(March 1995 – Volume 1, Issue 5)
No one is espousing a works salvation. …No one is denying that salvation is by grace through faith alone. The question is, “What is saving faith?”
Few things have rocked the Bible believing community in recent years like the “Lordship Salvation” controversy. This is true for various reasons. First, the discussion strikes at the very heart of Christianity. Few things are more important than the issue of how one becomes a Christian. Also, all those who are drawing up the battle lines are godly men, who love the Word, and are careful students of it. Each of the major writers involved in this controversy holds a high view of Scripture, and each would support their view from study of the Bible alone. Yet, these men of God have come to different conclusions on this most vital of doctrines. The purpose of this newsletter is to clearly spell out the issues involved, identify the principle players, attempt to analyze those issues, and suggest a solution that has Biblical balance.
The best place to start is with what is not being taught. No one is espousing a “works” salvation, although some have been accused of this. No one is denying that salvation is by grace through faith alone. However, the vital question is, “What is saving faith?” James 2:14 reads, “What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” Admittedly, this is a highly controversial passage, but it would seem clear that James is implying that there exists a kind of faith that does not save. That is, there appears to be a pseudo-faith, a faith that has the appearance of saving trust in the finished work of Christ, but that falls short, leaving the individual still in their sins. The whole “Lordship” controversy is wrapped around the solution to this problem. In addition, there is a corollary issue: If I have saving faith, how will I know it? What gives assurance of salvation? Is my assurance based upon my initial act of faith, or upon my subsequent fruit, or upon some mystical feeling from the Holy Spirit? These are big and important issues that must be faced by every believer.
Although many books and articles have been written on this subject, there remain three key men who have staked out opposing positions. At the two extremes are Z.Hodges and J. MacArthur. Hodges supports what some have termed the “radical no-lordship” view. That is, Hodges says that saving faith is believing in the facts of the gospel. When one believes in the facts about Christ as expressed in the Scriptures, one becomes the child of God. To add anything such as repentance, commitment to Christ, salvation resulting in a changed life, or fruit that follows conversion, is to add works to salvation. Hodges, at least in theory, believes that a person can have a momentary flash of faith that results in being born again. That person could then live the rest of life without faith, yet be saved.
John MacArthur would represent what has become known as the “Lordship” position. MacArthur believes that saving faith includes repentance, and a commitment to follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Master (hence the “Lordship” handle). The “Lordship” position believes that the true child of God will persevere. In other words, while there may be periods of sin and doubt throughout life, the believer will never totally apostasize. Thus, every born again individual will experience a changed life with resulting fruit. Charles Ryrie would be the spokesman for a more moderate, middle of the road position, simply known as “no-lordship.” Ryrie believes in repentance, but defines it as a change of mind about Christ. Repentance from sin (or a lifestyle of sin) is not essential. While salvation should change a person, Ryrie believes that it is possible to become a carnal Christian and remain in that state for one’s entire life. At the same time, he believes that at least some fruit is inevitable if one is truly born again. However, only those who have made a post-conversion act of dedication will see real growth in grace. These men have written extensively on this subject, but my comments will be based principally on the following: The Gospel Under Siege and Absolutely Free by Hodges; Balancing the Christian Life and So Great Salvation by Ryrie; and The Gospel According to Jesus and Faith Works by MacArthur. It should be mentioned at this point that I do not find myself in total agreement with any of these men. My position would be in between MacArthur’s and Ryrie’s.
“Lordship” vs. “Free Grace”
Repentance is a major component of our study. Is it a changing of our minds about Jesus Christ alone, or does it also include the changing of our minds about ourselves and sin?
