A review of Why Government Can’t Save You. By John MacArthur.

Word Publishing, 2000.

I enjoy many of the books by John MacArthur. He often writes sensibly and incisively. However in this book I think he forces us into a wrong understanding of the issue of Christian social involvement.

While John MacArthur acknowledges that Christians should not escape cultural and political involvement altogether, his basic thesis is that our main calling is “spiritual” (evangelism, worship, etc.) while other tasks (social reform, political participation, etc.) are at best only of limited value and at worst are “worldly” and a waste of time.

Thus the essence of his argument is to make a dichotomy – in my view, a false dichotomy – between spiritual work like evangelism and earthly activity like cultural renewal. He just sees these as polar opposites and forces Christians to make a choice. What is it, evangelism or social reform? What is it, doing things God’s way, or man’s way?

But many, including myself, see this as a false dilemma. We believe that Christians are to do both. It is not a question of either-or but both-and. That has always been the case with the Christian church throughout history. Wherever Christian missionaries went, they both preached the gospel and did social good. Hospitals, education, prison reform, improvement of the welfare of women and children, etc. have been part and parcel of the Christian mission. Thus the Christian church has been at its best when it has been up to its ears in social reform.

MacArthur would have us believe that attempts to alleviate social wrongs are a diversion or worse. I am glad William Wilberforce did not heed the advice of those who said he was wasting his time, or being unspiritual, when he took on the slave trade because of his Christian conviction of the dignity of all human life. If he had listened to the nay-sayers like MacArthur we would still be fighting slavery today. I am glad Wilberforce ignored such advice and fought what looked to many to be a losing battle. Thus today we do not have to re-fight the battle over slavery (at least not in the West).

The point is, the Christian message is to be holistic – all areas of life are to come under God’s sovereignty. That means being salt and light in a dying and decaying world. Of course we don’t give up on evangelism. Of course people need inner transformation. But that does not mean we stop doing what is right, whether that means working in a secular job to feed our children, or running for political office to be salt and light. Whatever God calls us to do, we should do it.

MacArthur simply forces us into an either-or position that Scripture does not require of us. For a better discussion of the Christian’s role in society, see the works by Charles Colson or Janet and Craig Parshall.

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11 Replies to “A review of Why Government Can’t Save You. By John MacArthur.”

  1. This rebuttal on Government Can’t Save You By John MacArthur is put very well. I could not really add to that.
    Thank You, Tony Couppee

  2. I really don’t view what Wilberforce did as political involvement. I have heard preachers get involved in politics from the pulpit, John MacArthur included. I know there were those in the OT that were involved; I think of Joseph and Daniel, and there may have been others; but is there any record of anyone, after the coming of the Spirit, that was involved in politics? This has bothered me for a long time. I certainly don’t limit God–that He might have a purpose for a believer to run, and possibly serve, in some office, but should that be our pursuit?

    Kind Regards,
    Jack

  3. Thanks Jack. But to be honest, I do hope you are joking. Wilberforce spent over 50 years of his 72-year life fully and directly involved in politics. He was an English Parliamentarian who ceaselessly used the political process to express his evangelical concerns on a whole range of social and political issues, most notably his long-standing campaign against slavery. How in the world can that NOT be described as political involvement?! There were very few born-again Christians who were as politically involved and committed as Wilberforce was. You may need to learn a little bit more about his life. See here for starters: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2007/02/23/the-bicentennial-of-wilberforce-and-the-abolition-of-slavery/

    I am rather stunned to find that you somehow think Christian political involvement is so very strange, or basically something no genuine Christian would even consider. Why? Wilberforce is of course our primary example of a devout Christian who fully obeyed his Lord and served him his entire life in politics.

