Hello, John MacArthur here, Grace to You Bible teacher, and I’m welcoming you to a special discussion of some profound and eternal issues that I know are of great importance and urgency to you and you’ll find that out as we go. In fact, this is a little interview called “Standing Firm in Unstable Times” and I do believe it’s going to be a help to you personally and it’s also going to equip you to help others during the days and weeks to come.
No matter where you were or what you happened to be doing on September 11th, 2001, there’s no question that things haven’t been the same since. The terrorist attacks brought sudden, sweeping changes to our nation—in fact, to our entire world—and in some ways, to all of our lives. They have hit close to home and on deeply personal levels.
Our families, our businesses, our churches, our communities—really nothing has been untouched. Wherever you go, there’s sort of a new model of “business as usual,” a new model for day-to-day life and it has been forged in the fiery cataclysm really of multiple suicide attacks in our own homeland. In the workplace, I guess “glib” memos we could call them, and pretentious business jargon, ring hollow today. Corporate decisions are being sifted through the reality of homeland terrorism and a struggling economy. At home, families, I guess for the first time ever in some cases, are discussing the “what-if” scenarios that come with rising unemployment and even a war threatening our own shores. No question things are very different.
But what is most interesting and actually most important in all of this is to take a look at the spiritual issues that have erupted into public life and discourse. It seems that people everywhere are doing what just a day before this event was politically incorrect, and that’s talking about God and faith and the future and life and death! Here is a recent Fox news article that says, “To an extent unheard of in recent years, God is suddenly a very public figure in America. “God Bless America” signs are nearly ubiquitous and lawmakers are urging Americans to pray! Some students are even doing so openly in classes. Many schools have had clergy-led assemblies and some communities have voted to post the Ten Commandments in the courthouses.”
Well, that’s interesting, isn’t it? The difficult question of course is, do most people even know this God they’re reaching out to in this time of need? And, is He listening? Are there any absolute, authoritative answers to the serious looming spiritual questions being raised as this worldwide crisis trickles down to an intimate, individual, spiritual issue between the creature and creator? How can people deal personally—once and for all—with the problems at the level of their own souls? It’s those kinds of questions that I have in mind as we bring this special Grace to You interview with you.
We’re calling it, again, “Standing Firm in Unstable Times” and in the interview, I’m going to try to expand on some of the questions that I’m hearing most often these days, questions about evil and God’s power or lack of power to stop it, questions about truth and questions about the Bible’s claim to being the only source of truth and the only way of eternal salvation is found therein. I’m also going to address bluntly some of the serious theological errors that sadly are getting a lot of airtime, and I’m hoping that will help you stand firm for God’s truth. And finally, I know many are struggling with how to deal with fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, not only for themselves but even thinking about children and grandchildren and how to help other people who are fighting the same battle. So I’m going to talk about that as well and I’m hoping that when we put it all together, we will help you to stand firm “in your inner man,” as Scripture says, during these difficult days.
Now, in order to help me a little bit on this, I’ve asked my dear friend and the executive director of Grace to You, Phil Johnson, to join me in the studio. Phil is also one of the elders and pastors at our church, Grace Community Church. Phil is the one who does the editorial work on my major books that I write, and we have been close friends and shared many ministries together through the years and he’s a great resource to me—knows more about what I’ve taught than I can remember, I think. In his own right, is an outstanding student of Scripture and theology. So, I’m going to have him sort of form the questions, questions I know that have risen in his mind, but a lot of questions too that have risen in the public discourse as well as questions that have flooded our ministry from many of our listeners who’ve been writing to us. So, Phil, thank you for joining me for this very special interview and for helping to minister to our listening family.
Phil Johnson: Thank you, John. You’ve consented to answer some questions for us. Shortly after the terrorist incident—I think it was within a week or so—you were asked to be on the weekend edition of Larry King’s television broadcast to discuss the question “Where Was God?” I saw that program live and I’m sure many of our listeners did, and on behalf of the number of people who emailed me and spoke to me immediately after that broadcast, I want to say thank you, John for the clear stand you took for Christ and for the way you made the truth of the gospel clear. You don’t see that very often on Larry King.
John MacArthur: Well, it was a pleasure. Believe me, it was a great opportunity and, you know, when you get an opportunity like that to give the simple, straightforward gospel to the wide world, it’s just a great privilege.
Phil Johnson: Well, on that program, Larry King raised a number of questions that I thought were really quite good, but because of his format, you really only had time for short, sound-byte answers. I don’t think you had more than 90 seconds for any one answer.
John MacArthur: I don’t have many 90 second sermons, do I Phil?
Phil Johnson: No, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you answer a question in 90 seconds before. And he’d cut to a commercial and I kept thinking, “Let him talk! Let him say something!” And in fact he had at least five other guests in the studio that night. Most of them had contradictory opinions, opinions that certainly disagreed with yours. There was a rabbi; there was a Muslim leader or theologian…There was also a New Age religious guru and one other evangelical author and then you! I think you, again, you might have had just a few seconds for each reply before he’d cutaway for a commercial or ask a new question from another guest. So we set up this format to avoid that. So we have no commercial breaks, no other guests besides you, and I want to pose some of those same questions Larry King asked you and give you an opportunity to answer in more depth.
