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The Gospel according to Paul

(24 posts)

Threats from Within

John MacArthur, commenting on the controversies he has addressed over the years: Reflecting on all those controversies, what is most surprising is that in every case, the threat I was writing about had originated within the evangelical movement. When I was in seminary, I had prepared my mind and heart to answer assaults from the world against the authority of Scripture and the truth of the gospel. I did not anticipate that so much of my time and energy would be spent trying to defend the gospel against attacks from inside the visible church—including assaults on gospel truth from respected leaders in the evangelical movement. —John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), xxv. My observation is the same. It seems to me that a lot of energy is expended worrying about, and warning against, threats from the world, while heresies in the form of “worship” songs and the latest pop-theology books slip in unnoticed and unexamined. The sheeps’ clothing grows thinner, yet the wolves remain unrecognized.

A Defeated Foe

I’ve been invigorated and encouraged, and not the least bit disheartened, to see what inevitably happens when the people of God “contend earnestly for the faith” (Jude v. 3). The Lord always vindicates His truth. I suppose there has never been a single moment in the history of the church when the gospel has been free from assaults and controversies. And it is uncanny how old heresies get resurrected and the same threats to the gospel resurface again and again, threatening to lead astray each new generation. Satan is a relentless foe. But “we are not ignorant of his devices” (2 Cor. 2:11). There are indeed times when “we are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (4:8–9). We know that all the combined forces of hell could never defeat God. Though they may rage against the truth and perhaps steer multitudes into skepticism and unbelief, they will never totally squelch the truth of God’s Word. Therefore, to take a stand with the truth is to be triumphant—even when it seems the whole world is against us. Christ proved that fact conclusively when He rose from the dead. Satan, despite his persistence, is an already defeated foe. —John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), xxv–xxvi.

One Gospel, Uncompromised

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. . . . when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel . . . —Galatians 2:11–14 So Paul rebuked and corrected Peter. John MacArthur writes, It was not a disagreement about the substance of the gospel message. The problem, rather, was that Peter was “not straightforward about the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). . . . —John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), 7. Peter wasn’t preaching a false or compromised gospel himself; he was merely accommodating those who did, to avoid offense. But that was a thin distinction, one that Paul apparently did not recognize. Paul’s point in recording this incident is not to embarrass or belittle Peter, but to defend the integrity of the gospel. The soundness of the gospel is infinitely more important than the dignity and prestige of even the most eminent apostles—including Paul himself. . . . Paul himself might have said the surest way to twist Scripture to one’s own destruction is by altering the gospel—or even by passively tolerating those who preach a modified gospel. He strictly cautioned readers to beware “if (someone) preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted” (2 Cor. 11:4). He said alternative gospels are rooted in the same brand of deception the serpent used to deceive Eve (v. 3). So this theme reverberates throughout Paul’s inspired epistles: there is only one gospel. —Ibid., 7–8. What would Paul say if he visited us today? Would he overlook our admiration of authors whose wit, eloquence, sincerity, and passion lead us to wink at their heretical views of justification, atonement, the after-life, etc.? Would he smile indulgently at the songs we sing about a god that exists only in the imaginations of emotion-driven mystics? Peter was no heretic. He was an apostle, part of an elite group of men hand-picked by our Lord himself, of which, in all of history, there are only twelve. He was the one upon whose confession Christ declared, “I will build my church.” If Paul was compelled to rebuke a man of such stature, can we expect less?