    And I am even more shocked that you seriously ask if ‘anyone, after the coming of the Spirit, was involved in politics’. Seriously? There of course would have been tens of thousands of dedicated Christians involved in politics over the centuries. As just one obvious example, at the moment the Prime Minister of Australia happens to be a born-again, Spirit-filled Christian. Other famous Australian Christians who are or have been politicians include: John Anderson, Peter Costello, Fred Nile, Gordon Moyes, Andrew Evans, and Eric Abetz to name but a few.

    Why in the world should all this be seen to be odd, or somehow not very Christian? Where did you ever get this idea that Christians should NOT be salt and light in every area of life, including in the political sphere? Why should our faith not have a godly impact in all spheres of life?

    As Neil Mammen rightly put it in his book, Jesus Is Involved in Politics:

    Remember too, that things like abortion and homosexuality and divorce deal with death and destruction and thus they are moral issues. Since they are moral issues, they are biblical issues. Being moral issues they are also issues of the law, for the law is the legislation of morality. Since politics is concerned with the law, they are thus political issues. Anyone who says we should keep the church out of politics is spouting nonsense. The church has to be involved with moral issues precisely due to the damage they cause to innocents. The church has to care about true social justice to obey the second commandment. The law is all about morality, and politics is all about the law, so how can the church not be involved in politics?

  4. I admit my comment about Wilberforce was made in ignorance, I don’t know much about him. I didn’t say there were no “Christians” involved in politics since the coming of the Spirit, I ask if there was any “record”, by record I meant, scriptural NT record. Does the NT back up what you are saying? Are there any examples, in the NT, of anyone being involved in politics?

  5. Thanks again Jack. I did provide a link so that you might learn about Wilberforce, so please have a read. No need to stay ignorant here!

    As to your other claim, we just need to put our thinking cap on here. Here are two replies. Do we have any record in the New testament of Christians helping AIDS victims, or standing against abortion, or promoting holiness while they oppose pornography, or working against sexual trafficking, or setting up hospitals? Just because the NT is silent on certain things does NOT mean we cannot be involved in them. If that is your Christian rule of thumb, then you should not be using the internet, not have pianos in worship, not eat fast food, not drive a car, and not use online study Bibles, etc. Arguing from silence is never very helpful.

    Also, the simple truth is this: the early church was a persecuted sect, simply seeking to stay alive. It was seen as dangerous by the government of the day, and was the subject of government opposition and persecution. Um, you don’t join in with a government or get involved in politics when they are seeking to wipe you out! But see more on all this here:

    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/06/21/on-christian-political-involvement/

  6. Actually, I’m racking my brain to think of even one positive Bible character who WASN’T involved in politics. This begs the question – “If you are supposed to be living for God, why would you NOT be involved in politics?”
    I should make a comprehensive list, but here’s some off the top of my head….
    Abraham, rubbing shoulders with Pharoah, military commander, rich businessman
    Joseph, 2nd in charge of Egypt
    Moses, leader of Israel for 40 years
    David, King of Israel, worship leader and famous songwriter
    Daniel, adviser to multiple kings and empires
    Isaiah, Elijah and pretty much all the prophets who where constantly addressing the kings,
    and JESUS of course, always at loggerheads with the religious rulers and criticising Herod
    Peter, Paul, Stephen and pretty much all the disciples, addressing leaders of all sorts, which is just as Jesus predicted: Matt 2:10 “You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell the rulers and other unbelievers about me.”
    So if politics never happens in our life, does this mean we are not really having as much effect as we should?

