QUESTION: A brother in Christ who has traveled around the world preaching recently told me that in both the modern world, and, from his readings and studies, most professing Christians in the past, and today, hold, in some form to the false teaching of "lordship salvation."
This is the teaching that in order to be saved, a person must do more than simply trusting only in the shed blood atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ for eternal life. That the person has to continually turn from their sins, and not have any secret sins, and must do good works in order to finally get into heaven. Some claim this must be done to "prove" they are saved. Others claim to earn salvation. Do you notice this too? Why do so many Christians hold to lordship salvation?
ANSWER: Well, not being a world traveler as your friend is, I'm not really qualified to comment on how widely held the lordship salvation view is. But I certainly know it's around. So let me take a few moments to comment on the subject, and perhaps offer a possible answer to your other question.
Yes, Christ should be Lord of the Christian's life. But to insisit this is a requirement for salvation can easily put the individual's salvation in doubt. Is there a full surrender of everything to the rule of Christ? Or how much is enough? Will there not be areas revealed later, by the Spirit of God, that ought to be surrendered to Him? Are those who hold the lordship view suggesting we are not saved until that total surrender? That certainly seems to step beyond salvation by the pure grace of God.
Another way to put it is to ask: Is salvation dependent on a life of obedience to Christ? Again, how much obedience is enough? And is that what the Word of God teaches. Scripture is clear that salvation is a "gift" to be received (Rom. 6:23)–and the Greek word for gift (charisma) is related to the word for grace (charis), God's unearned, unmerited favour. A gift is received, not earned. To do anything to pay for a gift of God's grace means it is no longer a gift (Rom. 4:4-5). We can't have it both ways.
The familiar passage in Ephesians leaves no room for doubt. "By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast" (Eph. 2:8-9). God's gift of salvation is received by faith in what Christ did for us on the cross of Calvary, plus nothing. It's not faith plus baptism, or faith plus church membership, or faith plus good works. Simply put, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved" (Acts 16:31).
There are many things we can (and should) do for the Lord after we're saved. These may indicate the sincerity and reality of our faith, or our progress toward maturity, but they do nothing to make us saved, or earn God's acceptance of us. They are the outworking of salvation, not the origin of it. We're saved by what Christ has done for us, not by what we do for Him. "Christ died for our sins" (I Cor. 15:3). "For He [God the Father] made Him [Christ], who knew no sin, to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (II Cor. 5:21).
I realize I'm "preaching to the choir" here, but I think it's important to lay that groundwork. Lordship salvation complicates the gospel incredibly, and in the process becomes "another gospel," which is to be condemned (Gal. 1:6-8). The Middletown Bible Church, in Connecticut, has a website with articles on many areas of theology. Below is the site address for one of several of their articles on lordship salvation. They demonstrate what an impossible burden this theory places on the sinner if he is to gain eternal life.
You ask why this perverted gospel is so popular. Let me suggest a couple of reasons that come to mind. But before I do, we need to accept the sincerity of many who adopt this view. They truly want to please God, and have come to believe that this teaching is biblical. I disagree, but can't fault their diligence, and their passion to be all that God wants them to be.
1) One of the reasons lordship salvation has gained ground is the ministry of American Bible teacher John MacArthur, who has espoused it. Through his many books, recordings, television and radio ministries, MacArthur has effectively propagated his position. Much that he has to say in teaching the Scriptures is excellent. He is an able expositor. I've found the MacArthur Study Bible to have many helpful notes.
However, he is wrong about this subject. The late theologian Charles Ryrie, in his book So Great Salvation (Amazon link below) ably refutes MacArthur's teaching. And the Middletown Church has several articles that take MacArthur to task regarding some of his errors. But I believe the popularity of this man among evangelicals must be seen as one of the reasons lordship salvation flourishes in some quarters.
2) There is also a spiritual reason why we see some accepting this teaching. Go back to Ephesians 2:9, "Not of works, lest anyone should boast." I don't know for sure–and it may not be so in every case–but it seems to me lordship salvation feeds sinful pride, while insisting that it's doing just the opposite. Part of the credit for my salvation depends on me, according to this way of thinking.
It's interesting that Eugene Peterson's very unreliable paraphrase, in The Message, has Ephesians 2:9 saying, about how we're saved, "We don't play the major role." What? Is he kidding? So Christ has (I guess) the "major role," but we kind of help Him out in a minor way? How? And is he suggesting part of the glory for our salvation therefore belongs to us? How can "not of works," and "not of yourselves" (vs. 8), be so seriously warped?
In the words of John MacArthur, quoted in the web article spoken of earlier, he says, "Salvation isn't the result of an intellectual exercise. It comes from a life lived in obedience and service to Christ." This is nonsense–and heresy! Obedience and service for Christ are the duty (and privilege) of every child of God, but they are not what saves us. "All our righteousnesses are like filthy rags" in God's sight (Isa. 64:6). Only Christ's perfect righteousness credited to our account is acceptable to God. That is ours as His gift. Praise the Lord for His grace!