Credalist Torch and Pitchfork Society

While the vast majority of the Beth Moore defenders were overcome with the vapors and collapsed on their fainting couches in response to John MacArthur’s comments, there was another side controversy with him that went unnoticed. During his opening message to the GTY Truth Matters conference, John cited the following Tweet that states,

MacArthur never mentioned the tweeter by name, but a number of folks demanded that he apologize forthwith to the man for slandering his character. One has to wonder what it is exactly he needs to apologize for seeing that he merely just read the guy’s tweet.

Never the less, the tweet represents a small number of Reformish folks who insist MacArthur’s position defending the Lordship of Christ in salvation is adding works to the Gospel. Now, anyone who is familiar with what it is he has taught over the years about the Lordship controversy is bumfuzzled by such a bizarre assertion. That was the smear that rose out of the fever swamps of independent fundamentalist Baptists who hated Calvinism. Why would those Reformish people claim such an absurd assertion against MacArthur?

I’m here to help, so let me break down the basic complaint.

Their charge against MacArthur emerges out of their idea that the Bible must be rigidly interpreted alongside one of the many historic creeds. In the case of the tweeter, the 39 Articles of Religion. The historic creeds, that can also include the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort, as well as the early church creeds affirmed at Nicea and Chalcedon, are considered guard rails that prevent the misinterpretation of Scripture. The London Baptist Confession of 1689 is the exception because these Reformish types tend to believe Baptists are heterodox renegades.

MacArthur, of course, acknowledges the importance of those creeds in defining for the modern church the theological thought of Christianity throughout the centuries. He has never said church history or creeds are of no value for the church in understanding what it is Christians have believed and confirmed about Scripture. It’s that idea of the Bible MUST BE interpreted according to those creeds, that’s the sticking point. That sounds an awful lot like the Roman Catholic Magisterium handling of Scripture and their notion that the Bible is interpreted by church authorities. It’s like a Roman Catholic “sola scriptura.” MacArthur’s Reformish critics insist it’s not really, because it’s Protestant, which is okay, because it’s not Roman Catholic. BUT, if the biblical teaching from your church or denomination isn’t governed by one or more of those creeds, you’re all in danger of ignoring church history, and becoming “Bible Only” biblicists or a Dispensational. That’s like really bad.

Their Protestant magisterium application of the creeds and confessions brings them to nitpick over the semantics of theological terminology and concepts. Because MacArthur hasn’t used the credal precision in his preaching about soteriology and the Lordship of Christ as they insist he must, they accuse him of confusing law/Gospel distinctives and mixing up sanctification and justification, and being a dastardly Dispensationalist.

For those familiar with MacArthur’s views on Christ’s Lordship, he was originally responding to the spiritually disastrous teaching that was permeating all of evangelical Christianity in America at the time, that being, in order for a person to be saved all he ever has to do is pray a prayer telling Jesus he wants eternal life. That person is now saved, and even if his life never changes so as to conform to godly Christlikeness, and he continues to live worldly, he is saved, because he prayed what amounts to a Christianized mantra when an evangelist told him to raise his hand if he wanted salvation.

MacArthur then spent a lot of his time — like years! — preaching and writing against such easy-believism infecting the church. Salvation entails much more than just “praying a prayer” or “walking and aisle.” It involves repenting from sin and making Jesus Lord of your life. His sermons and books, like the Gospel According to Jesus and Hard to Believe, flesh all of that out. But again, because he doesn’t use credal terminology, the credal only Reformish insist he is confusing law, gospel, works and grace, and teaches justification by grace+works.

There are a number of individual articles, podcasts, and Youtube videos berating  MacArthur about this, for instance HERE (featuring our tweeter). His critics come from two extremes on the theological spectrum from R.Scott Clark (HERE) and of recent, Brannon Howse (see HERE).

So to recap:

The tweeter took note of MacArthur reading his tweet and responded to him by retweeting his original tweet (see above) and then expanding on his view against “Lordship salvation” under the thread. The responses he offered to inquirers asking why MacArthur’s Lordship view is works oriented were — to be charitable here — a tad misleading.

