A fun and convicting read of recent weeks was John MacArthur: Servant of the Word and Flock by Iain Murray. Up front, I must say that I love the writings of both Pastor MacArthur and Mr. Murray. It is a delightful intersection where these two meet. MacArthur is a popular American pastor and author, while Murray is a Scotsman who is known generally in Reformed circles. MacArthur is quite baptistic and dispensational in aspects of his theology, while Murray is Presbyterian and post-millennial in his theology.
But both men are great laborers in God’s kingdom and both have written some really good books. Both are international in the scope of their kingdom work. Both are examples of how God has used and diffused the Scots to minister throughout the lands. I have posted blogs about Iain Murray’s writings several times in the past. Click here or here to read some previous posts.
When I read a book about someone like MacArthur, I must confess that I am looking for one of two things. First, I am looking for a prescription for success. I want to find a chapter, a page, or a quote that says, in effect, “Do this and you shall have success like MacArthur.” I want the easy shortcut to achieving some version of what he has achieved. The other search is quite the opposite. I want to find some character traits, some qualities, actually some super-powers, that get me off the hook. I want to be able to say, “No wonder MacArthur is so successful and I am not. He can read 10 books a day, write 20 pages an hour, preach 1000 sermons a year, travel the globe every month, and live off air.” Personally lacking the superpowers, I can excuse my own lack of accomplishment.
Granted John MacArthur is gifted and successful. But he is an ordinary man, with some extraordinary graces. One of the key and recurring points of the book is that MacArthur dedicated himself to 30 hours of Bible study time each week. Having labored in ministry, I struggled with getting through MacArthur’s sermons on Matthew when preparing my own sermons. Having labored bi-vocationally in ministry, I was blessed when I had 10 hours in the week for study and preparation of a sermon. This book reminded me of how important Bible study is, but Bible study is a time investment. Yes, we all have time we could devote to Bible study, and yes we should all do more. But both a church and an individual pastor have to have designated, carved out time for such. The truth is that Luther and Calvin could not have been Luther and Calvin if they had been having to clock 40 plus hours a week in a law office or classroom.
Another key to MacArthur’s success and a means of his blessing so many is his insistence on expository preaching. I really profited from the first couple of volumes in his four volumes of sermons on Matthew. He has taught a whole generation how to read through, study through, and learn through books of the Bible verse by verse. I am bothered to see that expository preaching is being sidestepped in some circles. It is, in my opinion as well as that of Mark Dever in his book Nine Marks of a Church, one of the key ingredients in good church life. More could be said about MacArthur here. I think my favorite MacArthur books are Ashamed of the Gospel and Slave. I also enjoyed his study of the disciples, titled Twelve Ordinary Men. In spite of some disagreements with Strange Fire, I still found help in that book. As already stated, MacArthur’s sermons on Matthew are very instructive.
More could be said about Iain Murray as a biographer. My favorite Murray books include his two volumes on Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Jonathan Edwards. His books A Scottish Christian Heritage, Heroes, The Puritan Hope, and his biographical studies are all great encouragements. I would like to, in the spirit of the Heavy Laden Bookshelf, say something about MacArthur’s favorite books. As I have often stated, I love book lists. I love finding out who my favorite people like to read. MacArthur’s list is short, but instructive. Here are the books that MacArthur listed when he was asked what books had the greatest impact on his life. The comments that follow are mine. Arthur Bennett, ed. The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions. (Banner of Truth, 1975). I have had this book for a long time and have read off and on from these prayers. Puritans were long pilloried in American culture for being harsh, stern, and judgmental. Thankfully, there has been a revival of interest in Puritan theology in recent decades. There is no better place to begin than this collection of prayers. These are prayers to pray, imitate, and meditate. This collection is deep theology combined with intense devotion.
J. I. Packer, Knowing God. (Intervarsity Press, 1973). This book is a spiritual classic. I read it back around 1976. Packer has been one of the most influential evangelical leaders in the modern Christian world. That in itself is interesting because he is an Anglican and a thorough going Calvinist. Packer is a highly skilled writer. He is probably one of the best deep Christian thinkers who communicates with average Christians who are willing to climb.
