MacArthur on the Gospel

It’s interesting to hear MacArthur attack the emerging church and say that the scope of the gospel of Christ is utterly limited to propitiating God & eliminating the guilt of sin and that this “is the only reason he came. He didn’t come to fix life here. He didn’t come to eliminate poverty. He didn’t come to eliminate slavery…he came to save people from eternal hell.” It really makes me wonder how he gets around the sermon on the mount or sayings like “I came that you might have life, and life abundant.” I really think MacArthur is off base and it seems like this video, which flashes up pictures of the people he seeks to denegrate, displays his true colors.

After reading a ton of theology over the past few years, I can’t believe that MacArthur makes the arguments he does. It seems clear that he has never made a serious study of missional theology, ala Darrell Guder’s book Missional Church, any of Leslie Newbigin’s work or the incredible thought of Moltmann, Jenson, and Pannenberg. If you are going to have a serious voice in the theological conversation, you need to at least come into contact with these guys ideas and show that you’ve interacted with them. His idea of truth is untenable – it completely disregards the nature of truth, of language/linguistics, and distorts the nature of God. His characterization of the thought of those he is seeking to undermine is simply wrong.

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  • FYI: This interview has at least two other parts on YouTube.

    Part 1:
    Part 3:

  • it’s disturbing to me that he says that Jesus “never, not once” attacked social injustices or attempted to “fix” the world that he lived in…so why should we? he says that Jesus did not feed people daily, but tried to avoid such a welfare state.

    looking at the life of Jesus in the gospels, we see him spend significant time healing, dining with social outcasts, elevate the poor, touch those who were untouchable and hideous, and criticize those in power IN ADDITION to preaching about the kingdom. i’m sure this is not news to those of us who follow your blog, Tim, but apparently this is overlooked by MacArthur (“never, not once!” he said).

    secondly, what would MacArthur say about the OT laws designed specifically to promote justice, thwart poverty and hunger, and provide for those who are left behind in society such as the year of jubilee? i consider this a picture of who God is, his heart and character, that he would design such a law for his people.

    anyway, happy to be join these conversations!

  • Yep, I think disturbing is a great descriptor given “Dr.” MacArthur’s standing in the Christian community. (the parenthesis is because near as I can tell he only has honorary doctorates. Is it just me or is it cheesy to call yourself doctor when it is an honorary degree?) Great point about the OT. Sabbath laws are clearly designed to keep wealth from concentrating in the hands of a few. How can that be ignored?

    I have thought about those words, “never once,” and wondered what bible he is reading? With that pre-disposition I think one would be completely unable to provide a coherent reading of the gospels. I know you appreciate Yoder, can you imagine trying to read Luke’s gospel w/out dealing with the political elements that Yoder points out? Not only that, why would you want to? What is he afraid of?

    I think it is this. I think what MacArthur is railing against is that he is afraid that Christianity will be turned into a social agenda. Many of my friends and mentors who enjoy being critical of McLaren love to call him a typical liberal (in the 19th Century liberal sense). That’s where I think he’s got McLaren all wrong. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard McLaren say that we have to be very clear that from start to finish the things we do to participate with what God is doing in the world are based in who God is. To my knowledge he’s always quite clear that the mission in the world is God’ s mission (I know he’s studied a lot of Moltmann & Pannenberg – he usually steals phrases from them). It makes me think that the critique is really more based in the loss of hegemony or some sort of jealousy.

    Maybe the most disturbing thing is that MacArthur has such standing in the Christian community that people just fall in line with whatever he says. This past week I taught a class to college students on inaugurated eschatology and one of the major obstacles for some of the students was that Billy Graham and John MacArthur are pre-millenialist dispensationalists & they can’t go against those guys. We went through a ton of the texts, they drew the conclusions on their own. Even with all of that evidence flying in the face of the John Darby view of eschatology it is still difficult to entertain a different way. That’s the sort of power he has over evangelicals.

