That Iain Murray would write another biography and that John MacArthur would have a biography written of him were both near certainties as the second decade of the 21st century opened. That both would happen in the same book is unexpected. Murray is the soft-spoken Scottish author and founder of the staunchly Reformed Banner of Truth Trust. MacArthur (last name notwithstanding) is the American dispensational trumpeteer of expositional preaching who exudes an unapologetic zeal for truth.
Yet the two share significant affinities, and their paths have crossed many times, giving Murray a friendship and rich familiarity with MacArthur. The result is John MacArthur: Servant of the Word and Flock, a biography well worth reading.
As Murray says more than once in the book, this is not a definitive biography but a sketch designed to clear the way for a more extensive work by another biographer down the road. Murray reviews MacArthur’s life in 17 chapters, beginning with childhood and education, taking the reader up to events as recent as 2010 before concluding with a chapter outlining a few of MacArthur’s many strengths. The bulk of the book tells the story of MacArthur’s 40-plus years pastoring Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California.
The book is fascinating. Murray refuses to be tedious (with the exception of chapter 13, which reproduces letters of appreciation written by radio listeners of MacArthur that would be more at home in a family scrapbook than a biography). We learn of a horrific injury from a car accident in college (13–14), an out-of-the-blue mutiny on the part of MacArthur’s pastoral staff in 1979 (47–48), an extended lawsuit in which a suicide was blamed on bad counseling at MacArthur’s church (49–52), the “Lordship” controversy (111–19; more below), a magazine/journal that failed miserably (143–48), and another horrible car accident, this one involving MacArthur’s wife, Patricia (138–42). Amid such drama, Murray skillfully describes the more well-known aspects of MacArthur’s ministry—the emergence of Grace to You (the radio ministry), the development of the Shepherd’s Conference, the beginnings of the Master’s College in 1985 and the Master’s Seminary in 1986, and MacArthur’s many books.
Especially interesting is Murray’s handling of MacArthur’s theology. Take the Lordship controversy, for example. MacArthur argued in The Gospel According to Jesus (1988) that one cannot receive Jesus as Savior (in faith) without also receiving him as Lord (in repentance). This was a clear rebuttal of what MacArthur deemed a defective (antinomian) understanding of the gospel prevalent in evangelicalism, and especially dispensationalism. Zane Hodges, professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, would be one of MacArthur’s loudest interlocutors. Those of a more Reformed persuasion applauded MacArthur’s efforts—yet it is this same Reformed crowd who, because of MacArthur’s dispensationalism regarding how the two Testaments relate, have tended to distance themselves from him. Murray warmly describes the bridges that have been built between Reformed thinkers such as R. C. Sproul and MacArthur, yet the odd mix of convictions in MacArthur—soteriologically Calvinistic, redemptive-historically dispensational—has made him something of a theological maverick in contemporary evangelicalism.
Murray also writes about MacArthur’s strong critique of the charismatic movement (119–22). Here Murray’s affinity with MacArthur may have prevented the clarity needed in discussing this issue—never, for example, was “charismatic” defined, despite the significant differences that exist among those who would attach themselves to this label.
A third area of helpful theological reflection was that of grace and law (122–25). One might quibble with Murray’s treatment of “law” in Paul, but he is certainly right to highlight the relationship between law and grace as a fundamental concern to MacArthur’s ministry.
More strengths to the book can easily and happily be noted.
First, Murray is a good writer—his words never require puzzling over; his transitions and structure are clear; he uses the English language skillfully. Second, Murray effectively allows MacArthur’s own voice to come through, quoting him neither too much nor too little. Third, Murray is not only a biographer (describing what has happened) but also a theologian (commending what is true) who refuses to check his theological convictions at the door when writing biography. We have already come to expect this of Murray in his works on Edwards, Wesley, Spurgeon, and Lloyd-Jones. Fourth, Murray admires without idolizing, consistently drawing the reader’s attention to God and his wise providence in MacArthur’s life.
Though drowned out by the strengths, one or two weaknesses might be identified.
The heart of MacArthur’s ministry is a passion for the truth, preached and taught without any people-pleasing subtlety. Such undiluted proclamation is startling and refreshing. As is so often the case, however, one’s greatest strength often includes with it one’s greatest weakness, and it is puzzling that Murray emphasizes the former while ignoring the latter. For MacArthur’s zeal for truth, communicated with forcefulness, has at times resulted in unwise or unfair statements. It is puzzling, for instance, that Murray declines to mention a pattern of overstatements. One thinks of MacArthur’s adamant message at the 2007 Shepherd’s Conference on “Why Every Calvinist Should Be a Premillennialist.” The title alone is difficult to swallow. Other examples of a zeal for God that is not according to knowledge could be brought forth, such as his wholesale dismissal of Mark Driscoll’s strategic ministry in Seattle, or his recent misguided comments about Darrin Patrick’s book on church planting.
What stands out above all in closing the book, however, is MacArthur’s steely love for truth, truth as revealed supremely in the Word of God. For this let us all give thanks for John MacArthur, quick to forgive any baggage this brings and quick to rejoice in this faithful expounder of Scripture. Iain Murray is right: John MacArthur is, above all, a servant of the Word and flock.