The Crossless Gospel – Part 1

(February/March 2011 – Volume 17, Issue 1)

It is a bit unsettling to realize two millennia after the coming of our Savior to earth that His followers are still debating the content of the gospel, the good news, which He came to bring.  This is not to say that there is not a degree of unanimity among those claiming to be evangelicals.  It is hard to disagree with Paul’s clear statement in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 which informs us that the gospel that saves us concerns the death of Christ for our sins (i.e., as our substitute), His burial and resurrection.  In these few words we learn that the good news centers around the cross on which the incarnate Son of God died in order that He might save us from our sins and give us eternal life.  This shorthand version of the gospel is expanded through other Scriptures.  When we put all the pieces together we find a four-layered message that can be outlined in four words: God, man, Christ, response:[1]

  • God: God is holy and deserving of all glory. 
  • Man: As a result of the fall man is corrupt and willfully rebellious against His Creator.  Because of his sin man is alienated from God, under the righteous wrath of God, is dead spiritually, will die physically, and will spend eternity in hell.
  • Christ: The only hope for humanity from the devastating effects of sin is salvation, and that salvation can only be attained through a Savior.  Since man is incapable of saving himself, and since no other created thing can save him due to the corruption of sin found in all creation, the only possible Savior would have to be God Himself.  Therefore the Son of God became sinless man, lived among us, died on the cross taking our sins upon Himself, and was resurrected from the dead.
  • Response:  The Lord has chosen that we can receive the gift of salvation and eternal life by placing our faith in Jesus Christ and His finished work on our behalf.  Since there is nothing we can do to merit God’s redeeming grace all we can do is throw ourselves upon the mercy of God and trust Him to do as He has promised and save us from sin and give us His righteousness (2 Cor 5:21).

Few claiming evangelical faith would disagree with the first three layers of this gospel message, although in truth it seems that most aspects of the gospel come under periodic attacks.  Still much of the attention of late has centered on the necessary response to the gospel message.  While virtually all conservative Christians agree that salvation is obtained by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, for at least twenty years heated debate has ensued over the content of saving faith.  And more recently some are bringing into question what it really means to trust in Christ alone.  This latter issue is the subject of part two of this study but first let’s review some of the current debate. Presently there are at least four “gospel” messages embraced by various branches of evangelical Christianity:

The Gospel Is the Kingdom

In Brian McLaren’s The Secret Message of Jesus he claims to have discovered the true gospel that Jesus came to give.  According to McLaren this message has been missed by Christians for generations but fortunately for all of us he and a few of his friends in the emergent church movement have been able to break Jesus’ code and unravel His true, but secret, message. I should clarify at this point that in no sense do I view McLaren as an evangelical; I believe he and the emergent church are old fashioned liberals with new window dressing.  Be that as it may, many in evangelical circles are listening to him and therefore his positions need to be addressed. 

According to McLaren, very early on the church twisted what Jesus and Paul taught into a gospel of “justification by grace through faith, the free gift of salvation, Christ being a substitutionary sacrifice for…sin.”[2] According to McLaren, that is not the gospel at all; the gospel is simply that “the kingdom of God is at hand.”[3]  And what does this kingdom, which he believes is here now, look like? Like “a political, social, religious, artistic, economic, intellectual, and spiritual revolution that would give birth to a new world.”[4]  Since the kingdom of God is about social renovation of the earth, and not about spiritual redemption, it is not surprising to find that the kingdom is actually populated with people from all religions.[5]  As a matter of fact only those who actively choose to not be part of the kingdom will be left out.[6]  The gospel, in McLaren’s hands, is not about how lost sinners can be made right before a holy God, but about how we can all work together to save the planet and everything in it.[7]

McLaren is not alone in this gospel of the kingdom; let’s take someone with more conservative credentials, N. T. Wright.  He too is under the impression that virtually everyone until present times has misunderstood the gospel message. In his book by the rather arrogant title of What St. Paul Really Said, which is Wright’s proclamation and support of the New Perspective on Paul, he writes.

