The Truth About Forgiveness by John MacArthur

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Jackie Kaulitz

Puritan Board Freshman
I understand on Puritainboard, many here may read John MacArthur. Thus, I wanted to post a critical review of one of his latest books, in the hope that my Christian brothers and sisters would not be mislead. If you disagree with my critique, please explain, as I am a newbie seeking to learn and need all the correction I can get. :p

3 Stars

I believe The Truth About Forgiveness is a worthy, well-meaning attempt at writing a book with a solid foundation in the gospel and forgiveness. The title claims to be "the truth" but the contents sadly miss the truth and so are not "the truth". Anything but "the whole truth" is still really "a lie" that misleads. Most of this book has good solid teachings that are helpful for believers and this makes one want to love this book, but sadly, the incorrect teachings in this book are related to the central gospel message and so they have tremendously dangerous consequences if accepted as truths. The book is a worthy read, but not a "must read." I rate it only 3 stars because I felt the author continues in all his books to confuse justification with sanctification (teaching a deadly and incorrect "faith plus works" theology). After past correction from his collegues, I was saddened to see my Christian brother John MacArthur's words still demonstrating a confusion between justification and sanctification, which results in his teaching a works-based salvation. I had hoped after receiving correction from his collegues and re-writting his "Gospel According to Jesus" book, that all MacArthur's future books would clearly teach "justification by faith alone." Unfortunately, this seems to not be the case. In addition, I felt MacArthur embellished some biblical stories and these "additions" to the biblical narrative did not sit well with me. I am not trying to pick on John MacArthur - I own nearly every single book the man has ever written and have followed his teachings for 10+ years, but I must stick to "the whole truth" and look out that my Christian brothers and sisters not be lead astray. The book is a short, quick read, but most of it, we have heard many times over. Not a lot of new material in this one. Not life-changing and not something I would keep in my library or recommend strongly to others. Read it if you discern carefully and have time or are a big fan of MacArthur. Otherwise, there are many books that would be more worthy of your precious time.


This book stands out as memorable because MacArthur explains that when humans start to excuse their sins as "addictions" or "sicknesses" or "beyond their control", they close themselves off to searching for a cure for this life of misery, where we are lost in slavery to our sins. Best quotes about this subject:

"These days everything wrong with humanity is likely to be explained as an illness. What we used to call sin is more easily diagnosed as a whole array of disabilities. All kinds of immorality and evil conduct are now identified as symptoms of this or that psychological illness. Criminal behavior, various perverse passions, and every imaginable addiction have all been made excusable by the crusade to label them medical afflictions. Even commonplace problems, such as emotional weakness, depression, and anxiety, are also almost universally defined as quasi-medical, rather than spiritual, afflictions." (Kindle Locations 66-70).

"But assume for the moment that the problem is sin rather than sickness. The only true remedy involves humble repentance and confession (the recognition that you deserve the chastening of God because you alone are responsible for your sin)—then restitution, and growth through the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study, communion with God, fellowship with other believers, and dependence on Christ. In other words, if the problem is in fact spiritual, labeling it a clinical issue will only exacerbate the problem and will offer no real deliverance from the sin. ... By casting the sinner in the role of a victim, it ignores or minimizes the personal guilt inherent in the misbehavior. “I am sick” is much easier to say than, “I have sinned.” But it doesn’t deal with the fact that one’s transgression is a serious offense against a holy, omniscient, omnipotent God." (Kindle Locations 126-134).

MacArthur explains that humans cannot atone for their own sin and so they need substitute atonement. He explains that only God can forgive sins and provide the necessary atonement, using the example of Luke 5:17-26 the paralytic lowered into a house from the roof.

Most important to all Christians, is a proper understanding of humans as sinners unworthy of the mercy of God. MacArthur provides an excellent portrayal of this belief: "There is nothing in any sinner that compels God’s love. He does not love us because we are lovable. He is not merciful to us because we in any way deserve His mercy. We are despicable, vile sinners who, if we are not saved by the grace of God, will be thrown on the trash heap of eternity, which is hell. We have no intrinsic value, no intrinsic worth—there’s nothing in us to love." (Kindle Locations 534-537) "I recently overheard a radio talk-show psychologist attempting to give a caller an ego-boost: “God loves you for what you are. You must see yourself as someone special. After all, you are special to God.” But that misses the point entirely. God does not love us “for what we are.” He loves us in spite of what we are. He does not love us because we are special." (Kindle Locations 538-540) "God loves because He is love; love is essential to who He is. Rather than viewing His love as proof of something worthy in us, we ought to be humbled by it." (Kindle Locations 546-547).

We need to understand our standing before God. We are sinners, in need of a savior. If we deny that we are lost in our own sins, we will deny our need for a savior. "In other words, to attempt to eradicate the human conscience is one of the most spiritually destructive pursuits any individual or society can engage in." (Kindle Locations 559-560). MacArthur explains that our conscience within serves to remind us of our sinful condition and need for a savior. MacArthur then outlines a correct biblical view of confession and repentance: "True confession also involves repentance—turning away from the evil thought or action. You have not honestly confessed your sins until you have expressed the desire to turn from them. Real confession includes a brokenness that inevitably leads to a change of behavior." (Kindle Locations 605-607). (Emphasis is mine because notice it says "inevitably" and not "immediately" or "instantaneously". Our sin doesn't always end "instantaneously", once we confess. I may confess unforgiveness and pray to God for His help, but it may take a week for me to actually reach a place of forgiveness.)

