A short while ago Lou Martuneac reposted an email from a pastor Norm Aabye, who told of a time when Phil Johnson was required by Moody Press to rewrite some cover copy for a book of John MacArthur's because it had “erroneous implications.”1 The implication, according to Pastor Aabye, was that one’s eternal destiny seemed to depend on how one worshiped. This brought to mind an incident with the original version of MacArthur’s book Hard To Believe, where it was brought to Phil Johnson’s attention that a certain paragraph had erroneous implications on how one gains eternal life:
“Salvation isn’t the result of an intellectual exercise. It comes from a life lived in obedience and service to Christ as revealed in the Scripture; it’s the fruit of actions, not intentions. There’s no room for passive spectators: words without actions are empty and futile...The life we live, not the words we speak, determines our eternal destiny.”2Both Tim Challies and Gary Gilley had inquired about this paragraph.3 Challies did not receive a reply, but Gilley did. Gilley shared that reply with a reader who had asked a question about it. Challies posts Gilley’s reply to his readers:
The questions that you bring concerning Lordship salvation, especially as found in MacArthur’s latest book, Hard to Believe, are important ones. I challenged the same statements as you in my review of this book…I also contacted “Grace To You” editors concerning these statements, then recently had lunch with Phil Johnson who is in charge of editing MacArthur’s books. Phil went back and examined these statements and was astounded. Upon further research he says that these comments do not reflect MacArthur’s teaching and that they are nothing less than works-righteousness. It appears that there were some changes made in the text by the editors of the publishing house that were not sent to MacArthur for affirmation. Therefore the books went to press with statements that are quite disturbing. They plan to make changes if there is a second printing of the book.4According to Johnson, the wording is not MacArthur’s, but an editor’s at the publishing house. There is no reason to doubt this is the case. The revision (2003) is an improvement, but it still has problems:
“Salvation isn’t gained by reciting mere words. Saving faith transforms the heart, and that in turn transforms behavior. Faith’s fruit is seen in actions, not intentions. There’s no room for passive spectators: words without actions are empty and futile...The life we live, not the words we speak, reveals whether our faith is authentic.”5A major improvement is that one is no longer told outright that one must live a certain way in order to gain salvation. For this we are grateful. Yet the back cover copy of this revised edition calls eternal life not a gift, but a reward that only comes from faithfully following Jesus:
“The hard truth about Christianity is that the cost is high, but the rewards are priceless: abundant and eternal life that comes only from faithfully following Christ.”6 (Bold mine.)It is troubling that the back cover copy of the revised version seems to support the teaching in the original version. (It would have been good if the back cover copy had been revised as well.) Furthermore, upon closer examination, the revised paragraph does not seem to be all that essentially different from the original. Here is the revised paragraph in its entirety:
“Don’t believe anyone who says it’s easy to become a Christian. Salvation for sinners cost God His own Son; it cost God’s Son His life, and it’ll cost you the same thing. Salvation isn’t gained by reciting mere words. Saving faith transforms the heart, and that in turn transforms behavior. Faith’s fruit is seen in actions, not intentions. There’s no room for passive spectators: words without actions are empty and futile. Remember that what John saw in his vision of judgment was a Book of Life, not a Book of Words or a Book of Intellectual Musings. The life we live, not the words we speak, reveals whether our faith is authentic.”7Notice that the Book of Life is compared to an imaginary “Book of Words” or “Book of Intellectual Musings.” Then the comparison is made between the life we live and the words we speak. This comparison seems to imply that the Book of Life is really a Book of How You Lived Your Life. Now, what happens if we put that with the third sentence in the paragraph, “Salvation isn’t gained by reciting mere words.”? How is it then gained? In the original we were told that salvation “comes from a life lived in obedience and service to Christ...” and that “it’s the fruit of actions...”-much like we are still told on the back cover of the revised edition where eternal life is a priceless reward that only comes from faithfully following Jesus. But in the revised version at this same point in the paragraph we are no longer told what salvation comes from, but rather what saving faith looks like.
Should we be satisfied with this revision? Not necessarily.
We are not aware that he has done so. It would be a great relief if a further revision of this work returned to the original purpose of the paragraph- how one does in fact become a Christian- clearly and incontrovertibly stating that salvation is through faith in Christ’s blood. We should appreciate Dr. MacArthur’s concern for fruit in the life of the believer. Given his conviction concerning the importance of fruit we should not expect him to go without mentioning it. But it would be greatly comforting to see a clear delineation between the faith that saves and the fruit of that faith, and what it is that actually saves a person. It seems if this had been done in the first place there would have been no such editorial error as had taken place in the original as his words could not have been misunderstood to teach works righteousness.While we may appreciate that Phil Johnson has stated that this is an editorial error in the original and not the wording of Dr. MacArthur, it would be helpful if MacArthur would disavow the original wording personally.
Where could such a misunderstanding come from? In another place Dr. MacArthur has said this:
“We cannot be saved by works, but we have been saved to do good works. Therefore when God judges, He will look at a man’s works to determine if salvation has indeed taken place. An unbeliever’s works will reveal his unbelief. They will reveal the absence of God in his life because all his works will be unrighteous. Even when he tries to be righteous his works will turn out to be filthy rags (Isa. 64:6). The believer, however, by faith has been given the power of God to produce righteous works. His salvation will be clearly indicated by them. God looks at a person’s works. If He sees manifestations of righteousness, He knows that the person is regenerated. If He sees no such manifestation of righteousness, He knows that the person is unregenerate. Therefore God’s final judgment can be rendered on the basis of works.”8 (Bold mine.)Though he insists that works cannot save us, Dr. MacArthur makes works the determining factor in God’s final judgment of a person. Dr. MacArthur sees no conflict in saying that we are not saved by works and saying that these works are the determining factor on which God will base his judgment but many others do. Yet it is not at all unreasonable to understand that salvation is based on works if God’s final judgment can be rendered on the basis of works, in spite of Dr. MacArthur’s insistence otherwise. It would certainly explain how such a grievous editorial error could be made.
