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What is at stake in the so-called Lordship Salvation Debate?

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 saved by faith alone, but not by the faith which is alone.

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.

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 may well receive saved unbelievers!

Several observations should help us navigate through this difficult topic.

First, note that in Romans 10:9 Paul identifies the confession of Jesus as Lord to be an essential element in the gospel message.

Second, 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" (Commentary on Romans, 2:529).

Third, 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).

Fourth, 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).

We must therefore ask: Can we believe in Jesus Christ in the biblical sense of that term if we do not intend to submit to his authority?

Fifth, 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. According to Lordship Salvation, faith alone justifies (sola fides iustificat), but not the faith which is alone (sed non fides quae est sola).

Sixth, 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.

Seventh, 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 suffer divine discipline 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.

The bottom line is that dead people don't fight!

In a recent book that opposes the Lordship position, the author opens with the story of an "evangelical" pastor who was recently sent to prison for robbing 14 banks to finance his use of prostitutes! The author believes this man is a Christian and wrote this book to show how. Yet, had he not been caught, there is every reason to believe this pastor would still be robbing banks and sleeping with prostitutes. See 1 Cor. 6:9-11.

Eighth, 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 provides the following helpful illustration. Suppose a young lady objects to the concept of Lordship salvation by saying 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. 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.

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

Tenth, 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 born out by the fruit. Loyalty, love, and obedience bear witness to the reality of one's profession. Where there is no fruit, there is likely no root (Heb. 3:14; 1 John 2:3-4,19).

Perhaps the best example of this is found in John 8. In 8:31 John refers to certain Jews who had “believed” in Jesus. Yet, according to the verses that follow, these people are in fact slaves to sin (v. 34), indifferent to Jesus’ word (v. 37), and are children of the devil (v. 44). They accuse Jesus of being demonized (v. 48), they are liars (v. 55), and are guilty of mob tactics including attempted murder of the one they have professed to believe (v. 59). They are said to have “believed” but are clearly not only unsaved but among the enemies of Jesus!

It is clear that in John’s gospel not all so-called “belief” or “faith” is authentic, Spirit-wrought, saving faith. What Jesus describes here can only be called “fickle faith,” a degree of commitment, perhaps a willingness to agree with the truth of some of what Jesus said and a desire to follow him temporarily. There is also the possibility that these people were swept up in the excitement of the crowd and were captivated or fascinated with the spiritual energy that surrounded Jesus. He was a magnetic personality and many were inclined to follow him as much out of religious curiosity as out of genuine love. Clearly this applied to these Jewish people (cf. John 7:31 and 12:11, 37).

To put it in as simple terms as I know how, one can in some sense “believe” in Jesus and declare oneself to be his “disciple” without ever having been saved in the first place. There is in John’s gospel, therefore, a transitory, superficial, surface “faith” or “belief” that may be based solely on miracles seen but is not grounded in and the fruit of a saving understanding of and trust in who Jesus really is. Such people are in some sense connected or united to Jesus, perhaps mentally or emotionally, that they may even be called “disciples,” yet they are not Christian disciples. These, I believe, are the unfruitful branches of John 15:2, 6.

So how does one differentiate between genuine faith and fickle, false faith? Jesus tells us in John 8:31 that the mark of true faith is abiding or remaining in Jesus’ word. To “remain” or “abide” in Jesus’ “word,” says Carson, means that a person “obeys it, seeks to understand it better, and finds it more precious, more controlling, precisely when other forces flatly oppose it. It is the one who continues in the teaching who has both the Father and the Son (2 Jn. 9; cf. Heb. 3:14; Rev. 2:26)” (Carson, John, 348).

Abiding in Jesus does not make you a Christian. What makes you a Christian is the new birth and that saving faith which is its fruit. Abiding is not the condition for becoming a child of God. Abiding is the consequence or the evidence or the fruit of being a disciple of Jesus. You become a Christian by faith, the evidence of which is that you abide or remain in your devotion and pursuit of Jesus and your desire to learn from him and love him.

Genuine, saving faith is the sort that not only learns what he says but loves it as well. Genuine faith displays its true character by producing in the heart of the individual a persevering attachment to Jesus. Momentary, flash-in-the-pan commitment to Christ means nothing. We’ve all seen people like this: excited today and out the exit tomorrow; men and women who display an attraction to religion and the benefits it can bring them, but who during the routine experiences of daily life are rarely heard to utter a distinctly Christian word or make a self-effacing sacrifice for the benefit of another or commit a distinctly Christian act. They are, in essence, indistinguishable from the world. Discipleship is not a sudden, short-lived enthusiasm about Jesus but a life-long love affair, a life-long dedication that is characterized by love and obedience.