So let’s just go to it. Larry King’s first question and the title of that broadcast was, where was God? He posed that question to a well-known rabbi this way—these were his words—he said, “If God is omnipotent, he could have prevented this, could he not?” And the rabbi, you may remember, answered, “No.” He said, “Even God couldn’t have prevented this.” And I wonder what your thoughts on that are John.
John MacArthur: Well, I have to tell you, Phil, it was very frustrating because I had all kinds of thoughts and ways that I wanted to answer that. I never got the opportunity to give a complete answer so I just tried to proclaim the truth. But in answer to the question, “Where was God?” I immediately went to Isaiah, in my mind. I mean, I’m so biblically arranged, mentally, that that’s where I went. And I went right to the fifth chapter of Isaiah and there I was in the fifth chapter of Isaiah and Isaiah receives this revelation from God that pronounces a series of curses on Israel, on Judah actually, and Jerusalem. The prophet receives these messages—that God has found Israel to be a fruitless vine that in all his provisions and all his goodness and grace and mercy to them—and blessing should have produced good grapes, but instead there aren’t any grapes; there’s just sour berries, which is symbolic of the fact that they’re in idolatry and iniquity and sin. God says, “I’m going to come down and I’m going to rip up my vineyard Israel. I’m going to take away its protection. I’m going to trample it down. I’m not going to rain on it. And this is a huge curse pronounced by God on Israel.
And then that sequence of woes that follows the opening verses delineates the sins: sins of materialism, sins of drunkenness, sins of corrupt leadership, sins of perverted immorality. He goes down, “Woe, woe, woe, woe…” through all of these things and then he pronounces at the end of the chapter, this horrifying prophesy that the enemies of Israel are going to come in a massive force and just wipe them out, just total destruction. It’s a frightening passage! I mean, it would be worse than knowing your twin towers are going to be attacked by some Arab terrorists. I mean, it was total wiping out of Jerusalem and then whole of the southern kingdom.
Isaiah immediately is seen going to the temple. He goes to the temple and he wants to check in with God because he wants to find out “Where is God?” Where is God? This can’t be! This is the covenant people, this is God’s own chosen people, this is the seat of Abraham, this, you know… And he goes to the temple and I think the most startling thing occurs in the opening of the chapter. He says this: “In the year that King Uzziah died”—and that was the final straw because Uzziah reigned 52 years and Uzziah was the symbol of God’s blessing, the symbol of God’s protection and he died. God killed him, remember. He stepped over the line from the kingly role to the priestly role and God struck him dead. That was the final blow and in the year King Uzziah died, when all trauma from God was falling on Israel, he said, “I saw the Lord and He was high and lifted up.”
It’s just shocking. He wasn’t in the rubble as the L.A.Times guy said; He was right on the same throne he had been on all the time. He hadn’t abdicated, he hadn’t lost his sovereign purpose, he hadn’t diminished in his glory. High and lifted up and his train fills the temple, you know: “holy, holy, holy.” And you see God in all his full, sovereign, majestic glory and everything that is happening is happening within the framework of his perfect purpose and his purpose happened to be for judgment on Judah.
And I will say this: I don’t know what “the purpose of God,” was, “for America,” but I do know what the purpose of God is when something like that happens. It is for judgment on some because they perish. God has every right to bring that judgment on the ungodly who have rejected Him. It is for those who believe the blessing of all blessings; the Christians who died in those events—and there were some that we know of because they were interviewed on that flight that went down in Pennsylvania—for them it was an entrance into glory. God was in control of all of that. God is in control of judgment; God is in control of blessing for his people, and that fits within the righteous pattern of God as He expresses his purpose and his will.
Amos the prophet said something very, very interesting. He said, “Is there a calamity in the city that I have not done?” It’s God! It isn’t that God is in the evil of the terrorists, but it is within the framework of God’s purpose of judgment that that came to pass.
Phil Johnson: In fact, if I understand you correctly, you’re saying that God’s judgment can also be his blessing, that people who die in a disaster like this—some of them are righteous, some of them are evil—we can’t tell from looking externally, whether in any given instance, this was an act of judgment or an act of blessing. It could be either one.
John MacArthur: Yes, and that’s why I’ve said that God’s providence does not discriminate. Providence doesn’t discriminate. A flood doesn’t discriminate, a plane crash doesn’t discriminate, a war doesn’t discriminate, a sinking ship like the Titanic doesn’t discriminate, a train wreck doesn’t discriminate. You remember the famous sermon by Spurgeon in which he was trying to explain to his people that the train wreck occurred and there were the mangled cars and mangled people, and it oversimplifies to say that this is God’s judgment on the worst people. They’re not the worst people! Death is reality. God’s people die and Satan’s people die, but that’s all within God’s purpose and plan—that He allows those things.
He gives evil—even Satan is his servant—He gives evil its space within his confinements.
Phil Johnson: And then uses it for his glory.
John MacArthur: Yeah, because as I said to our people, I said what happened in that tower was severe. Obviously it was the ultimate severity for the ungodly, but the ungodly perish all the time. They perish all the time. But it was there a severe mercy. I mean, look at the results of it! Everybody talking about God! People going back to churches. You know—it’s not a good day to be a comedian. Frivolity and the trivial and the shallow and the cheap and the tawdry has lost its place in the public discourse. And is that good? No evangelists can create that. You can’t hype that up; it takes something like this, which I call a severe mercy. It may be wrath on the ungodly who die, at the same time blessing on the godly who die, but for the rest who live it is a severe mercy because it is a wakeup call! You know, we all know this—that God would have every right to take our lives immediately, all of us! I mean, the whole world of sinners!
