JOHN: Hello, John MacArthur here, and for the next hour or so, I’m going to be doing something you won’t often hear me do. To start with, I’m not going to preach. In fact, I’ve stepped away from the pulpit, and out of the Bible teacher mode, and I’m actually in the studio here at Grace to You for the purpose of candidly sharing with you a little bit about myself and my testimony, maybe what makes me tick.
I, as you know, have studied and taught the Bible now for more than 35 years, and in that time I’ve formed some strong friendships with the congregation of Grace Community Church and friends like you to whom we’ve ministered through the years on Grace to You. And as we’ve studied Scripture together, our hearts have certainly been knit together by a shared passion for God’s truth.
It’s not uncommon to meet someone in person for the first time. They’ve listened to me on the radio for decades, and their first remark is, “Well, I feel like I know you.” I hear that all the time. And at the most fundamental level, they do know me, because they know my heart, and that’s what comes through in my preaching.
But like any pastor, there’s also a more personal side that some folks appear to be curious about – legitimate areas about which a pastor can and perhaps should open up. I don’t naturally gravitate toward those things because my own desire is for people to learn and love the Scripture and the glories of Jesus Christ and not me.
Bits and pieces of my testimony, though, certainly have found their way into my preaching over the years, and it’s occasionally that I refer to myself, but it’s pretty rare to string it all together and talk about my upbringing, my family, the influences and experiences that have shaped my life in ministry.
So, with some reluctance, I admit, but with the urging of several friends, I’ve agreed to spend some time today with my dear friend Phil Johnson. He’s here to sort of interview me and ask the questions that I hope you’ll find interesting and helpful – questions of a more personal nature.
And in addition to being executive director of Grace to You and my senior editor, Phil is a pastor bible teacher, conference speaker, and theologian in his own right. Apart from my wife and children, Phil knows me about as well as anyone, and as you’ll hear, I don’t think he’ll back away from asking some tough and interesting questions. Frankly, at this point, I’m not sure where he’s headed or what he’ll ask. That said, Phil, welcome my friend.
PHIL: Thank you, John. And it is a privilege to be here. I know you don’t like to talk about yourself, and so, let’s ease into this. And I’ll get you to talk a bit about our ancestry. It’s well known that you’re a fifth-generation pastor. Tell us about your grandfathers and the heritage of all those pastors in your background.
JOHN: Sure. Well, my dad, obviously, is still preaching and teaching the Bible in his 90th year and has been doing that for about almost 70 years now. He was for many of those years a pastor and evangelist. His father, my grandfather Harry MacArthur, was a pastor. He was converted in his 20s. He worked for the Canadian Railway in Calgary. He was chief telegrapher in those days and was converted to Christ and called to ministry. And so, he left Canada, came down to California, attended the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, was trained as a pastor and then went into pastoral ministry.
And, of course, I only knew him as a pastor. And so, I used to, as a child, listen to my grandfather preach. And his wife, my grandmother, had a father who was a pastor in Prince Edward Island on the east coast of Canada, and his father was a pastor back in Scotland. And so –
PHIL: Wow, so it goes back not only five generations, but across at least three countries.
JOHN: That’s right.
PHIL: So, do you have clear memories of hearing your grandfather preach?
JOHN: Sure. I was a child. He died when I was about ten, but I had heard him preach numbers of times before he died.
PHIL: Do you think his style had any influence on you? Do you remember anything about his style?
JOHN: No, I don’t think so. He was more of a – he was more of a – sort of a textual preacher. He would give text, and then he would tell some stories, and he liked to read a poem. He was very evangelistic, a little bit of a different style. My dad took it a little different direction. My dad became more of a Bible expositor. He wasn’t a textual preacher; he was more of an expositional preacher. And so, I picked up on my dad’s pattern of preaching.
PHIL: Mmm, amazing. Now, I’ve heard you talk about your grandfather, and when he was dying – I believe it was your grandfather who said he had one more sermon he wanted to preach.
JOHN: Yeah, my grandfather was just really a relentless preacher. That’s all he ever wanted to do; that was his passion and his love. He preached relentlessly, not only in his church, but all over the place. He was one of the people in L.A. who started a whole movement of Boy’s Clubs across Los Angeles and was very involved in the development of a very extensive ministry. And he would travel around and preach at those events. He was a part of a Baptist Association where he was preaching here and there and everywhere. He was a sort of in-demand speaker.
And so, he was always preaching. And he had prepared a sermon, even though he was very ill – he died in his 50s of cancer. They were trying to deal with his cancer in those days in rather unsophisticated ways. And he came back, and he prepared to preach, but he became too weak to preach. And so, he was on his death bed, virtually. And my dad and I went in the room – my dad has recited this story to me many times; I probably wouldn’t remember it; although the scene is vivid in my mind, I wouldn’t remember the conversation – and he asked my grandfather, “Is there anything I can do for you, Dad?”
And you wouldn’t have expected – you know, like, “Fix my pillow,” or, “Get me a drink of water,” or something, and he said, “Well, I just want to preach one more sermon.”
Well, there’s no way you could arrange for that to happen. He was just too weak, and he was dying, and – but he had prepared a sermon, and, you know, that’s like fire in your bones. Like Jeremiah said, you get one in and you can’t get it out. You know? You need to deliver your soul. And so, he was very exercised about that.
And the irony of it all was that he had prepared a sermon on heaven. And the sermon was called “Heavenly Records.” And my dad asked him, “Where are your notes, Dad?” And he told him they were in his little study in the house. It was at his house that he was dying. And my dad got his notes, and they were fairly extensive notes, and so he printed them up and distributed them at his funeral, which occurred a few days after.
And so, everybody that came to the funeral was given a copy of “Heavenly Records.” So, I always liked to think that my grandfather preached on heaven from heaven.
JOHN: He was so true to the end that he even preached a sermon after he was gone.
PHIL: Mmm, amazing. Now, your father has also been an author. And he had – he still has his own radio broadcast.
JOHN: Yes, he’s – my grandfather started a program called Voice of Calvary, which was a weekly radio and television program. We did live television in the days of Beanie and Cecil - you know, when television first started. Live television every Sunday night. But my dad preached on the television, and that’s where I started preaching, too, early on, some of the Sunday night TV programs.
But my grandfather started the Voice of Calvary radio program something like 65 years ago, and my dad’s first role was to play the theme song on the marimba.
JOHN: And so, he would beat out the theme song, and my grandfather would come in and do the preaching. My dad took over that program and has kept it going. It’s probably on 25 stations now - even some on the East Coast, mostly on the West Coast. A weekly program in which he deals primarily with apologetics, defending the faith; that’s always been his passion. He teaches a Bible study every Sunday in the First Baptist Church of Eugene, Oregon, where he once was pastor, and goes to his office every day to answer the mail, and writes his monthly newsletter, and just kind of carries on his ministry.
PHIL: Amazing stamina.
JOHN: In his ninetieth year, he’s a great example of, you know, running the race to the very end. He’s following the pattern his father set for him.
PHIL: When he took over as speaker, did he offer to let you take over on the marimbas?
JOHN: That would have been a disaster. I could have played a ukulele, but not.
PHIL: Tell us a bit about your childhood. Where did you grow up? Was it here on the West Coast?
JOHN: Yeah, I was born – I was born down in Los Angeles at St. Vincent’s Hospital, which is still a functioning hospital in the city. My dad, at the time, was pastor of a Baptist Church down in Manchester area of Los Angeles; now it would be the South Central Los Angeles known as Watts today. Very different cultural situation down there. But my dad was pastor there when I was born, the first child born to he and my mom.
Through the years, he migrated for a little while into evangelism; that was in the ‘50s. So, he had an extensive ministry. And in the years of his evangelism, for a little while we lived in Philadelphia, and we lived in Chicago. So, I was very sick in Chicago with rheumatic fever, which left me with a residual heart murmur that, by the goodness of God, eventually healed itself, probably through my athletic activity.
