25 March 2011

Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Heretic?

Evangelical Apathy and the Danger of False Teaching
by John MacArthur
The following is excerpted from The Truth War (Nelson, 2007, pp. 165-68)




hy do so many evangelicals act as if false teachers in the church could never be a serious problem in this generation? Vast numbers seem convinced that they are "rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing'; and do not know that [they] are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked" (Revelation 3:17).

In reality, the church today is quite possibly more susceptible to false teachers, doctrinal saboteurs, and spiritual terrorism than any other generation in church history. Biblical ignorance within the church may well be deeper and more widespread than at any other time since the Protestant Reformation. If you doubt that, compare the typical sermon of today with a randomly-chosen published sermon from any leading evangelical preacher prior to 1850. Also compare today's Christian literature with almost anything published by evangelical publishing houses a hundred years ago or more.

Bible teaching, even in the best of venues today, has been deliberately dumbed-down, made as broad and as shallow as possible, over-simplified, adapted to the lowest common denominator—and then tailored to appeal to people with short attention spans. Sermons are almost always brief, simplistic, overlaid with as many references to pop culture as possible, and laden with anecdotes and illustrations. (Jokes and funny stories drawn from personal experience are favored over cross-references and analogies borrowed from Scripture itself.) Typical sermon topics are heavily weighted in favor of man-centered issues (such as personal relationships, successful living, self-esteem, how-to lists, and whatnot)—to the exclusion of the many Christ-exalting doctrinal themes of Scripture.

In other words, what most contemporary preachers do is virtually the opposite of what Paul was describing when he said he sought "to declare . . . the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). Not only that, but here's how Paul explained his own approach to gospel ministry, even among unchurched pagans in the most debauched Roman culture:
I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

Notice: he deliberately refused to customize his message or adjust his delivery to suit the Corinthians' philosophical bent or their cultural tastes. He had no thought of catering to a particular generation's preferences, and he used no gimmicks as attention-getters. Whatever antonym you can think of for the word showmanship would probably be a good description of Paul's style of public ministry. He wanted to make it clear to everyone (including the Corinthian converts themselves) that lives and hearts are renewed by means of the Word of God, and by nothing else. That way they would begin to understand and appreciate the power of the gospel message.

By contrast, today's church-growth experts seem to have no confidence in Scripture's power. They are convinced the gospel needs to be "contextualized," streamlined, and revamped anew for every generation. Forty years of that approach has left evangelicals grossly untaught, wholly unprepared to defend the truth, and almost entirely unaware of how much is at stake. The evangelical movement itself has become a monstrosity, its vast size and visibility belying its almost total spiritual failure. One thing is certain: the cumbersome movement that most people today would label "evangelical" is populated with large numbers of people who are on the wrong side in the Truth War.

We are right back in the same situation the church was in a hundred years ago, when modernists were busily re-inventing the Christian faith. Far from being a strong voice and a powerful force for the cause of truth, the evangelical movement itself has become the main battleground.



John MacArthur's signature

45 comments:

John Dunn said...

Amen . . . period.

Sharon said...

WORD!

Tom Chantry said...

Jokes and funny stories drawn from personal experience are favored over cross-references and analogies borrowed from Scripture itself.

Oh, the things men do when they should be preaching!

timeintheword said...

Amen! Right to the point, as usual.

donsands said...

John MacArthur is a seasoned elder of the Body of Christ. i appreciate him a lot.

I like a preacher with a good sense of humor. And of course Scripture goes way beyond occasional humor. But, some humor in a sermon can be a good thing indeed.

Thanks for post. Have a God blessed weekend and Lord's day!

Redeemed1 said...

Amen!!!

Kim @ Cheap Chic Home said...

Hey guys, would you add the "share" icons at the bottom of your posts so we can easily post these on FB or Twitter?

Mike Riccardi said...

Fantastic. Amen.

Mike Riccardi said...

Oh, and by the way, the headline graphic is hysterical! Well done, Phil!

Strong Tower said...

Kim @ Cheap Chic Home-

If you click on follow this blog and become a follower I think each time you click on the current post it will bring up your name as a follower and list options. You can share from there.

Daniel said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
dcjmcbride said...

Excellent. Thanks for posting, Phil.

Lilian said...

Smart man, that John MacArthur.
What more can anyone else say?

bassicallymike said...

Is there any wonder why Dr. Mac will not be in the Elephant Room?

Michael Lawmaster said...

I am thankful to Jesus Christ for John MacArthur! This book is one of my favorites by him. A big thank you goes out to you Phil as well for your contribution to this work. Definitely the book is a word in season.

A.W. said...

Amen!

untilhecome said...

Outstanding!

tftorrance said...

I totally agree with this assessment! Of course you know that this only makes us Fundies, right?

~Bobby Grow

WoundedEgo said...

Should we understand you to be saying that the "Lectures on Systematic Theology" published in 1851 introduced heartless and godless pop psychology to Christendom? Might you be suggesting that Charles Granderson Finney, by denouncing slavery as contrary to love, so flew in the face of correct theology, that the pulpit got all flustered and they traded Jesus for Socialism?

