In this post I addressed the aberrant view that justifying faith is assent alone apart from trusting in Christ. In that post I made a passing reference to another extreme view of faith – the “Lordship Salvation” gospel whose advocates not only define faith without reference to trust, but also add commitment of life to assent, which in turn eclipses the gospel and redefines how one might appropriate Christ as he is freely offered in the gospel.
John MaCarthur is the most noteable proponent of this view. It is noteworthy that MacArthur does not subscribe to historical Reformed theology. In that respect, he is unchecked with respect to confessional theology in the Reformed tradition. Aside from having a baptistic ecclesiology and a dispensational view of the covenants, he has gotten the doctrine of justification wrong and justifying faith wrong. I address those errors here.
Saving Faith According to John MacArthur
Forsaking oneself for Christ’s sake is not an optional step of discipleship subsequent to conversion; it is the sine qua non of saving faith.The Gospel According to Jesus, p. 142
By “saving faith” MacArthur actually means justifying faith. We may infer this because he is speaking of the faith that is tied to conversion. Accordingly, sanctifying or persevering faith is not in view. What is noteworthy is MacArthur cites “forsaking oneself” as an essential condition for our pardon in Christ. Yet that is radically different than how the Reformed tradition defines justifying faith.
Justifying faith is a saving grace wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and word of God, whereby he, being convinced of his sin and misery, and of the disability in himself and all other creatures to recover him out of his lost condition, not only assenteth to the truth of the promise of the gospel, but receiveth and resteth upon Christ and his righteousness, therein held forth, for pardon of sin, and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation.Westminster Larger Catechism, #72 What is justifying faith?
The most detailed Confession in the history of the Protestant tradition defines faith quite differently than MacArthur. At the heart of justifying faith is receiving and resting upon Christ, which is absent in MacArthur’s ordo salutis. Moreover, to add forsaking one’s life(!) to the simplicity of faith is another gospel. It’s to add works to faith. Not only does MacArthur add forsaking one’s life to faith, he also asserts that personal commitment is essential to justifying faith.
Commitment is the disputed element of faith around which the lordship controversy swirls. No-lordship theology denies that believing in Christ involves any element of personal commitment to Him.Faith Works, The Gospel According To Jesus, p. 43-44
John MacArthur contends that justifying faith, the faith that appropriates the benefits of Christ, entails “forsaking oneself” and “commitment.” It is not MacArthur but the Westminster Shorter Catechism that has it right when it states:
Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, he is offered in the gospel.”Westminster Shorter Catechism, #86 What is faith in Jesus Christ?
It completely escapes MacArthur that personal commitment and forsaking of life are true works of righteousness, which are fruits of sanctification and not elements of faith. What MacArthur also misses is that justifying faith is merely an instrument through which the unrighteous lays hold of Christ’s righteousness. (Westminster Shorter Catechism #73)
Not only does MacArthur add works to justifying faith, he leaves out the crowing element of justifying faith, which is child like trust in the perfect righteousness of Another. But it is worse than that. Much worse. Not only does MacArthur add works to faith while leaving out trust, he would have us believe that the traditional view of trust (often referred to as fiducia) is not reliance upon Christ but rather surrender.
This “trust,” or fiducia, faith’s volitional component, is the crowning element of believing it involves surrender to the object of faith.”Faith Works, The Gospel According To Jesus, p. 44
In essence, MacArthur takes the volitional component of justifying faith, fiducia, and turns it into something other than mere child like trust in the righteousness of Christ. MacArthur redefines trust. For MacArthur fiducia is not to exercise trust in Christ’s alien righteousness but rather it is the work of bringing to Christ our own righteous deeds in the form of forsaking of oneself, commitment, and surrender.
In MacArthur’s book Justification by Faith, MacArthur takes up the question of “Crediting righteousness to the Christian’s account.”
God actually credits righteousness to our account. He imputes righteousness to us; He infuses divine life into us; He regenerates and sanctifies us. He makes the unholy holy, and therefore declares that we are righteous. There is an ontological as well as a forensic declaration. There is a reality – God gives us righteousness, and thus He can declare that we are righteous.Justification by Faith, p.121
God does not declare that we are righteous because he makes the unholy holy. God justifies the ungodly! (Romans 4:5) Nor are there two declarations, one for our ontic change and one for our imputed righteousness. The forensic applies to imputation, not infusion. Lastly, does God declare us righteous because he “gives” us righteousness?
One page later MacArthur states:
The believing sinner is justified by righteousness infused into him.Justification by Faith, p,122
That is Rome, not Westminster.
It’s my understanding that MacArthur may have repented of his views of Justification, just like he repented of his denial of the eternal Sonship of the Second Person of the Trinity. He has not recanted on the nature of justifying faith, however.
My point is not to point out MacArthur’s errors. If that was my agenda, there’s more I might have written. My original point was to address the aberrant views of faith that flank the Reformed view. Two ditches to avoid. Yet one cannot help but realize the protective nature of Confessional Theology. One can attend an independent church for her entire life and believe that she is getting the pure milk of God’s word, when in fact she might be getting something quite foreign to the teaching of the Fathers and the Reformers. Nor is this just a matter of theological novelties and heterodoxy. It’s a matter of both faith and practice. Case in point, how many Reformed denominations are aligning themselves with MacArthur’s stance against the civil magistrate? That practice is rooted in dubious exegesis, arbitrariness and inconsistency. Often right but never in doubt is not a comforting formula for church leadership. I thank God for the checks and balances of Presbyterianism and the collective wisdom of the Reformed tradition.