John MacArthur's Position on the Eternal Sonship of Christ
MacArthur's Original Denial of Eternal Sonship in his Booklet Presented to the IFCA, November 8, 1991.
Note: The following is a critique of John MacArthur's Booklet entitled The Sonship of Christ. This critique is written by George Zeller. John MacArthur's quotations are found in red. These quotations reflect John MacArthur's original position on the Sonship of Christ. This booklet is no longer in print.
A Critique of John MacArthur's Booklet
“The Sonship of Christ”
John MacArthur was originally asked to write a 4000 word article on the Sonship of Christ for the IFCA Voice Magazine which would be placed opposite an article defending the doctrine of eternal Sonship. Both articles were to appear in the Nov/Dec 1991 issue. A number of men, including myself, were asked to write this other article (defending eternal Sonship), but we all declined because we saw the error of using the official magazine of the IFCA to attack the IFCA position and to promote difference and division in the fellowship. The purpose of the Voice Magazine is to defend and promote the doctrinal position of the IFCA. It is a direct violation of this purpose for the Voice Magazine to in any way promote or defend a doctrinal position that is out of harmony with the IFCA position, just as it would be wrong for an IFCA member to promote the “pre-wrath rapture” view or any other contrary view in the official magazine of our movement. The IFCA in its official magazine should be defending its own doctrinal statement which says, “We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, became man...” (3a). It should not be promoting and parading a view which says that Christ did not actually become the Son of God until the incarnation.
John MacArthur's article did not appear in the Voice Magazine as originally planned, but the IFCA Press did print and publish an article by John MacArthur entitled “The Sonship of Christ” which was mailed to every IFCA member and to every IFCA church. This was done on behalf of the IFCA National Executive Committee (NEC), apparently using IFCA funds for both the printing and the postage. The stated reason why the IFCA leadership printed and distributed this booklet was “to relate the extremity of the measures taken by the NEC to come to a full understanding of the matter” (NEC mailing).
In this evaluation of John MacArthur's booklet we will proceed page by page and deal with issues as they arise in the order that they are treated in the booklet. The booklet was published by the IFCA Press (see back cover), but the IFCA failed to print any disclaimer in the booklet itself. This opens the door for the possibility of people reading this booklet and assuming that MacArthur's view on Sonship represents the IFCA position.
What is the Real Issue?
“The Bible explicitly and unequivocally teaches that Jesus Christ is eternal God....I believe in the absolute deity and eternal preexistence of Christ”—John MacArthur (p.2)
In the above quote John MacArthur affirms that Jesus Christ is eternal God. He
affirms the absolutely deity of Christ and also His eternality. He then quotes
extensively from three of his books to show that he believes in the deity and
eternality of Christ. We have never accused MacArthur of denying that Christ is
God or denying that He is eternal.
The issue at hand involves the ETERNAL SONSHIP of Christ. This is what the IFCA doctrinal statement affirms and this is what John MacArthur clearly and unequivocally denies. The IFCA Doctrinal Statement says that the Lord Jesus Christ is “the eternal Son of God” (3a). John MacArthur, as this booklet proves, denies this.
We are thankful that MacArthur holds to the deity of Christ and to His eternality. Our concern is that He denies that Christ is the ETERNAL SON OF GOD, a fact which is foundational to the doctrine of the triune Godhead. Denial of this fact is not a mere technicality and it is not mere semantics. It is a fundamental error pertaining to the essential Person and inherent identity of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is a denial of the true, essential, proper, real, eternal, inherent Sonship of the One who is the unique and beloved and very own Son of the Father. MacArthur makes His Sonship merely a ROLE and a TITLE which He assumed when He was born. If Sonship is merely a “role” and “title” which He assumed at the incarnation, then this would mean that Christ's Sonship has nothing to do with His essential and eternal relationship with the Father.
MacArthur misrepresents what the real issue is. We have never accused MacArthur of denying the full deity and eternality of Christ. The real issue involves the essential Identity of Jesus Christ, the essence of WHO HE IS. MacArthur teaches that there was a time when He was not the Son of God (except prophetically or in an anticipatory sense). This means that His being the beloved and only-begotten of the Father is not part of His true and essential identity. Those who hold to the IFCA position that He is “the eternal Son of God” recognize that His Sonship is an inherent part of His essential Person, and that it indicates His true and proper and eternal relationship to the Father. His Sonship had no beginning. He could never be other than WHO HE IS. The real issue is MacArthur's denial of Christ's eternal and essential Sonship.
“In eternity past, though there were always three persons in the Trinity, there were not yet the roles of Father and Son. Those designations apparently came into being only at the incarnation.” MacArthur, p.3
MacArthur teaches that the First Person of the Trinity did not become the Father
until the incarnation. Not only does MacArthur deny “eternal Sonship” but He
also denies “eternal Fatherhood” and says that God assumed the “role” of
“Father” at the incarnation. Thus, according to MacArthur's doctrine, the
Father/Son relationship was non-existent prior to the incarnation.
