In 1988, in an overreaction to the teachings of Zane Hodges, pastor and author, John MacArthur, introduced the world to Lordship Salvation with the publication of his book, “The Gospel According to Jesus”. Dr. MacArthur had already been preaching and teaching the substance of Lordship Salvation for some years prior. Some of his earlier works, like “Complete In Christ”, are testaments to this. But it wasn’t until 1988 that he set out to publish a robust exposition of what he taught concerning gospel assurance and the sanctified life.
His book received immediate criticism. Some pastors and theologians labeled it a return to Rome. Others called it Neonomianism. Either way, most who criticized it would later adopt it as their own view. Only a small minority continues today to resist it. In the face of the once and former initial criticism, Dr. MacArthur followed his book up a few years later with the publication of another. “The Gospel According to the Apostles.” Both books serve as his primary explanation and defense of what others have since termed, “Lordship Salvation.”
What is Lordship Salvation? In a nutshell, Lordship Salvation is a throwback to one of the many Anabaptist heresies which developed during the Reformation. It also does indeed mimic the teachings of that Neonomian heretic, Richard Baxter. In direct contradiction with Luther and Zwingli, the Anabaptists were teaching people the sinner cannot know for certain he is justified apart from clear evidence of moral improvement. The Reformers asserted by faith alone. The Anabaptists shook their heads and then said, no, by faith and by sight.
To put it another way, Dr. MacArthur counts lack of moral improvement as a dead work. This does not mean he denies a dead work includes any work done in an attempt to establish one’s own righteousness. Rather, it means he adds one’s own lack of moral improvement to the definition of dead works, so that in his view, dead works are any works done in an attempt to establish one’s own righteousness, as well as a failure to show moral improvement in one’s lifestyle. This means that while Dr. MacArthur believes Christ is the object of one’s faith, he also believes Christ is not the object of one’s assurance. Rather, he believes a man’s moral improvement is the object of a man’s assurance. And before anyone accuses me of making false accusations, I ask them to consider MacArthur’s own words for themselves.
“Behavior is an important test of faith. Obedience is evidence that one’s faith is real (1 John 2:3). On the other hand, the person who remains utterly unwilling to obey Christ does not evidence true faith (1 John 2:4)” – John MacArthur, The Gospel According to the Apostles, pg 25
“Real faith inevitably produces a changed life. Salvation includes a transformation of the inner person. The nature of the Christian is different, new. The unbroken pattern of sin and enmity with God will not continue when a person is born again.”– John MacArthur, The Gospel According to the Apostles, pg 24
“The gospel calls sinners to faith joined in oneness with repentance (Acts 2:38, 17:30; 20:21; 2 Pet 3:9). Repentance is turning from sin (Acts 3:19; Luke 24:47).”– ibid, pg 24
If this is what Dr. MacArthur believes about repentance, then what does he believe about faith and the gospel?
“The gospel call to faith presupposes that sinners must repent of their sin and yield to Christ’s authority. That, in a sentence, is what ‘Lordship Salvation’ teaches.” – John MacArthur, The Gospel According to the Apostles, pg 22
“The lordship controversy is a disagreement over the nature of true faith. Those who want to eliminate Christ’s lordship from the gospel see faith as a simple trust in a set of truths about Christ. Faith, as they describe it, is merely a personal appropriation of the promise of eternal life. Scripture describes faith as more than that – it is a wholehearted trust in Christ personally (Gal 2:16; Phil 3:9). Not merely faith about Him; faith in Him. Note the difference: If I say I believe some promise you have made, I am saying far less than if I say I trust you. Believing in a person necessarily involves some degree of commitment. Trusting Christ means placing oneself in His custody for both life and death. It means we rely on His counsel, trust in His goodness, and entrust ourselves for time and eternity to His guardianship. Real faith, saving faith is all of me (mind, emotions, and will) embracing all of Him (Savior, Advocate, Provider, Sustainer, Counselor, and Lord God). – ibid, pg 30
According to Dr. MacArthur, the gospel call involves more than just repenting of your idolatrous view of God and thereby of all your attempts to establish your own righteousness. Rather, according to MacArthur, it also involves you committing yourself to a promise of behaving better for Jesus. One of MacArthur’s favorite go-to verses is Titus 2:11-12.
Titus 2:11-12 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age
God’s grace, says the apostle Paul, trains us to renounce ungodliness. What the apostle does not say is this grace trains us to look to our renouncing of ungodliness for the assurance of our salvation. But looking to our renouncing rather than to the cross is itself ungodliness! Looking to our renouncing is what the grace of God trains us to renounce! MacArthur has flipped this on its head though. And again, lest anyone assert I am making false accusations, consider MacArthur in his own words.
“No-lordship theology utterly ignores the biblical truth that grace instructs us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age. Instead, it portrays grace as a supernatural Get Out of Jail Free ticket – a no-strings-attached, open-ended package of amnesty, beneficence, indulgence, forbearance, charity, leniency, immunity, approval, tolerance, and self-awarded privilege divorced from any moral demands.” – John MacArthur, The Gospel According to the Apostles, pg 56-57
If you have not committed yourself to behaving better for Jesus, says MacArthur, then you do not have real faith; and if you do not have real faith, then you have no basis to think you are really justified, because grace trains us to deny ungodliness. The problem with MacArthur’s premise is the fact he excludes grace from grace. He says no-lordship theology portrays grace as a no-strings-attached, Get Out of Jail Free, open-ended package of amnesty divorced from any moral demands. But that is exactly what grace is! A no-strings-attached, open-ended, Get Out of Jail Free, open-ended package of amnesty divorced from any moral demands!