The Seal of the Gospel

MacArthur on the centrality of the resurrection to the gospel, as seen in 1 Corinthians 15: [T]he gospel is grounded in historic events; and above all, the resurrection is the seal and the linchpin of gospel truth. Elsewhere Paul says that Christ “was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification” (Rom. 4:25). Christ was “declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). Again, the resurrection was God’s seal of approval on the propitiation Christ offered. Without the resurrection, there would be no gospel. Every element in Paul’s outline [“of gospel facts in 1 Corinthians 15”] is equally significant. It is an ingenious summary of the critical historical events in the gospel story. But as we have said from the start, Paul himself would be the first to emphasize that there are many other indispensable gospel truths—chiefly doctrines—such as sin, justification, vicarious atonement, grace, faith, security, and others. Paul explains those doctrines and stresses their importance throughout his epistles, as we will observe. But here his design is to give the most simple, pithy account of gospel history possible—one that comprehends and implicitly affirms all the vital doctrines as well. Each point he lists is indeed a matter of primary importance: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures . . . He was buried . . . He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and . . . He was seen.” That is the whole gospel. The rest is explanation. —John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), 21–22.
But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. —Galatians 3:22 Without bad news, there is no good news. The word gospel is the Middle English version of an Old English term, godspel, meaning “glad tidings,” or “good news.” The Greek equivalent, evangelion, likewise means “good message.” The term evokes the idea of a welcome pronouncement or a happy declaration. So it is ironic that quite often the gospel is not gladly received by those who hear it. It is likewise ironic that when Paul begins his most thorough systematic presentation of the gospel message, he starts with a statement that is decidedly bad news: “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Rom. 1:18). Paul then goes on for the equivalent of two full chapters, making the argument that the whole human race is fallen and wicked and hopelessly in bondage to sin. “As it is written: ’There is none righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). Furthermore, “the wages of sin is death” (6:23). Obviously there’s a close connection between the two ironies. So many people spurn the good news because they can’t get past the starting point, which requires us to confess our sin. Sinners left to themselves are neither willing nor able to extricate themselves from the bondage of sin. Therefore instead, they “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18). They are objects of God’s wrath—because “knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, [they] not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them” (v. 32). . . . all false religions are systems of human achievement. Many are harsh and rigorous with standards that are barely (if at all) attainable. Others feature such a minimal standard of righteousness that only the very grossest of sins are deemed worthy of any reproof. In one way or another, most false religions “call evil good, and good evil; [they] put darkness for light, and light for darkness . . . bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isa. 5:20). They teach people to be “wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!” (v. 21). At the end of the day, all of them are works-based religions. The focus is on something the creature is supposed to do for God—or worse, for oneself. (Indeed, the most thoroughly evil religious systems are those that literally aim at the deification of the individual—thus echoing the false promise the serpent made to Eve in Genesis 3:4–5: “You will not surely die. . . . You will be like God.”) By contrast, the gospel of Jesus Christ is a message of divine accomplishment. It is an announcement that Christ has already triumphed over sin and death on behalf of hopeless sinners who lay hold of His redemption by faith alone. This is grace-based religion. The focus is on what God has already done for sinners. But to appreciate how such a message is good news, a person must know himself to be a wretched sinner, incapable of making an adequate atonement, and therefore powerless to earn any righteous merit of his own—much less obtain redemption for himself. The sinner must feel the weight of his guilt and know that God is a righteous Judge who will not sanction sin. Indeed, he or she must be prepared to confess that perfect justice demands the condemnation of guilty souls. —John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), 23–25.

A Stumbling Block

For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,  And the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. —1 Corinthians 1:18—25 Paul to the “seeker-sensitive”: In recent years, many churches have based their entire ministry philosophy on the assumption that lots of unbelieving people are seeking God. These churches have refurbished their music, teaching, and public worship with the stated goal of being “seeker-sensitive.” In order to achieve that goal, church leaders rely on opinion surveys and an almost obsessive fixation with cultural trends in order to gauge the tastes and expectations of unbelievers. Then every feature of their corporate gatherings is carefully reworked, dumbed down, or purposely desanctified in order to make unbelievers feel comfortable. But people are not really seeking God if they are looking for a religious experience where the music, entertainment, and sermon topics are carefully vetted in order to appeal to popular preferences. That kind of “seeker” is just looking for a cloak of piety in a context where he or she will also get affirmation, self-gratification, and companionship with like-minded people. The gospel according to Paul points the opposite direction. Paul fully understood the felt needs and cultural expectations of his diverse audiences: “Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:22). But the apostle’s response was the polar opposite of “seeker-sensitivity”: “We preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness” (v. 23). The Greeks who craved a philosophical discourse on wisdom heard a message Paul knew would sound to them like foolishness; and the Jews who demanded a sign instead got “a stumbling stone and rock of offense” (Rom. 9:33). But both groups heard exactly the same message from Paul. Here again, we see that he knew only one gospel: “I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). —John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), 38–39.

