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One of John MacArthur’s recent blog posts discussed the importance of private Bible reading and meditation in line with Scripture.
His method for understanding the New Testament is to read each chapter 30 times. He has done this himself successfully.
Alternatively, one can always read the whole Bible over the course of a year. Grant Horner, one of MacArthur’s employees — a professor of English at The Master’s College — has a reading schedule which takes only 30 minutes a day. The various passages read like newspaper or magazine articles. Old and New Testament readings are interspersed. I followed this myself and it works beautifully. I read the whole Bible a few years ago and only regret I didn’t do so earlier.
MacArthur is correct in saying that the more we read the Bible, the better we grasp its meaning. I would recommend the Grant Horner method first, then, after having read the whole Bible, read each chapter of the New Testament 30 times. The same can then be done with the Old Testament.
Now onto MacArthur’s thoughts on private Bible reading and personal meditation. Excerpts follow, emphases mine:
… you ought to have God’s Word running around in your mind all the time. If you’re reading a portion of the New Testament thirty times in a row, as previously suggested, it will penetrate and shape your thinking. It should lead to meditation …
The word meditate can evoke thoughts of empty minds and eastern religions. But it is more likely that Hindus and Buddhists borrowed the term from the Bible … From the time of Joshua’s military conquest of Canaan, we hear the Lord instructing His people to meditate on God’s Word (Joshua 1:8). So what does meditate mean? Biblically, it means to focus your mind on one subject.
In Deuteronomy, God tells His people that they should bind His words, “as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals to your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:8–9). God says He wants His Word everywhere.
David highlighted the role meditation plays in our sanctification when he wrote the first Psalm. The blessed man is one who meditates both day and night on God’s law rather than seeking counsel in the fellowship of unbelievers (Psalm 1:1–3). It is the key to his perseverance and fruitfulness as a child of God.
Meditation is no less needed today. We live in a culture that continually assaults us with distractions through billboards, television, the Internet, and more. God says that we should keep His Word perpetually in front of our eyes, filling our minds and conversations wherever we go.
This is marvellous advice for the week ahead. May it become a lifelong practice.
Yesterday’s Forbidden Bible Verses examined Luke 17:20-27, wherein Christ discusses the kingdom of God.
In Matthew 24, our Lord explained that the world would endure many travails before that time.
Today, many believers over the age of 50 wonder what happened to our secure Western world where, even when people didn’t attend church often, our societies respected biblical values.
John MacArthur’s monthly letter for September 2014 discusses the Church’s travails today. Excerpts follow, emphases mine:
Perhaps, like me, you grew up in America when there was widespread, cultural Christianity. There was a kind of Christian consensus. To some degree, people understood the church, the Bible, and the gospel. They accepted the Judeo-Christian ethic. While most people weren’t genuine Christians, there was still superficial acceptance—or, at least, tolerance—of a cultural Christianity in politics, business, education, and public life.
But where are we today? … There is no more cultural Christianity; there is no collective Christian consensus wielding any significant power in this country. In fact, the more biblically that true Christians speak and live, the more they are being labeled as extremists, homophobic, intolerant, and guilty of hate crimes. We are now aliens. And I think we can all foresee a day when being a faithful Christian will cost us or our children dearly, and in ways we couldn’t have imagined just a decade ago. I think we’re closer than ever to living in conditions like the people did in the book of Acts.
His letter says that the first Christians, a number of whose experiences feature in Acts, led difficult lives with some dying as martyrs for the faith.
Although many mainstream American clergy would say that Western churchgoers are far from being persecuted, the trend in Europe is towards a continuous denigration of Christianity which started in the last century and ramped up gradually after the Second World War. The same trend is coming to the United States, just at a slower rate of speed.
MacArthur also takes issue with churchgoers who think along extremist lines as well as those who adopt an everyone-is-saved outlook:
For years I’ve been concerned by the church’s pursuit of cultural change through political and social activities. Large swaths of Christians have placed enormous time, energy, money, and hope in the wrong places. Hand in glove with that thinking, superficial, cultural Christianity has blurred the clear lines between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of this world, and has softened the hard demands of the gospel, making professing Christ easy and without cost. As a result, churches have been filled with highly religious, superficially moral, self-righteous people who don’t understand the gospel and are self-deceived about their true spiritual state.
