John MacArthur-A Brief Biographical Sketch of a Faithful Expositor
We find the admonition from the beloved apostle Paul to “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). The importance of example and mentoring is underscored in this text and others (cf. 1 Cor 4:16; Phil 3:17). We are to pattern our lives after and walk in the same path as faithful servants of the Lord. Follow them to the extent that their lifestyles adorn the gospel of Jesus. While in pastoral ministry for a dozen years after Bible College, through various means of commentaries, books, and the worldwide tape ministry of John MacArthur, the Lord radically rocked my ministry world, so that when I arrived at James 3:1 in my pulpit ministry, I resigned the ministry in central Maine to move to southern California to attend the only seminary I’d attend, The Master’s Seminary. There, I was able to see the face, life, and ministry of him, who had been a long-distance mentor, John MacArthur. Having never been trained in expository preaching, I desired the resources to do what he did as he unpacked the meaning of Scripture.
One of my former church members came for a visit shortly after our move so that she could meet the man whom she’d considered to be her spiritual father, the one who the Spirit uniquely used to shepherd her in the truth of God’s Word. I had the opportunity to introduce this dear sister to the man that I was privileged to work for over the span of nine years. So many testimonies can be multiplied of the fond affection each of us has for those who have helped us treasure Christ and His Word.
As men like John labor in the study of the Bible and take us on a journey to understand God’s Word, we feel like we know them in such a sincere and intimate way, for they teach us what God means by what He has written in Scripture. Wouldn’t you like to know a little more behind the scenes of this flawed but faithful servant of the Lord Jesus Christ? Nearly a dozen years ago, during my doctoral work at TMS, I compiled a mini-biography of “the man, myth, and legend” of Bible exposition for the past 53 years.
What follows in this article I’d written so many years ago is not an attempt to exalt the man over the Lord he has so faithfully served, but to show gratitude to the Lord who has caused Pastor John MacArthur to persevere in faithfulness, rather than end up in shipwreck like so many other men who have started well, but not finished well. Join me in esteeming him highly in love as we thank the Lord for this grace gift He has given His Church (Eph 4:11-12).
Brief life history:
John has very fond memories of family life growing up. He said, “I needed and received special love as a child because I spent so much time sick and in the hospital recovering from rheumatic fever, pneumonia, several surgeries, and assorted stitches.” His parents loved him enough to instruct him and discipline him according to God’s ways. He remembers being spanked with belts, wooden coat hangers, spoons, sticks, and hands, but never out of anger.
John provided many sermon illustrations for his father, who also was a faithful preacher. He mentions one chilly morning when he warmed some couch pillows in the oven and then put them into his sister’s playpen to keep her warm. The pillow burst into flame once it was in the open air, so he ran to tell his parents that she was on fire. His dad saved her after being slightly singed.
John remembers a time that he played traffic cop at an intersection near his house. He had fun directing cars until he stopped his father’s car. That encounter ended his law-enforcement career. It was a painful stunt in his memory.
He writes of his insatiable curiosity, as he recounts, “I went on many adventurous trips near the house. Frequently I slid down the drainpipe under the curb so I could get into the big drain wash and run for miles. My mom was so worried about my disappearances that she had my father tie me to the clothesline pole with a long rope!”
John also remembers a time when he was around 11 or 12 years old, and his grandfather was dying of cancer. He observed his father, Jack, talk and pray with his grandfather on a particular day. I wondered, “Dad before grandpa died, what did he say to you?” “He said, ‘Jack, I have just one request. I want to preach one more sermon-just one.’” Therefore, Jack took his dad’s sermon notes, printed them, and passed out the sermon he’d never preached at his funeral. So, John’s grandfather, in essence, was able to preach from the grave. John states, “So, my grandfather preached on heaven from heaven, at his own funeral. As a little boy, I saw a man whose only wish in life was to preach a sermon that’s a great legacy.” John has a rich heritage of “fire in the bones” to preach, as he is a fifth-generation preacher. When he told his dad that he was called to preach, Jack gave him a Bible and wrote on the front page, “Preach the Word. Dad.” His dad also planted a conviction of readiness in him when he entered the pulpit. He said, “Don’t go into the sacred desk unless you are fully prepared.”
He has a great interest in his wife, Patricia, and a family of four grown children and fourteen grandchildren. The first time I was at his house, I thought it interesting to observe a sign stating, “Grandma and grandpa’s grandchildren spoiled while you wait.” There really has been no question of his family priorities.
MacArthur has always been athletic in life. He even came to a crossroads in his life when he was recruited to play professional sports. However, while 2,500 miles away from home at school, he was in a severe car accident. He was hurled, skidding on his rear-end on the asphalt at high speed. Though tempted by the offer to play professional ball, he never seriously considered anything but pastoring from that moment forward. He surrendered to the Lord’s will for his life and never looked back.
