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Sifting 'Lordship Salvation' and 'Free Grace Theology' through Scripture

John MacArthur and Bob Wilkin are two Bible teachers who trust, love and follow their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. MacArthur promotes what is known as "Lordship Salvation," while Wilkin teaches what is referred to as "Free Grace Theology."

Dan Delzell

MacArthur believes that faith in Christ involves more than simple trust in the Savior, whereas the Free Grace position challenges the idea that a person must be committed to obeying Christ in order to be saved. 

John MacArthur has been the pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, for the past 51 years. The church's website lays out the meaning of "Lordship Salvation," stating that "faith therefore involves personal commitment to Christ. In other words, all true believers follow Jesus."

The second half of that statement seems patently obvious to even the most casual student of Scripture. After all, the New Testament uses the following words interchangeably to identify those who know Christ as their Savior: "believers," "disciples," "Christians," "saints," "followers," "brothers and sisters." 

The first half of that statement, however, is what raises more than a few eyebrows. The definition that "faith involves personal commitment to Christ" reminds me of this definition from the Mormon organization: "Faith in Jesus Christ is the first principle of the gospel and is more than belief..."

Satan has strived over the centuries to redefine "Christian faith" whenever he can pull off this dastardly scheme. The devil must surely growl with satisfaction when a religious organization or spiritual leader redefines "faith" as a combination of both reliance upon something and religious deeds.

While MacArthur certainly doesn't seem to go quite that far with his definition of "faith," he nevertheless pushes the envelope to a place that makes a good number of Christian theologians cringe with concern.

In reality, the biblical definition of faith is simply: "trust; firm persuasion; a conviction based upon hearing." Christian faith is the conviction and trust that Jesus Christ died on the cross to pay for my sins and grant me the free gift of everlasting life. (John 3:16) See the article I wrote on the topic of spiritual conversion titled: "How Can I Know I Am Born Again?"

While a big red flag with "Lordship Salvation" has to do with its definition of "faith," the "Free Grace" movement opts to throw "repentance" under the bus as a necessary component of salvation. In this video, Wilkin states: "If justification is by faith alone, then it's not by faith and repentance. If regeneration is by faith alone, then it's not by faith and repentance."

Try telling Jesus that justification and regeneration can take place in your life without repentance. Our Lord's first sermon summed up what is necessary in order to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit: "Repent and believe the good news." (Mark 1:15) 

And try telling the apostles that the doctrine of justification by faith makes repentance unnecessary for salvation. On the Day of Pentecost, Peter declared: "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven." (Acts 2:38)

Repentance and faith in Jesus Christ are presented in the New Testament as the only way to be converted. "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12) Repentance involves turning away from sin and turning toward the Messiah, as I addressed in the article, "Turning to the Lord Lifts the Veil."

After His resurrection, Jesus told His disciples that "repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in His name to all nations." (Luke 24:47) And the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth: "Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death." (2 Cor. 7:10) You can read more about how repentance leads to salvation in my article, "Only Repentant Sinners Inherit the Kingdom of God."

Repentance and faith are both clearly necessary in order to be converted, saved, forgiven, justified, born again, and redeemed. This miracle is worked by the Holy Spirit, (John 1:12,13) and it takes place at the beginning of a person's relationship with God. But does a believer's conversion last? Well, check out this article I wrote six years ago: "Why Every Christian Can Affirm Eternal Security" 

The New Testament knows nothing of a "believer" in Christ who is not also a "follower" of Christ, or vice versa. Likewise, the New Testament knows nothing of a Christian who lives a perfect life of discipleship, completely free from any sinful thoughts, wrong attitudes, or spiritual shortcomings.

While many Christian theologians would be quick to challenge the idea that "faith involves personal commitment to Christ," these same theologians would be quick to affirm the following statements:

-Christianity involves personal commitment to Christ
-Discipleship involves personal commitment to Christ
-Sanctification involves personal commitment to Christ
-Following Jesus involves personal commitment to Christ
-Loving God involves personal commitment to Christ
-Repentance involves personal commitment to Christ
-Conversion involves personal commitment to Christ

While one must be ready and willing to follow Christ in order to be saved, it is critical that faith not be redefined in the process. Speaking of repentance and conversion, you might enjoy these two topics I have previously addressed: 

"Has God Stopped Commanding People to Repent?"
"Predestination and God's Desire to Save Everyone"

Five centuries have passed since Martin Luther embraced the Gospel after living for years under the oppressive bondage of works righteousness. The grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit set this monk free. Luther's robust teaching as a pastor and theologian regularly included his famous phrase, "What does this mean?" 

In our day, do newfangled expressions such as "Lordship Salvation" and "Free Grace Theology" carry the same meaning as the theological terms we find in Scripture? Do modern definitions help to correctly convey and unpack the biblical teaching concerning salvation, or instead, merely cloud the Gospel and confuse the glorious doctrines of justification and sanctification?