We’re in a lot of trouble, certainly.
That said, MacArthur sees a silver lining now that Christianity stands in such sharp relief against an increasingly secular world.
His solution is a simple yet powerful one:
Scripture teaches and church history confirms that the Body of Christ is most potent and most effective when it simply speaks and lives the gospel without equivocation or apology. With the mask of superficial Christianity gone, I believe the best days for the spread of the true gospel are ahead of us.
The gospel advances by personal testimony to Christ, one soul at a time. When the church acts like the church; when shepherds preach Scripture and confront error with clarity and boldness; when believers are sanctified, built up, and equipped in truth; people are saved. And that’s when the culture truly changes—nothing transforms the culture like genuine conversion.
As Christ said (Luke 17:21):
the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.
MacArthur echoes this:
Our confidence is in Christ and His perfect, powerful Word. Nothing brings us greater joy than seeing that confidence spread in and through God’s people, to His glory and honor.
I know a vicar who is determined that his congregation do something ‘big’ and bombastic (in the nicest sense of the word) for their local community. Thankfully, no one has contributed any suggestions as to what this might be. Still, he perseveres because he says that our God is a ‘great, mighty’ God. Therefore, they must do something works-based to show their faith.
So wrong on so many levels!
Isaiah 64:6 says:
But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.
If this vicar and his congregation were to adopt MacArthur’s long-standing approach of preaching and teaching nothing but Christ through Holy Scripture, then they truly would be honouring a great and mighty God. This doesn’t mean giving sermonettes and handing out tracts on street corners, but it does require that believers competently answer questions on what they believe and why they believe it. This involves prayer and regular Bible reading. The latter, in particular, moves us away from error and easy-grace Christianity.
May the wisdom of the Holy Spirit prevail upon them and us to adopt John MacArthur’s decades long — and highly successful — one-soul-at-a-time conversion to biblical Christianity.
May God continue to bless those converts and those who have returned to the faith after a long absence.
It is likely that lapsed Christians and Christian doubters are unfamiliar with God’s ever-present grace, His gift to us.
If they became acquainted with it, it is probable that many would return to the Church, perhaps by way of a different denomination or independent congregation.
Last week’s posts addressed doubt:
These and similar posts are on my Christianity / Apologetics page under the first heading, Apologetics Corner.
Other posts on the same page explain more about people and concepts mentioned below. New readers may wish to look up posts under the following tags — pietism, Arminius and semi-Pelagianism — for more information.
This post concerns understanding grace within the biblical context.
The Reformers saw it as a monergistic process with God working good through undeserving sinners. That is a simplistic definition, however, it points to scriptural evidence that we are incapable of doing good on our own and must rely on God for all of it.
Post-Reformation, some denominations from Anabaptists and pietists to Methodist and Wesleyans and theologians such as Jacob Arminius thought that this definition of grace sounded too harsh. In turn, they separately devised synergistic principles by which man would co-operate with God through his own power and divine grace. Essentially, man must ‘do’ certain ‘good’ things and refrain from ‘bad’ things (eating certain foods, going to the cinema), otherwise, he is not fulfilling his part of God’s bargain. This is called legalism; it can lead to semi-Pelagianism.
Roman Catholics follow a similar synergism. The state of grace after Confession or Communion is a fleeting one, brought to a rapid end with our first subsequent sin.
Yet, as we shall see, Scripture does not bear this out.
Monergists — those Christians holding to biblical definitions as explained by Luther and Calvin — define grace as ‘unmerited favour’ or as an acronym: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.
In his book The Gospel According to the Apostles (2000) the well known American pastor John MacArthur defines grace more completely. ‘What is Grace?’ — an excerpt from the book — includes his definition of grace as follows (emphases in bold mine throughout, italics in the original):
the free and benevolent influence of a holy God operating sovereignly in the lives of undeserving sinners.
