The False Gospel of “Lordship Salvation”

John MacArthur (far left), Paul Washer (middle), Steven J. Lawson (far right)

In a previous post, I briefly addressed a growing soteriological view, commonly called “Free Grace” theology, also known as easy-believism. In that post, I explained why this view does not truly preach salvation by free grace, for it still makes salvation conditioned upon the will of the sinner, and preaches a universal and failed atonement. All this in addition to the fact that they make sanctification in the life of the believer optional, thus inevitably leading to blatant antinomism.

In this post, I’d now like to direct our attention to the opposite side of the spectrum — “Lordship Salvation”. What exactly is “Lordship Salvation”? As was explained in the previous post, this viewpoint was popularized by John MacArthur in the 90s by way of his book The Gospel According to Jesus. MacArthur wrote the book in response to Zane Hodges’ book Absolutely Free, wherein he explains the “Free Grace” perspective.

Briefly explained, Lordship Salvation teaches that the prerequisites for salvation include not only faith in the person and finished work of Jesus Christ, but also a full commitment to “make Jesus Lord of ones life” with an emphasis on repentance of sin and obedience to the moral Law. It teaches that the Gospel includes a number of “demands” which one must be willing to submit to in order to become Christian. Moreover, this doctrine emphasizes good works, right motives, and overall internal and external obedience as the basis of ones assurance of salvation and knowing whether or not they are truly saved. More specifically, Lordship Salvation proponents would include these things within the definition of true faith. For example, MacArthur, in an interview that he did some years back, when attempting to defend himself from the charges of adding works to salvation, as well as contrasting his own view with that of the “free grace” position, acknowledges that his position places repentance [from sin] and “commitment” into “the act of believing” (see here), even explicitly defining faith as “a way to live” (see here).

What is especially astonishing is that many who would identify as Reformed today, not only see nothing wrong with this, but they would even go so far as to call this Reformed doctrine, which it manifestly is not. MacArthur is not Reformed. He is a Dispensationalist Baptist who was originally responding to another Dispensationalist Baptist (Hodges) and ended up responding to antinomism with legalism. MacArthur, Steve Lawson, Paul Washer, and other famous or popular Calvinistic preachers today who promote this doctrine, will utterly deny that they are in fact teaching legalism, or that they are adding to salvation, but upon close inspection, we find that this position does just that. Lordship Salvation, at its root, mixes Law and Gospel, which is the fundamental issue at play here. When reading or listening to MacArthur, one will frequently hear him speak of salvation by grace, denying self-righteousness, and so and so forth, but will then see him turn right around and add conditions to salvation.

This error stems, first of all, from an erroneous definition of what faith is. Lordshippers, in an attempt to push back against the “Free Grace” position that true saving faith is simply a moment of intellectual assent, go in the opposite direction by defining faith as “a way to live” (as MacArthur does in the interview linked to above). Part of the issue here is that Lordship Salvation proponents will frequently go back and forth between saying that faith produces good works and then speaking of faith as if it is a good work, or as if it includes more than trusting and receiving Jesus Christ.

A good example of this is found on page 190 of The Gospel According to Jesus:

So the person who has believed will yearn to obey. Because we retain the
vestiges of sinful flesh, no one will obey perfectly (cf. 2 Cor. 7:1; 1 Thess. 3:10), but the desire to do the will of God will be ever present in true believers (cf. Rom. 7:18). That is why faith and obedience are so closely linked throughout Scripture. A concept of faith not producing surrender of the will corrupts the message of salvation. Paul spoke of the gospel as something to be obeyed (Rom. 10:16 KJV; 2 Thess. 1:8). Here is how he characterized conversion: “Though you were the slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart” (Rom. 6:17). The result he sought in his ministry of evangelism was “obedience . . . by word and deed” (15:18). And he wrote repeatedly of “the obedience of faith” (1:5; 16:26).

Clearly, the biblical concept of faith is inseparable from obedience. “Believe” is treated as if it were synonymous with “obey” in John 3:36: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life.” Acts 6:7 shows how salvation was understood in the early church: “A great many . . . were becoming obedient to the faith.” Obedience is so closely related to saving faith that Hebrews 5:9 uses it as a synonym: “Having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation.” Hebrews 11, the great treatise on faith, presents obedience and faith as inseparable: “By faith . . . Abraham . . . obeyed” (v. 8) — and not just Abraham. All the heroes of faith listed in Hebrews 11 showed their faith by obedience.

The troubling thing about this is that it can be easily seen that by “obedience” MacArthur means “works”. He clearly says that Hebrews 5:9 uses faith as a synonym for obedience, i.e good works and obedience to the Law of God. But John 3:36 and Hebrews 5:9 refer to obeying the Gospel call to repent and believe, and Hebrews 11, as MacArthur points out, certainly shows that the saints will demonstrate their faith by works, but it by no means treats them as synonymous.

