During my fundamentalist days, I was a fan of Dr. John MacArthur who pastors a church in Southern California. He has a significant radio and media ministry under the name of Grace to You, and his sermons are broadcast world wide and available on the web. He’s authored or edited over a 100 books, and I had purchased many of his writings. I even had his study Bible. So certainly, I was a fan. He taught a form of Calvinism and was very literal in his Biblical interpretation, even going as far as requiring that woman remain largely silent in the church.
There were a couple of early books of his that really caught my attention, namely The Charismatics (1978), and a later book on the same topic called Charismatic Chaos (1993). In those books, he did a good job of exposing the craziness of Christians who believe in the supernatural gifts like: speaking in tongues; healing by laying on of hands; and the gift of receiving direct revelation from God. MacArthur’s desire to expose the fakes and charlatans was attractive to me, and his teaching made a lot of sense to my young fundamentalist mind.
MacArthur was also a prominent voice in the Lordship salvation controversy in the 1980s, by arguing against Free Grace theology. He stated, “you must receive Jesus Christ for who He is, both Lord and Savior, to be truly saved (II Peter 2:20).” Regarding eternal security, he stated, “It should never be presented merely as a matter of being once saved, always saved — with no regard for what you believe or do. The writer of Hebrews 12:14 states frankly that only those who continue living holy lives will enter the Lord’s presence.”
John MacArthur’s views were challenged by other prominent theologians like Charles Ryrie and Zane C. Hodges, who argued that MacArthur was teaching a form of works-based salvation. MacArthur denied their conclusion, citing disagreement over the nature of Christ’s Lordship in relationship to Salvation. His principle book called The Gospel According to Jesus laid out his interpretation of the gospel, and I read the book and listened to his related sermons when it came out some 25 years ago. John MacArthur is probably best known for his attention to those two areas of Christianity: Lordship salvation and his condemnation of Charismatics.
All of these years later, I’m now an “apostate” and it’s fascinating for me to look back on it all, especially because MacArthur had quite a number of close friends who abandoned the faith in his college years. In a taped interview (below), he shared how those events really shook him and how it also served as a motivation to write his controversial book on Lordship salvation. You can listen to this 6 minute clip below and read along if interested:
[Moderator asking John]: “Could you explain your motive and intent behind writing the book, The Gospel According to Jesus?”
[John MacArthur]: “Well, I mean, that’s a hard question to answer without sounding a little self-serving or pious. But I have to tell you, I felt like a man under compulsion. It’s hard to assess motive. You know, I’d like to think all my motives were pure.
I don’t think it was financial. Patricia and I devoted all that God has given us from that book back into the Lord’s work, so it hasn’t brought any money to us. I don’t think it was…I don’t think I was trying to confuse the church.
But I wrote that book…let me give you just a brief statement of background.
When I was in high school, I had a very dear friend, played on our baseball team, played on our football team. We were buddies. He played first base, I played shortstop. He played a backup quarterback position and I was a tailback and we were close. He was…his father was real active in a church group, and of course my father was a pastor. We did a lot of personal evangelism in those days, and we’d go down to Pershing Square in LA and witness.
And Ralph went away to Redlands University. I saw him after his second year after I had been in college. And I was so glad to see him. And he said, “John, something’s changed.” I said, “What?” He said, “I’m an atheist.” I was shocked. I said, “What do you mean you’re an atheist?” He said, “I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe any of that blankety blank stuff in the Bible.” And I just didn’t have a category in my theology to put him in at that point.
I went away to college. I had a very, very similar experience with a number of guys that I knew who named the name of Christ at one point in time and who abandoned Christ. The guy that sticks in my mind most of all, I was…my senior year at college he was my running mate in the backfield. He was a great football player. We had great times together.
He was a youth pastor on the weekends. He taught the college Sunday School class in a Presbyterian church and I taught the college Sunday School class for my dad. We always compared notes. And he graduated. I went on to seminary. He went on to get a Ph.D. in psychology, went to teach at Cal State University in Long Beach, and I picked up the Times one day to find out that he had brought nude students onto the…into the classroom and was demonstrating sexual stuff in front of the whole class.
He was defrocked, kicked out of the school. Found out he was selling drugs on the side. He wound up with a seven-year prison sentence. You know, when you play football with a guy for three years, you get close. He was student body president, I was vice president. His father was a pastor, a good friend of my dad’s. To this day, he denies Christ.
