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Category Archives: John MacArthur

Widely known for his thorough, candid approach to teaching God’s Word, John MacArthur is a popular author and conference speaker and has served as pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California since 1969. John and his wife, Patricia, have four grown children and fourteen grandchildren.
John’s pulpit ministry has been extended around the globe through his media ministry, Grace to You, and its satellite offices in seven countries. In addition to producing daily radio programs for nearly 2,000 English and Spanish radio outlets worldwide, Grace to You distributes books, software, audiotapes, and CDs by John MacArthur.
John is president of The Master’s College and Seminary and has written hundreds of books and study guides, each one biblical and practical. Best-selling titles include The Gospel According to Jesus, Truth War, The Murder of Jesus, Twelve Ordinary Men, Twelve Extraordinary Women, and The MacArthur Study Bible, a 1998 ECPA Gold Medallion recipient.

A Case for Believer’s Baptism: The Credo Baptist Position

John MacArthur’s Case for Credo Baptism

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The following message is a presentation of Ligonier Ministries, home of the radio program, Renewing Your Mind with R.C. Sproul. Copyright © 1998. Used by permission of Ligonier Ministries (www.ligonier.org). The message below is a transcript of Part 1 of a debate between John MacArthur and R.C. Sproul (who makes a case for Infant Baptism):

PAUL SAILHAMER: If you have read the material in the program, you know that this Pre-Conference Seminar has stimulated a lot of interest because it’s on a topic that was dear to the heart of our Lord and of the Apostles and is such an important topic in the Scriptures and so today we have our Pre-Conference seminar, Born of the Water and the Spirit.

There is much disagreement in the church concerning baptism and it says in our program within the Reformed and Evangelical circles some espouse infant baptism while others oppose it. In this seminar, Dr. MacArthur and Dr. Sproul will each present one side of the issue and then this seminar will conclude with a question and answer time later this afternoon after our break. So you need to be writing down your questions now during the seminar and during both of the presentations and then turn those in at the registration desk and we will go through and try to deal with as many questions as we can with John and with R.C. a little bit later in the afternoon.

Let’s have a word of prayer together and we’ll get right under way.

Our Father, we thank You for the hospitality of the people of this church. We thank You for the beautiful day that we enjoy and the safety of those who have arrived to this seminar. And now we stop and we give You thanks and acknowledge Your presence with us and we say thanks for the opportunity together to talk about such an incredible subject and open our eyes, enlighten the eyes of our hearts that we may understand Your Word and Your will a little bit better because of being here today…we pray in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ we pray…and everybody said…Amen.

John MacArthur will be our first presenter. John is a graduate of Talbot Theological Seminary, pastor of Grace Community Church here in the Los Angeles area for the last 27 years, president of Master’s College and Master’s Seminary, author of numerous books, recently editor of the MacArthur Study Bible, on the radio every day, Grace To You for over the last two decades. I thought it was interesting, and I asked John, and he was baptized by his father who is a minister, when he was about the age of twelve. I think all of you are familiar with the ministry of John MacArthur and we are looking forward to hearing his presentation as we begin this-afternoon. Let’s welcome him for our first presentation on our Pre-Conference Seminar. (Applause)

JOHN MACARTHUR: Well, thank you, Paul. I had the joy when I came to Grace Community Church in 1969 of having as the only staff member there, Paul Sailhamer. And we served together for many years before he got promoted to the ministry of Chuck Swindoll and then drove Chuck out of his church (Laughter) and the rest is history. It’s a joy to be here, it’s always a tremendous privilege to fellowship with R.C. and other compatriots of the faith to sit and share a little meal today with Sinclair Ferguson, such a noble servant of the Lord and such a formidable advocate for the faith. Just a real joy to be able to minister to you and also especially I think this kind of discussion.

It seems to me today that the climate is such that you’re just not allowed to disagree with anybody without being considered as divisive and unloving and unkind and shattering the body of Christ and all of this. And that’s sad because that disallows us to call into question those things that are important and essential to the faith that need to be discussed. And I’m grateful for this opportunity.

I looked around at lunch today and I think I was the only person there who believed in believer’s baptism, so I know why I was selected to do this. But I do count the opportunity a privilege. I’m glad that a lot of the amenities are over because I do want to use the time most helpfully in this discussion and that means getting at the point, trying to say as much as I can in the time that I have.

Obviously many trees have died in this discussion. And it is just an immense chore even to try to read the literature that has abounded through the years on this discussion, trying to sum it up and condense it down is a challenge. And that’s what I’m going to try to do in this session.

Obviously related themes about covenants and sacraments could also be brought into the discussion but at some point you’ve got to get focused. And we don’t want to go beyond the purview of the immediate discussion with regard to baptism, even though those are certainly related themes.

I also want to start by assuming the evangelical view that baptism does not save by whatever mode or manner it is administered. And I think we will agree on that, all of us will agree on that. I’m not talking about any regenerating rite here. It’s important for us to understand that this is within the context of our evangelical conviction that salvation is by grace through faith alone, apart from works, even the work of baptism.

Now with those things aside to sort of launch the subject, a little bit of a personal testimony, to begin with. For years over radio, Grace To You has internationally aired believer’s baptisms with the most amazing responses coming from everywhere. To my knowledge, this has never been done, at least not in modern Christian radio. And we’ve had an amazing response to the regular airing of the testimonies of people standing in the waters of baptism.

Also, for nearly twenty years we’ve conducted Pastors Conferences at our church and through all of those years we have launched every Pastors Conference with a service of baptism in the opening evening. And that too with tremendous blessing as we hear the testimony of those who have come to faith in Jesus Christ being made public in the waters of baptism. Also in our church, every Sunday night of the year we have a baptismal service. The Lord is adding to His church daily such as are being saved and we have a full congregation every Sunday night in our church who have come to hear the testimonies of those who are proclaiming their faith in Jesus Christ which is usually followed by the preaching of a biblical exposition by myself.

So this is a very important part of my life and ministry, from top to bottom it serves as a component of ministry which is at the very heart of the declaration of the gospel which is so precious to me. The domination, I think, of the church in recent years by psychology and in more recent years by pragmatism has produced, I think, a significant disinterest in baptism. Media ministries which so powerfully define and control evangelical consumerism are void of those ordinances. And that’s one of the reasons why we’ve introduced baptism into our radio format because I don’t want to be a part of that kind of disinterest.

It is safe to say, also, that there is presently probably the largest unbaptized population of professing Christians in the history of the church. And for most of them it isn’t really something they’re too concerned about. This reality, failing to take baptism seriously, is also, I think, likely symptomatic of the independence and unfaithfulness of professing Christians who function autonomously like consumers, rather than under church theology and authority and at the same time, a few things could be more unmistakable than the fact that the command of Scripture is to baptize and to be baptized. On that we will agree. Jesus said, “Go into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them.” And on the day of Pentecost Peter said, “Repent and be baptized.” And we remember that Jesus engaged in the baptism personally, then the Apostles followed, involving themselves in baptism. And, of course, you know the rest throughout the book of Acts in the New Testament.

In spite of this command, in spite of this mandate, in spite of New Testament clarity, there is still widespread non-compliance. And at the same time, a rather strange paradox in that you have a very large population of baptized unregenerate people. So if there’s anything that needs some clarity, I think it’s this.. I would venture to say that a person who claims to be a Christian and has a disregard for baptism, has not been baptized, would have to fall into one of several categories. Number one, they are ignorant, that is they have not been taught or they’ve been wrongly taught. Secondly, they are proud, that is not willing to be humbly obedient to what is clearly a biblical mandate. Thirdly, they are indifferent, not considering obedience a priority. Fourth, they are defiant, just unwilling to obey. Or fifth, they’re not converted at all and therefore they have no desire to publicly demonstrate the significance of baptism in behalf of the honor of Christ.

Surely, most of the mass evangelized TV, radio stadium converts have been left to themselves without the benefit of guidance and without the benefit of accountability for baptism, or a lot of other things under any church authority. But I think that is no excuse for not following what the New Testament says clearly and I think strikes to the conscience of every believer, whether or not they understand church authority. Baptism is therefore critical, important, must be understood and must be practiced. It is not a minor matter and thus it commands our attention today, I think, justifiably. It is a major matter. It has in the past been even a more major matter where on some occasions people actually engaged in blood-letting over this. I’m happy to be discussing this in a much nicer time, otherwise it could cost me dearly and cost R.C. dearly for even tolerating me.

I think the time has come, however, after all these years of history since the Reformation, and here I’ll show my colors, to strip off the tradition and return to the simple New Testament design. It is my own conviction that the Reformation is not yet complete. And that consideration should force the argument, I think, to be a scriptural argument. I’m really not interested in arguing on any other level than the biblical one, and that does present some interesting dilemmas, but we’re going to attack them, nonetheless. I don’t want to deal with the historical issue since I am convinced that while history certainly plays a role in understanding things, history turned against tradition at the Reformation, and we’re grateful for that. And history has to make such turns against what is a wrong tradition. In my judgment, history needs to reexamine tradition at this point again as well.

Now to sort of summarize and obviously there are a lot of ways that you can go, but to sort of summarize I want to give you five reasons why I reject infant baptism as biblical baptism, five reasons why I reject infant baptism as biblical baptism. And really, these are categories of introduction for you that want to dig in deeper and read the voluminous amount of literature that is available on the subject. But I would at least like to formulate the argument, or the debate, if I may, around these five statements.

Number one, infant baptism is not in Scripture. Against this fact, there is no clear evidence. Scripture nowhere advocates, commands or records a single infant baptism. It is therefore impossible to directly prove or support this rite from the Bible. Schlermaker(?) wrote, and I quote, “All traces of infant baptism which one has asserted to be found in the New Testament must first be inserted there,” end quote.

And a host, I think, of German and front-rank theologues and scholars, including those of the Church of England, have united basically to affirm not only the absence of infant baptism from the New Testament but from apostolic and post-apostolic times. It first arose and arguably, I suppose, in the second and third centuries, the conclusion, for example, reached by the Lutheran professor Kurt Allen(?) who has written on this after intensive study of infant baptism is that there is no definite proof of practice until after the third century. This he believes cannot be contested.

A Catholic professor of theology, Haggelbacher(?) writes, quote, “The controversy has shown that it is not possible to bring in absolute proof of infant baptism by basing one’s argument on the Bible without the help of tradition.” And even the notable B.B. Warfield affirmed the absence of infant baptism from the Scripture.

It would be my conviction here though not necessarily at all points that this is a good place to apply the Calvinistic regulative principle which says, “If Scripture doesn’t command it, it is forbidden.” Now that sort of tells you where I’m at.

Given the Sola Scriptura commitment of the Reformation, given the fact that the Reformation was predicated upon that and given the Bible as the singular and therefore supreme and only authority in the matters of faith, we might assume that the discussion was over, at this point. But in spite of all such testimony, infant baptism is still defended and practiced as if biblical. One expects Rome, I think, to engage in such practices were used to that, to defend as divine and essential rites and dogmas not in the Bible. They do that. They have a Mass, the Magisterium, a tradition, as we all know. They do so because they believe that the Church continues to be the unique recipient of post-biblical revelation which carries equal weight with Scripture.

In fact, the Roman Catholic Church not only asserts that it is the ongoing recipient of divine revelation, but that it is also the only and infallible interpreter of all revelation, biblical and traditional. Church history, in one sense then, could said to be Rome’s hermeneutic. But it is not the hermeneutic of Reformed theology. In fact, history is no hermeneutic. The Bible is not interpreted by history. God is not interpreting the Bible by history. We would have to ask if that were true, which history? Whose history? Traditional rites, traditional ceremonies, traditional doctrines are true not because some Church said they were true, not because some Counsel said they were true, not because they have been traditionally affirmed as true, but because the Scriptures affirm their validity. And I believe only honest hermeneutics in exegesis can yield the meaning of Scripture. History again, I say, is no hermeneutic. Reading traditional history back into the Scripture is not a legitimate way to interpret it.