MacArthur’s Clear Denial of Eternal Sonship
On pages 2-4 MacArthur quotes from his commentaries on Hebrews, Galatians and Romans. His stated purpose in doing this is to show that he believes in the deity of Christ and His eternality. These quotes also demonstrate that he clearly denies what the IFCA Doctrinal Statement says. He clearly denies that the Lord Jesus Christ is “the eternal Son of God.” Here is what he says:
“The Bible nowhere speaks of the eternal Sonship of Christ” (p.2)
“He is no ‘eternal son’ always subservient to God” (p.2)
“His Sonship began in a point of time, not in eternity” (p.3)
“in eternity past, though there were always three persons in the Trinity, there were not yet the roles of Father and Son. Those designations apparently came into being only at the incarnation” (p.2)
Elsewhere in this booklet MacArthur makes similar statements denying that Christ
is the eternal Son of God:
“No passage in the Old or New Testaments states that Christ had the title or the role of ‘Son’ in eternity past. The term ‘Son’ in Scripture is applied to Christ only in connection with His incarnation” (p.5).
“He (Christ) simply assumed the title and role of Son when He came into the world at His birth” (p.9)
“Clearly, Christ's sonship began at a point in time rather than in eternity past” (p.9)
The Issue of Honesty and Integrity
John MacArthur, in his published writings, in his public tapes and in this booklet prepared for the IFCA, has consistently denied that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, teaching instead that His Sonship was merely a “role” and a “title” that He assumed at the incarnation.
The question then is this: HOW COULD JOHN MACARTHUR SIGN THE IFCA DOCTRINAL STATEMENT WHICH SAYS THAT THE LORD JESUS CHRIST IS “THE ETERNAL SON OF GOD”? How could he honestly sign his wholehearted agreement to a doctrine which he clearly denies? How can his denial of this doctrine be in agreement with the clear IFCA official position which clearly affirms this doctrine?
Another question must be asked of the IFCA national leaders (the National Executive Director and the National Executive Committee): IF THEY CAREFULLY EXAMINED THIS BOOKLET PREPARED FOR THEM, THEN HOW COULD THEY CONCLUDE THAT JOHN MACARTHUR'S POSITION IS IN SYMPATHY AND IN HARMONY WITH THE IFCA POSITION? How can the denial of eternal Sonship be in agreement with the clear IFCA statement that the Lord Jesus Christ is the ETERNAL SON OF GOD?
The Issue of Interpretive Freedom
There is only one basis upon which John MacArthur can sign the Doctrinal Statement and upon which the IFCA leadership (NEC,NED) can make such a conclusion. JOHN MACARTHUR CAN SIGN THE STATEMENT AND THE NEC CAN CONCLUDE THAT HE IS IN HARMONY WITH THE DOCTRINAL STATEMENT BASED UPON “INTERPRETIVE FREEDOM.” That is, our IFCA doctrinal statement does not really mean what it says and should not be understood literally. Instead, we have the freedom to re-interpret it in order to allow for divergent and contrary views.
We have also been told by the advocates of “interpretive freedom” that the IFCA Statement which says that He is “the eternal Son of God” simply means that He is eternal and that He is the Son of God. The IFCA statement does affirm His deity and His eternality, but it also declares (in clear English) that He is THE ETERNAL SON. We will say more about “interpretive freedom” later in this critique.
A Denial Disguised As An Affirmation
There are many ways that the denial of eternal Sonship can be made to sound as if it is the affirmation of eternal Sonship. Here are some of the ways MacArthur does this::
I believe in “our Lord's deity and eternality” (p.2).
“Christ was the Son of God from eternity in expectation” (p.4).
“Jesus could be called the Son of God from all eternity in an anticipatory sense” (p.5).
The Lord Jesus is the eternal Son in the mind of God (compare the argument based upon Rev. 13:8 on p.5)
These statements at first glance seem to be affirming eternal Sonship but upon
closer inspection they are clear denials of the doctrine.
Christ's Essential Nature
MacArthur states that the question of eternal Sonship “has no bearing whatever on the issue of Christ's essential nature” (p.4). We must strongly disagree. This is the key issue. CHRIST'S SONSHIP DIRECTLY RELATES TO HIS ESSENTIAL NATURE. MacArthur's view calls Christ's Sonship merely a “title” and a “role.” According to MacArthur's view His Sonship has no bearing on His essential nature. The eternal Sonship position teaches that Christ is God's Son essentially and inherently. Christ's Sonship indicates equality with God (sameness of nature) and points to His true, real, essential and proper relationship with the Father from all eternity. MacArthur uses the words “title” and “role” regarding Christ's Sonship. Scripture calls it a name: “...because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18). It is an essential name, a name that is His from eternity. The only-begotten Son has eternally existed in the bosom of the Father (John 1:18).
MacArthur's “incarnational Sonship view” understands Sonship as a “role” and “title” which is external and extrinsic and extraneous to the real, true, proper and essential essence of who Jesus Christ really is. This is why his view is so contrary to the eternal Sonship position which insists that Jesus Christ is really and truly and actually and properly and intrinsically and eternally the beloved and unique Son of the Father. He is the Son because of WHO HE IS essentially and ontologically, not because of what He became and what He did. MacArthur's view does indeed have bearing on the issue of Christ's essential nature. MacArthur's view robs the Second Person of the Trinity of His essential nature as the beloved and unique and eternal Son of the Father.
