MacArthur’s Mistakes: Heresies of the Catholic Church (Grace vs. Works)

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Introduction

John MacArthur is a prolific and popular writer at the reformed end of the Evangelical spectrum. He is also a fierce anti-Catholic. On his blog he wrote a series of articles titled Exposing the Heresies of the Catholic Church which are (and I do not say this lightly) surprisingly bad. I will be responding to some of the more egregious errors in a little series of my own. It would be most charitable to read his article all the way through first – then come back and read my reply.

The first one I will review is Exposing the Heresies of the Catholic Church: Grace vs. Works

The Nature of Saving Faith

First, MacArthur claims that, “The New Testament is clear about the nature of saving faith.” He then goes on to cite  Romans 3:28Galatians 2:16; and Titus 3:4-5 as prooftexts of this theological clarity. MacArthur concludes from these verses that, “According to Scripture, salvation is by faith in Christ alone through God’s grace alone.” Note, however, that none of these “clear” saving faith verses state what MacArthur says they do: that “salvation is by faith in Christ alone through God’s grace alone.” One would suspect that if MacArthur’s “faith alone” view were so clear in Scripture that at least one verse would actually include that formula. Instead, the only verse in Scripture that speaks of “faith alone” is James 2:24, which says “justification is not by faith alone.” How is that verse not clear?

Further, note the contrast between what James says about works and what MacArthur reads into the verses above. James says, “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” In the verses MacArthur quotes the “works” he speaks of are qualified as certain kinds of works – namely, works of the law. Further, salvation is not based on works even for Catholics. Rather, it is based on faith which manifests itself in works Finally, note that the Titus formula cited is not the Protestant position either. Nothing is said there about either faith or grace – rather it speaks of regeneration by water (baptism) and the Holy Spirit.

Declaring Righteousness

MacArthur  then states that, “When you put your trust in Jesus Christ He declares you righteous—not because you are, but because He imputes His righteousness to you…” MacArthur cites 2 Corinthians 5:21, but once again the text nowhere says what he says it says. There is nothing about “imputation” or “declaration” here. What it does say is that we might become the righteousness of God.” Becoming righteous is not simply being declared righteous.

Gospel of Works

Somehow MacArthur  concludes from the above material that Catholicism does not teach “grace through faith, they preach a false gospel of works.” Actually, the Catholic Church teaches salvation by grace through faith – it simply does not teach salvation by grace through faith alone. It also does not teach salvation by works. Here is some of what the Catholic Catechism says on this issue (¶1996-2005):

Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.

This vocation to eternal life is supernatural. It depends entirely on God’s gratuitous initiative, for he alone can reveal and give himself. It surpasses the power of human intellect and will, as that of every other creature.

Since it belongs to the supernatural order, grace escapes our experience and cannot be known except by faith.

Meriting Eternal Life

MacArthur  then moves on to the concept of merit in Catholicism, expressing the standard Protestant misunderstanding. He says that, “Salvation in the Catholic system is something you earn ‘by those very works which have been done in God, fully satisfied the divine law according to the state of this life and to have truly merited eternal life.’ . . . an absolute and total contradiction of the Word of God. ”

The concept of merit in Catholicism is very nuanced and not as easily understood as MacArthur would have his readers believe. The word can mean more than one meaning even in regular English, and here it refers to the fulfillment of God’s promises based on our actions. If God promises X for Y (such as salvation for faith) then it can be said that Y merits X. Thus, “meriting salvation” is an “earning” in the sense that a waiter “earns” a tip: he is not owed it, it is not a wage for his work – rather it is a promised reward. In that sense it is “merited.”  MacArthur’s misunderstanding is driven by his non-catholic preunderstandings.

In the text that follows, MacArthur launches into a question-begging and caricaturing rant concerning repetitious prayers, veneration of the saints and other church relics, or masses attended” that is unworthy of comment.

