Lordship Salvation: What’s the Problem?

A few weeks ago, in our young adult group, we went over Ephesians 4:17-32, and the question of Lordship Salvation came up because verses 17-25 talk about how a believer should be turning from their old self and putting on the new in Christ.  Does that passage teach Lordship Salvation?  Do others?

Some may be wondering what Lordship Salvation is.  I’ll roughly define it as follows:  For someone to be saved, they must knowingly and willingly submit all areas of their life to Jesus (thus, he is their “Lord”) and understand the full implications of salvation, including, perhaps, dying for him.  If that understanding does not precede faith, they are not saved.

Like many theological debates, this one is wrapped up in logical nuances (which doesn’t make it unimportant, though).  Basically, it is another debate upon the ordo saludis, or the order of salvation, similar to debates between Calvinists and others about whether regeneration logically precedes faith or the other way around (and it can actually be related to this one).  Also like many theological debates, unfortunately, this one is wrapped up in a lot of name-calling and under-handed shots, with labels such as “false gospel,” “heresy,” “easy-believism,” and “semi-pelagianism” thrown around.  A good example of that is this article, which unfortunately lists a lot of things that even opponents of Lordship Salvation would agree with and presents them as people who uphold “easy believism” and don’t care about sanctification.

Before I begin, I’ll enumerate what both sides agree with and discuss where the heart of the debate lies:

1.  Both sides agree that salvation is by grace through faith.  No one is trying to teach a works-based salvation.

2.  Both sides agree that true faith produces at least some evidence for salvation (fruit).  Someone who does not ever produce fruit at all is probably not saved.  Thus, both sides would reject an “easy believism” and do not believe that sanctification is “optional.”

3.  Both sides agree that repentance and faith go hand in hand (though they do not define “repentance” necessarily the same way).

4.  This is NOT a debate on assurance, though it comes up, and proponents on both sides of the debate can try to uphold the assurance of the believer.

5.  Both sides agree, generally, that Christians may “backslide” and will continue to struggle with sin in their lives.  No one is teaching perfectionism.

Therefore, most people in this debate will explicitly affirm all of these things.  To accuse them of teaching or believing otherwise is less than honest.  However, this does not mean that they hold to all of these things consistently, and it is totally fair to critique people’s logic and/or their biblical interpretation to show where their position goes awry, even if they are unwilling to take it there or have never noticed that possible error.  I want to make clear that what I am doing is that kind of critique, not an accusation that someone believes other than what they have affirmed.  Also, I understand that the issue is tough because salvation itself has a level of mystery in it; we can’t exactly fully describe what happens when God saves somebody.

Thus, I do have some sympathy for Lordship people.  I understand what its proponents are trying to do:  Guard against flippant or emotional assent to the Gospel that is not true belief, which often results in people who are unabashedly deep in sin, don’t really care, yet still believe they are Christians.  That’s certainly a problem, and like I said above, everyone would agree that if someone claims to be Christian but shows absolutely zero fruit whatsoever and doesn’t care, he’s probably not saved.  I just don’t think Lordship Salvation is a clear response to that problem, and I’ll list a few reasons why:

1.  I think it unintentionally adds a requirement to the Gospel that simply is not there.  Is it true that those who confess Jesus is Lord are saved?  Yes, that is in Romans 10.  But that does not mean they must know the full ramifications of what that means.  It means that one acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, resurrected, and supreme over creation.  Romans 10:9-13 is about true belief and trust in what God has done through Jesus, not an understanding that if Jesus is “Lord,” one must be ready to drop all sin in one’s life right then.  If anything, it’s an acknowledgement that one is powerless to free himself from sin and needs a Savior.  I agree that a proper view of who Jesus is as Savior carries with it an idea of authority (it’s not just some random dude dying for sins, but the Son of God), but again, what the Gospel calls for is true belief (John 3:16), not a high understanding of how that faith will play out in one’s life.  We go from telling unbelievers that the gift of salvation is appropriated by faith alone to telling them that they have to make a commitment, right then and there and before even receiving Jesus, to stop sinning.  I don’t think an unbeliever is capable of making such a submission.  Perhaps if regeneration precedes faith, like in the Calvinist model, this makes more sense, and maybe that is why MacCarthur declared that you’ll hardly find a good Calvinist who does not hold to Lordship Salvation.  Perhaps so, but I think I missed the church meeting that told us that Calvinism is correct ;).  Regardless, that still seems to me to be unintentionally adding additional definitions to true faith that the Bible does not give.

2.  Relatedly, I think Lordship Salvation frontloads sanctification and blurs the line with justification.  Justification occurs when one acknowledges who Jesus is, confesses that he is a sinner in need of salvation, and puts his faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Sanctification is the application and growth of that faith in one’s life so that the believer becomes more and more like the image of Christ.  The two are inseparable, but they are distinct (unless you talk to a Catholic, but this is not a Catholic debate).  This distinction is important because it makes clear that salvation is by grace and faith, not works, but Lordship Salvation (again, unintentionally) seems to require a sophisticated understanding of how sanctification will play out before someone is even saved.  It sometimes takes some Christians years to fully understand how their confession of faith is supposed to change their lives (I’m not saying that this okay, but that this is reality).

3.  Evidence of this are certain biblical passages that imply that there are Christians who are not living anywhere near as they should be, yet they are Christians nonetheless.  For example, in 2 Peter 1:5-10, Peter talks about how his listeners need to be steadily growing in their faith to keep from being “ineffective and unproductive” (implying there is such a thing as ineffective and unproductive Christians).  Additionally, in verse 9, he says that those who does not have the qualities he describes is “nearsighted and blind” and has “has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins.”  There seems to be, then, a possibility that a Christian can display no noticeable fruit for a period of time (at least to many outside onlookers) and fall deeply into sin.  Other examples can be seen in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, a rather dysfunctional church, as well as Ephesians 4 where Paul is instructing believers to continue to put off their old selves and remind them to live anew.

4.  Furthermore, assurance actually becomes fuzzy within Lordship Salvation.  Granted, not all Christians accept assurance and they have reasons why they do not, but for those who do (like me), it is important to note that Lordship proponents have never really given much guidance on how much fruit is required to really know when someone is saved.  Because of that, it can cause people to doubt their own faith and salvation if they are struggling with some serious sins and/or have a long period of spiritual dryness.  While it is certainly good to teach people to be self-reflective about their faith, it can be discouraging and confusing to make them wonder if the fruit they do have is “enough” to validate their previous confession of faith.  Again, I know Lordship people are not trying to do this, but I think this is an unintended consequence.

How can non-Lordship proponents avoid the problem of easy-believism, then, without resorting to Lordship Salvation?  I think it’s to be honest about the general effects salvation will have without requiring specific understanding of how salvation will affect all aspects of their lives.  In other words, “Understand that if you truly receive Jesus, he will not leave you as you are.  He’s going to work on you and your sins in ways that you may not even know right now.”  They might not even know what sins they are (because they may not even be aware that some of their sins are in fact sins), but they should understand that Jesus brings salvation from sin, so it makes no sense for them to experience no change.  That said, that does not mean that they need to reflect on every sinful part of their lives and commit right then and there, before receiving Jesus, that they will stop living that way.  Again, I do not think an unbeliever is capable of doing that, which is the whole point of them receiving Jesus in the first place.

I understand that that’s not that far off from how Lordship proponents operate; if anything, there are just small nuances here that are different, which is why I do not see the need to smear Lordship people as guys teaching a “false gospel.”  I affirm them as brothers and sisters in Christ who are trying to preach the good news and I understand their concern, but I just don’t think their solution is very clear in this instance.

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