by John MacArthur
Pastors don’t know everything. In fact, an important part of shepherding God’s people is having the humility to take the time to search for the right answer instead of quickly and carelessly deploying the wrong one.
But it’s one thing to tell your congregation “I don’t know.” It’s another entirely to stand before them and say “I can’t know, and neither can you. But you should still listen to me.” That’s the hazardous message emanating from too many pulpits today—nobody knows what God’s Word really means.
I preach the Word of God because it is understandable. God revealed His Word in such a way that it can be comprehended with clarity (cf. Psalm 119:105, 130). If He had not done so, the Bible would no longer serve as an objective standard for life, since it could not be understood in a straightforward sense. Yet, because He has revealed His Word in a way that is universally comprehensible, all men are accountable to it.
If the clarity of Scripture is denied, the certainty of any biblical doctrine must also be rejected, since we can no longer be sure that the Bible actually means what it says. Once doctrinal certainty grounded in biblical authority is dismissed, personal convictions must also be discarded, since they no longer have any firm foundation. And if personal convictions disappear, spiritual community will also vanish, since true fellowship necessarily begins with shared values and convictions.
A healthy church is one that is motivated by a common affection for God and His Word, and one that really knows what it is to love one another. That affection, both for God and for others, arises out of the confidence that the Bible is true, that it is absolute, and that it can be understood.
Scripture is clear. Deny that simple fact and you forfeit all confidence and conviction. No wonder evangelicals who have drifted away from the centrality of Scripture seem to lack certainty and clarity about anything. Careful exegesis and doctrinal precision are inevitable casualties of postmodern uncertainty, too. Consider this shocking comment from a supposedly conservative minister:
If there is a foundation in Christian theology, and I believe that there must be, then it is not found in the Church, Scripture, tradition or culture. . . . Theology must be a humble human attempt to “hear him”—never about rational approaches to texts. [John Armstrong, “How I Changed My Mind: Theological Method,” Viewpoint (Sep-Oct 2003), 4.]
That is an amazing statement. It is ludicrous. How can we truly “hear him,” meaning God, unless we go to the place He has spoken—His Word? The only way I can ever be certain about anything is to approach every biblical text with a careful, rational, discerning mind to hear and understand accurately what God is saying. Take that away and what basis is there for certainty about any truth?
One of the most popular writers in the Emerging Church movement—which embodied postmodern skepticism and relativism—succinctly summarized his mindset, saying, “Certainty is overrated.” [Brian McLaren, cited in Greg Warner, “Brian McLaren,” FaithWorks (no date). http://www.faithworks.com/archives/brian_mclaren.htm] In one of his books, he writes, “I have gone out of my way to be provocative, mischievous, and unclear, reflecting my belief that clarity is sometimes overrated, and that shock, obscurity, playfulness, and intrigue (carefully articulated) often stimulate more thought than clarity.” [Brian McLaren, A Generous Othodoxy (Grand Rapids: Youth Specialties, 2004), 23.]
The wife of another leading pastor from the Emerging trend celebrated her uncertainty, saying, “I grew up thinking that we’ve figured out the Bible, that we knew what it means. Now I have no idea what most of it means. And yet I feel like life is big again—like life used to be black and white, and now it’s in color.” [Kristen Bell, wife of Rob Bell. Cited by Andy Crouch, “The Emergent Mystique,” Christianity Today (November 2004).]
And so we often hear of a new hermeneutic, grossly mislabeled as the “hermeneutics of humility,” which essentially says, “I’m far too humble to say that I know what the Bible means, and anybody who claims to know what it means is arrogant.”
But what’s more arrogant than claiming that God has not spoken clearly enough for us to understand?
When I preach, the response that always pleases me most is, “The message was clear.” Clarity is critical and basic. Ambiguity is deadly and produces nothing. People who think the truth itself is ambiguous don’t know where to turn for salvation. They can’t be sanctified. They don’t find comfort. We get nothing from ambiguity except confusion. Clarity is the desired result of a good understanding of the biblical text. If a preacher is not clear to his hearers, it is likely because he is not yet clear in his own mind. That means more diligent study is required.
