Book Review, “Slave” by John MacArthur

The following is a book review I wrote for a class I took at my church in spring 2011 (Bible Boot camp / Fundamentals of the Faith) on the book Slave by John MacArthur.  See after the break for the full review.

Book Review, Slave by John MacArthur

I. Summary

The fundamental premise of the book Slave, by John MacArthur, is summed up by the title of its first chapter (“One Hidden Word”) – this word being slave.  The meaning of this hidden word, MacArthur argues, is of great importance to the Christian faith in regards to the believer’s understanding of his relationship with Christ.  MacArthur puts it succinctly by concluding the book with “To be a Christian is to be a slave of Christ.”

He indicates that the hidden nature of the word slave stems from our English language translations of the Bible.  The majority of our modern translations (and many of the more prominent ones historically such as the KJV) do not translate the Greek word doulos as slave, but as some variant of servant.  MacArthur presents some exceptions to this such as the HCSB and a number of modern non-English translations that correctly translate the word. He also presents possible reasons for this mistranslation – influence by older non-original language translations such as the Latin Vulgate and the stigmas attached to the institution of slavery in Western culture.

MacArthur rightly indicates that he is certainly not the first watchman on the wall to notice this, as he calls it, “cover-up”.  He is without a doubt the most notable 21st century author to sound the trumpet on this though, and his assertion that the nature of this truth has been hidden from the modern Christian is not lost on this writer.  Concerned with this cover-up, he has gone to great length to bring proper context to the modern reader on the subject of slavery as it would have been understood by the contemporaries of the biblical authors.

Throughout many of the chapters of Slave, he goes into extensive detail regarding the nature of slavery as it was in the Roman empire.  He takes many of these historical facts about that system of slavery and applies them to the relationship between Christ and His followers.  These similarities he illustrates between a pagan system of slavery and the slave/master relationship between a believer and Jesus Christ include:

  • slaves were property and were owned (not simply voluntarily employed as the mistranslated term servant might indicate)
  • slaves had no freedom, autonomy, or rights
  • simple and singular devotion to the master
  • utter dependence on the master for even the basic necessities of life
  • personal accountability to the singular master, not to others
  • entrance into slavery was at the choice of the master (bought by Roman masters, sovereignly chosen by God for Christ’s mastery)
  • obedience to the master was required, regardless of the personal sacrifice endured by the slave
  • slaves of prominent figures had notoriety because of who their master was, not because of their own name

It is this last one where believers derive their corporate name, Christian, identifying Christ as their master.

Far from condoning the institution of slavery (by either MacArthur or the biblical authors), contrast is also made between these two examples of slavery:

  • freedom is found in slavery to Christ, whereas freedom in the Roman system was found in escape/release from the master
  • there was no permanence of master guaranteed in Roman slavery – a slave could be sold to another master or could be freed.  Slavery in Christ is permanent, culminating in the glorification of believers.

Prayerfully, Mr. MacArthur will not meet the same fate as his 15th-century counterpart, John Huss, who is discussed at length.  A forebear to the reformers, Huss was burned at the stake by the papacy for various reasons, the primary being “he taught that Jesus Christ alone is the head of the church”.  Huss could be the first in a list of spiritual giants such as Calvin, Luther, Spurgeon, and Edwards among others where the master and Lord is held to always be exclusively Jesus Christ – a point MacArthur motivates and expounds on in chapters 4 and 5.  He laments the no-lordship view espoused by “evangelicalism” and false teachers and forcefully declares that when the dual authorities of Scripture and the Lord of Scripture (Jesus Christ) are viewed as secondary or optional – it is nothing short of mutiny.

Another key point MacArthur makes is the biblical teaching that all are slaves – if not of Christ for the redeemed, then of sin for those not (or not yet) redeemed.  We see this viscerally detailed in the life of yet another John – this one John Newton.  John M. details the life of John N., where his life had slavery throughout: slavery to a cruel master, emancipation, participation in the slave trade, preaching for and friendship with those who would abolish slavery, and most importantly salvific slavery.  The wicked slave-master sin was his master that he willingly gave in to until he was rescued by Christ.  MacArthur describes this master and the inability of its slaves to be emancipated.  More than that, the slaves of sin are unwilling to even seek emancipation.  Some of the doctrines of grace are interwoven into this discussion, specifically that of Total Depravity/Inability.

