Q&A With John MacArthur (P1)

Recently, I came across a CD recording of a question and answer session with John MacArthur. With the wisdom and irony of MacArthur’s words, I figured it deserved a wider hearing.

To give some brief background here, this was recorded at the 2004 Shepherds Conference, and the night before, RC Sproul had preached on Romans 9 and the sovereignty of God. RC’s sermon produced a Calvinistic buzz in the crowd for the remainder of the week, and it is with this in mind that a young man steps up and asks MacArthur the following question:

Question: By saying, “I am Calvinist”, or “I am Arminian”, is that the same as saying, “I am of Paul”, or “I am of Apollos?” If so, why or why not?

MacArthur: You don’t mean that Apollos was an Arminian…that’s not the comparison you are making there [is it]? [Laughter]

Question: No! No! That’s not my reference, no. [Laughter]

I’m just saying, by saying “I am of Calvin”, or saying “I am an Arminian”, is that the same…?

MacArthur: No, it’s not the same thing at all. Because what you had with those names was personality cults, not theology. That’s very different. To say, “I am of Paul”, or “I am of Apollos”, or “I am of Peter”, wouldn’t be a difference in doctrine, it would be an attachment to a personality. That was the evidence of carnality [in Corinth]; it was the divisions over favorites. You know, sort of ‘heros’ instead of theological issues. And RC [Sproul] comes out of his theological background, and he uses those labels. I don’t use those labels when I preach –[near] as much. But that’s the world in which he lives, and he’s talking about two very different theologies that cannot both be right. Is that not so?

With regard to Peter, Paul and Apollos, they would agree on the theology. [But] these are competing view that can’t both be right. And I still think that at the end of the day, as far as our people are concerned, it’s not nearly as helpful to speak to them in terms of historical roots of these views as it is to speak to them in biblical terms. So, I don’t know that publicly I have very often, perhaps pressed in a Q & A, even said that I was a Calvinist. Because everyone has a strange caricature of what that is. Everybody has got their own view. So it’s much better to just open the word of God and teach what you teach and let it fall where it falls. But I think what you’ve got, and the reason that Calvinism and Arminianism have gained the ascendancy that they have is because they are the logical systems if you infer the premise. And RC was right when he said the premise is your view of man and sin –that’s where the whole thing starts. You either believe in the total inability of man, or you believe that man has some ability to change his own life by making a good decision. And those are very different.

Some Additional Observations:

The question posed by this man reflects a common accusation brought against those who call themselves ‘Calvinists’, but MacArthur’s answer is very clear. Specifically, when MacArthur or most anyone who calls themselves a ‘Calvinist’ uses the term ‘Calvinist’, it in no way entails any special credence to the man John Calvin. Personally, I see the term ‘Calvinism’ as the clearest and most precise term available for communicating ones stance on soteriology. It has nothing to do with this man, as Calvin himself didn’t even come up with the ‘5 points of Calvinism’. However, it does have everything to do with doctrine. Just as one calls himself an ‘evangelical’, or a ‘conservative’, or a ‘pre-millennialist’, the term encompasses specific doctrine. If we did not have labels it would be very difficult to communicate our position in a concise manner. Basically, there are so many different views on soteriology (the study of salvation) that labels are oftentimes helpful to avoid confusion.

With this in mind, consider the pros and cons of using terms like:

I believe in the Sovereignty of God in salvation -Who doesn’t believe this? Certainly, no matter what position you hold in regards to ‘free will’, if you even remotely affirm the scriptures you believe that ‘salvation is from the Lord’. So this term does not clearly define anything. The issues of foreknowledge, depravity, grace, etc., are left open to a plethora of interpretations.

I believe in Election -Same thing. Who doesn’t believe in election? It’s stated all throughout the scriptures. This statement alone leads to confusion as well. Elect on the basis of what? What does election entail: blessings, salvation, what? Again, this statement is too broad to accurately communicate one’s beliefs.

I hold to Reformed theology -This term is much better, although it is not completely absent from problems. As you know, MacArthur is a dispensationalist, which is definitely not a characteristic of traditional Reformed theology. If he were to use this term alone he would undoubtedly cause confusion because of his dispensational views. (However, if we were to use ‘I hold to Reformed soteriology’, that would be much better, except for the fact that a lot of people do not know what the term ‘Reformed’ actually means.)