But I have some vague memories of living in Philadelphia, I think, mostly because I was in the first grade there in a little school. But, apart from a few years in Chicago and Philadelphia, lived my whole life in Southern California.
PHIL: In fact, we said you don’t like to talk about yourself, but when anecdotes about your life tend to find their way into your sermons, it seems to me that a lot of them are stories about how you got in trouble. Did you have a streak of mischief in you as a child?
JOHN: Well, I would like to think of it as curiosity, Phil. I do have a great curiosity. And I love to see what things would do if I did this or that to them or – I mean – I don’t know, one time my little sister was – my little sister Jeanette was in her little playpen in the kitchen. It was really cold, and she kept saying, “I’m cold; I’m cold.” She was about three, and I was about five or six. And so, I took the pillows off the couch and put them in the stove – in the oven. I didn’t know; I just stuffed them in the oven and turned the oven on. And, of course, when I could smell them, I figured they were warm enough to put in her little playpen so she could get warm. And I took them out, and they were on fire on the back.
JOHN: And when I pulled them out and realized that, I just kind of flipped them and they landed inside the playpen. And so I – my mother says that I went into the bedroom and said, “You better get up” – it was early in the morning, and they were in the bedroom. I said, “You better get up because Jeanette’s on fire.”
And my mom’s jaw dropped, and my dad says, “What are you talking about?” But having lived with me for six years, they realized there could be some truth to the statement. And they came bolting out to the kitchen an d sure enough, these pillows are going up in smoldering flame, and they grabbed her out of there.
And I don’t know; I was really just trying to help, Phil. I don’t know.
PHIL: Very helpful.
JOHN: One time my mom says that I wanted to see – I got a dozen eggs she had bought, and I line them up in the hall and broke them all with a hammer, just one at a time – whack, whack, whack. You know, I don’t know – it wasn’t that I was particularly disobedient; I was spanked so often I learned the consequence of that. There was just something about things seeming to be curious to me and wondering what might happen if I did this or that. You know?
PHIL: Yeah, now I’ve heard one story about how you played traffic cop.
JOHN: I did. That was really dumb. There was a big intersection near where we lived. And I went down there, and we were playing as kids, and I guess that somebody suggested that I should be a traffic cop. And so, I went out in the intersection and started stopping people, holding up my hand one way and the other way, and I turned one side and held up my hand, and it was my dad – who was aghast and got out of the car and threw me in the car and applied some serious discipline when I got home.
But, you know, they were always kind of shocked at the range of things that I was interested in doing. And I would take any challenge that anybody would give me. And I don’t know why, but – now remember, I was pretty little when those things happened, probably before I was ten years old.
PHIL: How old when you did the traffic cop?
JOHN: Probably seven or eight, yeah.
PHIL: That’s pretty bold. That same kind of boldness, I suppose, you still have today.
JOHN: Yes. It’s better directed, I think.
PHIL: So, I’m sure your parents must have prayed for you.
JOHN: Yeah, my mom says she did. I had bicycle accidents frequently, split my head open. You know, I don’t know, I sometimes would slide down the drains to get in the flood control and drainage systems. You know, I don’t even know why I’m talking about those things except that my dad always tells those stories, they’re like family legends. You know? “If you only knew the real guy...” I just think I was filled with curiosity.
And I think that’s one of the reasons why I give so much time to the understanding of Scripture and so much time to trying to understand God’s Word; I just have this curiosity which I think the Holy Spirit has directed in a fruitful way into my interest in Scripture.
And I also – it also impels me to read a lot because I’m curious about so many things, and I find them helpful in my ministry as well.
PHIL: How old were you when you first recall sensing your need for need for Christ?
JOHN: Well, I always believed the gospel. I don’t ever – I don’t ever remember a time when I didn’t believe the gospel. I mean it was so wonderfully modeled by my mom and dad; it was so consistent. They were exactly at home what they were in the church; and what my dad was in the pulpit, he was in the house. And Christ was always very wonderful to me and inviting to me. And my mom and dad lived out their Christian life before me.
And so, I never rebelled against it. I always knew I needed Jesus to be my Savior. But there was an incident when I was about, I think, nine or ten. I’d gotten involved in some vandalism because some kids had kind of prompted me to do it. My dad was actually preaching in another town, and he took me with him for the week of evangelistic meetings, and some kids vandalized a school. And they happened to be – one of them happened to be the pastor’s kid. And so, he drags me along – you know, my father takes me to spend the week with this pastor’s family with him.
Anyway, I get involved in this thing, and they did some stuff in the school. And I came back, and I was – I felt terrible and frightened by it. I sat down on the steps with my dad as a result of it. I don’t remember the exact time sequence, but I said, “You know, I think I’m not a good boy, and I need the Lord to forgive me.” And that was sort of an initial prompting.
And I remember my dad praying with me on the steps that the Lord would save me. And there may have been other times I brought it up, but that one stands up in my mind. And as to whether I was actually converted at that time I don’t know. Again, in the years following, I never rebelled. I was always responsive to the things of Christ, but I don’t know that they were really the dominant matters of my life and the priorities that early.
PHIL: Hmm. So, you’re saying – are you saying it would be difficult for you to put your finger on when your conversion took place?
JOHN: Yeah. I’ve never been able to do that. And it doesn’t bother me. I think I’m one of those kids – I was one of those kids that never rebelled and always believed. And so, when God did his saving work in my heart, it was not discernible to me. I went away to high school, and for all I knew I loved Christ. I was a part of the ministry of the church. I went away to college, and I wanted to serve the Lord and honor the Lord. I was certainly immature, but at some point along the line I really do believe there was a transformation in my heart. But I think it may have been, to some degree, imperceptible to me because I didn’t ever have a rebellious time; I didn’t ever revolt against, you know, the gospel or not believe. And I guess that’s – in some ways that’s a grace act on God’s part so that all that wonderful training found some level of fertile soil in my heart, and none of it was wasted.
PHIL: Right. So, you went to college. You went to a Christian college.JOHN: I did. My dad wanted me to go to Bob Jones University. I didn’t want to go; I wanted to play football and baseball and basketball, and they didn’t have any athletics.
PHIL: Was it difficult giving up sports? I mean that was a priority for you.
JOHN: Well, that was very difficult. It was very difficult. I mean I – in my high school days, I basically, you know, lived to compete and –
PHIL: How many sports did you play?
JOHN: Well, I played – in high school – football, baseball, basketball, and I ran track; I was a sprinter.
PHIL: And from what I hear, you did excel in football.
JOHN: Well, I got a – I got a lot of scholarship offers in basketball, football, even baseball. And I –
PHIL: So, you turned down scholarship offers in order to go to a school –
JOHN: Right, with no athletic program.
PHIL: Now, you said you traveled with a quartet and sang and preached.
PHIL: Did you enjoy preaching in those days?
JOHN: yeah, but I was really bad at it. I mean I didn’t know how to do it right, and I – the first time I preached, they took me to a bus depot in Spartanburg, North Carolina – or South Carolina. And they dropped me off – these older students; I was a first-year student – and they said, “You go in the bus depot and get a crowd and preach.”
JOHN: And so, they did; they dropped me there and I went in there. I had my Bible in my hand, and I walk into this bus depot, and there’s – a lot of people in those days traveled by bus. I’m in there, and I’m looking around at this motley bunch. And so, I just started preaching, you know, a gospel message. And you could just see people looking at me saying, “The poor kid; he looks intelligent. It’s so sad, you know? He’s got some kind of defect or something.”
And I thought, “You know, this doesn’t make any sense at all.” And so, I did that for about ten minutes, and then I walked out the door, and I went down the street to a – kind of a dance hall where they’re having a high school dance or something. And I just sat outside and witnessed to kids as they went in and out, which I thought was much more sensible. But I mean that’s where I first got my start preaching. And then sometimes I would go to some mission to preach, or I’d go down to some base where the military were to preach, or some school to preach in a chapel or something like that. That’s where I started.
