John MacArthur, Servant of the Word and Flock,by Iain H. Murray (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2011), 246 pp., Hardcover, $17.49
It is a bit unusual to write biographies about the living, a fact the author recognizes, but Murray apparently wanted to be the first to make such an endeavor for John MacArthur. Iain Murray is a well-respected church historian and biographer and co-founder of The Banner of Truth Trust. He has written a relatively brief but faithful account of the high points of John MacArthur’s ministry. Very little concerning MacArthur’s personal life or family is found in these pages (one small exception being a chapter on his wife Patricia). Virtually nothing is recounted about his children, either while young or now. Nothing about family life, socializing with friends or other personal notes of interest are detailed. This book, therefore, is not so much about MacArthur’s life as an account of his ministry. In this regard we are given insights into his philosophy of ministry, preaching style, theology and personal convictions. We receive some history about Grace Community Church, which MacArthur has pastored since 1969. We also learn about the establishment of Grace to You, The Master’s College, The Master’s Seminary, and the Master’s Academies.
As with most biographies, Murray writes graciously of his subject, dwelling mostly on MacArthur’s successes and strengths. But he does not neglect a few failures, oppositions and battles. He tells of “Black Tuesday” in 1979 in which a staff-led mutiny was discovered (pp. 46-48) and of the suicide of a young man which led to years of legal problems (pp. 49-52). Of course there have been the well-publicized wars concerning “Lordship Salvation” (pp. 111-119), charismatic issues (pp. 119-127), the failure of Masterpiece magazine (pp. 143-148) and the Evangelicals-and-Catholics-Together controversy (pp. 165-168). Murray offers six reasons as to why some object to MacArthur and his ministry (pp. 184-196); however he needs to add a seventh—some seriously disagree with MacArthur on certain matters.
I found it curious that a biographer stepped into the story to offer his opinions. Murray does this twice, first when he disagrees with his subject’s allowing various musical instruments in public worship service (pp. 187-197, 216). Of a more serious nature is MacArthur’s acceptance of dispensationalism (pp. 71-72, 115, 117, 192-196). Murray seems mystified that MacArthur would accept any form of dispensationalism and offers some mild corrections. In the process, the author betrays his lack of understanding of dispensationalism. Like most covenantalists he has learned what he knows about dispensationalism from other covenantalists and fundamentally misunderstands the theology. Dispensationalists are not against law (antinomianism), they believe in the moral law, even the law of Christ, but see the Mosaic Law exclusively for the nation of Israel. Dispensationalists do not teach regeneration as a consequence of man’s decisions. They do not teach that Old Testament Jews were ever saved by keeping the Law, nor do most reject repentance as part of saving faith. Murray does commend MacArthur for showing the possibility of being soteriologically reformed and dispensational at the same time (p. 192). And Murray states clearly that while he disagrees with dispensationalism he believes both covenant theologians and dispensationalists stand side by side in the Christian faith (p. 196).
Both Murray and MacArthur believe that of all the ministries and books that MacArthur has established or produced his legacy may very well rest on two major works: The MacArthur Study Bible and the MacArthur New Testament Commentary series (pp. 217-218). I think this is an accurate assessment.
This biography is not the final word on MacArthur’s life—many more will follow. But it is a good introduction to the life and especially the ministry of a man greatly used of God in our times.