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10 Questions with John MacArthur

A couple of weeks ago I asked the readers of this site to help me interview John MacArthur. I collected several of the best questions, added in a few of my own, and sent them off. Dr. MacArthur was kind enough not just to answer them, but to answer them very thoroughly.

I am posting the first 5 questions and answers today and will follow up with the next 5 tomorrow. Today the questions revolve around his new book Slave, the best Bible translations, avoiding scandal, the challenges he has faced in ministry, and the advice he would give himself if he could go back to the early days of his ministry. Tomorrow he talks about time management, about critiquing people “in our camp,” about theological crises, about the Reformed Charismatics and about Christians who deny a literal 6-day creation.

Without further ado, here is the interview with Dr. MacArthur:

Slave. What is it about this word that merits a whole book?

MacArthur SlaveSometimes one word can make an enormous difference. For example, the Latin Vulgate’s translation of metanoia (repentance) as paenitentia (penance) in places like Acts 2:38 led to all sorts of problems in the Roman Catholic Church.

The slave concept is a major theme in Scripture. In fact, believers are referred to as “slaves” hundreds of times throughout the Old and New Testaments. Yet, the American church is blind to this critical theme because most English versions translate the word as “servant” instead.

While it is true that the duties of slave and servant may overlap to some degree, there is a key distinction between the two: servants are hired; slaves are owned. Servants have an element of freedom in choosing whom they work for and what they do. The idea of servanthood maintains some level of self-autonomy and personal rights. Slaves, on the other hand, have no freedom, autonomy, or rights. In the Greco-Roman world, slaves were considered property, to the point that, in the eyes of the law they were regarded as things rather than persons. To be someone’s slave was to be his possession, bound to obey his will without hesitation or argument.

This reality has major implications for our understanding of the gospel. Christ’s call to follow Him is not simply an invitation to become His associate, but a mandate to become His slave. That message is especially needed in American culture, where a man-centered, feel-good, cheap-grace gospel has become so popular. But nothing could be farther from the biblical reality—a reality which is brought to the forefront by rightly translating that one word: “slave.”

In the past I’ve written many books that focus on a right understanding of the gospel—The Gospel According to Jesus, The Gospel According to the Apostles, Hard to Believe, and so on. But, as I note in my preface to Slave, “I have no doubt that this perpetual hiding of an essential element of New Testament revelation has contributed to much of the confusion in evangelical teaching and practice. In fact, I wonder if it wasn’t the reason I felt the need to write so many books to clarify the gospel. If this one reality had been known, would any of those books have been necessary?”

So, I see this as a vitally-important issue with far-reaching implications for how the gospel ought to be understood, preached, and lived.

In light of what you write in Slave regarding the proper translation of doulos, what is your preferred Bible translation? Is the correct translation of that word significant enough that it ought to impact the translation we choose?

I am thankful for excellent English translations like the NASB, NKJV, and ESV. But I do wish they had done a better job translating both ebed (in the OT) and doulos (in the NT) as slave. And I am glad that some new versions like the Holman Christian Standard Bible are doing this.

I have had some discussions with one major publishing company about updating their version to reflect the truth about doulos in the NT. They have told me that they will discuss it further with their translation committee. But I don’t know what will happen there.

While I don’t expect many churches to change their Bible versions over this issue, I do hope that pastors—when they preach through a text that includes doulos—will take the time to instruct their people as to what that word really means. I certainly hope they are doing their homework in the Greek, and not just relying on the English text. Lord willing, the Slave book will serve as a resource for them in that endeavor.

How does a minister in a prominent position manage to stay free from scandal and ruin in a culture of selfism and selfishness? What protections do you have in place that might help other ministers?

The key to avoiding scandal is living with integrity. If you live with integrity and a clear conscience, you never have to worry about potential scandal—because there are no skeletons hidden in your closet. Being above reproach in the eyes of others starts with being blameless before the Lord.

As important as it is to keep a good reputation in the community, it is a thousand times more important to safeguard your own personal character. The single most important battlefield in the struggle for integrity is your own mind. That’s where everything will actually be won or lost. And if you lose there, you have already ruined your character. Then it is only a matter of time before your reputation is spoiled, because a bad tree can’t bring forth good fruit.

Put simply, if you take care of the battle on the inside, you can trust God to take care of your reputation with the outside community.

