Book Write-Up: Christ’s Call to Reform the Church, by John MacArthur

John MacArthur. Christ’s Call to Reform the Church: Timeless Demands from the Lord to His People. Moody, 2018. See here to buy the book.

In Christ’s Call to Reform the Church, pastor John MacArthur goes through Christ’s instruction to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3, while issuing a jeremiad against the impurity, shallowness, and “seeker sensitivity” of contemporary churches. Here are some items:

A. MacArthur attempts to reconcile aspects of Christ’s instruction in Revelation 2-3 with his own belief in eternal security, the doctrine that Christians cannot and will not lose their salvation. When Christ promises to remove the Ephesian church’s candlestick if she fails to repent (Revelation 2:5), therefore, that does not mean she will lose her salvation, but rather that the church will be destroyed in a temporal, historical sense. Indeed, as MacArthur observes, some churches were destroyed in the first century, while others survived for centuries thereafter. This is an impressive attempt to resolve the problem, but does it work? Christ declares in Revelation 2-3 that the overcomers will be the ones who shall rule with Christ and escape the second death, which are aspects of salvation. MacArthur argues that the overcomers are simply those who believe in Christ, for I John 5:4 affirms that believers overcome the world through their faith; Christ in Revelation 2-3, in short, is merely asserting that people are justified by faith. Would Christ need to exhort the seven churches to do what they are already doing as believers, however, namely, believing? Could not overcoming mean following Christ’s exhortations, notwithstanding opposition from the world? As a TULIP-committed Calvinist, MacArthur holds that “Christians” who do not persevere in the faith or produce spiritual fruit are not true believers; MacArthur thinks that this actually is the case with the church of Laodicea, for Christ essentially exhorts her to get saved, to be clothed in white and to get her eyes opened. The implication is that those things were not true of the Laodicean church before, meaning they were unsaved. MacArthur is aware that he cannot say that about the other churches in Revelation 2-3, for Christ affirms that, initially, they were on the right track, meaning they were truly saved. MacArthur, therefore, seeks a way to explain how Christ’s threats of judgment against them do not entail a loss of salvation, for, according to his doctrine, they as saved people cannot lose their salvation.

B. This is one of those books that does not give me a “feel-good” sentiment about my religion and spirituality. What exactly pleases God, according to MacArthur? MacArthur says “purity” and holds that Christ demands that his church be pure and discipline sin. But how far does that extend? Should Christians be disciplined if, say, they lack a positive attitude, since I am sure that some could string together Bible verses and declare that this is a sin. The Reformed are especially sensitive to the innate sinfulness of people: many have said that humans, even Christians, cannot go even a moment without sinning, for sinfulness is their state. Is it practical or even possible, then, to effect formal church discipline against “impurity,” wherever it may exist in the church? On the Laodicean church, MacArthur interprets Christ to be saying that it would be preferable for that church to be unsaved and spiritually dead (“cold”) than to be where she is: somewhat Christian (“lukewarm”). The reason is that, if she is cold, there is at least the possibility that she can realize that she is totally on the wrong path and can repent; if she is nominally Christian, however, she thinks she is on the right path when she is not. How, then, can Christians know that they are on the right path? According to MacArthur, good deeds of service to the community is not enough, for Sardis was dead, even though she had a reputation for being living. Attending church services is not enough, for all of the instructed in Revelation 2-3, even the bad ones, attended church. Finding assurance and comfort in MacArthur’s scenario may be a challenge, though I am aware that he has written a book that addresses this topic (Saved without a Doubt). My struggle may be not only with MacArthur, but also with Revelation 2-3.

C. Related to (C.), I think an appeal to Lordship Salvation is that is presents the Christian faith as something that has substance. Pop evangelical sermons about the latest movies and “God loves you just as you are” messages can sound good, but after a while listening to them can feel like eating air. Many are drawn to a God who is tough, one with standards who challenges people and gives them a significant mission. But taking that to an extreme can present its own set of problems: beating oneself up for being imperfect, beating up others for being imperfect, or serving God out of guilt or fear rather than love.

D. MacArthur says that the church that he pastors goes extensively through the Gospels to learn and to highlight the character of Christ. The character of Christ, after all, can inspire Christians to worship him and provide content to their worship. I like this insight. One can easily get the impression from a book like this that MacArthur wants churches to preach messages that chew people out: that call for repentance, stress God’s justice, and speak of the reality of hell. MacArthur may very well believe that churches should do this more than they are, but he also wants churches to offer something edifying: the character of Christ.

E. In Revelation 3:10, Christ states to the Philadelphian church: “Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth” (KJV). MacArthur ultimately interprets that in reference to the pre-tribulational rapture, as he analyzes different Christian views on this topic. At the same time, MacArthur acknowledges the possibility that there was a first century fulfillment of this verse that affected the historical church of Philadelphia: “It’s entirely possible that there was a wave of persecution or natural disaster that occurred in the area, or some other catastrophe during which the Lord protected and preserved the church” (page 151). That is a helpful insight, especially if one wonders how Revelation 3:10 may pertain to the first century church in Philadelphia, without wanting to say that Revelation inaccurately posited that the eschaton would occur in the first century. But does such an insight undermine the idea that Revelation 3:10 grammatically speaks of a pretribulational rapture, which is what MacArthur argues? It presents God, after all, preserving a group of Christians on earth, even as God permits other Christians to be persecuted.

F. MacArthur offers interesting historical details. The story about the city of Philadelphia’s loyalty to Rome because Rome helped her rebuild after an earthquake is beautiful. MacArthur also says that Luther wrote his ninety-five theses before he became aware that justification was by grace through faith alone. That would make sense, for the ninety-five theses stress repentance and proper spirituality, which Luther believed the sale of indulgences undermined; as far as I can recall, they lack the emphasis on God’s loving grace that is characteristic of so many of Luther’s writings.

Notwithstanding my questions and possible areas of disagreement, I still give this book five stars because it is vintage MacArthur: well-written, informative, and meaty.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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