PHIL: John, I want to survey with you some of the major controversies that you’ve been embroiled in. I don’t know if it’ll surprise you to know that lots of people think of you as a controversialist. I know you well enough to know that you hate controversy; and yet you’re not one to run from controversy. And in fact, in the New Testament when Paul gives the qualifications for an elder in Titus he specifically says this, that the elder must be able to hold fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict. And over the fifty years of your ministry you’ve been faithful to uphold both sides of that. It’s not a popular thing these days to engage in any kind of controversy. But sometimes these things come up; and they have been sort of the hallmarks of your ministry, that you’ve written some key books and engaged in some controversies that have really been turning points for the entire evangelical movement.
JOHN: Well, first of all, I think it’s pretty obvious to say that you have to assume that if you preach the truth of God you’re going to wind up in a controversy, since the Devil’s who operation is basically lies and deception, and he seeks to distort and deceive from the very first temptation with Eve. That’s his mode of operation all the time. So anybody who assumes that you’re going to preach the Bible and not engage in controversy is dead wrong; you’re going to have a battle. That’s why the apostle Paul says, “I have fought the good fight, I have kept the faith,” because the faith is always under assault.
PHIL: Right. And the fight he’s talking about there, as you survey Paul’s ministry in the New Testament, was pretty much always with people who claimed to be Christians. Many of them claimed to be apostles. False teachers who he had to battle constantly.
JOHN: Yeah. And of course, that again is Satan’s strategy. He disguises himself as an angel of light. So you’re not fighting those – well, you are fighting in some sense those who overtly and outrightly oppose the truth. But more dangerous are the people who pervert and twist the truth, and deceive the people who really are seeking the truth.
PHIL: Wolves who come in sheep’s clothing.
JOHN: Right, exactly.
PHIL: You see this even in Jesus’ ministry. So much of what’s recorded for us in the New Testament is Christ’s dialogs that are really public controversies with the Pharisees.
JOHN: Yeah. All of His dialogs were with religious people, with religious people who were religious leaders, religious advocates who had highly defined religious convictions and systems; and all of His battles were with those people.
PHIL: Well, you’ve had several, and we can’t really even cover all of them. But I’ve chosen sort of four of the major controversies that we’ve dealt with over the years. I’ll take them mostly chronologically. I think the charismatic issue came up very early, but I want to save that till the end, because one of your most recent polemical books was Strange Fire. And so we’ll take that one out of order. But let’s go back to the late 1980s and the lordship controversy. Perhaps the first and maybe the most prominent issue in the minds of many people is a controversy that stemmed from your book The Gospel According to Jesus.
JOHN: Yeah. I had been from the time of my conversion, I can honestly say as a kid, trying to sort out who was a true believer. As a pastor’s son I saw people in my dad’s church who claimed to be Christians. Sometimes they were in leadership. I saw pastors, because I was kind of on the inside, whose lives didn’t match their claim. I saw people in leadership in the church whose lives didn’t match their claim. I had a friend in high school who was a head of his youth group at his church, as I was in my church, and he became an atheist. I had a friend in college who rejected the faith after he had prepared for the ministry. I had a friend in seminary whose father was the dean of the seminary, who after graduation set up a Buddhist altar in his home.
I was always trying to come to an understanding of who was a true believer. And when I was choosing a subject for my dissertation in seminary I chose to write on the character analysis of Judas Iscariot; and the reason I chose that, as I think back, was because I wanted to have a better understanding of a fake believer, somebody who could deceive. Judas deceived the other eleven about his true condition. He never deceived the Lord, of course, the Lord knew; but the others couldn’t tell.
And so, this whole idea of who is a true believer started really early in my life, because I saw so many things that I couldn’t understand; and that led me to write about Judas. And then as I got into ministry it became clear to me that the evangelical church was unclear on this very same issue: “Who is a true believer?” And the result of that was when I came to Grace Church, as you well remember, the first Sunday of my ministry there back in February of 1969, I preached on Matthew 7: “Many will say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord, have I not done this and that in Your name?’ And I will say to them, ‘Depart from me, you workers of iniquity, I never knew you.’”
That had been on my mind for years. And the first time I stepped into a pulpit at Grace I wanted to confront the fact that the church, the church had false and true believers mixed together. And that eventually developed into my concern that a superficial understanding of true salvation had found its way not only into the churches, but into the leaders of churches and the leaders of Bible colleges and other Christian institutions, because it was actually being propagated. A no-lordship theology was being propagated, and that’s what led to the writing of The Gospel According to Jesus.
PHIL: Yeah, when I first began to listen to your teaching you were dealing with this issue. My friend Steve Kreloff gave me some John MacArthur tapes from 1 John. At the time, I was leading a youth group in Florida. It was filled with kids who believed that they were Christians because of some incident that they couldn’t even remember, like when they were two or three years old they prayed to ask Jesus into their hearts. And their lives were no different from the pagan kids in the youth group and the pagan kids that they went to school with and all of that. And this troubled me.
I began to teach through 1 John, and I found your material on 1 John and realized you were saying the same things I wanted to say. The apostle John was saying the same thing. I think he thought like you did, because he had watched Christ’s relationship with Judas; and Judas betrays Christ. And the apostle John in 1 John who says, “They went out from us because they were never of us,” a text that so clarifies this issue.
JOHN: Yeah. That was critical to me, 1 John 2:19, “They went out from us, because they were not of us. If they had been of us, they would have continued with us.”
The fact is that our Lord said you have to expect this, in Matthew 13. There will be wheat and there will be tares. The Devil will come in and he will sow tares alongside the wheat, and you won’t be able to make the distinction. You’re not going to have the ability to do that. You’re not going to go around trying to tear up the tares because you’re not going to know. You have to wait, our Lord said, till the harvest, when the Lord sends the reapers, and then it’ll be made manifest who was real and who was not real.
