“Why do so many people listen to John MacArthur?” by Hughes Oliphant Old

“What one hears from John MacArthur’s pulpit is a very straight Christian message—conservative, to be sure, but free from the wrangling, the defensiveness, and the bitterness of the fundamentalism of a generation or two ago. If one were to call MacArthur a fundamentalist, a label that, I gather, he would not reject, one would have to admit that his is a very impressive sort of fundamentalism. His expository sermons are instructive and edifying. Twice a Sunday he draws a very large congregation that sits attentively for an hour-long sermon.

To get a feel for the way MacArthur handles the ministry of the Word, I ordered his ten sermons on the eighth and ninth chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. I chose this collection because I myself had tried to do a number of sermons on these two chapters and found them extremely difficult to preach. In the two chapters nine of the most spectacular miracle stories of the Gospel are recounted about healings, exorcisms, and the stilling of the storm. The preacher has to deal with some tough questions in these two chapters. I was curious how someone with a reputation for solid expository preaching, such as MacArthur has, might interpret these passages. Listening to these sermons was a rewarding experience, even if I have a number of reservations and hesitations about MacArthur’s approach to preaching.

MacArthur fills these sermons with a wealth of factual material. In the way of human interest stories one finds, on the other hand, very little. The illustrative material focuses on the biblical story. It is the passage of Scripture that is illuminated rather than a principle drawn out of the passage.

MacArthur also has an amazing ability to explain Scripture by Scripture. He spends a great deal of time studying the parallel passages in the other Gospels. Most of the material in Matthew 8 and 9 is also found in Mark, Luke, or John. The harmonizing of the different Gospel accounts is not excessive. A good example of his moderation as a harmonizer is found in the sermon on the exorcising of the Gadarene demoniac (Matt. 8:28-34). One Gospel tells us of two demon-possessed men while the other tells us of a single man.

Particularly illuminating is the way MacArthur emphasizes the similarity between Matthew and John on the one hand and Matthew and Paul on the other. This is in contrast to much twentieth-century New Testament scholarship, which tended to see Matthew and the Synoptic Gospels over against John. Often to make his point he will run through a list of five to ten examples. He spits it out machine-gun style so he does not overburden the sermon with material that only the more initiated members of his congregation can follow, but for the more serious listener these parallel passages make the sermon richly informative and mightily convincing. Again MacArthur gives a great deal of time to coordinating the message of the Gospel of Matthew with that of the epistles of Paul.

Realizing that a significant school of modern biblical scholarship has denied that Paul’s elaborate theology was based on the simple gospel of Jesus, our preacher is careful to show the similarity between the two. It is very interesting to note that the polemic implied does not come to the surface. MacArthur simply shows how Paul preaches the same gospel as Matthew. One gets the impression that MacArthur is first of all an expositor and only after that a polemicist. This speaks enormously to his credit.

Having said this, however, one has to admit that our preacher has a very clear line of interpretation on these miracle stories in Matthew 8 and 9. As he sees it, these miracles are above all the proofs of Christ’s divinity. They are not examples of what the power of faith can do. Much less are they the myths that symbolically express the devotion of the early Christians to their extraordinary teacher. One never gets the impression that this preacher has the least shadow of doubt but that these miracles took place exactly as they are recorded. But, again, there is never any argument that they could have taken place just as they are recorded. Defending the accuracy of the Bible seems to interest MacArthur not at all. He simply assumes it is all quite reliable. This basic assumption that the text of Scripture is reliable is part of the foundation of his effectiveness as an interpreter.

