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Fortieth Anniversary Interview: Al Sanders & John MacArthur

Selected Scriptures February 09, 2009 GTY118

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AL: Hello, friend, this is Al Sanders and yes this is Grace To You with Bible teacher John MacArthur, and no, Carl Miller isn't ill or on vacation. As I hinted a moment of ago, February 9 marks the 40 anniversary of John MacArthur's arrival at Grace Community Church in Southern California and the launch of the Grace To You ministry.

Now you probably know when you tune in here you're going to hear John teaching the Bible. But we figure once every 40 years maybe we could set aside our normal format and just talk with you, John. It's my privilege to be with you here in the studio today and to ask some questions on behalf of your listening family. Things you wouldn't normally talk about over the air. Talk about the history a bit and also talk about the present and future. So, John, for listeners to understand Grace To You's history, the starting point really is Grace Community Church, right?

JOHN: Right, February 9, 1969, as I remember, a rainy pounding rainy day began it all. I'd hate to hear that first sermon, but I realize that recently the people at Grace To You decided to pull it out of the archives and make it available to people. But I don't have the nerve to listen to it.

AL: Absolutely you'll want to hear it. As a matter of fact, we're going to be airing that on tomorrow's broadcast, so you have no choice.

But let's start at the beginning. How did you come to Grace Community Church?

JOHN: Well, the real truth, Al, look, the founding pastor, Dr. Don Householder died in the office at the church of a heart attack, and his lovely, lovely, lovely widow was cared for by the church. They called Dr. Richard Elvey, he died while he was pastoring the church. His sweet lovely wife became the second widow cared for by the church.

AL: Does that make you a little nervous?

JOHN: Well no, the issue was that the criteria for the third pastor is, he's young because we don't want another widow. And I actually was the youth speaker at the high school camp for the kids from Grace Community Church. The church had a very, very strong youth ministry, very strong. And I was the youth speaker and I guess they thought, "Well, you know, he's young, that will fit in with the kids and he'll live a while." And those, I think, were the primary criteria...

AL: I'm sure that pleased your wife, Patricia. Quite a good deal, too.

JOHN: She was ready. You know, I was ready for a church, Al. I will tell you this. I came out of seminary with a passion to study the Bible. I really wanted more to study it than to preach it. But I knew in order for me to be able to study it, I need to get in a church, I can't go itinerantly cause in those days I was preaching in different places all the time. I needed to lock down and begin systematically and I wanted to go through the New Testament and I just asked the Lord to find me a place. The men at Grace were ready for someone young because of the circumstances I told you about. I was ready and it was just from the very beginning, it was really a marriage made in heaven.

AL: Well you mentioned that word "passion" that clicked in my mind. What gave you that passion?

JOHN: You know, honestly I grew up under the influence of my Dad, Dr. Jack MacArthur who would be known to the older generation of folks who know me.

AL: Do you miss him?

JOHN: Oh sure I miss him, yeah. Just a model of ministry, so faithful, such a wonderful father.

AL: How he loved you, John.

JOHN: Yeah, he did. And in his ninetieth year he was still teaching the Bible, faithful to the end. Never brought reproach on Christ, never scandalized the church. Always an honorable and consistent Christian. And he loved ministry so much and he loved the Scripture so much. And he loved to see people impacted by the Scripture. So that's where that love began in my own heart. And somewhere along the line, the Lord did something unique and I don't know how to explain it cause I was never a student as such, I was always an athlete, I began to be consumed with a desire to understand the Bible. And I think that was part of the Holy Spirit gifting me because I can't do what I do without that passion. I need some motivation deep inside of me that never goes away that gets stronger all the time and that's it. I still have an insatiable longing to understand the Word of God and to make it understandable to the people that I can minister to.

AL: I'd be curious, did your father ever give you any personal advice as far as preaching is concerned?

JOHN: Yeah he did. He, first of all, told me to preach the Word, preach the Word, don't preach anything but the Word. Second thing he told me was be prepared. He said...he used to call the pulpit the sacred desk and he said, "Don't ever go into the sacred desk unless you are fully prepared to say this is the truth of Scripture. Don't say, 'Thus saith the Lord' if you don't know that He said that." The third thing he said to me after I preached my first sermon was, "The pulpit is no place for humor."

