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An interview with Phil Johnson

November 2019 | by Raj Sahota

Phil Johnson
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GraceLife London hosted the Summer Institute in August. During the conference, Raj Sahota interviewed Phil Johnson, a speaker at the event and Executive Director of Grace To You ministries.

Can you tell us about the ministry of Grace To You?

For over fifty years, Grace To You has existed to use mass media to disseminate the ministry of John MacArthur. Early on, we decided not to diversify by having additional teachers. We felt that John’s ministry is rich enough as it is. From cassette tapes, to CDs, to MP3s and the website (www.gty.org), we have made his teaching and preaching available to a wider audience. We have been blessed – nearly two million sermons are downloaded per month.

Things began in 1969 when John, aged 29, became pastor of Grace Community Church. The church was tucked away in the San Fernando Valley of suburban Los Angeles. That year was the year of Charles Manson and the Woodstock Festival; US culture was going through turbulent times. Against this backdrop, John’s goal was simply to teach what the text of Scripture said.

On his very first Sunday, someone said that we need to record his preaching. A tape recorder was set up and we pressed record, and so a tape of John’s very first message at Grace survives. His conviction, then and now, is that his assignment from the Lord is simply to declare the Word of God and make it plain. It is to that end that John has devoted fifty years of ministry.

The early tapes of his sermons were copied and distributed to folk who couldn’t attend the church itself. Demand for them took off, volunteers were drafted in to help and Grace to You ministries began.

Can you tell us about your conference talk, ‘Responding to critics’?

What matters to me is how Scripture would have us respond to critics. In my talk, I engage with those who criticise the traditional, biblical understanding of marriage (i.e. involving only one man and one woman) and who muddy the definition of love. The text I will expound is in 1 John 4. True understanding of what love really is can be found there. The Apostle declares, ‘God is love’ and that, ‘This is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins’.

There is a difference between illicit desire and proper love. It is largely lost on contemporary culture and needs to be reaffirmed.

Are there challenges to responding to critics within the church?

Most of my apologetic work is countering wrong ideas that have been inculcated in the minds of Christians who have been led astray by poor teaching. Correcting the thinking of Christians is one of the biggest challenges that biblically-minded pastors face today. Believers are entering the church with all sorts of wrong ideas, often assimilated from secular culture.

Television, for example, often gives airtime to the worst ‘Christian’ teachers because of their flamboyance and appeals to the flesh. It’s sad that their allure to believers is so strong.

Additionally, the Charismatic movement is filled with charlatans and bad teachers. Those on its fringe, in particular, are susceptible to all manner of heresies.

Indeed, pastors have their work cut out in countering the errors which have gained such prominence and visibility in our day.

How has postmodernism affected our culture?

We’re supposed to take all ideas on board and value them equally. But this is contrary to the biblical idea of truth. Truth exists and is revealed to us in Scripture by God. Scripture speaks with an authority that supersedes every other truth claim. If you want to know if something is truthful, then hold it up to the light of Scripture.

Sadly, our postmodern culture has created an environment where it’s politically incorrect to deal with truth claims in such a fashion. You can’t do it without appearing impolite. Being dogmatic about truth is frowned upon, but if we adopt the postmodern attitude that nothing is objectively true but everything is merely a matter of one’s personal perspective, it undermines the Christian’s own profession of faith. Many believers have adopted a soft attitude to truth and are reluctant to call anything objectively or certainly true.

Paul warned in 2 Timothy 4 that a time would come when people would be taken in by all manner of fables and would turn away from the truth. We live in such a time.

What role does apologetics play in sharing the gospel?

Apologetics has an important role. The Bible calls upon us always to be ready to give a reason for the hope that’s within us. We should be able to give a basic defence of what we affirm to be true.

However, people can become enthralled by the apologetics process and philosophical arguments, forgetting that argumentation alone cannot turn a heart from loving sin to loving God. The obstacles to saving faith are moral, not intellectual.

The most effective thing we can do is preach the gospel and address a person’s conscience. We need to use biblical terms – sin, propitiation, guilt, repentance and forgiveness.

Grace to You strongly adheres to Young Earth Creationism. Why is this?

It’s the starting point of God’s Word. If you demur at this in the name of scientific respectability, at what point do you actually start giving credence to biblical history?

Liberalism has crept into the church, particularly since the advent of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary ideas in the 19th century. His views unlocked the door of compromise on biblical authority, and that door has been pushed open wider and wider with successive generations. In under a century, most Protestant denominations had succumbed to liberal theology in one form or another.

If we compromise on the historicity of Genesis, that compromise will creep into other areas of the Bible, such as the miracles involving Joshua, Jonah, and even the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ himself. The gospel itself comes under threat. As we learn from Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, the historical fact of Christ’s resurrection is foundational to our faith itself. Compromise in this area eats the heart out of the gospel message.

How important should discernment be to Christians?

It’s a vital part of sound theology but neglected by many. There are significant doctrinal threats currently facing the church, and discernment is often lacking among today’s believers. It’s another consequence of postmodernism – people today are reluctant to openly say that another person is wrong. They can mistakenly think, ‘Oh well, the Lord will sort it out’.

The problem is, the Lord has commanded us to be discerning – to examine all things and to hold fast to that which is good. Without discernment, you are vulnerable to a deterioration in your doctrinal as well as moral stance.

Discernment is not a magical ability; it’s like any other part of studying theology. We simply compare truth claims with the teachings of Scripture. We let Scripture be the arbiter of truth.

That said, there are those who get drawn into discernment ministries to the point of obsession, constantly searching for the errors of others. That is spiritually unhealthy – we should be edifying at least as much as we are critical.

What is the place of public criticism of false teaching – should false teachers be rebuked privately?

If I’ve said something publicly which another person feels is deserving of criticism, I don’t think they are obliged to challenge me in private first.

Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18 concern the private sins of a Christian brother, unknown to the wider public. Such shortcomings are to be dealt with discreetly and kept secret as long as possible.

However, if it’s a public offence then it is liable to a public rebuke. For example, if someone promotes error on the television or via social media then there is a place for loving but open refutation of that person. There is no need to seek out a false teacher in person beforehand.

What are the pitfalls for new church leaders to avoid?

Regrettably, many younger men entering the ministry think they must change what needs to be changed as quickly as possible. They can lack patience with people and even alienate them. People need to be taught.

Perhaps they feel the church is not set up in a way that they think is biblical. The way forward is to teach the members the right way rather than make immediate impositions. We should teach them and get them onboard with the truth before trying to force a major change on them. A pastor is a teacher, not an overlord.

The conference has been about remaining steadfast. What final words of advice relating to this area can you offer Christians?

Firstly, proclaim the truth and encourage others to be steadfast. Remind them of what Scripture says and what their duty is. Secondly, demonstrate a good example through your own faithfulness and obedience to Scripture.

Raj Sahota runs a biblical creation group in Cambridge, writes a blog, and is currently studying for a theology degree.