PHIL: So, after two years of Bob Jones University what happened?
JOHN: Well, the short version is I transferred to Pacific College for a number of reasons. One, they had recruited me like crazy for football, and they would take my – the second reason, they would take my credits from Bob Jones, which were not transferable to anyplace because they were a non-accredited school.
PHIL: So, you didn’t have to start over.
JOHN: I didn’t have to start over. I had an opportunity to go to USC and play football there, but they wouldn’t take any credits. And so I said, “I can’t go back and do my whole education.”
So, they wanted me badly to play football. They had developed a pretty extensive football problem. They had a great basketball program and baseball program, but they wanted me to participate in everything, which is what I had waited to do.
I’d been through a horrific car accident after my freshman year. I shouldn’t have survived; I should have been dead. I was thrown out of a car going 75 miles an hour. I survived that. That’s one of the reasons I went back the second year; I felt like the Lord was dealing with my heart.
And it was during that summer between my first and second year that I really knew that I was called to the ministry. And that particular call to the ministry was so firmly established that I thought, “Well, maybe that’s the reason God sent me there the first year; I’ll go back the second year.”
But after the second year, it was apparent to me that that was not taking me anywhere I needed to go. What I am grateful for is ten units of Greek the first year and six more the second year. So, after two years, I actually had already under my belt 16 units of Greek which equipped me for my emphasis on the New Testament. But then I went to Pacific College, in order to participate in athletics, because they would take all my credits.
PHIL: Now tell us about your car accident, because I know that was pivotal in your life.
JOHN: Well, we were coming home after the first year. There were six of us in this little two-door Ford Fairlane car flying down the highway in Alabama. The driver lost control, flipped the car in the air – basically a single car accident, because he was trying to pass somebody and got on the other shoulder; I don’t know whether he nodded off or – anyway, tried to recorrect and come back and set the car into a spin, and then eventually it flipped.
All five kids stayed in the car. Nobody had seatbelts in those days, but all five stayed in the car. The car landed on its roof and spun around on its roof without rolling any further. And the reason it didn’t roll any further was my door flew open, and when the car rolled over on its roof, my door acted like a right angle brace and kept it from rolling.
I was then sliding down the highway beside the car. I could see it spinning beside me and went about 125 or 130 yards on my back. And I was still conscious - in a state of complete shock, but conscious.
PHIL: But seriously injured.
JOHN: Yeah, well, I had third-degree burns – friction burns.
JOHN: My back literally was raw down to the bone because, you know, you’re going fast down an asphalt highway. But I had no broken bones. And I stood up, and I realized I was alive. And I looked at the kids, and they started crawling out of the car. And on the front I still had my shirt and pants and belt – on the back nothing but asphalt all embedded in there. And so, they got me – they took me in a car; a guy in a car took me to Birmingham, which was like a hundred miles away.
JOHN: They put me to take me to the hospital. And I got in there, and they didn’t know what to do with all that stuff inside my back, and they decided to try to scrape it out. And it was such a horrific agony that they stopped. And then they decided to lay strips of what they called furacin for burns all through my back. And they wrapped me like a mummy. I had it on my elbows, my hands, my shoulders, my knees. And they wrapped me like a mummy and said, “You know, we’re shipping you to California.” And so, it was all wrapped.
And then, when I got to California, I was in for more pain because they decided that that was a bad thing to do. So, they decided to tear all those strips of stuff that were in my flesh out, and it was pretty horrific stuff.
And I had to lie in my bed on my stomach for about three months and let that all heal, at the end of which I really was ready to do whatever God wanted me to do. And I knew by then I was going to preach and teach.
And so, I ended up that year at Pacific College, playing on their football team, and had a great time and played three seasons there – football, baseball, basketball. And that was the fulfillment of something I’d wanted to do as a kid.
PHIL: Did you get it out of your system – the sports?
JOHN: Well, I just loved it. I mean I had so much affirmation and I did it well. You know? If you can sing, you sing. And if you can run, you run. You know? And I could do it’ so I did it and thoroughly enjoyed it. And it became a platform for me to give a testimony witness when I was Player of the Week and I spoke at the Kiwanis Club deal. And I just got up and gave my testimony about Christ.
And a guy came to me and said, “I know a girl in the hospital whose – her boyfriend shot her through the neck; she’s a quadriplegic; she’s a head cheerleader at a high school. You know, I’ve heard what you’ve said about your life. Would you go and talk to her in the hospital?”
And I’m a kid. You know? I’m just in my college – my last college year of football. And I went to the hospital, and I saw her come to Christ. And it was so incredible that God could use me to bring this gal who’d been a quadriplegic for like a week or two to Christ. And she went on, by the way, to marry a Christian guy who cared for her. And I just said, you know, “This is what matters.”
So, I told my coach – I have – I still have a stack of letters somewhere in a little scrapbook from the football – pro football teams – and I just said, “You know, tell them I’m not going to – I’m not going to play. I know where God wants me.”
And then I went to seminary. And after my first seminary year at Talbot, I got a call from the Cleveland Browns. They had a great wide receiver named Paul Warfield, who had broke his collarbone in the August practice, and they needed another wide receiver, and my name came up. And I said, “No, I can’t; I’m really – I’m going to stay in seminary and keep doing what I’m doing.”
PHIL: So, that’s quite a dramatic change –
JOHN: Never looked back.
PHIL: – from when you started college until you got into seminary.
PHIL: Now you’re serious about being a student.
JOHN: Yeah, and nobody could believe it. But when I went to seminary after all this, and I knew this was the course of my life, it all changed. Because everything I studied was about the Word of God. Everything I studied came out of the Bible. And I just had an avaricious appetite for all that; and so, I just consumed that.
And my parents, you know, were justified in all their speeches they gave me about not doing my best because I started to do academically what I probably was capable of doing before. I’m not a genius by any stretch of the imagination. There were a lot brighter guys than me in college and in seminary. But I had the appetite to dig into it because I loved it, and I just had – that’s where my curiosity got directed.
PHIL: Right, yeah. Now, you went to seminary here in Los Angeles.
JOHN: Yeah, I went to seminary at Talbot Theological Seminary which was associated with Biola. And the reason was because the dean was a man named Charles Feinberg. Charles Feinberg was a formidable biblical scholar and a man who was passionate about the authority of Scripture, passionate about the Word of God. Just a converted rabbi; basically studied 14 years to be a rabbi. Brilliant, brilliant mind. Knew 35 languages; learned Dutch in a couple of weeks. His wife was a part of The Fiddler on the Roof Jewish community that came out of Russia. She was also a brilliant, brilliant person. And, you know, there daughter was valedictorian at UCLA. Their two sons are both double doctorates; they have Ph.D.s and Th.D.s. I mean there was just – there was just an incredible genetic pool of brain power in that family.
Well, Feinberg just knew the Bible and loved it passionately. And I wanted to be under a man that had a passion. I wanted to be under a man who was not just an academic, but somebody who literally bled the Word of God and was serious about it, and somebody who was way beyond me. And so, I went to that seminary just for him to be my mentor, my professor, and took every course that he offered.
PHIL: And he took you under his wing.
JOHN: He did. He decided – in fact my dad brought me into his office when we first went down there, and he said, “This is my son, Johnny” - I was always known as Johnny – “and I want you to make him into a Bible expositor.”
And Dr. Feinberg says, “Well, what has he been up to now?”
And he said, “Well, he’s basically been a football player.”
And Feinberg kind of looks over his glasses like, “Are you kidding me?” You know? “Some brain dead jock I’m going to turn into a Bible expositor?” So, anyway, he said to my dad – he said, “I’ll do my best.”
And you know what made it really neat was, he had a son – Paul Feinberg, who teaches at Trinity Seminary.
