February 5, 2013

What is the fuss about Lordship salvation?

by Jesse Johnson

I was asked recently in an email what my understanding of “Lordship salvation” is, and if I am in favor of it, or against it. Here is how I replied:

Justified by faith

Any conversation on what is often called “Lordship salvation” hinges on definitions. Some people use the term “lordship salvation” to imply that a person has to do good works to merit salvation; it is almost as if they use the term to mean that you have to straighten out your life in order to be a Christian. I reject that understanding of salvation. The gospel is for the sick, not the healthy, and Christians are those who realize their lives are not good enough to merit favor from God, nor will they ever be.   

Others use the concept of “lordship salvation” in opposition to “free grace” theology. In some expressions of free grace theology, there is the concept that saving faith can be equated to mental assent to the facts of the gospel. In other words, a person is saved when they recognize that the facts of the gospel are true. I reject this understanding of salvation as well. Saving faith is supernatural (1 Peter 1:3), and it transforms the sinner’s life (2 Cor 3:18). I believe that people are born as slaves to sin (Rom 6:17). Sin is naturally the lord of every person outside of Christ. But at the moment of regeneration, the sinner is born again (1 Pet 1:23). His heart turns from sin, and embraces the truth of the gospel, and this marks a profound change in his life (1 Cor 5:17). No longer is he a slave to sin, but now his new lord is Jesus. If this is what is meant by lordship salvation, then I am in agreement with it.

Finally, there are some (mostly inside Presbyterian churches) that would dispute the concept of lordship salvation because they believe it contains a wrong understanding of the law/gospel tension in scripture. They understand the term to imply an emphasis on imperatives (law) for sanctification, and as a result they get the impression that lordship salvation does not see the power of sanctification coming from indicatives (gospel). These concerns are most clearly expressed by Michael Horton. I do not share those concerns. I think that they overstate the difference between law and gospel, and show a wrong understanding of the biblical use of law to begin with.

Perhaps the best way to clarify my understanding of Lordship salvation is by a list of affirmations and denials:

  • I affirm that salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone. I affirm that salvation is a gift given to sinners, by God, through faith in Jesus Christ.
  • I deny that any works are necessary to achieve salvation. I deny that a sinner can ever be deserving of salvation apart from the righteousness of Christ, given as a gift.
  • I affirm that salvation is super natural.
  • I deny that salvation is a mere mental assent to the truths of the gospel.
  • I affirm that every Christian is simultaneously both a saint and a sinner, and I also affirm that the pattern of conduct in a believer’s life will be one that is demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit.
  • I deny that people can earn favor with God through Law keeping.
  • I affirm what Paul writes in Romans 10:13: “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved,” and I affirm that the concept of Lord demands a balance of fear and obedience.

Out of curiosity, do any readers here still have conversations about Lordship salvation? Or is that pretty much a debate that has already run its course? What’s your experience with this topic? Do you find people still wanting to talk about it?

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Steve

    Great post, Jesse. I too thought this was, by now, pretty much a conversation where all that could be said has been said… but just this past week, I found myself in a series of discussions with someone who was denying Lordship salvation. It’s helpful to have a succinct definition of terms like the one you just posted.

  • Good summary, Jesse. The times I’ve been in this conversation it seems to revolve around whether repentance is “necessary” for salvation or not. the free grace position wants to assert that by saying one has to repent to be saved, you are adding something (a work) to faith. I think it’s clear enough that repentance and faith are 2 sides of the same coin. The free grace position then leads to the possibility of having Jesus as savior and not Lord. While the conversation about Lordship itself may not be that popular today, I think free grace (non-Lordship) theology is still alive and well in many churches. I hear people all the time talking about about having a second experience – post salvation – where one “made Jesus Lord.”

  • kevin2184

    Should the words “for salvation” be added after “God” in your sixth bullet? I’ve always understood Scripture to teach us that believers are blessed by their obedience. However, if “earn favor” specifically relates to earning favor with God for salvation (and thus it is generally understood to mean something entirely different than “blessed”), then the bullet stands fine as it is written. Just curious. Sorry if I’m splitting hairs. Thanks Jesse.