MacArthur then brings us to the story of the prodigal son. He explains how the Jewish community would normally never consider having mercy on such a wayward son. However, against all cultural norms, the father was eagerly seeking the restoration of his son. "The father clearly wanted to reach the prodigal before the boy reached the village—apparently to protect him from the outpouring of scorn and invective he would surely receive if he walked through that village unreconciled with his father. The father himself would bear the shame and take the abuse instead." (Kindle Locations 760-762). The rest of the book takes us through our need for atonement, dispelling the myths of an easy-believism gospel and attempts to demonstrate God's forgiveness towards sinners. One quote against the easy-believism gospel that I enjoyed was:

"According to Jesus, it’s very, very difficult to be saved. At the end of Matthew 7:14, He said of the narrow gate, “There are few who find it.” I don’t believe anyone ever slipped and fell into the kingdom of God. That’s cheap grace, easy-believism, Christianity Lite, a shallow, emotional revivalist approach: “I believe in Jesus!” “Fine, you’re part of the family, come on in!” No." (Kindle Locations 927-930)


My main issue with nearly all MacArthur's books and teachings is that he endlessly confuses justification with sanctification. While he attempts to teach "justification by faith alone", he is so afraid of people slipping into antinomianism (justification by faith alone, where justification is NOT followed by sanctification in producing good works), that MacArthur ends up teaching "faith that includes works" or a type of "faith plus works" very similar to the Roman Catholics' erroneous teaching that was the basis for the entire Protestant Reformation. This error is deathly important, or we will slip back into a "faith plus works" belief and render the entire Reformation an "unnecessary mistake." The true teaching of the Reformation and from Martin Luther is that "We are saved by faith alone but not by faith that is alone" (our faith is followed by our sanctification and good works naturally follow). However, MacArthur often adds obedience and repentance to faith, as he did throughout his 1989 (pre-Calvinist days) "Gospel According to Jesus" book (notice parts of the original 1989 red cover version of this book was completely re-written to remove many (but not all) of these incorrect "faith plus works" teachings). Because MacArthur took the correction of Michael Horton in Horton's book Christ The Lord to heart and revised his own "Gospel According to Jesus", I believe MacArthur is well-meaning in teaching the truth. However, his old belief of "faith includes works" can be seen creeping into nearly all his teachings.

Another example in this book: "The rich young ruler made it to the gate and asked Jesus what he had to do to enter the kingdom. The Lord told him to drop his matched set of Gucci luggage and come on through. He had found the gate that few people ever find, but he refused to enter because he was too selfish and self-centered to make the sacrifice Jesus asked of him." (Kindle Locations 944-947). Although at first glace, this may sound true, look carefully. "Drop your wallet and THEN you will be saved." "Sacrifice your wealth, THEN you can be saved." This is saying "Do this work", THEN you can be saved. It's a faith plus works justification! The truth is "believe, THEN you will be saved". There is no requirement to "DO anything." No requirement to give up your car. No requirement to give up your house or wallet. If the rich young ruler HAD, given up his wealth, would this have EARNED him eternal life? Of course not! The whole point of Jesus saying "Give up your wealth" was to prove the rich young ruler was guilty of breaking the law that he claimed to uphold and was a fallen sinner in need of a savior. Read Michael Horton's book Christ The Lord for a precise detailed explanation of this. Sadly, even though Horton corrected MacArthur in 2008 and MacArthur revised his "Gospel According to Jesus" book, MacArthur continues to erroneously teach salvation by faith and works even up till today. This is an ongoing theme we must always be watchful for in all MacArthur's teachings. We must cling to "justification by faith ALONE". No works. No repentance. No giving up money. We can't buy our way into heaven by giving up our riches!

Another example of this teaching in this book is: "But sinners who repent and turn to God are fully and instantly justified, freely forgiven from the first moment of faith’s inception— before a single good work is done. That was the principal lesson of Abraham’s example. “He believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6, emphasis added). (Kindle Locations 888-891). Here, MacArthur equated "repentance" with "belief", but they are not the same at all. Repentance is the work we do for the rest of our lives as Christians. It is part of the sanctification process - part of becoming "more Christlike." Notice that MacArthur says "IF you repent (works), then you will be justified" and not "if you believe the gospel, you will be justified"? Then he mistakenly ties a story about Abraham, who properly "believed and so was justified" back to his "repent (works) and be justified" example, but the two are completely different. MacArthur's example is repentance/works = justification, while Abraham is belief=justification.