AL: Oh-oh.

JOHN: I said, "Well I don't know if I can buy into that lesson fully." And he eased off on that. And I think that's just part of communicating.

AL: I'd be interested to going back to that first sermon because that kind of cut the swathe as far as what you were going to be teaching over these next 40 years.

JOHN: You know, as I look back on that, Al, I am amazed at that. I...I came to Grace Church, I didn't know that much about the church. I had preached there a couple of times. I preached there in November of the prior year and then I went off to South America to do some kind of a conference. I came back, by February 9th, I'm installed as a pastor. I don't know much. My first sermon there was Matthew 7, "Many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, have we not done this in Your name and that in Your name?' And then will I say to you, 'Depart from Me, you workers of iniquity, I never knew you.'" And I preached on that passage of being a fake Christian.

AL: How did you come to that passage? How did you decide you were going to preach on that?

JOHN: There was never even much discussion. I from the very get-go was concerned about the fact that there were unregenerate people in the church. Not in that church only, but in all churches. And I was convinced that the place to begin the work of evangelism was with the people who were already in the church. And what surfaced out of that sermon was really remarkable. Found out there were leaders in the church that weren't saved and that began to surface. There were people involved in Sunday-school work that were not saved. There were people singing in the choir that were not saved. There were a couple of people on the Board of Elders that were not saved. And that, I guess, set the course for my entire life and I've always been known as someone who emphasizes the Lordship of Christ, the true gospel. You know, I wrote The Gospel According to Jesus, then I wrote The Gospel According to the Apostles, then Ashamed of the Gospel, then The Truth War, and always, always passionate about getting the gospel right. I've preached many times on the soils and how important it is that we understand that the truth of the gospel must penetrate the soil of the heart. That's just been an emphasis and it started from the very beginning and it hasn't changed.

AL: Was that a short sermon? Ten or fifteen minutes?

JOHN: I don't even know...I don't even know what a ten or fifteen minute sermon feels like unless I'm at a funeral with a very small group of people. No, I started at the get-go. My first sermon at Grace Church was an hour and fifteen minutes.

AL: A-ha.

JOHN: There was a reason for that. They had no clock...they had no clock. The next Sunday I came back, they had a big, huge clock and so I conformed to about 50 to 55 minutes.

AL: But no one ever gets tired of hearing you preach the Word as you do verse by verse just sometimes word by word.

JOHN: In general, in general, God's people love His truth. And I've never...I've never been told through the years that as a general rule you preach too long. I've always been told, we could continue to listen, you don't need to stop because I think the Word is alive and powerful, sharper than anything else. And I think for God's people, it is bread for the soul. And they love it.

AL: And you have a wonderful support system with your family and your wife, Patricia. Does Patricia ever give you any suggestions as to your sermon content or your sermon length?

JOHN: As far as preaching, no. She never makes suggestions about theology or makes suggestions about interpreting a passage. Once in a while she'll say things like, "Maybe in that message the second service when you give it, you could clarify this point, or clarify that point, or maybe say what you said regarding this in another way," which is always very, very helpful. It's always very...her comments are tended to be very edifying and helpful.

AL: Some of our listeners may be surprised, John, that on occasion, very rare occasion, I assume, people have criticized John MacArthur. How does Patricia take that kind of a situation?

JOHN: Well she better than anybody knows I'm not perfect, so she has a very realistic view of me. But she also knows that when it comes to the ministry and it comes to the things that honor Christ, and it comes to the Word of God, that I am endeavoring with every part of my being to be faithful to the Lord in those things. So when people accuse me of duplicity, or hypocrisy or when I'm accused of dishonoring the Lord, or being something other than I am, she will rise to my defense. And obviously, when people criticize me because I preach a certain message, or certain doctrine, or take a certain position, she's defensive. That's very hard for her.

Maybe the funniest story through the years, Melinda, my daughter, came to work at Grace To You, the first job she had here before she was married a number of years ago. They put her in the computer room to receive the e-mails that came in. She thought everybody in the world loved her Dad. Well it didn't take long for her to find out that there were lots of people who did not love her father and she read e-mails saying things about me that absolutely shocked her. Bless her heart, she really didn't know what to do, so she decided on her own to become my defender.

