John MacArthur and Dispensationalism
And Our Response
MacArthur Answers A Question About Dispensationalism
The following question was asked by a member of the congregation at Grace Community Church in Panorama City, California, and answered by their pastor, John MacArthur Jr. It was transcribed from the tape, GC 70-16, titled "Bible Questions and Answers." A copy of the tape can be obtained by writing, Word of Grace, P.O. Box 4000, Panorama City, CA 91412 or by dialing toll free 1-800-55-GRACE.
Question: What is dispensationalism? And what is your position, from Scripture, on the subject?
I will try to condense this because I don't want to get too bogged down. Dispensationalism is a system. It is a system that got, sort of, out of control. I think it started out with a right understanding. The earliest and most foundational and helpful comprehension of dispensationalism was:
"That the Bible taught a unique place for Israel and that the Church could not fulfill God's promises to Israel, therefore, there is a still a future and a kingdom involving the salvation and the restoration and the reign of the nation Israel (historical Jews)."
Dispensationalism at that level, (if we just take that much of it, and that's all I want to take of it, that's where I am on that), dispensationalism became the term for something that grew out of that and got carried away because it got more, and more, and more compounded. Not only was there a distinction between the Church and Israel, but there was a distinction between the new covenant for the Church, and the new covenant for Israel. And then there could become a distinction between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven; and there could become a distinction in the teaching of Jesus, between what He said for this age and what He said for the Millennial Age; and they started to even go beyond that; and then there were some books in the New Testament for the Church and some books in the New Testament for the Jews, and it just kept going and going and going until it became this very confounded kind of system. You see it, for example, in a Scofield Bible and other places. If you want to see it in graphic form . . . in a book by Clarence Larkin . . . and all kinds of charts and all kinds of things that try to explain this very complex system.
I really believe that they got carried away and started imposing on Scripture things that aren't in Scripture. For example, traditionally, dispensationalism says, "The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) has nothing to do with us, so we don't need to worry about it." When I went through the Sermon on the Mount in writing my commentary, as well, I pointed out how foolish that is.
So let me tell you, I have been accused through the years of being a "leaky dispensationalist" and I suppose I am. So let me take you down to where I believe dispensationalism (I don't use that term because it carries too much baggage), but let me take you down to what part of dispensationalism I affirm with all my heart--it is this: "That there is a real future for Israel," and that has nothing to do with some kind of extrabiblical system. That has nothing to do with some developed sort of grid placed over Scripture. The reason that I believe you have to have a future for Israel is because that is what God promised. And you see it in Jeremiah, in Jeremiah, chapter 30, right on to the 33rd chapter, there is a future for Israel--there is a new covenant. Ezekiel, chapter 37, the Valley of Dry Bones is going to come alive--right? God's going to raise them back up; God's going to put a heart of flesh in and take the stony heart out and give them His Spirit. And you have the promise of a kingdom to Israel; you have the promise of a king; a David's line; a Messiah; a throne in Jerusalem. You have the promise that there is going to be a real kingdom.
So my dispensationalism, if you want to use that term, is only that which can be defended exegetically or expositionally out of the Scripture, and by a simple clear interpretation of the Old Testament--it is obvious God promised a future kingdom to Israel. And when somebody comes along and says all the promises of the kingdom to Israel are fulfilled in the Church, the burden of proof is not on me, it's on them. The simplest way that I would answer someone, who is what is called an "amillennialist," or a "Covenant Theologian" that is, believing that there is one covenant and the Church is the new Israel, and Israel is gone, and there is no future for Israel--an amillennialism, meaning there is no kingdom for Israel; there is no future Millennial kingdom.
My answer to them is simply this, "You show me in that verse, in the Old Testament, which promises a kingdom to Israel, where it says that it really means the Church--show me!" Where does it say that? On what exegetical basis, what historical, grammatical, literal, interpretative basis of the Scripture can you tell me that when God says "Israel" He means the "Church"? Where does it say that? That's where the burden of proof really lies. A straightforward understanding of the Old Testament leads to only one conclusion and that is that there is a kingdom for Israel. One way to understand that is to ask yourself a question. In the Old Testament . . . and if you wanted to get sort of a general sense of what the Old Testament is about, it's simply about this--it reveals God and His Law, and it tells what's going to happen to you if you obey it, and what's going to happen to you if you don't--and then it gives you a whole lot of illustrations of that--right? It reveals God and His Law and it tells you what's going to happen to you if you obey it, and if you don't--blessings and cursing.
Now, when Israel sinned, disobeyed God--what happened? Judgment, chastening, cursing, slaughter--was it literal? Yes. Was it Israel? Yes. So if Israel received all of the promised curses--literally--why would we assumed they would not receive the promised blessings literally, because some of those are in the same passages? And how can you say in this passage the cursing means literal Israel, but the blessings means the Church? There is no exegetical basis for that and you now have arbitrarily split the verse in half--you've given all the curses to Israel and all the blessing to the Church--on what basis exegetically?
