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Your first response to this title may well be: “What controversy?” One doesn’t often hear much any more about the so-called “Lordship Salvation” controversy, but it is most assuredly an issue that needs to be addressed.

(1) Those who affirm "Lordship" salvation oppose the idea that one may have saving faith without submitting to the Lordship of Jesus in daily obedience. We are justified by faith alone, but not by the faith which is alone (Sola fides iustificat, sed non fides quae est sola).  

Saving faith is a working faith. That faith by means of which we are justified is the kind or quality of faith that produces obedience and the fruit of the Spirit. In the absence of obedience, in the absence of fruit, in the absence of submission to the lordship of Jesus, there is doubt whether the faith is saving.

(2) Opponents of lordship salvation insist that such a view introduces works into the gospel and compromises grace. Faith should, but may not, produce works of obedience. According to this view, you can be a Christian without necessarily being a disciple; you can receive Jesus as Savior without necessarily submitting to him as Lord. How you live and what you believe after you profess faith in Christ has no bearing on whether you really believed in him in the first place. 

On this view, it is altogether possible that a born-again believer may repudiate the faith, turn his back on Jesus, and become an unbeliever. However, advocates of the non-Lordship position generally affirm eternal security. Thus heaven will receive saved unbelievers! 

(3) Note that in Romans 10:9 Paul identifies the confession of Jesus as Lord to be an essential element in the gospel message. The Greek word Kurios ("Lord") is used more than 6,000x in the LXX to translate the name YHWH. Many of these OT texts referring to YHWH are applied to Jesus in the NT. For example, its use in Joel 2:32 is applied to Jesus in Romans 10:13. Thus, confession of the "Lordship" of Jesus entails, at minimum, the confession of his full and perfect deity. Jesus is YHWH incarnate. In Philippians 2:10 Paul describes the title Kurios as "the name which is above every name," which can only be the name of God himself. Thus, as Cranfield notes, "the confession that Jesus is Lord meant the acknowledgment that Jesus shares the name and the nature, the holiness, the authority, power, majesty and eternity of the one and only true God" (2:529).

In Romans 10:9 the confession of Jesus as Lord refers to the lordship he exercises by virtue of his exaltation. It points to his investiture with universal dominion. Thus, "the hearer of the gospel message is called upon to affirm an article of faith, namely, that by virtue of his death and resurrection, Jesus has been exalted to a place of sovereignty over all men" (Alan Chrisope, Jesus is Lord [Evangelical Press, 1982], 62-3). 

(4) This confession involves the acknowledgment of the rightful authority of Jesus Christ over the life of the believer. According to George E. Ladd, this confession “reflects the personal experience of the confessor. He confesses Jesus as Lord because he has received Jesus Christ as his Lord (Col. 2:6). He has entered into a new relationship in which he acknowledges the absolute sovereignty and mastery of the exalted Jesus over his life” (Theology of the NT, 415).

This compels us to ask the question: Can we believe in Jesus Christ in the biblical sense of that term if we do not intend to submit to his authority? 

(5) The doctrine of Lordship Salvation views saving faith neither as passive nor fruitless. The faith that is the product of regeneration, the faith that embraces the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross energizes a life of love and obedience and worship. The controversy is not a dispute about whether salvation is by faith only or by faith plus works. All agree that we are saved by grace through faith, apart from works (Eph. 2:8-10). But the controversy is about the nature of the faith that saves. As noted earlier, according to Lordship Salvation, Sola fides iustificat (faith alone justifies), sed non fides quae est sola (but not the faith which is alone).

(6) We must distinguish between the content of faith and the consequences of faith. To say that faith issues in good works does not mean faith is good works. To say that works are the expression of faith does not means works are the essence of faith.

(7) Lordship salvation does not teach that Christians can't sin. It does teach that Christians can't live complacently in it. Lordship salvation does not say Christians will be sinless. But it does insist that Christians will sin less. Christians do sin, but they don't practice it (1 John 3:6). Christians sin; sometimes seriously. But if they are Christians, they will be discipined for it (Heb. 12). Complacency and contentment in sin are the hallmark of the unregenerate soul. Conviction is the sign of the saved one. In other words, the Christian will sin, but it will make him miserable. Dead people don't fight!

(8) Thus lordship salvation recognizes a distinction between the implicit acknowledgment by the new convert of the principle of Christ's rightful authority over his life and the explicit practice of progressive submission to the Christ who is Lord. Receiving Christ as Savior and Lord does not mean the new convert is wholly committed. It does mean he is committed to being holy.

John Piper describes a scenario in which a young lady objects, insisting that she accepted Jesus as Savior when twelve years old but didn't submit to his Lordship until she was 30. “If Lordship salvation is true,” she says, “had I died when I was a teenager I would have gone to hell.”

No, says Piper. Jesus was her Lord from the moment of her conversion. Her experience since then has been one of more or less yieldedness to his sovereign rights as Lord over her life. She says she didn't fully submit to his lordship then. She is right. But she has not fully submitted even now, or she would be sinlessly perfect. The Christian life is one that begins with accepting and bowing to Jesus as Sovereign ruler and Lord . . . with a progressive degree of experiential submission as one matures. The Lordship of Christ is not something one discovers and yields to only once but thousands of times over the course of our Christian experience.

(9) Lordship salvation insists that repentance is essential to the gospel message (see Luke 24:47). Says John MacArthur:

"If someone is walking away from you and you say, 'Come here,' it is not necessary to say 'turn around and come.' The U-turn is implied in the direction 'come'. In like manner, when our Lord says, 'Come to Me' (Mt. 11:28), the about-face of repentance is understood" (34). 

An objection raised by opponents of Lordship salvation is that the gospel of John, which is admittedly a document focusing on unbelievers, never mentions repentance. Three things may be said in response.

First, John wrote his gospel after Matthew, Mark, and Luke and did not wish to unnecessarily repeat what they thoroughly addressed. The synoptic gospels speak repeatedly about repentance.

Second, John's focus in his gospel record is on the identity of Jesus and believing who he is. 

Third, although the word "repentance" is absent from the fourth gospel, numerous things are said about believers that imply, if not require, the presence of repentance in their lives: Christians are portrayed as those who love the light (3:19), hate the darkness (3:20-21), obey the Son (3:36), practice the truth (3:21), worship in spirit and truth (4:23-24), honor God (5:22-24), do good deeds (5:29), love God (8:42), follow Jesus (10:26-28), and keep his commandments (14:15). Thus the absence of a particular word does not necessarily entail the absence of the theological concept. The latter can be expressed in other ways, through a variety of terms other than that of “repentance” itself.

(10) This controversy also focuses on the grounds for assurance of salvation. Advocates of lordship salvation recognize three grounds.

The first and preeminent ground for assurance of salvation is the inescapable logic of John 3:16. Christ died for sinners. All who believe in Christ's death have eternal life. I have believed in Christ. Therefore, I have eternal life. We can have assurance we are saved because we know God's word is true concerning the saving work of Christ and the eternal destiny of those who embrace it by faith. 

Second, according to Romans 8:16 (and other texts), the Holy Spirit awakens our hearts with the inner, subjective, intuitive confirmation and confidence that indeed we are God's children. 

Third, the reality of the root is borne out by the fruit. Loyalty, love, and obedience bear witness to the reality of one's profession. Where there is no fruit, there may be no root. Jesus was speaking to the “Jews who had believed him” when he said: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31; see also Heb. 3:14; 1 John 2:3-4, 19). Thus we see that not all “belief” is saving faith. The test of whether so-called “belief/faith” is saving is the on-going reality of abiding in the word of Christ and obedience to his commands.