He started out traveling widely as a conference speaker and as a representative for Talbot Theological Seminary, from which he graduated with honors. Shortly after that, John became assistant pastor in the church his father led in Burbank, California.
He had received his B.A. from Los Angeles Pacific College, his M.Div. and D.D. from Talbot Theological Seminary, and his Litt.D. from Grace Graduate School.
His current ministry involves being the pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California. He is also an author, conference speaker, president [now Chancellor] of The Master’s College and Seminary, and featured teacher on Grace To You, a daily half-hour radio broadcast. Dr. MacArthur became president of the Master’s College in 1985 and founded the Master’s Seminary in 1986.
Grace to You was founded in 1969 as a nonprofit organization responsible for distributing John’s books, CDs, and daily and weekend radio broadcasts. As this ministry expands, it airs daily more than 1,500 times in the English-speaking world and over 500 times in Spanish-speaking countries.
Summary of his ministry:
John was ordained by the IFCA (Independent Fundamental Churches of America). When he came to Grace Church in February of 1969, their membership was approximately 450. The church had two widows that they were supporting from the two previous pastors. That’s why John jokes that he met their only qualification: youth. The Sunday evening, John came to candidate; he spoke for 1 hour, twenty-five minutes to a church that was used to a 30-minute sermon. Afterward, his dear wife Patricia told him he would never be invited back. However, he was asked to stay if they could expect to be taught like that each week. During the early days of John’s ministry, the church doubled in size every two years. They moved from meeting in the Chapel to the newly built Family Center (gymnasium) in 1971 and from there into the current Worship Center in 1977. Since then, additional buildings for teaching and fellowship use have been erected, filling a campus that is always bustling. Having served on custodial staff, I have seen how much this campus is used from the inside. This is a hubbub of service and activity.
More important than numbers, programs, and structures, however, is the foundation for the spiritual life of Grace Community Church that has been built through his leadership. This foundation includes sound doctrine, spiritual leadership, and active service. John met with men weekly to teach them systematic and biblical theology during those early years. He figured that “if I take care of the depth of my ministry, God will take care of the breadth.” Now his teaching ministry stretches across the globe. His first priority has always been the study of God’s Word. He states, “I have an insatiable hunger to know what the Bible means so that I can live to glorify God.”
The majority of MacArthur’s ministry has been spent in defense of the gospel and a true understanding of biblical Christianity, carried out in and through the local church.
We can observe a great deal about his life by reading and surveying his publishing ministry. The first best-seller that launched him into worldwide acclaim was The Gospel According to Jesus (1988). This was the first doctrinal study to hit the market in decades that made it to the top-ten list of the Bookstore Journal. This caused ripples in evangelicalism that are still felt today, as he made a firm, biblical appeal for Lordship salvation. The Lordship of Jesus Christ boldly proclaims that good works are the necessary result of justification. That is, one cannot accept Jesus as Savior, should he not also be willing to acknowledge Him as Lord of his life, for justification and sanctification are inextricably linked together. So that, life change is guaranteed in the regeneration when it truly occurs, in opposition to spurious faith.
Others of his landmark books have been:
- Shepherdology (1989) This book details what the church is and how it is supposed to operate. A great feature of this book is how the chapters are cross-referenced to the sermons that they came from. This is one of the first foundational books for my ministry.
- Charismatic Chaos (1992) This book argued that Charismatic and Pentecostal groups who advocated “gifts of the Spirit” or “sign gifts” to be in effect today are incorrect and border on blasphemy.
- Rediscovering Expository Preaching (1992). Along with the Master’s Seminary Faculty, this book sets forth his biblical preaching pattern for nearly 40 years [now over 51].
- Ashamed of the Gospel (1993) This book became a blockbuster best-seller when it was released. It was a thorough attack on the pragmatism that unfortunately characterizes so many ministries of our day. John says, “Biblical methodology-most notably preaching-is being discarded or downplayed in favor of newer means, such as drama, dance, comedy, variety, side-show histrionics, pop-psychology, and other entertainment forms. The new methods supposedly are more ‘effective’-that is, they draw a bigger crowd. And since the chief criterion for gauging the success of a church has become attendance figures, whatever pulls in the most people is accepted without further analysis as good. That is pragmatism.” Not one of the dozens of books John read in preparation for this book mentioned Paul’s instruction to Timothy on the church. Sadly, modern business principles have been chosen over the New Testament principles on church matters.
- Faith Works: The Gospel According to the Apostles (1993) This book was a follow-up to The Gospel According to Jesus. Evangelicalism was still embracing a cheap gospel with little to no demands on life-far different from the apostles’ gospel. This is the first of John’s books that I read cover to cover and became convinced of some serious theological and ministry practices that needed to change.
