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PHIL: Hi, I’m Phil Johnson, and I’m here in the studio today with John MacArthur. And John, I want to ask you some questions today about sanctification and sin and the role of the law in the Christian life and – you ready for that?
JOHN: Yeah. I’m just kind of wondering why you picked that subject, Phil.
PHIL: Well, as you know, our relationship – my relationship with you began 35 years ago because we were both intrigued and concerned about the – sort of the no-lordship doctrine that was promoting antinomianism and –
JOHN: But you could be a Christian and not even confess Jesus as Lord, and have zero obedience in your life, and an unchanged life full of sin, and you were still a Christian.
PHIL: Right, that’s right. And –
JOHN: And it’s still around in other forms.
PHIL: It’s actually revived in different forms, I think.
PHIL: You know, you wrote two books on the issue that did quite a lot to sort of quell that teaching and expose the error of it. But now here we are, you know, 30 years later, and it seems like the new thrust of antinomianism is coming from different circles. Unexpected circles.
JOHN: Yeah. And I think – you know, I’d like to think that this is – this antinomianism is some kind of honest, really heartfelt product of diligent study of Scripture, and they’ve come up with this antinomianism that says we’re under grace, and we ignore the law. We pay no attention to the law; we’re free in Christ. I’d like to think that has – that has integrity and that somebody actually felt that that’s what the Scripture teaches. But the truth of the matter is they back into this view because of the way they want to live their lives.
PHIL: Yeah. And in fact, you can see evidence of that. Just in recent years, a couple of the most outspoken advocates of the sort of free and easy approach to grace and forgiveness have fallen into different kinds of immorality and utterly disqualified themselves from ministry.
JOHN: Yeah. And did you not notice, though, that particularly with somebody like Tullian Tchividjian, who was a real leader in this movement, whose life was a total disaster behind the scenes, immoral all over the place, that this kind of view was to accommodate his sinful life. But did you notice how many young people piled up behind him and bought into it because it’s the perfect message for an immoral culture that wants Jesus in their life, and wants to escape hell, but doesn’t want to change the way they live.
So, this – the popularity of that view was extensive, and it was with that young generation, the freewheeling generation of people who want this sin, their immorality, and their self-fulfillment and this own desires and ambitions fulfilled, but they want Jesus, too. This was the perfect message.
And the good news about somebody like that imploding and being utterly discredited is that that entire viewpoint went down with him and with others who had the same situation.
PHIL: Yeah. And that’s a repeat of what happened 30 or 40 years ago –
PHIL: – with some of the leading no-lordship guys.
JOHN: Yeah. The guys that were leading the no-lordship – and I think of two of them – two of them very well known: one was the head of a college in Florida; the other was the pastor of maybe the most historic church in the city of Los Angeles. And their lives were just absolutely train wrecks behind the scenes.
PHIL: Now, we – I don’t want to keep using a word that some of our listeners might not understand – antinomianism. Here’s how you defined it in The Gospel According to the Apostles, a couple of decades ago. Antinomianism. You defined it as the idea that behavior is unrelated to faith, or that Christians are not bound by any moral law. Antinomianism radically separates justification and sanctification, making practical holiness elective. That’s your definition.
JOHN: Yeah. And I think in the lordship controversy, that was how they viewed salvation, that salvation made obedience elective. I mean as a fact. In other words, salvation did not require that at all. In fact, if you said that salvation required obedience or required confession of Christ as Lord or submission, you had now convoluted grace, and you had intruded into free grace and faith and added works. That was the big argument at that particular time.
So, there was a – there was an argument from theology, and the idea was that obedience and submission to Christ was something that happened later in your life if you chose to make it happen. It went so far as to say – do you remember the book The Hungry Inherit?
JOHN: Yeah, that was a book that basically said, “You can go to heaven without a changed life. Just believe in who Jesus was and what He did, make no commitment to Him personally. You can still go to heaven. You’ll be sort of in the kingdom, but you won’t inherit the kingdom.” They tried to make that –
JOHN: That was Jody Dillow’s book.
PHIL: On the kingdom, yeah.
JOHN: On the kingdom.
PHIL: The Hungry Inherit, I think, was Zane Hodges’, one of his first books. And then he defended that position pretty doggedly in a couple of subsequent books which you responded to.