    • Great point Kevin. I completely agree that obedience brings blessing. “For salvation” would clear that up. You are right, and I did mean it in a different sense than “being blessed.” Its not splitting hairs, it is a helpful point.Thanks for pointing that out.

      • A Friend

        Okay, but would the statement reversed be true, if it were stated in a positive sense…”I affirm that people can earn non-salvific favor with God through “Law” keeping”?

        • The Scripture does say that you are happy/blessed when following God’s word. The Spirit of John Piper demands that I immediately add that obedience and faith are the same thing, because one of the things God commands us to do is have faith. So I think it is fair to say that God is pleased with us when we have faith…because without faith, it is impossible to please God.

        • kevin2184

          If “people” refers to those who already have saving faith then the statement is true. However, if “people” refers to the unsaved, it’s a biblically illogical statement. It’s putting the cart before the horse. As Jesse pointed out in his reply (and in quoting Heb 11:6), “without faith it is impossible to please God”. Thus, salvation (justification) must come first and then winning favor with God (e.g. blessings) is possible as a reward from God for sanctified (i.e. obedient) living. In other words, sanctification can never precede justification. If it could, salvation would then be by works and grace would be nullified (Romans 11:6).

  • Jeff

    I am still hearing and discussing the ‘Lordship’ topic. I think most believers (and ‘believe’ is an action word in scripture) know that they can do nothing to earn the gift of salvation, but ‘faith alone, Christ alone’ is not written and the idea (while noble) seems to have established a great many luke warm folks that are in danger of being spewed from the Lord. A better mix of James is necessary to help folks realize that there are prescribed responses to the free gift.

  • Scott Christensen

    The men’s group in our church is just wrapping up weeks of discussing “The Gospel According to Jesus.” This book is also being used by one of our church members with another group of about 6 men, several who are not believers. It has been an eye-opener for many and has produced some very fruitful interaction with the Word.

  • anon

    Yes. I belong to a large church who will mention Lordship, but not biblically explain what that is. Just recently it was added to steps as something you do after salvation. I also had a conversation with a former seminary student ex pastor who has said the same thing and I asked him to biblically back that up. I got nothing from him.

    Yes, for me this is always going to be a topic of conversation because of the mass confusion that is in our churches.

  • Eric Davis

    Thanks for this, Jesse. The issue is still very much alive, though I find that many are not familiar w/ the lordship vs. no-lordship title and debate. But the idea is new to more people than I ever anticipated. And interestingly, I find that many from a diverse background (arminian, pc usa, assemblies, etc) are fairly united in more of a no-lordship idea.

  • Michael Coughlin

    Yes we still have conversations about it, particularly in the street preaching “community.” In order for a person to be saved they must (Romans 9) “confess with their mouth Christ as Lord,” so when I call men to repentance and faith I usually mix the phrase in about Jesus being Lord – as well, I believe it is implied by the command to “repent, and believe the gospel,” for to whom else would you submit to a command but anyone who is truly your master (Lord).

    How can you preach Christ without preaching Lordship? “Every tongue will confess…and every knee shall bow,” He’s “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” It is impossible to communicate His attributes without teaching the Lordship and deity of Christ.

    Thanks for straightening this out. Maybe with more fear of God in our country we’d see some disappointing things change.

  • alan

    Out of a similar sense of curiosity, do any of you find believers struggling with obedience as a matter of response to the Lordship of Christ? Seems like obedience is a forgotten idea, that “mere obedience” is an indication of a non-spiritual (i.e. merely religious) way of life. Ask yourself how saved Christians can consistently disobey their Lord and Savior in any number of ways, claim grace to apply forgiveness, and then not even wince when the Spirit is grieved?

    Surely obedience was once a good thing, right? Adam was tested with obedience, and he failed… Abraham was tested with obedience, and he did not fail… even Jesus, curiously, learned obedience through suffering… How did obedience get such a bum rap? Of course, legalism and works righteousness had their input… then there’s the motivation by guilt kind of Christian faith(?) that insists on at least others demonstrating obedience… (something once called “professional weaker brothers” by Joe Aldrich)

    But what is the “obedience of the faith” that Paul wrote of?

