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Lordship Salvation: Is it Biblical?

A Study of the Lordship Salvation Controversy

Part One

By Christian N. Temple


What must I do to be saved? Apart from the question, "Who is God?" it is the most basic of theological inquiries. Indeed, it is the delineating question between Christianity and all other religions of the world. How am I saved? From what am I saved? What must I do to be saved? Who will save me? All legitimate questions, and all that can be readily answered by consulting the Scriptures.

In the early years of the New Testament church, the answer to "What must I do to be saved?" was fairly simple. "So they said, 'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.'" (Acts 16:31, NKJV), and "that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. " (Romans 10:9, NKJV). Belief in Christ and faith in His promise were enough to save you and assure you of eternal salvation.

In time, the rise of legalism, sacerdotalism, and Roman Catholicism, and other heresies were to introduce into Christianity many paganistic works-toward-salvation doctrines, but the true church of regenerate believers would hold solidly to the teachings of the Lord and the Apostles, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life." (John 3:16, NKJV). As the Protestant Reformers separated from the Roman church, their rallying cry was that of Sola Fide, faith Alone! The same doctrine has been a cornerstone for conservative Protestant churches ever since that time.

But what does it really mean to have saving faith? That is a major question that has arisen in recent years, and is of eternal importance. Can I just believe in the testimony of the person of Jesus Christ? Will that save me? Must I have faith and submit to His Lordship? If I must have faith and become a disciple, doesn't that add works to the salvation plan, making salvation of man and not God? Is everyone who says they believe in Jesus Christ eternally saved? Must Christ be made Lord of my life?

These are not superfluous questions, for indeed, one's eternal salvation and assurance rests on a sound Biblical answer. In recent years this has become a major point of disagreement between factions of Evangelical Christians. The two major positions have been called Free Grace Salvation, Non-Lordship Salvation or, as its detractors have named it, "Easy Believism" (Belief in Christ is all that is required), and "Lordship Salvation" where one must decide to make Christ the ruling Lord of their life in order to be truly saved. Formidable spokesmen have written on both sides of the subject, the most noteworthy being John MacArthur Jr., championing the Lordship Salvation position, and Charles Ryrie and Zane Hodges advocating Free Grace Salvation.

While we cannot examine these positions in great depth in this short paper, I will attempt to present the basic argument for each position, cite the supporting Biblical evidence, indicate legitimate opposition to each belief, and then in conclusion will present this writer's opinion on what I believe to be the correct Biblical doctrine.

The Case for Lordship Salvation

The Lordship Salvation proponents believe that the condition of eternal life is more than trusting in Christ. Added to simple faith are:

Knowledge of the Facts—Faith must be based on the content of the Word of God.

Assent to this Knowledge—A person must agree that the facts of Scripture are true.

Repentance—There must be a turning from sin and turning towards God.

Submission to Christ—There must be a subjection to the person and will of Christ with a desire and willingness to obey.(1)

Lordship proponents are concerned about the word "believe." What does it mean to believe? That Christ is God? That he died, was buried, and arose again? That he is Lord of all? This belief in just the facts cannot save, it is argued, because "even demons believe - and tremble!" it is evident that a simple acknowledgment of the facts of the Gospel is not enough to save. There must be a belief in the heart that Christ has died to take away one's sins, and trust in Him will grant one eternal life.

What is the position of Lordship Salvation advocates? What is required for a sinner to be saved and to know that they are saved? Simple faith in Christ is not enough. MacArthur states, "Although I reluctantly used the term 'Lordship Salvation' throughout the book, it was a concession to popular usage. I reject the connotation intended by those who coined the phrase: that a submissive heart is extraneous or supplementary to saving faith, and therefore any call for sinners to surrender to Jesus' Lordship adds to the Biblical terms of salvation."(2)

MacArthur has reluctantly been cast into the position of spokesman for the Lordship Salvation position, and he has unfortunately been occasionally misrepresented in the major point he is trying to present - that, as James said, "Faith without works is dead." Still, MacArthur and others have erred in their perception and presentation of the Free Grace position. MacArthur says, "[Zane] Hodges is unmistakably arguing for a concept of faith as bare mental assent, seeking support for this concept form the Reformers."(3) It is clear that both sides have engaged in some Straw Man Argumentation.

