John MacArthur is American evangelicalism’s elder statesman. Still pastoring Grace Community Church in liberal California after over half a century, he is also chancellor of The Master’s Seminary on the church’s campus and The Master’s University on a campus nearby. Millions listen monthly around the world to his sermons through radio broadcasts or the Grace to You website. Known for his expository teaching, MacArthur ‘unleashes God’s truth, one verse at a time.’ ET caught up with him at the annual Shepherd’s Conference for church leaders at his church, attended by 3500 men.
ET: What could today’s believers learn from the church of your youth?
JM: The church of my youth was more dominantly part of people’s life. The modern era is chaotic. Everyone’s moving at a high speed. Life is complicated. The church of my youth was my life. We met Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, and had a youth meeting Sunday afternoon. More of life revolved around the church.
That has disappeared. Most churches have one hour a week. So even well-intentioned Christians tend to develop their Christian growth in isolation instead of being part of the fabric of a fellowship of people where there is give and take and fellowship and love and ministry.
That fuels and feeds the individuality that is so much a part of our culture. Now you can create your own religion on the internet, worship at whatever shrine you want, listen to whoever you want. You may not have one person who is the shepherd of your soul. I could wish that this generation could experience what it is to live life as part of a body of believers.
ET: In terms of ‘progressive’ values, California has more in common with the UK than many other US states. How can a Christian best stand and thrive in such a culture?
JM: The kingdom of God only advances one soul at a time. I don’t think as Christians or as pastors we should think in terms of changing cultures. I can’t tell you how many people have come to Hollywood with this grandiose notion: I’m going to plant a church and change the movie industry – it’s never happened. Your intentions are inevitably reduced to one soul at a time coming to faith in Christ. That’s how we change the culture.
We see people come to Christ, like we have here at Grace Church for half a century. These people are in the fabric of life: in education, entertainment, the business world, military, police, legal professions, every kind of imaginable job. You begin to impact the fabric of the culture when Christian people, who have come to know the Lord in a personal way, penetrate on a personal level and advance the gospel that way.
You can’t really deal with the culture as culture because postmodernism is in the groundwater; we can’t undo that. At the Master’s University we have students coming from Christian homes. What used to characterise Christian kids in America was that they didn’t know theology but they knew the Bible. Now they don’t know the Bible or theology. What they are doing predominately in their church is music and some culturally-style communication that is anything but a compelling explanation of the word of God. So they are more attached to the style of a preacher than to the text of Scripture.
It plays out in some very odd ways. They will inevitably affirm the authority and inspiration of Scripture but it has no bearing on what they believe. They come to what they believe intuitively, because it makes sense – because that’s what the culture gives them. We have to take them back to square one and remind them that the truth is not in them, it is outside them in the Word of God.
So we change the culture by penetrating the culture with transformed people. There is not going to be a way of changing this culture. Scripture promises that evil men will get worse and worse. There will be pockets, places where God does a wonderful work. But this thing is hell-bent in the wrong direction. The longer it goes, just like the second law of thermodynamics, everything breaks down, culture breaks down as well. So we’re not going to change the culture. Any attempt to do so is misguided. We have to live and proclaim the gospel one soul at a time.
ET: How can believers avoid becoming discouraged by decline in church and society?
JM: Discouragement is natural. I’m discouraged by a lot of things. All of us who are serious about the word of God are discouraged by those who mishandle the word of God, who mislead the church, who dishonour the Lord. We live in a world that, by its very nature, will discourage us. We live in the midst, as the Bible indicates we will, of false teachers and those leading others astray – it is very discouraging.
Where you rise above it is with a robust theology of the sovereignty of God. If I thought that God was not in control, then discouragement would be terminal; a death sentence. But I know that God is sovereign – he is in control – and I am sustained in the fact that the end has already been written.
God is moving history – it’s his-story – in the direction of the fulfilment of his eternal plan. He will triumph and he will be victorious. I love what Paul said to the Corinthians: we always triumph in Christ. Since Christ will triumph in the end, those who are in Christ and who serve Christ will be in that triumph.
So it’s your theology that enables you to rise above despair. It doesn’t lessen your zeal to try to be a force for righteousness in the midst of it all. We are called to be that. We work hard, pray consistently, preach and declare the gospel faithfully and truthfully, and try to live godly lives in the world, while all the time believing in the sovereignty of God.
ET: Some choose to stay silent on hot-button issues to avoid being known for what they’re against. Why have you found it necessary to speak out?
JM: That is a serious error. God is known by what he’s against. In fact, most people know more about what God is against than they know what he’s for. So if you’re going to try to avoid being against something you’re going to wind up gagging God. You’re not going to be able to represent God in the culture. The Word of God is against sin, unrighteousness, lies, deception, and error and the world is full of it.
The entire world is in the lap of the evil one who is a deceiver and a liar, so we are at odds with the world to start with. Our message is necessarily a message that we proclaim on behalf of God that he is against this. He is so seriously against this, that the way that people behave in rebellion against God is a damning kind of behaviour. We have to say that. If you take that out, and try to make Christianity into sort of a Pollyanna happy story of ‘God wants to make you feel good about life and yourself’ you have really adulterated the gospel.
So we have to be known for what we are against. We must do that in love, even as our Lord did – he wept over the city of Jerusalem at the same time he was denouncing it and proclaiming judgement on it. I remind people often that the only ally you have in the fallen human heart is the sinner’s recognition of his own wretchedness.
So you have to go after that so the sinner is in despair about his own condition or the gospel means nothing. The Reformers were right in saying you have to preach the law and gospel. Avoiding what God is against is an unfair representation of God.
If you are strongly against something it can be labelled hate speech. In Canada they’ve even made laws against what they deem hate speech which would be speaking the truth about sin. At that point we are in the book of Acts and we have to say: you judge whether we obey God or man. We have to obey God, speak truth, and take the consequences.
ET: How would you respond to someone saying that a privileged white man is the wrong person to critique social justice?
JM: It’s irrelevant what colour or what gender you are. The right person to be talking about this is God. So whoever speaks the word of God is the right person to be speaking. All of this woke stuff is designed in a revolutionary way to overthrow the existing powers which include the Christian influence. Patriarchy is a Christian idea, a Christian notion, a Biblical notion.
What I see us all doing is ripping and shredding the church to pieces at the very point the Lord wants us to be together in unity. All these identity groups, all these people demanding they be heard and considered, who has the right and who doesn’t have the right to speak, is so divisive. We have to stop this nonsense. It has nothing to do with the gospel. It is an attempt to fix the culture, which is foolish.
How many ways have they tried to do it! The moral majority tried to fix the culture. You don’t fix the culture. The enemy, Satan, is designing to tear the church apart. You can look at something like the Southern Baptist convention that has a very good history of solidarity just fragmenting into pieces all over the place by these kinds of issues that are peripheral. Turning on each other rather than being unified. That has to be addressed.
More of this interview with John MacArthur will be published soon.
Paul Smith is Full-time elder of Grace Baptist Church, Broadstairs, Kent, and a director of ET.