May 11, 2012

Archival Series: John MacArthur, Christ's Eternal Sonship

Dear Guests of IDOTG:

Questions occasionally resurface on the eternal sonship of Christ controversy. This teaching was highly controversial and caused a huge rift in the IFCA when John MacArthur took the position that, “Christ did not become the Son of God until He was born at Bethlehem.” In September 1999 Dr. MacArthur seemed to have repudiated incarnational sonship, but has he forsaken it entirely? I am welcoming back JanH who is a frequent commentator and contributor for this compelling discussion and we will turn to it without delay.


This blog typically discusses divergences from the gospel in the form of either Lordship Salvation or the Crossless Gospel. However, as sometimes happens in the course of conversation, a topic which gets little attention came to light in the comment section of Does “Final Salvation” Serve as Cover for Works-Salvation

The topic came to light because of this response Lou Martuneac gave to a question I asked:
Jan, you asked, Why does Piper (JMac) “get away with” these things [saying works are a requirement for final salvation]? Two thoughts: 1) Because of their popularity they go *almost entirely unchallenged by their peer group and followers. There are some Calvinistic men in my IFB circles who are troubled by statements like these [pertaining to the requirements for final salvation], will confide they find these troubling, but will not say so in any public venue....

*An exception being when MacArthur was challenged over and he subsequently retracted and disavowed his earlier teaching on the eternal sonship of Christ. His former teaching on that caused a major rift in the IFCA.
Here Lou noted an exception to the unwritten don’t openly challenge MacArthur rule, which involved the doctrine of the Eternal Sonship of Jesus Christ. For 25 years Dr. John MacArthur had openly denied that Jesus Christ is eternally the Son of God. Instead, he aggressively promoted the Incarnational Sonship position, which says that Jesus was not always/eternally the Son of God but was the second person of the Trinity who became the Son of God at the incarnation, i.e. His birth in Bethlehem.

Pastor George Zeller (Middletown Bible Church, Middletown, CT) challenged MacArthur on this teaching (as well as several others). In 1999 Pastor Zeller was rewarded for his efforts by Dr. MacArthur’s public disavowal of Incarnational Sonship in the form of a published paper titled “Reexamining the Eternal Sonship of Christ.” In this paper Dr. MacArthur states plainly that he no longer holds to the view that Jesus became the Son of God at His incarnation. He also states plainly that Jesus is eternally the Son of God and says why he now believes this is so. Good news! Or...maybe not as good as we would hope.

Unfortunately, Dr. MacArthur has left some loose ends. We will look at two of them here and compare them with Dr. MacArthur’s Reexamination… declaration.

Loose End #1
It is common knowledge that Dr. MacArthur is the President of The Master’s Seminary in Sun Valley, California and senior pastor of Grace Community Church. Under the section “Statement of faith- GOD,” the doctrinal statement for The Master’s Seminary proclaims this orthodox confession on the Trinity:
We teach that there is but one living and true God (Deuteronomy 6:4; Isaiah 45:5-7; 1 Corinthians 8:4), an infinite, all knowing Spirit (John 4:24), perfect in all His attributes, one in essence, eternally existing in three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19; 2 Corinthians 13:14)—each equally deserving worship and obedience.1 (Bold added.)
We applaud and wholly agree with this statement on the Trinity. However, a little further along, in the sixth paragraph under the section “God the Son,” we read this:
We teach that, in the incarnation, the second person of the Trinity laid aside His right to the full prerogatives of coexistence with God, assumed the place of a Son, and took on an existence appropriate to a servant while never divesting Himself of His divine attributes (Philippians 2:5-8).2 (Bold added.)
This statement affirms the doctrine of Incarnational Sonship, which we have been given to understand that Dr. MacArthur had disavowed in 1999. This presents a point of confusion. First we are told that God eternally exists in three Persons- Father, SON, and Holy Spirit. Then we are told that “in the incarnation, the SECOND PERSON OF THE TRINITY...assumed the PLACE of a Son.”