This conflating of faith and works together leads naturally into conflating Law and Gospel. This is a vital distinction which, if not properly understood, has the potential to lead someone into trusting in a false gospel. The Law is God’s perfect standard of righteousness. It tells us what man ought to do, it says “Do this and live”. It exposes the fact that nobody has kept or can keep it, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The Gospel is the good news which declares that Jesus Christ “did it”. He did it perfectly, on behalf of His elect. He established a perfect righteousness on their behalf via His active and passive obedience. The Gospel is a call to sinners to repent of dead works and self-righteousness and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.

MacArthur demonstrates a huge lack of understanding in this area when he preaches on passages like Mark 10:17. In his more recent book entitled Hard to Believe, chapter 1, under the heading “The True Gospel of Scripture”, says the following:

This is a bedrock truth of Christianity that the Bible confirms repeatedly. Jesus said the same thing in many different ways. He said it in the familiar story of the rich young ruler. In Mark 10:17 the young synagogue leader ran up to Jesus, knelt before Him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” What a setup for personal evangelism! Jesus could have said, “Pray this prayer” or “Make a decision to accept Me!” He didn’t. Instead He confronted the young man with the reality of sin to reveal whether or not he was convicted of his wickedness and penitent over his iniquities. Jesus offered several of the Ten Commandments as examples of the law of God the young man had broken. Rejecting any thought of sinfulness and repentance, the young man bragged about having obeyed the Ten Commandments all his life. He thought he was a perfect candidate for eternal life. But he got a response he didn’t expect. In verse 21, Jesus said, “Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.” Jesus exposed his self-righteousness and then uncovered his love for money. The young ruler wanted Jesus to show him how to have eternal life. But Jesus told him that the price was giving up his illusion of self-righteousness, recognizing himself rather as an unworthy, wretched sinner. And he needed to be willing to submit to the Lord Jesus, even if it meant he had to give up all his earthly possessions. He might not ask, but the requirement for eternal life is the willingness to give it all up if He does. The young man wouldn’t do either — admit his sin or deny himself. As verse 22 tells us, “But he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” He decided he’d rather hold onto the deception of self-righteousness, and have his money and possessions, than have Jesus. He had no interest in self-denial, self-sacrifice, or submission. Therefore he was unworthy to be Jesus’ disciple, and he himself shut the door to the kingdom of salvation.

John MacArthur. Hard to Believe: The High Cost and Infinite Value of Following Jesus (Kindle Locations 154–169). Nelson Books. Kindle Edition.

MacArthur’s exposition of this text is a clear conflation of Law and Gospel. The rich young ruler comes up to Jesus, asking what he must “do” (works) to obtain eternal life. Jesus does not respond with the Gospel, He responds with the Law. He tells him to keep the commandments. The rich young ruler feigned perfect obedience to the Law, and Christ exposes his self-deception by telling him to sell what he has to follow Him. MacArthur is correct in his analysis up to this point, but where he goes terribly wrong is turning this text into a Gospel-text. Christ did not share the Gospel with this man, He gave him the Law. He pointed out and revealed his self-righteousness, which he was not willing to acknowledge, and therefore he left without ever hearing the Gospel.

The results of this basic misunderstanding are utterly disastrous. MacArthur takes a shot at the “easy-believism” crowd by pointing out that Christ did not tell this man to say a sinner’s prayer or “make a decision for Jesus”, yet he is essentially doing the exact same thing. If only the rich young ruler was willing to sell everything he had! Then he’d be a Christian! Then he’d inherit eternal life! The practical effects of this are constant doubting of salvation for the Christian. They will constantly doubt whether or not they are “willing” enough, or whether or not they are “doing” enough. Conversely, the person who listens to MacArthur’s exposition of Mark 10, and looks to himself, convinced that he has met the requirement, ends up in the exact same self-deluded condition that the young ruler found himself in. He has “given up everything” and has “made Jesus Lord of his life”, therefore he is a Christian. Constant doubt, or self-deceit and self-righteousness are the only two possible fruits of this doctrine.

