There is a stream of sound teaching, sound doctrine, sound theology, that runs all the way back to the Apostles. It runs through Athanasius and Augustine, through Luther and Calvin, the great Reformation and Reformers, and the Puritans, and everything seems so clear to them. Through the Westminster divines and the pathway of Spurgeon and David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and S. Lewis Johnson, and Jim Boice, and to R. C. Sproul. That’s the stream of sound doctrine. The heroes of this generation are people in that stream. We know who they are. You’ve been hearing about them this week. We go back to John Rogers, and the 288 Marian martyrs. Those are our heroes.
– John MacArthur
Strange Fire – “A Call to Respond”
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This is John MacArthur’s vision of Church History. What a narrow and simplistic view it is!
His portrayal of a “faithful remnant” providing an unbroken stream of sound doctrine has more in common with the Landmark Baptists and their “trail of blood” than it does with an accurate depiction of the messy and complicated communion of saints across the centuries. It is apparently the Reformed Baptist version of apostolic succession.
Michael Spencer wrote about “the little red book” that describes Church History from the Landmark Baptist point of view. In that post he quoted a passage that brings us right to the bottom line of their view of history:
Only Scriptural Baptist churches can make a legitimate claim to an unbroken succession back to the time of Christ and the apostles. Christ only built one kind of church and that church is described in detail in the New Testament. The only churches meeting the requirements of that description today are true Baptist churches. Baptist churches have existed in every age since their founding by Christ, though they have not always been known by that name. We do not deny that there are those in other so-called “churches” that have been born again by the grace of God. We do deny, however, that these man-made organizations are true churches of our Lord Jesus Christ.
MacArthur doesn’t go nearly that far, but the spirit and approach is the same: define who’s “in” with severely limited requirements and express serious doubts (at least) about everyone else.
One of the problems with this approach is that, like the Landmark Baptists, you have to ignore the details. Just as the LB’s include all manner of groups in their “trail of blood” that they would not recognize if they sat down and talked with them for five minutes, so John MacArthur has to overlook a lot of contradictory evidence to include the members of his “faithful stream.”
Let’s take a few of the “heroes” in the quote above, for example.
- I’m sure when John MacArthur points to Athanasius, he is admiring his faithful stand against Arianism. But Athanasius is also considered one of the four great Eastern Doctors of the Church by Roman Catholics and is honored as the Father of Orthodoxy by the Eastern Orthodox. Surely they do so with appreciation for many aspects of Athanasius’s teaching and practice that MacArthur would abhor! Would the biblicist MacArthur think it appropriate to participate in an ecumenical church council to determine sound doctrine? Or to appropriate Greek philosophical terms to define a fundamental doctrine about Christ? I doubt he shares Athanasius’s enthusiasm for aceticism and promotion of monasticism. Would MacArthur embrace the apocryphal books that Athanasius included in his biblical canon? The fact is that Athanasius was a leader in a philosophical and ecclesiastical world that John MacArthur would not recognize and more than likely would not accept. The real Athanasius would have little in common with MacArthur’s iconoclastic biblicism.
- People who call themselves “Calvinists” revere St. Augustine for his teachings on original sin and divine grace. But once again, we are talking about a Catholic Christian who also believed in apostolic succession and the one true institutional Church. I wonder what John MacArthur would think of Augustine’s sermon in which he proclaimed, “No man can find salvation except in the Catholic Church.” St. Augustine’s non-literal interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis would be anathema to a young earth creationist like MacArthur. The Bishop of Hippo also rejected premillennialism and became the father of what is now called amillennialism, and how could a dispensationalist possibly approve of that? He believed in purgatory. He wrote more about Mary, the Mother of God, than any who came before him. Does MacArthur know that Augustine polluted the “stream of sound doctrine” with all this stuff?
- It amazes me when a Reformed Baptist cites Luther as a model of sound doctrine. Surely that gives evidence that he is honoring only a caricature who said “The just shall live by faith,” and not the actual human being who remained a Catholic and a monk, whose teaching on justification by faith included baptismal regeneration, who fought his whole life against anyone who denied Christ’s real presence in communion, who excoriated the Anabaptists for practicing believer’s baptism alone, who spoke uncharitably about certain books of the Bible, and who held a high view of Mary that retained most of the traditional Roman Catholic teachings about her, including her Immaculate Conception, perpetual virginity, and status as Theotokos (Mother of God), and who maintained devotional practices venerating her and said all Christians should honor her as “the Mother of us all.” That’s your great Reformer in the flesh, Pastor John. You can’t just cherry-pick a few of his ideas.
- And then there’s Calvin. We’ll forget for a moment that, although John MacArthur cites both Luther and Calvin in the same breath, the two Reformers and those who followed them had bitter disagreements, particularly over the nature of the Lord’s Supper. (I guess their common opposition to Catholics is detail enough to include them both.) But of course, like all the magisterial Reformers, Calvin believed in baptizing infants (for different reasons than Luther), which MacArthur and all Reformed Baptists find unacceptable. He was also non-millenarian. Though Calvin certainly did believe God created the universe in six days, he also said that Moses adapted his language so that some things in Genesis 1 reflect the perceptions of ordinary people and not the findings of astronomers, which may indeed be factually different. Though his thinking about civil government planted seeds for future developments in separation of church and state, he most certainly did not advocate religious freedom in a way that modern Baptists would recognize.
We could go on, but let me focus on one name in John MacArthur’s list that I find especially intriguing in the light of the “Strange Fire” conference that John MacArthur has been hosting: David Martyn Lloyd-Jones.
It is puzzling to me that, in a conference criticizing aberrant views of the work of the Holy Spirit, John MacArthur would mention Lloyd-Jones in the stream of sound doctrine. I wrote about Lloyd-Jones’s views on the Spirit a couple of years ago, and MacArthur would definitely not consider his interpretations orthodox.
Lloyd-Jones was no cessationist, and he insisted that there is a work of the Holy Spirit for all believers for all time that is subsequent to salvation, that is “entirely subjective,” that brings deep assurance of salvation. Lloyd-Jones thought the Spirit especially manifested this work in times of revival, and said it is an experience Christians and churches should be praying for and seeking all the time.
He called this the “sealing” work of the Spirit (Ephesians 1:13) and wrote about it in great detail in his commentary series on Romans. The passage which he expounds in the Romans series, for several chapters and in great detail, is Romans 8:16 — “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God.”
Quotes and references in the following paragraphs are from D.M. Lloyd-Jones’s commentary, The Sons of God: Exposition of Chapter 8:5-17 (Romans Series).
First, here is his interpretation of the text, his understanding of the Spirit “witnessing” to our spirits:
This is something subjective, something which essentially belongs to the realm of feeling and subjectivity, and the emotions. It is something within us at a deeper level than the level of the intellect. That seems to me to be the vital point in this statement. In other words this does not result from certain actions on our part; it is the Spirit that produces it in us. It is not something of which you can persuade yourself. As we have seen, by applying various tests you can persuade yourself whether you are, or are not, being led by the Spirit, but that is not the position here. This is not in the realm of intellectual argumentation or demonstration; it is something of which one becomes conscious. This is — to use the obvious and the simple analogy — comparable to what we know in human love. You do not persuade yourself that you are in love; at least, if you do, or have to do, you are not in love! This is not a matter of persuasion; it is something you know; you become conscious of it. It is on a deeper level than that of the intellect and of reason and of argumentation. This is, in my view, a vital principle. It not only demonstrates the advance in the thought, it also shows us the graciousness of God in giving us these further proofs, these yet more certain proofs. So the nature of this proof is thoroughly subjective, and it is produced by the operation of the Holy Spirit.
Now, to be sure, this is not “charis-mania,” but that is not my point. John MacArthur is a confirmed cessationist and his position is that cessationism is “the historic position of the church and in the Word” (so Steve Pennington, Strange Fire Conference). Having been in cessationist circles for many years, I know that there is little allowance for exceptions when it comes to that doctrine. Any testimony which threatens the assertion that the Holy Spirit speaks only through the Bible is repudiated.
Why then would John MacArthur note David Martyn Lloyd-Jones by name at a conference in which Lloyd-Jones’s own non-cessationist views would be pronounced anathema?
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones stated his positions clearly and repeatedly, taking much of his 438 page exposition of Romans 8:5-17 to do so. He argues that “the baptism with the Holy Spirit” is different than the baptism by the Spirit, by which he puts us into the body of Christ at the time of salvation (1Cor. 12:13). “The ‘baptism with the Holy Ghost’ is not only different, but you can be a Christian without it, as the Apostles were without it until the day of Pentecost,” he wrote.
Interesting, isn’t it, that John MacArthur lifts up this man as a hero of “sound doctrine” even though he argues biblically for a direct and definite supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in believer’s lives, subsequent to their salvation?
Second, Lloyd-Jones reinforces his argument by appealing to Christian history — and this is interesting — specifically by pointing to the Puritans — another group of MacArthur heroes mentioned above. Here is one of his examples:
Take the case of John Flavel, the Puritan of 300 years ago. He was a godly, saintly man, a notable expositor of the Scriptures. He was not only a believer, he also had assurance of salvation. But he tells us in his Treatise of the Soul of Man that one day, on a journey, he began to meditate on ‘objects of faith and hope.’ Ere long he felt as if he was lifted up into heaven. He was taken out of the world and out of time. He says that he even forgot his wife and children, and longed to be taken immediately to heaven. He was given a glimpse of the glory; the love of God was shed abroad in his heart in such a manner that he did not know whether he was in time or in eternity. Flavel was a typical Puritan; not an excitable, emotional person at all, but a quiet, studious, pensive kind of man. But he says that as the result of that experience he ‘understood more of the light of heaven by it, than by all the books he ever read, or discourses about it.”
Lloyd-Jones also points to Jonathan Edwards, John Preston, John Owen, and others in the Calvinistic tradition who teach this direct, sensible ministry of the Holy Spirit, sealing the assurance of salvation subjectively into the hearts of God’s children. He even mentions a leader of the “Strict Baptists” and a staunch Calvinist, JC. Philpot, who said, “But all the children of God have not this direct and immediate witness; many are longing for it.”
Did you read that? A “direct and immediate witness” of the Holy Spirit, a blessing not possessed by every Christian, being preached by a Calvinistic Baptist!
And then there is George Whitfield, whose Journals contain this testimony: “Was filled with the Holy Ghost. Oh, that all who deny the promise of the Father might thus receive it themselves! Oh, that all were partakers of my joy!” And this one: “God’s presence so filled my soul that I could scarce stand under it.”
Furthermore, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones points to the Puritans to show that this witness of the Spirit may (or may not) be accompanied by gifts and phenomena. He mentions Robert Bruce, a minister in the Church of Scotland, successor of John Knox, who testified that the Holy Spirit spoke to him “by vocal speeches” that he could hear audibly within himself. “That from a dour Scotsman!” Lloyd-Jones quips.
Congregationalist minister Jonathan Edwards is regarded as the greatest American theologian and a singular intellect. In MacArthur’s Strange Fire Conference, Edwards’s work on the true signs of revival was cited to make points about how we should “test the spirits” to see if they are genuine. And the points are generally on target; they provide good tests for winnowing out abuses from legitimate manifestations of the Holy Spirit.
But too bad MacArthur didn’t read Edwards more fully. Lloyd-Jones did, and here is one extraordinary experience of the Spirit which Jonathan Edwards wrote about, when God opened the heavens and gave him a spectacular vision:
Once, as I rode out into the woods for my health, in 1737, having alighted from my horse in a retired place as my manner commonly has been, to walk for divine contemplation and prayer, I had a view that for me was extraordinary, of the glory of the Son of God as Mediator between God and man, and His wonderful, great, full, pure and sweet grace and love, and meek and gentle condescension. This grace that appeared so calm and sweet appeared also great above the heavens. The Person of Christ appeared ineffably excellent, with an excellency great enough to swallow up all thought and conception, which continued, as near as I can judge, about an hour; which kept me the greater part of the time in a flood of tears, and weeping aloud. I felt an ardency of soul to be, what I know not otherwise how to express, emptied and annihilated; to lie in the dust and be full of Christ alone; to love Him with a holy and pure love; to trust Him; to live upon Him; and to serve and follow Him; and to be perfectly sanctified and made pure with a divine and heavenly purity.
Another point Lloyd-Jones gleans from the Calvinists is that this work of the Spirit is “not confined to any particular means.” John MacKenzie, another of the “Strict Baptists,” whom Lloyd-Jones describes as “unusually serious and sober people, not given to emotionalism,” said in a sermon,
As to the immediate act of this sealing of the heart and the peculiar feelings under it, they are better known and understood by the sweet experience of them than can be conveyed by words or conceived in ideas….The Spirit is not confined to any particular means in giving this rich blessing. He may give it under the preaching or reading of the Word, or neither. But whatever outward means He may please to use, or should He without any, come suddenly and sovereignly down upon the heart, the soul will feel fully assured it is the blessed Spirit within him.
Read that carefully. The Spirit may use the Word. He may not (though Lloyd-Jones himself thought he usually does). He may use means. He may not. It is an immediate act. He may come suddenly and sovereignly as he wills. This is a Calvinistic Baptist of an even more sober variety than John MacArthur who is speaking!
Third, there is something else about Lloyd-Jones’s approach, something I find appealing, and that I can’t imagine would win John MacArthur’s approval. Not only does D.M. Lloyd-Jones expound the Scriptures, and not only does he cite the experiences of the Calvinistic Puritans as historical verification of his doctrine of the Spirit, he also gives accounts from people in other “streams” of Protestant Christian tradition. He gives testimonies from Methodists like John Wesley and Howell Harris, American Presbyterians Edward Payson and Charles Finney, Swiss Reformed pastor Merle d’Aubigne, evangelist D.L. Moody, and even Plymouth Brethren J.N. Darby, C.H. Mackintosh, and William Kelly.
In other words, in teaching about the Holy Spirit and in countering false teaching about him, Lloyd-Jones does not appeal to a narrow “stream” of doctrinal conformity to make his argument. Instead, he makes his point by being intentionally more ecumenical. He recognizes that the body of Christ and the work of the Spirit in Christ’s Church is bigger than any narrow “trail of blood” which I might limit to those who I think are “right.”
Fourth, one final point from David Martyn Lloyd Jones: should we be seeking this experience?
I answer: Certainly, obviously, it should be sought, and for reasons which should be quite self-evident. If this experience is open to all Christian believers in this life, and any feel that they have not known it, surely they should seek it. Every Christian should always be seeking the best and the highest. We should never be content with anything less than what is described as possible to the Christian in the New Testament.
Lloyd-Jones then quotes the great Puritan preacher Thomas Goodwin, who exhorted his congregation,
We are said to “receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:14). Believe there is such a thing, aim at it, wait for it and serve God day and night in all humility to obtain it. Rest in no other lower and under assurance, and in the Lord will give it. The reason why men attain it not is because they rest in other assurance, and they do not aim at this. They content themselves with bare believing and that their consciences are quieted. But, my brethren, there is such a work as sealing by the Spirit, if you have faith.”
In this light, Lloyd-Jones appeals again to George Whitefield, who stressed that anyone who does not have “an immediate assurance” through this work of the Holy Spirit “ought to labour after it.” Then, in an interesting note, he records Whitfield’s observation that some “are taught that it does not belong to Christians in these last days.” David Martyn Lloyd-Jones joins George Whitfield in disapproving of this “cessationism.”
At least with regard to teaching about the Holy Spirit, I can’t see that Lloyd-Jones, Whitfield, or any of these other people fit into John MacArthur’s “stream of sound doctrine.”
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I do not post this to argue that what David Martyn Lloyd-Jones or the Puritans taught is what today’s “charismatics” are teaching and practicing. In fact, in MLJ’s Romans commentary he thoroughly deals with false and inadequate teaching about the Spirit as well as making a clear distinction between legitimate experiences and abuses.
I also don’t post this to commend Lloyd-Jones’s specific interpretation to you, as though I were taking his side or approving everything he taught about the Holy Spirit. Analyzing his position and the views of those he mentions is a subject for another day.
I post this to show that Martyn Lloyd-Jones and many of the Puritans, whom John MacArthur cited as members of the stream of faithful teaching down through the ages, held views of the Spirit and his work that clearly contradict what McArthur himself holds to be sound doctrine.
- They were not cessationists.
- They acknowledged a direct experience of the Spirit subsequent to salvation and compared it to what the apostles received at Pentecost.
- They taught that the work of the Spirit was immediate, direct, and subjectively experienced.
- They taught that means were not necessary.
- They taught that it may or may not involve the use of the Scriptures.
- They taught that it may or may not be accompanied by supernatural phenomena.
- They taught that the sealing of the Spirit is an experience that holds the greatest blessing for a believer in this world.
- They taught that believers and churches should be ever seeking this gift.
D.M. Lloyd-Jones took a serious and in-depth approach to the subject of the Holy Spirit. He was no enthusiast, and I have no doubt that the good Doctor would be as critical of “charismatic” Christianity as John MacArthur is. In fact, I am too. But the reasoning here and the approach that MacArthur and other cessationists are taking is poor, without nuance, and unhelpful.
It undercuts the credibility of what may be an important prophetic message to the Church when we present it like this.
A hubristic, uninformed view of Church History like the view revealed in the above quote shows me that folks like John MacArthur don’t actually have human heroes from Church History. Their “heroes” are, in reality, the ideas that they themselves hold and believe to be right. The names from Church History they cite are just pegs on which to hang those ideas. They either don’t know about or choose to ignore whatever these people taught or practiced that doesn’t fit their “pure stream” paradigm.
But history, theology, and life consist of more than mere ideas, especially cherry-picked ideas. The reality is always more mysterious, more human, more complex, and messier. It doesn’t fit inside our neat little doctrinal systems.
Sort of like the work of the Holy Spirit.