The Real Strange Fire: Lordship Salvation

I’m launching a small project to go through the curiously named “Grace to You” site’s document explaining “Lordship Salvation“, to search out a truthful and biblical evaluation of the doctrine. As any regular readers know, I am strongly biased towards a strong grace-centered cross-centered gospel message, so I can’t claim to have complete objectivity. However, I’ll do my best.

I want to start with a very simple observation: the name of this theology is “Lordship Salvation.” We are talking about salvation here – justification through obedience to Christ’s Lordship. By Lordship, clearly he means, human obedience to the Bible’s demands. So, there can be no defense which says this is about “progressive sanctification” instead of justification. It is saying very strongly we are talking about salvation and that obedience is tied to it. According to this document, you have to be fully repentant and habitually and largely sinless to be eligible to receive eternal life. He says that you may believe, but your conduct can forfeit your salvation. He is saying that your salvation depends on how successful you are at making Christ Lord over your life. If you do a word-search in the article for the word “cross”, “blood”, or “propitiation”, you come up empty-handed. However this document may dance around important passages to the contrary, the intent is clearly to say that we are saved by our works, and the blood of Jesus has no place in it. Coupled with their strong cessationist (Holy Spirit’s manifestations have ended) stance, Lordship Salvation proponents teeter strongly on the edge of the Pelagian heresy.

For all of that, there is a very critical question at stake: does Jesus save me, or do I save myself? Can I be assured that Jesus’ blood is sufficient to save me, or can I do something which nullifies its power over my life? If I can, then obviously my salvation is in my hands, not Jesus’ hands. Is Christianity really different than every other religion and ideology which tells us that our demonstrated moral fiber determines our eternal fate? Lordship Salvation would say that mere belief in the power of Jesus’ death for my sins is not enough. I must repent, and stay repented over the long haul, or I am not saved. We may begin with the cross, but we continue by obedience. Thus, it is not really Jesus who saves me, it is I who save myself. I can jeopardize my own salvation through my disobedience, so it is not really Jesus who saves me, I save myself.

The Gospel of Discipleship

Now let’s dig into 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).

Present-day evangelicalism, by and large, ignores these warnings. The prevailing view of what constitutes saving faith continues to grow broader and more shallow, while the portrayal of Christ in preaching and witnessing becomes fuzzy. Anyone who claims to be a Christian can find evangelicals willing to accept a profession of faith, whether or not the person’s behavior shows any evidence of commitment to Christ. In this way, faith has become merely an intellectual exercise. Instead of calling men and women to surrender to Christ, modern evangelism asks them only to accept some basic facts about Him.

This shallow understanding of salvation and the gospel, known as “easy-believism,” stands in stark contrast to what the Bible teaches. To put it simply, the gospel call to faith presupposes that sinners must repent of their sin and yield to Christ’s authority. This, in a nutshell, is what is commonly referred to as lordship salvation.

We’ll start with the introductory section here. It says that the gospel that Jesus proclaimed was primarily a call to discipleship. On the contrary, the gospel that Jesus proclaimed was not a call to discipleship to follow Him in submissive obedience. It was a call to mercy, not sacrifice (Matthew 9:13). In actual fact, when Jesus taught specifically about salvation, He said this:

16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”
John 3:16-18 (NASB)

According to Jesus, the critical hinge in receiving eternal life is not successful discipleship, it is belief, pure and simple and easy. If there is going to be any success in discipleship, it is going to stem from unadulterated belief in the love and gift of God. Discipleship is not the foundation for belief, nor is discipleship the substance of belief. This Lordship message strongly seeks to add some measure of behavioral compliance or works to the equation, meaning that it is the blood of Jesus PLUS my successful sanctification which saves me. However, according to the scripture, the critical mission of Jesus was not to call people to discipleship and obedience, it was to save sinners.

Why is it that the people who were least likely to be successful at promising to behave ended up swarming around Jesus and following Him around? It seems unlikely that it was because they had made a solemn and thoughtful vow to make Him Lord of their lives. They thought He was amazing and exciting and He loved them and they loved watching Him put the Pharisees in their place. The presence of this swarm of sinners around Him was so prevalent that it was one of the chief complaints about Him. The righteous religious elite did not complain that ex-sinners and ex-tax gatherers and ex-prostitutes ate with Him. They were still considered sinners because there had not been enough time to prove that their transformation was indeed more habitual than their sin. Here is a most shocking observation: Jesus did not dispute this! He did not say, “Wait! They used to be sinners, but they’re not any more! They’ve made Me Lord!” He acknowledged that the rabble which followed Him and threw parties for Him were spiritually sick people in need of a physician. Stranger still, when He explained the nature of how He viewed repentance, He spoke of lost coins and lambs and sons being found. Repentance according to Jesus is about helpless people getting rescued by someone else! This is a critical observation, and it is a major reason why thinking about “the gospel according to Jesus” as opposed to the gospel according to Paul is so wrong-headed. Jesus’ view of salvation and even of repentance is a vastly different idea than submissive obedience – it is an idea of hopeless people being found and rescued and welcomed. Indeed, this is the gospel according to Jesus.

Discipleship may a laudable endeavor, but the “gospel” is not a call to discipleship, it is a rescue mission in which Christ is crucified for sinners. Really successful lasting discipleship is going to be all about grace in practice. In fact, if we make the gospel about our successful “discipleship” in contrast to simple faith in the power of Christ’s blood, we soil the message and make true grace-centered discipleship impossible. We turn discipleship into a self-salvation project instead of making it an outpouring of His gift towards us for the sake of community. It is the very height of pharisaism to make light of the Lord’s teaching on the power of belief by labeling it a mere decision or prayer. On the contrary, knowing and believing are the seminal activity of the true believer:

Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 1 John 4:15-16 NASB

His commandment, our deed, is to believe in Christ:

23 This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us. 24 The one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. 1 John 3:23-24 (NASB)

I want to note that this is not my silly little opinion, this is the clear and unambiguous message of scripture.