The real issue is not whether the title “Son of God” applied to Christ throughout all eternity (see p.4, bottom). The real issue is whether “Son of God” should even be considered a “title” or “role” or whether it is an essential Name that relates to His essential nature and essence. This is “a crucial or fundamental issue” (compare p. 4 bottom).
I belabor this point because it is so important. This is the very point that the members of the National Executive Committed (NEC) have apparently failed to understand. The NEC in its statement said, “We did not then, nor do we now, give credence to any teaching that would detract from the absolute deity and the fullness of the essence of the Lord Jesus Christ.” MacArthur's denial of eternal Sonship does indeed detract from the fullness of the essence of the Lord Jesus Christ. Any view which robs the Lord Jesus of His essential and inherent SONSHIP detracts from the fullness of His essence. Does the NEC agree with MacArthur that “Son of God” is merely a “role” or a “title” that has nothing to do with His essential nature and essence? When Peter said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God” was He merely acknowledging a mere “title” or “role” or was he declaring who Jesus Christ really and truly and essentially was?
The IFCA leadership needs to understand that the heart of this issue involves the true and essential essence of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Person that He really and eternally is. We are not debating some minor technical difference as to when He assumed a “role” or “title.” We are dealing with a MAJOR ISSUE which is the relationship of Christ's Sonship to His essential nature and essence. MacArthur denies that there is any essential relationship between Christ's Sonship and His nature and essence. Those who understand eternal Sonship insist that Christ's Sonship directly relates to His nature and essence, because “SON OF GOD” is exactly WHO HE IS, and is the Name given to us to describe His eternal Person as the Second Person of the Trinity.
Title and Role
I would urge the readers of MacArthur's booklet to read through these 13 pages and underline (or mark in yellow) every time MacArthur uses the expression “title” or “role” in connection with Christ's Sonship. These terms are used repeatedly throughout this booklet. The assumption that Sonship is merely a “title” or a “role” that Christ assumed at the incarnation is central to MacArthur's theory.
An actor may play a role. The role that the actor plays is not his essential identity. Suppose Ralph Smith is an actor. In a play by Shakespeare he may play the role of King Lear. His essential identity is Ralph Smith. His essential identity is not King Lear. King Lear is merely a role that he assumed.
MacArthur's incarnational Sonship view says that Christ’s Sonship was merely a “role” and “title” that He assumed when He came into this world, but that it has nothing to do with His essential identity. The eternal Sonship position (the official IFCA position) insists that SON OF GOD is His essential identity, THE VERY ESSENCE OF WHO HE IS. The “Sonship by incarnation” view does detract from the fullness of the essence of the Lord Jesus Christ. [It would be like saying, “Ralph Smith is not really Ralph Smith. Ralph Smith is just a role that he has assumed.” Ralph Smith would be greatly offended by anyone who says that his essential identity is merely a role. Do we dare offend the Second Person of the Triune God by saying that His Sonship bears no relationship to His essential identity and essence?]
MacArthur says, “I realize that my view on this matter is a minority opinion” (p.4). John Walvoord agrees with MacArthur on this point when he says, “The consensus of the great theologians of the church and the great church councils is to the effect that Christ has been a Son from eternity; and the theory that He became a Son by incarnation is inadequate to account for the usage of the term....The scriptural view of the Sonship of Christ, as recognized in many of the great creeds of the church, is that Christ was always the Son of God” (Jesus Christ our Lord, pp. 39-42).
MacArthur has written, “Nor have I sought to stir controversy about the issue” (p. 5).
Why has MacArthur's position on Sonship stirred up controversy? MacArthur's view
on Sonship is not a major focus of his ministry. However, he has made his
position on “incarnational Sonship” clearly known by way of his published
writings. In at least 5 commentaries he presents his position on Sonship
(Hebrews, Galatians, Romans, Acting on the Good News, The Superiority of
Christ). His public tapes also present this denial of eternal Sonship very
forcefully (Tapes GC 1602 and GC 45-3).
The controversy has arisen because John MacArthur is a member of the IFCA and he yearly signs his “hearty agreement” to a Doctrinal Statement which clearly affirms that the Lord Jesus Christ is “the eternal Son of God.” Men who take the IFCA Doctrinal Statement seriously and literally (that it means exactly what it says) see an obvious contradiction between a man who publishes that Christ is not the eternal Son of God [“Christ's sonship began at a point in time rather than in eternity past”--p.9] and the IFCA Doctrinal Statement that says that He is “the eternal Son of God.” How then can he sign his agreement to that which he has clearly denied in his published writings and public tapes? Furthermore, how can the IFCA leadership allow one of its members to hold to such a contrary position? There are others in the IFCA who do not believe that we should take the Doctrinal Statement literally, but that we should have the freedom to interpret its statements loosely so as to allow for views such as MacArthur's denial of eternal Sonship. Herein is the reason for the controversy.
“The Lamb slain from the foundation of the earth”--Rev. 13:8
“Jesus could be called the Son of God from all eternity in an anticipatory sense, just as He is 'the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the earth' (Rev. 13:8).” MacArthur, p.5.
