That John MacArthur is NOT a "Christmas Calvinist"
1. Introduction: This post really has little to do with the Christmas holiday.
It's a bit funny that I'm finally getting time to write this post over my Christmas break from teaching at Loachapoka Jr. High. As you will discover if you continue reading this post, my topic has very little to do with the Christmas holiday other than the humorous name given to a certain belief.
2. Who is John MacArthur?
John MacArthur is the pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church and the speaker on the radio broadcast Grace to You. For more information, you can read MacArthur's "bio" on the Grace to You website.
3. What does the term "Christmas Calvinist" mean?
First of all, there are a few different ways that people have defined the term "Calvinism." In this post, I am using "Calvinism" to indicate the "Doctrines of Grace," which have been traditionally explained using the acronym "TULIP". "TULIP" stands for the following "five points":
Because of the fall, man is unable of himself to savingly believe the gospel. The sinner is dead, blind, and deaf to the things of God; his heart is deceitful and desperately corrupt. His will is not free, it is in bondage to his evil nature; therefore, he will not--indeed he cannot--choose good over evil in the spiritual realm. Consequently, it takes much more than the Spirit's assistance to bring a sinner to Christ--it takes regeneration by which the Spirit makes the sinner alive and gives him a new nature. Faith is not something man contributes to salvation but is itself a part of God's gift of salvation--it is God's gift to the sinner, not the sinner’s gift to God.
Genesis 2:15-17, Romans 5:12, Psalm 51:5, 1 Corinthians 2:14, Romans 3:10-18, Jeremiah 17:9, John 6:44, Ephesians 2:1-10
God's choice of certain individuals unto salvation before the foundation of the world rested solely in His own sovereign will. His choice of particular sinners was not based on any foreseen response or obedience on their part, such as faith, repentance, etc. On the contrary, God gives faith and repentance to each individual whom He selected. These acts are the result, not the cause of God's choice. Election therefore was not determined by or conditioned upon any virtuous quality or act foreseen in man. Those whom God sovereignly elected He brings through the power of the Spirit to a willing acceptance of Christ. Thus God's choice of the sinner, not the sinner’s choice of Christ, is the ultimate cause of salvation.
Romans 9:10-21, Ephesians 1:4-11, Ephesians 2:4-10, Romans 8:29-30, Acts 11:18, Acts 13:48
Christ's redeeming work was intended to save the elect only and actually secured salvation for them. His death was a substitutionary endurance of the penalty of sin in the place of certain specified sinners. In addition to putting away the sins of His people, Christ's redemption secured everything necessary for their salvation, including faith which united them to Him. The gift of faith is infallibly applied by the Spirit to all for whom Christ died, thereby guaranteeing their salvation.
Matthew 1:21, Romans 5:12-21, Romans 3:21-26, Ephesians 2:8-10, Titus 3:5-6, Philippians 1:6, John 10:11-30, John 17:6-12, Romans 8:28-30, John 6:44, Acts 20:28
In addition to the outward general call to salvation which is made to everyone who hears the gospel, the Holy Spirit extends to the elect a special inward call that inevitably brings them to salvation. The external call (which is made to all without distinction) can be, and often is, rejected; whereas the internal call (which is made only to the elect) cannot be rejected, it always results in conversion. By means of this special call the Spirit irresistibly draws sinners to Christ. He is not limited in His work of applying salvation by man's will, nor is He dependent upon man's cooperation for success. The Spirit graciously causes the elect sinner to cooperate, to believe, to repent, to come freely and willingly to Christ. God's grace, therefore, is invincible; it never fails to result in the salvation of those to whom it is extended.
John 3:16, Matthew 22:14, Acts 17:29-31, Matthew 23:37-39, John 6:44, Romans 8:28-30, John 1:12-13, John 3:1-8, Ephesians 2:8-10
Perseverance of the Saints
All who were chosen by God, redeemed by Christ, and given faith by the Spirit are eternally saved. They are kept in faith by the power of Almighty God and thus persevere to the end.