But we live. And we enjoy what theologians have called “common grace” and the sun shines and the rain falls on the just and the unjust and we enjoy life when we have no right to life. And then when somebody dies, we say, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” Nothing’s wrong; that’s what we all deserve, but we’re all living on borrowed time—we’re all living under grace really, and when these kinds of events happen, I think they shake people to the core. I mean, we live in California, Phil—and you know this as well as I do—every time we have a big earthquake here, we get the same response. The next Sunday the church is jammed with people who wouldn’t think of coming to church until the ground underneath them starts shaking and bursting open and their houses collapse around them and gas starts flying out of everywhere and some of the doomsday prophets rise out of the woodwork and start saying California is going to fall into the Pacific Ocean!
Phil Johnson: In fact, I remember in the last earthquake, the news media sent reporters to interview you about it and the question they wanted to know was “Did you think this was an act of divine judgment?” And I remember your answer, do you?
John MacArthur: Well, I think what I said was that this was not an evil thing. This was a good thing, this was a beneficial thing, this was another one of those severe mercies. In reality, the earthquake killed very few people. In fact, the earthquake allowed people to live who should die because the wages of sin is death! And yet, while it only took a few lives, it awakened thousands of people to the reality that they have no control over their own death. I see that as greatly beneficial.
I mean, Phil, just think about it. One day before September 11th, on September 10th, God’s name wasn’t in the public discourse. I mean, you didn’t speak about God unless you were being sworn in somewhere, in a courtroom, or unless you were overstepping your bounds. Now, everyone is reaching out for the skyhook. And as I said in the introduction, I mean, we can all assume that they don’t know the God they’re crying out to and they may not be crying out on his terms but on their terms. But that ought to be evidence enough that this is a severe mercy.
Phil Johnson: And it’s a reminder that God is usually merciful to us.
John MacArthur: Yeah and, as I said to Larry King, I said, let’s say six or seven thousand people died, which I think is probably what the number is going to be… That’s how many die every day in America. I think I said that on the air, that that would just make a 366-day year in terms of number of deaths. So, we just don’t like it when they die suddenly and in big groups like that. That really wakens us up and that’s plenty of reason for God to allow that to happen.
Phil Johnson: Larry King also asked you if the events of September 11th caused you to question your faith. He seemed to be asking that of each of these guys. Talk about that a little bit.
John MacArthur: You know, I liked him. I like Larry King. I like people that are straightforward, and he is. I like people that are honest. And I think one of the reasons why he’s so interesting as an interviewer is because he’s so interested in issues. He said to me, he said, “Are you afraid to die?”—this was off the air. And I said, “No, I’m not afraid to die.” He said, “Really? You have no fear of death?” I said, “No, I don’t really have any fear of death.” I said, “Because that’s all a settled issue. I know exactly where I’m going to go when I die and I’m going to go to the place the Lord’s prepared for me, and that’s a settled issue with me and I have no concerns about that.” And he said, “I wish I had that faith.”
Now that’s really honest! And I have great respect for that. I think if you watch him at all in his discussions with people in religion, and occasionally with people, who profess Christianity, he’s not put-off by it, he’s not offended by it. He has pretty wide tolerance, which indicates an interest and honest—maybe even you could say, a certain openness. So, it was interesting because when he began to ask me questions, I guess like I always do—I answer exactly what I believe the Bible teaches. Just matter-of-fact… Because that was my goal! The only thing I could prepare to do because I didn’t know…it’s like sitting in a room with balls flying off the walls. You don’t know where they’re coming from because you don’t know what he’s going to ask you or who’s going to do what or where the thing’s going to go. And so, there’s no way to prepare to say anything specifically in response to anything because you don’t know what you’re going to get.
But I did determine in my mind that I was going to look for an opening to present the gospel. I wanted to say a couple of things. One, I wanted to say the Bible is the authority and nobody else is, and I think I got that in. I also wanted to give the gospel clearly. I think in order to do that I had to say, “Well, I don’t want to answer that question. I want to go back to something you said earlier,” and I just sort of cleared the air and said, “This is what I want to talk about” and I did. I think the fact that I was firm about that convinced him in just that little bit of time that I had a strong faith, because he said to the Moslem sitting next to me, he said, “Don’t think you’re going to change his faith,” and he pointed to me! Well, how do you convey that, you know, in that environment?
Phil Johnson: I’d say he got the message. Definitely got the message.
John MacArthur: I think he had respect for that kind of conviction. It’s not that I was trying to earn his respect; it’s that that’s exactly what I believe and if you ask me what I believe, I’m going to tell you that, whatever the venue is.
Phil Johnson: In fact, one of the callers asked a provocative question. Somebody phoned in to ask whether the hijackers were in heaven or hell, and I thought when I was watching, “Well, hear it comes.” You never see a discussion of hell on television and here was this panel of different religious opinions, most of whom I knew upfront would not even believe in such a thing as hell. In fact, I was intrigued by the rabbi’s opinion. He said he had problems with hell. Remember, he said he just couldn’t believe in a God who would send people to hell. What’s your response to that?
