The Real Strange Fire: Lordship Salvation Pt. 8

From John MacArthur’s ministry’s article on Lordship Salvation:

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.

It is so easy to make some kind of blanket statement, list lots of scriptures with no regard for context, and assume you have made your point. How about this:

Scripture teaches that only women are prophets (Exodus 15:20-21, Judges 4:4, 2 Kings 22:14, Nehemiah 6:14, Isaiah 8:3, Acts 21:8-9).

You might say that this is ridiculous, because there are many other scriptures which show us that there are male prophets as well. You might say that you can’t just make some grand sweeping statement and then list a bunch of out of context scriptures that have a certain word in them, and think that you have made your point! You would be right! Well, there are many scriptures which are actually talking about salvation and justification which do not say that “repentance” is necessary for salvation:

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
John 3:14-18 (ESV)

Perhaps the Lordship Salvation advocate would say, “you are pulling these verses out of context.” Now I would say, what is the context of John 3, then? How about this for context:

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.
Romans 3:21-25 (ESV)

Perhaps to establish the right context, we should remove all of Paul’s writings, especially Romans 3-5, or Galatians and Ephesians, from the canon of scripture? We should also pull 1 John, and probably the gospel of John just to be safe. I want everyone to realize that from Paul to Augustine to Martin Luther to many many others, the pure grace that comes from belief in Christ Jesus and Him crucified has been the sole substance of the gospel. This is not a recent discussion nor is John MacArthur the first one to quote many scriptures against the purposes of God. Satan himself quoted many scriptures to Jesus when he tempted Him in the wilderness.

I have written extensively for years that that the general tenor of scripture is that God is merciful and gracious and comes to us in a spirit of compassion and love, and that Jesus’ death for sinners is His main work. I think this is the right way to press the point. However, I am going to condescend and look defensively at these verses from the Lordship advocates one by one, because we have an invaluable resource in this document they have published. We have the Lordship anti-grace movement’s best and most concise defense of their position. We can assume that these are their best arguments in a nutshell, and that these are their favorite go-to verses. If you are a gospel-centered grace-oriented believer who is mystified how someone could believe the things that legalistic pharisaical Lordship people believe, this document is a gold mine!

Let’s start by looking at Acts 2:38, and explore Peter’s meaning of the idea of repentance:

22 “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— 23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 24 God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.

36 Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” 37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.
Acts 2:22-24, 37-41

In Acts 2:38, Peter is right at the climax of his famous sermon, the first sermon of the new church. He is explaining to the crowd how the outpouring they have witnessed is the Holy Spirit of God, and that it is being given as a witness to the truth of the Jesus’ Messiah-hood. The Lordship people tell us that Peter is preaching repentance as a turning from sin. But really, in what sense are they to repent? Are they to stop murdering messiahs? That bird had already flown. There is only one messiah, and you can only murder Him once. You can’t “repent” of that, there are no second chances. It would be like killing your spouse. You didn’t just kill some person, you killed your whole chance to ever have a significant other. Who would ever marry you again? Israel only had one chance to have the Messiah appear, and they murdered Him. You can’t come back from that and say, “yeah, that was a doozie of a sin all right! Woops! I repent, I swear I am out of the messiah killing business.” They were cut to the heart because they understood what the Lordship people do not: there is no escaping this guilt. They also understood something else of equal importance. They did not directly kill Jesus, but through their rejection of Him, through their unbelief, they killed Him. Unbelief is murder. Through unbelief they killed the one and only Messiah in history. They had really and truly screwed the pooch in the grandest way. This is the point that Peter is making, and they got it.

So, when Peter says “repent”, is he talking about stopping covetousness and fornication and stealing and overeating? This isn’t even close to the focus. They already knew about all of that, and their hearts had never been cut by those admonitions like this. He is talking about something far more important: their unbelief. It was their lack of receptiveness toward Jesus as being the true Messiah that he is talking about. This is the obvious and clear meaning of the passage. The Lordship people have taken this verse completely out of context and have used it to press their own point.

