MacArthur vs the New Orthodoxy
Updated: Aug 8
A Statement on the Nature of Saving Faith
No one can receive Christ as His Savior while he rejects Him as Lord. Therefore, those who have not bowed to Christ’s scepter and enthroned Him in their hearts and lives, and yet imagine that they are trusting Him as Savior, are deceived. —A. W. Pink
Bnonn and I, the founders of Redwood Reformation Church, are releasing a statement today on the nature of saving faith:
This blog is my personal preface to that statement.
Bnonn and I have come to a shared understanding of this issue via different routes. I think it might be helpful to some if I explain from my perspective why I believe this statement is necessary.
Pastor John MacArthur’s ministry was a big part of forming my own understanding of how the gospel should be articulated. Over the years, MacArthur has had a lot of pushback for his lordship salvation views. Recently, there has been a renewed rejection of how he articulates the gospel. As one of his disciples, I believe this is why my articulation has come under fire in New Zealand. There is an international movement against lordship salvation which has led to our local scuffle.
To understand this, let me tell you about how MacArthur’s lordship gospel saved me.
Up until 2010, to my shame, I was a proud liar, a drunkard, a habitual porn user, and, as a result, an unmarriageable mess. And…I thought I was a Christian.
I thought this because I had an unbiblical view of Sola Fide—salvation by faith alone. What I had picked up, fairly or unfairly, from the churches I attended, is that all I had to do to be saved was believe that Jesus had died for me.
I believed that. So I was deluded into thinking I was one of God’s people.
God ended my delusion that year. He did it through a Paul Washer sermon. You probably know the one. That God-fearing man showed me that according to scripture, I was most definitely not a Christian. He did it with this passage:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:21-23)
With this passage, God revealed to me that though I called Jesus my Lord, and told others he was my Lord, I was actually a worker of lawlessness. He was not my Lord at all. I did not do "the will of the Father who is in heaven," and, since the Father only permits "the one who does his will" to enter the kingdom of heaven, I was heading to hell.
I saw in this passage that what a person does makes a difference to his eternal destiny.
This message destroyed the unbiblical view of Sola Fide that I had caught from the churches I had attended. There had to be more to salvation than believing Jesus died for me…because I believed that, and yet for much of my life was not saved.
The thing I did believe was the sufficiency of Christ's atoning sacrifice. I held to that because I wanted forgiveness. But I did not believe in the goodness of the Lord of creation. That was because I wanted another lord over my life—my own flesh.
While I would have never said this, I believed I knew better than God, and this "belief"—this worksless, Lordless faith—was utterly worthless in his sight.
But, thanks be to God, Paul Washer not only proved to me that I was not a Christian, he proved that I would be saved if God transformed me. Whatever it was to "do the will of my Father," and in so doing "enter the kingdom of heaven," that had to be made possible for those whom God saves.
Paul Washer introduced me to the biblical concept of regeneration—the powerful, invisible work of God that precedes faith, making true faith possible. He taught me that men are so sinful that if we are to live a life of faith and obedience—the one that Matthew 7 requires—we must be raised to new life. Regeneration is a gracious supernatural gift to the helpless sinner. The fruits of regeneration—faith and repentance—are proof that one has been saved by God's grace.
And, praise God, this is what he did for me. He granted me repentance so that I received him for the first time, not only as an escape from hell, but as my Saviour and Lord. I was born again—fundamentally changed at the core. Now I loved the Lord and his lordship, obeying him from the heart.
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. (1 John 5:3)
John MacArthur teaches me that it is hard to believe
After this transformation, I remembered a book given to me at a Christian sports camp at Riverbend Bible Church: Hard to Believe by John MacArthur. I had never opened it because I thought the title was ridiculous. What could be so hard about believing? I had also heard some negative reports about MacArthur from some who were in my own church at the time, which was becoming increasingly Emergent. Remember when that was a thing?
But now I was craving good theology, and I wondered if MacArthur was one of those legit God-fearing preachers like Paul Washer. So, at 25, Hard to Believe became the first book I read about the Bible.
From page one, I was blown away. It was exactly what I needed at the time. I had thought Christianity was something you came to at the end of an honest, diligent intellectual exploration. If you came to the right conclusions, somehow the work of the cross was yours, and you were not going to hell. Being a Christian was certainly not dependent on submission or surrender.
You can imagine the clarity this book gave me when, after drawing from many passages of the Bible, MacArthur said this:
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. 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, determines our eternal destiny.
