Lordship Salvation: Romans 10:9

If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

In the last study I tried to spell out the content of Christian preaching as it is summarized in Romans 10:9. In particular, I tried to show the full meaning of the words that were the first great Christian confession: “Jesus is Lord.” I pointed out that those three words, simple as they seem, are actually overflowing with meaning, for they affirm: (1) that Jesus is fully divine, (2) that he is the Savior, and (3) that he rules over his people and church. I elaborated that last point by showing that if we are Christians, Jesus must be Lord of our minds, morals, careers, churches, relation to the secular world without, and missionary outreach.

But there is a segment of the evangelical church that disagrees with all that. It restricts the confession “Jesus is Lord” to the belief that Jesus is a divine Savior and explicitly eliminates any idea that Jesus must be Lord of our lives for us to be Christians.

Even more. It teaches that a person can be a Christian without being a follower of Jesus Christ. It reduces the gospel to the mere fact of Christ’s having died for sinners, requires of sinners only that they acknowledge this by the barest intellectual assent, quite apart from any repentance or turning from sin, and then assures them of their eternal security when they may very well not be born again. This view bends faith beyond recognition and promises a false peace to thousands who have given verbal assent to this reductionist Christianity, but who are not in God’s family.

Those who take this position call what I have explained as the gospel in the last study “Lordship salvation,” and they dismiss it as heresy.

An Old Error in New Wineskins

Few theological positions, orthodox or not, are without precedent. And in this case, the view I am talking about is that of the eighteenth-century Scottish eccentric Robert Sandeman, who taught that everyone who is persuaded that Jesus actually died for sin as testified by the apostles is justified, regardless of any change in his or her life. The view is known by his name, Sandemanianism. However, this old error has appeared in new form in our day, largely through the influence of professors at Dallas Theological Seminary. I do not know anything to call it except “the Dallas doctrine.”

The contemporary roots of this teaching lie in the works of Lewis Sperry Chafer, one of the founders of that seminary, who believed that Scripture speaks of two classes of Christians: those that are carnal and those that are spiritual. He wrote, “The ‘carnal’ Christian is … characterized by a ‘walk’ that is on the same plane as that of the ‘natural man.’ ”

The idea was a novel one when Chafer first expounded it, but it is well known and widely accepted today. It has even been added to and embellished. If a Christian can behave exactly like a natural or unsaved man, then what is it that makes him a Christian? The answer is “simple assent to the fact that Jesus died to be his or her Savior.” Nothing else is necessary—in particular: no repentance, no discipleship, no change of behavior, not even any true perseverance in faith. In fact, to insist on any of these additional things is to propound a false gospel. Chafer did not say all this, of course, but since it is a logical extension of the idea of the carnal Christian, his followers eventually did.

One who has done so is Charles Caldwell Ryrie, editor of the popular Ryrie Study Bible. The most extreme proponent of this view is professor Zane C. Hodges, who has defended it in three works titled The Gospel Under Siege, Dead Faith: What Is It?, and Absolutely Free!

What has made this a major issue today is that the Dallas view has been challenged by pastor John MacArthur in a book called The Gospel According to Jesus, to which J. I. Packer and myself provided forewords. It is an attempt by a reformed dispensationalist to turn his fellow dispensationalists from their error.

I want to show why the Dallas doctrine is mistaken at this important point, just as I tried to show the error of the “signs and wonders” approach to evangelism. But, as with the “signs and wonders” movement, I want to state what can be said in favor of this view first.

The chief thing is that Charles Ryrie and Zane Hodges, and those who think as they do, want to preserve the purity of the gospel. That is to their credit. In my opinion, they are actually destroying the true gospel by what they teach, but that is not their intention. They are sons of the Reformation in this respect at least: they believe in justification by faith apart from works and want to guard that gospel from anything that might contaminate its purity. The reason they oppose a demand for repentance, discipleship, or a walk that gives evidence of an inward spiritual change is that they regard this demand as adding works to faith, and that, as we all know, is a false gospel. They want none of it.

Again, they want to affirm the doctrine of eternal security, since that, too, is a Reformation distinctive. They argue that if salvation depends in any way on repenting of sin, commitment, following Jesus as Lord, or a behavioral change, then assurance is destroyed, because we all sin. In fact, one of the reasons the Dallas doctrine eliminates obedience from the essence of saving faith is to include as Christians professing believers whose lives are filled with sin. “If only committed people are saved people,” writes Charles Ryrie, “then where is there room for carnal Christians?”

Where indeed?

Clearly there is an error at this point. But seeing the error does not mean that we should miss the rightful concern these men have to uphold and teach the doctrines of grace and eternal security.

Must Jesus Be Lord to Be Savior?

One very lucid statement of the non-lordship position is by Charles Ryrie in the chapter from Balancing the Christian Life to which I have already alluded and from which I quoted. Ryrie asks the question: “Must Christ be Lord to be Savior?” He answers negatively for the following three reasons.

