PHIL: Hi, I’m Phil Johnson, Executive Director of Grace to You, and I’m in studio today with pastor and Bible teacher John MacArthur. John, thanks for carving out an extra hour of your busy schedule for us.
JOHN: No, this is a wonderful priority for me. I love doing this and being helpful, I hope, to the folks who are part of our Grace to You family.
PHIL: I know it’s going to be helpful. I’m looking forward to it. You will recall that a few months ago, in one of your letters to our supporters, people on the Grace to You mailing list, we invited our listeners to send us the questions that they have on their minds. And we didn’t put any limits on it. Questions about Bible, theology, the Christian life. No categories, no boundaries. Any question you ever wanted to ask John. And for anyone who’s listened to Grace to You for long and attended Grace Community Church, it’s obvious that you enjoy answering people’s questions, and you actually see that as an important part of church life.
JOHN: If I know the answer.
PHIL: I think it’s where you shine as a pastor. I love to see you up there with no crib notes, nothing but your Bible. People throw questions at you, and I think those are some of your brightest hours. Your brilliance really shines in those.
JOHN: Well, I don’t know about that, but I took my cue years ago from Paul, where it says he reasoned with them out of the Scriptures. And it uses the Greek verb dialego, which is a dialog. And it was a Q&A, and he answered them out of the Scripture. I think one of the things a preacher always has to be aware of is that you may be saying what you want to say, but you may not be saying what they want to hear. And so, that vulnerability, that openness, that open-mic approach has been a part of our church life together at Grace for going on almost 50 years coming up, so.
PHIL: And, there’s only one way to prepare for that, and that is with your whole life. You have to be immersed in Scripture and prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks you.
JOHN: Well, it’s a joy to be able to do that, and I think our people have, through the years, felt like they could ask anything. And that if I didn’t know the answer, I would find an answer and come back to them, because the Bible has answers.
PHIL: Well, let me speak for a minute to our listeners. So, we asked you to tell us what is on your mind. You responded with some questions, a couple of hundred of them, and we enjoyed compiling them. Sorting them out, pulling out the best of the best, and identifying the questions that, and the themes that seem to be on peoples’ mind the most. And so, for the next hour, John, I’m just going to fire these questions at you, and we’re going to make it our goal to get through as many as possible. But I know you, and I know you’re going to want to take some time with your answers. So, as usual, we expect you to be thorough. But that said, let’s get to the questions. And first, I’m going to ask you some questions that fall under the general category of theology. All right, question number one: how can man comprehend the fact that God chooses to judge billions of people to an eternal conscious life of torment? He’s sovereign, so that is His eternal decree. And yet, He’s a loving God.
JOHN: I think the simplest way for me to deal with that, and I confess: that is probably the hardest question, emotionally, for me to handle. Why, in any case, would God, whether He decided who would be saved, or didn’t, go ahead and create people that He knew would end up in eternal hell? Why? That is a question that begs an answer that is, I think, beyond our comprehension. But, what helps me understand is this: we don’t understand how infinitely Holy God is, because we are so unholy. And so, for us, sin against God appears far less significant than it really is. We sin against God all the time. We dishonor Him all the time. And we just blithely go about our way. And then, we read that God sends people to hell for sin. And based upon how we view sin, that seems ridiculously excessive. But that’s because we view sin so differently than God views sin. It is so heinous. It is so massive. It is so unacceptable. It is such an affront to His glory, that that is the only possible way that God can react to sin.
And we have to remember that, God’s sovereignty notwithstanding, the sinner’s sin is willful. The sinner’s sin is his own choice. The sinner is fully guilty, culpable, and responsible for his sin. And it is an act of high treason that transcends anything we can comprehend. And because of our diminished sense of righteousness, we have a diminished sense of sin. Because of that, we are ready to apply compassion, ourselves being sinners, and have an inadequate sense of holy justice.
And I think from my standpoint, I have to let God be God. And I know God is loving, because He has provided salvation, and I know that He will not deny anyone who comes to Him. And I know you’re back to the question of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, but I believe in both of those. I don’t know how they come together in the mind of God, but all who are saved are saved because of God’s divine sovereign choice and work. And yet, every sinner is saved because of a personal commitment to Jesus Christ in faith. Those are both true. And I can’t harmonize those, but I believe those. But when it comes to the issue of punishment, that, to me, is tied to the absolute holy righteousness of God, and the reality of sin being far more than I can even comprehend.
PHIL: You know, there comes a point where you pretty much have to realize that God is the one who defines what’s righteous.
PHIL: We can’t make that judgment on our own.
JOHN: Well, and His definition of it is so far beyond my comprehension. I just barely touch the hem of the garment on that. And I think I have a heightened understanding of sin. I hate sin my own life, I hate sin in the world, I hate sin in other people, I hate what sin did to Christ, I hate what sin does to God, I hate the dishonor of His name, the reproaches that fall on Him fall on me. As David said, “Zeal for Your house has eaten me up.” But I don’t hate sin the way God hates sin. And so, I don’t understand how right holy justice is in its fullest expression.
PHIL: And you can’t truly love righteousness unless you also do hate evil, right?
JOHN: Well, they’re equal. The love that God has for perfect righteousness is equaled by the hatred He has for unrighteousness. And so, if perfect, holy righteousness results in eternal life, perfect holy hatred of sin results in eternal judgment.
PHIL: Yeah. If you’re like me at all, it’s much easier to grasp that as a parent and a grandparent, looking at my kids. I love them, and therefore, I hate any evil that would threaten them. That must explain God’s perspective to some degree.