Thankfully, every Christian has received God's free grace, (Eph. 2:8,9) and every Christian knows Jesus as both their Savior and Lord. (John 10:14)

While justification is secured instantaneously the moment an unbeliever repents and believes the good news, the process of sanctification on the other hand is progressive. Justification is complete at conversion, whereas wholeheartedly submitting every thought and action to Christ's Lordship becomes a lifelong undertaking for those who follow Jesus. Here are two of my previous articles on the topic: 

"The Truth Isn't Only Something You Believe"
"Biblical Christianity is Not a One-Night Stand"

There is no question that Christian faith leads to good works, as I addressed in these two pieces: "Salvation Without Good Works Is an Oxymoron," and "Working Out Your Salvation." So why create a straw man just to roll out a "more pious model" of spiritual conversion? Rather than adding something helpful to the biblical explanation of Christianity, the expression "Lordship salvation" turns attention away from the clear doctrinal distinctions between justification and sanctification.

Here are 4 reasons why I believe "Lordship salvation" is a misleading expression, and how redefining "faith" mingles Law and Gospel.

1. Placing "Lordship" in front of "salvation" inadvertently implies that the miracle of the new birth lacks the power to produce a committed life of discipleship.

Saved souls bear spiritual fruit. "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation." (2 Cor. 5:17) Every forgiven sinner begins to live a new life as sanctification instantly becomes a never-ending work in progress. See these articles I wrote in 2012: 

"Can Deliberate Sin Negate Your Conversion Experience?"
"Why Every Christian is a Disciple" 
"Relinquishing Grace or Truth Actually Sacrifices Both"
"Should Anyone Planning to Sin Be Baptized?"

A believer is saved by grace through faith in Christ, and is redeemed, born again, forgiven and justified on the front end of his relationship with God. If someone's "profession of faith" involves only words, but lacks a commitment to live for Jesus, then it is not a genuine conversion, period. I address this further in the article, "Can Someone Be Saved Without a Commitment?"

2. The term "Lordship salvation" seems to suggest that a certain degree of sanctification is necessary prior to a person being converted, even if that is not the messenger's intent.

Sanctification before justification is impossible. Why? Because only Christ living within a believer can produce the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Genuine good works only flow from faith. Until a person is converted, it is impossible to possess even a smidgen of genuine Christian godliness. I discuss this further in the article, "Jesus Is a Believers' Justification and Sanctification."

3. "Lordship salvation" in its most ardent appeals can unintentionally stunt spiritual growth, and even prevent "baby Christians" from growing up into spiritual maturity.

Christians do not mature in their faith when they are constantly coached to shore up their salvation by making a deeper commitment to Christ. Spiritual growth requires a daily diet of Scripture, prayer, service to others, godliness, humility, and the assurance of one's salvation through faith in Christ alone. Believers experience this blessed assurance only by standing on the promises of God's Word found in the Gospel. (I John 5:13) Born again people don't mature in their Christian faith if their salvation is constantly being called into question simply because they may still exhibit some signs of spiritual immaturity. (see 1 Cor. 3:1-4)

After all, doesn't every human infant and spiritual babe have to go through the initial phase of infancy? Of course. So why browbeat baby Christians by implying that they are not saved simply because they are not yet mature in their faith? 

The biblical approach is to continue feeding God's sheep, (John 21:15-17) regardless of their level of spiritual maturity. And only the Holy Spirit can teach us how to properly distinguish Law and Gospel; and how to apply Scripture in a way that lovingly "calls out" any who may profess Christianity, but aren't actually converted due to their deliberate intention to live for sin rather than the Savior.

At the same time, we are called to encourage babes in Christ and those mature in Christ to stay hungry and continue growing in the Word. This of course includes renouncing sin and turning from it, as well as pressing on in faith and daily obedience by the grace of God. (Titus 2:11,12)

One challenge preachers face is the need to proclaim God's Word to a group of people who are often at vastly different places in their spiritual life, with some folks not yet even being born again through faith in Christ. It's like a chef who is given the task of preparing one main course for a group of 100 people, and the group includes many infants, children, and adults as well. The task of feeding God's sheep can only be faithfully carried out by the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word.

Speaking of pastors who diligently feed God's sheep year after year, check out what I wrote in 2013: "John MacArthur Can Learn from Chuck Smith." These men have been two of the most faithful teachers of God's Word in America over the past 50 years, in spite of MacArthur's tendency at times to mingle justification and sanctification in his holy zeal to make committed disciples for our Lord. 

4. Pushing "Lordship salvation" can create problems similar to the legalistic teaching that promotes speaking in tongues as a requirement for salvation.

