January 21, 2021

The iMonk Weekend File: 1/29/05

belushi1941.jpgPut down that remote, don’t touch that dial. It’s what every blogger envies: The iMonk Weekend File. (Otherwise known as taking a break from blogging about homosexuals and James Dobson to chase and shoot a few other rabbits.)

This week’s program: My Beef with Mac recipe, Christianity’s problem with politics, and the books I bought with the money for the kid’s shoes.

There will be an offering, and I’m selling CDs at the door.

1) What do I really think about John Macarthur? I have immense respect for John Macarthur. He’s a fine expositor. His book “Ashamed of the Gospel” is among my favorites. I think he really has an excellent understanding of worship and his church just speaks for itself in terms of quality. I’ve met Dr. Macarthur and expressed to him my appreciation for the example he set for me when I left seminary and really didn’t know how to approach the pastorate.

So I’m not on his case. I heartily recommend the Bible Bulletin Board Web Site that has all his Bible Study Guides and many more materials cataloged for you. Great resources. I use his tapes a lot in my ministry here. (I could say he is way too hard on Charismatics, but with the excesses of that movement these days, I think his work is far more right than wrong. The tone may be a bit ranty, but it is worthwhile.)

My problem is a simple one. In “The Gospel According to Jesus,” Dr. Macarthur demonstrated a real confusion on the subject of faith and repentance. This is an issue that isn’t a footnote for me, but something at the heart of what the Gospel teaches. Particularly, he seemed determined in that book to say that obedience was faith, and that repentance was faith. The Reformed confessions, following scripture, make it very clear that while faith is vitally related to faith and obedience, faith must be understood by itself as trust in all that God promises us in the Gospel.

Despite changes in the book that followed conversations with supporters and scholars who were concerned, the same errors appeared, in stark form, in “Hard To Believe.” Now the word around the net is that the passage that shows the most muddlement is an editorial edition by someone at the publisher. and that Dr. Macarthur did not write it. I’ll accept that odd explanation even though it strains credibility a bit. (How likely is it that one of my students will repeat the same error on two papers, but the second is because of a completely unrelated reason than the first?) If I followed Occam’s Razor, it would seem that Dr. Macarthur still hasn’t worked out the relationship of faith and obedience, and just can’t resist reasserting that confusion.

What appears to have happened, in my view, is that Dr. Macarthur started reading the Puritans without really anyone to guide him through the good and the bad of the Puritans. This took him into the world of Reformed Christianity, where as a dispensationalist he is a bit out of place, and I think he picked up an understanding of the Gospel that appealed to him because of his strong aversion to easy believism. But the result is such a strong emphasis on obedience and repentance that I fear many sincere Christians will be driven to despair over their own salvation. The Puritans are fine, but any good introduction to the Puritans by a scholar like J.I. Packer will make it clear that there are some theological potholes on the road.

Ironically, while Macarthur capably defends the Gospel from dilution in the seeker-sensitive churches, he manages to confuse the Gospel in many places by making it identical to obedience and repentance. It’s the famous justification/sanctification thing again. Ryle to the rescue. Macarthur’s seriousness about the Gospel has led him, it seems to me, to a position where, to quote one of my critics, “grace is law.”

I hope that this confusion can be cleared up once and for all at some future point, but I am not encouraged. Dr. Macarthur does a great job with texts, but building a consistent systematic theology from all the applicable texts seems difficult for him, and the result in this case has been an overly legal emphasis on obedience and repentance at the expense of a clear understanding of faith. I have dealt with this issue in my essay, “The Fight For Sola Fide.”

What I’ve noticed is that a lot of good reformed men need to read “Christ the Lord,” a book by Michael Horton and others that is aimed precisely at getting this matter of faith, obedience and repentance right. It’s very important, and not everyone is hearing and communicating well on this topic. Even Dr. Piper has occasionally muddled the water. Take the time needed to get this one right, readers.

So, a salute to Dr. Macarthur, and a hope for many more great sermons and books from his ministry.

2. A few thoughts about Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and how they differ on religion and the state. This huge outline is in my head, and I may never get it out, but that is what this space is for.

Judaism was always about an earthly Kingdom, and a literal physical Kingdom of God on earth. Israel really stunk at being God’s Kingdom people, but that doesn’t stop us from seeing that it was never out of line to combine religion and government. Immoral and illegal were the same thing. The King was God’s vice-regent. Historically, most Jews gave up on this arrangement, but it was always where Israel was going. A real Kingdom, with God ruling his people so that a blessing could come on the whole world.

Islam is clear on this as well. Mohammed saw faith and state as unified. In fact, it is the state that is the instrument of Allah’s justice, judgement and command. There are some secular Islamic states, but they stand in tension with Islam itself, which is always about Allah working through the state, and the state being the hand and arm of God.

Christianity is puzzling. Jesus is a Jew, but he subverts the entire notion of the Kingdom. It is here. Really. You just can’t see it. You can experience it. It can transform you and will transform the world, but right now it’s a seed. There is no king, and yet there is. There is no Kingdom of this world, though Jesus is Lord. The Kingdom doesn’t come as other kingdoms do. And so on.

When you start looking at Christianity and the state, this deeply affects everything. Christians aren’t trying to turn an earthly Kingdom into the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is already here, and it’s power to transform isn’t political or military, but the power of love and grace. This Kingdom doesn’t coerce, but wins the heart. It doesn’t even triumph. It loses at the cross and the resurrection isn’t seen by the world. Only the transformed disciples.

How can this Kingdom interact with Caesar? How can this Kingdom become entangled with Caesar? Since we know that the Kingdoms of this world crucified Jesus and persecute the church, why are we surprised that these kingdoms have agendas that are far from the Kingdom?

Christians believe that the Kingdom of God will come on earth, but what will ultimately move the Kingdom from secret and unseen to powerful and universal is the triumph of Jesus, not political reform.

Jesus could have been King. He walked away from it. He was ever confident that the Kingdom of God was never threatened by history or tyrants. Are we on the same page?

Interesting subject.

3. Books I’m reading this week: I read various things concurrently, which is a habit I would ruge anyone to take up. At 48, I am acutely aware of the passing of time, the futility of knowledge, but the sheer delight that awaits me in meeting other minds on the journey.

Here’s this week’s list, in some order of their prority.

The New Testament and the People of God, N.T. Wright. I’m half way through and I just wonder where was all this when I was in school. *sigh of frustration* Here’s a good review.
Walden, Thoreau. My dog walking book. The Barnes and Noble little hardback edition.
According to Plan, Graeme Goldsworthy. An excellent basic introduction to Biblical theology. Great charts.
Various Commentaries on John. Wright’s Everybody Version. D.A. Carson. Keener.
Rashke, Postmodernism: The Next Reformation. I link Amazon because the first two reviews capture my despair with this book. It is eloquently wretched. I think.

Excited to get: Colossians Remixed. Good reviews and connection to NTW interest me greatly.


  1. My own $0.02 on these issues…

    1) John MacArthur and the Puritans. I agree that some of MacArthur’s material on the subject of faith and obedience has been confused. The problem is that America is so awash in easy-believism that people like MacArthur (and others) who take the church’s call to holiness seriously get frustrated, and fall back on the “quick and easy path” to instil holiness… preach the Law. Of course, the problem is that doesn’t work in all cases. Striking a balance between Gospel and Law (as Luther pointed out) is a touchy thing, and probably best done on a personal/pastoral, or at most congregational, level. Aim much higher than that and you really start confusing the wheat and the tares. And going to the Puritans in this matter will *not* help, as their confusion of the Mosaic Covenant with the New Covenant leaves them open to all kinds of pitfalls in this regard.

    2) Where is the Kingdom? The real Achilles heel of all earthly kingdom models is that they have to, by definition, downplay the impact of depravity on human nature. There’s a reason God kicked Adam and Eve out of His earthly kingdom, a reason Israel failed time and time again, a reason *every* civilization falls sooner or later – and that reason is human depravity. A holy kingdom cannot stand with unholy citizens. Thus… “My Kingdom is not of this earth.” Until the people of God (and the earth) are finally totally recreated into perfection, there will be no Kingdom on earth, in a political sense. Islam (since it denies total depravity) has some excuse for not seeing this. The Jews certainly have less. And postmillenialists and Theonomists have none.

    3) Re: the postmodernist book. There is a much-underutilized resource in the Christian tradition that goes a long way towards debunking both the skepticism of the postmodernists and the hyperrationality of the modernists. Pascal’s *Pensees*. Combine them with Peter Kreeft’s commentary *Christianity for Modern Pagans* (weeding out the bits of Catholic dogmatizing he throws in occasionally), and you have quite a read, and food for thought.

