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May 06, 2005

Book review: The Gospel According to Jesus, by John MacArthur

I just finished reading "The Gospel According to Jesus", by John F. MacArthur, Jr., at the recommendation of the associate pastor of my church. Here, I'm going to give a fairly brief review, but I've got a lot more to say about the book beyond the review, so stay tuned for follow-up posts.

"The Gospel According to Jesus" is subtitled, "What does Jesus mean when he says, 'Follow me?'" That's really the central question of this book, and it's one MacArthur addresses quite thoroughly and Biblically. To put it another way, MacArthur is asking something like this (in my own words): "Is repentance and submission to Jesus' Lordship necessary for salvation, or is a simple profession of 'faith' in Christ sufficient?" Or, to put it another way, he's asking, "What did Jesus teach about the nature of saving faith?"

I've become increasingly convinced of the relevance of this question recently. For example, just last night, my Pastor talked about a note which shows up in the reference notes for the Scofield Bible (see the note on 1 Cor. 2:14, here). The note says this:

Paul divides men into three classes: psuchikos, "of the senses" James 3:15; Jude 1:19 or "natural," i.e. the Adamic man, unrenewed through the new birth John 3:3,5 pneumatikos, "spiritual," i.e. the renewed man as Spirit-filled and walking in the Spirit in full communion with God Ephesians 5:18-20 and sarkikos, "carnal," "fleshly," i.e. the renewed man who, walking "after the flesh," remains a babe in Christ 1 Corinthians 3:1-4. The natural man may be learned, gentle, eloquent, fascinating, but the spiritual content of Scripture is absolutely hidden from him; and the fleshly, or carnal, Christian is able to comprehend only its simplest truths, "milk" 1 Corinthians 3:2.

In other words, the study note is arguing that there are two sorts of Christians: Spiritual Christians, who submit to God, and carnal Christians, who are living like unbelievers -- that is, living in disobedience to God and refusing to submit to the rule of Jesus Christ.

This is really the question MacArthur deals with in this book: Is there such a thing as a second class of Christians, according to Jesus' teaching? Or did Jesus teach that those who make an outward profession of faith, but live like unbelievers, are really not Christians at all?

MacArthur's answer to this question is an emphatic "No!". There is no second class of Christians. That isn't to say that Christians don't sin, but it really means that, if someone professes to be a Christian but gives no evidence of this in terms of obedience to God's laws, their Christianity is false. MacArthur proves this by exhaustively examining Jesus' teaching on the subject. The book is filled with quotations from Scripture and thorough discussion. If there is the slightest doubt in your mind about whether there is such a thing as a second sort of Christian, or whether the recognition that "Jesus is Lord" is necessary for salvation, I highly recommend this book. It's a very thorough and Biblical treatment of the subject.

One of the other things that is excellent -- and eye-opening -- about this book is MacArthur's extensive quotations of people who teach that it is heretical to teach that one must submit to Christ as Lord, not just believe in him as Savior, in order to be saved. For example, here's an excerpt along these lines:

Lordship salvation, defined by one who labels it heresy, is "the view that for salvation a person must trust Jesus Christ as his Savior from sin and must also commit himself to Christ as Lord of his life, submitting to his sovereign authority."

It is astonishing that anyone would characterize that truth as unbiblical or heretical, but a growing chorus of voices is echoing the charge. The implication is that acknowledging Christ's lordship is a human work. That mistaken notion is backed by volumes of literature that speaks of people "making Jesus Christ Lord of their lives."

We do not "make" Christ Lord; he is Lord! Those who will not receive him as Lord are guilty of rejecting him. "Faith" that rejects his sovereign authority is really unbelief. Conversely, acknowledging his lordship is no more a human work than repentance (cf. 2 Tim 2:25) or faith itself (cf. Eph. 2:8-9). In fact, surrender to Christ is an important aspect of divinely produced saving faith, not something added to faith."

MacArthur also points out that this is an issue of tremendous relevance for the church today:

Contemporary Christians have been conditioned never to question anyone's profession of faith. Multitudes declare that they trust God as Savior while indulging in lifestyles that are plainly inconsistent with God's Word -- yet no one dares to challenge their testimony.