    What Lordship salvation brings up in discussions is the essence of true Christianity… Didn’t Jesus say to make disciples, “teaching them to observe [obey] all that I commanded…” And doesn’t Acts 2:36 proclaim that God has pronounced Him both Lord and Christ? And aren’t we to continue to seek to learn what is pleasing to Him? How do we do that without obedience and without submitting to the Lordship of Christ?

    What appears to be happening in the modern (even evangelical) church is that obedience is passe, and what we really need is a new spiritual experience that will take the place of mundane obedience… We often hear that there is too much teaching (i.e. doctrine) and not enough action…evangelism…political activism…social gospel…etc. We are so busy substituting things that keep us occupied, we have no time to meditate on the Word, love the Word, seek out the Word, (compare the Psalmist of 119), gain wisdom from the Word…. that we find ourselves disobedient to the Word and the Lord!

    What the debate about Lordship salvation brought to light in the late eighties was the gospel of salvation without sanctification…that is, easy believism that bears no fruit and surrenders no lives to Christ, waiting for, or counting on a “later repentance” and even a “get of out Hell free” card for simple assent. When MacArthur and Hodges were busy writing about these things, no one seemed to have even thought about it!

    With the influence of postmodernism creeping into the Church in all venues, is it possible that we are in danger of missing the point about the Lordship of Christ all over again? He is Lord. Our Lord. We owe Him our obedience and love…. and you know, His commandments are not burdensome…are they? Are they? Maybe we do need to revisit this issue…

    Thanks for the post, Jesse. Sorry I got carried away.

  • Jean-Paul

    I just had a new visitor question me after a Sunday service, asking “Do you believe in Lordship Salvation?” with what appeared to me to be almost a wry grin. (Something in my message must have let the cat out of the bag). I responded by asking him first, “Just so I know, what do you yourself mean by Lordship Salvation, to make sure I’m answering the right question?” He refused to answer, and responded with essentially, “Well I asked you first.” Realizing my pride was rising to respond, I simply answered Jesse per some of your affirmations/denials. We have not seen him again, but hopefully we will again. This is why we are here, by grace joyful douloi of our Kurios! Good times ….

    • It’s good to hear from you Jean-Paul! Some people have some per-conceived categories in their minds, and just want to put others into those. That can be helpful, but only if we are using terms the same way. Thanks for commenting.

  • Jon Szabo

    Thanks for that clarification…

  • Michael Coughlin

    Alan, you hit the nail on the head when you wrote, “How do we do that without obedience and without submitting to the Lordship of Christ?”

    It is our heart’s submission which brings about our obedience. It is our love for Him which makes His commandments NOT burdensome.

    (Each of these is a result of His grace and regeneration, but that wasn’t my point)

    It really all comes down to love. Love may be to Goodness what love of money is to all sorts of evil.

  • Lou Martuneac

    Brother Johnson:

    I appreciate your observations in this important debate. If I may, I would like to interject what I think will be some helpful and needful clarifications. Let me begin with your stating,

    Others use the concept of ‘lordship salvation’ in opposition to ‘free grace’ theology. In some expressions of free grace theology, there is the concept that saving faith can be equated to mental assent to the facts of the gospel. In other words, a person is saved when they recognize that the facts of the gospel are true.”

    To understand how free grace theology fits into the debate one must first recognize there is vast chasm of belief over what constitutes the saving gospel within the broader Free Grace (FG) community. Until about 10 years ago there was essentially one FG movement. That faction was under the umbrella of the Grace Evangelical Society (GES), with the late Zane Hodges and Bob Wilkin (executive director) in the leadership. Much of John MacArthur’s Lordship Salvation argument is set against the teachings of Zane Hodges.