MacArthur explains his reasoning:
Grace is not merely unmerited favor; it is favor bestowed on sinners who deserve wrath. Showing kindness to a stranger is “unmerited favor”; doing good to one’s enemies is more the spirit of grace (Luke 6:27-36).
Grace is not a dormant or abstract quality, but a dynamic, active, working principle: “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation…and instructing us” (Titus 2:11-12). It is not some kind of ethereal blessing that lies idle until we appropriate it. Grace is God’s sovereign initiative to sinners (Ephesians 1:5-6).
Grace is not a one-time event in the Christian experience. We stand in grace (Romans 5:2). The entire Christian life is driven and empowered by grace: “It is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods” (Hebrews 13:9). Peter said we should “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).
Grace confirms the righteousness of God’s laws in the Ten Commandments. Just as importantly:
Grace has its own law, a higher, liberating law: “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2; cf. James 1:25). Note that this new law emancipates us from sin as well as death.
That is the good news of the gospel! God has acted to set us free from sin — not just the consequences, but its very power and presence. One day we will never know the experience of temptation, a stray thought, a misspoken word, a false motive. Guilt will be gone, and with it shame, and “so we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
In the meantime, we enjoy the liberation from sin’s cruel power and defiling influence. God has enabled us, through grace, to “deny ungodliness and worldly desires” so that we can enjoy a sensible, righteous, and godly life in the present age (Titus 2:12).
Therefore, regular prayers requesting more grace will go a long way in our attempt to repent from and overcome sin. Divine grace will also strengthen our relationship with our Lord and God.
Grace is a very powerful weapon against the devil. The more we pray for it, the more we will receive. The more assurance we will have and the more fruits of faith will we bear.
Doubters, take note!
One of the more popular maxims of today’s Church is ‘let go and let God’.
This is a relatively recent saying. Its origin is unclear; regardless, John MacArthur says this equivalent of ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ is unbiblical.
In ‘The Person and Power of God in Your Spiritual Growth’ he explains why. A few excerpts follow, emphases mine below:
The first key to God’s work in our sanctification is His personhood …
Most pagan deities are described as impersonal, remote, and indifferent. That is not surprising, because false gods are fabricated by men out of fear and superstition. Even those that have personal characteristics are not portrayed as desiring fellowship with their worshipers. And understandably, their worshipers have no desire to fellowship with them.
The God of Scripture has unimaginable love for fallen, sinful mankind, which has rebelled against Him, blasphemed Him, and vilified Him. He has such great love for them “that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:16-17). It is not the Lord’s will “for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
For those who belong to Him, the God of Scripture has even greater love and the closest of personal relationships. Throughout Scripture, God is referred to as His people’s Father—on a national level in the Old Testament (cf. Isaiah 63:16, 64:8), and individually in the New (cf. Matthew 5:16, 45, 48; 6:1, 9; 23:9). Adam and Eve, Moses, and many other Old Testament saints spoke with God directly. “The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11).
The second essential truth emphasized in Philippians 2:13 concerning God’s part in believers’ sanctification is His divine power. Above all else, it is God “who is at work” (Philippians 2:13) in the lives of His children. He calls them to obey, and then, through His sovereign power, energizes their obedience. He calls them to His service, and then empowers their service. He calls them to holiness, and then empowers them to pursue holiness.
God Himself is the believer’s supreme and indispensable resource and power. The wonder of all wonders is that “it is God who is at work” (Philippians 2:13) in them. Paul summed it up in Colossians 1:29 when he said, “I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.”
Note that our relationship with God is intensely personal. No other world faith can offer this one-on-one rapport.
Furthermore, the idea that God expects us to be passive or inactive individuals — the way ‘Let go and let God’ is often interpreted — has no foundation in Scripture.
Many unbelievers and some lukewarm believers think that fearing God is unhealthy.
They also think that God is somehow ‘bad’ for encouraging this fear.
Yet, the fear of which the Bible speaks is an awe that we mere mortals, prone to sin, cannot comprehend.
