PHIL: John, this is a big year for us, because we’re celebrating not only your fiftieth anniversary as pastor of Grace Community Church, but this is also the fiftieth anniversary of Grace to You. So it’s a big year for all of us. You started your first Sunday as pastor at Grace Community Church. It was February 9, 1969. You preached a sermon called “How to Play Church.” Do you remember that sermon?
JOHN: I do remember that sermon.
PHIL: We still have it on tape. It’s a good one.
JOHN: No, no, I know. It circulates every once in a while when people want to hear a little bit of that history. That was a really pretty bold thing to do your first Sunday in a church is sort of confront –
PHIL: We love you for your boldness, by the way.
JOHN: Well, but, yeah, I might have come in a little more like a lamb instead of a lion. But, yeah, that was on my heart from the get-go. I mean, that’s been a mark of the ministry of mine for this half a century that I’m always concerned that people be genuine believers. And I knew there were people in the church there that were not and I knew some of them were on the board just because of previous discussions with people before I actually received the call. And I just was compelled to do Matthew 7, “Many will say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord.’ I’ll say, ‘Depart from Me, I never knew you.’” That really did set the tone.
PHIL: Right. And you’ve preached on that passage several times, and every time you preach on that it’s a powerful sermon. In fact, I think some of our best-selling ever sermons of John MacArthur are sermons you’ve done from that passage.
JOHN: And I have long-time friends who came to true salvation listening to some version of Matthew 7, one or another of those versions through the years.
PHIL: On that very first Sunday you could not possibly have envisioned that that sermon would continue to be circulated. And in fact, we still play it on the radio from time to time.
JOHN: Yeah. Just backing up from there, there were two things. I don’t know why it was the direction I chose, but I can only attribute it to the purposes of God that were beyond me and I was sovereignly moved to do that. One was this whole matter of the church being made up of believers and non-believers, the true and the false, whether it was the wheat and the tares or whether it was the dragnet with all the stuff caught in it. Not only understanding the Scriptures regarding that, but I had experienced in my life many, many people in my dad’s churches that I didn’t believe were converted; and that’s what drove me in the direction of trying to understand what a true believer was. That was one of two things that was so compelling in my ministry that showed up in the first sermon.
The other one was – and I don’t really know where this came from – to explain the Bible with the Bible and not to use current events or secular illustrations or any kind of illustrations other than biblical ones, and to not make current events part of the preaching. Almost everybody did that, and even my dad did that. I wanted to explain the Bible with the Bible so there would be a timelessness to it. And looking back now, that’s why the whole half century of preaching is still current, because it isn’t timestamped by any kinds of cultural events or personal events; and it’s not about me. And it transcends not only time, but it transcends culture.
And I don’t know that I really understood that at the beginning, but I thought the Bible was its own best explanation. And for some reason, I wanted to use the Bible to explain the Bible. And I think that’s been the mark of the ministry and is the pattern of expository preaching that now has been passed on to guys who’ve been a part of our ministry.
PHIL: Yeah, and it’s significant, too. I once did some research on this. 1969 was a huge year in lots of ways in American culture, and particularly in Southern California. That was the Manson murders and the hippie movement was at its peak and all of that.
I went and looked through all of your sermons from that first year to see what you preached about, and it’s true; it’s almost as if you weren’t reading the newspapers, you’re just preaching straight from Scripture.
JOHN: Yeah. That year was also the year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
JOHN: And ’68, before that, was the first time that men had gone around the moon. There was a guy that came to Grace Church before I arrived to pastor and he preached on “Why God Will Never Allow Man to Reach the Moon,” and that was kind of a famous sermon. It was a bunch of nonsense, because it didn’t work out that way. But, yeah, that’s why you don’t do that. So that was maybe kind of a good reminder not to do that.
PHIL: Do you have any sermons like that that you’ve ever preached that you regret?
JOHN: Well, yeah, but it wasn’t recorded fortunately. I think the first sermon I can remember preaching was on “The Angel Moved the Stone,” and I preached on rolling away stones in your life. I mean, that is just classic twenty-first century evangelical –
PHIL: So you were ahead of your time even then.
JOHN: I really was.
PHIL: Now you had been –
JOHN: Ignore the resurrection and talk about rolling away stones in your life. Brutal.
PHIL: You had been an extension speaker for – was it Biola?
PHIL: Talbot. Talbot Seminary. So this was actually the first church you ever accepted to pastorate in, right?
JOHN: It was the only one that made an offer, so it was pretty simple. I had preached in a couple of other churches that were of some size, because when I graduated from seminary in 1964 my dad wanted me to come back and work alongside him. It became apparent after a couple of years that the two of us were not going to end up in the same place because we both did the same thing, and they didn’t need two preachers. So I needed to kind of make a break, and I wanted to preach.
Dr. Feinberg at the seminary asked me to come back and be a representative for the seminary and just go preach everywhere, not selling the seminary, but demonstrating expository preaching. And he had appreciated the way I did it, which was unique even then I think, again, explaining the Bible with the Bible and going deep into the text, and going slower rather than faster, and deeper rather than shallower.
And so he brought me back in, and for two-and-a-half years I preached about 30 to 35 times a month all over everywhere. I was everywhere, particularly in Southern California. We didn’t travel a lot across the country in those years. But I was preaching 30 to 35 times a month somewhere in churches, youth camps, youth conferences. Did a lot of preaching for Campus Crusade up at Arrowhead. Did Bible clubs in high schools, and college campus events, youth camps – Hume Lake, Forest Home – all that kind of thing.
That condensed – just think, preaching 30, 35 times a month. A typical pastor would preach maybe 45 times a year on Sunday mornings and take 7 of them off. So you can imagine the condensed experience in preaching. And one of the most helpful things about it was very often I was talking to junior high kids and high school kids who had the courtesy to talk if they’re not interested. So you immediately know whether you’re communicating.
PHIL: Nowadays they just tweet.
