One of the most significant theological debates over the last several decades has been the controversy over “lordship salvation.” Central to this debate is the question of whether or not obedience to God is an inevitable fruit of genuine conversion. In the preface to The Gospel According to Jesus—the 1988 book that brought the lordship controversy to a new level—lordship advocate John MacArthur wrote:
I have never taught that some pre-salvation works of righteousness are necessary to or part of salvation. But I do believe without apology that real salvation cannot, and will not, fail to produce works of righteousness in the life of a true believer. There are no human works in the saving act, but God’s work of salvation includes a change of intent, will, desire, and attitude that inevitably produces the fruit of the Spirit.
This belief that regeneration inevitably results in a spiritually transformed life is one of the main tenets of lordship salvation. In contrast, many opponents of the lordship view have denied that good works are an inevitable result of conversion. For example, according to the late Zane Hodges—founder of the more radical form of non-lordship teaching known as “Free Grace” (hereafter FG)—the idea that “faith inevitably produces good works” is “a theological construct which cannot be established from the Bible.” Elsewhere Hodges writes, “How strange that in our day and time we have been told so often that fruitlessness is a sure sign that a person is unsaved. Certainly we did not get this idea from the Bible.” According to Hodges and other FG teachers, it is hypothetically possible for an individual to believe in Christ and yet show forth absolutely no fruit in terms of obedience to God or love for Christ. Put another way, they believe in a regeneration which may or may not result in a visibly changed life.
Of the many passages which contradict FG teaching, one of the clearest is 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, where the apostle Paul writes:
(9) Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, (10) nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God. (11) Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of God.
The reason this passage presents such a problem for the FG system is because it so clearly states that those whose lives are characterized by wickedness (i.e., “the unrighteous”) will not inherit the kingdom of God. In short, such individuals stand condemned, and their only hope for eternal salvation is to repent and believe in Christ.
FG teachers object to this interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, insisting that there is a vast difference between entering the kingdom of God (as all believers will do) and inheriting the kingdom of God (as only obedient believers will do). According to the FG view, those Christians who are carnal and disobedient throughout their lives—i.e., “the unrighteous” in 1 Corinthians 6:9—are saved and will enter the kingdom, but they will not inherit the kingdom in the sense of receiving eternal rewards and reigning as co-heirs with Christ. Amazingly, according to FG, the experience of these believing-but-not-inheriting members of the kingdom will be so dreadful that Jesus described it like this:
– “Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth’” (Matt 22:13).
– “The master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour which he does not know, and shall cut him in pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites; weeping shall be there and the gnashing of teeth” (Matt 24:50-51).
According to FG advocates, these verses are not a description of a person in hell—instead, they are said to describe the future experience of an unrighteous believer who will enter but not inherit the kingdom of God. In the eyes of FG teachers, then, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 poses no problem for their view that many genuine believers show forth no spiritual fruit and live their entire lives in spiritual barrenness.
In contrast, a more careful look at 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 reveals that “the unrighteous” are unbelievers; that inheriting the kingdom is the destiny of all true believers; and that all who live a life of wickedness demonstrate themselves to be unsaved, regardless of what they confess with their mouths (see Matt 7:21-23).
The Identity of “the Unrighteous”
In 1 Corinthians 6:9, the words “the unrighteous” consist of what is known as the substantival use of the Greek adjective adikos (“unrighteous”). This may sound technical, but it simply means that the adjective “unrighteous” is being used alone, independent of a noun, and therefore functions as a noun itself. In other words, “the unrighteous” is a good translation, for it simply refers to people who are unrighteous. Such people, Paul says, will not inherit the kingdom of God.
FG teachers insist that “the unrighteous” in 1 Corinthians 6:9 are unrighteous believers, but this view has at least two difficulties. First, the apostle Paul already defined “the unrighteous” as unbelievers earlier in the very same context. In 1 Corinthians 6:1, as Paul begins the discussion which continues in verses 9-11, the apostle writes: “Does any one of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints?” In this verse, Paul sets “the unrighteous” (also the substantival use of adikos) in contrast to “the saints,” making it clear that they are unbelievers (also see v. 6 where Paul refers to these same individuals as “unbelievers”). Therefore, when Paul refers again to “the unrighteous” later in the same discussion in verse 9, it is not difficult to know whom he is referring to: unbelievers whose lives are characterized by unrighteousness.
Second, when the Greek adjective adikos (“unrighteous”) is used substantivally elsewhere in the New Testament, it is never used in reference to those who are regenerate (see Matt 5:45; Luke 18:11; Acts 24:15; 1 Cor 6:1; 1 Peter 3:18; 2 Peter 2:9). In fact, it is commonly used to refer to unbelievers specifically in contrast to believers. For example, note the substantival use of adikos in the following verses:
– Matthew 5:45b: “He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous [adikos].”
– Acts 24:15b: “there shall certainly be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked [adikos].”
– 2 Peter 2:9: “The Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous [adikos] under punishment for the day of judgment.”