I remember when I was in Jerusalem one time and we were in the convention center, right near the Knesset in Jerusalem, and I was there with Dr. Charles Feinberg, who was the keynote speaker, and David Ben-Gurion was there, who was the Premier of the Land of Israel at that time, and Teddy Kalik (sp.) who was the mayor of Jerusalem. We were sitting on the platform and an amillennialist had come to speak, it was the Jerusalem conference on prophecy, it was a tremendous event, and it was an amillennialist who got up to speak and he made the great announcement to David Ben-Gurion and to some of the Knesset members, and the mayor of Jerusalem, and all these Jewish dignitaries as well as the three thousand people that were there, that the promises to Israel in the Old Testament were being fulfilled in the Church. Now it is one thing to say that, but you don't need to take a trip to Jerusalem to say that. There would be no kingdom . . . he preached on Isaiah 9:6, "The government will be upon His shoulders" (9:6ff), and he said that means the government of your life, and he's talking about personal conversion here and so on and so forth. Well, I remember when that message was done, and I sat through it with Dr. Feinberg--Dr. Feinberg was, to put it mildly, "upset." And his opening line, because he gave the next address, was, "So we have come all the way to Jerusalem to tell you that you get all the curses but the Gentile Church gets all the blessings." And then he launched into a message about the promises of God.
If you take a literal approach to Scripture, then you cannot conclude anything other than that God has a future for Israel. What that means is that the Church is distinct from Israel, and when God is through with the Church, and takes the church to glory then He brings that time of Jacob's distress, that we read about earlier, purges, redeems Israel, and the kingdom comes.
I don't want to say any more than that about dispensationalism. I don't believe there are two different kinds of salvation. I don't believe there are two different covenants. I don't believe there is a difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven. I don't believe the Sermon of the Mount is for some future age. I don't believe that you can hack up New Testament books--some for the Jews and some for the Church. I think that the only thing the Bible really holds up in that kind of system is that there is a future for Israel, and that's an exegetical issue.
It is probably more than you wanted to know, but it is very, very important, because it preserves the literal interpretation of Scripture. Listen folks, once you're not literal, then who's to say? Right? I mean, then why not just say, "Well, Israel really means 'left-handed Texans'--if it's not exegetical--if it's not in the text, it could mean 'Canadians'" How can you say, if you can't say what's literally there?
Comments on MacArthurís Answer
First of all, we commend Dr. MacArthur for his solid Biblical position on Israel, and that Israel has a glorious future in the plan and purpose of God. We also applaud his insistence that the Bible must be interpreted literally, according to its normal sense.
What is terribly puzzling, however, is how MacArthur takes such a solid stand on Israel on the one hand, and on the other hand he participates in Bible Conferences with R. C. Sproul and other Reformed men who despise dispensationalism. These Reformed men strongly teach that Israel has no future at all, that there will be no millennial kingdom, that most prophecies were fulfilled in 70 A.D. and that we should approach the prophetic Scriptures in a non-literal way. MacArthur is to be praised for his solid stand on the truth that Israel has a wonderful future in the plan and purpose of God. But who are the Bible teachers in our land today who are heralding this truth about Israel and who are insisting on consistent literal interpretation? Are they not the dispensationalists? Why is MacArthur reluctant to identify himself with them?
We are sorry that MacArthur does not like the term "dispensationalist" because of all the baggage that he thinks the term carries. He thus tries to distance himself from dispensationalism. His Reformed friends are pleased by such a stance. John Gerstner wrote a vicious attack against Dispensationalism entitled Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth. In a lecture series given many years ago (1986) Gerstner said this about John MacArthurís dispensationalism:
"It looks as if John MacArthur is getting out of the vine (in the context he is talking about getting out of the dispensational camp)" (Geneva College, 9/27/86). "John MacArthur has a very special place in my heart...heís a man of real ability, and heís one of the dispensationalists (who) in my opinion is realizing the burden of this doctrine, and I think heís trying to get out of it...Iím only mentioning this because this is essential to the dispensational way of thinking and John MacArthur as far as I know is getting as far out of that as any person who can still be called a dispensationalist is out of it, but not all the way yet" (Geneva College 10/3/86).
In Dr. Gerstnerís estimation, John MacArthur is as far away from dispensationalism as anyone can be who is still called a dispensationalist, though not yet completely out of it.
In MacArthurís response to the question he was asked about Dispensationalism, he expressed his disagreement with dispensationalists who make a distinction between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God. However, which is the greater problemófinding a dispensationalist who may distinguish between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven (and MacArthur knows that not all dispensationalists make such a distinction), or finding a Reformed person who ignores hundreds of prophecies relating to the Messiahís reign and who denies that there will even be a future kingdom? Isnít the Reformed error far greater?
