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Some Thoughts on Lordship Salvation

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Originally delivered November 1990 at Evangelical Theological Society Annual Meetings in Kansas City, MO

The debate over Lordship salvation that has come to the fore again in recent years has raised anew theological issues that are as old as the Reformation and simply refuse to die. What is the nature of salvation? How is it appropriated? What is the evidence of the fact that salvation has come to the individual? How can the individual know that he is in fact saved? While there are many lenses through which these issues may be viewed, I focus in this paper upon the Reformers’ emphasis: justification by faith alone.

The most visible players in the current debate are Zane Hodges, former professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, and Dr. John MacArthur, pastor of Grace Church, Sun Valley, California and President of Master’s Seminary. Their two most prominent works on the subject, Absolutely Free and The Gospel According to Jesus, respectively, set the parameters of the present debate. As I read these works I have a great sense of disquiet by positions espoused by each side of the debate.

As this debate has developed the positions have become polarized, each side has hardened its rhetoric and turned a deaf ear to the concerns of the other position. Both have been guilty in greater or lesser degree of accusing the other position of heresy, and including in that charge individuals whose perspective is not that of either party, but who are uncomfortable with the way the debate is framed. In a very real sense as the debate has polarized, the center has collapsed, as far as the discussion is concerned.

Lordship teaching legitimately addresses a genuine problem in the evangelical community. However, in articulating the problem, rhetoric has been adopted and arguments have been so framed that the message which is being communicated so stridently overstates the case that true and regenerate but sensitive children of God are having grave doubts concerning their own salvation. The pastoral consequences of Lordship teaching are profound. A pastor in the Bay Area recently told me he has never had to counsel parishioners concerning the teaching of Professor Hodges, but has been besieged as a result of Dr. MacArthur’s teaching.

The Free Grace teaching emphasizes, legitimately, that assurance of salvation is clearly taught in the Scriptures. But in so doing these teachers have reduced faith to something less than the full orbed biblical teaching, and bifurcated justification and sanctification so as to lay the theological basis of antinomianism.

As the title of this paper indicates, my purpose is not to give a detailed exegetical or theological analysis of these two positions. Rather I intend to (1) look at the concerns of each position, (2) examine some of the theological substructure upon which pronouncements are based and (3) focus upon key elements which I believe have gotten lost in the debate. Additionally I attempt to give some historical perspective to the issues in this discussion.

In a very real sense each side has latched onto a different aspect of salvation, and is holding tightly to that emphasis, but in the process has let go of another equally important emphasis. Further, I believe both sides have abandoned key biblical and Reformation emphases at vital points. Professor Hodges has latched onto the issue of grace and the free offer of salvation as a gift simply to be received by faith. Any talk of works even in a post-conversion regenerate state smacks of a mixing of faith and works and ultimately of a compromise of the free offer of salvation, a compromise which sows the seeds of doubt and uncertainty of one’s eternal state. Dr. MacArthur has looked at the level of sanctification in the professing evangelical church and rightly concluded that something is desperately wrong. While millions claim to have been “born again” those whose lives are characterized by a spiritual maturity are few and far between. Coupling this phenomenon with the biblical teaching that if one is regenerate by the Holy Spirit his life will give evidence of his profession, he has concluded that many (most?) professing believers are not in fact regenerate. In a very real sense, I would argue, both sides are right in what they assert and wrong in what they deny!

Zane Hodges and Free Grace Teaching

Hodges argues that the gospel is a free gift offered without condition or precondition to those who will simply stretch out the empty hands of faith and receive it. Once one exercises faith, he is secure forever in his possession of that gift, even should he cease to believe. He presses the gift metaphor to the extreme, and as a gift received does not necessarily affect the being of the recipient, neither does the gift of salvation. Salvation is seen as a legal transaction, a judicial pronouncement, extrinsic to the life experience of the individual. Hodges speaks of regeneration, justification and other aspects of salvation to which the Scriptures testify, but these are not vitally related to the life experience of the believer on an existential level. Particularly he does not focus upon the supernatural character of regeneration nor on the reality of regeneration by the Holy Spirit which Scripture emphatically asserts takes place at salvation.

I have numerous problems with Hodges’ position as he develops it. First, Hodges is responding to a caricature of a position rather than fully grasping what the Lordship position is saying, due in part to his own presuppositions. He hears the Lordship position insisting on the necessity of good works and interprets this as making works a condition of salvation.1 I believe he has rightly put his finger upon a real problem in the articulation of the Lordship position, but he has wrongly diagnosed the problem (based upon what I believe is a faulty understanding of the nature of salvation) and is thus, in part, attacking a straw man. He has rightly heard assurance of salvation questioned, but he has wrongly and unbiblically posited a bifurcation between justification and sanctification to ensure certainty of the individual’s possession of salvation. Next, he sees faith as arising from within the individual, not as a gift arising from the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of the individual.2 With such an understanding it is easy to see how Hodges can assert that one can cease to believe and why assurance must be placed totally outside of the individual experience. A third problem, tied closely to the second is that salvation is seen as a bare legal transaction extrinsic to the experience of the individual. J. Gresham Machen has observed that when “the vital aspect of salvation is … separated from the forensic aspect, the consequences are serious indeed; what really happens is that the whole ethical character of Christianity is endangered or destroyed.”3 Professor Hodges is a mature, godly man, but his system pours the theological foundation for practical antinomianism.

