Lordship Salvation versus Easy Believism versus Reformed Theology
Lordship Salvation destroys assurance. It promotes false guilt in believers who have a sensitive conscience. And it promotes hypocrisy in the visible church.
Lordship Salvation theology was created to push back against the error of ‘Easy Believism’ theology. But both these theologies are wrong. Many of our readers have wittingly or unwittingly been exposed to one or both of these errors.
Why am I writing about complexities of theology, when so many of our readers are exhausted and grieving from all the abuse they have suffered? Because while I know it can be a brain drain to wrap one’s head around theological debates, I believe it is immensely helpful for Christian victims of abuse to understand the errors in the theology they have been taught.
If we understand theology correctly we are much better equipped to identify and resist the spiritual abuse tactics which are employed to oppress victims of abuse. And our love for the Lord becomes even stronger and more vivifying, because we have sloughed off wrong ideas about God and the Christian life.
So dear readers, I encourage you to read this post in full. Take you time if need be. And see if what I’m saying makes sense.
Pastor John Fonville is well equipped to explain what Lordship Salvation is, how the doctrine originated, and, most importantly, how it diverges from biblical truth. He grew up as a Southern Baptist and studied at John MacArthur’s Master’s Seminary where he was taught Lordship Salvation theology. He later came to realize how erroneous Lordship Salvation was. So he is very able to explain what Lordship Salvation is…and what its errors are.
Note well: both John Macarthur and John Piper have a Lordship Salvation theology.
I urge all our readers to listen to this podcast: Lordship Salvation, with Pastor John Fonville. There is some preliminary material and then Ps Fonville comes on about 8:27.
I (Barb) had heard the term ‘Lordship Salvation’ before, but I didn’t know what it was. What an eye-opener it was to listen to this podcast!
The Lordship Salvation doctrine arose because of a concern back in the 80’s and early 90’s that the double benefits of salvation – justification and sanctification – were being separated.
Some guys from Dallas Seminary were saying that justification and sanctification were separate deals. In his 1980’s book Absolutely Free, Zane Hodges from Dallas Seminary argued that you can accept Jesus as your Savior and be justified, but you don’t have to accept him as your Lord. This idea is commonly known as ‘Easy Believism’ and it produces antinomianism (lawlessness, libertinism). Hodges said that if you want later on to accept Jesus as your Savior, you can do that and thus become a disciple of Jesus. (By the way, this was not a new heresy. Heresies get recycled with variants and new labels down the centuries.)
In order to correct this error, John MacArthur wrote a book The Gospel According To Jesus: What Is Authentic Faith. He argued that Jesus is both Savior and Lord to all who believe. So MacArthur and his followers came to be known as the Lordship Salvation camp.
MacArthur was correcting the widespread mistaken teaching that you could answer an altar call and sincerely pray the sinner’s prayer and sign this line because you’ve “asked Jesus into your heart” and you would be saved. That kind of theology came out of revivalism. It is also steeped in a Wesleyan two-step view of salvation – a ‘higher life’ Keswick view of salvation – namely, that you can be justified initially but at some later point in your life you have this existential experience with the Holy Spirit and you truly become sanctified and at that point you become a victorious Christian and live the abundant Christian life.
But the problem was, as Michael Horton put it:
While MacArthur was pulling up the weeds of antinomianism [lawlessness], he also pulled up the flowers of the reformation.
Lordship Salvation confuses and blurs the Law and the Gospel so that ultimately Law just consumes the entire Gospel.
John Fonville gives examples of how Lordship Salvation has infected a lot of the visible church. He uses the example of David Platt’s book Radical. (Platt has a Lordship Salvation theology.) Here is Pastor John Fonville at 33:00 in the podcast–
[Lordship Salvation] creates a taxing legalism. Platt issues a call to ‘live the gospel’.
Nowhere does scripture issue a command for believers to ‘live the gospel’ – that is the unique work of Christ alone. I’ve never met a person who has incarnated themselves. And I’ve never met a person who has perfectly through their active obedience given perfect perpetual personal obedience to God’s law. I’ve never met a person who has the authority to lay their life down on a cross and pick it up again the third day and propitiate the judgement and wrath of God for sin. So it’s a confusion of categories and it’s silly to call people to ‘live the gospel’.