McArthur also points out that the whole issue here is partly related to this question: Is Christianity just intellectual assent to certain facts about Christ? Those who would have us believe that it's heretical to insist that Christians must recognize that Jesus is Lord argue that anyone who intellectually accepts the historical and doctrinal facts about Jesus Christ and his work on the cross is a Christian. In contrast, MacArthur is arguing (as he proves from Scripture) that such faith is really no faith at all: Biblical faith is a trust in Jesus Christ as savior, but also as Lord, and this faith inevitably leads to good works. The absence of such works demonstrates that one's "faith" is empty, mere intellectual assent, or "dead faith", as James calls it.

MacArthur traces part of the modern prevalence of this view to a problem with evangelism:

Modern evangelism is preoccupied with decisions, statistics, aisle-walking, gimmicks, prefabricated presentations, pitches, emotional manipulation, and even intimidation. Its message is a cacaphony of easy-believism and simplistic appeals. Unbelievers are told that if they invite Jesus into their hearts, accept him as personal Savior, or believe the facts of the gospel, that is all there is to it. ... Who knows how many people are deluded into believing they are saved when they are not?

He contrasts this with how Jesus dealt with the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16-22: Jesus told the young man very clearly that he would have to give up all of his idols -- including the idol of his money -- if he wanted to follow Jesus and be saved. And the young ruler went away sad. The amazing thing, as he points out, is that this concept seems foreign to much of modern evangelism: People emphasize the benefits of becoming a Christian, and do not mention that real Christianity involves a cost -- part of which is giving up our sin.

I'm going to close this review here with a quote from the foreword by James Montgomery Boice, then a final remark. I'll also have some follow-up posts with some more quotes from the book.

Boice wrote:

MacArthur is not dealing with some issue or issues external to the faith, but with the central issue of all -- namely, What does it mean to be a Christian? His answers address themselves to what I consider to be the greatest weakness of contemporary evangelical Christianity in America.

Did I say weakness? It is more. It is a tragic error. It is the idea -- where did it come from? -- that one can be a Christian without being a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. It reduces the gospel to the mere fact of Christ's having died for sinners, requires of sinners only that they acknowledge this by the barest intellectual assent, and then assures them of their eternal security when they may very well not be born again.

[Emphasis mine].

Another way to put the central issue is that this book deals with whether Christianity brings salvation that makes us free to sin and escape the consequences, or whether it brings salvation from sin, into fellowship with and obedience to God.

Again, I highly recommend this book, especially if there is the slightest doubt in your mind about what the Bible really teaches on this subject, or if you think that saving faith does not necessarily involve repentance and a recognition of Jesus' Lordship. I also recommend it even if you, like myself, are familiar with this teaching but are not quite aware of how far it has penetrated into "Christian" circles and "Christian" theology.

[For those who have read a number of my book reviews: I don't review all books highly -- but lately I've been reading a number which have been recommended by one of the leaders in my church, so I've been giving a lot of positive reviews. Don't take that as a mark against my reviewing, but a mark in favor of reading these books.]

UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: I had hoped to avoid going too much into why exactly the view MacArthur is dealing with is wrong, because MacArthur does such a good job dealing with it. But I got a comment on this post which I feel compelled to address:

Tell me if I'm wrong here: the "heretical" group (as MacArthur labels them) says that Christians are energized at different times by one of two sources (either the Holy Spirit or the flesh); MacArthur says that Christians are not energized by the flesh. We can talk about "sorts" or "classes," but it seems to come down to the source of our power and motivation, does it not?
If Christians are not capable of being carnal - which means "flesh," of course - then they must be sinning while empowered by the Holy Spirit. That, however, seems to be exactly what John argued against in his first epistle: we do not sin when we are functioning, energized, led by (take your pick) by the Spirit.
So, if Christians are not fleshly - whether for a minute or a decade - then why do they sin? And what is the difference between being fleshly for a minute or a decade? If we're not another category of Christian during that moment of sin, then what are we? Spiritual? We can't be led by the Spirit but being led by the flesh - i.e., carnal - has been ruled out.
Can you shed some light on this?

