The Gospel According to Jesus v. So Great Salvation
Can a person receive Jesus as his Savior without receiving Him as his Lord? This is the question dealt with in the two most popular books on the subject of lordship salvation. One is John F. MacArthur, Jr.’s The Gospel According to Jesus (Zondervan:1988), and the other is Charles C. Ryrie’s So Great Salvation (Victor Books:1989). It was decided to combine them in one review, not only because they deal with the same subject (MacArthur espousing the “lordship salvation” position, Ryrie challenging it), but primarily because Ryrie’s book attempts to answer MacArthur’s writing.
The subject of lordship salvation is not easily delineated. Its basic premise, that Jesus cannot be one’s Savior without also being his Lord, has been taken by some to mean that salvation is attained by works rather than by God’s grace.
The issue as seen by those who believe in lordship salvation (e.g., MacArthur) is that someone who is truly saved will produce fruit that will attest to the genuineness of his faith, because he will have acknowledged Jesus not only as his Savior, but as his Lord as well.
Those who reject lordship salvation (e.g., Ryrie), believe that someone may have genuine faith in Christ, but the fact that he continues in his sin demonstrates that he has not made Jesus his Lord, only his Savior. According to Ryrie, just because someone sins or acts in disobedience (even habitually) doesn’t mean he doesn’t have saving faith.
But the issue is not whether we sin or not; the issue is our attitude toward our sin. And this is where MacArthur is careful to point out that it is willful rejection of Christ’s Lordship that proves one’s confession of faith not valid.
In making this point, MacArthur challenges the contemporary “gospel” that merely calls people to make a decision without telling them the full implications of that decision.
Yet God even uses this form of what one can call the “inadequate gospel” to initiate one into the full truth of the Gospel of salvation at a later date. In this respect, MacArthur’s concern is not with the Lord’s ability to use man’s failures, but with man’s failure to use what God has provided in His Word to communicate the full extent of Christ’s work on the Cross.
“The gospel Jesus proclaimed was a call to discipleship, a call to follow Him in submissive obedience, not just a plea to make a decision or pray a prayer. Jesus’ message liberated people from the bondage of their sin while it confronted and condemned hypocrisy. It was an offer of eternal life and forgiveness for repentant sinners, but at the same time it was a rebuke to outwardly religious people whose lives were devoid of true righteousness. It put sinners on notice that they must turn from sin and embrace God’s righteousness. It was in every sense good news, yet it was anything but easy-believism” (p. 21, GATJ).
In his attempt to refute MacArthur’s premise, Ryrie selects certain passages, then implies that MacArthur’s statements are ambiguous and give the impression that MacArthur is saying that works must precede salvation:
“Those who hold to a lordship/discipleship/mastery salvation viewpoint do not (perhaps it would be more accurate to say ‘cannot’) send an unambiguous message about this matter. On the one hand, they say that the essence of saving faith is ‘unconditional surrender, a complete resignation of self and absolute submission.’ True faith, we are told, ‘starts with humility and reaches fruition in obedience.’ ‘Salvation is for those who are willing to forsake everything.’ ‘Saving faith is a commitment to leave sin and follow Jesus Christ at all costs. Jesus takes no one unwilling to come on those terms.’ ‘Eternal life brings immediate death to self.’ ‘Forsaking oneself for Christ’s sake is not an optional step of discipleship subsequent to conversion; it is the sine qua non of saving faith.’
“But what if I do not follow Christ at all costs? What if later on in life I become unwilling to forsake something? Suppose I lack full obedience? What if I take something back that earlier in my experience I had given to Him? How do I quantify the amount of fruit necessary to be sure I truly ‘believed’ in the lordship/mastery sense of the term? Or how do I quantify the amount of defection that can be tolerated without wondering if I have saving faith or if I in fact lost what I formerly had?” (p. 29, SGS)
Perhaps Ryrie’s did not read MacArthur’s book in total. For MacArthur does allow for Christians to be in various stages of growth in their walk. The point is that, if someone’s conversion is genuine, he will exhibit growth, however meager and however faltering, during his lifetime.