You will remember this quote if you read my blog about saving faith, back when this kerfuffle over Sola Fide first started. It was one that really helped form my understanding of what the life of faith is—that Jesus desires followers and kingdom workers, not passive spectators.
Over the next year, I grew to love John MacArthur's ministry. I eventually enrolled in a Bible college that essentially grew out of his seminary and teachings. There I benefited from other pastors who modeled his form of biblical exegesis. And there I discovered that his “lordship” view of salvation, which God had used so powerfully to save my own soul, was a source of great controversy in the church at large. Many rejected it.
Thanks to my own conversion, I could easily see how a reductionistic version of Sola Fide―free grace or easy-believism―had led people to ignore the full counsel of God. Easy-believism was where I had come from, and now it was impossible to unsee the dangerous errors of these beliefs, along with their terrible fruits. From the beginning of my faith—my true and living faith—I knew that scripture taught such faith has hands and feet. The idea of evaluating beliefs separate from actions was worldly wisdom. We are not brains in vats. Our thoughts always lead to action, or inaction. Therefore, a holistic understanding of faith will lead us to see it operating in the whole person—not just the mind.
Faith cannot help but work through your fingertips. More on this later.
You're Not Truly Reformed, John
Many years have passed since then, and as I said at the beginning of this piece, there is once again a growing movement to repudiate MacArthur's view of lordship salvation.
But this time, it is not coming from the old-school dispensational fundies.
It is coming from the Reformed side of the aisle.
These Reformed critics use different language than the old-time proponents of easy-believism, and they sound more orthodox—but they lead to functionally the same articulation of the gospel. In practice, this new Reformed view of Sola Fide rejects lordship salvation.
If you haven't seen anything from this movement yet, here is an example. In this two-part podcast, some former Master’s Seminary graduates throw MacArthur under the bus of the new "Sola Fide orthodoxy”:
If you don’t want to spend nearly two hours listening to unorthodox nonsense, here is a summary of their list of concerns about MacArthur's lordship salvation:
Confusion about the order of salvation (ordo salutis).
A redefinition of faith.
A collapsing of law and gospel.
Confusion on the uses of the law.
A confusion of the relationship between justification and sanctification.
If these look familiar, they should. These are the same critiques that Bnonn and I have been getting for our views.
In a recent blog, R. Scott Clark says this of MacArthur:
Finally, it is unfortunate that, after thirty-one years, MacArthur still seems unable to understand the pastoral cost of the Lordship Salvation model of salvation and sanctification. As a Reformed pastor, I have counseled with too many refugees from “Lordship Salvation” churches to think that it is harmless. It is a kind of slavery because, to put it in Reformed categories, it puts believers, were it possible, back under the covenant of works or under the law for acceptance with God. This is a tragic error and quite avoidable. This, after all, is one of the principal reasons we had a Reformation in the sixteenth century: in its desire to stimulate sanctification and good works, the medieval church put believers, were it possible, back under the law or under the covenant of works for justification and salvation.
Contrary to the quote from MacArthur's book that I referenced above, men like this would say that the life we live does not determine our eternal destiny in any way. It is what Christ has done that determines our eternal destiny. Lordship salvation essentially pollutes the purity of Sola Fide with works, and blends theological categories that must be kept separate and distinct. It leads us to seek assurance in ourselves and not the finished work of Christ.
Salvation through justification, sanctification, and glorification
All Christians, MacArthur included, would affirm that there is something true to what critics like Clark are saying. For example, we should put no confidence in the flesh (Philippians 3:1-4). Salvation "depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy." (Romans 9:16). The finished work of Christ is our only hope of salvation (Romans 8:1-4).
But the problem comes when we ask how Christ's work of redemption works out in the life of the Christian. Does the Spirit, given to us at regeneration, actually produce a righteousness in us that is essential to our salvation? In other words, can we be saved without sanctification, theoretically? Is justification enough by itself, or did God always intend to save us through sanctification as well? And what about glorification? Is our salvation merely legal?
I believe our opponents would have trouble answering these questions as the Bible does.
From my perspective, they're leaning so heavily on the legal reality of justification by faith that they overturn Sola Fide. We are not saved only through justification by grace through faith. Justification is only one part of salvation. We also place our faith in the One who sanctifies and glorifies, and these things are necessary for our salvation―just as necessary as justification. As Hebrews 12:14 says, we must "pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord."
The Reductionism of Trying to Live Off Systematic Theology
The problem with MacArthur’s critics, and ours, is reductionism. Using logical deductions from systematic theology to determine the only orthodox ways of speaking—rather than following biblical examples, and imitating prophetic rhetoric.