  • another implication of MacArthur’s views that is hurtful to me personally is that it was not Jesus’ business to help people in this life. i’m hurt by this because the only thing i am any good at is teaching…and really tough students. this is the only time that i am able to be truly loving, good, patient, and compassionate. normally these virtues are quite difficult for me, and not natural. but, for some reason, you find me the toughest, most abrasive, frustrating, defiant students, and i’m able to find grace with them. i have a talent for making learning relevant to students who struggle in school. the only way i’ve been able to understand this about myself is that this is what i was DESIGNED for, by God. there is nothing overtly spiritual that takes place between my students and i; we cannot discuss God, church, or religion openly; i cannot evangelize to them. but, i love them. this is all i’m good at. why would God design me for something that is not a priority to Him? why would He create me with gifts that are obsolete? if i am created in His image, then this gift for teaching must be a reflection of some part of God, which leaves holes in MacArthur’s thinking.

  • That’s a really great point. If you reduce the gospel to the extent to which I believe he does, the ripple effects reach out into every area of the community. He can’t really mean what he was saying, you think?

  • it seems like he’s just reacting to statements and ideas that frighten him on some level…without fully considering the implications of his ideology. you’re right, it IS dangerous because so many people regard his point of view as comparable to God’s. every person has flaws; some of us have flaws in our actions, some have flaws in thinking. i just wish that MacArthur and other evangelicals could own their flaws; i wish they would confess their doubts and fears, admit they don’t know everything. perhaps they don’t believe they have flaws; perhaps they don’t ever doubt or question. i find this nearly impossible to believe.

  • I think if I’m being totally honest I think much of MacArthur’s issue w/someone like mclaren has to do a/power and control. JM has learned not only to navigate his environment but to control it and profit off of it to an incredible degree. I don’t see him ever sharing that power with mclaren.

  • i agree, Tim. he’s afraid to concede even the possibility of McClaren’s ideas, because it means sharing the power, admitting he doesn’t have all the right answers, and risking some of his loyal followers investigating other writers and other opinions.

    it makes me ask the question: why do so many people just fall into line with everything that any one person, like MacArthur, says without question?

    i think some people, some christians, are content to limit their idea of truth to a few “experts'” opinions. people get sucked into these verbal spars all the time because they would rather follow (and aggressively defend) a person who speaks definitively than a person who asks questions and admits doubt. these people must not be as in touch with their own questions and doubts as i am. when i first read McClaren, my years of conventional christian thought were challenged (which was a little uncomfortable), but it was also comforting to know that someone had explored a similar line of questioning of the conventional as i had. to some people, this is a threat.

  • Hey Tim,
    I haven’t read your blog in a while and just noticed this post. I know you and I have not quite seen eye to eye before so I will not try to be too contentious because I am not without sin and don’t enjoy casting stones (Although my flesh may enjoy it once in a while). I love your interest in theology and deep thinking about the character and nature of God especially the Trinity.
    I also will say that I am not personally a MacArthurite (as I like to call them). I disagree with dispensationalism as well as the dispensational/premillenial view of eschatology. I do agree that people tend to worship MacArthur to an almost apostolic level. However, that being said, I’m not sure that MacArthur was saying that in all times, in all ways, and all places that Jesus only came to save sinners. He was simply stating that the primary reason that Jesus came was to seek and save that which is lost. The context of MacClaren’s statements reveal this. If you listen to part I (another clip) of the clip you hear MacArthur say that we should feed the poor and meet physical needs so he is not denying these truths. Also if you ever listen to MacArthur’s teaching he teaches expositionally (except his dogmatic eschatology) and therefore goes through the whole of scripture. I think in a lot of ways you were trying to pin me down (in our earlier conversation) to think that the atonement was the only thing that the Gospel was. This is similar to what is going on here and in your next post. Just because I believe that redemption for our sins on the cross is the pinnacle of the Christian Faith, doesn’t mean that I would deny the reason for it or deny the implications of it. I believe that he died so we could have life. I believe that we could be reconciled. I believe that he saved me unto good works. I believe that this was to glorify God. I believe that him saving me glorifies Him in his Mercy and forgiveness. I believe that the death of Christ showed God’s Justice and hatred for sin and his love for sinners. I could go on and on. I think to MacArthur, and me and others like me, we are blown away with the Cross. We are amazed that God is not sending us to hell as we deserve. We are amazed that the Father poured out his wrath on his son whom he loved with a perfect love. This is why when we hear MacClaren say the cross is cosmic Child abuse and a distraction to the real message of Jesus (see this link: we think “What could be more glorious than the message we already heard”. It is like saying, “here is a million dollars” Now here is a piece of gum. Would you really want to trade the million for gum. Or even if you weren’t trading it would you care vary much about that gum. No. That is why a perfect heaven (or earth) without God would be no heaven at all, because we love him because he first loved us and gave himself for us. This is shown in the atonement most beautifully (and is only possible because of it) Not in giving us a utopian society. I know MacClaren would not say that God is not necessary in heaven or anything like that. I am just saying that when you minimize the spiritual implications of the cross and make them about physical needs, happiness, or a new way of being, it seems trite to me and void of meaning if there is not an explanation of the ressurection and its power to justify me. Hopefully this was helpful to explain my point of view and not just contentious