Quoting MacArthur as Ryrie did, and his subsequent remark, demonstrate an inaccurate assessment of what MacArthur was saying. In fact, every single quote by Ryrie has been taken out of context in order to create a straw man (salvation by works) to attack, a tactic which Ryrie himself denigrates (p. 29, SGS).
To demonstrate, we’ll take each quote out of context as Ryrie did, then put it in the proper context by quoting MacArthur or referring to the total context of MacArthur’s remarks:
(1) Saving faith is “unconditional surrender, a complete resignation of self and absolute submission” (p. 153, GATJ).
Actually, MacArthur was explaining the lesson of the prodigal son. It is not an ambiguous message as Ryrie claims. Not if taken in context. Nor does it say that the prodigal son never again failed his father. What MacArthur was saying is that a change of heart attitude, not perfection in works, is necessary for salvation.
(2) “True faith, we are told, ‘starts with humility and reaches fruition in obedience'” (pp. 176-177, GATJ).
MacArthur was explaining the Beatitudes of Matthew 5:3-12. Again, this is not ambiguous. If that single statement is taken out of context and combined with other out-of-context statements, it might be ambiguous. But there is no ambiguity in MacArthur’s overall exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount.
(3) “Salvation is for those who are willing to forsake everything” (p. 78, GATJ).
Here MacArthur is referring to the rich young ruler who asked Jesus, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16-22). Again, we can see that Ryrie’s out-of-context use of MacArthur’s statement was less than scholarly.
(4) “Saving faith is a commitment to leave sin and follow Jesus Christ at all costs. Jesus takes no one unwilling to come on those terms” (p 87, GATJ).
Here’s the same statement in context:
“Salvation is by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8). That is the consistent and unambiguous teaching of Scripture. But people with genuine faith do not refuse to acknowledge their sinfulness. They sense that they have offended the holiness of God, and do not reject the lordship of Christ. They do not cling to the things of the world. Real faith lacks none of these attributes. Saving faith is a commitment to leave sin and follow Jesus Christ at all costs. Jesus takes no one unwilling to come on those terms.”
Taken in context, we again find no ambiguity in MacArthur’s statement. What he is saying is quite clear: “Faith without works is dead, being alone” (James 2:17).
(5) “Eternal life brings immediate death to self” (p. 140, GATJ).
MacArthur states that there is no cost for salvation, but there is a definite cost in terms of salvation’s impact. Read MacArthur’s entire statement and see if Ryrie did not give the wrong impression about what MacArthur was saying by taking the statement out of context:
“Eternal life is indeed a free gift (Rom. 6:23). Salvation cannot be earned with good deeds or purchased with money. It has already been bought by Christ, who paid the ransom with His blood. But that does not mean there is not cost in terms of salvation’s impact on the sinner’s life. This paradox may be difficult but it is nevertheless true: salvation is both free and costly. Eternal life brings immediate death to self. ‘Knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin’ (Rom 6:6).
“Thus in a sense we pay the ultimate price for salvation when our sinful self is nailed to a cross. It is a total abandonment of self-will, like the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies so that it can bear much fruit (cf. John 12:24). It is an exchange of all that we are for all that Christ is. And it denotes implicit obedience, full surrender to the lordship of Christ. Nothing less can qualify as saving faith.
“Death to self does not mean immediate sanctification and glorification. But just as Adam died on the day he disobeyed God (yet did not see the completion of the death for many years), so we die on the day that we truly believe on the Son of Man (though the completion of that death will not be realized until we go to be with the Lord). And in dying we live unto eternal life.”
(6) “Forsaking oneself for Christ’s sake is not an optional step of discipleship subsequent to conversion; it is the sine qua non of saving faith” (p. 135, GATJ).
