Pastor John MacArthur of Grace Community Church is known for his straightforward expository preaching style. Members of his church, readers of his books, and those who watch him online, appreciate his commitment to Scripture, yet many people want to know whether or not he is Reformed.
John MacArthur is Reformed when the term is defined using the five points of Calvinism as expressed in the acronym T.U.L.I.P. However, some Reformed Christians don’t define the term according to T.U.L.I.P., but according to the Westminster Confession of Faith, to which MacArthur isn’t thoroughly committed.
Why do some Reformed people dislike that MacArthur describes himself as Reformed? What does MacArthur disagree within the Westminster Confession of Faith? Keep reading to learn more about what one of the most well-known Bible teachers of his generation believes and teaches.
Also see Why Did J. Vernon McGee Leave the Presbyterian Church? to learn more.
MacArthur is a 5-point Calvinist
MacArthur believes and teaches the five points of Calvinism, which are expressed in the acronym T.U.L.I.P. However, MacArthur’s church doesn’t belong to a Calvinist denomination; meaning, it’s not part of a Reformed network of churches and it’s not Presbyterian.
Key terms | Reformed, Calvinist: The terms “Reformed” and “Calvinist” are often used interchangeably. The word “reformed” comes the Protestant Reformation. The French pastor, John Calvin, popularly articulated the theology in his classic work The Institutes of the Christian Religion (link goes to Amazon).
MacArthur is called a “five-point Calvinist” because he believes each point of the T.U.L.I.P. acronym. Some people disagree with one part of it and they are sometimes called four-point Calvinists. Others disagree with two parts of it and they are sometimes called three-point Calvinists. MacArthur believes all five tenets:
- Total Depravity
- Unconditional Election
- Limited Atonement
- Irresistible Grace
- Perseverance of the Saints
Some Reformed Christians argue that the T.U.L.I.P. acronym isn’t a complete or perfect summary of Reformed theology. Contrary to popular belief, Calvin didn’t articulate the five-point mnemonic. Rather, the five points, articulated at the Canons of Dort, were a response to a five-point Arminian confession of faith in the 17th century.
Key terms | Canons of Dort: The word “canons” refers to principles that express views on a particular topic, while Dort (or Dordtrecht, the full name of the town where the Council of Dort was held), is in The Netherlands. These meetings of Reformed leaders at Dort, which occurred in 1618-19, in part, articulated a response to a five-point Arminian confession of faith.
To some Reformed Christians, Reformed theology can’t be reduced to T.U.L.I.P., so even a “five-point Calvinist” like MacArthur isn’t the proper way to determine if a person is truly Reformed.
In this view, it’s the Westminster Confession of Faith that best summarizes Reformed beliefs and convictions. They further argue that a person can’t be partially Reformed because it’s an integrated theological paradigm. To deny one facet of the system creates inconsistencies and breakdowns in other areas.
“Broadly Reformed” and “Classically Reformed”
Some people use the terms “broadly Reformed” and “classically Reformed” to describe a person’s commit to (or their lack of commitment to) the Westminster Confession of Faith.
- Someone who is broadly Reformed is often a person who subscribes to T.U.L.I.P., but not the Confession as a whole.
- Someone who is classically Reformed is committed to the Confession in it’s entirety, which includes the tenets that T.U.L.I.P. summarizes.
Generally, many so-called “classically Reformed” Christians don’t like to make this distinction because to them there is is only “classically Reformed,” which is to say there is only “Reformed.” “Broadly reformed” isn’t Reformed, according to this view.
It’s important to note that the so-called classically Reformed don’t argue that MacArthur and other so-called broadly Reformed aren’t Christians.
How do John MacArthur’s Bible commentaries compare to other popular series? See Best Bible Commentary Series: The Top 50 to see for yourself.
Broadly Reformed Baptists?
Many broadly Reformed Christians attend Baptist churches. Why is this the case? Many Baptist churches permit its members to have Calvinist or Arminian convictions. Historically, Baptist distinctives have included “believer’s baptism,” the separation of Church and State, and the autonomy of the local church.
In other words, a person can be a Baptist and be strongly committed to T.U.L.I.P. or strongly opposed to it. Because of certain issues like believer’s baptism, a person can’t be a Baptist and be thoroughly committed to the Westminster Confession, however.
What about other denominations? There are no broadly Reformed Christians in the Methodist or Assemblies of God denomination, for example, because they have Arminian theological convictions. There are, however, some non-denominational churches that are broadly Reformed.
A common phrase to describe the broadly Reformed who are members of Baptists churches is simply “Reformed Baptist.”
- Historically, Reformed Baptists include men like John Bunyan, William Carey, and Charles Spurgeon.
- Modern, well-known Reformed Baptists include D.A. Carson, Matt Dever, David Platt, Matt Chandler, John Piper, and Alistair Begg.
What are MacArthur’s favorite books on preaching? See John MacArthur’s Recommended Books on Preaching to learn more.
MacArthur’s disagreement with the Westminster Confession
In what ways does MacArthur disagree with classic Reformed theology? Four examples are provided below; the list isn’t intended to be exhaustive.
- Paedo-baptism or infant baptism: MacArthur is a strong advocate of believer’s baptism, which states that person must be a professing Christian to be baptized.
- Amillennialism: MacArthur is a strong advocate of dispensational premillenniallism, which holds to a literal 1,000-year reign of Christ on Earth following the Second Coming. It also holds that the Church has replaced Israel in the present dispensation.
- Covenant Theology: In part, this term describes the belief that the Church is the new Israel. Infant baptism, therefore, signifies an inclusion into the covenant community.
- The Regulatory Principle of Worship: This tenet states that the only true form of worship is what is explicitly stated in the Bible. The Confession says: “the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men…” (Ch. 21)
To Reformed Christians who are committed to the Westminster Confession of Faith in its entirety, a person can’t be Reformed and deny these four doctrines. MacArthur may agree with the Regulatory Principle, but he strongly disagrees with the others.
MacArthur has written many well-reviewed Bible commentaries. See John MacArthur’s Bible Commentaries to learn more.
What is Reformed theology?
How a person answers the question about whether or not MacArthur is Reformed depends on if the term is defined according to the Westminster Confession of Faith or in some other way.
Some may call him “broadly Reformed” or state that he is Reformed in relation to his soteriology (i.e. his views on salvation), but not in relation to his ecclesiology (i.e. his views on the church).
Many so-called classically Reformed pastors and theologians have embraced MacArthur and his ministry, though they disagree with him on certain doctrines.
For example, MacArthur has been a regular participant in Ligonier ministry conferences, which is the teaching fellowship of R.C. Sproul, who was committed to the Westminster Confession of Faith in its entirety.
MacArthur and Sproul expressed disagreement with each other publicly and cordially regarding issues like believer’s baptism and infant baptism. In fact, they publicly debated the issue on one occasion. Nevertheless, the men found many areas of agreement because, despite the differences, there is significant overlap between the so-called “broadly Reformed” and the “classically Reformed” positions.