It is also true that Scripture nowhere forbids infant baptism. That is obviously true, since it doesn’t discuss it at all, it neither affirms it or forbids it. That fact obviously provides no basis for acceptance of or mandate for infant baptism as the ubiquitous ordinance that it has become. There are many who would argue that because the Bible doesn’t forbid it, God somehow condones it. But to justify that sprinkling of babies because it is not forbidden in Scripture is therefore the divine will, is to standardize and imprint with divine authority other ceremonies which are not in the Bible. And where does that end and open the way to any ritual, any ceremony or any dogma or any teaching also not forbidden specifically in the Scripture? Not just to the point where you would allow it or tolerate it, buy where you would standardize it and infuse it with grace and efficacy. That’s a large leap in my judgment.

Actually, it was such traditions concocted beyond the pages of Scripture and without scriptural support and warrant that Luther had in mind when he himself drew the line in the sand and said this, and I quote, familiar quote, “The church needs to rid itself of all false glories that torture Scripture by inserting personal conceits into the Scripture which lend it to their own sense. No…he said…Scripture, Scripture, Scripture for me constrain, press, compel me with God’s Word,” end quote.

Now at this point, some of you have some Scriptures running around in your minds and you’re saying, “Wait a minute, MacArthur, this is a biblical issue and there are biblical passages that bear upon this.” And I’m not saying they don’t, I am simply saying there is no mention of infant baptism in Scripture. Those who advocate infant baptism want to advocate it from the Word of God and so they use Scriptures in which infant baptism is not mentioned to support it because that’s all they have. And that is not a criticism, that’s a fact. If it’s not there, you have to use what’s not there to make the point.

In Matthew chapter 18 we read in verse 3, “Truly I say to you, unless you’re converted and become like children, you shall not enter the Kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child on the ground of My name receives Me.” And you know the text. And some have said, “Well, what you have here is evidence that children are in the Kingdom.” I beg to differ with that. I think what you have here, if you put the synoptics together and see the scene, Peter is in Capernaum, he may well be in his own house there and he has in his lap an infant. He picks up a little child because the disciples are debating who’s the greatest in the Kingdom and the debate has reached a fever pitch.

We know how serious this debate was because John had even…and James had enlisted their mother to go plead for them to be at the right and the left hand in the Kingdom and they were all seeking the ascendency and the prominence. And in the middle of that debate as he anticipates, of course, what the reality is to be in the future, they all gather around Him, He puts a little baby in His lap and says, “Look, while you’re arguing about who’s the greatest, let’s get to the real issue. You’re all little children.” Verse 2 says, “He called a child, set him in the midst and said, ‘You better become like this if you want to enter the Kingdom.’” And then He proceeds to preach a great sermon, one of the great discourses in Matthew on the childlikeness of the believer. And in this chapter He is not talking about babies, He’s talking about childlike believers. And that is pretty clear, I think, all the way through because He refers in verse 6 particularly “these little ones who believe in Me.” He’s talking about how we treat each other as believers.

So this is not a Scripture that deals with anything that deals with actual children and their role in the Kingdom, but rather using a child as an illustration of the necessity of entering His Kingdom as a child would. What does that mean? With no achievement and no accomplishment, having done nothing, learned nothing, gained nothing, accumulated nothing, bringing nothing to bear upon that entrance. He is simply saying you come the way a child comes, and a child has nothing to offer, having achieved nothing, to come bare and naked with no accomplishment and no achievement and you come totally dependent. I think that’s the issue that He’s talking about, offering nothing to commend yourself to God, realizing your utter bankruptcy, it’s really a Beatitude Attitude.

Then you have another passage which is often used in the next chapter of Matthew, verse 14, “Let the children alone, do not hinder them from coming to Me, for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.” Some make a strange connection between the word “hinder” here and the word “hinder” in the book of Acts chapter 8 where the Eunuch is baptized and says, “What does hinder me?” You know, here’s water and they find in this some baptisimal formula which is a serious stretch, as far as I can tell. But the text here says, “Let the children alone, don’t hinder them from coming to Me.” As you know, that’s in Mark 10 and Luke 18 as well.

Is Jesus saying something here about infant salvation? Well the answer is no. What He is saying, I believe, is this, God cares for children. God has a special care for children. You never see Jesus gather a bunch of unregenerate adults and bless them. That doesn’t happen. But He does gather these little ones. He has a special care for children…and not just children of believing parents. There’s nothing to indicate that these children were children of believing parents or unbelieving parents. There’s nothing to indicate whether in fact there might have been a few Gentile children of Roman soldiers splattered in there who hadn’t even been circumcised. There’s nothing to indicate whether or not they were children of true Israelites who had had their heart circumcised or whether they were those of just the nominal Pharisaic legalists who seem to dominate the society. Jesus neither baptized them, nor caused them to be baptized.

This is a dry verse, and so is Matthew 18 dry. What He did show, there’s no baptism in either place. He did show clearly that children are precious, and they’re dear to God and that God has special care and concern for them.

Another passage that, of course, is used would be the list of passages with regard to household baptisms in the book of Acts and also noted in 1 Corinthians. There are five households that are mentioned to have been baptized. Some would say that babies were baptized with those households as an act of family solidarity. However, none of those Scriptures mentions any babies being baptized, none of them at all. I read one interesting writer who said that he had as much right to say in the case of the Philippian jailer that there was nobody in the family under sixteen as somebody had a right to say there was somebody in the family who was a baby. In other words, there’s purely no basis for a concluding that there was any infant baptism going on there because it doesn’t say there was. The idea that a father served as a surrogate for the faith of the children might be something you believe but you can’t find any such children for whom surrogate faith may have been exercised in those household baptism since none are mentioned.

And if you look at them collectively, as I have, this is sort of a summation of them rather than going in to all the detail. In Cornelius’ home it says, “All heard the Word, the Spirit fell on all and all were baptized.” And I simply note that the “all” is defined as those who heard the Word and upon whom the Spirit fell which demands cognition and faith before baptism. In the jailer’s case it says, “All heard the gospel and all were baptized,” again the “all” is defined as those who heard. In the case of the house of Chrispus, all believed and all were baptized, Acts 18. In the accounts of Lydia and Stephanas where you have less information given, we must understand the same thing as in the more explicit text. All hear the gospel, all believe, all receive the Holy Spirit, all were baptized.

The household then are thereby collectively defined as those capable of hearing, understanding, receiving the Holy Spirit and believing. No infants can do such, nor are any mentioned. In the case of Stephanas’ household, all who were baptized, it says, were then devoted to the ministry of the saints, 1 Corinthians 15:16, and were helping in the spiritual work of the church, the next verse, verse 16, which is impossible for infants and children. In the case of Lydia, I think it’s quite amazing in the case of Lydia that she’s the hostess, she invites men into her home, she is a traveling woman who went as far as three hundred miles away would be a real stretch to believe that she was married to start with, or it would seem like her husband would be the host in the home and would do the inviting if men were to be invited in. Strange to imagine a woman traveling in the course of business if she had nursing children in the home. It most likely appears that this is a single woman and it’s again, I think, arbitrary to assume there were any children there in that environment.

The text of John 4 verse 53 says, “And he himself believed and his whole household.” And in that case where you have household used in John 4, speaking, of course, of the nobleman whose son Jesus healed, again he himself believed and his whole household, clearly the household there must refer to the believing. There’s no mention of baptism there. There the household believes to the believing. And I think that is a normative expression for the representation of the household. Certainly couldn’t refer to babies at that point because they couldn’t have believed. Household is defined as those who believe.

Another text that is used is in Acts 2:38 and 39, just so we remember these, where Peter says, “Repent and let each of you be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins, you receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” And then verse 39, “The promises for you and your children and for all who are afar off.” Some would see here “your children” as representative of babies in the family. I would take it as “your children” here simply means that the condition by which you have received the Holy Spirit, that is repentance and faith, the condition by which you have received the Holy Spirit, will be the same condition by which your offspring will receive the Holy Spirit, repentance and faith.

In other words, it’s for your generation and every other generation. And he’s speaking to Jews, of course, at that point, and then He adds, “As well as the Gentiles,” who are defined as those who are afar off. So what you have here is just a very generic statement about the fact that there’s going to be one basic means by which you come into a relationship with God, that is by the hearing of the gospel, responding to the gospel in repentance and faith, and upon that act of repentance and faith, being granted the Holy Spirit and it will be the same for all the generations that come out of your loins. That’s not going to change. And for all peoples, both Jew and Gentile. They will be called to the same salvation which will be with the same salvation blessings.

And then one other text, 1 Corinthians 7 is often used because it does make an interesting statement. In the context here, you must understand, I think, first of all the context of 1 Corinthians 7 is about marriage, we all understand that, right? And the underlying problem was in the Corinthian church people were coming to Christ and they were having problems trying to sort out what to do if they were still married to an unregenerate person. I mean, this was before there was real explicit teaching on this obviously, and now you’ve got a believer married to an unbeliever. Is this aligning with Satan? Is this unequally yoked? Am I in a terrible compromise? Would God speak to me in the same way that He did, you remember, in Ezra’s time and said, “Divorce your idolatrous partner and get out of that relationship.” What should be my attitude in that environment? That’s what’s behind this.

This is not a passage about children. In fact, they’re only offhandedly mentioned in that one place. This is an issue about, “Should I leave my unconverted spouse?” And in verse 12 he says, “If any brother has a wife that is an unbeliever and she consents to live with him, let him not send her away.” It’s an expression for the word divorce. Don’t divorce your unconverted partner. Simple.

Verse 13, “A woman who has an unbelieving husband, he consents to live with her, don’t divorce him.” Stay together if there’s consent. Why? Why would I do that? “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified.” Now in what way could a believer be sanctified? In a limited way, would you agree with that ? In a limited….we’re not talking about salvation sanctification. We’re not talking about the sanctification that we understand as that process by which we are increasingly conformed to the image of Jesus Christ by the work of the Spirit of God. We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about some kind of setting apart, that’s what that word means. They’re set apart in some limited way. And, then verse 14 says, “The unbelieving wife is set apart through her believing husband.”

In other words, set apart from the full force of ungodly environs. They’re set apart. We are fully set apart as being sanctified in Christ. They’re sort of minimally spared the full blast of ungodliness because they’re in an environment where God’s grace is being poured out on their most intimate companion. And therefore, the spill over of that marvelous grace accrues to the comfort and the betterment of life temporally for that unbeliever. And, of course, there is always that possibility of their coming to faith through that influence. First Peter, you remember, where the unbelieving wife is told to win her husband by her godly conduct. The spill over of blessing on godly conduct can influence that individual not only for the betterment of temporal life, but toward faith as well.

Then also adding just as a passing comment, the end of verse 14, “Otherwise your children are unclean but now they are sanctified.” Same term, they are set apart. So what happens is, in that home where you have one believing spouse, you have God pouring out the means of grace, God blessing the virtue of that individual, God being good to His own child and consequently mitigating the full blast and the full force of worldly, Godless, Christless, influences and therein lies the manner of that setting apart and nothing more than that. The meaning is don’t divorce your unbelieving partner because both that partner and children in the home will feel the goodness of the grace of God upon you. If in fact this is a mandate for infant baptism, and there is no baptism, this is another dry verse again, if this is a mandate for infant baptism, it must be also a mandate for the baptism of that unbelieving partner as an adult cause you can’t have one and not the other. And nothing is said at all about anybody being baptized. The issue here is a passing comment with regard to the influence of godliness and that’s why you want to stay together.

So the full counsel of God is either expressly set forth in Scripture, or, and I stand on Reformation soil when I say this, the full counsel of God is either expressly set forth in Scripture or can be necessarily compellingly and validly deduced by good and logical consequence but it has to be necessary, compelling, and inescapable, such as the doctrine of the Trinity. I don’t see necessary, compelling, inescapable information on the text of the New Testament to include infant baptism.

Second, infant baptism is not New Testament baptism. Infant baptism is not New Testament baptism. Here is a second incontestable fact really. While the Bible is absolutely silent on the matter of infant baptism, it speaks clearly and repeatedly and precisely on the matter of adult believer’s baptism. Nobody can miss this, its meaning is crystal-clear in the New Testament. Baptism was a ceremony in which a believer was placed into water and taken up out of that water as an outward sign of their salvation. Two verbs express this reality, bapto and baptizo which mean to immerse, to dip into and they are the word, by the way, for drown. The noun baptismos is used in Acts always to refer to a believer being immersed into water. The Latin equivalent is immersio(?) and submersio.