1. There are many examples of Christians who have not surrendered to Jesus Christ as Lord.

Ryrie cites Peter, who rebuked Jesus on one occasion (“Surely not, Lord!” Acts 10:14); Barnabas and Paul, who quarreled over taking John Mark with them on a second missionary journey (Acts 15:39); and the Ephesian Christians, who did not destroy their magic scrolls and charms until sometime after they had believed on Christ (Acts 19:19). In my opinion, the case of the Ephesians proves the exact opposite of what Ryrie thinks it does. It proves that when the Ephesians believed on Christ, the inevitable outcome was the destruction of all rivals to his lordship. But that is not the main point.

The main answer to Ryrie’s argument is that he is equating commitment with perfection, which is obviously wrong. Christians sin, but that does not mean that they are not committed to Christ. If they lie down in their sin and do nothing about it, they are indeed uncommitted. They are not Christians. But if they are Christians, the way they show it is by getting up out of the sin—“repenting” is the right word for what they must do—and beginning to follow Christ again.

I have said elsewhere in these studies that there is all the difference in the world between falling down on the path and getting up and going on, and not being on the path at all. It is only those who are on the path who are Christians.

2. “Jesus is Lord” only means “Jesus is God.” Specifically, it does not mean “Jesus is my Master.”

In developing this point, Ryrie rightly states, as I did in the last chapter, that “Lord” means “God” in all the important Christological passages. I said that it is the word used to translate the great name for God, Jehovah, in the Greek Old Testament, so that its application to Jesus by the New Testament writers indicates their belief in Christ’s full deity. But Ryrie goes on from that truth to argue wrongly that because “Lord” means “God” it cannot mean anything else. Amazingly, he fails to see that the reason the word Lord, which on the human level does mean “master,” as he admits, is used of God is that God is the supreme Master over all other masters. It is a case similar to our use of the word Sovereign with a capital S. There are many sovereigns, but God can be called the Sovereign because he is sovereign over all others.

In his zeal to divest “Lord” of all meanings that do not suit his purpose, Ryrie even says, “If the gospel of the Lord Jesus includes lordship over my life, it might as well also include the necessity of believing he is my Creator, Judge, coming King, Example, Teacher, and so forth …” But, of course, that is exactly what it does include. What is the meaning of “Jesus is divine” if the statement does not mean that Jesus is the Creator, Judge, Example, Teacher, and other obvious functions of divinity? What does the word God mean if it does not include these matters?

When you begin to strip away the implications of this word, instead of adding to them and developing them, even the minimum amount you want to affirm becomes meaningless.

3. To add anything to faith, even commitment, is to turn the gospel of salvation by faith into a gospel of works, which is a false gospel.

Ryrie says, “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).” But this argument fudges on the definition of faith. If true faith includes commitment, as the greatest theologians of the church have always claimed it does, then to insist on commitment is not to add anything to faith but only to insist that faith be true faith.6 And that is an important point, because a false faith, an imitation faith, or a dead faith saves no one.

Four Costly Errors

It is evident from my response to Ryrie’s arguments that I believe the Dallas doctrine goes astray in a number of critical areas. But my remarks have only begun to touch on them. There are four areas in which this faulty understanding of the gospel is mistaken.

1. The meaning of faith. This is the chief error, and I have already touched on it in my response to Ryrie’s views. According to the Bible, a saving faith is a living faith that inevitably leads to right conduct. It involves substantial content, personal heart response, and commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord. According to the Dallas doctrine, faith is mere intellectual assent to the barest truths of the gospel.

2. The need for repentance. The Dallas school speaks of the need for repentance, but because it does not want to acknowledge the corresponding need for behavioral change it redefines repentance to mean only “a change of mind” concerning who Jesus Christ is, irrespective of any reference to sin. G. Michael Cocoris, a Dallas product, writes, “The Bible requires repentance for salvation, but repentance does not mean to turn from sin, nor a change in one’s conduct. Those are the fruits of repentance. Biblical repentance is a change of mind or attitude concerning either God, Christ, dead works or sin.”

That is not what the Bible means by repentance. The Bible’s use of this word always implies a change of life direction, specifically a turning from sin. It is the flip side of faith, its corresponding member. In conversion we turn from sin, which is repentance, on the one hand, and on the other, we turn to Jesus, which is faith.

3. The demand for discipleship. The Dallas doctrine divorces salvation from discipleship, thus preserving the school’s doctrine of the “carnal Christian.” But Jesus defined salvation as discipleship. That is, he did not call people to mere intellectual assent to who he was but rather to become his disciples. His call was, “Follow me.”

Several years ago I wrote a book to explore the meaning of Christ’s call to discipleship, and in it I examined the matter of cost. I found that Jesus always stressed the cost of coming to him. He never said anything to suggest even remotely that a person could come to him as Savior and remain unchanged. That insight changed me. I said in the book that if I had been asked earlier what minimum amount of doctrine a person needed to know in order to become a Christian or what minimum price he would have to pay to follow Jesus, I would probably have replied as many others still do, stressing very little demand. But now I say, “The minimum amount a person must believe to be a Christian is everything, and the minimum amount a person must give is all. You cannot hold back even a fraction of a percentage of yourself. Every sin must be abandoned. Every false thought must be repudiated. You must be the Lord’s entirely.”