I went away to seminary. The son of a dean of my seminary married a Buddhist and set up a Buddhist altar in his house after graduating from Talbot Seminary. I struggled through a lot of that kind of stuff. Then I went to a church, and I baptized a guy who was a porno filmmaker, and within two months he was back making porno films.
And as a pastor I have seen them come and go and come and go and come and go, and trying in my own heart to assess the nature of true conversion was very much a personal struggle with me, not a theological one.
And then I began to study the Gospel of Matthew, and I preached in Matthew for eight years at our church.
And in that process of going through Matthew, I began to come to grips with the whole gospel record, because I was doing a study of the synoptics and John at the same time. And I began to fix on how Jesus evangelized and what He called for and so forth.
And, born out of that, I began to look at the church at large. I began to look, for one thing, at the charismatic movement, which, I say this with compassion in my heart, has been, without question, the most disruptive, disastrous thing that’s happened to the church in the last 50 years. It has devastated the church in America in a number of ways. I wish I had time to go into them.
And then coming behind it this psychological salvation stuff. The combination of this has created the illusion of salvation in our society. I’m not trying to…I’m not trying to make people insecure. I’m just trying to make sure there aren’t some people thinking they’re on their way to heaven who are going to wake up in hell and fulfill Matthew 7:21-23 and say, “Lord, Lord, what about us?” That, to me, is the most frightening passage in all of Scripture.
It’d be one thing to go to hell and know you were going there. It’d be one thing to go to hell and not expect anything different. It’d be another thing to go to hell and wonder why you got there when you thought you were a Christian. I just don’t want any responsibility in my life, or any irresponsibility with regard to that doctrine.
So that’s really what motivated me, through the years just going over that and trying to deal with the reality of that issue. And then watching people who name the name of Christ but their life is the same.
One very moving experience, I was with the president of a seminary and we were driving along, and we passed a liquor store. It was all glass, and it was lit on the inside with lights in the middle that shot through all the liquor and through the windows, too, at night. It looked like a diamond.
I said, “That is unbelievable. Look at all that liquor.” And he said, “Wow, yeah.” He said, “There’s a lot of those stores in our city and they’re owned by a guy in my Sunday School class.” I think I mentioned it in the book. I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” He says, “Oh, he’s in the class.”
And I said, “Has he been there a long time?” “Yeah, he’s been there several years.” I said, “Is this guy a Christian?” He said, “Yeah, he’s a Christian. He owns these stores all around the city.” And I said, “Well, doesn’t anybody confront him about this?” “No.” I said, “Well, has it ever entered your mind that this guy might not be a Christian?” And to which he replied, “Well, I remember the day he walked the aisle.”
And then he said to me this, rather pensively, he said, “Yeah, there’s one thing that bothers me about him, though. He’s been living with this girl who’s not his wife for about two years.” This is a seminary president. I’m saying, “Wait a minute.” “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation” has got to mean something. I’m not legalistic, but I do believe in transformation.
So that was really what was behind it. That conversation overwhelmed me. And I just felt like maybe I need to put some of this stuff together. So I didn’t know I’d get in so much trouble, to be honest with you. And I don’t have a martyr complex. But I believe passionately in what I wrote in that book.
To a degree, I can empathize with MacArthur. The vast majority of people that he ministered to didn’t seem to change their behavior much. Any real transformation was rare, and he truly struggled to understand how his close friends could later abandon the faith.
During my 30+ years as a fundamentalist, I saw temporary improvement in people who became “saved”, but in the end it appeared to be as effective as any other secular self-help process. People very rarely, if ever, truly change. Regardless of religious faith, nice people are nice. Assholes are assholes. And there’s plenty of in-between’s.
The gospel message just isn’t very effective. We see this when looking at divorce rates among Christians vs. unbelievers. In fact, divorce rates are sometimes even higher among protestants. And for those who consider pornography a grave sin, we see no difference between the secular population vs. the Christian population. In fact, we find that protestants are even more likely to view porn even though they cite guilt as an inhibitor.
So a person has to ask themselves — if Christianity is “transformational” and if disbelief in god is evil, why do we find that the prison population of the U.S. is largely absent of those who are atheist or agnostic? Instead we find that those who identify as Catholic and Protestant constitute nearly 75% of the incarcerated while less than 1% are atheists or agnostics.
Of course, I don’t think MacArthur will ever be able to resolve that stark contradiction between reality and his belief system. He did manage, however, to ease his own cognitive dissonance by concluding that there are very few True Christians in the world. All the rest are going to hell, including his college buddies.