A recent article by Lighthouse Trails blog (John MacArthur Broadcast Favorably Quotes Dallas Willard – Why This is a Bad Move) noted that a sermon by John MacArthur of Grace To You had rather favorably quoted Dallas Willard. For those who don't know who that is, before his recent death Willard became one of the founders of the Spiritual Formation/Spiritual Disciplines/Contemplative Prayer movement which is widely taught today in churches and seminaries, but which includes teachings from Roman Catholic monastic mystics. As noted, this movement has profoundly influenced evangelicalism and is widely taught in seminaries, but it is not based on sound, biblical teaching but rather veers dangerously into outright mysticism. The Spiritual Formation/Contemplative Prayer movement has also paved the way for rampant ecumenicalism amongst our ranks, and even a growing push to accept Roman Catholics as Christian brothers and sisters, rather than lost souls to be evangelized. (Presumably this reasoning goes something like this: If all those Roman Catholic mystics cited and taught from in the Spiritual Formation movement are okay, then today's Catholics must be our brothers and sisters.)
So let's go over the facts, and see if we can make sense of Dr. MacArthur quoting from Dallas Willard. It is correct that in the sermon noted by Lighthouse Trails (The Christian's Duty in a Hostile World, Part 2 from the sermon series Faith Through The Fire), Dr. MacArthur does give a positive affirmation of Dallas Willard with the following quote:
Christians seem very very hard pressed to learn that you can't have a life out of control and then when the crisis moment comes grab control of it and instantaneously live and react like Christ would. You can't do it if in the rest of your life you're not living as Christ would want you to live. But it is just that kind of shallow Christianity that feeds the shallowness of our time.
Dallas Willard writing in a book entitled The Spirit of the Disciplines says, and I quote, "The on‑the‑spot episodes are not the place where we can even by the grace of God redirect unchristlike but engrained tendencies of action toward sudden Christlikeness. Our efforts to take control at that moment will fail so uniformly and so ingloriously that the whole project of following Christ will appear ridiculous to the watching world," end quote. He further says, "Some decades ago there appeared a very successful Christian novel called In His Steps which we read recently. The plot tells of a chain of tragic events that bring the minister of a prosperous church to realize how unlike Christ's life his own life had become. The minister then leads his congregation in a vow not to do anything without first asking them the question `What would Jesus do in this case?' Now as the content of the book makes clear, the author took this vow to be the same thing as intending to follow Jesus, to walk precisely in His steps. It is, of course, a novel, but even in real life we would count on significant changes in the lives of earnest Christians who took such a vow just as it happens in that book."
Then he writes this, "But there is a flaw in this thinking. Asking ourselves `What would Jesus do?' when suddenly in the face of an important situation simply is not an adequate discipline or preparation to enable one to live as Christ lived. It no doubt will do some good and is certainly better than nothing at all, but that act alone is not sufficient to see us boldly and confidently through a crisis and we could easily find ourselves driven to despair over the powerless tension it will put us through," end quote.
The secret of being ready for the crisis, of having the yoke be easy and the burden be light is to learn how to live the Christian life all the time so that we have developed the habits, the resources, the responses, the timing, the strengths, the memory, the faith, the spiritual courage to handle it. That's the issue. To behave like Jesus Christ is our goal, but to be able to do that is not the result of wishing, it's the result of daily spiritual discipline. Jesus said in Luke 6:40, "Only after he is fully trained will a man be like his teacher."All right, so this is the quote that has gotten social media all atwitter today, with the idea being bandied about that our beloved protector of truth (John MacArthur) who has been such a wonderful shepherd and guardian of his flock might suddenly go south on us. Could it be true? Well, what I would like to gently point out here is that this quote is from a sermon that is 24 years old, and that, for myself, my rule of thumb when I hear something that flags me as concerning is to take a pastor's teaching on the whole, and not isolate out certain bits and pieces. And here are some of the things I look for:
■ Is there a general move by the pastor in a more ecumenical direction? Or rather, does the pastor openly state the unbiblical nature of ecumenicalism?
■ Are there repeated quotes from questionable sources?
■ Is there an ongoing pattern by the pastor of attending big mega-conferences with false teachers?So, going forward from 1989 to 2013, could John MacArthur be considered to be less solid or rather more solid? For myself and with this checklist in mind, looking at John MacArthur's body of teaching, and his openness to plainly name names when need be, I have to say that this one quote of Willard does not concern me. In fact, if you fast forward to September 2011 to see what John MacArthur's thoughts are on the Spiritual Formation/Spiritual Disciplines/Contemplative Prayer movement as a whole, and on Dallas Willard in particular, you can find answers to such questions in this interview he did with Phil Johnson, entitled Practical Concerns in the Local Church: An Interview with John MacArthur (Sept 4, 2011). From the interview:
PHIL: What are your thoughts about contemplative prayer and the whole spiritual development movement, you know the Dallas…?
JOHN: That’s just a lot of bunk.
PHIL: All right, so...
