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At war with pragmatism

It’s important to preach both the law and grace— without the hurdle of pragmatism

Illustration by Jeffrey J. Smith

At war with pragmatism
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John MacArthur during his 51 years as pastor of Grace Community Church in suburban Los Angeles has published best-selling books including the MacArthur Study Bible. He’s also chancellor of the Master’s University and Seminary and has a daily broadcast, Grace to You. His church is holding worship services that don’t satisfy the restrictions on church gatherings that Los Angeles County officials have imposed. Here are edited excerpts of our Aug. 11 conversation.

Some Christian leaders and organizations argue civil disobedience isn’t the best option right now. The government has no right to tell a church it can’t meet. That’s an unalienable right from God. They’re violating the Constitution when they tell the church how, where, or when it can meet. Also, the requirements for us to meet outdoors are so unreasonable, vast, and complex as to make meeting essentially impossible. If we were to follow them, we’d just cancel church. We’ve tried to be sensible and say, “You’re adults. You decide if you want to come.”

Was Grace Community’s elder’s statement a rebuke to other churches that aren’t reopening? We didn’t want to indict anybody. If you’re doing a church that’s an adult event, you might not meet. But more than 1,000 children here have been kept out of church for six months. Their parents have been heartsick over this. We have 4½ hours on Sunday of Bible teaching and sound doctrine for little kids, all the way up to sixth grade. This is a multigenerational church. Not all churches are like that. I can’t imagine the future when this particular society all of a sudden loves and tolerates the church. You may not want to fight at this particular point, but you may have to fight down the road.

Evangelical political writer and lawyer David French claimed your criticism of #MeToo was reflexive. He wrote: “There is nothing inherently un-Christian about a movement that has mainly exposed celebrity rapists and mainstream media Lotharios. It has also exposed abuse within the church.” Grace Community Church does church discipline, following our Lord’s instruction in the Gospel of Matthew to confront sin with two or three witnesses. Then if they don’t repent, you tell the entire church. Some people would say to me: You can’t do that! People won’t come if they know they’ll be scrutinized and their sin is going to be revealed. We’ve been doing that for 50 years. This church doesn’t tolerate any kind of perpetuated sin at any level, even on the board of elders. Rarely do we have a communion service where I don’t read a name of someone who wouldn’t repent.

The government has no right to tell a church it can’t meet. That’s an unalienable right from God.

How does this compare with #MeToo methods? The #MeToo movement smacks of a feminist ideological agenda. If you give an open forum for everyone’s complaints—some legitimate, some maybe invented—everybody becomes a victim. That cuts people off from real gospel ministry. As long as people think they’re victims and somebody else is a worse criminal than they are, they’re trapped in the biggest lie sinners can get trapped in: that they’re somehow better than somebody else. That’s not how it is before the Lord.

You’ve said you’re concerned about the effect of evangelical anger on children? Kids raised in a family where there’s hostility and anger will be exponentially more of what their parents were. The Lord wants us as parents to teach love, forgiveness, and mercy. Every believer has enough to do before God with his own sin and righteousness. It reminds me of the parable our Lord gave of the man who owed the unpayable debt to the king. The king forgave him his debt. The man then grabbed by the throat somebody who owed him a small amount. I see some strangling others for offenses when they have been forgiven an incalculable offense by the goodness and grace of God.

Your friend R.C. Sproul spoke frequently about the consequences of bad ideas. What idea in the past decade has had the worst consequences for the church? Pragmatism: Whatever works is what we need to do. If we think sinners will be saved by our methodology, we’ve got to give the sinners what they want. Pragmatism has re-created the church into a “sinner-friendly church”: That expression has been used. But you cannot—by any human method—overcome every sinner’s inborn, depraved resistance to righteousness that leaves us both unable and unwilling to come to Christ. The natural man understands not the things of God: To offer the natural unconverted sinner what the natural unconverted sinner wants in his depravity, as if it were what God wants to give him, is an affront to God. It’s a heresy, another gospel. This pragmatic philosophy is behind the shallow, superficial approach that over the last 20 years has taken root in the church.

You discuss the relationship of grace and law. You can’t preach grace until you’ve preached law. The sinner can’t be saved from anything until the urgency in which he stands before God, headed for eternal judgment, dawns on his soul. Great, sound theology understands that. But the church is so loaded with pragmatism that people think they’re successful if they draw a crowd of people who are hearing what they want to hear, even in their unconverted state. Very often that makes them feel they’re Christians because they have some nice feelings about Jesus.

Some issues people have with your preaching comes down to tone. A famous charismatic pastor who’s a good friend once introduced me by saying, “This is my friend, John MacArthur, who is much nicer in person than he is in his sermons.” I love the guy, but there’s a sense in which my job is to be truthful. I don’t want to be harsh. I don’t want to be unloving, but I also know the most loving thing I can do is tell the truth. I’m sure at times I come across in an unkind or ungracious way, but there’s an urgency, a passion, in proclaiming the truth. People ask, Does it bother you to offend people? If I offended someone personally, that bothers me a lot. If the truth offended someone, I’m thankful. I’m in the business of offending sinners to the point that they honestly take a look at themselves and see if there isn’t something very dire and serious that they need to consider.

Are you unusual? I understand I’m a bit of an anomaly. Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism is a very thoughtful book that talks about the preaching of Bill Hybels, Joel Osteen, and Max Lucado. It analyzes the sentimentalism in preaching that’s very popular. Many megachurches feature a sanctified TED talk. I come across as more explicit, more coarse in some ways, than the sentimentalists. I’m just trying to take the Word and explain it one verse at a time. There was a golden age of preaching that emphasized Biblical truth through Biblical texts: That makes the tone of the text the tone of the sermon. Then there’s backing off from that: Biblical truth from cultural texts. Then there’s completely lost preaching: a cultural message from cultural texts.

Do you see the affectionate memes that have grown up around you on social media? The Babylon Bee, for example, frequently runs funny fake news stories portraying you as a spiritual Chuck Norris. I don’t access social media myself, but they’re sent to me. My kids are all in our church, and they keep me informed. I take it as a compliment. It’s amazing how endearing the Word of God is. That spills over on me because in a sense I’m the guy in Romans 10: “Blessed are the feet of those who bring the good news.” I’ve known the blessing that comes to one who faithfully brings the good news.

Megan Basham

Megan is a former film and television editor for WORLD and co-host for WORLD Radio. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman’s Guide to Having It All. Megan resides with her husband, Brian Basham, and their two daughters in Charlotte, N.C.



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