Saturday, November 5, 2011

An Open Letter to John MacArthur

The open letter is a way of responding to another's statements that has been made infamous by Frank Turk over at the Pyromaniacs blog. He's the king of them, of course, and this will bear no comparison.

Dear Dr. MacArthur

I first came across your work when I was a young Christian at an Anglican college studying environmental science. Perhaps is defiance of convention, instead of drifting away from religion at college, I went from being a liberal Anglican to a Calvinistic Baptist. The Church at which I was converted had a small library, and the pastor under whose ministry I came to see my need of a Saviour from sin was a former Anglican curate who had become a Baptist. He was a great fan of C.H. Spurgeon, and it was through Spurgeon that I became aware of a man in California called John MacArthur.

There were two Christian bookshops in the city at the time, and in one of them (the more ecumenical one, ironically), I came across a glossy paperback called Ashamed of the Gospel. I appreciated the stand that you took then on the importance of standing for the truth, and even when a new edition came out, I kept my rather yellowed paperback of the first edition because it felt like an old friend. Your book The Gospel According to Jesus was an excellent reply to a heresy I first encountered in College, and while I would never describe myself as a 'fan' of yours (thankfully, horrible word to use in this context), I would say that I appreciate your ministry.

You probably know that I disagree with your eschatology, since I wrote a lengthy review of your popular commentary on Revelation Because the Time is Near, and I was one of those self-respecting Calvinists who was irritated by your claim that self-respecting Calvinists should be premillennialists, and your mischaracterisation of amillennial theology as 'replacement theology', but that's for another time. I have found your stand for the truth on the whole to be admirable.

However, just today, someone brought to my attention these words from a prayer of yours:
“This devilish conduct of infant Baptism has survived through two thousand years of church life from very early on, the third century, embedded in the fourth and still here. We could only ask, Lord, that the Reformation would be a complete Reformation.”
Initially I only heard it said that you had called infant baptism devilish, and I hoped that it had in fact been the Roman Catholic belief in baptismal regeneration ex opere operate that you were describing; sadly it proved not to be the case.

I understand that you think that infant baptism is wrong - I tend that way myself. But to call all versions of it, even the Calvinist version where infants baptised in infancy are not presumed to be regenerated, but are encouraged to trust Christ, and not admitted to membership in the Church without a credible profession of personal faith, 'devilish' is a rhetorical step too far. It preaches well to baptists, of course, but it really creates an unnecessary offence. the question of who are proper candidates for baptism is a secondary issue, albeit one that has been allowed (unnecessarily, in my view) to divide the Church. I am the minister of a Church that has an open membership, and I was pleasantly surprised to find how well that actually functions if it is allowed to. In this day and age, and I know you would agree, we need to contend for the Gospel, and baptism is not part of the Gospel.

You made the statement in the context of a prayer, and that is another matter that concerns me; statements made in prayer are not, the their very nature, backed up by exegesis. Perhaps you have exegesis, but prayer is not the place to describe those you regard as fellow-believers (such as Iain H. Murray, your Presbyterian biographer) as holding to a 'devilish' teaching, it appears to such as a slap in the face, and makes your more moderate Baptist brethren decidedly uneasy. It has also caused some extreme Presbyterians to crawl out of the woodwork and start declaring that Baptist Churches are not true Churches at all.

Dr. MacArthur, I retain a great deal of respect for you, but I would counsel you to remember that speaking the truth in love means treating fellow-Christians with respect, and that, it seems to me, you failed to do on this occasion. I salute you for your willingness to take a stand, but I am concerned that you are sending a mixed message here. On the one hand, you quite rightly receive Reformed paedobaptists into your pulpit, but on the other, you describe their views as 'devilish', while painting with a brush so broad that it covers both the Romanist doctrine of baptismal regeneration and the Presbyterian doctrine of covenant baptism; yet these are by no means the same thing, as you will see if you examine the relevant portion of a Presbyterian systematic theology text.

Please excuse my ramblings, and I remain your brother in Christ,

Pastor G. N. Charmley

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