As much as one wants to deny that LS makes works a precondition for salvation, one needs only to read and listen to their teachers in order to discern this. Here is another citation from Hard to Believe:

According to Jesus, it’s very, very difficult to be saved. At the end of Matthew 7:14, He said of the narrow gate, “There are few who find it.” I don’t believe anyone ever slipped and fell into the kingdom of God. That’s cheap grace, easy-believism, Christianity Lite, a shallow, emotional revivalist approach: “I believe in Jesus!” “Fine, you’re part of the family, come on in!” No. The few who find the narrow gate have to search hard for it, then come through it alone. It’s hard to find a church or preacher — or a Christian — who can direct you to it. The kingdom is for those who agonize to enter it, whose hearts are shattered over their sinfulness, who mourn in meekness, who hunger and thirst and long for God to change their lives. It’s hard because you’ve got all hell against you. One of Satan’s pervasive lies in the world today is that it’s easy to become a Christian. It’s not easy at all. It’s a very narrow gate that you must find and go through alone, anguished over your sinfulness and longing for forgiveness.

John MacArthur. Hard to Believe: The High Cost and Infinite Value of Following Jesus (Kindle Locations 1249–1256). Nelson Books. Kindle Edition.

This is patently false. MacArthur believes that it is “very, very difficult” to be saved because man must “search” for the narrow gate and it is difficult to find. But Scripture says that there is no man that seeks after God (cf. Romans 3:9–19). Man in his natural condition is totally depraved, he does not “long for God to change his life”. He is an enemy of God and delights in his sin. Telling such a person that they need to “make Jesus Lord” and “be willing to give up everything” is like barking commands at a corpse. Man first must be made spiritually alive before he can be willing or able to submit to Christ. He must first hear the Gospel! The good news of the perfect, completed, and finished work of Christ on behalf of His elect! Unfortunately, the Lordship Salvation crowd believes that this is not enough. One must also preach what man must do in addition to resting in the finished work of Christ. Needless to say, if it is “very, very difficult to be saved” then this necessarily implies that there are conditions that one must meet in order to obtain eternal life — and according to the Lordship crowd, these conditions are “very, very difficult” to meet.

Not only must we initially be willing to serve and obey Christ, but we must also live a consistently righteous life in order to be saved, according to MacArthur:

Jesus made strong demands of those who desired to enter the kingdom, principles that we can sum up in one word: righteousness. Matthew 5:20 makes it clear: “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 7:21–22 denotes a verbal profession: “Not everyone who says…Many will say to Me…” These are the people who say they’re Christians, but they aren’t; they say but don’t do. The verses that follow, which we’ll consider in the next chapter, highlight those who have only an intellectual knowledge: “Whoever hears these sayings…everyone who hears these sayings of Mine…” They hear but don’t do. In one sense it’s a verbal profession, and in another sense it’s an intellectual knowledge, but neither produces the good fruit of a righteous life. They’re nothing but empty words and empty hearts.

John MacArthur. Hard to Believe: The High Cost and Infinite Value of Following Jesus (Kindle Locations 1374–1381). Nelson Books. Kindle Edition.

MacArthur is very unambiguous here. In no uncertain terms he states that Jesus Christ demands that certain stipulations be met in order to obtain salvation. Those demands, according to the author, are summed in one word: Righteousness. Does MacArthur point us to the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ? No, no he does not. Instead he twists Scripture in order to point to man and what he must do. He must meet these demands in order to enter the kingdom. He must exercise his own righteousness in order to have eternal life. Beloved reader, this is nothing short of an outright false gospel. Yes, righteousness is absolutely required to see the kingdom of God, but not our own! It is the righteousness of God revealed in the Gospel, the perfect righteousness which Jesus Christ established on behalf of His elect, which is imputed to their accounts. That righteousness is man’s only hope of entering into the kingdom of heaven, and it can only be appropriated by God-given faith — faith alone!

One more example may be found in part 2 of a famouns sermon series MacArthur did entitled Saved or Self-deceived? In which he makes the following statement:

“The only thing that makes you acceptable to God is a pattern of obedience to the word of God, that is the product of repentance and genuine faith in Jesus Christ and truly abandoning your life in obedience to his lordship” (source)

One can only say that a person is misspeaking or being taken out of context so many times. MacArthur’s statement here is crystal-clear. The ONLY THING that makes a sinner ACCEPTABLE TO GOD, according to JMac, is a pattern of obedience that results from genuine faith and repentance. This is a false gospel, plain and simple. The only thing that makes a sinner acceptable before God is the finished work of Jesus Christ on his or her behalf. God’s people are ALWAYS and ONLY accepted before Him on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed to them.