The Greek language has a different word, it’s the word rhantizo for sprinkle. And the mode does come in because of the imagery involved. Every New Testament use of the bapto family requires or permits immersion. Even John Calvin said, and I quote, “The word baptize means to immerse. It is certain that immersion was the practice of the early church.” And if you mess with that word and you make it something less than immersion in water baptism passages, then you’re going to make it something less than immersion in Romans 6 when it means to be immersed into Christ. And now you will confound the meaning of what is the heart and soul of the Christian gospel and that is the sinner by way of justification coming into union with Christ. We cannot mess with the word, we can’t…it’s like the people who want to deny eternal hell, they just denied eternal heaven at the same time because if you’re going to redefine what eternal means in terms of perdition, you’ve just redefined it in terms of glory also. This ordinance was designed by God and conveyed by the correct inspired words to fit the symbolism that God intended. Water immersion commanded of every believer is a picture and an object lesson and a symbol and a visual analogy of a spiritual truth. It is the way God has designed to teach the truth of personal salvation.

Now what does it symbolize? Well you all know, unmistakably throughout the New Testament, Christian baptism is presented as a picture of the central spiritual truth of salvation. Do you understand that? The central spiritual truth of salvation is this, that one who was a sinner is now IN Christ. “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I but Christ lives in me.” I don’t even know where I end and He begins we are so immersed. I have been united in His death and resurrection. Romans 6 is unmistakably saying this. And Romans 6 is not talking about any water rite. Romans 6 is talking about a spiritual reality in which God places us spiritually into Christ that we die in Him and we rise to walk in newness of life, Galatians 3, Colossians 2, you know the passages. To be placed into union with Christ, that is the baptism that saves, 1 Peter 3:21. To be spiritually immersed into Christ, this is the washing of regeneration, Titus 3:5. This is the washing away of sin,Acts 22:16.

So immersion into water was and is the inseparable outward sign of that spiritual union. It’s the only outward sign that depicts the death, burial and resurrection so clearly defined in Romans chapter 6. And it becomes synonymous with salvation in so far as Jesus used it instead of the word for salvation when He said, “Go into all the world and make disciples.” That was the substantive verb and the following verbs are participles that define that. How do I do that? “Baptizing and teaching.” Some people would say, “Those words should be converting and teaching,” but baptism had become so synonymous that not only could Jesus use it as if it referred to salvation because it did, Paul could use it in Ephesians 4 so explicitly as to say one Lord,….what?…one faith, one baptism.

And so baptism and the Lord’s table become the two solemn acts which the Lord appoints for His church. Both give to the believer opportunity to proclaim the death of the Lord who has died for us and with whom we have died so as to walk with Him in a new life. Both of them depict that. The church has had the sacred duty to preserve and administer those precious institutions and legacies of the Lord with conscientious faithfulness and according to the meaning of their founder. But the church has not done that. She has introduced arbitrary changes into the communion, and I think arbitrary changes into baptism. And in the course of time has surrendered the privileges of the saints to the whole world and even forced them upon people. The sacred documents of primitive Christianity, the writings of the New Testament, I think, are pretty clear on that. New Testament baptism today must have the same significance it had then and it is clear what its significance was at that time.

A third point, infant baptism is not a replacement sign for the Abrahamic sign of circumcision. Now we’re getting in to the nitty-gritty here. Infant baptism is not a replacement sign for the Abrahamic sign of circumcision. Simply Scripture never makes such a connection. You cannot find such a connection in Scripture. Nowhere does the New Testament ever say infant baptism replaces circumcision. No such connection is ever made. Pedobaptists(?), nonetheless without any specific statements of Scripture claim some inferential evidence connected to circumcision also without any specific statement of Scripture. And the argument simplified sort of goes like this, “Circumcision was the Old Covenant sign of faith while baptism is the New Covenant sign of faith.” Since the Old Covenant sign of faith was applicable not only to adults, but and primarily and eventually exclusively to children, the same should be true of the New Covenant sign.

Now I understand that reasoning but I think it’s simplistic. I think it way understates the issue. The fact that the Abrahamic Covenant serves as a foundation of faith in which all who are in Christ participate, I will not dispute. I am a spiritual son of Abraham by faith, though I am not an Israelite. I’m not a Jew. But I am a son of Abraham in the sense that I follow his faith. But that circumcision was a sign of personal faith, I reject. I do not see circumcision in the Old Testament as a sign of personal faith. I believe it was something else. I believe it was a symbol of the need for cleansing. There were people who were circumcised as adults who had faith and there were people who were circumcised as adult proselytes, probably Gentiles, who came into Israel who never really had faith in God. They were joining the nation of Israel for whatever reasons. We don’t know the genuineness or not of their heart. But circumcision is certainly not to be defined in itself as a sign of faith. I believe that if you look at circumcision honestly, it is more a sign of the desperate depravity of man and the need for God’s salvation.

What do you mean by that? Well, if you wanted to identify the depravity of man, how would you do that? If you wanted to say, “Well here’s ample evidence of man’s depravity, here’s the endemic issue of iniquity and here’s how I know how deep it runs, what would you point to?” You say, “Well maybe what he says, maybe his speech would betray him.” Well some people are dumb and can’t talk at all, are they depraved? How do you know they’re a manifestation of depravity? And some people guard their speech pretty well. The Pharisees did. Somebody else might say, “Well by what they do.” Some people guard what they do fairly well, Mormons do.

No, if you want to know how deep and endemic and systemic and profound depravity is, you don’t look at what people say, you don’t look at what they do, you look at what they produce. You might not see my depravity. I’m pretty good at covering it up. My life is controlled by preaching and teaching the Word of God and you might not see my depravity, but I’ll tell you where it’s unmistakable. I have four children and they are all depraved. Not only that, they couldn’t kill it either. I have eight reprobate grandchildren. You want to know how depraved you are, you look at the progeny, right?

And I believe by the circumcision of the reproductive organ, God was saying you need a profound cleansing. This one has some health benefit throughout history. It’s interesting to read that Jewish women have had the lowest rate of cervical cancer because of the benefit of circumcision physiologically because disease is less readily passed on, but the real issue I believe there is that this was a sign for the need of cleansing at a deep, deep level and that God by His mercy and grace would provide that. I don’t think it offered or brought that cleansing, I just think it demonstrated the desperate need for that cleansing.

And furthermore, not only did circumcision not apply as an act of faith or as any kind of cleansing in itself, it wasn’t applied to girls at all. They were completely outside it. So I don’t see it as some kind of sweeping rite of faith which is normative for everybody, certainly just the elimination of all the women in Israel would be enough to convince me that it was not a normative thing somehow tied to faith.

All the adult members of households had to be circumcised, also. Do you remember reading when Abraham was circumcised? When Abraham was circumcised, so were all the adults in his family. Now if this is going to be the normative pattern, if Abraham’s adult circumcision is his normative pattern, then the whole household of new converts would have to be forced to be baptized immediately, which I find an impossible thing. And again, there is no such connection made between circumcision and baptism in the Scripture.

Circumcision was a sign of ethnic identity. This is very important to understand. It was a sign that one was a Jew and was participating, and this is the key, in physical temporal features of the Abrahamic Covenant, not necessarily spiritual ones. Not all Israel is Israel, circumcise your hearts, the prophet said. The spiritual promises and realities of the Abrahamic Covenant were only efficacious to those who later believed, right? There can be no efficacy at the initial point of circumcision, that is purely entry into the ethnic, social, earthly participation in temporal features by which God blessed or in some cases cursed Israel. And if you were in the nation, you got them both. In fact, you got more curses than blessings.

In terms of circumcision, Paul in Philippians 3, called it excrement, just to use the word. Ethnic identity and participation in an earthly covenant did not provide him the righteousness of God which you receive by faith in Jesus Christ. And when he saw that, he said that’s manure, that’s dung. A person born in Israel of Abrahamic covenant seed then was physically related to temporal and external blessings and nothing more.

The New Testament, however, changes that dramatically since in the New Covenant, listen, there is no such thing as a physical participant in temporal and earthly features attached to the land and the race. The New Covenant knows nothing of physical temporal limitations. The Scriptures, for example, nowhere refer to a remnant of the faithful within the New Covenant. There’s no such thing as a doctrine of the remnant in the New Testament. You don’t have a whole group of covenant people in which there’s a little believing remnant in the New Testament. And if you ever do question that, then you need to deal with the text of Jeremiah 31:31 to 34 which is the watershed issue, I believe, on this whole discussion.

In Jeremiah 31:31 to 34 he promises the New Covenant. And here’s what Jeremiah says. “There’s a covenant coming, it’s not like the covenant you know, it is a New Covenant.” And he says this, “Here’s how it’s different.” And of all the options that Jeremiah picked, of all the things that Jeremiah could have said, of all the choices that he could have made to distinguish the New Covenant from the Old, this is what he said, verse 34, “They shall all know Me from the least of them to the greatest of them.” The essence of the New Covenant is everybody in it knows God savingly. That is the, I think, the significant distinction between belonging to the Abrahamic Covenant ethnically, and belonging to the New Covenant savingly. And so a sign that suited an ethnic covenant is not parallel to a sign that suits a saving covenant. And therein baptism is to be made distinct from circumcision.

And again I remind you, the Scripture does make no such connection. If there were to be a connection made, I would think the better connection, just a suggestion for you Reformed folks who hold to infant baptism, if you want to make a better connection, you should connect New Testament baptism with the baptism of John the Baptist. If anything serves as transitional, that does. And you find in the baptism of John very clearly a pattern of baptism the likes of which you also see in sort of intertestimental proselyte baptism, but I think John’s is even unique from that. What you see in John’s baptism is repentance, first of all, conscious repentance and a preparation for the Messiah. And in fact, he blistered with a malediction hardly without equal until Matthew 23those leaders of Israel who came out there and he called them snakes and asked them what in the world are you unrepentant people doing here? Trying to get in on this baptism.

So if you want a parallel New Testament baptism with anything, you’re on much safer ground with the baptism of John because it’s a baptism of repentance and because it is a baptism of immersion which can prefigure and demonstrate the death and resurrection of Christ and it is a baptism in which Jesus Himself participated, I think, not only to fulfill all righteousness, but also to fill it with the meaning that Christian baptism would eventually have. It is clear in my mind that John the Baptist did not regard membership in the Messianic community as a matter of birth right, did he? He refused to baptize Jews who were not repentant. I think that’s a better partner for New Testament baptism.

Fourthly, and this will just be a brief point, I think I have about seven or eight minutes left. Infant baptism is not consistent with the nature of the church…infant baptism is not consistent with the nature of the church. What happens with infant baptism is you now have confusion as to the identity of the church. Confusion stems from the failure to distinguish between the visible local church, including unbelievers, and the invisible universal church which is only believers. In fact, it is true that pedobaptism(?) strikes a serious blow against the doctrine of a regenerate church. Further confusion lies in the failure to differentiate clearly between what it means to be a little member of the Covenant, as a baby, and what it means to be a true child of God. It is my conviction that the Scripture teaches the true church is made up of only believers. That’s unlike Israel. You can’t make a parallel. It’s unlike Israel.

The rest of people apart from believers whether baptized or not baptized, whether confirmed or not confirmed, do not belong to the redeemed church. And they are at best tares to be burned. They are at best branches fruitless to be cut off and burned. And I really believe that infant baptism confounds the clear identity of a redeemed church because you have a world full of Catholics and Protestants who have been baptized as babies, ranging all the way from hypocritically religious, apostate religious through indifferent to outright godless, Christ-rejecting and blasphemous. And the question is…are they in the church or are they not in the church? If they’re out of it, when did they get out of it? Infant baptism, I believe, is a holdover from the absolutist state church system and an evidence of an incomplete Reformation which incomplete Reformation I believe sentenced that new redeemed community in Europe to the terrible, terrible death that it died, the death of which we can see even today.

