CARL: Well, John, we’ve just concluded a series, but on Monday a brand new series that I know is of extreme importance to you. As a matter of fact, a book just recently released is the same title, The Gospel According to Jesus. I read in the forward of the book that you thought or said that you will be misunderstood, possibly by what you’ve written here. Maybe that’s a good way to start. It seems like this must be very important if you’re going to be misunderstood.
JOHN: Well, I think that’s true, Carl. I think this is probably the most important book I’ve ever written. I would even be so bold as to say it may be one of the most important books every written, not because I wrote it, but because of the things that it deals with. The gospel according to Jesus sounds, at first, I think, a bit common to people. What is there to say about the gospel according to Jesus? I mean He died on the cross and rose again, and you believe in Him, and you receive eternal life.
But there is a tremendous amount of confusion about this subject. And people are polarizing on different views. And I think that it’s time to make a clear statement about what Jesus taught about the gospel and go back to the beginning.
CARL: Is there something specifically, or has there been a period of time that has kind of brought this to the front for you? Is there something that’s concerned you in your own ministry or in Christian evangelicalism in general?
JOHN: It goes way back, and I maybe will take a moment to share where it all has its roots. When I was in high school, I had a friend; he and I used to go sometimes on the weekend down to Pershing Square, which is in the middle of Los Angeles, and it’s kind of where bums and derelicts and street people hang out. And we would go down there for the express purpose of witnessing, sharing Christ.
He was very active in his church; I was very active in my church. We were close buddies. He played first base on the baseball team; I played shortstop. We played basketball together; we played football together. His father would give me a summer job, and we were close buddies.
He went away to college, and I didn’t see him for a couple of years. And when we met, a couple of summers after we had begun college, he told me he was an atheist. I didn’t know what to do with that. I didn’t know how to file that theologically; I couldn’t handle it. I didn’t know whether he could possibly have ever been a Christian and wind up an atheist. I knew if you were saved it was forever. And so, I had a difficult time understanding what was going on.
When I went to college, I was student body vice president. I had a good friend who was student body president. Again, we played tandem backs in the same backfield in our football team in college. He was a youth pastor after he graduated from college. I was a youth pastor after I graduated from college. He was my really close buddy. He wound up teaching philosophy in the California state school system and running drugs, got into sexual orgies, and denied the faith. That was a second close friend. I had a very difficult time, again, dealing with that. This is a guy raised in a Christian family. His father was a pastor. He was a youth pastor and totally abandoned everything about the faith, not only in theology but in lifestyle.
As if that wasn’t enough, I went to seminary, and a sun of the dean was a very dear friend – close friend. We sang together; we ministered together; we talked theology together. And he married a girl who was into Buddhism and walked away from the faith.
So, I was really struggling with that. And I never really dug deeply into the understanding of what is going on in this regard. And as I got out into the ministry, I began to realize that this is pretty common stuff. People who make a profession of Christ, but you look at their life and you just don’t see anything, and sometimes you see flat out denial. Those experiences in my life catapulted me into understanding what true salvation really is.
And then, as a pastor, of course, you ask yourself that question again and again and again because you see people come to the church. You know, they make a commitment to Christ, they get baptized, and a few months later you don’t know where they are. A few years later, you don’t know where they are.
Or some guy you pour your life into – I remember a guy at Grace church, when I first came there, I spent a year – I met him every Tuesday morning at 6:00 and prayed for an hour with the guy. At the end of the year, he left his wife and left the faith. Now, that’s a guy really close to me. And I don’t know, but I think the Lord may have been preparing me to tackle the subject, because it was so terribly close to my own heart.
And then along came some writings. And I read things like this, “If you believe in Christ at any moment in your life and never believe again, and become an agnostic or an atheist, you are still saved if you once believed in the past.” And that kind of theology is beginning to develop a following. And that’s when I really felt I needed to write the book.
CARL: It seems at first glance – I’m sure those listening are possibly thinking this – this is a matter of liberal vs. conservative theology. Those who have denied the faith, they don’t probably believe in the Scripture, do they? Is that the case?
JOHN: No, not at all. In fact, the people who are advocating a view that says a person is saved if they believe only for one moment and then walk away from it are conservative, Bible-believing people. They’re articulating a theology that says salvation is a result of and is secured by a moment of faith, whether or not there’s a transformation in life.
And that’s the concern to me because I look at Matthew 7, and I hear the Lord say that many are going to say unto Him, “Lord, Lord, we’ve done all these things in Your name.” And these aren’t people who are denying Him; these are people who are supposedly serving Him – at least in their own mind.
And He says to them, “I don’t even know you; depart from Me you workers of iniquity.”
