John MacArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church, one of the most influential evangelical pastors, gave an address at the Shepherd’s Conference in 2007 entitled “Why every self-respecting Calvinist should be a Premillennialist.” The topic was a surprise to many of the attendees, as was MacArthur’s approach to the topic. He also gave a series of six sermons on Sunday evenings drawn from his message at the Shepherd’s Conference, explaining more fully why he thinks that every Calvinist should be a premillennialist. The intent of this series of posts is to evaluate MacArthur’s case for premillennialism. I will do so in four parts: Parts One and Two will deal with MacArthur’s first message, Part Three with his second through fourth messages, and Part Four with his fifth and sixth messages. Before I get into it, let me offer a couple of introductory comments and disclaimers:
(1) I have deep respect for John MacArthur. I have profited from many of his books, sermons, and conference messages. I believe God has used him to drive many in the church towards a deep understanding of the doctrines of grace. However, as you will see, I have deep disagreements with some of the theology that he promotes.
(2) I am selecting this series of messages for a couple of reasons: I believe that the issue of dispensationalism (yes, that is largely what is discussed in his messages) is vitally important today, both theologically and practically (more on the practical reasons later). I also believe that MacArthur’s messages provide a common example of what is taught in dispensational churches (at least the ones I have had experience with). Accordingly, this is a good opportunity to hear it all from a dispensational perspective and then interact directly with that view.
(3) I will not be able to exhaustively deal with everything MacArthur says. In each part of this series of three posts, my basic approach will be this: I will summarize his basic argument and will then respond to his message under several main headings with quotes and discussion.
I would encourage you to not read just my posts if possible. Here’s the link to the series on John MacArthur’s website. And I’ve also put all the PDF transcripts in a zip file for easy download here. If possible, listen to the messages so that you can get the full context for what MacArthur is saying. However, since it does take a time commitment to do that, I will be quoting liberally from the messages so as to let MacArthur speak for himself as much as possible.
MacArthur’s Basic Thesis
As I’ve listened and read through MacArthur’s series, I believe I’ve gained a good grasp of his basic thesis: If you are a Calvinist, you believe in God’s sovereign election. If you believe in God’s sovereign election, then you must believe that God will fulfill his sovereign promises to ethnic Israel by giving them a geo-political kingdom in the future (after the Rapture and Tribulation), because this is the univocal witness of the Scriptures when using a natural, literal hermeneutic. That is the basis thesis of MacArthur’s six messages. I’ll now move on to several topics (points of contention, really) related to this central thesis.
MacArthur really should have entitled the series this: “Why Every Calvinist should be a Dispensational Premillennialist.”
For instance, consider the following quotations (all of the quotes in this post come from Part 1 of MacArthur’s series, and the page numbers refer to the page numbers on the PDF printout from his website):
“There are two great elect people in the Bible…Israel and the church.” (7)
“Now why am I making a case for this? Because when you understand God’s purpose for Israel, you now have the foundation for all eschatology…all eschatology. You get your eschatology right when you get Israel right.” (7)
“There are over two thousand references to Israel in Scripture. Not one of them means anything but Israel…There are 73 references in the New Testament, each of them refers to Israel.” (7)
“So here’s how to get the foundation for a good sound eschatology. Get election right. Get Israel right. You got it. Cause what that means is God does know the future, God has set the future and the future involves not only the glory of His church but the fulfillment of His elect people Israel with regard to everything that He promised that nation.” (8)
“Do you understand the massive apologetic power of the existence of Israel as an ethnic people in their own land? Staggering. How do you explain that? As one prominent amillenialist said when asked, ‘What is the biblical significance of the existence of the Jews in their land?’ And he said, ‘It has no significance at all.’ Really? It is the single most inexplicable story in human history that this small group of beleaguered people attacked and assaulted by everybody around them for centuries still exists as a pure ethnic race. Now if you want to get the future right, you’ve got to get Israel right and you’ve got to get God’s sovereign electing purpose right.” (12)
Hopefully the quotes are sufficient to make the point. It is clear: MacArthur is arguing, at the end of the day, for dispensational premillennialism. According to him, even historic, covenant premillennialism gets the story—particularly the future of the story—wrong.
Why MacArthur’s Insistence on Dispensational Premillennialism is Significant
(1) While I personally am not premillennial (in the historic sense), I recognize it as an acceptable position for Christians (even Presbyterians) to hold. And, what is more, the Reformed tradition has typically allowed latitude in this area. That is not to say that Reformed people don’t hold strong views one way or the other. But if you look at the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 33, you’ll see that pre-, a-, and post-millennial views are permitted. And all three are represented in my denomination (the Presbyterian Church in America) today, though premillennialists are certainly in the minority. For MacArthur, to allow for such diversity in eschatological (theology of the last things/future) matters is to say that God is confused:
“I think it matters. I think it matters to God. It matters to me. It matters to me to understand what God has said about the end. It’s the whole point of everything else. It’s the whole point of the beginning and the middle. The end is as divinely designed as the beginning. And God has given us massive amounts of revelation in the Scripture about the future. It has to matter to us. In fact, some say nearly one fourth of Scripture is prophetic. God filled the Bible with prophecy and much of it looking to the end. Did God do this but somehow mumble? Did he do it and somehow muddle it so hopelessly that the high ground for Bible students and the high ground for theologians is to recognize the muddle and abandon the perspicuity or the clarity of Scripture on that subject? Is that what God wanted us to do? To look at it and say, ‘I can’t figure this out, let’s forget it?’ There are whole denominations that are instructed not to teach on the end times. You would assume that they’re confused because the Bible is confusing. And if the Bible is confusing, then God Himself is confused.” (4)
I’ll offer a couple of points in response to this: First, by allowing for different viewpoints, no one is saying that Scripture is confusing and that therefore God is confused. What we are saying is that we, finite and sinful humans, do not always understand things perfectly. And we are saying that one’s view on the millennium of Revelation 20 shouldn’t be the boundary of ecclesiastical leadership. Secondly, by allowing for different views, we are not saying that we should just “forget it.” Perhaps there are some groups that do so. But if that was the attitude of all but proponents of (dispensational) premillennialists, then I doubt there would be books like A Case for Amillennialism, and Postmillennialism: an Eschatology of Hope. It’s not that we don’t care. It’s that we disagree.
Accordingly, if MacArthur’s message were simply about premillennialism, then I would not have as many problems with his series. I would disagree, since I am not a premillennialist, but I would recognize that this is a view held by a minority even in my own ecclesiastical fellowship.
(2) By emphasizing dispensational premillennialism, MacArthur ignores the testimony of the church through the ages. Dispensationalism represents a departure from what the church has taught through the ages and is, despite protests to the contrary, something arising out of the 19th century through the work of J. Nelson Darby and others. MacArthur knows of this point, but when he responds to it, he fails to adequately pinpoint the actual focus of his series:
“And by the way, dispensationalists…people say, ‘Well, that whole pre-millennial view, that came out of C.I. Scofield, that came out of J.N. Darby, that came out of that whole dispensational system.’ No it didn’t.” (10)
No one—to my knowledge at least—has ever argued that premillennialism came out of the 19th century. There were early church fathers known as chiliasts—premillennialists. But the point is that dispensational premillennialism is contrary to what the church taught for centuries, contrary even to what other premillennialists taught. MacArthur’s messages argue pointedly and repeatedly for dispensational premillennialism, and so the point against his views being a 19th century phenomenon are well-founded.
Why I Believe MacAthur’s Dispensationalism is not Biblical
I have established that MacArthur is really arguing, not merely for premillennialism, but for dispensational premillennialism. And it is because of this that I am writing this series of posts. Now, of course, I must explain why I believe this to be a problem.
Dispensationalism, by identifying two separate peoples of God, confuses the central storyline of the Bible. As I quoted above, MacArthur says, “There are two great elect people in the Bible…Israel and the church” (7). That is indeed the fundamental claim of dispensationalism. However, I argue that this misunderstands the structure of the biblical narrative. Here’s why:
The biblical narrative has often been discussed in terms of the following structure: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration. God created the world in perfection and had perfect fellowship with man. Adam, however, disobeyed God, and so all men “lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism #19). God did not leave man in this state. Rather, as Genesis 3:15 indicates, he initiated what Reformed theologians have called the “covenant of grace”—a plan to save man from sin through the Seed of the woman. The Old Testament tells the story of the initial stages of this plan to save God’s people. The plan takes varying twists and turns: from the radical destruction of the flood to the promises to Abraham and David.
The point though, is that God’s dealings with all people through history have been part of one plan, not two. When God made promises to Abraham, they were still part of God’s plan of redemption through the Messiah. When God made promises to David, they were still part of God’s plan of redemption. Ephesians 2:12 refers to the “covenants of promise.” These various covenants—with Noah, Abraham, David, and ultimately the new covenant—are all part of one central promise: God’s promise to conquer sin and death through the Seed of the woman who is revealed to be the very Son of God. When Jesus came, he showed us that the reality is much brighter than the shadows. The land, the ethnic and ceremonial boundaries for God’s “set-apart” people, and the sacrifices all pointed to God’s fulfillment of the plan in Christ. When Christ came, those boundaries and ceremonies ceased, because King Jesus came. And the way he came was fundamentally contrary to how the Jews of Jesus’ day expected him to come. They missed that the types and shadows of the Old Testament were intended to point to the following realities: (1) Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice (Hebrews 10:10). (2) The kingdom of God is no longer limited to the ethnic people of Israel. Rather, in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, God’s reign expands to all the nations. The church does not per se replace Israel. Rather, the church is the fulfillment of Israel. Consider Ephesians 2:11-13:
“Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
Gentiles were previously separated from Christ, outside of Israel, outside of the covenants of promise. But now, in Christ, those who were far off have been brought near. Brought near to what? To Christ, inside of Israel, members of the covenants of promise. Accordingly, the central claim of dispensationalism—that the Jews have their promises, and that the church has its own because they are two distinct peoples of God—is misguided. Rather, the point is that the Old Testament people of Israel stands in continuity with the church, not in exact identification, but as type to antitype, as shadow to reality, as promise to fulfillment. We are, as Paul says in Galatians 4:28, children of the promise, like Isaac. We are children of the same promise that Isaac was. Accordingly, the people of God are continuous from Genesis to Revelation. Much more can be said on this point, but I’ll leave it for now.
(3) The land of God’s people is no longer limited to the small piece of real estate in the Middle East. Consider, for example, the following passage:
Hebrews 11:13-16: “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”
The men and women of faith in the Old Testament did not receive what was promised. By they saw the fulfillment in the future, and this made them acknowledge that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. Why? Because they desired a better country, that is, a heavenly one. They desired the city that God prepared for them. The ultimate reality that the promises to them pointed to was not a small portion of land in the Middle East. Rather, it was ultimately a new heavens and a new earth. What about this current earth? See Romans 4:13, “For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” The promise to Abraham was not ultimately about the land of Palestine. Rather, it was a promise that God, through Christ, would redeem the whole world. And those who are united to Christ by faith (see Galatians 3) get to join with Christ in receiving the fulfillment of those promises.
That’s enough to deal with for my first post on this series. Let me sum up what I’ve discussed in this post, and then I will explain where I’ll be going in the next post.
John MacArthur’s appeal that every Calvinist should be a premillennialist is really an appeal that every Calvinist should be a dispensational premillennialist. This first post explained why that is a significant point and began a brief explanation of why dispensationalism is objectionable. My next post—still covering MacArthur’s first message in the series—will move on to several other important issues: I will evaluate his claims (1) about (dispensational) hermeneutics, (2) about other millennial views, (3) about the Reformed tradition, and (4) about the current status of the people of Israel.