Soteriology: The Doctrine of Salvation – Part 7
by Jonathan Hamilton
This has been a hotly debated area in North American evangelicalism. It has been very unhealthy sometimes. It’s common for individuals in this debate to be placed in either the “lordship” camp or the “free grace” camp. This is an oversimplification that doesn’t represent the various positions. Here are some of the positions:
DECISIONISM: not a formally articulated position, but the way that many churches and preachers operate. Decisionism maintains that assurance of conversion comes from whatever act you did at the time of conversion. It’s particularly prevalent with childhood conversions, but not exclusively so.
FREE GRACE (Zane Hodges): probably the most extreme of the positions that someone is willing to publicly defend. Repentance is believing on Christ. When you believe, you are repenting. “Lord” refers only to the deity of Jesus. Salvation is distinct from discipleship, and you can be a committedly carnal Christian with no distinguishment from the world, never experience divine chastening, and still go to Heaven when you die.
PERFECTIONISM: the other extreme from Free Grace. This position views salvation as the outcome of a process which may include sinless perfection in this life. In many versions, entire sanctification is tied to some second work of grace, such as some subsequent baptism of the Holy Spirit separate from conversion. Some believe you can lose your salvation. You cannot claim that Jesus is your Lord if you are walking in disobedience. For Jesus to be your Lord entails perfect obedience. If you are not perfect, or on your way, there is reason to question your profession of faith. Charles Finney was the most extreme example of this. You were either perfect or lost, there really was no middle ground. You could lose and regain your salvation. It’s like a switch you can flip up and down your whole life, and maybe even in eternity, because you have a free will and how can you be any less free in eternity?
CHARLES RYRIE: (depending on when you read Ryrie) repentance is a change of mind with regard to Jesus Christ. The word “Lord,” when referring to Jesus, is a reference to Jesus’ deity (like Hodges). In principle at least, a distinction needs to be made between salvation and discipleship. Ryrie believes in a second step, which is not the same as a “second blessing” we discussed earlier. Yieldedness is not explicitly part of saving faith. He does concede that works will follow a legitimate conversion, which is something that Hodges denies, who says saving faith may not produce good works. Ryrie’s “works” may not be evident to others at all times. Something is happening if you’ve been saved, but it may take a while for it to show up externally, and there may be periods of relapse where it doesn’t show up externally.
DARRELL BOCK: Lordship means that Christ has the authority to save. He’s the only one with authority to bring salvation. When you exercise saving faith, you aren’t necessarily consciously submitting to Jesus Christ as Lord. Nevertheless, it is implicitly acknowledged. If He has the authority to save you, He must have all authority. Discipleship and salvation are overlapping but distinguishable categories (totally separate for Hodges and Ryrie; one and the same for MacArthur).
LORDSHIP SALVATION: held by John MacArthur, Jr. MacArthur is going to argue that salvation comes through faith alone (like all positions from Hodges to MacArthur). But MacArthur would argue that repentance is necessary for salvation, and repentance is a turning from sin to God. I would say MacArthur is front-loading the concept of repentance here. For MacArthur, salvation and discipleship are virtually indistinguishable. Works must be present with genuine faith. He allows for no category of carnal Christianity (Hodges allows for it as normal; Ryrie as abnormal). Lordship means accepting Christ as master, deliberately and consciously submitting to Him. In principle, you are acknowledging Christ as master (explicitly) when you are converted. He will admit that believers can backslide, and there’s no sin that believers can’t commit, but he doesn’t want to go there.
As a result of the Lordship salvation debate in the 1980’s, some interesting things have developed. Hodges, while he was alive, became more extreme as time went on. MacArthur got more extreme (probably to push back against Hodges) for a while, but moderated over time. Ryrie grew further apart from Hodges’ position. There are lordship advocates today that are far more extreme than MacArthur. The more you move away from Dispensational theology and into Reformed, you will find this popping up. Paul Washer, who preaches and does some great things in other areas, paints this extremely black and white.
Decisionism and Perfectionism are travesties. Of the positions that remain, the only one I think is seriously damaging is Hodges. There are parts of Ryrie, MacArthur, and Bock that I agree with. Having said that, I’m still not quite sure how to fit all the pieces together. I think all three of the positions try to force certain pieces at the expense of good exegesis. On the one hand I’m not willing to give up James 2 or reinterpret it. James is really clear: the kind of faith that saves you produces works. But I’m not willing to give up 1 Corinthians 3. Both sides read their theology into the others’ proof texts. How do I hold these two texts together? I don’t know yet. I’m still trying to figure that out.
One of the problems here is the problem of personal context. We all tend to read our experiences into the Scriptures. Think of Zane Hodges. He was the Greek guy at Dallas Seminary for many years. Hodges had his early ministry pastoring in strongly Roman Catholic communities prior to the 2nd Vatican Council. The people around him were getting their salvation the old-fashioned way (tongue in cheek), by earning it! So Hodges found it necessary to emphasize the freeness of grace without qualification. MacArthur, on the other hand, ministers in southern California. What are the moral standards there? A little looser than Greenville, South Carolina, you might say? MacArthur has found it necessary to emphasize that when you believe on Jesus Christ something changes. You can’t keep living the life you used to live.
These debates got nasty and polarized many in the evangelical world. We often need to tone it down a little bit and try to understand instead of blasting away.