So I understood this, not only from an experiential standpoint, but I understood that this is exactly what the Bible said. This is what the New Testament said, that the broad road that goes to destruction and the many that were going on there were people who said, “We confessed You as Lord.” And He said, “I do not know you, you workers of iniquity.” And that was the trigger for me, that what evidenced a true believer was a transformed life, that there was a real new birth. It was not just talk about being born again, but you were literally a new creation: old things passed away, new things come.
And so, that forced me to take a look at what I think was the dominant kind of theology in the evangelical world that I was a part of, and that is that you can be a Christian and not have a changed life. You can be a Christian and not confess Jesus as Lord. You can be a Christian and not repent. You can even be a Christian, and at some point stop believing, and eternal security will still hold on to you.
PHIL: Right. And you’re not exaggerating. I read the same books, and the idea was if you even mentioned the lordship of Christ in an evangelistic message then you’re guilty of bringing works into it. And so, this was nicknamed “lordship salvation.”
When I was in a youth ministry and teaching these kids the gospel and going through 1 John I actually had parents come to me and say, “You’re teaching lordship salvation. That’s heretical.”
JOHN: Well, that was the pejorative term used by the enemies of this truth to attack it. That’s not what I would call it, lordship salvation, but that’s what they called it. You’re creating – this was the argument – you’re creating a human work that somebody has to do before they can be saved. You’re saying they have to repent, and you’re saying they have to confess Jesus as Lord before you can be saved. That’s necessary for salvation.
So the argument was, “You’re creating human works: the work of repentance and the work of confessing Jesus as Lord.” And as it said in the back of the ubiquitous Ryrie Study Bible, repentance and confession of Jesus as Lord were errors added to the doctrine of salvation. So that’s what they were accusing me of, being a works preacher. And all I was trying to say is repentance is part of the work of God, and confessing Jesus as Lord is part of the work of God in the whole work of regeneration and justification.
PHIL: And that was so helpful. For any of our listeners who haven’t read The Gospel According to Jesus, I would say if you only in your lifetime read one book by John MacArthur, that’s the one, The Gospel According to Jesus. It was a turning point actually in my thinking and ministry; and so glad you wrote that book.
JOHN: Well, I think you were right there, because you were helping me with the editing of the book. But you’ll remember that the publisher I don’t think really kind of understood what they had on their hands, and they said to me, you know, “We think that you might sell 25,000 of these.” And as it turned out, it just roared, and I think they sold a couple hundred thousand of those books, because everybody knew that this was taking issue with the dominant sort of kind of gospel that was reigning at the time in the evangelical church.
PHIL: Right. I expected there to be a bit of a controversy on the heels of that book, but even I thought – when they said they were going to print 20,000 copies I thought that’s pretty aggressive. And it turned out to be not nearly enough.
JOHN: Yeah, I think it got to a quarter of a million copies in just a very few years. And even today now with the new edition that came out a few years ago, it’s still out there and still ministering to people who are confused about that same issue.
And by the way, the defenders of that issue that the book was written to address have disappeared, but the issue has not disappeared. The people we were dealing with at that time who were carrying the case against Jesus as Lord, they’re gone, but the issue hasn’t gone away.
PHIL: Yeah, it’s interesting, the issue has kind of resurfaced in different forms. In those days it was – oh, I mean, let’s just say it: it was pretty much from Dallas Theological Seminary that these views all stemmed. It was Charles Ryrie and Zane Hodges and others from Dallas Seminary who were really protective of the no-lordship view, you’ve called it.
JOHN: They were protective of – they thought protective of grace. They saw repentance, as I said in lordship, as works, and they misconstrued that, of course. But they had basically filled every Bible college and many, many evangelical churches with their graduates. So this doctrine was everywhere, it was ubiquitous, and it really had never been critiqued. It had never been called into question, measured against the Bible.
And that’s what I did in the book The Gospel According to Jesus, and it had a – I’m just grateful in my heart that the Lord led us to do that, because I think it had a high, high impact on the church. I think it was part of the early movement that eventually blossomed into the entire Reformed movement.
You remember when that book was – it came out, there were two forwards in that book: one by Jim Boice and one by J. I. Packer. And J. I. Packer was really the inaugural voice in America for Reformed theology when he wrote his book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God and Knowing God. Those were blockbuster books that introduced American evangelicalism to Reformed theology. And imagine J. I. Packer wanting to write a forward for somebody like me coming out of a kind of a dispensational evangelical movement. And then Jim Boice, who is the consummate biblical scholar and Bible teacher and theologian, also seeing the urgency and importance of this. So you had Packer kind of weighing in from the British side of this issue and Boice weighing in from the American Reformed Presbyterian side of this, saying, “Here is the truth.” And I think that added such weight to that book that it was a tremendous help to the arguments that were there to have their affirmation.
PHIL: That’s right, yeah. And you mentioned that the starting point of your argument was the sovereignty of God. And just personally in my own thinking, it was that book that really sort of opened my understanding to the sovereignty of God and the doctrines of grace, because that was your starting point. I had read Packer’s book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. I’d read a number of Calvinistic things and all of that. But it was that book and the sequel, The Gospel According to the Apostles treatment of Ephesians 2 there that really seemed to turn the lightbulb on in my head where I understood, “Oh, really, the point here is that salvation is the work of God, and He doesn’t do it halfway.”
JOHN: Salvation is the work of God, and it is a complete work, and His work encompasses repentance and the confession of Jesus as Lord, and submission, and an obedient heart, and loving the Lord. That’s all the work of salvation. What they had come up with was a truncated, superficial kind of salvation that didn’t really meet the minimum for a real salvation. When God saved, He worked repentance in the heart, He worked submission in the heart, He brought about a confession of Jesus as Lord, and a willingness to obey, and a love for the Lord, and a transformed life. That was all the work of God. And to pull anything out of that was to attack the true, sovereign, saving work of God at some point. And that’s what basically the book was about.
