What does the term "Lordship Salvation" mean?
The term "Lordship salvation" is generally attributed to a theological perspective put forth by pastor John MacArthur in his book, The Gospel According to Jesus. MacArthur's controversial thesis claimed that legitimate salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ will always manifest in the believer's willingness to follow Jesus obediently. MacArthur summarized this outcome as accepting Jesus as both Savior and Lord.
MacArthur's thesis was immediately challenged by some in the Christian community, who objected to the necessity of works in the life of a believer as evidence of faith. His opponents contended MacArthur was conflating the Bible's call to believe in Christ with the Bible's command to obey Christ as His disciple.
The call to believe, they argued, is a supernatural work of the Spirit done in the heart of the unbeliever leading to acceptance of Jesus as Messiah for the forgiveness of sin and the obtaining of eternal life (e.g., Rom 10:9). On the other hand, the command to obey is a directive issued to the believer to serve Christ in faith for the opportunity to earn eternal rewards (e.g., 2Cor 5:10). The first is a work done by the will of God and therefore is common for all believers, while the second is a work done by the will of the believer in submission to the Spirit and therefore is not necessarily common to all believers.
Charles Ryrie, one of MacArthur's chief critics, made this observation:
This Lordship teaching fails to distinguish salvation from discipleship and makes requirements for discipleship prerequisites for salvation. Our Lord distinguished the two (Luke 14:16-33). This teaching elevates one of the many aspects of the person of Christ (Master over life) in making it a part of the Gospel. Why not require faith in His kingship? Or in the fact that He is Judge of all, or that He was the Creator?
In response to such criticisms, MacArthur's supporters point out that the Church increasingly tolerates an incomplete gospel message lacking the power to bring true spiritual change to the heart. False teachers call upon people to "come to Jesus" to receive His forgiveness yet fail to call for repentance and a commitment to follow the Lord as His disciple. MacArthur's supporters label this "easy believism," claiming it isn't the (complete) Gospel message.
We agree with MacArthur that many false teachers and false gospels threaten the Church (and always will), and we also agree that a biblically correct presentation of the Gospel is essential to reaching the world for Christ. Nevertheless, insisting on a distinction between believing in Jesus as Savior vs. believing in Him as Lord is unnecessarily and divisive lacking practice value in application.
We believe that there is no biblical distinction between faith in Jesus as Savior or as Lord. The words "savior" and "lord" are synonyms in the context of biblical saving faith. Furthermore, there is no example in scripture of a person truly believing in Jesus as Savior yet refusing to acknowledge Jesus as Lord. On the contrary, all who rejected Jesus as Lord also rejected Him as Messiah (e.g., Luke 6:45-49).
Moreover, the Bible never defines saving faith as acknowledging the necessity of obedience. The Scriptures do suggest strongly that those who claim to know Christ yet do not keep His word are not to be trusted (see 1John 2:4), but we cannot use this principle in reverse to disqualify a person from salvation based on a lack of obedience (i.e., trying to "push on a rope"). John tells us we can know false confessors when they teach one thing yet do another, but we cannot know for sure whether a disobedient disciple is a false confessor. True disciples may also lack obedience.
So while Scripture teaches that acting contrary to Scripture disqualifies teachers, there is no promise in scripture that believer will always obey Christ – certainly not to the degree that we can always detect such obedience. Just as a child may not obey his parents on all occasions, so all believers will demonstrate varying degrees of obedience including a complete lack of obedience. Remember, all believers are saved from the moment of faith even before we have taken a single step of obedience!
More importantly, the Lordship Salvation premise holds no value for the church, since it offers no new insight or direction for dealing with "easy believism" beyond preaching the word (2Tim 4:2). Those who agree with the Lordship Salvation position and who seek to counteract easy believism will advocate preaching the true Gospel. Likewise, those who have never heard of MacArthur's Lordship Salvation teaching and who also want to see true conversion will also advocate for preaching the true Gospel. In other words, this esoteric theory offers no new counsel or advice to the church. Our proper response remains unchanged, so what did we achieve by entertaining the debate in the first place?
In the end, the discussion is academic at best and divisive at worst. Instead of questioning someone's faith on the basis of behavior, the church ought to unite in preaching and teaching the word in Spirit and Truth, acknowledging that true faith comes solely as a consequence of the Spirit of God by the power of God. In doing so, we automatically address any concerns over "easy believism" while avoiding the divisions the debate creates.
Speaking of division, we believe the debate over Lordship Salvation has become an opportunity for the enemy to drive a wedge between believers. In our experience, some in the Lordship "camp" distort the Lordship Salvation teaching well beyond MacArthur's own ideas to create a litmus test for true faith. Today some maintain that all who claim faith in Jesus Christ must demonstrate a changed life or else the Church should assume their claims to faith in Christ are false.
Not only does this perspective move outside the boundaries of Scripture, it also holds the potential to inflict harm on the body of Christ. While the Bible teaches that being born again by the Spirit should lead to spiritual fruit, scripture does not guarantee such fruit (i.e., life change) will be clearly or immediately visible by other believers.
On the contrary, the Bible suggests the opposite is likely, especially for those who fail to undertake a serious effort to mature:
The Bible teaches it is possible for a believer in Jesus Christ to live in disobedience to the Lord - even to the point of appearing very unchristian. We can grieve the Holy Spirit and disobey the Lord and bring shame to Christ in the process. When we do such things, we risk the Lord's discipline and a loss of eternal reward. These consequences demonstrate it is possible for a believer to live in disobedience to the Spirit.
Clearly, disobedience is possible, or else such exhortations would serve no useful purpose. Some proponents of lordship salvation have argued against such a possibility, citing scripture like Romans 12:1-2 or John 14:15-24 (among other passages) to support their views, but we believe they incorrectly interpret these passages to arrive at their perspective (please listen to our Romans and John studies to hear our interpretation of these passages).
In short, any attempt to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between justification and sanctification is mistaken, because it presumes too much concerning man's propensity to obey Christ's commands. Every believer walks in obedience to the Lord by yielding to the Spirit (Titus 3:5; Eph 5:26). The Bible calls believers to yield to the Spirit and obey His direction for the promise of an eternal reward, yet not every believer will yield. The very fact that the scriptures remind us over and over again of the need to obey is evidence that not all believers do obey.
Secondly, it is possible that a person could obey Jesus as Lord (i.e., to show spiritual fruit in their walk) but do it to such a limited degree that the change is not visible outwardly to others. For example, a person’s thoughts and beliefs could become more Christ-like in some small way without others noticing, or their behaviors could change in private ways. These possibilities deny Lordship teaching.
We cannot insist that salvation always means demonstrating outward Spiritual fruit, because we assume wrongly that we will always have enough discernment and opportunity to witness such progress in a person’s life. When we teach that salvation must always involve obeying Jesus "as Lord," we add an extra requirement for salvation beyond the Bible's teaching that salvation is by faith alone.
We regret the emergence of this trend in the church for a litmus test, and we see it as an unfortunate consequence of the Lordship teaching.