The Taint of Sin

All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one. —Romans 3:12 This . . . allegation condemning the character of humanity is a sweeping, significant, grave condemnation: fallen people don’t do anything that is genuinely good. The human character, in its fallen state, is totally depraved. (That’s the common term theologians use to describe this aspect of biblical anthropology.) The point is not that people are as thoroughly evil as they could possibly be. Rather, it means that sin has infected every aspect of the human character—mind, will, passions, flesh, feelings, and motives. Nothing we do is completely free from the taint of sin. That includes our very best deeds of kindness or altruism. This is perhaps one of the most difficult of all biblical doctrines for people to receive. We naturally want to think of ourselves as fundamentally good, praiseworthy, upright, compassionate, generous, and noble. Furthermore, Scripture does recognize and describe some astonishing examples of human virtue, like the kindness of the good Samaritan, or the compassion of Pharaoh’s daughter when she rescued and adopted the infant Moses. God graciously restrains the full expression of human depravity (Gen. 20:6; 31:7; 1 Sam. 25:26; 2 Thess. 2:7). The restraint of sin and the mitigation of sin’s consequences are expressions of common grace, the benevolent care God extends to all his creation. Quite simply, things are not as bad as they could be in this fallen world because “the Lord is good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His works” (Ps. 145:9). But again, Scripture also makes abundantly clear that even the best of our good works are not truly good enough to gain any merit with God. “We are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). Even the “good” things we do actually compound our guilt, because our motives are (at best) mixed with selfishness, hypocrisy, pride, a desire for the praise of others, or a host of other evil incentives. In order to portray ourselves or our works as “good,” we have to allow for all kinds of leeway in our definition of what is good—and that exercise in and of itself is a diabolical transgression. Much of contemporary culture goes to the extreme of “call[ing] evil good, and good evil.” They “put darkness for light, and light for darkness . . . bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter” (Isa. 5:20). But when we understand that God’s own absolute perfection is the only acceptable standard of good (Matt. 5:48), it’s easy to understand why Scripture says “no one does good, not even one.” This is the starting point of biblical anthropology: humanity is fallen. The human creature is totally depraved, fundamentally wicked—ignorant, rebellious, wayward, and in and of ourselves worthless. Our character is debauched and defined by our sinfulness. —John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), 41–42.

Righteous before God

Job, the most righteous man who ever lived, asked this burning question: “How can a man be in the right before God?” (Job 9:2). The answer: But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. —Romans 3:21–26 This is the only possible solution to our sin. A righteousness must come down to us, a righteousness that is alien to us. “Rain down, you heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness; let the earth open, let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring up together. I, the Lord, have created it” (Isa. 45:8). This imputed righteousness is the sole ground of the sinner’s justification. God accepts sinners not because of something good or praiseworthy He finds in them. Remember, “we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). Our good works contribute nothing at all to our righteous standing. Once more: if your trust is in your own goodness, you are doomed (Luke 18:8). God accepts only absolute perfection, which does not exist in the human realm, except in Christ. But here’s the good news: true believers are united with Christ “through faith” (Eph. 3:17), and therefore they too are “in Christ” (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 1:30). God accepts them and blesses them on that basis (Eph. 1:6). That is how He “justifies the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5). He credits them with a righteousness that is not their own—an alien righteousness, reckoned to their account. Paul prominently features this truth in his own testimony. His heart’s desire, he said, was to “be found in [Christ], not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Phil. 3:9). Notice what Paul is confessing: God Himself had to come to the rescue. He alone can save. The very One who gave the law that condemns us also supplies the righteousness needed to save us. And that is the only merit we need to have a right standing before Him. This is “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). And it’s the only way a person can be right with God. —John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), 57–58.

Deeds of the Law

Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. —Romans 3:19–20 Critics of sola fide are fond of pointing out that Paul doesn’t use the precise words “faith alone” But there’s no escaping his meaning: the immediate context makes it plain. Remember that final, devastating point in Paul’s lengthy discourse on sin: “By the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). In other words, works are worthless for justification. Paul’s very next statement is that “the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, [is granted] to all and on all who believe” (Rom. 3:22). That is a clear affirmation of the principle of sola fide. Most Roman Catholic theologians (and a fairly recent strain of nominal Protestants who reject the principle of sola fide) have claimed that when Paul speaks of “the deeds of the law,” he means only the formal rituals and other ceremonial features of the law—circumcision, rules governing ceremonial cleanness, and such. But Paul’s use of this phrase simply cannot be narrowed down that way, in a heretical effort to give sinners some credit for their salvation. In Romans 7, for example, when Paul wanted to illustrate the law’s utter inability to justify sinners, the one precept he chose to single out as an example is the tenth commandment: “You shall not covet” (Rom. 7:7; cf. Ex. 20:17). Coveting is arguably the least of all the sins named in the Decalogue. It deals with desire. Resisting or committing that sin is not something that entails any kind of action. So when Paul speaks of the deeds of the law,” he is using that expression in the broadest possible sense. His meaning cannot be limited to the rituals and ceremonial features of the law. Quite the contrary: the expression “deeds of the law” as Paul consistently employs it would include any thought, action, or attitude that aims to gain God’s approval through a show of obedience to the Old Testament’s 613 commandments. No matter how rigorously the sinner tries to follow the law, seeking justification before God that way is a futile exercise. —John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), 61–62.

