John MacArthur's
Position on the Lordship of Christ

 

Dr. John MacArthur is the Pastor of the Grace Community Church in Panorama City, California. According to a statement made on the cover of one of his books, ďhis Bible teaching and tape ministries reach millions across the globe.Ē He is the author of many books (most of which are published by Moody Press) including several full length commentaries on certain New Testament books. His local church is large, but his influence goes far beyond his local church because of his published writings and public tapes which are distributed widely. According to the flyleaf of his book, The Gospel According to Jesus, ďHe is heard daily on the national radio program ďGrace to You,Ē and more than 7,000,000 of his audio cassette tapes have been distributed worldwide.Ē He is also the President of The Masterís College and Seminary. He is a member of the IFCA (Independent Fundamental Churches of America).

Dr. MacArthur is nationally known for his position in support of Lordship Salvation.  For a Biblical response to Lordship Salvation, see Saved By Grace Alone.

The following is intended to document some of Dr. MacArthur's teachings which relate to Lordship salvation in order to see some of the inconsistencies of his position. We hold no animosity toward Dr. MacArthur. Our desire is only to "prove all things", by testing all things by the Word of God, to see if they are true (1 Thess. 5:21; Acts 17:11).  Dr. MacArthur's teachings have a worldwide impact, and his doctrines should not be embraced without subjecting them to the searchlight of the Scriptures.


 


Dr. MacArthurís teaching on the one nature of the believer  is related to his teaching on Lordship. If the believer really only has one nature, the new nature in Christ [as MacArthur teaches in The MacArthur N.T. Commentary--Ephesians, p. 164], then we would expect such a person to be totally surrendered to the Lordship of Christ. In the words of Dr. MacArthur: "Listen! No one who is saved will fail to repent, will fail to submit or fail to obey...True faith results in an absolutely and totally transformed life" (Tape GC 90-21 on Lordship). Would we not expect this from a person who does not have an old nature?

Dr. MacArthurís position on Lordship Salvation has been made very clear in his published book, THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS. He has also made statements in some of his other published writings and tapes that relate to this subject, some of which are quoted below:

"The Greek word translated 'belief' is not referring merely to intellectual attainment or mental acquiescence but a wholehearted acceptance of everything that is implied in the claims of Christ. You need to believe that Jesus is God and that He died for your sins, committing your whole life to Him in sacrifice and serving Him as Lord." (Assurance of Victory--1 John 5, Moody Press, p.12).

"Submission to the will of God, to Christís lordship, and to the guiding of the Spirit is an essential, not an optional, part of saving faith" (EPHESIANS, p. 249).

"Saving faith is a placing of oneself totally in submission to the Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 1-8, p. 205).

CONTRADICTORY TEACHINGS

Some of Dr. MacArthurís teachings elsewhere seem to contradict what he has written in The Gospel According to Jesus. For example, in his Tape GC 1728 on Acts 9:1-9 he is speaking of the conversion of Saul and especially of his consecration when he said, "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" MacArthurís comment: "Oh this is so good. You know, very often people come to Jesus Christ but they never really commit everything to Christ until later if ever. This man was saved and consecrated his life to full time service at the same moment." This statement implies that a person can be saved and yet not really commit everything to Christ until later if ever!

Elsewhere Dr. MacArthur writes about the "carnal Christian": "A spiritual Christian walks in the Spirit, while a carnal Christian walks in the flesh. Can you be a spiritual Christian at any point in your growth? Sure you can. You can also lose your spirituality by walking in the flesh." (Love Not the Word--1 John 2:3-17, Moody Press, p. 39). [Note: Most Lordship Salvation advocates deny that there is such a thing as a carnal Christian]

"It is possible that for a time a believer may become and even remain carnal, or fleshly, to some extent (1 Cor. 3:1), but that will never be a true believerís basic orientation" (EPHESIANS, p. 249). (Note: How long may a true believer remain carnal? A day? A week? A month? A year? MacArthur never seems to answer these questions)

"The Corinthian believers had an especially hard struggle against those twin enemies (the world and the flesh), a struggle which they seldom won. They would not break with the world or break with the flesh and were continually succumbing to both. Consequently they fell into one serious sin after another...The Corinthians had succumbed to the pressures of the world, but they were also succumbing to the pressures and enticements of their own flesh" (1 CORINTHIANS, p. 69). (Note: Does this sound like a description of believers who have surrendered completely to the Lordship of Christ? Why does MacArthur, in his Lordship emphasis, require unbelievers to do what even the Corinthian believers failed to do?)