The first statement is just what we would expect from an orthodox teacher. But the second statement is troubling. It says that Sonship is a “place” that “the second person of the Trinity...assumed” in the incarnation. This is just what Dr. MacArthur used to teach before he declared his repentance on this issue. There are two problems here.
  • One, He is going in two directions doctrinally in this statement of faith.
  • Two, in 1999 Dr. MacArthur had made it truly plain that he had abandoned the Incarnational Sonship view, which would say that Jesus assumed the place of a Son at the incarnation, in favor of the Eternal Sonship view that Jesus was not merely and vaguely the “second person of the Trinity,” but the Son of God always/eternally.
So now we must ask, which one does MacArthur intend for us to understand is his actual position? And we may also inquire which position is taught and affirmed in the classroom.

Now it is true and must be noted that Dr. MacArthur said in his reexamination paper that, “I’ve often wished for the opportunity to review and amend all my own published material, but I doubt I’ll ever have the time or the energy to undertake the task.3

And indeed that would be daunting for him since he is a prolific speaker/writer. It is easy to understand how some comments in a series of his radio sermons may go unaltered due to obfuscation. We are, however, looking at a published doctrinal statements. This doctrinal statement is much more visible than a sermon given once or twice. I would think something so salient would have undergone some revision, especially when he says this:
If more precise understanding on an important point of doctrine demands a change in my thinking--even if it means amending or correcting already-published material--I want to be willing to make the necessary changes.
I have made many such revisions over the years, often taking measures to delete erroneous or confusing statements from my own tapes, and sometimes even preaching again through portions of Scripture with a better understanding of the text. Whenever I have changed my opinion on any significant doctrinal issue, I have sought to make my change of opinion, and the reasons for it, as clear as possible.4 (Bold added.)
While it is truly encouraging hear that Dr. MacArthur is a humble man who has the integrity to make changes when necessary and has indeed done so in the past (not everyone would), I wonder how it is, then, that his doctrinal statement could still confess Incarnational Sonship? One or the other statement is erroneous and both statements affirmed in the same document is confusing. Why, then, have measures not been taken to edit or eliminate one statement or the other? Could it be that a publication as visible as the doctrinal statement for The Master’s Seminary had somehow fallen through the cracks and thus escaped the necessary revision? But surely the official doctrinal statement of a seminary where future church leaders are taught doctrine in a careful and systematic manner is more important than a tape or a sermon? Yet it still has this confession of a doctrine which Dr. MacArthur has stated publicly he had abandoned.
To that end, I want to state publicly that I have abandoned the doctrine of “incarnational sonship.” Careful study and reflection have brought me to understand that Scripture does indeed present the relationship between God the Father and Christ the Son as an eternal Father-Son relationship. I no longer regard Christ’s Sonship as a role He assumed in His incarnation.5 (Bold added.)
How could this be? Surely after 25 years of preaching aggressively on Jesus’ Sonship, albeit from the Incarnational Sonship perspective, Dr. MacArthur has not come to the conclusion that this is not an important doctrine after all? No. It is not reasonable to conclude that Dr. MacArthur feels it to be an unimportant doctrine. There must be another reason for its continued presence in his doctrinal statement. But what could that reason be?

Perhaps the answer lies in this response Dr. MacArthur gave in 2006 when asked for an explanation of his view on Christ’s Sonship:
Let me make it real simple. He is eternally God. Jesus Christ is and always will be the eternal God—a member of the Trinity. He is eternally One of Three. And I don’t have any problem with calling Him the eternal Son therefore. But I do understand that there is a uniqueness to His incarnation in that the Scripture says, “This day have I begotten Thee.” And that’s related to His incarnation.6 (Bold added.)
I am afraid this is not real simple, though. In fact, this leads us to-

Loose End #2
If Jesus being eternally One of Three is what qualifies Him to be regarded as the eternal Son, then why could we not regard any of the Trinity members as the Son? They are all eternally One of Three. Jesus is the only member of the Trinity that has experienced incarnation, that is true. But He was not incarnated eternally. He was incarnated in time. So the incarnation would not make Him the eternal Son. But being eternally One of Three does not make Him the Son either. It makes Him One of Three. Indeed Dr. MacArthur recognizes this too, as he notes in his Reexamination:
If Christ’s sonship is all about His deity, someone will wonder why this applies to the Second Member of the Trinity alone, and not to the Third. After all, we don’t refer to the Holy Spirit as God’s Son, do we? Yet isn’t He also of the same essence as the Father? 7
This being the case, why, then, does he frame it the way he does in this answer given 7 years after his public statement that he has abandoned the doctrine of Incarnational Sonship? Instead of answers there are more questions. Instead of simplicity and clarity, confusion and perplexity.

