We’re in the middle of a series analyzing John MacArthur’s ministry’s article on Lordship Salvation. Starting in Pt. 8, we have been digging into the first of 9 items listed as the theological distinctives of Lordship Salvation. Here is distinctive 1:
First, Scripture teaches that the gospel calls sinners to faith joined in oneness with repentance (Acts 2:38; 17:30; 20:21; 2 Pet. 3:9). Repentance is a turning from sin (Acts 3:19; Luke 24:47) that consists not of a human work but of a divinely bestowed grace (Acts 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:25). It is a change of heart, but genuine repentance will effect a change of behavior as well (Luke 3:8; Acts 26:18-20). In contrast, easy-believism teaches that repentance is simply a synonym for faith and that no turning from sin is required for salvation.
I’m trying to wrap this up, but there remains a really important point to make. At the heart of Lordship Salvation theology is the idea that the ultimate purpose and focus of grace is that it effects a behavioral change. They clearly reject the idea that repentance is really about faith and the transparent confession that faith in Christ and the safety and power of His blood makes possible.
I think it is dangerous and wrong to characterize the gospel as a behavioral change message. If repentance is turning from sin that consists of a divinely bestowed “grace”, then what happens if, as even they acknowledge, we still sin (sometimes horribly)? Is it no longer divinely bestowed? Maybe God’s divine bestowal was flawed or imperfect? Perhaps my repentance was all a sham, because if it really was divinely bestowed then why do I still sin? It must not have been God, and so I must not be saved. In an argument they may dispute that they are saying that, but that is what people are hearing from their emphasis on Lordship, sometimes with tragic and even suicidal consequences. That means that however they want to wiggle out of the implications, they believe that our sins and our actions are more powerful than Jesus’ blood. It is not Jesus who saves us, but our relatively perfect progressive sanctification which saves us. Put another way, if our faith isn’t genuine enough to produce relatively perfect works, then in the view of Lordship salvation, our faith is probably not true. That means faith alone is not enough – we are really justified by our works. This is works salvation, with a “God empowers good works” kind of twist to make it theologically plausible. It would be great if it jived with reality and with scripture, but it doesn’t. Scripture is pretty clear that believers can still sin — as believers.
Ironically, if it did jive with scripture, then why would there remain all of these imperatives in the NT to do the right thing? Why would Paul need to tell us to “abhor what is evil; cling to what is good (Romans 12:9)”, if our behavioral repentance was a divinely bestowed grace which was the true evidence of our salvation? Why do the Lordship people keep harping on and on about Lordship? If behavioral repentance is a divinely bestowed grace we should be absolutely perfect from the point of belief. In contrast, I could cite Romans 7-8, but I could also cite a whole lot of other stuff. For instance, Colossians:
3 Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. 3 For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.
5 Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. 6 For it is because of these things that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience, 7 and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, 10 and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him— 11 a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.
Here is the point: Paul is explicitly and clearly talking to real believers (he specifically qualifies his statement that way), and he is saying that if you have been raised up with Christ, you can still need a warning to avoid sexual impurity, evil desire, greed, wrath, malice, slander, etc. That means that under grace and possessed of real faith, we have the freedom to terribly fail. It isn’t desirable, (or in Paul’s language, “profitable”) but in Christ we have received eternal life. If “grace” consisted of a divinely bestowed behavioral repentance, then why would we need these warnings? Instead, as outlined in Romans and all over the NT, we are still in the world but not of it, in a deep sense. We still are drawn to sin. We still actually sin. Even the Lordship people acknowledge it. So, this view of what the gospel actually is cannot be true.
What they so flippantly call “easy-believism” is actually the true biblical message. John 3:16 says that eternal life is offered to whoever believes! 1 John 4:16 says that we are the ones who have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. He is so clear in all of the context of 1 John that what we believe is the distinguishing factor of our identity together! Romans 1:15,16,17 says that the gospel is a message to be preached, and that this message is the power of God for salvation. It does not grant instant behavioral repentant perfection. You cannot possibly strip the gospel of its scandal of powerful forgiveness without nullifying it.
The deep problem with the idea of “irresistible sanctification” is that it is so very resistible! The real gospel message is more powerful. It says, we are powerfully and eternally accepted beloved even when we sin! The Lordship people make some kind of backhanded embarrassed place for this forgiveness, because even for them the cross has to have some place in their world for them to even call themselves Christians at all. But the message of the gospel is powerful because it says, believe in Christ and in the power of His blood, and you are eternally accepted even when you screw up! It is a free gift! No hoops to jump through. Just receive it.
This is the true underlying beating heart of Lordship Salvation. The “Grace” that they say is given to you is not a grace of acceptance and forgiveness. It is a “grace” of success at behavioral repentance. Their web site and ministry is called “grace to you” and what they mean by “grace” is power to change your behavior. It is sustained and transformed life. This sounds great until you sin (Romans 7:15), and you need actual grace as in forgiveness. If grace means power to stop sinning and power to sustain and transform your behavior, then when you fail it must mean you never had any real grace. This ends up being a Christless gospel, because in practice it means that you either behave or you go to hell, and Jesus is nothing more than an example of how good you are not.
The good news is, the Lord Jesus is your primarily your savior! He did not come to condemn, but to save (John 3:17). NT imperatives are a very spiritually rich person telling you, another very spiritually rich person, how to use your vast wealth (2 Peter 1:2-3). If you freely choose to live this way and to give the Holy Spirit sway over your mind, you will have joy (Romans 8:6), and if you don’t, if you go back to measuring your behavior and living under the law, you will land yourself right back in wretchedville (Romans 7:24). However, none of this is what saves you. You were saved by Jesus Christ while you were yet a sinner, apart from the law. You can be as misguided and wretched and even sinful and unhappy as you want, but you can’t make Jesus unsave you. You can rest in that, and you can stop thinking that what you do or don’t do trumps the power of His blood. In fact, once you come over to the world where you actually believe that Jesus saves you and Jesus alone, and that whom He saves He saves all the way to eternity, then your behaviors will have true soil and grounding in which to finally flourish.