Students of the Bible can decide for themselves whether this or the minimal demands of the Dallas school come closest to Christ’s definition of what it means to be a Christian.

4. The place of regeneration. The fourth costly error of the Dallas doctrine is its failure to see the unbreakable link between justification and regeneration. The exponents of the Dallas view speak as if the only thing involved in the salvation of a sinner is justification. But Jesus also said, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). Clearly, there can be no justification without regeneration, just as there is no regeneration without justification. But regeneration means the creation of a new nature by God. Therefore, if one is justified, he is also regenerated; and if he is regenerated, he will have a new nature and will begin to act differently. Indeed, the first evidences of this new nature are the person’s turning from sin in repentance and turning to Jesus Christ as Savior in faith.

That is why we say that if there is no evidence of the new life, there is no new life. And if there is no new life, the person is not a true Christian regardless of his or her profession.

Even Worse Errors Than These

I have been speaking of the errors that have been linked to the Dallas doctrine, but at this point I need to say something more. Sometimes an error is not very serious, because it does not touch on matters of great importance. Sometimes an error is serious, but the implications are not worked out and so it does little damage. This is not the case here. As the Dallas school has been challenged in this area, the opponents of “Lordship salvation” have dug in their heels and (in the person of Zane Hodges at least) have affirmed in their defense that: (1) a person can be saved and eternally secure even though he or she has a dying (or dead) faith, and (2) the person can be saved even if he or she apostatizes, denying Jesus.

The first of these terrible and nearly unbelievable assertions comes as a result of Zane Hodges’s attempt to deal with James 2:14–16, which distinguishes between a saving faith and a dead one. In Hodges’s handling of this text, the passage is said to have nothing to do with spiritual salvation in the life to come but only with how one can preserve one’s life now, here on earth.

According to Hodges, without works faith will wither. In fact, it can even die. “A body dies when it loses the spirit which keeps it alive. In the same way, a person’s faith dies when it loses the animating factor of good works.” Does that mean that salvation can be lost, then? That we must abandon the doctrine of eternal security? Not at all, according to this writer. The very fact that faith can die means that it was alive once, and on the basis of that once-alive faith we can confidently say, “Once saved, always saved.” Writes Hodges, “The dangers of a dying faith are real. But they do not include hell.”10

That is terrible teaching. But here is a second terrible assertion, based on Hodges’s handling of Hebrews 6:4–6. Hodges says that this is a description of real apostasy experienced by real Christians. That is, it is possible for Christians to “fall away.” But we do not need to worry, since “we should not construe … ‘falling away’ here as though it meant the loss of eternal life.”

The bottom line of this pernicious exegesis is that a person can profess to believe in Christ early in life, live without works and thus see his or her faith wither, and at last die, so that the person no longer professes even the meager intellectual assent possessed at the beginning, and then can even deny Jesus as the divine Savior—that is, be utterly indistinguishable from a pagan, not only in external appearance but in internal conviction as well—and still be a Christian, that is, be saved eternally.

It is inconceivable to me how anyone can seriously regard that as the Bible’s teaching. Yet it is where the Dallas doctrine leads, even though not all who oppose “Lordship salvation” follow it to Hodges’s incredible extremes. That this is the end of the line should be ample warning to anyone that the teaching is unstable at the core.

Historic Christianity

At the end of his critique of these errors in The Gospel According to Jesus, John MacArthur has a substantial appendix in which he shows by many quotations from the preachers and theologians of the past that “Lordship salvation” has always been the teaching of the church. In that section he cites thirty-one writers and offers forty-one quotations.

I cannot reproduce them all here, of course. But here is an important one, a series of comments by W. H. Griffith Thomas, one of the founders of Dallas Seminary before its present doctrinal decline. He wrote, “Our relation to Christ is based on his death and resurrection, and this means his Lordship. Indeed, the Lordship of Christ over the lives of his people was the very purpose for which he died and rose again. … We have to acknowledge Christ as our Lord. Sin is rebellion, and it is only as we surrender to him as Lord that we receive pardon from him as our Savior.”

Here is another. A. W. Tozer wrote:

[Years ago] no one would ever dare to rise in a meeting and say, “I am a Christian” if he had not surrendered his whole being to God and had taken Jesus Christ as his Lord as well as his Savior and had brought himself under obedience to the will of the Lord. It was only then that he could say, “I am saved.” Today we let them say they are saved no matter how imperfect and incomplete the transaction, with the proviso that the deeper Christian life can be tacked on at some time in the future. Can it be that we really think that we do not owe Jesus Christ our obedience?

This is bad teaching brethren.

Indeed it is! But unfortunately, it is all too common in our time.[1]

[1] Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans, Volume 3: God and History (pp. 1197–1204). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

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