Like all the other Ryrie quotes, MacArthur’s statement must be read in context. In accusing MacArthur of ambiguity, it is Ryrie who is being ambiguous. In fact, taking MacArthur’s statements out of context to fit his claim is an abandonment of Warren Wiersbe’s “Foreword” in Ryrie’s book — that changing one’s meaning by taking his words out of context is amateurish. In building Ryrie’s status in the eyes of the reader, Wiersbe states:
“This book is not only important, but it is also dependable. To begin with, the author is a theologian who has two earned doctorates in his field of study. He has served effectively on the faculty of one of America’s leading evangelical seminaries and is widely recognized and respected as a teacher, preacher, and writer. As you read these pages, you will appreciate Dr. Ryrie’s accurate exegesis and his clear explanations of biblical texts. An experienced and mature scholar, Dr. Ryrie quotes carefully and accurately from a wide range of writers; but his final authority is the Word of God. The cynic Ambrose Bierce once defined ‘quoting’ as ‘the act of repeating erroneously the words of another.’ Dr. Ryrie is too seasoned a scholar to make that mistake. You can read these pages with confidence; they are not written by an amateur” (p. 9, SGS).
One thing anyone can tell you who has spent more than just a few years walking with the Lord is that scholarship, while having certain merits, is not the be-all or end-all of every question. Remember that in the eyes of “scholars,” Jesus, and almost every one of His apostles, were viewed as “unlearned.”
No, it is not scholarship that guarantees accuracy, it is the anointing of the Holy Spirit. If one’s scholarship is submitted to the Word of God as illumined by the Spirit of God — with a willingness to disbelieve everything one’s scholarship holds true — then the scholar may say that he is acknowledging Jesus as Lord of his scholarship.
I do not question Dr. Ryrie’s credentials, but I am concerned that he would take MacArthur’s comments out of context to prove a point that, in full circle, comes to the same conclusion as MacArthur:
“Every Christian will bear spiritual fruit. Somewhere, sometime, somehow. Otherwise that person is not a believer. Every born-again individual will be fruitful. Not to be fruitful is to be faithless, without faith, and therefore without salvation” (p 45, SGS).
This is precisely MacArthur’s point. So too, are Ryrie’s “caveats”:
“Having said that, some caveats are in order. One, this does not mean that a believer will always be fruitful … Two, this does not mean that a certain person’s fruit will necessarily be outwardly evident … Three, my understanding of what fruit is and therefore what I expect others to bear may be faulty and/or incomplete. … Nevertheless, every Christian will bear fruit; otherwise he or she is not a true believer” (p 45, SGS).
It appears as if Ryrie believes in lordship salvation, too. But he just doesn’t like the way MacArthur states it. Logically, he would have to use his own arguments against himself. Particularly his example of a deathbed conversion that doesn’t allow someone to bear fruit afterward. And his excuse that the person may bear fruit through someone else believing as a result of his conversion is not what is meant by bearing fruit. Otherwise we could say that everyone who professes Christ, regardless of his attitude toward his sin, bears fruit on the basis that someone who hears that he has professed Christ also decides to trust Christ.
Here it is necessary to differentiate between “fruit” and “works.” Briefly, fruit is the result of an inward conversion experience that is manifested in a change of heart attitude towards God. Generally, we are speaking about the fruit of the Spirit. Even if it takes many years of chastisement and difficulty on the part of the believer to work even a modicum of the fruit into his life, there will be some response out of a heart of desire to be obedient to God.
Works, on the other hand, are the result of putting that attitude into practice. Some works are performed in obedience to God; Other works are performed in response to one’s concept of righteousness, but not in obedience to God — works of the flesh that are not sinful per se. An example would be to do a good work out of a motive of self-desire rather than in response to the leading of the Holy Spirit. These “works” are wood, hay, and stubble.