MacArthur and my pastor aren't suggesting that Christians don't sin. But the Bible makes no distinction of Christians into two classes (as I'll explain below), and it's a very dangerous idea. Look at the language Scofield uses: the spiritual Christian is "Spirit-filled and in full communion with God". How many of us are in "full communion with God?" This category is undoubtedly very small, if the word "full" is included. Then, according to Scofield, the "carnal Christian" is "walking after the flesh" -- that is, still living as he used to, and having only the barest intellectual comprehension of the basic truths about Jesus Christ. That is, Scofield says that these people essentially act just like non-Christians, but give intellectual assent to the "facts" that Jesus died on the cross, was raised again, etc., and profess to be Christians.

To put it another way, Scofield says that there are two sorts of Christians: Those who ordinarily walk according to the Spirit, and those who ordinarily walk just like non-Christians. However, as I'll show briefly (and MacArthur shows in much more detail) the Bible teaches that there is only one sort: Those who walk according to the Spirit, but occasionally stumble (with varying frequencies). Those who never walk according to the Spirit simply aren't Christians.

Why is this so dangerous? Well, if you're a Christian, and you want to sin, it's (according to Scofield) OK: You don't have to be a spiritual Christian if you don't want to. No, go ahead and sin -- you'll still be a Christian, just a carnal Christian, like MOST "Christians". Unfortunately (for those who want to sin), this idea is completely false. Those who want to continue in a lifestyle of sin are really demonstrating that they are not Christians at all.

Let me give a couple Scripture references on this, and refer you to MacArthur for a lot more.

Romans 8:1-11 deals rather extensively with this; it's best to read the whole thing, but here's a couple quotes:

And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature, but according to the Spirit...
Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind of sinful man is death ...
You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.

It's hard to imagine a much more straightforward denial of Scofield's teaching than these last two verses. No one belongs to Christ unless they have the Spirit. And anyone who has the Spirit is controlled by the Spirit. They may occasionally stumble, but they can no longer live according to the flesh. There are two kinds, here: Those who belong to Christ (who therefore obey him -- not perfectly, but generally) and those who do not.

Paul further adds in verse 14, "Those who are [being led] by the Spirit of God are sons of God." (the NIV translates this led, but it's present continuous, so better translated being led).

Another passage relating to this, which MacArthur includes in his discussion, is Matthew 7:15-23. I'll just quote a little bit:

A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

1 Corinthians 6:9-11 says:

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Neither the sexually immoral nor adulterers nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

Scofield would have us believe that there are those Christians who are "spirit-filled" and therefore lead a holy life, forsaking things like greed, adultery, and theft -- and there are those who, instead, are "carnal Christians", continuing in such things because they only have the barest understanding of the "simplest truths" of the gospel. Paul, however, says otherwise.

I could give countless other references on this, but there's no point simply rewriting MacArthur's book. However, I'll also refer you to a sermon on The Test of Obedience [if that page is down, try this one], which deals with some of the same issues. It's part of a series on 1 John which deals extensively with these issues, as part of the reason 1 John was written was to fight this sort of heresy in the early church.

Let me close with a final quote from MacArthur's book. MacArthur gives this excerpt from a writer who is promoting this sort of two-class view -- or at least promoting the view that Christianity is simply intellectual assent:

It is possible, even probable, that when a believer out of fellowship falls for certain types of philosophy, if he is a logical thinker, he will become an "unbelieving believer." Yet believers who become agnostics are still saved; they are still born again. You can even become an atheist; but if you once accept Christ as savior, you cannot lose your salvation, even though you deny God.

That's what's behind this idea that Christians can "accept Christ as savior" but live as they please: If they once made a profession of faith, they are certainly on their way to heaven, no matter how they live. But as MacArthur shows convincingly, this is contrary to Jesus' teaching, and Christianity as it is presented by the entire Bible.

