This blog is by guest contributor, Dr. Roy Zuck. Dr. Zuck is Senior Professor Emeritus of Bible Exposition, Dallas Theological Seminary and the editor of the theological journal Bibliotheca Sacra. He is the author or editor of many books including Basic Bible Interpretation, Bible Knowledge Commentary, A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament and A Biblical Theology of the New Testament. Dr. Zuck is one of ABI’s endorsing theologians.
Must a person submit to the lordship of Jesus Christ in order to be saved? If he did not make Christ Lord of his life at the moment of salvation, is he now saved? If an unsaved person did not consciously surrender every area of his life to the control of Christ, was he genuinely saved?
Advocates of “lordship salvation” (the belief that a person must surrender every area of his or her life to Christ’s absolute control in order to be saved) contend that one cannot receive Christ as Savior from sin without also receiving Him as Lord of one’s entire life. Why do they promote this view? One reason is their concern over so many people who say they are Christians but give little or no evidence of a changed life. According to lordship adherents, those so-called Christians are not genuinely born-again—they only say they are saved. Since those professing believers were not challenged to obey Christ, to surrender all to Him, they may well be lost. Others claim omitting the requirements of commitment, obedience, and self-denial makes salvation too easy. They say it cheapens grace by de-emphasizing the cost of becoming a Christian. Therefore unless a person is a dedicated disciple of Christ, he is not a Christian at all. To become a Christian, a person must give up everything, renounce his own will and plans and give up every sin.
But is this view correct? How does it compare with what the Bible teaches about salvation?
Let’s look at several truths with which those who teach lordship salvation and those who do not can agree.
1. Faith is not merely intellectual assent.
Salvation involves more than understanding certain facts and mentally acquiescing to those facts. In coming to Christ for salvation, a sinner acknowledges that as a sinner, he cannot save himself, that Christ died for him as his Substitute, and that he can have eternal life through faith in Christ. But in coming to Christ a sinner also is emotionally sensing and acknowledging his desperate need, and is volitionally turning to Christ. To “believe” means more than accepting the facts in one’s mind. It is an act of volition, an exercise of the will.
2. A person may say he is a Christian but not actually be saved.
Judas is an example of a professing but no genuine follower of Christ. He was even a “disciple” (Matt. 10:1). In other words it is not merely enough to claim to be a Christian. However, others cannot always tell if a person is saved. Even Judas for a time deceived others into thinking he was regenerate.
3. Repentance is a genuine part of salvation.
Repentance is included in believing. Faith and repentance are like two sides of the same coin. Genuine faith includes repentance, and genuine repentance includes faith. The Greek word for repentance (metanoia) means to change one’s mind. But to change one’s mind about what? About sin, about one’s adequacy to save himself, about Christ as the only way of salvation, the only One who can make a person righteous.
Repentance is not a feeling of remorse or anguish over sin, nor an exercise in recounting past transgressions. Repentance is a turning from sin, while faith is turning to Christ. A change of outlook toward both sin and Christ, as Lewis Sperry Chafer has noted, “promotes a change in the course being pursued.”
Peter said to the Jews, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped” (Acts 3:19). Barnabas and Paul told the people of Lystra to “turn from these worthless things to the living God” (Acts 14:15). Paul reported to the Ephesians elders that he had preached to Jews and Gentiles that they “must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21). To the Thessalonian believers Paul wrote that they had “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9). When a person accepts Christ as his Savior, he is simultaneously turning to God (faith) and from sin (repentance).
4. The life of a true believer is changed.
Everyone “in Christ” is a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). He has been regenerated, justified, reconciled, redeemed, and made a child of God. The Holy Spirit has baptized (placed) him into the body of Christ, indwelt him, and sealed him. Genuine believers practice righteousness (1 John 3:7, 9) and obey Christ’s commands, though, as will be discussed later, they may falter at times, some more than others. The Holy Spirit’s presence and work in a believer’s life will result in some fruit. Some evidence of a changed life will be seen at some time in his life, while no change whatever over a long period of time may well reveal a person is not saved at all (see 1 Tim. 5:24-25; 1 John 2:19).
5. True believers will sin; no one is perfect this side of heaven.
Some advocates of lordship salvation, however, speak as if perpetual spiritual progress is inevitable, as if obedience is flawless and continual. Other lordship proponents, however, recognize that when a Christian sins, the Holy Spirit seeks to make him sensitive to his need for confession of sin and for restored fellowship with Christ (1 John 1:9).