When I started in ministry, I committed myself to expository preaching—just explaining the Bible—because I knew there was nothing I could say that was anywhere near as important as what God had to say. The real goal of my teaching has always been to keep my own opinions out of it as much as possible—to get the meaning of the passage right and to make it clear to my hearers. Pastors need to remember from the very outset that when they go into a pulpit, they are there to explain the Word of the living God with clarity and precision, not to impress people with their own cleverness or amuse them with human opinions.
The Word of God is clear, and when I explain it accurately to my people, they understand it. That understanding is the first and most essential point of expositional preaching, because people cannot believe or obey truth they don’t understand, thus building their lives on the wisdom that comes from above. A clear understanding of God’s Word forms the convictions that shape our lives and leads to deep affection for divine truth (Psalm 119:129–31; 19:10).
(Adapted from The Master’s Plan for the Church.)
#1 Posted by
Dankmar Schroeder | Thursday, January 16, 2014 at
I love your blog. GTY is my homepage on my computer. Every morning I am looking for a new blog from you. Thanks
#2 Posted by
Keith Kraska | Thursday, January 16, 2014 at
What's more "arrogant" is the mindset that "I'm not sure what this verse means, therefore no one else can be sure either."
#3 Posted by
Jordan Bushey | Thursday, January 16, 2014 at
Right on, J-Mac. You're "clearly" one of the best preachers around. Thanks so much for GTY and its resources.
#5 Posted by
Todd Farr | Thursday, January 16, 2014 at
Consider this shocking comment from a supposedly conservative minister:
If there is a foundation in Christian theology, and I believe that there must be, then it is not found in the Church, Scripture, tradition or culture. . . . Theology must be a humble human attempt to “hear him”—never about rational approaches to texts. 
That is unfortunate. Pretty much entirely contradicts Isa 40:7-8. I don't find anything "humble" about this minister's suggestion.
#6 Posted by
Dankally Valdez | Thursday, January 16, 2014 at
Mr. Macarthur, you have lived out the calling God has called you too, and exemplary example, the fruit of your life is clear. You live by truth, and you certainly stand very strong. Do not loosen that grip. The enemy is out to get you. You do not have to explain yourself. The truth lays deep down in the heart of every believer who has grown from your word. Though I highly appreciate the love I sense in your writing today. Surrender your love to us. Surrender your love to those, when they change from their ways. I know you love them in your heart, just as Paul loved his people. But I can see you love the Lord more, in being obedient in the calling you have. Praise the Lord for you Mr. Macarthur.
#7 Posted by
Rose Michels | Thursday, January 16, 2014 at
I want to go to your church.
#8 Posted by
Jeff Taylor | Thursday, January 16, 2014 at
There MUST be an absolute truth. There MUST be an absolute God. There is! His name is Jesus. Thank you for staying the course.
#9 Posted by
Greg Michaelson | Thursday, January 16, 2014 at
Not surprisingly I entirely and completely disagree. Certainly it is the case that God is clear in many parts of his words, but there a lots of parts of scripture that are far from clear. For instance why is God making bets with Satan in the book of Job? Why would God choose child sacrifice to make a point with Abe and Isaac? What exactly happened during the crystal ball seance with Saul? Who did Cain marry? Why did God try to kill Moses and what's with the circumcision salvation thing? There are literally hundreds of places in the Bible where we just don't get the whole story.
Now, you may look at some of these and say, "oh of course I know what those mean". Or more likely, "I know what they always say what those mean."
The claim that if the bible isn't clearing every point then we can't trust any part of it -- it is just absurd and wrong headed.
MacArthur says it like this: "If the clarity of Scripture is denied, the certainty of any biblical doctrine must also be rejected"
There are several logical fallacies in his argument.
First, my claim that there are some things that we don't have the information to explain isn't at all the same as me claiming that nobody can know what the Bible says. It just isn't, and it's dishonest and deliberately deceptive to say that it is.
Second, he claims that if everything in Gods word isn't clear with full details to explain it, then God's word isn't true or reliable. Wrong. Wrong and dangerous.
Finally, accepting his point is dangerous and misleading to people. If it is true that we can understand everything I scripture, then not understanding every verse equates to either stupidity or laziness. By that standard nobody is qualifies to teach Gods word to Gods people.