Romans 4:4-5 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.
A grace which makes demands on us so that we may be assured we have received it is no grace at all. If we are required to deny ungodliness in order to be assured we have received grace, then assurance is not a gift, but rather our due. We will have earned our assurance by looking to our behavior for any signs of improvement. MacArthur conditions assurance upon his efforts to deny ungodliness – an act very ungodly in itself. He does it with boldfaced clarity too, calling the No-Lordship view a no-strings-attached, Get Out of Jail Free, open-ended package of amnesty divorced from any moral demands.
What must I do to be saved, asked the Philippian jailor. MacArthur might answer, you must first believe, but then afterwards, to know for certain you have believed, you must take these moral demands here, you see, and you have got to dedicate yourself to obeying them, and over the course of time you will learn whether your faith is real by staring intently at your navel long enough to notice whether your behavior has improved.
MacArthur claims the gospel calls sinners to faith joined in oneness with repentance. He provides as his proof texts, Acts 2:38, Acts 17:30, Acts 20:21 and 2 Pet 3:9.
Acts 2:38 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.”
Acts 17:30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent
Acts 20:21 testifying both to Jews and Gentiles of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Peter 3:9 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.
Which one of these texts say repentance is to be joined in oneness with a transformation of the inner person producing a changed life of obedience? If you say none of them, you would be correct. And yet MacArthur insists that –
“Real faith inevitably produces a changed life (2 Cor 5:17). Salvation includes a transformation of the inner person (Gal 2:20). The nature of the Christian is different, new (Rom 6:6). Behavior is an important test of faith. Obedience is evidence that one’s faith is real (1 John 2:3). On the other hand, the person who remains utterly unwilling to obey Christ does not evidence true faith (1 John 2:4)”– ibid, pg 25
What about repentance? MacArthur argues repentance is turning from sin. His proof texts are Acts 3:19 and Luke 24:47.
Acts 3:19 Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out
Luke 24:47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations.
Which one of these texts say repentance is turning from our sins? If you say none of them, you would again be correct. Yet MacArthur asserts that repentance means a turning from sin. MacArthur believes the blotting out of a person’s sins (Acts 3:19) is conditioned upon that person turning from his sins. He also believes the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47) is conditioned upon a person turning from his sins. What must I do to be saved? Answers MacArthur, you must turn from your sins.
“Sanctification is the continuous operation of the Holy Spirit in believers, making us holy by conforming our character, affections, and behavior to the image of Christ. Justification is a one-time event; sanctification is an ongoing process. Justification frees us from the guilt of sin, sanctification from the pollution of sin. As we are seeing, one is as much a necessary part of God’s saving work as the other.”– John MacArthur, The Gospel According to the Apostles, pg 109
The logic in MacArthur’s argument is clear here. MacArthur deduces that because sanctification is a process which works to improve our sinful behavior, therefore a lifestyle of less sinful behavior will prove we have been justified. The problem lies in MacArthur’s definition of sanctification. MacArthur claims sanctification frees us from the pollution of sin. Does it really though? Does the Bible promise us a gradual lessening of sin in our lives? Is this what sanctification means?
Luther made famous the words, “at once righteous and a sinner.” What he meant was that believers are perfect and sinless in God’s sight by virtue of Christ’s perfect righteousness imputed to them. Even though they are still very aware they are sinners, they also know they are righteous in God’s sight by virtue of Christ’s righteousness imputed to them. This is not a denial of the law, as MacArthur will later assert. I do not deny God’s law still has application in the Christian life. The law tells them what sin is, and it reminds them they are indeed sinners. But the law is not then made an opportunity to assure myself that God views me as perfect and sinless. The law tells me what I should do, and not instead what I can do. Good works flow out of thanksgiving to God for having freely and graciously made me perfect and sinless in His sight, rather than from fear I will fail to obtain perfection. If I do not know for certain beforehand that I am established in righteousness by the free and gracious imputation of Christ’s righteousness alone, then anything I do in respect to righteousness is going to be done from a basis of fear with the hope that God will finally one day see me as perfect and sinless. This is the definition of a dead work. It is the only definition of a dead work.
2 Corinthians 5:21 For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.
The imputation of the elect’s sins to Christ and of Christ’s righteousness to the elect means that we who are in Christ are no longer thieves, murderers, adulterers, homosexuals, effeminates, cowards, idolaters, witches, revilers and the like, because we have been made all that He is, and He was made all that we were. MacArthur has no room for this in his theology. He would have us remaining unrighteous until we have ceased from thieving. Does this mean I am saying God winks at our thieving? God forbid! In no way am I saying that. God disciplines His own. He will discipline those of His who continue to steal. But this says nothing about their righteousness. It has no bearing whatsoever upon their eternal state before God. Yet according to MacArthur it is evidence they are not perfect and sinless in God’s sight.