We need to pay more careful attention to how Jesus dealt with false teachers, what He thought of religious error, and how He defended the truth, says evangelical pastor and popular speaker John MacArthur.
Breaking the stereotype of the gentle Jesus, MacArthur illustrates in The Jesus You Can't Ignore how Jesus was rarely cordial when confronting false teachings, hypocrisy and self-righteousness in His time. The outspoken, bold and blunt Jesus is the one whom the Church today needs to follow, he argues.
The soft and less aggressive approach many Christians use today when engaging with nonbelievers or people of other faiths has only muddied Christian doctrine and left evangelicals indistinguishable, MacArthur indicates.
Among today's new-style evangelicals, the author points out, it is politically incorrect to commit to the old fundamentalist notion that truth is worth fighting for.
MacArthur explains why Christians have a duty to obey and defend the truth and to do so with an authority that reflects the conviction that God has spoken with clarity and finality.
CP: What kind of Jesus did you grow up on? Was your first impression of Jesus this bold aggressive Jesus?
MacArthur: Well I was raised in a pastor's family and my dad was a preacher of Scripture so I grew up with the scriptural Jesus.
Obviously, like so many kids, when you're a child, the features of Jesus that are more attractive to children are emphasized. But it didn't take long for me to hear my father preach about the Jesus who cleansed the temple, the Jesus who pronounced judgment on false religion, the Jesus who denounced the religious leaders of Israel. So I think I grew up with a pretty balanced view of Jesus but it's right to assume when you're a young child, in Sunday School class, you get the Jesus who tends to be the one who loves and cares for the children and heals the sick and feeds the hungry.
CP: You've probably come across books reporting that people like Jesus but not the church. What kind of Jesus do you think they like? Would people like this Jesus that you emphasize in your book?
MacArthur: Probably not. But most of these people are content to invent Jesus to construct Jesus in a way that suits their comfort zone. It's as if you said which Winston Churchill do you believe in? There's only one Winston Churchill. He was who he was … that's the one there is you don't get to create your own. And the same is true for Jesus. He's a historical figure. He is who he is. But I think rather than go to the Bible and get the full picture of who Jesus is, people are very content with a sort of benign, self-satisfying view of Jesus.
CP: You mention in your book that the evangelicals are pretty much approaching postmodernism the wrong way. They're being a lot less aggressive, less preachy and more focused on engaging in conversations. Why do you think so many evangelicals have become such softies, if you will?
MacArthur: I think there are a number of reasons. First of all, we live in a postmodern climate and my ideas have consequences, they penetrate culture. So you got this sort of postmodern idea that you got your truth and I got my truth and that has found its way into the church, in the emerging church. And along with that, the emergent movement features the idea that the Bible's not clear, it's an old document. They came up with that in order to separate themselves from responsibility to obey what I think is clear in Scripture.
So you have the postmodern and then you have the market-conscious church – the church that thinks the Gospel is a product; Jesus is a product we have to sell. And in order to sell him effectively we have to overcome consumer resistance and the way to overcome consumer resistance is to simply figure out a message that the consumer won't resist. So you invent the Jesus that people will like and you invent the Gospel that people will like.
And then you have another component and that is an age in which tolerance seems to dominate, you know sort of the Rodney King theology "can't we all just get along." You have to be tolerant of this, tolerant of that. Intolerance is basically the only virtue left in much of our culture.
All of those things mingle together with one other very important thing. Confronting people like Jesus did, confronting people in false religion, confronting people in error, confronting people's sins, warning them about hell, calling them to repentance, calling them to escape false religion is a very difficult thing to do. And there's a natural tendency on the part of people to be reluctant to do that because it has negative consequences. If you feed the poor, nobody's going to make you a martyr. If you proclaim the social gospel, you'll be a hero on every front.
Preach the truth, call false religion a lie, tell sinners they need to repent of their sin and escape hell by putting their faith in Jesus Christ, there's no other way, and you're going to generate hostility. People get martyred all the time, even today in Afghanistan and Sudan and Iran and Iraq and a lot of other places for proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I think it's tough to do that. So I think all these things kind of blend together to sort of suck the life and boldness out of the church … we're just content to be nice people; hey maybe God's going to let them into heaven if they do the best they can; I guess you can call it legalism lite. It's not the heavy legalism of Pharisaism but it's legalism lite – if you're a good person you'll kind of make your way in.
It all comes back to the fact that we're letting the culture determine the message for us. We're letting expectation, fear of man rather than Scripture determine our message. And rather than following Jesus in the way he presented the message – on the one hand compassionate with those who are willing to repent, tender toward those in need; on the other hand very antagonistic, literally infuriating the purveyors of false religion until they killed him.
CP: If we did take that approach of confronting the hypocrisy, false teachings and what you mentioned, then what do you think evangelicalism would look like today?
MacArthur: Well I think first of all there would be a lot of people, who call themselves evangelicals who aren't Christians, who would come to real salvation. You have to understand Jesus said the wheat and the chaff will grow together. It's kind of hard to pull them apart. You have the true church, true regenerate church, transformed, redeemed, indwelled by the spirit of God, serving the Lord Jesus Christ, and it is indistinguishably mingled with people who call themselves Christians, evangelicals who for all kinds of reasons … identify with the church externally but aren't' genuine believers. They're in it because they're looking for their best life now, because they lack self-esteem, because they're afraid of death and they want to be religious.
