John MacArthur, in an interview for Christianity.com, makes some very accurate criticism of the neo-Reformed movement. He talks about the “growing acquisition of Reformed soteriology among these young guys.” He then expresses his concerns that you can not have a “Reformed understanding of the doctrines of grace” and then act as an Arminian in everything else – for example, trying to blend in the prevailing pagan culture to reach the lost.
I heartily agree with John MacArthur’s criticism of the neo-Reformed crowd. In fact, some time ago I wrote a piece about that: “TULIP Doesn’t Mean Reformed, City on a Hill Does.” There is no such thing as “piecemeal Reformed.” You can’t be Reformed in your soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) and not be Reformed in everything else; your worldview in every area of life must be in harmony with what you believe about God, Jesus Christ, Salvation, and the Kingdom of God. You can’t have divided loyalties when it comes to your comprehensive theology. MacArthur says that the neo-Reformed’s attempt to immerse in the pagan culture of the day will suck them back into the culture, and will make them lose their Reformed soteriology. He foresees the reversal of the Reformed revival.
What was disappointing, though, was that further in the interview MacArthur really doesn’t expand his own Reformed theology too far. He correctly identifies the problem of the neo-Reformed – that they are piecemeal Reformed – but then he himself only expands it to cover ecclesiology (the doctrine of the Church). He doesn’t seem to be able to identify other areas of Christian thought and action beyond the church. Granted, it is important that the church is established as a covenant, multi-generational community; it is important that we have a Reformed doctrine of the church and of church leadership; and that we have Reformed ministers who minister to their flocks according to the principles we find in the Bible. But is this as far as we can go when we talk about Reformed doctrines?
In a glaring difference from MacArthur himself, when we go back to the Reformers and their intellectual heirs, the Puritans, we do not see their Reformed theology and practice limited to the Church and the salvation of individuals. We can’t even find one single Reformer whose work was limited to the Church only. In many respects, the Reformers were not only theological but social reformers as well, spending much of their time and effort building communities, cities, and nations in obedience to the Gospel. Geneva, Zurich, Strasbourg, the Netherlands, Scotland, Puritan England, the American colonies, were not known for their “religiously neutral” culture. To the contrary, much of the work of the church leaders at the time was building the legal, economic, and political structure of their communities and societies in accordance with the Biblical principles. In the words ascribed to Bucer, “Reformation is nothing less than the Christianization of all of life.” Far from limiting their Reformation to personal salvation and the church, these men wanted to see the whole world submit to God, in its politics, economics, science, business, cultural relations, international relations, etc. “City on a Hill” was what they were out to build, not a Reformed church preaching “grace” to a limited choice of religious topics.
Now, if MacArthur means that Reformation, I will gladly agree with him. Yes, we need comprehensive Reformation, one that doesn’t leave any area of our life outside of the reach of the Gospel. We need that Reformation that makes the Gospel a power for life in everything man thinks and does and is; and in everything his society is.
But that’s not what MacArthur has in mind. Just as the neo-Reformed he criticizes, his “Reformed” theology is limited to a few propositions about the religious thought and life of Christians. The church, the salvation of the individual, and may be the family. That’s it. MacArthur doesn’t see applications of his “Reformed” theology beyond that. If he does, he certainly never preaches on it. We never hear him preach on the Biblical principles for building a Christian culture – he only warns against the attraction of the pagan culture but never says what alternative there is. We never hear him preach on the Biblical principles for education, science, politics, law, art. We never hear him step beyond the little comfortable box of the church. He has no Biblical solutions for all of man’s life; he has no Biblical principles to offer to the world, only personal salvation. The creation and human society, in MacArthur’s view, is left outside of the scope of the Gospel.
In short, MacArthur is just as much piecemeal Reformed as the neo-Reformed he is criticizing.
Why is it? Why can’t MacArthur see that the legitimate criticism he levies against the “young guys” applies to himself as well? If he disapproves of others limiting the Reformed teaching to one thing only, why can’t he see that he is doing the same?
In the interview quoted above, and also in many of his articles and sermons, MacArthur’s view of the essence of the Reformed theology is that it is the “theology of grace.” “Grace” is his favorite word all the time when he talks about “Reformed theology.” He repeats the word in the interview many times, and he repeats it in many of his articles. Apparently he has made “grace” the foundation of his theology.
But there is a problem with making “grace” the foundation of theology. For one, “grace” is only one part of God’s nature; it only describes God in relation to man. To make it the foundation of one’s theology is to define God only in relation to man. God is then seen only as one Who dispenses individual salvation by grace, and that’s it. God’s main characteristic, and His main work in history is to save the individual soul of man. God has no other concerns but saving humans from hell. And therefore the foundation of theology is “grace.”