In older theology…“the gospel” is supposed to be a description of how people get saved… [or how] Christ takes our sin and we his righteousness [or something along that order][8]… But “the gospel” itself, strictly speaking, is the narrative proclamation of King Jesus[9]… [Paul is announcing that] Jesus is King, not only of Israel but of the whole world[10]…The gospel is the announcement that Jesus is Lord – Lord of the world, Lord of the cosmos, Lord of the earth, of the ozone layer, of whales and waterfalls, of trees and tortoises.  As soon as we get this right we destroy the disastrous dichotomy that has existed in people’s minds between “preaching the gospel” on the one hand and what used to be called “social action” or “social justice” on the other.[11]

This type of discussion has led to much bewilderment of late. Some have openly wondered if the gospel Jesus preached is compatible with the gospel that Paul taught, especially since Jesus spoke often of the kingdom of God, and almost nothing of justification (the word is used by Jesus only once in a salvation context). Yet Paul taught extensively on justification but little on the kingdom.          Are Jesus and Paul even on the same page?  This has become a big enough issue among some that Scot McKnight recently wrote the lead article for an issue of Christianity Today entitled “Jesus vs. Paul.”  In the article McKnight affirmed that Jesus and Paul were teaching the same gospel (something no conservative Christian could deny) but from different perspectives.  McKnight admits that “kingdom and justification are not the same thing [so] we have to find a better way to harmonize Jesus and Paul.”[12]  McKnight’s solution is that the gospel is neither directly about the kingdom nor about justification but about who Jesus is.  The gospel as outlined by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 is about who Jesus is, why He came and what He has done. “It is the story about Jesus, who is Messiah and Lord and who brings the kingdom and justifies sinners by faith.”[13]

This is a big improvement over what McLaren is teaching but still leaves a lot dangling in the air.  For example, those who emphasize Jesus’ kingdom message also stress social action and cultural transformation as either part of the gospel or as a mandate given the church of equal importance to the Great Commission (see Wright’s quote above). For example, at the Lausanne III Convention in Cape Town, South Africa in October of 2010, the Convention’s slogan was: “The whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world.”  The “whole church” in this context includes virtually all branches and traditions within Christendom including Roman Catholic and Orthodox as well as mainline denominations. The “gospel” will be defined by what is meant by the “whole world.”  According to the Lausanne website the whole world means “becoming empowered by the Holy Spirit to alleviate world suffering brought about by economic injustice, disease, environment and poverty.”[14]  It then becomes clear that the “whole gospel” as understood by the leadership at Lausanne implies not only the good news that Jesus Christ has provided through His blood the means by which sinners can be made right with God but also the need for social redemption.

This is not a minor issue for it confuses the result of sin with its cause and seeks to solve the consequences of sin by infesting the gospel with moralism.  The heart issue that mankind faces is not war, poverty, hunger, illness and injustice; these are mere symptoms of the real problem which is sin.  Christians should be active in alleviating human suffering and helping this world to be a better place to live, but we must ever be conscious that improving human conditions in itself does nothing to get to the root problem of sin.  We must be very cautious that we do not replace the true message of redemption with a moralism that masks the real predicament of humanity. In addition, the Scriptures teach that it is Christ who will ultimately remedy the social troubles of our world when He returns bringing His kingdom with Him.  The real difference in the teachings of Paul and Jesus is not that they differ on the gospel, but that Jesus came offering a kingdom that was eventually refused and Paul ministered in an era, the Church Age, in which God’s people await the kingdom.  Christ’s kingdom will ultimately come but, until it does, we as His disciples are to be busy calling people to salvation and equipping them to be God’s representatives in a fallen world.  This does not mean that the people of God are disinterested in social justice.  It does mean we must not confuse social justice with the gospel.

The Lordship Gospel

Some believe John MacArthur started the Lordship controversy with the publication of his 1990 book The Gospel According to Jesus.  In response to that volume a number of theologians wrote challenges, most notably Charles Ryrie and Zane Hodges, and eventually the Free Grace Society was formed to combat the Lordship view and guard, in their opinion, the true gospel of free grace. In fact, MacArthur wrote his original book on the subject (he has since followed up with The Gospel According to the Apostles and Hard to Believe) as a reaction to what he considered a dumbed-down gospel of easy believism as promoted by various groups such as Campus Crusade and its “Four Spiritual Laws.”  At any rate, much ink has been spilled since that time with both sides declaring that the other is distorting the gospel.  In many conservative spheres, in which there is virtual unanimity on every other doctrinal issue, there is sadly a deep divide over this all-important defining of the gospel.  To be more exact, it is not the details of who Christ is and what He has done and what He can do in the life of an individual that is up for dispute – there is no disagreement on the content of the gospel itself.  The difference arises in the area of our response to that message.  All agree, once again, that our response to the grace of God is to be by faith alone in Christ alone.  The breakdown comes, within the three groups that will be discussed in these papers, either over what saving faith means and/or over how much of the gospel message must be understood in order to be saved.