I think the first thing that would happen if the church really came to grips with the bold proclamation of the truth the way Jesus did, is we would be able to warn these people who, hey Jesus warned them, many were saying to me lord we did this … and he'll say depart from me, I never knew you. I think the first thing that would happen would be that people who are deceived, think they're Christians, would find out that they really have not been genuinely saved and there would be, I would think, a marvelous response within the visible church, people truly coming to Christ. And then I think getting beyond the church, the church would really begin to have an impact because it is the truth that sanctifies. The truth is all we have and if we came back to that, it would literally redeem the church and have the impact on the culture that only the truth can have.
CP: Who would you say are today's Pharisees?
MacArthur: In the broadest sense, the Pharisees were the purveyors of a false religion. And the heart of that false religion came down to this – you can earn your way to heaven, it's about self-righteousness, it's about works, it's about ceremonies, it's about morality. Any religion on the planet that doesn't believe in salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is a religion of works. It's a religion where you make a contribution to your salvation. It doesn't matter what that religion is. So consequently, one modern form of Pharisaism is just the vast religious realm in which people believe that you earn your way to heaven, by your own goodness, your own morality, your own religiosity, your own self-righteousness. That's essentially Pharisaism. Pharisaism is not legalistic true Christianity. Sometimes you say about somebody who's a real Christian, 'well, he's very Pharisaical.' Pharisees represented a false religion. Believe me there are hypocritical legalistic Christians true Christians, that's different from a false religion.
CP: You say in your book, "Certainty and conviction are out of fashion. Dogmatism is new heresy." But many surveys now show the younger generation wants truth, clear truth and none of the ambiguity we seem to find nowadays. Do you agree?
MacArthur: We do a conference sponsored by our church every summer called Resolve. We have 5,000 kids there to listen to 11 hours of preaching on sin. There's just this tremendous hunger. I look at our church, we've chronicled over the last dozen years, we've taken about 75 new members a month and we've done that for many years. Just looking at that over the last 12 years, and I basically preach an hour of expositional Scripture, call for holiness, purity, clear Gospel, all of that, 90 percent of those people over those dozen years have been 30s and under. So there's an influx. We have a huge college ministry I would think 900 or 1000 on a Sunday morning, a lot of them from UCLA and places like that where they're exposed to the secular world at its peak in those educational institutions. They have a real hunger for truth, clarity, objective reality. I think there's definitely, … and this is the true church reacting. False Christians don't have that appetite for the truth.
CP: You say confronting false teaching and hypocrisy should be one of the highest priorities of a Christian. I don't think I've ever heard that emphasis from many pastors. It's usually serve the poor, or share the good news.
MacArthur: I know they didn't kill Jesus because he fed the poor, they didn't kill Jesus because he healed the sick. They killed him because he confronted their self-righteousness and told them their religion would send them to hell. This is the loving thing you have to do. You want to take care of the poor, that's a biblical command. … The priority for us, the great demand is the proclamation of the saving Gospel. It doesn't matter whether you go to heaven poor or rich, it just matters that you go to heaven. So at the end of the day, you can't substitute social action for the Gospel.
If you do social action stuff, everybody applauds you. If you preach the Gospel, they resent you. So you follow the line of least resistance. The church has to recapture its own courage and be faithful to follow the path the Lord took.
CP: The church in Ephesus, which was adamant about exposing and confronting false teachings, was rebuked by Christ for forsaking their first love. Do you see any danger in Christians today losing that first love by focusing on fighting the hypocrisy and false doctrines/preachers?
MacArthur: That is most definitely a danger-and it's a significant one. Jesus warned the church at Ephesus that He would remove their lampstand from its place if they did not repent. Still, pay careful attention to what Christ demands of them. He did not authorize them to cease their polemic against the Nicolaitains or let down their guard against the false apostles. What they needed to do instead was recover their love for Christ (and His truth) as the true motive for their watchfulness.
It should perhaps be noted that the Ephesian spirit became a major problem among certain fundamentalists in the early and mid-20th century. Many of them lost focus in the fight for the truth, becoming more enthralled with the fight than they were with the truth. They ultimately began fighting one another over petty matters, and their movement is practically irrelevant today. Their lampstand in effect seems to have been removed. Certainly, then, the tendency to leave one's first love is a temptation every truth-warrior must recognize and resist.
But surely the greater problem among mainstream evangelicals today is the exact opposite. Contemporary mainstream evangelicals have much more in common with the church at Pergamos, who blithely tolerated Nicolaitains and Balaamites; or the church at Thyatira, who provided a platform for a Jezebellian false prophetess; or the church at Sardis--the spiritually dead church whose people had defiled their garments by consorting with the world; or the church at Corinth, who took great pride in their tolerance of things in their midst so sordid even unbelievers were scandalized.
Those, I think, are the dominant dangers today, and that's the message of my book. But the book also recognizes the opposite danger and repeatedly cautions against it as well.
So your question is an excellent one. We do need to bear in mind how easy it is to overcorrect against an imbalance and veer into the ditch on the other side. Those who are truly circumspect and who cultivate authentic biblical wisdom will recognize that there are pitfalls on every side and avoid them all.