JOHN: Yeah, now they tweet, yeah. You can’t tell whether you’re communicating with adults, they just have a blank stare anyway. Kids will fidget. So it was good to work on the communication side to see if I could communicate the Scriptures to kids. And that kind of condensed experience at two-and-a-half years I think prepared me to step in at Grace Church and not be daunted by having to do a Sunday morning sermon, a Sunday night sermon, and then another one on Wednesday night – which I did for many, many years at Grace.
PHIL: Now Grace Community Church had roots in the Methodist church, right?
JOHN: Yeah, it was an independent church, but it was founded by a guy named Don Householder who had been pastor of a church in LA called Trinity Methodist; and he came out and planted a church in what was a nursery – not a human nursery, but a plant nursery – on Roscoe Boulevard. And it was kind of like farm country. Some of you may remember the shack, a book shack.
PHIL: It was a chicken coop.
JOHN: It was chicken coops. Our Sunday school classes met in chicken coops that were cleaned up. Yeah.
So he had started this church, and their doctrinal statement was that thing about in love, or something, unity and charity, love – I don’t know what it was. But there was no doctrine, it was just kind of a silly little kind of sentimental, you know, hallmark doctrinal statement.
But they were nice people, they were good people, and he was a faithful guy to shepherd them. And they had a lot of personal relationships. Grace Church was very strong in personal relationships. They were very involved with each other, even when I came; and they had a good youth ministry.
Householder died, and a guy named Richard Elvy came, and he was a Baptist. He was only there a few years and he died. So that put them in a position; they were supporting fully two widows. So the qualification for the next guy was that he be young. So they didn’t want to every support another widow.
PHIL: And you were young. You were what, twenty-nine years old.
JOHN: Twenty-nine. And I think what really did it was that I had spoken at so many youth camps, and the young people from Grace Community Church had been at many of those camps. And I did one camp just for Grace Community Church young people; Paul Sailhamer was youth pastor then. And the kids came back and had a great week, and the Lord did some wonderful things. And that was just at the time they were really starting to look, and so my name got thrown into the hat.
And, yeah, I went to preach a candidating message, and I remember I’d been studying Romans 6 and 7 up at Hume Lake and just been pouring myself into it. And they didn’t have a clock on the wall – and that’s a famous story. But I preached for about an hour and twenty minutes that night. And when I came down after speaking Patricia leaned over and said, “Well there goes that church. Do you know how long you talked?” And I didn’t really know. But they said, “Would you teach us the Word like that?” and that was it.
PHIL: Wow. So –
JOHN: But they put a clock up the next week. They actually did, big clock on the back wall of the chapel.
PHIL: But they had you back the next week too, right?
JOHN: They did, yeah, yeah. That was in 1968 toward the end of the year.
PHIL: I’ve seen pictures from that era, and there were a lot of young people in the church.
JOHN: There were. The church was a family church. There were young families. There were a lot of teenagers in the church, because Youth for Christ – some of you will remember Youth for Christ – they were in their heyday then. They had a huge sort of weekly Youth for Christ rally in the San Fernando Valley. They would have it at Van Nuys Baptist typically. It drew a lot of young people. Those were the years when Youth for Christ which was based in Wheaton, really flourished. And so kids were a part of that, and kids kind of followed the Youth for Christ path back to Grace, because Paul Sailhamer was one of the leaders. So they did have a lot of young people. For a church of 300 or so people, they had an awful lot of young people. They probably had, I don’t know, 80 or 100 young people that were involved. So, yeah, that was a very young church.
PHIL: Yeah. One of the remarkable things about Grace Community Church is that even today after you’ve been here fifty years – and the church preceded you by at least fifteen years, right?
JOHN: I think it was thirteen years when I came, or something like that.
PHIL: And yet we still have charter members, founding members of Grace Church who still attend faithfully every Sunday. It’s pretty amazing.
JOHN: Yeah. I spent a little time with a couple of them, Sam and Emarie Britten last week. They were charter members.
PHIL: An amazing thing. They love to reminisce about those days.
JOHN: Yeah. Yeah, Sam was kind of the shining light professor of physical education at Cal State Northridge, and he taught me how to play handball out there on the handball courts. And that’s how I got to know Nick Bright who is a Jewish professor of Phys Ed out there who came to Christ and was a part of our church. And several of the coaches out there came to the Lord in Bible study, started out there, and we had a real impact in those early years that season.
PHIL: Yeah. So when you came to Grace Church you had worked in media. You dad had a radio broadcast and all of that. Was it ever a thought in your mind that you might do that?
JOHN: My grandfather started a radio program called Voice of Calvary. It was his desire to preach on the radio. He was –
PHIL: That was in the early days of radio then, right, back in the late ‘40s?
JOHN: Well, yeah. The only person on the radio in those days would have been M. R. DeHaan.
JOHN: This was even probably before McGee.
PHIL: Theodore Epp, Back to the Bible.
JOHN: Theodore Epp, Back to the Bible, and that was pretty much it, Back to the Bible and Radio Bible Class. There were no Christian radio stations, they were on secular radio; and my grandfather was a gifted preacher and he started Voice of Calvary. And my dad really started on Voice of Calvary playing the marimba and playing the theme.
JOHN: He played piano and marimba. He was really good on the marimba. So he eventually kind of took over the Voice of Calvary and it became a regular part of his ministry. And then it went from radio – it was a weekly radio program, it was never a daily radio program. Only those other two until McGee came were daily radio programs.
So he took it to television and we used to have to go down. It was live, and so after church on Sunday night we’d all go down to KCOP Channel 13 and do it live. So my dad wanted me to jump in at some point, and so I don’t know if there’s any of the old – they used to call them kinescopes of those –
PHIL: Right. I’d love to see that. How old were you when you started that?
JOHN: Well I was in seminary, so I would have been – I graduated from college at 21, I graduated from seminary at 24. So, yeah, I would have been –
PHIL: Now I’ve never seen you even look like you’re nervous. Is that a natural sense of a plumb for you or were you nervous in the early days? Live TV, that’s scary.