AL: O boy.

JOHN: So she started firing back at all these people. "Hey, you don't know my dad, you have no idea what you're talking about, he's not like that at all." And so she became my defender. And I said to her one day when I found out she was doing that, "You don't need to do that, honey, I...I love you for that and I appreciate you doing that but you're just pouring gas on the fire because if they think they can get to John MacArthur's daughter, they know they're getting to John MacArthur.

AL: Let's go back to some of the ministry high points, some of the things that happen back across those 40 years. I suppose one of the most important as far as our listeners are concerned would be the start of Grace To You.

JOHN: Oh, that is just...that is just an amazing story.

AL: You've rehearsed that on previous occasion, but take a moment to tell us about it.

JOHN: Yeah, just a brief moment. We began preaching here. People came to me and said, "We ought to tape this. It was reel to reel in those days, we need to put it on tape and we'll take it around to the shut-ins and they can hear this on tape." And so somebody made reel-to-reel tapes of the sermons. And then cassettes came and they started making cassettes, one at a time at normal speed. It took hours. And so people would respond to these tapes that were going out. And all of a sudden we got a letter from somebody in Baltimore, Maryland who said, "We appreciate your radio program." We said, "We don't have a radio program." It turned out, a friend, Tom Bisset WRBS, a network you know very well back there, was just taking a tape, sticking it on the air at night, you know nine o'clock to ten o'clock and just playing a tape.

AL: No editing.

JOHN: No editing, no format, no nothing, just preaching. And the response was good and so we thought, "Hey, if they're responding when we don't have a program, what would they do if we did have a program?" And so we went, first of all, on KDAR out in Oxnard, a relatively small Christian station, the Ventura County area here in Southern California. And that's where everything really began to take off.

AL: Now in addition to the radio program, of course, there have been a number of books that you have written. I think I heard you say twenty-seven on the New Testament commentaries, a couple of more to come on Luke and Mark.

JOHN: Well I'm trying to finish the whole New Testament. I am now about to finish the book of Luke totally.

AL: How long did you...have you been teaching that?

JOHN: Ten years and one month. And then I only have Mark to do. I only have Mark to do and I'm going to do it in a more rapid fashion, I hope I can...

AL: But it's all straightway, or immediately it's Jesus on the move.

JOHN: And I'm going to try to be straightway and immediate myself. So we're working on the commentaries on Luke already and that will leave only Mark and the whole New Testament will be done. Probably about 32 volumes.

AL: And, of course, out of Luke that incredible series on the prodigal son. Has anything touched the hearts of people like that series?

JOHN: See I don't think there's anything I've done at the church that has had the impact that that had, that five Sundays I taught on the story of the prodigal was the most riveting, powerful, impactful time that I can remember. Accumulatively other things have a great impact, but there was a sort of sudden startling impact that occurred in that series and that's why we made it into a book.

AL: But where did you get all of that information? How do you dig out all of those truths to cover five hours essentially of Bible teaching?

JOHN: You sound, Al, like a seminary student. I had a seminary student ask me one time, "What book do you get all your good material out of?"

AL: Yeah.

JOHN: (Laughs) Like there's a secret book somewhere where all this...

AL: It's called the B-i-b-l-e.

JOHN: Yeah, but for me, look, what makes the Bible really, really work is when you put people in the historical context. You know, the idea today is bring the Bible in to modern times, bring the Bible in to modern times. It's an old fashioned book, update the translation, update the explanation, update the illustration, get it in modern times.

I have the opposite view. Take the listener, the hearer and the reader back to Bible times..because...

AL: Now that's interesting.

JOHN: Because whatever the Bible meant in the time it was written is what it means today. And the only way you'll know what it was meant when it was written is to understand the context. So, my objective is what you would experience in reading a historical novel or in watching a great documentary historical series on television or historical movie...I want to take you back and let you live at the time this was written so that you understand it in its context. The Bible just absolutely comes alive in that situation. So for me, much of my study is finding every possible means to reconstruct the historical setting to the fullest degree that I can. And I have lots of sources, varying sources that I use to try to determine that. And then I add, of course, the original language work that you do and it kind of comes together to make it a living experience.

