Fool’s Gold: Discerning Truth in an Age of Error
By John MacArthur, general editor
Reviewed by Gary Takahashi
The purpose of the book is stated in the editor’s (John MacArthur) introduction: “This book, then, is a plea for discernment. It is a reminder that God’s truth is a precious commodity that must be handled carefully — not diluted with whimsical beliefs or bound up in human traditions. When churches, or individual Christians, lose their resolve to discern between truth and lies, they open themselves up to every kind of error. But those who apply biblical discernment consistently, in every area of life, are sure to walk in the wisdom of the Lord (Prov 2:1-6)” (pp. 14-15).
The book is broken down into four parts (1) Promoting Discernment in an Age of Blind Acceptance; (2) Practicing Discernment in Your Local Bookstore; (3) Practicing Discernment in Your Local Church; (4) Pursuing Discernment in Your Daily Life. The book is 224 pages in total. The first chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book. It is basically an exposition of I Thessalonians 5:21-22 and is an adaptation from chapter 3 of MacArthur’s earlier book, Reckless Faith. In typical MacArthur fashion, he warns believers to test every doctrine that claims to be the truth by the objective standard of God’s word. He also helps to clarify some of the misconceptions that believers have about discernment, saying that it’s not good to be judgmental on the basis of Matthew 7:1 (pp. 24-25). It then goes on to lay out the believer’s responsibility to discern between truth and error and to apply that principle to the subsequent issues laid out in the rest of the book.
The second chapter was also penned by MacArthur and it deals with what he calls, “Plexiglas preaching.” It is the kind of preaching that is “lightweight and without substance, cheap and synthetic, leaving more than an ephemeral impression on the minds of the hearers” (p. 36). The chapter is basically a reaction against the kind of preaching that is found most often today in the “church-growth” or “purpose-driven” churches. The teaching found in these kinds of churches are often short, shallow, and man-centered, as opposed to biblical exposition which is God-centered, theological and systematic (p. 36). MacArthur then goes on to list fifteen negative effects of this superficial brand of preaching.
The second part of the book begins with chapter 3 which critiques the best-selling book by Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life. Nathan Busenitz is the author and he begins by first presenting an overview of the book itself (p. 46), and then points out its respective strengths (pp. 47-48) and weaknesses (pp. 48-59). While acknowledging that Warren seeks to appeal to God’s word throughout his book and does offer much practical wisdom for living the Christian life, Busenitz points out that Warren’s use of the Scripture is somewhat cavalier. He points out Warren’s liberal use of paraphrases to support his views (p. 49) as well as misapplying various biblical texts (p. 50). Busenitz is clear in pointing out that the Purpose Driven Life is not heretical but does set some dangerous precedents and is basically a watered down approach to Christianity (p. 60).
The fourth chapter of the book is written by Phil Johnson and is an adaptation of a seminar that he gave in London concerning the dangerous Pauline studies known as, “The New Perspective on Paul.” It is basically a critique of N. T. Wright’s book, “What Saint Paul Really Said.” The reason the chapter focuses predominantly upon this work rather than the more seminal studies by E. P. Sanders or Albert Schweitzer is because N.T. Wright is a prominent evangelical, whereas Sanders and Schweitzer were not. Johnson points out that if the proponents of the NPP are correct in their assessment of Paul’s teaching and theology, then the Reformers were wrong about the main issue of the Reformation (justification) (p. 62). The NPP proponents basically teach that the theology of the apostle Paul has been greatly misunderstood since the time of Augustine and even more so during the Reformation (p. 63). They believe the problem stems from a basic misunderstanding of first-century Judaism, claiming that the Judaism of Paul’s day was not a religion of works-righteousness. In other words, they don’t believe that Judaism taught that salvation could be merited by one’s works. Instead, they believe that the real controversy that Paul had with the Jewish leaders was over the way they treated the Gentiles. They wanted to exclude the Gentiles from fellowship so Paul was seeking racial equality for them (p. 64). Justification then, according to the NPP, is not about sin and forgiveness but rather membership in the covenant community (p. 66). Wright’s [and other NPP proponents] main departure from orthodoxy on this issue is basically the claim that one’s final justification or standing before God is based at least in part on one’s works (p. 70). NPP proponents deny that Paul taught that human works are not meritorious in reference to one’s salvation (p. 71). The gospel is a declaration of Christ’s Lordship and not that which saves people (p. 64). In short, the NPP is closer to Roman Catholicism than to evangelical Christianity as it relates to the doctrine of justification.