JOHN: Well, as a sinner, I see sin one way, because it’s connected to my desire. As a parent, I see sin another way, because it’s connected to my children’s destruction. That’s what you’re saying. Yeah, and God sees it that way.
PHIL: Yeah. That’s good. All right, I’m going to switch topics here. Let’s talk about the Trinity. I’ve got actually two related questions to ask you about the Trinity. Why is understanding and believing in the Trinity so crucial? And, is this issue important enough to stand for at the cost of Christian unity? Do we need to make this a fundamental doctrine where we refuse to recognize as genuine believers people who don’t accept the Trinity?
JOHN: Absolutely. If you don’t believe in the Trinity, then you don’t believe in the true God, and you don’t believe in the true Christ, and you don’t believe in the true Holy Spirit. I mean, this is the nature of God. If you had nothing but Hebrews, “He that comes to God must believe that He is who He is.” You can’t even come to God unless you believe He is who He is. If you deny the Trinity, you end up denying the person of Jesus Christ. You end up denying Christ. You end up denying the Holy Spirit. You’ve created a God that doesn’t exist. This is of massive importance. To say nothing of convoluting the Scripture. For example, at the baptism of Jesus, you have, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I’m well-pleased.” That’s the Son, and the Father is speaking, and the Spirit is descending. The Trinity is there, and it’s not one God flipping masks. I am convinced that believing in the true God, knowing the true God, is essential to salvation. Knowing the true Christ is essential to salvation. And anything less than believing in the triune God destroys, to some degree, the nature of each member of the Trinity. And now, you have not God; you have a being of your own creation.
PHIL: Hmmm. And Jesus Himself pretty much said that, that this is eternal life.
JOHN: To believe in Me. Yeah, 1 John 5.
PHIL: Now, a related question. Another person asks: must a person then believe and understand the doctrine of the Trinity in order to be saved?
JOHN: I think that someone might be saved without a full understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity. But, that’s very different than denying it. I think when you deny the doctrine of the Trinity, you have just put yourself outside the pale of orthodoxy. If you’re giving the gospel to somebody on the street corner, and they have a background in the church, and they know that Jesus died on the cross and rose again, paid the price for their sin, they might not have a full understanding of Trinitarian truth. But when you start to talk about the deity of Christ, and you start to talk about the fact that this is the God Man, that’s a necessary component, I think, of salvation. You have to believe, Jesus says, in Me. You have to believe in Me as the God Man. That’s inseparable from the gospel and the sacrifice that He offers. Man dying for man, but God overcoming death as God. If, later on, you were to deny that there are three persons in the Trinity, you have now redefined Christ. And I think that’s a non-Christian perspective. That’s outside the pale of orthodoxy.
PHIL: It’s a helpful distinction you make, because this comes up again and again. I remember in the Lordship Controversy, one of the criticisms you received was from people who said, “Well, MacArthur’s saying you have to be a theologian or you can’t be saved.” But that’s not really the point at all. It’s that you don’t deny these things when you do come to understand it.
JOHN: Yeah, and that is the point. Again, Jesus speaks in the New Testament to His Father. He dies as a willing sacrifice to satisfy His Father’s wrath and justice. You convolute everything. You mess with everything in the Trinitarian work if you start tampering with the nature of Christ and the nature of God.
PHIL: All right. Here’s a question that a few people ask that I think is a good one. And it’s this: does any of the Old Covenant apply to us today?
JOHN: Well, that depends on what you mean by the Old Covenant. Are you talking about the Mosaic Covenant, which would probably be what most people would be referring to?
PHIL: Yeah, probably.
JOHN: Yeah, in the sense that Paul talks about the Old Covenant, or that the writer of Hebrews compares the New Covenant in Christ with the Old Covenant law. And the answer to that is: of course. Everything that is moral about the Old Covenant is a reflection of the nature of God. There were ceremonial things in the Old Covenant. There were dietary laws in the Old Covenant. There were certain behavioral prescriptions for the kind of clothing you wore, and how you handled certain animals, and clean, and unclean, and all of those kinds of things, which were practical, temporal, temporary restrictions placed upon the nation Israel in order to symbolize certain things, and to isolate them from the nations around them to protect them from easy intercourse and interaction with idolaters. As it turned out, even with all of that, they wound up getting engulfed in idolatry. But those are not moral things. Those were things that were a part of the cultural life of Israel that God designed to protect them. Even the dietary laws, even circumcision, was to prevent some diseases from being passed on. But whatever was moral about the law, whatever had to do with good and evil, with righteousness and unrighteousness, with holiness and sin, is a reflection of the nature of God and is still what God loves, and what God desires in terms of obedience.
While Peter could rise and kill and eat anything, because the dietary laws were set aside, at the same time, Peter understood that his life was to be a life. He writes in his epistle of absolute obedience and the pursuit of holiness. And he understood: be holy, for I am holy, because he writes about that.
PHIL: And Paul quotes the fifth commandment and says: it’s the first commandment with a promise. He expects people to obey it.
JOHN: Sure. To obey your parents. Paul also said that, as a believer, he loved the law. He loved the law of God. He delighted in the law of God in his inner man. He delighted in the Law of God. And I think that’s the other thing to say about this. If somebody’s standing on the fringe saying, well, what’s my obligation with the law? Am I supposed to do that stuff? I might questions whether they were even saved. If somebody is saying: in my heart, I want to obey; in my heart, I want to do what honors God. I want to glorify God. Does that mean I have to do that? Does that mean I need to eat kosher food like you hear people advocating today?
