October 8, 2006

John MacArthur’s Costly Salvation

Dear Guests of IDOTG:

For Dr. John MacArthur a commitment to discipleship is the key element for the reception of salvation. MacArthur’s Lordship Salvation conditions the reception of salvation on the promise for what should be the expected results of salvation- discipleship.

Following is a quotation from a chapter titled, “
The Cost of Discipleship” from The Gospel According to Jesus:

Let me say again unequivocally that Jesus’ summons to deny self and follow him was an invitation to salvation, not . . . a second step of faith following salvation. . . . Those who are not willing to lose their lives for Christ are not worthy of Him. . . . He wants disciples willing to forsake everything. This calls for full-scale self-denial--even willingness to die for His sake if necessary.
The latter portion of the quotation, “He wants disciples willing to forsake everything,” would be fine if John MacArthur stated it in the context of those persons who already believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, were saved by grace through faith, and sought to live as fully surrendered disciples of Christ. He has, however, made the cost of discipleship a necessary expense for the conversion experience.

In one of the clearest expressions of portraying discipleship as though it is the key to salvation Dr. MacArthur wrote,
“Anyone who wants to come after Jesus into the Kingdom of God--anyone who wants to be a Christian--has to face three commands: 1) deny himself, 2) take up his cross daily, and 3) follow him.” (Hard to Believe, p. 6.)
That statement opens the door to some valid questions. Do I have to meet and agree to these commands for discipleship to become a Christian? Once I agree to these conditions do I have to remain true to these commands to guarantee my entry into Heaven?

These are at the heart of the problem when verses meant for discipleship of the believer are presented as conditional for salvation. One might conclude that MacArthur’s costly salvation does not guarantee Heaven for the Christian unless the price is continually paid over time throughout a lifetime. It sounds as though the initial commitment is a down payment on Heaven, and staying committed is the balance due on the agreement. Imagine the frustration of the Christian who does have lapses in his walk with God.

There is a Cost, But Where is it? In the original edition of
The Gospel According to Jesus, John MacArthur titled a section of one chapter, “The Real Cost of Salvation,” (p. 139). In the Revised & Expanded Edition he changed the title to “The Cost of Following Christ,” (p. 147). The content of that section (and the following section titled “Counting the Cost”) has not changed. It is simply a new, more palatable banner for the same teaching. In the Revised & Expanded Edition, just as in the first edition, John MacArthur has couched his interpretation of the gospel in the biblical terms of discipleship.

It should be remembered that the subtitle of his book,
What Does Jesus Mean When He Says, “Follow Me”? The Gospel According to Jesus reveals what he believes to be the gospel. When the Lordship advocate speaks of “following Christ,” he is speaking of the gospel. When John MacArthur refers to “The Cost of Following Christ,” he really means “The Cost to Receive Christ.” MacArthur believes there is a “Real Cost of Salvation,” or more accurately a “Real Cost for Salvation.” He believes that the gospel demands a commitment of one’s life, and a promise of surrender to the lordship of Christ as an up-front “exchange” for the saving grace of God.

The section entitled “
The Cost of Following Christ,” illustrates the extreme to which the Lordship advocates have taken the matter of a “costly” salvation. Understanding that Lordship advocates equate discipleship with salvation is very important. They require, from a sinner, an upfront promise to become a committed disciple of Jesus Christ as the condition for becoming a born again child of God.

In his revised and expanded version of
The Gospel According to Jesus please note how John MacArthur uses the term “saving faith” through this section (page 147). He is clearly referring to the salvation experience. The word “exchange” is used twice in the two sections (pp. 147-148), and also in connection with his definition of what constitutes “saving faith.”
That is the kind of response the Lord Jesus called for: wholehearted commitment. A desire for him at any cost. Unconditional surrender. A full exchange of self for the Savior. It is the only response that will open the gates of the kingdom. Seen through the eyes of this world, it is as high a price as anyone can pay. But from a kingdom perspective, it is really no sacrifice at all.”
The word “cost” is used repeatedly in the section. Remember it is the reception of the gospel, the reception of salvation that John MacArthur refers to as “costly.” In the quote above he says salvation comes at a “high price.” To the contrary, the Bible teaches that salvation is free; it is the “gift of God.”

Romans 6:23 For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Ephesians 2:8-9 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.