In Hodges and in those who follow him there is an explicit disavowal of the concept of the witness of the Spirit in the life of the believer,4 as well as a decidedly “anti-mystic” tendency which, in effect, strips the Christian life of its relational qualities in order to raise the authority of the Scripture as that to which the individual can cling for assurance. The next problem is in fact the greatest, that is the reduction of faith to something close to bare mental assent. Dr. S. Lewis Johnson Jr. has noted that Hodges, “never carefully defines faith.”5 However, in his discussions of faith, his working definition seems often to have reference to assensus and possibly notitia but without fiducia, an assent to facts rather than a trust in a person. For example, he states of the woman at the well that she “received this saving truth in faith.”6 As his position is worked out he insists that faith can exist without commitment.7 If pressed, there is a danger of reducing salvation to a kind of magical incantation, or an ex opere operato whereby, for example, the individual repeats the prayer at the end of the Four Laws, with the barest assent to the gospel, and then is eternally saved, assured by the promises in the Scripture.

The Quest for Certainty of Assurance

A further problem I see in the “free grace” position revolves around the desire for absolute certainty that an individual possesses salvation. Dr. Bob Wilkin, in his paper “Assurance: That You May Know,”8 presented last year in New Orleans, repeatedly tries to demonstrate that a believer can have “100% certainty” that he is saved, without any doubt. This is also a key concern of Hodges. This is, I believe, the “burr under the saddle” of the free grace position. In this concern one hears the echoes of Calvin who states that faith “requires full and fixed certainty, such as men are wont to have from things experienced and proved,”9 While Wilkin and Hodges reflect the Reformers’ perspective that assurance of salvation is the birthright of believers, and is of the essence of faith, the concept of certainty and assurance adopted at least, by Wilkin, is not realistic. Seeing all certainty as of the same type, he indicates that the level of assurance which the believer may have is akin to the certainty he may have that 2+2=4, mathematical certainty, or the certainty that the sun is shining. That certainty is based on the objective testimony of the Word of God. He bases this position on texts such as 1 John 5:11-13.10 Such a view is at best, I believe, simplistic. Certainty falls into several categories. (1) Mathematical certainty: In the abstract theoretical and ideal world, we can know things with absolute certainty. There are no contingencies to qualify a reality, thus, there can be certain knowledge in the truest sense. (2) Empirical certainty: This is demonstrated by the scientific method in the real world, as opposed to the ideal world of mathematics. (3) Legal certainty: This involves proof by evidence, given by witnesses. It, however, admits the possibility of error depending upon the truthfulness and credibility of the witnesses. (4) Moral certainty: This is the realm of psychological certainty.11 It is obvious that nearly all human knowledge outside the realm of mathematics fails the test of absolute certainty. Likewise, salvation is not something which can be analyzed in the test tube, thus it does not fall in the realm of scientific certainty. Salvation falls into the realm of contingent reality, the variety of which cannot be tested. Thus, it is impossible from a psychological perspective to achieve the mathematical level of certainty for which Wilkin seeks. Rightly, he posits the ground of certainty outside the individual, on the basis of the objective Word of God. But he neglects the means of certainty, which I believe must take into account the subjective psychological factors of human existence. He posits certain assurance of salvation without recourse to psychological realities, ideal mathematical certainty for an internal psychological reality.

Calvin sees no value in uncertainty in our relationship to God. Rather it is a clear implication of the good news that there comes a relief from uncertainty. Medieval Catholicism had denied the believer any certainty in salvation, rather, it had suspended assurance on final judgment, thereby hoping to encourage good works. Calvin on the other hand argues forcefully and at great length against those who would shake the believer’s confidence that he possesses salvation.12 From that assurance, Calvin believed, issues forth a gratitude toward God which is based upon heartfelt love. This assurance for Calvin, as for Hodges, is founded in the promises of Scripture, yet there is a subtle, but profound difference in emphasis. In Calvin, the promises of Scripture are a crucial element but they are only one part of a complex of assurance, for Hodges and Wilkin the promises appear to be the totality of the basis of assurance.

I do not in the least want to minimize the objective testimony of the Scripture. But I would insist with Calvin, that a key aspect of assurance of salvation must be seen in the context of the believer’s personal relationship with God and the “Abba, Father” of the Spirit’s prompting.13

John MacArthur and Lordship teaching

As I consider the position espoused by Dr. MacArthur, I find myself in substantial theological agreement with the position he espouses. With MacArthur’s presentation in particular and the Lordship teaching generally, the areas of disquiet are more subtle than with the free grace teaching. First, I am troubled by the tone of the discussion.14 There is a hardness, an absoluteness, in the form of statements which preclude discussion. The charge of heresy is too freely resorted to, and that in broad brush strokes, without careful analysis of broader contexts. The tone of the discussion condemns out of hand any other perspective or emphasis, and tends to lump all opposition into a single category.15 The second area of disquiet comes not so much from what is said, but from what is not said. As I indicated, I find myself in substantial agreement with MacArthur’s position, but it is not a complete exposition of the doctrine of salvation. It is, however, being read as such, and as such it presents an unbalanced view of what the gospel is all about. My third area of disquiet is the implied foundation beneath the rhetoric. I recognize that MacArthur is writing to sound an alarm, and I substantially agree with his analysis. However, the rhetoric’s foundation if taken at face value, opens the door for serious theological problems, some of which cut at the very heart of the Protestant faith.

The Nature of Faith

This question has been discussed at length by S. Lewis Johnson in his article “How Faith Works” in Christianity Today.16 In that article he explores the nature of faith as it relates to the present debate. There is little of substance that I could add to his excellent treatment of the subject.