MacArthurís negativity towards the Scofield Study Bible is unfortunate. God has used this study Bible to make the Scriptures understandable to countless numbers of believers since 1917. This does not mean that I agree with every note in the original Scofield Bible. I do not. But neither do I agree with every note in The MacArthur Study Bible., the first edition of which contained notes which denied the eternal Sonship of Christ [whether these notes have since been amended, I know not]. Other notes by MacArthur deny that Christ died for all men.
Richard J. Mouw, a non-dispensational Reformed theologian, provides a sharp contrast to the anti-dispensational attitude of MacArthur. Mouw praised the Scofield Bible and the "old dispensationalists" in this way:
By their fruits ye shall know them, and I have benefitted greatly from the spiritual fruits of dispensationalism. Throughout my youth, the majority of my spiritual mentors were dispensationalists. When I first began my personal devotional life, it was a Scofield Bible that I read on a daily basis. Dispensational charts [which MacArthur maligns] hung on the walls at the Bible conference where I worked during my high school summers. At youth rallies and Bible clubs, from itinerant teachers and radio evangelists (including the founder of the seminary I now lead!), in handbooks and magazines, I learned the importance of "rightly dividing the Word of Truth."
Later on I was to hear many negative things said, especially by my Reformed colleagues, about dispensationalism's "heresies." But the criticisms never quite rang true. Dispensationalists were supposed to downplay the relevance of the Old Testament for the Christian life; but some of the best preaching I have ever heard on the Psalms was from dispensationalists. Dispensationalist theology drew strict theoretical boundaries between Jesus as Israel's messiah and Jesus as the Lord of the church; but the Jesus I learned about from dispensationalists was a heaven-sent Savior who showed a matchless love for both Gentile and Jew. The dispensationalist perspective undercut Christian social concerns; but long before I had ever heard of Mother Teresa, I saw dispensationalists lovingly embrace the homeless in rescue missions. Whatever the defects of the older dispensationalism as a theological perspective, it embodied a spirituality that produced some of the most Christlike human beings I have ever known.
One hundred years ago, as dispensationalists anticipated the beginning of a new century, they were not optimistic. They expected wars and rumors of wars. They feared the coming of Antichrist. In contrast, mainline Protestantism and liberal theologians expressed a deep faith in historical progress. They saw the kingdom of God expending in its influence. The twentieth century was to be "the Christian century": war and poverty and famine would be virtually eliminated.
Now, I ask, who had a better sense of what was going to happen in the twentieth century? It seems obvious that Protestant liberalism was simply wrong in its predictions, whereas much of the dispensationalist scenario was vindicated. Why have we not given the dispensationalists more credit for their insights? Who was better equipped to prepare their children for the now much-heralded demise of Enlightenment optimism--the dispensationalists or their cultured despisers?
The answers seem to me to point clearly in the direction of vindication for the dispensationalists' view of history....Because of those theological instincts, as well as their very real spiritual gifts, that I raise up two cheers for the older dispensationalists. [Richard Mouw, "What the Old Dispensationalists Taught Me," Christianity Today, March 6, 1995, page 34].
MacArthur also levels the charge against dispensationalists that they teach two different kinds of salvation. MacArthur knows better. He knows that dispensationalists do not really teach this. He knows that this is a common accusation made by the enemies of dispensationalism. So why does he continue to echo it?
In the 1967 preface to the New Scofield Reference Bible (p.vii) the following note is given:
"As a further aid to comprehending the divine economy of the ages, a recognition of the dispensations is of highest value, so long as it is clearly understood that throughout all the Scriptures there is only one basis of salvation." [emphasis mine]
Charles Ryrie, in his excellent book, Dispensationalism, has a whole chapter which answers this false charge (see Chapter 6-"Salvation in Dispensationalism"). Yet in spite of these clarifications, many who are opposed to dispensationalism continue to insist that dispensationalists teach different ways of salvation. Salvation has always been by grace through faith based on the shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. Why MacArthur levels this accusation when he knows otherwise is hard to understand.
MacArthur maligns dispensationalists by suggesting that they believe the Sermon on the Mount has nothing to do with church-age believers. I've been a dispensationalist for nearly 40 years and I've never met one dispensationalist who did not believe that the Sermon on the Mount contains rich Biblical truth for the believing heart. There are truths in Matthew 5-7 that apply to all saints of all ages. The only thing that dispensationalists insist upon is that this Sermon was given to the Jewish people at a time when it was announced that their kingdom was "at hand," and it needs to be understood in the light of that fact. MacArthur insists that this sermon not only applies to the church but is primarily intended for the church. For example, according to him the Sermon on the Mount not only applies to church-age Christians, but "its primary message is for Christians" and must be considered "truth for today" (The Gospel According to Jesus, p. 27 footnote).