  2. I love that book! Used it here at OBI one year with a really gifted group of Advanced Bible kids. Good mention.

  3. You always seem to hit right on about things that others do not..thank you for that::)

    As for the Puritans, the Third Wave revivalists (Toronto, Brownsville,etc.) constantly claim Jonathan Edwards as their “spiritual” ancestor. The laughable part is (if it wasn’t so tragic) Edwards preached a pretty Reformed message.
    The Third Wavers are so far from that it is pathetic. Edwards preached Christ. I cannot remember the last time I even heard Christ’s name mentioned among the Third Waver Charismatics.

  4. Tom Hinkle says

    Concerning commentaries on John–one that I found indispensible is the “Social-Science Commentary on John” by Malina and Rohrbaugh. You need other commentaries with it (like Raymond Brown’s Anchor Bible commentary) but it gives a lot of excellent insight into the culture of the time, which is important in interpretation.

  5. i love brown, but i am not using him this time through. Witherington has a helpful commentary as well.

  6. I have not read MacArthur’s “Hard to Believe,” but I have friends who have. They have expressed the kind of disappointment you have voiced, but neither with the clarity or fullness you have given it. Friends have said that their reading of the book shows no indication of awareness of “The Race Set Before Us.” I would not publish without first engaging another book that has offered some critique of my ideas and beliefs. Why wouldn’t MacArthur do the same?

    The neo-Puritan resurgence among evangelicals is as disconcerting now as it was 20-30 years ago. As in all our readings, we need to engage the Puritans with critical assessment. We may learn much through the Puritans, but there are also many aspects about them that need to be tempered and qualified by Scripture. One is their tendency toward introspective faith that leads toward despair. Whenever faith turns inward it also looks away from Christ who is our only hope.

  7. I found this at John MacArthur’s website gty.org:

    A Word of Clarification about Hard to Believe

    One paragraph in Hard to Believe contains a glaring error that has the potential to mislead readers about the book’s whole intent. The problematic passage is the opening paragraph of chapter 6 (page 93), which seems to suggest that salvation is the fruit of godly living. The truth is exactly the opposite.

    The error was inadvertently introduced into the manuscript in the late stages of the editorial process, when (in order to simplify the book) four chapters were deleted from the original manuscript and one of the remaining chapters was severely abridged. John MacArthur approved the abridgments.

    Apparently, however, in an effort to make a new transition that would smooth over the deletions, an editor involved in the process made significant revisions to the opening of chapter 6. Unfortunately, that change was not submitted to John for approval. We believe the error was an oversight, and not anyone’s deliberate attempt to tamper with the book’s theology. The result, however, severely muddled the message of the book.

    A revision has been sent to the publisher for future editions of the book. In all subsequent printings, here is how the opening paragraph of chapter six will read (revisions are in bold):

    Don’t believe anyone who says it’s easy to become a Christian. Salvation for sinners cost God His own Son; it cost God’s Son His life, and it’ll cost you the same thing. Salvation isn’t gained by reciting mere words. Saving faith transforms the heart, and that in turn transforms behavior. Faith’s fruit is seen in actions, not intentions. There’s no room for passive spectators: words without actions are empty and futile. Remember that what John saw in his vision of judgment was a Book of Life, not a book of Words or Book of Intellectual Musings. The life we live, not the words we speak, reveals whether our faith is authentic.

    Phil Johnson
    Executive Director
    Grace to You

  8. As an English teacher (AP IV) I have an opinion about what we are reading here, but these are men I really respect. I am just going to say that if this story were brought to me in my class I would be blinking and sipping my coffee rapidly.

    Listen….the best route here is just to WRITE SOMETHING THAT DEFINITIVELY CLEARS THIS UP. It’s a pattern, and Dr. Mac surely knows that no one of us who have benefitted from his ministry will care at all if he says “I’ve needed to gain a better understanding of this subject.” He can be my pastor any day. I love the man, but it’s just what we all go through as we grow. I listen to my old sermons….ugh. It’s painful 🙂

  9. you know, i think there is enough bad things in this world to worry about and Joel Osteen isnt one of them, my husband turned his life over to JESUS CHRIST after listening to JOEL and this in itself is a miraculous thing. If JOel attracts the younger people and teaches them to be more positive and helpful etc, then i do not see the harm in that. If you dont like him turn the channel, put down the book. He was just on Larry King live and Larry likened his message to that of the great Billy Grahamn. Can you argue with that? Joyce Meyer who is one of the leading preachers and the top woman preacher approves of Joel I have heard this many times from her. God has made many people and called them in many different ways and maybe hellfire and brimstone isnt for everyone, but if Joel has that big of a congregation well someone is liking his brand of gospel. He led me to the lord and i read my bible, as i say if you dont like him then turn away, simple thing to do!

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