There are, however, several observations which I would like to make. First, from a technical perspective, Deissmann in Light From the Ancient East gives several convincing quotations from the papyri to demonstrate that pisteuein ei" auton meant “surrender” or “submission to.” A slave was sold into the name of the god of the temple; i.e., to be a temple servant.17 G. Milligan, agreeing with Deissmann, asserts that this papyri usage of eiV auton is also found regularly in the New Testament. “Thus, to believe on or to be baptized into the name of Jesus means to renounce self and to consider oneself the lifetime servant of Jesus.”18 Further, the phrase, ei" to onoma is a legal formula in the Hellenistic world having reference to a legal transfer of ownership.19 Such evidence indicates that whatever faith is, it involves commitment. The analogy could be made to the wedding ceremony which by design establishes a new and ongoing lifetime relationship.

However, having made this observation, we must be careful not to quantify faith, nor to psychoanalyze it in too much depth. The very tone of the discussion has the effect of making faith the ground rather than the means of salvation. When this is done, wittingly or unwittingly, the net effect is to become preoccupied with faith itself rather than the object of faith. Faith itself does not save. It is the object of faith, Jesus Christ, who saves. When faith becomes the object of reflection, questions such as, “Have I really believed? Do I have the right kind of faith?” etc. can assail the confidence of the believer. J.I. Packer has noted:

One of the unhealthiest features of protestant theology today is its preoccupation with faith, that is, viewed man centeredly as a state of existential commitment. Inevitably, this preoccupation diverts thought away from faith’s object… Though the Reformers said much about faith…their interest was not of the modern kind. It was not subject centered, but object centered, not psychological but theological, not anthropocentric, but christocentric.20

Earl Radmacher has raised a similar concern suggesting that in the context of the current discussion “faith is more analysis and scrutinizing than the object of faith.”21

In Scripture we find that our Lord honored several kinds of faith as saving faith, e.g. the faith of the woman with an issue of blood whose faith appears tinged with magical superstition. She wanted only to touch the hem of the Lord’s garment. He also honored the faith of the man who, torn with doubt cried, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” As Calvin said, “even right faith is always surrounded by error and unbelief.22 He also notes: “When even the least drop of faith is instilled in our minds, we begin to contemplate God’s face, peaceful and calm and gracious towards us.”23 In so saying he asserts that great faith is not needed for salvation, the smallest amount will save.

Several recent studies have traced the development of English speaking Calvinism and noted that in both the Puritan and in the Scottish traditions that the doctrine of faith underwent a startling evolution beginning with Beza and continuing into the early seventeenth century, at which point the doctrine was virtually indistinguishable from the doctrine of faith espoused by Arminius!24 Whereas Calvin speaks of initial saving faith as being a passive knowledge of God,25 in the later theologians, faith became activistic and voluntaristic, a matter of the will rather than a matter of the heart, commitment rather than trust.26

The Doctrine of Justification

The doctrine of justification by faith alone is, according to Luther, the center of Paul’s theology. Calvin saw the doctrine as the “principal hinge by which religion is supported.”27 It was this rediscovery of the judicial/forensic nature of justification that gave birth to Protestantism and delivered the church from the Augustinian-Roman Catholic concept of justification as infused righteousness. As important as was the doctrine to the first generation of Reformers, in succeeding generations as the debate with Catholicism continued on a variety of topics,28 justification ceased to occupy the central place of preeminence in Reformed circles particularly. While there was a theoretical commitment to the primacy of the doctrine, theological structures were erected which obscured the vital function of the doctrine of justification by faith alone in the ongoing Christian life.29 Particularly, as English speaking Calvinism progressively embraced a covenant system which obscured the emphasis of the Reformers and radically changed the concept of saving faith from one of passive knowledge to a voluntaristic act of the will,30 justification ceased to function as the balm for the troubled soul.31

MacArthur’s delineation of Lordship Salvation adopts these same themes that are found in English Puritanism and Scottish Calvinism. While from a creedal perspective justification sola fide is still asserted, the psychological dynamic at work is far from that of Calvin and Luther. It has more in common with Medieval Catholicism than with the Reformers. MacArthur states “God through his grace declares believers righteous--and makes them righteous--by imputing the righteousness of Christ to them.”32 MacArthur and those who are espousing Lordship salvation, by stressing works as the evidence of a regenerate life, I believe, have de facto slipped back into a concept of justification as infused righteousness which finds assurance of salvation in one’s works.33 This is the point to which Hodges has reacted so strongly.

What I am arguing is that if we look in back of much of the rhetoric concerning the status of works, we do not find a full-orbed Reformation understanding of the nature of justification. For example, MacArthur states:

“The Bible teaches clearly that the evidence of God’s work in a life is the inevitable fruit of transformed behavior (1 John 3:10).Faith that does not result in righteous living is dead and cannot save (James 2:14-17). Professing Christians utterly lacking the fruit of true righteousness will find no biblical basis for assurance they are saved (1 John 2:4).34

On another occasion he contends, “When a man obeys God he gives the only possible evidence that in his heart he believes God.”35 Elsewhere, MacArthur notes that since salvation is a work of God, it is God who produces the fruit of salvation in us, noting that any professed salvation which lacks any of the elements of salvation is to be found wanting from a biblical perspective. The practical effect of such teaching is to suspend assurance of salvation (not salvation itself) upon performance--works. The net effect is to destroy the confidence that the believer is commanded in Scripture to have before God.36

The dynamic of assurance espoused by Dr. MacArthur has its roots deep in the tradition of the Puritans and the Scottish Calvinists. The Scots referred to this process as the Practical Syllogism. The Puritans called it the reflex action.37 By whatever name, the process is the same. The believer is denied direct access to the Savior for assurance. Instead he must look inside and complete the syllogism. “The Scripture tells me that he who believes shall be saved. If upon examining myself I find fruits of righteousness in my life, I may then complete the syllogism ‘But I believe, therefore I shall be saved’.”38 However, such a doctrine lays the ground of assurance solely within ourselves “causing the believer to rely more on his own works for assurance, than on the work of Christ on our behalf.”39 The ultimate result of such teaching is uncertainty.

