The Gospel According to a Works-Righteousness Jesus: A Common Thread Between Puritan Precisianism and Lordship Salvation

Here is a post I probably wrote around ten years ago, way before I was ever the evangelical Calvinist, or had read Barth or Torrance et al. These were the types of posts that represented my way into blogging, and what I was attempting to address, theologically, for the church online. I used to joust all the time with the Pyromaniacs, a team blog started by executive manager of Grace To You, and editor for all of John MacArthur’s books and writings, Phil Johnson. Needless to say they didn’t really like me that much, and a post like what I am going to share here is why. Just yesterday I came into contact with one of their tribe, someone I knew from years ago, someone who had gone through The Master’s Seminary system, and then went on to get his PhD from Dallas johnny-macTheological Seminary. He reminded me that they are the same people, and their theology is just as legalistic and ruinous as ever! Indeed, this interlocutor of mine, now a missionary in the Czech Republic just a few days ago actually had Paul Washer out to teach his people at a Bible conference they held; this should tell you something about what we are dealing with. Anyway because of that I am reposting this now ten year old post just to once again highlight how dangerous their theology actually is.

One other aspect that makes it all so dangerous is that they are literally unable to critically come to the text of Scripture and make a distinction between the theology they are bringing to the text and the text itself. The result is that if you disagree with them you aren’t disagreeing, in a critical way, with their theology, but instead with the pure unadulterated Bible teaching and Gospel itself. This is why the last words (before he blocked me on FaceBook) my interlocutor said to me were: “Bobby … I only hope your infatuation with the academy will one day be replaced by a love and devotion to God’s Word.” He presumes that because I want to think critically theologically, and Christian Dogmatically, that this means I am in love with the academy and despise the reality of the Word of God. This is the type of rubbish conclusion the MacArthur and that way in general leads to. Anyway, here is that post (I might, every now and then try to write more posts about the historical background that lays behind the legalism that you will find in the theologies of folks like MacArthur, Washer, et al. in our current day).

Below I am going to provide two quotes, the first will be from Theodore Dwight Bozeman discussing the emergence and factors that shaped the thinking of the yet to come English Puritans; and the second will be from John MacArthur, and his discussion on the role that changed behavior and moral values have in a genuinely “saved life.” What I am highlighting, and want you all to see, is the striking correlation of thought and practice that both camps share, relative to emphasizing the importance of outward moral behavior in the “elects” life. Here is Theodore Bozeman discussing the early factors that led to English Puritanism:

English penitential teaching expressly echoed and bolstered moral priorities. In contrast, again, to Luther, whose penitential teaching stressed the rueful sinner’s attainment of peace through acknowledgment of fault and trust in unconditional pardon, several of the English included a moment of moral renewal. In harmony with Reformed tendencies on the Continent and in unmistakable continuity with historic Catholic doctrine that tied “contrition, by definition, to the intention to amend,” they required an actual change in penitent. For them, a renewal of moral resolve was integral to the penitential experience, and a few included the manifest alteration of behavior. They agreed that moral will or effort cannot merit forgiveness, yet rang variations on the theme that repentance is “an inward . . . sorrow . . . whereunto is also added a . . . desire . . . to frame our life in all points according to the holy will of God expressed in the divine scriptures.” However qualified by reference to the divine initiative and by denial of efficacy to human works, such teaching underscored moral responsibility; it also adumbrated Puritan penitential and preparationist teaching of later decades.[1]

It is important to keep in mind that Bozeman is not even discussing actual English Puritanism yet, rather he is highlighting the streams and emphases, present within England just prior to the full-fledged emergence of Puritanism, that actually brought shape and form to the disciplinary “religion” known as Puritanism. Notice the correlation he makes between this kind of Protestantism with Roman Catholic spirituality.