John MacArthur: Well, you know, he—the rabbi—and I say honestly, God have mercy on his soul, the rabbi has no authority but himself. I mean, at least he could say, “I’m a Jewish Rabbi and the Old Testament says.” But he doesn’t believe the Old Testament! So what is he? He is a self-styled religious philosopher who’s only holding on to Judaism in some traditional or genetic fashion. But as far as being a representative of Judaism, he isn’t even a representative of Judaism! He’s a representative of himself. He is no different than Deepak Chopra, [who] is a self-styled religious philosopher who invents his own views. Well, what kind of an authority is that?
Phil Johnson: He’s made up his own God, hasn’t he?
John MacArthur: Well, he is his own God.
Phil Johnson: He began to define God as…everything. And I thought, well, Larry King had a good comeback. He said, “If God is everything, then God is nothing.”
John MacArthur: But the rabbi is no different. The rabbi is no different than any kind of philosopher because he has no authority. When he said, “Well, I think…”—he’s gone, as far as I’m concerned. If a Moslem guy says, “I stand by the Koran,” I have more respect for that because he’s saying, “There’s an authority outside of me and I bow to that authority.” I have more respect for that than a guy who thinks that he is God, that he literally can define deity and reality out of his own intuition. To me, that is egotism gone berserk. I mean, you don’t even have an authority outside yourself! And that’s why I said, with all due respect, Deepak is not the authority and neither is the rabbi. Larry picked up on that and he said, “And you’re not either,” and I said, “Absolutely not. The Word of God is.”
It’s so important to understand that if you’re truly a representative of God, you didn’t invent Him in your own mind and you have to come with an authoritative and divine word. Well, these are the things I would have said if I had time.
Phil Johnson: I wish you’d had the time. One other question came up that I found myself wishing you had time to respond to more. Larry King was curious about whether we should forgive the terrorists. In fact, he went around and made it a point to ask each panelist this question. That’s really a hard question to answer in a sound-byte and I’m eager to hear a more in depth reply from you.
John MacArthur: As far as is humanly possible, yes I would forgive them.
Phil Johnson: Whether they asked for it or not?
John MacArthur: Yeah, whatever that would mean in the sense that I would not be bound in my own heart by some unrelenting bitterness towards them. I don’t mean that there can be any kind of reconciliation. In the first place, there’s no relationship to start with. But I don’t believe vengeance is mine; I think it’s God’s. Even had I lost a son or a brother or a spouse or a friend in the disasters, I don’t think I would have had a heart full of bitterness or vengeance or hostility toward those people. It would be in me to forgive them, and the way I would manifest that forgiveness is not by anything on their behalf—I mean, they’re dead! But it would simply be manifest in grief over the terrible disaster of their eternal souls.
Nobody talks about that. It’s terrible that people died in that destruction. It’s more terrible that some people went to hell, and those men who committed those horrible acts went there too. That is the great grief. The deception of Islam is a great grief and there are more coming after them who are going to be literally cast into eternal judgment under the illusion that they’re serving Allah—God. So I would have nothing but compassion for them. I think an illustration of that that may help is, one of my nephews—just a really outstanding young man. He was about 21, 22; his name was Tim, my wife’s sister’s son. A fine young man, loved the Lord. He was in his college days. He was a volleyball player at California State University and just a great, great kid.
He was working in a market and a guy came in to hold the market up and killed him. I think he was like 21 or 22. Shot him dead. And you know, the guy was on drugs… And Tim tried to intervene when this guy was getting money from a cashier. He was trying to protect this lady and he was killed. His dad, my brother-in-law, Dwain—I watched his response to somebody who’d just murdered his son, you know, at the prime of his young years. Dwain went to the prison with one purpose; he said, “I want to see that man.” And he went there with the purpose of sharing the gospel with him and telling him that he forgave him for what he did to his son and that more important than the death of his son was this guy’s death because his son was with Christ.
Now that’s what I’m talking about when I talk about forgiveness. I mean, there’s no way to restore a relationship unless somebody comes and asks for forgiveness, but I’m not going to be bound by bitterness and vengeance. I even look at the war that way. I don’t see the war as some kind of retaliatory vengeance. I think a just war begins when the peace is interrupted and it ends when the peace is restored. And I think a just war is a war that takes away the terrible, terrible interruption into the peace of this nation. In other words, it’s a war of protection and justice. But I don’t think we need to get caught up in personal vengeance. But on the other hand as well, only God can forgive sinners and the sad reality is those men will never be forgiven because they died without ever believing the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Phil Johnson: So, just to be absolutely clear, when you speak of forgiveness, the forgiveness you grant, you’re talking about letting go of any bitterness or hostility or anything towards them, but not absolution for their sin.
John MacArthur: I couldn’t give that anyway. I mean, I can’t give that to anybody. So, any time I talk about forgiveness, I’m just talking about the fact that I’m not holding a bitterness—I’m not holding a grudge. I can’t absolve anybody’s iniquities anyway; that’s for God to do. And He’s not going to do that for a person who doesn’t come to Him through Christ.