The major argument from the Lordship Salvation camp is that a person must put their faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and then they must express their salvation by adhering to the Lordship of Christ in all matters. If a person does not "show" an evidential change of character, and does not put Christ first in their life, then they probably are not saved nor can they really know if they are saved. One must rightfully question their own salvation if they are not submitting to the Lordship of Christ. Indeed, one can even think themselves a Christian, but this is illusory. (The belief that one can falsely think oneself saved does damage to the witness of the Holy Spirit, which indwells believers. We will examine that point further later on.)

In the Lordship Salvation position, one must constantly test oneself to see if they are truly in the faith. According to Bock, "MacArthur's charge is that a Gospel that emphasizes only belief without dealing with sin or that separates the presentation of Jesus as Savior from Jesus as Lord is cheap grace. It produces many false believers and introduces severe moral malaise into the body of Christ, while falsely offering assurance to many not really saved."(4)

Bob DeWaay, Pastor of Twin City Fellowship Church in Minnesota and Editor of the bimonthly Critical Issues Commentary writes in regards to Romans 10:9-10, "Is requiring this confession 'salvation by works?' I do not think so. When I first heard that some were teaching that one could be saved without Jesus being Lord, I immediately wondered what they would do with this passage. Surely we are not saved by confessing something that is not true and by agreeing to a relationship (Jesus as Lord) that in actuality, we want no part of."(5) He also says, "Neither should we think that merely idle confession, of lip service only, is evidence that we are saved."(6)

It appears that advocates for Lordship Salvation make at least two major errors: they believe that Free Grace proponents are arguing that all one needs to do is make "mental assent" to the Gospel message or simply pay a "lip service" statement of faith and one can be saved. Also there appears to be a misunderstanding of the meaning of faith, as well as confusion of the terms salvation and sanctification. What is the true position of Free Grace salvation? Is it essentially an "everyday variety of faith," as MacArthur charges?(7)

The Case for Faith Alone

Do Free Grace advocates teach an empty, lip service type of faith, and teach that this is enough to acquire salvation from Christ? Must the sinner also claim Christ as Lord at the moment of salvation? Proponents of the Faith Alone position believe that any addition to the Gospel message of "believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved" is an assault on the Biblical message of salvation by grace alone.

By assaults we are talking about additions to the message of FAITH ALONE IN CHRIST ALONE. All believers in the Lord Jesus Christ are responsible to be His representatives. We are ambassadors of Christ who are to give testimony to the person and work of the Savior. When it comes in the message, there is only one message (or Gospel) that we may proclaim and remain faithful to the Bible. Unfortunately, confusion abounds with respect to the content and presentation of the good news of God's grace in the person and work of Christ.(8)

According to Blauvelt, "An unbeliever, to avail himself of the salvation offered in Christ, must only accept Him as his own personal Savior, believing that His death for sin on the cross was final and sufficient forever. ... Mere verbal assent or mental acquiescence to the fact of Christ's death, without any conviction of personal sin, is inadequate."(9) We can see that the Free Grace position has been misrepresented as cheap grace.

Is simple faith "dead faith"? Not according to the Wycliffe Bible Dictionary, which says, "A proper definition of faith must take into consideration its complexity, for while the exercise of it may be said to be simplicity itself, it involves the whole personality."(10) It goes on to say that "Saving faith, therefore, involves active personal trust, a commitment of oneself to the Lord Jesus Christ. But it is not the amount of faith that saves, it is the object of faith that saves. Great faith in the wrong object does not alter man's lost estate one iota. Little faith (so long as it is faith) in the right object [Christ] must result in salvation."(11)

Proponents of Lordship Salvation seem to interpret only certain Scripture passages related to Lordship and disregard other ones referring to faith as small "as a mustard seed." The Wycliffe Bible Dictionary seems to understand what Lordship Salvation advocates do not; "While transformation of life is not the ground for salvation, it is the evidence of salvation. And without some such evidence, (in greater or lesser degree) a question must be raised as to the genuineness of the faith of the individual."(12)

It appears that often the Lordship Salvation camp and the Free Grace advocates are seeming to say different things, but the meaning is the same. If there were less vitriolic accusations and charges of heretical teachings, both sides might come to see that they are closer in their soteriology than they might think. Submitting to the Lordship of Christ is a part of sanctification, of growing discipleship, and cannot be a prerequisite for salvation.