MacArthur seems to grasp this concept well enough. Ryrie demonstrates a lack of understanding. This is not said to take sides. I entered into the reading of these two books with an open mind. But in the final analysis, I had to agree almost totally with MacArthur’s position. He consistently worked from Scripture to build his case for lordship salvation, whereas Ryrie consistently worked from MacArthur’s text to “prove” that the lordship salvation message is tantamount to salvation by works.
Nor are the quotes referred to above the only ones involved. Ryrie’s poor scholarship runs rampant throughout his book. And it’s a shame that a theologian of his “stature” should come to such a sad state. It’s as if he just threw something together in haste in order to capitalize on the success of MacArthur’s book and the contrived controversy that has been propagated by those who see little or no merit in living as if Jesus is Lord. And Wiersbe’s glowing account of Ryrie’s exegesis must prove an embarrassment in view of Ryrie’s claim that the repentance God calls us to is a changing of our minds about Jesus, and not about sin:
“Second, there is a repentance that is unto eternal salvation. What kind of repentance saves? Not a sorrow for sins or even a sorrow that results in a cleaning up of one’s life. People who reform have repented; that is, they have changed their minds about their past lives, but that kind of repentance, albeit genuine, does not of itself save them. The only kind of repentance that saves is a change of mind about Jesus Christ. People can weep; people can resolve to turn from their past sins; but those things in themselves cannot save. The only kind of repentance that saves anyone, anywhere, anytime is a change of mind about Jesus Christ. The sense of sin and sorrow because of sin may stir up a person’s mind or conscience so that he or she realizes the need for a Savior, but if there is not change of mind about Jesus Christ there will be no salvation” (p. 94, SGS).
Actually, one cannot disagree entirely with what Ryrie says. It is necessary for us to have a change of mind about Jesus Christ — that is, to believe what the gospel says about Him, as opposed to what religious or philosophical traditions (or personal feelings) say about Him. But what does the Gospel say about Jesus? That He came to save us from our sins — not only the consequences, but the enslavement to them. We cannot believe that unless we are confronted with our sins. And confrontation under the anointing of the Holy Spirit will always result in one of two conclusions: to either reject the Christ who saves us from our sins, and thus continue in them, or to believe in the Christ who saves us from our sins and turn away from them (i.e., repent from sin and turn to Christ).
We see, then, that repentance has a two-fold meaning: repentance from our misconceived ideas about Jesus, as Ryrie points out, but also repentance from sin. Ryrie’s premise that repentance does not mean repentance from sin, but only repentance from a wrong concept of Christ, cannot stand the test of Scripture. Almost every Bible mention of repentance unto salvation is in the context of repentance from sin. Now, Ryrie does says that repentance from sin is important. But to say that it is not essential to salvation is to say that Christ died for nothing more than recognition of his office as Savior.
To sum up these two books, MacArthur’s is scholarly, accurate in its exegesis, and honest in its approach to a difficult subject. Ryrie’s book, on the other hand, contains about half the content of MacArthur’s for about the same price, is poorly exegeted, and, while much of what he says is true, those truths are already stated by MacArthur. You won’t miss anything by passing it up.
Finally, it should be reiterated that lordship salvation does not say — nor does MacArthur say — that repentance is a precondition to faith. Rather, repentance from sin proceeds from faith. We are saved by grace through faith.
Thus the writer of Hebrews asks that all-important question that forms the basis for the title of Ryrie’s book, “How can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” (Hebrews 2:3).
Indeed, how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation that transforms those it touches into the image of Christ — a lordship salvation?
* This material has been excerpted and/or adapted from an Al Dager’s 3/90 Media Spotlight book review by the same name. The favorable comments by Mr. Dager concerning John MacArthur’s views on Lordship Salvation should in no way be construed as an endorsement by BDM of either John MacArthur or his book. This review is presented primarily as evidence of the unbiblical easy-believism gospel being taught by the likes of Charles Ryrie, Zane Hodges, etc., and their attacks on anyone who might approximate a Biblical approach to Lordship Salvation.