PHIL: Yeah. One of the clarifying issues for me is, you mentioned, love for the Lord. Paul says, “If anyone love not the Lord Jesus let him be anathema, which is to say if you don’t really love Christ you have no basis to think you’re saved at all. And that resolves a whole lot of these issues, because Jesus said, “If you love Me you’ll keep My commandments.”
JOHN: Yeah, and remember, we added a chapter in the latest edition of it on the idea of the believer as a slave; and that, to me, was just absolutely a slam dunk argument that Jesus is Lord and I’m His slave. And that whole idea of a Christian being a slave, that’s the word doulos that’s all over the New Testament. We are slaves and He is Lord, and that’s how we have to understand our salvation.
But slavery to Christ is the greatest freedom and the greatest privilege and the greatest honor, and the path to the greatest glory. So we don’t become reluctant slaves, we become eager slaves, because our Master loves us, gave His life for us, provides all our needs, cares for us, protects us, makes us joint heirs, takes us to glory, and gives us everything that He has. That’s a kind of slavery that the believer embraces with a full heart of love.
PHIL: Yeah. When that book came out it ignited this controversy that dominated the evangelical conversation for, I would guess, at least two or three years. And Dr. Ryrie wrote a response. I think his was called So Great Salvation. And Zane Hodges wrote a more radical response. His was called Absolutely Free. You responded in detail to both of those books in the sequel, which was originally called Faith Works and subtitled The Gospel According to the Apostles. Now it’s simply published unchanged but with the title The Gospel According to the Apostles. That book was never answered really by any critics, it just seemed to punctuate and end the debate.
JOHN: Yeah. I didn’t choose that first title Faith Works. I don’t know, the publisher came up with that. But it was The Gospel According to the Apostles, and we moved from the Gospels and what Jesus said about the gospel in the Gospels to what the apostles said about the Gospels in the Epistles, and answered every single critique of the first book.
And, look, I just think that when the Word of God is made clear and plain, it settles the argument. And I look back on that; of all the things that have happened in my life, even the charismatic controversy is just an ongoing controversy constantly going on. Some of the other issues about the authority of Scripture always kind of embroiled conversations at one point or another. But that lordship issue, once that book came out on The Gospel According to the Apostles and answered all those arguments, any faithful student – they weren’t my arguments, they were just bringing Scripture to bear – any faithful student of the Bible began to see the reality of that, and it really, I think, historically brought the end to that, to the aggressive power of that movement.
PHIL: Yeah, that’s right. The landscape of the evangelical movement changed.
JOHN: Changed dramatically. And it went away, and it’s not there anymore. You can’t find, I don’t think, an institution in this country now that –
PHIL: Yeah, even Dallas Seminary doesn’t teach on the lordship.
JOHN: No, they don’t teach that at all any more. And that was their staple doctrine. I don’t think you could find an institution that is advocating that.
PHIL: There are some small ones. And as you said, the issue of – it’s antinomianism, we call the no-lordship view. But it’s antinomianism. And that has resurfaced in recent years through like the writings of Tullian Tchividjian who’s a Presbyterian, and some other surprising places that a similar kind of antinomianism has cropped up again. So it’s not as big an issue as it used to be, but it is an ongoing controversy.
JOHN: Well, I would say it doesn’t have the doctrinal defense that it once had at a high level. But antinomianism, or no-lordship salvation, just the idea that you can ask Jesus to be your Savior, and save you from hell, come live in your life, and then go live any way you want, that’s always going to be around; and that’s what antinomianism is. It’s an overstatement of grace. And that’s why somebody like Tullian Tchividjian, everything he talks about is built around the word “grace.” It’s grace, grace. It’s just drowning in grace as if you could do anything and be anything and you’re still under grace. It’s almost like God celebrates your sin because it lets Him put His grace on display. That’s always going to be around, because it’s just inherent in religious people to want a kind of religion that allows for them to sin the way they want to sin.
PHIL: Right. And to be clear, that’s a twisting of grace.
PHIL: That’s what Paul said, people twist the concept of grace to accommodate their own –
JOHN: And everybody that I’ve personally sort of interacted with through the years who is a strong advocate of an antinomian view or a no-lordship view, if you get behind the curtain you’re going to find it’s a theology that accommodates their life. And they have an affection for sin, and they want to hold onto that and hold onto what they think is salvation at the same time; and that’s an accommodating idea.
PHIL: Right. Well, let’s move on to the next sort of controversy chronologically. Three years after The Gospel According to Jesus came out, you came out with a book called Our Sufficiency in Christ, which was a totally different controversy. But again, it was a book that ignited a controversy. Talk about that one.
JOHN: I was deeply concerned with the rapid rise of Christian psychology. Just saying that is kind of funny; it’s almost archaic.
PHIL: It is. But in those days you had – like the Minirth Meier Clinic was everywhere on Christian radio.
JOHN: Yeah, and the Narramore Foundation; and they had taken over schools; and, yeah. Just think about that, Phil, in comparison today. No one today talks about Christian psychology; you never hear anything about Christian psychology. But then it had just dominated the evangelical landscape, and the idea was that psychology was necessary for sanctification, that sanctification was kind of deep down below the surface, and psychology could sort of get you to the level where you could start being sanctified.
I had conversations with people who said, “Well, yeah, sanctification is the work of God, but you can’t begin sanctification until you’ve gone through some psychological analysis and sorted out the psychological definitions in your life, and blah-blah-blah.” Christian counseling was the big thing. It was basically kind of a marriage between Freudianism or some Rogerian psychology and some kind of Christian discipleship, kind of a syncretistic approach. And I saw this as a dire threat to not only sanctification, but to the life of the church, because it was offering human solutions to what essentially were spiritual problems, solved only and resolved only in the power of the Holy Spirit through the truth of the Word of God, and through sufficiency in Christ.
