by Phil Johnson
lot of people think John MacArthur started the lordship controversy with the publication of his book The Gospel According to Jesus in 1988. But the controversy existed long before MacArthur's book was published. Charles Ryrie and Zane Hodges had both written books on the subject years before MacArthur wrote his book.
Ryrie, for example, wrote Balancing the Christian Life in 1969. That book included a chapter titled, "Must Christ be Lord To Be Savior?" Listen to Ryrie's answer to the question his chapter-title raises:
Must Christ be Lord To Be Savior? the importance of this question cannot be over-estimated in relation to both salvation and sanctification. The message of faith only and the message of faith plus commitment of life cannot both be the gospel; therefore, one of them is a false gospel and comes under the curse of perverting the gospel or preaching another gospel (Gal. 1:6-9).
So as early as 1969, Charles Ryrie was applying Paul's anathema from Galatians 1 to teachers of what has come to be known as "lordship salvation."
I was assigned to read that book in one of my classes at Moody Bible Institute, but somehow the nature and the gravity of the controversy he was dealing with did not penetrate my consciousness. I glossed over that chapter, thinking Ryrie was merely arguing against works-salvation. And I somehow managed to graduate from Moody with a diploma in theology without fully realizing that Ryrie and his followers actually think Jesus' lordship is a truth better omitted from the gospel message.
I first became consciously aware that the lordship of Christ was controversial a year later, during my one-year stint at a fundamentalist-Baptist college.
The subject came up in one of those hallway discussions in the men's dorm, when a group of students were discussing preachers whom they liked and didn't like. One student said he thought Stephen Olford was positively dangerous. He said it with the utmost force and conviction. And I thought that odd, because Stephen Olford was one of the favorite speakers at Moody during my years there. I had never even met a student who didn't like Olford, much less heard anyone suggest that there was anything "dangerous" about him.
So I asked this fellow why he thought Stephen Olford was such a threat to the cause of truth.
He was quick to answer: "He corrupts the gospel. He teaches lordship salvation."
At that point, everyone in the conversation kind of nodded knowingly. I had just earned a diploma in theology from Moody Bible Institute, and I had never even heard the expression "lordship salvation." So I sheepishly asked, "What's lordship salvation?"
He looked at me with an expression of incredulity and said, "Why, it's the teaching that you can't be saved unless you accept Jesus as your Savior and Lord."
I still didn't have a clue what he was talking about, so I asked, "What's wrong with that?"
He rather impatiently told me that proclaiming the lordship of Christ to an unsaved person is the same as preaching works. Surrender to Christ's lordship must be a post-conversion experience, he said. In fact, he said, it is entirely possible to receive Jesus as Savior and never yield to His lordship.
Surrender to Jesus' lordship is a work, he insisted, and it pertains to one's mature Christian life, not the moment of conversion. If an evangelist calls for the surrender of the sinner's will, or stresses Jesus' lordship in any way as a part of the gospel message to unbelievers, that person has tainted the gospel of grace with a message of works.
That was the first time I had ever heard the expression "lordship salvation," and it is the first time I can remember being aware that anyone believed it corrupts the gospel to proclaim to sinners that Jesus is Lord.
I remember being completely stymied by my fellow student's opposition to lordship salvation. I instantly felt that what he was saying could not be quite right, but at the moment I had no time to think through the issues, so I set the whole matter aside in my mind and determined to think it through when I got a chance. I instinctively could see that it was a huge issue, and I knew because it touched the matter of the purity of the gospel it was important for me to settle it in my thinking before I entered into any vocational ministry. But it seemed such a huge issue that I kept setting it aside and putting off thinking it through.
It was more than three years before I seriously considered the issue again.
(More to come.)