JOHN: The first time I saw it was Jody Dillow’s book, and maybe that’s not the title. But he was –
PHIL: That’s The Reign of the Servant Kings.
JOHN: The Reign of the Servant Kings, that’s what it was. So, they actually said that salvation is disconnected from sanctification.
JOHN: The new movement, the new antinomianism doesn’t say that. What the new movement says is sanctification is connected to justification, but sanctification is not being concerned to obey the law. It’s something mystical.
PHIL: Right. In fact, the word “antinomian” means against law, anti nomos.
PHIL: And yet, a lot of the people who would advocate these views, they’re not openly hostile to the idea of holiness or whatever; they simply tend to downplay that and set against the gospel as if – because we understand law and gospel are two different things, but they try to pit them against each other as if they’re absolute enemies.
JOHN: You know, the big picture way to understand it is this: God’s law is a manifestation of His nature. What God has commanded, moral attitudes and behaviors, is a reflection of His nature. And that goes back to Leviticus. How many times in Leviticus do you read, “Be holy for I am holy,” “Be holy for I am holy,” “Be holy for the Lord your God is holy”?
So, when we – when we obey the law of God, we give ultimate honor to God. We affirm His holiness, and we seek to imitate His holiness. That’s the highest and the noblest kind of worship. So, to come along and say that the law is unimportant is to say that the very nature of God and the will of God as reflected in His law is insignificant and unimportant, which I see as a blow or a strike against the very character of God. That is why, at the end of Romans 3, Paul says, after talking about justification by grace through faith alone, he says, “Do we nullify the law?” And then he says, me genoito, “No, no, no, God forbid: but we establish the law.”
So, the way to understand it is when you are justified, that’s a forensic declaration by God that you have been declared righteous and the righteousness of Christ has been imputed to you. But along with justification comes a real transformation, a real new birth, a real conversion, a new nature. And that new nature is a new, divinely created disposition infused with power from the Holy Spirit so that you can now, for the first time, actually obey the law. And not just obey the law, but love to obey the law.
David says, “O how I love your law,” Psalm 119. He keeps saying, “It’s my delight; it’s my joy; I seek your law.” Paul says that – doesn’t he? – in Romans 7, “Your law is holy, just, and good.” And he says, “I find a principle in me that doesn’t want to do your law, but there’s another principle in me that loves your law,” in the same way David did.
So, I believe that the work of God in regeneration, the work of God in conversion and the transformation of the heart, is to take the person who was both unable and unwilling to obey the law of God and make the person both able and willing by the creation of a new nature and the power of the Holy Spirit so that when you have genuinely been saved, you love the law, and you desire to obey the law. For someone to say, “I’m a Christian; I’m a Christian teacher; I’m a Christian preacher, but I reject the law,” that is alien to everything that salvation is intended to do. It is to make you a loving, faithful law keeper, because that’s what honors God.
PHIL: All right. Now, I can imagine some of our listeners out there are thinking, “Yeah, but Paul says we’re not under the law; we’re under grace.” And in Galatians, he scolds those who he says desire to be under the law. How do you reconcile that with the love for the law?
JOHN: Well, you’re not under the law as a means of salvation. You’re out from under the law. The law is a means of salvation if you could keep it perfectly. You know? If you’re going to – if you’re going to come to God and say, “I’m coming by the law,” okay, then keep it perfectly, because if you ever offend in one count, you’ve shattered the whole law. So, you don’t really want to come by law.
So, theoretically you could say the law is a means of salvation if you could keep the law, but no one can. That’s the whole point of Romans 3, when he wraps up in Romans 3:20, 21, and 22, after the three chapters of saying we’re all sinful. The Gentiles are sinful; the Jews are sinful. He comes to this summation, “By the deeds of the law, no flesh will be justified.” All that the law does is make us guilty before God. He says, “The entire world is guilty before God.”
So, when Paul says you’re not under the law, he first means you’re not under the law as a means of salvation. You’ve come out from under the law, and you are no longer defining your relationship to God by your ability to keep the law satisfactorily, which was impossible.
And then I think, when you get to the Christian life, when he – if we’re to – to pull that into the Christian life, I would say it this way: it isn’t the law that compels me to obedience; it is the vision of Christ; it is – 2 Corinthians 3:18, “As I gaze at His glory, I’m changed into His image from one level of glory to the next by the Holy Spirit.”