So, I think God’s people aren’t saying: oh boy, do I have to keep all of those commandments. I think God’s people are saying: I want to do that. I love the law of God. I delight in the law of God. They have a Psalm 1:19 attitude. “Oh, how I love your law. It’s my delight.” They just would like to know how far they need to go. It’s a very different approach.
So, God’s nature hasn’t changed. What pleases Him hasn’t changed. What displeases Him hasn’t changed. The difference is that under the old economy of the law, the moral law, just take the moral law, there was nothing in the law to enable the sinner. In other worse, there’s nothing in the law to help the sinner. The law is just put in your face, and you’re said, “Do this, or you die.” And the law gives you no help. The law gives you no assistance.
The point was: in the Old Testament, the sinner was to fall down on his face before God and say, “I can’t do this. I can’t do this. Will you forgive me? Will you enable me?” And that was an Old Testament salvation. And God would forgive the penitent sinner who longed to be obedient, and worship, and honor God by virtue of the sacrifice that was yet to come. And in the New Testament and beyond, we have the same attitude. I love the law. I want to obey the law. I don’t have the power to obey the law. Thank you for the forgiveness provided through the sacrifice of Christ, and thank you for the power provided through the Holy Spirit, which power I believe was also in the believers in the Old Testament.
PHIL: I love the fact that several people asked this question, because it shows that our listeners are thinking seriously about difficult things. And this is difficult because there isn’t really any place in Scripture that distinguishes between the moral and ceremonial and civil aspects of the law. In fact, some Bible interpreters would reject that three-fold division altogether. How do you sort out which of the eternal moral commandments, and which are the merely ceremonial ones?
JOHN: Well, whatever is a moral commandment is a moral commandment, and not some kind of behavior. Like, you know, eating certain meat, not eating certain meat, or doing something with bird’s nests or not doing with the bird nests, or clothes, or how you cook, or all of that. We all understand what is moral and what is not. But the criteria would be this: whatever is cancelled in the New Testament is cancelled. And you can go to Acts 10, and all the dietary laws are cancelled in one act by God in a vision that Peter has. “Rise, Peter. Kill and eat.” Peter says, whoa, whoa, whoa. I’ve never eaten what is unclean. And the Lord says, “How dare you call unclean what God has cleansed.” Then you go to Paul, and Paul says in Timothy, don’t let anybody hold you to any dietary law that says something is forbidden. You are free to eat anything. So, those things are set aside and obviated. Those, clearly, are gone. In addition to that, every commandment of the Ten Commandments is repeated in the New Testament except one. Remember the Sabbath. It’s not repeated in the New Testament. It is cancelled. Because Paul says, “Don’t let anybody hold you to a Sabbath.” Colossians 2. Don’t let anybody. So, you’ve got these clear statements of cancellation with regard to those things, which would capture not only the Sabbath, but all of the Sabbaths connected to it. Not only the dietary laws, but all the other corollary kind of social structure that was around it.
So, I think you do have explicit statements about the cancellation of those things, whereas Jesus says, “Not one jot or one tittle shall in any wise pass from this law until all is fulfilled.” And, you even have beyond that, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, you’ve heard it said that you shouldn’t murder. I’m saying if you hate somebody, you’ve murdered them. You’ve heard it said: don’t commit a fornication. I’m telling you: if you look on a woman to lust after her, you’ve committed fornication or adultery in your heart. In other words: Jesus doesn’t lower that law. He elevates that law to an attitude and a motive and a heart sin that is as much a violation as the act itself. So, the law, I think, is elevated in the New Testament, the moral law.
PHIL: Yeah, and these are important issues. Especially in the moral and political climate today, because one of the arguments you frequently hear is people who say: well, it’s only the Old Testament that forbids homosexuality. Jesus never said anything explicit about homosexuality. Does a moral commandment have to be repeated in the New Testament to be still enforced? Or are you saying it’s only if it’s abrogated, it’s abrogated?
JOHN: I’m not saying only if it’s abrogated. If it’s moral, it’s moral. Sexual behavior is a moral category. Marriage is a moral category. Honesty is a moral category. Social relationships. We don’t kill each other, hate each other, stab each other, steal from each other, covet each other. All of those things. Those are all moral categories. There doesn’t need to be a restatement of those things except for Jesus to say that none of this has changed. None of this has passed. And, in fact, in the New Testament, homosexuality is forbidden, clearly forbidden. It is also deemed a kind of behavior that excludes people from the kingdom of God. First Corinthians 6. It is associated with the judgment of God in Romans chapter 1 in very, very powerful terms. So, I honestly would say that you can’t find one category of moral behavior in the Old Testament where God’s laws are given that aren’t in some way repeated in the New Testament. Nothing is left out. There are no prescriptions for morality, sexual morality, in the Old Testament that aren’t clearly repeated in the New Testament in ways that we would all understand.
Now, maybe there’s not as much said about bestiality or something like that, but we get that, I think. We understand that that’s an aberration. So, I think that –
PHIL: Well, because also, as you listed those categories, they’re basically the Ten Commandments, except for the fourth.
JOHN: Yeah. Well, all of the Ten Commandments is the summation of all moral behavior. And then, it even gets summed down together to the first commandment: love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself, and you fulfill the whole law.
PHIL: Right. All right. Let’s move to some practical questions. These are questions that have to do with Christian living and how we live as Christians. And the first one is a very broad question. You’ve written a whole book on this subject, so you can just give us a little summary.
JOHN: I hope I remember what I wrote.
PHIL: Lots of people have asked this, and I know you answer this question all the time. How can I have assurance of my salvation?