JOHN: Well, I don’t know that I knew enough to be afraid. I guess I didn’t assume anybody was watching anyway. But I think it’s more that I’m only a little bit nervous if I don’t know what I’m going to say. But if I know what I’m going to say, what am I nervous about? There’s nothing to be nervous about.
The time when maybe it – I wouldn’t call it nervousness, but the times when I’m really kind of acutely sensitive, or those times when I was on Larry King, because I had no idea what was going to be said. There was no prompting, there’s no nothing, no producer calling you, telling you what the questions are, and you just have to be on high alert.
One time on that program somebody asked me, “Are you nervous knowing you’re going to be on the air in a minute?” and Larry King answered and said, “He’s not nervous. I know nervous people when I see them and he’s not one of them.” So I always thought that was very interesting. And the reason I wasn’t nervous is because I eventually figured out I’m going to say what I want to say whatever the question is.
PHIL: Good strategy.
PHIL: By the way, I remember all those times on Larry King and I was nervous for you.
JOHN: I know. My wife wouldn’t watch, she was terrified.
PHIL: Yeah, it was frightening.
JOHN: There was a lot at stake, and it’s amazing how – I mean, you see this sometimes in athletics where people can rise to a level beyond the ordinary in a kind of crisis game or crucial moment, and those are those kinds of moments where you’re in a high level of acute sensitivity to what’s going on, and you’re also praying. But I also knew specifically, essentially the categories that I wanted to say, so I could kind of divert into what I wanted to say. But I think other times the Lord just gave me the right things to say, and once I kind of camped on the idea don’t – when you get in those situations the Scripture says, “Don’t worry about what you’re going to say, the Lord will give you the words to say.” And I began to see that happen and took whatever nervousness out. And eventually when you’re talking to somebody like that who you know is not going to do something to harm you or to lead you down a path that’s destructive, there’s a little bit of a trust that begins to build up and you can kind of – it eases it a little bit.
PHIL: All right, back to the beginning. A lot of people think of Grace to You as a radio ministry primarily. That is I think what we’re best known for. Didn’t start out that way, it was a tape ministry. How did that get started?
JOHN: There was a guy in our church named Vern Loomis who was just a lay guy in the church, and he came to me and said, “We need to record your messages.” And I’d never really seen that happen. But there were no cassettes, there was only reel-to-reel.
PHIL: Right. That was about the time cassettes were invented. I think the first time I remember –
JOHN: But he started with reel-to-reel tapes in those big, boxy machines, recording. And then he would make – he had like two more of those, and he would make these big clumsy reels of messages, and his idea was to take them to shut-ins. And then this cassette – I remember having a conversation with somebody, I can’t remember who it was – that a cassette had been invented. This seems so ridiculous, because we’re so far past that now.
PHIL: Yeah, that’s ancient technology now.
JOHN: Yeah, yeah. But cassettes had been invented and they were these little square things, this loop of tape, and you could put it on the cassette. And there were these little cassette players; Craig was the most famous cassette player, just a little box. And they took off like crazy early on, and pretty soon they were – I would go over to Vern’s house and he would have a reel-to-reel machine going, and there was no way to duplicate cassettes, so he had like ten little Craig machines all connected to each other, making cassettes at normal speed.
PHIL: Right. Must have driven his wife crazy.
JOHN: Yeah, he probably turned the volume down to be honest. Yeah, so it was a very slow process. Then as those early years went by they began to develop equipment that would make them and then they would record on cassettes. And then they had equipment that would literally make the cassette itself, those king loaders that we used to have here. Yeah.
But it started reel-to-reel for shut-ins. And then people kept saying, “Since there is a recording, can we get ahold of it?” and then it went to cassettes. And I remember when we passed the millionth cassette. That was significant.
PHIL: It was. There’s a plaque here in the building that someone took that one millionth cassette and put it on a plaque and we have it hanging on a wall here.
JOHN: I used to say when people asked me about that, I used to say, “Because they’re so cheap, I think pastors order them and erase me and record their own sermon.”
PHIL: Well, I do remember when I started listening to you, you could subscribe to the Sunday messages. And it cost about a dollar a tape, a dollar a cassette.
JOHN: We got it to a dollar a tape.
PHIL: It was certainly less expensive than blank cassettes. And so, I subscribed to every message coming from the pulpit of Grace Church, and I would always listen to yours and –
JOHN: You would always have people walking around Grace Church, because all this was at Grace Church, all these people walking around Grace Church with boxes, like shoe boxes full of cassette tapes.
PHIL: Yeah. In fact, it sort of created an army of volunteers when people saw this happening. And at some point – I don’t know if it was the first year or the second year – you moved the ministry out of Vern Loomis’ house to behind the gymnasium there at Grace Church.
JOHN: Right, upstairs in what’s now the Grace Grill. That was where it was upstairs.
PHIL: And there’s still people at Grace Church who used to work as volunteers in those days duplicating tapes; and the ministry just grew and ultimately exploded. I think there was probably a time in the mid ‘70s when it was probably the biggest cassette tape ministry in the evangelical world devoted to the teaching of one pastor. Did it ever dawn on you, “This is maybe bigger than I thought it was going to be?”
JOHN: Oh, well, yeah. I’m not living something I planned.
JOHN: No. This is – you know, I’m surprised every day, absolutely every day.
PHIL: And I wasn’t here in those days, I came along – I’ve been here now thirty-five years out of your fifty, which means I’ve been here more than half your tenure. It still feels new to me at times. It’s just – I love it.
JOHN: You’re not bored yet?
PHIL: Nope, not bored at all. It’s exciting as it ever was.
