A Review of John MacArthur’s “The Gospel According to Paul”

The Convincer

“The Gospel According to Paul” Book Cover

I’ve been interested in learning more about the apostle Paul simply because he’s a hole in my Biblical reading. My church culls no readings from his letters, and I haven’t really tackled his writing. Part of the reason is that he gets a bad rap — not only for being Saul the persecutor in a past life, but also for being something of a misogynist. The other part is that whatever I have read of his is just damn difficult to parse. Seriously. The guy is a master of the run-on sentence, bar none.

Thus, you can see why I was interested in reading a book called The Gospel According to Paul. I wanted to learn something. I think, however, I learned more than I bargained for. If I had been on the fence about Paul before, I certainly am not on the fence about him now. I don’t like the guy. The reason? He was a proponent of the whole “Jesus died for your sins” thing. Basically, it seems that evangelical religion begins with Paul, and learning that really opened my eyes.

So what of this book? Well, I have to say I have a love-hate relationship with it. John MacArthur is an old-school, hardcore fundamentalist evangelical Christian. He clearly believes that liberal Christians are wusses, but saves most of his condemnations for member of his own church community that he believes is watering down the literalist Word of the Bible. Still, I find his approach of “I’m right and everyone else is wrong” to be rather pig-headed and bully-some. I mean, why can’t Liberals and Conservatives (and Conservative sects within Conservative sects) exist and just try to get along without throwing rocks at each other?

That said, I can say that MacArthur is certainly persuasive. I don’t agree with his argument that Paul’s gospel of “Jesus died for us, we receive God’s grace and do good works as a result of that, not out of doing good works to get to heaven, and we had to make the sacrifice to appease God because we fear His wrath and judgment” is the sole gospel message of import in the New Testament. To me, it doesn’t make sense. What father, heavenly or no, would send his only son to his death to fuel his feelings of the worthiness of the entire human race? It doesn’t make logical sense. Really. Think about it. And that’s overlooking the fact that humans crucified Jesus because he was rebelliously teaching some subversive things. It wasn’t because, as MacArthur argues, anything to do with making a human sacrifice that would please God.

Still, MacArthur drives his beliefs and points home again and again in this short, 130-page tract. I mean, the guy obviously clearly believes what he believes to a point that seems almost myopic. So I’m not going to argue with him. If MacArthur has found a way of interpreting religions that works for him and doesn’t harm himself or others, then good for him. I’m sure there are others who will find The Gospel According to Paul to be interesting and resourceful.

The thing I don’t like is when he starts in with the bullying of others who don’t share his views. And then there are times when MacArthur doesn’t make any sense at all. For instance, at one point, he points out that Christ’s death wasn’t so bad because there were pagan religions in the Middle East at the time where sacrificing live infants on an altar of fire brought appeasement to the worshiped God of that culture. So how is that any worse that nailing a guy to a tree? Murder is murder, after all. So I just don’t get where the author forwards some of his arguments.

The book also has its share of padding. Not only does MacArthur repeat his arguments to the point where the reader might go, “Okay, we get it already” — and he says near the end of this book that he could have made it longer! — but this is buttressed with four appendices of essays that don’t really add much other than to summarize what’s already been said. Those appendices bring the book to about 200 pages, which is probably of a suitable publishable length for the publisher. (I have yet to see too many books of theological thought that run less than 200 pages.)

So I don’t know what more can be said about The Gospel According to Paul. I enjoyed the book in the same way I might enjoy looking at a particularly bad car wreck on the side of the road. I don’t agree with its philosophy or theology one whit, but the way in which MacArthur goes on at length about his belief is enjoyable to read. It’s like someone’s giving a fiery sermon on the page, and that can provide some level of entertainment to a degree.

Will you learn more about Paul? Not really. But you will learn a lot about the evangelical church and what issues are fuelling grist for the mill in megachurches at the moment. That’s instructive to a degree, I suppose. I just wish that the author just didn’t have this wholly condescending tone against people who don’t share his particular mindset. After all, anyone could easily write a book taking John MacArthur to task for being something of a crackpot who views the Bible as being an entirely flawless and absolutely literal creation. However, most people would find the politesse to refrain from doing that.

So how much you’ll enjoy The Gospel According to Paul will largely hinge upon how much you enjoy watching a good church fight, or if you find yourself siding with the MacArthur’s opinions (and that’s what they are — opinions). Everyone else is probably going to be largely off-put with this tome and wonder how on earth it got a green light. Still, it does what it’s supposed to do, and that’s argue in lawyerly terms what Paul was trying to teach in his gospel. If that sounds like the thing that’s up your alley, be my guest. The carpet is rolled out and there for you to walk all over.

John MacArthur’s The Gospel According to Paul: Embracing the Good News at the Heart of Paul’s Teachings in an Overcrowded Life was published by Thomas Nelson on April 4, 2017.

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