This is the second installment of my analysis of the online document explaining the doctrine of “Lordship Salvation“. I am moving very slowly through the initial matter in the article to lay a good foundation of understanding. Today we tackle the meaning of the idea of “liberation”.
A Gospel of “liberation”, confrontation, and condemnation?
Let’s reread the actual article:
The gospel that 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. Our Lord’s words about eternal life were invariably accompanied by warnings to those who might be tempted to take salvation lightly. He taught that the cost of following Him is high, that the way is narrow and few find it. He said many who call him Lord will be forbidden from entering the kingdom of heaven (cf. Matt. 7:13-23) (emphasis mine).
In the mid 1980’s (before the iron curtain fell) I travelled to Europe with a music group, and we crossed the border into the Czech Republic and then into Poland. There were signs everywhere with doves and the words “peace” and “freedom”, right behind the barbed wire, sentry towers, and armed soldiers. It seemed a little disingenuous; if there were so much peace and freedom, why did they need a border army just to keep people from escaping? Lordship Salvation’s proclamation of liberation has a similar dishonesty. If we are “liberated”, why do we need this incessant pressure to submit and obey, to recognize Jesus’ lordship? I do not want to be “liberated” from a life of freedom and fun into a life of condemnation and fear and constant guilt as measured against impossible measures of holiness. Life is difficult enough without all of that baggage! Besides, where are all the passages where He says, “I am Lord, bow down and submit to Me in obedience or I will condemn you to hell for eternity?” This is a loving God? If we are in such constant danger of escape from such a “liberation”, in what sense does this gospel of discipleship offer some advantage to us? If we do need this constant fear and threat, why use the word “liberty” to describe it? Why not be honest and call it what it really is — slavery?
Suppose I had just met you, and I said, “you are now liberated to recognize my Lordship.” Suppose I then proceeded at our every meeting to find fault with you, correct you, and focus on your every shortcoming. Suppose that even worse, I was a mind reader, so I could tell your every stray and errant thought, and I proceeded to correct all of that as well. Would you consider that an incentive to spend more time with me, and to consider me a friend? Would you think that I loved you? Who would consider such a monster to be a friend? Yet this is the exact dynamic Lordship Salvation proponents would have us read onto God.
The real problem with this view of the gospel is that it is distinctly unbiblical. Jesus’ message does not really make you suddenly into a sinless person; there is no “liberty” in that sense. It is in fact strange that this is not the message at all. If it was, Lordship Salvation proponents would not need to be so shrill about the “Lordship” part of the message. Instead, we have this:
7:15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. Romans 7:15-8:2
This is a far different message than the Lordship Salvation message. In Christ we have been set free from the law of sin and death. We continue to warrant condemnation now under the law, a law we agree with. We are not asked to find a path to freedom from condemnation through compliance with the law; we are presented with a path to freedom from condemnation quite apart from our lack of compliance with the law. It is important now that there is no condemnation, because now we are sinners as measured by the law’s perfect standards. The way forward is not through an assertion of His ability to “Lord” us into desired behavior models, but to forgive us and to stop condemning us. The nature of our sanctification is not that we are liberated into sinlessness, but that we are liberated into “no condemnation.” If you want to call that “antinomianism” then it looks like the New Testament is antinomian. When we approach life with a mind to analyze and measure the success of our personal holiness, a mindset Paul later calls “the mind set on the flesh”, we die, but when we approach life knowing that together we are continually forgiven and accepted, we live. New Testament Christianity is not a message of “Lordship” salvation, it is simply a message of salvation.
Isn’t it ironic that in the document we are looking at, liberation from sin is contrasted with confrontation and condemnation of hypocrisy? What is really meant, of course, is “liberation” into a pretense of moral success (1 John 1:8,10), contrasted against … hypocrisy? Pretense of moral success is by definition hypocrisy. This is the kind of lunacy you get when you try to make the gospel out to be a message of personal transformation and discipleship instead of a message of simple belief and forgiveness and rescue. The gospel is this: Christ was crucified for sinners. Anything that obscures that or downplays it or emphasizes something else is straight from hell.
There is a temptation to think that if we are not liberated into some level of practical demonstrable holiness, but only into a lack of condemnation, it is no liberation at all. It is only an ethereal and vaporous notion of freedom, a mere theology or theory but not a reality. I strongly disagree. It is our minds that need to be transformed (Romans 12:2). It is important that we have come to know and believe the love which God has for us (1 John 4:16). There is no obedience and no holiness and no fellowship and no authenticity that will flow in our lives as true liberty if it does not flow from a standpoint of being loved as opposed to being bullied and forced. The lack of condemnation is the most substantive kind of liberation, because it establishes an ongoing relationship which will not be based on a threat of ending, even knowing our worst secrets. The work of the Spirit comes through such a relationship because it comes on the basis of gift and not on the basis of deservedness, which means that in our conscience we can be assured that we can legitimately receive it.
This in fact gives us an entirely new kind of praxis, rooted in gift and gratitude and in the interrelationships between other uniquely and powerfully gifted members. This kind of fellowship and kindness and love is only possible when the ground from which it springs is an eternal and established gracious acceptance and a complete and final lack of condemnatory coercion. When Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:11 that “such were some of you, but you were washed,” he does not mean that you should try really hard to stop those behaviors (1 Corinthians 6:9,10) because otherwise you will become unwashed and condemned and rejected. He ties this washing, not to trying harder to change, but to justification. He means that when you have been forgiven all, that forgiveness constitutes a “washing” that paves the road to a change from a pure heart without regret (2 Corinthians 7:10), based on the dynamic of perfect love and not fear (1 John 4:18). That is why he goes on to say that based on our true justification and lack of condemnation in Christ, even such things as he lists as the worst sins are lawful – because “all things are lawful” (1 Corinthians 6:12). Yes, it says it in black and white in the B-I-B-L-E, “All things are lawful.” Our choices and behaviors are no longer based on their lawfulness; they are based on their profitability and desirableness in the context of love and community building (Romans 12:4,5,6). As C.S. Lewis puts it so well,
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”