JOHN: You know, that question is asked a lot. I think maybe to start with, I would say it is not unusual for a believer to have doubts. I think it’s fairly normal for believers to have doubts, especially young believers or untaught, immature believers. And what can produce doubt is a lack of good theology where you don’t know enough about the gospel, or about the nature of salvation to really be secure in that. Another thing that can produce doubts is sin in one’s life because security is a reality. That’s a fact. But assurance is a feeling. Assurance is a confidence that comes and goes based upon sin. Peter even talks about that. Your calling in election is sure to God, but it may not be sure to you unless you’re dealing with sin in your life. So, when you struggle with doubt, the first thing to ask yourself is: do I understand the full, rich, nature of salvation? And I would send Christians in the direction of getting a full understanding of the glorious grace that is a true salvation.
I guess I have to say that we have had such a surfeited, superficial, sort of easy-believism approach to giving the gospel, that people pray a prayer of salvation without even understanding what salvation is. Sometimes you hear these guys on TV say, “Now, you pray this prayer and say these words, and you’ll have Jesus in your heart.” And they don’t even know what the nature of salvation is. And so, they go from there to all kinds of doubt, and confusion. And again, the other thing would be: sin in your life will inevitably take away assurance because assurance is the sweet grace of the Holy Spirit given to an obedient believer.
Having said that, when I’m asked that question, I ask a question in return. And the question I ask is: tell me your greatest heart’s desire. Tell me your greatest heart’s desire. What do you want? With God in mind, what do you want? And if a person says, “I want to honor God. I want to serve Him. I want to love Him more.” Then that’s the evidence of a transformation. If somebody says, “Well, I want to be more successful. I want to do better on my job. I want to go to heaven.” That makes me a little bit nervous about the heart because I believe where true conversion takes place, there is a longing to honor God. There is a desire to serve God. Again, it’s that, “Oh, how I love your law.” Or Paul in Romans 6, “I long to do what honors You.” I just don’t do it.
So, I think the greatest evidence of a person’s salvation is heart desire. Heart attitude. It’s the motivation: what do you want? And then you can ask the other question: what is the most disappointing thing in your spiritual life? And if somebody were to say, “Well, you know, I haven’t gotten healed.” Eh, that’s not the right answer. If the most disappointing thing in your Christian life is your failure before God, your failure to be everything He wants you to be, to love Him like you should, to serve Him like you should, to pray like you should, now you’re talking about the longings of a redeemed heart.
You can’t look at the perfection of your life, but you can look at the direction of it, and behind that, the motivation.
PHIL: And you mentioned Romans 7. I love that passage, especially when you realize: this is the apostle Paul, a mature apostle. Toward the end of his ministry, he’s still struggling with sin.
JOHN: Yeah, he’s the strongest Christian there is.
JOHN: And he’s not what he wants to be.
PHIL: It’s not the presence of sin that would create doubt. It would be if he gave up that struggle.
JOHN: Yeah, or if you have no desire for the things of the Lord and for holy things.
PHIL: And another question that’s somewhat related: how can I defeat the sins that seem to be constant battles in my life? We all struggle with perpetually the same things. Self-control. Paul named covetousness as sort of his besetting sin. Is there any key to tackling those persistent sins that we struggle with again, and again, and again?
JOHN: Well, I think again, the means of grace. The Word, “Thy word if I had in my heart, that I might not sin against You,” David said. Love for God. You know, if any man loved the world, the love of the Father’s not in him. Loving God more, loving Christ more. I come down to this all the time, especially dealing with young people. It all comes down to how much you love Christ, what you love most. You defeat sin when you love Christ more. You defeat sin when you want to glorify Him more than you want to fulfill your desires. But you’re going to have to realize, like we were seeing in Romans 7, that’s why it’s such a definitive passage. That, you’re never going to have final victory here. And here’s something that I’ve learned: I sin less than I used to. I mean, I actually look at my life, and I’m not what I should be; far from it. But, I do sin less than I used to. I’m always happy to tell young people that sin will decrease. That’s what sanctification is. Sanctification is the decrease of sin. I mean, a real decrease of sin. But you’re glad to know that sin will decrease.
But correspondingly, as sin decreases, your hatred of sin increases. So, you get better and feel worse. So, what you see with Paul is a man in whom sin had decreased, but in whom the hatred of sin had increased because holiness had increased. So, if you’re looking in your life as a Christian for an experience where you’re just not going to feel your sin anymore, or feel badly about your sin, that’s not going to happen. In fact, when you were young in the Lord, you probably felt really bad about really bad sins. And as you get older in the Lord, and those really bad sins, those overt sins aren’t as frequent, or begin to fade away, you’ll feel even worse about the lesser sins.
There’s no way to escape that, because the more sanctified you become, the more Christ-like you become, even though you’re far from being what you should be, the more you hate the sin that is there.
PHIL: You preached a sermon once called “Hacking Agag to Pieces” where you compared the struggle that Israel had with the Malachites in the Old Testament, where they would defeat them, but they would multiply and come back again, and again, and again. You compared that to the persistence of sin in our life and said the answer still is to continually mortify, hacking Agag to pieces. Meaning, you have to defeat it. You cut it off.
JOHN: One of the things is you stay out of the places where those temptations exist. You stay away from the people and the events and the opportunities that excite those kinds of temptation. David put a watch over his eyes. And if anybody needed to do that, we do in this generation. So, that’s what mortifying sin means: killing it at its birth.