The Sermon on the Mount contains truth that is useful to the Church and precious to the Church but not truth that is distinctive to the Church. Distinctive Church truth is found in the Upper Room Discourse (John chapters 13-17) and in the New Testament epistles. We are therefore not surprised to find the Sermon on the Mount totally silent about the following truths which were later revealed to the Church by its apostles and prophets:
The truth about the body of Christ (Ephesians 1).
The truth about the building of Christ (Ephesians 2).
The truth about the bride of Christ (Ephesians 5).
The truth about the baptism ("YE IN ME")-see John 14:20. We are IN CHRIST!
The truth about the indwelling ("I IN YOU")-see John 14:20. Christ is IN US!
The truth of the mystery - See Eph. 3:1-12; 5:30-32; Col. 1:26-27, etc.
The truth of the believer's identification with Christ in His death and in His life (Romans 6).
The truth of the believer's heavenly position and standing (Col. 1:1-4; Eph. 2:6; Heb. 3:1).
The truth of the believer's deliverance from the law, and death to the law (Gal. 2:19; Rom. 7:1-6).
MacArthur seems alarmed that dispensationalists teach that some of the New Testament books were written to the Jews. To whom does MacArthur think the Epistle to the Hebrews was written? Were not the Hebrews Jews? And didnít Matthew write his gospel primarily for the Jews? What about the book of James? Of course, [as MacArthur neglected to say] dispensationalists teach that all the N. T. books (and O.T. books) are profitable for all believers, whether Jews or Gentiles (compare 2 Tim. 3:16-17).
In conclusion, we are very thankful that MacArthur believes that God has a glorious future purpose for the nation Israel, and that the kingdom promises given by all the prophets should be understood in a literal, normal manner. We regret that MacArthur is a "leaky dispensationalist," and we wish that somehow the leak could be stopped. Polluted water from the reservoir of Reformed Theology is leaking through the dikes.
Additional Documentation Regarding John MacArthur's Position on Dispensationalism
Dr. MacArthur is moving more and more away from a safe and solid dispensational position, and he is headed more and more in the direction of Reformed Theology (see our studies entitled The Dangers of Reformed Theology).
Dr. MacArthur is very adamant against making distinctions between the earthly life and ministry of Christ as set forth in the gospels and the heavenly life and ministry of Christ as set forth in the epistles. His writings often insist that what Christ taught in the gospels not only applies to the church but is primarily intended for the church. For example, according to him the Sermon on the Mount not only applies to church-age Christians, but "its primary message is for Christians" and must be considered "truth for today" (The Gospel According to Jesus, p. 27 footnote). MacArthur is highly critical of those "who want to consign the Sermon to another age" (The Gospel According to Jesus, p. 214), and yet MacArthur is wrong to consign it to the church age. The church was an unrevealed mystery and not even in existence when Jesus gave this sermon. The Sermon on the Mount is profitable for church age believers (2 Tim. 3:16-17) but it is not church truth. Church truth is found in the Upper Room Discourse (John 13-17) and in the N.T. epistles. The Sermon on the Mount has its primary message for those living at the time when the "kingdom of heaven is at hand." See our lengthy paper entitled, The Sermon on the MountóIs It For the Church Today?
The words of Dr. L.S.Chafer are very timely in this connection: "There is a very dangerous and entirely baseless sentiment abroad which assumes that every teaching of Jesus must be binding during this age simply because He said it. The fact is forgotten that the Lord Jesus, while living under, keeping, and applying the Law of Moses, also taught the principles of His future Kingdom, and, at the end of His ministry and in relation to His Cross, He also anticipated the teachings of grace. If this threefold division of the teachings of Jesus is not recognized, there can be nothing but confusion of mind and consequent contradiction of truth" (cited by Miles Stanford in his article, "The Teachings of the Kingdom").
The enemies of dispensationalism have clearly recognized the direction that MacArthur is heading (itís sad that dispensationalists have been so slow to discern this). For example, Dr. Gary North, a reformed, reconstructionist (postmillennial) wrote about this as the lead article in his Jan./Feb., 1989 newsletter. He documents MacArthurís shift away from dispensationalism toward reformed theology. Here are just some of the statements: "(referring to his book, The Gospel According to Jesus) His target is the theology (soteriology) of C.I.Scofield, Lewis Sperry Chafer, Charles C. Ryrie...Whose writings does he use in order to refute dispensationalismís ethics? Calvinist Presbyterians Benjamin B. Warfield, Geerhardus Vos, and J.Gresham Machen, Calvinist Baptist Arthur Pink, the Puritans, and Calvinist-charismatic Martyn Lloyd-Jones...he rejects the number one thesis of dispensationalism, the distinction between ages of law and grace...next, he goes after the traditional dispensational dichotomy between the Sermon on the Mount and the Church Age."
