John MacArthur on Robert Lewis Dabney

“Dabney is a very helpful writer” – John MacArthur (here)

“One of the wonderful old past generation American preachers was a man named R.L. Dabney. And reading him is always refreshing. He’s like a Puritan out of his time and out of his place.” – John MacArthur (here)

John MacArthur has quoted and recommended R.L. Dabney regularly over the years, both in his preaching and at various conferences, without ever mentioning Dabney’s venomous white-supremacy (see “What’s so Bad about Robert Lewis Dabney?“).

(UPDATE: 2022-06-22 — The original 2018 post only included references to Dabney in MacArthur’s sermons. I have since updated it to include references in MacArthur’s print books, and Phil Johnson’s web page devoted to Dabney’s writings. I will not be including much analysis of these references, merely documenting them (for the most part). For more extensive thoughts on Dabney’s life and legacy among reformed evangelicals, see “Robert Lewis Dabney: An Index.”)

The Love of God (1977)

The first reference to Robert Lewis Dabney in John MacArthur’s works is in The Love of God (1977). MacArthur calls Dabney one of the “Reformed stalwarts” and cites from his essay “God’s Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy,” later in the book:

“These same truths have been vigorously defended by a host of Reformed stalwarts, including Thomas Boston, John Brown, Andrew Fuller, W. G. T. Shedd, R. L. Dabney, B. B. Warfield, John Murray, R. B Kuiper. and many others. In no sense does belief in divine sovereignly rule out the love of God for all humanity” (18).

The Love of God, 18.

“About this [John 3:17–18], Robert L. Dabney wrote, ‘A fair logical connection between verse 17 and verse 18 shows that “the world” of verse 17 is inclusive of “him that believeth” and “him that believeth not” of verse 18. . . . It is hard to see how, if [Christs coming into the world) is in no sense a true manifestation of divine benevolence to that part of “the world” which “believeth not,” their choosing to slight it is the just ground of a deeper condemnation, as is express­ly stated in verse 19.’

The Love of God, 106; citing R. L. Dabney, “God’s Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy,” in Discussions: Evangelical and Theological, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982 reprint), 1:312.

(For my extended thoughts on Dabney’s essay “God’s Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy,” see “The Great Pattern of American Manhood”: John Piper and Robert Lewis Dabney, Part 3).

The Vanishing Conscience (1994)

The next reference in print is found in The Vanishing Conscience: Drawing the Line in a No-Fault, Guilt-Free World (1994). The chapter on “Sin and Its Cure” includes a section entitled “The Theological Problem Posed By Evil,” and here MacArthuc quotes Dabney:

“The most satisfying theodicy is implied in the cross of Christ. As R. L. Dabney wrote, “The doctrine of Christ’s sacrifice, coupled with His proper divinity, enables us to complete our ’theodicy’ of the permission of evil. . . . For had there been in God the least defect of [holiness or benevolence], He certainly would never have found it in His heart to send His infinite Son, more great and important than all worlds, to redeem anyone.’”

Vanishing Conscience, 114–15, citing Dabney, Systematic Theology, 537–38.

MacArthur cites Dabney again in “Appendix 1: Gaining Victory over Sin, a Closer Look at Romans 6”:

“R. L. Dabney argued against an early form of the two-nature view more than a century ago. He noted the doctrine’s “antinomian tendencies”: 

‘If one believes that he has two “real men,” or “two natures” in him, he will be tempted to argue that the new man is in no way responsible for the perversity of the old. Here is a perilous deduction. . . . |And if) the old nature never loses any of its strength until death; then the presence, and even the flagrancy of indwelling sin need suggest to the believer no doubts whatever, whether his faith is spurious. How can it be denied that there is here terrible danger of carnal se­curity in sin? How different this from the Bible which says Jas. ii: 18, “Show me thy faith without thy works; and I will show thee my faith by my works.” If then any professed believer finds the “old man” in undiminished strength, this is proof that he has never “put on the new man.” ‘

Vanishing Conscience, 218–19, citing Dabney, Systematic Theology 677)

MacArthur New Testament Commentary (1995)

MacArthur’s New Testament Commentary series Index cites a reference to his commentary on Titus, page 110 (I don’t have access to this volume).