AL: With all of these books, unquestionably the MacArthur Study Bible has been used all over the world. We have a copy on our coffee table so that as we read the Bible each morning together, my wife and I, if there's a question that comes up, "Get the MacArthur Study Bible," because it's basically a commentary on the whole Bible.

JOHN: Well it is. And, you know, I used to say I don't want to write a study Bible because I don't want to confuse anybody about what's God's word and what is mine. And then I was given the first copy of the Geneva Bible ever printed in Scotland, 1576, and it was a study Bible and it was done with John Knox and John Calvin in Geneva. And I thought, you know, if a study Bible was good enough for John Calvin and John Knox, who am I to argue. And so I said, "Okay, I'll do it." And the genius of a study Bible, if it's a true study Bible, and there are a lot of Bibles that have stuff in them but they're not a true study Bible is this...it explains the meaning of the passage. So it is a commentary. I had no idea that it would have the response that it has had and now it is in eight different languages and about to be released in Chinese and then in Arabic and more to come.

AL: Wow. That's exciting.

AL: Now what about the staff that you have here at Grace To You. Some of them are very familiar faces. And where do they attend church?

JOHN: Well, you know, this is the partnership that's been such a profound blessing to me. Everybody who serves here at Grace To You, the staff, the paid employees as well as the volunteers and there are well over a hundred of them here every week, they're all a part of Grace Community Church. I'm their pastor and they're fellow elders and fellow leaders in the church and fellow teachers and servants. We serve the Lord together at Grace Community Church and there's a commonality of life. We live in the same church community. We share our spiritual gifts with the same group of people. We sit together under the same teaching. We take ownership of the same theology. We all have the same spiritual history together. And it has created a unity in this ministry the likes of which are absolutely unique.

AL: I don't know any other church that would be like that.

JOHN: Well, our church is a very unique church. Part of it, Al, is that I've been there 40 years and the theological culture is deep. The ministry culture is deep. They understand how we do ministry. There's just an amazing unity and love, common love of the truth, common love of service, understanding of how we minister together, common love of each other.

AL: I can imagine that when you started this ministry, 40 years ago, and especially the radio ministry, you had no idea where this would go. How did you lay the plans for that?

JOHN: Oh, I never laid any plans. I...I've always just been a responder. Somebody said, "You need to be on the radio." And we said, "Well let's figure out how to do that." I said, "I'm not going to sit...I tried it once, sitting in a dark room with a mike in front of my face, you know, kind of the Dr. McGee style and just talking. And that did not fly. And so we were the first to have a daily program that was taken out of the pulpit. I said, "Look, I'm a preacher, that's the strength of what I do. Why can't we take one of my hour-long sermons, cut it in half, get two programs out of it. And if it works, it works. And if it doesn't, it doesn't. We never had any strategy beyond that. Let's see what God does. And it's the same today. I don't have any future strategy. I'm just going to keep doing it as long as God honors it and expands it, then we'll continue to respond.

AL: You have a little phrase about that, that you focus on the depth of the Word, the teaching of the Word, and then ....

JOHN: And let God take care of the breadth. If the depth is what it should be, if the quality is what it should be, then God will take it where He wants it to go.

AL: And how do you take these truths and translate them into other languages, other cultures, other countries?

JOHN: Ah that's never been an issue because the Bible transcends all that. The genius of this ministry is no genius at all. If you just teach the Bible, you've transcended everything. You've transcended every period of time, every fad. You've transcended every border, every language, every culture. How can you explain a study Bible that is going to be soon translated into ten languages with maybe another ten to go? How can you explain commentaries that have been translated into twenty languages? How can you explain books that have been translated into 30, 40 languages?

Only one way. Whatever is being said in that book is not limited, it's not limited to any time period, it's not limited to any language group. It's not limited to any culture. It's not limited to any social expectations. Contrary to the current trend, it is not contextualized at all. And that's essentially Scripture. It's as relevant today and tomorrow as it's been for all the years since God put it down, penned it, to anybody anywhere, any time. And that is why this ministry is timeless. When I go to heaven, when I'm gone, I'm long gone, nothing needs to change in this ministry if God wants it to continue cause I'm not reacting to what's going on around me. I'm simply teaching the timeless truth of the Word of God.