Probably the most convincing argument is that God disagrees with Mr. MacArthur. Job asks God why bad things happen to the righteous. God's answer? (My paraphrase) "I'm not telling and even if I wanted to, you could not understand it."
So God is deliberately unclear here, and tells Job that he is incapable of understanding the concept.
#10 Posted by
Michael Allen | Thursday, January 16, 2014 at
I agree with Pastor MacArthur that humility is something we all need to remember when we approach God's Word because no one fully and correctly understands each and every verse in the Bible. We won't have that knowledge until we are in risen in Christ. Careful biblical reading, using various resource commentaries, and always comparing Scripture to Scripture provide invaluable guides to rightly understanding the meaning in the majority of the text. But I also must agree with Greg that it is dangerous for anyone to believe they have put "God in a box" theologically. The prophetic literature alone is rich with blends of various figures of speech and literal meanings. The Bible is rich in major recurring themes woven throughout the two testaments that are pretty darn clear--themes like the attributes of God, salvation, remnant, covenant, sin, judgement, etc. It is difficult to misunderstand them, especially when viewed from the vantage point of the revelation given in New Testament. But many churches (and in my personal opinion--most being Baptist) often claim to have the correct answer to every theological issue in the Bible. This is both unfortunate and unnecessary. Humility goes a long way with God.
#11 Posted by
Steve Carlton | Thursday, January 16, 2014 at
Interesting observations, Greg.
I have read and considered many of these GTY blogs. There is value here, if for no other reason than it has stimulated my thinking and helped me to seriously consider what I believe about Jesus, what He did for me, what His Kingdom is really like (and what it is not like), and what He wants from me in this life.
Notwithstanding, please consider this. First truth - the Bible contains everything I will ever need to know about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and my life as a believer. That is what I read here. Second truth - the Bible is fully and completely understandable, maybe not by me, but by others who are more spiritually mature than I am. That come from here, too.
If those two things are true, then there is no mystery in God. And no mystery in the Kingdom. And no mystery in the Christian life. There are no unanswerable questions. There is nothing about Him that I can not know.
For some reason, that sort of thinking disturbs me. But what disturbs me even more, I think, is that there is absolutely no room for any disagreement. No room for confusion. No room for questioning or doubting. For every issue, for every life situation, for every behavior, there is an absolute right and an absolute wrong.
Maybe if I study the Bible long enough, I will reach a comfort level with this sort of thinking.
But the truth is that I hope that never happens. I hope and pray that Jesus will bless me with a life full of questions, especially those that never get answered. I long for mystery in my relationship with Jesus. I want the unknown. I want to walk in the life that is new and unpredictable every day, and full of surprises. I hope and pray that I will never fully understand. I never, ever want to be that comfortable, that self-assured, and that convinced that all that I believe is right.
After all, if the Bible, and therefore a relationship with Jesus, God the Father and the Holy Spirit is totally understandable by anyone, then a life "in Christ" is more like a college class than an adventure into the unknown. I want the latter.
I respect Mr. MacArthur. I find value in what he says. I just don't agree with him. In my view of the Kingdom, that sort of disagreement is OK. What concerns me is that in his view of the Kingdom, it is not.
#13 Posted by
Dolores Kimball | Friday, January 17, 2014 at
@ Greg Michaelson: It would take pages to address each of your points, although rational arguments for each one certainly exist. I will address one thing here and that is your statement 'I know what they always say those mean.' It's as though you are saying whatever explanations for biblical questions have been proffered must be wrong simply because they don't make sense to you or you have decided to reject them. Take the question of Cain's wife, for example. Cain's wife was his sister or possibly his niece. There is no other possible explanation, unless of course you deny all of Genesis. And do you really believe that ALL of the declarations of a holy, infinite God should be crystal clear to the finite mind of man? That is irrational on its face. And anti-biblical. 'For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts' (Is. 55:9). Your comment is peppered with the word 'dangerous.' Nothing, my friend, is more dangerous than unbelief.
