Note: The following article is a repost (with minor modifications). Because it treats Dr. John MacArthur's view extensively, we encourage readers to also examine MacArthur's own treatment of the subject on the following link. Keep in mind that we agree with Dr. MacArthur regarding the many abuses of evangelism we are encountering today. The issue, however is biblical and important.
Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled; Hebrews 12:15
Charles Spurgeon, a Calvinistic brother in Christ once wrote: “Beloved, in fighting with sin without and within, with error doctrinal or practical, with spiritual wickedness in high places or low places, with devils and the devil’s allies, you are waging Jehovah’ s war, and unless he himself can be worsted, you need not fear defeat.”1
As imperfect as Spurgeon was, few were more willing than he to take on the error of his day. I love the quote from his own autobiography: “He who would make himself a lamb will find there are always wolves.”
American believers have bought the pacifist, peace at any price, dogma of our culture. Sound churches are closing everywhere for want of members who have rushed off to disobedient church models, and a desperate shortage of men to fill remaining conservative pulpits. During the past year, two once solid Baptist Bible Colleges closed up shop, after making last ditched efforts to accommodate a disobedient culture.
In each of these cases, the first finger must be pointed, not at the feet of those who destroyed these churches and schools, but at the feet of Bible teaching pastors and leaders who, in the name of peace, and for the sake of better attendances and enrollments, remained silent while these subtle changes came about.
Fifty years ago the doctrine of Lordship salvation was restricted primarily to Reformed churches. It crept in sideways (through godly men, and under the guise of being an antidote to shallow religion) and long since has gone virtually unchallenged. Once Dr. John MacArthur (the darling of the millennial generation) skyrocketed into fame there was no stopping Lordship salvation. Those of us who have opposed it have been vilified, accused by MacArthur for being antinomian, and teaching a false gospel. Most importantly, we have been isolated and provincialized.
Our proposition: Lordship salvation is a false teaching which melds works and grace in a dangerous concoction which nullifies the work of grace by laying a thin works-based veneer over it. It is both misleading and disobedient to use Christ’s requirements for discipleship as requirements for the repentance that leads unto salvation. In so doing we profane the gospel of Christ.
The Origins of Lordship Salvation
Before we can define this term we have to talk about its origins.
a. Lordship salvation did not originate among the Reformed writers. It can be traced back to early American preaching or as far back as Augustine. However, it is not universally accepted among Reformed teachers. Reformed writers take both sides on this issue because (like all the other elements in their TULIP) it is contradictory. In the purest of Reformed minds, one must be secretly regenerated by the Spirit before he can do anything. Thus, to be required to own the Lordship of Christ prior to being regenerated is impossible. This is one reason why so many Calvinistic teachers reject Dr. John MacArthur as a Calvinist.
b. Contemporary Lordship salvation is primarily a twentieth century phenomenon. As a result of the so-called Second Great Awakening in the 18th Century and the evangelism of Finney and his successors, a brand of evangelism arose which was geared more at marketing, rather than true conversion of the soul. Salvation was presented as a sign-on-the dotted line offer. As a result, there were many superficial decisions for Christ which were, for want of a better term, content-less, and certainly conviction-less.
c. In the 20th Century, John MacArthur made Lordship salvation central to his teaching on salvation.
Extreme evangelistic abuse opened the door for a pendular swing. Though MacArthur did not prefer to use the term, he taught it by returning to the Reformed tradition of eisegetically leveraging the teachings of Christ in the gospels regarding discipleship in order to formulate what he calls a hard gospel or a gospel hard to believe.
Defining Lordship Salvation
a. The Problem with Ambiguity
In order to deal with Lordship salvation we must preface our remarks with a few paragraphs regarding ambiguity.
1). MacArthurean ambiguity. There is a great deal of confusion regarding this discussion because John MacArthur (its key spokesman) is intentionally ambiguous in his teaching style. Regardless of the area under consideration, anyone who has ever debated anything from John MacArthur has heard the protest “But you are taking him out of context!” What folks miss, is that MacArthur intentionally speaks out of context, has no problem with making mutually contradictory statements because the practice is based on this theology. In his world, because God is transcendent we must expect contradictions in the Bible. In practice this means that we may rightfully preach what we see in a passage and feel no great compunction to reconcile it with other passages. For those who have never been exposed to this issue, we invite you to visit this URL for a starting point in the discussion: http://examiningcalvinism.blogspot.com/2007/04/contradictions-in-bible.html As an aside, it should be understood that Dispensationalists believe there is a divinely ordained tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, but that this is not seen as contradictory.