JOHN: Well, I’m so happy to hear that. We talk about self-discipline; but this is not self-discipline, this is just a kind of – this is kind of a habit. This is just a spiritual habit that is deeply engrained in me to pour my life into the study and teaching of the Word of God, and I don’t know how to stop doing it. And also not just that in itself, but applying the Word of God to all the issues that I see. I can’t stop looking at what’s right and what’s wrong in the church or the evangelical world or the world itself and walk away. I’m driven to bring some kind of biblical clarity to the confusing issues of our time. And that’s why I’ve always been seen as sort of a warrior or maybe polemical more than many. On the one hand, you’re teaching the Bible all the time just through passages; and as a shepherd of the flock at Grace Church I’m not controversial. But if you step outside Grace Church on the public side of things, I’ve injected myself into so many controversial issues to bring biblical clarity that I’m seen more as a polemicist outside than the shepherd that I’m seen by the people on the inside.
PHIL: Yeah, now I’ve thought about that, too. And I hear people say things like that about you, “Well, he’s always embroiled in some controversy and all.” But I look at your ministry, the big picture of it, and think if you had lived in a previous generation even – I was going to say century. But even if you’d lived in the early part of the twentieth century, nothing you’ve done or said would seem unusual at all. It’s that the evangelical culture has changed to the point where evangelicals don’t seem to like doctrinal controversy.
JOHN: Yeah. Look, I was saying to someone the other day, I’ve lived long enough to see the arrival of the Reformed movement with the Five Point Calvinism, sound theology come in the front door that didn’t exist. When I was in college and seminary there was no such movement. I knew one Reformed church in Southern California, it had 30 people. It didn’t exist. And never had a conversation with my father about any of the doctrines of grace or any of Reformed theology distinctives; it just wasn’t in the conversation. And then it came in J. I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, Knowing God, and all of a sudden The Puritans showed up and I started reading The Puritans, and I watched that wave become a dominating force in the evangelical world.
And now I’ve lived long enough to watch it end. And it’s now not the movement that has control of evangelicalism. It did for a while. Unfortunately, the people – some of the people who held that trust handed it off to irresponsible millennials who were faux Calvinists who didn’t have a full-orbed understanding of Scripture, didn’t have a biblical ecclesiology or doctrine of sanctification, and they took the little parts of Reform doctrine that they liked and sprinkled in their glass of pragmatism and dissolved it; and now you’ve got an evangelicalism that where 78 percent of people surveyed think Jesus was created. From the time there was no movement, the movement comes and it fades. Doesn’t mean that everybody’s let go of it; but as the dominant reality in the evangelical world, it has gone. And pragmatism, basically – it was handed off to pragmatists; and I warned guys about this, and they abused it and they dissolved it in their pragmatism, and it’s disappeared. And now I met yesterday with Joel Beeke and he’s talking passionately about, “How do we get people back to the Puritans? How do we get people back to sound doctrine?” This is a passion for his heart.
PHIL: And I want to pursue that with you, but that’s a different conversation. I want to get back to the history here – and I’m sorry I got you off track. And we will follow that up, because I want to hear your views on that.
But back to the beginning of Grace to You, I wasn’t here in those days, but I know a lot of people who were. And to a person, they all say that John MacArthur was never the driving force behind the expansion of the ministry. You were never there trying to make this into a big media ministry. And in fact, when Grace to You began on the radio, you didn’t seem really enthusiastic about starting a radio ministry of your own, right?
JOHN: No. I think I had so much to do because I was preaching all the time – Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night – and then I was preaching a lot of other places. I had so much preparation and I was trying to shepherd. I took one day a week and did nothing but hospital visitation, and then I did Saturday mornings trying to train men and elders for years and years. So I didn’t have time to be going out starting ministries and launching things.
I’m not really driven to planning the future, because I just – I have a simple approach. I teach the Word of God, I take care of the depth and let the Lord take care of the breadth. And so, my approach was always if the Lord wants to grow things he’s going to use the people that are being fed the Word of God to do it. That’s Ephesians 4, and that’s kind of where I saw this. I’m for the perfecting of the saints and there for the work of the ministry. And so as you perfect the saints, they’ll do the work of the ministry.
And so always it would be people coming to me and saying, “I think we need a tape ministry. I think we need a youth ministry. I think we need a women’s ministry. I think we need a bus ministry,” whatever. And I would always say, “If God put it on your heart, go do it, go do it.” And there was never any planning. There was never planning for radio. There was never planning really even for books. I kind of backed into books because of sermons, and people said, “We’d like to put that into a book.”
Yeah, so I’m not the explanation of the ministry, I’m not it. I just keep doing the same thing that I’ve been doing all these years, and God does what Ephesians 4 says He would do: He edifies the saints and the saints go do the work of the ministry; and the body of Christ is built up, and the witness is powerful in love. And that’s the pattern.
PHIL: Now I’ve heard you say that before that when someone would come to you and say, “We need a ministry to do this,” you’d say, “That’s a great idea, you go start it.” But I also knew Norm Spear who founded the radio ministry, and he told me that when he came to you and said, “We need a radio ministry,” you said no.
JOHN: Well, that may be true; I don’t remember that. But if he said I said that, maybe I did. If he expected me to do it, no would be answer, because I understood the complexity of that from my dad.
PHIL: Yeah. You mentioned that you used to go to the studio on Sunday nights to do the television broadcast.
JOHN: Right, that was the television. And radio in those days was the same thing.
PHIL: Yeah, you had to go in a studio.
JOHN: You had to go to a studio and sit there and talk into a mic, and I never thought that was the way to do it because I was a preacher. And so there was only one radio program on that I can recall in America where sermons were played and that was Billy Graham Radio. On the weekend, Billy Graham Association would play one of his sermons. Not even McGee’s sermons were on the radio in those days, although later they did put his Sunday sermons on radio on the weekend.
PHIL: Yeah, that was kind of a secondary aspect to his radio ministry. The main thing was his daily thing where he’d sit in the studio and talk to listeners.
JOHN: So what I said to Norm was, “If you want to do radio, you’re going to have to take the sermons I preach on Sunday and put them on the radio.” Nobody had done that. That had not been done on a daily radio basis. His vision was for daily radio.