MacArthur’s commentary on 1 Timothy cites Dabney on the phrase in 1 Timothy 2:6 “gave himself a ransom for all”:

“That does not mean that all will be saved. Again, “many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14). Christ’s death was sufficient to cover the sins of all people, but it is applied to the elect alone. The price paid was infinite. If billions more had been added to the number of the elect, Christ would not have been required to suffer one more stroke of divine wrath to pay the price for their sin. On the other hand, “had there been but one sinner, Seth, elected of God, this whole divine sacrifice would have been needed to expiate His guilt.”

So the infinite price our Savior paid was certainly sufficient for all. “Christ’s expiation . . . is a divine act. It is indivisible, inexhaustible, sufficient in itself to cover the guilt of all the sins that will ever be committed on earth.”

MacArthur Commentary on 1 Timothy, 72–73; citing R. L. Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism [reprint; Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle, 1992], 61. 

(For my thoughts on Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism, see my “Book Review: Robert Lewis Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism“).

Fool’s Gold (2005)

The year 2005 also saw the publication of Fool’s Gold: Discerning Truth in an Age of Error, edited by John MacArthur, with contributions from multiple authors. Included is a chapter by Carey Hardey, “Just As I Am: A Closer Look at Invitations and Altar Calls.” Hardey includes a quote from Dabney:

“those who look honestly at statistics related to crusade altar calls know that a minority of those who have made decisions display any signs of conversion even a few weeks after their altar call experience. With this in mind, R. L. Dabney once commented that most people in his day had come “to coolly accept the fact that forty-five out of fifty, or even a higher ratio, will eventually apostatize”

Fool’s Gold, 137–38.

I have searched for, and cannot find the quote in Dabney’s works. The citation in the endnotes is to Jim Ehrhard, Dangers of the Invitation System, 15. Whether this is indeed an accurate citation of Dabney, I can’t tell.

Preaching: How to Preach Biblically 2005

In 2005 another multi-author volume was published by “John MacArthur and the MAsters Seminary Faculty”: Preaching: How to Preach Biblically. Chapter 1 is by Richard Mayhue, “Rediscovering Expository Preaching,” and the chapter closes with a quote from Dabney:

“Although R. L. Dabney wrote over a century ago, we join him today in urging that the expository method . . . be restored to that equal place which it held in the primitive and Reformed Churches; for, first, this is obviously the only natural and efficient way to do that which is the sole legitimate end of preaching, convey the whole message of God to the people.”

citing Dabney, Sacred Rhetoric.

Alone With God (2006)

In 2006, MacArthur published Alone With God: Rediscovering the Power and Passion of Prayer. The chapter on “Praying for the Lost” includes what is basically a “copy/paste” from the commentary on 1 Timothy 2:6, including the quote from Dabney:

“The phrase ‘gave himself a ransom for all’ is a comment on the sufficiency of the atonement, not its design

Christ’s death was sufficient to cover the sins of all men, but it is applied to the elect alone. The price paid was infinite—it was sufficient for all. “Christ’s expiation … is a divine act. It is indivisible, inexhaustible, sufficient in itself to cover the guilt of all the sins that will ever be committed on earth.” 

Alone with God, 174, 175; citing Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism.

Strange Fire (2013)

In 2013 MacArthur held a conference on the gifts of the Holy Spirit and followed up with a book: Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship. At the end of the book is an“Appendix: Voices from Church History,” a list of quotes that MacArthur believes supports his position. In the list of quotes is one by Dabney:

“Robert L. Dabney (1820-1898) 

“After the early church had been established, the same necessity for super­ natural signs now no longer existed, and God, Who is never wasteful in His expedients, withdrew them. . . . Miracles, if they became ordinary, would cease to be miracles, and would be referred by men to customary law.”

Strange Fire, 257–58); citing Robert L. Dabney, “Prelacy a Blunder,” in Discussions: Evangelical and Theological (Richmond, VA: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1891), 2:236-37.

Ironically, Dabney (a slaveholder)’s quote is immediately followed by one from Charles Spurgeon who famously said “I do from my inmost soul detest slavery anywhere and everywhere, and although I commune at the Lord’s table with men of all creeds, yet with a slaveholder I have no fellowship of any sort or kind” (see “Spurgeon’s “Red-Hot Letter” on American Slavery“).

The Shepherd as Theologian (2017)

In 2017, MacArthur edited another multi-author volume The Shepherd as Theologian. The chapter by Phil Johnson on “The Extent of the Atonement” includes a reference to Dabney in a list of “mainstream Calvinist writers”

“If you want to sample some moderate opinions on the extent of the atonement from leading mainstream Calvinist writers, read what Andrew Fuller, Thomas Boston, Robert L. Dabney, William G.T. Shedd, B.B. Warfield, and Charles Hodge wrote on the subject. They may surprise you.”