#15 Posted by
Rick White | Friday, January 17, 2014 at
The passages quoted by Pastor MacArthur along with other passages such as Romans 15:4: 1 Corinthians 10:11; and 2 Timothy 3:15-17 indicate to me that God intends for us to understand scripture and then apply it to our lives. Granted, some parts take more study to understand than others but that doesn't mean there is a problem with the perspicuity of scripture, it just means we need to take more time and effort to understand it. So, as Pastor MacArthur says in the article scripture is meant to be understood and that should be our goal for both preachers and laymen.
#16 Posted by
Greg Michaelson | Friday, January 17, 2014 at
I don't think that the fact that God intends for us to be instructed by his word is in dispute.
It's just that MacArthur states plainly here
1) that EVERYTHING in scripture is understandable --
2) and if this is not the case then God's word and Biblical doctrine is unreliable.
Neither of these two statements is true.
#17 Posted by
Dolores Kimball | Friday, January 17, 2014 at
@ Steve Carlton: You are disturbed by what you perceive is a lack of confusion and doubting? Should that really be our goal as Christians? To seek confusion and doubt? And you want Jesus to 'bless' you with questions that have no answers? In spite of His claim to be the Truth (Jn. 14:6), and his promise that if we seek, we will find (Mt. 7:7)? You seek an 'adventure into the unknown', but to what end? To remain in a state of doubt and confusion? Or to know what may be known?
Finally, your First Truth - 'the Bible contains everything I will ever need to know about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and my life as a believer' doesn't mean there remain no mysteries. It only means the Bible sufficient for life here and now. The nature and fullness of an infinite God will always be mysterious to the finite mind. Our joy is found in trying to plumb the depths of those mysteries, an adventure that will go on for eternity.
#18 Posted by
Rick White | Friday, January 17, 2014 at
If you read carefully the scriptures that I referenced and the ones John MacArthur quoted in the above article, you will see that God has revealed that He gave us ALL the scriptures for a purpose 2 Timothy 3:15-17. Since He gave us all of the scriptures for a purpose, it follows that He meant for them all to be understood. The fact that many scriptures aren't understood by us at first reading does not mean that God did not intend for us to understand them. God did intend for us to understand all scripture. We just need to be diligent in studying them.
#19 Posted by
Manuel Jr. Reyes | Saturday, January 18, 2014 at
@ Greg: I think you might just have to read the first sentences.... Let me cut and paste it for everyone: "Pastors don’t know everything."
Second part is: In fact, an important part of shepherding God’s people is having the humility to take the time to search for the right answer instead of quickly and carelessly deploying the wrong one."
The disclaimer was expressly written there. Not everyone know all clearly.
The issue that I see is that other Leaders teach that Theologically, the Scripture is absurd. And they say that in a general way. Then it could mean that Truth is absurd. Well, the rest of the explanations were written above.
As for me, I agree with you that there are things not mentioned clearly in the Scripture and that all mysteries are for God alone. What was given to us is for us to Clearly understand. The other things are afterlife. For now, I trust what the Bible Clearly says. Thanks!
#20 Posted by
Rick White | Saturday, January 18, 2014 at
2 Timothy 3:15-17 says that ALL scripture is breathed out by God and is to be used to equip the man of God for every good work. So, it follows that since God has this purpose for ALL scripture, then He meant for it to be understood. John MacArthur is then correct in believing that all scripture is understandable and therefore we are obligated to study to understand it.
#21 Posted by
Kimberly McDaniel | Saturday, January 18, 2014 at
Thank you for being faithful to teach and preach the word to us. I have been helped so very much by gty and your sermon archive! This is from one women dying in the southern baptist churches in her area.
#22 Posted by
Brandon Kujawa | Saturday, January 18, 2014 at
I think this article was more speaking against the postmodern mindset that has infiltrated many churches today that says, what you believe to be truth is true for you. There is no way we can comprehend or understand all of who God is or why exactly he chooses to use certain things, such as the sign of circumcision to confirm his covenant. I think Macarthur's claim is that scripture is able to be understood and is very clear, not that God should be able to be totally understood. Often times unregenerate people (and believers too) will twist scripture to form a theology that they are comfortable living with, or one that doesn't call for such a high level of holy living. For example, the bible says that God created heavens earth and everything in them in 6 days, and rested on the 7th. The theory of evolution comes around and we have all sorts people speculating as to how long a day is and if there is a gap in between Genesis 1 and 2. However, the bible is not vague, it is clear, and I took this article as a call to approach scripture knowing it is reliable and can be trusted and understood.