  • Hey Keith,

    I appreciate your assessment & especially your humility & grace. Thanks for that. I'll have to think about what you said some and maybe give the JM clip another listen. But, it seems like MacArthur was pretty clearly lampooning the idea that God's redemptive project is any more far reaching than simply atoning for the guilt of sin. Part of what you accept with the pre-millenialist dispensationalism school is the idea that the earth is going to hell in a hand basket. The earth will be destroyed (not refined) by fire. I still think this misses the comprehensive nature of the gospel and that the basic gist of the good news is the renewal, recreation, refining of all of creation through Christ when he returns.

    I could not agree more with you when you say that you cannot minimalize the spiritual implications of the cross. The cross and resurrection are undoubtedly the most central events in the story of God. Jesus is God, Jesus is the redeemer. But it seems clear that Jesus redeems the entire cosmos, especially human persons.

    I think part of my problem in trying to have a conversation about this is that talking about new creation or kingdom theology requires an overall understanding of the narrative of scripture. You can't pull out proof texts here and there and make an argument like that.

    Where I think I differ with MacArthur is that I tend to agree with the school of thought which recognizes that the trajectory of the story of God is the renewal of all creation, with humans at the center of that as God's image bearing creatures, and at the center of those image bearing creatures, the God-man, Christ and his death and resurrection. Also, I think the bible is pretty clear that the hope of the Christian is resurrection and life with God where sin, decay and death are removed. In this I find more resonance with McLaren than JM.

    Part of what I object to with MacArthur is his incediary and disrespectful tone when speaking about McLaren. I've met McLaren several times now – he wouldn't know me – but I've heard him speak, conversed with him several times briefly, and read most of his stuff. This is a person who is deeply committed to living in the way of Christ. He is not perfect, but I believe he is a good man and that he is leveraging everything he's got to spread the gospel. I may not always agree with him, but I must applaud his efforts because I find his life to be beyond reproach. I object to MacArthur's mean spirited attacks on him and I think those actions put him on perilous moral ground. His attitude along with his lavish life-style cast doubt in my mind about his motivation.

    does that make any sense?

  • Tim,
    Once again the context was the “primary reason Christ came in the “first advent” I fail to see how this automatically is JM’s view on the scope of God’s entire redemption project. I am done defending MacArthur, however, and you may be right about pride in his heart. Maybe he hasn’t researched BM and his theology. I am interested in your eschatology. You seem to hold to a progressive redemption of the whole world. Does this put you in a Post-millenial and/or theonomic view of the Kingdom? What do you mean by refined by fire? I really struggle understanding eschatology and the Lord has recently delivered me from a heretical view of the second coming known as full-preterism that I didn’t necessarily hold but created a lot of doubt in the truth. Have you studied eschatology much?

  • Hey Keith! You are the man for studying this stuff.