JOHN: And Paul was a pitcher on the UCLA baseball team. And so – and I had pitched in college. And so, we just hit it off as buddies. And so, I had access to the family through Paul. And Feinberg found out, you know, that we had this friendship. And it just enhanced the possibilities. And as time went on, he did take a personal interest in me – a very personal – until I failed him. He asked me to preach a certain sermon on a certain text in chapel, and I butchered it. And it just – he was so angry at me for doing it, because I had misrepresented the intent of the text, that I thought he was going to give up on me. I really did; I thought it was curtains from then on.
And he called me into his office, and he just rants around, “How could you do that? How can you possibly do that? How can you completely miss the point of the passage?” And it was the greatest lesson I ever learned. Greatest lesson.
I guess one of the particular joys of my life is when the family invited me to preach at his funeral. So, they must have gotten word from him toward the end that I had figured out how to get the point of a passage right.
PHIL: That left an indelible mark on your mind. I know it did because I’ve heard you talk about it. And when you preach –
JOHN: Yeah. I mean, you know, look; you have one man you want to please. All right? This guy mattered to me. I wanted to please him. I wanted to show him that his time invested in my life was not wasted. I wanted to show him that I would carry the baton. I wanted to show him that I would be faithful to the heritage that he had given me, and that the professors that he had surrounded himself with – Rosscup and Thomas in particular, who now teach at The Master’s Seminary and were my teachers – that these guys hadn’t wasted their time on me, that I was going to be faithful to this charge that they had given me. And so, you’ve got that going. And you go up to preach, and the whole faculty’s standing behind you and they’re expecting you to deliver something that reflects the investment that they’ve made.
And then you’ve got the student body out there, and you want to impress them that you’re making it, and you’re doing what you’re supposed to. And then you miss the whole point of the passage, and the faculty can’t believe it and are beginning to wonder whether, like the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, you know, your whole ministry is in vain.
PHIL: Now when you really –
JOHN: And the student body are looking at you going, “Pfft, pfft, pfft.”
PHIL: So to this day, when you prepare a message, do you hear that voice in the back of your head -
JOHN: I have this little Charlie Feinberg on my shoulder –
PHIL: Saying, “Don’t miss the point.”
JOHN: - whispering to me, “Don’t miss the point of the passage.” That’s a great lesson.
PHIL: It is; it is.
JOHN: You know, I mean, it’s – failure’s the backdoor to success. You just don’t want that pain again.
PHIL: You said once that he gave you a set of books, too, when you graduated.
JOHN: Well, when I graduated – I disappointed him again because he told me I’d won the – some award for exposition for my seminary career. You know? My grades in the classes and exposition. And he called me in to thank me and all this. And then I didn’t turn a paper in. Because, you know, you get to your last courses, and your last deal, and it was a final little paper. And my grades were good enough; I was going to graduate.
And Dr. Thomas whacked me down a grade, and he didn’t know that that was going to happen to me. And so, the next day he found out that I had not won the award because I didn’t turn in this little paper. And he called me in and gave me another lesson about no matter how far you go, you haven’t gone all the way until you’ve finished. And a great lesson. I mean he just said, “That’s not tolerable; that is not acceptable.”
And then, as his parting shot, he – I walk into his office the day of graduation. He’s got this box full of Keil Delitzsch, which is a Hebrew text commentary on the Old Testament; it was about 25 volumes. And it’s his own personal set. He’s been marking in it all his years of teaching and, you know, highlighting the good stuff and all this. And so, he says, “This is for you.” He says, “I’m giving this to you. Now you have no excuse.”
JOHN: So, he gives me this. I go marching out to my car with these two big boxes full of this. I think recently I’ve – it was pretty worn then, and it’s so shattered now I took it – I’m taking it down to the seminary library; maybe they can put it in their archives, this little memorabilia.
PHIL: Yes. Wow. What other influences do you recall from seminary?
JOHN: Well, there were a number of them. I think the thing that I go back to so often in seminary is you have to learn the Greek. You have to learn the Hebrew. You need to learn the framework of theology, all those kinds of things. There’s some great insights that we get in the intensity of church history and all that. You need to learn the framework of theology, all those kinds of things. There’s some great insights that we get in the intensity of church history and all that.
But I think the thing that stands out most is the out-of-class intimate times with professors, where you probe deeper than the lecture, where they take an interest in your life. And that’s something was so very valuable to me. There were only 125 guys in the seminary at that time. And so, we had some access to the men.
One other guy that I remember was a guy named Ralph Kypper. Ralph Kypper is a name that some people will know. The name Donald Grey Barnhouse everybody would know - the great, great Philadelphia preacher at Tenth Presbyterian; preached a Bible study hour on network radio across America. He had a secretary named Ralph Kypper. Ralph was a little, short guy, almost totally blind, could see ten percent out of one eye. Just the funniest guy you ever met. He was hilarious. I mean everything he did was funny; everything he said was funny. And yet, he was a serious scholastic. He did a lot of Barnhouse’s secretarial work and research.
But he taught me one thing that has literally defined my ministry through the years; and that was whenever he explained a passage, he explained it with another passage. I never saw anybody do that. I never heard anybody do that. My dad never did that. Nobody I ever heard in chapel at the seminary ever did that.
He would take a passage and explain that verse with other verses. So, it was Ralph Kypper that taught me to explain the Bible with the Bible. And he said, “When you do that, you have authority in your illustrations, and people learn the Bible, and you see the cohesiveness of Scripture. And he taught me to do that, and I have followed that to the letter through all these years.
PHIL: Interesting, because that’s one of the things I would say you taught me to do.
JOHN: Yeah. That’s really an inimitable characteristic of what I do.
PHIL: Right. Well, you started – after seminary, you started to get more education. Right? Didn’t you begin a doctoral program?
JOHN: Yeah. I decided that I – well, they wanted me to think about coming back and taking a position in the seminary. You know?
PHIL: At Talbot?
JOHN: Yeah, becoming whatever at Talbot – or Biola in those days – would I consider going on to get a doctorate so I could come back. And so, I thought, “Well, I don’t know what the Lord has for me.” At the time I was serving at the seminary. And so I thought, “Well, maybe I should get a doctorate.”
So, I went to Claremont School of Theology, which is the only place you could go to get a doctorate. And it was liberal as liberal could be. But I thought, “Maybe I’ve got enough seminary units that they’ll leapfrog me into something I can just kind of wrap up and get their doctoral program over with.”
And they gave me two hundred books to read; they were in French and German. So, I went off to a local junior college for a couple of semesters and learned German. And then they started to assign me my first classes. And the first class was “Jesus and the Cinema.” And the other class was “The Jesus Hermeneutic.” And as soon as I saw the class descriptions, I said, “I’m done. There is no reason for me to have my convictions attacked and assaulted by this kind of nonsense.
JOHN: And so, I dropped out of the program.
PHIL: But you did – you did work for Talbot; you were on their staff.
JOHN: Well, I was on there for almost three years. And I was there at the seminary, and most of the time I was traveling and preaching. They wanted me to represent the school by kind of being the demonstration of what they did when they trained a guy. I would go out and do expositional preaching. And I was at – I was at Youth for Christ, Campus Crusade, Young Life – every camp, every youth convention, churches, colleges, universities. I preached about 35 times a month for nearly 3 years, and that was great; that was like cramming 10 years experience into 3.
PHIL: Is that where you really honed your preaching skills?
JOHN: I think so.
PHIL: So, it was during those years, while you were speaking for Talbot, that you met your wife? Is that right?
JOHN: Actually, I met Patricia before I worked for Talbot. I met Patricia when I was still a seminary student. We were married at the end of my second year in seminary. I remember taking Patricia to my football games because I wanted her to see me play. I wanted to take her to the games. I thought, “If there’s no other way to win this girl, you know, I’ll wow her on the football field,” and thought I could get her there.
So, I remember her standing on the sidelines in a few games. We have some fun old pictures of her standing beside me when I’m in a football uniform at the end of a football game. So, it was actually at the end of my college career that we met. She was a friend of my sister’s, and her dad was Sunday school superintendent in my dad’s church.
JOHN: A precious guy and a great family.