Gospel Distractions

There are many things the gospel is not. That needs repeating now, more than ever, as the issue is being confused daily by many who ought to know better. The gospel is one simple message. Everything else is a distraction. In the opening words of Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, he wrote, “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (v. 17). Just a few verses later, he wrote, “We preach Christ crucified” (v. 23). Then a paragraph or two after that, he wrote again, “I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (2:2). Thus Paul neatly summarized the gist of the gospel: it is a declaration about the atoning work of Christ. In the preaching of Christ and the apostles, the gospel was always punctuated by a clarion call to repentant faith. But it is not merely a summons to good behavior. It’s not a liturgy of religious ceremonies and sacraments. It’s not a plea for self-esteem and human dignity. It’s not a manifesto for culture warriors or a rallying cry for political zealots. It’s not a mandate for earthly dominion. It’s not a sophisticated moral philosophy seeking to win admiration and approval from the world’s intellectual elite, or a lecture about the evils of cultural and racial division. It’s not an appeal for “social justice.” It’s not a dissertation on gender issues or a prescription for “redeeming culture.” It’s not the kind of naive, indiscriminate congeniality that is content to sing “Kumbaya” to the rest of the world. Within the past half decade I have seen every one of those ideas touted as “the gospel” in various books, blogs, and sermons. They are all deviations or distractions from the true gospel as proclaimed by Paul. The cross of Jesus Christ is the sum and the focus of the gospel according to Paul: “We preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23). “God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14). And in Pauline theology, the cross is a symbol of atonement. “Christ crucified” is a message about redemption for sinners. How vital is that truth, and how crucial for the messenger to stay on point? To make the gospel about anything else is to depart from biblical Christianity. Paul’s teaching is not the least bit ambiguous about this. It’s the very definition of what he meant when he spoke of “my gospel.” Quite simply, the gospel is good news for fallen humanity regarding how sins are atoned for, how sinners are forgiven, and how believers are made right with God. —John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), 75–76.

Atonement Heresies

John MacArthur provides brief explanations of “spurious theories of the atonement” that “offer some kind of false alternative to the truth that Christ's death was an offering to God meant to satisfy and placate His righteous anger against sin,” most of which “deliberately attempt to eliminate, as much as possible, the offense of the cross“. There’s the moral influence theory—the belief that Christ’s death was merely an example of personal sacrifice and self-giving love and not at all the payment of a redemption price. This is the view most theological liberals hold. For reasons that should be obvious, their perspective on the atonement inevitably breeds works-oriented religion. If Christ’s work is merely a model to follow, and not a substitutionary sacrifice, salvation must somehow be earned through one’s own effort. The ransom theory (a belief that was common in the post-apostolic era in the first century) is the notion that Christ’s death was a ransom paid to Satan for the souls of the faithful. There’s no biblical warrant for such a view, of course. It was originally based on a misunderstanding of the biblical term ransom, which simply means “redemption price.” But this view fails to take into account all the biblical data. Scripture makes abundantly clear that Christ’s death on the cross was “an offering and a sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2; cf. Heb. 9:14). The governmental theory was proposed by Hugo Grotius, a Dutch legal expert from the early seventeenth century. He said the cross was not a ransom at all; it was merely a vivid symbolic display of God’s wrath against sin—and therefore it stands as a public vindication of God’s moral government. Grotius’s view was adopted by American revivalist Charles Finney. It was shared by other leading New England theologians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And has been brought back into the limelight recently by a certain class of radical Arminians. They typically favor this view because it does away with the idea that Christ died as anyone’s substitute—a truth they consider unjust (even though Scripture stresses the fact that Christ voluntarily took that role). Another opinion that has been steadily gaining popularity for the past quarter century is the Christus victor theory. This idea is favored by many new-model theologians (including most of the architects of the now-failed Emerging Church movement). In their view, Christ’s death and resurrection signified nothing more than His triumph over all the foes of fallen humanity, including sin, death, the Devil, and especially the law of God. They want to scale down the significance of Christ’s atoning work to a very narrow spectrum of what He actually accomplished. It is certainly true enough that Christ “wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us,” and “disarmed principalities and powers” (Col. 2:14-15). But the theme of victory over the enemies of the human race simply doesn’t do full justice to everything the Bible says about the cross. It’s a man-centered and severely truncated view of the atonement. Those who adopt the Christus victor theory favor triumphal language, and they eschew biblical terms like sacrifice for sin or propitiation. Most who hold this view would emphatically deny that Christ offered Himself to God on the cross. At the end of the day, this is just another unbiblical view that pretends to exalt and ennoble the love of God by overturning and eliminating the law’s demand for justice. All those theories attempt to sidestep the biblical principle of propitiation. Most of them do it on purpose, because they are rooted in a skewed view of divine love. People are drawn to these views by a common false assumption—namely, that God’s mercy is fundamentally incompatible with His justice. They believe God will forego the demands of justice in order to forgive. They conclude that divine righteousness needs no satisfaction; God will simply set aside His own righteousness and erase whatever debt is owed to His justice because of sin. Given those faulty presuppositions, the death of Christ must then be explained in terms that avoid any suggestion of retributive justice. The doctrine of penal substitution is the only view that incorporates the full range of biblical principles regarding atonement for sin. —John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), 78–80.