JOHN: You know, it is. It’s just…look, it’s sort of a contemplating your navel, intuitive spirituality, digging deep into find your spiritual core and your spiritual center which is nonsense, but they throw Bible words at it, words like Jesus, God, Holy Spirit.
PHIL: There’s also even a dangerous aspect of mysticism there…
JOHN: Oh it is mysticism. The assumption is that spiritual truth is somewhere inside of you and that is not true. Spiritual truth is outside of you, it is external to you. It is in a book, outside of you. It is not in you. You can contemplate yourself all you want, you can go sit on a rock in the middle of nowhere and think and you will find in you no source of divine revelation whatsoever because divine revelation is external to you, it’s external to every human being, it’s in a book that God wrote. And when you put the book down and start looking into your own brain, all you’re going to do is be led down a black hole.
So…but everybody’s into spiritual formation. I was looking at a church website the other day and it proclaims itself to be an evangelistic church and an orthodox church, happened to be a Presbyterian church. And the whole website was about spiritual formation. And one of the things that they were offering was dance class in order that you can learn to get in the rhythm of the Holy Spirit. I mean, that’s just…that’s what J.I. Packer called zany. I mean, that’s just crazy stuff. But that’s what happens when you start trying to poke around inside of yourself for spiritual truth when it’s all contained in one book and that book is external to you, and the spiritual truth resides in that book, if you never lived, or if you never had a thought…it’s the external truth that we must understand because there’s nothing inside until that truth gets in our minds. And then you can go into your mind and draw out biblical truth. But if you’re trying to look deeper than what’s in your brain, which is what this is about. I don’t get it, you know me, I’m about as mystical as a rock. But I don’t even know what they’re doing and I don’t know what they come up with but all of that mystic stuff, Dallas Willard and others like him, confuse people because they use the name of Jesus and they talk about God and they use Bible verses.
PHIL: With that as a background, let me read you this question, it comes from someone signed, “Worried Mother.” “My 13-year-old son is at a Christian school which will be implementing the disciplines based on Richard Foster and Dallas Willard’s teaching. Is it dangerous for my son to be exposed to teaching, even if we deconstruct these lessons at home?”
JOHN: Well I think if you’re good enough at deconstructing him at home, it can be a teaching opportunity for you. I don’t know what your other options are. I understand the value of Christian education. I also understand the confusion among Christian leaders who pick up this kind of stuff and just pass it on as if it were valid. But, you know, the responsibility to raise your child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord belongs to you, right? It’s yours. You can send them to public school, but there you’re probably going to have to deconstruct a whole lot of other stuff if you send them to the public school. So you’ve got to decide what you want to deconstruct.
This is a grief to me because it’s just embedded itself in Christian colleges and in churches and all kinds of Christian organizations, Christian schools. I see it popping up, and the best way to understand it is kind of what we said earlier, it assumes that somehow spiritual truth can be found within you intuitively. Whatever form it takes, that’s what it is.
Let me point out that this principle of reforming one's thoughts more and more throughout one's Christian walk is widely accepted as a guiding truth throughout orthodox Christianity, and was also one of the driving principles of the Reformation: Semper Reformanda. Let us then thank the Lord who bought us for a price, and continually sanctifies us and conforms us more and more into the image of Christ, and enables us to grow more and more in knowledge of the truth as we study his word.
In closing, please understand that my intention in writing this article was not to suggest that Lighthouse Trails was saying that John MacArthur had turned contemplative, or anything even remotely similar. This article was simply written in response to the hue and cry that resulted from LHT's article, and in the interest of helping readers think through what discernment actually is. Is it spotlighting one single quote from a person's entire body of work? Rather than focusing on an entire life's work? Or is it, as I noted, in isolating one concerning quote, and making that known?
For myself, I can say that as God has grown me in discernment over the years (and that is all of Him and none of me), I've developed a rule of thumb for discernment, which is this: I take the quote/conference/shared platform/etc. in question and put it on a shelf, and see if, down the road, there are other concerning quotes/conferences/shared platforms/etc. that come up with respect to the teacher in question. For myself, a certain threshold of concern must first be attained before I would publicly put a spotlight on any concerning quote or conference or shared platform. Thus, with this being the case, I would not have written an article, as LHT did, on one isolated quote that John MacArthur gave 24 years ago, especially in light of his teaching and body of work since that time. I'm not saying it was sinful or wrong or anything like that for LHT to write the article, I'm simply saying I wouldn't have chosen to write it (for the reasons stated). And the fact of the matter is that that article did upset some Christians, because they perceived, rightly or wrongly, that the article was implying that John MacArthur might be sliding. Please understand I'm not saying that's what the LHT article said, just that some perceived it that way.
All right.....we will now resume our regularly scheduled programming.
Grace To You
John MacArthur on Spiritual Formation and Biblical Sanctification
What Is Mysticism?
Mysticism: Who Needs Crack?
The Dangers of Contemplative Prayer
What Is Mysticism? (5-Part Series by Dr. Gary Gilley) - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5
Mystical Youth Ministry
Biblical Silence vs. Mystical Silence
Contemplating Contemplative Prayer: Is It Really Prayer?
The Origin of Contemplative Prayer (Apprising)