"Like many Christians today, the Corinthian believers had great difficulty in not mimicking the unbelieving and corrupt society around them...They wanted to be in Godís kingdom while keeping one foot in the kingdom of this world. They wanted to have the blessings of the new life but hang on to the pleasures of the old. They wanted to have what they thought was the best of both worlds" (1 CORINTHIANS, p. ix). "In practice they were gross sinners, but in position they were saints" (1 CORINTHIANS, p. 6). (Note: In practice were they letting Christ be Lord over their lives?)

"Once they have come to Him, some Christians lose their first love for Him as Savior and resist obeying Him as Lord. But their lovelessness makes Him no less Savior, and their resistance makes Him no less Lord" (EPHESIANS, p. 39). Here MacArthur clearly states that a believer can love other things more than Christ and can resist His Lordship.

In another publication Dr. MacArthur even goes so far as to say repeatedly that a true Christian can be BARREN and UNFRUITFUL: "Many unbelievers misunderstand Christianity because so many Christians manifest no fruit (p. 47)....A barren Christian is spiritually useless (p.48).....An unproductive Christian is of no more use to God than an unbeliever (p. 48)....A believer can be just as barren and fruitless as an unbeliever. A barren Christian is completely indistinguishable from an apostate, an evildoer, or a superficial, false Christian who is of no use to God....A believer who claims to be a Christian yet lives a life that is utterly barren confuses an unbelieverís perception of Christianity (p.49)...When there is no fruit in your life (p. 51).....A believer who has no fruit as a result of adding nothing to his faith goes blind because his perspective is limited (p.51)....Even a barren and fruitless Christian will enter into the kingdom...All Christians are going to enter the kingdom, but some will have their works burned up because they were shown to be nothing but wood, hay, and stubble (p.53)" (Adding to Your Faith--2 Peter 1, Moody Press, pp. 47-53).

Notice how MacArthur contradicts himself and says the opposite in another publication: "Thereís no such thing as a fruitless Christian. You might have to look awhile to discover the fruit of righteousness in some believers, but some measure of fruit will be evident in every true believer" (Freedom From Sin, p. 89). "There is no such thing as a Christian who does not bear fruit" (Freedom From Sin, p. 109). This is typical in some of MacArthurís writings. He sometimes makes extreme statements and blanket generalizations which lack the needed Biblical balance, and lead to confusion and misunderstanding on the part of those who follow his teachings.

Dr. MacArthur has done a service to the church by answering and refuting the extreme teachings of Zane Hodges. However in answering Hodges, Dr. MacArthur has gone too far to the other extreme. Both have missed the Biblical balance.
 

EXTREME VIEW?

Dr. MacArthur does not see his position on Lordship salvation as being a balanced view between two false extremes. Instead he considers his view to be the Biblical view which is all the way over on one side, and all of the other views deviate from this Biblical view (some slightly and some more so) all on the other side. His exact quote is as follows: "It isnít as if there is `my viewí and along with me most other Christians, and then thereís this `other viewí held by another group. The truth of it is, there is the view the Scripture holds and a whole lot of other views strung out somewhere between what the Bible teaches and the extreme view, and folks are at all points along that line, and they all, in my judgment, need to be harmonized and brought into conformity with Godís Word" (Tape GC 80-53, "The Lordship Controversy", interview with John MacArthur). The real truth of the matter is that there is the clear Bible position which is perfectly balanced as Godís truth always is, and then on each side of this position are extreme views which deviate from the truth. Zane Hodges would be on one side with his extreme teaching that a person can be saved and yet never give any evidence that he has new life. Such a person can have a lifestyle characterized by fornication or homosexuality or drunkenness, etc. and such a person would still enter the kingdom, though he will not inherit the kingdom (Hodgesí position). John MacArthur would be on the other extreme as he redefines the simple childlike faith of John 3:16 and places the awesome requirements of discipleship upon the sinner (see the discussion on DISCIPLESHIP later in this paper). "The pendulum swings, ridiculous extreme, bypassing truth which lies somewhere between."