- Introduction to Biblical Counseling (1994) This book, co-authored by Wayne Mack, sets forth the precedence for the pastor’s counseling ministry. This is the second in a compendium of books from the Master’s Library that helps drive a biblical ministry. The preacher can not proclaim the sufficiency of Scripture in his pulpit ministry if he is willing to settle for psychology and the wisdom of man in his counseling office.
- Rediscovering Pastoral Ministry (1995) This third installment of the Master’s Seminary Faculty sets forth how to shepherd God’s people in God’s way.
- The MacArthur Study Bible (1997) This is THE study Bible of study Bibles. No other study Bible offers as many notes with a high view of Scripture as this study Bible offers. There is a consistent grammatical-historical hermeneutic in its pages that has been demonstrated. It also shows the unique features that has characterized MacArthur’s beliefs, like a high view of God, Christ, and the Scriptures.
- Hard to Believe (2003) This book was another of John’s books seeking to defend the Gospel against easy-believism. It sets forth the biblical injunction to forsake all in order to follow Christ and be one of His true disciples.
- The Book on Leadership (2004) This was a welcome book to offset the myriad of leadership books that claim to be ‘Christian.’ Most leadership books do not teach scriptural principles, or they propound the world’s wisdom on leadership.
In order to understand a little more about how the Lord has used this remarkable servant, we must survey some of the wisdom that has come from the solid, consistent, long-term preaching at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA.
Ministerial Wisdom in a nutshell:
Elders and Unanimity-John’s early ministry centered around what the Bible teaches about the church. He taught Romans, 1 & 2 Peter and Ephesians in his first three years. These first books on his preaching schedule set the foundation for what Grace Church is today.
In April of 1972, the elder board decided to make a vast change in the way they made decisions. Instead of making decisions based on a majority vote, they moved to unanimity. Negative onlookers said that that form of business would never work. They claimed that division is part and parcel to church leadership. However, Grace elders followed the lead of their pastor-teacher and sought to know the mind of Christ and seek the leading of the Holy Spirit while seeking to avoid divisions that come as a result of men going in different directions.
Baptistry-In 1976, when the Worship Center was being constructed, one elder (Glen Johnson) asked that the plans be changed to incorporate a baptistery. Since the original blueprints did not include it, this would halt the whole project. Yet, Glen would not affirm any further building since he knew how important baptisms were to the life of the Church. There were many obstacles to overcome if there were to be a baptistery, especially the pulpit, which would be in the way. So, Ron Way, who worked for a hydraulics company, designed the famous disappearing pulpit that re-appears for the centerpiece of Grace’s worship, the preaching of the Word of God. Most Sunday nights aid the church in presenting God’s saving work, as testimonies of salvation are shared in the waters of baptism. At Grace, we’ve often referred to Sunday night as our ‘miracle service’ as we rehearse the marvelous transaction of God breathing new life into dead sinners, in taking them out of darkness and placing them in the kingdom of His beloved Son (Col 1:13).
Discipline-In 1975, John began his teaching series on 1 Corinthians. At that time, church discipline was being discussed by very few churches and practiced by even fewer. Grace Church set the bar as a significant church that took sin seriously and began practicing consistent church discipline for unrepentant, sinning believers, all with the goal of ultimate restoration.
Women’s Role-The first month of 1979 found John preaching on the divine pattern for marriage and, in particular, the role of the wife. Many wives evaluated their priorities based on Titus 2. Several women, including some working for the church, left their jobs in order to carry out God’s mandate to be workers at home. To this day, Grace Church seeks to help homes maintain a balance by not having a negative impact on these God-ordained priorities.
Summary of his preaching:
The hallmark of John’s ministry has been the careful verse-by-verse study and exposition of the Scriptures. That is why the slogan of Grace to You is “unleashing God’s truth, one verse at a time.”
MacArthur has an expansive knowledge of the scope of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. This thorough knowledge of Scripture has served him well, especially when he has preached topical sermons. Though the bulk of his ministry has been spent expositing the New Testament, he has made good use of the Old Testament and preaching time spent therein.
Old Testament Passages Exposited:
- Genesis 1-11.
- 1 Sam. 1-2.
- Psalm 19, 22-24, 51, 107, 150.
- Proverbs 31.
- Isaiah 5-6, 8.
- Daniel 1-12.
- Zech. 1-14.
- Along with various others, selected Old Testament passages.