PHIL: So, tell us how you came together. It’s an interesting story there I know.
JOHN: Well, yeah. She was a friend of my sister. And so, she was around the house. Even when I was gone away, in those first two years of college at Bob Jones in the East, she was a friend of Jeanette’s. And so, she would be at the house. I can’t remember exactly when I first started recognizing her, but she was the cutest girl I’d ever seen, fun, loved the Lord. I always say, and it’s true, she could cook. She’s just – she was just the best, the package. You know?
PHIL: Yes. I’ve heard you say that one of the things that attracted you to EHR from the beginning was she made great sandwiches.
JOHN: Yeah. Well, you know, I never had a sandwich like she would give me. She would make me a sandwich, and it was just one of these Dagwood things. You know? And I was always hungry when I was playing ball and things.
But anyway, she just seemed generous. I saw it in her sandwiches. She just did more than, you know, the sort of basic thing. That was her.
So, anyway, she, however, at the time, was engaged to another guy, and they were preparing to get married. So, I just didn’t do anything. Well, then it was time for her to get married. She had the wedding invitations addressed in the trunk of the car, but she couldn’t bring herself to mail them. Well, this is pretty strange. And everybody’s saying, “You’ve got to mail those things. You know? The wedding’s coming, and you’ve got to send – she couldn’t bring herself to do it, to mail them. And I wasn’t really a factor; it was God just restrained that whole thing. And she gave the – she pitched the wedding invitations, gave the guy his ring back.
And at that point I knew she was in significant struggling, and that’s when I thought, “Well, there’s no harm in trying.” So, I said, “Hey, maybe that all happened because you’re supposed to marry me.” I didn’t know; I figured, “Why not go for the moon and see what happens?” That was kind of hard for her to swallow, at the time, but I said, “I don’t know if this is true, but...”
So, I took her home after church one night. I was her teacher. When I was playing football, in those last couple of years, I would, on Sunday mornings, come in and teach the college Sunday class, and she was there. So, I, for a couple of years, had been her Bible teacher. So, I had a little bit of influence in her life from teaching.
So, we were drawn together as friends. And we started to date in that little time, and eventually it became very clear that God had brought us together, and August of 1963 we got married.
PHIL: So, when you were doing itinerant ministry for Talbot Seminary, you were practically newlyweds.
JOHN: Yep, I was married.
JOHN: Yeah. I went to the seminary, really, from 1967 to ‘69 when I came to Grace – ‘66 to ‘69. So, I had been married three years and we already had Matt 12 months after we were married, and another 2 years later, little Marcy. So, our little family - when I went to Talbot, we had a little family. It was hard on her. I mean I was all over the place preaching those years. But she was great about all that. She understood that that’s what God had given me to do, and we tried to make some compensations. And the kids were young enough we took them.
JOHN: You know, we went together.
PHIL: Did you, at the time, enjoy itinerant ministry? Because I know you’re not real fond of traveling now.
JOHN: Well, at the time I – I mean I do what - I’ve always just done what I needed to do. At the time, I wanted to be used by God. And so, I wanted to go wherever he wanted me to go. And in those years, as I said, a lot of it was camp ministry. We’d do weekend camps, week-long camps. For nine years I was at Hume Lake Summer Camp for like two months. And I would preach to junior high and high schoolers every single day for two months. They’d just keep changing the kids every week.
So, we could go as a family and stay together there. We did that nine summers in a row. I could take my little family on weekend things that I did, whether it was Campus Crusade, or Youth for Christ, or some conference or some deal here or there. I could take them. And in the summers, we used to go on the conference trek, the camp tour, as a family. And those were wonderful times as family.
So, those were good times. I looked – I think it’s harder when it kind of becomes – get on a plane and go over here and go over there and come back and go. As long as – in those early years, I didn’t do any air travel. I was basically driving everywhere, and most of the time took the family with us.
PHIL: Mmm. Through those years when you were in itinerant ministry, was it your desire to become a pastor?
JOHN: Always to be a pastor.
PHIL: That was always your –
JOHN: I never wanted to be an itinerant minister, because I always wanted to exposit the Scripture. I mean I had poured – I took a Greek minor in college because I wanted to work in the New Testament. I didn’t want ten suits and ten sermons. I didn’t want to be on the road. I didn’t want to be the out-of-town guy. I wanted to follow what my dad did and my granddad did. I wanted to be in a church, and I wanted to exposit the Word of God.
That’s what I wanted to do. Not so much for the sake of the congregation; I wanted to know what the Bible taught. I had a – just a craving to understand the New Testament in particular. And so, the only way I knew I’d ever satisfy that hunger would be to get in a church and go through it systematically.
PHIL: So, that desire and your preparation and everything that had happened in your life up till then all sort of came together in February of 1969.
JOHN: It did. I had a couple of churches that had my name, but they both said I was too young. I was 20 – in my late 20s – 28 or 29 at the time. They didn’t want to deal with somebody that young.
PHIL: You were by now actively looking for a permanent pastoral role?
JOHN: Yeah, yeah. Well, I don’t know that I was actively looking. People were coming to me, and I was open. I was a little hesitant because my dad had wanted me to serve alongside of him. And I had made the break by going back to the seminary to be there and to preach all the time, because I wanted to increase my preaching. I couldn’t preach if he was preaching all the time.
But I was just open. Whatever – I’ve never been a big, long-range planner. I just, “Okay, Lord, whatever’s going to happen is going to happen. But it was in actually 1968, toward the end of the year, I had done a number of conferences for the young people of Grace Community Church. They – I was kind of the guy that was at all the camps. All high school camps and conferences I wound up kind of being the speaker out here in the West.
And I just – the kids from Grace Community Church were just alive and vibrant and enthusiastic and excited, and they loved to sing, and they had fun. And I just had a great time ministering to their conferences and their camps.
And so, the kids said to me, “Would you ever be our pastor?”
And I said, “Well, I don’t know. Nobody’s asking me to be your pastor, but, you know, someday that’s what I want.”
And so, they went back and told the elders at Grace church, “We want John MacArthur to be our pastor.” It was the high school kids that started it all.
JOHN: Yeah. And so, they said, “Well, we ought to have them come and preach. So, they had me come and preach.
PHIL: Now, I’ve heard you talk about the first time you spoke. You came to candidate or at least to preach so that they could – those elders could hear you. And Patricia didn’t think you did a particularly good job. Right?
JOHN: You know, Patricia is very sensitive to how people might receive what I say. Still she is that way. But then – yeah, because I preached this one – they asked me to preach on a Sunday night. And I had been studying Romans 6, 7. I had been preaching all summer to kids. So, they asked me to do this at the end of the summer. It was either October or November. I just said, “Well, look; I’m going to just talk about what I’m learning out of Romans 6 and 7, because I really had gotten, for the first time in my life, a grip on those passages.
And so, I got up and I just started doing what I’d been doing with kids and camps and conferences, and paid no attention to anything except what I was saying. And then I went about an hour and 20 minutes. And they were used to 30-minute max sermons. And I went down to sit down, and I was oblivious. You know, I can get that way. I just get into it.
And Patricia looks up at me and says, “I can’t believe what you just did.”
I said, “What?”
She said, “Do you know how long you spoke?”
And I said, “No.”
She said, “You spoke an hour and 20 minutes. I mean there’s no chance; they’re not going to have you here.”
And afterwards, I remember – Bob Barrow was the guy’s name; he came to me and he said, “If you were here every week, would you teach us the Word of God like that?”
And I said, “Well, yeah, that’s what I do.” And so, they asked me to come back another week. And when I came back the next week, they had put a big, huge clock on the back wall. Huge clock.
PHIL: Well, you know what I find amazing –
JOHN: Because they wanted it, but they didn’t want it all at once. You know?
PHIL: What I find amazing about that story – and anyone who knows your ministry now – is that you could get through Romans 6 and 7 in an hour and 20 minutes.