The error, of course, is that the issue in salvation is a personal faith and belief in the Lord Jesus Christ, not surrender or a promise to live a holy life.

John 20:30-31 And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.

As Dr. Ernest Pickering in his review of John MacArthur's book states,
Salvation is free; discipleship is costly. Salvation comes by receiving the work of the cross; discipleship is evidenced by bearing the cross (daily submission to the will of God). Christ here is not giving instructions about how to go to heaven, but how those who know they are going to heaven should follow Him.”



  1. I think your insight is balanced. I hope you would consider something. It seems to me that Zane Hodges is willing to progress and not be as cemented in his theology recognizing that he too must learn. This is a strength...not a weakness. I have noticed this in some of his comments that Jodie has quoted. MacArthur seems cemented and unwilling to consider that they can be wrong in areas.

    I know that MacArthurs grandparents seemed to have a free grace view. I have heard his grandfather quoted before..or maybe it was his Dad. I pray that one day he sees that in rightly recognizing trouble spots in American Churches he has trajected to far in his presentation of the Gospel. We must trust God in his grace and not try to help him out.

    We must preach the gospel and pray for the Holy Spirit to do his work.

    I will have to read your book. I know that SharperIron seemed to ridicule you. I get tired of the ridicule out here. Even in my own life. God is not mocked. This is a serious subject. Lets pray for one another. Keep a level head and commit your way to the Lord. He is our standard.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Thanks for the note.

    I would hope Hodges moderates his position. We must all be teachable.

    You wrote, "We must preach the gospel and pray for the Holy Spirit to do his work." This was well said, but Lordship advocates would have a problem with this because many of them believe man cannot repsond to/believe the gospel until he has first been regenerated. Piper is very dogmatic on this.

    On SI some men did behave badly. Others would diagree, but did so respectfully. I did my best to maintain a gracious spirit, while contending for the faith.

    I hope my book will be a help and blessing to you. Many have written to me privately to thank me for taking this on (in my book) from a balanced perspective.

    Thanks for the encouraging words.


    PS: I am dealing with the LS issue on PulpitMagazine. That is John MacArthur's site. The GTY ministry began a new series on Lordship because I believe my book made enough of a stir they felt compelled to shore up their base.

  4. Piper is extreme and is obssessed with predestination instead of the gospel and that is not a good thing. Romans 11:28

    Even though I believe in election I do not like to stress election in front of the gospel message. I have wrestled with the regeneration issue but have to conclude that it is a mystery as regenration cannot exist without faith and faith cannot exist without regeneration. Also Jesus spoke the words before Lazurus resurrected so the spoken word does have to go into the ear of man first and the ear has to hear. The Holy Spirit does not believe for us but we cannot believe without the Holy Spirits illumination and drawing power. I once heard a Piper follower state that God can believe for us. That is where his teaching leads. I may have a Calvinist perspective but I am not in agreement with Piper. I am praying for MacArthur to consider some of the issues that you bring up and that Hodges will as well.

  5. If one's own committment to Christ could save us, in a sense we wouldn't need the cross.

  6. Behedr:

    “God can believe for us,” is where some of Piper’s theology can lead. That kind of thinking comes from the position, which states: regeneration must precede faith. That is about as extreme as Calvinism gets, and that is where Piper and MacArthur have arrived.

    They take the total depravity of man and go to an extreme view of total inability. They believe the lost man (dead in his sins) cannot respond to the gospel unless he is first regenerated. This is why you hear them say things like, “Even faith is a gift of God.” Meaning: After man has been regenerated he can then express faith in Christ.

    Here is Piper for example: “The native hardness of our hearts makes us unwilling and unable to turn from sin and trust the Savior. Therefore conversion involves a miracle of new birth. Thus new birth precedes and enables faith and repentance…. And so when we hear the gospel we will never respond positively unless God performs the miracle of regeneration. Repentance and faith are our work. But we will not repent and believe unless God does his work to overcome our hard and rebellious hearts. This divine work is called regeneration…. New birth comes first and enables the repentance and faith of conversion. (Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, pp. 65-66.)

    Piper lays out a chronological order: regeneration before faith. He could not be more plain? Piper believes regeneration must precede faith!