As I have written before extensively in my study of the entire book of 1 John, believing in the power of the propitiation for someone else IS loving them; believing in Jesus and loving one another are the same unified commandment. The deed He was interested in was belief, and  this was the dynamic that allowed prostitutes and sinners and tax-gatherers who had had no time to show sustained fruit of repentance to drop everything and joyfully follow Him.

There is much more to come in this series. However, I want to note that it would be perfectly understandable from a human perspective if Lordship Salvation were biblical. This is the message of every other religion on earth: do well and God will bless you. It is indeed shocking to think that blessing should come to ragamuffins and sinners! The gospel is a strange fire, coming down from heaven to bless us despite our sin. We are greatly loved, and this is an astonishing and beautiful message indeed.

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  1. Thank you, Jim. Lordship Salvation rears its ugly head from time to time. The theological liberals tried to sell it in the early 20th century. J. Gresham Machen declared, “According to modern liberalism, faith is essentially the same as ‘making Christ master’ of one’s life…But that simply means that salvation is thought to be obtained by our obedience to the commands of Christ. Such teaching is just a sublimated form of legalism.”. In another work, Machen added, What good does it do to me to tell me that the type of religion presented in the Bible is a very fine type of religion and that the thing for me to do is just to start practicing that type of religion now?…I will tell you, my friend. It does me not one tiniest little bit of good…What I need first of all is not exhortation, but a gospel, not directions for saving myself but knowledge of how God has saved me. Have you any good news? That is the question that I ask of you. I know your exhortations will not help me.

    • Thanks K.C.! As usual, an awesome comment from you. It is truly an age-old dialog, and it isn’t just religious squabbling, it is a debate about the heart of the gospel.

  2. Looking forward to the rest of this series…

    I’ve never been a fan of McArthur (I actually chose to stop buying Steve Camp albums in the 80’s when he came out with a song called “The Gospel According to Jesus” that was inspired by JMac’s book of the same name).

    However, I was long entrenched in the JMac theology and style of ministry for the first 20 years of my adult life.

    It has been so refreshing in the last several years to hear the law-gospel, word-sacrament message. It’s like before I had sort of good news that I never really wanted to tell anyone, and now I have this amazing news that I want everyone to hear!

    I continue to speak with my old friends who are still caught up in this lordship salvation theology and style of ministry, and I find that they truly do love Jesus, and grace. But you’ve hit on the key difference here I think, that I’ve noticed with my friends. They’ve bought into the warning of easy believism.

    They are so afraid that people are going to be coerced into accepting Christ by throwing their stick in the fire at church camp, and then never thinking twice about it again. I know, that was my main concern back in the day.

    So, rather than nurturing the sprouts the spring up from the widely sown Gospel with words of grace and mercy and the amazingness of this good news, we would admonish and warn and put our new found brothers and sisters on a treadmill of works, all in the name of making disciples.

    I know I meant well, but I also know that deep down, it was not about how amazing the Gospel is, it was about how amazing I would be considered to be by people who heard my message. I still am tempted to want to be my own savior, bottom line.

    So, your words here are SO important. Keep it coming!

    • Howie,

      I wanted to come back and say how wonderful your testimony is here. The gospel of grace rally is so liberating isn’t it? Thank you!

  3. Jim, not sure if you’ve seen this article. On your podcast on Lordship Salvation, you mentioned believers suffering emotionally due to its vagueness and the impossibility of the artificial standards for proof of salvation. This article speaks to the psychosis which can be caused by Lordship Salvation.
    The Good news of Christ, the gospel of Christ, will never cause anyone to be tormented by fear, confusion, or depression. Rather, it should set us free.

    • This is a really good article, especially considering that it is from Frank Minirth! I had no idea he was a pure grace believer. Thanks for posting this, I’ve been tweeting it and posting it on facebook and emailing it to people. Great stuff! Thanks!

  4. I enjoyed your podcast on Lordship Salvation especially with Dax. It was encouraging to know Dax was able to search the scriptures to see the clear and simple (not easy) Gospel of Grace. Especially as a grad of Master’s and Mr. MacArthur. Dr. Minirth is a recognized pioneer in Christian counseling. In addition, he attended Dallas Theological Seminary during its days of Dr. Walvoord and other Grace professors. There are numerous Lordship websites which venerate Piper, Washer, Sproul, Boice, Warfield, Machen, and others as if they are modern Apostles whose opinions are quoted more than the Scriptures, it was a delight to find your website! Keep up the good work.

  5. I certainly agree with you against the Augustinianism of Macarthur. Augustine was into “command what you will, and give us grace to do it”. But that’s not justification by Christ’s death, but instead a self-righteous trust in water and infusion, supposedly done by Augustine’s god. But then again, if we say that the death of Christ was “sufficient” to save every sinner, but not every sinner is to be saved, we are also saying that NOBODY is saved by Christ’s death alone. And again, we will not be looking to Christ outside us but to Christ in us (causing us to be different) as that which gives us assurance. All for whom Christ died will be saved, and all these people are sinners. Christ died for all their future sins, and Christ also died so that these people (His people, His elect) will believe in the gospel of what Christ did and turn away from the false gospel of what they do.

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