I remember when I gave the book to the publisher that they immediately contacted me and said, “You know, you’re going to have to change this book, because this thing is going to make all kinds of Christian psychologists really upset. We publish some of those Christian psychologists, and they’re not going to like this book at all. You’ve got to tone this down, this is way too strong.” And I said, “No, I don’t want to do that.” Well, they said, “We want to go through it and try to edit it.” And I don’t know if you remember all those deals.
PHIL: Oh, I do, I do. They desperately wanted to soften it.
JOHN: Yeah, they wanted to soften it up so it didn’t offend all the Christian psychologists who, in my mind, you know, may have been well-intentioned, but were creating a completely artificial human barrier between Christians and the Holy Spirit. Instead of just walking in the Spirit, yielding to the Spirit, instead of loving Christ, instead of dealing with everything on a spiritual level through prayer and the means of grace, they had shoved in between the believer and the Holy Spirit, the believer and the Bible this psychological double-speak that had been the cumulation of everybody from Freud on to that contemporary group; and I just saw this as a dire threat.
PHIL: Yeah. In fact, most of them portrayed biblical sanctification as simplistic; it’s just too simplistic for modern problems.
JOHN: That would be the right word. That would be the right word. And they had people – here’s the problem with psychology. They had people looking for the solution to their problems within their own humanity, within themselves. Part of that movement was what was called “repressed memories,” and they were taking people into counseling and telling them, “If you go back far enough you probably were abused, sexually abused by your father,” blah-blah-blah, and they were inventing memories that were devastating people’s lives, tearing families to ribbons. It was a disastrous time in the Christian world.
I remember having pastors conferences, and people would ask me about it, and I would give an explicit, biblical answer that this stuff has nothing to do with the work of God, this psychology has nothing to do with the work of the Holy Spirit; and pastors became very, very hostile, and very angry with me. Churches were hiring, quote-unquote, “psychologists.” They were farming people out. When I came to The Master’s University in 1985 the first thing I had to do was eliminate the Psychology Department. And that’s how aggressive I was at the time in dealing with that, because I saw it as such an intrusion.
PHIL: I remember. In fact, we were still sort of dealing with the remnants of the lordship controversy and all, and I thought at the time, “Do you really want to get into this controversy?” And I have to say your answer to it surprised and enlightened me. I’d been through Bible college and all that, and I had never heard of the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture; and yet that was the doctrine you used to answer all of these arguments. And your message and, in fact, this book The Sufficiency of Christ was sort of rooted in your exposition of Psalm 19.
JOHN: Psalm 19 became almost an alter ego for me. I remember at the time I was all over the world in those days. I was everywhere. I was in Eastern Europe, I was in Australia, I was in New Zealand, I was in Asia, I was in South America; and everywhere I was going, at every point, somewhere along the way I was preaching Psalm 19. I preached it hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times, because that is the most concise statement in all of Holy Scripture on the sufficiency of the Word of God. And I was calling all the people that I could reach – all the leaders, all the churches – to trust the Word of God and trust the sufficiency of the Word of God and our sufficiency in Jesus Christ, and not lean unto your own understanding, not lean on human understanding. And I was going against the grain.
But again, as somebody said to me the other day, “You have a lot of very strong convictions, and you’re known for those convictions.” And I said, “Well, the truth is this: I have one strong conviction, one very strong compelling conviction, and it is this, that the Word of God is absolutely true. Everything it says is true.”
That one conviction then dictates every other conviction. And there might be some convictions I hold that are very popular, that a lot of people agree with them, like we ought to worship the true God; that’s a convictions that all Christian would affirm. And I have some very unpopular convictions, very unpopular convictions. But whether they’re popular, unpopular, or anything on the spectrum in between, those convictions are not arbitrary to me. I don’t decide which ones I’m going to pick. They all reflect that one dominant conviction, that the Word of God is true, every word of God is true. And whatever Scripture says, I affirm. And the Scripture declares its own sufficiency, and it declares the sufficiency of Christ and the sufficiency of the Holy Spirit for everything in the life of the believer. And that’s where I landed in the middle of that issue.
And it wasn’t that I dissected psychology and found the component parts wanting, I just thought the whole thing was wrong. And I asked a simple question: “So what did the church do before Freud? You’re telling me that nobody’s known how to handle people’s life issues, the dire realities of the horrors of living in a fallen world until Sigmund Freud and Carl Rogers figured this out, and I’m supposed to interject that between people and the Word of God and the Holy Spirit and the sufficiency of Scripture and the sufficiency of Christ?” I just didn’t buy it.
PHIL: Yeah, yeah, I appreciate that. Again it brought such clarity. It’s a reason, for example, that you don’t preach on politics and stuff, because political opinions of what’s going on in the world today, these aren’t always answered by what’s in Scripture. You’re not there to give your opinion, you’re there to declare what Scripture says. And if it’s sufficient, then it ought to limit what we say and how we say it from the pulpit.
JOHN: Well how much more can you say than that the Word of God is true, and that it can perfectly sanctify the whole person? That’s what Psalm 19 says, that the word of God gives light, that the word of God gives life, that the word of God is absolutely true, that it provides wisdom, that it provides discernment. What else is there? And Psalm 19 said all that.
So then, the psalmist closes by saying, “So, Lord, may my meditation by only on Your word.” You take the word of God, you meditate on these things, and then you have good success and you make your way prosperous. So this book of the law cannot depart from your heart, your mind, and your mouth all your days of your life, and you live a fully enriched, blessed life.
So that was what I was saying in that whole thing. That’s because that is exactly what the Bible said. I didn’t need to be an expert on psychology. I didn’t need to sort out all the elements of it that were wrong. The whole premise was wrong that there’s something between the believer and a productive life – and somebody between the believer and the Holy Spirit producing a productive life, and it’s some kind of psychology; I just didn’t see that at all.
