The Gospel According to Jesus: What is Authentic Faith? by John MacArthur
We are reading through John MacArthur’s classic book The Gospel According to Jesus. What did Jesus mean when He said, “Follow me”? MacArthur tackled that seemingly simple question and provided the evangelical world with the biblical answer. For many, the reality of Jesus’ demands has proved thoroughly searching, profoundly disturbing, and uncomfortably invasive; and yet, heeding His words is eternally rewarding. The 20th anniversary edition of the book has revised and expanded the original version to handle contemporary challenges. The debate over what some have called “lordship salvation” hasn’t ended—every generation must face the demands Christ’s lordship. Will you read along with us?
This week we look at the Preface to the Anniversary Edition:
- Thirty years ago (in January of 1978) I began preaching through the gospel of Matthew verse by verse. That series lasted seven and a half years, comprising some 226 sermons — and Grace Community Church was dramatically changed in the process. The series took us through a rich study of biblical soteriology (the doctrine of salvation).
- A few years after finishing that series in Matthew, I wrote this book to distill my observations about how Jesus proclaimed His own gospel and to take a hard look at the truths He included in the gospel message. I knew the book would be controversial, of course, because I wrote it partly as a response to an already-existing controversy.
- But I did not anticipate what a large and far-reaching debate it would spark. For the next couple of years, the subjects dealt with in this book seemed to dominate the evangelical discussion – and then to a lesser degree, the debate has continued ever since.
- People have been trying to domesticate Jesus’ message for many years. Long before The Gospel According to Jesus was first published, it was popular in certain circles to exclude any mention of Jesus’ lordship from the gospel message.
- The idea, apparently, was that declaring Jesus’ lordship was tantamount to preaching works — because lordship implicitly demands obedience, and obedience per se was automatically portrayed as a work.
- Some argued that even to encourage an attitude of obedience (like the simple, submissive heart of the thief on the cross or Zaccheus’s intention to make restitution), was to preach a works-based religion. Ostensibly trying to keep the gospel as untainted as possible from works-religion, some evangelical leaders became insistent that no gospel appeal to unbelievers ever ought to include the truth that Jesus is Lord of all. Unconverted sinners were not to be urged to repent. The cost of discipleship; the need to hate one’s own sin; Christ’s call to self-denial; His command to follow Him; and (especially) every mention of submission to Him as Lord were systematically expunged from the message Christians proclaimed to unbelievers. Sanctification became wholly optional. A whole new category — “carnal Christians” — was invented to explain how someone could be converted to Christ and given eternal life but left totally unchanged in heart and lifestyle by such a transaction.
- In the minds and methodologies of most evangelicals, the entire gospel was finally reduced to one easy idea: that Jesus is a kind Savior who patiently waits for sinners to “accept” Him (or invite Him into their hearts), and that He offers eternal life – no strings attached – in exchange for anyone’s decision to do so.
- The faith He called sinners to was a repentant, submissive surrender to the truth — including the truth of His lordship. That message is still valid today — and as a whole new generation discovers the so-called “lordship controversy” and seeks biblical answers to the issues that debate has raised, this book still expresses what I believe Jesus said about the gospel in the best way I know how to summarize it.
My prayer with this edition is that a whole new generation will understand the gospel through the lens of Jesus’ own ministry and be committed to following our Lord both in how they live and how they proclaim the good news to a confused and dying world.
Preface to the First Edition:
- From the beginning my chief goal was to take an honest and in-depth look at Jesus’ gospel and His evangelistic methods.
- Salvation is by God’s sovereign grace and grace alone. Nothing a lost, degenerate, spiritually dead sinner can do will in any way contribute to salvation.
- True salvation produces a heart that voluntarily responds to the ever-awakening reality of Christ’s lordship.
- Those who would come to Him for salvation must be willing to acquiesce to His sovereign authority. Those who reject His right to rule cannot expect to lay claim to Him as Savior.
- It is to those men and women in the pew that I write, for the gospel must be clearly understood by lay people, not just seminarians and pastors.
- There is no more important issue, after all, than the question of what gospel we ought to believe and proclaim.
- I am convinced that our lack of clarity on the most basic matter of all — the gospel — is the greatest detriment to the work of the church in our day.
- Nothing matters more than what Scripture says about the good news of salvation.
- This book grew out of seven years of study in the Gospels. As I immersed myself in the gospel Jesus taught, I became acutely aware that most of modern evangelism — both witnessing and preaching — falls far short of presenting the biblical evangel in a balanced and biblical way.