So, apparently a person who claims to know the Lord, but who has a pattern of life of working iniquity, will not be admitted to heaven. And we’ve got to be consistent about taking what Jesus said and building our theology of the gospel on that.
CARL: Now, in the coming days, on the broadcast, we’ll be talking details about this. But maybe a thumbnail sketch would be good here. It seems immediately that we’re attacking what a lot of us have come to know as the gospel of Christ. You think of accepting Christ as Savior, asking Christ into your heart. We can remember camping situations or youth camps or rallies and this type of thing, making a decision. Are we saying that all of this is now wrong? Have we been led astray?
John: No, I would say that all of that is right. Receiving Christ is right, and accepting Christ is right, and deciding to follow Christ is right. But we’re dealing with two issues here. What is the nature of true faith, and what does it produce?
In other words, would you believe, for example, that someone could make some kind of decision toward Christ that wasn’t real? Sure, right?
JOHN: Who’s going to deny that? Is there such a thing as a non-saving faith? Sure. Jesus, you remember, was confronting the Jews early in John’s Gospel and says many believed on Him – John 8 – but He didn’t commit Himself to them because He knew what was in their heart. He knew their faith wasn’t real. John 6:66, “Many of His disciples walked no more with Him.” They went away. They were short time kind of commitment.
So, what we’re talking about here is if it is possible to believe with a non-saving faith – and I guess that would be the devils who believe and tremble, and they’re not saved – then it must be very, very important to discern what a true saving faith is. So, we want to discern that. What does it mean to really accept, receive, commit your life to Christ?
CARL: Now, are we talking – I’m thinking in terms of the way evangelism is normally handled or at least in most evangelical circles – we’re talking about the point of salvation and then the importance of assuring that person a salvation and so on. Are we taking a slice at that second step now and saying, “How do we know we’re saved?” Are there differences, in other words, between what must I do and how do I know?
JOHN: Yes. And I think that’s the second point. The first thing you want to know is what is the nature of saving faith so that we can discern true faith from false faith, non-saving faith?
And second question, what is the result of regeneration? That’s the issue. If you’ve been regenerated - born again, given new life - if you’re a new creation in Christ, will you be the same or will you be different? If you’re born again, and you have a new nature and a new heart, and God takes out your stony heart and gives you a new heart, and if He plants his Spirit in you, will you deny the faith? Will you deny Christ? Will you become an atheist? You see, that’s the issue.
What does regeneration do for you? I’m convinced that what the Bible says it does is it transforms your life so that you love God, you love Christ, and you believe the Bible. And you begin to live a life of obedience that follows Christ. It’s not – and I want to make this very clear; it’s not that you become perfect – you don’t. It’s that you have new desire.
CARL: But it sounds immediately like you’re saying this is sinless perfection, John. You’re expecting us to live a perfect life.
JOHN: No, it’s very simple, Carl. I would say this - if you ask me the bottom line characteristic of a truly converted person, I would say this: the person who is genuinely converted, transformed, given a new nature so that they have exercised true saving faith. They’ve been transformed. That person – bottom line – will love Jesus Christ. Okay? It doesn’t necessarily mean that because we love Him we never offend Him. It does mean when we offend Him we hurt, because we violated that love. Christians aren’t perfect. Christians will be pained by their imperfection because it violates the God they love.
Do you remember what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 16:22? He says, “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed.” Cursing comes to those who don’t love Christ. Conversely, blessing must come to those who love Christ. That’s what Peter said, “Whom having not seen you love.” That is the bottom line characteristic of a Christian.
If I say to a person, “Do you love the Lord Jesus Christ,” or if I said to someone, “Tell me how you feel about the Lord Jesus Christ,” I would be able, probably better than any other way, to discern the reality of the state of their heart.
If they say to me, “I don’t like Christ at all; I have no interest in Him whatsoever. I wouldn’t really care what their past decision might be. I don’t know what they did in the past, but if they can say flatly, “I have no interest in Christ; He compels me to do nothing; I have no particular desire to follow Him at all,” that is not – that is not the Spirit moving, and that is not the evidence of a new nature.
A person, let’s say, caught in adultery, or a person committing sin, “How do you feel about the Lord Jesus Christ,” and they say, “I love the Lord Jesus Christ, and I hate that I offend Him,” now you’re talking about somebody who’s nature is different. And even though our nature is recreated, because we’re still in the flesh that new nature is inhibited and restrained by sin that is in us Paul says in Romans 7.
CARL: We’re talking today about John MacArthur’s latest book The Gospel According to Jesus. And beginning on Monday on the broadcast, we’ll be presenting a series of messages, delivered to his congregation in Southern California, dealing with this topic and, the Lord willing, late in the series we’ll have a chance to come back and actually ask some specific questions. And no doubt there will be questions. With that in mind, the book just now being out, what type of questions are being asked? What is the most common?