To believers, ‘fear’ and ‘dread’ differ in meaning from the way we understand these familiar words in a secular context.
John MacArthur has a useful blog post on the subject called ‘The Gravity of Sin’, well worth reading in full.
The section called ‘The Fear of the Lord’ stood out for me and it might help us explain this holy fear to others (emphases mine):
Although God is loving, merciful, and forgiving, He nevertheless holds believers accountable for disobedience. Like John, Paul understood well that “if we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8–9).
Knowing that he serves a holy and just God, the faithful believer will always live with “fear and trembling.”
An important Old Testament truth is “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10; cf. Proverbs 1:7, 9:10). It’s not the fear of being doomed to eternal torment, nor a hopeless dread of judgment that leads to despair. Instead, it’s a reverential fear, a holy concern to give God the honor He deserves and avoid the chastening of His displeasure. It protects against temptation and sin and gives motivation for obedient, righteous living.
Such fear involves self-distrust, a sensitive conscience, and being on guard against temptation. It necessitates opposing pride, and being constantly aware of the deceitfulness of one’s heart, as well as the subtlety and strength of one’s inner corruption. It is a dread that seeks to avoid anything that would offend and dishonor God.
John MacArthur’s blog post of June 30, 2014, ‘Sin and the Work of the Spirit’, warns Christians against easy conversions and describes what conversion really means.
MacArthur takes the epistle 1 John for his primary text and supports it with passages from Paul’s letters and other books of the New Testament.
John’s portrait of true faith highlights the conflict between sin and saving faith. Over and over, he makes clear that true believers cannot and will not continue to live in open, unrepentant sin after salvation.
The new birth—what John calls being “born of God”—epitomizes the work of the Holy Spirit (cf. John 3:3-8). The Spirit implants in those He regenerates the essence of His divine life, which John pictures as a “seed.” Just as a human birth results from an implanted seed that grows into new physical life, so also spiritual life begins when, at the moment of regeneration, the divine seed is implanted by the Spirit within the one who believes.
Also (italics in the original):
The new birth is also a monergistic operation, which means God’s Spirit alone accomplishes it (as opposed to synergistic, which means that human effort participates in the process).
MacArthur’s post is a good one for Christians to read and understand, especially if they are new or returning to the faith.
With regard to St John’s epistles — letters — I did a series on them two years ago. It is a pity that the Lectionary editors could not include more in their readings for public worship.
They can be found on my Essential Bible Verses page and are as follows for 1 John. Many of them contain excerpts from John MacArthur’s sermons and reveal John the Divine’s blueprint for Christian living:
1 John 2:3-11 – Commandments, obedience, light, darkness, love of neighbour
1 John 2:12-17 – speaking to converts as they are in sanctification, countering worldliness
1 John 2:18-29 – antichrists, false teachers, belief in Christ
1 John 3:9-13 – sin, love one another, unbelievers, Cain, first murder, hate
1 John 3:14-18 – love one another, hate akin to murder
1 John 3:19-24 – assurance, conscience
1 John 4:1-6 – discernment, antichrist, the world, faith, belief
1 John 4:7-13 – Christian love, Christ as propitiation
1 John 4:14-21 – perfect love, God loved us first
1 John 5:7-13 – Holy Trinity, unbelief, Christ’s blood and water
1 John 5:14-21 – truth of and confidence in Jesus Christ, faith, prayer, sin, Satan and the world, beware of idols
John MacArthur’s most recent post on the Grace To You blog is called ‘Who Is Responsible For Your Spiritual Growth?’
Many readers will find it useful, especially as he cites a number of passages from Paul’s epistles.
This paragraph, in particular, stood out:
God is responsible for supplying everything you need for life and godliness, and you are responsible for actively using that power to grow in sanctification for His glory. The paradox is found in the believer being both fully responsible, and yet fully dependent on God’s supply. We may not fully comprehend the paradox, but we can exercise faith that it is resolved in the infinite wisdom of God and respond in obedience to His commands.
Please take a few minutes to read his article in full.