    Zane Hodges developed what has come to be known as the “Crossless” gospel. That system is advocated solely by the GES, which has become a
    very small cell of theological extremists in the broader FG camp largely because
    of a split over the “Crossless” gospel (CG) of Zane Hodges. The CG teaches that a lost man does not have to know, understand or believe in whom Jesus is (His deity) or what He did to provide salvation (death and resurrection), but can still be born again. The GES CG men insist that a lost man (Mormon, JW) who openly rejects the deity of Christ, but believes in the name “Jesus” no matter who that lost man thinks his “Jesus” is, including Mormonism’s half-brother of Satan, can be born again, Some of the most extreme in the CG camp believe that belief in the promise only of eternal life apart from whom they must believe in to receive the gift of eternal life, is sufficient to become born again.

    There is no more egregious reductionist heresy ever introduced to the NT church by one of its own. There is, however, a faction of the FG camp that is balanced in its belief and preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They utterly reject the Hodges/Wilkin “Crossless” gospel as passionately as the do Lordship

    So, in any discussion of the Lordship Salvation debate, where FRee Grace theology is concerned, I like for folks to know that there is more than one FG theological system out there,. The Zane Hodges, Bob Wilkin “Crossless” is, however, a reductionist heresy of the worst sort.


    • Sweet. Thanks for that Lou. I agree, there is a vast spectrum of stuff inside the FG camp. Thanks for interacting here.

      • Lou Martuneac

        I appreciate your reply. I trust this will be helpful to your readers.

  • Lou Martuneac

    Brother Johnson:

    Turning my attention to defining Lordship Salvation, you wrote, “Any conversation on what is often called ‘Lordship salvation’ hinges on definitions.”

    I would largely agree with that statement. I have been of the opinion that one of the best ways to arrive at a definition for a particular theology is to allow its most recognizable advocates to give us the definition. None would dispute that John MacArthur is the most prolific and best known advocate for the system of soteriology known as “Lordship Salvation.” The following are from John MacArthur defining Lordship Salvation. Dr. MacArthur defines the core of Lordship theology with statements such as,

    Salvation is for those who are willing to forsake everything,” (TGATJ, p. 78.)

    That is the kind of response the Lord Jesus called for: wholehearted commitment. A desire for him at any cost. Unconditional surrender. A full exchange of self for the Savior. It is the only response that will open the gates of the kingdom.

    In the 20th Anniversary edition of John MacArthur’s The Gospel According to
    , you will turn to page 250 and read,“One of the most comprehensive invitations to salvation in all the epistles comes in James 4:7-10… The invitation in 4:7-10 is directed at those who are not saved….

    My reading of these and many other quotes from various pro-Lordship writers tells me that LS front-loads faith with a commitment to do the “good works” (Eph. 2:10) expected of a born again disciple of Christ to become a born again disciple of Christ. That IMO is a message that corrupts the simplicity that is in Christ (2 Cor. 11:3) and frustrates grace (Gal. 2:21).

    I define Lordship Salvation as a position on the gospel in which “saving faith” is considered reliance upon the finished work of Jesus Christ. Lordship views “saving faith” as incomplete without an accompanying resolve to “forsake sin” and to “start obeying.” Lordship’s “sine qua non” (indispensable condition) that must be met to fully define “saving faith,” for salvation, is a commitment to deny self, take up the cross, and follow Christ in submissive obedience.

    As I see it, the crux of the Lordship Salvation debate is over the requirements
    (justification) salvation, not the results of (sanctification) salvation. The core question in the debate is this: What is required of a sinner that would constitute “saving faith,” i.e. the faith that results in his being born again? For a lost man to be born again must his faith in Christ include a “willingness
    to forsake everything
    ,” “wholehearted commitment” to obedient Christian living as a disciple of Christ, “unconditional surrender and a full exchange of self for the Savior?”

    I think Scripture has a better answer. You begin to get that answer once you recognize that salvation and discipleship are two separate and distinct doctrines.