Thankfully, there are plenty of Pentecostals who understand the Gospel and who do not promote speaking in tongues a requirement for salvation. At the same time, some on the fringe actually turn the gift of tongues into a legalistic requirement necessary for salvation. Such doctrinal error prevents people from entering the kingdom of God by keeping them under the Law, rather than redeemed by the Gospel.

Likewise, the expression "Lordship salvation" tends to foster the unbiblical notion that a person is not "really saved" until he demonstrates a certain level of sanctified living. The apostles preached "repentance and forgiveness of sins," (Luke 24:47) whereas some today seem reluctant to proclaim the promise of God's grace and forgiveness until the fruit of repentance becomes evident in your life. In doing so, they confuse the fruit of Christian faith with the true meaning of repentance. The word "repent" literally means to "change your mind."

As preachers call people to "repent of their sin" (Acts 17:30) and invite them to "believe the good news," (Acts 20:24) the Holy Spirit works repentance and faith (1 Cor. 12:3) in the hearts of those who accept the Gospel message. (Acts 2:41) The power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8) working through the power of the Gospel (Rom. 1:16) is what brings about the new birth in the lives of those who "receive Christ" as Savior. (John 1:12,13)

And then Jesus produces good fruit in a believer's life, (John 15:5) but the fruit follows conversion and doesn't precede it. In other words, Christian sanctification never precedes justification. The apostle Paul understood this better than anyone. You cannot soak in Paul's epistles without coming away with a deep awareness of the difference between Law and Gospel, and the critical distinction between justification and sanctification. 

Misleading expressions produce confusion rather than clarity. And in case you are still not convinced that terminology is huge when it comes to understanding God's Word, salvation and the Christian life, here are two of my articles that might bring you even more clarity and understanding: 

"Descriptive Terms in Scripture Carry Theological Weight"
"The Biblical Distinction Between 'Gift' and 'Reward'"

While "Lordship Salvation" and "Free Grace Theology" certainly lag behind Scripture in perfectly articulating repentance and faith, many devoted Christians in both "camps" continue to lovingly serve their Lord and Savior with the grace God grants them everyday. And for this ongoing work of the Spirit in their lives, we give the Lord thanks and praise!

Always remember: No theologian has ever been perfect in life and doctrine, (1 Tim. 4:16) whether it be Martin Luther, John Calvin, or more recent Bible teachers such as Chuck Smith, John MacArthur, Bob Wilken, etc. These men have sincerely and earnestly served the Lord as gifted, yet flawed, individuals. There is not one of us who gets it right in life and doctrine all the time. 

The only perfect transmitter of biblical doctrine has been the Holy Spirit. The 66 books of the Bible that make up God's "love letter" to His children are "God-breathed." (2 Tim. 3:16) As we dig into Scripture, we rely upon the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth, (John 16:13) and to fill our hearts and minds with the love of God. (Eph. 3:19) 

After all, "God wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim. 2:4) I address this further in these articles:

"Proof that God Wants Everyone in Heaven"
"There are No Atheists in Hell"

By the way, it finally occurred to me a year or two ago why so many people will go to Hell, even though God truly wants them to come to Heaven. I finally realized that there must be something that God desires even more than having everyone spend eternity in Heaven. 

What is it? Well, it is God's desire that man take Him at His Word. This seems to be an even higher priority to God than to have everyone justified, forgiven, born again, redeemed, and saved from eternal punishment in Hell. Those who refuse to take God at His Word will miss out on Heaven by their own choice to remain in unbelief, and by their transgressions as lawbreakers who have violated God's Law. In doing so, they reject the Savior who would have saved their soul from Hell, and gladly brought them to Paradise to live forever with God and His people. (Matt. 7:13,14; Acts 28:23,24)

And yet the door to Heaven remains open today. Do you hear the Savior calling you? Jesus said, "I am the door; whoever enters through me will be saved." (John 10:9) Do you desire to be forgiven of your sins? (Rom. 3:23; 1 John 1:7) Are you thirsty for God's living water to be poured out into your soul? (John 7:37,38) "Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life." (Rev. 22:17)

Finally, here are some essays where I dive deep into Paul's epistles to examine how Scripture sets forth the clear distinction between justification and sanctification. 

"May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit." (Romans 15:13)

"Romans 1 and 2 for Catholics, Protestants and Every Christian"

"Romans 3 and 4 for Catholics, Protestants and Every Christian"

"Romans 5 and 6 for Catholics, Protestants and Every Christian"

"Romans 7 and 8 for Catholics, Protestants and Every Christian"

"How Romans 7 Describes Paul's Christian Experience"

"Galatians for Catholics, Protestants and Every Christian"

"Ephesians for Catholics, Protestants and Every Christian"

"Philippians for Catholics, Protestants and Every Christian"

"Colossians for Catholics, Protestants and Every Christian"

Dan Delzell is the pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Papillion, Nebraska. 

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