In his letter to ICE Subscribers, Dr. Gary North wrote this (dated January, 1989): "Meanwhile, dispensationalist pastor-teacher John MacArthurís book, The Gospel According to Jesus, has blown a hole the size of a tank in the side of the Good Ship Scofield. Donít think itís only the Reconstructionists who are ready to abandon Dallas Seminaryís brand of traditional dispensationalism. This is a major assault from within the dispensational camp at a time when the self-confidence of the movementís leaders is waning."
As another example, in the May 1989 catalog of Great Christian Books, there appeared a promotional spot for the book DISPENSATIONALISM YESTERDAY by Michael Gilstrap. Here is what it said, "What is happening in dispensational circles behind the scenes today? The fastest selling book at GCB, John MacArthurís THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS, is laying an ax to the roots of this system of interpretation."
Another example is a series of taped messages presented by Dr. John Gerstner on the subject of dispensationalism. Dr. Gerstner is a Reformed theologian and strongly opposed to dispensationalism. In his lecture given at Geneva College toward the end of September 1986 he mentions John MacArthur and indicates his shift away from dispensationalism and toward the Reformed camp especially regarding the matter of Lordship salvation (and this lecture was delivered prior to the publication of MacArthurís The Gospel According to Jesus).
Here are John Gerstnerís comments regarding John MacArthurís position with respect to dispensationalism: "It looks as if John MacArthur is getting out of the vine (in the context he is talking about getting out of the dispensational camp)" (Geneva College, 9/27/86). "John MacArthur has a very special place in my heart...heís a man of real ability, and heís one of the dispensationalists (who) in my opinion is realizing the burden of this doctrine, and I think heís trying to get out of it...Iím only mentioning this because this is essential to the dispensational way of thinking and John MacArthur as far as I know is getting as far out of that as any person who can still be called a dispensationalist is out of it, but not all the way yet" (Geneva College 10/3/86). In Dr. Gerstnerís estimation, John MacArthur is as far away from dispensationalism as anyone can be who is still called a dispensationalist, though not yet completely out of it.
According to Gerstner, John MacArthur had Pastor Al Martin (from New Jersey) at his church lecturing (Pastor Martin is a 5 point Calvinist, a Reformed leader, an amillennialist and one who teaches strongly against dispensationalism). Gerstner also made mention of the fact that he and MacArthur were friends and that indirectly John MacArthur asked him to come out to California and speak some time (Tape D, Geneva College, Sept. 27, 1986). Dr. Gerstner lectures against dispensationalism often and has published a booklet against dispensationalism [Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth], and yet for some reason he is welcome to come and speak at Dr. MacArthurís church!
Another clear example of MacArthurís direction away from Dispensationalism is the fact that he was one of the featured speakers at the Ligonierís 1991 San Diego Conference along with R.C.Sproul, J.I.Packer and others. R.C.Sproul is the President of Ligonier Ministries which is a ministry designed to promote reformed theology. They are working for a 20th century reformation and they are very hostile and antagonistic towards dispensationalism. For example, John H. Gerstner has written a scathing attack against dispensationalism in his book Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth--A Critique of Dispensationalism (Wolgemuth & Hyatt, Publishers, Inc., Brentwood, TX, 1991). The foreword is written by R.C.Sproul, President of Ligonier Ministries. In this foreword he says, "The dispensational system of theology is inherently and inescapably antinomian...Dispensationalism should be discarded as being a serious deviation from Biblical Christianity." It should also be noted that R.C.Sproul and other reformed men (Ed Clowney, J.I.Packer, Roger Nicole, Bruce Waltke, James Boice, etc.) are the general editors of The New Geneva Bible which was publised in the Fall of 1992.
This Bible's study notes are meant to counter the Scofield Reference Bible, and will seek to influence hundreds of people away from dispensationalism into a reformed, covenant position. [See our lengthy review of The New Geneva Bible]. It might be considered "The Scofield Bible of Reformed Theology." It has since been renamed and is known as The Reformation Study Bible.
MacArthur regularly speaks at the Ligoneer conferences except for those times when the theme is on prophecy. MacArthur was announced as the featured speaker at the National Ligoneer Conference June 15-17, 2000 in Orlando, Florida along with James Boice, D. James Kennedy, R.C.Sproul, Al Martin (strong 5 point Calvinist), and others (as it turned out MacArthur did not speak at this conference due to health reasons). MacArthur was announced as one of the main speakers for the Ligonier Ministriesí 2001 National Conference in Orlando, Florida (other speakers include Jerry Bridges, R.C.Sproul and other Reformed speakers). Why does John MacArthur speak at the Conference of those who are publicly the enemies of dispensationalism? Should he help R.C.Sproul and share the platform with the haters of dispensationalism? Is MacArthur a friend of dispensationalism or a foe?
