The Real Strange Fire: Lordship Salvation Pt. 7

From John MacArthur’s ministries article on Lordship Salvation:

There are many articles of faith that are fundamental to all evangelical teaching. For example, there is agreement among all believers on the following truths: (1) Christ’s death purchased eternal salvation; (2) the saved are justified by grace through faith in Christ alone; (3) sinners cannot earn divine favor; (4) God requires no preparatory works or pre-salvation reformation; (5) eternal life is a gift of God; (6) believers are saved before their faith ever produces any righteous works; and (7) Christians can and do sin, sometimes horribly.

I’ve been reflecting more on the strange inclusion of these items in the Lordship Salvation document we’ve been examining. We looked in the last post at how every one of these points is contradicted somewhere else in the article. Why would someone write such a crazy document? What is motivating these people? I want to cut to the heart of this whole issue.

Many want to ensure that the gospel is about how well we serve God, but in the end, the gospel is about how well God serves us. When we push grace to the margins and make it a piece of the puzzle but not the whole picture, we nullify it. The “Lordship Salvation” camp makes this error in bold and garish relief, because they are forthright and perhaps honest enough to make this obvious. However, it is rare to find a pastor who does not marginalize the gospel to some extent. How few preachers seem determined to know nothing except Christ and Him crucified!

The expected response is obvious, and even reasonable in a way. Here is what a reasonable Lordship Salvation advocate should be saying: “The New Testament, including the writings of Paul, is not all grace and forgiveness and propitiation. It has many imperatives, imperatives which are intended for believers. It is disingenuous to say that all of these things are merely instances of law intended to tutor us into a dependence on the gospel of grace. The charge is that people who strongly emphasize a continual dependence on the grace part of the gospel do violence to the obvious meaning of scripture.” It is a good charge, and an important point which I have addressed on this blog and my other writings many times over. It is the Romans 6 question all over again: “What are you saying? Are you saying that we can just sin and do whatever we want? Are you saying that everything is forgiven us no matter what? Given your position, we could sin all the more, and expect grace to increase! What about all these imperatives?”

As an aside, I should confess that when I get together with my gracey-pants cronies, we drink, smoke, play cards, dance, eat gluttonously, fornicate, rob old women, and ignore the poor. We fold missionary prayer letters and pictures into paper airplanes, or roll them into joints. We share porn with each other. We take all kinds of recreational drugs. We tease babies and steal their toys. We take grace, and sin all the more! We are having so much fun sinning and sinning and sinning! It is awesome to be a gospel-centered Christian! These imperatives mean absolutely nothing to us, because we are theological morons. Does anyone believe that? I wonder sometimes what all the resistance and fighting over grace is really about anyway. If you want forgiveness you’ve already agreed that you’ve been doing something wrong. I totally get how Paul had to emphasize that “the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” (1 Timothy 1:5) The end of unadulterated “mere-belief” “scandalous-grace” gospel teaching is love from a purity of heart. Far beyond the legalist’s approach of just saying what we ought to do, grace takes highly imperfect sinners and believes there is power and unction for something beautiful to happen for them.

I want to look at a passage from Titus:

4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. 8 This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.
Titus 3:4-8 (NASB)

Which things is Paul asking Titus to stress? Their devotion to doing what is good? That’s not what he is asking him to stress! He is asking him to stress that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly. He is asking him to stress that the Holy Spirit is poured out through Christ who died for us. He is asking him to stress and emphasize justification and eternal life — apart from righteous things they had done! He is saying that if he stresses this, those who trust in God will end up being careful to do what is good! He is saying, in your faith supply moral excellence (2 Peter 1:5). The Lordship camp wants to emphasize (in my mind, that means “skip to”) the moral excellence, and accuse those who give careful attention to so great a salvation (Hebrews 2:3) of ignoring imperatives and of doing sloppy exegesis. However, when you emphasize moral excellence in a way that nullifies grace, I think you have missed something incredibly important; I think you are doing poor hermeneutics.

The gospel means that because of the power of the blood of Christ, heinous sinners are going to be forgiven of huge things and that God is going to bless them merely because they believe in Jesus. One of those blessings may be a new level of moral excellence. We see that Paul, as usual, brings in the idea of what is “profitable” (Reference 1 Corinthians 6:12, 10:23, 13:3, Philippians 4:17, 1 Timothy 4:8, 2 Timothy 3:16). Oh my, this is such an important point. If you are completely forgiven of everything past present and future, if you are eternally secure in your justification, then the reasons you do things are different. There is no more any threat of punishment, only perfect love (1 John 4:18). The idea of what is profitable instead of what is proper or dangerous has suddenly become front and center. Since we are not obligated to do anything, we are free to do what is best. We are tremendously gifted with “charismas” (gracelets) from the Holy Spirit in order to serve one another in love (Romans 12:5-6). This all ends up looking like moral excellence. It is just like Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, who in his little bubble of repeating days, found in his freedom that virtue is more satisfying than vice.

The GOSPEL is the power of God for salvation. The gospel is our entrance into and our continuance in a universe where we are able and even empowered to choose what is right because we have perceived it to be profitable. Because of Jesus’ blood, it suddenly becomes a workable viable option for me to be careful to devote myself to what is good, because it is no longer my justification! It is more than “irresistable”, and it is more than magical: it is profitable. I am free to fail (which no one actually wants), and I am free to try to succeed without threats goading me on. I no longer have to strive to succeed because I am trying to be my own flawed savior. I no longer have to worry about succeeding in order to manipulate God’s favor (Matthew 7:22). If my deeds have in any way become my justification, I have made my deeds and not Jesus’ blood my confession.

No one, not even the Lordship Salvation people, say that we will enter a sinless perfection in this life. So, why not own the fact that we continue to have sin somehow, and that everyone who sins is a slave of it (John 8:34). There is no “non-habitual” sin. Forgiveness is the most central piece of the gospel, and it should never be denigrated or marginalized. Forgiveness is powerful, it is a powerful and inexhaustible well which in the end can truly cleanse us. We will need it until we are in heaven. Now, I may be a sapling of righteousness growing in a field of huge weeds, but if these qualities are mine and increasing (2 Peter 1:5,6,7,8,9,10,11) then I am finding that profit.

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