JOHN: Well, Carl, initially, I believe that people who wanted to come up with a gospel that sort of was simple and, from my viewpoint, easy, those people had a pure motive. I really do believe that. And their motive was to make sure that they didn’t pollute pure grace.
CARL: Just as I am.
JOHN: That’s right, yeah. In the book, I make the point that there are people who say – who want to celebrate just as I am, and they go a step further and say, “Not only will He take you just as you are, but He’ll leave you the same way.” And that’s what we don’t accept. But I really believe that these people wanted to preserve grace. And they were fearful that if you put repentance and genuine commitment into the act of believing, you have therefore, somehow, added works to grace.
So, in the book, I make a major point out of the fact that I am convinced that salvation is by grace through faith plus or minus nothing. In fact, I believe that even the faith to believe is a gracious gift from God. Salvation is all of grace. Repentance from sin is a gracious gift from God. A willingness to follow and obey Christ is a gracious gift from God.
It’s not a situation where – and this is where the criticism will come, “Well, you’re saying that a person has to clean up his life, a person has to be willing to be obedience, a person has to surrender his will to Christ.” No, what I’m saying is that when the Lord produces saving faith, He graciously produces repentance, submission, and willingness to obey.
CARL: Well, what does this saving faith look like? Intellectually, you’ve already indicated that we can believe a lot of things but it not be there. Is there an emotional or some kind of will involved in all of this as well?
JOHN: Yeah. If – and that’s a very astute question, Carl, because if you say that it’s simply believing, what do you mean? What do you mean by that? You mean there’s no – there’s no sense in which faith becomes operative? It’s just something in my head and that’s it? No. I think faith, in the New Testament – saving faith – is a verb rather than a substantive. It isn’t a thing; it’s a way to live. That’s why the term pisteuō, which means to believe, is regularly used in the case of saving faith in the present tense – linear, continuous action. You don’t believe in a moment. You are a believer; you are believing.
So, I think that the essence of faith is that it becomes a pattern of thinking that results in a way of life. To put it very simply – and this is a subtitle we use on the book – what does Jesus mean when He says, “Follow Me”? Another way to approach people, rather than saying, “Will you believe,” is, “Are you willing to follow Jesus Christ?”
Jesus said it – He said this, “If you love Me, you keep My commandments. And the one who knows Me is the one who keeps My commandments.” So, it is a continual believing which results in a change in behavior. I mean let’s face it; our life is a reflection of what our beliefs are, if they’re true beliefs.
CARL: Now, immediately, the thought comes to mind again that what we consider to be evangelical evangelism – those two words don’t even need to go side-by-side, that one stands alone, but it seems like our process that even I experience, no doubt most of the listeners have – is that there was a day in time – it almost seems like we’re talking about a process rather than faith being today or September so-and-so 19 whatever.
JOHN: It’s not a process in the sense that salvation is a momentary miracle. It is a progress from that point on. We’re not talking about process to salvation; we’re talking about progress from salvation. We’re not talking about sort of moving along the track to get saved; we’re talking about being saved and then the result of that is a changed life.
I don’t believe for one moment that salvation is a process. I believe – I believe salvation is a momentary miracle that happens by the sovereign working of God in the heart. And I believe there is a moment in which a person passes from death to life. There is a moment of new birth. But I also believe it issues in a new life, in a whole result of that one momentary miracle begins to unfold throughout all of time and is culminated in eternity when we’re made like Christ.
Now, I realize that there are some people who are criticizing this because they don’t understand what I’m saying. Some people say, “Well, is this a knock on grace?”
“Is this saying you have to do some pre-salvation human works to get yourself in a position to get saved?”
“Is this meaning that once you’re a Christian you’ll never sin?”
CARL: And what about law and grace? This sounds like we’re following a few steps before this grace is applied.
JOHN: Well, of course, the mystery of the new birth is indeed a mystery. I don’t think there are – how can I say it – particular steps to salvation from a human viewpoint. I think God saves us in marvelous ways, but I think there are some ingredients.
In other words, people say, “Well, do you have to repent first and then say, ‘I’m willing to submit,’ and then yield, and then you get saved?”
I don’t know the sequence, and I don’t look at it like steps. But what I would simply say the Bible teaches is that when God saves you, He produces in your heart repentance for sin and a desire to follow the Lord Jesus Christ. And I’m not really saying anymore than that. There’s a change – it’s primarily a change in motivation, primarily a change in desire.
I mean I’ve often said that if a person is a bad-tempered, grumpy, grouchy unbeliever, and they get converted to Christ, they’ll probably be a bad-tempered, grumpy, grouch Christian until the Lord and the power of the Spirit begins to shape and mold and mature the individual. Sin is a reality. And if we say we have no sin, we make God a liar. But I do believe that we can look for a progress in our lives toward Christlikeness. And that progress and that process is dependent on obedience to what the old reformers used to call the means of grace: prayer, Bible study, and that kind of thing.
