Parables are ‘salvation stories,’ says MacArthur in Southern Seminary’s Mullins Lectures
Gospel parables are rich expository preaching material, but they cannot replace expository preaching, said pastor and author John MacArthur in the E.Y. Mullins Lectures on Preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Oct. 28.
“Parables are Jesus’ theology of salvation in stories,” said the 75-year-old MacArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California. “We can see those parables for what they are,” he added, but for unbelievers “they are nothing but riddles, stories without meaning.”
MacArthur, author and editor of more than 150 books, became the first person to deliver the prestigious Mullins Lectures for a third time. He previously participated in 2002 and 2006. The lectureship was endowed by E.Y. Mullins, the fourth president of Southern Seminary, and since 1941 has featured notable preachers such as Donald Macleod, Calvin Miller, R. Kent Hughes, and Bryan Chapell.
Examining the “ominous” turn in Jesus’ preaching ministry in Matthew 13 with the introduction of parables, MacArthur took issue with the modern appropriation of Jesus’ teaching as a model for storytelling in the place of expository preaching.
Parables, MacArthur said, are not “open-ended journeys into the imagination,” but divine judgment in concealing the truth from unbelievers.
“Jesus taught on the parables as a judgment,” MacArthur said, “a judgment on those who consistently over years rejected his clear, biblical, propositional, theological, reasonable truth.”
MacArthur pointed to the preceding passage in Matthew 12 to exemplify the persistent rejection from the religious leaders. Only after two years of teaching in clear, propositional truth, MacArthur said, did Jesus then hide the truth in parables during his public teaching ministry.
“But [the judgment] is also tempered with mercy. Because what the Lord hides from the unregenerate unbeliever, the unregenerate unbeliever is not responsible for,” MacArthur said. “If the Lord continued to make things clear to unbelievers their eternal punishment would be even worse.”
While Jesus only spoke in parables for the purpose of judgment in public settings, MacArthur noted that they provided an opportunity for teaching when Jesus explained the meaning to his disciples.
“All parables are doctrinal. All parables are theological, soteriological, propositional truth when explained,” MacArthur said.
In the same way, pastors should seek to present clear, biblical truths in expository preaching, MacArthur concluded, rather than “sentimentalism from tampering with the parables.”
“Every sermon is a systematic argument of lining up sequential propositional truths that lead to a final propositional conclusion,” MacArthur said.
In his subsequent lectures, MacArthur described how to interpret two key parables, “The Parable of the Good Samaritan” in Luke 10 and “The Parable of the Dishonest Manager” in Luke 16.
Building on his concept that “all parables are salvation stories,” MacArthur stressed the Good Samaritan is not an allegory, nor is it about kindness or social justice. Instead, the parable is an example of “how to evangelize a legalist” and is at the “heart of the very gospel we preach.”
Demonstrating his interpretative approach to the parables, MacArthur explained the context of the famous parable is the confrontation Jesus faces with a lawyer bent on self-justification from the Old Testament law. Jesus’ parable illustrates, however, that the religious system of the Jewish leaders was “void of spiritual virtue” and unable to match the “limitless love” the Samaritan displays to the wounded Jewish man, considered his enemy by societal norms.
MacArthur said the “stunning evangelistic parable” was Jesus’ effort to awaken the legalistic lawyer to his sinful condition and inability to justify himself before God.
“This is the point of Jesus’ story: this is love so lavish you’ve never done it,” MacArthur said. “You do not love your neighbor as yourself, and therefore you do not love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. And guess what? You need forgiveness.”
In his third lecture, MacArthur examined the difficult parable of the dishonest manager, in which Jesus apparently commends the “Machiavellian manipulation” of the steward. After the master fired him for financial mismanagement, the steward is asked to give an accurate account of the master’s assets and “uses his resources to cover up his wrongdoing” and embezzle from the debtors, MacArthur said. Jesus commends the steward’s example, he said, because the unbeliever worked shrewdly and inventively to secure future benefits.
“People without faith...know how to connive their way successfully throughout the world” by buying friends and provisions, MacArthur said, but God’s people are called to invest in eternal riches. This is in contrast to the prosperity gospel, MacArthur noted, which “offers the same thing the devil does — they just do so in the name of Christ.”
Realizing all earthly possessions are entrusted to them by God, believers should prioritize their wealth for expanding the gospel rather than endless personal accumulation, he said.
“The tragic irony of sinful self-indulgence in this life is that the more you waste what is God’s on yourself, the more you accumulate here for you, the less you will have forever,” MacArthur said. “If you have failed the test of stewardship of your money, if you are not using your money to purchase friends for eternity, you will not get the true riches.”
The Mullins Lectures on Preaching were held in conjunction with the Expositors Summit 2014, Oct. 28-30, which featured Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. and H.B. Charles Jr., pastor of Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida.
More information on MacArthur and his “Grace to You” international broadcast ministry, which he started in 1977, is available at gty.org.
Audio and video of the Mullins Lectures on Preaching are available at sbts.edu/resources.