And, of course, daily radio eats up material fast. And in those early years – I mean, I’m just getting started at Grace Church and they’re going to put me on daily radio? How am I going to have enough material. I remember when Howard Hendricks tried to do a daily radio program and he wasn’t a pastor, and he was on for a few months and he was off because all the material was exhausted. So I said, “You’re going to have to do the sermons.” So we had to take some time to build up some material. But again, that’s probably why I stalled him.
PHIL: Yeah, and he started experimenting with it, and you weren’t the only one telling him no. People who had expertise in Christian radio said, “You can’t take an hour-long sermon, chop it in half and put half of it on today and half of it on – you can’t do that.” But he said, “I think you can.”
Some of the very first sermons by John MacArthur were broadcast on WRBS in Baltimore, Maryland, clear across the country. How did that come to pass, and what happened?
JOHN: My college years began with a couple of years at Bob Jones University. I had a classmate there by the name of Tom Bisset. Tom and I were friends in college. I didn’t know it, but his family basically ran the Peter and Paul Network radio station in Baltimore, Maryland.
And fast-forward years later, I started getting information from people in the Baltimore area that they said, “We appreciate your radio program.” I said, “We don’t have a radio program.” And it turned out that Tom had something called – I think he called it The Pulpit, something like that, Evening Pulpit, and he just would take a message on a tape and stick it on the air. And that’s what it was, no beginning, no end; just play a sermon, Evening Pulpit; and he was playing my sermons.
So we didn’t have a program, but there were just those sermons. And that was the first indication, because there was a really interesting response to that. Tom was excited about the response they were getting, and that gave me some hope that this thing might work. So, yeah. So we were on the air preaching before we actually had a program.
PHIL: Yeah. That would have been, what, in the mid 1970s, around ’75, ’76, there about?
JOHN: I don’t even remember exactly the years, but it wasn’t long after we got here; it may have been even earlier than that.
PHIL: And then that’s what gave Norm Spear the idea to.
JOHN: Right, because there was some interest in my preaching on the radio by radio listeners; he realized there’s something there we can capture. But at the beginning he had really bad introductory stuff.
PHIL: No, I remember that.
JOHN: Little skits.
PHIL: Those original broadcasts, not many people remember them. But I do clearly, because Norm’s idea was to introduce each day with a little drama. I remember thinking, “Well, that’s just really weird,” and I thought it was the local radio station that had preceded your broadcast with the drama, because I thought, “There’s no way John MacArthur would do that.”
JOHN: That was true.
PHIL: Yeah. And then it morphed over the next year or so to where the openings were a little more sensible.
JOHN: It was trial and error trying to figure out how to launch that thing. And the early approaches to that were really brutal, there’s no question.
PHIL: But the teaching was as great as it is today.
JOHN: Well, it was the sermons. And there still would be some sermons maybe two or three years into the ministry at Grace Church when we were still trying to navigate how to do this.
PHIL: No question about it. In fact, in those early years there was a lot from the gospel of John and Acts. That was a lot of the material that was available, and 1 John as well. And in those days I was a youth pastor and had a youth group full of kids who’s grown up in Christian homes and believed they were Christians because they had asked Jesus into their heart when they were three years old, and they lived like all their unsaved friends; and I was constantly challenging them. And I learned from you that this is the message of 1 John. So I started teaching a series through 1 John. My students began to be converted; and to my surprise, the parents weren’t really happy about it. It was like, “No, I remember when he asked Jesus into his heart. You can’t tell me he just got saved.”
JOHN: That was the ubiquitous standard for evangelical churches.
PHIL: Exactly. And I thought, “John MacArthur needs to write a book on this issue.” And the first time I ever met you face to face, my first words to you were, “Look, I listen to you every day on the radio and it’s great. But you need to do a book on the lordship issue.” And you said, “I intend to do that. I even have a title in mind: The Gospel According to Jesus.”
JOHN: Wow. You know, just a background on that. I went to high school, I had a friend named Ralph, played football and baseball with him. We used to go down to Pershing Square in LA to witness to people in the park there.
PHIL: That’s a tough area, even today.
JOHN: Yeah. Then it was a little more refined. But there were lots of people sitting around, we’d witness to them. We were both involved in our youth groups at two different churches where we lived. I even worked for his dad. His dad was a Buick dealer and he gave Ralph and I a summer job of repossessing cars, which was really a fun job.
PHIL: Oh, that would be.
JOHN: So we had a universal key, we could start anything.
PHIL: I want to hear more about that.
JOHN: Yeah, that was a fun job, that and herding pigs one summer was equally fun.
PHIL: You know, both of those early jobs explain a lot about how you do what you do today. You learned some skills there that you brought into the ministry.
JOHN: Perhaps I did. But Ralph and I were good buddies. We witnessed together, we played ball together. He graduated from high school and went to the University of Redlands, became an atheist. And I just didn’t have a category for Ralph. I remember thinking, “What am I dealing with here?”
Went to college. My best buddy was back in the backfield with me on the football team. His dad was a pastor, my dad was a pastor, they were friends; graduated from college. He went and got a Ph.D. in some kind of philosophy, and he ended up openly, flagrantly denying the gospel. Ended up a professor at Long Beach State and was arrested for scandalous behavior. This was my buddy. He was the head of his youth group and I was the head of mine in college.
I went to seminary. The dean of the seminary when I was at Talbot, his son was a student body officer with me; I was president and he was vice president. When he graduated, he set up a Buddhist altar at his house, denied the faith. So I’m trying to figure, “What is this?” These are guys that come out of churches where they’re very involved.
Now that explains to you why when I got to seminary I wrote my dissertation on Judas, because I was trying to figure out what dynamics are going on in somebody who’s that close. So let me go to the guy that was the closest of all and defected, and find out what the spiritual dynamics were in Judas. And nobody had written on him, and I wrote a character analysis of Judas Iscariot simply because I couldn’t understand how somebody could be with Christ, but I’d seen it. And I’d seen people like that my dad’s churches who would find out, left their wife, or had some kind of immoral behavior.
