I had honestly never read anything like it in my life. I found a copy of Ashamed of the Gospel at our local used bookstore when I was a college sophomore. I didn’t know anything about it, nor even about its author, John F. MacArthur Jr. I had heard our young pastor mention his name several times, and in an earnest desire to understand theology better I thought I’d drop the $2.75 and take the book home to read. It blew me away. Ashamed of the Gospel opened my eyes to the shallowness of the church culture I was at that time pursuing.
The subtitle of the book states plainly MacArthur’s target. “When the church becomes like the world,” was an indictment of the contemporary church’s adoption of pragmatism. Written in 1993 it was directly targeting the seeker-sensitive movement, which MacArthur saw as accommodating culture in order to soften the hard truths of the gospel. Taking his cue from the 19th Century Baptist preacher C.H. Spurgeon and his response to the Down Grade Controversy, MacAthur aims to sound the alarms. He was calling the church to a recovery of strong doctrinal commitment over entertainment. More pointedly, MacArthur claimed that what Spurgeon experienced in the down-grade of Christianity during his time is being reenacted in our own day. He writes:
A hundred years later, we are seeing history repeat itself. The evangelical church has become worldly – and not just worldly, but studiously so. Winds of doctrinal compromise are beginning to stir. “False doctrine and worldliness” – the same two influences Spurgeon attacked – always go hand in hand, with worldliness leading the way. Christians today tend to forget that modernism was not first of all a theological agenda but a methodological one. Early modernists were not trying to hit at the core of biblical faith; they were simply trying to make Christianity more palatable to a cynical world. The same spirit is rampant in the church today. (23)
His book is a stinging critique and a strong commendation of that “old-time religion.”
Honestly, I had never read anything like it. At the time of my introduction to MacArthur’s work I had settled in my own mind to be a more “relevant” kind of Christian. I was going to be the pastor of the first Punk Rock Church. I had selected as my model/mentor Jay Bakker, and was set to pursue a host of compelling ways that Christianity could become relevant to the world again. My own arrogance and ignorance were on full display. Then I stumbled onto this book and it shook me. It unnerved me, unsettled me, and angered me even. I couldn’t put it down. It was littered with Scripture references, full of insight and commentary that I had never considered. MacArthur’s anger and frustration with the church seemed to ooze off the page and became infused in my own mind as I considered all that he was saying. The more I read the more I realized I had settled for an anemic church culture that was not going to fuel anyone on to godliness and spiritual growth.
The book alone might not have done this. I might have just as easily tossed it aside as continued reading it. After all, I hadn’t ever read a theology book before – this was my first. But I was being discipled by a good, gracious, and godly pastor at that time. He was helping me to consider afresh what I believed, why I believed it, and what I needed. He was already pushing me to consider new ideas about church, ideas that, as it turned out, were actually really old. As a young college kid I was attending weekly worship at a church with almost no other college students and a host of sweet seventy year old ladies. I was being reshaped by this pastor already. MacArthur’s rather bold monograph accelerated that reshaping.
In the years since I have taken issue with some of MacArthur’s dogmatic statements about the methods of the seeker-sensitive church. I’ve perhaps been able to see some value in the things that they adopted. Not all pragmatism is theologically flawed. I have also tended to abandon some of his harsh tone. Having not read the book for a number of years it’s difficult to say what I would still affirm and what I might want to nuance. Nonetheless, I am certain I can still cling to the heart of the book.
A church needs strong doctrine. Whatever other methods and contemporary trappings it might utilize to communicate truth or make people feel welcomed, it should emphasize a commitment to the deep truths of Scripture. God used this book to reshape my entire paradigm for the church. I am immensely grateful for Ashamed of the Gospel, even if I might feel differently about some parts of it today.