In the sermon by John MacArthur — ‘A Certain Cure for Hypocrisy, Part 3′ — which I used as commentary for my post on Luke 12:8-12, the well-known and much admired American pastor warns us about enthusiasm in church.
MacArthur cites 1 Corinthians 12:1-3 (emphases mine):
1Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. 3Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.
MacArthur unpacks this for us, describing what St Paul would have seen among the members of his congregation in Corinth:
The Corinthian church, of course, is a chaotic assembly of people. They had managed to import into church life just about everything that was bad from their pre-Christian days. They were so in steeped in paganism that it found its way into the church, as we well know. Perhaps the worst way was through the use of ecstatic experience. What occurred in pagan mystery religions, in pagan cultic religions in the ancient Roman and Greek world was these kinds of esoteric things that were called enthusiasmos(?), and ekstasias(?), the Greek words, ecstasy and enthusiasm. The idea was to get yourself in some kind of euphoric state, to elevate yourself through the…through gluttony and the combination of drunkenness and sexual orgies conducted with temple priests. You literally got yourself in a worked up state of physical euphoria and all of this believing that somehow in this kind of condition you would commune with God. And so they were high on these kind of ecstatic and esoteric mystical experiences. And when they came into the church, they found a place where they could sort of attach these things they were so much a part of their life. And the place they found to attach them was in the exercise of spiritual gifts. The Holy Spirit had given to the church certain spiritual gifts, abilities for people to minister to each other. But they had perverted that by bringing into the category of spiritual gifts these esoteric experiences. And they were so bizarre that in chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians Paul writes this, “Concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware, or ignorant. You know that when you were pagans you were led astray.” It’s a technical term describing their ekstasias, their ecstasies, “To the dumb idols however you were led.” You went whichever way the dumb idol took you, whichever way, in a sense, the demon took you that impersonated the dumb idol. You were in demonic religion and you abandoned yourself to these things like the whirling dervishes and you just flipped out and let demons take you anywhere they wanted to take you and you thought this was how you communed with God. You were just being led away by these dumb idols any ole direction.
And that’s exactly what they brought into the church in the name of speaking in tongues, in the name of communing with God, in the name of some ecstatic union with God they were doing these very things that came out of paganism. And so in verse 3 he shows how severe it was. “Therefore I make known to you…listen to me…no one speaking by the Spirit of God says Jesus is accursed.” What? What are you saying? “No one by the Spirit of God says Jesus is accursed.” What’s he saying? You have people standing up cursing Jesus. That is not by the Spirit of God. But they were allowing for it because it was supposedly a supernatural manifestation. Somebody saying Jesus is anathema in a church? No one saying that would be led by the Spirit of God.
And on the other hand, look at the latter part of verse 3, “No one could ever say Jesus is…what?…is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.” That is a very important statement. No one will ever be able to confess Jesus as Lord except by the work of the Holy Spirit. And so I say again, you can’t get to God except through Christ and you can’t get to Christ except through the Holy Spirit. And it’s not the Holy Spirit in a vacuum, it’s the Holy Spirit working internally from the hearing of the external Word which the Spirit has authored. This is absolutely foundational, absolutely foundational. A full true confession of Jesus Christ as Lord is only possible by the work of the Holy Spirit through exposure to the written revelation, the external Scripture which He authored and accompanied by the internal hard work by which He regenerates, illuminates and sanctifies.
St Paul warned the Corinthians — ex-pagans — against importing enthusiasm and emotional ecstasy into their worship. He clearly condemned excitement and enthusiasm, which serve man’s carnal desire to be transported or lifted from this world.
Those desires do not serve God and might well detract from doing so as such church members become more interested in how they feel rather than contemplating God through His Son.
As St Paul said, some Corinthians got so carried away in their euphoria that they said Jesus Christ was ‘accursed’.
Test the Spirits
1Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. 4Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. 5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. 6We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
These passages explain why Christian worship was largely solemn until the holiness and pentecostal movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Unfortunately, over the past 30 years, enthusiasm and ecstasy have been imported into the oldest denominations along with liturgical dancing, charismatic experiences, praise bands, dramatic testimonies, ‘healing’ services and the like.