JOHN: Well, I was not dealing with the individual elements of the text; I was giving the concept of what was there. But you’re right – I mean obviously that’s a two-year trek now.
PHIL: At least.
JOHN: And so, they – and there were unsaved elders on that board, and unsaved people in leadership in the church. But there were enough good people that knew what they wanted and knew that they needed to be taught the Word of God. And Bible teaching was just beginning to find its way in. And new translations of the Bible, the Jesus Movement, there was new excitement about Bible study because of the new translations. You know? The Jesus Movement was coming.
PHIL: Yeah, California, in those days, was a wild place to minister, wasn’t it?
JOHN: Right. We caught the wave, no question.
PHIL: ‘69 was the summer of the Manson murders and all of that. That was the same year you started as pastor.
JOHN: And that was when the Jesus Movement started out here, and there was a tremendous renewed interest in Bible study. And with those translations and a whole bunch of new little Christian publishers coming into the picture, and I was doing what was unavailable. And so, people started flooding in hear Bible teaching.
PHIL: Now, did you, from the very beginning, have a commitment to preach verse by verse –
JOHN: Absolutely, absolutely. From the very start I began with just a couple of messages up in the front, and then I just started right into the gospel of John. And I think I started into 1 and 2 Peter or 2 Peter; I can’t even remember. Yeah, in the morning one book, in the evening one book. That’s all I ever intended to do.
PHIL: Did you have a realistic expectation at that time, that before you finished your life in ministry, you would preach through the entire New Testament?
JOHN: Absolutely not, because I didn’t know how fast I would go. I think I also did not have a realistic expectation of how people would receive it. Because I didn’t have any track record of doing this. I didn’t know whether I’d drive people out in two weeks. I mean I didn’t know - I knew I could give some messages at a conference that were finely tuned and honed and, you know, you’d take the same 15 or 20 messages and travel around with them for 3 years. But I didn’t know what would be the response. I was pretty much shocked as the response began to be manifested. People were just taking this stuff in and inviting friends. So, I had no expectations at all – least did I ever expect that I would live long enough to finish the New Testament.
And, of course, the longer I did it, the less I expected that, because it kept getting longer and longer, you know, as I got older. My insights into the text got greater and greater, and so, it was harder for me to get through a book. I mean I went through the gospel of John in a hundred messages. That would be two years to do John.
JOHN: It took me eight years to do Matthew. So, everything gets elongated as time goes on. So, if the Lord is gracious, I have only Luke to finish and then Mark and I will have done the New Testament, which will be great.
PHIL: Amazing. Was there an event or an influence, a single thing you can point to that prompted you to do this? Because when you started in ‘69, almost nobody – and there probably wasn’t a pastor anywhere who would take a book and preach verse by verse through the entire –
JOHN: I just knew it was right. I don’t know – there was nothing that I can put my finger on. My dad had taught through Romans and John. I don’t know the exact – don’t remember the exact timing of that, but I just knew that was right. I just knew that was right. And again I’ll go back to what I said, not because that’s the best way to preach to them, but because that’s the only way that I can learn the New Testament. My goal – my initial goal was not to make up sermons that people would like; my goal was to comprehend the New Testament. I was in awe, and still am, of the Bible, and particularly in awe of the New Testament, not that it’s better, but that it’s the full revelation; it’s the completed revelation - not better than the Old Testament.
But I’ve always been in awe of the glories of the New Testament, and I knew that if I didn’t do expositional teaching, I would never ever dig out all that was there. And so, basically, it was my own personal desire to understand everything in the New Testament. I was very frustrated when I used to read the Bible in my devotions, because I didn’t know what I was reading. I couldn’t understand it all; I didn’t know the depth and breadth of it.
So, I admit that I started out to go through the whole New Testament for a very self-centered reason, and that is that I wanted to know what it meant –
JOHN: Because I knew it was the Word of God. And then I knew if I knew what it meant, I could pass it on.
PHIL: Here’s where your curiosity comes into play.
JOHN: Sure, sure.
PHIL: Were there any great surprises in your early years at Grace church? Things you didn’t anticipate?
JOHN: You know, somebody asked me that question in another form. They said, “If you could go back to the beginning of your ministry, knowing what you know now, what benefit would that be?”
And here’s how I answered that question. What I know now, that I could never know there, is what won’t work. What won’t work, and where I wasted so much energy and so much effort to do stuff that won’t work. And you only know that by experience because what happens is you come out with idealistic ideas. You come out with concepts that are airtight, with boxes that you want to put everybody in conveniently. You’ve got a perfect program. Everybody’s going to fit in this program, “You go here, you go here, you go here, you go there.” It doesn’t happen. And people are not rubber ducks; they don’t fit in slots.
There has to be flexibility in a ministry. There has to be option in a ministry. I just think I wasted a lot of energy, when I was young, trying to create concepts and programs to get everybody into conforming in a slot.
And now I realize that’s just so much wasted effort. Because you learn what’s not going to happen, and you learn what people will do and won’t do. You learn how far you can push them and how far is too far. And you learn what to expect out of your staff and your help and the people around you, and what to expect out of yourself. Experience helps you deal with life realistically. I just explained it as you learn what isn’t going to happen no matter how hard you try.
PHIL: Have you noticed a tendency, with young guys going into the pastorate that usually their most – their worst and most disastrous experience is right at the beginning, the first pastorate they go into?
JOHN: And that is largely due to the fact that they are not aware of what won’t happen. They go rushing in, expecting that their idealistic plans – everybody’s going to own and buy, and they sort of force feed those people, and they blow up their opportunities.
PHIL: Mmm. What was the most difficult thing for you as a young pastor?
JOHN: The most difficult thing that ever happens to me, whether it’s when I’m young or old, is disloyalty at the level of leadership. Not because I deserve loyalty, but because disloyalty’s so destructive. The hardest thing you’ll ever deal with is false accusation, people who say things about you that aren’t true and undermine people’s trust and confidence. And this goes on, in my case, all the time, all over the place. Not so much at Grace church anymore. Our people are very loyal. All the critics I’ve outlived, what are they going to bring up they haven’t brought up in the past. You know?
But even beyond Grace church, there are all kinds of accusations and criticisms, that aren’t related to reality, made against me. That’s very hard to deal with, because I don’t want to be viewed by anybody as unfaithful to the Lord, unfaithful to His Word, as an unfaithful Christian. But I think it’s particularly painful, at the level of intimacy, when you pour your life and investment spiritually into men around you that serve with you, and they generate a mutiny against you. That is very hard to deal with. Very hard.
PHIL: That happened to you. You had a mutiny –
JOHN: Oh, it’s happened several times. Yeah, it’s happened several times. And it’s a shock. You know, your own familiar friend has lifted up his heel against you, the one with whom you broke bread. You know? Like Scripture says about Judas.
And I’m loyal. I think the only way to get loyalty is to give loyalty. If somebody in church comes to me and criticizes another staff member, they don’t find me a very good listener. I will rise to the defense of all those that are in my care and serve alongside me. People don’t do that because they know they’re not going to get anywhere with me. And I expect, in giving that loyalty, to receive that back, because disloyalty is so harmful to the unity of the church. So, that’s always been the hardest thing to deal with. To criticize me personally is not disloyal; to undermine me and criticize me publically behind my back, that’s disloyalty.
PHIL: Now next, John, I want to ask you some questions that don’t really fit into any chronological order within your testimony, but these are questions that I think our listeners are going to want to hear you answer.
JOHN: Sure, fire away.
PHIL: Tell us, just briefly, what’s involved in the preparation of a sermon?
JOHN: Well, first of all, I’m in a book. I’m always going through one book on Sunday morning and another book in the sermon on Sunday night. And so, I know where I am at all times. I’m not trying to think up a subject or think up a theme; I just take the next section in the book.
So, I start with the given text in the flow of the book. And my first – I mean down to the practical nub of it all, I take out an 8-1/2 by 14 set of pieces of paper, a little tablet, and I write each verse down on those sheets. And then I go into the original language – and working in the New Testament, of course, predominantly I go into my Greek New Testament, and I do all the research I need so that I get the actual text correct and what it really says. And I’ve got that all written down on these sheets.