This position is what Berkhof has labeled “pietistic nomism” which is in opposition to the Reformers and the apostles, and from an existential psychological perspective operates in the same manner as does Augustinian justification.40 Berkhof has noted that the Reformers in opposition to Rome sometimes stressed assurance as the most important element of faith. Both Calvin and the Heidelberg catechism saw assurance as belonging to the essence of faith. While,

Pietistic Nomism asserted that assurance does not belong to the very being, but only the well-being of faith; and that it can be secured, except by special revelation, only by continuous and conscious introspection. All kinds of “marks of the spiritual life” derived not from Scripture but from the lives of approved Christians became the standard of self-examination. The outcome proved, however, that this method was not calculated to produce assurance, but rather to lead to everlasting doubt, confusion and uncertainty.41

Calvin similarly observed that “faith implies certainty.”42 He observed of those who deny this truth:

Also there are very many who so conceive of God’s mercy that they receive almost no consolation from it. They are constrained with miserable anxiety at the same time as they are in doubt with whether he will be merciful to them because they confine that very kindness of which they seem utterly persuaded within too narrow limits. For among themselves they ponder that it is indeed great and abundant, shed upon many, available and ready for all; but uncertain whether it will ever come to them, or rather they will come to it.. . Therefore it does not so much strengthen the spirit in secure tranquility as trouble it with uneasy doubting. But there is a far different feeling of full assurance that in the Scriptures is always attributed to faith. It is this which puts beyond doubt God’s goodness clearly manifested for us [Col. 2:2; 1 Thess. 1:5; cf. Heb. 6:11 and 10:22] But this cannot happen without our truly feeling its sweetness and experiencing it ourselves. For this reason, the apostle derives confidence from faith and from confidence, in turn, boldness. For he states: “Through Christ we have boldness and access with confidence which is through faith in him [Eph. 3:12 p. cf. Vg.] By these words he obviously shows that there is no right faith except when we dare with tranquil hearts to stand in God’s sight. This boldness arises only out of a sure confidence in the divine benevolence and salvation. This is so true that the word faith is often used for confidence.43

Likewise McGrath has observed that “For the Reformers it was necessary to know that one was a Christian, that the Christian life had indeed begun, that one had been forgiven and accepted by God--and on the basis of that conviction, the living of the Christian life, with all its opportunities, responsibilities and challenges could proceed.”44

As noted, from an existential perspective, basing assurance of salvation upon works signals a methodological retreat to an Augustinian understanding of justification as infused righteousness, which opens the door to a host of problems. Richard Lovelace, speaking to this unwitting exchange within the evangelical tradition, has observed:

Augustine’s teaching on infused grace ultimately placed an unbearable burden on the conscience which fully comes into the light. The fully enlightened conscience cannot be pacified by any amount of grace inherent in our lives, since that grace always falls short of the perfection demanded by God for our justification (Gal. 3:10; Jas. 2:10) Such a conscience is forced to draw back into the relative darkness of self-deception. Either it manufactures a fictitious righteousness in heroic works of ascetic piety, or it redefines sin in shallow terms so that it can lose the consciousness of its presence.” 45

Calvin speaks to the same issue of confidence before God based upon the individual believer’s “essential righteousness” noting that such an approach cannot but “… deprive them [believers] of a lively experience of Christ’s grace.”46 The net effect is “To enfeeble our assurance of salvation, to waft us above the clouds in order to prevent our calling upon God with quiet hearts after we, assured of expiation, have laid hold upon grace.”47

Justification and Sanctification According to Free Grace & Lordship

The Free Grace position, along with much of evangelical Christianity, has succumbed to an unbiblical bifurcation between justification and sanctification. While justification is by faith alone, the Christian life is variously viewed as being accomplished by works, or as beginning sometime after salvation and coming through an experience, a second blessing, a dedication, or some such thing. Zane Hodges has constructed a theology of inheritance based upon the concept of being an heir with Christ. For him, it is the hope of reward that serves as the sole basis and motivating factor for Christian growth.48 Specifically, he sees no necessary relationship between the salvation of an individual and any reflection of God’s character. This he labels as works salvation.

While Hodges’ position on sanctification is, I believe, fatally flawed, Lordship teaching on this point also poses serious problems. Lordship teaching has rightly denied that there is a temporal bifurcation between justification and sanctification. As noted above, while there has been a practical fusion of justification and sanctification, paradoxically, justification has been stripped down to a mere legal pronouncement, extrinsic to the individual’s experience, which in and of itself has no direct existential ramifications. It is positional truth gone to seed, theoretical and abstract. Ken Sarles, for example, accuses Alister McGrath of betraying the Reformed understanding of justification because he refers to justification as an experience of God’s grace.49 While it is true that justification in the strict sense is a positional truth, it is not true that the truth is to have no existential effect in life. A judge’s pronouncement declaring an accused felon of not guilty, while forensic, has an immediate existential effect. He can walk out of the courtroom a free and happy man who does not have to fear each time he sees a policeman. Paul himself declares that the effect of justification is peace with God (Rom 5:1), a peace which is foundational to progressive sanctification rather than a part of it.50

Lordship teachers speak about salvation being more than justification. In this they are accurate. They do speak of regeneration in particular and salvation in general as the work of God, but this is not the focus of their attention. That attention is focused upon what the believer’s life looks like (obedience). In my judgment, the tone of the discussion involves more lip service than true commitment to the implications of the doctrine of justification, implications which include a commitment to the grace of God as the factor which transforms the believer from the inside out.51

The contemporary advocates of Lordship salvation by following the Puritan teaching regarding sanctification and assurance, are also unwittingly compromising the cardinal Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone by suspending assurance of salvation at the time of belief, and in practice basing assurance of salvation upon works. While this can be an inducement to good works, it is neither the perspective of the Reformers or the Scriptures.

