Book Review

"The Gospel According to Jesus: What is Authentic Faith?" by John MacArthur

J. V. Fesko
John MacArthur
Wednesday, January 7th 2009
Jan/Feb 2009

This book was originally written during the late 1980s when the "Lordship Salvation" controversy was brewing. The controversy was no mere kerfuffle, but centered upon the question of whether a professing Christian could live in sinful conduct unabated. Prominent dispensational leaders such as Zane Hodges and Charles Ryrie claimed that a person could be a "carnal Christian." A carnal Christian, according to MacArthur, is one who has accepted Christ's offer of eternal life but has been totally unchanged in his heart and lifestyle (11). On the other hand, MacArthur explains that when a person is saved he cannot merely receive the offer of eternal life, but must also surrender to Christ's lordship, which becomes evident in the his obedient conduct (15, 43).

Overall, there are many positive qualities to the book. MacArthur covers a wide number of passages largely from the Gospel of Matthew. He surveys key texts that show how Jesus evangelized. Jesus did not approach his auditors in the ways of many contemporary evangelists, but confronted them with their sinfulness and need for repentance (91). MacArthur's coverage of the many Gospel passages certainly gives the reader much to consider. The weight of the call of the gospel is evident in a number of chapters such as MacArthur's treatment of Matthew 10 and the cost of discipleship (219-25), or his chapter on the parable of the treasure hidden in a field (Matt. 13.44-46; 143-50). For many who have sat in the church but have never heard the gospel, such detailed treatment of Christ's teaching undoubtedly comes as a shock. Those who imbibe from the evangelistic cup of the health-and-wealth gospel, or the gospel of easy believism, will quickly discover that it is impossible to put sugar on the lip of the bitter cup of salvation. Christ bids the world to come and die to itself. MacArthur captures this important element of the gospel.

However, there are a number of weaknesses in the book that likely pester the reader who is looking for a thorough treatment of this important subject. At many points, it seems that MacArthur has simply sprinkled his sermons with a few footnotes and placed them in his book. As helpful and important as sermons can be, they are no substitute for thorough research and engagement with an opposing view. There is little exploration of the "carnal Christian" position. Important unanswered questions lie below the surface such as, What theological commitments lead proponents of this heresy to their conclusions? Why does MacArthur not treat important issues such as the human nature? Are human beings dichotomous (i.e., body and soul) or trichotomous (i.e., body, soul, and spirit)? This is a crucial driving presupposition that goes untreated. Historically, a trichotomous view of man has led to all sorts of gnostic heresy, such as saying that a man's soul can be saved but not his body. Similarly, it is troublesome that the author originally did not have a chapter on the doctrine of justification or the atonement until the second edition (14). Along these lines, the book does address the importance of the doctrine of sanctification in places (e.g., 38-39, 196), but there is no separate chapter on this subject.

Beyond these weaknesses, there are two others that merit attention. First, antinomianism is not new; it has plagued the church since its inception when Cain slew Abel. Yet, MacArthur makes little effort to show how the church has historically rejected antinomianism. There is an appendix in the back of the book called, "The Gospel According to Historic Christianity" (253-71), but by definition, an appendix is nonessential. How many people actually read appendices? There is little space devoted to the historic Protestant confessions and creeds in the body of his book to show how MacArthur's own case has precedence. Doctrine must stand on Scripture alone, but the church must always stand on the shoulders of giants when they are faithful to God's Word.

Second, MacArthur pays little attention to the doctrine of union with Christ. In places, he emphasizes the importance of the inseparability of justification and sanctification (196-97, 210), but only inferentially mentions that both are connected with union with Christ (200). When he does refer to the doctrine, it is only partially stated: "Believers are united by faith to the beloved Son of God" (169). Faith not only unites believers to Christ, but so does the indwelling presence of the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9). MacArthur devotes a whole chapter to John 15, the vine and the branches, but does not develop the implications of union with Christ (165-74) with greater rigor. Like a treasure seeker who finds a gold doubloon on the sand, picks it up, and walks away, he fails to dig a little deeper and discover a treasure chest of gold. Perhaps if the author had done in-depth research he would have discovered Walter Marshall's book The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification. Marshall (1628-80) expounds the source of the believer's holiness-union with Christ. Marshall wrote in the context of his own lordship salvation controversy but, unlike MacArthur, plumbed the depths of union with Christ.

Given these aforementioned weaknesses, MacArthur's book is a helpful but a wanting response to present dispensational antinomianism. MacArthur scratches the surface by drawing attention to points the contemporary church desperately needs to hear. But he does not dig deep enough to show what theology beats in the hearts of the proponents of "carnal Christianity," nor does he unearth some of the Scriptures' richest treasures. MacArthur's book is helpful, but one can do better with Marshall's book on union with Christ.

Wednesday, January 7th 2009

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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