Posted by D. Mobley at May 6, 2005 09:21 AM

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Interesting thoughts. Having attended John MacArthur's church a few times -- and listend to him for many years on the radio -- I'm not sure I'd recommend his book so strongly. I fully agree that his theology is well-founded; however, I find his psychology somewhat lacking. IMHO, it seems to imply that intention and reason are a) boolean, and b) sufficient. That is, if we *do* believe with our mind and will, then all is well, and if not nothing is well. I think human beings are more complex (i.e, not boolean, and also emotionally rich), and while John's 'projection' is useful, and notionally correct, it ends up throwing away much useful information.

Posted by: Dr. Ernie at May 6, 2005 12:59 PM

I'm afraid I don't quite follow. Could you perhaps explain a little more clearly and give a specific example?
As far as I can tell, his theology (at least with respect to the issue of the relationship between salvation and works) is straight out of the Bible. If it's black-and-white, well, I think the Bible speaks in pretty black and white terms on this issue, too.
I can, of course, be mistaken -- which is why I'd like to know a specific example.

Posted by: David M. at May 6, 2005 01:45 PM

After reading your comment again, I'd add this to my last remark: The Bible draws the picture countless times of a great separation -- between wheat and chaff, or sheep and goats, or believers and unbelievers. People are one or the other -- so either all is well (in the sense that one is a Christian and will be saved) or nothing is well. The division and distinction Jesus makes is always into two groups -- not three. Either one has come (and continues to come) to God through Christ in repentance and faith for salvation, or one has not.

Posted by: David M. at May 6, 2005 01:48 PM

Tell me if I'm wrong here: the "heretical" group (as MacArthur labels them) says that Christians are energized at different times by one of two sources (either the Holy Spirit or the flesh); MacArthur says that Christians are not energized by the flesh. We can talk about "sorts" or "classes," but it seems to come down to the source of our power and motivation, does it not?

If Christians are not capable of being carnal - which means "flesh," of course - then they must be sinning while empowered by the Holy Spirit. That, however, seems to be exactly what John argued against in his first epistle: we do not sin when we are functioning, energized, led by (take your pick) by the Spirit.

So, if Christians are not fleshly - whether for a minute or a decade - then why do they sin? And what is the difference between being fleshly for a minute or a decade? If we're not another category of Christian during that moment of sin, then what are we? Spiritual? We can't be led by the Spirit but being led by the flesh - i.e., carnal - has been ruled out.

Can you shed some light on this?

Posted by: Mike at May 6, 2005 04:36 PM

I thought your comments were so important that I added an update at the end of my post to deal with them. Let me refer you to that.

Very briefly: Christians who sin are simply Christians who sin -- they're generally walking according to the spirit, but they briefly stumble. "Carnal Christians", as Scofield puts it, are those who live as they see fit, simply giving intellectual assent to the gospel. That is, they completely live according to the flesh. But, as the Bible makes clear (if you don't believe me, read my update and MacArthur's post), such people aren't Christians at all.

Posted by: David M. at May 8, 2005 04:35 PM

I think there's something behind Mike's comment that you might not be aware of. Some people who emphasize the things MacArthur is saying here will target a different view from the one MacArthur is targeting. They'll target the view Mike expresses, that at different times any Christian will be living more carnally or more surrendered to the Holy Spirit. Bill Bright has popularized this view, albeit unclearly, in Campus Crusade's famous blue companion to the 4 Laws, AKA the Holy Spirit booklet. It doesn't say that there are two categories of Christian but that a Christian might not be surrendered to the Holy Spirit and therefore living carnally.

Some MacArthur fans equate that view with the Zane Hodges/Charles Ryrie antinomian view that MacArthur is targeting. That's why some people will read MacArthur as criticizing that view, which he isn't doing at all. I'm sure he agrees with that view.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at May 22, 2005 04:28 PM

I'm somewhat concerned by your statement, "A Christian might not be surrendered to the Holy Spirit and therefore living carnally." I certainly agree that Christians at times act with wrong motivations -- we still have two natures, and sometimes act to please the sinful nature and sin. But I don't think there is any Biblical basis for calling Christians who sin "carnal Christians", or Christians "not surrendered to the Holy Spirit". Sure, when we sin, we're disobeying the Holy Spirit, or we're not surrendered to Him, but we're not a different sort of Christian.

