Since the 1970s and 80s the Dispensational-evangelical world has been involved in a running controversy over “the Lordship of Christ.” On one side are those Dispensationalists allied with Lewis Sperry Chafer, Charlies Ryrie, and Zane Hodges, who assert that so long as one has “accepted Jesus as Savior” it is not absolutely necessary for one to accept him “as Lord” also. In effect, in the unhappily named, so-called, “free grace” view, acknowledging Christ as Lord is a second-blessing reserved for more mature Christians as a second blessing. Under this approach one sees the doctrine of the so-called “carnal Christian,” i.e., one who has walked forward at a revival meeting and prayed the so-called “sinner’s prayer” but whose life remains essentially unchanged. According to one estimate, 2.2 million people “came forward” at Billy Graham rallies over the years. Were 2 million people actually converted, i.e., granted new life by the Holy Spirit and given true faith in Jesus and empowered by the Spirit to begin to put to death the old man and to be made alive in the new man? No one but God knows certainly but experience suggests that it is possible to “walk the aisle” in an “altar call” or respond to an evangelistic invitation at one’s front door without much evident change in one’s life. This is nothing less than antinomianism, the denial of the abiding validity of the moral law as the norm for the Christian life. The confessional Protestants have condemned antinomianism since Luther first coined the word in the 1520s. All the Reformed Churches confess the abiding validity of the Ten Commandments (the moral law) as the norm for the Christian life. The Chafer-Ryrie-Hodges view is also a denial of the moral necessity of sanctification as the ordinary, Spirit-wrought fruit and evidence of salvation (justification and sanctification). All of this contradicts the plain teaching of Scripture as confessed by the Reformed Churches.
In response, another set of Dispensationalists, led by John MacArthur, argued for “Lordship Salvation.” The seminal book for this movement is The Gospel According to Jesus: What Does Jesus Mean When He Says “Follow Me”? the first edition of which was published in 1988. The book was revised in a second edition in 1994 and that edition was reprinted with a new subtitle (What Is Authentic Faith?) in 2008. The best, most favorable, definition of Lordship Salvation comes not from MacArthur himself but from Packer in his foreword. He wrote, “That man should not separate what God has joined is a truth about more than marriage. …God has joined faith and repentance as the two facets of response to the Savior and made it clear that turning to Christ means turning from sinned letting ungodliness go. “…Lordship salvation” is a name for they view that upholds these unites” (1st edition, p. ix). He continues by discussing Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ rejection of the Sandemanians, who “chose to keep works out of justification” and who defined faith as nothing more than assent to propositions (ibid).
Since the publication of the book, the controversy has continued to simmer flaring up now and then. There appears to be another flare up. For a brief background and analysis of this controversy please take 30 minutes to listen to this interview I did with my colleague, Mike Horton, who edited a significant volume in response to the controversy, Christ The Lord: The Reformation and Lordship Salvation (1992). This volume contains a collection of essays including contributions by Horton, Kim Riddlebarger, Bob Strimple, and two essays by Paul Schaefer, which I found particularly helpful, among others. The volume also contains a critique by B. B. Warfield of L. S. Chafer’s doctrine of sanctification. This critique is invaluable. This book is perhaps the definitive response to the controversy but strangely is not included in the bibliography in the updated editions of The Gospel According to Jesus (hereafter GAJ).
What Was The Gospel In 1988?
One of the more remarkable aspects of the 1st edition of GAJ is the inclusion of two forewords by two notable Reformed figures, J. I. Packer, an evangelical Anglican minister, a scholar of Richard Baxter, and notable both for his own teaching and for his introduction to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. He is also somewhat notorious for his ecumenical projects in the UK and in North America, the most famous of which was his involvement in Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) and his signature on two more or less ambiguous documents on justification, which themselves produced a split among evangelicals and helped to give rise to the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, which was devoted to preserving and teaching the old Reformation doctrines of justification and sanctification. Here are some resources on this controversy. The first president of that group was James Montgomery Boice, who found himself opposed to Packer over ECT. Before ECT, however, he also wrote a foreword commending the book and siding with MacArthur against Chafer, Ryrie, and Hodges.
From a confessional Reformed perspective, however, there were some significant problems with the 1st edition of GAJ. Most significant of all was that MacArthur did not spend much time on the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone. Secondly, in both editions, there are places where it seems as if our good works make faith what it is. The traditional way of articulating this doctrine is “faith formed by love” (fides formata caritate). In other places, however, sanctification and good works seem to be regarded as fruit and evidence. It is, however, even in the later editions (e.g., the 2009 reprint of the 2nd edition) marked by relative a lack of clarity on some important issues. This is due to the fact that the work was part of an intra-Dispensational argument. MacArthur selectively invokes Reformed writers here and there (e.g., Louis Berkhof and Geerhardus Vos) but they serve as appendages or draftees in what is for them an extramural argument. Berkhof and Vos lived, worshiped, and taught in the confessional Reformed world. Both of them were Dutch Reformed and grew up with the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), which, had both sides in this debate learned and followed, might have done us all much good. More about this in a moment.