Concluding Observations

One of the consistent themes of the New Testament is that when one trusts Jesus Christ as Savior, he is immediately transferred into the Kingdom of God. More specifically, he becomes a son of God, in the full legal sense of the term. The Scripture is filled with passages which speak of the assurance and comfort that the believer is to find in that relationship.52 When performance is injected into the assurance equation inevitably it produces an element of fear. This type of fear is unhealthy because it implicitly (albeit unwittingly) makes our performance/works the basis of our daily relationship with God our Father.

Good works, righteousness, and holiness, are the goal and norm of the Christian life. But there are two means to achieve the goal of “good works.” One way is to use fear as a motivating factor, a control factor. This will get external results, usually quickly. But it fails to advance our spiritual lives because it traffics in condemnation and guilt, which Paul says are things of the past for the believer (Rom. 8:1). So from a Biblical perspective this is unacceptable. The other motivating factor is love, unconditional love and acceptance which the believer experiences in the depth of his being. That acceptance from God which says He is not angry with us, that He gave His Son to die in order that we might become His children. This type of love is transformational. As the believer senses his/her acceptance by and the love of his Father, he/she responds in turn out of a heart full of love and gratitude. This, I am convinced is the true and adequate motive for service to God.

This is also the perspective of Calvin who argued that for salvation one needed to be pointed toward Christ. For Calvin, repentance was the sanctification process, not a precondition to it. He notes “…a man cannot seriously apply himself to repentance without knowing himself to belong to God.”53 Likewise, he contends “no one is truly persuaded that he himself belongs to God unless he has first recognized God’s grace.”54

The English speaking Calvinistic tradition emphasized works as the basis for assurance and down played building the Christian life upon his acceptance before God. The believer was cut off in their minds from any direct assurance, rather this tradition taught that assurance was to be discovered through the reflex action or the practical syllogism. Bell has observed that in the Scottish tradition it was clearly taught that the Christian is justified by a direct act of faith which apprehends the imputed righteousness of Christ. However, knowledge that he has done so is to be seen only indirectly in light of self-examination. This “reflex act of faith” was said to be more spiritual than the simple direct apprehension of Christ as Savior.55 This perspective stands in stark contrast with the mentality of the early Reformers. As Packer has observed:

The heart of the biblical gospel was to them [the reformers] God’s free gift of righteousness and justification… This justification was to them not a theological speculation but a religious reality [an experience], apprehended through prayer by revelation from God via the Bible.56

Calvin insisted upon the “witness of the Spirit” as a vital aspect in the assurance of salvation. This emphasis has been forsaken at least in the rhetoric of Lordship teaching. This “witness” involves a personal communion with God. Isaac Dorner, reflecting Calvin, argued that spiritual truth made a demand on the soul if certainty were to be attained. Thus, certainty and assurance of spiritual truth were qualitatively different in nature than certainty of all other knowledge. Faith became the principium cognescendi. This faith was a product of the personal experience of the presence of God and the medium of His presence. “ … Faith has a knowledge of being known by God, and of its existence because of God, and in such a way that it knows God as the one self-verifying and self-subsisting fact…”57 Thus faith offers a divinely assured certainty since it involves a genuine reciprocal divine communion attested in the human soul. This is not mysticism in the classic sense of the term. Rather God, as a person reaches out to directly touch the soul of the individual and give certain knowledge of Himself.

The “witness of the Spirit” is explicitly taught by Paul in Romans 8:14-16, “Because those who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave to fear again, but you received a spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba Father.’ The Spirit Himself testifies with our Spirit that we are God’s children.” The Apostle John likewise states, “We know that we live in him and He in us because He has given us of His Spirit.” (1 Jn. 4:13 NIV)

While I applaud the Lordship position in its insistence that the believer in Jesus Christ will show by his life that he is a believer, the rhetoric I hear is akin to a General George Patton slapping the G.I. who was hospitalized for nerves during WWII. Lordship teachers appear to be forcing all teaching on salvation through one grid, discipleship. This, I would argue, the Scripture does not do. I would argue that many (most?) who come to Christ are bruised, battered and shattered emotionally, as a result of the ravages of sin, both personal and corporate. They need spiritual and emotional healing, a healing that goes far deeper than most of the intellectualized theology which focuses upon positional truth as abstract and unrelated to the life of the believer. The lack of spiritual maturity in the lives of professing believers may be the result of rebellion, it may indeed be an evidence of the fact that a professing believer is in fact unregenerate, or it may in fact be a result of the deep seated psychological problems/needs which can be truly solved by learning how the believer’s identification and oneness with Christ can existentially transform his/her daily existence. I find it significant that the Apostle Peter (2 Peter 1:3-11), when referring to believers who were evidently not displaying Christian grace in their lives, did not call their salvation into question, rather he noted that they were, “nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins.” (2 Pet. 1:9).58 This condition arises when justification is separated from sanctification and made to be unimportant, abstract or theoretical.