The Shepherd as Theologian, 128.

Biblical Doctrine (2017)

In 2017 MacArthur published his own “Systematic Theology”: Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth. Each chapter in the book contains a “Select Bibliography,” a list of “prominent theologies from the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries ” (35). Nearly every chapter in the MacArthur’s book includes Dabney in these bibliographies The only chapter that that does not reference Dabney is the one on “Bibliology.” This is because the way theology courses were structured at Union Seminary, the doctrine of the Bible was covered in a separate class, and thus Dabney’s Systematic Theology does not have a chapter on it. Every other chapter includes a recommendation:

  • “God the Father: Select Bibliography — Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, 5–193.” (231).
  • “God the Son: Select Bibliography — Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, 182—193, 500–553” (329).
  • “God the Holy Spirit: Select Bibliography — Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, 193–201.” (394).
  • “Man: Select Bibliography — Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, 292–305.” (480).
  • “Sin: Select Bibliography — Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, 306–51.” (481).
  • “The Application of Redemption: Select Bibliography — Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, 553–713.” (662).
  • “Angels: Select Bibliography — Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, 264–75.” (736).
  • “The Church: Select Bibliography — Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, 758–817.” (822).
  • “Eschatology: Select Bibliography — Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, 817–862.” (916).

In a section in the book itself on “The Nature of Sanctification,” MacArthur cites Dabney:

“Dabney says, “Sanctification, in the gospel sense, means then, not only cleansing from guilt, though it presupposes this, nor only consecration, though it includes this, nor only reformation of morals and life, though it produces this; but, essentially the moral purification of the soul.”

Biblical Doctrine, 639 n. 139; citing R. L. Dabney, Syllabus and Notes of the Course of Systematic and Polemic Theology, 2nd ed. (St. Louis, MO: Presbyterian Publishing Company of St. Louis, 1878), 661.

MacArthur’s Sermons

The first reference to Dabney that I can find in MacArthur’s is also MacArthur’s favorite: Dabney on the “three stages through which preaching has repeatedly passed with the same results.” He found this in Dabney’s, Evangelical Eloquence: A Course of Lectures of Preaching:

Dabney says, “And it is exceedingly instructive to note that there are three stages through which preaching has repeatedly passed with the same results. The first is that in which scriptural truth is faithfully presented in scriptural garb. That is to say, not only are all the doctrines asserted which truly belong to the revealed system of redemption, but they are presented in that dress and connection in which the Holy Spirit has presented them without seeking any other from human science. This state of the pulpit marks the golden age of the church. The second is the transition stage. In this, the doctrines taught are still those of the Scriptures, but their relations are molded into conformity with the prevalent human dialectics.” That’s a hundred-year-old book.

“God’s truth is now shorn of a part of its power over the soul. A third stage is then near in which not only are the methods and explanations conformed to the philosophy of the day, but the doctrines themselves contradict the truth of the Word. Again and again have the clergy traveled this descending scale and always with the same disastrous result.” So he says, “May we ever be content to exhibit Bible doctrine in its own Bible dress.” You can’t improve on it because that’s the way God chose to communicate it. Now, we’re in that transition, aren’t we, evangelicals? There’s still some Christian doctrine but nobody wants to put it in the Bible dress.

([Feb 3, 1980?] – Insight into a Pastor’s Heart, Part 1)

Dabney on preaching–the need for expositional preaching, and the three stages–is MacArthur’s most often cited reference, all the way up to 2017.

— Feb 10, 1980 –  Insight into a Pastor’s Heart, Part 2

— Oct 29, 2000 – Deliverance: From Sin to Righteousness, Part 2

— Feb 22, 2009 – The Consequences of Non-expositional Preaching, Part 1

— Oct 23, 2011 – Exposition: The Heart of Biblical Ministry

— Nov 6, 2011 – Modeling Bible Study Through Preaching

— Aug 1, 2017 – Answering Contemporary Challenges to Scripture: John MacArthur with Phil Johnson

Dabney on Other Doctrines

MacArthur did not just quote Dabney on preaching, but on a number of other subjects as well:

— May 9, 1993 – Saving Grace, Part 2 – quotes three times from Dabney’s, The Five Points of Calvinism.

— Jan 1, 1995 –  The Love of God, Part 4 – quotes Dabney giving the example of George Washington signing the death warrant of Major Andre.

