John MacArthur's Position on the Eternal Sonship of Christ
MacArthur's Original Denial of Eternal Sonship in his Public Tapes
Note: George Zeller's comments are in bold.
The following quote is transcribed accurately from a tape of John MacArthur's message given in 1972 dealing with Hebrews 1:4-6. As far as I can determine, it was on this occasion that John MacArthur first presented his "Sonship by incarnation" view. I would recommend that the entire tape be listened to. It can be purchased from Word of Grace Communications (call toll free: 1-800-55-GRACE). The tape number is GC 1602. This tape is dated 1972. Here is what this tape says:
"Christ did not become the Son of God until He was incarnated. Christ was not the Son of God in eternity past. He was God in the Godhead, He became the Son...(quoting 2 Samuel 7:14) Did you know that when 2 Samuel was written Jesus Christ was not the Son of God? I know that blows your mind a little bit but hang on. The concept of Christ as a Son is an incarnation title. He did not become a Son until He was begotten into time. Prior to time and His incarnation He was eternal God with God. The term 'Son' has only to do with Jesus Christ in His incarnation. It is only an analogy to say that God is Father and Jesus is Son...Sonship is an incarnation title...Nothing in the Bible speaks of the eternal Sonship of Christ, nothing!...He was always God but He became Son...Eternally He is God, but from His incarnation only He is Son...My friends, He never became a Son until His incarnation. That is only His incarnation title. Before that He was no Son, He was eternal God. It is incorrect to say that Jesus Christ has always been inferior to God because He goes under the title of Son. He only goes under the title of Son when He comes into the world in incarnation. Before that He is God. Don't you let anyone tell you that He is the ETERNAL SON, always subservient to God, always less than God, always under God because He is not. His Sonship is only an analogy to open to the human mind some understanding of His willing submission to the Father for the sake of our redemption...His Sonship began in a point of time, not in eternity...Before He is born into the world is He a Son? NO!...There is no justification for saying that Jesus Christ is eternally subservient to God. He is not!...He was not a Son until He was born into this world in a virgin birth (Luke 1:35). Not until He is born is He called the Son of God...And don't you ever get trapped into all of that heresy that those people are propagating that Jesus Christ is eternally subservient to God. He became a Son." (Word of Grace Communications, P.O. Box 4000, Panorama City, CA 91412, Tape GC 1602 Hebrews 1:4-6, 1972).
His denial of eternal Sonship in this tape is crystal clear: "Christ was not the Son of God in eternity past....Nothing in the Bible speaks of the eternal Sonship of Christ, nothing!....He never became a Son until His incarnation....Before that He was no Son....Don't let anyone tell you that He is the ETERNAL SON." How then can this same man be in hearty agreement with and sign the IFCA doctrinal statement which says, "We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ, THE ETERNAL SON OF GOD, became Man"?
The following is transcribed from Tape GC 45-3 dealing with Romans 1:2-4. This tape is dated 1981. This tape was done 9 years after Tape GC 1602 and yet the position set forth is the same:
"I want you to listen very carefully to what I say because I don't want to be misunderstood....In what sense is He the Son of God? I believe--and you listen carefully now--I believe that the term `Son' is an incarnational term. It refers to His incarnation. I believe that Jesus became a Son in taking on the role of a Son in His incarnation. Theologians for years have debated about whether or not Christ is the eternal Son. I submit to you that there is a sense, of course, in which He can be called eternally the Son of God, but that is not precisely what the Bible is saying. He is eternally the second member of the Trinity but He became a Son. The term `Son' emphasizes a role that Jesus assumed in His incarnation. When you think of "Son" you think of "submission," you think of "obedience," you think of honor given to the Father. And that is the sense in which Jesus is a Son. Nothing tells us that He has eternally been the Son...When He came to earth in His incarnation He took the role of a Son but He was not eternally and always submitting and functioning as a Son does under a Father. So that it is a term of incarnation. Now get this very carefully: Jesus Christ, God's Son, our Lord is eternally the Second Member of the Trinity. He is eternally God--always has been, always will be. Eternally God, but a role that He took on in the midst of the eternity of His deity was that of a Son....Jesus, now mark this, did not come into existence when He was born. He has always existed. He simply in His incarnation took the role of a Son....Now look at Hebrews 1:5 for a moment. God is speaking here, quoting from Psalm 2, "Thou art My Son, this day have I begotten Thee" (Heb. 1:5). Now that tells me that there was a day in which the Second Person of the Trinity became a Son or assumed the role of a Son....And again verse 5 says, "I will be to Him a Father and He shall be to Me a Son." Now what tense are both verbs? "will" and "shall" What tense? Future. In other words, it was not always so. "But there will be a time when I will be in the role of a Father," says the First member of the Trinity, "and there will be a time when He will be in the role of a Son and there will be a day when He will be begotten in that sense." ....Now He was always God. He always existed eternally. But He took on an incarnation title of "Son." The reason is because in His incarnation He humbled Himself. Philippians 2 says He was God but He thought it not something to hold on to to have that equality with God. It wasn't a Father/Son relationship in eternity. He had equality with God, but He took upon Him the role of a servant....The "Son" is the role of humility. It is the role of service. It is the role of obedience. It is the role of disdaining honor for self and giving it to another above you. And that was a functioning role for our Lord....He was actually born of a virgin, but nonetheless born of Mary. And I believe that is the time He became a Son....When He became fleshly in the family of David He became a Son....He is not eternally subservient to God. He is eternally equal to God. But the marvel of His condescension is that He stepped down from that to become a Son. He became a Son once at the virgin birth and He was affirmed a Son again at the resurrection" (Tape GC 45-3, Romans 1:2-4, Word of Grace Communications, 1981).
