John MacArthur


[This post represents something I wrote awhile ago — before I was ever exposed to “Evangelical Calvinism” — but I think it illustrates some of the problems, that aren’t new, which can arise if someone follows the Federal/Classic Calvinist ‘way’ — whether that be in the 17th century or the 21st. Also, I realize that John MacArthur is not a ‘true’ Federal Calvinist; nevertheless, the ‘practical’ fall-out of assuming the Westminster themes of ‘grace and nature’ are still very much present within his construal and preaching of things . . . thus “his Calvinism” can foster the same kind of waywardness that Federal Calvinism can in re. to many things — in the case of this post, in re. to ethics, holiness, and salvation]

Below I am going to provide two quotes, the first will be from Theodore Dwight Bozeman discussing the emergence and factors that shaped the thinking of the yet to come English Puritans; and the second will be from John MacArthur, and his discussion on the role that changed behavior and moral values have in a genuinely “saved life.” What I am highlighting, and want you all to see, is the striking correlation of thought and practice that both camps share, relative to emphasizing the importance of outward moral behavior in the “elects” life. Here is Theodore Bozeman discussing the early factors that led to English Puritanism:

English penitential teaching expressly echoed and bolstered moral priorities. In contrast, again, to Luther, whose penitential teaching stressed the rueful sinner’s attainment of peace through acknowledgment of fault and trust in unconditional pardon, several of the English included a moment of moral renewal. In harmony with Reformed tendencies on the Continent and in unmistakable continuity with historic Catholic doctrine that tied “contrition, by definition, to the intention to amend,” they required an actual change in penitent. For them, a renewal of moral resolve was integral to the penitential experience, and a few included the manifest alteration of behavior. They agreed that moral will or effort cannot merit forgiveness, yet rang variations on the theme that repentance is “an inward . . . sorrow . . . whereunto is also added a . . . desire . . . to frame our life in all points according to the holy will of God expressed in the divine scriptures.” However qualified by reference to the divine initiative and by denial of efficacy to human works, such teaching underscored moral responsibility; it also adumbrated Puritan penitential and preparationist teaching of later decades. [italics mine] (Theodore Dwight Bozeman, “The Precisianist Strain . . . ,” 20-21)

It is important to keep in mind that Bozeman is not even discussing actual English Puritanism yet, rather he is highlighting the streams and emphases, present within England just prior to the full-fledged emergence of Puritanism, that actually brought shape and form to the disciplinary “religion” known as Puritanism. Notice the correlation he makes between this kind of Protestantism with Roman Catholic spirituality. . . .

Conversely, John MacArthur sounds very much like this incipient Puritanism described above by Bozeman. You will notice this similarity as MacArthur, like these early penitentialists, emphasizes the function and necessity of moral reformation in the life of the “truly saved” individual; notice:

. . . They’ve been told [Christians in the typical evangelical church in the West] that the only criterion for salvation is knowing and believing some basic facts about Christ. They hear from the beginning that obedience is optional. It follows logically, then, that a person’s one-time profession of faith is more valid than the ongoing testimony of his life-style in determining whether to embrace him as a true-believer. The character of the visible church reveals the detestable consequence of this theology. As a pastor I have rebaptized countless people who once “made a decision,” were baptized, yet experienced no change. They came later to true conversion and sought baptism again as an expression of genuine salvation. [brackets mine] (John MacArthur, “The Gospel According to Jesus,” 17)

Striking is it not? Both English Penitentialism (early and full blossomed English Puritanism), and MacArthur’s approach are intended to curb moral laxity, by emphasizing the moral conduct and “performance” of the truly “saved.” As MacArthur underscores, as a good follower of the “English Puritan” (and for that matter Roman Catholic) ethic and spirituality, genuine salvation is only noticeable and discernible via an “. . . an ongoing testimony of his life-style.” Bozeman speaking of the moral laxity within England (in the 16th century and onward) notes how this affected the “Reforming spirit” of that locale, he says: “. . . There the Reformation emerged in a period of deeply felt concern about social order. . . . (Bozeman, 13) This motivation similarly, and unabashedly, motivates MacArthur’s emphasis on performance, duty, and obedience, as he states: “. . . Why should we assume that people who live in an unbroken pattern of adultery, fornication, homosexuality, deceit, and every conceivable kind of flagrant excess are truly born again? . . .” (MacArthur, 16-17) In other words, the remedy for both camps (i.e. between the 16th and 17th cent. and 20th and 21st cent.) is to hang people over hell in order to foster an supposed environment of holiness and moral uprightness, this is by way of EMPHASIS. Both of these camps spoke and speak of solifidian (faith alone), but this is not enough, external moral transformation needs to accompany “faith alone,” otherwise there was never any faith to begin with (i.e. later on we will discuss how this thought came to be tied to concepts like “preparationism” and “temporary faith”).