Phil Johnson: You mentioned the war; let me follow up on that. Just to put that together with what you’re saying about forgiveness, I notice a lot of Christians are confused about this. And they’re asking questions like, “Can we as Christians support our government’s retaliation against terrorism?” And occasionally you hear a Christian cite Matthew 5, verses 38 and 39, where Jesus said, “You’ve heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I tell you not to resist an evil person, but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” Now, what did Jesus mean and does that have any application in a situation like this?
John MacArthur: Well, first of all, it has no application in a situation like war, which is not a personal offense, which is a national issue dealing with an entity that has been ordained by God for the punishment of evildoers. I’m not an entity ordained by God for the punishment of evildoers, right? That’s not my personal issue.
Phil Johnson: And Jesus here is talking about personal issues?
John MacArthur: Yeah, and I think to understand what that text actually means: if anyone slaps you, turn the other cheek… You have to understand a little bit of background. It’s pretty fascinating. I’m going to take a minute and explain it to you. I’ve been reading on that very issue this week and I came across some fascinating information about the fact that when Christians in the New Testament era—who were Jews obviously because Jesus was preaching and they were following Him and believing in Him and identifying as followers of Christ and all of this—when they were in their synagogues—you remember Jesus said to them at the upper room discourse, He said, “The day is going to come when they’re going to throw you out of the synagogue and they’re going to whip you” and all of this—some historians indicate that there was, interestingly enough, when a person was excommunicated, a symbolic slap across the face by the ruler of the synagogue. “Whack!” before the synagogue, and that this symbolized that rejection.
A slap across the face was viewed as a very shameful thing, a very demeaning and humbling thing, to be smacked across the face. There’s still that even in our culture, right? I mean, it’s one thing to knock a guy’s lights out—that’s one kind of demonstration of how you feel about somebody. But just a smack across the face is a “how dare you!” It’s a demeaning kind of thing, and that’s the way it was. So, there are some historians who say they literally would smack somebody across the face who was excommunicated.
Phil Johnson: Gives new meaning to the “right hand of fellowship.”
John MacArthur: That was the right hand of disfellowship! But, so what Jesus is saying is this: “Look, if you’ve so identified with me, if you have by that identification created such an offense that they have literally slapped you across the face, continue in the same path so that you are continually vulnerable to the same thing over again.” And you have an illustration to the fact that it’s not literal in the case of Jesus. When He was slapped—remember, they slapped Him across the face—He didn’t say, “Here, hit the other cheek!” He said, essentially, “Why are you doing that?” and He called them to account.
I think what that’s talking about is if they hit you once, get ready, they’ll probably hit you again. And you have to maintain a certain vulnerability. He’s talking there about a Christian living in a persecuting environment. If you get slapped in the face, don’t compromise, don’t lose your courage, don’t go underground, don’t deny the Lord, don’t retaliate, don’t get full of vengeance, don’t become bitter—just live that same godly, quiet life with all of its vulnerability because you may get hit again. That’s a whole different issue than God giving the right to a national government, which is exactly what Romans 13 says: “The powers that be ordained of God and they bear the sword and they don’t bear it for nothing. They bear it to use against the evildoer for the protection of the one who does good,” and that’s a just war.
And you know what? I think what America’s doing now is as close to following that model as possible. On the one hand, we’re dropping bombs; on the other hand, we’re dropping aid. I mean, who does that? Who does that? What nations in wars in history have done that? That’s the kind of war that’s fought by men who understand the role of government. I’m not saying they’re necessarily Christians, but they have a biblical understanding of the role of government, which encompasses the punishment of evildoers as well as the protection of those that are good, whether they’re here or there. So I have every confidence at this point that our nation is doing everything it can to walk that line in a responsible way.
I’ll tell you something and I say this with all candor: we can be thankful to the Lord that George Bush is our president and that this didn’t happen, frankly, during the Bill Clinton era. Because I think what we have is a coalition of men in the cabinet who have some character.
Phil Johnson: Would you say then that Romans 13 puts a responsibility on our government to retaliate?
John MacArthur: Well, I definitely do.
Phil Johnson: It would be wrong for them not to?
John MacArthur: Absolutely. Well, I mean, it’s pretty obvious. If we don’t do anything, what’s going to happen? Well, it’s going to keep it up and keep it up and where does it end? I mean, all you have to do is be successful at what you do once and if you gain the desired effect—America goes into a shell and doesn’t do anything, doesn’t go back to try to root out this evil and to deal with it and to bring a just punishment—now you’ve just energized them. Now they’re going to be flooded with other people who want to go and accomplish these great purposes and these great ends because there’s no consequence!
It’s like, you know, on the simple level, it’s like asking whether you should punish your child when he does something that’s wrong? Is that the compassionate thing to do? Yeah, it is in the end unless you want to turn your child into a criminal. I mean, if you don’t punish this kind of thing… What’s going to happen now and what’s already happening—and I’m not here to answer questions about politics and the military—what’s going to happen now as the world retaliates against this is, the forces, the Taliban or whoever they are, are going to disintegrate under the fear and the pressure of this tremendous act of justice that’s coming against them. And that’s the desired effect you want. You want to disintegrate that entire base of power and that brings about a protection of people.
I think we’re not only doing what’s right in the protection of our own nation, but we’re doing what’s right in the corollary protection of Israel, not because Israel is by any means a righteous people, but because I do think that Israel is a nation that understands right and wrong on a human level and understands justice on a human level and doesn’t do to its neighbors what its neighbors continually do to it.