    On the eschatology thing…interesting question. I’ve studied preterism a bit, I think you are right that it seems to miss the mark. R.C. Sproul teaches what he calls a “moderate preterism.” Most evangelicals hold to dispensationalism which I think is really off the mark. It’s crazy that most people have no idea that theology wasn’t even invented until John Darby in the 1830s.

    I tend toward the view held, I believe, by the majority of Christians in the world including most theologians: Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, etc. It is not, however, the view of most American evangelicals. This view would be characterized as Inaugurated Eschatology.

    A geeky systematic rendering would be found in “A Theology of the New Testament” by George Eldon Ladd if you are into that sort of thing. I learned to understand from the writings of W. Pannenberg, J. Moltmann, and R. Jenson to view eschatology not as the study of the “end times,” but as the definitive nature of the people of God or the church right now. The easiest way to study this now is N.T. Wright’s new book “Surprised by Hope,” which is recently released and seems to be aimed at teaching inaugurated eschatology to evangelicals who have been spoon-fed dispensationalism (which I believe to be misguided) for generations.

    I can’t do it justice in a short post like this, but the belief is that we live in the overlapping of two ages, the age of darkness and the age of light. Jesus “inaugurated” the kingdom and now in and through the people of God the future of God (resurrection, the reign and rule of God & the renewal of all creation) is breaking into the present and defining them more completely than the kingdom of darkness. It’s the “already not yet,” kingdom stuff. Wright calls it "interlocking and overlapping."

    I do not hold to a progressive redemption of the whole world, Christ is definitive in this eschatological view. The world is being redeemed through Christ, not through me. However, the church is the body of Christ so we participate in the missio dei, the mission of God, as the body of Christ who is caught up in Christ’s redemptive work as they are becoming “new creation.” Someday Christ will return and will burn away sin, decay and death. The biblical imagery for this is smelting metal. “And he shall reign forever and ever.” Exactly how and when that will happen is known only to God.

    That’s the 10 cent version. If you want to read a really good essay on it, go here:

  • Thanks Tim. That sounds way interesting! On the surface what you describing seems to not push everything future which I think is the right move no matter how you explain it. This is one of the things that was so attractive about amillenialism to me. I saw Christ’s kingdom as happening now and victorious in nature. I’ll check out the inaugurated view. It is especially interesting considering N.T. Wrights focus on the resurrection. I’ve heard mixed reviews on the New Perspective on Paul but I haven’t researched it. God Bless

  • If you are thinking about learning some of the new perspective stuff, you should look into the "reclaiming Paul" conference that is coming to town this fall. It's co-sponsored by Jacob's Well and Nazarene Theological Seminary. Some of my favorite Pauline scholars are coming. I'm going for sure and looking forward to it.

    The new perspective on Paul doesn't really exist you know…it is much like the emerging church stuff. It's not really a homogenous thing – there are new perspectives most of which are not new but rediscoveries of ancient, often patristic, perspectives – but there are many abberations which are easily plucked up and used as examples of the whole. There is no single element that can be called the "new school on Paul." I usually try and correct that with something like "contemporary Pauline studies" or something like that. The reason I do that is because I've had several conversations with people who make inadequate parodies or caricatures of this thing they call "the new school on Paul." But clearly they don't appreciate how wide an array of scholarship they are drastically conflating with their critiques. The most difficult part of critiquing seems to be actually reading those people enough to know what one is critiquing in the first place.

    Isn't it odd how we (all of us do it) don't usually argue with what people actually say, but with what others say they actually said? I love Brueggemann and in many of the talks I've heard him give, he'll field questions from people in the audience which generally begin with the phrase "what I heard you say was…" and then they'll disagree with it. He loves to say "let me correct what you heard me say with what I actually said."

    So much disagreement is wrapped up in misunderstanding and an inability to actually think another person's thoughts without freaking out when it causes tension. I'm sure this is what is meant by iron sharpens iron don't you think? I just wish I were a better listener & better at curtailing my knee-jerk, emotional response to ideas I'm initially averse to. It would certainly serve me better in the long run. Two of the most powerful words for me right now are "that's interesting." No argument, no need to get my thoughts out there…I'm trying to listen more.