June 21, 2011

Servant of the Word and Flock

by Jesse Johnson

Iain Murray is surely the most gifted Christian biographer writing today. His work on Martin Lloyd Jones stands as one of the all-time classic books in any genre, and his recent work, Heroes, has two of the most emotional biographies I have ever read.

In the interest of full disclosure, John MacArthur is my pastor, mentor, and hero in the faith. Three years ago, when John celebrated his 40th anniversary as pastor of Grace Community Church in Los Angeles, the elders asked Iain Murray if he would come and help us. We wanted to hear from Murray how exactly John fit into church history. We knew that John’s time at Grace was significant, but we wanted Murray to tell us how significant it was. In other words, his assignment was to put MacArthur’s ministry into its historical context. Murray agreed, until he found out that we wanted him to do that on a Lord’s Day morning, from the pulpit. He opted instead to preach, and he brought with him a 60 page mini-biography of John (Murray called it a “sketch”).  This sketch is what eventually grew into the full biography released this month by Banner of Truth.

It must be noted that Murray has never written a biography of a living person before, and he was aware that he was breaking the rules. So he did his research for the book without consulting or interviewing MacArthur (I assume as a way to keep the same approach to his study that served him so well on his other biographies). So in that sense, John MacArthur: Servant of the Word and Flock is an unauthorized biography. Quotes from MacArthur were all taken from his sermons, interviews previously recorded at Grace To You, and his books. MacArthur may still be alive, but Murray approached his research without regard to that fact.

If you are a fan of Murray’s writing, this book does not disappoint. He brings you into the life of MacArthur in a compelling way. Murray’s description of events from MacArthur’s life made me feel like I was experiencing them myself. The small house, the doting mother, the almost transient lifestyle of  a pastor’s son, all come alive through Murray’s prose.

Murray begins his work by stating the obvious: what God has done through MacArthur’s ministry is surely a testimony to His sovereignty. There have been forty million sermons downloaded, millions of tapes, millions of radio broadcasts, and over 1,000 graduates from his seminary.  There is a church built right outside of Hollywood that sings hymns, preaches expositional sermons, and practices church discipline. Clearly this is God’s work.

But Murray hastens to add that this is also a human story, and he relates that story exceptionally well. He describes MacArthur’s family, his time at Bob Jones, and his time as an itinerant speaker. We learn that MacArthur went to the South to preach to blacks during the civil rights movement and was arrested. Murray takes us with MacArthur to Asia, and describes how he met Mother Terresa, and how depressed he was afterwards. We learn how he ended up as the pastor of Grace, how the staff mutinied, and how MacArthur endured and lead the church through a period of remarkable growth.

The focus of the latter half of the book is on the growth of Grace To You. Murray describes its origins, its growth into a tape shack on campus, and how it transformed into an international ministry that made MacArthur one of the most listened to preachers in the world, and one of the most influential authors today.

There are times when I imagine myself writing a biography of John MacArthur. In these daydreams, there are two things I want people to see about him. The first is how humble he is. People who only know him from behind the pulpit have no idea how compassionate and humble he is in real life. He is a man who does not think highly of himself, and who consistently is more concerned about others than himself. Because this is so radically different than the stereotype of MacArthur, it is exceptionally difficult to portray. But Murray captures this very well. In fact, the strength of this book is that Murray conveys a description of MacArthur that matches the man I know.

The second point I would want to convey in my imaginary biography is how much MacArthur has done for missions. I honestly cannot think of another church through history that has had the kind of international impact that Grace Church has experienced under MacArthur’s leadership. They have sent over 100 missionary families around the world, have launched thriving pastoral training centers in a dozen countries, and have seminaries that are training the next generation of pastors. To name a few examples, México, South Africa, Germany, Ukraine and Russia all have seminaries that were started by graduates of the Master’s Seminary, and are now perhaps the main evangelical seminaries in their respective nations. On top of this are other seminaries, Bible colleges, training centers around the world, as well as Bible translators and pastors that are all supported by Grace Church and serve under MacArthur’s leadership.

It is this second point that I feel Murray’s work did not adequately capture. To be sure, he does describe the growth of Grace To You. And he does make the point that by refusing to tailor his message to a culture, MacArthur has been able to preach a message that transcends culture. But my main criticism of the book is that—apart from Grace To You—it does not really attempt to portray the depth of  the global impact of MacArthur’s ministry.

Internationally, the affect of MacArthur’s life is not seen in the fact he is on the radio. It is seen in the fact that for many people, he trained the man who trained their pastor. The global vision of MacArthur is not simply more stations in more countries, but more qualified men behind the pulpit in every corner of the world.

Overall, John MacArthur is a helpful look at the life of this significant man. In reading other reviews of this book, I noticed that people were concerned that Murray is too approving of MacArthur. Obviously, Murray chose to write this book because of his affection for him, and so it would seem natural that it would be mostly positive. Nevertheless, Murray does have an entire chapter devoted to questions about MacArthur’s ministry, and Murray deals with some of the most common criticisms levied at him (ie. “he is too dogmatic when he preaches”).

Murray himself has two concerns that he leaves for the reader to answer. He wonders if MacArthur’s approval of instruments in church music is a capitulation to the culture, and he wonders about how his dispensationalism relates to the rest of his theology. Murray helpfully shows how MacArthur has distanced himself from the errors of Ryrie/Scofield dispensationalism, but he notes that MacArthur remains a dispensationalist—although a different kind.

Ultimately, Murray knows this is not going to be the definitive work on MacArthur’s life. Instead, he says he simply wants this book to lay the ground work for a future biographer. Whoever that is should be sincerely grateful, because this is certainly a compelling look at MacArthur’s life, and it serves to make the reader thankful that God has raised up men like this to build His church.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA.