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Pulpit and Pen Reviews ‘Gospel of Doubt’

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I read. I read a lot.

And yet, I don’t know if I’ve ever had as hard a time reading through any book as when I recently finished A Gospel of Doubt: The Legacy of John MacArthur’s The Gospel According to Jesus. At 306 pages in the paper version and in a seemingly ceaseless blackhole of never-ending words in the Kindle version (seriously, I thought, will it ever end?), Robert Wilkin’s response to John MacArthur on the topic of so-called Lordship Salvation was overdone and overdue (twenty years late).

Wilkin’s anti-Lordship treatise, which anathematizes MacArthur countless times (literally, I stopped counting), suffers from mischaracterizations, numerous logical fallacies and flat-out distortions and all of the above so repetitively that one chapter blurred drowsily into the next.

The thesis of Wilkin’s book is simple: John MacArthur teaches Lordship salvation and he is wrong. To assert that thesis, Wilkin provides a chapter-by-chapter and point-by-counterpoint rebuttal of MacArthur’s book, The Gospel According to Jesus.

The first and greatest challenge to my sanity when reading The Gospel of Doubt was the seeming inability or unwillingness of Wilkin to understand basic soteriological terms and phrases, a working knowledge of which would have rendered most of Wilkin’s arguments moot. Particularly frustrating was Wilkin’s use of terms like regeneration (or being ‘born again’), justification and salvation as though they were all synonymous terms. With such little theological precision it was often hard to make out Wilkin’s chief arguments, and one was left with the impression that if Wilson was capable of more theological precision, he might have nothing to argue with John MacArthur about (but I suspect he’d find something).

A line from the preface set the tone for Wilkin’s treaty…

I also hope that those in your church and schools will come back to the actual gospel according to Jesus, regeneration by faith alone in Christ alone apart from works before or after the new birth(Kindle Locations 54-55 – emphasis mine)

Wilkin let his feelings be known from the get-go; MacArthur does not preach the “actual gospel,” MacArthur believes that one is not regenerated  by faith alone and MacArthur teaches that works are somehow involved in regeneration before or after it. What I would urge the reader to understand is that if these chief complaints against MacArthur can be alleviated with a tablespoon of reality (and they can), Wilkin’s book is approximately 306 pages too long.

At the heart of Wilkin’s complaints, although he never comes out and explicitly says it, seems to be that MacArthur (in Wilkin’s opinion) doesn’t have a robust doctrine of assurance. Assurance, to put it lightly, seems to be very, very important to Wilkin. So much so, in fact, that the doctrine of assurance seems to eclipse all other doctrines in Wilkin’s mind and is the criterion for judging truth in relation to all other doctrines. Wilkin complains…

According to MacArthur’s gospel one cannot be sure of where he will spend eternity until after he dies. It is true, however, that MacArthur, like the Puritan theology he follows, urges people to search their works in hopes of finding reasons to believe they will end up in Jesus’ kingdom.(Kindle Locations 75-77)

Essentially, Wilkin is upset that MacArthur recognizes the book of 1 John is in the canon of Scripture. Like most anti-Lordship proponents, and especially with those who are hung up on easy-assurance™ (I think I just coined a term), Wilkin overlooks the reality that an entire book of Holy Writ exists “so that you can know you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). Here, the epistle-writer gifts to the church an entire book dedicated to mirroring the attitudes, characteristics and qualities common to truly-regenerate Christians so that we can compare our life and works to what’s found therein and find assurance. That notion alone is enough to be anathematized by Robert Wilkin, because essential to his neurosis is the notion that assurance is found in a subjective feeling that you believe – even if that belief leads to no outward or external change.

Believing in Jesus’ promise of everlasting life is the true basis of assurance (Kindle Locations 218-219).

Assurance that you actually have justifying belief is that…you believe. Wow. That’s helpful.

Throughout the book comes very bold claims that MacArthur believes in works-salvation.

Does MacArthur teach that “salvation is a cooperative work between God and the sinner”? Does he teach that “the sinner’s own works are instrumental in justification”? [Phil] Johnson doesn’t think so…That is precisely what MacArthur believes and teaches in chapter 2...(Kindle Locations 302-304).

Does anyone with an ounce of understanding of MacArthur’s ministry believe that he is a synergist? Does anyone believe that MacArthur teaches his own works are instrumental in justification? The obvious answer is no. So how, then, does Wilkin make such claims – even specific claims – that MacArthur teaches such in chapter two of The Gospel of Jesus? The answer is that Wilkin might be the undisputed, reigning king of category errors. John MacArthur – like John the Apostle – teaches that the evidence of faith (which is what justifies) is what faith produces; repentance and obedience. Let me put MacArthur’s teaching succinctly.

MacArthur: We are justified by faith alone. Faith (which is intangible) produces repentance and obedience (which are both tangible and demonstrable). Do you have saving faith? Check to see if you have repentance and obedience. Another way of putting it is that justification leads to sanctification. Do you have justification? Look to see if you are being sanctified.

Wilkin: Because the evidence of justification, according to John MacArthur, is sanctification (repentance and obedience), then MacArthur believes justification is caused by repentance and obedience.

Hopefully you can see the problem in Wilkin’s argumentation and representation of MacArthur’s beliefs. This next quotation is a good demonstration of Wilkin’s inability to correctly represent MacArthur…

Next MacArthur identifies what he considers to be the core truth that is missing in the “diluted gospel” of popular Evangelicalism, i.e., the truth that “The gospel Jesus proclaimed was a call to discipleship, a call to follow Him in submissive obedience, not just a plea to make a decision or pray a prayer” (p. 37). Think about that statement. Phil Johnson adamantly denies that MacArthur believes that works are necessary for justification. And yet, here MacArthur is plainly saying that discipleship and submissive obedience are conditions of salvation (Kindle Locations 307-311).

There is no distinction in Wilkin’s mind between the Gospel calling people to discipleship and discipleship being a condition of salvation. Again, you see the problem.

MacArthur says that some Evangelicals claim that one can have everlasting life without having to turn from sin or without experiencing a “resulting change in lifestyle” (p. 38). 5 He disagrees. In other words, he believes you need to turn from your sins and have a resulting change in lifestyle to be saved (i.e., you need to do good works).(Kindle Locations 326-329).

Of course, MacArthur says no such thing in The Gospel of Jesus. He does not teach one must turn from sins and have a resulting change in lifestyle to be saved, but that if one is saved, they must turn from sins and have a resulting change in lifestyle. One must wonder if Wilkin believes making a left turn in traffic makes his turn signal go on, or if turning his windshield wipers on makes it rain. Clearly, Wilkin has a problem with cause and effect.

I don’t know how much Wilkin’s delusion is caused by his own rejection of Monergism, but I found an interesting footnote about halfway through the book…

I believed in election to everlasting life for 25 years (1980-2005). I no longer do. I’ve come to see that the Scriptures do not teach that. What they teach is election to service. (Kindle Locations 1874-1876).

We are elected to serve God, but not to be saved by God…even though one has to come after the other? Again, you can see Wilkin’s problem with cause and effect. How one can be elect unto service but not elect unto salvation is an unexplainable absurdity – and is about as absurd as claiming a salvation can change a man’s eternal destination but not his temporal behavior.

If you want to read A Gospel of Doubt, go right ahead. But don’t read A Gospel of Doubt thinking you’re going to have a better understanding of what is taught by John MacArthur.

[Contributed by JD Hall]