Beginning first with the Lordship position, MacArthur and others, are deeply concerned that the “faith” being required in many evangelistic contexts is little more than mental assent.  That is, if someone believes in the historical facts of who Jesus is and what Jesus has done, then he repeats some form of the “sinner’s prayer,” raises his hand, signs a card, or walks an aisle he is instantly pronounced born again. As MacArthur says, “Listening to a seeker-sensitive evangelical preacher today, we’re likely to think that it is easy to be a Christian.  Just say these little words, pray this little prayer, and poof! You’re in the club.”[15] While Lordshippers affirm that salvation is by faith alone they define faith as something far more serious than merely agreeing with factual details about Jesus or mouthing a few words.

As with most theological handles the term Lordship might confuse more than help.  For one thing Lordshippers are not monolithic in their understanding of what Lordship salvation means. There is considerable diversity, even among those who would identify themselves as Lordshippers, on some of the details. All who lean toward the Lordship position would agree that repentance is part of saving faith, that fruit should be the result of regeneration and that faith is far more than mental acceptance of certain facts about Jesus.  But what faith and repentance looks like and how much we should depend on the subjective evidence of spiritual fruit remains the subject of much debate.

Another problem with the Lordship handle is that, when those who do not really understand the position hear the term, they immediately jump to conclusions that are often unwarranted. Most likely they have drawn their definition of Lordship from various detractors who may or may not understand the issues themselves, rather than from interaction with what is really being taught by those espousing Lordship salvation.  For example, some paint the Lordship position as that of adding works to salvation.  No one in the Lordship camp would agree that they are frontloading the gospel with works; they firmly believe that God’s saving grace is received purely by faith alone.  However, it must be admitted that some careless statements have been made by Lordshippers that would lead others to question whether or not works in fact are being added.  One of the most blatant statements is found in MacArthur’s last book on the subject, Hard to Believe.  He writes, “Salvation isn’t the result of intellectual exercise.  It comes from a life lived in obedience and service to Christ as revealed in the Scriptures; it’s the fruit of actions not intentions… The life we live, not the words we speak, determines our eternal destiny.”[16]  This certainly smacks of work-righteousness, so much so that even many who are strong supporters of MacArthur took exception.  The response I received from those directly involved with MacArthur’s ministry is that there had been an editing error resulting in a misstatement of MacArthur’s true position.  As a result, a revision for the next printing changed these words to, “Salvation isn’t gained by reciting mere words.  Saving faith transforms the heart, and that in turn transforms behavior.  Faith’s fruit is seen in actions, not intentions… The life we live, not the words we speak, reveals whether our faith is authentic.”

The revised statement reflects pretty accurately where most Lordshippers rest on the gospel.  People do not initially transform their lives in order to be saved; that would be adding our own merit to grace.  Saving grace received by faith will result in regeneration, or a new creation, which in turn should be evidenced in the way we live.  Those claiming to be Christians but giving no evidence of new life in Christ are most likely deluding themselves.  This is at the heart of the concern of supporters of the Lordship message.

Another common misconception is that those in the Lordship camp look exclusively to external, subjective evidence to prove one’s salvation.  That is, those truly born again will know they are saved because of their changed lives and good works.  If such is the ground of our salvation two problems arise: how much change is needed to provide proof of salvation, and if our salvation rests on such subjectivity how will we ever find solid assurance of salvation?  These two problems greatly overlap and form an important criticism of the Lordship position.  If we place too much weight on our transformed lives what happens when we recognize, as we all do, that we are not as transformed as we wish?  What happens when we sin, become apathetic toward reading the Word or going to church, or realize that we are still battling with the same sins we did years ago?  At that point are we to doubt our salvation?  And if we are honest with ourselves and grasp the fact that our spiritual transformation is still in process, do we then lose our ground of assurance?  Those who question the Lordship position often do so because they fear that when we become “fruit inspectors” we will never be able to come to a settled position about our relationship with Christ because we must honestly confess that the best of us fall far short of who we should be as Christians.  If 1 John 5:13 informs us that God wants us to know with assurance that we are saved, then does not the Lordship understanding of fruit and works undermine God’s desires for us? 