- The more I examined Jesus’ public ministry and His dealings with inquirers, the more apprehensive I became about the methods and content of contemporary evangelism. On a disturbing number of fronts, the message being proclaimed today is not the gospel according to Jesus.
- The gospel in vogue today holds forth a false hope to sinners. It promises them that they can have eternal life yet continue to live in rebellion against God. Indeed, it encourages people to claim Jesus as Savior yet defer until later the commitment to obey Him as Lord.
- This new gospel has spawned a generation of professing Christians whose behavior is indistinguishable from the rebellion of the unregenerate.
- The church’s witness to the world has been sacrificed on the altar of cheap grace. Shocking forms of open immorality have become commonplace among professing Christians.
- Enthusiastic converts to this new gospel believe their behavior has no relationship to their spiritual status — even if they continue wantonly in the grossest kinds of sin and expressions of human depravity.
- What is needed is a complete reexamination of the gospel. We must go back to the basis for all New Testament teaching about salvation — the gospel proclaimed by Jesus.
- The doctrine of salvation is basic to all we teach. We cannot confidently point people to the way of life unless we get the gospel right.
Chapter 1 ‘What Does Jesus Mean When He Says, “Follow Me”?’
- Jesus is Lord. That is the single, central, foundational, and distinguishing article of Christianity. It is also the first essential confession of faith every true Christian must make.
- The belief that someone could be a true Christian while that person’s whole lifestyle, value system, speech, and attitude are marked by a stubborn refusal to surrender to Christ as Lord is a notion that shouldn’t even need to be refuted.
- You cannot remove the lordship of Christ from the gospel message without undermining faith at its core.
- The true gospel according to Jesus is a message that cannot be divorced from the reality of His lordship.
- That is, after all, the whole gist of the no-lordship message: you can have Jesus as Savior and Friend here and now and decide later whether you really want to submit to His authority or not. It is hard to imagine a more disastrous twisting of what it means to be a Christian.
- Slavery to Christ is not a minor or secondary feature of true discipleship.
- Implicit obedience to His commandments is the necessary, expected, and natural fruit of genuine love for Him. It is also therefore the telltale mark of authentic saving faith.
- The gospel according to Jesus calls sinners to give up their independence, deny themselves, submit to an alien will, and abandon all rights in order to be owned and controlled by the Lord.
Chapter 2: “A Look at the Issues”
- 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.
- Genuine assurance comes from seeing the Holy Spirit’s transforming work in one’s life, not from clinging to the memory of some experience.
- No one who comes for salvation with genuine faith, sincerely believing that Jesus is the eternal, almighty, sovereign God, will willfully reject His authority.
- Those who teach that obedience and submission are extraneous to saving faith are forced to make a firm but unbiblical distinction between salvation and discipleship.
- We must remember above all that salvation is a sovereign work of God. Biblically it is defined by what it produces, not by what one does to get it.
- Works are not necessary to earn salvation. But true salvation wrought by God will not fail to produce the good works that are its fruit.
Chapter 3: “He Calls for a New Birth”
- Not everyone who claims to be a Christian really is.
- Salvation was never a reward for human works; it has always been a gift of grace for repentant sinners, made possible by the work of Christ.
- People have always stumbled over the simplicity of salvation.
- Salvation is impossible apart from divinely wrought regeneration.
- The test of true faith is this: Does it produce obedience? If not, it is not saving faith. Disobedience is unbelief. Real faith obeys.
- Jesus is the only source of salvation. Those who do not believe in His name are condemned, excluded from eternal life.
- No matter how sincere, how religious, how immersed in good works, everyone must be born again.
Chapter 4: “He Demands True Worship”
- As the master evangelist seeks to win her, He expertly directs the conversation, taking her from a simple comment about drinking water to a revelation that He is the Messiah.
- The offer of living water is not just to religious people like Nicodemus — everyone who thirsts is invited to drink deeply of the living water — even an adulterous woman whose life is fraught with sin.
- True worship occurs not on a mountain or in a temple, but in the inner person.
- She evidenced all the characteristics of genuine conversion. She had sensed her need, she had confessed her guilt, she recognized Jesus as Messiah, and now she was showing the fruit of her transformed life by bringing other people to Him.
- Some of the most zealous witnesses for Christ are brand-new believers.