REPENTANCE

Dr. MacArthur tends to confuse repentance with the fruits of repentance, and to confuse faith with that which faith ought to produce. He confuses saving faith (which takes place in a moment of time--Rom. 13:11; Eph. 1:13) with discipleship (which is a lifelong process). As Miles Stanford has said, "Lordship salvation is not the childlike faith of John 3:16. It rightly insists upon repentance but wrongly includes a change of behavior IN ORDER TO BE SAVED. No one questions that there must be a sincere change of mind, a turning from oneself to the Saviour, but Lordship advocates attempt to make behavior and fruit essential ingredients of, rather than evidence of, saving faith" (Miles Stanford, in his review of The Gospel According to Jesus).

MacArthur defines REPENTANCE as turning from your sins (Faith Works, p. 74). He also teaches that true repentance "inevitably results in a change of behavior" (Faith Works, p. 75). But is not TURNING FROM SINS a CHANGE OF BEHAVIOR? Is MacArthur confusing the RESULTS of repentance with REPENTANCE itself? Is not he confusing the FRUITS with the ROOT? MacArthur is more accurate when he says, "true repentance involves a change of heart and purpose" (Faith Works, p. 75). The inner change will produce an outward change.
 

WHAT MUST A SINNER DO TO BE SAVED?

What is the Gospel message according to MacArthur? According to him, what must a person do to be saved? Does his answer match Acts 16:31 or does he teach something else? Here is what he says: "Let me just say simply, that when you present the gospel, all of this Lordship discussion aside, a presentation of the gospel is simply this: you are calling on someone to TURN FROM THEIR SIN and FOLLOW JESUS CHRIST. Thatís it! Turn from your sin and follow Jesus Christ!....That is all we are asking: TURN FROM YOUR SIN AND FOLLOW JESUS CHRIST....What you talk to an adult about is the same thing you tell a child: you need to turn from your sin and follow Jesus Christ" (this is transcribed from a taped question and answer session given on 9/25/90 at the Calvary Baptist Church in Brewer, Maine, Rev. Larry Pawson, Pastor).

Notice that MacArthurís emphasis is upon WHAT MAN DOES (turning from sin, following Christ) rather than upon WHAT CHRIST HAS DONE. His emphasis is upon MANíS COMMITMENT, rather than upon the Person and work of Christ and the response of faith to that Person and to His work. His emphasis is upon DO, but a true gospel message should emphasize DONE (John 19:30). It is not our COMMITMENT that saves us; it is CHRIST who saves us. Following Christ is a result of salvation, not a condition of salvation. Before we FOLLOW CHRIST in discipleship we must COME TO CHRIST for salvation. Before we COME AFTER CHRIST (Luke 9:23) we must COME UNTO CHRIST (Matthew 11:28). The term "BELIEVE" does not mean "turn from sin and follow Christ." It means "trust fully, rely upon, resting oneís whole weight upon the WORTH, WORD and WORK of Jesus Christ." We must not re-define saving faith to make it some kind of a "work-requirement" for salvation. Justification is for the person who "worketh not, but believeth" (Rom. 4:5).

DOES MACARTHUR BELIEVE SINNERS ARE SAVED BY GRACE ALONE?

MacArthur has written the following statement which is confusing at best and heretical at worst:  

"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" (Hard to Believe, p. 93).  