Not too many months ago I was having lunch with a pastor of an evangelical church in the San Francisco area. In the course of the discussion he commented to the effect. “Justification by faith is a very abstract and theoretical doctrine. I believe it, but it doesn’t have any relevance to my daily life.” This attitude is typical, but compare this to Calvin: “…man is justified by faith alone and simple pardon; nevertheless actual holiness of life is not separated from free imputation of righteousness.”59 Similarly Luther sees positional truth as vital to the spiritual health of the individual. “This imputation is not something of no consequence but is greater than the whole world and all the holy angels.”60 In effect Luther says that the believer, “takes the risk of living before God on no other basis than the righteousness of Christ which God imputes to him.”61


1 Zane Hodges, The Gospel Under Siege, (Dallas: Rendicion Viva, 1986) 9.

2 Hodges does not to my knowledge, specifically assert this in any one place, but from my experience as a student in his classes and from personal conversations with him, this is I believe a fair statement of his position.

3 J. Gresham Machen, What is Faith?, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974) 165.

4 Romans 8:14. The central passage upon which the doctrine of the witness of the Spirit is built is said to refer to the fact that the Spirit bears witness with our spirit to God, not that the Spirit bears witness to our spirit in any sort of experiential way. Again, I am not aware that Hodges has put this in print, but Dr. Bob Wilkin, President of the Grace Evangelical Society made this very point in the interaction after his paper, “Assurance: That You May Know” delivered at the National ETS meetings in New Orleans, November, 1990. While it is true that the sun prefix normally denotes association, with marturew it simply strengthens the force of the verb. See BAGD 2nd ed .

5 S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., “How Faith Works,” Christianity Today, September 22, 1989, 23.

6 Zane Hodges, Absolutely Free, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989) 42. The point here is that he describes faith as trust in facts, rather than trust in a person who was in fact in her presence. Concerning faith, Millard Erickson has noted: “…the type of faith necessary for salvation involves both believing that and believing in, or assenting to facts and trusting in a person. It is vital to keep these two together. Sometimes in the history of Christian thought one of the aspects of faith has been so strongly emphasized as to make the other seem insignificant.” (Christian Theology, [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989] 940)

7 See, for example, Gospel Under Siege, 14.

8 Delivered at the national Evangelical Theological Society meetings in New Orleans, November, 1990.

9 Calvin, Institutes 3:2:15.

10 “And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you that you who believe in the name of the Son of God may know (eidhte) you have eternal life.”

11 “Psychological certainty may be justified or unjustified, as in the belief that the moon reflects light or is made of green cheese. Propositional certainty is never justified or unjustified; it simply obtains or does not obtain, someone must have made sure or become justifiably certain of the proposition. Thus certainty of propositions requires psychological certainty plus its justification.” [Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (New York: Macmillian, 1967) 2:67. See also Thomas C. Oden, The Living God, (Harper & Row: San Francisco) 382-404., and Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics, (Grand Rapids:Eerdmans, 1988) 195-198.

12 E.g. Institutes, 3:2:40.

13 E.g. see Calvin, Institutes, 3:2:39.

14 When I make this comment, I do not mean to imply that a similar charge cannot be leveled against the free grace position. Hodges particularly is quick to label as heresy those who espouse a theology of salvation which sees a necessary connection between faith and life.

15 In fact, MacArthur represents a very specific strain of English Calvinism, which is at odds with the Geneva Reformer at key points in this debate.

16 S. Lewis Johnson Jr., “How Faith Works,” Christianity Today, September 22, 1989, 21-25.

17 Adolph Deissmann, Light From The Ancient East, (Grand Rapids: Baker reprint 1978) 323.

18 Dana and Manty, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, (New York: MacMillian, 1955) p. 105.

19 Deissmann, Light, 121.

20 J.I. Packer, “Sole Fide: The Reformed Doctrine of Justification, in Soli Deo Gloria, (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1976) 20.

21 Earl D. Radmacher, “First Response to ‘Faith According to the Apostle James’ by John F. MacArthur, Jr.” JETS, 33:1, (March 1990), 41.

22 Calvin, Institutes, 3:4:2.

23 Ibid., 3:2:19.

24 M. Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology, (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1985) 11; R.T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979) 142-150, cf. 65.

25 Kendall synthesizes Calvin’s understanding of Faith: “The position which Calvin wants pre-eminently to establish (and fundamentally assumes) is that faith is knowledge. Calvin notes some biblical synonyms for faith, all simple nouns such as ‘recognition’ (agnito) and ‘knowledge’ (scientia). He describes faith as illumination (illuminatio), knowledge as opposed to the submission of our feeling (cognitio, non sensus nostri submissio) certainty (certitudino), a firm conviction (solida persuasio), assurance (securitas), firm assurance (solida securitas) and full assurance (plena securitas), p. 19.

26 Bell, 8.

27 Calvin, Institutes, 3:11:1.

28 E.g., transubstantiation, marks of the church, authority of the Scriptures.

29 See M. Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology, R.T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, Brian G. Armstrong, Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy, (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1969)

30 “Scottish theology … gradually came to teach that faith is primarily active, centered in the will or heart, and that assurance is not of the essence of faith, but is a fruit of faith, and is to be gathered through self-examination and syllogistic deduction, thereby placing the grounds of assurance intra nos, within ourselves… . Calvin’s view is eclipsed to such a degree, that it is actually viewed as nothing other than a part of the Antinomian heresy… The national Church of Scotland officially condemned the view that assurance is of the essence of faith.” [Bell, 8.]