I think Dr. MacArthur made it real simple in 1999 when he stated:
Expressions like “eternal generation,” “only begotten Son,” and others pertaining to the filiation of Christ must all be understood in this sense: Scripture employs them to underscore the absolute oneness of essence between Father and Son. In other words, such expressions aren’t intended to evoke the idea of procreation; they are meant to convey the truth about the essential oneness shared by the Members of the Trinity.

Careful study and reflection have brought me to understand that Scripture does indeed present the relationship between God the Father and Christ the Son as an eternal Father-Son relationship. I no longer regard Christ’s Sonship as a role He assumed in His incarnation.
However, since then we have the not-so-simple explanation that Jesus is the Son because He is eternally One of Three and His Sonship pertains to His incarnation after all. And in 2010 his seminary doctrinal statement still implies that Jesus assumed the place of a Son in the incarnation.

What then do we make of Dr. MacArthur’s Reexamination of the Eternal Sonship of Christ? What do we do with these loose ends? Where does Dr. MacArthur really stand on this issue? Has he indeed changed his view? Or must we reexamine his reexamination?

Jan H

1. The Master’s Seminary Statement of Faith,, (accessed Feb. 3, 2010). Also see the Grace Community Church Doctrinal Statement, p. 3,, (accessed Feb. 3, 2010).
2. The Master’s Seminary Statement of Faith,, (accessed Feb. 3, 2010).
3. John MacArthur,
Reexamining the Eternal Sonship of Christ, Sept. 1999,, accessed Feb. 3, 2010).
4. Ibid
5. Ibid
6. John MacArthur, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary radio interview, Oct. 2006,, (accessed Feb. 3, 2010).
7. John MacArthur,
Reexamining the Eternal Sonship of Christ, Sept. 1999,, accessed Feb. 3, 2010).
8. Ibid


  1. Thanks Lou, this seems to be a common problem for JMac, say one thing here and then over there say something in direct contradiction to his other statement. He has done the same thing with the earlier issue of the blood of Christ. If JayC at SI sees this he will quickly jump on the bandwagon defending JMac and will parade out all his links and articles showing that JMac believes in the blood of Christ. With that said, all one has to do is look at JMac's Hebrews commentary and find that he is constantly stating, the blood symbolizes His death. He attempts to make the case that Christ's shed blood and His death are one and the same with his push for the blood being symbolic. Now sure there are some who have gone overboard on the blood but that is not the issue in JMac's commentary, he doesn't even address that extreme.
    When it comes to the blood of Christ and the death of Christ, it is a "both/and" that is necessary and not as JMac would have us to believe that the blood just symbolizes the the death.
    Yet, we still have men in the fundamentalist camp saying that JMac's writings are good and acceptable. Sorry, guys, if JMac can't get it straight on these issues he needs to stop speaking and writing and we need to stop promoting his works.

    1. So true, Brian. JMac has been wrong on a number doctrinal concerns. It goes without saying, but his Lordship gospel is his most egregious error. And you're right, the JMac followers simply cannot accept the fact or even possibility that their hero in evangelicalism just might be wrong, dead wrong. It is as if, there is loyalty to the star power of JMac and therefore he could not and we will not accept that he is in error.


  2. Hi Brian-

    It has been noted before by one of MacArthur's supporters that he "makes bewildering statements."

    According to Dan Smedra who runs Miles Stanford's site, this was said by Gary Gilley regarding MacArthur's book Hard to Believe, though he says MacArthur did this in other books too. Gilley's quote is here:

    (Scroll down to 12/2/2005)

    Actually, Gilley is quoted by Smedra as saying just what we have been saying all along with our complaints that MacArthur so often sounds like he is preaching works salvation. Gilley apparently wanted MacArthur to make a "clear, non-contradictory, definitive statement" concerning his view on salvation. Smedra's advice to Gilley is "not to hold out hope for any 'clear, non-contradictory, definitive statement.'"

