Sunday, January 16, 2022

Mr. MacArthur, Please Find a Different Verse

“Are you a Christian?”

That’s not me asking. That’s renowned Bible teacher John MacArthur. He’s suggesting we all need to do a little self-examination to see if we are “in the faith”. And he thinks scripture supports the practice.

Hmm. I’m wondering if that might not make for a large number of miserable, panicky Christians questioning their salvation for no good reason.

Holding Yourself Up to the Standard

Okay. I’ll bite. What’s your standard, John?

“If you want to know if you’re a Christian, compare your life with the standard Christ presents in the Sermon on the Mount.”

Having made a convenient checklist for us out of Matthew 5, MacArthur goes on to tell us exactly what sorts of things we ought to be looking for when we do our inventory: a distinct testimony, an obedient life, sincere worship, a biblical perspective of money and materialism and an uncritical love of others.

It may make a nice five-point message, but does my confidence of salvation really turn on a subjective performance assessment? What gets me over the line: 3 of 5, maybe? Can I really trust my own heart to tell me the truth about my status with God?

More importantly, where is this notion of self-examination coming from in the first place?

Is MacArthur Right?

Here’s what MacArthur says about self-examination:

“Many people who claim to be [Christian] point to some event in the past to substantiate their claim. But inviting Jesus to come into your life in the past is not proof that you are genuinely saved. In 2 Corinthians 13:5 Paul says to the Corinthian church, ‘Examine yourselves, whether you are in the faith; prove yourselves (emphasis added).’ He wouldn’t have said that if some event in the past were obviously the answer.”

Now, I completely agree with Mr. MacArthur that inviting Jesus to come into my life in the past is not incontrovertible proof that I am genuinely saved. There must surely be evidence to go with my profession unless, like the thief on the cross, I enter eternity seconds or minutes after believing.

Still, I’m not convinced that you and I are well-enough equipped to weigh the evidence of our own works either for or against ourselves.

The Proof Text

Before we get too panicky and make a habit of taking our own inventory, maybe we should look at MacArthur’s proof text to make sure it means what he says it does.

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? — unless indeed you fail to meet the test!”

Actually, I think Mr. MacArthur is relying on facts very much not in evidence. I believe the problems he has with understanding this verse are largely a result of reading it individually and subjectively, rather than corporately and objectively.

I believe it is intended neither individually nor subjectively.

 Not Individual

Greek word studies do not help us much in clarifying authorial intent when pronouns are used (as in “Jesus Christ is in you”). The manuscript tradition followed by the ESV is ambiguous on that front. In the tradition followed by the KJV, however, “you” is distinctly plural, though it is unwise to push such a fine grammatical distinction too far. But the ambiguity with the pronouns in the verse raises the distinct possibility that Paul is actually speaking collectively here rather than individually. He is addressing Corinth as a church, not merely as individually saved men and women.

Further, the preposition en (translated “in” in the phrase “Jesus Christ is in you”) is also translated as “among” over 100 times in the New Testament.

With the legitimacy of those readings established, let me paraphrase our verse this way:

“Examine yourselves, Corinthian church, to see whether your beliefs and practices are consistent with the faith. Test yourselves as to your orthodoxy. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is among you when you gather? — unless indeed your church fails to meet the test!”

That’s quite different, isn’t it? It’s a less obvious way of looking at the verse, but I believe it’s more consistent with the context than Mr. MacArthur’s reading. (And I suspect it’s only less obvious because we are terminally preoccupied with individualism in our generation.)

Why do I say this? Three reasons:

The Problem in View.  While Paul is still concerned about the possibility of unrepented sin in the Corinthian church, he does not make the sort of specific accusations made in 1 Corinthians. His primary concern in much of his second letter is the danger that the church might reject his apostleship for the false teaching of others. He says, “You seek proof that Christ is speaking in me.” This is the major theme of his later chapters, not individual salvation.

Over the previous chapters, Paul has reluctantly but necessarily mustered a number of arguments to confirm the legitimacy of his spiritual authority. It is entirely in keeping with context for him to tell the church in Corinth that they ought to examine the current beliefs and practices of their own gathering to see if they are consistent with an objective standard.

The context is not about salvation but about orthodoxy:

Orthodoxy (from Greek ὀρθός, orthos (‘right’, ‘true’) and δόξα, doxa (‘belief’ or ‘opinion’)) is adherence to correct or accepted norms, more specifically to creeds, especially in religion. In the Christian sense the term means ‘conforming to the Christian faith as represented in the creeds of the early Church’.”

What would motivate Paul to suddenly change the subject to the salvation status of his critics at this point in his argument?

More Pronoun Issues.  It is important to realize that Paul’s “we” in these verses is not to be understood as a royal “we” such as occurs in English. That is to say, he is not merely referring to himself personally when he goes on to add, “I hope you will find out that we have not failed the test.”

2 Corinthians has many passages where Paul uses “we” and “our”, but plenty of others where he uses “I”, “me” and “my”; where what he is saying is obviously his own thought process, like when he speaks of his own visions and his personal “thorn in the flesh”.

But this clear distinction between singular and plural pronouns throughout the book is not merely a helpful clarification provided at the discretion of English translators. The original Greek consistently makes the same distinction, using μοι and με (for “my” and “me”) and ἡμῶν and ἡμᾶς (for “our” and “we”).

It is a group test or examination that Paul is here proposing, not an individual one.

The Contrast.  Paul goes on to suggest that the same test he proposes for the Corinthian church (that of being “in the faith”) can be legitimately applied to his own group (again, a collective) rather than to himself alone. The Corinthian church was established by Paul, Silvanus and Timothy. Paul did not act unilaterally but as a member of a team. Further, the letter itself is not from Paul, but from Paul and Timothy together. Further still, Paul makes reference to Titus and “the brother” and asks “Did we not act in the same spirit? Did we not take the same steps?”

So there was a group involved in planting the church in Corinth, not just Paul. And it was a group that spoke with a single voice, and followed up at Corinth afterward. It is this group that Paul proposes be examined by the Corinthian church to see if they are “in the faith”.

Thus it is significant that Paul speaks of “our authority ... for building you up” and not merely his own.

If Paul is contrasting the “examination” referred to in MacArthur’s proof text with a single proposed examination of his own group with respect to their orthodoxy, why would we read the earlier part of the verse as referring to a series of subjective personal examinations related to salvation?

 Not Subjective

Further, Paul is not proposing a subjective test but a very objective one. He speaks of “the faith”. Not “your faith” or “a faith” or “having faith” or even “being faithful” (which is more or less the test of salvation MacArthur proposes).

Rather, it is “the faith”. That’s not a nebulous term.

With all due respect to Mr. MacArthur, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 can’t fairly be said to sum up “the faith”. It’s missing the death of Christ. It’s missing his resurrection. It’s missing all kinds of stuff that is laid out for us in the epistles, and that would have formed the bulk of Paul’s teaching in Corinth.

In the New Testament, “the faith” refers to a body of truth revealed by God, the acceptance of which was a fundamental test of orthodoxy. Paul has already summed up the most critical elements of the faith for the Corinthians in his first letter. It is a “test” with which they ought to be thoroughly familiar.

Further, he says this truth was “received” and he says that it is “of first importance”. It is by believing these truths that you are saved, and it is in this, he says, that the Corinthians “stand”.

That sounds an awful lot like orthodoxy to me.

Here’s his summary of the gospel:

“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you — unless you believed in vain.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.”

We can debate whether or not salvation requires it but, whether today or in Corinth, being orthodox surely requires believing in the truth of the appearance of Jesus Christ to Paul, and his subsequent apostleship. It is among the things delivered to the Corinthian church “as of first importance”. That should not be a surprise.

Furthermore, he says, “Whether then it was I [Paul] or they [the rest of the apostles], so we preach and so you believed”. There is a body of apostolic truth that is consistent across the board. All the apostles said the same thing, and the Corinthian church had accepted it and was founded squarely on it. Reject the writing of the apostle Paul and you reject pretty much everything consequential about the Christian faith. Certainly you reject virtually every spiritual explanation of the life and work of Christ.

This faith was delivered. It was received. It was not formulated, concocted or deduced. It arrived as a package from the apostles, most comprehensively and effectively articulated by Paul.

It is far from subjective. You believe it or you don’t.

It sure doesn’t turn on how you or I feel about our own behavior.

MacArthur Parked

To be clear, I think Mr. MacArthur gets this verse and the ideas he preaches from it wholly wrong. The issue is not whether the Corinthians as individuals were saved, but whether the church in Corinth had remained orthodox. Paul says “the faith” is the objective standard by which the orthodoxy of both his own group of church planters and the church they had planted could be objectively measured. Now it remained to be seen who was in “the faith” and who (if anyone) had drifted away from it. Individual salvation is not the matter under discussion, either with respect to Paul’s group or the Corinthian church.

So I think John MacArthur is way off base inserting the Sermon on the Mount into the discussion, wonderful as it may be in its own context and in its own right. The idea of examining our own works is without warrant from this passage. I think it’s — at bare minimum — unhelpful to suggest that the average Christian ought to employ any fundamentally subjective standard in the attempt to assess his or her own status before God. At worst it might be spiritually disastrous.

If you want to make that case, Mr. MacArthur, you’d better find another verse. This one doesn’t work.


  1. John MacArthur is, of course, one of the Calvinist club. Because of this, he believes fervently in an idea called "The Perseverance of the Saints." He believes that Christians are obligated to conduct a life of nervous introspection, looking into themselves personally for signs of "election," meaning proof that they have been (as he would understand it) arbitrarily chosen by God before time began to be saved, and worrying that maybe they're actually lost. Thus a lifetime of miserable and inconclusive self-absorption is the penalty for buying in to "TULIP" Calvinism. And it is for this reason that he needs this verse very badly; he is misusing it to sponsor this unscriptural doctrine.

    He's a good case study here in the human propensity to read into Scripture whatever one is already looking for. Thanks, Tom, for the reminder that both context and an attentive, correctable mind are essential to correct reading of Scripture. I suspect your exposition may prove very helpful to anyone misled by this errant doctrine or made miserable by the abuse of this passage.

  2. Your analysis here, in my opinion, and as usual, is spot on, except with the following caveat, namely, when seen from your perspective or vantage point.

    I think you are missing the point that Mr. John MacArthur is trying to make. I think his point is actually more practical about how to live your faith and less about making a statement about Christian orthodoxy. I agree with your analysis that the apostle Paul probably meant to refer to the plural of the Corinthian Church and apostle groups more than to the individual. But I think that that is not what John MacArthur meant to discuss and he may think what is good for the goose is good for the gander in that if it's good in the larger context then it's also good for the individual. As part of that then he introduces themes on how to live your life as a Christian individual (extrapolating from the recommendations for the group). In other words you are arguing past each other.

    I have the impression that you tend to be a bit too hyper tuned to defend the orthodoxy that 'works don't save' and he was not really addressing that point but rather that we all have to put our best foot forward (true for Christian and secular folks) and if we don't there can/will be consequences. For example, I was taught at night before going to rest to make an examination of conscience concerning the events of the day and address my insights in prayer and by forming intentions of correcting faults. At no time will I (or would anyone else, I think) assume that I now contributed towards purchasing my salvation. No one can know, if having any sense, where you stand in that department. I would suggest though that both must be accommodated in a sound orthodoxy (a. the significance of faith and b. the significance of acting on it on an individual as well as in a communal setting) without getting side tracked by the 'who gets saved' argument.

    1. Q, I agree with you that MacArthur is not concerned with making a statement about Christian orthodoxy. He doesn’t even consider the orthodoxy question in the context of this passage.

      Further, I agree with you that an examination of the events of any day with respect to sin that may have gone unconfessed or amends that may need to be made is a valuable exercise, and one that I engage in regularly. But that really is not what Mr. MacArthur is advocating. If he were, I wouldn’t be bothered at all.

      He’s wanting us to ask ourselves whether or not we are saved in the first place.

      The evidence? First paragraph: “Are you a Christian?” and then later on, “You need to face the fact that you may not be a Christian”. Third paragraph: “If you want to know if you're a Christian ...” Fourth paragraph: “profess that they know God, but in works they deny him”. Fifth paragraph: “those who are genuinely saved” and “true believer”. And so on throughout.

      So he’s pretty explicit about the point he is trying to make and it’s really not what you are taking from it. As I say, I have no objection to a bedtime review of the day before God.

    2. Based on your comments I reread his article and am not sure I see it the same way as you do. I also read IC's comment concerning John MacArthur being in a Calvinist camp and therefore intending with his article to generate a perpetual state of self-doubt in the practicing (Calvinist?) Christian. If a Calvinist, that would make this suspect. However, since that seems speculative, I can't go with that. My impression is that he is more or less putting together a cookbook recipe, a condensed set of steps, of how to be successful as a Christian, which is actually not a bad idea since most people probably could use a short-cut to the lengthy Bible material. Also, it could be that he is simply frustrated, like many are today, with the way liberty is being taken with Christian teaching and practice as society slides more and more into self-centered secularism and that is the reason for his call for self-doubt on our part. I do agree that he should not urge anyone to doubt their salvation since no one can know. But he is certainly correct in pointing out that Christ conveyed specific thoughts about behavior that can make it more difficult to be saved. So, without further information I can't necessarily assign a sinister motive to his article or even just say that he is being sloppy.

    3. Mr. MacArthur is not at all shy about his Calvinism. Look him up, and you'll see, Q. Try

      As a Calvinist, he's not trying to be sinister. He thinks he's right, actually, and he thinks that he's doing us all a favour by the way he tries to use the verse Tom cites above. But as you can see, Mr. MacArthur is simply misreading, and his doctrine is incorrect.

      It's really that simple.

  3. Assurance of salvation was a perennial problem of the Puritans. A common pastoral care problem was "Am I one of the elect?". Every errant thought or deed brought into question one's salvation: the best developed response was "If you are concerned whether or not you are one of the elect, then you probably are one of the elect, so stop worrying." Not very sound, and yes, MacArthur would be a child of the Puritans. Same set of problems. I am a well wisher of the Reformed, I think that the Reformation provided a set of badly needed correctives in the history of the church. But it is also not the origination of all good doctrine and deserves to be examined closely. I appreciate your response to Mr MacArthur, Tom, it helps me reread this passage contextually and appreciate its intent and meaning in new ways.

    1. "If you are concerned whether or not you are one of the elect, then you probably are one of the elect, so stop worrying."

      I have heard this almost word for word.

  4. A secular sociologist's analysis of how Calvinism understands the "Perseverance of the Saints" doctrine:

    "Thus, however useless good works might be as a means of attaining salvation, for even the elect remain beings of the flesh, and everything they do falls infinitely short of divine standards, nevertheless, they are indispensable as a sign of election. They are the technical means, not of purchasing salvation, but of getting rid of the fear of damnation. In this sense they are occasionally referred to as directly necessary for salvation or the possessio salutis is made conditional on them.

    In practice this means that God helps those who help themselves. Thus the Calvinist, as it is sometimes put, himself creates his own salvation, or, as would be more correct, the conviction of it."

    Quoted from Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic, Ch. 4. (1905)