JOHN: The other thing that I would say, too, is James says: lust, when it conceives, brings forth sin. So, if you’re going to defeat sin in your life, you have to win the battle on the inside. The battle has to be won in the inside. If you’re just hiding it on the outside, if it’s getting out there and you’re hiding it, you’re going to get exposed. Be sure, your sins will find you out. If you’re losing the battle on the inside, time and truth goes hand in hand. I’ve said this for years. You’ve heard me say it. Time and truth go hand in hand. Given enough time, the truth will come out about you. And, who you are will be revealed. Some men, their sins don’t follow them until they’re gone. Paul said. But, for most people, given enough time, the truth comes out. And you have to win the battle on the inside.
And that’s not going to come from human accountability. That’s not going to come from superficial kind of involvement. That’s going to be, when you’re mortifying sin inside, in the heart, where no one can see it. No matter how many close friends you have, and people talk about accountability all the time, even your friends, you can be in a Bible study, you can be in a prayer group with somebody. They don’t know what you’re thinking. If you’re not winning the battle on the inside, you’re going to lose it on the outside.
PHIL: Yeah, and plus, we live in a culture where we’re constantly encouraged to mollycoddle our sin or redefine it as some kind of affliction, rather than a sin. People don’t, I mean, just the talk of mortifying sin, and some of the things you said. Don’t go near the places that tempt you, and all. You say that in the average Evangelical community, and people are going to say, “Well, that’s legalistic.”
JOHN: Yeah. I agree. But then, God wrote the law. And why would I want to expose myself to something that’s going to dishonor Him, debilitate me, make me less joyful, blessed, and less useful. If I love Him, then I don’t want to do that.
PHIL: All right. Let me switch topics a little bit. This is one of the questions that was most asked, surprisingly, and it’s this: what does the Bible say about cremation? Is it okay for a Christian to be cremated?
JOHN: There were a lot of Christians cremated while they were still alive. Martyrs. That’s not an issue. The Bible doesn’t say anything about that. The Bible doesn’t say anything about the disposal of a human body. It really doesn’t matter. It’s dust to dust. You’re going to end up the same either because you’re burned into dust or because you dissolve into dust eventually. And, God’s not going to have any problem finding your resurrected body, and reconstituting that. So, that’s a personal preference. Some people get nervous thinking about that. For some people, it seems weird to burn their body. For me, it seems weird to stick a body in the ground.
PHIL: But that is the biblical example. In the Old Testament and the New Testament, believers typically buried.
JOHN: Well, in the early church. The buried them all in the ground in the catacombs, on those little shelves. But there’s nothing in the Bible that commands, demands, or even expects that.
PHIL: So it’s an issue of freedom.
PHIL: Switching subjects once more, but a very practical question: is there a way to know the difference between trials God sends into our lives to refine us, and the chastening He brings to purge us and bring us to repentance? A lot of people seem to struggle with how to tell the difference, and there are a lot of people –
JOHN: Yeah, and I know why it’s hard to tell the difference. Because at all times, we would be deserving of chastening, right?
JOHN: You could say that every trial I’ve ever had was chastening, because there would be plenty of reason to chasten me. So, I wouldn’t worry about it. It may be chastening. But the point is: you might not know that. And the illustration, the classic illustration is Job. He can’t figure out why this is going on. And all his friends say, “You’re being chastened. You’re being chastened. You’re being chastened.” So he does this hard examination, and he knows there could be plenty of reasons for God to chasten him. This just seems way too extreme for whatever sins he might’ve been willing to confess.
And in the end, you know, God says, I’m not answering your question. I’m not telling you why this is happening. He never tells him about a conversation with Satan. He never tells him He’s making a point to the devil. This poor guy is subjected to the most extreme treatment imaginable by God, and he hasn’t any idea why it’s happening.
PHIL: Yeah, and the primary reason, really, wasn’t chastening in his case, right?
JOHN: No, no. It wasn’t.
PHIL: So his friends were wrong.
JOHN: He was right. He didn’t have any sins that he hadn’t confessed. He didn’t have any sins that were so epic that he was getting this from God. This had nothing to do with him. But the point is: God never explained that to him.
PHIL: And, at the end of the book, when Job really sort of awakens to the reality of the issue, he says, “I repent.” So, in his mind, the response is the same.
JOHN: He repented for even questioning God about the thing. But I think one way to understand it is the word for test, or trial, and the word for temptation is the same word in the Greek. It’s peirasmos. And it means a temptation, and it means a test, and it means a trial. So, how do we know whether something’s a temptation or a trial? Answer: how we respond. If we sin, it turned out to be a temptation. If we triumph in trust, it turned out to be a trial that strengthened us.
PHIL: So, the bottom line answer is it really doesn’t matter that much. Either way, you respond humbly.
JOHN: You know what? I think, just personally, I think you should view every difficulty that comes into your life with heart examination: an occasion to repent.
JOHN: You’ll find something to say, “Lord, I’m sorry. If this is Your chastening, I embrace it.” Because it has a noble end, right? Hebrews 12. It seems grievous at the time, but it produces the fruit of righteousness. So, you know, embracing trials is a classic characteristic of mature Christians throughout history. Just embracing the trial and drawing out of that trial whatever element of discipline that would lead us to repentance. And also, at the same time, realizing that testing of your faith, a trial of your faith has a perfecting work that God is, on the one hand chastening, on the other hand perfecting.
I think the classic illustration on that is 2 Corinthians 12 with Paul. He prays, and he says, “Lord, take this thorn in the flesh away.” Three times. And the Lord says, I’m not doing it. I’m not taking it away, because My strength is perfected in your weakness. Putting us through chastening, putting us through remedial training. In the case of Paul, to keep him from exalting himself. It all has that sanctifying work, and I think whatever may be God’s purpose in doing it, whatever mix of things, if you respond correctly, and repent, and follow the path of trust and righteousness, then it becomes a trial by which you’re strengthened.
