The quickest way to slay error is to proclaim the truth. The surest mode of extinguishing falsehood, is to boldly advocate Scripture doctrine upon Scripture principles. Scolding and protesting will not be so effectual in resisting the progress of error as the clear proclamation of the truth in Jesus. – Charles Haddon Spurgeon
This quote from the Prince of Preachers embodies John MacArthur – a man who continues today to stand for Biblical truth in the face of ‘falsehood’ and ‘error’. In the first part of my review of Iain Murray’s biography John MacArthur: Servant of the Word and Flock, I attempted to clearly show MacArthur’s commitment to expository preaching and his primary placement of Scripture over trends and methods and ‘relevant’ programs through the first five chapters.
In Chapter 6 The Rediscovery of Old Truth, we see John MacArthur’s stance on the issue of whether the number who come to eternal life are ultimately determined by the purpose of God or by the will of man. Clearly seen throughout the Bible, man possesses a fallen nature at enmity to God and spiritual things, therefore how can a ‘decision’ by him to turn from death to life be the cause of conversion?
John Wesley had tilted the understanding of evangelicals away from what has been the confession of the early church fathers, the Reformers, and the Puritans. And Charles G. Finney carried this much further than Wesley by teaching that man does have a fallen nature at all. He taught that a human decision and salvation is secured by the sinner’s movement toward God and the gospel. The result of this teaching was the omission of the law in any kind of evangelism, sinner’s were simply encouraged to make a ‘decision for Christ’ and ‘ask Jesus into their heart’, and the ‘alter call’ was made hugely popular in evangelical Christianity.
The result of alter calls, saying the sinner’s prayer, asking Jesus into their heart, checking a box, or raising your hand led to generations of ‘false converts’ and ‘backsliders’ with false assurances of salvation that continue on today. The early realization of this trend in the history of Christianity came when an individual came up to MacArthur and said, “Excuse me, you wouldn’t know how I could have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, would you?” MacArthur described this encounter:
“Prospects like this do not approach me very often, so I did not want to lose this one! I said, ‘Well, yes, you simply believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and accept Him as your Saviour.’ I explained that Jesus died and rose again so that we might have eternal life. I told him all he needed to do was to receive Christ as his personal Saviour. ‘I’d like to do that’, he said. So I led him in a prayer, and he asked the Lord to be his Saviour. Later that month I baptized him. I was very excited about what had happened and eager to follow him up in discipleship. After a short time, however, he broke off contact with me. I recently discovered he has no continuing interest in the things of Christ.” (Page 74)
It was multiple experiences like this along with the Word of God that revealed the difference between Jesus’ presentation of the gospel and the modern approach to evangelism. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used the law to shatter the self-confidence and pride of the people. In Jesus’ meeting with the rich young ruler in Mark 10 and Matthew 19, Jesus took again a far different approach:
“Instead of taking him from where he was and getting him to make a ‘decision’, Jesus laid out terms to which he was unwilling to submit. In a sense, Jesus chased him off. What kind of evangelism is this? Jesus would have failed personal evangelism class in almost every Bible College or Seminary I know!” (Page 75)
The absence of preaching the law to the proud and the missing piece of repentance resulted in the fact that people were treated as converts who had never been converted at all. They had some sort of belief in the message they heard, but they simply made a human decision to have good feelings about this Jesus. There was no repentance, no submission, no dying to self as set forth in the Scriptures…they were not truly born again.