Paul says – and I think this is so important, in Romans 13, “Love is the fulfilling of the law.” So, what has happened to you when you were converted is you have come to love Christ. You could define salvation as loving Christ. Right? Because you can define the opposite, 1 Corinthians 16:22, “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be damned.”
So, what does it mean to be a Christian? It means to love Christ. So, out of my love for Christ, whom I continue to love and grow in love, I love the Lord. That is characteristic of a believer, “I love Him. We worship Him.” So, out of that love comes a strong, internal Spirit-aided desire to obey His law. I’m not under the law as my compulsion; that would be fear, and that would be something external. I am bound by love. I think Paul put it this way to the Corinthians, “The love of Christ constrains us.”
And so, I say to someone who says, “Well, are we under the law as Christians,” not in the sense that you are sort of forcing yourself to conform to something that’s against your will. But you’re really driven by love and by the work of the Holy Spirit who’s poured the love of God in you, and your obedience is more related to that love of the Lord than it is to fear of the law and its consequences.
PHIL: All right. So, if I could sum that up in a really – try to do it in a pithy way, it sounds to me like what you’re saying is the law no longer has the power or authority to either justify us or condemn us –
PHIL: – but it still gives us a guidebook to show us what holiness looks like, what Christlike life looks like.
JOHN: Yeah, and that’s – that’s not a threat. David says, “O how I love your law; it’s my delight.” The Christian knows no greater delight than to obey. This is where our joy comes from. If you look at somebody’s life, and they’re preaching this antinomianism, and behind the scenes they’re living this wretched, immoral life, that’s not even a believer. That’s not a Christian. Christians don’t do that.
The characteristic of being born again, being transformed, being regenerated is that you now have a totally changed heart. And that shows up in love to the Lord and a longing and a desire to obey His Word.
I think the Puritans had a great expression. They called these “holy affections.” Holy affections. Holy aspirations. There’s a longing to be holy out of worship, out of love, out of adoration, out of respect, out of honor to God. You know, I understand. I understand somebody who pretends to be a Christian – and isn’t – not wanting to continue to live under the fear of the law so jettisoning all of that. But true Christians don’t think that way; the law is their delight.
PHIL: Mmm. Yeah, in fact, you see that in Paul when he says, “You who desire to be under the law,” that’s in Galatians 4:21. He says, “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, don’t you listen to the law?” And then he goes on to talk about how the law condemns people who are trying to be justified by it.
And then just a chapter later, in chapter 5, he says – he speaks to – verse 4, chapter 5 – “You’re severed from Christ,” he says, “you who would be justified by the law.” So, what he’s scolding is people who are trying to earn their justification by the law, not people who are trying to follow the pathway of sanctification.
JOHN: Right. Or trying to keep their justification –
JOHN: – by the law, as if it was something you could lose.
PHIL: Yeah. The Reformers and the Lutherans had three uses of the law that they outlined. And in fact, this was one of those areas where basically Luther and Calvin were in complete agreement. They both saw three legitimate uses of the law; they ordered them slightly different, but – differently, but they said, essentially, the law is a curb that will restrain our sin. It’s a mirror that reveals our sin, and it’s a guide that shows us how we ought to walk. Antinomianism seems to take that third use of the law and they want to do away with it.
JOHN: Yeah. They want us to believe that to pay any attention to the law, to will to obey the law from the heart – and this is shocking – is actually sin. I mean I’ve heard these people say this, that if you obey because you want to, if you obey because of an act of the will, that’s a sin. So, you’re trapped. This message went out to tens of thousands of young people, and they were trapped. If they wanted to do right before God – say they were believers – they wanted to do right before God, this was something in their heart, this was something really they wanted, that was a sin. It was a sin because it was their effort. This was the let go and let God, and now we’re going way, way back with that.
PHIL: Yeah. In fact, I have an older book in my library – it was published around the beginning of the 20th century – where the guy says, “Listen; you can grit your teeth and obey, but if you do that you’re doing it in the flesh. So, you shouldn’t obey,” he says, “until it’s a free and easy thing, because otherwise you’re not doing it in the power of the Spirit.”
JOHN: Yeah. They would go so far as to say, “You need to get to a spiritual point where you obey almost unwillingly, because if you’re will is in it, oh, this is the flesh; this is the flesh. So, you’ve got to get yourself to a place where this just sort of happens.”