To say that salvation comes from a life lived in obedience and service to Christ seemingly indicates that salvation comes from something that man does.  The Bible says that salvation is "not of yourselves...not of works, lest any man should boast" (Eph. 2:8-9).

MacArthur's formula, as derived from the above statement, seems to be as follows:

Man's obedience + man's service to Christ = SALVATION

Does not this formula indicate salvation by works?   The Bible consistently teaches that salvation is not based on man's works, but on the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.

MacArthur, in the second part of the above quote, makes a statement that is even more problematic:  "The life we live...determines our eternal destiny."   The implications of this statement are startling.  If MacArthur's statement is true, then hell is going to be the eternal destiny of every human being!   According to Romans 6:23 we have all earned for ourselves eternal death.   The life we live does not determine our eternal destiny. 

The Bible makes it clear that it is our relationship to the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, or our lack of such a relationship, that determines our eternal destiny.  In Matthew 7:23 Jesus says to a group of those professing salvation, "I never knew you; depart from me, ye that work iniquity."   They never had a saving relationship to Jesus Christ (John 17:3).  God does not grant the sinner salvation based on the kind of life he lives, otherwise none of us would make it.  Living the right kind of life is the fruit of salvation, but never the cause.  MacArthur's wording seems to make it the cause or the condition of salvation, a teaching that would be totally contrary to the gospel of grace. 

William Newell summarizes the essence of God's gracious salvation as follows:

Christ's work, though on behalf of man, was wholly His: glorious and perfect, yet to be received by man in its blessed results of eternal pardon, peace and blessing. To be received, we say, by simple Faith, unmixed with human effort. A humbling process, indeed!  For man must go out of the righteousness-producing business, and rest wholly and forever on the work of Another, even Christ.  (Hebrews, pages 238-239).

I have since found out that the paragraph under discussion (page 93 in Hard to Believe) was not written by MacArthur, but erroneously made its way into the text by way of an editor. Iíve been told that subsequent editions of the book have corrected this. Obviously MacArthur is fully responsible for anything printed in a book that bears his name as author, and he should have carefully read the final proof before allowing it to go to press.

For a full discussion of Lordship Salvation and the Biblical issues involved, see Saved By Grace Alone.
 

CAN GOD-GIVEN FAITH BE DEFECTIVE?

MacArthur teaches that the God-given faith of a believer cannot be defective: "Scripture teaches that salvation is all Godís work. Those who believe are saved utterly apart from any effort on their own (Titus 3:5). Even faith is a gift of God, not a work of man (Eph. 2:1-5,8). Real faith therefore cannot be defective or short-lived but endures forever (Phil. 1:6; cf. Heb. 11)" (An Introduction to Lordship Salvation by John MacArthur, from the Grace Community Church Distinctive on Lordship Salvation, emphasis mine).

MacArthurís reasoning is as follows: Faith is a gift of God. If God gives it, then it must be perfect. How could God give an imperfect gift? And if Godís gift is perfect, then it cannot be defective.

The main problem with this view is that it contradicts many passages of Scripture which show that the faith of believers can, at times, be defective. When Peter denied the Lord three times in a moment of weakness, he certainly had a lapse of faith. His faith was defective. Because of our Lordís intercessory ministry, Peter was assured that his faith would not ultimately fail: "I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not" (Luke 22:32). On this one occasion Peterís faith failed and was defective, but thanks to the faithfulness of Christ, his faith would not ultimately fail. Another example of Peterís faith being defective is found in Galatians 2:11-14 when Paul had to strongly rebuke Peter because he was not walking uprightly according to the truth of the gospel.

Other passages indicate that the faith of believers can, at times, fail. How many times did our Lord say to His disciples who believed on Him, "O ye of little faith"? The faith of Thomas was defective when he refused to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. The apostles recognized that their faith was not everything it should be when they said to Jesus, "Lord, increase our faith!" (Luke 17:5). But the biggest proof that the faith of believers can be defective is seen by each one of us when we think about our own walk with the Lord and how many times we failed to trust Him as we should have.

