I first heard John MacArthur back in the early 1990s on his Grace to You radio broadcast, and as a young man just learning Reformed theology, I was excited to hear what sounded like a commitment to God’s sovereign grace come across in some of his messages. As the years went by, and his relationship with R.C.Sproul grew, John MacArthur (JMac) began to be elevated in Reformed circles. Although his book on Lordship Salvation created some controversy, mainly because it confused so many people, even theologically Reformed people like myself. Because I was theologically conservative, and certainly believed that Christ is Lord, and obedience is important, but as time went on, I noticed what seemed to be inconsistent comments from JMac.
Fast forward to today, R.C. is gone, JMac is older, and I’ll admit that I haven’t listened to him much in many years. While I respect his commitment to not giving in to theological liberalism, particularly his standing firm with R.C. during the disastrous Catholics and Evangelical’s together compromise, I’ve always considered him someone sort of on the edge of the Reformed world.
I’m a firm believer however, that If you’re for Reformation, then you’ve got to call out the doctrines that are in error. You’ve got to point them out and name them, and sometimes you’ve got to name names, so there’s not confusion. The Church needs to know what the error is and who is pushing the error so we can avoid it, and perhaps even avoid them. Particularly if it’s gross error.
So, John MacArthur has continued to do that, yet recently he pointed out a person in the Reformed community that I know (my very orthodox Anglican friend) and he said among other things that he was an antinomian and a false teacher. But I happen to very familiar with this person’s theology, and I have to say that JMac made a huge mistake.
First off I have to admit that this friend having previously been mentored under the Lordship Salvation view had within the past year spoken out against Lordship Salvation, having pointed out that it’s errors were: “Soul enslaving, freedom killing, conscience afflicting, assurance destroying, and aw/gospel confusing”. I’m not sure if Jmac took personal offense or if he just has one way of looking at these things, but rather than defend Lordship Salvation, he appears to just accept that category of thought and has not been willing to actually pay attention to the person’s responses, and what he is and isn’t saying.
It’s not as if the problems with the term has not already caused some controversy and its main issue in recards to classical Reformed theology pointed out. The term: Lordship Salvation. Dr. Michael Horton already wrote a great book describing some of the problems that we in the Reformed world have against the term, and the way JMac and others who agree with this term define the law and Christian obedience.
The problem with Lordship Salvation is that it’s coming specifically out of an evangelical and Dispensational view, out of Big Eva (big Evangelicalism), where people were used to the template of responding to these altar calls accepting Jesus as savior. Then they assign this separate stage where you needed to also accept his Lordship over your life. As Dr. Horton already pointed out, we in the Reformed world don’t teach that Christ isn’t Lord. We would agree that Christ IS Lord, and Savior, and if you don’t come to Christ as Lord and Savior, then you haven’t come to the Christ of the bible. Or to say it positively, you must come to Christ as Savior and Lord, or you haven’t come to the Christ of the bible. There is no separating of Christ’s nature, or of His Priestly and Kingly offices. We would deny that there are multiple stages of coming to Christ, were you get this little part of Him and then you get a second part. There are no second blessings, or any of that nonsense. Christ is either a complete savior, and Lord, or it’s not Christ.
Either you place your faith in Christ the Lord, and His saving work on your behalf, or you don’t, and if you do, though you might have times where you fail to obey, you’re going to start to want to obey, and start obeying in your life in some ways. So away with these ideas that my friend, or any of us who are committed to Reformed confessional theology would deny that Christ is Lord, or would seek to lead people into disobedience of the Law of God. I would argue that in fact, we are the ones who understand the biblical view of a Christians obedience, and are the ones that uphold the right view of the law of God in the Christian’s life.
The real problem with the recent doctrine called Lordship Salvation is that it comes out of an entirely unbiblical set of assumptions. We who come out of historic confessional Reformed theology know nothing of this two-step view.
So, they who hold to Lordship Salvation as defined by JMac are the ones who come in error. The term itself is a misnomer. The reason they make this mistake is because of a commitment to the doctrine of Dispensationalism. Dispensationalism is a commitment to divide redemptive history into stages, denying the covenant theology structure found in Reformed Theology. There is the real crux of the problem between my theologically Reformed friend and Jmac.
Historical Reformed theology would see the law of God as having been completely fulfilled by Christ. We see the moral law as a codified natural law, a law that is written on man’s conscience. Christ having fulfilled that; the moral law still stands as a standard for living a life of gratitude. JMac, does not see the moral law (the 10 commandments) as still binding on the Christian, but would say the law of love (which they say is consistent with the moral law) is now the standard. So, it’s simply a raised bar that we’re to strive to fulfill with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. Can you see the terrible flaw in Lordship Salvation?
We who are Reformed first understand Christ’s sermon on the mount as raising the bar beyond human ability to fulfill it, driving us to despair of our faith in our own ability to be good enough. JMac sees it differently though. In an article written and posted on Ligoneer.org in 2007 titled Above Reproach he writes of “our obedience to the moral and ethical principles of God’s law.” How “The moral standard God’s people are supposed to live by far surpasses even the highest principles of normal human ethics.”, and the biblical example he points to is Matthew 5:20, about which he says: “This was one of the main points of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: ‘I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’”.