    I have to agree with Smedra.


    1. Jan:

      "Smedra's advice to Gilley is "not to hold out hope for any 'clear, non-contradictory, definitive statement.'"

      With many of JMac's numerous, what his apologists call "overstatments," you rarely if ever find him editing, explaining or eliminating the most controversial among his errors.

      And right down the line with the followers of JMac's Lordship Salvation especially. Just try to get a clear, unvarnished answer to a targeted, non-ambiguous question and see happens. Tap dancing, redirects, taking the question as a personal vendetta against JMac. Keep probing and the temper flares from these men, the angry young (former) young fundamentalists.


  3. It goes along with some thoughts I've had recently; peolple follow personalities or precepts and principles but not all three together. When personalities depart from precepts and principles then we need to depart from those personalities and not hold on tenaciously like so many do. It is a scary thought that Christians would hold on to personalities above precepts and principles.

    1. And we see this new mood of choosing friends and fellowship ahead of fidelity to the Scripture.

      The last few years has been littered with example after example of men circulating in IFB circles who claim to be committed the principles of biblical separation, but for the sake of being accepted by their new friends in evangelicalism continue to compromise.

      Paraphrasing Dr. Pickering, This new mood is nothing more than the same mood of compromise that gave us New Evangelicalism. I began calling the men and moment today the new New Evangelicalism.

      We are witnessing the front end of a slide that at its end will be a young generation becoming the new New Evangelicals. They will arrive there because men like Kevin Bauder, Dave Doran, Tim Jordan and Matt Olson, who believe once new better, are openly tolerating, ignoring and excusing doctrinal aberrations, worldliness, ecumenical compromise of the so-called conservative evangelicals.

      I have talked to men in IFB circles who believe JMac is most dangerous to our young people, in regards to the slide towards New Evangelicalism because on the surface here seems the most like us among the evangelicals. More another time...

  4. I began calling the men and moment today the new New Evangelicalism.

    Should have been, "the new wave New Evangelicalism."

    Typing on this phone can be tough on the eyes and large fingers.

  5. "We teach that there is but one living and true God (Deuteronomy 6:4; Isaiah 45:5-7; 1 Corinthians 8:4), an infinite, all knowing Spirit (John 4:24), perfect in all His attributes, one in essence, eternally existing in three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19; 2 Corinthians 13:14)—each equally deserving worship and obedience.1 (Bold added.)"

    "We teach that, in the incarnation, the second person of the Trinity laid aside His right to the full prerogatives of coexistence with God, assumed the place of a Son, and took on an existence appropriate to a servant while never divesting Himself of His divine attributes (Philippians 2:5-8).2 (Bold added.)"

    These statements are not in contradiction. It is possible to read a contradiction into them I suppose.

    The first statement affirms the eternal Son relationship within the Trinity. With you JanH, I also applaud.

    The second statement affirms the incarnational sonship of Christ. That is, when Christ came down in the incarnation, he took upon himself the role as Son. This is not in contrast to his deity. This is specifically about his humanity. Christ did not come down as the eternal Son to be a human sister or other such relationship.

    This is what the passage means when it declares "You are My Son, today I have begotten you."

    Luke traces the lineage of Jesus back to Adam, the son of God. Jesus came and took upon himself the same humanity.

    Maybe you see something I don't.

    As for the other comments, none of them have been about this issue. It seems like a platform to just bash John MacArthur.

    Bob Gibson

  6. Bob:

    I will let Jan address your comment above, but I will advise that it is not John MacArthur that is being what you think/say "bashed." It his his aberrant teaching and we are "not to hold out hope for any 'clear, non-contradictory, definitive statement.'"

    Even in the area of music choices- in his commentary he writes about music to glorify God, then he endorses and presents Rock-n-Roll culture events like Resolved.

    This was dealt with several years ago at another site. Phil Johnson tired to suggest John MacArthur is not inconsistent on music. Well, two pastors irrefutably proved from MacArthur's commentary and what he does in practice that there is huge disconnect between the two. Phil said he would look into it, talk to JMac, and that was the last time anyone saw or head from Phil on the matter.