#23 Posted by
Greg Michaelson | Sunday, January 19, 2014 at
Nearly everything all of these respondents are saying is true. I agree with the things that you are saying. However, In general, Scripture can be understood and applied to our lives. I agree, and perhaps this is the argument that he intends to make. Maybe he is simply using exaggeration to make a point?
He seems to say that scripture provides a clear answer to every question. This just isn't true. There are a lot of important questions for which the Bible provides no clear answer.
Secondly, he seems to say that if such a question were found then all the scripture becomes invalid and our faith falls apart. This is a false dilemma.
It may very well be that this is not the argument that he's trying to make. If that is the case, then I withdraw my criticism and agree with all of you people.
#24 Posted by
Jennifer Phillips | Monday, January 20, 2014 at
One point I see from this blog is not substituting human wisdom for Scripture. There are some difficult passages – particularly in the Old Testament that I do not understand, and from a human perspective, I can see how someone would question the fairness in some cases. I have a dear friend who picks and chooses difficult passages, and because of those, completely rejects the whole Bible. I still love them and pray for them but I don’t force anything on them as I have discovered a back and forth debate has proved unprofitable in our relationship. I have seen the hand of God in their life through answered prayer, even though they don’t see it or know all the prayers that I have prayed on their behalf. Sometimes it is a process, and it is not up to me to decide God’s timing.
I cannot claim to have an answer for everything in Scripture, but that does not mean it is unclear. It is clear in what it states, whether or not I agree with or accept a particular passage. It is profitable, and puts life in perspective. Because I trust the Bible and I trust God, I do not dwell on those particular instances, but look at the whole of Scripture and what it has done in my life. What I do know is that God’s Word has changed me. I know it gives me peace, joy, and hope. I know when I face trouble or difficulties, it is the first place I go, along with prayer to find comfort, and I know I cannot live without it. I think it is a matter of having a seeking heart and how we choose to approach Scripture. What I can claim is God’s Word is truly food for the soul and must be preached whether it falls on ears that accept it or not.
#25 Posted by
Rick White | Monday, January 20, 2014 at
What I get from what John MacArthur is saying is that he is affirming the Protestant belief in Sola Scriptura. In other words he is saying that scripture is sufficient in revealing everything necessary for salvation, faith and living the christian life. I don't believe he is saying that the Bible answers all of our curiosities or answers to technical questions.
#26 Posted by
Gabriel Powell (GTY Admin) | Monday, January 20, 2014 at
Greg, I'm struggling to find how you derive your two disagreements from this article. Nowhere does it say anything about the Bible providing answers to all of our questions. Likewise nowhere does it say that if an unanswerable question was found our faith falls apart.
Rather, the thrust of the article is that the intended meaning of Scripture is clear in the sense that it can be known through study and the illumination of the Spirit.
As to your statement, "There are a lot of important questions for which the Bible provides no clear answer," I suppose it depends on how one uses the Bible. Since I am a firm believer in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and 2 Peter 1:3, I would say that there is no truly important question which the Bible does not in some way address.
No, the Bible doesn't answer which person to marry, which car to buy, or what school to attend, but it does address the criteria and principles by which those very decisions must be made. That is what makes the Bible so comprehensive and sufficient. It requires us to apply ourselves to study to show ourselves approved, and to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ, so that we can glorify God in everything, even if the Bible doesn't address 2014 technological questions.
#27 Posted by
Greg Michaelson | Monday, January 20, 2014 at
Mr. Powell, sir. Thank you for the response.
I'm happy to point out, again, the sections that you ask about.
He starts out the blog by saying that when a pastor is asked a difficult question by a church member, it is okay to say "I don't know" but unacceptable to say "you can't know". I take this to mean that he is saying that the important questions CAN all be answered using scripture.
The problem is that there are many truly important questions about which scripture explicitly provides no answer.
I hesitate to list a few because we inerrantists (and I count myself as one) tend to leap to the nearest half-baked answer out of fear. Nonetheless, I shall.
Job explicitly asks God the reason for suffering and God explicitly says "I'm not telling." I count that both as evidence that not all important questions are answered in scripture, but also as evidence that any answer that some over-eager isogete cooks up is likely inadequate.
