For several decades now, a battle has been going on in Evangelical Christianity between those who espouse what has come to be known as “lordship salvation” on the one hand, and on the other side, those who champion “free grace” as the only scriptural ground for receiving eternal life and having assurance of salvation.
The doctrine of the necessity of submitting to Christ’s lordship in order to obtain final salvation and entrance into heaven seems to have arisen out of the concern of many Chrisitan teachers and evangelists in the middle decades of the 20th century, as they saw the trend toward license and lukewarmness among believers who professed Christ as Savior. Billy Graham, A. W. Tozer, and John MacArthur were just a few of the proponents of this lordship approach to the gospel of God.
Rising up against the apparent legalism of this emphasis on submitting to the lordship of Christ for salvation were teachers like Zane Hodges, who wrote “Absolutely Free” in 1989 as a response to MacArthur’s book, “The Gospel According to Jesus”, published the previous year. Bob Wilkin, founder of Grace Evangelical Society, has written often and taught much against lordship salvation and in defense of “free grace theology”.
While both camps teach a measure of truth, it is regrettable that they have by their on-going rhetorical exchanges implied that their respective views are the only doctrinal positions to hold intelligently and consistently, that either you are in the lordship camp or then you must embrace the oppostion’s version of free grace teaching. As concisely as possible, given the enormity of the subject, I hope to bring a few scriptures to bear on what I believe has turned into a false dichotomy between the two ideas, each seemingly sustained by a reaction to the other side, however well-intentioned and godly may be the respective protagonists.
The doctrine known as “lordship salvation” promotes in general a commitment to Christ, obedience to Him, and the need for perseverence in following Christ to the end of one’s life, in order for a soul to be finally saved. Regrettably, this teaching blurs the distinction between salvation by grace alone and the call to discipleship, which are as distinct from each other as the parables we find in Luke 14. In verses 15-24, Jesus teaches the blessed truth of the role of God’s electing, compelling grace in the eternal salvation of souls, but in verses 25-35, it could not be clearer that discipleship is the subject. To ignore the obvious change of subject between 24 and 25 would be to do violence to both the concepts of God’s grace and of our discipleship. So, other than the fact that many who hold lordship salvation also incidentally teach the truth of unconditional election and security, and that they are rightly distressed at the lack of earnest discipleship among Christians, their lordship view in and of itself has little to commend itself in light of the word of God.
Now, “free grace theology” rightly warns against the lack of doctrinal integrity in the lordship view, but has its own blind spots. The most glaring of these blind spots is a chief proponent’s contention that “Faith in Christ is intellectual assent”. This teacher, Bob Wilkin, goes on to argue for his proposition in this way: “Stripped of its pejorative connotation, ‘intellectual assent’ is a good definition of what faith is. For example, do you believe that George Washington was the first President of the United States? If you do, then you know what faith is from a Biblical perspective.” Both the premise and the argument supporting it could hardly be further from the truth of what faith really is. For his camp, there are no examples of spurious or feigned faith found in the New Testament, and every occurence of the word “believe” is of necessity an account of a soul or souls receiving eternal life, no matter the context or commentary surrounding the term in the text. So, to them, Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8 was a genuine Christian from the day he heard the gospel, saw the miracles, and was baptized, in spite of Peter’s subsequent judgment of him as being yet “in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity”, and having “neither part nor lot in this matter” of the Holy Spirit’s reception and indwelling. Furthermore, they would claim that the many who believed when they saw Jesus’ miracles at the feast in John 2:23-25 were necessarily saved eternally, although the divine commentary is that Jesus would not entrust Himself to them. Why not? Because they lacked the new birth and a new nature, and “He knew what was in man”, flesh “born of the flesh”, as He explained to Nicodemus immediately after the mistakenly-placed chapter break, in John 3:1-12. It is not without cause that this version of free grace is often called “easy-believism”, for its teaching on the nature of faith is false and in some respects humanistic.
In order for faith to save the human soul, and to keep it by the power of God to the end, that faith must be supernatural in its origin, for natural belief in the accuracy of the fact of Christ’s death and resurrection will never bring about new creation life, repentance, or salvation from sin. It is for good reason that the scriptures speak of “unfeigned faith” (as well as of “unfeigned love”)¹, for it is not only possible, but sadly often the case, that believing is with hypocrisy or pretense. A simple word study would bear out the reality of the marked difference between a faith that is genuine and one that is pretended.²
It is only by being born again, being quickened (some have termed it “regeneration”), that genuine faith is even possible. Jesus referred to this truth when He told Nicodemus: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). “Seeing” here indicates spiritual eyesight, or faith, and must be distinguished from the parallel claim of the Lord a few verses later, that one not born again cannot “enter” the kingdom of God. The scriptures teach us that new birth is the cause of life, and its effect is faith in the testimony of God as to His Son (John 1:12-13; I John 5:1; James 1:18).
New birth is both initiated and effected by God, and it is neither invited nor expected by man. So also with the quickening of Lazarus from the dead, by the sovereign call of the Lord Jesus from outside his grave. Lazarus’ resurrection was a lovely picture of the spiritual truth the Lord gave in John 5:21: “For as the Father raiseth up the dead, and quickeneth them; even so the Son quickeneth whom He will.”
This new nature gained through new birth very soon causes the quickened soul to feel the weight of the sin of the “old man”, and the believer repents, justifying God and accepting His counsel against himself as a sinner (Luke 7:29-30). The “new man which according to God is created in truthful righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:20-24) now characterizes the Christian life. Godly obedience, perseverance in good works, and conformity to the Son are what God by His Spirit works in us and expects from us.³ This is quite distinct from the notion of a “lordship salvation”. This truth of new birth and new creation is also distinct from the wrong teaching of the “free grace” camp, which says that faith is no more than mental assent to facts. For although the real believer may struggle and fail and sin often, and even languish in a backslidden state, yet he or she has (by virtue of a sovereignly effected quickening and the subsequent sealing of the Spirit) the innate desire and capacity for both “unfeigned faith” to overcome the world, and “unfeigned love” for Christ and the brethren.*
¹ I Timothy 1:5; II Timothy 1:5; Romans 12:9; I Peter 1:22
² From HELPS Word-studies: anypókritos (an adjective, derived from alpha-privative A “not” and hypokrínomai, “to act as a hypocrite”) – properly, not a phony (“put on”), describing sincere behavior free from hidden agendas (selfish motives) – literally, “without hypocrisy” (unfeigned). (Compare also Luke 20:20 for the word hypokrínomai in context.)
³ II Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 2:10; Romans 8:28-30; John 15:1-8
* I Peter 1:22-23; I John 3:23; 4:19 – 5:5