I am convinced that unless you have a regenerate church, you have chaos. But with the absolute church system in the national sovereign church, which, of course, the Catholic Church had all that power and the Reformers wanted some power to counter Rome, and so while Luther started out with a good intention of freedom of the conscience and all of that, eventually they started imposing everything on people and they…I think they forced back in the infant baptism thing to create the state church control that could allow them to have a power base to fight against not only each other, the Lutheran fought the Reformed, but the Roman states also. State Christendom in every form, Catholic, Protestant, Lutheran and Reformed, I think, misunderstands New Testament church doctrine. And it’s sad to think that Luther abandoned his original lofty idealism where he contended a Christianity of freedom and renouncing force and living by the Word and the Spirit and backed up into a state church perspective.

But Luther said this, and I think this is maybe the truest expression of his heart. “I say that God wants no compulsory service. I say it a hundred thousand times, God wants no compulsory service. No one can or ought to be compelled to believe for the soul of man is an eternal thing above all that is temporal. Therefore only by an eternal Word must it be governed and grasped for it is simply insulting to govern in God’s presence with human law and long custom. Neither the Pope, nor a Bishop, nor any other man has the right to decree a single syllable concerning a Christian man apart from his consent. All that comes to pass otherwise comes to pass in the spirit of tyranny,” end quote.

Sadly he allowed, I think, what he hated to take place. There’s no…there’s no tragedy greater, I don’t think, coming out of the Reformation than the fact that the true church got executed, got stamped out under the massive weight of the state church system. There is no doctrine of the remnant in the New Testament, no such teaching. And I believe with sad darkening of Reformation light was the secularizing of the church, they brought back the very thing that Constantine had brought in it, they tried to get rid of. Sadly, modern Protestant Europe is as dark as old Catholic Europe. A state church and biblical Christianity are and always will be completely opposed to each other. The true church is not of this world, does not incorporate the unconverted. Infant baptism served the state church well, but horribly confuses the true church. And then you have to bring up the question…how do you do church discipline? How do we do church discipline on these people?

Well, a final point, number five. Infant baptism is not consistent with Reformational soteriology. Now that ought to rancor a few folks, but I’m just doing my part here on my side now. Infant baptism is not consistent with Reformational soteriology.

I have through the years, I’m being a little personal, I have through the years tried to help fundamental evangelical Bible believing Christians understand the gospel. Isn’t that a sad thing? But that’s what I’ve tried to do. I have…if there’s any one single subject I have worked more diligently on than any other it’s the clarity of the gospel. And when you spend years and years and years of your life coming to a crystal-clear understanding of justification by grace through faith alone, and what it means to affirm the Lordship of Christ and all that is bound up in salvation, that becomes a very precious reality to you. And I don’t want to be anecdotal and I don’t want to make a point personally, but I can only tell you from my understanding of the broad picture of salvation, I cannot for the life of me find anything that infant baptism contributes to that but confusion.

Because there is no faith in the child, there is no comprehension of the gospel, there is no repentance in the child, what then is this and what do you have? And they talk about, “Well you have sort of a peremptory election act, or you have a peremptory salvation act in the child.” You can read the strangest kind of statements that are made. I wrote down about 25 different statements from books I read on what the baptism of an infant meant, and they were all varying shades of all kinds of things, but all agreeing that it didn’t save but it put them in some place where they were more fortunate and likely to be more blessed by God. And I say that’s no different place than any child would have, baptized or unbaptized living in a godly environment.

And that’s the point of 1 Corinthians 7. It is a needless thing to do because it ministers no saving grace to the child, it guarantees no future salvation to the child. And on the other hand, it perpetuates a misconception in the mind of parents that against all evidence, this child is somehow saved because of some event that occurred at their baptism. Luther had to go so far as to finally say they have unconscious faith because he knew salvation was by faith. Children are children, they do not understand. I cannot for the life of me understand why you’d want the convolute, the purity and the clarity of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone to the one who comes and repents of sin and embraces Jesus Christ with this act which admittedly has no saving efficacy, delivers no redeeming grace, infers no faith, is not symbolic of any union with Christ. The only point of it is to confound the person about what this meant and to confound the church with an unregenerate membership. Why not defer the sign until the reality of saving faith? Nothing is lost. Certainly doesn’t change election. And I think it helps…it helps to wait until a calling and election are sure. It doesn’t change anything for the child, but rather could hamper a child’s true understanding of their spiritual condition.

The confusion in Christendom would be greatly lessened. The church would be instantly purged. Christ would be honored if there weren’t millions of people outside salvation running around with a false security and bearing an untrue symbol of an unreal condition. I really feel that we Reformed folks need to finish the Reformation here and I see this as a way to do that.

Two ways are before us. I really believe one embodies ritualism, institutional church mixed with the saved and lost. Christianized pagans, as one writer said, is a relic of potpourri. The other leads to faith alone, the glory of the cross and resurrection and the true identity of the redeemed church. Baptism is at the crossroads. The cry of the Reformation was not tradition, tradition, tradition…the fathers, the fathers, the fathers…but Scripture, Scripture, Scripture. Thank you. (Applause)

 

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John MacArthur on Biblical Eldership

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A GRACE COMMUNITY CHURCH DISTINCTIVE BIBLICALLY, the focal point of all church leadership is the elder. An elder is one of a plurality of biblically qualified men who jointly shepherd and oversee a local body of believers. The word translated “elder” is used nearly twenty times in Acts and the epistles in reference to this unique group of leaders who have responsibility for overseeing the people of God.

 

The Office of Elder

As numerous passages in the New Testament indicate, the words “elder” (presbuteros), “overseer” (episkopos), and “pastor” (poim¯en) all refer to the same office. In other words, overseers and pastors are not distinct from elders; the terms are simply different ways of identifying the same people. The qualifications for an overseer (episkopos) in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, and those for an elder (presbuteros) in Titus 1:6-9 are unmistakably parallel. In fact, in Titus 1, Paul uses both terms to refer to the same man (presbuteros in v. 5 and episkopos in v. 7). All three terms are used interchangeably in Acts 20. In verse 17, Paul assembles all the elders (presbuteros) of the church of Ephesus to give them his farewell message. In verse 28 he says, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [episkopos], to shepherd [poimaino¯] the church of God.” First Peter 5:1-2 brings all three terms together as well. Peter writes, “Therefore, I exhort the elders [presbuteros] among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd [poimaino¯] the flock of God among you, exercising oversight [episkope¯o] not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God.” The different terms, then, indicate various features of ministry, not varying levels of authority or separate offices, as some churches espouse.

A Plurality of Elders

The consistent pattern throughout the New Testament is that each local body of believers is shepherded by a plurality of God-ordained elders. Simply stated, this is the only pattern for church leadership given in the New Testament. Nowhere in Scripture does one find a local assembly ruled by majority opinion or by a single pastor.

The Apostle Paul left Titus in Crete and instructed him to “appoint elders in every city” (Titus 1:5). James instructed his readers to “call for the elders of the church” to pray for those who are sick (James 5:14). When Paul and Barnabas were in Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, they “appointed elders for them in every church” (Acts 14:23). In Paul’s first epistle to Timothy, the apostle referred to “the elders who rule well” at the church at Ephesus (1 Tim. 5:17; see also Acts 20:17, where Paul addresses “the elders of the church” at Ephesus). The book of Acts indicates that there were “elders” at the church in Jerusalem (Acts 11:3015:2421:18).

Again and again, reference is made to a plurality of elders in each of the various churches. In fact, every place in the New Testament where the term presbuteros (“elder”) is used it is plural, except where the apostle John uses it of himself in 2 and 3 John and where Peter uses it of himself in 1 Peter 5:1. Nowhere in the New Testament is there a reference to a one-pastor congregation. It may be that each elder in the city had an individual group in which he had specific oversight. But the church was seen as one church, and decisions were made by a collective process and in reference to the whole, not the individual parts.

…the biblical norm for church leadership is a plurality of God-ordained elders, and only by following this biblical pattern will the church maximize its fruitfulness to the glory of God.

In other passages, reference is made to a plurality of elders even though the word presbuteros itself is not used. In the opening greeting of his epistle to the Philippians, Paul refers to the “overseers [plural of episkopos] and deacons” at the church of Philippi (Phil. 1:2). In Acts 20:28, Paul warned the elders of the church of Ephesus, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which God has made you overseers [plural of episkopos]” (Acts 20:28). The writer of Hebrews called his readers to obey and submit to the “leaders” who kept watch over their souls (Heb. 13:17). Paul exhorted his Thessalonian readers to “appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and

The Distinctives series articulates key bibilical and theological convictions of Grace Community Church. have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction” (1 Thess. 5:12)—a clear reference to the overseers in the Thessalonian assembly.

Much can be said for the benefits of leadership made up of a plurality of godly men. Their combined counsel and wisdom helps assure that decisions are not self-willed or self-serving to a single individual (cf. Prov. 11:14). If there is division among the elders in making decisions, all the elders should study, pray, and seek the will of God together until consensus is achieved. In this way, the unity and harmony that the Lord desires for the church will begin with those individuals he has appointed to shepherd His flock.

The Qualifications of Elders

The character and effectiveness of any church is directly related to the quality of its leadership. That’s why Scripture stresses the importance of qualified church leadership and delineates specific standards for evaluating those who would serve in that sacred position.

The qualifications for elders are found in 1 Timothy 3:2-7 and Titus 1:6-8. According to these passages, an elder must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, gentle, uncontentious, free from the love of money, not fond of sordid gain, a good manager of his household, one who has his children under control with dignity, not a new convert, one who has a good reputation outside the church, self-controlled, sensible, able to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict, above reproach as God’s steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, loving what is good, just, and devout. (For an explanation of these qualifications, see pages 215-33 of The Master’s Plan for the Church by John MacArthur.)

The single, overarching qualification of which the rest are supportive is that he is to be “above reproach.” That is, he must be a leader who cannot be accused of anything sinful because he has a sustained reputation for blamelessness. An elder is to be above reproach in his marital life, his social life, his business life, and his spiritual life. In this way, he is to be a model of godliness so he can legitimately call the congregation to follow his example (Phil. 3:17). All the other qualifications, except perhaps teaching and management skills, only amplify that idea.

In addition, the office of elder is limited to men. First Timothy 2:11-12 says, “Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.” In the church, women are to be under the authority of the elders, excluded from teaching men or holding positions of authority over them.

The Functions of Elders

As the apostolic era came to a close, the office of elder emerged as the highest level of local church leadership. Thus, it carried a great amount of responsibility. There was no higher court of appeal and no greater resource to know the mind and heart of God with regard to issues in the church.

The primary responsibility of an elder is to serve as a manager and caretaker of the church (1 Tim. 3:5). That involves a number of specific duties. As spiritual overseers of the flock, elders are to determine church policy (Acts 15:22); oversee the church (Acts 20:28); ordain others (1 Tim. 4:14); rule, teach, and preach (1 Tim. 5:17; cf. 1 Thess. 5:121 Tim. 3:2); exhort and refute (Titus 1:9); and act as shepherds, setting an example for all (1 Pet. 5:1-3). Those responsibilities put elders at the core of the New Testament church’s work.

Because of its heritage of democratic values and its long history of congregational church government, modern American evangelicalism often views the concept of elder rule with suspicion. The clear teaching of Scripture, however, demonstrates that the biblical norm for church leadership is a plurality of God-ordained elders, and only by following this biblical pattern will the church maximize its fruitfulness to the glory of God.

SOURCE: Adapted from John MacArthur, The Master’s Plan for the Church (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991). For a fuller treatment of biblical eldership, consult this resource.

 

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BOOK REVIEW: John MacArthur’s “The Truth About the Lordship of Christ”

Jesus is Lord of All, Or He’s Not Lord At All

The Lordship of Christ MacArthur

Book Review By David P. Craig

One of the most troubling aspects of Christianity at the end of the twentieth century on into the twenty-first century has been the bifurcation of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. There has been a tendency among modern Christians to view God as some sort of “Cosmic Genie” who grants us all our wishes – if we have enough faith. However, the Bible presents a different picture of God. He is a God who cannot be manipulated or controlled by Satan – let alone puny little human beings. God’s soverein nature and character needs to be heeded if we are to take the Scriptures and the Christian life seriously.

