Monday, March 11, 2013

Comparing John MacArthur's Salvation with English Puritanism's

Below I am going to provide two quotes, the first will be from Theodore Dwight Bozeman discussing the emergence and factors that shaped the thinking of the yet to come English Puritans; and the second will be from John MacArthur, and his discussion on the role that changed behavior and moral values have in a genuinely “saved life.” What I am highlighting, and want you all to see, is the striking correlation of thought and practice that both camps share, relative to emphasizing the importance of outward moral behavior in the “elects” life. Here is Theodore Bozeman discussing the early factors that led to English Puritanism:

"English penitential teaching expressly echoed and bolstered moral priorities. In contrast, again, to Luther, whose penitential teaching stressed the rueful sinner’s attainment of peace through acknowledgment of fault and trust in unconditional pardon, several of the English included a moment of moral renewal. In harmony with Reformed tendencies on the Continent and in unmistakable continuity with historic Catholic doctrine that tied “contrition, by definition, to the intention to amend,” they required an actual change in penitent. For them, a renewal of moral resolve was integral to the penitential experience, and a few included the manifest alteration of behavior. They agreed that moral will or effort cannot merit forgiveness, yet rang variations on the theme that repentance is “an inward . . . sorrow . . . whereunto is also added a . . . desire . . . to frame our life in all points according to the holy will of God expressed in the divine scriptures.” However qualified by reference to the divine initiative and by denial of efficacy to human works, such teaching underscored moral responsibility; it also adumbrated Puritan penitential and preparationist teaching of later decades." [italics mine] (Theodore Dwight Bozeman, “The Precisianist Strain . . . ,” 20-21)

It is important to keep in mind that Bozeman is not even discussing actual English Puritanism yet, rather he is highlighting the streams and emphases, present within England just prior to the full-fledged emergence of Puritanism, that actually brought shape and form to the disciplinary “religion” known as Puritanism. Notice the correlation he makes between this kind of Protestantism with Roman Catholic spirituality. . . . Conversely, John MacArthur sounds very much like this incipient Puritanism described above by Bozeman. You will notice this similarity as MacArthur, like these early penitentialists, emphasizes the function and necessity of moral reformation in the life of the “truly saved” individual; notice:

. . . They’ve been told [Christians in the typical evangelical church in the West] that the only criterion for salvation is knowing and believing some basic facts about Christ. They hear from the beginning that obedience is optional. It follows logically, then, that a person’s one-time profession of faith is more valid than the ongoing testimony of his life-style in determining whether to embrace him as a true-believer. The character of the visible church reveals the detestable consequence of this theology. As a pastor I have rebaptized countless people who once “made a decision,” were baptized, yet experienced no change. They came later to true conversion and sought baptism again as an expression of genuine salvation. [brackets mine] (John MacArthur, “The Gospel According to Jesus,” 17)

Striking is it not? Both English Penitentialism (early and full blossomed English Puritanism), and MacArthur’s approach are intended to curb moral laxity, by emphasizing the moral conduct and “performance” of the truly “saved.” As MacArthur underscores, as a good follower of the “English Puritan” (and for that matter Roman Catholic) ethic and spirituality, genuine salvation is only noticeable and discernible via an “. . . an ongoing testimony of his life-style.” Bozeman speaking of the moral laxity within England (in the 16th century and onward) notes how this affected the “Reforming spirit” of that locale, he says: “. . . There the Reformation emerged in a period of deeply felt concern about social order. . . . (Bozeman, 13) This motivation similarly, and unabashedly, motivates MacArthur’s emphasis on performance, duty, and obedience, as he states: “. . . Why should we assume that people who live in an unbroken pattern of adultery, fornication, homosexuality, deceit, and every conceivable kind of flagrant excess are truly born again? . . .” (MacArthur, 16-17) In other words, the remedy for both camps (i.e. between the 16th and 17th cent. and 20th and 21st cent.) is to hang people over hell in order to foster an supposed environment of holiness and moral uprightness, this is by way of EMPHASIS. Both of these camps spoke and speak of solifidian (faith alone), but this is not enough, external moral transformation needs to accompany “faith alone,” otherwise there was never any faith to begin with (i.e. later on we will discuss how this thought came to be tied to concepts like “preparationism” and “temporary faith”).

 All of this is contrary to Martin Luther’s approach, which is to emphasize the need of a changed heart, and the objective Word of God as the motivation and reason for holiness. Luther did not hang people over hell in order to engender holiness of life, and neither did the later antinomists (i.e. Sibbes, Cotton, et al) who we will discuss later. Did Luther think moral transformation was needed within the church, indeed . . . but we do not hybrid the gospel in order to achieve this end (i.e. MacArthur and the Puritans); rather we emphasize the winsome love of Christ disclosed at the cross, grave, and right hand of the throne of the Father as the motivation for purity and holiness. This was Luther’s, Cotton’s, Sibbe’s, and my aim, I hope it is yours.