Most within the Lordship camp will admit that if a person is trusting solely in his good works and spiritual living for evidence of salvation he might spend much of his life in needless introspection, and still never know with conviction that he belongs to Christ. But the Lordshippers do not place all their eggs in the subjective basket.  Actually they believe there are two lines of evidence providing assurance of salvation.  There is the objective evidence of faith; that is, an individual has placed his faith in Jesus Christ, trusting in Him alone and His finished work for eternal life.  The second line of evidence is a changed life, or good works.  A helpful analogy is that of a new born baby. While physically unable to do many things, nevertheless the infant gives signs of life: it cries, wets, moves and breathes.  If the baby did not do any of these things it would be a sign that the infant was not alive. As physical life is manifested by certain evidences so spiritual life should as well.  The Lordship position seeks to guard against false professions of faith.  While God’s gift of salvation is received purely through faith alone in Christ alone, nevertheless when a person is truly born again there should be signs of spiritual life.  If supposed regeneration results in no inward, subjective evidence it would be wise for such a person to look very carefully at his profession of faith.  Has he truly turned to the Lord for the forgiveness of sins; has the Holy Spirit, with His regenerative power truly come to live inside; are there signs that God lives within?  While the Lordshipper would see the primary proof of our salvation resting in our calling upon the Lord by faith and thus receiving God’s promise, he would see spiritual fruit as a secondary proof.  Spiritual life should be evidenced by spiritual living.

It should be noted that this is not an exclusive Lordship position; as a matter of fact many in the Free Grace movement would agree.  David Anderson, in his book Free Grace Soteriology, while clearly concerned about the subjectivity of examining our lives which can lead to lack of assurance, also affirms that good works play at least a subordinate role in our assurance:

The DTS [Dallas Theological Seminary] professors who believe in free grace do not say that good works or fruit in the lives of believers have no value in assurance whatsoever.  But they relegate them to a secondary, corroborating position.  The only essential ground for the assurance of the believer’s salvation is the promises of God.[17]

Anderson, who is a member of the Free Grace Society, is expressing a view that many Lordshippers could accept.  Fruit, while an evidence of new life in Christ, is still secondary to the promise of God that any who places his faith in the Lord Jesus will be saved.  We do not trust in our works but in Christ’s redeeming power.  But Christ’s power should result in transformed lives.

That leads to the question of faith itself.  What is the content of saving faith?  To understand faith we must first understand repentance. Lordshippers would see repentance, not as an additional step, but part of the act of faith.  Repentance means to change one’s mind about something.  Lordship adherents believe repentance, in regard to salvation, means both that an individual changes his mind about who Jesus Christ is and also changes his mind about sin.  In our unregenerate state we were under the mastery and control of sin, but as we turn to Christ by faith we are also turning from the dominance of sin (Rom 6:12-14).  We do not stop sinning to secure salvation, but we now see sin for the horrible thing that it is and want to no longer be under its power.  We instead turn to Christ for the forgiveness of sin and for the gift of His righteousness. The Lordshipper has a difficult time believing that anyone calling upon the Lord for forgiveness of sin will at the same time desire to continue under sin’s dominance (Acts 26:18-20; I Thess 1:9).

Faith itself must be more than mere intellectual agreement with the historic facts concerning Christ.  There are millions who believe in the historical reality of the life of Jesus and accept the fact that He died on the cross and rose from the dead, yet they have no real spiritual life and no interest in Christ.  Many remain fully invested in their sins and love their rebellious lifestyles. Such people know and agree with the facts of the gospel but love their godless lives, lives in which Christ has no part.  Are such people saved? Others, such as Roman Catholics, affirm the life, death and resurrection of Jesus but believe they must merit salvation by performing certain rites or trusting the Church to finish what Christ started.  Are they born again because they seem to profess faith in Jesus?