CARL: John, I know we’ll have time to ask some specific questions and maybe some more detailed questions as we conclude this series in a few days. But is what you’re talking about – is this brand new? Yeah, to some extent it seems like its contrary to what we’ve been taught for the last several years.
JOHN: Carl, it isn’t new. And let me –be bold enough to say it isn’t even controversial. This is what the church has always taught. It’s just gotten muddied because some people are saying things that are unclear. This is not new, and there is no reason in the world that this book should be controversial. It shouldn’t be. I don’t even want to be involved in the controversy unless it’s a controversy with Satan and the enemy. This is not controversial. This is Scripture, and it isn’t new. There’s an entire chapter in the book that chronicles the whole history of this doctrine which was crystal clear in the history of the church. And I stand in that tradition of the history of the church that has always held this doctrine to be true.
CARL: At the risk of sounding exploitive of current events in Christian history in recent years, what does The Gospel According to Jesus – this book and the studies you presented – have to do with what’s been happening in the way of scandals and things? Is there a concern there that people are being misled and that part of what the gospel is is being diluted by all of that?
JOHN: Well, if we want to make sure we’re not scandalous in any area, we ought to make sure we’re not scandalous in reference to the gospel. I can’t think of anything more horrifying than to have some man or woman articulating other than a true gospel, because that damns people. I mean if you’re giving people the wrong message, I mean that is – that’s deadly. That’s fatal. I also think – look at the scandals in the church today, all this adultery and all the other. I think that what we’ve got in the church, in a large scale is unconverted people – unsaved people. I’m not going to sit in judgment of particular people, but I think there are an awful lot of folks who are going to show up and say, “Lord, Lord,” and He’s going to say, “Depart from Me, I never knew you.”
There are a lot of – to use the parable in Matthew, there are a lot of virgins with no oil. There are a lot of people who are religious; they’re hanging around thinking they’re bridesmaids and they’re going to get invited to the wedding, but when it comes time to look and see if the light’s on, the light’s not on; there’s no oil. And they’re in darkness rather than light.
I personally believe, Carl, that the churches are filled with unsaved people. And in many cases, what’s really frightening is these people thought they made quote-unquote a decision at some point in the past. And they’re hanging on that decision.
I heard recently, to give you an illustration – in fact, I heard this week, a family who sent their child to camp – high school camp. At high school camp, this kid broke down and confessed Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. The youth director told the parents that the kid had made a genuine commitment to Christ and confessed sin and was so thrilled with the new faith and the parents were irate because they said, “We were with him when he made his childhood decision. How dare you question the reality of that decision!” And they yanked the kid out of the youth group. Now that is frightening. They would rather – they would rather bank on some kind of past event than a present, broken, contrite, repentant, obedience heart. I don’t know how many other parents are like that but...
So, I think the frightening thing that we’re looking at in this whole deal is the church is populated with people who are under the illusion that they’re Christians, and it hasn’t changed the way they live at all. They’re looking at some past event as if that’s all that matters.
CARL: I’m certain the direction of the book is toward the individual. And to wrap up today’s discussion, to set up the series that begins on Monday, maybe we should describe, once again – I know the intention is to look at my heart - not to look at others, to use this as a guideline to know whether you’re saved, but whether or not I’m saved. What do we say? What should I do if I’m examining my own heart? What are going to be the questions and the answers?
JOHN: I don’t want to be self-serving in any way, but I think everybody ought to read the book. I think, as I said, it’s the most important book I’ve ever written. I think we have to be right about the gospel, and you who are listening, you have to be right about the gospel, too. If you’re questioning your salvation, if you’re struggling with that, you need to look carefully into these truths and examine yourself in the light of the Word of God. And you’re going to find that if you’re genuinely saved, this book is going to make you rejoice, because you’re going to have tremendous assurance based upon the truths that are in it.
But if you read it, and you’re not a Christian, it’s going to reveal that to you. It’s a good book to give to others and pray that God will use it as a – I guess as a knife, in a sense, to sort of slice things open so they can be revealed to see what they really are.
CARL: John, one of the editors of the book has written, in the forward, “The Gospel According to Jesus” – the title of your book – “clearly teaches there is no eternal life without surrender to the lordship of Christ.” And immediately, I know, people may be reacting – some positively, some negatively – but what is meant by that?