    I have debated this with Nathan Busenitz at Pulpit Magazine. Nathan has read the above by Piper, but will not concede Piper is teaching regeneration must occur before faith. Most of the men in the Lordship camp do NOT want to be identified with this even though they hold to the position.

    As for MacArthur and Hodges considering my position: I hope they would be open to reconsidering their theology. However, I wrote my book primarily for those who are unaware of or unsure of what to make out of MacArthur’s lordship gospel. I wanted to provide a resource for a wide cross section of Christians to help them know and understand the problems with LS and be able to mount a biblical defense.


  7. Cromwell:

    You wrote, "If one's own commitment to Christ could save us, in a sense we wouldn't need the cross."

    It is just that simple. Salvation is by faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross, or it is faith and commitment of life.

    Lordship advocates do not reply on commitment only. They do, however, require an upfront promise of total commitment to the Lordship of Christ in addition to relying on His sacrificial death.

    Lordship Salvation conditions the reception of salvation on promises for the results of salvation. This then becomes a gospel of faith plus works and frustrates grace.


  8. Thanks brother Lou,

    As I said I have struggled over this as the bible says the wind blows where it listeth and so the Holy Spirit must enable us...but where I part from them is where I believe the Word must come first. The Word of God always stands first and the word must go into the ear of the heart and mind and so I conclude that this is too great a mystery for me to figure out and that we musnt jump the gun on either side. We must all wait for the snap so to speak.

    Some call me a Calminian and it leaves a bad taste in their mouth. Perhaps it does yours but this is where I can only understand where to stand.

    I read the preview of your book and part of the first chapter at Amazon. I like how you have Moody on there talking to the Mormon. In so many ways some of these books being written to help God out are starting to have a Mormon type perfectionist ring to them. I am so glad for the witness of Moody whose Joy was in God alone and He took God at his word.

    He once said something like "If anyone lacks assurance or their salvation it is because He is unwilling to take God at his word."

  9. Hi Again:

    I am glad you appreciated the illustration from Moody.


  10. Lou,

    This is a great article. I was pleased to read it.

    Only as a side, I wouldn't want Zane Clark Hodges to "moderate". To do so to the truth would be to water it down. :)

    Glad to digitally meet another grace friend.


  11. Antonio:

    Thanks for the note. have you been to Pulpit Magazine where I am in an on-going discussion with Nathan Busenitz?

    Scroll down to Common Questions about Lordship, Part 1. There are quite a few exchanges there.

    Yours in Him,


  12. I would like to point out that there is something that both the Piper quote already mentioned in the blog from Desiring God (2003) pp. 65-66, and a MacArthur quote I give below, have in common: the notion that as long as we prioritize God's work, we can require any amount of other things in order for a soul to be saved!

    For the Piper quote, it is a question of who does the first work. Then, in that passage already mentioned in the blog, it says that "we are responsible" to do a set of things things and "we will be condemned if we don't." The specifics should be discussed.

    In the following MacArthur quote, it is a question of who works ("wrought") the work: "saving faith, repentance, commitment, and obedience or all divine works, wrought by the Holy Spirit in the heart of everyone who is saved." (TGATJ Rev Ed 1994 p. xvi).

    Therefore, the two quotations try to avoid salvation by works in a similar way, by prioritizing the work of God. For the Piper quote, it's the work of God that occurs first, while man's responsibilities are just as required: they just come later. For the MacArthur quote, God is working what he says man is required to do.

    In neither case is salvation by works avoided, in my opinion. In the first case, to say that God works first does not remove the subsequent requirements mentioned next.

    In the second case, to say that such things as commitment and obedience are "wrought" by the Holy Spirit should be clarified: If it means "worked" (as the word "wrought" comes from the past participle of "work,") it becomes the idea that God's activity is being offered as an explanation why the evangelist can feel OK in demanding from the sinner all kinds of work.

    In a separate post I made a caricature of this idea. It's like asking someone to pay a million dollars, while having a theory that it would "really" be free to the person, because God would make the money appear in the pocket at the very moment.

    What is necessary for salvation? The work of God, alone? The prior work of God plus our subsequent work? Our work, explained by God being really the one doing it?

    I believe Ephesians 2 contradicts these other options. Our salvation is the work of God alone! Requiring the work of God alone is not the same thing as requiring the prior working of God, plus our works next; neither is it the same as explaining them by a behind-the-scenes working of God, while requiring our works as well.