PHIL: Here’s a question several people asked, and it’s a practical one in the real world these days. People who have friends or close family who are homosexuals, practicing homosexuals, unrepentant homosexuals. How do we deal with them on a daily basis and show them love, and yet not compromise the truth that Scripture says that’s a sin?
JOHN: Exactly the same way you would an immoral person who was shacked up with his girlfriend. No different. Or, you knew a son was deep into drugs, and being inebriated by alcohol, or he was involved in a crooked business. I don’t think that you would treat an unconverted person living a homosexual, sinful life any different than you’d treat anybody else living any other kind of life. The stigma that homosexuality carries is greater because it is such a perversion. It is such an aberration that I do understand that it’s hard to tolerate that. And I do understand that those kinds of people purposely send out signals to demonstrate this, and I can understand when families say, “I don’t want you here, because I don’t want the other children or the grandchildren to see that behavior. I don’t want you to bring whoever your lover is here.” I think, for me, if I give counsel along that line, I would say you need to realize you’ve got an unbeliever acting like an unbeliever. If the person professes to be a Christian, that’s the discipline. You put them out, you separate. If they make a profession to be a believer. Then, you have to isolate them. But this is a non-Christian. You treat them like a non-Christian, but you don’t let them flaunt that.
You have this case that comes up, and I talk to parents about this quite frequently. One of their kids is living with somebody, and they want to come over or come to a vacation place with the parents and stay together. And I tell parents: don’t let them do that. Don’t let them sin in your house. Don’t let them sin in your presence. Don’t let that happen. You draw that line. If they invite you to have a meal with them, you can talk about the Lord, and extend love to them. That’s one thing. But don’t accept the behavior as such.
PHIL: Now, I have some questions about ministry and church leadership philosophy and things like that. Let me start with one that you and I have discussed several times before. But it’s a question that commonly comes up. The apostle Paul said he becomes all things to all men so that he might by all means win some. And he’s talking about adapting to various cultures. He says, when I’m with the Jews, I behave as a Jew. When he’s with the Greeks, he lives like a Greek. What’s the line of demarcation between that attitude of adapting to the culture, and worldliness?
JOHN: Paul is not even talking about worldliness. He’s not even talking about adapting to the culture in the sense of fashion, or in the sense of philosophy, or in the sense of cultural forms of entertainment. He’s just talking about a very basic sense in which you have to meet people where they are. I mean, if I’m talking to a Jew, what do I do? I don’t start by explaining Greek mythology. If I’m talking to a Jew, I start with the Old Testament and I go to Christ. If I’m talking to a Gentile, I start with creation. That’s what he says in the 14th chapter of Acts. And I go to Christ. He’s simply saying: I take into account who I’m talking to, in the content of the conversation. It’s not about the style.
I was saying to the kids at the Master’s College today: if I want to go to Thailand, ‘cause we were talking about kids that went on a mission trip to Thailand, 98% Buddhist. What do I do? Do I put on a Buddhist thing, shave my head, and buy a small gong, and walk around and believe that somehow that’s going to give me gospel access? That’s ridiculous. What I want to do is talk about the fact that the seven stages of enlightenment of Buddhism don’t enlighten anybody because the people who’ve been through the stages of enlightenment are just as corrupt, just as wicked, just as sinful, just as hopeless, just as empty, and have nowhere to turn for the sins that dominate their souls, and I want to move them to the cross. So, that really is all Paul is talking about, to turn this into the wardrobe, and the music style.
Think about it this way: we have kind of a, what would you call it, a global village today. Media has standardized the world, okay? You can go to McDonald’s anywhere on the planet. Just about any place on the planet. So, pop culture has sort of normalized globally.
PHIL: Yeah, that’s right. The number one YouTube video at the moment is a Korean rap music.
JOHN: Right, okay. So, it is less necessary today, let’s say, to accommodate culture. It’s less necessary today to contextualize yourself because of this sort of normalization of cultural icons.
But put yourself in the place of the New Testament preachers who are in a world with no media, where people have never left their village in their entire life, live in a tribal environment, and have these mores, and standards, and traditions, and lifestyle elements that are inimitable to them and no one else. And then, send these missionaries from Jerusalem, which is a highly complex Jewish culture which they’ve grown up and imbibed their entire lives, sent them into a Gentile world where every single town they go to, and every group of people they meet has a completely independent worldview, and asks them how they adapt. And the answer is: they didn’t adapt. They just preached the cross. Paul says, I didn’t come in words of human wisdom. I didn’t come with cleverness of speech. I preach Christ in Him crucified. This is that transcendent message that essentially ignores all of this, because they knew the power was in the truth.
We’ve been talking about this even today. We took a snapshot here at Grace to You of one month. The snapshot was of the countries in the world from which people downloaded sermons off the Grace to You website. Okay? You might think America, Canada, England, whatever. Countries of the world in one 30 day period from which people downloaded my sermons on the website. Counted up the countries. There were 208. The United States government only lists 194 countries. So, there must be territories that aren’t even countries, and they were from one end of the earth to the other, virtually covering every single nation on the planet.
Now, what am I doing to culturally accommodate to them? Absolutely nothing. Absolutely nothing. To me, this is like it was in the apostolic era. They just preached the cross, and the power was in the message without any necessary accommodation.
PHIL: Do you think the obsession with contextualization and cultural adaptation has made the church worldly?
JOHN: It has made it worldly, and I think the people who do that do that because they want to be worldly. I think they want to be worldly. I think it’s important for them to be rock stars. It’s important to them to be pop icons. It’s important to them to be cool. I don’t think it has anything to do with the message. I think it’s worldliness. I think they are worldly. They love the things of the world. They want the things of the world. They’re attracted by the things of the world. They want the fame, the notoriety, the popularity, the crowds, the accolades, the whatever.