There are three other ways this statement is problematic. First, and perhaps most peculiar, is that this statement is at odds with Dr. MacArthur’s position that God regenerates a person before said person has even believed, let alone borne fruit. But now, apparently God is... unaware of whom He has regenerated until He sees the fruit of regeneration? He needs to look at a man’s works to determine if salvation has taken place? The One who does the regenerating surely does not need proof of His work before He can be sure it has been done.
Second, the statement is at odds with the doctrine of God’s omniscience. MacArthur’s statement seems to imply (no doubt inadvertently) that the One who formed our inward parts in our mothers’ wombs; who saw our substance when we were yet unformed; whose book contains the days fashioned for us when there were yet none of them; who knows our thoughts from afar; and who beholds our words before they arrive on our tongue needs to see a manifestation of righteousness before He can know that we have been regenerated. A very peculiar teaching indeed for a man who affirms the omniscience of God. It appears MacArthur’s words have made him a victim of the law of unintended consequences.
Third, when he says that God will look at a man’s works to determine if salvation has indeed taken place, MacArthur forgets the account of the Passover. When God sent the judgment of the death of the first born, the angel was to look for the homes where the blood was applied to the door posts, not the place where good works were in evidence. The only “work” he was to look for was the application of the blood to the door of the home. He was to look not for works but for blood. That was the singular criteria for whether the first born would live or die. Today the only “work” God looks for to determine our eternal salvation is that we believe in Him whom He sent, personally appropriating His death on our behalf (John 6:29, 53-57; 1 Cor 5:7) If He sees the blood of His Son on the “door” of our hearts, He again passes over judging us.
The omniscient God who regenerates the believer by His own hand upon a sinner’s faith in the blood of Christ does not need to look on a man’s works to see if regeneration is present. WE need to look on such outward things because we cannot see inside a person, but the Lord looks on the heart. Surely the Lord, who formed us in the secret place, who knitted us together in our mothers’ wombs, who knows the measure of our days before a single one has come to pass, and who knows it altogether before a word is on our tongue, does not need to wait for the outward evidence of fruit/works to determine whether we have been regenerated. Salvation cannot be DETERMINED on both the appropriation of Christ’s finished cross work and whether or not there is any fruit in our lives. It must be one or the other (Romans 11:6). It is DETERMINED on the personal appropriation of the blood of Christ. It is PROVED by the outward fruit. God does not look to our works to determine if salvation has taken place. Faith in the blood of His Son is the determining factor, for it is through faith in His blood that we are justified (Rom 3:25, KJV.)
MacArthur confuses the establishment of salvation with the validation of it. He causes that which serves only as a validation to become the very basis on which judgment is rendered. MacArthur rightly says that we are not saved by works, but unto them. But then he puts works to a purpose to which God has not assigned them-the DETERMINATION of our eternal destiny.
Because of this confusing teaching on the place of works it is not hard to see how the original wording in Hard to Believe came to be, whether or not Dr. MacArthur wrote it. He may not have written those words exactly as they came out in print, but they are not a gross misrepresentation of his view when seen in this light, either. Consequently it is not hard to believe (no pun intended) that an editorial error of the sort we saw in the original could come to pass.
There is an important lesson here for Dr. MacArthur. It is the editor’s job to take unclear portions of text and reword them for clarity. It would seem that whatever Dr. MacArthur’s original work said, the editor felt it was not clear and adjusted it for clarity. The offensive sentences in the original were the outcome. Thus we see the teaching of Dr. MacArthur distilled and clarified through an editor’s eyes. In other words, the offensive text is what the editors understood Dr. MacArthur to be teaching. This is not the first time this has happened, as Phil Johnson was rebuked for the same error in his wording a number of years prior. Dr. MacArthur (and Phil Johnson) should take notice. This is how his teaching has appeared on more than one occasion to more than one audience of publishers. If he does not want to be (mis)taken as a preacher of works righteousness then he would do well to clarify and consistently present his position accordingly, lest someone else clarify it for him again in a way he does not like.
1. Aabye, Norm: Personal email to Lou Martuneac; Ominous Signs of Lordship’s Coming Storm
2. Zeller, George: John MacArthur's Position on Lordship Salvation; Does MacArthur Believe that Sinners are Saved by Grace Alone?
3. Challies, Tim: John MacArthur’s Hard to Believe and Lordship Salvation
5. MacArthur, John: Hard to Believe (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003) p. 93.
6. MacArthur: Hard to Believe (2003); Back Cover.
7. MacArthur: Hard to Believe (2003); p. 93.
8. MacArthur, John: Without Excuse: Principles of God's Judgment, part 3; IV Deeds
Site Publisher’s Addendum:
Jan noted, “Though he insists that works cannot save us, Dr. MacArthur makes works the determining factor in God’s final judgment of a person.” This theme has been repeated by other LS advocates, for example.
“There is no doubt that Jesus saw a measure of real, lived-out obedience to the will of God as necessary for final salvation.” (John Piper, What Jesus Demands From the World, p. 160).For additional study see:
“Endurance in faith is a condition for future salvation. Only those who endure in faith will be saved for eternity.” (R. C. Sproul, Grace Unknown, p. 198.)
Does “Final Salvation” Serve as a Cover for Works-Salvation?
“Final Salvation” is Dependent on Christ’s Life
What is the Fault Line for Fracture in Fundamentalism?