As well-meaning as he may be, MacArthur, also reverted back to teaching the Sermon on the Mount was about gospel and not law, even after accepting correction from Michael Horton in Horton's book Christ The Lord. But even after such correction, we can still see MacArthur reverting to his old teaching, when he writes "Forgiveness was also one of Jesus’ favorite subjects to preach about. It was one of the key themes in His Sermon on the Mount." (Kindle Locations 289-290). The Sermon on the Mount had more to do with law than gospel. All these verses are about law and demonstrate how unattainable salvation is through works righteousness: "I have not come to abolish the law but to uphold it..." (Mt 5:17-20); don't murder or be angry unjustly; don't commit adultery or lust; don't divorce; don't break your oaths; don't seek revenge; don't hate your enemies but love them; don't do your works before men but before God; don't pray like a hypocrite; don't fast like a hypocrite; don't store up treasures on earth; don't worry; don't judge others; narrow is the path; not everyone who says "Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven." As Michael Horton correctly points out, these verses are all about law.

I also could not find this teaching in Luke 5: "The father gathered up the hem of his robe and took off in a most undignified manner." (Kindle Locations 769-770). I found myself repulsed by this notion that the father lifted up his robe in an immodest or indecent manner. In fact, just this last Sunday, my pastor repeated the same thing and he made it sound even more indecent, adding "he exposed his undergarments!" I shudder at the immodesty and indecency implied by this added teaching, that I could not find in my bible. And then for MacArthur to conclude that "This is indeed a fitting picture of Christ," (Kindle Location 802) made me shudder at an implied blasphemy, that the notion of associating this indecent immodesty to Christ.

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Next, I believe MacArthur incorrectly labels the prodigal son story, a story about "justification by faith": "the prodigal son is a textbook example of someone who is justified by grace through faith apart from meritorious deeds." (Kindle Location 894). However, contextually, according to Luke, the story of the prodigal son is one of three parables that Jesus tells in response to the complaint of Pharisees and scribes that “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1-2). In response to "Why do you go to sinners and tax collectors?", Jesus responds with the parable of the lost sheep (an "elected" sinner): Luke 15:7 "Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." Then the parable of the lost coin (an "elected" sinner): Luke 15:10 "Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents." These parables answer the question "Why do you go to sinners and tax collectors?" by saying "these sinners are the elect of God, and I go to them to bring them into the fold/flock."

And then Jesus follows with the parable of the prodigal son, in the same way: Luke 15:24 "For this my son (an elected sinners and tax collector) was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found" and Luke 15:31-32: "Son, you (Jewish Pharisees and scribes) are always with me (Israel being God's people), and all that is mine is yours (Israel had the gift of being God's people). It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother (the lost elected sinner) was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found." So the parable of the prodigal son answers the question "Why do you go to sinners and tax collectors?" Jesus explains that he goes to the sinners and tax collectors because they are lost and need their shepherd to bring them back into the flock. I see that this story relates to the gospel and relates to justification/salvation, but I don't see it as a direct "textbook example of justification by faith" because nowhere in this story is "faith" or "belief" described. The prodigal son story is not told in response to an enquiry about how to inherit eternal life. Jesus is not preaching an evangelistic message here. He is explaining why he receives the sinning classes and eats with them, when the Pharisees look down upon these people as a lower class and undeserving of any attention (much like the older brother in the prodigal son story). The prodigal son are the "sinners and tax collectors", while the older brother is like the Pharisees. In fact, at the end of the story, the older brother refused to go in to rejoice over the return of his younger brother (Luke 15:28 "But he was angry and refused to go in") much like the Pharisees, who would not rejoice over "sinners and tax collectors" being saved. For more on this, read Matthew 9:12 and Mark 2:17, which explain the reason Jesus ate with tax collectors: “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

A few other smaller issues with this book: When describing Luke 5:17-26 the paralytic lowered into a house from the roof, MacArthur embellishes, "It may well be that forgiveness was the very topic [Jesus] was teaching about. The subject was certainly in the air." (Kindle Locations 281-282). Which verse was this? I could not find anything of the sort in my Bible. MacArthur also adds, "What a dramatic entrance this was! It no doubt startled the crowd when the roof began to open up. The gap in the roof needed to be large enough for the man and his stretcher—which likely meant that not only the external roof tiles but also some of the underlying latticework supporting the tiles had to be carefully removed. A tile roof was no cheap or temporary covering, and there’s simply no way to open a hole in a tile roof like that without lots of debris and dust falling into the crowd below. We would normally expect both the crowd and the landlord to be annoyed by the actions of these men." (Kindle Locations 313-316). MacArthur doesn't leave room for the notion of a straw roof or open roof. I felt his embellished description make the scene seem fake or far-fetched that someone would tear open another person's roof, tile by tile.

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My disclaimer - I received this book from the publisher but I am not required to give a positive review. I always give honest critical reviews and attempt to critically point out parts of the book that may include incorrect teachings or parts of the book that may not appeal to others. I want you readers to be able to confidently choose a book based off my reviews and the stars I rate the book with, because I know you have limited money, time and energy to read. So let's make the most of our lives and choose the very best books.
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moral necessity

Puritan Board Junior

I respect those who can glean edification from Mr. MacArthur. I am like you, in that I find more to cringe at then benefit from.

Blessings and fellowship!
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