Was Jesus ambiguous and hard to understand at times? The answer is no, and yes, in that order. What is the difference between Jesus’ teaching and MacArthurs’? The difference is that Jesus’ teaching may be hard to understand at times, but it can be reconciled. It is neither ambiguous nor self-contradictory. The Father’s transcendence did not make the Son’s message ambiguous.
2). Generational ambiguity. Another form of ambiguity represents an even greater threat to sound Bible teaching. Off the cuff remarks, sloppy definitions, and the mashing of terms which need critical definition is the order of our day. This new disrespect for truth in our culture is the immediate result of relativism and post modern thought which perceives reality as anything but absolute. No one has mastered this more than the political world and the media. Sadly, however, we saw it creep into our universities fifty years ago, and into our Christian schools and churches during the last twenty five years. We see churches now being “transitioned” through synthetic processes, supporters being told that nothing has changed when everything has, and the list goes on. 2
This lack of commitment to absolute truth has lead to a new rhetoric and a new hermeneutic among God’s people. Repentance and faith are seen as two sides of the same coin! Discipleship and “believership” are seen as one and the same thing! Doctrinal issues are not treated on the basis of right and wrong, but on a relative scale or a spectrum.
In this respect John MacArthur represents his generation as he also rejects strict definitions. Consider this example in his own words where he criticizes Dispensationalists: “…an almost obsessive desire to categorize everything neatly has led various dispensationalist interpreters to draw hard lines not only between the church and Israel, but also between salvation and discipleship, the church and the kingdom, Christ’s preaching and the apostolic message, faith and repentance, and the age of law and the age of grace.”
The Word of God is a book of absolutes and contains no doctrinal spectrums. Truths must be taught in their totality. These are hard lines. Worse, the next generation will use this same sloppy hermeneutic to blur even more doctrinal lines and move us toward an even more toxic doctrinal morass.
Truths must be taught equally (in a balanced manner) but no truth should ever be used to “balance” another truth. God balanced His truth when He gave it to us and does not allow us the option of over or under-stressing any truth, even in times when another truth is being over or under-stressed. Grace, and law, for example cannot be balanced. Grace fulfills the intent of the law, but is neither mixed with it nor balanced against it.
b. Lordship salvation defined.
Definition: Lordship salvation embraces the argument that one is not saved merely by agreeing to the facts of salvation. One must believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and must yield to Christ as Lord of his life. Teachers on all sides of this issue agree that agreeing to the facts of salvation does not save anyone. Most all agree that salvation does produce a change in the life. That point is rarely disputed. Most also agree that Jesus Christ should be proclaimed as Lord. Of course, there are evangelists who have violated these truths, but they do not represent a consensus, they represent a radical, disobedient fringe.
Refuting Lordship Salvation.
There are good and noble reasons why some embrace Lordship. At first blush, the above definition sounds innocent and even needed in our culture where evangelistic abuse is prevalent, especially in certain circles in the south.
a.) The wrong diagnosis leads to the wrong prescription.
Lordship salvation seems like a rational antidote. If making the gospel “too easy” has resulted in false conversions, then preaching and teaching a “harder” gospel, will insure more genuine conversions. We all know far too many folks who have “done it,” gone through someone’s plan, walked an aisle, and now assume they are “saved,” when there is no evidence of spiritual life in them.
The problem is that one cannot make the gospel easy or hard. We must simply present it. And in fact, because salvation is by grace through faith, and not of ourselves, it is very easy indeed to come to know Christ. I came to know Christ when I was four years old, an event which consistent Lordship people would insist is impossible. One cannot make the gospel easy or hard, but one can strip the gospel of its content or add contaminants to it.
Some have assumed that too many superficial decisions have been made because the gospel is easy. You will never find the term “easy believism” in your Bible because, from God’s point of view, there is no such thing. So then, why are there so many superficial decisions? Among the many answers we could provide, there are two which stand out very well.
1.) Superficial believers exist because the Bible teaches that there always will be superficial responses to the Word of God. Matthew 13 teaches us the dynamics of the ministry of sowing the Word of God and reminds us that stony ground Christians will abound (Matthew 13:1-9). Superficial believers exist because of superficial responses to the ministry of the sower. They are inevitable because men like to be accepted as being religious and, like Simon, want to enjoy the benefits which come with that acceptance. Hard ground, thorny ground, stony ground, and fertile ground will always exist.
2.) Superficial believers exist because many “believe in vain.” Unlike “easy believism” the term believing in vain occurs in our Bibles. It is always in reference to those who have failed to appropriate the grace of God. Salvation is a matter of appropriation. Faith is a matter of appropriation. We change our minds about what God says and we appropriate what He has provided - by faith. The only labor or work associated with the gospel is laboring to enter into the rest of belief (Hebrews 4:10-11).
b.) A False Antidote Presents a False Dilemma.
