John MacArthur has registered his protest against the widely circulated The Manhattan Declaration (MD), a document championing explicitly Christian ethics in the face of political correctness and hammered out by conservative Christian leaders Robert George, Timothy George and the late Chuck Colson. MacArthur doesn’t dispute the ethical truths the MD is defending, but he charges that it compromises the Gospel. How? The MD enlists believers from all main sectors of Christendom — Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy — to present a united front in the socio-political battles confronting our regnant anti-life, anti-family culture. MacArthur is troubled by this ethical ecumenism, charging that the MD constitutes a hodgepodge that papers over those massive theological differences between Christians that center on the Gospel. How, MacArthur asks, can the Protestant signatories refer to their “apostate” Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox colleagues as brothers? Is not the Gospel the only thing that really counts in the end?
The short answer is no.
The Gospel: Redemption Applied and Accomplished
MacArthur is wrong on two counts. First, he over-generalizes and oversimplifies the Gospel. Do the signatories disagree on aspects of the Gospel? You bet, and they acknowledge this disagreement. But on what aspects of the Gospel do they disagree? Not on the historic events at the root of the Gospel: Jesus’ atoning death and bodily resurrection, which the Gospel declares (1 Cor. 15:1–8). All the signatories, affirming Christian orthodoxy as they do, cherish the historic dimensions of the Biblical Gospel. In the words of the late Protestant theologian John Murray, this is the “accomplishment” of redemption, and the signatories stand shoulder to shoulder in affirming it. Where they disagree is over the “application” of redemption. How do humans appropriate the benefits of Christ’s atoning death and bodily resurrection? By faith alone, by mental assent, by an obedient faith, by faith and works, by faith within the sacramental system of the church? There’s the rub, and it is not inconsequential. The answer to how the benefits of the historic events of the Gospel are applied is nearly as vital as the events themselves. Nonetheless, in the modern era in which the events of the historic Gospel have been assaulted on alleged scientific grounds, we should equally recognize the catholicity of truth, orthodox Christians united around the bold affirmation of those redemptive events. In this sense, contrary to MacArthur’s accusations, “Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant Evangelicals and others all share a common faith,” and he is mistaken when he says, “[T]he Declaration obscures both the importance of the gospel and the very substance of the gospel message.” The document may obscure the differences over the application of redemption, but it does not obscure “the very substance of the gospel message,” which centers on the redemptive events that all of the signatories champion. We should neither overemphasize nor underemphasize differences over the application of redemption, but we should relish the unity over the accomplishment of redemption.
Lordship: Bigger than the Gospel
Second, and more relevantly, MacArthur underestimates the Lordship of Jesus Christ. He writes:
Although I obviously agree with the document’s opposition to same-sex marriage, abortion, and other key moral problems threatening our culture, the document falls far short of identifying the one true and ultimate remedy for all of humanity’s moral ills: the gospel. The gospel is barely mentioned in the Declaration. At one point the statement rightly acknowledges, “It is our duty to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness, both in season and out of season”—and then adds an encouraging wish: “May God help us not to fail in that duty.” Yet the gospel itself is nowhere presented (much less explained) in the document or any of the accompanying literature. Indeed, that would be a practical impossibility because of the contradictory views held by the broad range of signatories regarding what the gospel teaches and what it means to be a Christian. (emphasis in original)
It is hard to believe that the signatories would actually deny that the “true and ultimate remedy for all of humanity’s moral ills [is] the gospel,” but they are not offering the “true and ultimate remedy,” only insisting on their right “to speak and act in defense of these [ethical] truths” amid a politically correct civil government (the state) that threatens to silence them. In short, the MD is about the political liberty that Christianity demands, not about the efficacy of the Gospel, the truly “true and ultimate remedy for all of humanity’s moral ills.”
But the fact is, the state must never be about the Gospel or redemption, only about justice (Rom. 13:1–7). We have a name for political systems that profess to furnish redemption: totalitarianisms. The old Soviet Union, for example, tried to reengineer humanity, fashioning “The New Man,” purged of greed and the profit motive and bowing to all things political. That tyrannical government resorted to obloquy, abuse, intimidation, torture, murder and genocide to accomplish its goal of humanity’s salvation. When individuals abandon the message of salvation in Jesus Christ, they do not abandon the quest for salvation; they simply transfer it to some other entity. In the 20th century, that entity was the omnicompetent state. It is just this sort of religiously interventionist state in the United States that the MD fears may attempt to silence distinctively Christian vocal opposition to the prevalent anti-life and anti-family climate — just as it has in numerous governments around the world.