The bible calls us to believe the gospel and to obey the law.
The law and the gospel are to be carefully distinguished.
The law says ‘Do this and live. If you do not do it you will die.’
Ever since the Fall, we have been unable to keep the law perfectly. God’s law exposes to us our sin and misery. The Holy Spirit uses the law to reveal to us our need to repent of sin and our pretence of law-keeping.
The gospel gives us the remedy: receive and rest on Christ alone, through faith.
Christ met the demands of the law. He did this in two ways: his active personal perfect obedience to the law during his life, and his passive obedience to the law by suffering the penalty of the law, namely the wrath of God and death on our behalf. So all a repentant sinner needs to do is receive and rest in the finished work of Christ alone.
Because Lordship Salvation blurs law and gospel, it also has a defective understanding of discipleship. Fonville explains this (42:40 in the podcast) by giving the example of how Platt misinterprets the story of the rich young man in Mark 10.
In that section of the podcast I saw lots of parallels with how churches pressure victims of abuse to keep on submitting to their abusers in order to show radical surrender to Jesus’ lordship.
As we have said many times before at ACFJ, churches lay false guilt on victims if they don’t adhere to the church’s counsel. And they induce fear in victims of abuse by implying that if they don’t comply they are not true Christians.
Reformed theology rightly distinguishes Law and Gospel
The Reformed Confessions and Catechisms steer a clear path between the two errors of Lordship Salvation (legalism, moralism) and Easy Believism (libertinism).
Here is Pastor Fonville.
[Begin transcript of podcast, starting from 54:45]
The Reformed Confessions talk about how we are united to Christ by grace alone by faith alone. And we receive a whole Christ: Christ as Savior and Lord. We receive Christ with all his saving benefits. We receive the substance of the covenant of grace which is both justification and sanctification. …
Qn 75 of the Westminster Larger Catechism speaks about progressive sanctification—[Barb has put the words from the Catechism in italics]
Sanctification is a work of God’s grace…
This is so important: it is a work of God’s grace. So right there, you know sanctification is not some synergistic effort between you and God to save yourself.
Sanctification is a work of God’s grace whereby they (that is the elect, God’s chosen people, whom God hath before the foundation of the world chosen to be holy) are, in time, through the powerful operation of His Spirit applying the death and resurrection of Christ unto them…
So it is a work of God’s grace through the powerful operation of the Holy Spirit who applies the death and resurrection of Christ to us. It’s not our work. And by that work of grace of the Holy Spirit applying the death and resurrection of Christ to believers, then
…they are renewed unto a whole man unto the image of God having the seeds of repentance unto life and all other saving graces put into their hearts, and those graces so stirred up increased and strengthened as that they more and more die unto sin and rise unto newness of life.
[End transcript of podcast]
The Lordship Salvation crowd (MacArthur, Piper, etc.) blur the distinction between justification and sanctification, so you have to meet certain conditions in your sanctification-works in order to enter into heaven.
In contrast, the Easy Believism (Free Grace / non Lordship) crowd separate justification and sanctification. They emphasize, legitimately, that assurance of salvation is clearly taught in the Scriptures, but in so doing they reduce faith to something less than the full orbed biblical teaching. They bifurcate justification and sanctification.
But the Reformed Confessions do not blur the lines between justification and sanctification, nor do they unscripturally separate or bifurcate justification and sanctification.
At 103:30 in the podcast, Ps Fonville explains the Law and Gospel hermeneutic of the Reformed Confessions. The Reformed Confessions distinguish between two types of covenants:
- Law is the covenant of works which is first announced in Genesis 2:15-17.
- Gospel is the covenant of grace which is first announced in Genesis 3:15 and finds its way from promise there to fulfilment in the New Heavens and New Earth.
Pastor Fonville says:
When you turn the gospel (the covenant of grace) into the covenant of works and make personal spirit-wrought sanctity a condition for salvation, you have just injected the covenant of works back into the covenant of grace and you have destroyed the gospel. That’s why it’s so important to make these distinctions in the bible and to have these categories. [the categories of Law and Gospel]
So what is the place of good works?
