The Bible is full of commands, Old Testament and New. Perhaps no issue confuses people as much as rightly determining which commands are for New Covenant people and how they are to obeyed. Early in the history of our religion, an argument arose that continues still today: does almighty God command man to do that which he is unable to do? When Augustine wrote a prayer asking the Lord to command what He would and grant what He commanded, Pelagius went bonkers over the thought that God must grant the creature the ability to obey what God commanded. His view was that man must inherently be able to do what God commands him to do, as it violated his sense of “fairness” for God to command man to do what man could not.
In our day, many people think Matt 5:48 (be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect) is a command we can perform. This perspective is fraught with an unreasonably high opinion of man, missing the point that Christ alone is perfect and we can only be acceptable in the Father’s sight by being found in Him – not by working real hard trying to be perfect.
To properly interpret and apply commands from God, one must understand the context (historical and theological) and getting things in their proper order – commands follow and are applied according to identity; imperatives follow indicatives. The command to repent and believe on Christ can only apply to and be obeyed by one who has been regenerated and raised from spiritual death by the Spirit of God.
While not anywhere close to a comprehensive lesson on this topic, it’s important to grasp it in order to see why what the preacher in the following sermon did was so wrong. This is not an uncommon error, but it’s one we must be on guard against – no matter who is preaching.
The title of this problematic sermon is good (available here): 4 Marks of a Hell-Bound Man. It sounds like a message about indicatives that reveal one bound for hell. But the way John MacArthur preaches this sermon is to present each of the 4 marks as something you can choose to do if you want to go to hell – “How is it that people die in their sins unforgiven? How does that happen? Unjustified, unconverted, unregenerated, unredeemed and bound for everlasting hell. Well, there are four attitudes that guarantee you will die in your sin, four attitudes. If you want to die in your sin then these four things will make that a reality.” These four attitudes, self-righteousness, worldliness, ignorance, and unbelief are each presented with this assessment: “You want to die in your sin? Be selfrighteous, worldly, unbelieving and willfully ignorant.”
This entire message is built on the faulty premise that one can chose to die in his sin, and Mac presumes to provide the recipe for making that happen. In fact, these 4 attitudes are things that are true – indicatives – of those who have not been raised from spiritual death. These are not 4 attitudes you can adopt if you want to die in your sin. He lists the indicatives as imperatives. And him being a Calvinist makes his third point all the more disturbing – spending a paragraph claiming that the way of salvation is open, but if you do not believe, you will die in your sin; making it seem like a choice one makes. Like an Arminian argument from other side of the coin.
And then it gets worse. He asks the question, “What does one need to believe in order to be saved?” His answer is so long and convoluted and covered such a wide range of theological issues that make his answer defective on the face of it! He declares that a detailed knowledge of the trinity, for example, is required for salvation. Really? For one who is saved and growing in grace and knowledge to be willfully ignorant of the trinity is bad – but such knowledge is NOT the gospel.
Man by nature is a child of wrath, headed for hell. He will not, can not believe unless the Lord grant him a second birth and the faith to accept the grace that saves. Man does not guarantee hell for himself by being self-righteous, etc. – those sins are natural for the man who is hell-bound. Saving knowledge is not as complicated or comprehensive as Mac presents it. None of us will come to a complete knowledge or understanding of the trinity in this age. Sanctification (growing in grace and knowledge) is separate and distinct from justification. These are two other critical concepts we must be clear on.
As much as Mac has preached, it should not surprise that he has some error. But no matter who preaches, we are to test all things and hold only to that which is good.