Personally, I don't long for the "good ol' days" when Luther carried on about how wicked Jews were, or Calvin called for the death of those that did not honor his own person sufficiently.

Alas, nor do I consider McArthur to be "playing with a full deck."

But you sure get pats on the back, so wouldn't Jesus say you are on the right track?

Oh, maybe not...

Stan McCullars said...

Might a wounded ego be bitter?

Aaron Snell said...

Is there any way in which your comment is even remotely connected to what was said in this post, WoundedEgo?

sma9231961 said...

I listened to J. MacArthur's sermons for about three days in a row and it was about all I could stand.

He was telling people how to live the Christian life. And telling people that "it wasn't hard to do", to boot.

All law. All moralistic, how to, buck up and DO IT, law.

Dreadful. I know that he knows what the gospel is. But he insists on this legalistic mix of law and gospel because he has an improper understanding of the external Word and Sacraments.

It's a shame. He is a really nice man. I have had the pleasure of meeting him.

Sharon said...

"Profile unavailable." Yep, fits the template.

Mary Elizabeth Tyler said...

The entire book is quotable. Read it and reap!!!

In Russet Shadows said...

I can't really say that I agree with most of this. Paul, for instance, did say that he became all things to all men so that by so doing, he might save some (1 Cor 9:22). He also used the statue to the unknown god to declare Christ as known (Acts 17:23)! So, generally speaking, Paul wasn't above referencing the culture to reach it. I find arguing against this particularly ironic in a blog post that assails the lack of Biblical knowledge among believers!

And as for comments -- now preaching has become defined as humorless? Or can only jokes that are in the Bible be told? Folks, if you go any further down that road, you'll be saying that cars are evil because the Bible doesn't mention them.

Matt Kennedy said...

There is a difference between using humor in a sermon as a matter of course and in the process of exposition on the one hand and building humor into your sermon because you want people to relax and have a great time on the other.

There is a difference between using an illustration or anecdote drawn from culture to help people grasp the meaning of a text on the one hand and using an illustration or anecdote to obscure the text and make everyone feel comfortable about a painful and convicting bit of divine revelation on the other.

Having been nourished, convicted, and edified by, oh, hundreds of Macarthur sermons online (I listen to one just about every morning) I think it would be incorrect to say that he is calling for humorless and dry sermons. He does not preach that way.

I think he is calling for sermons that do what sermons are supposed to do...expound a text fully and faithfully rather than entertain a congregation--sermons in which difficult texts are illumined and interpreted by other parts scripture rather than by our own imaginations and opinions.

Illustrations anecdotes and/or stories...must be slaves of the text not the other way around.

Also, in answer to another comment above. Macarthur is not "graceless". Instead he recognizes the power of grace at work in the justified believer. In Christ we have been given strength and freedom to struggle against sin. The struggle is not waged through our raw natural power--we have none--but through God's Holy Spirit who strengthens and equips us for war. Nor is it a battle in which our eternal destiny is at stake...that destiny is not subject to our failures or feebleness (thanks be to God) but rests in the righteousness of Christ imputed to us by God and our sins imputed to Christ.

But the fact is that we have been predestined, called, justified etc in order to do the works God has prepared for us to do (Eph 2:10).

So a call to "do" them is far far from "legalism". It is a call to walk in the liberation and freedom Christ has won for us.

WoundedEgo said...

My own position is that Paul would say that the whole of Christendom, including "The Reformation" (which was actually just "The Re-Packaging") is post-Christian. The denominations, the creeds, the churches, the pews, the dogmas, the pastors, the preachers, the doctrines, the programs... they are all of them wholly Roman in design, and unscriptural. Paul's "better approach" is all but extinct. See 1 Cor 14:26-40 (but skip (verses 34-36, since they don't really belong there).

Phil Johnson said...

WoundedEgo:

You have been off-topic since your first comment. No one in this post or comment thread had mentioned or alluded to Finney until you did, but you pretended that's what the post is all about. It's not. (And you misspelled Finney's middle name to boot.)

You don't get to derail topics in the comment-threads here. It's bad form.

Your most recent comment further insinuates that you're about to propound some heresy, because you expressly renounced "the whole of Christendom, including 'The Reformation.'"

I don't know if you're planning to question the deity of Christ, promote a governmental view of the atonement, or something else subtle and sinister borrowed from the spectrum of bad doctrine between those two. In any case, don't. This blog is not an open forum for anyone and everyone to float their pet errors.

You seem to be new here, so you may not have realized that. Perhaps it would be good for you to read for awhile and get to know something about the forum before commandeering our comment-threads.

Alternatively, you can find a blog with a high tolerance level for heresy and homebrew doctrine. There are plenty of them out there. But we have never hosted that kind of free-for-all here.

Sir Brass said...

Excellent reminder that discerning men have NOT been surprised by Bell and others here. I remember John calling out McClaren and Bell specifically in "Truth War" long before other folks finally noticed that their "questions" were far more than "mere" and were far more rhetorical than interrogative.

The whistle was blown on these clowns (Bell, McClaren, et al) years before. So my actual probing question is... why has it taken folks this long to actually start listening to the warnings?

renaissanceguy said...

Excellent points. It is sad that some commenters had to deliberately misconstrue what MacArthur wrote. I guess that's the blogosphere for you.

Christians today are no longer on guard against false doctrine, because they do not believe that sound doctrine matters. This, despite numerous biblical warnings on the subject.

sma9231961 said...

Telling people to buck up and "do" the Christian life, "it is not hard to do", is graceless. it is all law.

I've got news for J. MacArthur, living the obedient, faithful life that is expected of us is impossible for us. We are full blown sinners who ARE disobedient.

But Christ died for who? The obedient, or the ungodly?

Aaron Snell said...

'Twould be nice if dissenting and/or critical commenters would dissent from or critique the actual content of the posts on which they comment.

sma9231961 said...

That J. MacArthur himself teaches falsely about how "easy it is to lead the Christian life"...ought qualify.

Unless this is a J. MacArthur lovefest instead of a serious discussion of the dangers of false teaching.

If it's the former, then I will bow out.

Phil Johnson said...

sma9231961:

Perhaps you should bow out anyway. When someone who never comments on our regular blogposts suddenly shows up with an anonymous profile in order to attack a guest post by John MacArthur--firing off two or three angry and unbalanced antinomian rants; attributing words to MacArthur that have nothing to do with the excerpt we featured (indeed, words that he has never said in ANY context); ignoring both propriety and good manners--such misbehavior usually so discredits the person that his participation is unedifying to anyone.

Unless you glory in your own shame, I think whatever cause you represent would be best served if you took it elsewhere and toned it down a few notches, OK? We don't like to ban people here, but our track record with antinomians has been so dismal that frankly we're inclined to give them the heave-ho after just two admonitions (Titus 3:10). So please don't push it.

bassicallymike said...

"Unless you glory in your own shame, I think whatever cause you represent would be best served if you took it elsewhere and toned it down a few notches, OK?"

Is a wince followed by simi controlled mirth an acceptable reaction here? If not, I will repent, perhaps grudgingly!

Frank Turk said...

Is it too late to say that the nipple on the baby in that illustration caused many weaker brothers and sisters to sin?

Is it ever too late to say that?

Gilbert said...

I felt like I was being riddled with spiritual bullets from start to end. Great article, that church deacons and elders MUST know. Amen, amen, and amen!

~Mark said...

It's all about proportion. I had some interesting comments about funny pastors when I brought this up on Facebook a while back. If the first thing a person thinks of with a given pastor is how funny he is, it seems to me that pastor is doing a bad job of focusing on the teaching.

Guys like John MacArthur and R.C. Sproul both have a healthy sense of humor that comes through in their preaching, but they limit it, and I can't imagine anyone thinking of humor before strong preaching when it comes to those men.

Then you have preachers who joke all the way through their sermons, which by the way tend to be 12% exposition, 40% self-referential humor, 10% other humor, 5% Starbucks, 20% politics and the rest varies between book quotes, slogans and cliches, misappropriated Scripture and announcements about how much the church is growing.

sma9231961 said...

No problem, Phil.

The clay is pretty much baked with folks like you, anyway.

Good luck with your spiritual ladder climbing projects with folks like Piper, MacArthur, et al.

Mr. Fosi said...

I guess the admonition to pass on the faith once delivered to the saints and to guard against false doctrine still has its opponents.

sma9231961: You are an unknown quantity by your own design. As such, it shouldn't surprise you that your assertions sans arugumentum won't here be met with applause.

Instead of calling people like Phil names and casting aspersions on his character by implying that he is unteachable, why not instead do some actual persuasive work including logical argumentation supported by verifiable evidence?

Reggie Reinhold said...

Frank, I didn't notice the nipple on the baby until you mentioned it. Is it too late for you to remove that comment from this discussion thread? Now everyone that reads your comment about the nipple is going to think about that.

Excellent blog posting and I have read the book from which this blog posting comes several times.

Sir Brass said...

"Is it too late to say that the nipple on the baby in that illustration caused many weaker brothers and sisters to sin?"

I don't know about sin, but your remark certainly caused me to laugh... out loud. Yes, I LOL'd :P

WoundedEgo said...

>>>...No one in this post or comment thread had mentioned or alluded to Finney until you did, but you pretended that's what the post is all about....

So what happened in 1850?

donsands said...

"Guys like John MacArthur and R.C. Sproul both have a healthy sense of humor that comes through in their preaching, but they limit it, and I can't imagine anyone thinking of humor before strong preaching when it comes to those men."-Mark

I agree. Rc has a wonderful sense of humor. Pastor John Mac?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYpc5P802K8

Billohno said...
This comment has been removed by the author.