PHIL: Yeah, with Paul’s warning about not tickling people’s ears, you have to put that alongside what he says about becoming all things to all men and realize that he wasn’t trying to tickle anybody’s ears.
JOHN: How powerful is the truth? You know, somebody downloads a message. I’m not there. Nothing about me is there. They don’t see any fashion, wardrobe, they don’t hear any music. There’s nothing. There’s nothing but: here’s the Bible, and here’s what it means.
PHIL: And that’s deliberate on your part, isn’t it?
JOHN: Oh, it is deliberate.
PHIL: We hear frequently from translators, when we have your books translated into other languages and so on, that your material is very easy to translate because it is devoid of cultural references and things that are time-bound and culture-bound and all. It’s basically, you illustrate Scripture even with Scripture.
JOHN: Yeah. And I don’t know why, other than the wonderful providence of God when I first started to preach, you know, there are a lot of approaches you could take. But I, and I don’t know that I ever, of course I never understood the extent of what would happen, but I just decided that I would explain the meaning of the Bible so that anybody can understand it.
That’s a challenge. I tell seminary students sometimes, it’s easy to be hard to understand. It’s easy. All it takes is that you don’t know what you’re talking about. And if you don’t know what you’re talking about, nobody else will. They might think you’re too profound for them, but the truth is: it’s not clear enough in your mind to make it clear to them. It’s hard to be clear. It’s hard to get the text of Scripture accurate and right because it takes work, and you stay with it until you’ve done that. But in the end, when the truth goes forward, it just has no bounds. That’s what’s exciting. And I don’t know, the Lord just put that on my heart early on, and I never followed the trends and the fads, and all of that. That’s just a divine purpose that God kind of directed in my life without me ever knowing why.
PHIL: You preached through every verse in the New Testament, and now you’re going back through some of the gospel of John, but also you’ve preached more in the last year or two than normal from the Old Testament. And one of the problems you’ve actually referred to with the Old Testament: a lot of pastors, when they teach Old Testament narrative will draw moral lessons from it, and focus on the moral issues rather than the gospel. Talk about what’s wrong with that.
JOHN: Well, not only that. They will ignore the historical intent of the passage in the Old Testament. We always talk about authorial intent. For example, God gave the Book of Deuteronomy to Moses. Did God give that book to be full of moral lessons for Christians? Did God give that book to provide inspiration for Christian people about how to live their lives? No. He was writing at a certain moment, in a certain history of Israel, at a certain crisis time. There are lessons that can be drawn from it, but you have to grasp authorial intent.
Very often, that’s ignored. And texts in the Old Testament become a pretext for some spiritual truth from the New Testament, sort of imported back and fed into it. And while you may not be teaching error, at the same time, you’re not being faithful to the intent of the text, which I’ve learned in teaching the Old Testament, is the real power in the text. The real power is not in spiritualizing sort of New Testament-izing the Old Testament. The power in the Old Testament is letting it say what God intended it to say to the original audience. It’s just powerful.
PHIL: And everything, ultimately, in Scripture, does point the way to Christ and the gospel.
JOHN: Well, you’re going to get there sooner or later. You’re going to get to the cross. Jesus said, “Search the Scriptures, for they are they that speak of Me.” On the road to Emmaus, beginning at Moses and the prophets and all the holy writings, that’s the three sections of the Jewish Old Testament, spoke to them, the things concerning Himself. So, he went through the Old Testament, each of the sections, and spoke concerning Himself. While not every text speaks about the Christian life, or about moral behavior, or illustrations of Christian behavior, everything drives inexorably toward Christ and toward His cross, inevitably in the Old Testament.
And we’re finding that now doing this series on finding Christ in the Old Testament. Well, that you find Him in Genesis 1:1 with the creation, because John 1:1 says nothing was made without Him. Colossians says the same thing. But in 3:15, you find He’s the seed of the woman that crushes the serpent’s head. And in 3:20 to 24, you see that He is being illustrated when God makes the first sacrifice and wraps Adam and Eve in coverings provided by a sacrifice. And, you know, as you follow through, He’s the seed of Genesis 12, Galatians says not seeds, but a seed. He’s the prophet that was to come, and Genesis 45. You know, it all moves in the direction of Christ.
PHIL: One of the special particular problems that a lot of Sunday school teachers have with children’s curriculum is that it’s dumbed down or deliberately sort of devoid of any theology so that it becomes a cartoon about Jonah, or a moral lesson.
JOHN: Which is the reason we at Grace Community Church, wrote the Generations of Grace curriculum, which is an entire curriculum accurately handling the Old Testament for children.
PHIL: Without dumbing it down.
JOHN: Without dumbing it down, and without misrepresenting its intent.
PHIL: I know, you wrote a book that was kind of a systematic theology for children a few years ago. And even the publisher at the time wanted to sort of dilute the theology. He thought it was too deep. What do you draw the line? When you teach children, how do you know how much they can grasp?
JOHN: Well, look. Here would be the way I approach that. I would go back to what the apostle Paul said. I couldn’t give you meat, 1 Corinthians 3, because you’re not able to discern it. So, I gave you milk. That doesn’t mean that there are certain meat truths, and certain milk truths. What it means is, that in every truth, there is a milk aspect, and a meat aspect. Which is simply to say that you can talk to a child about Christ’s death in a sort of a child-like way, that Jesus loves you, and He gave His life for you, He came into the world God in flesh, died for you. My grandchildren and I have had that conversation. They affirm and believe that. That doesn’t mean they understand particular redemption, definite atonement, that they understand all the nuances of the wrath of God, and all of that.