Then I go to a second step which is to read commentaries, just because I want to know how others have interpreted the text and how certain writers approach it, and how certain theological viewpoints approach it. I want to take the best of the scholarship of the past and the present.
So, I probably read anywhere from 15 to 18 or so commentaries. And whatever I find in those commentaries that I think is helpful or insightful or explanatory, I also write I those notes in front of me. And then the next step is to go back and look for passages in the Bible itself that further elucidate the particular statement or phrase or word so that I compare this passage with other passage for the sake of interpretation and for the sake of expansion and completeness.
So, by the time I’ve done that, probably a full day may go by - maybe six hours of actual work on that. And then –
PHIL: That’s just preparation/study –
JOHN: Yeah, yeah.
PHIL: - before you actually organize your own sermon.
JOHN: Right. And I haven’t written an outline, and I don’t necessarily have direction at that point. But once I’m done with that, then I write sort of an outline in on top of those notes so I can – by then I can frame up the flow, and I have figured out the main point. The main point then becomes where you’re going with the message, and then you sort of break the material into those elements that make up the explanation of the main point.
And then the last thing I would do would be to write an introduction, because I can’t introduce something until I know exactly what it is I’m going to say, and then I would think about how I wanted to draw it to a conclusion. I’ve got all that down on those sheets in my sort of bizarre shorthand so that only I could read it.
JOHN: You’ve seen them; you know.
PHIL: I have. Something that most of our listeners would be surprised to discover is you don’t use a computer at all.
JOHN: No, I don’t.
PHIL: All of that is manual.
JOHN: It’s all done by hand.
PHIL: And almost illegible to most of us.
JOHN: Yeah. But once I get all that together, I finalize it all, formulate it all. Then I take out some little half-sheets that I actually carry into the pulpit, and I use a broad felt-tipped kind of pen, and I write out the sermon. I write out -
PHIL: Again, by hand.
JOHN: By hand. And I write it out, the introduction, and then I write – I just flow through the text and write everything that’s important. Not necessarily full sentences, but I write pretty full sentences. Because when you preach to the same people years, and years, and years, you tend to want to go back and say the same thing about the same idea. You tend to gravitate to the same words.
So, I have to be somewhat literary and a little prosaic and come up with different ways to say things. So, I do write out key sentences, transitions. And then I’ll put in biblical illustrations that I’ve found, and I come up with about – usually it’s about eight to ten half-sheets, on both sides, of my own notes. Those are legible. They tend to be more legible – to some degree more legible. But that’s what I carry into the pulpit to preach, and that process – that second process is another three or four hours.
Saturday night I set aside a block of time in the evening – I don’t do things on Saturday night – and I go over my final notes very carefully. They’re done in black ink, and then I use a red pen to mark them up. And if there’s anything that I have a question about that I didn’t understand, I change it so I can understand it. And I check all the references so they don’t have a wrong reference written down or so that I don’t think Ezekiel is Exodus or something like that. So, I make sure I’ve checked all those out and I know exactly what’s in those passages.
So, I go over it, and I do the same Sunday afternoon. I take a block of time, late in the afternoon, just before I go to preach at the church, and I do the same thing with the Sunday night sermon.
PHIL: So, by the time you get in the pulpit, your mind is saturated with this text.
JOHN: Right, yeah, because I’ve done all the research myself. No one does any research for me at all. I’ve written it out in rough form. I’ve thought it through. I’ve outlined it; I’ve tampered with that rough draft, and then I’ve written out the final sermon notes in longhand, and then I’ve gone back, checked them out, gone back, outlined things in red, underlined things. And so, by the time I get there, I’m very familiar with it, and I will – I will very often preach through pages without looking at them, and then sort of look down and catch myself where I am. But I still like to have all that material there because I don’t want to depend upon recall when you preach to the same people all the time. Plus, once I’m done with those notes, they can be filed, and their comprehensive enough that I could pull them out and preach that message again, because there’s enough there for me to basically know pretty full treatment of the text.
PHIL: Probably the single most familiar recurring theme in your preaching is the gospel; that’s true in your writing and your preaching. And most of your major books have, in one way or another, defended the gospel. Why have you spent so much time and energy in the pulpit teaching about the gospel?
JOHN: You know, I never expected that. That’s really surprising to me, frankly. If I thought there was anything that was sort of locked down, when I came out of seminary, it was the gospel. I mean everybody knew the gospel. Everybody knew that salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone, no other way to be saved, and believing in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ as the substitutionary provision of God for the sinner. I mean everybody knew that. I grew up hearing that. Every preacher I ever knew preached that gospel.
So, when I came out of seminary – I mean the last thing I thought I would do would be to spend my whole life trying to defend the gospel – not against attacks by unbelievers and liberals, but against what I would consider to be its undermining by evangelicalism.
And it all really sort of got going with a book that was written called The Gospel Under Siege, which, ironically enough, was an attack on the gospel. It purported to be in defense of the gospel, but in truth, it was an assault on the gospel. So, the book itself was laying siege to the gospel in the name of defending it. That book just shook me to the core. And then I got into reading some more of things written by Charles Ryrie and things that have come out of Dallas Seminary, and Louis Sperry Chafer and that whole lordship controversy. And that was – well, that was in the late ‘80s when that all started to break loose. And up until that point, I don’t think that I did focus on the gospel as much.
PHIL: But you did actually – maybe not even without even being aware of it. Your book on the Beatitudes, which was written six-seven years before –
JOHN: Yeah, that’s true.
PHIL: – really dealt with the same issue. And in fact, your very first message at Grace church was a message from Matthew 7 called “How to Play Church.”
JOHN: Yeah, and that did deal with the many who say, “Lord, Lord,” and don’t know Me.
JOHN: So, from the very beginning of my ministry, very – in a defining way, I guess the directing of the Holy Spirit, I was always concerned about people in the church who weren’t Christians. And I came to that because my closest friend in high school, that I used to go witness with, and we were involved in the youth group, denied the faith. One of my closest friends in college – we were the tandem backfield in our football team – went off to seminary, and after seminary abandoned the faith, denied the faith.
One of my very closest, out of two or three friends I had in seminary, the dean’s son, abandoned the faith and set up a Buddhist altar in his house.
JOHN: So, here I am dealing with – I’m not dealing with people on the periphery of Christianity; I’m dealing with the core people. Those last two guys’ fathers were both pastors. And so, I was very aware of the fact that the churches were somehow occupied by people who weren’t truly Christians, and I’d seen them in my college, and I’d seen them in my seminary, and I’d seen them in my youth group.
And when I got into the church, by the time I became pastor of Grace church, I had met with people for a while; I knew there were people in that church that weren’t Christians. And I felt like the first thing I need to do is come out of the chute here with a message that defines this whole issue. And I guess, as I think about it, it did launch that emphasis about being a true Christian.
At that time, however, I didn’t think that the church was filled with non-Christians because the gospel wasn’t being preached. I felt that people were there who, for whatever reason, didn’t really believe the gospel. Then it turned around to being – I began to see that the church was abandoning the true gospel. And so, this even made the problem worse.
PHIL: Yeah. I know your life hasn’t been without personal trials or heartache. Talk about some of these. I mean many of our listeners are aware of the fact that several years ago, Patricia and Melinda were in a serious automobile accident.
JOHN: Well, that’s right. And we had little Hondas in those years, and we’ve gotten bigger Fords these days, but in those days, we had these little Honda cars, because they were economical. And Patricia and Melinda were driving along on a four-lane road, out in the country here, and for whatever reasons, Patricia lost control of the car and sent the car really flying across the incoming traffic – the oncoming traffic. Missed everybody, but going very fast, probably 60 miles an hour on this four-lane highway; hit a curb and catapulted the car in the air. And it flipped in the air and then came down in an eight-foot deep culvert, crushed the top of the car below the headrests.