A Reformed book catalog entitled, Good Books (published in Springfield, IL), in the Spring 1996 issue, had a section entitled, "Recent News in Reformed Theology." One of the news items was as follows: "We commend to our readers the ministry of John Armstrong, a Reformed Baptist preacher, writer, and editor of the fine Reformation and Revival journal. He has organized a major Reformation conference for Oct. 25-27, 1996, in Chicago, with James Montgomery Boice, John MacArthur, and Alasdair Begg." Again we note that MacArthur is found in the company of non-dispensationalists who welcome him at their conferences.
MacArthur is also involved with a group called Toledo Reformed Theologicla Conferences which hosts a two day conference each year. MacArthur was a featured speaker at the 1997 conference along with Dr. Michael Horton, Rev. Don Kistler and Steve Camp. Other reformed men who have been used as speakers in other years are Dr. John Gerstner (militant anti-dispensationalist), Dr. John Armstrong, Dr. Joel Beeke, Pastor Lance Quinn and Dr. John R. DeWitt.
Dr. MacArthur claims to be a dispensationalist: "Dispensationalism is a fundamentally correct system of understanding Godís program through the ages. Itís chief element is a recognition that Godís plan for Israel is not superseded by or swallowed up in His program for the church (The Gospel According to Jesus, p. 25). With all this we would fully agree. But MacArthur also has some very critical things to say about dispensationalism: "There is a tendency, however, for dispensationalists to get carried away with compartmentalizing truth to the point that they can make unbiblical distinctions. An almost obsessive desire to categorize everything neatly has led various dispensationalist interpreters to draw hard lines not only between the church and Israel, but also between salvation and discipleship, the church and the kingdom, Christís preaching and the apostolic messages, faith and repentance, and the age of law and the age of grace (The Gospel According to Jesus, p. 25).
Miles Stanford, author and dispensationalist, clearly sees the direction that MacArthur is heading and makes these comments: "In his book (The Gospel According to Jesus) Dr. MacArthur quotes no less than 39 anti-dispensational, Covenant theologians in an effort to validate his thesis of Lordship salvation. What dispensationalist would or could ever do that?! And from his Covenant stance he attacks Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer (pp. 24-27), blaming his Ďhard lineí dispensationalism for what Dr. MacArthur terms our present-day gospel of Ďeasy-believism.í Despite his claim to be a dispensationalist, the following may explain something of why he is actually in the Covenant camp. Upon being asked what books have had the greatest impact on his life, Dr. MacArthur listed nine titles in his quarterly magazine, ĎMasterpieces,í Fall 1988, p. 20--each and every one authored by an anti-dispensational, Covenant theologian!" (Miles Stanford, in an article entitled, "John MacArthur, Jr., Dispensationalist?) These authors were A. Besnnett, Stephen Charnock, J.I.Packer, D.Martin Lloyd-Jones, Arthur Pink, John R.W.Stott, and Thomas Watson.
MacArthurís anti-dispensational stance can be especially seen in his two books written on the subject of Lordship salvation. In these books he accuses many dispensationalists of a "sub-Christian antinomianism" (Faith Works, p. 233). He says, "Yet the fact remains that virtually all the champions of no-lordship doctrine are dispensationalists" (Faith Works, p. 222). To read his comments on Dispensationalism in full, see The Gospel According to Jesus, Chapter 1 and Faith Works, Appendix 2.
For further study on the
difference between dispensationalism and reformed theology, see our
booklet The Dangers of
EXAMPLES OF WHERE MACARTHURíS TEACHINGS RUN COUNTER TO THAT WHICH IS TAUGHT BY MOST DISPENSATIONALISTS:
One example is Dr. MacArthurís understanding of "the church" in Matthew 16:18. This is normally understood as a future prediction which found its first fulfillment on the day of Pentecost as Christ began then to add to the church daily such as should be saved. MacArthur downplays the significance of the future tense ("I will build") by saying, "In using the future tense, Jesus was not saying, as some contend, that He had not built His church in the past. The idea is that He would continue to build His church just as He had always done...church is used here in a general, nontechnical sense and does not indicate the distinct body of believers that first came into existence at Pentecost" (MATTHEW 16-23, p. 30).
MacArthur believes that the "church" mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 16:18 refers to the redeemed saints of all ages, and he believes that the "church of the first-born" mentioned in Hebrews 12:23 refers to the same group: "In describing the inhabitants of heaven, the writer of Hebrews speaks of Ďthe general assembly and church of the first-borní (Heb.12:23), referring to the redeemed saints of all ages. That seems to be the sense in which Christ uses church in Matthew 16:18, as a synonym for citizens of His eternal kingdom" (MATTHEW 16-23, p. 32). Dispensationalists normally understand "church of the first-born" (Heb. 12:23) to be a clear reference to the body of Christ, and they understand "the spirits of just men made perfect" (Heb. 12:23) as a reference to Old Testament saints. One unifying doctrine among all covenant theologians is their faulty understanding of the church. They say that the church is made up of the "elect of all ages." They would be in full agreement with MacArthur saying that the church in Matthew 16:18 and Hebrews 12:23 refers to "the redeemed saints of all ages." [More recently MacArthur may have changed his position regarding Matthew 16:18 and Hebrews 12:23 as indicated by his notes under these verses in The MacArthur Study Bible. We are thankful that he has apparently returned to a more solid dispensational position.]