MacArthur's argument based on this verse is inadequate. The expression “Lamb of
God” points to our Lord's sacrificial work accomplished on the cross when He
died as our sinless Substitute. This took place historically when He died. The
expression “SON OF GOD” is very different, in that it speaks of our Lord's
relationship to His Father, which is an eternal relationship (John 1:18). “Lamb
of God” points to His work; “Son of God” points to His essential Person. The
Lamb who was slain was none other than the eternal Son of God.
Just a Matter of Terminology
“The difference is not so much a theological issue as a
matter of terminology” (p.5). Often we hear people defending MacArthur's
position as follows: “It's just a matter of semantics and terminology. MacArthur
really believes as we do, he just uses different terms.”
Such talk disguises the real issue which involves the essential Nature and Essence and Identity of the Lord Jesus Christ. Is He the real, true, proper, eternal Son of God or is His Sonship just a “role” He played and a “title” He assumed? Does Sonship have anything to do with His essential Nature and His real essence as the Second Person of the Trinity? MacArthur's view says that it does not. He would say that prior to the incarnation He existed in all the fullness of His eternal Person, yet He did not exist as the Son of God. Therefore His Sonship has nothing to do with the fullness of His eternal Person. This is a serious issue, and not just a matter of terminology.
The Nicene Council
MacArthur wrote: “When the Nicene Council called Jesus
‘eternal Son,’ they weren't claiming He was eternally called ‘Son,’ but
affirming that the One called Son is eternal” (p.5).
The Nicene Creed as enlarged in 381 A.D. says this: “We [I] believe ...in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, Begotten of the Father before all worlds...begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made; Who, for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man” (see The Creeds of Christendom by Philip Schaff, pp. 27-28).
This creed clearly says that He was the only-begotten Son of God “before all worlds.” This is the doctrine of eternal Sonship. The formulators of this creed crowned Him the Son of God before the worlds began. MacArthur refuses to crown Him the Son of God before the worlds began (except in a prophetic and anticipatory sense). The creed also says that it was by this Son that all things were made (compare Col. 1:13-16; Heb. 1:2), and that at the time of the incarnation this Son was made man. It does not teach, as MacArthur does, that at the time of the incarnation the eternal God became the Son.
In reading the Nicene Creed we find no support for the incarnational Sonship view. To the contrary, it clearly supports the eternal Sonship position. We should, however, put little stock in creeds. The key question is not what the Nicene Council said, nor what Tertullian said, nor what anyone else has said (as interesting as these statements may be). The key question is “WHAT SAITH THE SCRIPTURE?” (Rom. 4:3).
Have No Biblical Arguments Been Set Forth For Eternal Sonship?
“It is significant that those who have questioned my orthodoxy on this issue have put forth no biblical argument against what I have taught...almost no one has attempted to prove the doctrine of eternal Sonship biblically” (p.5, emphasis mine).
MacArthur may not agree with the Biblical arguments which have been presented to
him, but to say that no Biblical arguments have been set forth is very unfair
and not true to fact. In the book The Eternal Sonship of Christ, Dr. Renald
Showers and I have appealed to scores of verses in defending the doctrine of
eternal Sonship, including key passages such as Hebrews 7:3 [which MacArthur
does not discuss]: “Without father, without mother, without descent, having
neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God;
abideth a priest continually.” According to this verse His being the Son of God
has nothing to do with human parents, human lineage, human birth or time
measurements. His Sonship is eternal. Those who hold the view that “Son of God”
is an “incarnate title/role” would falsify this verse, because in His
incarnation the Lord Jesus did have a mother and did have a descent (a
genealogy--Matthew 1 and Luke 3), and He did have beginning of days (Luke 3:23)
and He did have end of life (He died!).
I would suggest that those concerned about this matter read a classic defense on eternal Sonship written by W.J.Hocking entitled The Son of His Love [Believer's Bookshelf]. See also J.C.Philpot’s materful defense, The Eternal Sonship of the Lord Jesus Christ [this classic was recently reprinted by Old Paths Gospel Press, P.O. Box 318, Choteau, MT 59422. Phone: (406) 466-2311]. Also there is the fine work by W.E.Vine (author of Expository Dictionary of NT Words) entitled The Divine Sonship of Christ [Klock & Klock]. These works are filled with solid Biblical arguments which strongly support the doctrine of eternal Sonship. Those interested in ordering The Eternal Sonship of Christ may click here.
Old Testament Passages Which Speak of God’s Son
In the Old Testament whenever Christ is called “Son,” the sense of the passage is prophetic, looking forward to His coming. Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 9:6, both key passages in this discussion, are messianic prophecies. That is true in every context where the title “Son” is applied to Christ in the Old Testament. The only text ever cited as an exception to this rule is Proverbs 30:4, which clearly has no prophetic connotation. (MacArthur, pages 5-6)
It is true that Isaiah 9:6 is prophetic, but it is important to notice what this
prophecy says: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.” There is
no hint here that His Sonship began at the incarnation. On the contrary the
implication is that He existed as the Son prior to His being GIVEN. The amazing
love of the Father consisted in this, that though He was God's only-begotten
Son, still He gave Him (compare John 3:16).