John 3:16, John 6:35-40, John 6:44, Philippians 1:6, Philippians 2:12-13, Jude 24-25, Ephesians 1:13-14, Romans 8:28-30, Romans 8:35-39
Now, when someone first learns of these "five points," it often takes some time for that person to carefully study the Scriptures and embrace these doctrines as being truly representive of the teaching of the Word of God. Often, one or two of these doctrines will prove to be particularly challenging to an individual who wishes to determine whether they represent biblical theology or human-invented logic. Specifically, many people have great difficulty in accepting the "L" of the above acronym. "Calvinists"- those that believe "Calvinism,"as described above, is biblical- sometimes refer to people who accept the other four points, but do not accept the doctrine of "Limited Atonement", as "Christmas Calvinists." And you can hear the reason why. Those who accept the other points and deny "Limited Atonement" are "no-L" [sounds like "Noel," get it?] "Calvinists." The term "Christmas Calvinist" is used as a kind of joke between friends. A "five-point Calvinist" would usually only refer to someone as a "Christmas Calvinist" if it was known that the person who took exception to "Limited Atonement" nevertheless affirmed the essentials of what the Bible teaches about salvation, such as: each and every person on earth is a slave to their own sin; peoples' sin makes them guilty under the justice of God and deserving of His wrath; Jesus' death on the Cross provided satisfaction for God's just wrath against sin; and that God is entirely sovereign in the matter of which individuals are set free from sin and come in faith to appropriate the salvation from His wrath that was provided by the Cross.
4. The issue raised...
John MacArthur is a Bible teacher who has become well known for his love for the Word of God, which is expressed in his teaching of sound biblical doctrine. Though the word "Calvinism" is rarely mentioned from his pulpit, John MacArthur has also become known as a "Calvinist." This reputation primarily is due to his books, such as Hard to Believe, in which he defines "Calvinism" as the belief that "sinners are saved by hearing the gospel while the Holy Spirit awakens them from spiritual deadness" (page 84), and then he spends the entire book expounding upon this theme in different ways.
From quotes like the one above, it seems that MacArthur would agree with one of his heroes of the Faith, the 19th century English preacher Charles Spurgeon, who wrote:
If anyone should ask me what I mean by a Calvinist, I should reply, "He is one who says, Salvation is of the Lord." I cannot find in Scripture any other doctrine than this. It is the essence of the Bible. "He only is my rock and my salvation." Tell me anything contrary to this truth, and it will be a heresy; tell me a heresy, and I shall find its essence here, that it has departed from this great, this fundamental, this rock-truth, "God is my rock and my salvation." ....
I have my own Private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith, without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called, and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation after having once believed in Jesus. Such a gospel I abhor.
[This quote is from Spurgeon's "A Defense of Calvinism". The assertion that Spurgeon is highly respected by MacArthur is justified by the fact that MacArthur wrote a book titled Ashamed of the Gospel, which quotes Spurgeon favorably throughout the book, from the Preface to the first Appendix.]
But some people have raised the issue of whether MacArthur is really a "five-point Calvinist." I've heard some people have taken statements from MacArthur such as the following to indicate that he does not, indeed, hold to the doctrine of "Limited Atonement". In this quote MacArthur is speaking about 2 Peter 2:1:
The analogy simply says unthinkably, unimaginably, having been bought by a master they refuse to submit to his authority. In the spiritual dimension, you would ask the question, "In what sense did Christ buy these false teachers?" Two ways to view it: First of all, you can view it as universal provision for the redemption of sinners- even though they refuse it, and are damned. As First John 2:2 says, "He is not only the propitiation for our sins, but the sins of the whole world." And the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross was a sufficient purchase price to redeem all men. The price has been paid. In that sense, they have been bought. But I think there is a second sense in which we have to understand this, not only the sense of universal atonement- or universal purchase made available [emphasis added]. But there is also the sense that they have made an earthly identification with Christ's redemption, so that they claim Him as the One who bought them and they claim Him as their redeemer, testifying that He indeed has bought them, and their word then is taken at face value. No matter what they say, though the price was paid in full for them [emphasis added], and though they say they are Christ's, they refuse to say yes to His sovereign lordship and thus they are false teachers.
["How You Can Spot a False Teacher: II Peter 2:13", sermon by John MacArthur]
So, is MacArthur a "Christmas Calvinist"?
5. That John MacArthur is not a "Christmas Calvinist."
In order to find the answer to the above question, I contacted Phil Johnson, who is an elder with John MacArthur at Grace Community Church. Johnson is also the executive director of MacArthur's radio ministry, "Grace to You", and he edits most of MacArthur's major books.
Mr. Johnson was kind enough to send me the following email:
[John MacArthur is] a five-pointer and has been at least since 1995, when he preached through 2 Corinthians 5. His view of the atonement is broader than some Calvinists. It's the same view outlined by R.L. Dabney in his book The Five Points of Calvinism, and by R. B. Kuiper in For Whom Did Christ Die? The view allows for a universal aspect to the atonement, but insists that all the *substitutionary* aspects of the atonement are limited to the elect alone.