Lest the reader think we are picking on JMac, we will look at one more example, this time from popular Calvinistic pastor, Steven J. Lawson. There is a popular 12 minute video online entitled “It Will Cost You Everything”. The video is filled with dramatic, epic sounding background music as Lawson can be heard, shouting from the pulpit that those to whom he is preaching must count the cost of being a Christian, stating that it will cost them everything, whether popularity, or social status, or even their life. Jesus Christ is coming back to judge the wicked, with His garments dripped in blood, and that “you need to make peace with this coming king, or you will be subjected in damnation forever”. Quite the dreadful, terrifying message indeed. And how are we to fulfill this pressing requirement? Lawson continues:

“Jesus Christ has made terms of peace. You need to settle out of court with him. You do not want to go into that final day of conflict with Christ. For he will be ruthless in the execution of his justice. But he offers you mercy today. He will agree to terms of surrender, he will agree to terms of peace, but they are his terms of peace, not ours. And his terms of peace are very simply this: You must hate your own father, and mother, and brother, and sister, and even your own life more than me, and you must take up your cross and follow me, or you cannot be my disciple. And if not, you will meet me in the final judgment”

So according to Lawson, who esteems himself to have been preaching the Gospel when he stated this, in order for us to be at peace with God and Christ, we must meet certain conditions, and these conditions are works that we must do in order to avoid meeting Jesus Christ in judgment. That is the Gospel according to Steven J. Lawson. Not a word about our deadness in sin, not a word about Christ establishing a perfect righteousness on behalf of His people, or His effectual atonement on their behalf. Not a word about the imputation of the sins of the elect to Christ and His righteousness imputed to them. Nothing about Jesus Christ Himself meeting the “terms of peace” by fulfilling the perfect requirement of the Law. None of that. Just back-loading the Gospel with conditions that the sinner must meet in order to obtain peace and reconciliation. Once again, we are met with a false gospel. At a later point in the video, Lawson attempts to clarify:

“He’s not saying that you have to buy your way in the kingdom of heaven, for none of us have enough gold or enough silver to remove the stain of sin that has defiled our inner soul. What is he saying?”

“Oh! Good!” one might be thinking, “Lawson is going to clarify his statement!” Considering the first four minutes of this video consist of him making it seem as though one must work their way into the heaven, this is certainly a welcome attempt. Let us see what Lawson says:

“Let me just cut to the bottom line of the bottom line. You must transfer the ownership of all that you are and all that you have to all that he is. That’s what he’s saying. Your life is no longer your life it is his life. Your time is no longer your time it is his time. Your possession is no longer your possession it is his possession…and you have now transferred all that you are, and all that you have, to all that he is. That’s what it is to meet his terms of peace.”

To the sad disappointment of the hearer, Mr. Lawson was simply specifying that you can’t literally buy your salvation with gold or silver, but you can still work for it, apparently. Lest anyone should still be holding onto the hope that Lawson is misspeaking, or not being clear, he clarifies even further:

“Yet the exchange is not bartered or bought with real money. But it is purchased with…”

There is a short pause at this point in the video. I recall the first time I listened to this, it was at this point that I was quickly trying to anticipate what he would say. The most obvious answer would be “the blood of Jesus Christ”, but of course, Lawson seems to have none of that on his mind at this point:

“…the total, complete surrender of your life to Christ. It is coming to an end of yourself, and completely and entirely entrusting all that you are and all that you have to all that he is.”

Mind you, this is only five minutes into an eleven minute video. The reader is welcome to listen to the rest. We do not need to go any further, the message is loud and clear. For Lawson, the “terms of peace”, the way of reconciliation with God and Jesus Christ, and the entrance into His kingdom, is not based entirely upon the finished and completed work of Christ, nor His perfect established righteousness imputed to the elect. It is you fulfilling the conditions and doing the works necessary to obtain salvation. It is that “very, very difficult” process that MacArthur mentioned.

Examples can be multiplied, not only from MacArthur’s books, interviews, and sermons, or those of Lawson, but from other teachers such as Paul Washer. I don’t intend for this blog to be as lengthy as a book, so I have stuck with a few examples from MacArthur and one from Lawson. The bottom line is that the Lordship Salvation heresy is the opposite side of the spectrum from the “Free Grace” heresy. It is answering antinomism with legalism, which is its own brand of antinomism. Are Christians called to pick up their cross and follow Christ? Yes! Will a true believer be willing to give up all in order to follow and remain faithful to Him? Yes! Will being a Christian sometimes consist of persecution and hard times as a result of standing up for the truth of the Gospel? Most certainly! But none of these things are conditions upon which my salvation depends. These commands of Christ are those which God’s children will cheerfully submit to in gratitude and thankfulness for their salvation, as God continues to work in the hearts of His people and set them apart for His service, to the glory of His name. They are not prerequisites for me to have eternal life or be reconciled to God. Jesus Christ reconciled the elect and established a perfect righteousness for them on the cross, and they are given eternal life by way of regeneration as a sovereign act of the Holy Spirit.

Lordship Salvation is not Reformed doctrine. It is a false gospel, pure and simple.

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Blog name is a play on words - theologically Reformed, and spiritually renewed by God's free and sovereign Grace. I fully subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity.

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