The fifth chapter was written by Daniel Gillespie and deals with John Eldredge’s book, “Wild at Heart.” This book has been endorsed by evangelicals such as Charles Swindoll and is being used in many churches as a textbook for biblical manhood. It is basically a book that purports to teach Christian men the truth about biblical masculinity — that true masculinity can only be discovered in wilderness. Since real men need adventure, danger and the like in order to be fulfilled, they will not be able to find their God-given purpose in modern society. It will only be found in the context of the wilderness. Eldredge often appeals to texts that view God or Jesus Christ as a warrior and the more warrior like examples of biblical characters. Gillespie briefly explains the fallacy of this lopsided picture of God and Christ (pp. 86-92), as well as Eldredge’s misuse of Scripture and dependence upon extra-biblical sources (pp. 81-86).
The sixth chapter was written by Rick Holland and deals with a modern-day “biblezine” known as “The Revolve New Testament.” It is basically a dynamic equivalence translation of the bible formatted as a magazine, replete with pictures, top-ten lists, surveys, beauty secrets, dating tips, etc., incorporated on the same pages as the biblical text. It was created by Transit books (a division of Thomas Nelson) to spare teenage girls the embarrassment of being caught with the Bible. They wanted to show that reading the Bible was as easy as reading a copy of Seventeen or Vogue (p. 98). Holland points out how shallow some of these lists are from a Christian standpoint. In the top ten lists on “Random Ways to Make a Difference in Your Community,” and “Random Way to Make a Difference in Your School,” neither list had sharing the gospel (p. 100). Holland goes on to point out that even though Transit Books probably had the right motive in what they were doing, the end result was a product that added to, edited, trivialized, polluted, redirected, neutralized, and temporalized the Bible (pp. 103-08).
Part three of the book begins with John MacArthur’s chapter on contemporary worship music. He traces the history of hymns, gospel songs and praise choruses, focusing mostly on their content as opposed to their style (p. 114). This is an important point to emphasize because MacArthur is addressing the philosophical shift in doctrinal content and not and advocating of one style over another. He points out that a shift in content began when gospel songs were introduced to the Christian church. Hymns were written mostly as songs of praise directly to God, whereas praise songs (c.a. 1940) made popular through the ministry of Ira Sankey (D.L. Moody’s song leader) were mostly expressions of personal testimony, better suited to evangelism (p. 112). MacArthur is quick to point out that he doesn’t disapprove of all gospel songs (p. 113), he does believe that the genre was responsible for the diminishing of objective doctrinal truth and an elevation of subjective personal experience (p. 114). He points to gospel songs such as, “In the Garden” as an example of raw sentimentality as opposed to the doctrinal content of hymns such as “Immortal, Invisible” (p. 123). MacArthur does make a good point that prior to Sankey’s ministry the dominant hymn-writers had been pastors and theologians, those who were adept at handling the word of God and sound doctrine. When the shift was made to gospel songs, it threw the gate wide open to anyone who felt he had a flair for song (p. 116). MacArthur also points out that prior to Sankey’s time, hymns were deliberately composed “to teach and reinforce biblical and doctrinal concepts in the context of worship directed to God” (p. 116). He points out that the rise of the Praise choruses have actually shifted the focus back towards praising God but devoid of the doctrinal content of the hymns (p. 117). It is basically MacArthur’s aim to redirect the church to focus their songs, hymns and spiritual songs the Lord and to reinforce biblical and doctrinal content rather than sentimental feelings. At the end of the chapter is a helpful addendum written by Nathan Busenitz entitled, “A Checklist For Church Music,” in which he provides an annotated list of 10 questions that Christians can ask themselves as they discern the good from the bad in modern worship songs (pp. 124-29).
The eighth chapter was written by Carey Hardy and deals with the subject of altar calls. Most of us who grew up in Baptist churches are quite familiar with altar calls and even those who haven’t have probably witnessed one at a youth retreat or the like. Altar calls began in the 1830’s under the influence of heretical preacher/evangelist, Charles Finney. Altar calls are often used as an evangelistic tool at the end of a gospel presentation wherein the preacher invites unbelievers to leave their seat and walk forward to receive Christ. Sometimes the congregation is asked to close their eyes while the unbelievers walk forward and other times the unbelievers are asked to walk forward in full view of everyone as part of their public profession. Almost always, soft music is playing in the background to enhance the mood and induce an emotional response. Hardy points out the obvious problems with this method, the most serious being that unbelievers often confuse “walking down the aisle” as synonymous with their salvation (p. 135). Some people are given the false impression that saving faith is equated with such an experience as this, or saying some canned prayer for salvation. It is an emotionally manipulative way to elicit a response from an unbeliever (p. 138), which explains why most of these professions of faith turn out to be invalid (p. 137).