Now he admits as a sort of aside in the article that the standard is ultimately unattainable, but his primary of view of that is that it’s for us to do more, and try harder to fulfill it. So he sees Jesus teaching here, and Jesus command in 5:48 that we should “be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect” to be teaching us that we should be relentlessly pursuing “perfect ethical consistency”. It’s hard to believe how someone could walk away from that, and not think that though Jesus does His part, that we are expected with our lives to somehow be doing our part. To us who understand covenant theology, It sounds like and feels like being put back under a covenant of works.
This view he has expressed is inconsistent with the understanding of law and gospel, the first use of the law and the covenant theology found in Reformed scholasticism, and in Reformed confessions.
His theology is an internally inconsistent mix of Dispensational theology with Reformed theology and is one reason that JMac has continually mixed law and gospel categories, because he doesn’t come from the Reformed view that Christ by his active obedience fulfilled the probation of the covenant of works, and has therefore already merited eternal life and the blessings of God. Dr. Sproul, (though he considered JMac a friend) raised the red flag on this problem coming from Dispensationalism and its failure to recognize a completed covenant of works before his death.
In an article about The Covenant of Works [b], Dr. Sproul wrote about what he called a crisis in our day: “Beyond the ongoing discussion between traditional dispensationalists and Reformed theology with respect to the basic structure of biblical revelation, there has arisen in our day an even greater crisis with respect to our understanding of redemption.
This crisis focuses on the place of imputation in our understanding of the doctrine of justification.” He goes on to point out that “At the heart of this question of justification and imputation is the rejection of what is called the covenant of works.”
Dr. Sproul goes on to speak of the Reformed understanding of the active obedience of Christ and how it is essential to our salvation. “In this work of fulfilling the covenant for us in our stead, theology speaks of the “active obedience” of Christ. That is, Christ’s redeeming work includes not only His death, but His life. His life of perfect obedience becomes the sole ground of our justification. It is His perfect righteousness, gained via His perfect obedience, that is imputed to all who put their trust in Him.
Therefore, Christ’s work of active obedience is absolutely essential to the justification of anyone. Without Christ’s active obedience to the covenant of works, there is no reason for imputation, there is no ground for justification. If we take away the covenant of works, we take away the active obedience of Jesus. If we take away the active obedience of Jesus, we take away the imputation of His righteousness to us. If we take away the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us, we take away justification by faith alone. If we take away justification by faith alone, we take away the Gospel, and we are left in our sins. We are left as the miserable sons of Adam, who can only look forward to feeling the full measure of God’s curse upon us for our own disobedience. It is the obedience of Christ that is the ground of our salvation, both in His passive obedience on the cross and His active obedience in His life.
All of this is inseparably related to the biblical understanding of Jesus as the new Adam (Rom. 5:12–20), who succeeded where the original Adam failed, who prevailed where the original Adam lost. There is nothing less than our salvation at stake in this issue.
The Active Obedience of Christ is a doctrine not found in Dispensational theology, so JMac has to borrow the language and concept of it from Covenant Theology. It does not even fit in a Dispensational construct, so he has to shoehorn it in.
Yet there remains a defective view of what Christ as secured, and therefore what Christ is teaching in the sermon on the mount. JMac has a defective view of the moral law and how it is still binding as a standard on the Christian life, in its 3rd use, as a guide to a life of gratitude. So, he uses language speaking about Lordship Salvation, and speaks of taking obedience seriously, and many conservative Reformed people think his doctrine is okay, because perhaps it’s that simplistic result that they’re looking for themselves.
For those of us who know our confessional Reformed Theology and proper law/gospel categories, we don’t buy it. We know that fear of condemnation, or hope of reward is no proper Christian motivation, and that nothing but doubt and lack of assurance that spring from this internally inconsistent mixture of Reformed theology and Dispensationalism.
It’s the heart of gratitude that’s been assured of a sure salvation based on the obedient work of Christ that we argue for, and the confessions are on our side on this. R.C. Sproul would certainly be on our side on this, and would perhaps say “Johnny Mac, do I need to tell you again what you believe?” R.C. Was good for Jmac, but unfortunately, he didn’t completely finish the work of bringing him all the way into Reformed theology. So we’re all stuck with this celebrity preacher who’s accepted in the Reformed world as if his views were Reformed. If God didn’t win JMac over through R.C. who JMac respected immensely, I doubt that any of us can. I think we just need to love JMac where he is, pray for Him, but not fall into his bad views, and help people who’ve been oppressed under those views out and into a healthy understanding of law and gospel, and into good covenant theology found in historic confessional Reformed Theology. That’s what JMac has a problem with, not with my friend. That these confessions of what we profess with the historic Reformed church is a right understanding of the scriptures.
If we’re for a modern Reformation, then we have to make distinctions between those who simply borrow from some Reformed doctrines while rejecting or even attacking the covenant theology at the heart of Reformed theology. There’s enough confusion and problems already in the confessional Reformed world. We we don’t need to add the errors of Dispensationalism and Lordship Salvation to them.
a : https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/above-reproach/
Other Resources: Brushed Red offers some commentary on the slanderous attack John MacArthur made, and showed some of JMacs own circular reasoning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4-PQo-62AU