The above statements are more fully explained in a seminar that Johnson gave at the 2003 Shepherd's Conference of Grace Community Church. Following are several lengthy quotes from this seminar- I encourage you to take the time to read them, as they are very helpful in understanding the Bible's teaching concerning the extent of the atonement:
Modern Calvinist circles seem to be filled with guys who insist that Christ's death had no benefit whatsoever for anyone other than the elect and God's only desire with regard to the reprobate is to damn them period. Too many Calvinists embrace the doctrine of limited atonement, they finally see the truth of it but then they think, "Oh that's that." Christ died for the elect and in no sense are there any universal benefits in the atonement, so the atonement is limited to the elect in every sense and it has no relevance whatsoever to the non-elect. I think that's an extreme position and it's not supported by many of the classic Calvinist theologians and writers if you read carefully what Calvinists have said throughout history. ....
If you begin to study this issue in depth you will quickly discover that the classic Calvinist view on the extent of the atonement is a lot less narrow and a lot less cut and dried than the typical seminary student Calvinist on the Internet wants to admit. Historic Calvinism, as a movement has usually acknowledged that there are universal aspects of the atonement. Calvin himself had a view of the extent of the atonement that was far more broad and, and far more extensive than the average Calvinist today would care to recognize. ....
The real question is for whom did God ordain the atonement? In other words, the real issue in the extent of the atonement debate comes down to the very same issue as election itself. Did God purpose to save specific people or was He trying indiscriminately to save as many people as possible? What was His intent? What was His design? And if you accept the truth of election I can't understand why you would balk at the truth that the atonement had specific people in view. So that's the real question not was Christ's death sufficient to save all but what was the design and the goal of the atonement? What did God intend to do through it? Did He intend to save specific people through Christ's work on the cross? And if you answer that question, yes, you've affirmed the principle behind the Calvinistic position.
Here's an even more important question. Will all of God's purposes for sending Christ to die ultimately be accomplished? Did God intend something by the atonement that will not come to pass? Is there any purpose in Christ's dying that will ultimately be frustrated? And if you ask those questions it puts the importance of the whole issue in a totally different, clearer light. And I believe that Christ's atoning work on the cross ultimately accomplishes precisely what God designed it to accomplish, no more no less. If you believe God is truly sovereign you must ultimately come to that position. The fruits of the atonement are no less than what God sovereignly intended. God is not going to be frustrated throughout all eternity because He was desperately trying to save some people who just could not be persuaded. If that's your view of God than your God isn't really sovereign. Pharaoh fulfilled exactly the purpose God raised him up to fulfill. God is not wringing His hands in despair over Pharaoh's rebellion and unbelief.
But on the other hand, Christ's atoning work accomplishes no more than God intended it to accomplish. If benefits accrue to non-believers, reprobate people, because of Christ's death, than it is because God designed it that way. If Christ's dying means that the whole, the judgment of the whole world is postponed, than unregenerate people reap the blessings and the benefits of that delay. They reap the benefits and the blessings of common grace through the atonement. And if that's the case than that is exactly what God designed. It didn't happen by accident. And for that very reason it is my position and the position of most Calvinists throughout history that some benefits of the atonement are universal and some benefits of the atonement are particular and limited to the elect alone.
Now one of the points I made in my seminar last year was this: You cannot ultimately escape the limited and particular aspects of the atonement if you believe Christ's death on the cross was substitutionary. Let me illustrate. Did Christ suffer for Pharaoh's sins, in Pharaoh's place, and in his stead? Certainly not. Because when Christ died on the cross Pharaoh was already in hell suffering for his own sin. Those who suffer in hell all suffer for their own sin. Christ does not suffer on their behalf and in their stead in the same way He did for people who are ultimately redeemed and escape hell. That's a rather obvious point if you think about it. Substitutionary atonement and the substitutionary aspects of the atonement are ultimately something that belong to the elect alone. There's no escaping it. He bore their punishment so that they will not have to. If He had suffered vicariously for the sins of Judas in the same way He suffered in Peter's place then Judas wouldn't be suffering right now for his own sins. That's the inevitable ramification of vicarious atonement.
But at the same time, there are universal aspects of the atoning work of Christ and historic Calvinism has always recognized this. There is a legitimate sense in which Christ is set forth as the Savior of the whole world. The Savior of all men, Lord of all. And the only one all men everywhere are commanded to believe in. And there's another sense in which He is especially the Savior of those who believe. That's exactly the meaning of 1st Timothy 4:10, which is the verse that I think, better than any in Scripture, settles this whole question. First Timothy 4:10, "We trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially those who believe." I think it was R.B. Kuiper, a classic Five Point Calvinist, who said he preferred to speak of Christ's dying "specially for the elect rather than only for them." And that seems to be a good Biblical perspective. To those who believe Christ is Savior in a special and particular sense. His death had a particular reference to them in the ultimate design of God. And that is what Calvinists mean when they speak of particular redemption.
