John MacArthur’s conversion story

Retrospective on 40 Years

JP: Q & A upon the 40th anniversary of his beginning his ministry at Grace Community Church:

Well, obviously, I was raised in a pastor’s home. I went to church every Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night. I loved it. I loved the church. I loved to be at the church. I loved the basement where we played games and ate cookies and red punch. But I grew up loving the church. I did. At some point my love for my parents, my love for the church developed and matured into a love for Christ. I don’t know the exact moment that happened. I can’t really nail that down. I can honestly say I don’t know a time when I didn’t believe. I don’t know a time when I rejected the gospel. I never went through a period of rebelling against it by the grace of God, and I’m deeply thankful for that. I’ve often thought to myself, with the profile I have now, if there had been a past in my life that could be exposed, it surely would have been by those who would want to expose it and God protected me from that. I don’t think…I would never find any pride in a life of sin or rebellion, I’m just grateful that God spared me all of that.

I remember kneeling down with my Dad one time on the steps of a church where he was preaching and he took me with him on a meeting and got into some mischief with some other boys and I was feeling so guilty because I was the visiting evangelist’s son. But they led me into it…they led me into it. (Laughter) But I felt so guilty about that, that I remember talking to my Dad about wanting to be sure I was really saved and we prayed together there.

And then, of course, later on in my life, after my freshman year in college, most of you know I had a pretty serious automobile accident. I was thrown out of a car going about 70 miles an hour and slid down the highway over a hundred yards on my backside. That was very traumatic. I don’t know that that was my salvation, I believe I was saved prior to that. But that was a serious wake-up call about the fact that I was not in control of my life. I could live or die in an instant. And I remember that event and the subsequent several months when I was lying on my stomach while all of that tried to heal, saying to the Lord, “I don’t want to fight You, whatever it is You want out of my life, that’s what I want for my life.” And so that was a time of real turning away from any personal ambition I might have had and just saying, “Lord, whatever You want me to do, that’s really what I want to do.”

Below he recounts a difficult period in his church (Nally v. Grace Community Church of the Valley):

There was a young man named Ken Nally who was a student at UCLA at the time. He was a well-rounded young man, very, very fine student, I think he played on the baseball team also at UCLA. He was…he came to Christ out of an Irish-Catholic family. His father had married…his father had gone to the war and married a Vietnamese lady, I think, or some lady from the east and came back and he was Irish/Catholic. His father had deep resentment for Protestantism, for the Christian gospel. And Ken came to Christ and this created a tremendous conflict in the home, tremendous conflict.

So much conflict that many of our pastors here at Grace Church were embroiled in trying to work with Ken and help with Ken. He was very troubled because the conflict, it reached epic proportions at home. I mean, it was really, really serious. It was dangerous for him to be in that home.

I remember, Patricia and I tried to rescue him on one occasion, we took him in to our home. And he lived with us for a while during the trauma of those experiences. The conflict such epic proportions that he took his life. And we were all devastated by that because he had felt the call of the Lord in the ministry, which the ministry only escalated everything.

Well, the media hit us with the idea that we were…this is when psychology was really big, and psychology had all the answers and they were trying to shut down churches from doing counseling. And so they were saying, you know, this…they were digging into the archives of this church trying to find out how many people came to this church and killed themselves and there were articles about three people who had gone to that church and killed themselves. So the church came under this tremendous scrutiny. And the father found some lawyers who would take on the case of suing the church for exacerbating a pre-condition toward depression and pushing him to suicide by saying so much about sin. And so they put a lawsuit on us and took us to court in what really was a first in America. There was no prior case of clergy malpractice, that’s what the case was.

It started in 1980 and this was an amazing case because I knew immediately when threatened us this was first amendment because the first amendment gives you the right to practice your religion. That’s what we were doing. We were not licensed counselors, we were just practicing our religion by a constitutional definition.

Immediately the psychological community embraced the lawsuit against us because they wanted to put churches out of the counseling business so they could get it all. And so they had co-belligerence on their side, namely the whole psychological world. We immediately found that the rabbis and the Roman Catholic priests were joining us and they were threatened by this as well.

Well as God would have it, at the time Sam Ericsson was on our staff. Sam is a Harvard lawyer and a dear friend who now is the center of a great ministry to lawyers around the world. Sam was here, Sam took it personally. We had about 25 attorneys in the church who joined him and the whole thing, ten years, never cost us one cent. There was a little clause in an insurance policy we had that protected us against any law suit and whatever costs there were, were absorbed by the insurance company. Ten years of litigation either done voluntarily by the men who are attorneys in our church. And first it went to trial in the Glendale courts and the strangest thing, they…I’m sitting there and myself and other pastors who were named in this have our future destiny in the hands of a jury. And the people presented their case, the plaintiff presented the case and they just dragged us through the mud. All kinds of things were said. Psychological experts were brought in and they presented their entire case.

And then it was time to present our case and before we could present our case, the judge rendered a summary. Judge threw it out and says there’s nothing here…absolutely nothing. The media then…everything exploded in the courtroom, the media attacked the jury, they polled the jury, the jury would have voted against us. It didn’t happen.

It went to the appellate court, the appellate voted in behalf of the plaintiff. And we appealed it to the California State Supreme Court and they State Supreme Court of California ruled in our favor, said we had no culpability, no guilt. And it was all in first amendment. It went to the United States Supreme Court who refused to hear it and therefore upheld the state court. But for ten years we were under that kind of scrutiny.

You know, the Lord knows who needs to fight those battles. We’re just glad it was us because we had the people to do it who were formidable. Sam was a first-rate constitutional attorney and some other church might have fallen to that and then precedent might have been set for other churches to be victimized by that same thing. So…but that was the sort of the sword of Damocles hanging over our head and yet I never lost any sleep over it, I knew the Lord would vindicate us in the process. And if He didn’t, we would take whatever came and continue to be faithful. But I’m grateful that the case was upheld by the State Supreme Court and by the Federal Supreme Court because it allowed and it was a great hurrah because it allowed people in ministry to go on talking to people about the things that are precious to them without the threat of being sued.

More tribute to John MacArthur here: Unwavering Commitment

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