Difficulties arise when one assumes that these stories could not possibly have happened the way they are supposed to have. If they did not happen then they can’t prove anything about Jesus. They may tell us what the early church believed about Jesus, but again if they didn’t happen, that suggests that the faith of the early church was mistaken. So much of the New Testament interpretation of the last century was devoted to salvaging some kind of Christian faith for an age that cannot accept the miraculous. For the last couple of generations the idea that one should make the major theme of these two chapters that the miracles proved the divinity of Jesus was about the last thought an enlightened preacher would try to make. That, however, is just the point MacArthur does make. He makes the point very successfully. He shows from the structure of the text itself that this is what Matthew is trying to say. He supports it with parallel texts from both the Synoptic Gospels and the Johannine literature. What is surprising is that there is no vitriolic attack on the ‘higher critics’ or the ‘modernists.’

The one direction in which MacArthur does let loose a moderate amount of polemic is toward the charismatics and faith healers. Charismatics take a very different tack in interpreting the healings and exorcisms of the Gospels. Charismatics see miracles as an ordinance of the church. Like the sacraments, they should be a continuing part of the Christian churches’ ministry. When MacArthur argues that the purpose of the miracles was to make it clear that Jesus was the Christ, he means we should not therefore expect this kind of healing ministry in the church today. It had its function in New Testament times but, since we have the inspired witness of Scripture today that is sufficient witness to establish both the true divinity and the true humanity of Christ, miracles are no longer necessary.

As I have mentioned, these sermons on Matthew 8 and 9 have a particular interest for me because I once tried to preach through these chapters and was very unhappy with how I did it. Where MacArthur succeeded and I did not may well be in his complete clarity on just how he stood on some of these issues. While I would insist that Jesus did perform miracles, I have to admit that the caveats of the Enlightenment still obscure my thoughts from time to time. I suppose I am troubled by a shadow of doubt, but then the same would be true of many in my congregation.

The place where I have always had the greatest trouble is the whole matter of exorcism. I really do not believe in Satan, demonic spirits, and demon possession. Maybe I ought to, but I don’t. I am willing to agree that I may have been too strongly influenced by the intellectual world in which I was brought up to fully grasp the full teaching of Scripture, but that is the way it is.

What is more than clear to me after listening to these sermons is that those who can take the text the way it is seem to make a lot more sense of it than those who are always trying to second-guess it. Surely one of the greatest strengths of MacArthur’s preaching ministry is his complete confidence in the text.

Let us look for a brief moment at our preacher as an orator. One could evaluate his oratory very differently. My first impression is that he has little to offer from the standpoint of the art of oratory. Listening to the tapes, one has to say that he is the antithesis of Lloyd Ogilvie. Thinking about it a bit longer, however, I have to admit he does have techniques of getting people to listen that we should not overlook.

The strength of his preaching is his content, but he has mastered some devices as well. He seems to have a feel for the use of rhythm in his preaching. He uses a variety of rhythms. He will often deliver a whole series of phrases in the same rhythm almost as used in the Odes of Horace. Sometimes his rhythms are very rapid and sometimes very slow. Sometimes they are highly artificial. One is easily offended by his preacher’s cant, but one wonders at times whether one does well to be offended. These pulpit rhythms, which we think of as being hopelessly old-fashioned, are being used by preachers today quite effectively. They somehow make it possible for the listener to absorb and retain quite a bit of material over a long period of time. Could this be why the epic poets told their long stories in rhythmic meters? MacArthur’s rhetoric is terribly out of date, but maybe he knows something the rest of us don’t.

Why do so many people listen to MacArthur, this product of all the wrong schools? How can he pack out a church on Sunday morning in an age in which church attendance has seriously lagged? Here is a preacher who has nothing in the way of a winning personality, good looks, or charm. Here is a preacher who offers us nothing in the way of sophisticated homiletical packaging.

No one would suggest that he is a master of the art of oratory. What he seems to have is a witness to true authority. He recognizes in Scripture the Word of God, and when he preaches, it is Scripture that one hears. It is not that the words of John MacArthur are so interesting as it is that the Word of God is of surpassing interest. That is why one listens.”

–Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, Volume 7: Our Own Time (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 551-558.

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Filed under Bible, Christian Theology, Jesus Christ, Preaching, Puritanical, Quotable Quotes, Sola Scriptura, The Gospel

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