by Mike Ratliff
I have had John MacArthur’s book The Truth War on my reading list ever since it was first published a couple of years ago. In fact, I bought it as soon as it was available. However, I have only recently had the opportunity to actually read it. I am very glad I did. While I was reading The Jesus You Can’t Ignore a couple of weeks ago, I kept berating myself for putting it ahead of The Truth War. Of course, I had it in my head that there would be a great deal of continuity between the two books. I envisioned that they would be bookends to the issue of the growing apostasy in the visible church. In a way, that assumption was correct.
As I read The Truth War, I found myself nodding in agreement all through it as John MacArthur gave examples of false preachers and teachers in ministries that clearly violate the clear message from God’s Word.
In the Introduction he writes:
Who would have thought that people claiming to be Christians—even pastors—would attack the very notion of truth?
But they are.
A recent issue of Christianity Today featured a cover article about the “Emerging Church.” That is the popular name for an informal affiliation of Christian communities worldwide who want to revamp the church, change the way Christians interact with their culture, and remodel the way we thing about truth itself. The article included a profile of Rob and Kristen Bell, the husband and wife team who founded Mars Hill—a very large and steadily growing Emerging community in Grand Rapids, Michigan. According to the article, the Bells
found themselves increasingly uncomfortable with church. “Life in the church had become so small,” Kristen says. “it had worked for me for a long time. Then it stopped working.” The Bells started questioning their assumptions about the Bible itself—“discovering the Bible as a human product,” as Rob puts it, rather than the product of divine fiat. “The Bible is still the center for us,” Rob says, “but it is a different kind of center. We want to embrace mystery, rather than conquer it.” “I grew up thinking that we’ve figured out the Bible,” Kristen says, “that we knew what it means. Now I have no idea what most of it means. And yet I feel like life is big again—like life used to be black and white, and now it’s in color.”1
One dominant theme pervades the whole article: in the Emerging Church movement, truth (to whatever degree such a concept is even recognized) is assumed to be inherently hazy, indistinct, and uncertain—perhaps even ultimately unknowable.2
In this, we see the thesis for John MacArthur’s The Truth War. Using the New Testament Epistle of Jude as the foundation, he uses Sacred Scripture in contrast to actual quotes from Emergents such as Doug Pagitt and Seeker-Sensitive advocates such as Rick Warren, to cement home to the believer why the Church is so apostate in our time. The missing part is submission to God’s Truth as The Truth. Hence, we are in the midst of a war. One thing I appreciated as I read through these things was that he not only showed the error, but why it harms the Church and offends God. In the chapter “Constrained Into Conflict,” we are given the foundation of the thesis and why it is the duty of all Christians to be warriors in the long war for the truth.
Like sin itself, apostasy is by no means a recent phenomenon, and it is not even something unique to the Christian era. From that moment in the garden when the serpent brought his war against the truth into the world of humanity—through the close of the Old Testament canon and beyond, right down to the present day—the campaign against truth has been unrelenting and shockingly effective.
Again and again in the Old Testament, Israel was solemnly warned not to defect. Apostates nonetheless can be found in every period of Old Testament history. At times, it seemed as if the entire nation had apostatized at once. In Elijah’s generation, for instance (at a time when the total population of Israel almost surely could be counted in the millions), the number of the faithful dwindled to some seven thousand (1 Kings 19:18). Elijah even imagined for a while that he was the last true believer alive!3
So apostasy, appalling and dismal though it is, has been an ever-present reality throughout all of redemptive history. Many people who know the truth reject it anyway, and thus it has always been. In that respect, the times in which we live are by no means extraordinary.4
Dr. MacArthur goes on to say that our Lord encountered this very same apostasy throughout His ministry.
