Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Journey Round MacArthur's Park

MacArthur's Statement

I recently stumbled across the following quote which appeared in the first release of Hard to Believe, by John MacArthur.

"Salvation isn't the result of an intellectual exercise. It comes from a life lived in obedience and service to Christ as revealed in the Scripture; it's the fruit of actions, not intentions. There's no room for passive spectators: words without actions are empty and futile...The life we live, not the words we speak, determines our eternal destiny" (John MacArthur, Hard to Believe, p. 93)

That quote should be the equivalent of an ice-cold bucket of water being poured directly over the head of anyone who believes that salvation is by sovereign grace. This statement is completely at odds with the apostle Paul’s teaching regarding the grace whereby God’s people are saved (Romans 11:6). To MacArthur’s credit, we should point out that he has endeavored to correct this error by issuing a statement on his website, as well as by revising the wording of his statement in subsequent printings of the book; more on that in a moment. 

TETH's Reworking of MacArthur's Original Statement

Given those published retractions and corrections, and considering both the size of MacArthur’s following among evangelicals and the great need for teaching the truth with clarity, I believe it is enormously important to explicitly call out the errors contained therein by rewriting MacArthur's statement so that it is consistent with the salvation by sovereign grace taught in the word of God.
"Salvation isn't the result of an intellectual exercise, save that exercise which occurs in the mind and purpose of God (Ephesians 1:4-5). It does NOT come from a life lived in obedience and service to Christ, because the scriptures reveal that our salvation is "not according to our works." (II Timothy 1:9). It [salvation] is the fruit of actions, to be certain, the actions of the Lord Jesus Christ who by himself utterly fulfilled the law's requirements on our behalf (Romans 5:19, Hebrews 1:3), in keeping with His intentions (Ephesians 1:4-5, John 17:2). There is no room for passive spectators, neither is there room for active participants in this work (Ephesians 2:9), because both our words and our actions are impotent to either accomplish or participate in the work of eternal salvation (Matthew 19:26, Romans 9:16) as a result of the abject deadness of our natural condition (John 6:63) and the monergistic nature of God's saving accomplishment (Isaiah 63:6). Neither the life we live, nor the words we speak have ANY bearing whatsoever on our eternal destiny. They are evidences that the covenant was filled on our behalf, not determinative of our eternal state. The work of Christ alone is the determining force in man's eternal destiny. (Romans 8:31-39) Period. End of story.” (TETH)

MacArthur's Revised Statement

As previously mentioned, I was initially encouraged to discover that MacArthur had taken steps to correct his original statement.  However, upon reading that revised statement, I found that it too is riddled with sloppy language and theological error.
“Don’t believe anyone who says it’s easy to become a Christian. Salvation for sinners cost God His own Son; it cost God’s Son His life, and it’ll cost you the same thing. Salvation isn’t gained by reciting mere words. Saving faith transforms the heart, and that in turn transforms behavior. Faith’s fruit is seen in actions, not intentions. There’s no room for passive spectators: words without actions are empty and futile. Remember that what John saw in his vision of judgment was a Book of Life, not a book of Words or Book of Intellectual Musings. The life we live, not the words we speak, reveals whether our faith is authentic.” (MacArthur’s revised quote)