I think you're clear on this, so I think I'm just objecting to your choice of words. I'm not at all suggesting that Christians are perfect, or something. But what I'm saying is it's important to be careful we don't think there are two categories of Christians, or even talk like there are. As we see in 1 John, Christians are people who generally obey God. We all sin in varying degrees -- but nowhere does the Bible divide Christians into two groups. So I guess I just would prefer to say, "A Christian might sin" instead of "A Christian might not be surrendered to the Holy Spirit and therefore living carnally." Your statement sounds like that is the Christian's general pattern (living carnally), and that's precisely the view that 1 John (and MacArthur) denies.

Of course, I agree that at different times, a Christian may be more or less submitted to the Holy Spirit (that is, sinning more or sinning less), but I don't think we should call those who sin more "carnal Christians", even though their motivating principle isn't the Holy Spirit. That makes it sound like there's two groups of Christians. There aren't -- Christians all sin, but if we're Christians, the general pattern of our life will be obedience (which will vary in degree from one person to another and throughout our lives).

Posted by: David M. at May 23, 2005 08:21 AM

I really don't understand Brother, why using the adjective "carnal" makes it mean that there are different classes. There's Hispanic Christians, there's dead Christians and that doesn't make them any less Christian. It's an adjective. Why put it up on the razor edge of a person is in error because they're describing what the Christian is doing? In fact the description of a Christian "who sometimes stumbles (with varying frequency)" is as much divisive as any other adjective. In other words, it's not.

Posted by: Rey at May 23, 2005 03:19 PM

I'm not saying one could only use the word "carnal" to mean that there are different classes of Christians -- but given that the phrase "carnal Christian" has been used for more than 80 years to promote the idea that there are two classes of Christians, it seems to run the risk of causing confusion and misconceptions if we use the term for some other purpose.

And why do we need a term which distinguishes between Christians who are sinning and those who aren't? I mean, everyone who sins must repent and turn away from their sin. Sure, some Christians are further along in sanctification than others, but that's not the point.

I'm not suggesting it's divisive -- I'm suggesting just that the term "carnal Christian", given its history, invites misunderstanding.

Your analogy about Hispanic Christians proves my point: If there are Hispanic Christians, there are Christians who are not Hispanic. If there are carnal Christians, then there are Christians who aren't carnal.

Where is the Biblical basis for saying Christians can be carnal? As MacArthur proves, and I've discussed briefly, there aren't two sorts of Christians -- the "Christian" who rejects God's rule and stubbornly continues in sin isn't a Christian at all. And the Christian who submits himself to God's law, repenting of his sin when he realizes it or it's pointed out to him, is a Christian. All Christians who are still alive still sin -- and we always have wrong motivations when we sin. I don't see the value in distinguishing between sub-groups of Christians (those who are really Christians and repenting of their sin) based on how much or how often they sin, or what sorts of sin they commit, which seems to be what you're suggesting. And I certainly don't see the value in calling some "carnal". Paul routinely addresses the "saints" in such-and-such a place -- including all the believers there in that label. He doesn't make a distinction between sorts of Christians.

Posted by: David M. at May 23, 2005 04:18 PM

There's also Male Christians as well as Female...that doesn't mean two different classes of Christians. The adjective modifies the noun but doesn't make it any different.

Posted by: Rey at May 23, 2005 05:13 PM

Male Christians are different from female Christians, right? We could be very specific about the differences. Similarly, if one distinguishes between "carnal Christians", and "spiritual Christians", one is implying there is a difference, no? If there is no difference, why make the distinction? I think I'm missing something.

Maybe it would help if you could give a specific example -- when would it be appropriate to call someone a carnal Christian, in your view?

Posted by: David M. at May 23, 2005 06:46 PM

I don't know how I can be any clearer. Adjectives modify nouns. It's a description unless the point is that all Christians are equally alike because I have yet to meet a Christian on this side of Glory that is the exact image of Christ. =)

Posted by: Rey at May 23, 2005 07:33 PM

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