Phil Johnson: One other interesting thing about the Larry King interview is that he asked you, “What did you think would happen,” he said, “to a 2-year-old baby at the bottom of the world trade center?” I happen to know that you were planning to preach on the question of what happens to infants who die so you’ve been studying that issue anyway. Take a little time and give us an answer about what happens to infants who die.
John MacArthur: That was one of those things that just came out of nowhere. That’s obviously a question on people’s minds and it was on his mind—I didn’t know it was coming. He just looked at me and said, “What about a 2-year-old baby that’s at the bottom of the Trade Towers?” I said, “Instant heaven.” That’s what I said, I said it twice, because then he responded by saying, “Didn’t sin?” and I said, “Instant heaven.” I didn’t necessarily agree they didn’t sin but I said instant heaven because that was the right answer. But I remember being on a panel with four pastors and the question was asked from the audience in a big conference: “What about babies that die?” Three of them didn’t know. And I thought, well, how can that be? How can you not know? This is a massive issue here!
I mean, it is conceivable that more little ones have died than have reached adulthood in the history of the world! I mean, that’s conceivable isn’t it? I mean, mortality rates in the past… I mean, you think about—look at back in the Puritans and Reformers and look at how many kids they had that died and go back a few centuries before that: people were having babies die all over the place!
Phil Johnson: Even now in some parts of the world.
John MacArthur: In some parts of the world, it’s possible that half the babies conceived die even in third world areas today. So, you’re talking about millions and billions of souls that are souls! Psalm 139: “God,” you know, “wove me in my mother’s womb and knew me before I ever said a word.” These are real souls!
We need to have an answer to that, and I believe the right way to understand that is that God, in grace, gathers them into his eternal glory; He saves them. There are a number of reasons why I believe that. I believe it because Jesus said, “Permit the little children to come unto me and forbid them not for of such is the kingdom of heaven,” Mark 10. I believe it because of a wonderful verse in Matthew 18:14 where Jesus said, “The Father would never let one of his little ones perish.” I believe it because of David’s confidence in the death of his baby son when he said in II Samuel, “He cannot come to me but I shall go to him.” Well, there are a number of other passages.
I believe in the Scripture, Job said, when he was really in despair, when he was really at the end of his rope—I mean, he’d lost everything and he said, “It would have been better for me if I had been stillborn because then I wouldn’t have this misery; I would be at rest.” And here was the confidence of Job that the little one who is stillborn escapes the pain and suffering and goes into rest. And there are a lot of Scriptures like that.
I also believe that the sovereign salvation of infants is the most magnificent analogy to how God saves adults because in saving an infant, it’s all of grace because an infant can’t believe. They can’t do anything. God saves them purely by his grace. And we know that He, by nature, is a Savior. He saves them by grace—that’s a perfect analogy of how He saves us! Even as adults, we can’t do anything to contribute to our salvation either and purely out of his sovereign grace, He saves us.
So I believe that—there are a lot of other reasons—but I believe that when I said “instant heaven” to Larry King, I had a lot behind what I said. Another interesting thought about that: you read in the Bible that heaven is a place where there will be people from every tongue and tribe and people and nation. If you think about it, not every tongue and tribe and people and nation have necessarily heard the gospel, but if the Lord is rescuing the little ones from all those places, then there’ll be representatives of every tongue and tribe and people and nation.
Phil Johnson: Thank you. So, John, have you gotten some good responses to your appearance on Larry King? What’s the most interesting response you’ve gotten?
John MacArthur: Well, you know what the universal response is? 99.9 percent of the responses: “Thank you for giving the true gospel.” It was almost like people had hoped somebody would just give the straightforward gospel and hold the line. And that’s what people keep saying. You know, “we watched and we hoped that you would give the gospel and that you wouldn’t compromise the gospel” and they were just very encouraged. I think it strengthened Christians maybe to be bold.
Of course, I’m not thinking I need to, you know, “suck it up” and say the truth here no matter what. I just said it because that’s what I believe the truth is. But I think it was encouraging and, you know, most all of the mail is basically saying, we need to stand up for the gospel in a day when so many people compromise and water it down and want to make it blend in with everything else and not offend anybody. I think that’s what struck me, is how—you know, because we hear so much about “let’s open up everything and let’s embrace everybody and let’s accept whoever—Catholics—and let’s be open to other religions and let’s…” And you think this is a big, widespread movement. And then what happens is I get on there and I’m really firm about the singularity and exclusiveness of the gospel and there’s this flood of affirmation and you begin to realize there are people out there who aren’t buying into this.
Phil Johnson: Thank you for doing that, John.
John MacArthur: Well, I don’t understand why it’s a difficult thing to do. You just say what’s true and you know me well enough to know I’m not concerned about where it gets me, you know—I’m not concerned about what I might achieve on a worldly level—I’m just concerned about the truth. And so there’s the truth and what happens happens… So I don’t know what’ll happen. My initial reaction was, I’ll probably get one shot at this deal and they’ll say, “We’ll never have that guy back again,” but we got a different response from the people at the program so that’s good. They said that they were looking forward to having me back again so we’ll see if that happens.
Phil Johnson: Let’s move on. I want to ask you a few questions just in closing that I wish Larry King had brought up. I know in the midst of all this uncertainty and with all of the threat of war—U.S. attacks retaliation are now underway and there’s almost a guarantee, the news media are telling us, that there will be further retaliation from the terrorists—in the midst of all of this, fear isn’t very far away, even from Christians. It’s hard to avoid anxiety. Let me ask you, first of all, is fear always a sin?
John MacArthur: Well, I wouldn’t want to say that. I think when fear spills over into distrusting God—you know, when it becomes a settled fear that goes against the grain of divine revelation about God’s promises to care for his own—then it’s a sin. But there is such a thing as a responsible fear that makes me watchful, careful, protective of myself, my family, people around me… I think there’s a wholesome sense of self-protection, a reasonable fear, that keeps me from putting myself in dangerous places and dangerous positions.
You could almost say that fearlessness could be a sin because fearlessness could step over a line into presumption. You know the old story of “Do I trust God enough for my life that I’m going to lie down in the freeway?” That’s presumption. That’s overstepping the bounds of trust, and you’ve now entered into presumption. On the other side, you can overstep a reasonable sense of fear—a reasonable common-sense approach to life—that takes care about where you go and what you do and how you protect yourself and those around you. You can step over that line into a settled distrust in the divine purpose and the divine care of God, which is pledged and promised to a believer.
Phil Johnson: Now, I know you’ve written a whole book on this subject, Anxiety Attacked, but let me just ask you to give us a brief summary of the advice you would give to someone who is struggling with anxiety.
John MacArthur: Well, you know, what I do in that book is…in the back there are a whole bunch of Psalms and what I’ve told people through the years is just start reading the Psalms because so many of the Psalms were written in a time of either the Psalmist’s distress or Israel’s distress and they start out with a dilemma and they end up in confidence. They’re just great confidence builders because they affirm who God is and they affirm what God has done.
Again, I believe that fear is connected to two things. It is connected, first of all, to a lack of information, and secondly, to a lack of trust. What I mean by that is it’s generally fear of the unknown that panics people. If you can see it coming, if it’s there, if you can analyze it, you can deal with it. It’s the blind-side thing. I think from the standpoint of a Christian, we can eliminate the lack of knowledge side of it by understanding Scripture: all that the Scripture says about life, all that it says about God’s control over the circumstances of our life, all that it says about rejoicing in trials, all that it says about casting all our care on Him for He cares for us, all that it says about, He never slumbers or sleeps—He’s always the watchful shepherd over his flock. …Learning everything you can from the Word of God so that your knowledge of God is accurate. When you know God, who is the God revealed in Scripture, then, I think, you have the foundation on which to trust.
Why do I trust God? Oh, it’s not because I’ve cranked up my emotions. It’s not because I’ve gritted my teeth and said, “I’m going to hang in there and tough this out.” The reason I trust God is because I know who He is and what He’s promised because I have the information revealed to me in Scripture. I think—and this is something very sad—there are so many people in the Christian church who have such a shallow understanding of the Bible, they have such a limited understanding of God—many of them have been in these experiential kind of Christian churches or these seeker-friendly churches where they are literally injected with a placebo or they’re swallowing the Sunday placebos instead of any nourishing vitamin, anything that’s going to make a difference in their life—that when it comes to the crisis, they have absolutely no foundation of the true knowledge of God on which to stand.
When Larry King said to me, “You don’t have any fear of death?” I said, “No.” That’s not because I’m better than anybody else, not because I have more resolution than anybody else, or because I’m a tougher guy or because I’m more self-disciplined; it is connected completely to my understanding of who God is and what God has promised. So, the direction you have to go in relieving anxiety is to know your God. It’s that old thing that J.B. Philips said long, long ago, “Your God is too small,” and if your God is too small, you’ve got problems because when you hit the crisis, He’s not big enough to carry you through it. We need to know that our God is not small, we need to know our God… And that’s why I’ve said, preaching through the years, that the goal of all preaching should be the revelation of God—above all things, his greatness, his glory, his promises, so that our faith rests truly in the One who is God. Then, we can face anything, including death, unwaveringly.
Phil Johnson: Brings us right back to where we started when you used that illustration about Isaiah, who in the midst of all this tragedy that was falling on the nation, he saw God high and lifted up. That’s what you’re saying.
John MacArthur: That’s exactly what he needed to see: he needed to see God is on the throne, God is sovereign, God is holy, and this is happening within the framework of his sovereignty, this is happening within the framework of his holiness—He hasn’t lost his control of anything—He is holy, and if you just think about that… God is not in the rubble, God is not up there ringing his hands; God is on the throne and the angels are saying, “Holy, holy, holy” and “holy, holy, holy” means that whatever happened was consistent with God’s holiness.
I’ll tell you what is consistent with God’s holiness: sinners die. They die in a building, they die on a deathbed, they die in a hospital, they die in a car wreck, they die here and they die there. But that’s consistent with God’s holiness. So, why would we question, “Where is God?” then, than at the death of anybody else, any other time in the world? I think I read one time where 78 or 80 people die every second, and I think it may be more than that now. Where is God? I’ll tell you where God is: God has every right to take the life of an individual who’s a sinner because the wages of sin is death. The only question—and this is what I kept going back to—the only question is, are you ready for your death that you have no control over.