Assurance of Salvation

MacArthur next goes after Catholic’s alleged lack of assurance concerning salvation. He says Catholics “can’t know for certain if they’re saved or whether they will ever make it into heaven,” concluding that Catholics are “trapped in a hopeless system.” But Catholics believe they can know if they are forgiven, because the Church (following Mt. 18) can tell them so. How is a system that offers assurance of forgiveness (if not final salvation) “hopeless”?

This is an especially ironic attack coming from a Calvinist! MacArthur does not know if he will persevere in faith any more than any other Calvinist or Catholic! Only certain forms of the “Free Grace Gospel” (which MacArthur vigorously, and rightly, opposes) offer guarantees of final salvation to anyone who expresses faith at any given time. It is surprising that MacArthur would even go down this road at all – for if present and final assurance, and the necessity of good works is really an issue, then how does it compare to MacArthur’s brand of Protestantism where people just have to hope they have “the right kind of faith” that saves (i.e., “faith that works” – cf. MacArthur’s “Lordship Salvation” publications)? Catholicism at least proposes an objective way to know whether one’s sins are forgiven at a given time – it’s not their fault they don’t know the future!

Justification and Works

MacArthur concludes his article by claiming that, “The apostle Paul could not have been clearer about the true nature of justification: ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast’ (Ephesians 2:8-9). That gracious, glorious gospel has been rejected by the Catholic Church, and they have replaced it with a corrupt, unbiblical system of works righteousness and merit-based salvation.” Yet again, there is not one word of this verse that Catholics disagree with. Salvation is by grace and it comes through faith – not works. Nothing in Ephesians 2:8-9 threatens Catholic doctrine. The rest of the sentence, however, can cause Protestants problems – for although salvation is not by good works, it is for them.

Conclusion

None of this proves the Catholic position, nor disproves MacArthur’s. What it does show, though, is the rather shocking extent to which MacArthur simply reads his view into passages that simply do not say what he proposes. None of the key terms that form the crux of MacArthur’s positions appear in any of the texts he cites as evidence for his views. Despite this fact, MacArthur is so sure of his view that he threatens Catholics with Hell for disagreeing with him (an act which apparently deserves the label of “heresy”!).

While some of the fallacious arguments in this article might be excused in a much larger writing (which would hopefully contain better arguments to offset the weakness of these), or in a smaller one (where no space for necessary development or evidence was available), they are not excusable here. If this is the best a top-selling anti-Catholic Protestant has to offer, I think it might have the opposite of its intended effect.

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4 thoughts on “MacArthur’s Mistakes: Heresies of the Catholic Church (Grace vs. Works)

  1. Interesting that he cites 2 Cor. 5:21, for as you pointed out, that verse does not say what he wants it to. In fact, N.T. Wright wrote in his book Justification that 2 Cor. 5:21 is one of the most “Catholic” justification verses and undermines the basis for forensic justification by imputed alien righteousness. Word.

  2. I was born into a Christian family, but I seriously started doubting the Christian god after not being able to find an assurance of salvation. I don’t see how a god of love could give us a Bible where salvation (the MOST important thing for any of us) could be disagreed upon by Christianity’s greatest and most sincere thinkers. Some say faith only, others say faith plus works, plenty factor in predestination, and still some add baptism into the mixture. Why doesn’t the Christian god make it clear on how one is to be saved? Does the disagreement look like it came from a divinely-inspired book? I’d love to have an answer to this.

  3. Shane,

    I am sorry about that experience. I think this is one of the tragedies of the splintering of the Church. This sort of issue would not even have arisen in the first 1,500 years. The problem you identify is one of method, not just intelligence. The Bible is underdetermined in many ways, and so relying on it to resolve theological debate is often doomed to failure. What the Church teaches can be backed up with the Bible, but not discovered in its totality. Feel free to email me if you’d like to discuss this in more detail: dougbeaumont@gmail.com

  4. Pingback: Tiber Treading No More | Soul Device

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