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers. (Zondervan, 1971). This is another book that I read many years ago. I wasn’t a preacher then, but it was really helpful to me in helping me understand ministry. Lloyd-Jones was a powerful preacher and a restorer of the pastoral role in the pulpit. His sermons are still studied. His style was overwhelmingly expository. This book is his instruction for both aspiring and veteran preachers.
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. (Eerdmans, 1977) I have read from this book for years. Last year, I devoted 31 sermons to the Sermon on the Mount. Lloyd-Jones had over 50 sermons in his series. This book is a gold mine of practical Christian living, expository preaching, and sound doctrine. It can be read as a commentary, as a model for preaching, as a sourcebook for preaching, as a theological study, or as a devotional study. It can be read from cover to cover or dipped into and read in parts.
Arthur Pink, Spiritual Growth. (Baker, 1971) I am not exactly familiar with this book. Lots of Pink titles have been packaged under different names, so I may have the book. I don’t find too many people reading and talking about Pink in our times. He was a contrarian at times, and his theological application was undiluted. But he was a good servant of the Lord and proponent of Sovereign Grace in a time when such doctrines were rarely heard. I personally would recommend The Sovereignty of God and The Attributes of God by Mr.Pink. Iain Murray’s biography of Pink is a good read.
John R. W. Stott, The Preacher’s Portrait. (Tyndale, 1967) I am not familiar with this book, but I did find Stott’s book Between Two Worlds to be one of the best books I ever read (and re-read) on ministry. Stott and Lloyd-Jones were contemporaries and friends (most of the time). Stott’s books are all worth acquiring. This book consists of five messages, or chapters, devoted to different aspects of the preacher’s role.
Thomas Watson, The Beatitudes (Banner of Truth, 1975) I acquired several of Thomas Watson’s books many years ago. I gleaned some from this intense study when I preached through the Beatitudes. Watson is one of the great Puritan preachers and writers to study. Be aware that when a Puritan delves into a text, he doesn’t skim and skate over the top. Puritans mined for gold. They exegeted, applied, explored, made connections, and applied some more. A simple passage, like the Beatitudes, becomes a nice sized book filled with lots of theological content.
Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (Banner of Truth, 1970) This is Watson’s exposition and sermons on the Westminster Shorter Catechism. This is what MacArthur said about this book: “I read it and read it and marked it up, when I was still a seminary student, sorting through lots of things.”
Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God (Klock and Klock, 1977; later published by Baker Book House, and included later in a five volume Banner of Truth set called The Works of Stephen Charnock). I got the Baker set years ago and used it on occasion. Recently, I picked up an additional good set of the Baker edition, which I sold to a friend. We both profited. Of this book, MacArthur says, “I was absolutely blown away by the fact that this guy could say so much about the existence and attributes of God. It’s the kind of book you read all your life; you have to take it in small doses because it is so loaded.” [Suggestion: Buy yourself a set of The Works of Stephen Charnock and buy an extra set for me. If money is a problem, just buy me a set.]
It’s interesting that all these significant author/influences on MacArthur were British. And four of the nine titles are Puritan works. Most are still in print and many are Banner of Truth titles. John MacArthur, no doubt, has read and used much more than these classics. But these are the essential titles. This is the glimpse behind the curtain to see where much of his power lies. It is not the books alone. The biography, as stated above, emphasizes his dedication to intense personal Bible study. MacArthur also has a faithful and supportive wife, and Murray’s chapter on Mrs. MacArthur is quite good. He has also been surrounded by faithful elders and a faithful congregation. I don’t reckon many others will experience the success of MacArthur in terms of numbers, book sales, name recognition, and so on. Those things don’t really or ultimately matter. One may preach and influence 1 or a thousand. God is Sovereign over numbers. Our task, like that exemplified by MacArthur and Murray, is to be faithful in that task.