This doesn’t mean that true believers never sin or that they are unable to commit acts of unrighteousness. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 6:8 the apostle Paul uses the verb form of the word “unrighteous” (adikeo) to rebuke the Corinthians for sinning by filing lawsuits against each other—“you yourselves wrong [adikeo]…your brethren.” In this way, 1 Corinthians 6 serves as a good illustration of the lordship view: The Corinthian believers did commit acts of unrighteousness (as the verb adikeo in verse 8 indicates), but their lives were not characterized by an unbroken pattern of unrighteousness (as the substantive adikos indicates in verse 9).
The Meaning of “Inherit”
When Paul says that “the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God,” the FG view is that although every believer will enter the kingdom, not every believer will inherit the kingdom. To support this assertion, Zane Hodges and other FG teachers point out that the words “enter” and “inherit” are not synonymous in their meanings.
This argument, however, is less than convincing. The New Testament speaks of believers seeing the kingdom (John 3:3), entering the kingdom (Matt 7:21), receiving the kingdom (Mark 10:15), inheriting the kingdom (1 Cor 15:50; Gal 5:21), and having an inheritance in the kingdom (Eph 5:5). The fact that these verbs are not perfectly synonymous with one another hardly disproves that each is being used to describe the experience of every believer (albeit by emphasizing slightly different nuances of the believer’s relationship to the kingdom). In Mark 10:14-15, for example, receiving the kingdom, entering the kingdom, and having the kingdom belong to you are all used interchangeably in reference to the experience of everyone who believes. Does the fact that these three words are not synonyms undermine this fact? Not at all. More, then, needs to be said.
The real test comes in examining the passages which speak of the believer inheriting the kingdom (Matt 25:34; 1 Cor 6:9-10; 15:50; Gal 5:21; cf. Eph 5:5; James 2:5). Although I’m convinced that each of these passages lead to the conclusion that every believer will inherit the kingdom, I will limit my comments to what I think is the clearest, most significant problem for the FG view—Matthew 25:34.
In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus describes what will happen when He returns to this earth in glory and sits on His glorious throne (v. 31). At this time, He will gather the nations before Him and separate humanity into two groups of people (v. 32), placing the sheep on His right and the goats on His left (v. 33). The sheep, of course, represent believers (vv. 34-40) and the goats represent unbelievers (vv. 41-45). Later, Jesus describes how He will tell the goats: “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (v. 41). But first He addresses the sheep, saying to them: “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (v. 34; emphasis added). All believers, Jesus says, will inherit the kingdom.
According to the FG view, Jesus should have divided humanity into three groups: (1) the righteous sheep who will inherit the kingdom, (2) the unrighteous sheep who will enter but not inherit the kingdom, and (3) the unrighteous goats who will depart into eternal fire. But instead, He divided them into two (and only two) groups of people: the sheep who will inherit the kingdom and the goats who will go away into eternal punishment. These two groups are otherwise known as the blessed ones and accursed ones (vv. 34, 41), the righteous and the unrighteous (v. 46). Again, all true believers will inherit the kingdom of God.
The Transformation of the Corinthian Believers
After stating that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom (v. 9a), the apostle Paul sets forth various categories of wicked people who are part of “the unrighteous”: fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, effeminate, homosexuals, thieves, the covetous, drunkards, revilers, and swindlers (vv. 9b-10). He is not referring to people who commit sins in these areas. Rather, he is speaking of people whose lives are so characterized by these sins that they are defined by them—they are the unrighteous. Such individuals, Paul says, will not inherit the kingdom (also see Gal 5:19-21; Eph 5:5-6; Rev 21:6-8; and Rev 22:14-15).
Then comes verse 11: “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of God.” Paul says that none of the Corinthian believers fall into any of these categories of unrighteousness. This is how some of them previously lived as a way of life, but no longer: “Such were some of you” (v. 11a).
The use of the imperfect tense (“were”) indicates something that was continuously true in the past but is no longer true in the present. In other words, some of these believers were previously fornicators, homosexuals, drunkards, etc. But something changed, something brought about a radical transformation in their lives. And that something, Paul says, was God’s work of conversion: “But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of God” (v. 11b). As Gordon Fee writes, the apostle Paul is saying to the Corinthian believers: “Your own conversion, effected by God through the work of Christ and the Spirit, is what has removed you from being among the wicked, who will not inherit the kingdom.” In contrast, FG advocates seem to read verse 11 as if Paul had said: “And such are some of you, even though you were washed, sanctified, and justified.”
The conclusion, then, is inescapable. Paul says there are two kinds of individuals in this world: (1) the wicked who will not inherit the kingdom, and (2) those who have been converted by the work of God, all of whom will inherit the kingdom. There is no third category of individuals who have been truly converted but who continue in the same unbroken pattern of wickedness that previously characterized their lives. After all, the grace of God is not only free—it is also powerful, refusing to lie dormant in the hearts of those who have truly believed.