JOHN: Well, all that means is that you’re not a Christian unless you follow Christ. That’s basic. Being a Christian means to follow Christ. Jesus even said to the disciples, “Follow Me and I’ll make you fishers of men.” I wish we would use that more often. I would like to hear evangelists and pastors instead of saying, “We want to call you people to make a decision for Christ; we want to call you to believe in Christ” – those aren’t bad, but how much more enriching to call people to “follow Jesus Christ”? That has such a long-term kind of sound to it and reality to it.
So, calling people to follow Jesus Christ is really what we’re saying, and acknowledge that He is Lord. I mean basically Romans 10:9 and 10 says, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, believe in your heart God has raised Him from the dead, you’ll be saved.” So, confessing Jesus as Lord doesn’t seem to me to be asking more than the Bible asks. But I think it must imply that if He’s Lord, He’s in charge. And if He’s in charge, then I’m willing to follow.
CARL: John, I just concluded this series on the broadcast, the gospel according to Jesus. And I know there are a lot of questions. First, let us encourage the listeners to obtain a copy of the book and the tapes for review; it will help answer a lot of those questions.
But the first one that comes to mind, just even personally – well, when I became a believer, I don’t know that I understood what Lord even meant. I understood that I was going to die some day, and if I didn’t have Christ as my Savior, I wouldn’t go to heaven. And maybe that’s the extent of what I understood. Does that mean that salvation didn’t occur at that point?
Not necessarily. What it does mean, though, is that you may not have understood the full implications at that time. I suppose I could ask you the question now, however, as you look back from the time of your salvation, after you gave your life to Christ, or however you termed it, did you have a desire to obey Him?
JOHN: To follow Him, to do His will? The Spirit of God began to produce that in your life. I’m not saying that everyone, at the point of salvation, fully understands all the implications of Christ’s lordship. I’m not saying that a person, at the point of salvation, fully understands the sinfulness of sin. I’m not saying, at the point of salvation, that a person fully loves God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. What I am saying is that when God saves someone, he begins to produce those things in their life, a growing love for Him, a growing willingness to obey, a growing hatred of sin.
But I do believe that those are, in at least an embryonic form, in the heart of a person who’s exercising saving faith. When you come to receive Christ, in a very real sense you are turning from sin. You are coming and saying, “Lord Jesus, I want you to forgive my sin. And by so doing, you’re acknowledging His lordship. I mean at least you acknowledge that He is Lord over your life in the sense that He can transform you. He is sovereign over sin in the sense that He can forgive it. He is the caretaker that you’re committing yourself to, to some degree. You’re acknowledging that.
So, I do believe that there has to be some basic element of turning from sin – repentance – and submitting to Christ to forgive your sin, to lead you, to guide you. You’re giving your life into His hands for time in eternity. Right?
JOHN: That’s a tremendous commitment of your life that affirms that He is in charge, to some degree. And as I say, it’s not necessarily a comprehensive understanding, but it’s there in some form. And I think Jesus made that very clear in the parable of the rich young ruler, to whom He said, in effect, “If you don’t acknowledge your sin, and you’re not willing to follow Me, forget it.”
CARL: I think it’s important to restate something you said at the beginning of the series about two weeks ago, that those who are taking the opposite viewpoint are not necessarily in the liberal crowed that already has denied Scripture as being God’s Word, or denied other important aspects of faith theology, but they’re part of the evangelical community.
JOHN: Do you know the one quote I have in the book is a quote from a man who said, “If we believe that only those who seriously follow Christ, or who willingly follow Christ, are saved, that means that we would have to believe that only a few are really saved.” That was a quote.
And my response to that was, “But that’s exactly what Jesus said, ‘Few there be that find it.’” So, again I think these people who came up with this kind of a few were motivated, number one, by wanting to keep grace pure and not put anything in it. And I think they stripped it a little too naked. But secondly, I also think they had a passion to see as many people saved as possible, and it’s very hard to deal with the fact that many, many people are lost and few are going to be saved according to what Jesus said. And so I think, in a desire to – how can I say it? – sort of widen the gospel to get more people saved, they also stripped it.
You know, I remember talking to a woman one time, a young woman, who said she would never believe in the doctrine of hell. She could never believe in the doctrine of hell because her mother died without Christ, and in the moment she believed in the doctrine of hell, her mother would be, in her mind, consigned to that eternal perdition. So, she had to come up with a theology that had no hell in order to get her mother out of it.
And I think in some ways, this is backing into a theology that wants desperately to get some people saved. But that’s not the way to approach it. You have to come at it from a biblical perspective.
CARL: Now, some of us can recall being taught – and I believe it’s – you even talk about it in the book – from 1 Corinthians about two classifications, potentially, of Christians: living in a carnal state and living in a spiritual state. I take it you don’t agree, or it doesn’t appear that you agree that there is those – there are those two classifications.
