Salvation - Justification by Faith

Must We 'Take Up Our Cross' to Be Saved?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
Several readers have contacted us in a state of confusion about the preaching of Dr. John MacArthur on this subject.

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

Several readers have contacted us in a state of confusion about the preaching of Dr. John MacArthur. Most of their confusion centers on his mixed messages regarding the Gospel.

Dr. MacArthur is pastor of Grace Community Church in California, president of The Master's Seminary, a prolific writer, and principal speaker on the Grace To You radio program. At times, Dr. MacArthur's preaching of the Gospel - that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in the finished work of Christ alone - seems as clear as can be. But much of the time, he crosses the line and preaches what amounts to salvation by faith-plus-works.

This doctrinal deviation stems from his self-described zeal to preach against the deception of "easy believism" - the false teaching that a person can be saved merely by repeating a formula of words apart from regeneration by the Holy Spirit. That, in itself, is a commendable position. But the problem is that Dr. MacArthur often cites passages such as Matthew 16:24, and says that in order to be saved, one must take up his cross and follow Christ.

Confusing Justification and Sanctification

When MacArthur does this, he breaks down the vital difference between justification and sanctification - between genuine, Spirit-wrought, empty-handed saving faith in Christ, and the evidences of that saving faith in a changed life.

This isn't a mere theological technicality. It is confusion on the essence of the Gospel. MacArthur muddies two elements of Biblical doctrine that must always be kept distinct, and preached in proper relationship to one another. The Bible makes a clear, unbreachable line of demarcation between the empty-handed faith in the cross-work of Christ alone that saves the sinner, and the dying-to-self, dying-to-the-world taking up of one's cross, which is the Spirit's work of sanctification after a sinner has been saved.

These passages speak of the cross in terms of Christ's finished work of salvation, to which we can add nothing:

And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it. (Colossians 2:13-15)

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. (Romans 3:21-28)

These passages speak of the cross in terms of the Spirit's ongoing work of sanctification:

Then Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me." (Matthew 16:24)

But God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:14)

These passages place the two distinct aspects of the cross in their proper relationship to each other:

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:5-11)

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-25)

Sowing the Seeds of Confusion

Blurring the Biblical distinction between justification and sanctification, as Dr. MacArthur often does, sows seeds of confusion, making some people think they must "take up the cross" in order to be saved. I know this to be true from readers' questions about his preaching. Let us be clear: Saving faith is faith in Christ's cross, not our cross.

Dr. MacArthur has also taken other un-Biblical and confusing positions. I'll mention just two of the more notable ones. He long held the false doctrine of "incarnational sonship," that the Father-Son relationship in the Godhead is not an eternal one, but began only when Jesus Christ came to earth. After preaching and adamantly defending this view for many years, MacArthur publicly recanted in 1989.1 A few years before that, MacArthur made remarks that were published in Grace Community Church's newsletter which made it appear that he denied the necessity of Christ's blood atonement. He said, "It is not His bleeding that saved me, but His dying."2 When challenged, MacArthur later corrected this misstatement, but not before seeds of confusion had been sown.

A Profound Responsibility

We caution our readers to beware of the recurring element of confusion in Dr. MacArthur's preaching about the core fundamentals of the faith. Many people appreciate his strong positions against Roman Catholicism, seeker-sensitive church-growth philosophies, and the tolerance of immorality within the church. But we think you would be far better off listening to and reading men who don't introduce such confusion.3

Discussing the confusion surrounding John MacArthur's teachings reminds us at TeachingTheWord of our own profound responsibility to proclaim Biblical truth with absolute clarity. It reminds us that we too are vessels of clay. Always, we encourage our readers and listeners to emulate the Bereans, who did not even take the word of the Apostle Paul on its own, but validated it by testing it against the believer's sole authority, holy Scripture (Acts 17:11). You must do that with everything that we say, as well - and let us know when you believe we have failed.

 

References:

 

1. John MacArthur, "Re-Examining the Eternal Sonship of Christ," as published on the Grace to You website, http://www.gty.org/Resources/Articles/593.

2. MacArthur was thus quoted in a news item written by Dr. Bob Jones, Jr. for the April 1986 issue of Faith for the Family, a publication of Bob Jones University.

3. Among those we commend to you are the writings of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, many of which are available from Banner of Truth Trust.

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