And they say – well, you say, “How’s that going to happen? How’s that going to happen?”
And here’s the answer they always give, “Contemplate the cross. Contemplate the cross. Contemplate the cross.” And you’ve heard that. I mean you know that’s precisely what they say, “Think about the cross. Preach the cross to yourself.” How many times have we heard people say that? “Preach the gospel to yourself, preach the cross to yourself.” It’s almost as if – if you can whip yourself up into some sentimental emotional lather about the cross, and you can get teary-eyed and overly emotional about the cross, then somehow this equates to sort of an unwilling work of the Holy Spirit by which you obey.
JOHN: But anything short of that is an act of your flesh. And, of course, it’s so artificial to continue to say to people, “You just need” – and you know this; they talk about the cross all the time, the gospel all the time, and they talk about it not in its theological realities, but in its sentimental realities – the bleeding Christ, the wounds of Jesus – as if we can kind of whip ourselves into that sort of a deep sentimentalism that makes us feel sad, and then this obedience sort of flows out of those kinds of contemplations, when the very opposite is what Paul says, “I beat my body into submission in the matter of obedience.”
PHIL: Yeah. In fact, the sort of knee-jerk response you’ll get to that sort of thing these days is, “Well, that’s legalistic. You’re moving away from the gospel back into law. And it’s inherently legalistic then to preach the imperatives you find in Scripture; rather, you should just preach the indicatives.” And that’s the idea behind always going back to the cross; it’s about what Christ did for us rather than what we are to do.
And there’s a germ of truth in that. The gospel is about what Christ did for us rather than what we are to do, but that’s not the road to sanctification is it?
JOHN: Yeah, well, the New Testament, I agree, is full of indicatives: that is, statements of fact. But it’s also full of imperatives.
JOHN: So, you always ask the question to these people, “Well, what are all the commands there for? What is he trying to tell us in the 3rd chapter of Colossians or the book of Ephesians with all the commands? What is all this about? I mean these are commands.” And Paul says to Timothy, “The things that you’ve heard you’re to teach others.” And then later in that same book he says “These things command and teach.” Command and teach.
We live under mandates; we live under commands. The difference between legalism and freedom is Christ is that in Christ we love to obey, we long to obey, and our hearts are broken when we disobey. That’s not legalism. That’s love working in obedience. And the thing that I always am sad about, when you see antinomians who say, “We should never will to obey; that’s sin,” is that’s a declaration of a heart that may well be without the knowledge of Christ.
PHIL: Mmm. And this notion that it’s all about the indicatives and the imperatives we should ignore and leave out, that is so lopsided. And it’s usually done in the name of grace, but it’s –
JOHN: Always. Always in the name of grace.
PHIL: – it’s so lopsided that it actually corrupts what the Bible says about grace. Where Paul says, for example, in Titus 2, “The grace of God has appeared, teaching us” –
JOHN: Grace teaches us.
PHIL: – “that denying ungodliness and worldly” –
PHIL: – “lust, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present age” –
JOHN: How do you get around that?
PHIL: I don’t know.
JOHN: The grace of God teaches us to deny certain things and behave in certain ways.
PHIL: Right. And that’s grace, not law, teaching us. So, that goes back to my earlier comment, grace and law are different, but they’re not in disagreement. They’re not hostile to one another; they agree.
JOHN: Well, of course they agree. The same God who has given the law, has authored the law, is the source of grace. And God isn’t contradicting himself. You know, the law of grace – the faithful preachers, the Reformers, the Puritans, and even to this day faithful preachers understand how they go together.
You would agree that in today’s sort of – I don’t know – public evangelical movement, there’s far too little preaching of the law. So, people who don’t understand the law and what the law demands and how far they fall short and the deadly and everlasting consequences of the law on the life of an impenitent, unbelieving person, people who don’t understand that don’t understand the gospel. They don’t understand the magnanimous grace of God: They don’t understand the love the God, the compassion, the mercy, the kindness of God if they don’t understand the law. The Reformers understood that; they were fierce preachers of the law to bring sinners under condemnation, and that’s exactly the work of the Holy Spirit who convicts the world of sin and righteousness and judgment. Where’s that preaching today? There’s none of that.
