John MacArthur’s new book, Slave: The Hidden Truth About Your Identity in Christ (Thomas Nelson, 2010), has much to offer in regards to biblical exposition and theological reflection.
Unfortunately, readers may be distracted by the sensationalist marketing that surrounds the book. On the back cover, we read that English translators have “perpetrated a fraud”, a “cover-up of biblical proportions” by translating the Greek word doulos as “servant” instead of “slave.” Aside from a few translations (like the HCSB), most English Bibles fail to capture the radical nature of our relationship to Christ as Master and Lord.
Once you get past the hyperbolic nature of the marketing, you discover that MacArthur quickly tones down such rhetoric. He admits that even though he believes it is a mistake to translate doulos as “servant”, this mistake is unintentional, an admission that quickly throws water on the suggestion that there is a massive “cover up.” Cover-ups are always intentional, aren’t they?
(An interesting side note for my bilingual readers: MacArthur claims that believers in Russia, Romania, Indonesia, and the Philippines translate the word correctly. I don’t know about the other countries, but as a fluent Romanian speaker married to a Romanian national, I can speak to the Romanian translation. There are actually three possible ways to translate doulos in Romanian: “slujitor” (servant), “rob” (bond-servant), and “sclav” (slave). Romanian translations generally go with “rob” – the mediating version of the three, which isn’t quite as stark as “sclav”, but carries more of a punch than “slujitor”. When I asked my wife how she would translate the word “rob” into English, she said, “servant” – which is what I would have said too. But the Romanian dictionary defines “rob” as “slave”. Go figure.)
Back to the book. Though MacArthur makes the “lost in translation” idea central to his opening chapter, he quickly moves on to his main goal: to demonstrate how the master-slave relationship is vital for understanding the nature of Christian discipleship. He writes:
Our slavery to Christ has radical implications for how we think and live. We have been bought with a price. We belong to Christ. We are part of a people for His own possession. (21)
True Christianity is not about adding Jesus to my life. Instead, it is about devoting myself completely to Him – submitting wholly to His will and seeking to please Him above all else. It demands dying to self and following the Master, no matter the cost. In other words, to be a Christian is to be Christ’s slave. (22)
As the book progresses, MacArthur describes the Greco-Roman slave system. He also takes readers back to the Old Testament and immerses us in the Hebrew narrative that forms the backdrop for Jesus’ slave-language in the New Testament. When Jesus called people to follow him, he was calling them to a life of self-sacrifice and total devotion to the cause of the King:
A slave’s life was one of complete surrender, submission, and service to the master – and the people of Jesus’ day would have immediately recognized the parallel. Christ’s invitation to follow Him was an invitation to that same kind of life. (43)
MacArthur’s forceful teaching on the nature of our slave-like submission to Christ may surprise some readers today. After all, we are not used to thinking in terms of being completely owned by the Savior. Though we sometimes put “Lord” in front of Jesus, we rarely invest that title with its royal connotations. We do have a conceptual problem here, but I doubt that our difficulty in grasping the Master-Slave parallel comes from Bible translation. More likely, it’s due to the disappearance of the hierarchical framework of a monarchy. In a democracy where citizens have certain rights, it’s harder to envision the king-subject relationship that was central to the mindset of people in the ancient world.
You won’t find “cheap grace” in this book. Everything about MacArthur’s message stresses the personal sacrifice demanded in coming to Jesus. What’s missing in the early chapters is an emphasis on love. MacArthur is right to put us in our place – as subordinates to the Savior. But the first half of the book does little to describe the bond of love between King Jesus and his citizens. The good news is that by the end of this book this truth comes out in full force. MacArthur takes readers to the doctrine of adoption to show that we become sons, not merely slaves. We become part of the family. “In salvation, the redeemed become not only His slaves but also His friends.” (148)
Throughout the book, MacArthur’s Dispensationalist version of Calvinism is evident. He makes multiple references to the rapture. He also uses the slave metaphor in his discussion on “sin”, which leads him to articulate the doctrine of total depravity and then make his way through all five points of Calvinism. At times, his vision of salvation leans toward a “transactionist” understanding, but by the end of the book, he has followed the slave imagery until it leads to the full biblical picture of vibrant relationship with Jesus:
Slavery to Christ is much more than mere duty; it is motivated by a heart of loving devotion and pure delight. Because God first loved us and sent His Son to redeem us from sin, we now love Him – longing from the heart to worship, honor, and obey Him in everything. Our slavery to Him is not drudgery but a joy-filled privilege made possible by His saving grace and the Spirit’s continued working in our lives. (208)
This book also proclaims the lordship of Christ to be at the very heart of salvation’s message. It’s ironic that MacArthur sounds so much like N.T. Wright in his focus on Christ as Lord. MacArthur writes:
The language of slavery does more than merely picture the gospel. In fact, it is central to the message of salvation. That is because the slavery meatphor points to the reality of Christ’s lordship, and the lordship of Christ is essential to the biblical gospel. The gospel message is not simply a plan of salvation; it is a call to embrace the Person of salvation. And He is both Savior and Lord; the two cannot be separated. (209)
Readers who own multiple books from MacArthur may wonder if there is anything different here. Actually, there is. This book is primarily constructive – that is, MacArthur is in teaching mode; so he doesn’t come across as critical as in some of his other works. There are a few swipes at prosperity preachers and a veiled reference to Mark Driscoll. But overall, this book is focused on correctly understanding our relationship to Christ. Even if I don’t agree with MacArthur in all the particulars, I resonated with his emphasis on Christ’s lordship and our allegiance to his kingdom, and I believe other readers will too.