Notice how Jesus describes these people who “believe” in him: “you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you” (v. 37b). That is to say, Christ’s word does not operate in their lives, is given no value in their thinking, has no role in their daily decision making, does not give shape or direction to how they relate to God or others. Listen carefully. These Jewish people are religious, law-abiding, monotheists! They believe in God. They faithfully attended their synagogue services. They commit no scandalous sins. In some sense of the word they even “believe” in Jesus. Yet, they have Satan for their father (v. 44)!

If you wish to read more on this subject, here are some recommended resources.

Among those who advocate the Lordship position include:

The Gospel According to Jesus, by John MacArthur, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988).

Faith Works: The Gospel According to the Apostles, by John MacArthur, Jr. (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1993).

No Holiness, No Heaven! Antinomianism Today, by Richard Alderson (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1986).

A Layman's Guide to the Lordship Controversy, by Richard P. Belcher (Southbridge: Crowne Publications, 1990).

Christ's Call to Discipleship, by James Montgomery Boice (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986).

Today's Gospel: Authentic or Synthetic? by Walter Chantry (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1970).

Lordship Salvation: The Only Kind There Is, by Curtis I. Crenshaw (Memphis: Footstool Publications, 1994).

Lord of the Saved: Getting to the Heart of the Lordship Debate, by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1992).

Christ the Lord: The Reformation and Lordship Salvation, ed. by Michael Horton (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992).

Righteous Sinners: The Believer’s Struggle with Faith, Grace, and Works, by Ron Julian (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1998).

Among those who advocate the non-Lordship position include:

No Condemnation: A New Theology of Assurance, by Michael Eaton (Downers Grove: IVP, 1995).

The Gospel Under Siege, by Zane C. Hodges (Dallas: Redencion, 1981).

Grace in Eclipse: A Study on Eternal Rewards, by Zane C. Hodges (Dallas: Redencion, 1985).

Dead Faith: What Is It? by Zane C. Hodges (Dallas: Redencion, 1987).

Absolutely Free! A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation, by Zane C. Hodges (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989).

Once Saved, Always Saved, by R. T. Kendall (Chicago: Moody Press, 1983).

So Great Salvation: What It Means to Believe In Jesus Christ, by Charles C. Ryrie (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1989).

Lordship Salvation: Is It Biblical? by G. M. Cocoris (Dallas: Redencion, 1983).

The Reign of the Servant Kings, by Jody Dillow (1992).


Many thanks, found it helpful. Question: if King David was a NT christian and was struggling with assurance of salvation during his adulterous affair and later murder, would your approach be that he should doubt his salvation? Michael Eaton (whom you've listed as belonging to the non lordship camp) would say that we need a "theology of inconsistency". (video interview on google). Getting people to doubt their salvation isn't the NT way. A Christian can genuinely believe but go through phases that King David went through. Any thoughts?

A great summary Sam, thank you for this.

Might it be possible that the root of the controversy is the way that the Reformed tradition has presented the Gospel?

If the Gospel is fundamentally the substitutionary atonement of Christ and our necessary response is repentance from sin and faith in the Christ's atonement, then Lordship has to be bolted on to the side to explain what our response should consist of; what evidences true repentance and faith. Lordship salvation is thus necessary to prevent the charge of antinomianism. This is, for example, the root of Calvin's insistence that justification and sanctification cannot be separated. But if we have to keep reminding ourselves that they are inseparable then perhaps there is a systematic problem with the model.

However if we turn the tables and make "Jesus Christ is Lord" the Gospel and repentance and faith in him as Lord, (including but not limited to faith in his saving work on the cross) as the human response then it makes a lot more sense. Lordship becomes central. It's a bit like Galileo's Copernican revolution, all the same stuff is still in the solar system, but the Earth is going around the sun instead of the other way around, and you don't have to fudge the maths any more.

I think there is strong biblical precedent for this. Just one example is in Exodus 24 when Moses reads the law to the Israelites in the wilderness, they respond to this with "All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient". Then he sacrifices a lamb and sprinkles them with the blood of the covenant.

So, the covenant began at their acceptance of YHWH's lordship as expressed through the law, not on works, but on faith. Interestingly, their experience of that irrevocable covenant rested upon their on-going faithfulness to it.

Perhaps here is a pattern for the New Covenant too.

How big an issue is this these days, especially in the States? I was saying to some people in our church that the debate had more or less gone away compared to, say, 25 years ago when I left Bible College. I'm not sure it has ever been as big an issue here in the UK.

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