All of this is contrary to Martin Luther’s approach, which is to emphasize the need of a changed heart, and the objective Word of God as the motivation and reason for holiness. Luther did not hang people over hell in order to engender holiness of life, and neither did the later antinomists (i.e. Sibbes, Cotton, et al) who we will discuss later. Did Luther think moral transformation was needed within the church, indeed . . . but we do not hybrid the gospel in order to achieve this end (i.e. MacArthur and the Puritans); rather we emphasize the winsome love of Christ disclosed at the cross, grave, and right hand of the throne of the Father as the motivation for purity and holiness. This was Luther’s, Cotton’s, Sibbe’s, and my aim, I hope it is yours.

I have provided this brief comparison in order to further establish the corollary and continuity between English Puritan salvation themes and motifs, and in this case, John MacArthur’s themes and motifs, relative to articulating the gospel. I am not sure how anyone who has read anything on Puritan spirituality, and its formation, can deny the similarity between that and the outlook that MacArthur (and others like him) is articulating today. At minimum my hope is to expose this, not to smear MacArthur (or others), so that folks who have bought into such teaching can see it for what it is, and realize that this kind of doctrine leads away from an emphasis upon Christ; and focuses upon self (and “my transformed life”). Jesus said it best, “. . . Seek ye first, His kingdom and His righteousness . . . ,” in other words, keep your eyes ON HIM!

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There are a slew of ministries today that are promoting an enlivened Calvinism for the masses; whether that be by radio, books, pulpits, or the internet. Off the top I can think of just a few that are making quite the impact:

Each one of these characters has their own unique brand and emphases, relative to their articulation of Calvinism. MacArthur follows a more ‘Baptistic’ “Spurgeonized” Calvinism, with an emphasis upon good expositional preaching; and a call for holy living (he is more Fundy in approach and socio/culturally). John Piper is similar in many ways to MacArthur, although he is more steeped in the ‘history’ of Covenantal Calvinism drawing off of his background with the Puritans; in particular his appeal to many of Jonathan Edwards’ themes. And then Michael Horton, who is a full-fledged Federal Covenantalist who approaches things much more “historically” and “academically;” which is only natural given his profession as an professor.

Each one of these figures offers a different angle on Calvinism —some more consistent, historically, than others— but they also offer an certain commonality in emphasis; and that is, that they all follow the style of Calvinism codified at the Synod of Dordrecht and evinced through the Westminster Catechism. As far as communicating salvation goes, each of these fellows find their directive from the TULIP.

Instead of trying to unearth (re-invent the wheel) the history and theological (loci) focal points of Calvinism, of which there is legion; I just want to comment on this rather amazing phenomenon that seems to be sweeping large pockets of Christendom. And that is the in-roads and re-emergence that Calvinism seems to be making amongst both the young and old, Christian. Let me posit a few reasons why I think this is happening:

[B]ecause of the shallowness and decline exemplified in much of ‘Evangelical Christianity’.
[B]ecause of the lack of doctrine being promulgated within ‘Evangelical Christianity’.
[B]ecause people want some guidelines, they want some real-life structure and infrastructure for what they believe.
[B]ecause people are tired of hearing sermons about themselves, and they want to hear an emphasis upon Christ through biblical exposition.
[B]ecause there really are no other alternatives but to return to the “Old Paths” that Calvinism appears to offer.

I know there are plenty more reasons why folks seem to be turning to Calvinism (have any suggestions?), but by-and-large I think that it has something to do with the realization that ‘Evangelical’ Christianity (whether the style be: ‘Purpose/Market Driven’, ‘Emergent Driven’, or ‘Independent Fundamentalist Driven’) is becoming quite bankrupt in regards to providing an Christianity that is robust enough to answer the deep felt questions that the issues of this life throw at us every single day.