The Gospel’s Center

Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. —2 Corinthians 5:18–21 The central figure in the gospel is not you. Today’s evangelicals often speak about the gospel as if it were a means of discovering one’s own purpose, a message about how to have a happy and prosperous life, or a method of achieving success in one’s relationships or business. In the minds of many, the best starting point for sharing the gospel is an announcement that “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” All those ways of presenting the gospel have become such common clichés among contemporary Christians that most people in the church today do not flinch when they hear the gospel framed in such language. They don’t notice how profoundly all those narratives deviate from the gospel Paul proclaimed and defended. A major problem with all of them is the way they turn the gospel into a message about “you”—your life, your purpose, your prosperity. You become the center and subject of the story. Those are concepts that would have appalled and outraged Paul. One truth that should stand out boldly in every text we have looked at is that the central figure in the gospel according to Paul is always “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). The apostle takes great care never to let the narrative drift. Here in our text (2 Cor. 5:18–21), Paul’s intention is to explain how “God . . . has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ” (v. 18). He mentions both Christ and God in every verse. In the span of those four verses, he mentions God by name at least once in every verse (five times total). Three additional times he refers to God with pronouns (Himself twice and He once). He uses the Messianic title Christ four times. And in that final verse he refers to Christ twice with the pronoun Him. The entire passage is decidedly God-centered, not man-centered. That should be the case any time we talk about the gospel. It’s first of all a message about God’s purpose in the work of Christ; the sinner’s own purpose in life is secondary. —John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), 89–90.

So Nearly Parallel

That God predestines, and yet that man is responsible, are two facts that few can see clearly. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory to each other. If, then, I find taught in one part of the Bible that everything is fore-ordained, that is true; and if I find, in another Scripture, that man is responsible for all his actions, that is true; and it is only my folly that leads me to imagine that these two truths can ever contradict each other. I do not believe they can ever be welded into one upon any earthly anvil, but they certainly shall be one in eternity. They are two lines that are so nearly parallel, that the human mind which pursues them farthest will never discover that they converge, but they do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring. —Charles Spurgeon, cited in John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), 92–93. [Original source: “a Defense of Calvinism” in The Autobiography of Charles H. Spurgeon, eds. Susannah Spurgeon and Joseph Harrald, 4 vols. (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1899), 1:177.]

The Miracle of Regeneration

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. —Ephesians 2:1–10 This is a vital truth that bears frequent repetition: Don’t rush past the main point of that passage: whenever a sinner turns to Christ for salvation, it is because God has done a miracle of spiritual resurrection. The common theological term for this is regeneration, or the new birth. This is the same thing Jesus was speaking of when He told Nicodemus, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Our Lord went on to describe redeemed people—all true believers—as those who have been “born of the Spirit” (v. 8). Elsewhere He said, “It is the Spirit who gives life” (6:63). Paul likewise said believers are saved “through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). Here, then, is a simple definition: regeneration is a miracle wrought by the Holy Spirit, whereby He gives life to a spiritually dead soul. This life-giving act of God is a complete spiritual rebirth unto eternal life, no less a miracle than a literal bodily resurrection from the dead. By the way, resurrection and rebirth are kindred concepts, and the Bible uses both of them in reference to the risen Christ. He is “the firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5). “Now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). Both rebirth and resurrection are likewise apt descriptions of the miracle that takes place when God regenerates a spiritually dead sinner and gives that person the gift of salvation. —John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), 97–98.