I do not mean to imply that there is no active element to faith. Rather that the later expositions were persistently one-sided stressing the activity of the will. While a creedal commitment to the doctrine of faith as a gift of God was affirmed, the excessive stress of the human aspect of faith had the effect of obscuring the grace aspect of faith.

31 See Bell, 7-11. In fact, in several instances theologians who rediscovered Calvin’s emphasis upon the unconventionality of God’s grace were regarded as antinomian and on occasion convicted as heretics, e.g. John Cotton and John McCleod Campbell!

32 MacArthur, Gospel According to Jesus, 181. Italics added. My point in this citation is to show that the rhetoric he adopts is so strident that it evidences, perhaps unwittingly, a fusion of justification and sanctification, or a return to the Augustinian concept of justification.

33 Bell summarizing Calvin notes: “If we look to ourselves, we encounter doubt, which leads to despair, and finally our faith is battered down and blotted out. Arguing that our assurance rests in our union with Christ, Calvin stresses that contemplation of Christ brings assurance of salvation, but self-contemplation is ‘sure damnation’. For this reason, then, our safest course is to distrust self and look at Christ.” (p. 28)

34 MacArthur, 23 .

35 Ibid., 174 (quoting Vine).

36 MacArthur goes on to state: “We must remember above all that salvation is a sovereign work of God. Biblically it is defined by what it produces not by what one does to get it. Works are not necessary to earn salvation. But true salvation wrought by God will not fail to produce good works that are its fruit (cf. Matt. 7:17). We are God’s workmanship. No aspect of salvation is merited by human works (Titus 3:5-7). Thus, salvation cannot be defective in any dimension. As part of his saving work, God will produce repentance, faith, sanctification, yieldedness, obedience, and ultimately glorification. Since he is not dependent upon human effort in producing those elements, an experience that lacks any of them cannot be the saving work of God.” (p. 33.)

“The test of true faith is this: does it produce obedience? If not it is not saving faith. Disobedience is unbelief. Real faith obeys.” (47).

Contrast this with Calvin: “Indeed, if we should have to judge from our works how the Lord feels toward us, for my part, I grant that we can in no attain to it by conjecture. But since faith ought to correspond to a simple and free promise, no place for doubting is left. For with what sort of confidence will we be armed, I pray, if we reason that God is favorable to us provided our purity of life so merit it?” 3:2:38.

37 Contrast this to Calvin who states unequivocally that we know that we are saved by a direct act of faith, rather than a reflex act! E.g. Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, (London: James Clark, 1961) 130-131.

38 Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology, 82.

39 Ibid.98.

40 “He does not conceive justification in a purely forensic sense. While it includes the forgiveness of sins, this is not its main element. In justification God not merely declares but makes the sinner righteous by transforming his inner nature. He fails to distinguish clearly between justification and sanctification and really subsumes the latter under the former.” Louis Berkhof, History of Christian Doctrines, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1937) 207.

41 Lewis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids:Eerdmans 1979), 508. With reference to Special Revelation as a basis of assurance, Ken Sarles, in a debate with Bob Wilkin at Dallas Seminary in April of 1990 said “that the only way anyone could be absolutely certain of their salvation (prior to death or the rapture) was if the Bible clearly and irrefutably indicated that they specifically had eternal life. No general reference to believers in Christ having eternal life would provide such certainty because it is impossible, he argued, to know with certainty that one is a believer. He argued that since no one alive today can find his or her name in Scriptures, absolute certainty of salvation is no longer possible.” (Wilkin, 2) Compare this to Calvin: (3:2:40) “The alleged uncertainty as to whether we will persevere to the end.

Not content to undermine the firmness of faith in one way alone, they assail it from another quarter Thus they say that even though according to our present state of righteousness we can judge our possession of the grace of God’ the knowledge of final perseverance remains in suspense. A fine confidence of salvation is left to us., if by moral conjecture we judge that at the present moment we are in grace, but we know not what will become of us tomorrow! The apostle speaks far otherwise: “I am surely convinced that neither angels, nor powers… will separate us from the love by which the Lord embraces us in Christ [Rom 8:38-39]. They try to escape with the trifling solution, prating that the apostle had his assurance from a special revelation. But they are held too tightly to escape. For there he is discussing those benefits which come to all believers in common faith, not from those things he exclusively experiences.” (italics added.)

42 Institutes, 3:2:15.

43 Ibid., italics added. Significantly, this is exactly the trap into which those who claimed the name of Calvin fell. With their emphasis on limited atonement they could never be sure that Christ had died for them, hence they were forced to look inside rather than rely upon the promises of Scripture. But even here there was no peace because the doctrine of temporary faith which developed stole the hope of assurance by injecting the question of one’s election into the equation. “Perhaps the “fruit” I see in my life is not that of regeneration but the pre-regenerate work of the Spirit, from which I may fall away.” In San Diego in 1989, Dr. MacArthur was asked when a believer could be assured of his salvation, his reply was that such assurance could be had only after death.