Problems in lordship salvation
Several problems, however, exist in the “lordship” approach to the gospel.
1. Lordship salvation may dilute the idea of salvation as a free gift.
If I offer my wife a gift and then tell her it will cost her something to get it, it is no longer a gift. Salvation is a gift from God. But if someone says a person must commit, surrender, obey, forsake all, or deny self in order to receive that gift and be saved, that implies that salvation is not a gift after all.
Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “If you knew the gift of God . . . you would have asked him and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10). Romans 5:15 speaks of “the gift that came by [God’s] grace.” According to Romans 6:23, “The gift of God is eternal life.” Salvation by God’s “surpassing grace” is “his indescribable gift” (2 Cor. 9:14-15).
2. Lordship salvation may confuse consecration with conversion.
The lordship view does not clarify the distinction between sanctification and justification, or between discipleship and sonship. It mixes the condition with the consequences. It confuses becoming a Christian with being a Christian.
True, a person who is justified by God’s grace is sanctified positionally, set apart to God at the moment of salvation. But that is when the Holy Spirit begins His work of ongoing sanctification, not finishes it. One follows the other. Discipleship starts at rebirth and should continue on after it.
Regeneration pertains to one’s relationship to Christ as Savior from sin. Sanctification, on the other hand, pertains to one’s relationship to Christ as his Lord and Master. In the new birth a person is made a new creation in Christ; in sanctification he grows in that relationship.
3. Lordship teaching seems to add works to salvation.
Though advocates of this teaching deny their view leads to adding works to salvation, the view itself does not give that impression. If a person must do something to be saved, he is adding to salvation. Repeatedly the Bible clearly states that salvation comes only by receiving it by faith. Jesus said to a woman, “Your faith has saved you” (Luke 7:50). He did not say, “Your faith and your commitment have saved you.”
A person can become a child of God only by believing, as John 1:12; 3:16; 5:24; 20:31; acts 16:31 and other verses make abundantly clear. Faith, not faith and surrender or obedience, is credited as righteousness (Rom. 4:5). Paul wrote, “For by grace you have been saved, through faith”—not through faith plus surrender (Eph. 2:8). Faith in Christ as Savior is the only way of salvation. To add to faith, to add to receiving God’s gift of eternal life is to alter the gospel.
4. Lordship salvation can cause some genuine believers to lack assurance of salvation.
Those who promote lordship salvation suggest there is no middle ground. Either a person is a genuine believer and is living a life of unreserved obedience, or he cannot be sure he is saved. As one writer put it, “To know assurance you have to see a pattern of holiness . . . . Therefore, if you are not denying ungodliness, you cannot be certain you are really saved.”
But what of a person who has been genuinely born again but is still struggling with some sin in his or her life? According to the lordship doctrine, his salvation is questionable. As a result he doubts his salvation. He asks himself, “Did I really accept Christ as my Savior?” I thought I did, but this struggle with sin now makes me wonder. Must I be saved again to be sure of my salvation?
Losing one’s salvation is not what lordship salvation proponents believe, yet ironically their system causes some genuine believers to doubt their salvation and wonder if they need to be saved again. And again! This obviously contradicts the biblical teaching of a believer’s security in Christ (see John 3:16; 5:24; 6:37; 10:28-29; Rom. 8:29-30).
5. Lordship salvation raises the question of how much commitment is enough.
How much must a person’s life change in order for him to be saved? How can he know at the moment of salvation if he is giving up everything? Must a person sell all his possessions and give them to the poor (Matt. 19:21) to be saved? Must a person hate his parents (Luke 14:26) in order to be saved? Must a person be perfect as God is perfect (Matt. 5:48)? Must he relinquish all anger, jealousy, lust, pride, selfishness, bitterness, swearing, worry, hatred? Has anyone ever done these things? If not, is anyone genuinely saved? And how can someone do any of these things if he is still unregenerate, has no spiritual life, and has no receptivity to spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14)?
Some advocates of lordship salvation respond by say a person coming to Christ must be willing to relinquish these things. But is that not an entirely different matter? Willingness to do something is not the same thing as actually doing it, and does not answer the question, “How much commitment is necessary?” If Lordship proponents do not mean a person must surrender everything to be saved, then why do they say all must be surrendered?