Denigrating Grace

To be under grace and out from under the condemnation of law means that “sin shall not have dominion over you” (Rom. 6:14). It does not mean Christians no longer need to resist the coercive power of sin. It means grace equips them with the strength and the will to resist temptation. “It is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). On the positive side, grace teaches us that “we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:12). Having a right standing before God because Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, it is only fitting that we should seek to honor that perfect righteousness and seek (by God’s grace) to conform ourselves to it. How could grace teach otherwise? “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?” (Rom. 6:1–2). For Paul, the idea that someone who had been redeemed from judgment and transformed by God’s grace could blithely or willfully continue in sin was absolutely unthinkable. In other words, grace does not deliver us from hell without also delivering us from our bondage to sin. Those who teach otherwise don’t exalt the principle of grace; they denigrate it. —John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), 125–126.

A Worthless Pedigree

If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more . . . But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. —Philippians 3:4, 7 For all his life as a Pharisee, Paul had believed eternal life would be won through ritual, race, rank, religion, and right living. His religious credentials were second to none, according to how the Pharisees ranked advantages. He was “a Hebrew of the Hebrews” (Phil. 3:5)—maintaining the Hebrew language and customs, even though he was born in a Gentile region dominated by Hellenized Jews. He came from an especially noble tribe. (Benjamin was one of only two tribes that did not join the rebellion against the House of David after Solomon’s death.) He was born into the household of a Pharisee and circumcised as an eight-day-old—precisely as commanded in Genesis 17:12. In other words, he was still a newborn infant when his parents started him on a course of fastidious observance to the ceremonial law. He never overtly defiled the Sabbath or violated the Pharisees’ traditions regarding the sacrifices, washings, or other ceremonial law works. He had thus managed to keep his reputation unblemished, so in his own estimation, and from the perspective of any devoted Pharisee, he was “blameless.” The proof of his pharisaical zeal was his savage persecution of the church. Any Pharisee would be deeply impressed with such a pedigree. But when he met Christ, Paul saw that both his ancestry and his accomplishments were permanently and irreparably flawed. It was nothing but one large mass of liabilities. Therefore, he trashed it all in order to gain Christ (Phil. 3:8). Paul was not saying he gave up doing good works, of course, but that he realized first that those were not really good works at all, since there was nothing truly righteous about him. So he gladly gave up trusting that his own tainted, pharisaical “good works” might earn merit with God. Merely adding Christ to his religion would not have sanctified it. Remember, he said he counted it as excrement. Decorating skubalon doesn’t alter the reality of what it is. So Paul put all his faith solely in Christ. His only aim from then on was to “be found in (Christ), not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Phil. 3:9). He is, of course, describing justification by faith and the principle of imputed righteousness. If anyone tries to tell you Paul never spoke of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, point out that it is the focus of his own personal testimony. To be found in Christ is to be clothed in Christ’s own righteousness, “not . . . my own righteousness . . . but that which is through faith in Christ” (Phil. 3:9). This establishes the most intimate imaginable relationship between the believer and his Lord. It is an inviolable spiritual union. What motive could possibly take a devoted, overzealous Pharisee like Saul of Tarsus and persuade him gladly to abandon his lifelong efforts and convictions, labeling them all “dung”? Paul himself gives the answer to that question. He did it “in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ” (Phil. 3:8 NASB). Having seen the radiance of Christ’s glory in the bright light of gospel truth, nothing else would ever again take first place in his heart. —John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), 132–134.

The Full Weight of Divine Fury

What made Christ’s miseries on the cross so difficult for Him to bear was not the taunting and torture and abuse of evil men. It was that He bore the full weight of divine fury against sin. Jesus’ most painful sufferings were not merely those inflicted by the whips and nails and thorns. But by far the most excruciating agony Christ bore was the full penalty of sin on our behalf—God’s wrath poured out on Him in infinite measure. Remember that when He finally cried out in distress, it was because of the afflictions He received from God’s own hand: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mark 15:34). “We esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” (Isa. 53:4). We cannot even begin to know what Christ suffered. It is a horrible reality to ponder. But we dare not follow open theism in rejecting the notion that He bore His Father’s punishment for our sins, for in this truth lies the very nerve of genuine Christianity. It is the major reason the cross is such an offense (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18). Scripture says, “[God] made [Christ] who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). Our sins were imputed to Christ, and He bore the awful price as our substitute. Conversely, His righteousness is imputed to all who believe, and they stand before God fully justified, clothed in the pure white garment of His perfect righteousness. . . . this is the distilled meaning of what happened at the cross for every believer: God treated Christ as if He had lived our wretched, sinful life, so that He could treat us as if we had lived Christ’s spotless, perfect life. Deny the vicarious nature of the atonement—deny that our guilt was transferred to Christ and He bore its penalty—and you in effect have denied the ground of our justification. If our guilt wasn’t transferred to Christ and paid for on the cross, how can His righteousness be imputed to us for our justification? Every deficient view of the atonement must deal with this same dilemma. And unfortunately, those who misconstrue the meaning of the atonement invariably end up proclaiming a different gospel, devoid of the principle of justification by faith. —John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), 145–146.

