John MacArthur is a well-known and influential pastor and Bible teacher. He is oft-quoted by evangelicals as a staunchly uncompromising conservative Christian voice.
MacArthur, among other things, is known for his stand against so-called “prosperity preachers”, their exploitation of the Church for money, and their evil excess.
In this interview by Kirk Cameron, MacArthur takes a hard line against the prosperity doctrine, and about what it means to take up your cross.
Kirk Cameron starts with an excerpt from MacArthurs’ book, Hard To Believe:
Cameron [quoting MacArthur]: “Some within the framework of evangelicalism will tell you that Jesus just wants you well, and if you’re not well it’s because you haven’t turned in your spiritual lottery ticket. If you’re not rich it’s because you haven’t claimed it. Jesus wants you free from debt, and if you send the televangelists enough money, that act of faith will free you from the demon of debt.
Your salvation through Christ is a guarantee of health, wealth, prosperity and happiness. These evangelicals tell you that Jesus gives you peace, joy, He makes you a better salesman, helps you to hit more homeruns, and improves your slice. Jesus really wants to make you feel better about yourself, elevate your self-image, and put an end to your negative thinking.”
Well, is that not the Gospel?
MacArthur: That is not the Gospel. That is not what Jesus said…this is what He said:
“If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself.” (Luke 9:23)
This is not about self-fulfillment— this is about self-denial.
I hate to invade people’s comfortable space on the issue, there are no promises from Jesus at all with regard to this temporal life. The Gospel makes no promises here about circumstances in this temporal life. In fact, Jesus said this: “You come to me, it may cost you your family, but if you’re not willing to hate your family, you can’t be my disciple. If you come to me, you might have to give all your possessions away and give them to the poor, but if you’re not willing to do that, you’re not worthy to be my disciple.
Jesus said this- follow me, and keep this is mind: the foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, the son of man has nowhere to lay his head. We’re not going to the Ritz-Carleton.”
Self-Denial…or Just Denial?
In 2014, Tim Bayly did a blog on preachers and their compensation. A look at publicly available tax returns for Grace To You Ministries uncovered some interesting information about this anti-prosperity preacher’s income:
2010 2011 John MacArthur’s Income
$47,000 $103,000 (108% one-year increase) 40 hrs p/week at Masters College
$222,000 $402,000 (81% one-year increase) 20 hrs p/week at Grace to You
Add to the above John MacArthur’s other personal income, speaker’s fees, etc.:
$200,000 $200,000 conservative estimate of Grace Community Church salary
$200,000 $200,000 conservative estimate of royalties
$669,000 $905,000 MACARTHUR’S TOTAL ANNUAL INCOME (projected)
Speaking of “super-rich and super-famous” preachers “whose living mostly comes from selling his work to others outside his church under the claim that it’s a non-profit work”, Bayley writes:
The national source of their non-profit’s profit is the reason our IRS requires these men to divulge whether they fly first class (MacArthur does) and whether they have their own relatives on their governance boards (MacArthur does) and whether their organization pays a relative money as a business transaction (MacArthur pays his son-in-law $650,000 per year for video work) and how much they get paid by their non-profit ministry (MacArthur’s non-profits pay him just about $500,000 per year, and this amount doesn’t include his church pay or royalties).
A representative of MacArthur objected to the information in Mr. Bayley’s post, saying:
“John MacArthur has lived in the same house for the past 35+ years and he quietly supports more missionaries and missions projects than most mid-sized churches. I know of several cases where he has discreetly and generously met the needs of individuals and families in the church and community—and I’m certain he has done this far more than anyone knows (Matthew 6:2-4)…it should be sufficient that no one who actually sees how he lives has ever accused him of self-indulgence or even thought in their wildest dreams to describe him as a lover of money.”
Reality check: For 2010 and 2011, MacArthur fell well within the top .02% of the world’s wealthiest people by income.
Of course he’s generous— most super-wealthy people make charitable giving a habit. But MacArthur’s money comes straight from the pockets of believers, much of which is donated to not-for-profits with the intention of funding the gospel.
So what makes Mr. MacArthur different from the rich prosperity preachers he criticizes?
You decide. Does this sound like the self-denial Mr. MacArthur proclaims in this video…or just plain denial?
Blurred Lines, Blind Spots, and One Little Word
In this interview, MacArthur rightly says,
“The simplest way to understand the Gospel is to listen to exactly what [Jesus] said the way He said it…‘If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself.’“
In 1 Corinthians 1:17, Paul also warns against preaching the Gospel with “words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”
The power of the cross is the power to kill the flesh. This is done, as MacArthur points out, by obeying Jesus’ command in Luke 9:23:
“If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.”
But all it takes is one little human word to rob the cross of that power.
In MacArthur’s case, that one little added word was “might”.
Notice what MacArthur claimed Jesus said:
“If you come to me, you might have to give all your possessions away and give then to the poor, but if you’re not willing to do that, you’re not worthy to be my disciple.”
Notice what Jesus actually said:
“…not one of you can be my disciple if he does not renounce all his own possessions.” Luke 14:33 (NET)
This is why Proverbs 30:6 says,
“Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.”
By adding one little “might”, MacArthur created an exception for himself— a scenario in which he might not have to renounce his possessions in order to be Jesus’ disciple.
That one human word exempted him from both the pain and the power of the cross— the power to deny his flesh, and empower the Spirit.
“…the person who sows to his own flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit.” Galatians 6:8 (NET)
Don’t Follow A Blind Guide
Jesus didn’t preach “blessed are the poor” from a palace. He came and lived among the poor, walking beside them, experiencing the pain and humiliation of those he came to save.
At an income upwards of $500,000 per year, MacArthur simply cannot claim to be walking as Jesus did.
What Jesus turned down during his temptation in the desert, John MacArthur took up and carried. Not a cross— but the treasures of the kingdoms of this world. Jesus says you can’t hold both, you have to lay one down to pick up the other.
Mr. MacArthur’s words are right, but his actions don’t follow. Like Jesus said of the Pharisees of his time.
“The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. 23:3 Therefore pay attention to what they tell you and do it. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 23:4 They tie up heavy loads, hard to carry, and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing even to lift a finger to move them. 23:5 They do all their deeds to be seen by people, for they make their phylacteries wide and their tassels long. 23:6They love the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues 23:7 and elaborate greetings in the marketplaces, and to have people call them ‘Rabbi.’” Matthew 23:2-7 (NET)
Any of us can be blinded by our own humanness. So pray for John MacArthur to reconcile his words with his actions.
Pray for him— but don’t follow him.
As Jesus said:
“Leave them! They are blind guides. If someone who is blind leads another who is blind, both will fall into a pit.” Matthew 15:14 (NET)