The full counsel of God teaches more than the reductionistic version of Sola Fide that these men espouse. Clark talks about the pastoral harm done by lordship salvation. But in fact, it is his reductionism which is dangerous to the souls of believers. We do not want to teach our congregations to have the worksless faith of demons. The kind of faith that was leading me to the place where they are going.
This concern is at the heart of the book, Hard to Believe, along with many of MacArthur's other works. Belief is hard in Christianity because belief requires action. True Christians believe in following Christ, not merely agreeing with facts about him. America, and every other nation of what was the Christian West, is littered with the ruins of unsanctified lives, many of them church-goers, thinking that they were justified on the basis of a belief that did nothing obedient.
That is why a recovery of lordship salvation and the nature of saving faith is so necessary.
Here is what John MacArthur himself said in his preface to The Gospel According to Jesus, many years ago now:
The message of salvation includes a call to surrender to Jesus as Lord. Those who would come to him for salvation must be willing to acquiesce to His sovereign authority. Those who reject His right to rule cannot expect to lay claim to Him as Savior. Because of the state of the gospel in contemporary evangelicalism, there is no way to teach about salvation without dealing specifically with this issue, which has come to be known as "lordship salvation." No more serious question faces the church today. It can be phrased in many ways: What is the gospel? Must a person accept Jesus as Savior and Lord in order to be saved? What is saving faith? How should we invite men and women to Christ? And what is salvation?
But, tragically, instead of recovering lordship salvation when it is needed, we have proud young pastors saying "Buh-bye" to seasoned pastors like John MacArthur, Paul Washer, John Piper, James White, and Doug Wilson. Some even accuse them of "denying the faith once delivered."
John MacArthur shared this in a recent sermon of his:
I was shocked the other day to read a tweet from a young pastor that I know (a Master's graduate). This is what he said: “I seek to free as many as possible from the soul-enslaving, freedom-killing, conscience-afflicting, assurance destroying, law-gospel confusing errors of lordship salvation.
You Know A Vat-Brain Pastor
The pastors that are on this crusade have lost their way. The modern idea of pastors as preacher-theologians, rather than shepherds involved in the lives of their flocks, has allowed them to function as brains-in-vats—impractical, computer-desk-men, divorced from the everyday reality of life and work that most of their congregants experience. They are not like those who sit in their pews, and they seldom befriend such people. They spend their time instead online, creating a community of podcasters and bloggers who pat each other on the back about refining their systematic theology to such precision that they can safely cut off those using language straight out of the Bible.
If the internet were to disappear, their lives would become a whole lot more empty.
Because their world is all about theory and theology, they struggle to make real-world applications in their sermons. But the Bible was not written in or for the world of systematic theology. It was written for people with God-given earthly desires to be applied thoroughly and immediately to life. To hungry men who want to eat well. To women who long to thrive as women. To people under economic pressures. To people who have a lot of life to live yet. To people with brains and bodies. Brains in vats cannot relate the word of God to these people.
Thus, their status comes not from the recognition of their flocks, but from the approval of their peers. Their credentials are about upholding a particular and narrow view of orthodoxy among their priestly class. This often leads to the neglect of life-on-life discipleship with the “lower class” in their pews. When people come and go from their churches, they show little concern. People who disagree are problems, not saints they have a responsibility to work with. It is holding the line on orthodoxy that matters, and being seen to do so by the rest of their peers. So when people struggle under their care, it is really better if they leave quietly. But if someone from distant lands articulates Sola Fide differently to them, that requires action.
I don't draw attention to this because I enjoy poking them in the eye. I do it because it establishes my point with your own concrete experience. You know it's true. This is the elephant in the room. We've all had that awkward conversation with a seminarian. Their kind of thinking and style of shepherding spoils a ministry. Like a suspect bottle of milk, they haven't passed your sniff test, and I'm telling you it's because the milk of the word is not allowed in their vat if it tastes different to their reductionist theology. Just listen to the 17-minute mark in the first Theocast episode I linked above. They quote MacArthur, who simply points out that scripture uses faith and obedience interchangeably in John 3:36. Do they engage with his point? Do they resolve the evident contradiction with their own view? No. They use the quote instead as if it were obvious evidence that MacArthur is wrong. And it is obvious—to them…because that isn’t the “Truly Reformed” position. Scripture is no longer able to correct their theology, because their theology instead corrects scripture.
Dissection Versus Vivisection
So how do these pastors repent of their vat-brain reductionism? Systematic theology has to be done, but how can we do it without killing the living word?