  7. Bob-

    Thank you for your comment.

    It is Christ's title Son of Man that pertains to His incarnation, not His title Son of God.

    However, the primary purpose of the article is not to argue eternal Sonship. It is to call out and request MacArthur to be consistent in his denial of incarnational Sonship and affirmation of eternal Sonship. We are asking which view he actually holds.

    This among other issues caused a great deal of controversy in the IFCA. See George Zeller's account here:

    Scroll down to the section on Eternal Sonship.


  8. Lou,

    It just looked like the first comments about John MacArthur had nothing to do with the original post, but just various issues that people are bothered by. It doesn't matter to me, really.


    I read through your original post twice and really am not sure what I am missing that you are seeing.

    Son of Man and Son of God both have to do with his incarnation. I already pointed that out, that Luke traces Jesus' lineage through Adam, the son of God. It isn't an either or. Son of Man (probably taken from Daniel 7) is actually an argument for Deity. So both terms refer to both humanity and deity.

    From what I read of MacArthur, I think his position is now consistent and completely biblically informed.

    Just as an outsider looking in with no hostility and only making an observation, it looks like you want there to be a problem rather than there actually being a problem. I could be wrong and mean no offense.

    Bob Gibson

  9. Bob-

    I appreciate that you mean no offense.

    I do get the impression, though, that you are not doing your homework. Nor do I get the sense that you are paying much attention to what is being discussed here. One does not have to be looking for a problem to find a problem with MacArthur. One does not even have to be a detractor. I have already showed, with links, how and why this is an issue, and how MacArthur's inconsistencies are concerns of his supporters who are clearly not looking for a problem yet find problems anyway. (In my own situation, the first person who brought up MacArthur having a problem was, in fact, a staunch MacArthurite.) At least one book has been written against him (Christ the Lord, editor Michael Horton) by men who wrote it kicking and screaming because they did not want to have to oppose him.

    As to the particular issue of Incarnational Sonship, and MacArthur's inconsistencies there, I have already given you the link to the Middletown Bible Church site. If I have been unable to help you see why this is an issue then perhaps you would be better served to go to the Middletown site and read up on it if you are genuinely interested. If that does not satisfy you, you can contact the pastor (Bible Question link on their homepage) who was actually there for the events with the IFCA and who has also written a book on Christ's eternal Sonship. Maybe he will explain to you why this is an issue. I, however, have nothing further to add.

    Thank you for your comments and concerns.


  10. Hi Jan, thanks for understanding and not taking offense. Too often the blogs are filled with vitriol rather than actual communication.

    My only interaction with you is about the interpretation of the incarnational Sonship quotes you have given. I know why it was a big deal in the past. If I read you correct though, you think it is still an issue because MacArthur is wrong. My disagreement with you is over your interpretation of the current position He takes with the quotes given. From my understanding, they appear to be biblical.

    If the purpose of your guest posting on here was about John MacArthur the man and his various viewpoints, then I understand more of what the other commenters were getting at.

    Enjoy your blessed day.

    Bob Gibson

  11. I feel that John Mac Arthur needs to amend his doctrinal statement that implies a incarnational sonship view. I personally hold that Jesus is the eternal Son of God and reflects the teaching of Scripture. Dr. Mac Arthur now agrees with the eternal sonship view and needs to make the correction at least in his seminary doctrinal statement. I understand that he is unable to go through each and every writing to make this correction. But since his seminary doctrinal statement reflects the offical position of the entire seminary it must be amended to reflect his embracement of the eternal sonship view.

    The term Son of man refers to Jesus incarnation state while the term Son of God refers to His divine nature as second person distinct from the Father and the Holy Spirit in the Trinity. That is my reading Christological study using the book JESUS CHRIST OUR LORD by Dr. John F. Walvoord. The real danger theologically in the incarnation sonship view is that is the essential error which leads to and provides a foundation for the ancient heresy of Modalism.

    1. One would expect that an erroneous view on the deity of Christ would be amended in any official statements without hesitation.

      Thanks for the input.