When people (and many are) get to this point where do they turn? Either they completely leave the church (and I know some are doing that, according to the “statistics”), become ‘Liberal’ and find the substance and community they are looking for in political causes and social justice issues; or maybe they see the arms of MacArthur, Piper, and Horton opened up saying: “. . . come find rest for your souls weary pilgrim.”

Do you see what I am getting at (and indeed, I am generalizing)? There has been an vacuum created through the “man-centered” approaches and [non]doctrinal forays provided by the broader portion of “Evangelicalism” for years. Calvinism offers just the opposite, by reputation and assertion. It offers doctrine, devotion, and depth for the disenfranchised ‘Evangelical’.

But what if the sparkling beacon of rest that Calvinism appears to be (for your average church person searching for depth) turns out to be just as “man-centered” as the “Evangelicalism” they are fleeing? What if “Calvinism” is promising more than it can deliver? These are questions that should be considered by the tired souls in search of the “truth” of the Gospel. But indeed, that is part of the problem, so many are ‘tired’ they just want rest; they just want someone tell them that it is all okay, “here’s the doctrines of Grace that they have been deprived of for so many years.” People, tired people, especially, are ready to hear that! They begin to immerse themselves in this new deep culture, they read books by MacArthur —not the fickle flamboyant stuff they are used to, mind you— with titles like: The Gospel According to Jesus, or Hard to Believe. This isn’t the flimsy-flighty stuff their CEO’s, uh *#&% argh, I mean their mega-church pastors were slinging at them from their pulpits. No, oh no! This has guts, it sounds like Jesus’ kind of stuff in chapters like John 6; finally, the depth, the substance these folks have been longing for. No more of that Christless Christianity, they have finally come into a Christian situation where Desiring God is emphasized; a place where there is an opportunity for Putting Amazing Back into Grace!

Maybe what I am describing sounds curiously true to your own situation. Maybe you’ve even swung this way, believing that popular Calvinism was the answer to your “Evangelical woes;” but now you are realizing that maybe, theologically, there are certain problems (along with certain pros) that didn’t appear at the euphoric ‘honey-moon’ stage you were in when first introduced to this ‘new-way’.

I haven’t (in this post) really elaborated on the ‘problems’ that are inherently endemic to ‘TULIP’ style Calvinism; but maybe I don’t need to, maybe you know those all too well. Certainly you recognize an array of variable “truths” packed into the Calvinist themes; but you realize that there might be something ‘rotten in Denmark’, that Calvinism still seems to be pointing you in the direction of yourself. Sure you have found quite a bit of substance, relative to the ‘old Rick Warren’ days; but now you are wondering if the ‘substance’ measures up to the right kind of ‘substance’.

Or maybe you have found what you were looking for in the halls of ‘Dordt’, and you think that, especially by now, I am full of hot air 😉 (indeed)!

Either way, let me know . . . what you think on this front.

P. S. By the way, I’m not an Arminian or a follower of Popular/Contemporary Free Grace Theology —- I am quite ‘Reformed’!

Below I am going to provide two quotes, the first will be from Theodore Dwight Bozeman discussing the emergence and factors that shaped the thinking of the yet to come English Puritans; and the second will be from John MacArthur, and his discussion on the role that changed behavior and moral values have in a genuinely “saved life.” What I am highlighting, and want you all to see, is the striking correlation of thought and practice that both camps share, relative to emphasizing the importance of outward moral behavior in the “elects” life. Here is Theodore Bozeman discussing the early factors that led to English Puritanism:

“English penitential teaching expressly echoed and bolstered moral priorities. In contrast, again, to Luther, whose penitential teaching stressed the rueful sinner’s attainment of peace through acknowledgment of fault and trust in unconditional pardon, several of the English included a moment of moral renewal. In harmony with Reformed tendencies on the Continent and in unmistakable continuity with historic Catholic doctrine that tied “contrition, by definition, to the intention to amend,” they required an actual change in penitent. For them, a renewal of moral resolve was integral to the penitential experience, and a few included the manifest alteration of behavior. They agreed that moral will or effort cannot merit forgiveness, yet rang variations on the theme that repentance is “an inward . . . sorrow . . . whereunto is also added a . . . desire . . . to frame our life in all points according to the holy will of God expressed in the divine scriptures.” However qualified by reference to the divine initiative and by denial of efficacy to human works, such teaching underscored moral responsibility; it also adumbrated Puritan penitential and preparationist teaching of later decades.” [italics mine] (Theodore Dwight Bozeman, “The Precisianist Strain . . . ,” 20-21)

It is important to keep in mind that Bozeman is not even discussing actual English Puritanism yet, rather he is highlighting the streams and emphases, present within England just prior to the full-fledged emergence of Puritanism, that actually brought shape and form to the disciplinary “religion” known as Puritanism. Notice the correlation he makes between this kind of Protestantism with Roman Catholic spirituality. . . .