The answer is to do systematics by vivisection rather than dissection. Vivisection is when you put a living organism to sleep before you study its parts, to preserve the function of the whole. The essential connections remain intact, and you can see how all the parts relate to each other while they are working. Dissection studies the parts by killing the whole and laying everything out separately on the table. With a good memory, you can put it all back together, but it will have lost its life. You will have lost the ability to see how its parts work together. Once something is dead, there is no return.
A heart is essential to survival, but if removed from the brain or nervous system, it is useless. You cannot understand its usefulness without seeing its interconnected bodily function. A tongue is not essential to survival, but it is a prominent member, guiding the whole body (James 3:1-12). You wouldn't know this if it was severed from the body, lying lifeless on the table.
This Sola Fide controversy has arisen because seminarians insist that the only way to divide the living word is by dissection.
But salvation is killed when justification and sanctification are separated. It is unnatural to attempt such a separation. Salvation is more than justification. Though the nature or inner workings of justification and sanctification are very different, biblically, they form a whole—no matter how that messes with our tidy categories of systematic theology.
Again, it is impossible to dissect salvation without killing it―the relationship between multiple living and essential components ensures its survival. It is possible to study its parts, but you have to be careful not to break the life-sustaining connections between them. This approach is in keeping with the Reformed tradition.
See how John MacArthur comes against the tidy reductionistic interpretations of vat-brain theologians in his sermon on James 2:
James structures his argument against the kind of thinking that says, “Faith alone is enough, and if there’s nothing ever produced in your life, it really doesn’t matter. It’s simply a matter of believing, and salvation is nothing more than forensic, and justification is nothing more than God saying, ‘You’re justified.’ It doesn’t necessarily include a transformed life.” That is so foreign to Scripture. But that’s the kind of thing James is debating as he talks with this antagonist that he has hypothetically created.
This is why there is an attempt to cancel John MacArthur from the truly reformed camp. He knows what is foreign to scripture, and doesn't care if he loses reformed points for highlighting faulty uses of systematic theology.
The same dissection is being done with faith and works. Salvation is killed when we separate faith from its fruits. In the same way that a body apart from its spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead (James 2:26). You can study faith and works separately, and proper distinctions must be made, but, when you do, you cannot destroy their relationship to each other. They are codependents. The life of one is dependent on the other. Works apart from faith are filthy rags. Faith apart from works is fake. It's dead.
Works are faith being exercised
This means that there is an inseparable bond between faith and works. This connection is an ontological reality. It is why it is natural to point out a work as the obedience of faith, and unnatural to say that a work was not the exercising of faith.
Let me explain. Consider Matthew's account of the paralytic's friends. We reference this passage in the statement.
And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith... (Matthew 9:2)
Jesus saw the works of the paralytic's friends, and Matthew described what he saw as "faith." Their faith was active along with their works, (James 2:22) so this was a fitting account. Their faith had hands and feet. Their faith was manifest in works.
In real life―not in a textbook―faith and works make up an inseparable whole.
In the same way, if we saw a man preaching at a pride parade, we might say, "Wow, what faith!" And if a seminarian bystander slid his glasses up his nose, put his thumbs under his suspenders, rocked back onto his heels, and interjected with, "Errr, ah, technically…preaching is a work. Faith is what leads a man to preach. Faith is the root, preaching is the fruit, so you should be saying, ‘wow, what works!’"…we all would know how to respond. "Go back to your desk, nerd."
Of course, no seminarian would insist on this distinction in the real world, because it is so obviously stupid. They only insist that we make it on paper, at a distance from reality, for the sake of the debate. In real life, we know that every action, good or bad, is an act of faith. Faith and action are continually at work together. It is never a question of whether we will employ our faith faculties. The question is always: what are we placing our faith in? Every human deed, whether we are conscious of it or not, is the fruit of an ever-present faith. We will either be led by faith in human or demonic reason, or faith in the revealed will of God.
In the same way, we are always doing some kind of work. Sometimes people believe better than they act (like the demons). Sometimes people act better than they believe (like Jordan Peterson). Sometimes they act in accord with their beliefs.
At any given moment, every image-bearer is both faithing and working. Our faith leads our works, but they cannot help but function together.
Our opponents are teaching that faith can only operate in the mind. Therefore, faith, by definition, cannot do anything. Faith has no hands and feet. This conception of disembodied faith tidily puts distance between faith and works, and it looks good on paper. But borrowing the language of MacArthur, "that is so foreign to scripture." Since faith and works do not function separately in the real world, to insist on this separation is unhelpful and unbiblical, practically.