PHIL: Yeah, yeah. And by the way, your teaching on this is what got me reading the Puritans, because you ask that question: “What did Christians do before Freud?” And it sort of forced me to go back and look for answers to that question. And I came across Richard Baxter’s book A Christian Directory, which is this thick manual of biblical answers to common counseling problems.
JOHN: Well, the Puritans used to be called the physicians of the soul. That’s what they did. I mean, that’s what a pastor does. I’m dealing with all kinds of things. Two days ago I’m talking to a woman who’s headed into cancer surgery. I’m in a hospital while a couple is holding a baby in their arms that’s dying, and I’m watching this little life die. And what am I going to do? Am I going to go find a psychologist to help these people cope? These are people in Christ who have the Holy Spirit, who have a Bible in their presence. You go there for all the sufficiency of all the issues of life.
Life is a challenging thing. I mean, there are parts of life that are just terrifying, to be honest. And you cannot trust, you cannot lean on your own understanding or any other human prop to hold you up. I just thought that was such an obvious message. How did the evangelical church get sucked into this deception of psychology?
PHIL: Yeah. Well, I want to move on to the next issue. And I’ll say that, you know, working with you over the years here, particularly on your books, we were not looking for controversies to engage in. But it just seemed like every two years or so something else would come up. And after our Sufficiency in Christ, you wrote a book that really in many ways was a major turning point for me. It’s the thing that got me turned on to Charles Spurgeon’s writing: Ashamed of the Gospel. This was an answer to pragmatism really, a church leadership philosophy that was saying, “We need to find out what people want and give them what they’re looking for if we’re going to attracts crowds to our churches.” And this had created huge mega churches, but all with pragmatic ministry philosophies where the gospel was being downplayed and diminished. And so you wanted to write a book on this.
JOHN: There’s just something that rises up in me. I mean, anything that is unbiblical or against the Word of God or would dishonor the law of the Lord disturbs me, like, “Zeal for Your house has eaten me up. The reproaches that fall on You are fallen on me.” I feel the pain when God is dishonored. But sometimes things rise to the level that they become a movement; and I can see them doing serious damage to the church.
As you’ve already said and you know, I don’t like to be involved in controversy; that’s hard on me and the people around me. But I can’t let things go without addressing them. And pragmatism began to raise its ugly head. And here we are these number of years since I wrote Ashamed of the Gospel, and pragmatism has now, sad to say, just literally taken over evangelicalism. It’s just massively taken over. But in those days, I could see a trend; and it started in small ways.
I remember a pastor said to me one day, “I finally know how to run a church. I just read, I think it was Peter Drucker’s book on leadership. It was a secular book on how corporate leadership works well.” And he said, “Now I’ve got all the keys to building a church.” And I said, “What does that have to do with a church?”
I was sitting on his porch. I said, “What are you talking about; Peter Drucker, a nonbeliever writing a book that’s going to help grow the church? Christ said, ‘I’ll build My church, and the gates of hell won’t prevail against it.’ What do you think you’re going to accomplish by following a worldly pattern? And do you think you’re going to convert people that aren’t chosen before the foundation of the world anyway? Why wouldn’t you just want to be faithful?” And I remember that conversation as a vivid point, at which I said, “How can somebody who teaches the Word of God and is a pastor ever come up with that kind of thing? How do you ever get to that point?” But then it just took off like wildfire.
There were lots of things happening in our culture that were driven by pragmatics. Pragmatics was rearing its ugly head, it was dominating everything. Everybody was talking about effective advertising and effective communication, and they were using every tool they could and every means they could to capture people’s interest.
PHIL: Yeah. There were books, popular books at the time with titles like Marketing the Church.
JOHN: Absolutely. And I just saw this as, again, pulling the work of the Spirit away from the Holy Spirit and putting it in the hands of some strategist. So I was so compelled to write. And it was, in a sense, kind of on the front end of this movement. And I think the book Ashamed of the Gospel was basically prophetic of kind of where this movement still goes. But my concern was that if you went into pragmatism you did it for one reason: you wanted to sell the gospel to somebody who had natural resistance to that.
So the issue was, how do I overcome consumer resistance, right? How do I overcome the unregenerate world’s consumer resistance to the gospel? I’ve got to figure out a way to overcome that.
The problem with that is you cannot overcome that, because that is innate in fallen people. Jesus said, “I speak the truth, and you don’t believe Me, and the reason you don’t believe Me is because you’re not of the truth, you’re of your father the Devil, who’s a liar from the beginning, and you follow him because he’s your father.”
So what do you think you’re going to do about that? You’ve got a person who is in the kingdom of darkness, spiritually dead, spiritually blind, double-blinded by Satan, a part of the satanic kingdom, a believer of lies and deception, and you’re going to use music, or lights, or skits – in those days – or drama, or something to overcome consumer resistance in a person under that kind of power? That’s not going to happen. The only thing that breaks the hold of Satan and sin on an unbeliever is the power of the Spirit of God, and he does that through the Word of God.
So I could see this shift away from teaching and preaching the Word of God in the power of the Spirit to using all kinds of external mechanisms.
PHIL: Smoke machines and light shows.
JOHN: Yeah, that you could actually – you could break the consumer’s resistance. That still is a deceptive lie that’s out there. And of course, it’s latent Arminianism that believes that the salvation of any soul is in that soul’s own hands and not in God’s hands. I mean, it’s Finney: you’ve got to do whatever you’ve got to do to make the non-Christian make up his own mind to change, when the Bible is clear that the non-Christian can’t make up his own mind to change. He’s neither willing or able. He’s not going to do right; he’s not going to seek God, he doesn’t have the power to do that or the will to do that. Only God can break that, and He breaks it through the preaching of the Word in the power of the Holy Spirit.