 I have provided this brief comparison in order to further establish the corollary and continuity between English Puritan salvation themes and motifs, and in this case, John MacArthur’s themes and motifs, relative to articulating the gospel. I am not sure how anyone who has read anything on Puritan spirituality, and its formation, can deny the similarity between that and the outlook that MacArthur (and others like him) is articulating today. At minimum my hope is to expose this, not to smear MacArthur (or others), so that folks who have bought into such teaching can see it for what it is, and realize that this kind of doctrine leads away from an emphasis upon Christ; and focuses upon self (and “my transformed life”). Jesus said it best, “. . . Seek ye first, His kingdom and His righteousness . . . ," in other words, keep your eyes ON HIM!

**This is a repost that I wrote years ago, way before I was an Evangelical Calvinist, or had ever really even heard of Thomas Torrance.


  1. And I remember that original post very well, Bobby!

  2. Bobby I see your point that we are to look to Christ alone for salvation. And we CAN become way too fixated on works as a measure of our salvation - I have done that myself.

    I see Mac. saying "people who live in an unbroken pattern of sin - are not saved." And I have to agree. If someone lives in a "broken" pattern of sin then that shows that they understand what sin is and they, by the indwelling Holy Spirit, know that this is NOT how someone for whom Christ dies can continue to live. The Holy Spirit will not allow it.

    so, example for me would be the homosexual (or habitual liar or thief) who comes to me and says I love Christ, I look to Him alone as proof of my salvation, homosexuality (in this particualr case) was forbidden in the old testament but it is okay now because culture has changed.

    And I explain to him the clear teaching of Scripture concerning sexual immorality, I point out 1 Cor. 6:9-11 where Paul points out that “such WERE some of you” to say, if you were a homosexual, you are no longer one because the fact that you were washed, you are clean, will not allow you to continue to be one any longer. Flip to Romans and point out “You are to put to death the deeds of the flesh.”

    Now another homosexual comes to me and says I sinned last week, I gave into temptation, I hate myself and must not be saved, I would say to him – your remorse over sin, your desire not to live in the old pattern of the world, proves to ME, and should comfort you to know that Jesus already took care of that sin, you are forgiven, God loves you, you have even shown me and yourself through your brokenness over this sin that you love God and despise the sin in your life. Keep looking to Jesus alone! Seek first the Kingdom and His righteousness!

    I am not attempting to “hang” the first sinner over hell; I am simply pointing out the incongruity of his claim to be a believer. Now I don’t know if three years later the Holy Spirit will finally break through and he will understand that he is living in sin and can’t any longer if he is really saved. If that is the case maybe he was saved all along and it was God’s kindness that eventually led to his repentance.

    He could come back to me and I would say, I am sorry, seems you were saved all along and it just took a while for you to mature to the point that you understood this particular teaching of Scripture. But while you were living in flagrant sin, I could not risk having you in my congregation lest your lifestyle lead someone else to sin (ala 1 Cor 5)

    And while you were in sin, I would be preaching that Scripture clearly teaches that you cannot live that lifestyle in defiance to God and hope to enter the Kingdom!

    Or do I allow this person to stay, and accept him as a believer and pray and encourage him to see the error of his way? Again 1 Cor 5 would say a resounding NO!

    Do you see how I (and Mac - although I agree he at times goes to far) have to look at this issue pastorally?

  3. btw - I have begun wading through Athanasius and ordered Thomas on Scottish Theology from Knox to Campbell. :)

  4. On retrospect I would also say to the first "sinner" in my example that Jesus died for him and God loves him completely.

  5. Steve,

    Yes. But I don't see any difference between looking at something pastorally/ethically and theologically/exegetically; i.e. the interrelationship between orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

    The problem with Mac is his broader theological commitments that lead him to think of relationship with God more through Law than Grace (even though he uses the language of grace). So it is a matter of emphasis, and the theological framework behind such "pastoral" approaches that is of major concern.

    Anyway, I have more to say, but I am tired. More later.

  6. Okay, I get that, I completely agree with your conclusion that we have to look at the interrelationship between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, so forget about Mac - was my illustration even in the ballpark? :)

  7. Thanks for this post Bobby, it took me many years before I realized there were "bad Puritans" or that there could be insidious legalism within "Reformed" circles. I assumed they were all freedom fighters.

