For a few decades now there has been a fairly vigorous debate over what some critics of traditional biblical Christianity have called “lordship salvation”. Very simply, the critics say that if you think Christ must be both Saviour and Lord of your life, you are ‘adding to the gospel’.
They claim you are adding works to salvation, that you have become legalistic, that you have abandoned Protestantism and reverted to ‘Rome’ and so on. They accuse you of holding to a ‘works-based righteousness’ and claim you undermine the wonderful doctrine of the pure grace of God.
All these charges are incorrect, but sadly this small but influential movement has made a fair stink about these things, and confused many believers along the way. I say small because overwhelmingly this no-lordship gospel group is for the most part contained within rather narrow parameters: dispensationalism; its leading school, Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS); and a few past and present profs from there.
One of the main persons leading this movement is the late Zane Hodges of DTS (1932-2008). Along with his peers and former colleagues, such as Charles Ryrie (b. 1925) and Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871-1952), he has done much to promote this viewpoint. His main book in which he makes this case is The Gospel Under Siege (1981). Also significant is his Absolutely Free! (1989).
One of his main rivals in all this has been John MacArthur. He penned two books specifically seeking to refute the no-lordship salvation position: The Gospel According to Jesus (1988) and Faith Works: The Gospel According to the Apostles (1993).
While MacArthur is not hostile to dispensationalism as such, he rejects what he sees as cheap grace, and takes a somewhat more Reformed position on these matters. Both camps of course seek to preserve what they see is a correct understanding of salvation, but one sees the lordship of Christ and repentance and obedience as almost optional extras, while the other sees the gospel of salvation necessarily involving repentance, expressed in obedience.
One need not know all about the various theological systems behind all this, whether dispensationalism, or Reformed thought, and so on. The more important point is what does the Bible in general and the New Testament in particular say about all this. Needless to say, anyone who is familiar with my work will know that I would reject as dangerous and unbalanced the Hodges’ camp, and side comfortably with MacArthur.
And let me preface my remarks by saying that earlier on in my Christian life I was a hard-core supporter of dispensationalism, and I still possess plenty of books by Hodges, Ryrie, Chafer and others. But I have since moved away from that into more of a Reformed direction.
And it also should be said that topics like salvation and what it means are huge topics, with entire libraries devoted to them. So what I offer here is of necessity a very brief introductory look at some of these key biblical themes. And many other articles which I have written on this and related themes should be consulted as well to get a fuller picture of where I am coming from, and how I seek to buttress my case.
Saviour but not Lord?
The real question here is what exactly occurs at salvation? Can a person come to Christ for forgiveness of sins, yet have no or little intention of making Christ Lord? My understanding of Scripture leads me to say no. Christ is either Lord of all or he is not Lord at all.
Sure, a person at conversion may know little about such matters, and the ongoing Christian walk is one of more and more submitting oneself to Christ and his Lordship, and increasingly saying no to sin and self. The trouble is that today so much of evangelicalism is presenting an anaemic and wishy-washy gospel, where Christ’s lordship is the last thing heard.
Too often the gospel is presented in such a way that the idea is, it is all about me. What benefits and goodies do I get if I come to Christ? How does this advantage and benefit me? What do I get out of the deal? All this is to get off on the wrong foot from the very beginning.
The gospel is not about me. It is about the living God, the holy God, who we have alienated and offended by our sins and our selfishness. It is about Jesus dying a cruel death to restore us to God, by faith and repentance. It is about renouncing our selfishness and sin and making him the Lord of our life, as he was always meant to be.
To argue that one can be a believer and yet not make Christ Lord is in fact an utter contradiction in terms. To become a Christian is to renounce the lordship over one’s own life and accept the Lordship of Christ. It is a transfer of allegiances – rejecting one boss in favour of a new boss. Without that one cannot be a Christian.
Scripture makes all this quite clear. Everywhere we are told that to be a child of God means to live a transformed life – a life of obedience and holiness. No change means no salvation. As Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
John makes this quite clear: “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:9-10).
In Hebrews 12:14 we are told to follow holiness, “without which no man shall see the Lord”. And Paul speaks about how believers have “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). Thus a real change of ownership and allegiance (lordship) occurs with the new birth. No transformation means no conversion.
Of course one of the most significant – and frightening – passages in all of the New Testament is found in Matthew 7:21. There we find Jesus uttering these shocking words: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
Plenty of people claim to be believers, and even speak about the lordship of Christ. But the real test of a real faith is a transformed life, changed behaviour, and genuine obedience. Of course no Christian becomes perfect, and they will still sin. But they will also hate such sin, and seek, with God’s grace, to turn fully from it.
And sure, a life of obedience is not how we procure our salvation. Justification is the once-off free gift of God. But sanctification is the ongoing work of God, changing us and conforming us to the image of his son. Obedience then becomes the indication and fruit of a transformed life. If there is no obedience and changed life, one can rightly ask if there really has been any salvation in the first place.
Thus a changed life is evidence of our salvation, not a means to our salvation. And that must be our desire, no matter how dimly perceived, from the very beginning. To think we can come to Christ for forgiveness of sins, as a kind of fire insurance, without also seeking to let him transform our lives and become our only Lord, is to deceive ourselves.
Recall that there are hundreds of imperatives (commands, orders) in the New Testament. We are to become more and more Christlike. If we are not being changed, then we can rightly ask if we are really saved. Our standing in Christ is perfect righteousness, imputed to us in the process of justification.
But that standing must be matched by our state. We are to begin living lives which reflect this forgiven condition. The indicative of what God has done for us must be followed by the imperative of seeking to live that out. But I discuss this more fully here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/02/08/the-indicativeimperative-and-the-christian-life/
The discussion of the relationship between justification and sanctification must be spelled out further, so please see Part Two of this article: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/02/09/on-lordship-salvation-part-two/