Salvation is an instantaneous act of God, a gift given to the sinner who accepts it. One needs only to realize he is lost and in need of saving in order to reach out for the Savior's hand. A person drowning in a storm at sea needs only to reach out in faith for that reaching arm of salvation in the rescue boat. He does not need to make the savior (the one reaching out to save him) the lord of all his affections. Neither does he need to know all that is required to be a follower of the sea rescuer, in order to be rescued.

The Faith Alone position believes itself to be the true Biblical teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Apostles. Salvation is based on faith alone. Faith plus anything else is an incorrect and dangerous teaching. Paul corrected the believers in Galatia about the error of adding circumcision to faith. "Faith plus" is not the condition for eternal life. It is inconsistent to speak of a free gift which costs us something or gives us something to do to get salvation (Romans 4:1-6; 11:6).

A gift need only be accepted. It is not earned and does not demand a repayment. To demand such would be paying a wage and requiring a service. Faith alone proponents believe that good works and discipleship is something required of the Regenerate: The saved person should be overwhelmed with gratitude to the Savior for his free gift, and realize that following Christ demands discipleship, but it is not required (nor even possible) at the point of salvation to "make Christ Lord" of one's life.

The condition for salvation in the Bible is simple faith. Ryrie writes, "Salvation is conditioned solely on faith in Jesus Christ. That faith must be placed in Christ as one's substitute for, and Savior from, sin. But this and only this is the way to be saved."(13) In his footnote on Romans 1:16, Ryrie says, "we receive and experience [salvation] through faith, which is both assent to the truths of the Gospel and genuine confidence in the Savior Himself" (Page 1791).

Errors in the Lordship Salvation Position

The belief that one must make Christ Lord in order to be saved, contains, in this writer's opinion, a vast array of errors. Most of the errors appear to stem from two foundations: a desire to see Christians act like Christians, and, in some passage interpretations, poor exegesis.

Perhaps the greatest error in the Lordship Salvation view is the apparent call to discipleship for those who are yet unsaved. If one must believe the Gospel, have faith, and make Christ Lord in order to be saved, this is a condition that must be met by someone who does not yet know what the Lordship of Christ means. This results in a Catch 22 which inevitably leads to eternal death. You must make Christ Lord in order to be saved, but you must first be saved in order to make Christ Lord. As the unregenerate, natural man cannot "receive the things of the Spirit of God" (1Cor 2:14, NKJV) for they are foolishness to him, how can he ever acknowledge the Lordship of Christ?

As Blauvelt writes, "To require from the unsaved a dedication to His Lordship for their salvation is to make imperative what is only voluntary for believers."(14) This is to confuse accepting the Spirit of salvation with the Christian call to walk in the Spirit. At the moment of salvation, a person receives a new nature as a regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. The person is saved first, by simple faith, and then the Spirit will lead him to respond to the Lordship call of Christ. As Chafer wrote, (Quoted by Blauvelt) ."...no more important obligation rests on the preacher than that of preaching the Lordship of Christ to Christians exclusively, and the Saviorhood of Christ to those who are unsaved."(15)

Another error is in the misapplication of the meaning of the New Testament word Lord. (Greek kurios). Lordship Salvation advocates almost always use the word as is used of a sovereign master—one to whom submission is required. This is an applicable definition for Christians, and is sometimes used in this way. But as Blauvelt suggests, in the New Testament kurios is most often used as "deity." And as Lord, Jesus has authority to dispense salvation to those who believe [he is God]."(16)

The Wycliffe Bible Dictionary tells us that kurios is "a Greek adjective meaning 'having authority or power'; used as a noun it means 'lord, master or owner'. It was the exact equivalent of adonai, and also was used in the LXX to translate Yahweh because the rabbis read Adonai in place of the divine name. It is applied in the NT to Jesus as a divine title."(17) So it appears the Lordship Salvation advocates are misapplying the term Lord. It does not refer to Christ in Romans 10:9,10 as "One who must be submitted to" but rather refers to Christ as "The Lord God, Yahweh." Also, the KJV/NKJV rendering of "confess the Lord Jesus" seems a better translation soteriologically than the NIV's "Jesus is Lord" or the NASB's "Jesus as Lord."

Blauvelt gives three excellent reasons why Romans 10:9,10 does not mean one must submit to Christ's Lordship in order to be saved:
Romans 10 is written primarily to unbelieving Jews. The emphasis is in recognizing that Christ is Lord-Yahweh, and that salvation is subject to this belief. The Greek word for "confess" here means to "speak the same thing" or "agree." To confess Jesus as Lord means to agree that He is God. Salvation is received, it does not include man's giving of anything: Not confession, subjection or anything else.(18)

Another error of Lordship Salvation is the implicit legalism of the teaching. Keathley quotes J.I. Packer as saying, ."...free forgiveness in one sense will cost [the forgiven] everything." How so? How can a free gift cost anything? How can an evangelist honestly say to the lost, "Your works count for nothing, you cannot earn salvation. God freely gives salvation to those who come to Him. However, the cost of salvation is great!" This is nonsense and double talk, and exceedingly damaging to evangelism and apologetics. What sets Christianity apart from every other religion is the Free Grace offer. Many have confused the discipleship message in "take up your cross and follow Me" with the salvation message of "He who believes."

Another problem with Lordship Salvation is the problem of the need for some Biblical knowledge in order to submit to the Lordship of Christ. In order to follow a lord or leader, one must have some knowledge of what is required of him. How is a new believer to know what is required at the moment of salvation? How much must one know in order to be saved? Certainly a person must know that he is a sinner, and the penalty for sin is death, that Christ has paid that penalty and that those who accept His free offer are saved. But how much Biblical doctrine must a sinner know in order to be saved? Must he fully understand the kenosis? The legal ramifications of propitiation? To be sure Lordship should come with growth and study by those who are saved, but it is not a requirement for salvation.

Another question arises as to how much Lordship is enough? What does it mean to submit to His Lordship? Is 75% submission enough to get one saved? Is 80% required? 66.6%? 100%? Who's to say? If 100 % submission is required for salvation, then there is no one who ever believed in God who is saved, not even David, Abraham or Noah.

Lordship proponents counter this by saying, "well, one must be willing to submit to the Lordship of Christ." But this only begs the issue. Again we can ask, how willing? 80%, 90% or 100%? We still have the troubling question of "how much." One can never know for sure if they are submitting enough to Christ under the Lordship Salvation view. This eliminates all security for the believer, which is unthinkable in light of passages like Romans 8 and others.

Related to the above, Lordship Salvation leaves all Christians in the ugly and dangerous position of judging others. Surely there are passages which call us to examine ourselves, discipline others in the church, watch out for false believers among us and such, but this involves things like an unrepentant heart, sins leading to death, and false and heretical teachings.

Once we begin to look at each other and to question how much Pastor Smith or Mr. Jones is submitting to the Lordship of Christ, we enter very dangerous territory. I am not saying that there should not be standards of Christian living especially for leaders and teachers; what I am saying is that by demanding evidence of Lordship authority over every professed believer's life, those who demand Lordship are actually denying the command of the One that they demand submission to: "Do not judge others."

The Lordship view leaves no room for carnal Christians. There is no room for spiritual regression, spiritual retardation, or sins of defiance and worldliness. This is a direct denial of 1Cor 3:3: "For you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?" (NKJV). Aside from 1Cor 3, this position results in a dismissal of the greatest part of the New Testament, particularly the admonishments to Christians in the various churches who received Paul's epistles.

It is poor exegesis, in this writer's opinion, that every admonishment in the New Testament must be to non-believers within the church, as MacArthur (and others) have intimated. Romans chapter 6 is clearly an admonition for believers not to remain in sin; it is not a warning to the unsaved. Romans 6:2 says, "we who died to sin", meaning the regenerate believer. Verses 6 and 7 tell us we should no longer be slaves to sin, and that we are free of it.

The note on these verses in The Open Bible says, "Our old man and the body of sin both refer in some sense, to our fallen nature and the person we used to be when we were under the control of sin. When this person is done away with, we are no longer controlled by sin. When we have died with Christ, we are freed from sin."(19) If it were true that all regenerate believers automatically submitted to the Lordship of Christ, then any and all admonitions to steer clear of worldliness and carnality would be unnecessary.

This article is concluded at: Lordship Salvation: Is it Biblical? - Part Two.

Books and eBooks by Gary F. Zeolla, the Director of Darkness to Light

The above article was posted on this Web site September 15, 1999.

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