JOHN: Well, I would say I do agree that there are those two kind of conditions. I think – I think carnality or spirituality – that is following the flesh or following the Spirit, are absolutes. In other words, at any given point in my life as a Christian, I’m doing one or the other of those. I’m either operating in the flesh or in the Spirit. Every Christian. Those are absolutes.
The moment a person is saved, they can operate in the Spirit. And 50 years after they’ve been saved, they can operate in the flesh. So, I do believe that a believer can be fleshy – or carnal, if you like that term. I also believe a believer can be spiritual or in the Spirit.
What I don’t believe is that carnality or a carnal Christian is a category that you choose to remain in sort of permanently until you get lifted to level two. In other words, I don’t believe that Christians can be divided down the middle and say, “Well, here are the carnal ones who aren’t obedient, and here are the spiritual ones who are.”
And I guess I’d have to ask the question, if you could move into the spiritual plane – if you accepted that view – could you slide back out of it also again and become a carnal Christian? I think that’s very difficult. They even go further and say, “Well, there are those Christians who just get in the kingdom but don’t inherit it.” In other words, they’re sort of semi-blessed, I guess, in heaven.
I don’t see it that way at all. I think we’re all in the same category. We all have a new nature; we’re all new creatures in Christ. We all love the Lord Jesus Christ, and we have a desire to do what is right. We hate sin, but we’re also besieged by our flesh, and we are both in the Spirit and in the flesh as we go through our life. Because sometimes we sin and sometimes we obey.
But to say that there is a category in which you just stay as a carnal Christian and then there’s a category in which you stay as a spiritual Christian, smacks to me of sort of traditional second work of grace kind of theology or the second blessing kind of thing. And I don’t see that taught in Scripture.
CARL: Immediately we try to think of ways - well, how do we define this even further for ourselves personally or for a loved one especially? As you indicated earlier, it’s difficult to change our theology or want to change our theology when it involves a loved one.
But how do we know? You think of Old Testament examples. David – he fell. Well, if we would have caught him at that one particular time, we would say, “Hey, David, you’re out.”
JOHN: If David had sinned the way he sinned and turned His back on God, become an agnostic and an atheist, I’d question his salvation. But all you have to do is read Psalm 32 and then read Psalm 51, and David’s crying out of the depths of his heart, “Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned.” And his heart is broken. And he cries out for God to purge him with hyssop and make him clean. That’s the heart; that’s the heart attitude that demonstrates the love for God that is in there. And so, David would be a classic illustration of a sinning saint who is broken over his sinfulness.
CARL: What about Solomon? It seems like the course of his life, trying everything, was anything but moving up; it was moving down.
JOHN: Well, Solomon is a difficult situation, I guess, in one sense. Although I personally believe that, in the early years of Solomon’s life, he obviously tried everything there was to try, I guess, including women; and, from what we understand, huge, massive stables of horses; and great gold and wealth and all of that kind of thing.
But I think when he got to the end of His life, he wrote Ecclesiastes, and I think he looked back over his life, and he made some pretty profound assessments. In writing Ecclesiastes, it seems to me that Solomon had definitely come to the conclusion that the essence of life was not to be found in the things that he once aspired to in his youth.
So, again, at what point was Solomon converted? I don’t really know at what point he was converted, but he sure gives some good advice in the last chapter of Ecclesiastes, when he says, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near when you’ll say, ‘I have no delight in them.’”
It kind of makes me think that Solomon may not have really recognized the Creator in the days of his youth, and it wasn’t until the years had gone by that he began to come to grips with the reality of what God desired and, toward the end of his life, no doubt looked back and wrote Ecclesiastes and penned the Proverbs of great wisdom – wisdom which he learned not only by divine inspiration but by experience.
CARL: The Gospel According to Jesus is the title of your new book and the series we just completed on the broadcast. I know the whole discussion of dispensational theology kind of falls in here. For those who maybe aren’t in the theological circles and don’t even know what that means, maybe we should explain it first, but what does that play or how does that play into this whole scenario.
Well, you know, there are some people who have interpreted the Bible, Carl, sort of in a chronologically categorical way. In other words, they would say that what is said in Genesis and the Pentateuch – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy – was written for a certain people at a certain time. What is said by the prophets was directed to a certain people at a certain time, what was said by Jesus is directed to a certain people at a certain time, what is said by Peter the same thing and Paul the same thing.
And so, they develop what would be a very stiff, almost barrier-loaded dispensational view, “This is for this group; this is for this group; this is for this group.” And things don’t transcend their chronological place in history. That would be an extreme dispensational view. It might even be called hyper dispensationalism.
I am a dispensationalist. And the bottom line for me is that I do believe God operated in unique ways. Categorically, for example, God functioned in His relationship to man one way before the fall and another way after the fall, one way before the cross and another way after the cross, one way in this age and another way in the age to come in eternity.