— Mar 14, 2004 –  Divine Holiness in Human Flesh – “R. L. Dabney said, “‘Holiness is to be regarded, not as a distinct attribute, but as the sum of all God’s moral perfection.'” (repeated at the 2004 Ligonier conference).

— Mar 17, 2013 – Usurping the Seat of Christ:

“R.L. Dabney, who was an American Reformed theologian from two centuries earlier, said, “Our decadent, half-corrupted Protestantism in action, blindly and criminally betraying her own interests and duties.” That’s what we do. Even then he could say that. Our decadent, half-corrupted Protestantism is in action.” quoting from Dabney, The Attractions of Popery.” [Note: in the immediate context of the quote, Dabney launches directly into a critique of “The Jacobin theory of political rights,” which, for Dabney, included all forms of abolitionism. It’s a strange article to quote from, in my opinion.]

–March 10, 2019 – MacArthur preached another sermon, calling him “an American Puritan of sorts,” and citing Dabney’s quote: “holiness is not to be regarded as a distinct attribute…” (The Lord’s Vengeance, Part 4) Thanks to Erin Harding for pointing this out.

MacArthur at Larger Conferences

In 2002 he expounded on the “three stages of preaching” at his Shepherd’s conference message (March 8, 2002 –  The Sufficiency of God’s Grace), recommending Dabney to a large gathering of other pastors. “Dabney is a very helpful writer” he says at the 27:25 mark and speaks on him until 32:00.

MacArthur quoted Dabney in his message at the 2004 Ligonier Conference (Mar 12, 2004 – There Is No Other: The Holiness of God): “R. L. Dabney wrote, ‘Holiness is to be regarded not as a distinct attribute, but as the result of all God’s moral perfection together.'”

At his own Strange Fire conference in 2013, MacArthur includes Dabney in a list alongside Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Owen, and others (Jul 14, 2013 – Strange Fire Q&A, Part 2):

“You’ve got twenty centuries when nobody was affirming that except aberrant groups. Voices from church history, we have John Chrysostom, the fourth century, Augustine, Theodoret of Cyrus in the fifth century, Martin Luther in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, John Calvin, John Owen, Thomas Watson, Matthew Henry, John Gill, Jonathan Edwards, James Buchanan, Robert Dabney in the nineteenth century, Charles Spurgeon in the nineteenth century, George Smeaten in the nineteenth century, the great Abraham Kuyper in the nineteenth and a little into the twentieth, William Shedd in the nineteenth, Benjamin Warfield in the twentieth century, Arthur Pink, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, they all are cessationists. They all declare that these things have ceased. So to say that there has been a continual stream of legitimate, biblical scholarship conviction and confidence in the sign gifts is just not the case.”

“An R. L. Dabney Anthology”

Phil Johnson is “the executive director of Grace to You. He has been closely associated with John MacArthur since 1981 and edits most of Pastor MacArthur’s major books” (“Phil Johnson“). He edits a number of websites and pages, including one devoted to Robert Lewis Dabney:

An R. L. Dabney Anthology Featuring: Writings of Robert Lewis Dabney

The page contains links to thirteen of Dabney’s works, as well as a biographical sketch from the Banner of Truth magazine. Among the pieces linked are “God’s Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy,” of which Johnson says:

My all-time favorite Dabney piece, one I have wanted to post on this Web site for years… This article overhauled and revitalized my understanding of the doctrines of grace.

(For my thoughts on Dabney’s essay see “The Great Pattern of American Manhood”: John Piper and Robert Lewis Dabney, Part 3).

Johnson also links to “Against Musical Instruments in Public Worship,” and “The Public Preaching of Women.” (see here for my critique of another Dabney essay where he connects his opposition to women’s rights with white-supremacy).

MacArthur’s Unqualified Endorsement of Dabney

In books and messages spanning over four decades of ministry, MacArthur and his colleagues at Grace to You and the Master’s Seminary, have repeatedly quoted and recommended Dabney to both his own church and to the broader evangelical world through conferences. After searching his site (gty.org) I have been unable to find a single qualification or caveat, let alone a warning or caution regarding Dabney’s racism, white supremacy, and views on slavery. The only words have been words of explicit commendation or tacit endorsement by way of citation.

(Note: if any reader can point me to a place where he has made such qualification, I would gladly include it here).

7 thoughts on “John MacArthur on Robert Lewis Dabney”

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