Unformed and Inadequate

John MacArthur on the vagueries of early church atonement theory: Few would argue that the church fathers had a well-formed understanding of the atonement as a penal substitution, but Augustus Hodge pointed out that the idea of vicarious atonement was more or less implicit in their understanding, even if it was “often left to a remarkable degree in the background, and mixed up confusedly with other elements of truth or superstition.” Specifically, some of the fathers seemed confused about the nature of the ransom Christ paid—especially on the question of to whom the ransom was due. Some of them seemed to think of it as a ransom paid to Satan, as if Christ paid a fee to the Devil to purchase release for sinners. That is the ransom theory of the atonement. Nonetheless, according to Hodge, “With few exceptions, the whole church from the beginning has held the doctrine of Redemption in the sense of a literal propitiation of God by means of the expiation of sin.” Selected church fathers’ comments about the ransom of Christ should not be taken as studied, conscientious doctrinal statements but rather as childlike expressions of an unformed and inadequate doctrine of the atonement. Philip Schaff, commenting on the lack of clarity about the atonement in early church writings, said, “The primitive church teachers lived more in the thankful enjoyment of redemption than in logical reflection upon it. We perceive in their exhibitions of this blessed mystery the language rather of enthusiastic feeling than of careful definition and acute analysis.” “Nevertheless,” Schaff added, “all the essential elements of the later church doctrine of redemption may be found, either expressed or implied, before the close of the second century.” —John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), 147.

Christ Died for God

For whom did Christ die? If you’re a Christian, your first thought is probably “for me,” or, if you’re thinking more theologically, “for his people” (Matthew 1:21). Neither of those answers are wrong, but neither is ultimate. Viewing the cross from the perspective of God is not the usual way of thinking about it. We almost exclusively think of the cross in regard to our own lives—focusing on what it means for those who believe. “Christ died for the ungodly, we say (Rom. 5:6). “Christ died for us” (v. 8). “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3). He died for our salvation. He died for our eternal benefit. He died to rescue us from judgment and hell. All of those statements are absolutely true, and certainly we should celebrate what the cross means for us. But looking at the atonement from heaven’s perspective, we also need to recognize and confess that Christ died for God. And all those other truisms hinge on this fact. “[Christ] gave Himself for our sins . . . according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal. 1:4). “What the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin” (Rom. 8:3). The Father “did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all” (v. 32). Jesus Himself said, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work” (John 4:34). “I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me” (6:38). “My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father” (10:17–18). God sent Christ to earth to die. . . . Everything points to God. Again, that was Jesus’ clear perspective throughout His earthly life. On the last night before He died, He prayed to His Father, “I have glorified You on the earth. I have finished the work which You have given Me to do” (John 17:4). He never sought anything other than the glory of the One who sent Him” (John 7:18). He said this about the Father’s will: “I always do those things that please Him” (John 8:29). “I can of Myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge, and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me” (John 5:30). Everything Jesus ever did was for God. Including His death. . . . We tend to think too much of what the cross means to us and too little of what it meant to God. In order for the cross to mean anything to us, it must mean everything to God. The better we understand this, the more clearly we understand the cross. —John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), 154–156.

Capital Crime

[T]he gravity of any offense is never measured merely by its immediate consequences, or by asking who was hurt by it. The real gauge of a sin’s seriousness is the question of whom the sin was against. If you are angry with your neighbor and you yell and insult him, you’re not going to prison for that offense. But curse a judge in his courtroom, and you will be sent to jail. Or send a letter to the White House threatening the president of the United States, and you will be charged with a federal crime. Again, the true enormity of any misdeed or insult is determined by whom the offense is committed against. For that reason, sin against almighty God is never a trivial matter. True justice demands a penalty for sin, and the penalty is commensurate with the offense. Since all sin is a violation of God’s infinite holiness and a challenge to His eternal authority, every sin is a capital crime (Rom. 6:23). —John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), 161.

