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Interview with John MacArthur (part two)

June 2020 | by Paul Smith

This is the second part of a recent interview with John MacArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church in California. Each month millions around the world listen to his sermons through radio broadcasts or the Grace to You website.

ET: Judgements regarding separation are tricky, for example when you associate or not. How much agreement with someone do you need in order to speak at a conference?

JM: I don’t want to spend my life only speaking to people who already believe what I believe, or I don’t advance the truth. It’s not so much where you are but what you say when you get there. If you compromise the message to accommodate the setting, that is a serious failure.

There have been times when I have said I really can’t speak at a certain event because it would be viewed as compromise, because the force of that event or the bulk of the speakers are known to be in error or compromisers. If you try to put me into a conference with a bunch of compromising evangelicals, I find myself unable to do that because it looks like affirmation.

ET: Who are compromising evangelicals?

JM: People who have a defective gospel, like the prosperity gospel or some truncated simplistic gospel that leaves out repentance. People who have a weak view of Scripture who call into question certain parts of Scripture. I want to stand with those who adhere to the veracity, authenticity, inspiration, and inerrancy of the Word of God. I just wouldn’t find myself in a group of people where you have some people who believe in the Bible and some people who don’t — that’s the kind of compromise evangelism that [Billy] Graham got into. It was chaotic here and chaotic in London where Lloyd-Jones would not participate.

ET: Should Lloyd-Jones have separated from the Anglicans?

JM: It cost him a relationship with J. I. Packer, but I would make that same judgement.You go anywhere and preach to anyone by yourself and with anyone who is faithful. But once you start showing up in settings where there is a mixture of faithful and unfaithful, you are sending signals that are hard for people to sort out. In particular, people who trust you will wonder whether your convictions are what they think they are. The people who don’t compromise will always be the minority, so they get the heat from the majority.

ET: How do you stay spiritually fresh?

JM: The sanctifying of my own heart is the work of the Spirit through his Word. You pursue what you love — this is the nature of being human. The thing that I love is the Word of God. If you gave me the opportunity to do anything, I would go into the Word of God, get a few people around me who love the Word of God, and spend the day talking about it. That’s where my affections are.

That’s cultivated. You go from cognition (I know what’s in the Bible) to conviction (I believe what’s in the Bible) to affection (I love what’s in the Bible). When I stand up to preach, I’m interacting with that which I love most — the Lord being revealed in his Word. That’s something that has grown in my life; that’s what spiritual maturity is — the consistent work of the Word.

Worst of all failures is the one who has the opportunity to spend a lifetime in the Word, but doesn’t do that — a pastor or spiritual leader who crashes and burns at some point, dishonours the Lord in a public way. So, the Word is my refreshment.

The second thing I’m refreshed in is the fellowship of the saints. You see that throughout the New Testament. One of the reasons I’ve been here 51 years is that this is not a job, this is my family. I love these people. I’m literally just starting to have great-grandchildren and so are the people I’ve pastored for 50 years. So, we’re all in the fourth generation. The refreshment of these friendships is beyond description — precious, precious, enriching friendships. It’s something I wish everyone could experience. I’ve been signally blessed; I don’t know why.

So many pastors end up in a church where they’re not necessarily appreciated by the people. It’s hard work; people are less than grateful. He’s ministering alone and he’s not having the fellowship that he needs — its enrichment, its encouragement, the help to each other. Grace Church is my life. It always has been. I don’t know where I end and the people begin in one sense.

Those two things: the Spirit through his Word and the fellowship through the saints constantly refresh me.

ET: How do you see the church changing globally in the next 20 years?

JM: There’s going to be a kind of unification of the church globally. The tendency is going to be people thinking the same thing: good, bad, or indifferent. Bad theology will coalesce on a global level. There won’t just be one kind of bad theology in Africa and another in Europe, because the internet is going to spread it all over the place – it’s going to be the same bad theology no matter where you go. And we know that those with bad theology get to the mission field to spread it. I’ve been all over the planet and seen the same errors. America and the UK as well — even Europe — has exported its bad theology all over the planet.

At the same time, sound doctrine, reformed faith, is circling the globe in a way that it never has in the history of the church. This is the greatest revival of sound doctrine in the history of the church. People are listening to sermons from Grace Community Church played from a box hanging on the horns of an ox, pulling something through a rice paddy in South East Asia. There are all those things which are sacred to us, the things the Puritans believed, the legacy of the Reformers and the Puritans. Now there are classic reformed Calvinists in the rice paddies of South East Asia.

Media is unifying the world around certain ideologies and philosophies. That’s true in terms of theology and Christianity. All that’s bad is going to find its way around and all that’s good is going to be there as well. We just have to take advantage of it.

Globalism is an assault on Western values which are based on Christianity. Western values have at their root Christian values, Christian theology. Christian theology is obviously hated because God is hated and Christ is hated. Globalism is a way of getting rid of all the influences that have come from Christianity. Politicians fight against it for their own sense of national pride. But this is a bigger battle than that.

ET: In which area do you think there is currently the greatest need for clarity among Christians?

JM: That the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. If you’re not clear on that, you’re not clear on anything else. We also have to be clear on how we interpret the Bible. Getting Scripture right. Scripture is clear, that’s what we have to fight for — the clarity of Scripture and the clarity of our message.

ET: The majority of your expository series have been on New Testament books. If you could start out again, would you preach more Old Testament series?

JM: I did preach some Old Testament series: minor prophets, Daniel, and on Wednesday nights for many years here through the Psalms to about Psalm 72. I preached through the Old Testament in the early years a little more; a series on a large part of Genesis.

But no, I wouldn’t do it any differently, because I am a minister of the new covenant, the mysteries which were hidden and are now revealed. I see the Old Testament like Paul does in Corinthians when he says these things have happened as examples to us who are at the end of the age.

I believe in the progress of dogma. The Bible obviously doesn’t go from error to truth, but it does go from incompleteness to completeness. There is an incompleteness in the Old Testament and completeness in the New. I would always start with the New Testament and get the full picture of divine revelation, then use the Old Testament to illustrate it and show how the Old Testament flows to the fulfilment of the New.

I prefer to illustrate from the Bible rather than from life, so biblical illustrations, to me, are the best because they carry authority and allow you to pull the Old Testament — which is loaded with examples — into the New Testament and make the connections.

I have to preach the New; that is the full revelation. But the New is so loaded with Old Testament reality that the Old inevitably gets pulled in. So I would hope in preaching through the entire New Testament, and in writing 34 commentaries on it, that the reader would find — either listening or reading — that is loaded with Old Testament input so it helps understand the Old Testament.

One of the things we did here at Grace when I finished the complete New Testament, I said we now have a clear picture of Christ, and I said why don’t we go back now to the Old Testament. Now that we know what he looks like, let’s see where we find him. Rather than start in the Old Testament and try to find him without the full picture.

There’s game called Where’s Waldo. If you don’t know who Waldo is, it’s hard to find him. When we went back to the Old Testament, starting in Genesis 3 Christ was just jumping off the page because everything could be seen so clearly because we had the full picture.

Paul Smith is full-time elder of Grace Baptist Church, Broadstairs, Kent, and a director of ET.