- Jesus had given her a drink of the Water of Life, and she had begun to worship God in spirit and truth. She didn’t need to conceal her guilt anymore; she was forgiven.
- What was repugnant to the scribes and Pharisees was good news to these Samaritans, because they were willing to admit they were sinners.
- Those who refused to acknowledge their sin found Him to be a Judge, not a Savior. He never gave such people any encouragement, any comfort, or any reason to hope.
- The Water of Life He held forth was given only to those who acknowledged the hopelessness of their sinful state.
- God seeks people who will submit themselves to worship Him in spirit and in truth.
Chapter 5: “He Receives Sinners but Refuses the Righteous”
- One of the most malignant by-products of the debacle in contemporary evangelism is a gospel that fails to confront individuals with the reality of their sin.
- Multitudes declare that they trust Christ as Savior while indulging in lifestyles that are plainly inconsistent with God’s Word — yet no one dares to challenge their testimony.
- Any message that fails to define and confront the severity of personal sin is a deficient gospel.
- Sin is no peripheral issue as far as salvation is concerned; it is the issue.
- This is the theme of the gospel according to Jesus: He came to call sinners to repentance.
- Those who think they are good enough — those who do not understand the seriousness of sin — cannot respond to the gospel. They cannot be saved, for the gospel is a call to sinners to repent and be forgiven.
- The gospel according to Jesus is first of all a mandate for repentance.
- The truth of the gospel according to Jesus is that the only ones who are eligible for salvation are those who realize they are sinners and are willing to repent.
Chapter 6: He Opens Blind Eyes
- Salvation always results because God first pursues sinners, not because sinners first seek God.
- Faith is the necessary complement to the sovereignty of God.
- There is no way to recognize Jesus Christ for who He is apart from a miracle of God to open spiritually blind eyes.
- Spiritual sight is a gift from God that makes one willing and able to believe.
- The result of spiritual sight is a surrendered, worshiping heart. The result of spiritual blindness is more blindness, more sin, and ultimately certain doom.
- The only hope for those locked in the darkness of spiritual sightlessness is a miracle of God to open their eyes.
- Salvation is a supernatural, divine transformation — no less than a miracle that takes place in the soul. It is a true work of God, and it must make a difference in the life of the one whose eyes have been opened.
Chapter 7: He Challenges an Eager Seeker
- Most people who witness for Christ regularly would admit that it is relatively easy to get people to profess faith. Getting them to follow the Lord is a much more frustrating experience.
- Salvation is only for those who are willing to give Christ first place in their lives.
- There is something we have to do to inherit eternal life: we have to believe.
- Much of contemporary evangelism is woefully deficient when it comes to confronting people with the reality of their sin.
- Recognition of personal sin is a necessary element in understanding the truth of salvation.
- You cannot preach a gospel of grace to someone who has not heard that God requires obedience and punishes disobedience.
Chapter 8: “He Seeks and Saves the Lost”
- There is no more glorious truth in the Bible than the words of Luke 19:10: “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” That verse sums up the work of Christ on earth.
- Whatever terms Jesus employed — receiving eternal life, entering the kingdom, or being saved — the essence of His message was always the gospel of salvation.
- Humble repentance is the only acceptable response to the gospel according to Jesus.
- Genuine saving faith changes behavior, transforms thinking, and puts within a person a new heart.
- Contemporary Christianity often accepts a shallow repentance that bears no fruit.
Chapter 9: He Condemns a Hardened Heart
- No one who denies God should be deceived into thinking that because he once professed faith in Christ, he is eternally secure
- True believers will persevere. Professing Christians who turn against the Lord only prove that they were never truly saved.
- Judas and his life of treachery stand as a solemn warning to anyone who casually professes faith in Christ.
- One may “accept” Him and still fall short. The individual who responds positively but not wholeheartedly risks being lost and damned forever.
- The disciples’ denial was a lapse of normally faithful behavior; Judas’s sin manifested an utterly depraved soul.
- The mark of a true disciple is not that he never sins, but rather that when he does sin, he inevitably returns to the Lord to receive cleansing and forgiveness.
- Unlike a false disciple, the true disciple will never turn away completely.
- I fear there are multitudes like Judas in the contemporary church. They are friendly to Jesus. They look and talk like disciples. But they are not committed to Him and are therefore capable of the worst kind of betrayal.
- Inevitably, true disciples will falter, but when they fall into sin, they will seek cleansing.