Hodges is so concerned that the “Lordship” view is distorting the gospel message that he aligned himself with the Grace Evangelical Society. Proponents of this group call their position “Free Grace.” The “Free Grace” people are concerned that nothing be added to grace as a means of salvation. They even go so far as to say that it is unnecessary to sorrow over, or turn from one’s sins in order to be saved; i.e. repentance is not part of the gospel. Hodges says, “The marvelous truth of justification by faith, apart from works, recedes into shadows not unlike those which darkened the days before the Reformation. What replaces this doctrine is a kind of faith/works synthesis which differs only insignificantly from official Roman Catholic dogma” (AF p20). Strong words!! MacArthur, on the other hand, is equally strong when he says, “The gospel in vogue today holds forth a false hope to sinners. It promises them they can have eternal life yet continue to live in rebellion against God” (GAJ p16). I believe both men overstate their case and misunderstand the other’s position. It must be understood that both sides are reacting to what they view as extremes. For example, the “Free Grace” people accuse MacArthur of adding faithfulness to faith. They claim that MacArthur teaches that in order to be saved we must not only have faith, we must consistently obey and always remain faithful. To this, the “Free Grace” people cry “works salvation.” It must be admitted that at times MacArthur seems to be saying exactly this. At other times he vehemently denies such views. I believe that at the heart of this misunderstanding is the subject of sanctification, more than the content of the gospel. As mentioned earlier, both sides agree that salvation is by grace through faith alone. It seems the real fuss comes over what are the results of our regeneration, with those differing views transferred back to what is the gospel message. The “Lordship” position claims that regeneration should result not only in eternal life, but in a changed life now. “The Bible teaches clearly that the evidence of God’s work in a life is the inevitable fruit of transformed behavior (e.g. I Jh 3:10)” (GAJ p73). The “Free Grace” people believe that regeneration may or may not change the present life of the child of God. That is, the one who has been saved from his sins, and transformed into a new creation, may very well remain in those sins. Hodges stretches his interpretation of James and I John to new limits (see GUS), in his attempt to prove that salvation does not have to result in fruit. His view of James 2 is so novel that one Bible scholar claims, “To the best of my knowledge not one significant interpreter of Scripture in the entire history of the church has held to Hodges interpretation of the passages he treats.” MacArthur, supported by much Scripture that teaches the fruitfulness of the true believer, and with the backing of Bible scholars of the past (especially the Reformed theologians who taught the perseverance of the saints) asks, is a faith that produces no fruit truly saving faith? Hodges, on the other hand, says that to impose fruitfulness as a test of salvation is to add works to faith, thus destroying free grace. Into this quagmire, comes Ryrie with a statement that I believe offers some real balance. “The Bible offers two grounds for assurance. The objective ground is that God’s Word declares that I am saved through faith. Therefore, I believe Him and His Word and am assured that what He says is true (Jh 5:24; I Jh 5:1). The subjective ground relates to my experiences. Certain changes do accompany salvation, and when I see some of those changes, then I can be assured that I have received the new life. …It goes without saying that I will never keep all His commandments….But the fact that these experiences have come into my life, whereas they were absent before, gives assurance that the new life is present (II Cor 5:1)” (SGS p143).
The Need for Repentance
Repentance, it seems to me, is an important component in this argument. Yet, on this issue our three men differ widely. Hodges says, that “Repentance is not essential to the saving transaction… it is in no sense a condition for that transaction” (AF p146). Ryrie claims that repentance is a changing of our minds about Jesus of Nazareth. Repentance from sin is unnecessary (SGS p96). I believe that these men have left the conviction of sin and guilt out of the gospel., And I believe they are gravely mistaken to have done so. When we speak of being saved we must recognize that we are being saved from something and to something. When we become believers we are saved to Christ and to eternal life — all would agree on this point. But we are also saved from something. I believe that we are saved, not only from hell, but from sin—its penalty, its power, and ultimately its presence. How can an individual be saved from sin, and yet have no desire to turn from sin? Repentance, in my understanding is part of saving faith. It is the recognition that one is a sinner, bound for hell. By faith, that individual turns from his sin and to Christ for His saving grace. If one does not understand the issue of sin, he cannot understand the gospel. For Christ died on the cross for our sins, He died in the place of sinners, He died to set us free from the grip of sin. How then could one be saved who does not turn to Christ by faith in repentance?