The truth is, to be a Christian is to be a slave of Christ, according to an evangelical author.
That may not sit well with a lot of people, especially in America where the image of slavery is undoubtedly ugly and regrettable. But John MacArthur suggests in his new book Slave that it's the most accurate way of truly understanding what it means to be a Christ follower.
The image of a slave, however, has escaped many Christians today, likely because of what MacArthur argues are mistranslations of the New Testament.
The Greek word for slave is doulos and it appears 124 times in the original text, he said, citing Murray J. Harris' Slave of Christ. But almost every modern English translation has substituted the term with the softer "servant."
"Ironically, the Greek language has at least half a dozen words that can mean servant. The word doulos is not one of them," he said, again quoting Harris.
MacArthur, considered one of the most influential evangelicals in the country, came upon this discovery just a few years ago, though he has been studying Scripture for more than half a century.
It was Harris' book that brought the issue to his attention during a flight to London in 2007.
He understands the mistranslations may have been made because of the stigmas attached to slavery in Western society and because in late-medieval times, it was common to translate doulos with the Latin word servus.
Nevertheless, the 71-year-old pastor of Grace Community Church in Southern California believes that if the proper term was used, Christianity would look very different today.
"I have no doubt that this perpetual hiding of an essential element of New Testament revelation has contributed to much of the confusion in evangelical teaching and practice," he wrote in Slave.
The language in contemporary Christianity is "anything but slave terminology," he lamented, noting that sermons are often about success, health, the pursuit of happiness and God wanting His followers to be all they want to be.
"Instead of teaching the New Testament gospel – where sinners are called to submit to Christ, the contemporary message is exactly the opposite: Jesus is here to fulfill all your wishes," the longtime pastor observed.
MacArthur is no stranger to criticizing much of what he's seeing in today's churches. He has authored numerous books trying to clarify the gospel. But he feels this one perception – about being a slave for Christ – hits at the heart of the issue.
"Until you understand what it means that he is Lord and I'm his slave, you're going to get all kinds of things wrong," he told The Christian Post. "[T]he issue really comes down to this idea that we understand what it means that he is Lord and I'm his slave. That is the most clarifying, far-reaching paradigm because everything fits into that."
Of course, MacArthur is well aware that this concept is not likely to be embraced easily.
"The truth of God's Word is always countercultural," he wrote. But "it is difficult to imagine a concept more distasteful to modern sensibilities than that of slavery."
He acknowledges that it's controversial, confrontational and hated by both unbelievers and even some believers. But it's what the Bible says.
The significance of saying "Lord"
The notion of absolute enslavement will likely sort out the true believers from the rest, MacArthur said. While true believers would embrace it, "non-believers" in the church – some of whom know they're non-believers and some of whom don't – would refuse to accept it and ultimately leave.
Using the famous biblical illustration of the rich young ruler, MacArthur noted that if Jesus simply said "believe in me" or "pray this prayer" as the means for inheriting eternal life, the man would have done it. But Jesus told him to sell everything he has and give the money to the poor.
"Jesus went after the issue of who's Lord," he stressed. "It's basically like the First Commandment – have no other gods – and Deuteronomy 6 – love the Lord with all your heart, all your soul, all your might, all your strength. No room for any other gods. That's why Jude 4 says that Jesus Christ is our only master and Lord."
To say Jesus is Lord is a common confession among Christians. But people don't get it, MacArthur noted.
"If he's Lord, I'm his slave," he simply put it.
The Greek word for "Lord" is kyrios, he explains in his book. And its fundamental meaning is "master" or "owner."
Thus, saying "Lord" carries a lot of weight. It means obeying no matter the level of sacrifice; it means giving up everything to follow Him; it means coming to the end of oneself and submitting completely to His will, MacArthur elaborated.
But it is not mere duty that serves as the motivation to obey, he noted. It is love.
"If you love me, you will keep my commandments," Jesus told his disciples in John 14:15.
After all, they were bought with a price – Jesus' blood.
Additionally, Christians should understand that to be a slave of Jesus Christ "is the greatest benediction imaginable," MacArthur said.
"Not only is He a kind and gracious Lord, but He is also the God of the universe. His character is perfect; His love is infinite; His power, matchless; His wisdom, unsearchable; and His goodness, beyond compare."
MacArthur reminded believers that they were delivered from "the vilest, most dreadful master imaginable" – sin.
"Slavery to Christ not only means freedom from sin, guilt, and condemnation. It also means freedom to obey, to please God, and to live the way our Creator intended us to live – in intimate fellowship with Him."
And it doesn't end there. Once liberated from sin, Christians are "ushered into the wonder and privilege of full citizenship in the kingdom of His beloved Son."
"[W]e are citizens of heaven, both by emancipation and by birth, and all by grace," he wrote.
Slave: The Hidden Truth About Your Identity in Christ was released last month. To date, MacArthur has sold 7.5 million copies of his books.