Another key Old Testament passage is Proverbs 30:4. MacArthur has done an about face with respect to this passage. His latest view is that this passage “clearly has no prophetic connotation” (p.6). He also says that the passage does not refer to Christ at all (p.6). Yet in his Hebrews commentary, in a section which MacArthur conveniently omits in his quote on page 2 of this booklet, MacArthur states that Proverbs 30:4 clearly is prophetic and that it does refer to Christ: “Though His sonship was anticipated in the Old Testament (Prov. 30:4), He did not become a Son until He was begotten into time” (Hebrews, p.27).
Why has MacArthur since changed his view? If the passage does refer to Christ,
then MacArthur is forced to say that it is prophetic. Otherwise the passage
would prove the eternal Sonship position. In the Hebrews commentary MacArthur
refers the passage to Christ and insists that it is prophetic or anticipatory.
Since then, however, MacArthur has concluded (and rightly so) that there is
nothing prophetic about this passage: “Proverbs 30:4,
which clearly has no prophetic connotation” (p.6). If the passage is
clearly not prophetic and if it refers to Christ as God's Son, then this would
prove that God had a Son even prior to the incarnation. Thus MacArthur is forced
to say, contrary to the majority of Bible-believing commentators, that the
passage does not refer to Christ at all.
MacArthur appeals to the New American Standard Bible to support his view. It is true that the NASB does not capitalize the word “son,” but MacArthur fails to mention that it does capitalize the word “His”: “What is His name or His son's name?”, indicating that the translators understood this as a clear reference to God (not as a reference to some human as MacArthur says). The New King James Version does capitalize the word “His” and the word “Son.” Charles Bridges, in his masterful commentary on Proverbs, sees this passage as a clear indication of Christ's eternal Sonship.
Notice that the verse does not say, “Has any human being ascended to heaven, or gathered the wind, etc.” (p.6). This apparently is MacArthur's free translation according to the principles of interpretive freedom. The passage simply says, “Who has ascended into heaven? etc.”
Arnold Fruchtenbaum is an IFCA member, a Russian-born Jew, and a good student of the Hebrew text. He is currently the director of Ariel Ministries. Brother Fruchtenbaum has explained this Proverbs 30:4 passage in his book Jesus Was A Jew (pp.61-62). Fruchtenbaum lets the passage say what it says. MacArthur has changed his view on this passage and he seems to approach the passage by presupposing that it cannot refer to God's Son. Is this objective exegesis?
Psalm 110:1 and its New Testament Explanation
"Sometimes the Old Testament records conversations between members of the Trinity (e.g., Psalms 110:1). In such passages, Father-Son titles are never used." MacArthur, page 6
The Old Testament rarely records conversations between members of the Trinity
(Psalm 110:1 is one example, compare also the “let Us” passages such as Genesis
1:26; 11:7 and Isaiah 6:8). The Old Testament has very little to say about the
Trinity. We should not be surprised that the Old Testament has little to say
about the Second Person of the Trinity. Full revelation of the Trinity and of
Christ's Sonship has been given to us in the New Testament.
In Psalm 110:1 David said, “JEHOVAH said unto my Adonai [Master, Lord].” Obviously David would not have said, “JEHOVAH said unto His Son.” David's focus was not upon the Messiah's divine Sonship, but upon his own relationship to the Messiah. David said, “He is my Adonai, my Lord, my Master.”
In the New Testament, however, this passage is linked to Christ's eternal Sonship. In Matthew 22:41-46 (where Psalm 110:1 is referred to) the Lord asked the question, HOW CAN DAVID'S LORD BE DAVID'S SON? The Jews could not answer this question (v.46). However, in Romans 1:3-4 this question is finally answered by the Apostle Paul: “Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” As Man, Christ was the Son of David. As God, Christ was the eternal Son of God, David's Lord. He is the Son of David according to the flesh, and He is also the Lord of David because He is the Son of God.
New Testament Passages Which Speak of the Son as Eternal
"New Testament passages that speak of the Son as eternal (John 1:14,18) or being sent into the world (John 3:16; 16:23; 20:21; Galatians 4:4; 1 John 1:1-2; 3:8; 4:10,14) do not say that he is eternally the Son, but that the One we now know as the Son is eternal and was sent into the world." MacArthur, pages 6-7
On page 6 MacArthur admits that John 1:14 and John 1:18 speak of the Son as
eternal. We agree. In the Greek, John 1:18 declares that the Son is the One
“ever being [ever existing] in the bosom of the Father.” The Greek scholar
W.E.Vine sees this as strong evidence of His eternal Sonship and of His ETERNAL
RELATIONSHIP with the Father.
Notice MacArthur's contradictory language: “New Testament passages that speak of the Son as eternal...do not say that He is eternally the Son” (pp.6-7). This is similar to how he treats the IFCA Doctrinal Statement: THE IFCA DOCTRINAL STATEMENT THAT SAYS HE IS THE ETERNAL SON OF GOD DOES NOT REALLY SAY THAT HE IS ETERNALLY THE SON. When freedom of interpretation is applied, nothing seems to mean what it says.
On page 7 MacArthur assumes what he is trying to prove: These passages “do not say that He is eternally the Son, but that the One we now know as the Son is eternal.”