In the little break, I said to Larry, I tried to say, I said—I forget exactly whether it was on the air or off—but I said, “There’s a terrible evil in the world, Larry, and it’s getting everybody.” He sat back in his chair and he said, “You’re right, there’s a terrible evil loose in the world.” And I said, “Yeah and it gets us all and it’s death and the only question is, what are you going to do when it happens? That’s the compelling question.” He understood that that’s the question. So, I think that the way you resolve that question is to know the God who is the source of eternal life.
Phil Johnson: Lots of people are asking similar questions today, and I think a lot of our listeners probably are finding they have greater opportunities than ever to share the gospel with their friends, their neighbors, and so on. What advice would you give them as they’re looking for ways to share their faith?
John MacArthur: Don’t shuffle your feet and beat around the bush would be the first thing. I mean, if the door was ever opened, it’s open now. I would say to them what I said in the tape I did on terrorism: take them to Luke 13 where Jesus did and ask this question, “What would have happened to you if you had been in the building? What would have happened to you if you’d been on the flight? Where would you be now, today?” Isn’t that the question? Would you be in heaven? And if they say, “Well, I hope so,” well, on the basis of what? On the basic of—why would you be in heaven?” “Well, I’m a pretty good person”—boy, there’s the door right there. Salvation is not by works.
So, I think the question is just capture the moment! I mean, the moment is vivid. All you have to do is say to somebody, “Well, if you were on the 105th floor or the 95th floor when the plane hit, where would you be? Or if you were in the plane, where would you be?”
Phil Johnson: And I bet there’s not a person in America who hasn’t asked himself that question.
John MacArthur: Yeah, “Where would I be?” Yeah. And then you go from there. I mean, if you’re looking for an opening, an entrée, a starting point for evangelism, here’s a universal one.
Phil Johnson: Well, thank you, John.
John MacArthur: Well, thank you, Phil. It’s been a delight to talk about these things and I hope it’s helpful to people. It is strange for a preacher to be thrown into a sort of short answer, sound byte environment because I’m used to explaining things. But you know, preachers are also proclaimers (we’re not just explainers) and there’s something wonderfully powerful about just the proclamation because the power is in the truth. You never know what the Lord is going to do and planting the seed, as the apostle Paul said, “Some plant, some water. God gives the increase.” Right? So you just say what’s true and then you leave it to the Lord. Whatever that environment allows you to say, that’s what you say, but I’m very thankful to the Lord for the opening that was there to proclaim the gospel and I’m grateful that I had enough time to at least articulate the truth and to try to get across that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation.
I know the message got through—and I’ll close by saying this—I know the message got through because I did get three letters that were furious with me, just furious, and it was really good feedback because they said, “How dare you say Jesus is the only way!” So I know that message got through, not only to Christians. You know, sometimes you think, well, the Christians got it because it’s inside talk—it’s Christian jargon and lingo. These are three non-Christians. In fact, one guy wrote me a letter… He was so mad at me, the letter was filled with invectives, filled with four-letter-words, filled with filth and blasphemous language towards God, and in the letter he actually says, “I know why Mohammad Atta led those planes into the building, and when I get to hell, I’m going to ask him and I know he’s going to tell me ‘Because he thought you were in the building’.” And then he said, “How dare you think that your Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation!” This guy was just furious, and you know, in a sense, that was really important feedback because if it’s clear enough for somebody to get that mad who’s outside the gospel, then it was clear enough for the people that the Lord may be drawing to himself. So, you know, even that feedback was important.
Another lady wrote and said that I was interrupting the peace of the world by making Jesus the only way of salvation. Well, I was glad she got it! She didn’t like it, but she got it. I remember Jesus, you know, when he preached the gospel in his own synagogue in Nazareth, they tried to throw Him off a cliff and kill Him—they got it, they got the message. They didn’t like it, but they got it. And you’re going to run into that. I mean, there are going to be people who resent that truth, but that doesn’t make it the less true.
I think that’s why I wonder why anybody who represents Christ equivocates on that. What do you gain? You certainly don’t gain anything with the sinner because if you don’t tell the sinner the truth he can’t get saved. You certainly don’t gain anything with the saints because if you don’t tell the truth, the saints don’t have any respect for you. And you certainly don’t gain anything with the Lord because if you’re ashamed of the gospel, you’re in some serious trouble there. So, I mean, what’s the upside of not just saying the truth?
Phil Johnson: There is none.
John MacArthur: Yeah, that’s what I think. One thing I need to say, sort of in wrapping all this up: this is a time for great compassion. While it is a great opportunity, we don’t want to go roaring in there with guns blazing. This is an important time for sensitivity and compassion. People have been seriously tenderized. This kind of fear is not superficial; it is deep and profound. There’s an important necessity to come with the meekness and gentleness of Christ, to demonstrate the kind of weeping compassion that Jesus did—A tenderness. We come, we come tenderhearted, we come kindly, we come compassionately, realizing that there’s a lot of real fear and real anxiety and real suffering in people’s hearts, and particularly those people in NY who lost people and other around the country who lost people.
This is a very, very tender time and I think we want to be truthful, we want to speak the gospel, but we want to make sure we stay compassionate and tenderhearted and loving and gracious in the presentation of the gospel. So, I would just encourage you to take every opportunity you have to demonstrate the truth and to do it in love.