The Faith Is Bigger than the Gospel
The MD presupposes an ethical calling wider than the Gospel, and we dare not shrink from the implications of this wholly valid assumption: the Gospel is one of the great themes of the Bible without which there can be no “true and ultimate remedy for all of humanity’s moral ills,” but the Gospel is not the entire, or even the most important, message of the Bible. It is a crucial dimension of an even more momentous message, which is the sovereignty of God over all things (2 Chron. 20:6; Ps. 103:19; Pr. 21:1; Zech. 9:10; 1 Tim. 1:17; Rev. 19:6). This message declares that God is the sovereign over the universe, and that in this age he has bequeathed that sovereignty to his Son, Jesus Christ (Ps. 2:6–12; Is. 9:7; Dan. 7:14; 1 Cor. 15:25; Heb. 2:5–18). This sovereignty includes a Christian view of the state, which binds that institution to a very limited task — the preservation of public justice (Rom. 13:1–7), not the propagation of redemption. The MD is implicitly appealing for a more Christian, that is to say, a very limited, role for the state. The MD is suggesting that Jesus is Lord of the state, too, not just Lord of redemption. And when the state transgresses its God-ordained role, it stands as a rebel against the kingdom of Jesus Christ to which it, too, and not just the church, is called to submit.
To his credit, for over two decades John MacArthur has been at the forefront of the so-called “Lordship Salvation,” the view that in trusting Jesus for salvation, we submit to him as Lord and not merely accept him as Savior. Jesus is both Savior and Lord, and if sinners wish to enjoy the benefits of rescue from God’s judgment for their sin, they must submit to Jesus’ Lordship, not just recognize him as their Savior. This is the Biblical view, and MacArthur has likely been its most visible and unflagging advocate. For this courageous advocacy, we all should be grateful.
But what MacArthur does not seem to grasp, and what the signatories of the MD do grasp, at least intuitively, is that the Lordship of Jesus is wider than individual salvation. This fact is easy to prove. In the classic early hymn preserved in Philippians 2, for example, we read that God has exalted his crucified and risen Son, before whom every knee will one day bow and every tongue confess — not just the knees and tongues of believers. Similarly, in Hebrews 2:8 we read that God has subordinated all things to Jesus Christ. The Lordship of Jesus is a universal fact, not just a redemptive fact.
This is to say that Jesus is Lord of the state, just as he is Lord of everything else. But as Lord of the state, he (through his appointed political ministers [Rom. 13:4]) exercises purely juridical, not redemptive, Lordship. This is another way of saying that the Lordship of Jesus Christ is larger than the Gospel. A state that implements the Lordship of Jesus (knowingly or not) limits itself to issues of justice — for instance, coercively protecting life, liberty and property. It affords religious liberty (and not just for Christians), the very liberty that the MD is anxious may be evaporating in our politically correct age. To say “Jesus is Lord” is to say that the state, not just the individual, family and church, stands under, and is limited by, Jesus’ authority.
Ironically, though MacArthur avers the Lordship of Jesus Christ, he stops short of a full-orbed affirmation. An old evangelical adage has it that “if Jesus isn’t Lord of all, he’s not Lord at all.” By limiting Jesus’ Lordship to salvation, and not recognizing its claims in the state, MacArthur unintentionally compromises that Lordship. He has been a powerful defender of Lordship Salvation. I humbly invite MacArthur to champion Lordship everything.
One of the pressing issues of our time is whether Christians, in a flagrantly pluralistic and relativist postmodern age, will press the claims of Jesus’ Lordship in all spheres of life, including the political sphere. Secularism claims its own lordship, and it has driven Christianity to the margins of modern life, a marginalization abetted by Christians themselves, who too often limit the Lordship of Jesus Christ to the individual, family and, at most, the church. The MD takes a step toward recovering an understanding of the full-fledged Lordship of Jesus — that Christians must speak prophetically to the ethical issues of the time, and expect the state to stay within its divinely prescribed limits. Just as Jesus’ Lordship is wider than the church, so Christians’ message must be wider than the Gospel. The signatories of the MD do not expect the “true and ultimate remedy for all of humanity’s moral ills” to be anything other than the Gospel, no matter how they may disagree on its application. They do, however, expect the state to conform to its divinely circumscribed limits.
After all, “If Jesus isn’t Lord of all, he’s not Lord at all.”