Al: Is your teaching any different today than it was 40 years ago when you started?

JOHN: Well I hope it's an awful lot better. The listeners might be hearing a 30-year-old message and they wouldn't necessarily know it because it's the Bible...timeless.

AL: John, we're going through some really tough economic times nationwide, worldwide. Does that put any fear in your mind as far as the future of this ministry is concerned?

JOHN: None whatsoever. None whatsoever. This is God's ministry. He has supported it through times when we didn't believe it could survive. He has shown Himself faithful. God sustains what He wills. And we have seen His hand in this ministry. There is no human explanation for this ministry.

AL: Any idea how the growth has happened over these past 40 years? How is the growth of this ministry been sustained?

JOHN: Well to me it's an Isaiah 55, the Lord sends out His Word and it never returns void. And as I said, my concern is to be a man of spiritual integrity, to have a ministry of spiritual integrity and to simply teach the Bible under the promise that God blesses His Word.

To what degree He blesses it fully satisfies me. If we are on half as many stations, half as many times, in half as many places, I would be content as I am where we are now. I really invest no emotion and no concern with the breadth of it, the size of it, the length of it. My concern is the depth of it, the integrity of it, the truth of it. And God can do what He will with it.

But look, whatever the economic issues are currently, we've seen those and this is 40 years. We've seen all of that come and go. There have been times when we had nowhere to go but on our knees to say, "Lord, if You want the ministry to keep going, let it keep going." You went through with us through some of those times. So there have been those times. There will be those times again. I say this all the time, as long as God wants to sustain this ministry, we will rejoice in that. And when He no longer needs to sustain this ministry, we will rejoice in whatever other ministry takes its place.

AL: I'm thinking of the many people across the United States and around the world who listen to Grace To You in any number of platforms. Let's see, you started back in 1996, wasn't it, with the Internet?

JOHN: Right, right.

AL: So they can hear not only over the radio and television, but also Internet and just recently, just a couple of months ago, you sort of opened the floodgates to allow people to get John MacArthur's messages without any charge whatsoever. How can you afford to do that?

JOHN: Well look, we charge a nominal charge for MP3 downloads, that's digital downloads on a computer. We charge three dollars. The truth is, we were having about four thousand MP3 downloads a month, about four thousand.

AL: That's quite a few.

JOHN: It is, but my concern was, that's not enough because we're trying to unleash the truth one verse at a time and that is not unleashing it.

AL: That's your theme.

JOHN: Yeah. And we knew that this was a barrier. So we said, "Let's just open the floodgates and see what happens when you remove all the barriers...all the barriers." Well, in 25 days, okay, 25 days we had over one million sermons downloaded.

AL: That's incredible.

JOHN: One million in twenty-five days. We were so thrilled because we said, "Well what kind of...that's a demand beyond comprehension and in the end, you know, I don't even think about what's it going to be economically. People know if we provide this service and it has an impact on their life, they're going to respond and they're going to want to support the ministry. And the Lord will take care of that.

AL: Well let's talk about those people for just a moment, John. You might like to say a word of appreciation to these faithful donors who have stood by you in partnership, and some people who have left their estates to the ministry.

JOHN: Right. You know, Al, when we say we thank the Lord for this ministry, it's His ministry, I mean that in every sense. But I also need to say this, and it's so good that you ask that. His way of doing His supporting of this ministry has been through donors, through people who gave to this ministry and those who...a smaller portion...purchase material from us. let me just talk to those of you who have given. Thank you. You have made by the grace of God my life what it is. You have made this ministry what it is. When people write us and say I was converted, my children were saved, my husband came to Christ, when they write us and say, God has taken me out of drugs, God has saved me in prison, etc., etc. And this is what we get every single day. Our marriage has been saved. On and on and on, it's because of you. It is, it's because you believe enough in this ministry and in the power of the Word of God to undergird and support it and that's the only reason we're on the air. That's the only reason we do what we do with books and tapes and television, and radio and MP3s and Internet and all the rest. So from me and all of us at Grace To You, thank you for being an instrument the Lord will use.

And believe me, dear friend, you have purchased friends for

eternity to borrow the words of Jesus. And you're going to

be greeted when you get on the shores of heaven by those who

are there because God used you to support this ministry. So

thank you.