    Interestingly I was recently thumbing through a book from my Puritan collection (my granddaughter pulled it off the shelf) by Matthew Mead (1629-1699) entitled "The Almost Christian Discovered." The forward was by John MacArthur. Had I actually read it 20 years ago when I bought it from Soli Deo Gloria I shudder to think of the spiritual tailspin it would have created. Here are Mead's 20 warnings to the "almost Christian":

    "A man may have the following and still NOT be a Christian:
    1. Much knowledge
    2. Great and eminent gifts
    3. A high profession of religion much in external duties of godliness
    4. He may go far in opposing sin
    5. He may hate sin
    6. He may take great vows and promises, strong purposes and resolutions against sin
    7. He may maintain a strife and combat against sin in himself
    8. He may be a member of the Church of Christ
    9. He may have great hopes of heaven
    10. He may be under visible changes
    11. He may be very zealous in matters of religion
    12. He may be much in prayer
    13. He may suffer for Christ
    14. He may be called of God and embrace his call
    15. He may have the Spirit of God
    16. He may have faith
    17. He may have a love for the people of God
    18. He may obey the commands of God
    19. He may be sanctified
    20. He may do all that a true Christian can...

    ...and yet be but almost a Christian." (from the table of contents)

    It was bad enough to serve this up to the more pious people of Mead's day. I fail to comprehend what MacArthur was thinking when he felt led to resurrect it for today's church.

    The traditional Church's inability to supply any true grounds for assurance is why I have had to stake my faith on 100% "objective union" in Christ.

    grace and peace...

  8. @Steve,

    I think your illustration was definitely in the ball park. I am not discounting that we need to hold each other accountable, I am more concerned though with what concept of God is informing how we do that; and then what affect that has on our spirituality.


    Thank you very much for sharing that; this is very helpful in illustrating further what in fact is shaping the mood of Christianity that John MacArthur (and many others like him, theologically) are forwarding.

    I am going to be writing a chapter in our forthcoming book on assurance. And I agree, this is a very central issue for those of us with Calvinist or Arminian backgrounds (and I mean in the classical sense).

    @Both of you:

    Here is comment being made by Robert Walker (TFT's nephew) about the nature of redemption in Torrance's theology. This helps to establish, further, why assurance is fully grounded in what JEsus did for us (and this is also why this is still Calvinism, in the "Evangelical" kind of way that we advocate for):

    ii) Justification, reconciliation and redemption are the act of God and man in Christ
    Again throughout his theology, Torrance emphasises that in Jesus Christ we have the act of God and of man, of God as man in his one person. Justification, reconciliation and redemption therefore must be thought of not simply as the act of God for our salvation, but also as the real act of man, of God as man for us. the importance of this for Torrance’s theology and for understanding it cannot be overstated. Justification is not simply the act of God judging sin, atoning for it himself and declaring us righteous in his beloved Son, it is man saying amen to the righteous judgement of God and at the same time fulfilling all righteousness in his own perfect life and humanity. Reconciliation is thus not simply God reconciling the world to himself in Christ, but reconciliation worked out, achieved and realised by Christ as man within his own person, in his own mind, life, heart and soul. Redemption is the mighty act of God in which mankind is liberated from bondage and decay into the new creation through the resurrection of the man Jesus Christ from the dead in the fullness of physical existence. (T. F. Torrance, ed. Robert T. Walker, “Atonement,” xlv)


    Another excellent book that you would benefit from is J. Todd Billings' book "Union With Christ" it is intended to deal with a restructuring of pastoral ministry around this concept (retrieved from Calvin's 'double grace' and mystical union/union with Christ theology). Here is a link to a post I did (with video interviews of Billings included where he briefly describes his book) in re. to this book:

    Thank you guys.

  9. I am really looking forward to this book and hope to see your review it when it is published -

    His last paragraph is where I see the disagreement between camps reducing down to. There are simply different Christologies running around.

  10. Hi Hermonta,

    Great to hear from you!

    Thanks for the heads up on this book; another one to add to the reading list (too many books, not enough time). There are definitely different Christologies running around.

    Do men receive faith, that saves, because God arbitrarily bestows them with faith? Does God predetermined who will be saved and them cause them to have faith so they can be saved? No and No.

    Faith comes from hearing God's word preached.

    Romans 10:17 So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.(NKJV)

    Romans 10:14 How they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?(NKJV)

    Faith comes when men believe the gospel. Faith is not forced on men by God.


    Ephesians 2:8 is used to prove that faith is a gift from God, however, that is not what is says.

    Ephesians 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is a gift of God,(NKJV)

    Salvation is the gift from God. Faith is not the gift.

    Mark 16:16 "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.

    Why would Jesus condemn men who do not believe if God is the one who arbitrarily bestows faith on men so they can be saved?

    To have faith that Jesus is the Son of God is a choice. To trust in God is a choice. To believe that God resurrected Jesus from the grave is a choice. To believe that Jesus is both Lord and Christ is a choice. God does not force men to have faith. Saving faith is the not a gift from God. Salvation is the gift from God.


    1. Hear the gospel. Romans 10:17
    2. Believe. John 3:16
    3. Confess. Romans 10:9
    4. Repent. Acts 3:19
    5. Be baptized in water. Acts 2:38

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