Next we’ll look at Acts 17:30

29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.
Acts 17:29-34 (ESV)

This is the famous Mars Hill discourse. Paul had walked around Athens, and was provoked by all the pot-smoking fornicating orphan-exploiting sin going on. Wait! That’s not right is it? What was he provoked by? The idols! Do we think that there wasn’t any fornicating or orphan-exploitation going on? I imagine there might have been. Yet, Paul was provoked by their wrong views of God! And what was he going on and on about in his sermon? Their moral fiber? No! Their faulty beliefs. What was the result of their repentance? Acts 17:34 says that they joined him and believed. Their repentance was a matter of belief.

Next we’ll look at Acts 20:21:

17 Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. 18 And when they came to him, he said to them:
“You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. 22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.
Acts 20:17-23 (ESV)

This is Paul’s teary-eyed message to the elders of the church at Ephesus before he went to Jerusalem to be carried away in bondage to Rome; they all knew it was the last time they would see each other. He is explaining to them what his life and ministry has all been about, which includes the kind of understanding of repentance that we already discussed when we looked at Acts 17:30.

Next we’ll look at 2 Peter 3:9:

8 But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! 13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

Obviously, the meaning here is similar. The scoffers who come following their sinful desires scoff because the don’t believe. Their mockery isn’t, “why don’t you have more fun and sin more?” Their mockery is a mockery of unbelief: “Where is the promise of His coming?” They are ungodly because of their lack of belief. Their sin stems from their unbelief, in fact their main sin is their unbelief. The Lord is patient in wishing that none should perish – He wants to give them a chance to believe. He wants them to become justified. If they do not, they perish in their judgements – and notice that they are the ones judging.

I also want to make something clear: because I follow the lead of scripture and strongly emphasize faith and belief, it doesn’t mean I denigrate behavioral righteousness or advocate sin. On the contrary, through the strength of God’s grace and mercy in Christ I condemn sin all the more and advocate a greater and more stringent righteousness! It comes through a strong blood-bought mercy, and by no other means. However the substance of the repentance is not a repentance of behaviors, but of belief. It is an acceptance of grace and primarily of forgiveness, and this is the soil for any personal transformation that may occur.

In the next post, we’ll continue to explore the scriptures and line of thought in item 1 of GTY’s Lordship document.

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  1. Hi Jim,

    Excellent post. I really like the paragraph right before the Acts 17 passage, and also your concluding paragraph. So true that repentance must involve our agreeing with God as to who He is and who we are… and leaves intact the Scripture’s insistence that holiness and righteousness are God’s standard; we only get there in union with Christ, given his righteousness and not earning our own.

    Love that you are unpacking the Word for us. And what a Word it is!!

  2. Whew Jim! If of are not careful you are going to make it into McArthurs next book!…;-). Hey, if repentance is turning from sin then I think the NT writers would have used the word “epistrepho” (to turn) instead of “metanoia” (Have a different mind). Just saying.

    The interesting thing in their polemic is the words, “divinely bestowed grace”. This is Neo- Roman Catholism. Grace is not God general disposition towards man (Titus 2:10) but something that is infused into man.

    Abraham, though, settles the issue. Since the law defines what sin is (Romans) and the law was not given until 430 years after Abraham “easy believed…;-)…” then he would have not known what “sins to turn from.”

    Thank you for your strong stance….K.C.

    • Yeah it’s interesting we know Abraham lied and we know he had concubines, he went out with Lot when he was supposed to leave his family, he married his half sister, then wouldn’t having Ishmael through Hagar be adultery, and there’s probably more. Of course someone may argue they had to marry family members back then but I think there were enough women around that he could have at least chosen a second cousin for a wife or maybe someone from Ham or Japheth’s line. Yet he’s called a friend of God and God blessed him incredibly in the midst of all the above. Clearly God isn’t that interested in our morals.

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