That MacArthur expressed himself unhappily in the 1st edition should not be a controversial observation since he himself acknowledged as much and revised the book significantly (e.g., by adding a chapter on the doctrine of justification). Even in the second edition, however, infelicities of expression remain. Further complicating things is the fact that many of MacArthur’s adherents (including some in the confessional Reformed world) continue to speak the way MacArthur spoke in 1988 rather than in the way the spoke in 1994. For its adherents, “Lordship Salvation” is the gospel. For adherents (including MacArthur himself) of (the 1st or 2nd) edition, any dissent “Lordship salvation” is regarded as heresy. Lest this seem like hyperbole, consider his quite recent remarks aimed at an old family friend, which he first made in a chapel message and then repeated at a recent conference. This video explains what happened and offers some analysis and criticism.
For more background on John Fonville’s history with and exodus out of the theology, piety, and practice of “Lordship Salvation” toward the Reformation listen to this interview with John Fonville and AGR’s Chris Gordon.
How The Reformation Avoids Both Sides
The Dispensational “Free Grace” movement quoted Luther. The “Lordship Salvation” advocates quote Luther, Calvin et al but neither side is deeply rooted in the Reformation. Dispensationalism is a nineteenth-century movement with its own theology, piety, and practice and it is not that of the Reformation. Dispensationalists on both sides should not simply assume that the Reformers read the Bible as they do. They did not.
For the Reformed Churches, there is no question whether repentance is a necessary fruit of new life just as there is no question whether true faith is a necessary fruit of new life (regeneration). We have what we call an “order of salvation” (ordo salutis: God elects his people, in Christ, unconditionally from all eternity. Christ accomplished redemption for his people and and God the Holy Spirit sovereignly applies the work of Christ to his people by effectually calling them to new life (regeneration), and granting them true faith (knowledge, assent, and trust), justification, and through faith union Christ. The Spirit also grants them adoption and sanctification. In the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism defines justification as “an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.” It defines sanctification as “the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.” As Shorter Catechism 25 says, God’s grace produces in believers renewal “in the whole man.” God’s Spirit graciously enables believers “to die unto sin and live unto righteousness.” Good works are the fruit of God’s gracious justifying work for us and of his equally sanctifying—saving—saving work in us.
In the Belgic Confession (1561), the Reformed confess about progressive sanctification: “We believe that this true faith, produced in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the work of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a “new man,” causing him to live the “new life” and freeing him from the slavery of sin.” Free salvation does not make men “”cold toward living” a pious and godly life. As the Belgic says, “quite to the contrary, “true faith…so works within them that apart from it they will never do a thing out of love for God but only out of love for themselves and fear of being condemned.” Indeed, long before the “Lordship Salvation” controversy, the Reformed were confessing that it is “impossible for this holy faith to be unfruitful in a human being, seeing that we do not speak of an empty faith but of what Scripture calls “faith working through love,” which leads a man to do by himself the works that God has commanded in his Word.” “Faith working through love” is a direct quotation of Galatians 5:6, which the medieval church and Rome corrupted to become “faith formed by love. Good works do not make faith but true faith does produce good works, including repentance.
In contrast to the way MacArthur speaks in GAJ (both editions), repentance is not treated in the Reformed confessions as “the gospel” but rather is treated under sanctification, which is a necessary consequence of the gospel. Heidelberg Catechism 88 says:
88. In how many things does true repentance or conversion consist?
In two things: the dying of the old man and the quickening of the new.
The gospel is the announcement by Jesus and his apostles of what Christ has done for us, outside of us (extra nos), which has necessary consequences for our sanctification, out of which flow good works. The gospel is that Christ justifies sinners. “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Rom 5:10). We are not justified because we are good. We are good, to the extent we become good in this life, because we have been freely justified and saved. Repentance is necessary but it is necessary as a consequence of our new life. The dead cannot and therefore do not repent. It is only those who have been given new life and true faith, who are united to Christ by the Spirit, who repent. Believers repent constantly, daily. It is impossible for the impenitent to be saved.
So we confess that good works proceed “from the good root of faith” and that they are “good and acceptable to God, since they are all sanctified by his grace. Yet they do not count toward our justification—for by faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do good works. Otherwise they could not be good, any more than the fruit of a tree could be good if the tree is not good in the first place.”
We do good works not in order to be saved but because we have been saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. I use the verb “saved” advisedly because we confess in Belgic Confession Art. 34 “Christ is our Red Sea” and the Red Sea is the paradigm for salvation in the Old Testament, wherein Yahweh graciously, sovereignly delivered a stubborn, sinful, stiff-necked people from condemnation. It is a picture of our salvation in Christ. If our salvation rested to any degree on our good works, we confess, “we would always be in doubt, tossed back and forth without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be tormented constantly if they did not rest on the merit of the suffering and death of our Savior.”
In short, there are three parts to the Christian faith: Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude (Heidelberg 2; Romans [all]). We must know from the law how great is our sin and misery. We know from the gospel how we have been redeemed from all our sin and misery, and finally how we ought to live thankful lives of gracious obedience, in union with Christ. The so-called “Free Grace” Dispensationalists are wrong. Sanctification is not a second blessing. There is no such thing as “carnal Christians.” There are only sinners graciously saved who are being gradually and graciously sanctified. The “Lordship Salvation” doctrine errs by failing consistently to distinguish the law from the gospel, the uses of the law, the order of salvation (ordo salutis), the three parts of the faith, justification from sanctification, and faith from repentance. To distinguish is not to separate but the whole Protestant Reformation rested on these distinctions and because the Dispensationalists are not deeply rooted in the Reformation neither side in this debate seemed to know to how articulate these issues in a consistently Protestant, Reformation way.