While it is certainly helpful to seek accountability from other godly individuals (fellow elders, family members, etc.), it is even more helpful to remind yourself about the reality of divine accountability and future judgment. You can be surrounded by a lot of people to whom you are accountable. But if you lose the battle of accountability to God in your heart, you will never win it on the outside. The real battle is fought in the conscience and in the heart.

Looking back on those many years of ministry, what has been the greatest challenge you had to face, and how do you see God used it in your ministry?

My time at Grace Church has been a wonderful gift from God. Any difficulties I have faced have been far outweighed by the countless blessings and joys. Yet, ministry has not been without its challenges. For example, when I first came to Grace, there was an immediate need to identify and train up the godly men who would then make up our elder board. It was a long process, taking a number of years, but I knew it was a biblical priority; and it was an investment that has proven invaluable ever since.

John MacArthur

Our elder team has faced other challenges in the years since. At times, there have been certain individuals in our congregation who have tried to cause division or who have left for unbiblical reasons. Things like that can be very painful and difficult, especially in the moment. But, in the end, we have always seen the hand of God’s faithfulness displayed. Moreover, those situations have deepened my love for my fellow elders, underscoring how important it is to have a plurality of godly men leading the church.

But to answer your question more directly, I think the greatest challenge any minister can face in ministry, especially in today’s world, is to maintain faithfulness to the Word of God over the long haul. There is always a temptation to tickle ears, follow trends, or grow lazy in weekly study. But since pastors are called to faithfully preach the Word, they must resist those temptations; and they must do so each and every week.

When a pastor maintains his commitment to the faithful study and preaching of God’s Word, nothing else will have a greater impact on his life and ministry. Not only will he be blessed, because his soul is continually being fed; but his people will also flourish, because there is nothing more relevant to their lives or necessary for their spiritual growth than the pure milk of the Word.

Sometimes pastors grow weary in the ministry, especially if they stay in the same place for a long time. But the key to avoiding debilitating weariness in ministry is personal spiritual renewal. If you fill up your own heart first so that your preaching is passionately alive to spiritual things, you can expect your congregation to be similarly alive to spiritual things. Such passion, of course, comes first and foremost through your own concentrated study of the Word of God. And here’s an important key: Don’t study to prepare sermons; study to know the truth, to rejoice in the glory and grace of God, and to be conformed to His will. Sermons should never be the primary goal of your Bible study; they should only be the overflow of it. When you study, seek an accurate understanding of who God is and what He expects—first and foremost, this is for your own devotion and holiness. And then, from the abundance, instruct your people, urging them to follow you as you follow after Christ.

If you could go back as the man you are now and offer one piece of advice to the man you were when you first accepted the pastorate at Grace, what would it be?

I would probably echo the words of wisdom my father shared with me many years ago.

Before I had even started my ministry here at Grace Community Church, my dad said to me, “I want you to remember a couple of things before you go into the ministry. One, the great preachers, the lasting preachers who left their mark on history, taught their people the Word of God. Two, they stayed in one place for a long time.” These were two good pieces of wisdom. When I first came to Grace Church, most people thought that I would only stay a year or two, because I had been an itinerant communicator to youth groups. But in my heart, I knew I wanted to do the two things my dad advised: one was to teach the Bible expositionally, especially to go through the whole New Testament, knowing, secondly, that such a goal would require staying in one place over the long term. I knew that was the only way I could continue to nourish my own soul, affect generations with God’s truth, and manifest integrity of life through long visibility.

I’ll continue this interview tomorrow. Tomorrow’s questions are:

  • You are obviously a busy man. What advice would you give to pastors on loving their wives and children amidst the many demands of the pastoral ministry.
  • How can we best critique people who are “in our camp” and yet believe things different from us? Or behave in ways we do not appreciate? How can we know where to draw those lines?
  • What are the two or three most urgent theological crises that you see in the North American Church at present?
  • Since you wrote Charismatic Chaos we have seen the unexpected confluence of Reformed theology with charismatic beliefs (such as in the Sovereign Grace family of churches). If you were to write the book today, how would you affirm both love and critique for today’s Reformed Charismatics?
  • One pressing issue in the church today is that of creation and evolution. Do you believe that a person can be genuinely saved and believe in some kind of theistic evolution? How serious a theological error is it to reject a literal 6-day creation?

Update: Click here to read part two.

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