So that’s what that battle was. Again, it was a doctrinal battle over the sovereign power of God in salvation as opposed to the techniques of man.
PHIL: Yeah. In fact, that title of that book comes from Paul’s words in Romans 1 where he says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it’s the power of God unto salvation for those who believe.”
JOHN: Yeah, and he said that because, as he says in 1 Corinthians 1, the gospel is a stumbling block to the Jews, and it is foolishness to the Gentiles.
So what do you do to overcome the offense of the gospel? It’s a stumbling block to the Jews and it’s foolishness to the Gentiles. So pragmatism says, “Okay, we’ll make it not so foolish. We’ll make it not such a stumbling block. We’ll adjust it, we’ll alter it. And that reflects that you are ashamed of it, because you see it being rejected, so you come up with a different kind of gospel.” And that was the issue with that book.
Paul is saying, “I’m not ashamed of that gospel. I will preach that gospel.” I get it. To the Jews, it is a stumbling block; to the Gentile, it is foolishness. But to those who are being saved, it is the power of God. And God knows those who are being saved because they’re being saved by Him. And in their lives, that gospel truth is the power of God.
PHIL: To this day that’s my favorite book by John MacArthur. And what I remember about it is that as we were working on it, I’m editing it, you would give me slips of paper with quotations from Charles Spurgeon on it. And the first one was just a summary. I think it is the first quote that is in the book now. You said, “Work this into the book, because Spurgeon is saying exactly what I want to say.” The more you read of Spurgeon, the more we realized he fought this battle as well. It was this is the downgrade controversy all over again.
JOHN: Yeah, that is exactly right. It always encouraged me, because, you know, I wasn’t really part of a denomination or an association. Grace Church is an independent church. My dad was the pastor of an independent church. And I didn’t want to be just kind of out on my own somewhere. I didn’t really have a sort of historic tradition that I came out of. And I didn’t want to be saying things that people thought, “Well, this is kind of just MacArthur ranting.” So any legitimacy, any legacy, any honor that I could borrow from somebody who was revered and from the past. And so we started doing that, remember in the books, very often adding a whole chapter at the back of a book written by one of these great saints in the past.
PHIL: Yeah, that was the start of it, Ashamed of the Gospel.
JOHN: Yeah, saying the same thing. Look, this is not just me, this is nothing new, this has been addressed by the people that God – that we all know God has had His hand on years past. So I wanted them to be alongside. Who was I to say these things against the grain? You know, when something is a trend and you have everybody jumping on the bandwagon, and I try to stand up and stop the avalanche, people say, “Well, who are you?” you know.
I needed to borrow some credibility from some of these other saints; and I think that added strength. And that’s a very dramatic kind of reality for somebody to face when he reads MacArthur, and then he says, “Well, I don’t know about that.” And then he reads Spurgeon or some Puritan and say, “Whoa, wait a minute; they’re saying exactly the same thing.” That’s a strong way to buttress the argument. That’s why so many of the books include those kinds of chapters.
PHIL: Yeah. In fact, that is the case in every one of these controversies that we’ve dealt with the lordship salvation issue. I think it was Packer in his preface to that book pointed out that this is the same –
JOHN: He said it was the same as Sandemanianism.
JOHN: Remember, that’s what it was called, yeah. He says the same thing as Sandemanianism.
PHIL: And I’d never heard of that. But I looked it up; and he was exactly right, you know. And that is the case in every one of these. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the Devil doesn’t have to come up with new strategies, because it seems like every generation he can fool people with the same old lies every time.
JOHN: Yeah, he just needs new fools, not new strategies.
PHIL: Yeah. But that also encourages me, because actually all of these books that we’re talking about are still in print; and I expect all of them to still be in print a hundred years from now.
JOHN: Yeah, every once in a while I look just to make sure they’re still in print; and these are in print. And so you’re telling me the Ashamed of the Gospel is still in print?
PHIL: Oh, yeah.
JOHN: It came out in a new edition with a new cover.
PHIL: Yeah, that’s right.
JOHN: Yeah, these are timeless issues. I’m so grateful for that. I remember – you remember, too – when we started these books, the publishers were always saying, you know, “Can’t you write something that’s a little more to the moment, a little more on some kind of current thing, and everybody’s going to grab, and everybody’s going to like?” And I’m just saying, “Look, this is what I do. I explain the Bible. I apply the Bible to issues, and these issues may be contemporary in the sense that some form of them is appearing now. But these issues are going to come back and they’re going to recycle; and the Devil’s got no new tricks, he’s just recycling the same stuff. So I hope you’ll think about keeping these books in the backlist.”
Remember some of the conversations we used to have with the publishers about making sure you keep these books in the backlist and don’t let them go out of print?
JOHN: Because the issues were so volatile, and they didn’t ever really go away.
PHIL: Yeah, no question about it. By the way, we talked about in the lordship salvation controversy, pretty much that issue at least went underground for a while, went away; it’s not the big thing that it used to be. Same thing with Christian psychology.
On the other hand, pragmatism is bigger than ever. And in some ways Ashamed of the Gospel is probably more relevant today than it was when it was written in the 1990s.
JOHN: Yeah. We were writing that book at the beginning of this thing. And, yeah, it’s more needed now than ever.
PHIL: Does it disturb you that even among the sort of young and restless Reformed group, supposedly Reformed, and yet it seems to be that pragmatism is often the driving philosophy even for them?
JOHN: Yeah, I’ve said it this way. I’ve been partners with a lot of guys that are really good theologians, and they get the right understanding of Scripture, they’ve been sound in their doctrine. But sadly, they’ve handed it off to some of these young, restless, Reformed, these millennial guys who were not truly Reformed. There were pieces of it that they like. Many of them liked the idea of the sovereignty of God because they like a macho God. They liked the idea of this security of the believer and the sovereignty of God in salvation, because that freed them up from certain responsibilities. But they never had a full orbed Reformed commitment.