So I was always trying to figure out who is a true believer and who is not. And that was in the very early years of just forming my understanding of Scripture, and that became definitive by the time I got to you and to the issue of The Gospel According to Jesus and lordship salvation and all of that.
PHIL: Right, yeah. And that has been a theme even since then.
PHIL: Pretty much everything, yeah. You know, I, several years ago, dug up your paper on Judas. I have a copy of it. I’ve been tempted to put it online, like maybe make it into a Grace to You blogpost. It’s actually quite good.
JOHN: I don’t have the nerve to go back and read it honestly. I remember passing.
PHIL: As I said, it’s actually quite good for –
JOHN: I got a degree for it, but –
PHIL: For a student still in his twenties to write that well and to –
JOHN: Well, you have understand too, I had no context. There’s a much more defined context for thinking that way now than there was then, because if you were in the church and you were baptized, and you went to Sunday school, you were a Christian. There was no context. I don’t ever remember ever hearing anybody call anybody’s conversion into question, there was just no context for that. So I was an outlier at that point and starting down that path by the time – well, by the time we got to The Gospel According to Jesus, and you were critical in bringing that all together with me. It had reached the point where it was exploding in my mind, but it hadn’t yet even exploded on the evangelical world. And that’s why the book, it had such an impact.
PHIL: Right, yeah. And, in fact, I expected that book to do well and be well-read. But it exceeded even my expectations. Were you surprised by it?
JOHN: Well, Zondervan was Stan Gundry.
PHIL: Yeah. He was one of my professors, and he had been one of your professors.
JOHN: Yeah, he taught Hebrew to me. But he thought it would sell about 25,000, and I think it hit 200,000. And interestingly enough, it made an alliance between myself and Jim Boice. I was much younger than him, or somewhat younger than him. He was formidable in every way you could be formidable as a minister: brilliant, highly trained, educated, theologically acute.
PHIL: He even had an intimidating voice. His voice was amazing.
JOHN: Yeah, growly, gravely voice, brilliant insights; and he actually wrote one of the forwards for the original The Gospel According to Jesus, which was really something, because he was an East Coast Presbyterian and I was a California dispensationalist. And then tell them who wrote the other forward.
PHIL: James Packer.
JOHN: James Packer. I mean, I was dancing with the girl I didn’t bring to the dance. These are the shining lights of Reformed theology, and they’re getting onboard with a dispensationalist who’s tearing down his own house in one sense.
PHIL: And you know, a lot of times when you see a forward to a book, you think, “Well, the guy who wrote this probably read one chapter of the book.” You could tell in both cases they had devoured that book and were excited about it; and both of those forwards actually added quite a lot to the value of the book itself.
JOHN: Absolutely, because it took me out of my provincial. Also, Boice had written a book previous to that on discipleship.
PHIL: Right. Moody Press published that.
JOHN: And Moody published it, and they didn’t even know what they were dealing with. But it was definitively talking about who is a true disciple. And that’s why Jim was so eager to jump on. And as a result of that, he put me, even when I was young, on the Inerrancy Congress. There were only a hundred guys chosen originally to frame that Chicago State Inerrancy; two of them pastors – myself and Jim Boice – and he had asked me. But he knew I was going down that path.
PHIL: Yes. In fact, one of the first times I met you was at the – the first time you and I actually spent any extended time together was in San Diego was at the big convention for the Council on Biblical Inerrancy. And we talked about – we actually laid the plans for the outline for The Gospel According to Jesus at that point.
JOHN: That’s where we did it?
JOHN: And I had preached on it in a lot of different places, so that book was pulling together all those various sermons.
PHIL: Yeah, the book actually was drawn from chapters that spanned at least 15 to 18 years of your preaching. Going all back to that first message, that really was the theme of how to play church.
So as the radio ministry began to take off, again, Norm Spear told me that you were pretty convinced at the beginning that it was going to fail. When did you realize this has a shelf life, this ministry has legs of its own?
JOHN: Well, you have to remember that I think the first station they put us on was in Glendale, KIEV, and they put us between the evening news and the horse races; and everybody hated us, and they took us off. And so I thought, “Yeah, of course, it’s going to fail.”
There weren’t Christian stations. There was one guy that had a Christian station in this area and it was Gene Scott.
PHIL: Right. He was a heretic.
JOHN: Yeah. But they took it away from him. The FCC took the station away from him and put it up for sale, and Ed Atsinger bought it. And that’s –
PHIL: That was the beginning of Salem, who actually is probably one of our most important partners in broadcasting, Salam.
JOHN: Yeah. And Ed Atsinger was a kid from a non-Christian family who was saved in the junior high group when I was his junior high pastor.
PHIL: Wow, that’s amazing, yeah. And so that was the first Los Angeles broadcast I think of Grace to You.
JOHN: Yeah, yeah. And that’s when I began to realize that maybe this thing can work. But we had to have a station that was not appealing to people who would hate what we had to say.
PHIL: Well, for what it’s worth –
JOHN: Adjacencies, I learned about that, adjacencies. You’ve got to have somebody around you that’s going to be a little bit like you so you don’t offend –
PHIL: Right, otherwise you’re listening to the end of the horse race waiting for John MacArthur to come on, and it’s kind of annoying.
JOHN: Right, it doesn’t work.
PHIL: Yeah. For what it’s worth, for someone who heard that first week’s worth of broadcasts even with those bad dramas, I knew right away, “This is going to succeed. This guy’s teaching is like nothing else you can listen to.”
JOHN: I don’t know why that’s true. I don’t understand myself. I don’t know why people listen. I don’t know why it’s different than anybody else. You and I have talked about that. You did an analysis of it that I listened to, and I guess I learned what I do, because I couldn’t explain it.
PHIL: That was kind of fun. But if I knew you were going to listen to that I never would have done it. They asked me at The Master’s Seminary to do a one-hour, or maybe a two-hour lecture on the preaching –
JOHN: When did you do it?
PHIL: It was during the winterim a couple years ago.