Curt Daniel gives a helpful illustration of how this is true in his syllabus. He points to the parable in Matthew 13:44, where a man finds a treasure hid in a field and Jesus says this: "The kingdom of heaven is like unto a treasure hid in a field which, when a man hath found, he hideth, and for the joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath and buyeth that field." He buys the field and therefore he buys the treasure. The treasure was the object and the aim of his purchase. The treasure was the reason for his great joy. The treasure was the reason he made this deal in the first place but he did not only purchase the treasure, he purchased the whole field. That's a good way, I think, to look at the atoning work of Christ. Listen to Romans 14:9, "For to this end Christ both died and rose and revived that He might be Lord both of the dead and living." Now notice what that verse is saying; because of Christ's death and resurrection, because of His atoning work, He is Lord of all men in a special way. And that includes elect and otherwise. Dead and living. His death on the cross purchased the right for Him as perfect man and perfect God, to rule as Lord over all the earth: over both the dead and the living, over the redeemed as well as the reprobate. That's also the same message you read in Philippians 2:8-10. Listen. "Being found and fashioned as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death even the death of the cross. Wherefore, [that is for this reason], because He was obedient unto the death of the cross, [because of His atonement] God has also highly exalted Him and given Him a name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven of things in earth and things under the earth." There is a very clear statement that there is a universal ramification of the atonement. Christ's death, in some sense, purchased Him an exalted position of Lordship over all. And so there's a true sense in which He purchased the whole world in order to get the treasure, the Church.
Now meanwhile, there are certain benefits of the atonement that accrue directly to the non-elect, the reprobate. Spurgeon said it well in a sermon entitled "Good Cheer for Many that Fear", Spurgeon said this: "We believe that by His atoning sacrifice, Christ bought some good things for all men and all good things for some men. And that when He died He had a definite purpose in dying and that His purpose will certainly be effected."
Now what specifically, did Spurgeon have in mind when He said that "Christ bought some good things for all men?" Well clearly, he was speaking of common grace, the goodness of God that is shown to all men. The common blessings of life. This is the grace that keeps the evil in the world from being as bad as it can possibly be.Common grace is the grace that permits all sinners to live and enjoy life under a temporary reprieve from just judgment and justice even though they're worthy of instant damnation. Common grace delays that. Common grace is also the grace that pleads tenderly and earnestly with sinners to repent and to be reconciled to God, even though they're hearts are set against Him. And according to Matthew 5:44-45, these common grace blessings are tokens of God's genuine love. Scripture does not hesitate to apply the expression "love" here. For those of you who may be my Calvinist brethren out there who balk at saying that, "God loves the whole world." Scripture doesn't balk at that. This goodness that He shows even to the reprobate is a sincere compassionate love even though it's not the same eternal redemptive love that God has set on the elect from all eternity. It's love of a different sort but it's true love. It's genuine love. It's heartfelt compassion. It's real goodness. And if you think about it you'll realize that all of the good things God gives us, all the blessings of common grace, all of them are made possible by the atonement. Because if God had no intention to save anyone, ever, He would have instantly damned the whole human race the minute Adam sinned. That's what He did with the angels that fell. They were cast out of heaven at once and no atonement will ever be made for the sins of any angel. They were immediately judged and deposed without any grace period. But by contrast, the human race, fallen though we are, for the most part, lives and enjoys life in a world where even though we are under the curse of sin we're blessed to an amazing degree with a providential good God gives us. We see beauty. We enjoy the taste of our food. John MacArthur always says, "God could've, if He wanted to, made all our food taste like sand." But He was good to us. He gave us things we would enjoy. He gave us all things richly to enjoy. We laugh and experience joy and appreciate love and we relish the good things of life and all of those things are ultimately made possible by the atoning work of Christ. None of them would have been possible, at all, if Christ had not intended to die to save sinners. God would have damned us instead. And even the reprobate, even the non-elect benefit from Christ's death in that way. The crumbs that fall from the table, God spreads for His elect, are a veritable feast for the reprobate who experience all of the blessings of common grace. That is a side benefit of the cross. And it's an expression of God's goodness towards them.
6. Conclusion: So what?
|The MacArthur Study Bible|
More importantly, I hope that this post has prompted you to think more deeply about the nature of Christ's work on the Cross and to glorify God for the good and perfect sacrifice of His Son on our behalf.
To the glory of God alone-
Labels: Reformation Theology