Consider his examples,

He cites from a couple of places in MacArthur’s seminal book on the topic, The Gospel According to Jesus. The examples provided has MacArthur saying that faith is humble, submissive, and encompasses obedience. The implication is that he is advocating that true faith somehow requires humility, submissiveness, and obedience from the sinner in order for it to be genuine. Meaning, the sinner musters those qualities FIRST so as to generate true faith. Thus, faith is not a divine work and considered alone with humility, submission, and obedience being the fruit that grows in the work of sanctification. The conclusion drawn by our critic is that MacArthur is saying that faith is an act of obedience on the part of the sinner and is so confusing justification with sanctification.

There are a couple of problems with these examples.

First, the citations are taken out of context, and that’s kind of big. Let me reproduce the paragraphs in their entirety. I will bold the quotes mentioned in the tweets.

This is taken from chapter 12, The Treasure of the Kingdom,

Obviously, a new believer does not fully understand all the ramifications of the Lordship of Jesus at the moment of conversion. But a true believer has a desire to surrender. This is what distinguishes true faith from a bogus profession. True faith is humble, submissive obedience. As spiritual understanding unfolds, that obedience grows deeper, and the genuine believer displays an eagerness to please Christ by abandoning everything to His lordship. This willingness to surrender to divine authority is a driving force in the heart of every true child of the kingdom. It is the inevitable expression of the new nature. [GATJ, 1st edition, 140].

In context, MacArthur is nowhere saying that obedience, or submissive humility, are necessary preconditions for saving faith. That charge is rather scurrilous to say the least.

Consider the second and third citations taken from pages 172 and 173,

This is taken from chapter 16, The True Nature of Saving Faith.

We have seen already that repentance is a critical element of genuine faith, and that repentance is granted by God; it is not a human work (Acts 11:18, 2 Timothy 2:25). Likewise, faith is a supernatural gift of God. Ephesians 2:8-9 is a familiar passage: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast.” [GATJ, 1st edition, 172).

The third citation is terrifically dishonest,

Again, taken from chapter 16,

The faith God begets includes both the volition and the ability to comply with his will (cf. Philippians 2:14). In other words, faith encompasses obedience. [Here the critic inserts ellipses, but in doing so robs MacArthur of his argument and making him say something he never did] Berkhof sees three elements to genuine faith: an intellectual element (notitia), which is the understanding of truth; and emotional element (assensus), which is the conviction and affirmation of truth; and a volitional element (fuducia), which is the determination of the will to obey truth. Modern popular theology tends to recognize notitia and often assensus but eliminate fiducia. Yet faith is not complete unless it is obedient. [GATJ, 1st edition, 173].

Put together in context, MacArthur is not confusing law/Gospel or sanctification with justification. He is clear that saving faith, and even repentance, are a supernatural, divine work of God. His point is that real faith is more than just a profession that never amounts to a changed life. Real faith is the fuducia kind mentioned by Berkhof that is a determination to willfully obey truth, not just the emotional acknowledgement of facts as true. Our tweeter (and the entire host of credal critics) have, I can only guess intentionally, misrepresented everything that MacArthur has taught on this topic.

But even worse, those critics are arguing with the first edition of the Gospel According to Jesus. The second edition contains some clarifying rewrites and an entirely new chapter on the topic of justification that was added for the purpose of addressing those sorts of dishonest criticisms. MacArthur writes this important paragraph in the preface of the second edition,

The original edition had no treatment of the doctrine of justification by faith. My goal in writing the book, of course, was not to set forth a systematic soteriology, but simply to expound the major evangelistic messages of our Lord. I rather assumed that evangelicals on both sides of the lordship question were in basic agreement on the matter of justification. Admittedly, this omission was unfortunate. It seems to have contributed to some reader’s [Insert here: pedant Reformish credal nitpickers] of my views. A few even imagined that I was explicitly repudiating the great Reformation emphasis on justification by faith alone. Of course, that was not at all the point I was making. [GATJ, 2nd edition, 13-14].

Peruse MacArthur’s catalog of sermons and books and it will be discovered that he affirms and teaches a forensic understanding of justification, that men are saved by faith alone in Christ alone by the grace of God. This is clearly seen in his sermon series on the book of Romans, specifically his study on chapters 3 and 4. I would also add his messages on the Doctrines of Grace, as well as his message specifically on the Gospel According to Jesus.

I would hope that going forward, the credalists would interact with John’s most recent thought on this topic, rather than cherry-picking selected highlights from an older work. Even still, the older work, when considered in full, doesn’t even come close to advocating what they claim it does.