Two chapters are devoted to the topic of the adoption of the believer by the Father as part and parcel to this slavery in Christ.  The full set of the doctrines of grace are discussed here, with ultimate emphasis on the “P” of TULIP – the “permanent placement in the household of God”.  As with Roman slavery, MacArthur compares and contrasts Roman adoption with that of adoption into the kingdom of God.  Most importantly the legal term adoption bears much similarity to that of justification – both one-time pronouncements that have “permanent validity”.  MacArthur concludes this section by describing the simultaneity of slavery to and adoption by God through Christ.

Part of the slave-master relationship illustrated later in the book is the expectancy of the master’s evaluation of the performance by the slave of the duties given to him.  Parallels are continued to be drawn between the Roman and Christian slavery “systems”.  One which MacArthur highlights is the fact that “the obedient slave has nothing to fear from facing the Master” when he or she ultimately gives an account of their life to the Father.  We are reminded that this obedience is to be according to the will of God and from the heart and that this “momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison”.

In the final chapter – MacArthur gives us four paradoxes in this biblical understanding of slavery to Christ:

  1. slavery brings freedom
  2. slavery ends prejudice
  3. slavery magnifies grace
  4. slavery pictures salvation

To understand this biblical paradigm of slavery, MacArthur states, is to more fully understand the doctrines of grace.  These 4 seeming paradoxical truths are part of that understanding.  As stated earlier, MacArthur’s concluding statement is the sum of his entire thesis – to truly be a Christian is to be a slave of Christ.  With a now correct understanding of the implications of what that means, this writer has greater motivation and conviction in his own slavery to Christ.

II. Critique

A. Purpose

The entire purpose of this book, as demonstrated earlier, was to serve as a watchman’s call to those in his temporal charge to be alerted to an important truth that has for much of modern Western Christianity been unknown.  This truth is that those of us who name the name of Christ as savior and Lord are to rightfully be this Lord’s committed slaves and that we should understand what the implications of this truth are.  To that end, MacArthur has fulfilled this purpose.  As with all truth about our nature in Christ, this is of course only understandable and not viewed as foolishness by those the Lord has redeemed.  To them it is then biblically-based clarification of their marching orders.

B. Credibility

Because of MacArthur’s use of a wide array of church fathers, reformers, historical and grammatical context and most importantly biblical exposition – credibility is firmly established.  This is not a comparative analysis of different views on a theological hot-topic, but more of a deep-dive into a singular “hidden” understanding of the biblical texts that refer to our relationship to Christ.  As such, no time is given to alternate views outside of the brief mentions of improper views of the Roman Catholic religion, false-teachers, and the easy-believism movement.  Argumentation from these groups is not really given and therefore not critiqued in detail – only their views are described in brief.  As it was not the intent to compare and contrast differing views on lordship, but to illustrate what a proper view of lordship actually is – no credibility is lost here.

C. Scholarship

MacArthur uses extensive historical documentation and Scriptural references on all of the topics he covers to great effect.  Pages of notes at the end of each chapter with many varied sources show that this was a well-researched monograph.  A moderate appendix on the voices of church history give excellent context to some of the names and teachings relied on in the book, though notably Huss, Newton, Luther, etc. are left out of this list (possibly because more attention was given to them in the main text of the book).

D. Writing Style

This is an easily accessible text to all who would read it.  The truths expounded on in the book might be hard to digest due to their gravity, but the sermon-like text itself generally is not.  This is not a formal point-by-point, stick-to-a-detailed-outline kind of book.  Topics are handled piecemeal in relevant portions and not delivered all at once (such as the sprinkling of Roman history regarding slavery, adoption, and their legal system throughout many disparate chapters).  While frustrating at times due to a seeming repetition of some of the salient points of the book – this is again due to the pastoral sermon-like nature of the text (tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them), and is not altogether offensive or unwelcome.

E. Main Strengths

The clarity with which MacArthur writes is greatly appreciated.  There are no dangling threads left hanging, no points not backed up by Scripture, and nothing that leaves this writer wondering what he was talking about or where he got it from.  There is little opinion offered, only much fact with loving and convicting emphasis placed where appropriate.

F. Main Weaknesses

As stated earlier, there is no significant presentation of alternate views/defenses of lordship (that is – no-lordship views) or defenses given to why this word was mistranslated.  That was ultimately not the point of the book and has been thoroughly covered in other MacArthur materials, but could be considered a weakness nonetheless to those that may hail from those camps.

The comment made in the first chapter “It almost seems like a conspiracy” is somewhat out of place with the rest of the book’s tone and this writer feels MacArthur would’ve done well to perhaps leave that and language like “cover-up” out.  That would’ve perhaps diminished the passion with which MacArthur is communicating and is, in fairness, a relatively minor nit to pick.