In this short book (five chapters) John MacArthur makes a clear case for God’s sovereignty and clearly articulates what that means for our salvation and sanctification. In this book you will get a clear picture of the holiness of God and how His greatness. There is no juxtaposition between His holiness and justice. Because God demands and requires righteousness from His subjects he shows the necessity of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection on our behalf as the sole reason for our salvation.

Personal salvation demands repentance and faith in a sovereign and Holy God who requires nothing less than our submission to His Lordship in all of life. MacArthur clearly articulates who God is, who we are, and how salvation and sanctification manifest themselves biblically in our lives. I recommend this book especially for new Christians who haven’t read a lot of theology or have the time to commit to lengthier treatments on God’s sovereignty, His salvation, or how we can live the Christian life (sanctification).

*This book was given to me free of charge by the Booksneeze Program and I was not required to write a positive review.

 

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What Is Dispensationalism and What Does It Have to Do with Lordship Salvation?

The Gospel According to the Apostles MacArthur

By John MacArthur

One of the most confusing elements of the entire lordship controversy involves dispensationalism. Some have supposed that my attack on no-lordship theology is an all-out assault against dispensationalism. That is not the case. It may surprise some readers to know that the issue of dispensationalism is one area where Charles Ryrie, Zane Hodges, and I share some common ground. We are all dispensationalists.

Many people are understandably confused by the term dispensationalism. I’ve met seminary graduates and many in Christian leadership who haven’t the slightest idea how to define dispensationalism. How does it differ from covenant theology? What does it have to do with lordship salvation? Perhaps we can answer those questions simply and without a lot of theological jargon.

Dispensationalism is a system of biblical interpretation that sees a distinction between God’s program for Israel and His dealings with the church. It’s really as simple as that.

A dispensation is the plan of God by which He administers His rule within a given era in His eternal program. Dispensations are not periods of time, but different administrations in the eternal outworking of God’s purpose. It is especially crucial to note that the way of salvation—by grace through faith—is the same in every dispensation. God’s redemptive plan remains unchanged, but the way He administers it will vary from one dispensation to another. Dispensationalists note that Israel was the focus of God’s redemptive plan in one dispensation. The church, consisting of redeemed people including Jews and Gentiles, is the focus in another. All dispensationalists believe at least one dispensation is still future—during the thousand-year reign of Christ on earth, known as the millennium, in which Israel will once again play a pivotal role.

Dispensationalism teaches that all God’s remaining covenant promises to Israel will be literally fulfilled—including the promises of earthly blessings and an earthly messianic kingdom. God promised Israel, for example, that they would possess the promised land forever ( Gen. 13:14–17 ; Exod. 32:13 ). Scripture declares that Messiah will rule over the kingdoms of the earth from Jerusalem ( Zech. 14:9–11 ). Old Testament prophecy says that all Israel will one day be restored to the promised land ( Amos 9:14–15); the temple will be rebuilt ( Ezek. 37:26–28 ); and the people of Israel will be redeemed ( Jer. 23:6 ; Rom. 11:26–27). Dispensationalists believe all those promised blessings will come to pass as literally as did the promised curses.

Covenant theology, on the other hand, usually views such prophecies as already fulfilled allegorically or symbolically. Covenant theologians believe that the church, not literal Israel, is the recipient of the covenant promises. They believe the church has superseded Israel in God’s eternal program. God’s promises to Israel are therefore fulfilled in spiritual blessings realized by Christians. Since their system does not allow for literal fulfillment of promised blessings to the Jewish nation, covenant theologians allegorize or spiritualize those prophetic passages of God’s Word.

I am a dispensationalist because dispensationalism generally understands and applies Scripture—particularly prophetic Scripture—in a way that is more consistent with the normal, literal approach I believe is God’s design for interpreting Scripture. For example, dispensationalists can take at face value Zechariah 12–14 , Romans 11:25–29 , and Revelation 20:1–6. The covenant theologian, on the other hand, cannot.

So I am convinced that the dispensationalist distinction between the church and Israel is an accurate understanding of God’s eternal plan as revealed in Scripture. I have not abandoned dispensationalism, nor do I intend to.

Note, by the way, that Dr. Ryrie’s description of dispensationalism and his reasons for embracing the system are very similar to what I have written here. Some years ago he wrote, “The essence of dispensationalism, then, is the distinction between Israel and the church. This grows out of the dispensationalist’s consistent employment of normal or plain interpretation” (Charles Ryrie. Dispensationalism Today. Chicago: Moody Press, 1965, 47). On these matters, it seems, Dr. Ryrie and I are in fundamental agreement. It is in the practical outworking of our dispensationalism that we differ. Dr. Ryrie’s system turns out to be somewhat more complex than his own definition might suggest.

The lordship debate has had a devastating effect on dispensationalism. Because no-lordship theology is so closely associated with dispensationalism, many have imagined a cause-and-effect relationship between the two. In The Gospel According to Jesus, I made the point that some early dispensationalists had laid the foundation for no-lordship teaching. I disagreed with dispensational extremists who relegate whole sections of Scripture—including the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer—to a yet-future kingdom era. I was critical of the way some dispensationalists have handled the preaching and teaching of Jesus in a way that erases the evangelistic intent from some of His most important invitations. I decried the methodology of dispensationalists who want to isolate salvation from repentance, justification from sanctification, faith from works, and Christ’s lordship from His role as Savior, in a way that breaks asunder what God has joined together.

Several outspoken anti-dispensationalists hailed the book as a major blow to dispensationalism. They wanted to declare the system dead and hold a celebratory funeral.

Frankly, some mongrel species of dispensationalism ought to die, and I will be happy to join the cortege. But it is wrong to write off dispensationalism as altogether invalid. My purpose is not to attack the roots of dispensationalism, but rather to plead for a purer, more biblical application of the literal, historical, grammatical principle of interpretation. The hermeneutic method that underlies dispensationalism is fundamentally sound and must not be abandoned. That is not the point of the lordship debate.

Who are dispensationalists? Virtually all dispensationalists are theologically conservative evangelicals. Our view of Scripture is typically very high; our method of interpretation is consistently literal; and our zeal for spiritual things is inflamed by our conviction that we are living in the last days.

How does dispensationalism influence our overall theological perspective? Obviously, the central issue in any dispensationalist system is eschatology, or the study of prophecy. All dispensationalists are premillennialists. That is, they believe in a future earthly thousand-year reign of Christ. That’s what a literal approach to prophecy mandates (cf. Rev. 20:1–10 ). Dispensationalists may disagree on the timing of the rapture, the number of dispensations, or other details, but their position on the earthly millennial kingdom is settled by their mode of biblical interpretation.

Dispensationalism also carries implications for ecclesiology, or the doctrine of the church, because of the differentiation between the church and Israel. Many dispensationalists, myself included, agree that there is some continuity between the Old and New Testament people of God in that we share a common salvation purchased by Jesus Christ and appropriated by grace through faith. But dispensationalists do not accept covenant theology’s teaching that the church is spiritual Israel. Covenant theology sees continuity between Jewish ritual and the New Testament sacraments, for example. In their system, baptism and circumcision have similar significance. In fact, many covenant theologians use the analogy of circumcision to argue for infant baptism. Dispensationalists, on the other hand, tend to view baptism as a sacrament for believers only, distinct from the Jewish rite.

So dispensationalism shapes one’s eschatology and ecclesiology. That is the extent of it. Pure dispensationalism has no ramifications for the doctrines of God, man, sin, or sanctification. More significantly, true dispensationalism makes no relevant contribution to soteriology, or the doctrine of salvation. In other words, nothing in a legitimate dispensational approach to Scripture mandates that we define the gospel in any unique or different way. In fact, if the same zealous concern for literal hermeneutics that yields a distinction between Israel and the church were followed consistently in the salvation issue, there would be no such thing as no-lordship soteriology.

What Is the Connection Between Dispensationalism and No-lordship Doctrine?

Yet the fact remains that virtually all the champions of no-lordship doctrine are dispensationalists. No covenant theologian defends the no-lordship gospel. Why?

Understand, first of all, that dispensationalism has not always been well represented by its most enthusiastic advocates. As I have noted, the uniqueness of dispensationalism is that we see a distinction in Scripture between Israel and the church. That singular perspective, common to all dispensationalists, sets us apart from nondispensationalists. It is, by the way, the only element of traditional dispensationalist teaching that is yielded as a result of literal interpretation of biblical texts. It also is the only tenet virtually all dispensationalists hold in common. That is why I have singled it out as the characteristic that defines dispensationalism. When I speak of “pure” dispensationalism, I’m referring to this one common denominator—the Israel-church distinction.

Admittedly, however, most dispensationalists carry far more baggage in their systems than that one feature. Early dispensationalists often packaged their doctrine in complex and esoteric systems illustrated by intricate diagrams. They loaded their repertoire with extraneous ideas and novel teachings, some of which endure today in various strains of dispensationalism. Dispensationalism’s earliest influential spokesmen included J. N. Darby, founder of the Plymouth Brethren and considered by many the father of modern dispensationalism; Cyrus I. Scofield, author of the Scofield Reference Bible; Clarence Larkin, whose book of dispensational charts has been in print and selling briskly since 1918; and Ethelbert W. Bullinger, an Anglican clergyman who took dispensationalism to an unprecedented extreme usually called ultradispensationalism. Many of these men were self-taught in theology and were professionals in secular occupations. Darby and Scofield, for example, were attorneys, and Larkin was a mechanical draftsman. They were laymen whose teachings gained enormous popularity largely through grass-roots enthusiasm.

Unfortunately some of these early framers of dispensationalism were not as precise or discriminating as they might have been had they had the benefit of a more complete theological education. C. I. Scofield, for example, included a note in his reference Bible that contrasted “legal obedience as the condition of [Old Testament] salvation” with “acceptance … of Christ” as the condition of salvation in the current dispensation (The Scofield Reference Bible. New York, : Oxford, 1917, 11115). Nondispensationalist critics have often attacked dispensationalism for teaching that the conditions for salvation differ from dispensation to dispensation. Here, at least, Scofield left himself open to that criticism, though he seemed to acknowledge in other contexts that the law was never a means of salvation for Old Testament saints (In a note at Exodus 19:3, where Moses was being given the law, Scofield wrote, “The law is not proposed as a means of life, but as a means by which Israel might become ‘a peculiar treasure’ and a ‘kingdom of priests” (Ibid, 93).

The maturing of dispensationalism, then, has mainly been a process of refining, distilling, clarifying, paring down, and cutting away what is extraneous or erroneous. Later dispensationalists, including Donald Grey Barnhouse, Wilbur Smith, and H. A. Ironside, were increasingly wary of the fallacies that peppered much early dispensationalist teaching. Ironside’s written works show his determination to confront error within the movement. He attacked Bullinger’s ultradispensationalism (Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth. New York: Loizeaux, n.d.). He criticized teaching that relegated repentance to some other era (Except Ye Repent. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1937). He condemned the “carnal Christian” theology that helped pave the way for today’s radical no-lordship teaching (Eternal Security of Believers. New York: Loizeaux, 1934). Ironside’s writings are replete with warnings against antinomianism (See, for example, Full Assurance. Chicago: Moody, 1937, 64, 77-87; also Holiness: The False and the True. Neptune, N.J.: Loizeaux, 1912, 121-26).

Nondispensationalists have tended to caricature dispensationalism by emphasizing its excesses, and frankly the movement has produced more than its share of abominable teaching. Dispensationalists have often been forced to acknowledge that some of their critics’ points have been valid (Ryrie, for example, conceded in Dispensationalism Today that Scofield had made “unguarded statements” about dispensationalist soteriology and that dispensationalists often give a wrong impression about the role of grace during the Old Testament era (112,117). The biblical distinction between Israel and the church remains unassailed, however, as the essence of pure dispensationalism.

In recent years, dispensationalism has been hit with a blistering onslaught of criticism, mostly focusing on dispensationalism’s love affair with the no-lordship gospel. Evidence of this may be seen in John Gerstner’s Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism (Brentwood, Tenn.: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991. Cf. Richard L. Mayhue, “Who Is Wrong? A Review of John Gerstner’s Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth,” Master’s Seminary Journal 3:1, Spring 1992: 73-94).