JOHN: Yeah. I didn’t hear it till a couple of years later.
PHIL: No, no, no, you weren’t around, and I thought, “Okay, if John’s not going to be there, I’ll talk about his preaching style.”
JOHN: Yeah, and it was a couple of years before I ever heard it. But it was interesting to find out what I was doing.
PHIL: Yeah. You do it well, too, for what it’s worth.
So Grace to You has now become one of the older, established. We are today what, say, Radio Bible Class and Back to the Bible were when I began with Grace to You. And again, still, this is not owing to any manipulation or effort on your part. You still feel like the Lord’s in control of this and you just have to sit back and keep doing it.
JOHN: Well, yeah. This is my whole life. This is the way it’s always been. There are things that go on. I come on Sunday to preach at Grace Church, and this amazing, incredible plethora of ministries going on at Grace Church that I don’t really have anything to do with. And the same is true with Grace to You. The Lord’s just used His Word to raise up all these people with all these gifts; and I believe that. That’s why early on in the ministry I did a series on spiritual gifts. And there was an article in Moody, the first article that was ever written about our church: Moody Monthly, “The Church with 900 Ministers.” You remember that article?
PHIL: I do. I do.
JOHN: Because this guy came and said, “These people are all ministering. All these people are doing ministry.”
PHIL: That was I think written by Lowell Sanders.
JOHN: Lowell Sanders.
PHIL: He was a professor of journalism or something at Biola. He came up here and wrote that article.
JOHN: Yeah, and that was defining, because I’d never seen that. I’d never seen that in even the churches I grew up in with my dad: everybody ministering. But that was my conviction about spiritual gifts. Again, I got started in Ephesians and how that everybody fit into the body of Christ. And then I started studying spiritual gifts and it just took off. And so I’ve never really been involved in the details of things, which I think has allowed me to, as much as possible, be a part of people’s lives, and be at the hospitals when I need to be there and shepherd people when I need to shepherd, and also invest in the young men in particular in our church who are headed in the direction of ministry and have time to be with them. Yeah. But I’ve never cast a vision for these things, and I’ve never gotten involved in the gears, I just continue to teach the Word and try to be a direct influence on those who carry those burdens by personal relationships with them.
PHIL: There’ve been a couple of turning points that I want you to talk about, because they explain a lot, I think, about the philosophy behind Grace to You and what we do. Two things, very similar things that catapulted this ministry to a new level. The first was when we decided instead of always selling your books, let’s take a book, a new book, hardcover book, and give it away, just give it to our people and absorb whatever that costs us, because we want them to read this book. And we started doing that on a regular basis, because you had taught us that if you just minister faithfully, the Lord supports His own work. And that’s exactly what happened.
JOHN: That’s when we made the dramatic decision, that first dramatic decision to the people that are a part of this ministry we’ll just give them everything that’s new –
PHIL: Right. And experts said, “That’s going to kill your ministry.”
JOHN: Yeah, “You’re done. You’re done. It’s over. You’re finished.” And I said, “Fine, if that’s what the Lord wants.” I have always believed, and I’ve believed it since the first day I stood in a pulpit at Grace Church, that God will honor His word. That’s the only promise I had. I had no promise that He would bless me personally in any way. I had no strategy. But I did believe with all my heart that God would honor His word, and that was all I cared about. So I said, “Let’s see if He’ll honor His word. That’s all we’re giving. So let’s put it in His hands. If it shuts down, it shuts down.” And the opposite happened. We started giving it away, and people were grateful and they were ministered to, and we immediately saw an increase in support.
PHIL: Yeah. Then the second turning point came almost two decades later. And, in fact, I should preface this by saying the ministry changed of necessity over the years as technology changed. I have this vivid recollection of a planning retreat we had in 1995, and I had just, for the first time, about two months before that purchased Internet access; so I was on the Internet. But the World Wide Web was less than a year old. You’d never heard of it; nobody knew what it was in those days. And at this planning retreat I made the comment that, “You know, if the Internet takes off like I think it promises to do, it’s possible that within twenty years we won’t be producing cassette tapes anymore, we’ll be distributing sermons on the Internet.” And you stopped me and you said, “Don’t say that. Cassette tapes are our ministry, this is what we do.”
JOHN: Yeah. Shows you what I knew.
PHIL: You’ve never been on the cutting edge of technology. But that’s okay, that’s okay.
Anyway, so this is exactly what happened. And then the demand for MP3 recordings somewhere along the line superseded the demand for cassette tapes and we’ve ultimately phased out cassette tapes. But in the beginning we were selling like we had sold cassette tapes, because there’s a cost involved with –
JOHN: And there were those CDs, too.
PHIL: Right, yeah, CDs. We went to CDs for a while and all that. But we looked at the MP3s and said, “You know, this really is minimal cost to produce. What if we made these free?” And, you know, again, a lot of the voices of expertise said, “You can’t do that, that’s the source of all your sales income.” And we looked at that and said, “Okay, let’s just trust the Lord and see what happens.” And went from where we were distributing maybe something like a few thousand MP3s every month to where now we have two million downloads per month at times.
And when I remember back, we talked earlier about that the first million cassette tapes – and there’s a plaque that commemorates that – that took several years to do. Now two million people every month download sermons and listen to them. Is that not mind-blowing?
PHIL: What do you think Spurgeon would think if he knew of that potential?
JOHN: Yeah. In his day there was something like an average of maybe 20,000 copies of his sermons going out.
PHIL: Yeah. Every week they would send sermons across the Pacific.
JOHN: But, no, it’s just mind-boggling. I’m grateful for it, because there has to be some balance to the corruption that’s available. And I think the Lord has enabled the preaching of His Word to stay up with the corruption to try to neutralize it. It would be a terrible world for Christians to live in if they could only get access to the Word of God on Sunday or periodically, because I was talking to Justin Peters yesterday, who’s a wonderful minister, and his wife Kathy. And she said – I hadn’t heard her story, but she was converted out of Catholicism, and the first thing she ever got as a converted Catholic was a cassette tape of me. And she sent an order in to Grace to You for a thousand dollars worth of cassette tapes.