If faith is Godís perfect gift which can never be defective, then why would a believer ever sin? MacArthur believes that "Christians can and do sin, sometimes horribly" (same document), but how could this be true if the faith of Christians is not defective. Doesnít every sin in some way involve some failure of faith? MacArthurís teaching that the faith of believers cannot be defective fails the test of Scripture. The reason any of us persevere to the end is not due to our great faith, but due to the great faithfulness of our Saviour who is "able to keep [us] from falling, and to present [us] faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy" (Jude 24). Amen!

MacArthur knows that the faith of believers can be defective, and I'm sure he knows that his own faith, at certain times in his Christian walk, has been defective.  Any honest child of God would confess the same.  Perhaps he used the wrong word.  If by using the word "defective" he means that saving faith is not short-lived, but endures to the end, then we would find ourselves in basic agreement.  A true believer may fall down hard on the deck of the ship of faith (as did Peter, and as we all do at times) but he will never fall overboard.  His sheep will follow Him (John 10:27), albeit sometimes not as faithfully as they should. See our paper, Can a True Believer Totally Depart From the Faith?
 

CHILD SALVATION--A RELATED SUBJECT

John MacArthurís views on child salvation are of interest because they seem to relate to his understanding of Lordship salvation. On September 25, 1990 at the Calvary Baptist Church in Brewer, Maine (Rev. Larry Pawson, pastor), Dr. MacArthur was involved in a question and answer session which was publicly taped. During that session he said the following about child salvation:

"Now let me say this and I donít want you to panic when I say it. Saving faith is an ADULT ISSUE. Saving faith is an ADULT EXPERIENCE. Salvation is an ADULT EXPERIENCE. Am I saying that a child cannot be saved? Iím saying that salvation is a conscious turning from sin to follow Jesus Christ with an understanding of something of the sinfulness of sin, its consequences and something of who Jesus Christ is, what He has provided and that Iím committing my life to Him. At what point can a child understand that?...I tell parents that salvation is an adult decision....There is no illustration in Scripture of childhood salvation. There is none. People want to throw the Philippian jailer and his household; well thatís talking about his servants so there is no reference there about his children. So there is no such thing as a childhood conversion."

In fairness, MacArthur is not saying that a child cannot be saved. But he does seem to be saying that if a child is to be saved he must understand as an adult, make an adult decision and have an adult experience. [The Lord Jesus taught that to be saved adults must become as little children (Matt. 18:3); MacArthur teaches that to be saved children must become as adults] How does this relate to His teaching on Lordship? If salvation is by simple child-like faith in the Saviour, then child salvation is no problem. On the other hand, if salvation involves obedience to Christís commands, surrendering to Christís Lordship, fulfilling the demands of discipleship, commitment of oneís life to the Saviour, etc., then salvation has become a very involved and complicated thing that would not at all be simple for a child to do. If we complicate the gospel with all kinds of Lordship requirements, then we have indeed made it very, very difficult for children (and for adults)! If we proclaim the gospel message that salvation is simply BY GRACE THROUGH FAITH (based upon the Person and work of Christ, not based upon sinful manís fragile commitment), then this is a message that can be gladly received by people of all ages.

For a more cautious statement on child salvation, see Faith Works, pages 208-210. He says, "Children cannot be saved before they are old enough to understand the gospel clearly and can embrace it with genuine faith" (p. 208). How old does a child need to be before he can understand the gospel as defined by Lordship salvation advocates?

 


The Middletown Bible Church
349 East Street
Middletown, CT 06457
(860) 346-0907

  More articles under Doctrinal Studies

Home Page

Home Page - Sunday School & Bible Studies - Help for the Seeking Heart
Salvation - Missions & Evangelism - Bible Study - Christian Life - Prophecy - Doctrinal Studies
Christian Home & Family - Dispensationalism - Problems with Reformed Theology
The Local Church
- Studies on Biblical Separation