… once the Holy Spirit has worked Christ-embracing faith in our hearts, all conditions of salvation having been met in Him, do good works then cease to be necessary?
Of course not—why would they? Good works are glorifying to God, comforting to the soul of believers, and are used by God to win others to Christ. (source)
John MacArthur and John Piper do not have reformed theology. They do not subscribe to any Reformed Confessions. They do not follow the framework that the Reformers articulate. They do not rightly articulate the Law (the covenant of works) and the Gospel (the covenant of grace). So they go very wrong on many things from there.
And here’s another caution. We need to remember that there are people who falsely claim to be Reformed in their theology who inject the covenant of works back into the covenant of grace and thereby destroy the gospel. The Federal Vision crowd Norman Shepherd & Doug Wilson are obvious examples. But many unstable presbyterian (PCA) ministers are in this group too.
Michael Horton rightly says–
When you collapse the covenant of works into the covenant of grace you don’t have law and gospel, you have gospel. (1:06:00 in the podcast)
Brothers and sisters in Christ, we need to beware of false teachers in all tribes of the church.
One benefit of the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms is that they help us learn and pass on to the next generation the true doctrines of Christianity. And they help us identify the false teachers.
Lordship Salvation destroys assurance and it promotes false guilt in believers who have a sensitive conscience.
For a serious believer who is weak and sinning, Lordship Salvation doctrine destroys the believer’s assurance so it leads to despair. For a Christian victim of domestic abuse, Lordship Salvation induces false guilt and terror that they are going to hell if they don’t comply with the church’s counsel and the abuser’s demands.
Lordship Salvation promotes hypocrisy in the visible church.
The other thing Lordship Salvation does is promote hypocrisy in some people in the visible church. And we know what that leads to – it makes the visible church an environment that is conducive to wolves in sheep’s clothing and wolves in pulpits. These wolves create man-made laws by twisting scripture and they use these laws to oppress others. They hammer their man-made laws especially hard on victims of abuse when victims resist the oppression. And all the while these wolves are pretending to be law-keepers, but they are wicked hypocrites. Many people outside the church see this and decide to have nothing to do with Christ.
Which leads me to the only one problem I have with this podcast. It comes near the end of the podcast (1:58:15). A female listener asks how is she to rightly understand these three warning passages in light of the gospel:
- Matt 6:15 For if you do not forgive men their trespasses neither will the Father forgive yours.
- Matt 7:2 For in the judgement you pronounce you will be judged, the measure you use is the measure that will be used against you.
- Matt 10:33 Whoever denies me before men I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven.
I didn’t see any error in Pastor Fonville’s response to the listener’s question, but I thought his answer was inadequate because
- he didn’t consider the possibility that this woman had been taught confusing and defective ideas of forgiveness (see my post Three kinds of forgiveness)
- he didn’t consider that she might be dealing with a situation where she was rightly judging someone but her church was telling her that her judgement was wrong
- he didn’t consider the possibility that she might be rightly standing for Christ and Truth but was being told by her church that she was denying Christ by her attitude and behavior.
UPDATE: please read the comments below by Marissa Namir and Colleen Sharp who are on the Theology Gals team. They explain that they had to edit Ps Fonville’s interview in order to fit it into the podcast. And they’ve followed up with the woman who asked that question, and supported her to move to another church.
Pastor Fonville is the teaching elder at Paramount Church, Jacksonville Florida. See the church’s statement of faith here. In the podcast I’ve referred to in this post, Ps Fonville is being interviewed by Theology Gals. Theology Gals is a podcast by women, for women. They bring a biblical, reformed Christian perspective to the table. They discuss theology, studying God’s word and the importance of applying it to the Christian life.
Theology Gals interviewed Jeff Crippen a while ago. The episode was called Abuse and the Church.
Dr R Scott Clark’s interview with John Fonville:
Heidelcast 95: Reformation Happens
Dr R Scott Clark and his pastor, Chris Gordon, talk about the doctrine of justification: Justification — With Scott Clark
R Scott Clark interviewing Michael Horton in 2013 about the Lordship Salvation controversy:
The Lordship Controversy