So, there have been dispensationalists or economies in which God has operated uniquely. So, I would affirm dispensationalism as a valid hermeneutic or principle for biblical interpretation into which things can be fitted and better understood. But there are some people who will take Jesus’ gospel – okay? – what Jesus taught – Sermon on the Mount, other things – and say, “That was pre-cross, pre-resurrection,” push that in the Jewish era; it has nothing to do with the church, therefore, it has nothing to do with us.”
So, one of the arguments against even studying the gospel, according to Jesus, is to just dispensationalize it away and say, “It all fits into a certain thing.” That is a frightening thing, because now what you’ve done is you have just made the ministry and the teaching of Jesus absolutely irrelevant.
CARL: Like, “This is the Church Age,” I think this would be the argument.
CARL: This is the Church Age, but that didn’t start until post-cross.
JOHN: Right. So, what we should do is instead of having a red-letter Bible with the words of Jesus in red, we ought to have one with the words of Paul in red because they’re the only ones that matter.
We can’t do that, because in the first place, all that the epistles ever intended to do was elucidate the teaching of Jesus. If in any sense they are contradictory to the teaching of Jesus, we have a problem. And then if in any sense the teaching of Jesus was irrelevant to the Church Age, then why are the apostles and the writers building on His teaching?
CARL: But what about the message to Jews and then to the Gentiles? Isn’t that different? We mentioned different economies. It seems like the gospel, when He talked to the Jews, that should be different than us.
JOHN: Yeah, but, “Neither is there salvation in any other name, for there’s none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved.” Salvation is in Jesus Christ alone, and there is no other salvation. So, there can only be one salvation.
So, when Jesus talks about salvation, eternal life, coming into the kingdom; when He talks about being born again, to Nicodemus, and regenerated - whether it’s Jesus or Peter talking about it, or whether it’s Paul talking about faith or Jesus talking about faith; whether it’s Jesus talking about righteousness or John talking about righteousness, it’s the same righteousness, the same faith, the same regeneration. It has to be because they are inextricably intertwined.
Jesus came and taught, and the apostles and the writers build on, enhance, and enrich by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit the things that Jesus said, but it’s still the foundation. And to eliminate it would be to make the teaching of Jesus basically irrelevant to this age. And I think that would be a tragic thing to do to Scripture.
CARL: It struck me – I know it’s simplistic, but it struck me as being new light almost when you outlined in the book, talking about law and grace, that we tend to think they’re mutually exclusive. But you indicated the fact that salvation has always been by grace through faith.
JOHN: That’s right. You know, you can make dispensational distinctions, but you must be very careful. The Old Testament was not just the age of law. “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.” It was not just the age of works. “Abraham believed and it was counted to him for righteousness.”
Neither is the New Testament just an age of grace. Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” And, “The new covenant,” Jeremiah said, “writes the Law in your heart in the inward part.” And the New Testament is not just faith. James says, “Your faith without works is dead.”
So, when you’re making dispensational distinctions, you have to be very cautious that you do not isolate some concept like law to the exclusion of grace or even a concept like grace to the exclusion of law. And we have to be very, very careful. Those two are always related to one another. The Law poses initially the standard. Man, facing the Law, recognizes his failure and receives the grace of God in forgiveness, but also the power to then keep the Law in which he prior could not keep.
CARL: Let’s talk about some very practical areas, as we wrap this discussion up today, thinking in terms of the fact that we’re not talking about those who have denied the faith, who hold a different view. If that’s the case, it almost seems like this other gospel could be considered heresy.
How do we treat the teaching? I’m thinking of a person sitting in a church where they have not been taught this. What should the do? How do they react?
JOHN: Carl, it’s my firm conviction that most people don’t understand the issue – they just don’t understand it – and that 95 percent of the confusion is related not to different views but to a misunderstanding of the issues. And that’s why the book is so important. And not because I wrote it; it would be important whoever wrote it. But people need to read the book. They need to understand the issue and to understand very clearly what the Bible teaches.
I believe that the confusion over this can be eliminated if we simply understand the Word of God. To me, it is a very clear-cut, simple, direct revelation of God that puts this thing to rest. And the church must know what the gospel is to be. And I don’t think there’ll be a struggle if people understand, with some clarity, what the issues are and how Scripture speaks clearly to them.
CARL: How do you deal personally? I know that some who oppose or stand on the opposite end of the issue as you do are good friends; they also preach, quote, the gospel – or at least use the same language. How do you deal with those on a personal level?
JOHN: Well, of course, friends are friends, and I love many people who might hold a different view on this. First of all, I have to say that I don’t think, until the book came out, that they really understood what I was saying. And I hope that many who thought that I was saying something now know that I wasn’t saying what they thought I was doing. And the book has resolved a lot of that, because there are many reading it and saying, “Well, that’s what I believe. That’s what I agree to.”