Gerstner rightly attacks elements of antinomianism and no-lordship soteriology in some dispensationalists’ teaching. He wrongly assumes, however, that those things are inherent in all dispensationalism. He dismisses the movement altogether because of the shoddy theology he finds in the teaching of several prominent dispensationalists.

It is a gross misunderstanding to assume that antinomianism is at the heart of dispensationalist doctrine. Moreover, it is unfair to portray all dispensationalists as unsophisticated or careless theologians. Many skilled and discerning students of Scripture have embraced dispensationalism and managed to avoid antinomianism, extremism, and other errors. The men who taught me in seminary were all dispensationalists. Yet none of them would have defended no-lordship teaching (Moreover, everyone on The Master’s Seminary faculty is a dispensationalist. None of us holds any of the antinomian views Dr. Gerstner claims are common to all dispensationalists).

Nevertheless, no one can deny that dispensationalism and antinomianism have often been advocated by the same people. All the recent arguments that have been put forth in defense of no-lordship theology are rooted in ideas made popular by dispensationalists. The leading proponents of contemporary no-lordship theology are all dispensationalists. The lordship controversy is merely a bubbling to the surface of tensions that have always existed in and around the dispensationalist community. That point is essential to a clear understanding of the whole controversy.

Thus to appreciate some of the key tenets of the no-lordship gospel, we must comprehend their relationship to the dispensationalist tradition.

Tritely Dividing the Word?

For some dispensationalists, the Israel-church distinction is only a starting point. Their theology is laden with similar contrasts: church and kingdom, believers and disciples, old and new natures, faith and repentance. Obviously, there are many important and legitimate distinctions found in Scripture and sound theology: Old and New Covenants, law and grace, faith and works, justification and sanctification. But dispensationalists often tend to take even the legitimate contrasts too far. Most dispensationalists who have bought into no-lordship doctrine imagine, for example, that law and grace are mutually exclusive opposites, or that faith and works are somehow incompatible.

Some dispensationalists apply 2 Timothy 2:15 (“Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth ”— kjv , emphasis added) as if the key word were dividing rather than rightly. The dispensationalist tendency to divide and contrast has led to some rather inventive exegesis. Some dispensationalists teach, for example, that “the kingdom of heaven” and “the kingdom of God” speak of different domains (Scofield, The Scofield Reference Bible, 1003). The terms are clearly synonymous in Scripture, however, as a comparison of Matthew and Luke shows ( Matt. 5:3 // Luke 6:20 ; Matt. 10:7 // Luke 10:9 ; Matt. 11:11 // Luke 7:28 ; Matt. 11:12 // Luke 16:16 ; Matt. 13:11 // Luke 8:10 ; Matt. 13:31–33 // Luke 13:18–21 ; Matt. 18:4 // Luke 18:17 ; Matt. 19:23 // Luke 18:24 ). Matthew is the only book in the entire Bible that ever uses the expression “kingdom of heaven.” Matthew, writing to a mostly Jewish audience, understood their sensitivity to the use of God’s name. He simply employed the common euphemism heaven. Thus the kingdom of heaven is the kingdom of God.

This tendency to set parallel truths against each other is at the heart of no-lordship theology. Jesus’ lordship and His role as Savior are isolated from one another, making it possible to claim Him as Savior while refusing Him as Lord. Justification is severed from sanctification, legitimizing the notion of salvation without transformation. Mere believers are segregated from disciples, making two classes of Christians, carnal and spiritual. Faith is pitted against obedience, nullifying the moral aspect of believing. Grace becomes the antithesis of law, providing the basis for a system that is inherently antinomian.

The grace-law dichotomy is worth a closer look. Many early dispensationalist systems were unclear on the role of grace in the Mosaic economy and the place of law in the current dispensation. As I noted, Scofield left the unfortunate impression that Old Testament saints were saved by keeping the law. Scofield’s best-known student was Lewis Sperry Chafer, co-founder of Dallas Theological Seminary. Chafer, a prolific author, wrote dispensationalism’s first unabridged systematic theology. Chafer’s system became the standard for several generations of dispensationalists trained at Dallas. Yet Chafer repeated Scofield’s error. In his summary on justification, he wrote,

According to the Old Testament men were just because they were true and faithful in keeping the Mosaic Law. Micah defines such a life after this manner: “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” ( 6:8 ). Men were therefore just because of their own works for God, whereas New Testament justification is God’s work for man in answer to faith ( Rom. 5:1 – See Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, 8 vols., Dallas: Seminary Press, 1948, 7:219 [emphasis added] ).

Though Chafer elsewhere denied that he taught multiple ways of salvation, it is clear that he fixed a great gulf between grace and law. He believed the Old Testament law imposed “an obligation to gain merit” with God (Ibid, 7:179). On the other hand, Chafer believed grace delivers the child of God “from every aspect of the law—as a rule of life, as an obligation to make himself acceptable to God, and as a dependence on impotent flesh” (Lewis Sperry Chafer, Grace, Wheaton, Ill.: Van Kampen, 1922, 344). “Grace teachings are not laws; they are suggestions. They are not demands; they are beseechings, ” he wrote (Ibid).

In Chafer’s system, God seems to fluctuate between dispensations of law and dispensations of grace. Grace was the rule of life from Adam to Moses. “Pure law” took over when a new dispensation began at Sinai. In the current dispensation, “pure grace” is the rule. The millennial kingdom will be another dispensation of “pure law.” Chafer evidently believed grace and law could not coexist side by side, and so he seemed to eliminate one or the other from every dispensation. He wrote,

Both the age before the cross and the age following the return of Christ represent the exercise of pure law; while the period between the two ages represents the exercise of pure grace. It is imperative, therefore, that there shall be no careless co-mingling of these great age-characterizing elements, else the preservation of the most important distinctions in the various relationships between God and man are lost, and the recognition of the true force of the death of Christ and His coming again is obscured (Ibid, 124, emphasis added).

No one denies that Scripture clearly contrasts law and grace. John 1:17 says, “The Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.” Romans 6:4 says, “You are not under law, but under grace.” So the distinction between law and grace is obvious in Scripture.

But grace and law operate in every dispensation. Grace is and always has been the only means of eternal salvation. The whole point of Romans 4 is that Abraham, David, and all other Old Testament saints were justified by grace through faith, not because they kept the law (Galatians 3 also makes clear that it was never God’s intent that rightoeusness should come through the law or that slavation could be earned through obedience [see especially vv. 7, 11]. The law acted as a tutor, to bring people to Christ (v. 24). Thus even in the Old Testament, people were saved because of faith, not because of obedience to the law [cf. Romans 3:19-20). Did the apostle Paul believe we can nullify the law in this age of pure grace? Paul’s reply to that question was unequivocal: “May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law” ( Rom. 3:31 ).

In fairness, it is important to note that when pressed on the issue, Chafer acknowledged that God’s grace and Christ’s blood were the only ground on which sinners in any age could be saved (Lewis Sperry Chafer, “Dispensational Distinctions Denounced,” Bibliotheca Sacra, July 1944: 259). It must be stressed, however, that Chafer, Scofield, and others who have followed their lead have made too much of the differences between Old and New Testament dispensations. Wanting to avoid what he thought was “careless co-mingling” of law and grace, Chafer ended up with an “age of law” that is legalistic and an “age of grace” that smacks of antinomianism.

Chafer himself was a godly man, committed to holiness and high standards of Christian living. In practice, he would never have condoned carnality. But his dispensationalist system—with the hard dichotomies it introduced; its “grace teachings” that were “suggestions,” not demands; and its concept of “pure” grace that stood in opposition to law of any kind—paved the way for a brand of Christianity that has legitimized careless and carnal behavior.

Chafer could rightly be called the father of twentieth-century no-lordship theology. He listed repentance and surrender as two of “the more common features of human responsibility which are too often erroneously added to the one requirement of faith or belief” (Chafer, Systematic Theology, 3:372). He wrote, “to impose a need to surrender the life to God as an added condition of salvation is most unreasonable. God’s call to the unsaved is never said to be unto the Lordship of Christ; it is unto His saving grace” (Ibid, 3:385). “Next to sound doctrine itself, no more important obligation rests on the preacher than that of preaching the Lordship of Christ to Christians exclusively, and the Saviorhood of Christ to those who are unsaved” (Ibid, 3:387).

It is important to note that when Chafer wrote those things, he was arguing against the Oxford Movement, a popular but dangerous heresy that was steering Protestants back into the legalism and works-righteousness of Roman Catholicism. Chafer wrote,

The error of imposing Christ’s Lordship upon the unsaved is disastrous.… A destructive heresy is abroad under the name The Oxford Movement, which specializes in this blasting error, except that the promoters of the Movement omit altogether the idea of believing on Christ for salvation and promote exclusively the obligation to surrender to God. They substitute consecration for conversion, faithfulness for faith, and beauty of daily life for believing unto eternal life. As is easily seen, the plan of this movement is to ignore the need of Christ’s death as the ground of regeneration and forgiveness, and to promote the wretched heresy that it matters nothing what one believes respecting the Saviorhood of Christ if only the daily life is dedicated to God’s service.… The tragedy is that out of such a delusion those who embrace it are likely never to be delivered by a true faith in Christ as Savior. No more complete example could be found today of “the blind leading the blind” than what this Movement presents (Ibid, 3:385-386).

But Chafer prescribed the wrong remedy for the false teachings of the Oxford Movement. To answer a movement that “omit[s] altogether the idea of believing on Christ for salvation and promote[s] exclusively the obligation to surrender to God,” he devised a notion of faith that strips believing of any suggestion of surrender. Although the movement he opposed was indeed an insidious error, Chafer unfortunately laid the foundation for the opposite error, with equally devastating results.

The notion of faith with no repentance and no surrender fit well with Chafer’s concept of an age of “pure grace,” so it was absorbed and expanded by those who developed their theology after his model. It endures today as the basis of all no-lordship teaching.

One other particularly unfortunate outgrowth of Chafer’s rigid partitioning of “the age of law” and “the age of grace” is its effect on Chafer’s view of Scripture. Chafer believed that “The teachings of the law, the teachings of grace, and the teachings of the kingdom are separate and complete systems of divine rule” (Ibid, 4:225). Accordingly, he consigned the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer to the yet-future kingdom age, and concluded that the only Scriptures directly applicable to this age of grace are “portions of the Gospels, portions of the Book of Acts, and the Epistles of the New Testament” (Ibid, 4:206) —the “grace teachings.” How does one know which portions of the Gospels and Acts are “grace teachings” meant for this age? Chafer was vague:

The grace teachings are not, for convenience, isolated in the Sacred Text. The three economies appear in the four Gospels. The grace teachings are rather to be identified by their intrinsic character wherever they are found. Large portions of the New Testament are wholly revelatory of the doctrine of grace. The student, like Timothy, is enjoined to study to be one approved of God in the matter of rightly dividing the Scriptures (Ibid, 4:185).

In other words, there is a lot of law and kingdom teaching mixed into the New Testament. It is not explicitly identified for us, but we can fall into error if we wrongly try to apply it to the present age. Scripture is therefore like a puzzle. We must discern and categorize which portions apply to this age and categorize them accordingly. We can do this only by “their intrinsic character.”

Chafer was certain about one thing: much if not most of Christ’s earthly teaching is not applicable to the Christian in this age:

There is a dangerous and entirely baseless sentiment abroad which assumes that every teaching of Christ must be binding during this age simply because Christ said it. The fact is forgotten that Christ, while living under, keeping, and applying the Law of Moses, also taught the principles of His future kingdom, and, at the end of His ministry and in relation to His cross, He also anticipated the teachings of grace. If this threefold division of the teachings of Christ is not recognized, there can be nothing but confusion of mind and consequent contradiction of truth (Ibid, 4:224).

Dispensationalists who follow Chafer at this point wrongly divide the Word of truth, assigning whole sections of the New Testament to some other dispensation, nullifying the force of major segments of the Gospels and our Lord’s teaching for today (Ultradispensationalists take Chafer’s methodology even a step further. Noting that the apostle Paul called the church a mystery “which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit” [Eph. 3:5], they concluded that the church age did not begin until this point in Paul’s ministry. Thus they abrogate all the New Testament except for Paul’s prison epistles).