“Unbelievers are told that if they invite Jesus into their hearts, accept Him as personal Saviour, or believe the facts of the gospel, that’s all there is to it. The aftermath is appalling failure, as seen in the lives of multitudes who have professed faith in Christ with no consequent impact on their behaviour.” (Page 75)
MacArthur’s book The Gospel According to Jesus is detailed throughout the ninth chapter of the book simply labeled Controversy. This chapter showed John MacArthur going against the current ‘easy believism’ trend in Christianity by making his case through the Bible rather than human methods and programs. MacArthur clearly showed that the current teaching had
“subtly changed the thrust of the gospel. Instead of exhorting sinners to repent, evangelicalism in our society asks the unsaved to ‘accept Christ’. That makes sinners sovereign and puts Christ at their disposal…This modified gospel depicts conversion as a ‘decision for Christ’ rather than a life-transforming change of heart involving genuine faith, repentance, surrender, and rebirth into newness of life.” (Page 113)
People can accept Christ through some belief or faith that they may have, but that is not conversion. The Bible places the sinner in a radical place – dead, blind, in darkness, lost, at enmity toward God, children of wrath. There is more than faith involved in a true conversion. The sinner must be a ‘new creation’ and “any salvation that does not alter a lifestyle of sin and transform the heart of the sinner is not a genuine salvation.” (Page 114)
“Salvation is for people who hate their sin. It is for individuals who understand that they have lived in rebellion against a holy God. It is for those who want to turn around, to live for God’s glory.” (Page 114-115)
“Conversion has a human side and a divine side. On the human side the promises of the gospel supply the warrant for immediate repentance and trust in Christ; yet this will not happen where there is no conviction of sin. The law, in its revelation of the character of God, and of man’s obligation to love Him ‘with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind’ (Luke 10:27), brings home the seriousness of human sin.” (Murray, Page 115)
“when Christ demanded repentance, he was not calling sinners to self-reform. In fact, authentic repentance begins with the sinner’s recognition that one is hopelessly in bondage to sin and powerless to change. Jesus’ classic example of repentance was a tax gatherer who came to understand his hopeless position…This publican’s conversion demonstrates how repentance is far more than a simple adjustment of one’s opinions about Christ…While there is no question that repentance involves a change of mind, it certainly does not end there. It is a wholesale change in direction, a change in purpose, a change in attitude, and a change in affections. All of this can only be the result of God’s gracious regenerating work and is therefore evidence of true salvation.” (Page 115-116)
Modern evangelism has confused the relationship between the human and the divine sides of conversion. The essential parts of evangelism is the call for the sinner to repent and believe, but both are gifts of grace from God as found throughout Scripture. It ultimately depends on God’s initiative and power and it is a gift of God that makes one willing and able to believe. There is no way in which one who is dead, unwilling, and unable to come to Christ can come to repentance and faith at all.
Murray shows how MacArthur’s critics charged him with ‘displacing grace’ in this teaching. However, it is his critics that truly ‘displaced grace’ when they teach that human decision is the controlling event in salvation. Even if the sinner makes the ‘first move’ as many say and then God’s grace kicks in, it is not grace at all. Salvation in that case is left up in the sinner’s own hands.
Salvation is solely the work of God’s grace and it is God’s grace that grants us the repentance and faith to be saved. The Bible clearly shows this is the case because it is God who gets all the glory and we get none of it. “That ongoing work of grace in the Christian’s life is as much a certainty as justification, glorification, or any other aspect of God’s redeeming work.” (Page 117)
A common mantra of pastors and churches today are ‘we promote unity in the Body and not division’. And while this sentiment is good, it often comes at the expense of not standing for any truth whatsoever in the attempt to please everyone and allow unconverted pew-dwellers to sit in false-assurance of their standing with God. Few preachers will stand along with John MacArthur in the rock of the Scripture over the influences of men. To be passionate about truth has ceased in our society to be the evidence of Christian character. A.W. Tozer remarked on this attitude before his death in 1963:
“The fashion now is to tolerate anything lest we get the reputation of being intolerant. The tender-minded saints cannot bear to see Agag slain, so they choose rather to sacrifice the health of the Church for years to come by sparing error and evil; and this they do in the name of Christian love.” (Tozer, Page 125)
What have you and I to do with maintaining our influence and position at the expense of truth? It is never right to do a little wrong to obtain the greatest possible good…Your duty is to do the right: consequences are with God.” – Charles Haddon Spurgeon
Thank you John MacArthur for standing up for the truth.