Conversely, John MacArthur sounds very much like this incipient Puritanism described above by Bozeman. You will notice this similarity as MacArthur, like these early penitentialists, emphasizes the function and necessity of moral reformation in the life of the “truly saved” individual; notice:

. . . They’ve been told [Christians in the typical evangelical church in the West] that the only criterion for salvation is knowing and believing some basic facts about Christ. They hear from the beginning that obedience is optional. It follows logically, then, that a person’s one-time profession of faith is more valid than the ongoing testimony of his life-style in determining whether to embrace him as a true-believer. The character of the visible church reveals the detestable consequence of this theology. As a pastor I have rebaptized countless people who once “made a decision,” were baptized, yet experienced no change. They came later to true conversion and sought baptism again as an expression of genuine salvation.[2]

Striking is it not? Both English Penitentialism (early and full blossomed English Puritanism), and MacArthur’s approach are intended to curb moral laxity, by emphasizing the moral conduct and “performance” of the truly “saved.” As MacArthur underscores, as a good follower of the “English Puritan” (and for that matter Roman Catholic) ethic and spirituality, genuine salvation is only noticeable and discernible via an “. . . an ongoing testimony of his life-style.” Bozeman speaking of the moral laxity within England (in the 16th century and onward) notes how this affected the “Reforming spirit” of that locale, he says: “. . . There the Reformation emerged in a period of deeply felt concern about social order. . . . (Bozeman, 13) This motivation similarly, and unabashedly, motivates MacArthur’s emphasis on performance, duty, and obedience, as he states: “. . . Why should we assume that people who live in an unbroken pattern of adultery, fornication, homosexuality, deceit, and every conceivable kind of flagrant excess are truly born again? . . .” (MacArthur, 16-17) In other words, the remedy for both camps (i.e. between the 16th and 17th cent. and 20th and 21st cent.) is to hang people over hell in order to foster an supposed environment of holiness and moral uprightness, this is by way of EMPHASIS. Both of these camps spoke and speak of solifidian (faith alone), but this is not enough, external moral transformation needs to accompany “faith alone,” otherwise there was never any faith to begin with (i.e. later on we will discuss how this thought came to be tied to concepts like “preparationism” and “temporary faith”).

 

[1] [italics mine] Theodore Dwight Bozeman, The Precisianist Strain,  20-21.

[2] [brackets mine] John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus,  17.

 

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7 comments

  1. That was the sort of theology which kept me unsure of my salvation for many years. It was not a pleasant experience, and it definitely stunted my growth.

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  2. I’m assuming you meant “unpleasant” 🙂 . And yes, anyone who might actually attempt to internalize this type of soteriology should be greatly troubled; just as Luther did till he found sola fide.

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  3. I see some value in MacArthur’s argument Bobby. and the issue is complicated between easy-believism and salvation by grace alone. I don’t know where we draw the line, which is my issue. Who, for example, is qualified to make the decision as to whether or not your faith is genuine?At the same time, there needs to be some reformation occurring within the spirit of the believer. I find nothing wrong with with this statement, but I think it is an extreme example: “Why should we assume that people who live in an unbroken pattern of adultery, fornication, homosexuality, deceit, and every conceivable kind of flagrant excess are truly born again? . . .” (MacArthur, 16-170).”

    J. I. Packer once rightly said, “sinners cannot obey the gospel, any more than the law, without renewal of heart.” So with that in mind “easy believism” (no-lordship) folks have completely misunderstood the biblical concept of grace. They scoff at Lordship because they think it is regeneration by faith and works, all the while touting their self-generated faith. Fact is, if God has done a work of grace in us, then faith and works (both equally impossible for man) will exist because it is God who is the author of both. Jesus is the “author and finisher of our faith.” “Easy believism” is a doctrine that is pretty much a debate that came from certain groups of Dispensationalists who think that folks like Ryrie and Zane Hodges teach that you could have prayed a prayer to accept Jesus 10 years ago and now have become a Buddhist monk … but since you prayed that prayer, you are “once saved always saved” no matter what you are doing now. Reformed persons have ALWAYS believed in the biblical doctrine of the preservation of the saints, that is, that God will preserve his people and make them persevere to the end.

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