by Kelinda Crawford
General Editor, Kelinda Crawford: Your new book, The Gospel According to Paul, is third in a series, which includes The Gospel According to Jesus and The Gospel According to the Apostles. Paul is perhaps the most written-about apostle. Does your book focus on the man or on the way in which he defines the Good News of Jesus through his letters?
MacArthur: The book does include some background on the life of the apostle—his conversion, his approach to ministry, and some details about his missionary work. He’s always been my favorite of all the leading figures in the early church.
But the book’s primary focus is the content of his message. My aim was to answer a simple but vital question: What, precisely, did Paul mean when he said, “We preach Christ crucified”? Paul himself answers that question in a number of passages where he condenses the gospel message into just a verse or two. He loved to make these summary statements, conveying the gospel in capsule form. He was always very focused, consistent, and profound—never flippant or superficial when it came to explaining the gospel.
And he wasn’t repetitious. He often varied the words he used or the points he emphasized. That’s because he didn’t think of the gospel as a formula, or a memorized script, or a simple list of “four things God wants you to know.”
When we put all of his gospel summaries together, we get a wonderfully rich, amazingly coherent theology of salvation. The Gospel According to Paul examines several of the key passages where Paul gave thumbnail sketches of the gospel, unveiling a comprehensive, analytical picture of what Paul had in mind when he spoke of preaching “the word of the cross.”
Crawford: What do you find unique about Paul’s understanding and teaching concerning the Gospel?
MacArthur: Paul had an amazing ability to detect error and see the dangers posed to the gospel by legalism, half-hearted faith, and other bad teachings of various kinds. He was constantly on guard against threats to the health and sanctification of the early church. As a result, all his teaching about the gospel has polemical overtones. (He is often answering challenging questions or refuting some error or misunderstanding.) That serves to make his teaching about the gospel very precise. We can learn a lot from simply observing how he proclaimed and defended the gospel.
He liked to refer to the Good News as “my gospel.” He was very protective of the message and its underlying doctrines. He testified that he had learned the gospel by direct revelation from Christ. That was the whole basis of his claim to apostleship, and all the other Apostles recognized and affirmed the legitimacy of the claim.
We’ve fallen into a bad habit of using misleading euphemisms and weak clichés as a substitute for proclaiming the actual gospel.
Crawford: You wrote this book in such a way that it not only will benefit pastors but also lay people—and even those who know little about the Bible. Did you find it challenging to cover such a broad base and yet keep this book applicable to both the Bible teacher and the casual Bible reader?
MacArthur: Challenging, yes—but that’s an incentive, not an impediment. It is always my aim in teaching to give instruction that is suitable for a broad and varied audience, including people who may have no prior exposure to Scripture. I don’t believe pastors and teachers should shy away from difficult concepts and detailed doctrinal instruction when they are speaking to lay people; they just need to make the principles clear and understandable. Most people are capable of learning far more than we give them credit for.
Crawford: What do you think a pastor will take away from this book?
MacArthur: I hope it will motivate pastors with fresh zeal for proclaiming the gospel clearly, accurately, and fearlessly. There’s a tendency even in evangelical churches to deal superficially with gospel truths—or worse, to take the gospel for granted and assume all the people in our churches have a full understanding of all its principles. I know for a fact that’s not the case. In fact, a widespread, long-term neglect of core gospel doctrines—such as justification by faith, substitutionary atonement, and the principle of imputed righteousness—has left multitudes susceptible to all kinds of confusion and false teaching about the gospel.
Crawford: What do you think a church member will take away from it?
MacArthur: In a similar way, I hope evangelical lay people will gain a new appreciation for the beauty and coherency of gospel truth. We’ve fallen into a bad habit of using misleading euphemisms and weak clichés as a substitute for proclaiming the actual gospel. The biblical message has Christ at the center. He is the one who atones for sin; we do not have the means or ability to eradicate our own guilt. It’s not a message about what sinners must do for God; it is about what God has done for sinners.
That’s why the gospel is good news. It does not call sinners to perform some good work with the hope of earning God’s favor. And it is not about inviting Jesus into our hearts or following a list of steps. No one gains eternal life by baptism, church membership, walking an aisle, or reciting a prayer. God saves his people by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
The gospel does call sinners to turn from sin and embrace Christ with true and living faith. But genuine, repentant faith is not a “work,” and there’s nothing meritorious about it. It is a confession of our utter inability to redeem ourselves, and an expression of trust in Christ, who promises that He will save those who come to Him. The fruit of His salvation, and the proof that the sinner has truly come to the end of himself, will be a radically changed life. Christ saves His people from their sin; He does not leave them wallowing in it. It is my hope that those truths will be deeply imprinted on the hearts and minds of every reader.
Crawford: What are some of the questions that you address in this book and how are they helpful to someone who is genuinely seeking to understand the Gospel message?
MacArthur: The principal question the book addresses is What is the gospel?That raises a host of related questions: How is the gospel best presented? What are its essential features? What should we do about the fact that lots of people find the message of the cross offensive? Should we tone down or omit the troublesome parts? Does the message need to be adjusted for our generation?
The apostle Paul addresses all those issues. Of all the New Testament writers, he spent more energy and ink explaining the gospel, defending its doctrine, and disseminating its truths to the uttermost parts of the earth.
Studying the gospel as he proclaimed it and wrote about it is a wonderful exercise for any Christian at any level of scholarship or spiritual maturity. Paul was himself trained to be a meticulous scholar. But he was appointed by Christ to be the apostle to the Gentiles. His ministry was therefore directed to cultures and people with a minimal knowledge of Scripture. So he strove for (and achieved) unparalleled clarity, simplicity, and precision.
I trust The Gospel According to Paul conveys all those qualities to readers seeking to understand the gospel, and my earnest hope is that it will be an instrument through which God draws many who have not yet believed or understood the gospel—and that it will motivate all those who read and believe to become heralds of the gospel.