Book Write-Up: The Pillars of Christian Character, by John F. MacArthur

John F. MacArthur. The Pillars of Christian Character: The Basic Essentials of a Living Faith. Crossway, 1998. See here to buy the book.

In this book, John MacArthur discusses nine foundational and essential attitudes that Christians are to have. These include faith, obedience, humility, love, forgiveness, self-discipline, gratitude, and worship.

Here are some observations and rambling reflections:

A. As is often the case, MacArthur helped me to understand certain details of Scripture better. When Habakkuk 3:19 states that God makes Habakkuk’s feet like the feet of a deer, what does that mean? According to MacArthur, the feet of the deer securely grasp onto rocky surfaces, and faith, likewise, provides people with a secure footing as they confidently grasp onto God’s faithfulness, righteousness, and sovereignty in the midst of life’s uncertainties. What does Paul mean when he tells Timothy that soldiers do not get entangled in civilian pursuits but seek to please their commanding officer? MacArthur says that Christians are involved in spiritual warfare, and their primary goal in life is to encourage people to become free from darkness and reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. They may be in the world, but they are not entangled in worldly affairs, for they have a spiritual purpose.

B. Related to Habakkuk 3:19, this book focuses significantly on what believers do for God. Habakkuk 3:19 affirms that God makes Habakkuk’s feet like those of a deer, perhaps through strengthening and encouraging him. MacArthur, however, interprets it in reference to the act of faith itself: faith enables believers to have a secure hold. The role of God in sanctification could have been highlighted more in this book. At the same time, MacArthur does well to offer practical steps that one can take: his chapter on self-discipline is an excellent example of this, as are his chapters about possible reasons for discontent and attitudes one can have instead. Moreover, some Christians can get so preoccupied with their inability to keep God’s law, that they lose sight of the beauty of the law and the reality that Christian attributes are righteous, admirable, wholesome attributes to possess, as well as requirements to follow. All of that said, as I have said in other reviews of MacArthur’s work, the only way that I can read MacArthur without becoming discouraged about my flaws is to employ a Lutheran law/Gospel paradigm: the law challenges me with my inability to keep it, and that is why I need Christ as my savior.

C. A point that MacArthur makes more than once is that, if you are not joyful, there is a possibility that you are not saved. That sort of thought can put people’s minds into a tailspin. I do not think that I would go as far as MacArthur here. At the same time, there is nothing wrong with continuous repentance, humble turning towards God after being confronted with God’s standards, and ongoing recognition of one’s need for a savior.

D. MacArthur fails to deal sufficiently with the implications of the negative Psalms and other negative biblical passages in his larger discussion of the pillars of Christian character. MacArthur says that Christians have faith and joy, and they are to put away sinful attitudes when they come before God in worship. There are, indeed, biblical passages that suggest that: for instance, I Timothy 2:8 exhorts men to lift up holy hands without anger or disputing. At the same time, there are numerous passages of Scripture in which godly people are angry and disappointed with God and do not hesitate to complain to God. Some people, of course, can appeal to those passages as an excuse to be continually negative, when Scripture does want people to have and exhibit positive attitudes towards God and their fellow human beings. Still, the fact is that no one is going to be pure all of the time, or even anytime.

E. MacArthur at one point says that trials humble people and make them more compassionate towards others. Yet, he also says that bitterness and unforgiveness can hinder one’s relationship with God and effectiveness in God’s work. MacArthur defines forgiveness as putting aside the feelings of pain and loving the offender. This creates a paradox, in my opinion: pain can enhance people spiritually by helping them to develop humility and compassion, yet it also can be a destructive force that leads them to isolate and sulk and to fail to love others.

F. MacArthur tells a story about a woman whose husband left the ministry after a bad experience and refused ever again to darken the doors of a church. MacArthur says that what he should have done was ask God what God wanted him to learn from this experience. This passage is noteworthy, since MacArthur strikes me as the sort of teacher who wants people to stick with the Bible rather than “God told me” experiences. Yet, if there is a real God, would not God want to guide his children? Where I stumble over this kind of teaching is that, first, I am afraid that God will ask me to do something I do not want to do, or find myself unable to do. Second, I am hesitant to define any sentiment in my mind as divine revelation, when it very well may be just my idea. My own ideas, I have to live with, but I am not willing to take risks over them.

G. Some of what MacArthur talks about is difficult for me to conceptualize, let alone practice. MacArthur defines love as thinking about others over oneself, and it is not just having positive feelings about people but entails doing actual good to them, even at sacrifice to oneself. Forgiveness, for MacArthur, entails love towards the offender. I have questions about this. For one, can people be totally free of ego—-and here I do not mean pride but more a desire for one’s own needs and wants to be met? I can picture myself putting others first in specific incidents: letting someone else have that last piece of pizza, etc. But I cannot picture myself having an all-encompassing attitude that places other people ahead of myself, like my needs do not matter. Second, why do people need to show love to their offenders? Why should everybody have to be friends? Even those who act as if that is God’s command do not practice that in real life, since they are busy with their daily tasks in life.

H. This book had good personal stories, such as MacArthur not granting some students an extension on their assignment to teach them the importance of preparation, and MacArthur visiting his sister on her deathbed and marveling (in a positive sense) at her hope as a Christian.


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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