Another deviation from normal dispensational teaching is his handling of some of the parables in Matthew 13. Dispensationalists normally understand the treasure to represent the nation Israel and the pearl to represent the church. The man/merchant represents the Saviour who purchased Israel and the church by His death on cross. MacArthur adopts the common reformed/covenant understanding of these parables which makes the treasure and the pearl represent salvation, and the man/merchant represents the sinner who gives up all that he has in order to be saved (which MacArthur uses as an argument for Lordship salvation): "(these parables are) a picture of the exchange. I give up all that I am for all that He is...an unsaved man giving up everything he is to receive everything Christ offers...The parable typically by dispensationalists has been that Jesus finding the Church gives everything on the cross to buy the church. The problem with that is that the treasure was in the field and the pearl was of great price and I defy anyone to ascertain that the unregenerate people of this world for whom Christ died were worth anything. Besides, to me it seems a rather obscure treatment" (Tape GC 90-20 on Lordship, and see MATTHEW 8-15, 382-383). See also his note under Matthew 13:44-46 in The MacArthur Study Bible.
George Zeller's comments on MacArthur's understanding of Matthew 13: That the church is of great worth and value to God cannot be doubted by anyone who has been spiritually enlightened to know what is the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints (Eph. 1:18). Also the Bible clearly refers to Israel as Godís special treasure (Ex.19:5; Ps. 135:4). There are other problems with MacArthurís non-dispensationalist view. In the other parables the man represented Christ, not the sinner (Matt. 13:37) and the field represented the world (v.38). Also the sinner does not seek the Saviour (Rom. 3:10) but it is the Saviour who seeks the sinner (Luke 19:10). Salvation is a free gift. It is not something that we purchase. "Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling." The issue in salvation is not what we do for God (by way of surrender, sacrifice, etc.) but what God has done for us (by way of the cross). Salvation is made possible because of Christís sacrifice, not the sinnerís sacrifice.
MacArthur also runs counter to traditional dispensational teaching in his understanding of the parable of the mustard seed (Matt. 13:31-32) and the parable of the leaven (Matt. 13:33) concerning which he adopts the common reformed interpretation, an interpretation which would especially fit well into the framework of the reconstructionists. Concerning the mustard seed he says, "Jesusí point: the kingdom of heaven, though now very small and seemingly insignificant, would one day grow into a large body of believers. That is the central lesson of this parable...the kingdom that started very small would one day become very large" (MATTHEW 8-15, p. 370). See also his note under Matthew 13:33 in The MacArthur Study Bible.
George Zeller's comments: MacArthurís view fails to recognize that this mustard seed grew into a "mustard TREE" and became a "great tree" (Luke 13:19) and had "great branches" (Mark 4:32) which are very strange descriptions of a plant that under favorable conditions might reach as high as 10 feet or at the most 15 feet (as MacArthur says, p. 369). Would anyone normally call a fifteen foot tall shrub a "great tree"? MacArthur even says, "At certain times of the year the branches become rigid enough to easily support a birdís nest" (p. 370). Wow! When people consider "a great tree" with "great branches" they are usually not thinking about whether it might be able to support a birdís nest. If it is really a "great tree" then you would expect 100 vultures to comfortably be able to roost on its branches. No, dispensationalists have recognized that what the Lord was speaking of here was a monstrosity. This mustard "tree" would easily qualify for the G.World Book of Records! The Lord Jesus was speaking of abnormal and unnatural growth which resulted in what we know today as "Christendom."
Here is what MacArthur says about the parable of the leaven: "The first point is that small things can have great influence...The second point...is that the influence is positive...When the kingdom of heaven is faithfully reflected in the lives of believers, its influence in the world is both pervasive and positive. The life of Christ within believers is spiritual and moral leavening in the world...To the average person of Jesusí day, Jew or Gentile, there is no evidence that leaven carried any connotation of evil or corruption...To take this leaven as representing evil that permeates the kingdom is to twist the obvious meaning and construction of words" (MATTHEW 8-15, pp. 372-374).
