by Phil Johnson
n the previous installment I mentioned a statement by Charles Ryrie from his 1969 book Balancing the Christian Life. Referring to the opposing positions in the lordship debate, he said, "One of them is a false gospel and comes under the curse of perverting the gospel or preaching another gospel (Gal. 1:6-9)."
Let's face this squarely: Ryrie insists that if we demand the unconditional surrender of sinners to Christ's lordship, we are corrupting the gospel with human works. Of course, if that were true, then Ryrie would be correct to anathematize lordship salvation.
My reply would be that surrender to Christ's authority is no more a "work" than faith itself. In fact, it's a necessary element of faith. Faith, defined well by the Westminster Shorter Catechism, is "is a saving grace [i.e., a gift of God], whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel" (question 86). The stiff-necked attitude of those who want to claim Jesus' grace and compassion as Savior while refusing his rightful authority as Lord is the very essence of unbelief.
Let me say a word about the terminology I'm using. The earliest use of the expression "lordship salvation" I can find comes from Dr. A. Ray Stanford, founder and president of Florida Bible College. Stanford was a harsh and outspoken critic of the view he labeled "lordship salvation." This whole debate seems to have been a pet topic of Stanford's. He waged a years-long quest to eliminate the message of Jesus' lordship from the gospel, beginning (I believe) sometime in the mid-1960s, and continuing until 1975, when Stanford resigned from the college after it came to light that he had been unfaithful to his wife.
"I'm going where nobody has ever heard of me," he told a friend. "If anybody ever finds me, I'll leave again" (AP news report, 9 February 1975) And he did, leaving his wife and family and the school and disappearing from public view for years. The Hollywood, FL school, which at the time billed itself as the largest Bible college in the world, experienced two decades of decline and finally closed its doors in 1996.
(In a surrealistic footnote to the affair, the FBC alumni association sponsored a 90th birthday celebration to honor Ray Stanford a couple of weeks ago).
I ministered in Florida for three years in the late 1970s, and even then, the impact of Ray Stanford's aggressive teaching against "lordship salvation" could be felt across the state.
Stanford wrote a book called Handbook of Personal Evangelism, in which he included a whole chapter titled "Lordship Salvation." (If that book was not the source of the expression "lordship salvation" it is certainly where the expression was first popularized.) In a section titled "Reasons for Not Teaching 'Lordship Salvation,'" he made these remarks: "[The message of Lordship salvation] contradicts scripture . . .. [it] cannot save . . .. [it] is accursed of God . . .. [and] The person who preaches such a message is also accursed of God."
So there's no mincing of words from the opponents of lordship salvation.
People sometimes complained that John MacArthur sounded too strident in The Gospel According to Jesus. But you will find nothing in any of MacArthur's books to match the language Ryrie, Stanford, and Hodges had already employed to anathematize lordship salvation.
Ray Stanford and others who have borrowed his terminology employ the expression "lordship salvation" as a pejorative term. MacArthur reluctantly accepted the label others had pinned on his view, just so it would be very clear whose criticism he was answering. In the first chapter of The Gospel According to Jesus, MacArthur wrote this: "I don't like the term 'lordship salvation.' It was coined by those who want to eliminate the idea of submission to Christ from the call to saving faith, and it implies that Jesus' lordship is a false addition to the gospel . . .. I use the term in this volume only for the sake of argument."
I normally employ the term "no-lordship salvation" to describe the view represented by those who have published the most outspoken criticisms of MacArthur's viewparticularly the views of Zane Hodges and the Grace Evangelical Society. And because I know some causal PyroManiacs readers are sympathetic to those views, I want to explain why I use the term "no-lordship salvation." Because frankly, I understand that proponents of the no-lordship view don't like that expression any more than we like the term "lordship salvation."
One writer in the Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society took John MacArthur to task for employing this expression in his book Faith Works. This reviewer wrote, "I was personally deeply offended by this." He says, "MacArthur selects a cumbersome, misleading, and pejorative label for us." "We call our position the Free Grace position. We call their position just what they call it: Lordship Salvation."
First of all, if that reviewer means to leave his readers with the impression that advocates of "lordship salvation" chose that expression to describe their own view, then he is either ignorant of the history of the debate, or he is deliberately being deceitful.
Second, I deny that "no-lordship salvation" has anything to do with "free grace." "Free grace" is a term Calvinists have traditionally employed to describe their positionbecause the expression "free grace" stresses the absolute unconditionality of God's electing grace.
I believe in free grace. In fact, I believe God's saving grace is truly free. Everyone who believes in unconditional election by definition believes in free grace. In other words, the view we commonly label Calvinism is the real "free grace" position. And I have never met a true Calvinist who believed any sinner saved by God's grace ever could or would persist in willfully and deliberately in rejecting Christ's lordship. That's what the Calvinistic principle known as the perseverance of the saints is all about.
As Calvinists, we believe God sovereignly draws and regenerates and transforms those whom He redeems, so that the person who is saved is made a new creation. His character changes. He is, in biblical terms, born again. "Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new" (2 Corinthians 5:17). That one verse alone is sufficient to annihilate the whole system of no-lordship salvation.
In any case, I refuse to dignify the no-lordship position by referring to it as "free grace" theology, because as far as I am concerned their notion of "free grace" is a false claim and a twisted doctrine that seriously confuses the meaning of the words free and grace.
Remember also that I don't like the expression "lordship salvation" any more than the folks over at the Grace Evangelical Society like the expression "no-lordship salvation." But we need some sort of shorthand to clarify what we're talking about. And since they chose the term first, let's stick with their terminology. If it's fair for them to describe our position as "lordship salvation," it's certainly reasonable to call their view "no-lordship salvation."
Now let me give you a couple of simple definitions:
- "Lordship salvation" is the belief that some degree of submission to Jesus' lordship is inherent in saving faith.
- "No-lordship salvation" teaches that saving faith involves no element of surrender to or recognition of Jesus' lordship.
There's much more to the lordship debate than that, of course. Those on the lordship side of the debate affirm the perseverance of the saintsthe doctrine that those who are truly in the faith will remain in the faith, and that despite the inevitable failures and stumblings we all experience as Christians, those who are true Christians will neither totally nor finally fall away from the faith but are kept by the power of God unto salvation.
No-lordship doctrine, on the other hand, denies the perseverance of the saints. In Zane Hodges' words, a Christian "may cease to name the name of Christ, and may even cease to confess Christianity" (p.111). But according to the no-lordship view, a single moment of assent to the facts of the gospel is enough to guarantee your eternal salvation, even if you later become an atheist.
Even Charles Ryrie, who aims for a more moderate statement of the no-lordship position, claims that a true believer may eventually turn awayeven cease believing entirely (p. 142)yet enjoy full assurance of eternal life.
Those, gentle readers, are serious and important issues, with monumental ramifications. If the lordship perspective is the correct one, then many backslidden and carnal people really need to have the gospel proclaimed to them, rather than salving their consciences with the false assurance that their eternal destiny is heaven, no matter how far they fall from grace.