As for another, the Bible gives no answer as to why God, who is perfectly good and all powerful, would create a world filled with so much evil. The typical response is that God "allows" evil out of deference to free will, as if "allowing" is somehow different from "causing" for an omnipotent being. Humans certainly have embraced the concept of negligence, but Christians don't want to apply it here (and rightly so).
How about the question of free will vs. God's sovereignty. You can make a very strong argument for either position (mainly because the Bible fails to clearly answer the question), so Christians end up just making weak arguments for both positions and call it a day.
Every key theological question about which scholars have argued for centuries is evidence that the Bible doesn't clearly answer key, significant, important questions.
(NOTE, I fully expect the onslaught of "I can explain all of the above even though 2000 years of saints were unable to." Try not to get lost in this and try to get the bigger point. )
The main problem with MacArthur is this quote:
If the clarity of Scripture is denied [which I have surely just done], the certainty of ANY [emphasis mine] biblical doctrine must also be rejected.
It is this sort of false-dilemma, slippery-slope bologna that got me riled up in the first place.
Now, I fully accept the possibility that MacArthur doesn't mean what I take him to mean here. Nonetheless, he said it, and I just wanted to stand for truth.
#31 Posted by
Gabriel Powell (GTY Admin) | Tuesday, January 21, 2014 at
Thanks for the follow-up. It seems a part of your disagreement would stem from extending John's comments beyond the relatively narrow context in which he makes them. This section is intended to deal with difficult questions of interpretation of Scripture, not the difficult questions of life in general.
I think a good biblical summary of this article is Deuteronomy 29:29, "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law." In other words, there are many difficulties of life that are left hidden in the mind of God, but those things which He has revealed (Scripture), are for us. And if they are intended for us, then they must be understandable by us.
Of course then you must come to grips with the reality of wide ranging views on matters such as baptism, end times, sovereignty, etc. The best way to handle that dilemma is to say that Scripture itself is sufficiently clear, but we suffer from the neotic effects of us, that is, our minds have been clouded by sin in varying degrees.
Put another way, the reason we "need" commentaries and sermons and so forth is not because the Bible itself confusing, but because we bring confusion to the Bible due to our own personal limitations. This is easily demonstrated by the fact that a trained and Spirit-filled student of Scripture can interpret it with greater ease than a newly Spirit-filled person who has never read the Bible. The difference is not the Bible, but the obstacles in the individual's mind.
Obstacles come in all forms including ignorance of word meaning, historical references, and inter-biblical references, false presuppositions, imposing foreign ideas into a text, wrong desires and expectations of the text, and so on. Again, these are all obstacles to clarity in the mind of the reader, not in the Scripture itself. "The law of the Lord is perfect" (Ps 19:7).
It is amazing to me how much of an emphasis there in Scripture that believers are to study and grow in knowledge. Here's just a few references: 2 Tim 2:15; Colossians 1:9-10; Ephesians 1:17-18; 2 Peter 1:5; 3:18.
As to your final point regarding the connection between clarity and certainty, John is surely correct in that if one claims that no one can know what the Bible says (which is what the article is addressing--see second paragraph in the article), then any doctrine is therefore subjective and relative. If no one can know what the Bible says, then anything anyone claims to know is a lie.
But thanks be to God that through the illuminating power of the Spirit and the abundant resources at our disposal, we can study and learn and grow to the end of glorifying God even in the midst of mysterious circumstances!
#32 Posted by
Michael Allen | Sunday, January 26, 2014 at
From Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart's excellent book, "How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth":
"We noted in chapter 1 that there is a popular notion that everything in the Bible ought to be clear to everyone who reads it, without studying or receiving outside help of any kind. The reasoning is that if God wrote the Bible for us (for all believers), we should be able to understand it completely the first time we read it, since we have the Holy Spirit in us. Such a notion lacks proper perspective. Parts of the Bible are obvious on the surface, but parts are not. In accordance with the fact that God's thoughts are profound compared with human thoughts (Ps. 92:5; Isa 55:8), it should not be surprising that some parts of the Bible will require time and patient study in order to understand."
I don't think Pastor MacArthur would disagree at all with that statement.