Jesus’ teaching made the truth starkly clear. These people, who evidently saw the truth plainly and understood Jesus’ teaching perfectly well, turned away anyway. In fact, the utter clarity of the truth was the very thing that drove them away. When they saw the truth for what it was, they simply hated it. It was too demanding, too unpopular, too inconvenient, too much of a threat to their own agenda, and too much of a rebuke to their sin. Remember, “men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19)
So that is how the New Testament era began. Scripture also teaches that apostasy will be widespread at the end of the age. In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus gave an extended description of the last days, including this: “Many false prophets will rise up and deceive many” (Matthew 24:11). Peter likewise prophesied that “scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming?” (2 Peter 3:3-4). In 1 Timothy 4:1-2, the apostle Paul says, “The Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron.” As a matter of fact, one of the major turning points at the end of this age will be a worldwide renunciation of the truth and a wholesale rejection of Christ, known as “the falling away” (apostasia), according to 2 Thessalonians 2:3.5
The next chapter is “Creeping Apostasy: How False Teachers Sneak In.” Here we read how easy it is for false teachers to fool people and appear to be legitimate Christian leaders while being totally apostate. Dr. MacArthur uses many very good examples from our own time as well as Biblical examples of apostates targeting the Gospel in attempts to lead as many as possible from it to bondage to legalism, like the Judiazers, or to outright heresy like the Gnostics. The last subchapter in this chapter is titled “A Caution For The Present Time” in which Dr. MacArthur says:
What was happening in Jude’s day is still happening today. The enemy’s strategy in the Truth War hasn’t changed. Therefore Jude’s admonition applies to us as much as it applied to the original recipients of the epistle. False teachers still assault the church with quasi-Christian ideas. Heretics also still arise from within the church itself, and they still demand recognition and tolerance from Christians, even while they are laboring hard to undermine the very foundations of true faith. They are even repeating all the same lies. Their teaching must be opposed and clearly refuted with the plain truth of God’s Word. The apostle Paul said something similar, but in even stronger terms: “[their] mouths must be stopped” (Titus 1:11).6
In the following chapters Dr. MacArthur shows us the subtlety of heresy and how it can be very hard to eradicate if we are not vigilant and ready to defend God’s truth when they attack. He used the examples of Sabellianism, which is found in our time in Oneness Pentecostalism. It denies the Holy Trinity. He also examined the Arianism era. This heresy denies the deity of Christ. He closes the chapter “Heresy’s Subtlety” by stating:
One of the main lessons of Jude’s epistle is that Christians must never cease fighting. We cannot pretend error is no longer worth battling in our generation. We should not imagine that the enemy has finally shifted into retreat mode. The war against the truth goes on continuously, unrelentingly, on multiple fronts—and it always has.7
The last chapter in The Truth War is titled “How to Survive in an Age of Apostasy: Learning from the Lessons of History.” After giving us Biblical examples of how to deal with apostasy, he contrasts that with what is happening in our time. First, he states the problem:
By contrast, today’s church-growth experts seem to have no confidence in Scripture’s power. They are convinced the gospel needs to be “contextualized,” streamlined, and revamped anew for every generation. Forty years of that approach has left evangelicals grossly untaught, wholly unprepared to defend the truth, and almost entirely unaware of how much is at stake. The evangelical movement itself has become an monstrosity, its vast size and visibility belying its almost total spiritual failure. One thing is certain: the cumbersome movement that most people today would label “evangelical” is populated with large numbers of people who are on the wrong side in the Truth War.
We are right back in the same situation the church was in a hundred years ago, when modernists were busily reinventing the Christian faith. Far from being a strong voice and a powerful force for the cause of truth, the evangelical movement itself has become the main battleground.
Moreover, the postmodernists who are beginning to dominate the evangelical movement are employing exactly the same strategies, pleading for precisely the same kinds of doctrinal modifications, and even using some of the very same arguments modernists used when they took over the mainline denominations a century ago.8
But the war against the truth as not abated one bit. Just when evangelicals ought to be celebrating the triumph of the biblical doctrines and evangelical principles they have long fought for against modernist influences, large segments of evangelicalism are instead adopting the rubric of postmodernism—and thus unwittingly resurrecting the very same dangerous kinds of doctrinal compromise our spiritual ancestors stood against when they opposed modernism.9
I am convinced that the greatest danger facing Christians today has infiltrated the church already. Countless false teachers already have prominent platforms in the evangelical movement; evangelicals themselves are loath to practice discernment or question or challenge anything taught within their movement; and many leading evangelicals have concluded no doctrine or point of theology is worth earnestly contending for.10
And, here we have it. This is the contamination of the postmodernist thought into the Church. The Word of God clearly says that God’s Truth is The Truth and there is no ambiguity in it whatsoever. However, postmodernism teaches that everything is relative. Dr. MacArthur does a fine job throughout this book in showing what this contamination has done to the visible church. No one, it seems, is willing to stand up to these people, draw a line in the sand, and lay God’s Truth out there as non-negotiable. However, God has His people and He is awakening some of us to this that we may warn the rest. In this we must be thankful and obedient in raising the alarm and not be naïve in believing the lie that all we are called to be as Christians is nice and unassuming.
Dr. MacArthur closes this fine book with an Appendix titled “Why Discernment is Out of Fashion.” I found this chapter to be the most succinct statement of what our position must be in the Truth War. He closes this fine chapter with:
Can we as the church regain our ability to be discerning? Only by growing up spiritually. That means confronting the spirit of a relativistic age and diligently applying ourselves to the unfailing Word of God. We cannot gain discernment overnight or through a mystical experience. Discernment will come only as we train our minds to be understanding in the truth of God’s Word and learn to apply that truth skillfully to our lives.11
I believe all Christians should read The Truth War by John MacArthur. He is right in that most professing Christians are biblically ignorant and undiscerning. I rejoice, however, in that since I have begun this ministry, God has encouraged me with friendships from His people from all over this world who have not bowed the knee to Baal. We still need to be educated though and books like The Truth War and The Jesus You Can’t Ignore should be required reading for us. We must learn to be discerning and, in this, ask God for courage and boldness in standing against the false teachers, apostates, and heretics in our day who are seeking to abolish God’s Truth as The Truth.
Soli Deo Gloria!
1Andy Crouch, “The Emergent Mystique,” Christianity Today, November 2004, 37-38 emphasis added.
2John MacArthur, The Truth War (Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 2007), ix-x.