The ninth chapter was written by Phil Johnson and deals with the improper application of Matthew 5:16 to secular politics. In other words, many Christians today are using this verse as the impetus to call believers to be political activists and Johnson uses this chapter to debunk such an idea. He explains that the true interpretation of Matthew 5:16 has to do with personal holiness. He points out that believers are never commanded to be salt and light but that they are salt and light (p. 152). Johnson believes that the point of the salt and light metaphor has to do mainly with two aspects in this passage: flavoring to food and the causing of thirst. Jesus had just blessed those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (5:6), and therefore the “imagery suggests that the presence of godly people in society ought to have the natural effect of arousing an appetite and a thirst for righteousness” (pp. 150-51). He also talks about the implication of letting our light shine before men and not hiding our light under a bushel. He points out the compromise of believers in political activism who try to elicit moral change in the political arena yet without the power of the gospel. This is necessary because you have to join hands with those who share your stance on the issue but not your faith (p. 153). Johnson then goes on to talk about the fallacy of the “silent witness” for Christ, pointing out that it is the gospel that is the power of God unto salvation. The only way that unbelievers will glorify God and when they see our good works accompanied by our proclamation of the gospel. If our proclamation of the gospel is not part of it then people would be more inclined to glorify us rather than God (pp. 154-55).
The tenth chapter was written by Kurt Gebhards (classmate of ours) and it deals with the American phenomena of Christian consumerism. Gebhards points out that America’s obsession with consumerism has spilled over into the lives of many Christians. They view themselves as a customer in search of a church that will fit their needs. Rather than seeing themselves as servants of the church, they are instead looking for a church that will fulfill their needs. Rather than asking whether the church is pleasing to God, many are asking if its pleasing to themselves. It is basically a man-centered focus instead of a God-centered one (pp. 164-65). He then goes on to give three characteristics of Christian consumerism — self-focused egotism (pp. 167-70), self-styled pragmatism (pp. 170-72), and self-absorbed individualism (pp. 172-74). The chapter ends with a section on counteracting Christian consumerism (pp. 174-75).
Part four of the book begins with chapter eleven which was written by Dan Dumas. The aim of the chapter is to lay the groundwork for a believer to develop discernment and to know which doctrinal issues are worth taking a strong stand over. He begins the chapter by rehearsing the episode in Jonathan Edwards’ life wherein he was fired over his conviction to prevent unbelievers from partaking of communion (p. 180). His late grandfather was the former pastor of the church and he admitted those to communion who made a common profession of faith apart from the necessary evidence of salvation (i.e. holy life). Edwards believed that one needed to make a credible profession of faith in conjunction with a credible profession of godliness. The controversy resulted in Edward’s dismissal from his twenty-something year pastorate at Northampton. Based on Edward’s convictions, Dumas presents three principles for guiding us in determining what hills we should die on: (1) appreciation for the doctrine of the bible; (2) a high view of God; (3) a high view of the gospel (pp. 181-92). Dumas believes that “Because these three theological categories are of primary importance, believers should be careful to evaluate every ministry and every message they encounter through this doctrinal grid. Where you go to church, what books you buy, how you respond to the sermons you hear, and with whom you associate and minister — each of these should be primarily evaluated on this basis” (pp. 181-82). He then goes on to delineate each of these principles, demonstrating that a strict biblical adherence in these areas will protect the believer from failing into doctrinal deviation.
The final chapter of the book is also adapter from chapter 3 of Reckless Faith. It is basically a brief game plan for applying discernment in one’s Christian life. There are six principles that MacArthur points to in developing discernment (Desiring wisdom, praying for discernment, obeying the truth, following discerning leaders, depending on the Holy Spirit, and studying the Scriptures). The intention of the last chapter is to reiterate the focus of the book and to call the readers to implement discernment in their daily lives. Since true discernment can only take place in conjunction with serious study of God’s word, the believer is called to do just that.
For those of you interested in getting an introduction on some of the current hot button topics today (i.e. Purpose Driven Life, Wild at Heart, New Perspective on Paul, etc.,), this I a good place to start. The articles are short, informative, and very easy to read and understand, all the while giving the reader a crash-course on how to discern truth from error.