His logic is as follows: 1) Christ is not the eternal Son. 2) Therefore, any
passage that speaks of Him as being the eternal Son must mean that the One we
now know as Son is eternal. The result of this logic is that he cannot
understand these passages in their normal and natural way.
According to MacArthur, how should we understand a passage such as John 16:28? “I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: again, I leave the world, and go to the Father.” According to MacArthur's comments on page 7, this would mean, “I came forth from the One whom we now know as Father but prior to My coming into the world He was not yet the Father and there did not exist any Father/Son relationship.” Is not the Holy Spirit very careful about the very words that are used in Scripture? If MacArthur's view is correct, we might expect the Lord to say, “I came forth from God.” As the verse stands it strongly implies that there existed a Father/Son relationship in the Godhead prior to His coming into the world.
How should we understand all of the many verses which speak of God sending His Son? “But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law” (Gal. 4:4). MacArthur understands such a verse as follows: “God sent forth One whom we now know as Son, but He was not really the Son prior to His mission.”
MacArthur does the same with Colossians 1:13-17 and Hebrews 1:2, passages which say that it was BY THE SON that all things were made (p.7). According to MacArthur these verses mean, “the One we now know as Son is He who was the Creator God” (p.7). But the passages do not say this. The passages say that it was BY HIS SON [THE SON OF HIS LOVE] THAT ALL THINGS WERE MADE (Col. 1:13-16). It is MacArthur's denial of eternal Sonship which forces him to understand these passages in a strained and unnatural way.
The IFCA Doctrinal Statement and Interpretive Freedom
The following was written by the Dr. Charles Smith in a letter to George Zeller (12/15/88) in which he was asked to explain MacArthur’s position on the Sonship of Christ. At the time Dr. Smith was Vice President and Dean of the Master’s Seminary. The words in brackets are his also although the emphasis is mine:
"What Dr. MacArthur is trying to avoid is the same thing that I and others have always tried to avoid by refusing to accept the concept of the eternal generation of the Son, as though the Son were somehow dependent for His existence upon the Father. I know that hypotheses are problematic, but I have personally hypothesized that when the divine decision was made with regard to the incarnation, any of the three members of the Trinity could have accepted the various roles. It was this role acceptation or assignment which makes the terms “Father” and “Son” appropriate. This means that my understanding of your quote from our doctrinal statement is that the three Persons of the trinity have eternally existed “in three Persons [whom we now know as] Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."
The IFCA Doctrinal Statement is clearly stated: “We believe in one triune God,
eternally existing in three Persons--Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” How can
MacArthur sign his wholehearted agreement to the statement? He must be given the
freedom to re-interpret it to fit his incarnational Sonship view. Thus he
understands it as follows: “We believe in one triune God, eternally existing in
three Persons [whom we now know as] Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (see Dr.
Smith’s quotation on p.19). The only problem is that the statement does not
contain this parenthesis. If we are given the freedom by our IFCA leaders to add
to our doctrinal statement, then we can make it say whatever we want it to say.
Norman Geisler has said that doctrinal statements must never be “stretched
beyond their original meaning to accommodate new doctrinal deviations.” He also
said that we must never “allow the original meaning of our doctrines to be
changed without ever permitting the church representatives to vote on it” (Why I
Left the Evangelical Free Church Ministerial).
The IFCA leaders in a subtle way have changed our doctrinal statement without changing it. They have changed it by reinterpreting it so that it no longer affirms the eternal Sonship of Christ, even though this is what it says. “THE ETERNAL SON OF GOD” no longer means that He is THE ETERNAL SON OF GOD. We are told that it simply means that He is ETERNAL and that He is THE SON OF GOD. MacArthur believes that Christ is THE ETERNAL ONE WHOM WE NOW KNOW AS THE SON OF GOD. The historic IFCA position, prior to the days of “interpretive freedom,” is that He IS “THE ETERNAL SON OF GOD.”
The “Eternal Father”
"Those who wish to call Christ the eternal Son will stumble over Isaiah 9:6, where He is called the Eternal Father." MacArthur, page 7
MacArthur would agree that God the Father is not God the Son. The Persons of the
blessed Trinity are ever distinct, yet one in essence. Isaiah 9:6 has nothing to
do with the eternal Son's relationship to the Godhead. Rather it is speaking of
His relationship to His people Israel. With respect to His people, He will ever
be as a father. “You, O LORD, are our Father; from of old, Your name is ‘Our
Redeemer’” (Isaiah 63:16, The Tanakh, Jewish Publication Society, and see Psalm
It should be noted that MacArthur, when speaking of the Godhead, denies that the First Person of the Godhead is the ETERNAL FATHER. He not only denies eternal Sonship, but he also denies the eternal Fatherhood of the First Person: “in eternity past, though there were always three persons in the Trinity, there were not yet the roles of Father and Son” (p.3). “The terms ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ would have no significance before the incarnation” (p.8). MacArthur teaches that “Father” is just a “role” and a “title” that the First Person assumed at the incarnation. This is serious error. This view says that there existed no Father/Son relationship in eternity past, and that “Father” bears no inherent relationship to the essential essence of the First Person of the Trinity. As to His true and proper and essential identity, He is not the Father. This is just a “role” that He assumed in time.
