by Phil Johnson
t seems rather obvious that no-lordship doctrine is historically linked in an inextricable way with Dallas Theological Seminary. It's hard to think of a single major proponent of the view who is not tied in some significant way to DTS. The connection is so obvious that in his Romans commentary, Dr. James M. Boice referred to no-lordship soteriology as "the Dallas doctrine."
I think it is fair to suggest (as John MacArthur did in Faith Works) that the no-lordship position is a product of Dallas Seminary's unique approach to dispensationalism, which was shaped by Lewis Sperry Chafer, refined by Charles Ryrie, and later taken to its logical conclusion by Zane Hodges.
Within a year or so after The Gospel According to Jesus was published, both Ryrie and Hodges responded with books of their own.
Ryrie's book, titled So Great Salvation, was somewhat lacking in substance and depth. In my judgmentand I know this opinion was shared by many on the no-lordship side as wellRyrie's book was not a very thorough or well-presented defense of the classic Dallas position, and it failed badly as a reply to MacArthur. Reviewers' comments and sales figures were both disappointing. The original version, published by Victor Books, went out of print within a relatively short time. I believe Moody republished the book in 1997, but I've never even seen a copy of the Moody version.
Hodges took a much more extreme (but more logically consistent) stance than Ryrie did. His book was also more thorough and more passionately argued than Ryrie's. Hodges' Absolutely Free! was at first slated for publication by Redención Viva, Hodges' own publishing company. But Zondervan picked it up, packaged it in a cover that mimicked the style of their artwork for The Gospel According to Jesus, and aggressively marketed the two books head to head in a large bookstore display.
Lots of people complained that the Zondervan marketing campaign was crass and tasteless. Even some of our ministry's most devoted constituents wrote to say they were unhappy with John MacArthur for allowing the lordship controversy to be milked for bookstore profits like that. One correspondent said it seemed like Zondervan was setting MacArthur and Hodges against one another like Sonny Liston versus Cassius Clay.
Actually, MacArthur had no knowledge of Zondervan's promotional strategy before it hit the stores. He certainly did not appreciate the campaign, and he immediately expressed his dissatisfaction to Zondervan. The editor there was somewhat cavalier about the whole matter, retorting that John MacArthur would thank them when he got his royalty check.
And that's why Word, rather than Zondervan, published the sequel to The Gospel According to Jesus.
The whole controversy over "lordship salvation" began to diminish shortly after Faith Works was published. Neither Hodges nor Ryrie has written any more major books on the subject.
Earl Radmacher, who has long been a cheerleader for no-lordship doctrine, wrote a book in 2000 titled Salvation that is both overpriced and unremarkable. Some of the pre-publication hype about the book promised it would re-ignite the lordship controversy. It didn't. Despite all the forewords and recommendations Radmacher had supplied to other books touting no-lordship doctrine, his own contribution to the debate was surprisingly meager.
In fact, the only book of any real significance promoting no-lordship salvation has been Jody Dillow's work titled The Reign of the Servant Kings. Dillow's version of the no-lordship position is set forth purely and simply as a wholesale renunciation of the classic Calvinist doctrine of the perseverence of the saints. He attempts to reinterpret Calvin to make him friendly to no-lordship doctrine, and he paints the Puritans as theological bad guys who supposedly invented lordship doctrine. Dillow's book was published by a fairly obscure publisher and has had a limited distribution.
So except for the newsletters and journals that are regularly cranked out by the Grace Evangelical Society, little fresh or significant material has been written to promote the no-lordship position for more than a decade.
These days, support for the no-lordship gospel is mostly confined to a small but prolific group of speakers and writers. Dallas is still the geographical hub of their movement. The Grace Evangelical Society has published their journal since 1988. In fact, for the past 15 years or so, GES has almost singlehandedly kept the drumbeat alive for the no-lordship position.
I'd like to think that Faith Works was so definitive that our side simply won the debate. But I think the truth is that a few other things also helped quell the controversy. One factor, surely, has been the seismic changes that have taken place at Dallas Theological Seminary since Dr. Ryrie retired. Ryrie was always the strongest, sanest voice arguing for the no-lordship position, and since his retirement, the no-lordship position has been commandeered by a much more extreme and often offbeat perspective. It is by no means the dominant view at DTS today.
So why did the controversy suddenly decline from a hot boil to a slow simmer in the early '90s? My assessment would be that the dispensationalist movement got sidetracked. Controversies over "progressive dispensationalism" on the one hand and the so-called "pre-wrath rapture" on the other hand refocused dispensationalists' energies in those years.
In short, it seems many leading dispensationalists are more concerned about the timing of the rapture than they are about the purity of the gospel message. In 1992, a group of dispensationalists from both sides of the lordship debate joined forces to start a think-tank known as the "Pre-trib Research Center," which publishes papers and sponsors high-level meetings exploring every facet of the timing-of-the-rapture question.
If that gets someone's theological juices flowing, go for it. But where is there a similar concern to settle the more important debates about the gospel?
More important? Yes. It seems to me that the debate over lordship salvation is infinitely more important than debates about the timing of the rapture. And as much as I hated the heat brought on by the lordship controversy, I wish the dispensationalist movement had been more committed to resolving that issueor at the very least, willing to explore it with as much zeal as they poured into the "pre-wrath rapture" debate.
Whatever the future holds, I am convinced we have not seen the last of the lordship controversy. There is far too much confusion in churches about the proper way to proclaim the gospel, and the issue will keep resurfacing until it is settled or Christ returns. Inevitably, this controversy must come to the forefront of discussion again.
Lately, it seems to me that several young people influenced by Hodges ("Zanies," as I like to call them) have surfaced in the blogosphere and other public forums looking for debate on the lordship issue, and focused pretty much on that one issue alone.
Ironically, I think the biggest factor in the resurgence of Zane Hodges' view has been the long-term effects of the same theological megashift at DTS that originally helped quell the debate in the mid-'90s. The lordship issue offers a unique rallying point for people pining for the glory years of Dallas-style dispensationalism, and no-lordship theology simultaneously appeals to young people who are doctrinally naive and coming of age in an era when the church is more shallow and more worldly than practically any time since Pentecost.
So I don't think we've heard the end of the lordship issue, and we probably won't for some time. But that is the end of my short retrospective and personal testimony. I hope to continue my thoughts on the lordship debate at the Pulpit blog sometime next week, and I'll invite feedback from those who disagree with my position. I hope you'll join me over there for the rest of this discussion.