When Lordship people present the gospel their logic goes a predictable line. David Platt (one of our contemporary Lordship advocates) tells of his interview with a Muslim woman as he confronts her with the claims of Christ.3 With fear in her eyes, she asks “How do I become a Christian?” At this point Platt says:
“You have two options in your response to Ayan. You can tell her how easy it is to become a Christian. If Ayan will simply assent to certain truths and repeat a particular prayer, she can be saved. That’s all it takes.
“Your second option is to tell Ayan the truth. You can tell Anan that in the gospel, God is calling her to die. Literally. To die to her life. To die to her family. To die to her friends. To die to her future. And in dying, to live. To live in Jesus. To live part of a global family that includes every tribe....” and so on.
Now let me ask you. Which of those options are true? The answer is, both are absolute lies. Both are perverse. Both are false presentations of the gospel. No one has ever been saved, by dying to self, by dying to sin, by dying to family and by dying to friends. In fact, no unbeliever CAN die to himself, because he is already dead in his sins. One cannot fully surrender a sinful will. The call to die for Christ is given to believers. It is a call to discipleship. It is NOT a call to salvation.
David Platt, at that point in his book, is presenting the gospel falsely. And consider this, as a small child, it might possibly terrify me to hear that I had to give up family, friends, and even my life to accept Jesus. That fear alone, might keep me from Christ. As an adult, that same call might even appeal to my flesh, suggesting I can earn salvation through sacrifice. When we hint that we can have eternal life if we are willing to sacrifice all and die for Christ, we sound a whole lot more like Islam than Christ.
c.) The Mashing of Repentance and Faith
There are very few facts which cannot be stretched into lies and the teaching of repentance. To repent, in its strictest sense, means to change our mind. Changing the way we think, in most cases, changes the way we behave. This is because our minds, our emotions, and our actions are all related to our hearts. When a man receives Christ he repents. He agrees with what God says about his sin, about Jesus Christ, and about salvation.
The more aware we are of our sin, the more emotional or terrified we may be. The less aware we are of the significance of our sin, the less emotional we may be. In that respect, no man can be saved who has not repented and changed his mind about what God says and what God requires. Repentance, however, is qualitative, not quantitative. No one need ever ask, How sorry do I have to be for my sins? When will I know I have been sorry enough to get saved?
This is no small problem. Over the years I have heard many lost souls tell me, “I agree with what you are saying, but I still don’t feel the need to get saved.” They may not feel the need, but God still commands them to get saved. It’s that simple. God commands all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30). This is not, however, what our Lordship salvation friends are teaching us.
Lordship people are telling us that repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin. They are not. They are mashing the definitions of repentance and faith. Repentance is agreeing with God, faith is appropriating what God has to say and resting in it. Many unbelievers, for example have walked the aisles in many evangelistic crusades weeping and mourning over their sin, and have left that auditorium without Christ. That is because repentance does not save. Faith in what God says, the kind of faith which rests in what God says, rather producing any works of our own, is what saves us. That kind of faith produces new life in Christ.
Now, based on the following statement, John MacArthur would take strong exception to what I have said. In John MacArthur’s description for his book Hard to Believe he says: “Faith in Him demands a willingness to make any sacrifice He asks. The hard truth about Christianity is that the cost is high, but the rewards are priceless: abundant and eternal life that comes only from faithfully following Christ.” Friends, abundant eternal life does not come from faithfully following Christ.
A pastor friend of mine recently intimated to me that MacArthur’s first edition of his book The Gospel According to Jesus Christ may have contained some “over the top” statements. Just to set the record straight, I’ll leave this part of the discussion with a quote from his new chapter one of his 20th anniversary edition of the book where he tells us that James 4:7-10 is one of the most comprehensive invitations to salvation in all the epistles. He says:
“Ten imperatives delineate the commands in James’ call to sinners: submit yourself to God (salvation); resist the devil (transferring allegiance); draw near to God (intimacy of relationship); cleanse your hands (repentance); purify your hearts (confession); be miserable, mourn, weep, and let your laughter and joy be turned to gloom (sorrow); The final imperative summarizes the mentality of those who are converted: ‘humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord.’ All this is a work of God, who gives his more abundant grace (4:6).”
Dear friend, you cannot merit God’s grace through repentance, and that is the lie of Lordship salvation.
d.) The Mashing of Discipleship and" Believership".
Evidence that one error breeds another is clearly seen in the discussion of discipleship. In order to teach that a pre-salvation work of the heart must include absolute surrender to the Lordship of Christ in all areas of one’s life one must blend repentance and faith into two sides of one coin. But it does not stop here.