On the other hand, the people who say, “No, I do disagree with this, and I do hold that all you have to do is believe for one moment, and it doesn’t necessarily mean your life will be changed.” And an easy believistic kind of thing.
How do I treat them? Well, there’s a certain sadness in my heart, and I would pray for them and all of that. But I’ll tell you, there’s a bottom line thing that I go back to, Carl. Jesus said, in John 6, “All that the Father gives to Me will come to Me, and I have lost none of them. But I will raise him up at the last day.”
Could I say it this way and be understood? An inadequate presentation of the gospel will not prevent the salvation of the elect; it won’t. What it will do is make some people think they’re saved who aren’t and confuse an awful lot of people. I’m comforted in the fact that God is going to redeem His church. But at the same time, I also recognize that that redemption must come to people through a clear presentation of the gospel.
So, I guess I could become greatly disturbed about this, but in my heart I know that if you simply preach Jesus’ death and resurrection, God will work the work in the hearts of those on whom He sets His love. And even though the one who presented to them the gospel didn’t present it adequately. He’ll produce in them the right response to that gospel.
CARL: There’s a statement you used in the – I believe it was the closing portion of the book, where you said, “Perfection” - because a lot of this sounds like we’re talking about sinless perfection - but you said, “Perfection is the standard; direction is the test.” Maybe elaborate on that. What are we saying?
JOHN: Well, when you’re a Christian, the marked characteristic of your life is not its perfection but its direction.
CARL: Where are you going?
JOHN: Where are you going, yeah; where are you going? I can look at a person and see where they’re going and determine what’s in their heart, what’s motivating them. I mean I’m not perfect. I certainly wouldn’t assign to myself sinless perfection or anything close to it, but I sure know the direction of my life. And the direction of my life is to honor God, to move toward Him, to draw near to Him, to be more like Christ. And I stumble and fall, as we all do, and fail, but that’s, nonetheless, the direction of my life. And I pick myself up and go. And I think assurance.
Some people say, “Well, you’re going to take away assurance.” People are going to think, “You know, they’re going to be forever insecure. I mean sort of eternal insecurity. Boy, I’ll never know.”
In fact, I heard one critic of this particular issue say, “Well, what MacArthur’s doing is making people totally insecure so that they can never know whether they’re saved until they get to heaven.”
No. You can know you’re saved. All you have to do is get in touch with your heart. Paul says, “Examine yourself; see whether you’re in the faith.” What do you examine? You examine the intent of your heart. You couldn’t’ make me doubt my salvation because I know what’s in my heart, and my heart longs to serve Christ; my heart loves Christ. I hate my sin.
If I looked at my life and said, “Oh, you know, I said an unkind word,” or you wasted time, or you exhibited pride. Or, you know, you desired something the Lord hadn’t given to you. You know, you coveted a certain possession or whatever; you may not be a Christian. No, no, no. I go deeper than that, and I look at my heart and say, “What is the longing of my heart?” Well, it’s to serve God, to love Christ, to honor Him.
And those kinds of things break my heart to one extent or another. And that’s what I want to be in touch with. And that’s very securing.
James says you go through tests, because they’re going to try your faith. God doesn’t need my faith tested. He knows if it’s real, but I don’t always. But when I go through a test and come out the other end believing, I say, “Wow, I’m real. I’m real.”
So, I’m not advocating a situation that puts people into sort of indefinite confusion about their salvation insecurity. I really think what we’re saying here is that you can know you’re a Christian. In fact, this book I don’t believe for one minute is going to make Christians insecure. I think this book will literally take a Christian who’s insecure and make him absolutely secure. This may be the greatest gift that you as a Christian could have if you’re prone to doubt your faith, because by the time you’re through reading this book, you are going to know whether you’re a Christian or not without any shadow of doubt.
CARL: As we wrap it up, the thought occurs there may still be a skeptic out there or two - and I even think you mention it early on in the preface to the book – you said you went through a phase of thinking this whole dispute was misunderstanding, semantic problems.
JOHN: Yeah [Crosstalk]. It isn’t semantics. With some people it might be, but I thought it was semantical. I thought we were maybe talking about the same thing in different terms. But as I dug deeper into it, I found that that wasn’t the case.
And I need to say, Carl, that it isn’t as if there is my view and, along with me, most other Christians, and then there’s this other view held by another group. The truth of it is there is the view the Scripture holds and a whole lot of other views strung out somewhere between what the Bible teaches and the extreme view, and folks are at all points along that line. And they all sort of, in my judgment, need to be harmonized and brought into conformity to God’s Word.
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