MacArthurís interpretation is not far away from that of the postmillennial reconstructionist who also would understand the leaven as being used in a good sense and indicating the growth of the kingdom of heaven by means of the penetrating power of the gospel ultimately leading to the conversion of the world. Dispensationalists point out that every other time Jesus used the term "leaven" in the gospels it is used in a bad sense to symbolize something evil (such as hypocrisy, worldliness, immorality, legalism, etc.). The parable clearly points to the terrible corruption that would take place in Christendom during the interadvent period.
MacArthur also runs counter to traditional dispensationalism in his understanding of "the gospel of the kingdom" (see The Gospel According to Jesus, pp. 89-90). He sees this phrase as simply meaning that Jesus was "preaching salvation" (p.89). Dispensationalists understand this as a reference to that preaching which takes place when the Messianic kingdom is "at hand" which was true in the days of John the Baptist and Christ, and will also be true during the closing years of this age (Matthew 24:14). No where in the New Testament does it say that the gospel of the kingdom is being preaching during this church age.
In an amazing statement, MacArthur belittles the early dispensationalists because they were self-taught men:
"Many of these men were self-taught in theology and were professionals in secular occupations. Darby and Scofield, for example, were attorneys, and Larkin was a mechanical draftsman. They were laymen whose teachings gained enormous popularity largely through grass roots enthusiasm. Unfortunately some of these early framers of dispensationalism were not as precise or discriminating as they might have been had they had the benefit of a more complete theological education" (John MacArthur, The Gospel According to the Apostles, p. 223; this is the updated edition of Faith Works).
G. Zeller's comments: Thankfully these men were not taught in the allegorical method that most of the seminaries of that time were teaching. Another early dispensationalist who was self-taught was Arno Gaebelein. He taught himself Hebrew and Yiddish and other languages (including Greek). In his remarkable autobiography we learn that he ministered to thousands of orthodox Jews in NYC and elsewhere who would come to hear him preach. One time me spoke Yiddish to a group of Orthodox Jews and they accused him of being a liar. They did not believe he was a Gentile but were convinced he must be a Jew, because his Yiddish was so good. Gabelein was a brilliant, self-taught man. The fact that Darby and Scofield were attorneys was a great advantage. As lawyers they were trained to take the words of a document literallyĖat face valueĖand by following the same procedure they would have much discernment in interpreting the plain text of scripture.
Tommy Ice sheds further light on MacArthurís foolish comment regarding Darby:
Apparently MacArthur is ignorant of the educational approaches of the day. To include Darby with the other two is to be totally ignorant of his education. Darby was THE gold medal winner at Trinity in Dublin that included Greek and Hebrew. They did not teach courses on theology back then. He attended for four years the Saturday lectures on Bible and theology for no credit. Three years of law school, but never practiced law for even one minute. He would not have been ordained in the Anglican Church had he not studied a ton of theology and passed the Greek and Hebrew exams. Darby translated the entire Bible into three languages and the New Testament into six. How would such training match-up with MacArthurís three years at Seminary?
MacArthur has claimed that he is a "leaky dispensationalist" and has stated that he is closer to covenant theologians than he is to most dispensationalists. In an interview with John Piper and Justin Taylor, MacArthur states:
When I wrote [The Gospel According to Jesus] I didnít know anybody outside of my circles really, and I didnít know how this book would be received. But Jim Boice agreed to write the foreword and John Piper wrote an endorsement that was absolutely stunning to me, because I was really not moving in Reformed circles at that time. I was a leaky dispensationalist. That was my world, and I realized that I was much more one of you than I was one of them. [John Piper and Justin Taylor, Stand: A Call for the Endurance of the Saints, Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2008, p. 129.
Additional note: On October 7, 2022 there was a Puritan Conference sponsored by John MacArthurís school or church. The Moderator was Nathan Busenitz. It is found here:
Listen to the first 15 minutes, or if you are short on time, begin at the 13 minute point. In this opening segment, MacArthur described how in his earlier days, he kept quiet about his Reformed convictions so he could gradually lead his constituency away from Dispensational teaching. The following is transcribed from that conference:
[MacArthur speaking] You know, John [Piper], I can answer the question about labels. I grew up in a sort of Dallas Seminary, Talbot Seminary, dispensational environment, Lewis Sperry Chafer. That was kind of my training. And I really became Reformed teaching the book of Matthew. When I got to the Sermon on the Mount, I had all these dispensational commentaries, and they began to tell me that this stuff was all for some future kingdom and it had nothing to do with the Church Age. I started to dig a little deeper into that and I found out there are even possibility of two different kinds of salvation. They made distinctions between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven and all thisÖ I rejected all of it at the front end of the Sermon on the Mount. But my entire constituency couldn't have possibly understood if I had started talking like a five-point Calvinist and throwing labels around. I didn't want to cut the cords. I wanted to bring them along. And I thought, The only way I can bring them along was to bring them exegetically and expositionally without unpacking everything in labels that would put barriers up. So it took me a long time.
Revised Nov. 2022
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