I hold to the Doctrines of Grace -This is probably the best of them all, although it can often be confused as well. Technically speaking, who doesn’t believe in grace? As long as the scriptures are used as the foundation, grace has to be a part of the salvation process. Thus, the term ‘grace’ is often open to the personal interpretation of the hearer (one can simply look back to Brad Reynold’s statement of personal autonomy in interpreting terms to see a perfect example of how these things can get shamefully distorted). However, I am willing to concede that this term is often better to use than the term ‘Calvinist’, but not in every circumstance without exception.

Many other examples could be used, but now consider the term ‘Calvinism’:

I am a Calvinist -This term entails 5 clearly defined points: The inability of man to respond to God’s commands on his own (Total Depravity); the election of believers unto salvation which is based on the will of God and not on anything within the recipient (Unconditional Election); the complete and perfect atonement accomplished by Jesus Christ to particular people (Limited Atonement); the all-powerful nature of the Holy Spirit to bring about the conversion of sinners (Irresistible Grace); and the certainty of salvation and endurance until the end for those who have been chosen (Perseverance of the Saints).

Although many have begun to distort this term by saying ‘I’m a four-point Calvinist’, or ‘I’m a one-point Calvinist’, the fact remains that in order to be consistent, these doctrines stand or fall upon each other. A ‘four-pointer’ is just as confused as a ‘one-pointer’, as they both do not understand the oxymoron-like term they are using for themselves. (For example, many believe that once a person is saved it is impossible for one to lose this salvation –thus affirming the 5th point of Calvinism: Perseverance of the Saints. Basically they are saying that free will gets you in but that it can’t get you out. Not only does this view do damage to the human rational, it decisively rejects the foundation on which the doctrine of perseverance stands: the doctrine of God’s sovereign election, the definite atonement of Christ to perfectly save His elect, and the mighty, effectual calling of the Holy Spirit that will not fail to accomplish His end.)

The term ‘Calvinism’, however, is not without its pitfalls –that is why I am not advocating its use in every instance without exception. Often times people get offended at the term ‘Calvinism’ simply because of reputation. Many people have disdain for Calvinists simply because they have always been taught that Calvinists are in error. Still others hear ‘Calvinism’ and immediately form caricatures of what they personally think Calvinists believe (a topic I will discuss later this week in a follow-up to this post).

Therefore, because of the pitfalls of the term, and in order to appear blameless, we should make sure and use careful discernment when using the term so as to avoid these things, and so that others will not get the impression that we are giving dangerous credence to a man. Therefore, whether you use the term ‘Calvinist’ or ‘I hold to the doctrines of Grace’, careful discernment and discretion must be used in almost every circumstance.

Thus, the ‘I am of Apollos’ argument that many have presented does not apply in this case. For Calvinist are not identifying themselves with a personality, a movement, or a style of teaching, but rather a set of clearly-defined doctrines. The use of this term is simply used for convenience and clarification. If labels altogether were the point of Paul’s admonishment in 1 Corinthians 1, then he certainly wouldn’t have included the term ‘I am of Christ’ is his rebuke. The point wasn’t that the Corinthians were using labels to define their doctrine, but that they were using labels to create a special sect and associate with a certain personality -which Paul rebukes because of the dissention it caused and the selfishness it reflected.

Later this week I will add a few more comments about this answer by MacArthur. Specifically, I would like to point out how there is no middle ground in this discussion, how so many have built their own caricature of what they think a Calvinist is, and how some have mistaken MacArthur as one who ‘rides the fence’ in regards to this doctrine. With the Caner debate fast approaching, and with other misconceptions within the SBC on this subject, a few clarifications might do us all well.

SDG

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5 Comments on “Q&A With John MacArthur (P1)”

  1. Josh Says:

    Calvinist, while it appears to have become a rally point for all these reformed folks, has become an ugly label I fear–at least in the SBC. I prefer to merely say I am a Baptist. That way you avoid all the theological mucking about. Most of my cohorts don’t even read their quarterlies in Sunday School let alone the Bible, a good commentary or Pink, Dagg, Boyce or any of these others. Why begin by splitting hairs when there are all these trees in the way?

    Much Grace
    Josh

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