JOHN: You can’t attract a crowd of sinful people preaching that. You can’t get a whole lot of followers, like some kind of pied piper, if you’re going to preach sin and righteousness and judgment. But if you’re preaching that, the Holy Spirit is there, doing that very same work.
PHIL: In fact, if that’s the only thing the Holy Spirit convicts the world of – and that’s what Jesus said, He’ll convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment – if that’s all He will convict the world of, then if you’re preaching to worldly people, and you leave out those ideas, the Holy Spirit isn’t going to use what you’re doing.
JOHN: You know, as I think about it, this failure to preach the law is so dominant; this failure to preach sin, righteousness, and judgment is so dominant that the largest churches in our country don’t ever do that. Ever. So, when they talk about Christ coming into someone’s life, all they ever talk about is He’ll make you happy; He’ll fulfill your dreams; He’ll fulfill your desires; you won’t be lonely; you’ll have a path to prosperity; you’ll have a future; He’s there to serve you. This is deception. This is perverting the purpose of God in Christ in salvation.
So, if you truly – and this is what’s so important, if you truly preach the law, the sinner is buried under the condemnation of that law and held captive to the wrath of God. And then you step in with the gospel, and the gospel is truly good news. It’s truly good news because the sinner is captive to the wrath of God, with no escape on his own. And the gospel is glorious, wondrous news.
The gospel of grace preached without law is a gospel misunderstood. So, then to say that now that I’m a Christian I have no regard for the law is a failure to understand that the law is still such a pure reflection of God’s nature, it was enough to damn you to hell forever; that’s how holy it is if you broke it. It isn’t less holy now that you’re a believer. You can’t just set that aside. The law is the expression of the will of God.
And again, we’re back to what I said earlier, salvation is both a forensic reality – that is, God declares you righteous by imputing His righteousness to you – and it is also a real change so that you now are given the ability to live righteously, which is to live in conformity to the law of God and do so willingly from the heart.
PHIL: Now to be clear, because I don’t want to knock any of our listeners off the balance beam to the other side, you said to preach the gospel without the law is an imbalance. Likewise, you could say, to preach the law and leave the gospel out is a fatal imbalance.
JOHN: Well, yes, because now there is no hope.
JOHN: You have to preach the gospel. The gospel is the only message that saves. And by the way, while we’re talking about that, there’s only one gospel. There’s only one gospel as revealed in the New Testament. And I say that even though most people would say, “Well, that’s pretty obvious.” Well, it doesn’t seem to be obvious to everybody today, because we have so many truncated, abbreviated, trampled messages that offer themselves as if they are the gospel.
And I think so often of Galatians 1, where Paul says, “If anybody comes with another gospel, let him be damned, even if it’s an angel from heaven or me.” Anybody, hypothetically. So, getting the gospel right is critical. So, you have to get the role of the law right, the role of the gospel right, and then you have to understand that now that that transformation has taken place, it would be impossible for a truly regenerated person to be indifferent toward the law of God. Because that would be to be indifferent toward God. How could you worship? How could you say, “I’m going to worship the God who saved me,” and be indifferent to His law? You can only worship Him in spirit and in truth; that is to say you can only worship Him by aligning your thoughts and your life with His truth, which is the revelation of His nature, which essentially is the law.
PHIL: And also, if you preach the law correctly, it will ultimately lead you to the gospel, because that’s one of the purposes, Scripture says, for the law. It’s a school master –
PHIL: – to bring us to Christ.
JOHN: Yeah. It’s – and “school master” is a great term. It’s a big stick, and it’s whacking us and driving us to Christ. I have this incredible etching – from, I don’t know, a few hundred years ago – hanging in my study, and it shows this guy, and he’s all bent over, and he’s curled up in pain. And this Moses figure has the tablets of the Ten Commandments, and he’s just hammering this guy; he’s smashing him with the law, and he’s crushed under the law. Very vivid. But that is the purpose of the law; it is to crush us and reveal our guilt. And the Spirit works through that law to convict us of sin and righteousness and judgment, and it comes down to the judgment, because we believe not in Him.
PHIL: Yeah. And in fact, until you get to that point of utter broken repentance, you’re really not ready for the gospel anyway. Right?
JOHN: Mm-hmm. Yeah. It’s the – in my mind, it’s Moses smashing us with the law, and then Christ coming and taking the law away and covering us. So, there’s another picture of Moses with the law in the air, and Christ hovering over this bent over guy to protect him from the wrath of the law. He’s no longer under the law in that sense.