    Kind regards,


    • Thanks for offering that definition Lou, and even the MacArthur quotes. Very helpful. Thanks,


      • Lou Martuneac

        Thank you. Like I mentioned I believe the best way to gain an understanding a particular theology is to let the author, originator speak for himself. Without a doubt John MacArthur is the spokesman for LS. If we don’t know and understand what they believe and how they arrive at their conclusions how are we to fairly and critically review the issue and test it against the Scriptures? Kind regards,


        • A Friend

          Lou, Jesse has no lack of understanding or exposure to Pastor John’s perspective, as he served on his senior staff for a number of years before taking his most recent post at Immanuel. I think what Jesse is trying to do is give us some helpful, thoughtful, BIBLICALLY deduced reasons to support his understanding of LS. I think every pastor has an obligation to think critically through this, and all, issues. Jesse’s ministry, like all of ours, depends on grappling with the Word by the aid of the Holy Spirit. Other men assist in this process. But, each man may and should contribute original thoughts! After all, that’s what Pastor John did…he came to originally stated articulations of what the Bible says about LS. That’s all Jesse was doing here…

          • Lou Martuneac

            Thanks for sharing that.


  • James Kime

    Jesse, great article about this very important issue. The affirmations and denials were well put.

    Hi there Lou. I know you are antiCalvinist, anti Lordship salvation, and anti John MacArthur according to the many, many posts you have on your blog about them. I recall you revising your anti Lordship book you published after a debate with Nathan Busenitz. I know he helped clear up some things for you then. Do you agree with the affirmations and denials Jesse presented here?

    One note about the simplicity in Christ you mentioned. The simplicity in Christ is that He is one, not that he is easy. It isn’t an issue of difficulty. Those who divide Christ into a Savior and Lord as separate categories are the ones Paul is speaking again. Christ is not divided.

    TGATJ by MacArthur did in fact address the Zane Hodges issue, but it also was addressed to Charles Ryrie and L.S. Chafer, both of whom failed to understand that the call to disciple was in fact a call to salvation. In fact, Ryrie’s follow up in “So Great Salvation” was quite possible the worst book he published. It missed dealing in substance with MacArthur’s points that I had wondered at times if Ryrie even read it.

    One clear example of Ryrie’s failure comes from Acts 19:8-10. Ryrie in vain argued that the believers waited 2 years to destroy their idols. He attempted to put distance between people believing in Jesus to be saved, but years later submitting to Him as Lord. However, when you read the passage, you see that Paul lectured in the school of Tyrannus for 2 years. I would be surprised if Ryrie actually still believed that. I doubt any serious student would.

  • Jason


    I just happened to come across this blog and would like to comment. Although I admit I am not as strong and mature in the faith as many of you are, I have studied the scriptures and have struggled with this issue on Lordship Salvation for a great deal of time. From this I can only come to the conclusion that the Greek word repent “metaneo” means to change your mind. Change your mind about what? That Jesus was the Word, the foretold Messiah, the Son of God. By believing that He being Christ came in the flesh, was crucified, was buried, was resurrected to the right hand of God who serves as our High Priest for the atonement of all sins to those that recognize Him and call upon His name. On this Rock I place my faith and hope for salvation and none other. Not on the works of my righteousness, which are like filthy rags to God, but on His righteousness that mediates for me and gives me a right standing before the Father. Is this not the reason He came was because man couldn’t save himself from sin? That we couldn’t meet the requirements of God ourselves because of our sinful nature? That by Grace we are saved through faith that is a free gift from God? So how can we say on one hand we need His sacrifice completely and on the other say we can work our way to Heaven or have to do this or that? Just how much of this or that then? 90% sin free? 95%? 100%? It can’t be that because those who say they are without sin are liars and doesn’t it say that even though you may be guilty of only one point against the law you are as guilty of breaking them all? Good works you say? I agree we should do them, but how many good works are sufficient enough to save ourselves? To what degree of dedication? 95%? 100%? Where is the dividing line then of saved and unsaved, righteous and unrighteous? Wouldn’t this view somewhat cheapen the Blood that was sacrificed for us and rationalize that it wasn’t sufficient enough unless we add to It ourselves? So after all this I can only stand firm on the issue of salvation as this: The Good News, the Blood of Jesus, who was the spotless, sinless Lamb of God that became sin for man is and of Itself completely sufficient! I have no other Rock or Foundation in which I can claim that can stand before a perfect God! No other! I pray the Lord blesses you and keeps you my Brothers and Sisters and gives us all the Spirit of discernment in these matters. I hope also to one day see you all in His Kingdom! In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.