Which Gospel Should We Preach Today?

Not long ago I received a paper that has been circulated widely by a well-known dispensationalist. He wrote, “Dr. MacArthur was quite correct in titling his book The Gospel According to Jesus. The Gospel that Jesus taught in His pre-Cross humiliation, as Israel’s Messiah and to covenant people under the law was, for all intents and purposes, Lordship salvation.” But, he added, “Lordship salvation is based upon the Gospel according to Jesus, John the Baptist, and the early disciples. This Gospel is directed to the covenant nation of Israel.… The Lord Jesus’ Kingdom Gospel had nothing whatsoever to do with Christians, or the Church.”

The paper quotes heavily from Dr. Chafer’s writings, attempting to demonstrate that Jesus’ gospel “was on the level of the law and the earthly kingdom” and has nothing to do with grace or the current dispensation. The paper’s author notes that I wrote, “On a disturbing number of fronts, the message being proclaimed today is not the gospel according to Jesus.” To that he replies, “How blessedly true! Today we are to minister Paul’s ‘by grace are ye saved through faith’ Gospel … not the Lord Jesus’ Gospel relating to the law-oriented theocratic kingdom.”

He continues, “The convert via the Gospel according to Jesus became a child of the kingdom [not a Christian]. And divine authority will ever be the driving force in his heart—the indwelling Spirit writing the law upon his heart to enable him to surrender to the theocratic kingdom law, under his King.… [But the Christian] is not under authority, he is not seeking to obey—unless he is under law as described in Romans Seven. For him to live is Christ, and that life is not under authority.… Paul was offering an altogether different salvation.”

There, as clearly as can be stated, are all the follies that have ever defiled dispensationalism, synthesized into a single system. Blatant antinomianism: “the Christian … is not under authority, he is not seeking to obey”; multiple ways of salvation: “Paul was offering an altogether different salvation”; a fragmented approach to Scripture: “the Lord Jesus’ Kingdom Gospel had nothing whatsoever to do with Christians, or the Church”; and the tendency to divide and disconnect related ideas: “Today we are to minister Paul’s [Gospel] … not the Lord Jesus’ Gospel.”

Note carefully: This man acknowledges that Jesus’ gospel demanded surrender to His lordship. His point is that Jesus’ message has no relevance to this present age. He believes Christians today ought to proclaim a different gospel than the one Jesus preached. He imagines that Jesus’ invitation to sinners was of a different nature than the message the church is called to proclaim. He believes we should be preaching a different gospel.

None of those ideas is new or unusual within the dispensationalist community. All of them can be traced to one or more of dispensationalism’s early spokesmen. But it is about time all of them were abandoned.

In fairness, we should note that the paper I have quoted expresses some rather extreme views. Most of the principal defenders of no-lordship evangelism would probably not agree with that man’s brand of dispensationalism. But the no-lordship doctrine they defend is the product of precisely that kind of teaching. It is not enough to abandon the rigid forms of extreme dispensationalism; we must abandon the antinomian tendencies as well.

The careful discipline that has marked so much of our post-Reformation theological tradition must be carefully guarded. Defenders of no-lordship salvation lean too heavily on the assumptions of a predetermined theological system. They often draw their support from presupposed dispensationalist distinctions (salvation/discipleship, carnal/spiritual believers, gospel of the kingdom/gospel of grace, faith/repentance). They become entangled in “what-ifs” and illustrations. They tend to fall back on rational, rather than biblical, analysis. When they deal with Scripture, they are too willing to allow their theological system to dictate their understanding of the text. As a result, they regularly adopt novel interpretations of Scripture in order to make it conform to their theology.

A reminder is in order: Our theology must be biblical before it can be systematic. We must start with a proper interpretation of Scripture and build our theology from there, not read into God’s Word unwarranted presuppositions. Scripture is the only appropriate gauge by which we may ultimately measure the correctness of our doctrine.

Dispensationalism is at a crossroads. The lordship controversy represents a signpost where the road forks. One arrow marks the road of biblical orthodoxy. The other arrow, labeled “no-lordship,” points the way to a sub-Christian antinomianism. Dispensationalists who are considering that path would do well to pause and check the map again.

The only reliable map is Scripture, not someone’s dispensational diagrams. Dispensationalism as a movement must arrive at a consensus based solely on God’s Word. We cannot go on preaching different gospels to an already-confused world.

SOURCE: John MacArthur. “Appenidix 2″ in The Gospel According to the Apostles. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005.

 

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STRANGE FIRE = STRANGE CHRISTIANITY

A PLEA FOR EVANGELICALS TO MAJOR ON THE MAJOR’S

yea nea

By David P. Craig

The recent John MacArthur “Strange Fire” Conference compelled me to write this article. I don’t want to address Cessationism vs. Non-Cessationism so much, as to wrestle with why major on issues of disagreement in the Body of Christ when we have larger fish to fry? What would happen if evangelicals were known more for our love, cooperation, and unity than for our disagreements? What would happen if we worked more on understanding one another than attacking each other? What would be the results of a Church that is known by our love rather than our animosity towards those who believe differently than we do? What if we were characterized by civility and humility rather than pride and arrogance?

It’s been awhile since I’ve read C.S. Lewis’ classic Mere Christianity – but its basic thesis is something I long for in the Evangelical Community around the globe today. Lewis was trying to get at the core or essence of Christianity. To this day perhaps few thinkers or writers have built as many bridges as Lewis in pointing people to Christ for both believers and non-believers.

In my own journey I have been a follower and lover of Jesus Christ since I was six years old. I have three degrees in theology and have been involved in church ministry since I was seventeen: in Brethren Churches, Baptist Churches, Evangelical Free Churches, Reformed Churches, Charismatic Churches, and various non-denominational churches. I have wrestled mightily, agonizingly, emotionally, subjectively, and objectively with issues of theology and methodology. Here are some of the positions I’ve wrestled with over the years:

Theology Proper – Process Theology? Open Theism? Augustinian-Calvinist? Modified Calvinist? Simple-Foreknowledge? Classical Free Will? Middle-Knowledge? Molinism?

Creation – 7 Literal Days? Young Earth? Old Earth? Day-Age View? Theistic Evolution? Framework Hypothesis? Gap Theory? Restoration View?

Bibliology – Infallibilist? Inerrantist?

Anthropology – Monism? Dichotomy? Trichotomy?

Soteriolgy – Pelagianism? Semi-Pelagianism? Augustinianism? Arminianism? Calvinism?

Predestination and Free Will – God Limits His Power? God Limits His Knowledge? God Ordains All Things? God Knows All Things?

Atonement – Christus Victor? Moral Government? Penal Substitution? Healing? Kaleidoscopic?

Justification – Deification? Traditional Reformed? Progressive Reformed? New Perspective?

Eternal Security – Classical Calvinist? Moderate Calvinist? Reformed Arminian? Wesleyan Arminian?

Sanctification – Wesleyan? Reformed? Pentecostal? Keswick? Augustinian-Dispensational?

Christology – Classical View? Kenotic View?

Eschatology – Amillennialism? Postmillennialism? Dispensational Premilillennialsm? Historic Premillennialism?

Hell – Annihilationism? Purgatory? Metaphorical? Conditional? Literal?

Pneumatology – Reformed? Dimensional Charismatic? Wesleyan? Catholic? Pentecostal?

Baptism – Symbol of Christ’s Saving Work? Sacrament of the Covenant? God’s Baptismal Act as Regenerative? Believer’s Baptism as the Biblical Occasion of Salvation?

Lord’s Supper – Christ’s True, Real, and Substantial Presence? Spiritual Presence of Christ? Christ’s Presence as Memorial?

Apologetics – Classical? Evidential? Cumulative Case? Presuppositional? Reformed Epistemology?

Law and Gospel – Non-Theonomic? Theonomic Reformed? God’s Gracious Guidance? Dispensational? Modified Lutheran?

Biblical Theology – Principalizing? Redemptive-Historical? Drama of Redemption? Redemptive-Movement?

Systematic Theology – Charismatic? Pentecostal? Dispensational? Progressive Dispensationalism? Covenant? Epangelical?

Destiny of the Unevangelized - Pluralism? Inclusivism? Particularism?

Women in Ministry – Egalitarian? Complementarian? Plural Ministry? Male Leadership?

Church Government – Episcopalianism? Presbyterianism? Single-Elder Congregationalism? Plural-Elder Congregationalism?

Counseling – Levels of Explanation? Integration? Christian Psychology? Transformational Psychology? Biblical?

Charismatic Gifts – Cessationism? Open but Cautious? Charismatic? Pentecostal? Third Wave?

I actually have 75 books in my library that have 2-5 views held by professing Christians on these and many more issues. What troubles me about the Strange Fire Conference and forthcoming book by John MacArthur is the time and effort into issues that divide rather than unite the body of Christ. This is a time for bridge building among Christians, not blowing them up! With the onslaught of immorality, relativism, and persecution on Christians around the world it’s more important than perhaps any other time in history that Christians unite and major on the majors and learn to minor on the minors.

The reality is no two theologians will agree on everything. I have a Jewish friend that jokingly says, “If you get three Rabbi’s in a room to debate an issue there will be four opinions.” I think the same can be said among any three random Protestant Pastors. The reality is that when we all get to Heaven we will find out we erred in many of our views. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t seek the truth and give up on finding the truth, but it does mean that we should humbly pursue truth and be patient with those who disagree with us. It’s a good thing the thief on the cross didn’t have to pass a theological exam to get into Heaven. He simply acknowledged that he was a sinner, deserved to be punished for his sin, and believed on the Lord Jesus Christ to save him – and we’ll see that guy in Heaven one day!

We need to rally around “Mere Christianity” and work towards being united with those who love Christ, His Word, and pursue His truth in humble and prayerful discussion together. Let’s not shoot our own wounded, but take care of one another’s wounds. Let’s patiently and lovingly pursue the truth together and agree to disagree on minor issues. Let’s unite on the greatness of God, and the glorious gospel, and the return of His Son. Let’s be more concerned about our own sins than the sins of others. Let’s become grace bound, grace oriented, and err on the side of grace. Let’s exalt Jesus and make Him our King, Lord, Savior, and find our satisfaction, joy, and delight in Him.

There’s only one man who had it all down perfectly and that was Jesus. He is and ever will be the lone perfect theologian who has perfect theology. Until He returns or takes us home we need to learn to submit to Him, point others to Him, seek Him, pursue His truth, and learn to get along by majoring on the majors and minoring on the minors. Let’s pursue the big ideas and big doctrines in the Bible and unite around those. There’s too much against us in the world for us to turn on one another.

As a Dodger fan, when I go to the baseball games I don’t focus on the guys political shirt next to me – I don’t argue with him over our differences. There’s simply one goal – cheer for our team to win. When Puig hits a home run – I high-five the guy next to me and we are full of joy because we are focused on what we agree on. Let’s stop arguing about what we’re wearing, how we’re worshipping, what style of music we’re listening to, and work together to win! We have one great commission; one great Book; one great Savior; one great King; one powerful Spirit; one powerful message; and one calling to bring glory to God; and as Paul said, “This one thing I do!” Let’s get out there and do it…together!

The strangest thing about the Strange Fire conference is that it represents a strange Christianity. Christians according to Jesus Himself are to be known by their love, not by burning each other down, but by building each other up. I am grateful for the fellowship, friendships, and learning that I have received from continuationists and non-continuationists. I know that we can’t all be right about everything, but I do know that we can do more together for the sake of Christ and His glory than we can apart. I also know that the fruit of the Spirit never burns but soothes – He is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance. As believers, let’s build each other up, not burn each other, let’s be controlled by the Spirit not grieve the Spirit, and let’s proclaim the glory of Christ by the power of the Spirit for our own good and God’s glory. Ironically the closer we get to the Son – the less likely we are to get burned, or burn others.

 
 

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Are The Sabbath Laws Binding for Christians Today? By John MacArthur

shabbat candles

We believe the Old Testament regulations governing Sabbath observances are ceremonial, not moral, aspects of the law. As such, they are no longer in force, but have passed away along with the sacrificial system, the Levitical priesthood, and all other aspects of Moses’ law that prefigured Christ. Here are the reasons we hold this view.