We would do well to avoid worldly worship practices which tickle our itching ears and leave us with a sense of having been entertained instead of kneeling in awe of the living God and appreciation of the ultimate sacrifice by His Son Jesus Christ.
A few weeks ago, one of my readers asked about demon infestation and manifestation in the present day.
This is understandable. So much evil manifests itself from verbal harassment to incest to murder that it is difficult to understand it all.
In recent years, some nominally Christian cultures have independent pastors — often called ‘Apostle’ or ‘Prophet’ — who perform deliverance rituals to rid seriously troubled people of ‘demons’.
Yet, formal, long-established denominations are careful about using exorcism except in very rare circumstances, if ever.
When I wrote about Luke 4:33-37 in June 2013, I cited one of John MacArthur’s sermons, ‘Jesus’s Authority over Demons, Part 3′.
In that sermon, MacArthur cites the various examples of demons in the Bible manifesting themselves. It is interesting that most did so during Jesus’s time on earth, fewer before or since in that Exorcist type of way. Excerpts follow, emphases mine:
Back in Genesis chapter 6 we find the first occasion of demons manifest. They were working before that, Satan and his forces, but we see them manifest in Genesis chapter 6 because it says in the first few verses that the sons of God, which is a term to describe these demons when they were originally created as angels, they can be called sons of God, angels are so called in Scripture, sons not in the sense of being born like people are born, but sons in the sense of being created by God, these sons of God in the case of Genesis 6 who are now fallen demons cohabitated with the daughters of men. That is to say, demons entered male bodies prior to the Flood, cohabitated with women for the specific purpose of producing what I suppose they felt would be a supremely wicked offspring. A bizarre kind of activity they engaged in.
It is also discussed in Jude 6 which comments on Genesis 6, and 2 Peter chapter 2 where it says angels left their normal habitation and came down and went after strange flesh, that is demons possessing male bodies cohabitating with women to produce what they assumed would be particularly wicked offspring. Demons then indwelt bodies of men in Genesis 6 for specific purpose, that’s the first thing that’s anything like demon possession. It’s not…it’s not the full range of demon possession which seems to be a sort of permanent indwelling for the purpose of control and torment, but it does indicate in Genesis 6 that demons can move into people and accomplish their bizarre intentions.
We never see demon possession in the rest of the Old Testament. It isn’t to say that demons don’t move into people, they do but they prefer to be hidden there. After all, the New Testament tells us in 2 Corinthians that they are disguised as angels of light. They would rather operate in a clandestine subtle way …
But it wasn’t rare during the time of Jesus. Jesus was so powerful, His message was so powerful, His person was so powerful that when He came into the world and He began to preach the gospel and He began to come to people with the message of His Kingdom, demons in sheer terror began to expose themselves, I believe, involuntarily out of sheer trauma.
As for our era, MacArthur says:
… you can go through your whole lifetime and never see a demon manifestation through a person. As I told you, in my whole lifetime and I’ve been pretty much at the cutting edge, at the front edge of the battle for the gospel, I’ve only perhaps three times actually engaged in verbalization with a demon speaking through a person. They don’t like to do that. They don’t like to manifest themselves. So demon…demon manifestation in a possessed person is a very rare phenomen[on].
That said, yes, demons do work through people. Matthew Henry used different words in the 17th century — the devil or an unclean spirit — more in line with how I was brought up to understand evil. I remain sceptical of using the word ‘demon’ too often except in discussing the New Testament; it is all too easy for us to feed on today’s Christian sensationalism about deliverance and labelling people as demon-possessed.
Back now to MacArthur who tells us where today’s subtle unclean spirits dwell:
… They are disguised as angels of light. They are disguised as ministers of righteousness. They don’t want to manifest who they really are …
They would rather operate in a person who is teaching in a liberal seminary. They would rather be a Methodist…they would be in a Methodist pastor who advocates homosexuality. They can get a lot more done subtly. It appears to be high church, it appears to be sophisticated, it appears to be even elitist in terms of its academics. But these people who are the ‘human instruments’ of these disguised demons sound the same as Satan. If you listen to them, these liberal people, they tell you you can’t believe the Bible. Isn’t that what Satan said in the Garden, you can’t believe God, He’s not trustworthy? They tell you the God of the Bible is not good. Isn’t that what Satan implied? God isn’t good, if He was good He wouldn’t tell you you couldn’t eat of that good tree over there. You can’t trust God. You can’t believe God. God isn’t going to look out for your best.
When we see or read of evil, we rightly see it for what it is. Think of the crime stories in the papers or, tragically, those who have suffered violent abuse first-hand. There is no question that Satan and his minions are at work in those circumstances, including those incidents which are church-related and done in the name of Christ or the Bible.
As MacArthur explains of the aforementioned apostate preachers:
Whether they are actually indwelt by demons or not, we can’t know unless there would be some point at which that manifestation occurred. But it’s not usual that they would manifest themselves.
Therefore, it is important to not focus as much on demon possession as it is to pray that God’s grace continues to overcome Satan in this world — in both the civil and ecclesiastical arenas.
And recall what MacArthur said about the empty soul of the moralistic convert from last week’s exposition of Luke 11:24-26:
Cleaned up but empty. And if the living God is not present there, you have a disaster ...
There really is no more serious danger than the danger of morality. It’s like the leper with no sense of pain. Such a person destroys himself without knowing it. Leprosy is a nerve disease that obliterates feeling. And lepers rub off their fingers and rub off their feet and rub off their faces because they can’t feel anything. This is the deadly danger of morality.
In ‘Preach the Word: Because It Is the Means God Uses to Sanctify His People’, John MacArthur begins with:
You wouldn’t withhold food from a starving man. Nor would you deny air to a drowning child. Frankly, that kind of monstrous behavior is hard to imagine. But that’s effectively what many pastors and church leaders are guilty of today, as they withhold that which is vital to the spiritual lives of their people: God’s Word.
Further in the post, he states:
Even if I never preached another sermon, I would thank God every day of my life for the sanctifying grace that has come to me through the daily study of His precious Word. Pastors, then, should study to know God, not just to make sermons. For me, the greatest joy of preaching comes not in the final step of proclamation but in the transformation of my own life, as the truth pervades my thinking throughout the entire process.
If only more clergy thought the same way.
Lack of biblical exposition is one of the main reasons why churches are failing. Hence the gimmicks of church growth and mysticism (e.g. contemplative group prayer).
Clergy blame the general public. They are not wrong. However, they must also look inside themselves to examine their own preaching — as well as liturgy and music. Is it scriptural? What example do they set for their congregations? Are they living a holy life?
As for preaching, a lady commented on MacArthur’s post with a lengthy comment about her own church, the upshot of which was that the former pastor returned to preach for a fortnight. Below is part of Sharlene McKelvey wrote (emphases mine):
Since for many months our church has been seeking a new Senior Pastor, last Fall our beloved [former] Pastor, now in his 80’s and having suffered two cancer surgeries, open heart surgery, and survived the recent death of one of his two beloved daughters, returned for two weeks of teaching … I cannot begin to find words to describe the delight to hear him teach; people came back to hear him and there was no parking space available for miles; our church was once again packed with people who had been faithful to our church for years. He taught a sermon in the same manner you teach. Someone who had never known him said to me, “This is the first time in my life I ever heard a real sermon be taught.”
Faithful preaching of Scripture, not sermonising on socio-political issues, is the reason many go to church. Congregations and denominations can experience an increase of attendance and membership when the message pewsitters hear is true to the Bible and Christ’s enduring truth.
I find it sad — although I certainly empathise with those — many people commenting on GTY blog posts who cannot find a good church. So many churches are ailing or closing. Yet, there are so many souls out there who are desperate to see a good priest or minister exegete the word of God and receive Communion from him.
The solution does not lie in church growth or unbiblical practices (e.g. mysticism). Nor does it lie exclusively in praying for vocations. It lies in praying that clergy represent scriptural values and a grace-filled life.