Putting God Back Into Faith

This is a review of John F. MacArthur Jr., The Gospel according to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), published in The Standard (February 1989)


When latter-day Puritans J. I. Packer and James Boice both write enthusiastic forewords for a confessed “premillennial dispensationalist” (p. 25), the common adversary must be ominous. What alarm welded this unusual coalition? Answer:

“Loud voices from the dispensationalist camp are putting forth the teaching that it is possible to reject Christ as Lord yet receive Him as Savior” (p. 27). One such voice says, “It is possible, but miserable, to be saved without ever making Christ Lord of your life” (p. 204).

Lewis Sperry Chafer wrote, “The New Testament does not impose repentance upon the unsaved as a condition of salvation” (p. 161). The Ryrie Study Bible calls repentance a “false addition to faith” when made a condition of salvation (p. 161).

So there is no necessary connection between saving faith and obedience. Faith is essentially a momentary mental assent to gospel facts (p. 170). Fruit is not a legitimate test of faith’s authenticity.

The resulting mass of disobedient nominal Christians are accommodated under the category of mere “believer” over against the category of “disciple” which refers to the stage-two Christian who “makes Jesus Lord” of his life (p. 30). Zane Hodges says, “How fortunate that one’s entrance into the kingdom of God [does] not depend on his discipleship” (p. 196).

That’s the common adversary of this coalition. But these opponents argue that any attempt to treat obedience as the necessary fruit of saving faith makes assurance impossible and “seriously, if not fatally” compromises the freeness of the gospel (p. 221). They call MacArthur’s view “lordship salvation” and make it out to be works religion.

According to them, MacArthur and Packer and Boice and all the Puritans and Reformers have been wrong about the relationship between faith and obedience (pp. 221-237). The new orthodoxy is stated like this: “Saving faith has nothing to do with commitment” (p. 171).

MacArthur doesn’t like the term “lordship salvation” because it was coined by those who want to eliminate the idea of submission to Christ from the call to saving faith (p. 28). But to make his thesis plain he says,

“‘Lordship Salvation’ is neither modern nor heretical but is the very heart of historic Christian soteriology” (p. 237). “There is no salvation except ‘lordship’ salvation” (p. 28). “Those who reject His lordship or give mere lip service to His sovereignty are not saved” (p. 203). “The signature of saving faith is surrender to the lordship of Jesus Christ” (p. 209). “Those who refuse Him as Lord cannot use Him as Savior” (p. 210). “Faith obeys. Unbelief rebels. The fruit of one’s life reveals whether that person is a believer or an unbeliever” (p. 178).

MacArthur argues that what is at stake here is the very essence of salvation and the nature of saving faith. The basic error of the opponents is the failure to recognize salvation as a sovereign work of God, and faith as a potent gift of God’s grace.

“Salvation is a supernatural, divine transformation—no less than a miracle that takes place in the soul. It is a true work of God, and it must make a difference in the life of the one whose eyes have been opened” (pp. 750). “If salvation is truly a work of God . . . it cannot leave his desires unchanged or his conduct unaltered” (p. 74).

The opponents accuse historic soteriology of adding human works like repentance and submission to faith. MacArthur responds,

“Repentance and submission are no more human work than faith itself. They are every bit the work of God—not elements added to faith, but essential aspects of God’s work of faith in a human heart” (p. 88). “As a divine gift, faith is neither transient nor impotent. It has an abiding quality that guarantees its endurance to the end” (p. 173).

Nor is it right to define grace merely as God’s acceptance which overlooks sin after a momentary mental assent to gospel facts. “Grace is the power of God to fulfill our New Covenant duties” (p. 31).

What these opponents have done is reduce faith to manageable human terms so that steps to conversion are possible without transformation of heart, and assurance of salvation is possible without evidence of authenticity. Put in its starkest form, the issue is the reality and presence of God in the act of saving faith.

Among the tragic consequences of this de-supernaturalizing of conversion are the ruin of contemporary evangelism and the false security given to millions of churchgoers who do not follow Christ.

The fallacy of today’s popular approach to evangelism is that “the gospel appeal is tacked onto a wholly inadequate explanation of what it means to believe” (p. 171). “The pattern of modern evangelism is to take people through a formula, get them to pray a prayer, sign a card, or whatever, then tell them they are saved and should never doubt it” (p. 190). Without being named, The Four Spiritual Laws (pp. 60, 84) and Robert Schuller’s gospel of self-esteem (p. 66) are shown to be deficient.

“I am convinced that the popular evangelistic message of our age actually lures people into [Satanic] deception. It promises a wonderful, comfortable plan for life. It obliterates the offense of the cross. Though it presents Christ as the way, the truth, and the life, it says nothing of the small gate or the narrow way. Its subject is the love of God, but there is no mention of God’s wrath. It sees people as deprived, not depraved. It is full of love and understanding, but there is no mention of a holy God who hates sin, no summons to repentance, no warning of judgment, no call for brokenness, no expectation of a contrite heart, and no reason for deep sorrow over sin. It is a message of easy salvation, a call for a hasty decision which is often accompanied by false promises of health, happiness, and material blessing. This is not the gospel according to Jesus” (p. 186).

The true gospel invitation, on the other hand, “demands not just passive acceptance of Christ but active submission to Him as well. Those unwilling to surrender to Christ cannot recruit Him to be part of a crowded life” (p. 106). MacArthur laments the rampant false security of our day. “Who knows how many people are deluded into believing they are saved when they are not?” (p. 79). “Unlike preachers today who avoid upsetting someone’s assurance, our Lord was determined to destroy the hope of all who falsely thought they were redeemed” (p. 190).

MacArthur’s method in this broadside against contemporary soteriology and evangelism is to expound the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. He parts company with many fellow dispensationalists here: “It is a mistake of the worst sort to set the teachings of Paul and the apostles over against the words of our Lord and imagine that they contradict one another or speak to different dispensations” (p. 214).

The way of salvation throughout the whole Bible is “marvelously unified and congruous”—namely, “God graciously saves repentant sinners who come to Him in faith” (p. 43). Therefore MacArthur rejects “a theology of easy-believism that disposes of the hard sayings of Jesus” (p. 196).

As for my own personal response to the book, I could scarcely put it down for joy. Its exegesis is almost always compelling. Its analysis of the contemporary scene is shockingly accurate. Its description of conversion is wonderfully radical. Its exposure of rampant nominalism is life saving. Its grief over the impurity of the church is moving. Its zeal for the glory of God’s holiness is contagious. Its vision of God’s sovereign grace is large and fully biblical. My prayer is that the BGC Commission on Evangelism will make it second to the Bible in their deliberations, and that our Conference will have about it the radical Christlike flavor of this book.

Do I have any criticisms? Aside from minor points, I would want MacArthur to go deeper in his analysis of the nature of saving faith until he discover not only that it must yield obedience, but why it must.

The reason that is important is that we will guard best against the accusation of salvation by works if we can show that something in the nature of faith itself produces obedience, rather than merely saying that it is always somehow accompanied by obedience.

My suggestion is that we recognize that the essence of saving faith is being satisfied with Christ (John 6:35) by hoping in His promises (Rom. 15:13; Heb. 11:1). When your heart is satisfied in all that Christ is for you, your heart is weaned from the deceptive satisfactions of sin, and “the commands of the Lord are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3) but the delight of your heart (Ps. 40:8), and thus irresistible.

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