[This post represents something I wrote awhile ago — before I was ever exposed to “Evangelical Calvinism” — but I think it illustrates some of the problems, that aren’t new, which can arise if someone follows the Federal/Classic Calvinist ‘way’ — whether that be in the 17th century or the 21st. Also, I realize that John MacArthur is not a ‘true’ Federal Calvinist; nevertheless, the ‘practical’ fall-out of assuming the Westminster themes of ‘grace and nature’ are still very much present within his construal and preaching of things . . . thus “his Calvinism” can foster the same kind of waywardness that Federal Calvinism can in re. to many things — in the case of this post, in re. to ethics, holiness, and salvation]
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. [italics mine] (Theodore Dwight Bozeman, “The Precisianist Strain . . . ,” 20-21)
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. [brackets mine] (John MacArthur, “The Gospel According to Jesus,” 17)
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”).
All of this is contrary to Martin Luther’s approach, which is to emphasize the need of a changed heart, and the objective Word of God as the motivation and reason for holiness. Luther did not hang people over hell in order to engender holiness of life, and neither did the later antinomists (i.e. Sibbes, Cotton, et al) who we will discuss later. Did Luther think moral transformation was needed within the church, indeed . . . but we do not hybrid the gospel in order to achieve this end (i.e. MacArthur and the Puritans); rather we emphasize the winsome love of Christ disclosed at the cross, grave, and right hand of the throne of the Father as the motivation for purity and holiness. This was Luther’s, Cotton’s, Sibbe’s, and my aim, I hope it is yours.
I have provided this brief comparison in order to further establish the corollary and continuity between English Puritan salvation themes and motifs, and in this case, John MacArthur’s themes and motifs, relative to articulating the gospel. I am not sure how anyone who has read anything on Puritan spirituality, and its formation, can deny the similarity between that and the outlook that MacArthur (and others like him) is articulating today. At minimum my hope is to expose this, not to smear MacArthur (or others), so that folks who have bought into such teaching can see it for what it is, and realize that this kind of doctrine leads away from an emphasis upon Christ; and focuses upon self (and “my transformed life”). Jesus said it best, “. . . Seek ye first, His kingdom and His righteousness . . . ,” in other words, keep your eyes ON HIM!