The Lordshipper would say no, that such a person lacks objective evidence of salvation.  Faith is not passing a history test on the details of Christ’s life and works; faith to those embracing the Lordship position is placing trust in Christ alone for salvation.  More than that, it is a commitment, even surrender, to Christ who is now Lord of our lives.  The Lordshipper cannot fathom someone actually turning to Christ for salvation but defiantly refusing to bow before Him with his life.  Lordship teachers recognize the weakness of our human nature and know that Christians sin and can do so in horrific ways, even remaining in sin for years.  Yet the idea that one can receive the Lord’s saving grace while consciously determining to continue in his rebellious and ungodly lifestyle falls short of their understanding of saving faith.

While repentance is an important component in the Lordship understanding of reception of the gospel their position seems to differ only in degree from many of the Free Grace teachers.  For example, Anderson writes that repentance is “an internal resolve to turn from one’s sins.”[18] And Charles Ryrie, although he sees repentance as largely a changing of one’s mind about who Christ is, leaves room for repentance meaning also turning from sin.  In his Balancing the Christian Life he states, “It is true… that repentance about sins may lead an unsaved man to turn to Christ; but being sorry for sins or even changing one’s mind and thus his life will not of itself bring salvation.  There must also be a change of mind about Jesus Christ so that He is believed and received as personal Saviour from Sin.”[19]  No Lordshipper would disagree with this.

Without question those in the Lordship camp stake out a stronger view on repentance than Ryrie or Anderson.  Greg Gilbert says the command to “repent and believe – is what God requires of us in response to the good news of Jesus… In other words, a Christian is one who turns away from his sin and trusts in the Lord Jesus Christ – and nothing else – to save him from sin and judgment.”[20] While some who differ with the Lordship position could agree with this statement they would have more problems with the next: “Repentance… is turning away from sin, hating it, and resolving by God’s strength to forsake it, even as we turn to him in faith.”[21] Those in disagreement would challenge the possibility of the unbeliever hating sin prior to conversion, and the ability to turn from sin before the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  Lordshippers would counter that the repentance is a gift from God just as faith is (Acts 11:18; 2 Tim 2:25). Certainly the unregenerate is incapable of seeing sin in all of its horror, but when the Holy Spirit opens our spiritual eyes and draws us to Christ He allows us to understand the awfulness of sin and the need to turn from it.  Repentance then is no more a work that merits righteousness than faith is.

Summary

The Lordship position is defined by a belief in the necessity for repentance as part of faith. Faith and repentance cannot be separated.  Faith itself is not only trust but a true commitment to Jesus Christ who has promised to save us from sin and give us God’s righteousness upon the condition of faith.  Fruit (transformed life and good works) is seen as providing evidence that one is regenerated by the Holy Spirit as a result of salvation. The proof of our salvation does not rest in subjective fruit alone, rather it gives secondary evidence that collaborates with objective faith in the promises of Christ.

In our next paper we will line out the teachings of Free Grace teachers and the newer Free Grace Crossless Gospel that has emerged from traditional Free Grace theology.  In the process we will compare and contrast how these positions understand the gospel in relationship to the Lordship teachings.

 


[1] This outline is not unique to any particular individual or group; however Mark Dever and 9Marks have made this approach better known.  For those wanting more explanation than given in this paper they might read Greg Gilbert, What Is the Gospel? ( Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), pp. 27-83.

[2] Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus ( Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2006), p. 91.

[3] Ibid., p. 92.

[4] Ibid., p. 4.

[5] Ibid., pp 216-217.

[6] Ibid., pp. 163-164, 167.

[7] Ibid., pp 84-85, 128, 160, 203-204.

[8] N. T Wright, What St. Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), pp. 39-40.

[9] Ibid., p. 45.

[10] Ibid., p. 53.

[11] Ibid., pp. 153-154.

[12] Scot McKnight, “Jesus vs. Paul,” Christianity Today, December 18, 2010 p. 27.

[13] Ibid., p.29.

[14] www.lausanne.org/cape-town-2010/faq-programme.

[15] John MacArthur, Hard to Believe, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), p.12.

[16] John MacArthur, p. 93.

[17] David Anderson, Free Grace Soteriology (Xulonpress: 2010), p. 214.

[18] Ibid., p. 139.

[19] Charles Ryrie, Balancing the Christian Life (Chicago: Moody Press, 1969), p. 176 (emphasis mine).

[20] Gilbert, p. 73.

[21] Ibid., p. 79.