PHIL: Hmm. Well, one other thing I wanted you to clarify. You said earlier about preaching the gospel to yourself. There is a place even for that. I mean David said, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits.” He’s basically preaching the gospel to Himself there.
JOHN: Well, yeah. The gospel and all the benefits. You know, we’re blessed with all the spiritual blessings in the heavenlies in Christ. You could be reciting a whole lot of those constantly, and that’s what worship is; it’s proclaiming who God is and what He’s done. It’s proclaiming His character and His benefits. So, yeah, of course.
But the idea that you sort of get your emotions all wrapped up in the sentimental aspects of the suffering of Jesus on the cross –
PHIL: Without any repentance on your part, that’s what –
JOHN: Yeah, it’s not about repentance; it’s about some kind of emotional stimulation; it’s about some kind of musing about the cross itself. It’s utterly artificial. It’s artificial. If you want to – if you want to preach the cross to yourself, then read a book on justification. Don’t sit in a corner in a dark room and try to become emotional about the cross and think that all of a sudden obedience will become an almost automatic thing. If you want obedience to be more automatic than it is, then study the meaning of the cross. Not the cross, the meaning of the cross.
You know, when you read something like the book that we just released, The Gospel According to Paul, and you read all the elements of salvation, and you go through those things and how that God has imputed His own righteousness to us by faith in Christ, not by any works that we’ve done, and you understand all of the nuances of that, and you understand redemption and ransom and adoption and all of those riches that are ours in Christ, it’s the theology of the cross that elicits the worship; it’s not the sentiment about it.
PHIL: Hmm. Let’s talk about – let’s wrap this up by talking about repentance. Because I think in the earlier controversies we had about antinomianism several decades ago, this was a key issue. The idea was you can have faith without repentance.
JOHN: Oh, yeah, absolutely; that’s what they said.
PHIL: And I see the same tendency today, people talking about preaching the gospel to yourself or looking to the cross and all of that. They’re often doing it without any sense of repentance for the sin. It’s almost as of, “Okay, but that sin is forgiven, and so I really don’t have to worry about it.” If you get to the point where you think, “I don’t have to worry about my sin; it shouldn’t trouble me,” you –
JOHN: This goes back to when I was student, and there was a movement – it was a movement among college students; it was a very big, big movement; it was connected to Campus Crusade for Christ – in which they were denying the need to confess your sin. They were trying to unpack 1 John 1, “If we confess our sins, He’s faithful and just to forgive.” They were trying to unpack that in such a way that it didn’t make – it didn’t refer to believers, “You don’t ever have to confess your sin; you’re under grace, under grace. Super grace.” They called it super grace.
And this is – these were the seeds of the no-lordship movement. And that was I the early days. This was – Hal Lindsey was propagating this, and some other guys in those days – Ray Nethery, Jon Braun. This was a big movement. And I was dealing with that before the book on The Gospel According to Jesus, the denial of any need to ever confess your sin.
And one of my answers was, “I’m sorry. You can tell me I don’t need to that, but I keep doing it, because I love the Lord, and because my heart cries out to Him. You can tell me I don’t have to do that, but I don’t think that you can tell a true believer not to do that.”
And I even asked those guys in a meeting, I said, “Do you confess your sins? Do you confess your sins?”
PHIL: How did they answer?
JOHN: Well, it was quiet for a while, and then they said, “Yeah.”
“Well,” I said, “that’s a good thing, because now I know you’re saved. Because you can’t love the Lord, you can’t be a regenerated person with a new heart and be indifferent to your own sin. That’s not possible. What in the world?”
Romans 7, Paul says, “O wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from the body of this death?” He’s a Christian. He’s an apostle when he says that. So, I’ve been dealing with that battle for a long, long time, that you don’t have to repent.
Then it showed up in the Dallas Seminary. Zane Hodges kind of stuff that repentance is a pre-salvation work. So, now you’ve introduced works into salvation. If you say that you have to repent, that’s a human work. And yet the apostle Paul writes about God granting you repentance. That’s not a work; it’s God granting you repentance in the same way that He grants faith to the heart that seeks Him. But there’s no salvation without repentance. In Acts 20, Paul says that he preached repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. Those go together.
