bible is equally about national Israel and Christ.

Finally, I owe some comment about the appendices. The first appendix, a survey of passages from the Epistles, is a synopsis of his subsequent volume, Faith and Works: The Gospel According to the Apostles.296 It bears the same weaknesses as the present volume.

The third appendix is what today is known as an FAQ (frequently asked questions) section. It is potentially the best feature of the work. One wonders why some of this material was not incorporated into the body of the work; yet the schizophrenic quality of the book is evident here too. For example, in response to a question about assurance, MacArthur writes, “I do not believe it is the task of the evangelist to ‘offer assurance.’ That is the Holy Spirit’s work: ‘The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God’ (Rom 8:16).”297 If an evangelist is one who proclaims “good news,” then it certainly is his office to offer assurance. It is the Holy Spirit who gives assurance to believers, but he uses the preaching of God’s gospel to do it. Yet, MacArthur is right to say, “How did the thief on the cross know he was saved? He had the Lord’s own promise.”298 He agrees with the Reformation when writes, “Those promises offer objective assurance to genuine believers. Even a brand-new believer can look to such promises and find a measure of assurance.”299 He strikes the right balance in saying, “It is not that we seek assurance in our works, but that we gain assurance from sensing the Spirit’s work in us. Again, it is the Holy Spirit who bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”300

This question and answer is pastoral and helpful:

I love Christ, but I struggle constantly with sin in my life. Should I doubt my salvation?

No. The perpetual struggle with sin was even Paul’s experience (Rom 7:7–25). All of us struggle continually with sinful thoughts, sinful attitudes, sinful habits, and sinful desires. It is those who do not struggle—those who deliberately and eagerly revel in their sin—who need to have their false sense of security shaken.301

As helpful as that answer is, the answer to this question encapsulates one of the major flaws of this work:

You acknowledge that no one can obey perfectly. Doesn’t that dampen the force of the demand for absolute surrender?

The whole point is that the gospel calls for a response to Christ that is humanly impossible. To reduce the demands of the gospel so that anyone can respond with a nod of the head or a raising of the hand is the essence of easy-believism.302

We see the same confusion in the next question, “How can I explain the gospel to my children without toning down the demands of Christ? Must a child understand Jesus’ lordship in order to be saved?”303 The response for which the good news calls is true faith—knowledge, assent, and a heartfelt trust in Jesus the Savior and Lord. To be sure, apart from the sovereign, prevenient work of the Spirit in granting new life and true faith, the proper response is impossible (John 3:5). The demands, however, to which MacArthur refers are the demands of the law. Jesus was a law preacher as well as a gospel preacher. If we simply substitute good news for gospel, we can see how confused and confusing MacArthur’s language is. The announcement of the end of war is good news. What is the appropriate response? Is it, “I need to get to work” or is it, “Praise God for his mercies!”? Surely it is the latter. The celebratory response leads necessarily to further steps (e.g., obedience), but the gospel is the announcement of good news, not a demand for obedience to the law. It is the announcement that Christ has obeyed for us. Those who have been granted new life and true faith, and through it union with Christ, will and do seek to obey God’s holy moral law out of gratitude.

Finally, I close with some observations about the quality of MacArthur’s engagement with the broader Christian tradition and especially the Reformation traditions. It is symbolic that the engagement is confined to appendix 2.304 It is not that I necessarily disagree with the inferences he draws from his survey through sources in the history of doctrine. He even cites the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. But as I have endeavored to show, he has not allowed them to shape the way he speaks on these issues.305 In short, this is still just proof-texting, not a thoughtful, careful engagement with sources.306

My hope in publishing this extended review, engagement, and critique of this influential book is that those who have been influenced by it, who have been raised in the Lordship Salvation world, will realize that whatever the virtues of the book, there is another way, a better way that accounts more fully for the law and the gospel, for the Christian life, for the struggles with sin, and the free grace for sinners that is in Christ.

Christ is Lord but our Lord is a gentle shepherd and Savior for needy sinners. As sternly as he preached the law to arrogant Scribes and Pharisees, gently he also offered free grace to the helpless and hopeless. He came, after all, “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

And Jesus cried out and said, “Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world (John 12:44–47).

Antinomianism is a curse but so is Nomism. Both deny the gospel in their own ways. The Antinomian not only rejects the abiding validity of God’s holy law for the Christian, he also does not appreciate the power of the gospel gradually, graciously to transform the sinner into the image of Christ. The Nomist is guilty of what D. G. Hart once called “easy obeyism,” which is the mirror to MacArthur’s diatribes against “easy-believism.”307 The Nomist does not appreciate the killing power of the law, that it requires “perfect and personal obedience.”308 He subtly lowers the standard to make it achievable. That is why our Lord upheld the moral law so vigorously (Matt 5:17–20). Like the Antinomian, the Nomist does not appreciate the transforming power of grace. He thinks that he can marshal the law to make it do what only grace can do.

The better way is the way of guilt, grace, and gratitude—the Reformation way of distinguishing law and gospel, or the covenant of works from the covenant of grace. It is a Christian life lived in freedom according to the moral law of God (all ten commandments), in the covenant of grace (free divine favor, not works), in hope, in the joy of Christ, resting in Christ’s finished work, the imputation of his actively-suffering obedience for us, in our place, as our substitute, and in his continuing mediation and sovereign government of all things, for our good, and especially in the Christ-confessing covenant community (i.e., the visible church) and the due use of what we call the “ordinary means of grace” (i.e., the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline).309 We welcome you to this better way. If you would like to know more, please contact us at the Heidelberg Reformation Association.310


  1. GAJ, 241.
  2. Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing), 508. The phrase “active obedience” does not occur in GAJ. For more on the doctrine of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, see R. Scott Clark, “Do This and Live: The Active Obedience of Christ,” in R. Scott Clark, ed. Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry: Essays by the Faculty of Westminster Seminary California (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007), 229–65.
  3. MacArthur discusses imputation fourteen times in the volume,
  4. GAJ, 196.
  5. GAJ, 240.
  6. For an example of this approach to Romans, see R. Scott Clark, “Sin, Salvation, and Service: The Threefold Truth of Romans.”
  7. GAJ, 277–8.
  8. GAJ, 253–71. John MacArthur, Faith and Works: The Gospel According to the Apostles (Dallas: Word, 1993).
  9. GAJ, 272.
  10. GAJ, 272.
  11. GAJ, 272.
  12. GAJ, 272. The reader is encouraged to see the fifth head of doctrine in the Canons of Dort on assurance.
  13. GAJ, 274, emphasis original.
  14. GAJ, 275–6.
  15. GAJ, 278.
  16. GAJ, 253–71.
  17. GAJ, 257–8.
  18. Readers will do well not to take too seriously his claim (p. 264) that Jonathan Edwards was “possibly the finest preacher and clearest theological thinker of the 1700s.” Clarity was hardly a mark of Edwards’ writing. There are mountains of scholarship on Edwards’ doctrine of justification, which exists in large part because Edwards was unclear about the article of the standing or falling of the church. See R. Scott Clark, “Why Caution About Jonathan Edwards Is In Order”; W. Robert Godfrey, “Jonathan Edwards and Authentic Spiritual Experience,” in Knowing The Mind Of God: Papers Read at the 2003 Westminster Conference (Stoke-on-Trent: Tentmaker Publications, n.d.), 33–4; Oliver Crisp, “On the Orthodoxy of Jonathan Edwards,” Scottish Journal of Theology 67.3 (2014): 307, 313–4, where he documents Edwards’ pantheism. Charles Hodge shared this concern. See R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008), 84–95. See also these resources on Edwards.
  19. See Darryl Hart, “Easy Obeyism,” Old Life, September 9, 2019.
  20. Westminster Confession of Faith, 7.2.
  21. I am reflecting here on the language of Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.7 and Belgic Confession of Faith art. 29.
  22. See these resources for those just discovering the Reformed confession.

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The series so far.


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  1. “who will surrender to Him in humble, repentant faith” …In my opinion (which is worth very little) this is enough to nullify the entire book, simply because if you have to do this once to be saved, then you will have to keep doing to remain saved. I attended a MacArthur/Masters Seminary (Expositors Seminary) offshoot Church where the Pastor’s main platform was just this. Meaning if you were not acting in a “humble repentant” manner then you would be subject to discipline and correction by both the Pastor and his body, the only problem with that was objecting to anything the Pastor said or taught, was deemed to be not “humble and repentant”, so you can see where this doctrinal teaching can end up. I believe this is why issues are beginning to surface in MacArthur churches, unfortunately.

  2. What kept popping up repeatedly in the back of my mind while reading through this series was the 1960’s bumper stickers on various autos that said, “I found it!” Finally, a few (probably more confessional believers) bumper stickers appeared saying, “No, He found me!”


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