44 Alister McGrath, “Justification, the New Ecumenical Debate,” Themelios, 1988, 145. He continues: “Being justified on the basis of the external righteousness of Christ meant all that needed to be done for an individual’s justification had been done by God--and so a believer could rest assured that he had been accepted and forgiven. The Reformers could not see how Trent ensured that the individual was accepted, despite being a sinner. For if the believer possessed perfect righteousness which ensured his justification, he could no longer be a sinner--and yet experience (as well as the penitential system of the Catholic church!) suggested that believers continually sinned. For the Reformers, the Tridentine doctrine of justification was profoundly inadequate, in that it could not account for the fact that the believer was really accepted before God while still remaining a sinner. The Reformers were convinced that Trent taught a profoundly inadequate doctrine of justification as a result. The famous phrase, due to Luther, sums up this precious insight with brilliance and verbal economy: simul iustus et peccator, ‘righteous and a sinner at the same time.’ Luther was one of the few theologians ever to have grasped and articulated the simple fact that God loves us and accepts us just as we are--not as we might be, or will be, but as he finds us.”

45 Richard Lovelace, The Dynamics of Spiritual Life, (Downers Grove:IVP, 1979) 99.

46 Institutes, 3:11:5.

47 Ibid., 3:11:11 (speaking of Osiander).

48 See The Hungry Inherit, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1972). It must be noted that Calvin saw rewards as a motivating factor in salvation. Institutes, 3:2:16.

49 Ken Sarles, Review of Justification by Faith by Alister McGrath, Bibliotheca Sacra, April-June 1990, 239.

50 Concerning the experience of justification, Machen (What is Faith?, 171) states: “we are opposed with all our might to the substitution of “experience” as the seat of authority in religion for the Word of God: but the Holy Spirit in the individual soul does bear witness, we think, to the truthfulness of the Word, and does bear witness to the saving efficacy of the Cross, When he cries “Abba, Father” in our hearts. That cry, we think, is a true echo of the blessed sentence of acquittal, the blessed “justification,” which a sinner receives when Christ is his advocate at the judgment seat of God.

Likewise J.N. Darby, summarizing the comments of Peter Martyr, observed concerning Romans 5: “‘For Paul wished to intimate that the pious could not be frustrated in their hope.’ There stating that it could not depend on works, for they were uncertain, he says, ‘But that it is true and certain, Paul shews, not by one word only, but by three very significant ones; for, first, he uses the word, knowing (sciendi), which indicates a certain knowledge (cognitionem) of a thing. He makes mention also of making a boast, which has no place with holy and prudent men, unless concerning those blessings which they certainly and firmly possess. Lastly, he adds, that hope maketh not ashamed; but, deservedly, he very often brings in the persuasion of certainty, because hence especially consolation is to be sought in affliction.’“ (J.N. Darby, “The Doctrine of the Church of England Compared …”, The Collected Writings of J.N. Darby, vol. 3 [ed. William Kelly] (Kingston-on-Thames: Stow Hill Bible and Tract Depot, 1964), 15-16.

51 Again we see in Lordship teaching the perspective of Federal theology, which in a very real sense reduces the grace of God to a mercantile transaction. C.G. M’Crie commenting on the The Sum of Saving Knowledge, the classic presentation of Scottish Federalism, based upon the Westminster Confession, noted:

…Federalism, as developed in the Sum, is objectionable in form and application. Detailed descriptions of redemption as a bargain entered into between the First and Second persons of the Trinity, in which conditions were laid down, promises held out, and pledges given; the reducing of salvation to a mercantile arrangement between God and the sinner, in which the latter signifies contentment to enter into covenant and the former intimates agreement to entertain a relation of grace, so that ever after the contented, contracting party can say, ‘Lord, let it be a bargain,’--such presentation have obviously a tendency to reduce the gospel of the grace of God to the level of a legal compact entered into between two independent and, so far as right or status is concerned, two equal parties. This blessedness of the mercy seat is in danger of being lost sight of in the bargaining of the market-place; the simple story of salvation is thrown into the crucible of the logic of schools and it emerges in the form of a syllogism. (Confessions, p. 72, quoted by Bell, 106)

52 For example see: Romans 8, 1 John.

53 Institutes, 3:3:1.

54 Ibid, 3:3:2.

55 Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology, 82.

56 Packer, 11-12.

57 Isaac August Dorner, A System of Christian Doctrine, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1897) 2:175.

58 With reference to these verses Calvin does not allow the use of the look inside as a means to certainty. Rather he argues that “it means that one’s calling (which is itself certain) is confirmed ‘by a holy life.’“ [Bell 28] This is in stark opposition to the Scots and the Puritans who used this passage to teach the practical syllogism. The practical application of these verses was, for Calvin with reference to others rather than with reference to the individual.

59 Institutes, 3:3:1.

60 Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (229): Righteousness is not a quality of man as philosophy and scholastic theology determined by it, thought it to be; rather it consists of being righteous only through God’s gracious imputation of Christ’s righteousness, that is a righteousness outside of man (Luther’s phrase is the alien righteousness of Christ)…The righteousness of the sinner is, accordingly, not an active righteousness, but a “passive” righteousness which he can only “suffer” and receive…When Christ makes himself one with man, this “alien righteousness becomes man’s own and makes him righteous before God. A man lives before God throughout his whole life on the basis of this “alien” and “passive” righteousness--not only at the moment he begins to be a Christian…This means passive righteousness is not more and more replaced and limited by an active righteousness, the alien righteousness is not more and more replaced by man’s own. Man including the Christian man, remains a sinner his whole life long and cannot possibly live and have worth before God except through this alien righteousness, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. This takes place in the daily forgiveness of sins.

“The fact that God declares the unrighteous to be righteous transcends all human understanding and reason. God’s judgment contradicts the judgment of man and each man’s judgment of himself. A man condemned as a sinner both by himself and by other people is declared righteous. (230)

61 Paul Althaus, The Theology of Luther (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1966) 230.

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation)