July 21, 2011
Servant of the Word and Flock, by Iain H. Murray (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2011), HB 246 pages.
In the concluding section of his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul challenges the brothers to "Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, [and] be strong" (I Cor. 16:13), not least of all those men who have been set apart as under-shepherds of the flock. Sadly, in our increasingly effeminate culture, these biblical marks of manhood appear to be diminishing amongst both laymen and ministers. Dandified, progressive, culture-centric preachers (and preaching) are becoming as ubiquitous as Starbucks and American Eagle. Harder to find is Lionhearted, authoritative, expository, God-besotted, Law/Gospel-filled preaching like that which characterized the preaching of men like Calvin, Knox, Owen, Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones. It is, in part, for this reason that John Fullerton MacArthur Jr.'s long and steadfast ministry of the Word is a welcome and timely subject for reflection.
It never occurred to Iain Murray to write a biography on John MacArthur until after he was invited to preach at MacArthur's fortieth anniversary at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California on Sunday, February 1, 2009. Rightly unwilling to set aside the preaching of God's Word during Lord's Day worship, Murray chose rather to write "a biographical sketch as a short tribute" to MacArthur's ministry. (xi) That sixty-page biographical sketch, later included as part of an anniversary volume of landmark MacArthur sermons, formed the basis of the present volume.
Murray's engaging biography paints an endearing portrait of the well-known Southern California pastor. MacArthur was born in Los Angeles, California, on June 19, 1939. His grandfather, Rev. Harry MacArthur (d.1950), and his father, Rev. John "Jack" MacArthur (d. 2005) were both ardent, evangelical ministers who had a profound impact on "Johnny" during his formative years. Murray states that MacArthur's father was his "chief mentor." (8) Concerning his parents, MacArthur could say that he "had never heard them say an unkind word to each other or argue in an angry manner." (11) This godly heritage and upbringing, filled with familial love and Christian nurture, provided MacArthur with a strong foundation for future ministry.
As a teenager MacArthur was a competitive athlete, "distinguished in baseball, football, basketball and sprinting." (12) He had a keen interest in pursuing a professional athletic career, but "Johnny's" mother prayed earnestly that their son would be a preacher. Her prayers were answered. One can see, however, how MacArthur's athletic background might have helped to prepare him for the hard knocks of pastoral ministry.
After initially attending Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina from 1957-1959, MacArthur finished his college years at Pacific College in Los Angeles. There he played football and was named to the All-America team as a halfback. During those years, however, MacArthur's call to the ministry was coming into sharper focus. According to Murray, "there was now a higher purpose in his view." (15)
MacArthur graduated magna cum laude from Talbot Seminary in 1964. He spent the following five years in itinerant ministry, some in Jackson, Mississippi, among African-Americans during the height of the the civil rights movement. During this time he considered serving God on the mission field in Germany. (27) But this disconnectedness from the ministry of the local church was not to last. MacArthur accepted a call to be the pastor of Grace Community Church on February 9, 1969. For over forty years he has faithfully served this Southern Californian congregation which has grown to more than six thousand members. This significant growth, according to MacArthur, was the work of God through His Word:
"If one desires to be faithful to Christ and His Word, there is no technique or system that will guarantee a large church. The Church is a supernatural work. I must ascribe our church's numerical and spiritual growth to the supernatural will of our sovereign God. We are content to focus on aggressive biblical ministry and leave it to the Lord to add to His Church (Acts 2:47). Our task is to be faithful." (40)
The profound growth of Grace Community Church was not, however, without its share of trials. Murray informs the reader of a mutinous staff meeting one Tuesday morning in 1979. He writes that after opening "the meeting, as he often did, by expressing his appreciation for their help and friendship" ... [MacArthur] was "stopped dead by the words, 'If you think we are your friends you have another thing coming.'" (47-48) Perhaps a more substantial biography in the future will tell us more about the nature of that uprising.
Murray reports that in that same year a seminary student, who was living with the MacArther family at the time, took his own life. The young man's father was a member of Grace Community Church and a friend of MacArthur's. Nevertheless, the friendship did not stop this man from filing a lawsuit against MacArthur for clergy malpractice. (50) Murray explains that the case was in the courts - and the public media - for no less than eight years, finally to be dismissed in the Supreme Court of California. MacArthur commented that "for some reason God has chosen to put us in this situation. We count it a joy. If we were suffering because of evil doing, it would be a reproach to us; but if we suffer for righteousness' sake, we count ourselves worthy to be identified with Christ." (52)
The third major hardship occurred when MacArthur's wife Patricia and daughter Melinda were in a terrible car wreck in 1992, and had to be airlifted to the hospital. The details of the accident and his wife's long road to recovery were powerful reminders that even the Lord's most faithful and influential servants are not immune to God's bitter providences. (138-142) The description of these three traumatic events, along with MacArthur's godly response to them, is a very moving, encouraging and instructive part of the book.
Particularly notable to me in this volume is John MacArthur's steadfast and unwavering commitment to study, preparation, and preaching. As Murray explains, the California preacher's wider ministry has been, in many ways, an extension of his ordinary Lord's Day preaching ministry at Grace Community Church. Most of his popular books and commentaries are sermons edited for publication. John MacArthur is first and foremost an expositor of God's Word -- as every pastor should be. Murray states:
"The pattern of his week was to give the best of his time, from Tuesday to Friday, to preparation for preaching. In early years this meant some fifteen hours of work for each sermon; and he still may require from eight to ten hours. He has lived out his father's admonition, 'Don't go into the sacred desk [pulpit] unless you are fully prepared.' A high view of Scripture will always lead a preacher to the right priority. The apostolic example, 'We will give ourselves continually to prayer and the ministry of the word' (Acts 6:4), is always followed when the churches are in their healthiest state." (60-61- italics mine)
In order to guard his time for diligent study and sermon preparation, MacArthur utilizes a system that he calls "planned neglect," that is, planning to "neglect everything until my study is done." (61) His weekly schedule clearly reflects his commitment to feeding the flock. MacArthur's fervid devotion to the study and proclamation of the Bible is infectious. In many ways, MacArthur helped to bring about the resurgence of systematic-expository preaching in the latter part of the twentieth-century. Indeed, for over forty years in the same congregation he has been employing the lectio continua method, that is, preaching verse by verse, chapter by chapter through entire books of the Bible. Once when questioned on the use of drama and visual aids from the pulpit he said, "You have to believe that the power of God's Word will be more effective than any human drama or communication gimmick. Nothing is as dramatic as the explosion of truth on the mind of a believer through powerful preaching." (63) And on the topic of preaching Christ, he once said that he "would rather preach Christ than anything else. He is the most compelling subject in all the universe." (62)
In chapter nine, which is entitled "Controversy," Murray informs the reader about some of MacArthur's more polemical works where he courageously challenges the gospel-negotiating doctrines of easy-believism and antinomianism, and also confronts many of the wild claims of the Charismatics. In this chapter we are reminded that God calls His ministers to be bold defenders of the truth, regardless of the personal cost. (Titus 1:9) This is in stark contrast to the popular, modern day notion that being nice and tolerant is of greater value and importance than defending and promoting sound doctrine. MacArthur wrote,
"Take an uncompromising stance on almost any doctrinal or biblical issue, and a chorus of voices will call you obstinate, unkind, heartless, contentious, or unloving, no matter how irenically you frame your argument." (126)
MacArthur's willingness to "act like a man" in the defense of the Gospel is a wonderful, and sorely needed, example for today's ministers. Indeed, may we follow his example, heeding the words of Jude to "contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints." (Jude 3) Some have complained, like one Brazilian pastor, that MacArthur "is rather forceful in his views and lacks cordiality toward those who disagree with him." But MacArthur rightfully believes that this forthrightness "is necessary in a day when plain speaking is not 'politically correct' and, if some are put off, it is the very thing that many recognize as greatly needed." (184)
Murray's biography is not without criticism. In chapter fourteen, entitled "Objections and Questions," Murray sets forth a critique that will leave some of his readers a little puzzled. The critique deals with the use of instrumentation in public worship. Murray encourages MacArthur to "give more attention" to whether or not instruments are - according to Scripture - permissible in new covenant worship. (190) Perhaps a discussion of this narrow view would have been more well-suited elsewhere. The more pertinent criticism was rightly directed at MacArthur's peculiar commitment to dispensationalism, believing that "a major difference continues between the church and Israel in the purposes of God." (192-196) MacArthur's indisputable love for the theology and history of the first and second generation Reformers makes it odd that he has held so fast to a dispensational hermeneutic.
Prior to reading this book, I was unaware of the extensiveness and world-wide magnitude of MacArthur's ministry over the last four decades. God has used this expository preacher from California to impact tens of millions of lives. Murray writes that in 1998 "Grace to You," the radio and publishing arm of Grace Community Church, employed fifty-two full time employees and was assisted by 113 full-time volunteers. From that location millions of sermon cassettes and books were sent out all over the world. Murray writes that "by 1999 'Grace to You' had distributed 3,154,927 copies of MacArthur's books and study guides." (158) This was never a money making enterprise either. In fact, very often the materials were given away for free. In 2009 the "Grace to You" radio broadcast could be heard "1,979 times daily on 1,502 outlets in thirty-four countries." (160) Moreover, since their founding, The Master's College and The Master's Seminary have seen thousands of students pass through their programs.
Even with this sort of world-wide influence, according to those closest to him MacArthur has maintained a godly reputation as a humble, Christ-centered husband, father, pastor and friend. He has not forgotten who he really is; namely, a guilty sinner saved by sovereign grace. In these days of trendy, self-promoting, culture-infatuated, success-driven preachers, John MacArthur Jr.'s steadfast confidence in the power of God's Word is a tremendous model to ministers and churches everywhere.
Some of my doctrinal commitments as a Reformed and Presbyterian minister will differ from John MacArthur's. Nevertheless, there is much to learn from his extraordinary life and ministry. Indeed, I am grateful for his decades-long, no-frills, steadfast example of pastoral ministry -- especially his commitment to, and confidence in, the preaching of God's holy and efficacious Word. John MacArthur: Servant of the Word and Flock is yet another outstanding biography from one of finest Christian biographers of our time.
Rev. Dr. Jon D. Payne serves as minister of Grace Presbyterian Church in Douglasville, Georgia and as a visiting lecturer in practical theology at RTS Atlanta. He is the series editor of the forthcoming Lectio Continua Expository Commentary on the New Testament published by Tolle Lege Press.