If you say that salvation is God delivering us from the power, the penalty, and the presence of sin – which it is ultimately – then repentance is at the heart of it, because if you don’t want to be delivered from the power and the penalty, and the presence of sin, then you’re not going to come to Christ.
So, if you say to people, “Jesus just wants to fix your life,” you haven’t offered them salvation. Salvation depends on the fact that this person wants to be rescued from sin. Not from sin around them, but sin in them.
PHIL: That idea, by the way, that you don’t have to confess your sin, that’s out there today in a big way.
PHIL: We get lots of questions from listeners who ask this. I think it’s taught by Joseph Prince, for example.
JOHN: Oh, yeah.
PHIL: You listen to him, you get the idea that –
JOHN: He’s big – he’s a combination of charismania and antinomianism.
PHIL: Right. So, the question is usually posed to us this way, “If I’m justified, if all my sins – past, present, and future – are forgiven, they’re covered by the blood of Christ, why do I need to confess my sins?”
JOHN: Because it sustains the joy of your relationship. John says, “I write these things unto you that your joy may be full.”
PHIL: If I don’t confess my sins, that doesn’t mean I lose my salvation. My sins are covered in the forensic sense, in the eternal sense, but I don’t know sweet communion with the Lord until I’ve opened up and asked for that forgiveness.
And you know, that’s why the church is called to the Lord’s Table frequently. And by the way, there’s something that doesn’t happen in a lot of churches ever. But what are we told to do at the Lord’s Table? Let a man examine himself. Look at your heart, because if there is sin in your life when you come to this Table, you’re going to bring judgment on yourself down from heaven. This is divine discipline. So, you better be confessing your sin; you better be acknowledging your sin as a believer, coming to the Lord’s Table.
By the way, you – for the sake of our listeners, if you want a larger, more expanded answer from John MacArthur on this – you may not remember this, John, but you dealt with that question at length in your book, The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness, probably 20 years ago.
JOHN: Right, right.
PHIL: And you said something in there that I thought was quite profound, and it’s that we relate to God not only as our judge but also as our Father. As a judge, He has justified us, forgiven our sins, declared us righteous and thus vindicated us. But as our Father, we still have to deal with Him on a daily basis, and God can be displeased with what believers do. Scripture says He was displeased with what David did.
JOHN: Yeah. And that’s the best analogy. As a Father and a son, that relationship is irreversible. That’s forever in its truest sense. But as far as the communion that we enjoy between us, as a Father and a son, that’s dependent upon how I live my life before Him. So, I have His life in me as His son, but that can be without joy and without blessing if I don’t keep that relationship clear. And that’s why confessing sin is so important.
PHIL: Well, thank, John. And thanks for your time today. I don’t want to go away without saying listeners who are interested in this subject would do well, I think, to get your books on The Gospel According to Jesus, The Gospel According to the Apostles, and now the new one, The Gospel According to Paul.
PHIL: All of them deal, in one way or another, with this trend of antinomianism.
JOHN: Yeah. And The Vanishing Conscience is also another really important book, because it looks at the reality of sin. And that is a critical – that’s a critical beginning point to understand this whole thing about the law and its relationship to all of us.
PHIL: Yeah. I’m glad you mentioned that. When people ask me for a recommendation on a book to read about sanctification, one of the books I always recommend is The Vanishing Conscience. I think that is probably the most helpful presentation – biblical presentation of sanctification that I think I’ve ever read.
JOHN: Yeah. And sanctification God’s way. And it’s – you know, justification’s always going to be attacked. Salvation’s always going to be attacked. Sanctification’s always going to be attacked because the enemy wants to undermine the truth at every level. So, we expect it. I mean we’ve been doing it a long time, Phil, you and I. We’ve been fighting these same battles in different forms. This enemy shows up in a different uniform every few years, but it’s the same enemy. And again, addressing it today has been a really encouraging thing for me.
I would just mention also that I’m about, at church, to start a series on the book of Galatians. And Paul makes a very interesting statement there on this subject, when he says, “Having begun in the Spirit, are you now perfected by the flesh?” It seemed as if the Galatians had come to understand salvation by grace through faith in the Spirit, and then were turning back to the law and had misunderstood the role of the law in the matter of sanctification and living the Christian life. So, we’ll be dealing with that in the months ahead.
PHIL: I’m looking forward to that.
JOHN: Thank you.