So, Melinda, by the providence of God, was in the front right seat. She slid down onto the floor and had only abrasions and cuts and things like that. But Patricia’s head took the full blow, and it shattered her neck C-2 - was an explosion fracture they called it, and it just disintegrated, fragmented – and C-3 was shattered. That’s above the respiration line.
JOHN: So, she should have – if it had touched her spinal cord, which would have been down to, you know, millimeters, she would have been paralyzed or dead. Because if it had hit the spinal cord there, she wouldn’t have been able to breathe. She survived all that, and it’s astonishing, really. She never had surgery. The neck healed, amazingly. The nerves that were totally devastated so that she had paralysis in one arm rejuvenated itself; so, she had full use of that.
But during that time, of course, she had a steel halo on her head, and that was a – that was a horrific thing for her to go through. And I’ve always thought that God allowed that not only to elevate my own appreciation for the gift that she is to me, but I have never experienced anything, in all my years in ministry, that more endeared the congregation to me than that. Because they saw a certain vulnerability. They saw that I was not impervious, that I was not living at another level than everybody else.
And as I went through that, trusting in the Lord, the congregation just embraced us with tremendous love and affection. You know? I mean they were all praying continually that she would live, and that she would not be paralyzed, and all of that. I just think that took my relationship to our church family to a completely different level. And, of course, as well, it taught us how dependent we are on the Lord and how we have to trust Him in everything.
And, you know, in some cases, the Lord would allow a paralysis to happen for His own glory, but I think the Lord knew that with the level of involvement in my ministry, the business of my ministry, to have to take care of someone who is totally incapacitated would have been such a difficult thing. And, of course, because I love Patricia, I would have felt responsibility to do that. And the Lord was gracious in letting me continue and in letting her continue to be my helpmeet.
So, we look back on that, not knowing all the reasons why God does what He does, but we have seen many, many streams of blessing that have come even out of that.
PHIL: It equips you, too, to deal with people who are going through extreme trials.
JOHN: I was comforted in that, and we saw the hand of God – we saw the face of God, really, in that. And through the years, you know, we can identify with the people who go through those kinds of things.
It was the same with Mark, when he had a brain tumor, when he was a college student. It was somewhat similar when I had those severe blood clots a few years ago.
PHIL: Yeah, you had a brush with death there yourself, right?
JOHN: Yeah. In fact, I was watching the Discovery channel the other night, and they were talking about pulmonary emboli, blood clots that go into your lungs. And they had a little medical panel there. And I was reminded again of the potential fatality of that particular phenomena. These doctors were saying, “You know, this is deadly when this happens.”
Blood clots form in our leg. Mine, as a result of a knee surgery – really a minor arthroscopic surgery to try to repair some damage done years ago when I played ball. But blood clots formed, broke loose and splattered, literally, over both lungs – you know? – which really is terminal.
I mean if any of those blood clots break loose and go to the heart, you have a heart attack; or they go – break loose and go to the brain, and you immediately have a stroke. And I didn’t get diagnosed right; so, I’m four or five days into this thing before I ever get the help. And by the time I get the help from Dr. Doug Morrow, who’s become a very dear friend – and, by the way, came to Christ through this and has since been in our church – and, you know, maybe the Lord knew this just needed to be the way to reach him, because he was the doctor that saved my life, and he hadn’t been in church since he was a kid.
But anyway, through all of that, your congregation again rises to embrace you in prayer and affection and love and gratitude and all of that. And I think those are wonderful, wonderful things.
And as well, you know, I have a sense that God’s give me more life, and I need to make the most of it. You know, that’s part of how I view all of that. I – when I came out of that, after getting the immediate help I needed to thin out that blood, and recently having had a medical exam, and they couldn’t find traces of any of that, I really do feel the Lord said, you know, “You’ve got more years,” and that just sort of heightens my sense of accountability.
PHIL: That experience was supposed to slow you down, too. The doctors counseled you, I know, to do less travel and all that. But it hasn’t really slowed you down, has it? It seems like every year you make two or three trips overseas for important things like that. You’ve got a ministry in Russia, England – really, your ministry has taken you all over the world.
JOHN: Well, it has for many years, and it’s been cut back a lot. I’ve said I’ll take one trip. Unfortunately, this year I’ll take two trips. But the other one is, of course, to Italy, because that country is so much on my heart now. They have opened their hearts. The missionaries there and the pastors – you know, the national pastors, the Italian pastors who are so – that’s such a tough place to minister.
But they’ve turned to us now. You know? I’ve been over there a number of times, and you’ve been there, and our staff have been there, and we’ve all taught. And now they know what sound doctrine is, for the first time ever, really. And now they know what expository preaching is. So, they said, “Now you need to come and teach us.”
So, we’ve actually started, with the help of our board member, Joe Aleppo, of course, in his vision, an expository preaching training center in Italy, and the building is complete in Sicily, and we need some men who will go to Italy and train a generation of Bible expositors who are just now finding out what it is to exposit the Scripture.
So, I will continue to do some of these things, but the ones that I think are strategic to my own ministry - to our own ministry rather than going, as I did on some occasions in the past, to speak for other organizations.
PHIL: Well, you mentioned the training center. There have been a number of training centers raised up around the world as a direct result of your preaching ministry. There’s one in Samara, Russia; there’s one in Puna, India; there’s one in Italy now.
JOHN: Yeah, it’s pretty amazing. There are 15 or 16 expository training centers, leadership training centers around the world now, everywhere from Japan to Croatia, to the ones you mentioned, to New Zealand, South Africa. One of the most exciting ones is in Pietersburg, South Africa, where we’re training – we’re going to be enabled now to train 100 black tribal pastors. They come out of there – they’re in their tribe for three weeks; they come out for one week of intense training, and then they go back for three weeks; they come out for one week of intense training. Great ministry.
And all of these 15 or 16 training centers around the world are manned by graduates of The Master’s Seminary. So, what happens is I preach. These countries get the tapes. People in these countries get the tapes from Grace to You. They hear the preaching. They say, “We want that; could you come?” I go; you go – you know, Phil, you’ve been – others of our staff go. You’ve been to India; you’ve been to South Africa. And we send guys to go to give training. And eventually they say, “We need a school here. And that’s the process: it starts with tapes and books; it winds up in seminars. It cranks up, and then pretty soon they want a full-fledged school, and then we get graduates out of the seminary to go.
In Samar, Russia – I’m going to go there when I go to Moscow for the study Bible – is really the model – in some ways the model. I don’t know how many men there are in that program there. There are hundreds of them, and they are lining up to learn expository preaching from the four or five guys that we have that launch that. We started a seminary in Irpin outside of Kiev. We have had 600 graduates at that seminary now.
JOHN: All taught by our men. And that’s the only faculty the Russian evangelicals want. They’ll only take Master’s guys. And our commentaries have been translated, you know. We have 600 graduates to that seminary now, every one of them in pastoral ministry.
PHIL: That’s amazing.
JOHN: That is amazing. And those seminaries, those training centers are continuing to grow around the world, and we’re – we have a model now – you know, we’ve done it enough we have the model, and all we need to do is take that model into various countries, find an association of churches, a fellowship there in the country that we can partner with, and train them in there there.
PHIL: That is quite a legacy, John. What would John MacArthur most like to be remembered for?
JOHN: Well, I always think, when I’m asked that question, about what Paul said in 1 Corinthians, “Let a man account of us as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” I just really want to be known as someone who was a servant of the Lord. You know, Paul uses the word hupēretēs, a galley slave, under rower. Just that I was faithful to the Word of God, faithful to the teaching of the Word of God and to the unfolding of the mysteries of the gospel of the New Testament. That’s – it’s not about how many schools or how many books or how many radio programs; it’s just about being faithful to the Word of God.
PHIL: Well, thank you for that faithfulness, John.
JOHN: Well, you’re welcome. Thank you for being faithful in being a partner along the way; it’s been great.
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