MacArthur's Fundamental Misunderstanding
MacArthur’s erroneous teaching on Sonship is based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the significance of the expression “SON OF GOD.” He says that the basic meaning of SON OF GOD is SUBORDINATION and SUBSERVIENCY (p.7). SON OF GOD means “subservient to God, less than God, under God” (p.2). It is because of this faulty understanding that MacArthur has a problem with eternal Sonship: “(Jesus) was not by nature eternally subordinate to God” (p.3). “He is no ‘eternal Son’ always subservient to God, always less than God, always under God” (p.2).
This misunderstanding is ably corrected in the following helpful studies: 1) Dr. Renald Showers in Chapter 7 of the book The Eternal Sonship of Christ has explained the true significance of the expression “Son of God.” 2) Dr. S. Herbert Bess, a Hebrew scholar, has written an extremely helpful article entitled, “The Term ‘Son of God’ in the Light of Old Testament Idiom” which was originally published in the Grace Journal (Grace Theological Seminary) and which has since been published in The Eternal Sonship of Christ (Appendix A).
Both of these men conclude, based on their Biblical research, that SON OF GOD means “possessing the nature of, displaying the qualities of God.” Even MacArthur acknowledges that “SON OF GOD” means “that Jesus was of the same essence as God” and that “He has eternally been one in nature with God” (p.10). It is interesting that in the Gospel of John, the gospel that has been given to us to show that Jesus Christ is GOD, the expression SON OF GOD is used more than in any other Gospel. The emphasis of this Gospel is not upon Christ's subserviency, but upon His Deity. The Bible often contrasts the two ideas of SONSHIP and SERVITUDE, indicating that these concepts are different and not the same (see for example Luke 15:19; Hebrews 5:8 and 3:5-6).
When the Lord Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, the Jews did not say, “You are making Yourself to be subservient to God and less than God and under God!” No, quite the contrary, they knew that He was claiming EQUALITY WITH GOD (John 5:18; 19:7).
Christ's Sonship meant that He was EQUAL WITH GOD (John 5:18). We could then ask the question, WHEN DID HIS EQUALITY WITH GOD BEGIN? Did it begin at the incarnation? No, He has eternally been equal with God. He has eternally possessed the nature of God. He has eternally been ONE WITH THE FATHER. He is the eternal Son.
MacArthur teaches that Christ's Sonship began at the incarnation but will continue forever. “He is forever the Son of God” (p.12). Does this mean that He is forever “subservient to God,” forever “less than God,” forever “under God” (p.2)? MacArthur's view seems inconsistent with his own definition.
This passage says that Christ “was made (became) in the likeness of men” but it certainly does not say that He became the Son of God. MacArthur, by his Sonship by incarnation view, teaches that He emptied Himself by becoming the Son of God. The opposite is true. The awesome greatness of His self-emptying lay in the fact that HE WHO WAS THE SON OF GOD condescended to become the Son of Man, and later to become the sinner’s Substitute on Calvary.
Christ’s incarnation meant a transition from being equal with God in function and title to becoming a beloved servant or “Son” while remaining fully God in essence.
MacArthur, page 8 (his discussion of Rom. 1:3-4)
MacArthur's exegesis of Romans 1:3-4 is very puzzling. MacArthur tries to prove
his incarnational Sonship view by using a passage which strongly supports the
eternal Sonship position! It is true that the passage uses the term “was made”
(became, ginomai). However, it does not say that He became the Son of God as
MacArthur supposes (p.8). It says that GOD'S SON BECAME THE SON OF DAVID (Rom.
1:3). The One who was the Son of God became the Son of David (the One who was
God became a Man). I urge the reader to read such able exegetes such as John
Murray and Charles Hodge. Both of these men recognize that Paul in this passage
was setting forth Christ as the eternal Son. The passage says nothing of Christ
becoming the Son of God. It clearly says that God's Son was made (became) of the
seed of David according to the flesh. It in no way supports MacArthur's
incarnation Sonship theory.
Compare Romans 1 with John 1. In John 1 we are told that THE WORD BECAME FLESH. It is obvious that prior to His becoming flesh He existed as the Word (as MacArthur agrees on p.11). In Romans 1 we are told that THE SON OF GOD BECAME THE SON OF DAVID. It should be obvious that prior to His becoming the Son of David He existed as the Son of God. This passage thus strongly supports the position that He was God's Son prior to the incarnation.
“Hebrews 1:4 is a crucial verse in considering this issue” (p.8). “He simply assumed the title and role of Son when He came into the world at His birth....Clearly, Christ’s sonship began at a point in time rather than in eternity past” (p.9).
The Hebrews 1:4-5 passage, discussed by MacArthur on pages 8-9, says nothing
about Christ becoming the Son of God. At His incarnation Christ became a Man and
became “lower than the angels” (Heb. 2:7,9). At His exaltation the God-Man was
made so much better than the angels, as Ephesians 1:19-21 explains. As the Son
of God He always possessed a better Name than the angels because He is their
infinitely superior CREATOR!