  7. If I may add to the above examples, Paul actually used his political benefits as a Roman citizen to criticize and reprimand the political authorities for committing a “social injustice” against him personally (Acts 16:22-23,35-39; 22:24-29)! Had Paul not exercised his political rights against unjust tyranny, who knows whether we would even have his New Testament letters today, not to mention some of the churches God started through his preaching and writing?
    – Arnie

  8. Thank you Bill and those who have debated this topic of whether Christians can have a role in politics or contribute to helping the disadvantaged, the victims of sexual abuse, or stand for pro life or for the elderly who may suffer elderly abuse.
    I am just reinforcing a few thoughts and adding comments to the last few contributions.

    i. The statement that came up earlier, ‘The govt can’t save us’ is true spiritually speaking since only Jesus saves and forgives our sin and has made a way to receive eternal life through Him by faith. As see the Bible commands, it is our mandate to share the good news and focus our life on Christ and living for Him, but as it has been said the gospel must go out hand in hand with with love and care, and frequently this involves acts of kindness, prayer, healing/medical help, or working for justice but it may mean a person is social worker or policeman or paramedic who are helping to rescue children or women from abusive homes, or it may involve being a Federal Govt Ambassador to another country to help refugees or to promote justice.

    ii. Further examples of Christians in ‘political’ roles (or social/political) There are so many roles in life Christians may be called to, including administration and helps. (eg in early days Gladys Alyward obeyed the call to go to China to unbind g baby’s feet and to to help bring the gospel to the poor and pressed while Dr David Livingstone became an explorer in Africa who shared the gospel and helped the sick.. PM Winston Churchill was used by God to bravely face the Nazi terror and to go to war to combat evil and lead his nation against Fascism and against anti Semitism. Others like the married couple (author of a book ‘hospital on the River Nile’ have given their lives to help operate as gynecological doctors saving lives. Dr Catherine Hamilton is still working in Africa in her 80’s. Wm Wilberforce wanted to be a minister but God led him to be in Parliament to stand against slavery. he lost his health in those heavy years of battle and died of a form of respiratory illness eg TB due to overwork and having no respite care. he didn’t even live to see his laws were passed in the end so he was like one of the heroes of the faith (Hebrews chpt 11) who lived by faith and saw the heavenly city await him but not the earthly results of his mission. Another hero of the faith was Bonhoeffer who was a minister but felt led to join the resistance against Hitler and help make a stand. It cost him his life, and being in prison deprived him from marrying his beloved fiance but he paid the price and testified to God all the way through (knowing eternal life awaited him…that was a witness in itself, like the apostle Paul in prison)

    iii. There is also a call to prayer in 1 Timothy chpt 3 ‘to pray unceasingly for all in authority’ …that we might ‘have peace ‘in the land. That point was made by Paul to Timothy but it was an instruction for all churches. We can’t ignore its importance as God has appointed rules and kings and knows each one who is in power and He has the ultimate authority over them, since ‘he raises up the righteous (as we pray) and puts down the wicked’ (as we pray.)…I think this a major commandment that has been perhaps taken lightly by many churches and yet it is in the epistles and Peter too reminds us that god will judge our deeds through the Govt powers (who should reward those who do good) – Peter warns we will also suffer for doing wrong when those Govt agencies and the courts carry out the law. (I know todays society is not matching up ‘perfect justice’ but God will even the scales as on Judgement Day.

    iv. In conjunction with our lack of prayer for the Govt (state and federal) we see and will see more of a decline in justice and good Govt… so we must keep on being informed and play a part in society eg voting, praying, supporting righteous candidates and praying against (or standing against) oppression of the poor, elderly, children who are victims of predators or standing against school systems that want to teach transgender and homosexuality, especially when young minds can’t discern right from wrong and can be taught a lie or distorted view of the human body.

    iv. One problem in all this is that the in the last days we are told mankind will be haters of God, haters of good, unruly, disrespectful and lawless. Its hard for all of us in this century to be a voice against the tide…but we still must pray others are convicted of the way of truth and speak up (with wisdom and when giving ‘a word in season’) but speak in love and with God’s Holy Spirit leading. Some may turn to Christ due to our prayer and witness. Others may not. We leave them in Gods hands and keep on sharing the gospel with those who are open but also bless those and forgive those who may persecute us in return. (The fact we forgive can be a ‘loud’ or compelling witness, and the fact we show a spirit of self control and the fruit of the spirit may attract someone who cant explain why there is a peaceful response)

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