6. Lordship salvation limits the meaning of the word “disciple.”
To most Lordship advocates a disciple already means one who is totally committed to the Lord. But this view that “believers” and “disciples” are always synonyms overlooks the fact that in Scripture the word “disciples” is used of (1) curiosity seekers who later left Jesus and obviously were not genuinely saved (John 6:66); (2) true followers of Christ (Acts 11:26); (3) and the Twelve—including Judas (Matt. 10:1). In the lordship salvation view, a person who is not a disciple of the Lord (in the sense of being a fully committed Christian) is not saved. Obviously this can bring confusion and doubt.
True, in becoming a Christian, a person enters into a discipleship relationship, in which he is now under a new authority, a new Head—the Lord. He becomes a disciple, but then grows in that discipleship as he walks with the Lord.
7. Room for spiritual growth and for spiritual regression in the Christian life is not allowed for—or at least is de-emphasized—in lordship salvation.
If one commits everything to Christ to be saved, where is there room for growth and development in the Christian life, as the Bible clearly encourages? And what happens if a believer falls into sin?
The lordship gospel does not make much allowance for carnality. Not that carnality is condoned or should go unchallenged. But it is seen in the Bible. To say that every true believer consistently obeys the Lord overlooks examples of many believers in the Bible who lapsed into sin. Peter denied the Lord but did not lose his salvation. Lot was called a righteous man (2 Peter 2:7) though much of his conduct was not admirable. When Abraham lied, or Job challenged God, or Moses disobeyed, or David committed adultery and murder, were they unbelievers? Obviously not. Did they lose their salvation? Again, the answer is no. But they did lose their fellowship with the Lord and needed, as David wrote, to have the joy of their salvation restored (Ps. 51:12). Confession was necessary (1 John 1:9).
Carnal Christians—Christians living in sin—look like the unsaved (1 Cor. 3:1-3). Therefore we cannot always tell whether a person living in sin is a Christian or not. Only God knows the heart. Paul addressed members of the Corinthian church as believers (1 Cor. 1:2) and “brothers” (1 Cor. 1:10; 2:1; 3:1; 12:1; 15:1, 58), yet they were guilty of gross misconduct. Did that mean they were unsaved? No. Paul did not deny their salvation; instead he admonished them to deal with their sin as believers.
All Christians struggle with temptation and sin. But the Bible urges us not to succumb and instead to make use of the spiritual resources provided by God’s Word, the indwelling Holy Spirit, and prayer.
What about verses that seem to support lordship salvation? Some vers of the Bible refer to unbelievers coming to Christ in obedience. Are these referring to commitment to a life of obedience? No—they are challenging unbelievers to obey by turning to Christ in faith (see Acts 6:7; Rom. 1:5; 15:18; 16:26; 2 Thess. 1:8; Heb. 5:9).
When Jesus told the Samaritan woman to call her husband (John 4:16), He was not telling her to deal with her sin of adultery before she could be saved. He was pointing out the fact of her sin and showing her the He is the Messiah, as proved by his knowledge of her situation without being told (vv. 17-19).
What about Matthew 7:16, 20, which tells us that “by their fruit you will recognize them”? While it is true that believers will bear at least some fruit in their lives, it will not be evident to the same degree in all believers all the time. At some given moment, if a Christian is in sin his life may seem to others to be no different from the unregenerate. But in Matthew 7:16, 20 Jesus was speaking of those who had total lack of fruit. His hearers called Him, “Lord” but were evildoers (vv.21-23). They had never turned to Him in faith and repentance.
A free gift, received by faith
Salvation then is a gift, to be received by faith or trust in Christ, apart from any additional requirements or demands. A sinner becomes a child of God by faith in Christ as his Savior. Then as a believer his is to grow in Christ, to develop as a disciple, to make Christ Lord or Master of all areas of his life.
Assurance of salvation is based on the Word of God (John5:24; 10:28-29; 1John 5:9-13), not on good works. One’s good works, however, can demonstrate to others that he is saved. Lordship salvation proponents say the way to deal with the problem of professing Christians—people who say they are saved but whose lives don’t match their lips—is to inquire whether they submitted to the lordship of Christ at the time of their alleged salvation. However, a better answer is to challenge true believers who are seemingly not committed to become His disciples, to grow in their walk with the Lord, and to obey Him as their Master. That is the ongoing challenge of the Christian life.