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.
Chapter 10: He Offers a Yoke of Rest
- The gospel invitation is not an entreaty for sinners to allow the Savior into their lives. It is both an appeal and a command for them to repent and follow Him.
- The great miracle of redemption is not that we accept Christ, but that He accepts us.
- Salvation occurs when God changes the heart and the unbeliever turns from sin to Christ.
- Conversion is not simply a sinner’s decision for Christ; it is first the sovereign work of God in transforming the individual.
- Jesus’ offer of rest for the weary is a call to conversion. It is a masterpiece of redemptive truth — a synopsis of the gospel according to Jesus.
- Salvation occurs when a heart is humbled by a sovereign God who reveals His truth. In desperation the soul turns from sin and embraces Christ.
- True salvation occurs when a sinner in desperation turns from his sin to Christ with a willingness to have Him take control.
- The yoke of submission to Christ is not grievous; it is joyous.
Chapter 11: The Soils
- The parables beginning Matthew 13 were given to reveal the mystery of God’s kingdom to His true disciples while concealing the truth from those outside the kingdom
- His kingdom encompasses all the redeemed, but not in a form that is visible to an unbelieving world. This aspect of God’s kingdom was utterly missed by those who were looking for a political monarchy.
- A person’s response to the gospel depends primarily on the preparation of his or her heart. A heart not properly prepared will never bear spiritual fruit.
- Be on guard against conversions that are all smiles and cheers with no sense of repentance or humility. That is the mark of a superficial heart.
- Fruit, not foliage, is the mark of true salvation. Those who miss that point confuse the meaning of the parable.
- There will always be wayside soil, shallow soil, and weedy soil, but there will also always be good soil that will bring forth crops thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold. That prepared soil needs only to have the right seed thrown on it.
Chapter 12: The Wheat and Tares
- Christians are not supposed to live like unsaved people.
- Christians can and do behave in carnal ways. But nothing in Scripture suggests that a real Christian might pursue a lifestyle of unbroken indifference or antagonism toward the things of God.
- The message of the wheat and the tares is simply that God does not sanction any effort that would rid the world of unbelievers by force.
- Character and behavior are what separate the wheat from the tares. In the judgment the difference will be fully manifest.
- In the end, real wheat will inevitably be identified by the crop it produces.
Chapter 13: The Treasure of the Kingdom
- He never held forth the hope of salvation to anyone who refused to submit to His sovereign lordship.
- Faith as He characterized it is nothing less than a complete exchange of all that we are for all that He is.
- Both parables make the same point: a sinner who understands the priceless riches of the kingdom will gladly yield everything else he cherishes in order to obtain it. The corresponding truth is also clear by implication: those who cling to their earthly treasures forfeit the far greater wealth of the kingdom.
- This is the gist of both parables: the kingdom of heaven is only for those who perceive its immeasurable value and are willing to sacrifice everything else to acquire it.
- To the unregenerate mind, the thought of yielding everything to Christ is odious. But a believing heart surrenders to the Master with great joy.
- No one can rightfully lay claim to Him as Savior while refusing to own Him as Lord.
- These parables are a clear warning to those who want to have Jesus without counting the cost.
- Wise investors would not usually put all their money into a single investment. But that is exactly what both men in these parables did. The first man sold everything and bought one field, and the second man sold everything and bought one pearl. But they had counted the cost, and they knew what they were buying was worthy of the ultimate investment.
- Having counted the cost, the true believer gladly gives everything for Christ.
Chapter 14: The First and the Last
- No one who comes to Christ is either preferred or slighted because of past experience. The same eternal life is offered to all.
- Saving faith is an exchange of all that we are for all that Christ is.
- Some people serve Christ their whole lives. Others squander their lives, then turn to the Lord on their deathbeds. Either way, eternal life is the same.
- If He sought us early and we served Him our whole lives, that was His choice. If He sought us late and we served but a brief time, that too was His choice.
- The Lord calls into His kingdom those who know their need, not the satisfied and self-sufficient.
Chapter 15: The Lost and Found
- What touches the heart of God most deeply is the salvation of those whom He pursues and brings to repentance.
- When a repentant sinner turns to God, He learns that God is already looking for him to come, eager to run and meet him. Before he ever gets near to God, he discovers that God has first come to embrace him.
- All three of these parables have this common theme: a seeker finds what was lost and rejoices. In every case, the seeker pictures God, who rejoices over the salvation of a sinner.
- The Lord always seeks to save the lost, but they must see themselves as lost.
- Often the most flagrant, irreligious, repugnant sinners are quicker to understand their depravity than people steeped in religious achievement and self-righteousness.
- God is seeking the lost. Those who acknowledge their sin and turn from it will find Him running to them with open arms. Those who think they are good enough to deserve His favor will find themselves excluded from the celebration, unable to share the eternal joy of a loving Father.
Chapter 16: The Vine and the Branches
- One of the recurring themes of Jesus’ preaching, teaching, and miracles was His absolute equality with God.
- Every time Jesus called God “My Father,” He was underscoring His deity.
- As the Father cares for the Son, so He cares for those joined to the Son by faith.
- Spiritual pruning is the necessary process whereby the Father removes everything that limits our fruitfulness. He cuts out sins and other distractions that sap our spiritual strength.
- Spiritually, the equivalent of a fruitless branch is a phony Christian — someone who professes faith in Christ but does not really know Him. These are branches that only appear to be connected to the True Vine.
- Branches that abide in the True Vine will never be removed.
- Barren branches have nothing to look forward to except awful, fiery judgment. Fruitful branches, those actually abiding in the True Vine, are in the hands of a loving and gracious Vinedresser. As He carefully prunes and tends us, there may be some pain in the cutting. But we can be certain that He is doing it for our own good so that we will bear much fruit for His glory.