John MacArthur, as indicated by his opening statement, does not want to be misunderstood and thus he makes his position on Sonship very clear. It is a clear denial of eternal Sonship: "Nothing [in the Bible] tells us that He has eternally been the Son...It wasn't a Father/Son relationship in eternity." He makes it clear that Christ became a Son at the time of the virgin birth.
During a question answer session on September 25, 1990 at the Calvary Baptist Church, Brewer, Maine (Rev. Larry Pawson, Pastor), Dr. MacArthur was asked this important question about Christ's Sonship: "Was there ever a time when Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Triune Godhead, was not the Son of God?"
Dr. MacArthur's answer, as transcribed from the tape, was as follows: "Yes....that's a very hot issue. Let me answer it in this way. There was never a time when He was not the Son by anticipation; but THERE WAS A TIME WHEN HE WAS NOT THE SON BY REALIZATION. He entered into the ROLE of SONSHIP at His incarnation....The Lord Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, incarnate as the Son of God fulfilled a ROLE, that in the Old Testament is only anticipated, and in the New Testament is realized....In the mind of God and in the timelessness of the Trinity Jesus Christ was always the Son, yet never entered into the realization of that anticipated role until His incarnation....Prior to the submissiveness of the incarnation in which He took the ROLE of a Son He was face to face with the Living God and He thought it not robbery to be EQUAL WITH GOD. In His incarnation HE SET THAT EQUALITY ASIDE, didn't He? That's the whole point of the KENOSIS. Sonship is an analogy. It is not in the technical sense a fact. God the Father did not procreate God the Son. They are eternally ONE. He is a Son and God is a Father only in the sense of ROLES which were designed for redemptive purposes. You want to be careful. I have no problem with people who say He is the eternal Son, because He is the eternal Son by anticipation. But He entered into the fullness of that role as Son when He submitted Himself to the Father and said `I only do what the Father tells me to do.'"
There are some very significant things to notice in these comments by Dr. MacArthur. He says that Christ is the eternal Son only by ANTICIPATION, not by REALIZATION. What he means by this is that He was not REALLY and not ACTUALLY the Son of God until the incarnation. This is a denial of eternal Sonship, even though at this point MacArthur is aware of the controversy ["that's a very hot issue"] and he is very careful how he states his position. MacArthur refuses to recognize Sonship as part of Christ's real and actual and intrinsic Nature. He insists that Sonship was merely a ROLE that He assumed at the incarnation. Indeed, he even suggests that the Father did not assume the ROLE of Father until the incarnation. According to this view, He is Son, not because of who He is essentially and ontologically, but because of what He became and what He did. He divorces Christ's Sonship from the Person that He truly is. According to MacArthur's view, Sonship must be something that is external and extrinsic and extraneous to the real, true, proper and essential essence of who Jesus Christ really is.
MacArthur says that Christ was always the Son in the mind of God. That is, God always knew that He would become the Son at the incarnation. This is not the doctrine of eternal Sonship. This is a denial of eternal Sonship because this view insists that He was not actually the Son until the incarnation.
Finally we should note a very careless statement that MacArthur makes concerning the KENOSIS. He says that when Christ became the Son He set His equality with God aside: "In His incarnation HE SET THAT EQUALITY ASIDE, didn't He?" He most certainly did not. If the Son of God had set aside His equality with God, then He would not have been equal with God. But the Bible clearly teaches that by claiming to be the Son of God (even during the time of His incarnation) HE WAS MAKING HIMSELF EQUAL WITH GOD (John 5:18). Sonship involves SAMENESS OF NATURE. As SON He has always had the same nature as God; He has always been equal with God.
The next question that was asked John Macarthur at this question/answer time in Brewer, Maine was this: "Do you disagree with those who teach that Jesus Christ has eternally existed as the Son of God?"
His answer was as follows (transcribed from the tape): "Do I disagree with people who say He has eternally existed as the Son of God? I believe He has eternally existed as God, the Second Person of the Trinity. Jesus Christ is as eternal as God. He is God. He couldn't be less than eternal. He is the eternal God....His Sonship was an element of His incarnation. There is no reference in the Old Testament to Him as a Son except in anticipation of His incarnation. So as I said earlier, He is eternal. To deny that is heresy. He is the eternal Second Person of the Trinity....but to say He is the eternal Son, if you mean by that He is eternal, yes, if you mean that He eternally has taken the ROLE of a Son, no. Because the role of a Son was a subservient role for the purpose of redemption....Yes He is the eternal Son in the sense that He is eternal and in anticipation was eternally to be the Son. But I think Sonship is a special ROLE in incarnation....I certainly believe in the eternality of Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity."
It is clear from the above that MacArthur does in fact disagree with those who teach that Jesus Christ has eternally existed AS THE SON OF GOD. According to his view, Christ was not really and actually the Son until the incarnation, at which time He assumed "the ROLE" of Son. Is Christ eternal? MacArthur would answer "YES." Is Christ the eternal Son? MacArthur would answer "NO."
MacArthur misrepresents the position of those who hold to eternal Sonship by indicating that we believe He has eternally taken the ROLE of a Son. This is not true. Sonship is not a ROLE that Christ played. We reject this concept of SONSHIP being a ROLE. The Sonship of Jesus Christ involves the very Person and Nature of our Lord, the essence of WHO HE IS as the Second Person of the Trinity, the One who has eternally existed in the bosom of the FATHER as the SON (John 1:18). Sonship is part of His real and actual and intrinsic Nature. To say that He is THE SON OF GOD means that He is a distinct Person from God the Father and that He is of the SAME NATURE as God the Father and this has been true of Him from all eternity.
John MacArthur, who by this time is fully aware of the controversy, is very careful how he answers questions relating to Christ's Sonship. His words are more guarded but he still clearly denies the cherished doctrine of the eternal Sonship of Christ.
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