TETH's Analysis

In order to address the errors contained in MacArthur’s revised statement, I think it best to take them on one at a time. Let’s proceed.
“Don’t believe anyone who says it’s easy to become a Christian.” (MacArthur)
I could agree with this statement were it not for MacArthur’s insistence that eternal salvation and   becoming a Christian were one and the same thing. Because MacArthur believes that regeneration and conversion are simultaneous events, he therefore believes that everyone one who is in possession of eternal life is also a Christian convert. Properly understood, one does not do anything either hard or easy to obtain the gift of eternal life that is imparted in sovereign, immediate regeneration - nothing whatsoever. This is a matter of necessity since man is spiritually dead and incapable of spiritual action prior to the new birth (Ephesians 2:1). Having established this fact, we can move on to the matter of gospel conversion, wherein a born-again child of grace may encounter the gospel and be converted to the truth of the Christian religion. That conversion may be accompanied with great difficulty in this life and will require that we strive if we are to enter at the strait gate, but all such strivings are the motions of the new creature, else they would be fleshly and unprofitable with regard to spiritual things (John 6:63). Stated clearly - being born again, wherein man receives the gift of eternal life, requires no effort on man’s part because it is a monergistic act of God wherein man is passive. On the other hand, becoming a Christian disciple requires effort. All such efforts are works of righteousness by definition and thus they are explicitly excluded from having any participatory role in the work that brought us eternal salvation (II Timothy 1:9). It is for this reason that it is imperative that we understand the distinction between regeneration and conversion, and the distinction between sonship and discipleship, if we are to have a proper understanding of the mechanics of our eternal salvation.
“Salvation for sinners cost God His own Son; it cost God’s Son His life, and it’ll cost you the same thing.” (MacArthur)
Here again is another manifestation of the logical contradiction that arises from a failure to rightly divide sonship (eternal salvation) from discipleship (temporal obedience). It is a thing of wonder to see men refer to our eternal salvation as both free and costly. Eternal salvation is free for the sinner, because Christ paid the debt for him. Christian discipleship, or living in obedience, will prove to be a costly affair in numerous respects in this lifetime. The moment those two concepts are conjoined, salvation is no more of grace, but of works, namely the work of costly discipleship. That teaching, while incredibly common, is none-the-less a grace-destroying contradiction.
“Salvation isn’t gained by reciting mere words.” (MacArthur)
Neither is salvation gained by sincere words or sincere actions. Salvation is by the pure grace of God and it comes to one who is dead in trespasses and in sins (Ephesians 2:1) not because of any cost they have paid or any action they have taken, but in spite of the fact that they have nothing to pay and no good thing to offer (Romans 5:6). That’s salvation by grace.  
“Saving faith transforms the heart, and that in turn transforms behavior.” (MacArthur)
No. The transformation of the heart is a function of regeneration which imparts the spiritual capacity of faith as a fruit of the spirit to God’s covenant people (Galatians 4:6).  While this does change God’s people, the evidentiary fruits of that change have a very wide degree of expression and may be difficult to externally observe, though there and real none-the-less (II Peter 2:7-8).
“Faith’s fruit is seen in actions, not intentions.” (MacArthur) 
The initial fruit of faith is most certainly a new set of intentions. God’s people are aware of such changes and they are the fruit of faith. It is likewise true that one’s sincere actions born of faith are a confirmation of one’s profession of faith, but whether faith is “seen” by others or not is no proof or disproof of faith's existence. Peter’s denial of Christ was an abject failure to bring forth evidence of his faith, but it was no proof that Peter lacked the God-given capacity of faith (Matthew 16:16-17), but rather a proof that his faith at that moment was unprofitable, or dead as James puts it. (James 2:16-17)
“There’s no room for passive spectators: words without actions are empty and futile.” (MacArthur)
With regard to how we obtain eternal life, there’s likewise no room for “active participants” given that salvation is imparted as a monergistic work of God alone in regeneration. No words or actions performed by a sinner take any part in how one obtains eternal life. This is yet another reason that Lordship Salvation’s conjoining of sonship and discipleship gives birth to salvation by works as a matter of unavoidable logical consequence.
“Remember that what John saw in his vision of judgment was a Book of Life, not a book of Words or Book of Intellectual Musings.” (MacArthur)
Does MacArthur believe that God’s people are going to be judged based on their own works?  Do we not have on our account the imputed righteousness of Christ?  Is this not the sum total of what is intended by Jehovah Tsidkenu - "the Lord our Righteousness"? (Jeremiah 33:16) If God's people are to be judged on any basis other than the imputed righteousness of Christ, then the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is of absolutely NO SAVING CONSEQUENCE WHATSOEVER - and that is the complete undoing of salvation by sovereign grace to any reasonable observer. To believe that we are ultimately to be judged based on our own works and not by the imputed righteousness of Christ is to deny Paul’s statement that we are saved “not by works of righteousness which we have done.” (Titus 3:5)
“The life we live, not the words we speak, reveals whether our faith is authentic.” (MacArthur)
It may make it evident to a watching world, but it is not the living sacrifice of our bodies which we offer as a reasonable service to God that determines the authenticity of our eternal salvation, but the “one offering” of Christ’s blood to the Father which perfected God’s people forever. (Hebrews 10:14) That is an incredibly important fact to maintain, and MacArthur’s “prove your faith else you have none” theology undeniably conjoins works with faith, regeneration with conversion, and sonship with discipleship in a way that confounds the grace of God in saving his people by his “one obedience.” (Romans 5:19) 


It is at times disheartening to observe the errors and careless use of language that seem to dominate the Christian landscape, even among those who are considered by many to be evangelical heavyweights. When I examine MacArthur's writings, I am reminded of a line from Jimmy Webb's 1968 pop hit:

MacArthur's Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet, green icing flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain

I must admit that when I ponder his theology, the bizarre imagery of that song takes on an unintended meaning. When it comes to MacArthur's green-icing-cake of Christian irrationalism, it is fair to say "I don't think that I can take it" irrespective of the time and energy required to "bake it" nor of the testimony of the numerous evangelicals found gorging themselves on it.  

Lord willing, "I'll never have that recipe again."


  1. "Oh, nooooooooooo."

    MacArthur seems more on a trip of motivational speaking with his statements in an attempt to pack something new and challenging into a provocative book title.

    Yes, it is, "Hard to Believe."

    Unfortunately, MacArthur's unintended consequence is true to his title.

    Self-help evangelism. Maybe an oxymoron from the start.

    1. Though I have read a number of MacArthur's books, I was unaware of the book Hard to Believe until recently. I have at times made reference to NeoCal theology as promoting "Hard Believism" as an alternative to "Easy Believism" - so it was particularly eye-opening to realize that they would seem to agree with this moniker. Obviously the quote taken from the original printing of this book is works-based salvation in its purist form. That MacArthur would distance himself from this error is encouraging, but his revised statement is theologically not much better - and this was the motivation for my post.

      What makes NeoCal Lordship theology so slippery and deceptive is that it is a two-headed beast, that makes solid biblical proclamations followed by unscriptural contradictions at other times. Those contradictions find their confluence at the torso of paradox which binds them together through the open acceptance of irrationalism (antinomy). A great many people are confused by MacArthur's correct insistence that "salvation is not by works" followed by the requirement of "total commitment" in order to obtain eternal life. So much so that legions of his followers have come to believe that this is the very definition of what is meant by "salvation is not by works." Once people become catechized on a theology that defines its statements by their own opposites, it becomes very difficult to untangle them from the irrationalism that is embedded in their thinking - indeed its much easier to get a tattoo than to remove one. In my experience, the stain of Lordship Soteriology is more accurately described by the phrase "Hard to Remove."

      Thanks again for your continued contribution to the blog,