New Testament Passages Exposited:
- Matthew 1-28
- Luke 1-19 (continuing)
- John 1-21
- Acts 1-28
- Romans 1-16
- 1 Cor. 1-16
- 2 Cor. 1-13
- Galatians 1-6
- Ephesians 1-6
- Phil. 1-4
- Col. 1-4
- 1 Thess. 1-5
- 2 Thess. 1-3
- 1 Tim. 1-6
- 2 Tim. 1-4
- Heb. 1-13
- James 1-5
- 1 Pet. 1-5
- 2 Pet. 1-3
- 1 Jn. 1-5
- 2 & 3 Jn.
- Revelation 1-22
*The only New Testament book John had not preached through upon this writing was Mark [though, as of this current date, John has celebrated teaching through the entire New Testament, along with providing commentaries on each of those books]
Evaluation of whether or not his method is expository:
I would definitely hold John MacArthur up as a supreme model for expository preaching. That is why so many men come to the Master’s Seminary, even those who were trained in seminaries that purport to train expository preachers.
As with any preacher, John’s preaching is unique. I do not hear other preachers that preach in the same way John does at the present day.
One thing Pastor MacArthur’s preaching has been characterized by is the desire to protect the text from an artificial outline. Even though preaching is typically easier to listen to when there is an outline, John would rather teach without an outline, as long as you can follow the flow of the passage. He will not allow the common rules of homiletics to interfere with his attempt to help the listener understand.
John has spent a lot of his preaching time in the Gospels. He is very skilled at preaching narrative. He knows how to retell a story interestingly and understandably. However, he does not just retell the story. He follows the author’s flow of thought thoroughly to bring forth the principles for life the biblical text he is preaching sets forth.
Some of the commonly held rules of homiletics are not followed by John. For example, he does not feel compelled to offer a propositional statement. He assumes that his listeners already see the need to listen to the sermon. He does an outstanding job in his introduction to present a thorough background. In essence, he uses the introduction to establish the need to listen.
Another homiletical practice that he doesn’t mind ignoring is the conclusion. Since John’s sermons are typically part of a series, he keeps the story rolling in an unending sequence. Therefore, his usual conclusion is, “Come back next week to see how this story unfolds.”
A third requirement for sermons, often given in preaching rules, is to offer application for the sermon. There are times that John formulates great points of application. However, he believes that the job of application is the Holy Spirit. MacArthur would rather deliver the implication of the text. Having understood the text here’s what obedience looks like. The preacher is very limited in his ability to apply a sermon to his congregation. Due to time restraints, the preacher has to be very selective in his applicational points and is ultimately going to leave out various applications for his hearers. When asked if the sermon should be 50 percent application John’s response was, “I think that is arbitrary. I prefer to say that all of a sermon should be applicable. If I preach the Word of God powerfully and accurately, everything I say should apply.” Later he comments, “if we fail to give our hearers some clear principles they can apply, we have failed to present God’s Word properly… they will apply what they genuinely believe to be true.”
By far, one of the greatest contributions to John’s successful expository ministry has been being at Grace Community Church for nearly 40 years [now over 50]. Having ministered to the same congregation has not only forced him to remain fresh, but it has also provided a platform for him to cover a lot of ground. His father challenged him to remain in the same place for many years. Rather than go on to another church and re-preach the same series, he has been pushed to cover an expansive amount of the Scriptures.
I, along with thousands of others, am eternally indebted to this man as he has been a faithful example to follow. Thank You, Lord, for Your hand upon this man. Thank You, Lord, for the mentoring in person and from a distance, as Your man has given a pattern to follow. To You alone be all the praise, honor, and glory!!
- Rediscovering Expository Preaching– The Q & A’s in this book gives some insight.
I am indebted to Phil Johnson for a few articles in my files since John MacArthur has not been written about in a bibliographic way yet. The following articles were beneficial in the compilation of this bibliography:
- Milestones-published in 1991.
- A Preacher’s Legacy-published in a radio network magazine in the early 1990s.
- What My Parents Did Right-by John MacArthur in a book by Gloria Gaither in 1990, republished in 2002.
- John MacArthur: Servant of the Word and Flock by Iain Murray came out after the above article had been written.
 Yesterday Grace Community Church celebrated John’s 53rd anniversary as their expositional shepherd. On that same day, I concluded a 3-week series on “God & Government” and gave a shout-out in praise to God for raising up such a man as this for such a time as this. I cannot think of a louder prophetic voice over these past two tumultuous years of COVID pandemic with government overreach, along with the social justice movement that is assaulting the gospel, than John MacArthur. He has been nearly a lone voice crying in the wilderness on such issues. We pray for many more to be raised up to fill in the gap when John goes home to be with the Lord and receive his eternal reward!
 This account was re-interated by Ron himself in the privacy of his own living room when he hosted my family for a preaching engagement in which I was involved.
 Preaching: How to Preach Biblically, 281.
 IBID, 285.