1. In Colossians 2:16-17, Paul explicitly refers to the Sabbath as a shadow of Christ, which is no longer binding since the substance (Christ) has come. It is quite clear in those verses that the weekly Sabbath is in view. The phrase “a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day” refers to the annual, monthly, and weekly holy days of the Jewish calendar (cf. 1 Chronicles 23:31; 2 Chronicles 2:4; 31:3; Ezekiel 45:17; Hosea 2:11). If Paul were referring to special ceremonial dates of rest in that passage, why would he have used the word “Sabbath?” He had already mentioned the ceremonial dates when he spoke of festivals and new moons.

2. The Sabbath was the sign to Israel of the Mosaic Covenant (Exodus 31:16-17; Ezekiel 20:12; Nehemiah 9:14). Since we are now under the New Covenant (Hebrews 8), we are no longer required to observe the sign of the Mosaic Covenant.

3. The New Testament never commands Christians to observe the Sabbath.

4. In our only glimpse of an early church worship service in the New Testament, the church met on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7).

5. Nowhere in the Old Testament are the Gentile nations commanded to observe the Sabbath or condemned for failing to do so. That is certainly strange if Sabbath observance were meant to be an eternal moral principle.

6. There is no evidence in the Bible of anyone keeping the Sabbath before the time of Moses, nor are there any commands in the Bible to keep the Sabbath before the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai.

7. When the Apostles met at the Jerusalem council (Acts 15), they did not impose Sabbath keeping on the Gentile believers.

8. The apostle Paul warned the Gentiles about many different sins in his epistles, but breaking the Sabbath was never one of them.

9. In Galatians 4:10-11, Paul rebukes the Galatians for thinking God expected them to observe special days (including the Sabbath).

10. In Romans 14:5, Paul forbids those who observe the Sabbath (these were no doubt Jewish believers) to condemn those who do not (Gentile believers).

11. The early church fathers, from Ignatius to Augustine, taught that the Old Testament Sabbath had been abolished and that the first day of the week (Sunday) was the day when Christians should meet for worship (contrary to the claim of many seventh-day sabbatarians who claim that Sunday worship was not instituted until the fourth century).

12. Sunday has not replaced Saturday as the Sabbath. Rather the Lord’s Day is a time when believers gather to commemorate His resurrection, which occurred on the first day of the week. Every day to the believer is one of Sabbath rest, since we have ceased from our spiritual labor and are resting in the salvation of the Lord (Hebrews 4:9-11).

So while we still follow the pattern of designating one day of the week a day for the Lord’s people to gather in worship, we do not refer to this as “the Sabbath.”

About John MacArthur:

John macarthur

John MacArthur is the pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, as well as an author, conference speaker, president of The Master’s College and Seminary, and featured teacher with the Grace to You media ministry.

In 1969, after graduating from Talbot Theological Seminary, John came to Grace Community Church. The emphasis of his pulpit ministry is the careful study and verse-by-verse exposition of the Bible, with special attention devoted to the historical and grammatical background behind each passage. Under John’s leadership, Grace Community Church’s two morning worship services fill the 3,500-seat auditorium to capacity. Several thousand members participate every week in dozens of fellowship groups and training programs, most led by lay leaders and each dedicated to equipping members for ministry on local, national, and international levels.

In 1985, John became president of The Master’s College (formerly Los Angeles Baptist College), an accredited, four-year liberal arts Christian college in Santa Clarita, California. In 1986, John founded The Master’s Seminary, a graduate school dedicated to training men for full-time pastoral roles and missionary work.

John is also president and featured teacher with Grace to You. Founded in 1969, Grace to You is the nonprofit organization responsible for developing, producing, and distributing John’s books, audio resources, and the “Grace to You” radio and television programs. “Grace to You” radio airs more than 1,000 times daily throughout the English-speaking world, reaching major population centers on every continent of the world. It also airs nearly 1,000 times daily in Spanish, reaching 23 countries from Europe to Latin America. “Grace to You” television airs weekly on DirecTV in the United States, and is available for free on the Internet worldwide. All of John’s 3,000 sermons, spanning more than four decades of ministry, are available for free on this website.

Since completing his first best-selling book The Gospel According to Jesus in 1988, John has written nearly 400 books and study guides, including Our Sufficiency in ChristAshamed of the GospelThe Murder of JesusA Tale of Two SonsTwelve Ordinary MenThe Truth WarThe Jesus You Can’t IgnoreSlaveOne Perfect Lifeand The MacArthur New Testament Commentary series. John’s titles have been translated into more than two dozen languages. The MacArthur Study Bible, the cornerstone resource of his ministry, is available in English (NKJNAS, and ESV), SpanishRussianGermanFrench,PortugueseItalian, and Arabic with a Chinese translation underway.

John and his wife, Patricia, live in Southern California and have four adult children: Matt, Marcy, Mark, and Melinda. They also enjoy the enthusiastic company of their fifteen grandchildren.

 
 

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John MacArthur on Being Above Reproach

MacArthur John image

 

A small item I read in the news twenty years ago has stuck in my mind ever since. The Rockdale County High School Bulldogs basketball team of Conyers, Georgia, won their first-ever state championship in March of 1987, rolling over all their opponents. After eighteen years of coaching the team without a championship, coach Cleveland Stroud was ecstatic.

But a few weeks after the championship game, Coach Stroud was doing a routine review of his players’ grades when he discovered that one of his third‑string players had failed some courses, rendering the player academically ineligible for the basketball team.

The struggling student was by no means a factor in the team’s victory. He was an underclassman who suited up for games but hadn’t actually seen any playing time all season. During one of the semifinal matches, however, with the team leading by more than 20 points, Coach Stroud wanted to give every player an opportunity to participate. He had put that player in the game for less than 45 seconds. The ineligible man had scored no points. His participation had in no way affected the outcome of the game. But it was, technically, a violation of state eligibility standards.

Coach Stroud was in a distressing predicament. If he revealed the infraction, his team would be disqualified and stripped of their championship. If he kept quiet, it was highly unlikely anyone outside the school would ever discover the offense.

Yet the coach realized that at the very least, the player involved was aware of the breach of rules. It was also possible that other students on the team knew and thought their coach had purposely ignored the eligibility guidelines. But more important still, Coach Stroud himself knew, and if he deliberately tried to keep the facts from coming to light, his greatest coaching victory would be forever tainted with an ugly secret.

Coach Stroud said from the moment he discovered the violation, he knew what he had to do. He never even pondered any alternatives. His priorities had been set long before this. He realized that his team’s championship was not as important as their character. “People forget the scores of basketball games,” he said. “They don’t ever forget what you’re made of.”

He reported the infraction and forfeited the only state championship his team had ever won.

But both coach and team won a far more important kind of honor than they forfeited. They kept their integrity intact and gained an immeasurable amount of trust and respect. The coach was recognized with numerous teacher-of-the-year, coach-of-the-year, and citizen-of-the-year awards, as well as a formal commendation from the Georgia State Legislature. A few years later he was elected to Conyers City council, where he still serves. He was right. People who would have long ago forgotten about the Bulldogs’ victory in the state championship have never forgotten about this coach’s integrity.

Ethical integrity is one of the indispensable attributes of Christlike character. As vital as it is to be sound in doctrine and faithful in teaching the truth of Scripture, it is by no means less crucial for Christians to be upright in heart and consistent in our obedience to the moral and ethical principles of God’s law.

That is no simple duty, by the way. The moral standard God’s people are supposed to live by far surpasses even the highest principles of normal human ethics.

This was one of the main points of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). The whole sermon was an exposition of the Law’s moral meaning. The heart of Jesus’ message was an extended discourse against the notion that the Law’s moral principles apply only to behavior that others can see.

Jesus taught, for example, that the sixth commandment forbids not only acts of killing, but a murderous heart as well (vv. 21–22). The seventh commandment, which forbids adultery, also implicitly condemns even adulterous desires (vv. 27–28). And the command to love our neighbors applies even to those who are our enemies (vv. 43–44).

How high is the moral and ethical standard set by God’s law? Unimaginably high. Jesus equates it with God’s own perfection: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48).

That sets an unattainable standard, of course. But it is our duty to pursue integrity relentlessly nonetheless. Perfect ethical consistency is a vital aspect of that consummate goal — absolute Christlikeness — toward which every Christian should continually be striving (Phil. 3:12–14). No believer, therefore, should ever knowingly sacrifice his or her ethical integrity.

Here are three powerful reasons why:

First, for the sake of our reputation. Of course, Christians should not be concerned with issues like status, class, caste, or economic prestige. In that sense, we need to be like Christ, who made Himself of no reputation and took on the form of a servant (Phil. 2:7).

There is a true sense, however, in which we do need to be concerned about maintaining a good reputation — and that is especially true in the matter of ethical integrity. One of the basic requirements for an elder is this: “He must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:7 nasb).

Nothing will ruin a good reputation faster or more permanently than a deliberate breach of ethical integrity. People will forgive practically any other kind of error, negligence, or failure — but ethical bankruptcy carries a stigma that is almost impossible to rise above.

Several years ago, a parishioner told me something no pastor ever wants to hear. He had invited a business acquaintance to our church. The man replied, “You go to that church? I wouldn’t go to that church. The most corrupt lawyer in town goes to that church.”

I didn’t — and still don’t — have any idea whom he was talking about. There are dozens of attorneys in our church. My hope is that it was a case of mistaken identity and that the person he had in mind was not a member of our church. But the following Sunday I recounted the incident from the pulpit and said, “If the lawyer that man described is here this morning, please take a lesson from Zaccheus: repent and do whatever you can to restore your reputation in the community. In the meantime, stop representing yourself as a Christian. You’re destroying the whole church’s reputation.”

According to Proverbs 22:1, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.” You don’t have a good name at all unless your ethical integrity is intact and above reproach.

Second, for the sake of our character. More important still is the issue of personal character. There’s a good reason why Jesus’ exposition of the moral law in Matthew 5 focused so much on uprightness of heart as opposed to external behavior. That’s because the real barometer of who we are is reflected in what we do when no one else is looking, how we think in the privacy of our own thoughts, and how we respond to the promptings of our own consciences. Those things are the true measure of your moral and ethical fiber.

As important as it is to keep a good reputation in the community, it is a thousand times more important to safeguard our own personal character. That is why Jesus dealt with the issues of morality and ethics beginning with the innermost thoughts of our hearts. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt. 15:19).

It’s probably not overstating the case at all to say that the single most important battlefield in the struggle for integrity is your own mind. That’s where everything will actually be won or lost. And if you lose there, you have already ruined your character. A corrupt character inevitably spoils the reputation, too, because a bad tree can’t bring forth good fruit (Matt. 7:18).

That brings to mind a third reason why it is so vital to guard our moral and ethical integrity: for the sake of our testimony. Your reputation reflects what people say about you. Your testimony is what your character, your behavior, and your words say about God.

Consider what is being communicated when a Christian lacks ethical integrity. That person is saying he doesn’t truly believe what Scripture plainly says is true of God: That “to do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice” (Prov. 21:3). That “the sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but the prayer of the upright is acceptable to him” (15:8). And that God “delight[s] in truth in the inward being” 
(Ps. 51:6).

In other words, the person who neglects ethical integrity is telling a lie about God with his life and his attitude. If he calls himself a Christian and professes to be a child of God, he is in fact taking God’s name in vain at the most fundamental level. That puts the issue of ethical integrity in perspective, doesn’t it?

That’s what we need to call to mind whenever we are tempted to adapt our ethical principles for convenience’ sake. It isn’t worth the high cost to our reputation, our character, or our testimony.

About the Author:

Dr. John MacArthur is pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, and president of The Master’s College and Seminary. He is also the featured teacher for the Grace to You media ministry.

 

Article from September 1, 2007 © Tabletalk magazine 
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 500 physical copies. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred (where applicable). If no such link exists, simply link to http://www.ligonier.org/tabletalk. Any exceptions to the above must be formally approved by Tabletalk.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: From Ligonier Ministries and R.C. Sproul. © Tabletalk magazine. Website: http://www.ligonier.org/tabletalk. Email: tabletalk@ligonier.org. Toll free: 1-800-435-4343

 

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