Consider Hebrews 11.
By faith, Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain... By faith Noah... in reverent fear constructed an ark... By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance... By faith, he went to live in the land of promise... By faith, the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land... By faith, the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute... welcome to the spies. And what more shall I say? For time would fail me...
Scripture is plain. The living faith of our fathers worked. Their faith was active along with their works, and faith was completed by their works (James 2:22). Their works were the obedience of faith (Romans 1:5, 16:26).
Dissect This Nicely
Here’s another example of how you cannot do dissection without destroying the pastoral potency of the author's language:
And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard... (Colossians 1:21–23)
Clearly, Paul has justification in mind here. If we are to be presented "holy and blameless and above reproach before him" in the future, the legal requirements of the law must have been satisfied in the past. Justification is punctiliar—Christ’s righteousness is imputed the moment we are grafted into him, once and finally.
But Paul is also teaching here that our initial and final justification must be worked out in our glorification, that is, in the presence of God. And this in turn is somehow dependent upon our perseverance in faith. Pastorally, Paul is blending all these theological categories, for the benefit of the church, showing the church at Colossae that perseverance is necessary. Many do not continue in faith, and are "unstable and shifting." The Christian must stay steadfast in the faith. Our salvation—all the 'fications—are dependent on abiding in him.
Does Paul, here, destroy the truth of a punctiliar justification? Of course not.
But our opponents would think we had if we spoke this way.
We are concerned that these pastors are not speaking this way. When have you heard them say, "Christ said 'it is finished' on the cross, meaning your justification was settled and secured through his finished work…and it is yours if you continue in the faith, steadfast until the end"?
Apostasy is real. Falling away happens. If we only ever point back to the finished work of Christ, and do not give these forward-facing warnings, we do not give the full counsel of God. A reductionistic teaching of justification and faith is dangerous.
What we are trying to preserve and promote is this Pauline way of speaking, along with James, and every other biblical author's way of speaking. They spoke organically and pastorally, unconcerned with how nicely their teachings cut up and fit into tidy and separate boxes.
What Will MacArthur's Legacy Be?
We are all aware that MacArthur may not be here for much longer. He has had 84 years on this earth, and most of them were spent in faithful service to his Lord. His legacy will be an extraordinary one. In my opinion, his greatest and most lasting contribution will be his insistence to our generation that we proclaim the Lordship of Christ in our gospel message. He has caused many to submit to the Lord and wholly trust in Him for their salvation through this clear gospel call.
There will always be what I affectionately call “MacAthurites,” building upon his legacy. But I fear that, especially after he is gone, the lure of “Truly Reformed” credentials will cause many of his disciples to call him and his gospel problematic. It is already happening—but when his passion for the gospel of Christ's lordship goes with him, the downgrade will likely intensify.
The dismissal of John MacArthur’s work and legacy will only get bolder and more flippant after he's gone.
Master's Graduates, and all those who survived the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement, are being faced with a choice. Will you cave to the pressure of the new Sola Fide orthodoxy and distance yourself from the pastors who watered your growth? Will you follow the language laws of the Reformed cool crowd, or charitably work with men and women that Christ died for who frame things differently?
The Necessity of This Statement Now
I've said a lot here to show why the Statement on the Nature of Saving Faith is necessary at this time. I hope you've been able to see that this is about more than the definition of faith. It's about how we use words and how we divide the word.
We see in Second Timothy that we are not dealing with a new problem.
Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:14–16)
It is important to remember that this all started because Matthew Johnston, pastor at the large and influential Riverbend Bible Church, came after us publicly. It snowballed from there. We didn't want this fight. We are a tiny church plant in Rotorua that would have liked to mind our own business. These attacks have caused us a fair bit of trouble, and have troubled many who can’t understand why we’re being attacked.
All this to say, we shouldn't be fighting. We shouldn't be calling other Christians to disassociate from each other. I would urge you to go to Riverbend Bible Church if you're in the Hastings area. It's a solid church.
Once again, and maybe this will be the last time I'll say this publicly, we would love to be reconciled with our brothers who have come against us. There is a lot we can learn from this exchange. If anyone admits any wrongdoing, we will be quick to forgive.
I'll finish with Pastor John MacArthur's words from The Gospel According to Jesus.
It is my hope that pastors who read this [blog] will examine their own ministries. It is essential that we who proclaim God's Word from the pulpit preach it clearly and accurately. If we confuse the message of the gospel, whatever else we say cannot undo the damage.