And I used to say to my friends, “Look, until they have a robust doctrine of holiness and sanctification, I’m not going to buy into this that they’re genuinely Reformed. I think they want in on this movement for maybe good and bad reasons, but I don’t think they’re genuinely Reformed until I see a robust doctrine of, one, sanctification, and two, the church, a true church and what makes a church a true church. And I think when they” – and I said – “You’re handing this theology to the wrong guys. You’re elevating the wrong guys.” And what happened was they took the little bit of Reformed theology these young guys got and they sprinkled it in a glass of pragmatism and dissolved it. And so, what they’ve got is a pragmatic ministry with a little bit of Reformed theology dissolved in it; and they were the wrong people to entrust with Reformed theology.
The demand should have been much higher for them to come to the full orb of this. That’s why Sproul, my friend, till the day he died was known for one great category of truth, and that was the holiness of God. That is so pervasive that it covers absolutely everything. They never got to that, that was never the issue with them; and so because they weren’t concerned about the holiness of God, they were more concerned about the popularity and the acceptance of men.
PHIL: Also, John, I think wherever you see pragmatic methodologies, you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t really have a settled fixed conviction that the gospel is the power of God for salvation, even if they talk about gospel ministry.
JOHN: That’s exactly right. That’s how Paul starts the whole book of Romans: “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.” And so, here it comes, right? That’s chapter 1; and you get it for eleven chapters. So here it is. So, yes, that’s why we titled the book that way, because if you do anything to mitigate the primacy and priority and first place of the gospel, you’re demonstrating some shame at that level for the gospel.
PHIL: Now, let’s move on to the last of the four issues that I want to talk about, and it’s a big one, the charismatic issue. This is a controversy that has sort of sandwiched your ministry. One of your earliest books was called The Charismatics. It was later expanded, actually doubled in size, and became Charismatic Chaos. That was published I think in the beginning of the 1990s. And then just a few years ago a new book on the charismatic issue, Strange Fire, which as released with a conference that sparked quite a bit of controversy. And yet, in the years since then, everywhere I’ve gone – and there are very few, if any exceptions to this – every conference I speak at, every church I visit, I meet people who say, “That book Strange Fire or the conference, the messages that we delivered at that conference have helped me get out of the charismatic movement.” So I know that book has had a major positive influence.
JOHN: That was really the point in writing the book and the point in having the conference. We said that was to help people who are true believers or who are open to the true gospel, but they’re caught and trapped in these charismatic, fake kind of places, churches, to help them out. I saw that book as a remedy.
And that has actually been the case; just like you, everywhere I go I meet people who say, “I read Strange Fire. I listened to the messages on the charismatic movement from the Strange Fire Conference.” I hear that all the time. I still get letters from people about that. That book is still alive. That book is still vibrant, moving people to reading it.
PHIL: But one of the most common questions I get from people is, “When are you going to do a follow-up to the Strange Fire Conference?”
JOHN: Yeah. You have the challenge of chasing the aberrations, because they keep coming up with new weird things, and you can wind up just kind of chasing the weird. So even if you take the book Strange Fire, or even go back to the original book The Charismatics, the issues that are biblical in that movement are dealt with in those two books substantially; and I think you can understand what the Bible says about this movement.
New forms of it, new expressions of it are always going to be out there. But if you get the foundation right, it’s sort of like, you know, they say in the FBI, “If you want to train somebody to recognize counterfeit bills, you don’t show them counterfeit bills all the time, you show them the true bill. And once they really understand the true bill, they can always pick the counterfeit out.” So I think the reality is that if you get the biblical truth of these issue in either the book The Charismatics, or probably better because it’s a little more complete, Strange Fire, you’re going to be able to deal with all the bizarre things that will keep morphing in that movement.
PHIL: Yeah. And yet, does it seem to you that the charismatic movement is gaining ground? People don’t like the controversy. And so even people who historically have not been charismatics seem to be less willing to actually argue the point, and even more open sometimes. You’ve got, for example, Beth Moore now embracing Joyce Meyer and partnering with her, and Beth Moore sounding more like a charismatic.
JOHN: Yeah, but I think that’s because they’re both women and they want to carry the mail for the feminist movement. I think the reason the charismatic movement expands is because there’s so much money in it; it’s just plain and simple.
There’s money in pragmatism, too. If you wanted to start a church, Phil, if you wanted to go somewhere and start a church and you wanted to decide, “Should I go in there, have the Lord’s Table, pray with people, read the Scripture, preach the Bible, and baptize new believers, and practice church discipline? Or, should I get a rock band, get a strip mall that’s vacant and create a stage, and a get a light show and music, and smoke and mirrors? What should I do? If I want to have 12 people, I’ll do the first. If want to have 300, people I’ll do the second. If I want to be successful, I go the route of pragmatism.”
There’s money in pragmatism. I mean, let’s be honest about it. There are all kinds of musicians making a living off pragmatic forms of evangelicalism. There are all kinds of uncalled, unqualified guys standing up on stages preaching as if they were pastors and Bible teachers, when they’re anything but that; and they’re making money, they’re making a lot of money, and they’re living high.
So pragmatism, there’s a lot of money in pragmatism. There’s a lot books sold on pragmatism. But just take it one step further. The big money, I mean the really big money is in the charismatic movement, because now you’re selling miracles, now you’re selling the supernatural, now you’re selling healing’ you’re selling sometimes even resurrection from the dead. Now you’ve not just got the rock and roll crowd giving you their money, now you’ve got the desperate people giving you their money.
PHIL: Yeah, plus the big thing is beyond all of those things, the promise of – and it’s a false promise – but the promise of material prosperity.
JOHN: Well, sure, that’s the whole point. That’s why Jesus said, “When you go out,” – to the seventy – “when you go out to preach, do not take money,” because people pay anything for healing and well-being. And when you promise them wealth and you come up with these Ponzi schemes, which is basically, “You give me your money, and you’ll get rich,” the way it works out is, “You give me your money, and I get rich.” People buy into that. I mean, was it P. T. Barnum that said, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” and we see it constantly. And it’s never in any environment – I get it that, you know, there’s a place in the world for suckers, but not in the name of Jesus, not in the name of God, not in the name of the Word of God, and not as a corrupted gospel.
But the money in the charismatic movement perpetuates that movement. Just think about what dominates Christian television. Almost all Christian television stations are dominated by charismatics, because they have the money. It’s not inexpensive to be on television. We have a minimal ministry on television that’s reasonable for our ministry to carry on. But there are ministries that spend massive millions of dollars to be on television. They can’t do that if they don’t get that.
So I think what tends to drive the movement is the money. And the money keeps it in high profile. The money gets them in the media. The money makes them look successful. The money puts them on the TV to the point that they’re on there all the time twenty-four hours a day on many, many channels. And that perpetuates the movement as well. And then they’re promising health, wealth, prosperity. Yeah, that’s what pushes that movement. Again, it’s everything diametrically opposed to what is designed to proclaim the truth and honor God.
PHIL: Now the position you take in Strange Fire and your other books on the charismatic issue is called cessationism, because the idea is that these miraculous gifts – speaking in tongues, gift of prophecy, gift of healing – things like that were apostolic signs that pertained to the apostolic era; and those things ceased. New most Christians across church history have been cessationists. But I read a tweet just this week from a well-known Christian leader who says he thinks cessationism is on its way out; the charismatic movement is taking over. He was celebrating this, thinks it’s a good thing that cessationism will be a thing of the past in, he said, five or ten years. What are your thoughts about that?
JOHN: Well, if you can demonstrate cessationism by Scripture – and I think you can, and if you can demonstrate that the gifts did cease historically – and you can, then what is the argument that they continue? Are you saying they started up again? Then how are you going to defend that scripturally? Whatever appears in these days to be, by those people’s definition, the gifts of the apostles back, or the gifts of the apostles that have remained latent and now they’re popping up again, does not square with the actual New Testament expression of those gifts.
PHIL: Right. And in fact, a lot of charismatics – Jack Deere, for example – admit that. He says, “The gifts we’re seeing today are not really on par with what we had in the New Testament. My argument has been that’s a de facto kind of cessationism right there.
JOHN: Yeah. If you can show in the Scriptures that tongues shall cease and all these things – and that’s exactly what it says, 1 Corinthians 13 – if you can show historically that they did, if you can show that that is true, then they ceased, end of argument. So the burden of proof is on them to explain what is going on here.
And here’s my big argument with that. If the Lord was going to give back miraculous sign gifts, would He give those gifts to the people with the worst theology? Would He validate error? That doesn’t make any sense to me at all. If the Lord was going to give a gift of healing, would He give it to Benny Hinn who’s a heretic? What is God doing? Wouldn’t He give it to the most faithful proclaimer of the Word of God?
If God had wanted to give any kind of sign gift to anybody who preached the gospel, it might have been a thought that He would have given it to Billy Graham, let’s say, who was preaching the gospel from pole to pole, from across the globe for decades and decades and decades; and yet, he never claimed a miracle in his entire life, or the use of any supernatural power ever in his entire life; and yet, he was the most far-reaching gospel preacher that the planet has ever known. Why in the world would the Lord give miracles to people whose theology is bad and whose life patterns are suspect? That is to call God’s own integrity into question.
PHIL: Right. There is a sense in which what that fellow is saying seems to be true, that a charismatic movement is growing in influence, that fewer people are willing to argue against it. This is one of those perennial conflicts. It’s been a controversy for a hundred years, and it’s one of those that you feel like our side is losing ground in terms of popular opinion.
JOHN: Well, just go back to the eighth chapter of Acts when Simon Magus wanted to buy the Holy Spirit.
JOHN: There’s always going to be corruptions at the supernatural level. You can pull off false miracles. You know, you’ve got the priests and magicians of Egypt. There’s always going to be that occult; there’s always going to be that false spiritual realm; there’s always going to be that demon-infested realm. That’s a high priority on Satan’s operational list. So I don’t expect this to go away.
PHIL: So my question for you is, “Do you ever get weary of the conflict?” These controversies must wear on you.
JOHN: Well, for me, what wears on me is – two things wear on me. Number one, if I don’t understand something, if I don’t get what’s going on. You know me, I’m very analytical. I want to understand this movement. I want to understand what’s causing it, what are they thinking, what’s behind it. Once I figure that out, that’s half the battle. Then the next thing I need to figure out is, “How does the Bible address those things?” And then the next thing that happens is I call you and say, “We’ve got to do a book on this.”
PHIL: Well, in fact, on the charismatic issue, you have either done a sermon series, or a book, or both in every decade of your fifty years of ministry. If the Lord gives you another decade, are you going to write another book?
JOHN: Probably. We’ll probably have another conference.
PHIL: All right.
JOHN: But I would just say this: it doesn’t wear me out to do this, it basically energizes me to do it. As long as I understand what I’m dealing with and I come to the understanding of what the Scripture says about it, then it’s exhilarating to me to be able to confront this and believe that I’m bringing the Word of God to bear on it, to serve the saints and to protect the church, and hopefully the honor of the Lord.
PHIL: Well, on behalf of thousands of listeners who I know have benefitted from and been edified by your teaching and your ministry, and even these polemical issues over the years, thank you, John. Thanks for your faithfulness. And I hope the Lord does give you many, many more years.
JOHN: Well, I’m beyond grateful for what He’s given me. And even at this point to have the strength and opportunity that I still have is a tremendous privilege for me. I want to continue to be faithful with that stewardship. Thank you.
PHIL: One verse at a time.
JOHN: One verse at a time.
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