Hard To Believe by John MacArthur

Actually, it is hard to believe that MacArthur wrote this book. That is not to say there is not much to commend. MacArthur does an excellent job exegeting several passages of Scripture; he clearly sounds many appropriate warnings, documenting well; he calls the reader to true discipleship rather than lame, even worthless “Christian-lite;” and overall is faithful to Scripture. Amidst the normal evangelical book market today this should rate Hard to Believe five stars.

So why do I hedge? First, and of relatively minor concern, is that the book is not well written. Actually it is an edited form of a series of sermons that MacArthur preached. The fact is that this is true of most of MacArthur’s books, but this one reads poorly. It is choppy and colloquial. The spoken word and the written word are expressed differently. In this case, MacArthur’s sermons did not translate to the page as well as usual. But this, as I said, is of minor significance.

Here is my real complaint. Hard to Believe is a follow-up on MacArthur’s earlier books, The Gospel According to Jesus and Faith Works. Both best sellers invoked a great deal of criticism and launched the “Lordship Salvation” wars. Critics of MacArthur accuse him of teaching a form of works salvation and of being almost in Rome’s camp on sanctification. These critics can point to a number of statements in both volumes that seem to support their concern. Others, such as myself, point to other statements showing that MacArthur teaches salvation through faith alone, and sanctification as a process that follows. Hard to Believe was MacArthur’s opportunity to clear the waters and demonstrate to his critics that they have misunderstood him. In this regard he more than fails—he actually fuels the fire. He does exactly what he has done in the previous books—makes bewildering statements. He does teach that salvation is by faith alone but the following statements are problematic at best:

p. 93 – “Salvation…comes from a life lived in obedience and service to Christ as revealed in the Scriptures; it’s the fruit of actions, not intentions.”

p. 93 – “The life we live, not the words we speak, determines our eternal destiny.”

p. 135-136 – “Whoever protects his physical safety by denying Christ under pressure will lose His eternal soul.”

P. 149 – “Entrance into the kingdom requires earnest endeavor, untiring energy, and utmost exertion…”

Everyone of those statements sound suspiciously like works-salvation. Salvation is the fruit of saving faith, not the result of our obedience. Believing, as I do, that MacArthur does not teach works-salvation I cannot understand why he makes such comments, and why they are not edited to reflect his theology before publication. *

A second area of criticism of MacArthur’s earlier writings had to do with assurance of salvation. The issue is how does one know he is a Christian. Again, while MacArthur makes some solid biblical statements in Hard to Believe, he once more muddies the waters.

P. 97 – “If you are genuinely saved, God will confirm that by His Spirit witnessing with your spirit.” True enough, but what does this mean? Is it a subjective feeling, or something more?

P. 99 – A list of four marks of deceived persons are given. He backs none of them with Scripture and nowhere in the Bible are these given as characteristics of unbelievers who mistakenly think they are saved.

p. 167 – Stated throughout the book is the strong opinion that only those living in righteousness are truly saved. (e.g. “True believers show a deep humility, a sense of genuine respect for and awe of Jesus Christ,” – p. 169). So we are surprised to read, “You can’t necessarily tell [if someone is saved] by watching them, because some non-Christians live outwardly moral lives, while some Christians sin in visible, public ways.” How can we tell if someone is saved? “By what he desires. If he longs to praise and worship God and Christ, that is evidence of a transformed heart.” What a grouping of convoluted statements. We are told that a true Christian will show respect and awe for Jesus Christ, yet he may be in sin at the same time. However we can determine their salvation by their desires. But how can this be? We are now asked to enter into the heart and motives of others to determine their relationship with Christ – something we are told is impossible (1 Corinthians 4:5).

Bottom line—I was left confused with MacArthur’s true position. I tend to give him the benefit of the doubt because of my exposure to his fuller ministry. But if this was my first encounter I would not know what to think—and his critics will not let him off as easily. I would like to see MacArthur go back and write a clear, noncontradictory, definitive statement of his position as I had hoped Hard to Believe would be.

*Due to my review of Hard to Believe and personally drawing these statements to the attention of leaders at Masters and Grace Community Church, an investigation was done. I was then informed that these particular comments were not original with MacArthur but had been supplied by the editor (without permission) at the publishing house. Apparently MacArthur’s books are usually edited in house, but this one was edited by the publisher. So concerned were the leaders I spoke to that one talked of buying up the unsold copies and burning them.