Chapter 17: The Call to Repentance
- It is not fashionable in the twenty-first century to preach a gospel that demands repentance.
- The gospel according to Jesus is as much a call to forsake sin as it is a summons to faith. From His first message to His last, the Savior’s theme was calling sinners to repentance — and this meant not only that they gained a new perspective on who He was, but also that they turned from sin and self to follow Him.
- Note three elements of repentance: a turning to God, a turning from evil, and the intent to serve God. No change of mind can be called true repentance if it does not include all three elements.
- Where there is no observable difference in conduct, there can be no confidence that repentance has taken place
- Repentance is not a one-time act. The repentance that takes place at conversion begins a progressive, lifelong process of confession (1 John 1:9).
- If repentance is genuine, we can expect it to produce observable results. There must be a sincere change in one’s lifestyle.
- Repentance has always been the foundation of the New Testament call to salvation.
- No message that eliminates repentance can properly be called the gospel, for sinners cannot come to Jesus Christ apart from a radical change of heart, mind, and will.
Chapter 18: The Nature of True Faith
- The Scriptures teach that faith is not conjured up by the human will but is a sovereignly granted gift of God.
- God draws the sinner to Christ and gives the ability to believe. Without that divinely generated faith, one cannot understand and approach the Savior.
- The person who has believed will yearn to obey.
- The desire to do the will of God will be ever present in true believers.
- A concept of faith not producing surrender of the will corrupts the message of salvation.
- The biblical concept of faith is inseparable from obedience.
- Obedience is the inevitable manifestation of true faith.
- True faith is manifest only in obedience.
Chapter 19: The Promise of Justification
- God graciously saved people by reckoning His righteousness to them because of their faith. No one has ever been saved through the merit system — salvation has been available only by grace through faith ever since our first parents fell.
- Justification may be defined as an act of God whereby He imputes to a believing sinner the full and perfect righteousness of Christ, forgiving the sinner of all unrighteousness, declaring him or her perfectly righteous in God’s sight, thus delivering the believer from all condemnation.
- Justification is an instantaneous change of one’s standing before God, not a gradual transformation that takes place within the one who is justified.
- The cornerstone of justification is the reckoning of righteousness to the believer’s account. This is the truth that sets Christian doctrine apart from every form of false religion. We call it “imputed righteousness.” Apart from it, salvation is utterly impossible.
- Justification is the polar opposite of condemnation.
- The salvation He promised brings not only justification, but also sanctification, union with Him, the indwelling Holy Spirit, and an eternity of blessing. It is not merely a one-time legal transaction.
Chapter 20: The Way of Salvation
- What to do with Jesus Christ is a choice each person must make, but it is not just a momentary decision. It is a once-for-all verdict with ongoing implications and eternal consequences — the ultimate decision.
- All this world’s religions are based on human achievement. Biblical Christianity alone recognizes divine accomplishment — the work of Christ on humankind’s behalf — as the sole basis of salvation.
- The choice is between divine accomplishment and human achievement. Both systems claim to be the way to God.
- The gate admits only one at a time, for salvation is intensely personal. It is not enough to be born in a Christian family or to ride the coattails of a believing spouse. Believing is an individual act.
- The kingdom is not for people who want Jesus without any change in their lives. It is only for those who seek it with all their hearts.
- “The gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it.” How could Jesus be any clearer? This is the only path His gospel points to. It is not an easy road or a popular one. But it is the only one that leads to eternal glory.
Chapter 21: The Certainty of Judgment
- While justification and sanctification are distinct theological concepts, both are essential elements of salvation.
- God will not declare a person righteous without also making him or her righteous.
- Those whose faith is authentic are certain to become holy, and those who lack true faith can never be holy. They have no hope of seeing God, except to stand before Him in judgment.
- Many who think they are saved but live unholy lives will be shocked to discover in the final judgment that heaven is not their destiny.
- Real faith is as concerned with doing the will of God as with affirming the facts of true doctrine.
- Periodic doubts about one’s salvation are not necessarily wrong. Such doubts must be confronted and dealt with honestly and biblically.
- It has become quite popular to teach professing Christians that they can enjoy assurance of salvation no matter what their lives are like. That teaching is nothing but practical antinomianism. It encourages people living in hypocrisy, disobedience, and sin by offering them a false assurance. It discourages self-examination. And that clearly violates Scripture.
- Whatever the reasons, many (Matt. 7:22) who have identified themselves with Christ and Christianity will be turned away at the judgment.
- If your life does not reveal growth in grace and righteousness and holiness, you need to examine the reality of your faith — even if you believe you have done great things in the name of Christ.
- The validation of salvation is a life of obedience. It is the only possible proof that a person really knows Jesus Christ. If one does not obey Christ as a pattern of life, then professing to know Him is an empty verbal exercise.
- Some will stand, and some will fall. Those who stand are true believers; those who fall are those who never really believed at all. The difference will be seen in whether obedience followed the hearing, whether a life of righteousness followed the profession of faith.
Chapter 22: The Cost of Discipleship
- The heart of real discipleship is a commitment to be like Jesus Christ. That means both acting as He did and being willing to accept the same treatment.
- What is the mark of a true Christian? He confesses Jesus as the Son of God.
- A second hallmark of a true disciple is loving Christ even more than one’s own family.
- Those who are not willing to lose their lives for Christ are not worthy of Him. They cannot be His disciples.
- When confronted with a decision between serving self and serving the Lord, the true disciple is the one who chooses to serve the Lord, even at great personal expense.