JOHN: And for twenty years she listened to me. I mean, she has everything I’ve ever taught in her head. Now, of course, it’s all downloaded kind of material. But for every one of those million people there’s a story of one life. And that’s what’s amazing about it; the number is staggering. But when you get behind those numbers into the lives of people and you understand that there are people who don’t just listen occasionally, but they listen all the time.
PHIL: And it crosses every national and cultural barrier.
JOHN: And they listen in a way that should make preachers glad, because we all know that you pour out your heart on a Sunday and they don’t remember on Monday what you said. But there are people who listen to these sermons two, three, four, five times, until they own them. I mean, that’s an incredibly new dimension of spiritual feeding in this world that has never existed in the past. I mean, you could hear Spurgeon, you could read something; but he was a preacher, and you never got the full Spurgeon if you didn’t get to hear him preach.
Now here’s the gift of preaching, and you can listen five, six, seven times. I have people that tell me they listen, you know, half a dozen times to every message until they feel like they own it. And then it’s theirs, it’s in their heart. The Word is embedded there; that’s an incredible reality.
JOHN: Yeah, it’s interesting that Martyn Lloyd-Jones had a different view about recorded sermons; he wasn’t in favor of it. And yet today even his sermons, which were recorded for his own benefit – he wanted the record, so he used that in writing his books.
JOHN: More people are listening to him now than ever did in his lifetime.
PHIL: And yet he wasn’t in favor of that. He seemed to think that it was something about listening to a sermon while you were doing the ironing that was unspiritual.
JOHN: Well, he also had the idea that preaching was a spiritual event.
JOHN: And that it was in the moment in that event that the Spirit of God empowered the pastor in carrying –
PHIL: Couldn’t carry through with the –
JOHN: Yeah, and it wasn’t going to go onto a tape.
PHIL: He never heard you preach, because I can sense the anointing even on tape.
PHIL: I can.
JOHN: You need to tell Benny Hinn that.
PHIL: His anointing comes through his jacket.
JOHN: Oh, yeah.
PHIL: Well, thank you for all of that, John, that’s great. And I’m left with many more questions I could ask you about the history of Grace to You. So maybe we’ll do this again sometime.
If I were to ask you, “Where do you see Grace to You going in the years to come?” what would your answer be?
JOHN: Well, in one sense, it doesn’t matter whether I’m dead or alive to Grace to You, because all of preaching and teaching is captured.
PHIL: Like Vernon McGee, being dead, yet speaketh.
JOHN: Sure, right. And that’s going to be me. So I don’t see any reason why people always say to me, “Your commentaries are going to be around till the Lord comes. Your Study Bible is going to be around till the Lord comes,” and things like that. But nobody’s ever said to me, “Your preaching is going to be around till the Lord comes,” but that’s going to be true.
It’s not diminishing. The interest isn’t diminishing. As I get older, it’s not diminishing. It seems like if Grace Church is any indication that – our church is just young people pouring into our church. And two months ago we took in about a hundred people in the right hand of fellowship from 14 different nations. So it crosses all these global lines. And it’s irrelevant to any of these people whether I’m alive or not, because this is the teaching of the Word of God. So I think the future of this ministry is going to be just essentially what it’s always been, and I think it’ll continue to grow. I’m very hopeful.
PHIL: Our plan – in fact, we’ve discussed this at the board level – for Grace to You is just to continue doing what we’re doing in perpetuity. And if the day ever comes – and I can’t foresee it – when people don’t want to hear John MacArthur teaching on the radio, then we’ll close the doors and quit the ministry. We’re not looking for a replacement for you.
JOHN: But again, the other thing is what we started with this conversation was the fact that this is not time-sensitive material. So as the world goes forward this is not dated, this is just the Word of God. The Lord led me in that direction, and at the time I didn’t know why. Now looking back, I understand.
PHIL: It seems a fairly simple decision too, doesn’t it, for a pastor, “Let’s just preach the Word”? And yet it’s remarkable and a sad thing really to see how unusual that is, how few preachers there are who do that.
JOHN: Yeah. Just to kind of fill that out, when I was a seminary student, the guy who taught preaching in seminary didn’t teach anything like the way I preach; and I just basically rejected the whole thing. I will never preach that way. So I think it was just the Lord.
It all starts with your view of Scripture. If you have this very, very high view of Scripture, nothing ascends to the level of Scripture. Then why would you do anything else?
PHIL: Yeah. Well, on behalf of a lot of younger preachers and other preachers who have followed your model, thanks for the model you’ve given us. I think back on my early days as a Christian how difficult it was for me to find a church where they just opened the Bible and preached from it. And in that regard, I think things are better today than they were even in the 1970s. There are lots of preachers out there who have seen what you’ve done and said, “That’s what I want to do.” And so in that sense, I think you’ve had a more far-reaching impact than you could measure, even just from the success of Grace to You.
JOHN: And it may be, even as I’ve seen in my lifetime, that there’s a time when the teaching of the Word of God, expository teaching sound doctrine is popular, and there is a time when it’s not. And there is a time when I think my preaching kind of peaked out. I was invited a lot of places to preach that I would never be invited to now because the culture of evangelicalism has changed so dramatically. But that will cycle and come and go, and the Word of God will always be the same.
PHIL: That’s right. And there’s always a remnant who are hungry for the Word of God.
JOHN: Yeah. There’s those people who hunger for the truth.
Well, thank you so much, Phil. And you’ve been an incredible partner through all of this, even back to the early days at Moody when you and Jerry Jenkins talked to me about starting a commentary series. And that’s eaten up at least thirty-five years of this fifty-year history.
PHIL: That’s right. And from my personal perspective, no greater joy in my life than what the Lord has permitted me to do here at Grace to You and work alongside you.
JOHN: Well, thank you for extending the labors that I’ve given in the pulpit to the printed page.
PHIL: We’ll keep doing it.
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