Book Write-Up: Alone with God, by John MacArthur, Jr.

John MacArthur, Jr. Alone with God: The Power and Passion of Prayer. Victor, 1995. See here to buy the book.

John MacArthur, Jr. is the pastor of Grace Community Church and has written numerous books. Alone with God is about prayer.

MacArthur goes through each petition of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). Framing those chapters are discussions about the proper attitude that Christians should have when praying, and the proper things to pray for. According to MacArthur, the proper things to pray for are the spiritual growth of other believers and the salvation of non-believers.

My impression of this MacArthur book is similar to that of the vast majority of other MacArthur books that I have read. MacArthur presents a high standard that I cannot live up to. For instance, he says that any negative thought about God fails to hallow God’s name. But did not the Psalmists have negative thoughts about God? While MacArthur is challenging to read in that respect, he is still edifying. He has an engaging, yet weighty, style. Moreover, while I cannot live up to God’s “law,” God’s law is edifying, as a righteous and wholesome set of propositions about how people should be.

MacArthur is especially edifying when he lays out biblical rationales for his points. In the chapter about praying for non-believers, for example, he systematically goes through biblical examples of people of God praying that Israelites, or others, might arrive at a right relationship with God. In his chapter on forgiveness, he lists practical reasons for Christians to forgive each other.

When MacArthur wrestled with difficult issues, he was effective. For instance, there is “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Why would we need to ask God to do this, since God never tempts anyone, anyway (James 1:13)? If the petition asks God not to lead us into trials, how does that reconcile with New Testament statements about trials refining or purifying the character of believers, making them, arguably, a good thing? I will quote MacArthur’s solution on page 113, for future personal reference:

“I affirm with Chrysostom, the early church father, that the solution to this issue is that Jesus is not dealing with logic or theology but with a natural appeal of human weakness as it faces danger (Homily 19:10). We all desire to avoid the danger and trouble that sin creates. This petition is thus the expression of the redeemed soul that so despises and fears sin that it wants to escape all prospects of falling into it, choosing to avoid rather than having to defeat temptation.”

On some topics, MacArthur could have wrestled more. On “Give us this day our daily bread,” he addresses the question of how Christians in the West can pray this, when many of them do not have to worry about their next meal. MacArthur argues from the Bible that God promises to provide for the needs of believers. That may be, but what about people who starve to death due to poverty? MacArthur could say, I suppose, that they are not believers and thus are not entitled to God’s provision, but Jesus presented a scenario in which a poor man, Lazarus, died and went to Abraham’s bosom. Did God fail to fulfill God’s promise to provide for the godly in Lazarus’s hypothetical case?

On “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” MacArthur distinguishes between judicial forgiveness and parental forgiveness. All Christians have judicial forgiveness from God, in that God considers them righteous through Christ rather than sinners. They may lack a relational parental forgiveness from God, however, because they have failed to confess their sins or to forgive others. That is one way to harmonize the two different depictions of forgiveness in the New Testament: that it is a state that believers enter through their faith in Christ, versus the view that it is something that people need continually receive through confession, repentance, and forgiving others. Another way to harmonize these two approaches is the Roman Catholic view: people become Christians through baptism but then have to maintain their Christian status through regular confession, rather than falling into hardness of heart or mortal sin.

At the same time, MacArthur backs away somewhat from any notion that Christians can refuse to forgive others while still trusting in their positional, judicial righteousness in Christ, for he states that a “Christian” who is not merciful may lack the new heart that God gives to believers and thus may not even be a Christian.

Then there is this statement on page 108: “Because God deals with us just as we deal with others, we are to forgive others as freely and graciously as God forgives us.” Is God’s forgiveness of us truly free and gracious, however, if he deals with us as we deal with others? One approach is, well, free and gracious, whereas the other approach is very conditional and limited according to our paltry ability to forgive.

Overall, MacArthur does try to harmonize details of Scripture with his Calvinist viewpoint. Why, for example, should believers pray for others’ salvation, when God has already determined who should be saved or damned? That adds an interesting theological element to the book.

MacArthur also tells an anecdote about when he was a child and vandalized a school. Who would have known? MacArthur was a bad boy!

The appendix has questions for group discussions, which are good and fairly open-ended. It also recommends accessible, yet meaty, Christian books for further edification and study.


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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