God’s Glory

A popular worship song repeats the line, “Show us, show us your glory.” I’m convinced that most people don’t give much thought to the words they sing, because if they did, throughout this song, line by line, they would be asking, What in the world does this mean? And having contemplated that question, and what God has revealed in scripture about his glory, would never utter those words. Too often we speak of “God’s glory” without really contemplating what the expression means. It is not an easy concept to define. We are dealing with something that is infinite, unfathomable, inconceivable, and utterly foreign to fallen human minds—something so pure and powerful that an unobstructed, unmediated view of it would be fatal to our sinful flesh (Ex. 33:20; Isa. 6:5; 1 Tim. 6:16). “The Oxford English Dictionary defines glory as “resplendent majesty, beauty, or magnificence.” But the glory of God entails much more than that. It includes His holiness, His absolute perfection, and the stunning radiance of unapproachable light. God’s glory is the very essence of beauty, majesty, and splendor. It likewise includes His justice, power, and wrath. It is at once captivating and terrifying. It is a reality so sublime that if you were permitted one glimpse of it and it weren’t so overwhelming that you would die, you would never want to look away. —John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), 167.

The End of All

God’s glory is the end [the goal and purpose] of all his works and actions; in creation, providence, and grace; in election, in the covenant, in the blessings and promises of it, in redemption, in effectual vocation, and in bringing many sons to glory. The same is the end of all Christ’s actions, as man and Mediator, of his doctrines and miracles, of his obedience, sufferings, and death in this world, and of his interceding life in the other; who, as he lives to make intercession for us, lives unto God, to the glory of God; and therefore the glory of God should be the end of all our actions, besides, without this no action can be truly called a good one; if a man seeks himself, his own glory, and popular applause, or has any sinister and selfish end in view in what he does, it cannot be said, nor will it be accounted by God to be a good action. —John Gill, cited in John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), 168. [original source: Gill’s Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), 6:219.]
The preacher’s one job is to proclaim the whole counsel of God in a way that makes the gospel clear and magnifies the glory of God. “We do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord. . . . For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:5-6). The Word of God is our text; the gospel message is the crux of it; Christ is its main theme and central character, and the glory of God is the ultimate purpose. All of that is implied in the apostle’s instruction to Timothy: “Preach the word! . . . in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2). Notice: “We do not preach ourselves” (2 Cor. 4:5). That statement is contrary to every dominant style of contemporary ministry. Pulpits today are full of narcissists, show-offs, and self-promoters. But no preacher who is thinking properly about the glory of God would ever want to uplift himself or make himself the focus of a sermon. Humility is the natural expression of a God-glorifying attitude. The person who is egotistical or self-absorbed has never really understood the grandeur of God’s glory. At the same time, our knowledge of God’s glory ought to make us bold for the truth. You can tell a preacher is focused on God’s glory when he fearlessly proclaims the hard or unpopular truths regardless of whatever opposition, criticism, or persecution he receives as a result. The preacher who keeps God’s glory in proper focus will likewise be indifferent to praise and flattery. To see the glory of God is to understand that nothing else really matters in the ultimate sense. —John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), 168–169.
For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus. —Romans 2:14–16 Is not this expression “my gospel” the voice of love? Does he not by this term embrace the gospel as the only love of his soul—for the sake of which he had “suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish” (Phil. 3:8)—for the sake of which he was willing to stand before Nero, and proclaim, even in Caesar’s palace, the message from heaven? Although each word might cost him a life, he was willing to die a thousand deaths for the holy cause. “My gospel,” says he, with a rapture of delight, as he presses to his heart the sacred deposit of truth. “My gospel.” Does this not show his courage? As much as to say, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes.” He says, “my gospel” as a soldier speaks of “my colors,” or of “my king.” He resolves to bear this banner to victory, and to serve this royal truth even to the death. “My gospel.” There is a touch of discrimination about the expression. Paul perceives that there are other gospels, and he makes short work with them, for he says, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8). The apostle was of a gentle spirit; he prayed heartily for the Jews who persecuted him, and yielded his life for the conversion of the Gentiles who maltreated him. But he had no tolerance for false gospellers. He exhibited great breadth of mind, and to save souls he became all things to all men. But when he contemplated any alteration or adulteration of the gospel of Christ, he thundered and lightninged without measure. When he feared that something else might spring up among the philosophers, or among the Judaizers, that should hide a single beam of the glorious Sun of Righteousness, he used no measured language. He cried concerning the author of such a darkening influence, “Let him be accursed. . . . Let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8–9). —John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), 175–176 [Adapted from sermons by Charles Spurgeon].


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