Because the Lordship person extracts his defenses from mixing the gospel of the kingdom with the gospel of the grace of God he must, inevitably see that being a disciple and being a believer are one and the same thing. This is the single, most die hard claim of the Lordship teacher. A believer is a regenerated son of God, someone who has been placed in Christ. A disciple is one who is living daily under the discipline of Christ. For the sake of illustration, let’s go back to David Platt’s demands he made on Ayan, the Muslim girl. He was quoting Luke 14:26 and 27: "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple."
Understand, the operative word here, is disciple. In Platt’s mind, to be a believer and a disciple is one and the same thing. He has mashed the definitions (and inverted the chronology). To be a believer is the result of a one time conversion, an event during which Christ came into your life. You will be a believer all of your life and as a result, you will hopefully grow into a strong disciple. Disciples can even be unsaved (John 6:61-66). If we believe that one must be a disciple in order to be a believer we have put the cart before the horse, and subsequently, this cross bearing must be done before salvation! Further, this cross bearing must be done daily or one is not saved! (Luke 9:23)
e.) The Mashing of Works and Grace
“And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.” Romans 11:6
It is both misleading and disobedient to use Christ’s requirements for discipleship as requirements for the repentance that leads unto salvation. In so doing we profane the gospel of Christ. Consider the things you have to give up in order to embrace Lordship salvation, and for that matter, Reformed theology:
1.) We mash repentance and conversion into one definition and demand that our repentance must produce a change of life prior to or parallel with our salvation and profane the sweet doctrines of grace. The grace which saves us empowers us and teaches us to deny ungodliness (Titus 3:4). This change comes about as a result of God working in us, not as a result of our repentance.
2.) We mash "believership" and discipleship into one definition, thus requiring cross bearing and agonizing in order to be saved.
3.)We give up the clear gospel.
4.) We give up the offer of assurance. The more deeply one is caught in the web of Lordship salvation the less hope he offers to the convicted seeker. No one is ever quite sure he has repented enough to be truly saved.
5.) We give up offering the gospel to children with a clear conscience. Lordship advocates suggest we teach children “obedience to Christ,” until they are capable of making “adult decisions.” This is a fearful offense.
6.) We give up simple literal interpretation with clear, easily understood definitions.
7.) We open the door to a plethora of doctrinal errors. Lordship salvation is generally packaged with Calvinistic soteriology. Inevitably, many teachers who hold this view are then forced to teach that the Holy Spirit regenerates us prior to salvation in order to be consistent with this doctrine. This, in turn leads to the embracing the other Reformed extremes.
Conclusion: When we speak of repentance in terms of the gospel we are commanding men and women to change their minds regarding what God says about our sin, His Son, and His solution through Christ. That repentance results in no work and no action on the part of the listener other than believing in Christ (John 6:29-30). Conversion and regeneration results in our becoming a new creation in Christ. Our salvation (the outworking of the grace of God) produces those evidences of salvation we all desire to see, not repentance.
So, what about that strange title” “Lordship Salvation - If it Walks Like a Mallard, it’s Still a Duck”? My favorite joke (unappreciated by most of my family and friends) asks the question: What’s the difference between a duck? Only the must cunning thinkers know the answer: One leg is the same. Common, ordinary people are too smart to get caught in the game. Any comparison requires two entities. You can’t compare something with itself. Lordship people and hyper or extended Calvinists want us to think that we can blend two kinds of interpretation, allegorical and literal, into one mix. The fact is, the moment we mix allegorical interpretation with literal interpretation, we really have another version of allegorical interpretation. You cannot mix works with grace and hide your mix under another label. The kind of repentance which requires us to agonize in order to be saved, or to reach some undiscernible and unattainable level of surrender in order to qualify for grace, is works, nonetheless. So, because we call one bird a Mallard and another a Wood Duck, it makes no difference. They are both ducks. You are either resting completely in the finished work of Christ or you are trusting in your works at some level. You will never have full assurance of your salvation until you let grace do its work within you!
And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely. Rev. 22:17
1. Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening, Morning - June 8
2. Academics should keep in mind that dialectic and synthesis require ambiguity by their very nature. You cannot synthesize absolutes.
3.The excerpt is from David Platt’s Follow Me - A Call to Die.
Just so you know....In an age when folks work hard to obscure their true beliefs, we want you to know we love all of our brethren in Christ everywhere, but we stand squarely on the Bible alone and we interpret it in its normal literal sense. For a detailed explanation visit our What We Believe page at Breadcrumbs.org.