Conversely, John MacArthur sounds very much like this incipient Puritanism described above by Bozeman. You will notice this similarity as MacArthur, like these early penitentialists, emphasizes the function and necessity of moral reformation in the life of the “truly saved” individual; notice:

. . . They’ve been told [Christians in the typical evangelical church in the West] that the only criterion for salvation is knowing and believing some basic facts about Christ. They hear from the beginning that obedience is optional. It follows logically, then, that a person’s one-time profession of faith is more valid than the ongoing testimony of his life-style in determining whether to embrace him as a true-believer. The character of the visible church reveals the detestable consequence of this theology. As a pastor I have rebaptized countless people who once “made a decision,” were baptized, yet experienced no change. They came later to true conversion and sought baptism again as an expression of genuine salvation. [brackets mine] (John MacArthur, “The Gospel According to Jesus,” 17)

Striking is it not? Both English Penitentialism (early and full blossomed English Puritanism), and MacArthur’s approach are intended to curb moral laxity, by emphasizing the moral conduct and “performance” of the truly “saved.” As MacArthur underscores, as a good follower of the “English Puritan” (and for that matter Roman Catholic) ethic and spirituality, genuine salvation is only noticeable and discernible via an “. . . an ongoing testimony of his life-style.” Bozeman speaking of the moral laxity within England (in the 16th century and onward) notes how this affected the “Reforming spirit” of that locale, he says: “. . . There the Reformation emerged in a period of deeply felt concern about social order. . . . (Bozeman, 13) This motivation similarly, and unabashedly, motivates MacArthur’s emphasis on performance, duty, and obedience, as he states: “. . . Why should we assume that people who live in an unbroken pattern of adultery, fornication, homosexuality, deceit, and every conceivable kind of flagrant excess are truly born again? . . .” (MacArthur, 16-17) In other words, the remedy for both camps (i.e. between the 16th and 17th cent. and 20th and 21st cent.) is to hang people over hell in order to foster an supposed environment of holiness and moral uprightness, this is by way of EMPHASIS. Both of these camps spoke and speak of solifidian (faith alone), but this is not enough, external moral transformation needs to accompany “faith alone,” otherwise there was never any faith to begin with (i.e. later on we will discuss how this thought came to be tied to concepts like “preparationism” and “temporary faith”).

All of this is contrary to Martin Luther’s approach, which is to emphasize the need of a changed heart, and the objective Word of God as the motivation and reason for holiness. Luther did not hang people over hell in order to engender holiness of life, and neither did the later antinomists (i.e. Sibbes, Cotton, et al) who we will discuss later. Did Luther think moral transformation was needed within the church, indeed . . . but we do not hybrid the gospel in order to achieve this end (i.e. MacArthur and the Puritans); rather we emphasize the winsome love of Christ disclosed at the cross, grave, and right hand of the throne of the Father as the motivation for purity and holiness. This was Luther’s, Cotton’s, Sibbe’s, and my aim, I hope it is yours.

I have provided this brief comparison in order to further establish the corollary and continuity between English Puritan salvation themes and motifs, and in this case, John MacArthur’s themes and motifs, relative to articulating the gospel. I am not sure how anyone who has read anything on Puritan spirituality, and its formation, can deny the similarity between that and the outlook that MacArthur (and others like him) is articulating today. At minimum my hope is to expose this, not to smear MacArthur (or others), so that folks who have bought into such teaching can see it for what it is, and realize that this kind of doctrine leads away from an emphasis upon Christ; and focuses upon self (and “my transformed life”). Jesus said it best, “. . . Seek ye first, His kingdom and His righteousness . . . ,” in other words, keep your eyes ON HIM!