So, I would say that you can teach a child any doctrine at an entry point level, and then you’ve set them up for life to go deeper into that doctrine. When you teach them things that are misrepresentations of the Old Testament, there’s nowhere to go with that.
PHIL: Yeah, you’d have to undo them.
JOHN: You have to undo it and start all over again. So that’s why we’ve produced the Generations of Grace so that we would give them the entry understanding of that doctrine, which then pursued, can take them to the richness of it.
PHIL: Yeah, that’s a good point you make. Teaching a child is a lifelong endeavor, and you don’t just teach them a doctrine and, okay, now they’ve got it. You build.
JOHN: I’ve never, you know, I taught our own children, and our 15 grandchildren, and we’ve invested in them. And I’ve never taught them knowingly something that was a misrepresentation of Scripture because that would mean it would need to be undone. I’ve had little grandchildren, you know, at the age of seven and eight ask me: how can God choose some people to be saved and not others? And there’s a way to answer that that doesn’t misrepresent that, but that they can grasp. You know, it’s the old story of if your kid asks you what time it is, don’t take your watch apart. The time will come to take the watch apart, but that’s not necessarily the time.
And I think what you do is you teach it to them in a way that’s winsome and understandable. And as time goes on, they’ll plumb the depths of those things. But they won’t have to escape what they’ve been taught and find a new way. They can just go deeper into it.
PHIL: Yeah. Jesus practically made the point that the simplicity of a child’s trust is like the purest form of faith. So you really actually have an advantage if you are teaching your children.
JOHN: Two things to do with children. One is to teach them truth, and let them go to the deeper truth, but the truth is the truth. Secondly, model that conviction in your life because it’s deadly to try to hold them to a standard that you don’t live. Then, it comes up as hypocrisy, and they’re very liable to just cancel it out.
PHIL: John, I have a whole long list of questions here that people have asked that we are not going to have time to get to. So we’re going to have to do this again soon. But let me jump to one last category because this was a line of questioning that really dominated the list of questions that we got from our listeners. And most of these had to do with the Holy Spirit. Issues about the Charismatic Movement. What is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit? What does it mean to be filled with the Holy Spirit? And one person asked if Scripture, anywhere, tells us that God has stopped speaking to people in an audible voice. Does He speak to individuals that way today? And of course, there were questions about speaking in tongues. So, here’s my question for you: what do you make of that? Do you often hear questions like that? I think your position on the Charismatic Movement is probably fairly well known. But still, do people ask you about that frequently? And if so, what is driving them? And particularly, to come and ask you those questions? Do they ask out of mere curiosity? Are people seriously confused?
JOHN: Well, first of all, I need to say, Phil, that the Charismatic Movement has done more damage to the church than any other unbiblical movement, by far. It is the ubiquitous movement. It dominates Christian radio. It dominates Christian television. It dominates Christian literature, books. The Charismatic Movement leads the parade of conferences globally. It is forever purveying its errors, and has done massive, massive damage to the truth and to the church. The latest wave of it, of course, being the prosperity gospel.
And people are asking the question because they don’t always discern between that movement, which is so unbiblical and misrepresenting of the Holy Spirit, and the truth. So we have to help them, like in so many other cases, to be discerning.
The Charismatic Movement also purports, more than any other movement, to be the direct voice of God. The direct movement of the Holy Spirit. And there are all kinds of false miracles, and false representations of what is supposedly the Holy Spirit. So, it comes with some firepower. It comes with some clout. And consequently, people don’t know how to respond. They don’t know how to answer it. Is it really God? Is it really the Holy Spirit? Are these really miracles? Am I missing something? And because it is an experiential movement, people tend to evaluate it on the basis of the experience rather than comparing it to Scripture.
Look, this put us in a very difficult position when it started in 1960 as a true church of Jesus Christ. And here we are 50 years later, and it’s worse than ever. The church is more confused than ever, and the church is less likely to confront it because they’ll be accused of being unloving and divisive. And because of all of that, this movement is moving across the globe almost uncontested and doing horrendous damage. In the light of that, as you know, Phil, we’ve decided to do a second Truth Matters conference. We did one a couple of years ago, and it was so well-received. We had several thousand people here in Southern California at Grace Community Church, and a few days to focus on the essence of Paul’s gospel. And we’re going to repeat that Truth Matters conference. It’s going to be on October 16 through 18 of 2013. It is going to be a conference called “Strange Fire.” We’re going to look at the false worship of the Charismatic Movement. I’m going to be joined in that conference with RC Sproul; Conrad Mbewe, and amazing pastor from Africa who’s living in the middle of the sweeping influence of the Charismatic Movement across his continent; Steve Lawson is going to be here; Phil, you’re going to be a participant in that and rightly so.
We’re going to teach on the errors of the movement, and then we’re going to teach on the truth concerning the Holy Spirit. We’ll tackle the things that the people ask: tongues, gifts, the health-wealth prosperity gospel, does the Lord still speak? Is there still divine revelation? Are there still miracles? All of this is going to be addressed there from the Word of God. This is the Truth Matters conference on “Strange Fire,” the unacceptable worship of the Charismatic Movement. The dates again, October 16 to 18, Wednesday through Friday. And it’s all going to happen at the campus of Grace Community Church here in Southern California.
If you’re in that movement, if you’re coming out of that movement, or if you want to be able to address the issues there, you need to be a part of the conference. And we wanted to be among the first to invite you to this great event.