This theology of MacArthur, while borrowing some important truths from the Reformers, is very far from the true Reformed theology. It is rather a theology of man’s selfishness, or of man’s self-importance, dressed in a theologically correct garb. If all we see in God is “grace,” and if “theology of grace” is how we define our theology, we have limited our theology – and the Gospel – to a small portion of man’s life and action, the individual salvation of our souls. Making God subservient to our salvation – by making it the most important part of his theology – MacArthur is not different from the neo-Reformed he criticizes; he only has a different, more refined way of inviting the pagan culture of selfishness in the church. True, he doesn’t have holes in his jeans and he doesn’t wear an Abercrombie & Fitch shirt, neither does he have a beer can in his hand; but he does have a message that makes people believe that God is all about saving them, that Jesus is nothing more than a good fairy that hovers over His elected making sure they don’t go to hell. The spirit is the same, and the message is the same: God and His salvation exist FOR ME.
Contrary to MacArthur, the foundation of Reformed theology is not “grace.” Grace is only a logical corollary from the greatest Christian doctrine that has remained the standard for orthodoxy through all generations of the church: GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY. In God’s Sovereignty MacArthur has His doctrine of grace: We are saved because God is sovereign in salvation. Because God is sovereign in salvation, we know that no effort on our behalf – not even our faith – can save us; therefore we are saved by God’s grace. And in God’s sovereignty we have the assurance that we do not have to surrender to the pagan culture in order to reach the lost, as the neo-Reformed do; we only need to preach the Word, and God can change hearts without us having to manipulate people into the church with music, fashion styles, or obscene language.
But sovereignty as the foundation of our theology means much more. It also means that God is sovereign over history: History is the unfolding drama of God’s victory over His enemies, and it reveals the glory and power of God just as much as our individual salvation does. He is sovereign over culture: He demands that we as Christians build a comprehensive culture here on earth that manifests His excellencies just as much as our individual lives do. He is sovereign over law and ethics: He demands that His Law is made the foundation of that culture that His redeemed build on the earth, as a testimony to the unbelievers (Deut. 4:5-8). He is sovereign over economics: He requires that our individual economic actions and the economic policies of communities and nations obey His laws and moral principles. He is sovereign over civil government: He has specific qualifications for rulers and magistrates, and He requires that the church preaches them – and oppose ungodly rulers and magistrates when necessary. He is sovereign over every other area of life as well, over family, inheritance, education, science, art, music, fashion, etc. etc. God requires nothing less than Unconditional Surrender of the human civilization to His will, revealed in His Word.
This is what Reformed theology is all about. And this is why the Reformers did not set out to create simply churches. “City on a Hill” was their battle cry, a civilization that glorifies God in everything it does and believes.
But MacArthur is far from making God’s sovereignty the foundation for his theology. He doesn’t believe in God’s sovereignty in history; being a dispensationalist, MacArthur can’t see God’s victory manifested in history except in a very limited way; he only sees evil triumph in history. He doesn’t believe in God’s sovereignty over culture either; culture for MacArthur is always something evil we should avoid, or “address” at the most, but never something that can be redeemed, let alone rebuilt along Biblical lines. MacArthur doesn’t believe in God’s sovereignty over law and ethics either; there is no Biblical legal or ethical standard that can or should apply to modern man’s life and society. Economics, education, politics, and all these other areas of life are also outside of God’s sovereignty; MacArthur never talks about them, neither does he have a comprehensive social theory based on God’s revelation in the Bible that can teach us how to redeem those areas and make them Christian.
In short, by making grace instead of sovereignty the foundation of his “Reformed” theology, MacArthur effectively abandons the true Reformed theology, and becomes piecemeal Reformed: only a few Reformed doctrines, applied to only a few areas of life. In everything else he denies God’s sovereignty, and therefore he asserts man’s sovereignty by default – which is the essence of Arminianism. The criticism he levies against the neo-Reformed, applies to MacArthur himself: You can’t be Reformed in one area, and Arminian in all other areas. MacArthur’s Reformed doctrine of grace can not be used as a free pass to ignore the foundational doctrine of the Reformation: The sovereignty of God in every area of life, with no exceptions.
Therefore, MacArthur is wrong when he says that there will be a “reversal in the Reformed revival.” There hasn’t been a Reformed revival to start with, and what he calls “Reformed revival” is not. It is simply a remake of the old man-centered Arminian doctrines in a theologically correct garb. When the knowledge of God is reduced to God’s grace in personal salvation and to ecclesiology, this is not revival, this is only an attempt on the part of man to find theological justification for his arrogance and autonomy. The neo-Reformed are not Reformed at all, and neither is MacArthur. We shall know a Reformed revival by the re-emergence of the doctrine of God’s sovereignty over every area of man’s life and society. Anything less than that – including MacArthur’s theology – is simply piecemeal Reformed, or, more exact, modified Arminianism.