Was Jesus begotten at His birth or at His resurrection? Scripture seems to say both. Is that a contradiction? No, it is not. Jesus’ sonship came into full bloom in His resurrection. He is God’s Son not only because He was begotten of a virgin, but also because He was begotten from the dead. Still, His Sonship is inextricably bound with His incarnation.
MacArthur is correct (p.9) in saying that the word “today” does not refer to
eternity past. It refers to a specific day in history. The Apostle Paul clearly
identifies that day, not as the day of Christ's birth (Luke 2:11), but as the
day of Christ's resurrection (see Acts 13:33). This is when He was “declared to
be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the
resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). It is obvious that the day of the
resurrection did not mark the beginning of Christ's Sonship. He was called the
SON OF GOD at His birth, at His baptism and at His transfiguration.
MacArthur sees a double fulfillment of Psalm 2:7. He teaches that it was first fulfilled at the incarnation when Christ became the Son of God and later it was fulfilled at the resurrection when Christ was declared to be the Son of God. However, every place where Psalm 2:7 is quoted in the New Testament refers to His resurrection. This is obviously true in Acts 13:33, as MacArthur would agree. Hebrews 1:3-5 is speaking of His exaltation, not His incarnation. Hebrews 5:5 speaks of His High Priestly ministry which was carried out after His resurrection as He passed into the heavens on our behalf. For a fuller discussion of Psalm 2:7 see Dr. Bess’ study that was mentioned earlier (Appendix A, The Eternal Sonship of Christ) and also Dr. Showers' study, “The Significance of Psalm 2:7” in Chapter 8 of the same book.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that MacArthur is correct in applying Psalm 2:7 to both the incarnation and the resurrection. That is, He was begotten at the time of His birth and He was begotten at the time of His resurrection. To say that Christ was “begotten” on the day of His resurrection does not mean that this is when He became the Son of God. Even Dr. MacArthur would freely admit that He already was the Son of God PRIOR to His resurrection (Luke 1:35; Matt. 3:17; etc.). If Psalm 2:7 can refer to His resurrection without denying that He was God's Son prior to this, then could not Psalm 2:7 also refer to the incarnation without denying that He was God's Son prior to the event of His birth? [Note: To us it makes more Biblical sense to say that Psalm 2:7 refers to the resurrection in all of the places it is quoted in the N.T. In fairness, however, there are some strong defenders of eternal Sonship (such as W.J.Hocking) who understand Psalm 2:7 to find its fulfillment at the incarnation, as does MacArthur.]
These verses do not say that Christ became the Son of God at His birth (as MacArthur implies on p.10). These verses simply say that He was CALLED the Son of God at His birth. These verses do not mark the beginning of His Sonship. They do, however, mark the beginning of something very important. For the first time in history A BABE was called the Son of God! For the first time in history A MAN was called the Son of God! The glory of the incarnation is that He who eternally existed as the Son of God stooped to become a man without ceasing to be God. Thus we have the IFCA doctrinal statement: “We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ, THE ETERNAL SON OF GOD, became man without ceasing to be God.”
The Majesty of His Condescension
"We see the majesty of Jesus Christ on display in His condescension. He stepped down from His exalted state in heaven to fulfill the eternally planned role of a Son." MacArthur, p. 13
MacArthur teaches that the majesty of His condescension was that God became a
subservient Son, a “role” that was a great step down from His exalted state
(p.13). The real majesty of His condescension lay in the fact that the EXALTED
SON OF GOD laid aside His heavenly glory and became a Man, so that He, by the
grace of God, might taste death for every man. Let us not exalt His
condescension by degrading His Sonship.
What is Your Conclusion?
The IFCA Doctrinal Statement clearly says that the Lord Jesus Christ is “THE
ETERNAL SON OF GOD.” John MacArthur prepared a paper for the IFCA leaders
presenting His view on Sonship. The IFCA leaders said that they examined this
paper carefully to determine whether or not His view was in sympathy with the
IFCA doctrinal statement. As you read Dr. MacArthur's booklet what did you
conclude? Did you say, “Oh yes, it is obvious from reading this booklet that
John MacArthur is in full agreement with the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ is
‘the eternal Son of God’”? How could such a conclusion be made? This booklet
seeks to demonstrate and argue that He is not the eternal Son. How can a denial
of eternal Sonship be in agreement with a doctrinal statement that affirms
Those who are part of the IFCA must maintain doctrinal integrity. On the one hand the IFCA leaders have affirmed their commitment to the IFCA doctrinal statement and on the other hand they have allowed for a doctrine that is contrary to what the doctrinal statement says. By this accommodation they have opened the door for serious error to creep in to this fellowship of churches. The door has been opened by the key called “freedom of interpretation.” Scores of IFCA men and the official action of 6 IFCA Regionals have tried to close this door and throw away the key, but the leadership has refused to change and correct the statement that they handed out at the Convention in June of 1991. They have officially and publicly allowed for departure from our official doctrinal position. They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7), unless they return to our original solid moorings which made our movement great. May God help them to do so. In these days may God preserve for Himself a small remnant of believers who are “valiant for the truth upon the earth” (Jer. 9:3).
Formerly Served as Secretary of the New England Regional of IFCA
written 1991 (revised 2/92 and 11/98)
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