Monday, May 19, 2008

The LORDSHIP OF CHRIST CONTROVERSY

Some years ago, the evangelical church world was caught up in the debate over a controversy about the nature of Christ’s Lordship. Some prominent names in the evangelical landscape were pitted against each other in an attempt to defend their respective beliefs. On one side were the Lordship advocates, who maintained that the grace-based salvation which comes through faith in Christ is accompanied by a transforming power that is evident in the life of a convert. Lordship Salvation emphasized that submission to Christ as Lord over your life cannot be divorced from trusting in Him to be saved. They proposed that a lack of obedience in the life of a professing Christian gives a warrant to doubt that genuine salvation has occurred. They believed that obedience is the mark of a true disciple. On the other side, the non-Lordship or “free grace” crowd saw themselves as the strict protectionists of the truth that salvation is by grace, apart from works; no turning from sin is required for salvation. To them, obedience to Christ is the mark of a committed disciple. Sadly, charges of heresy were hurled from each side against the other. This struck me as odd because I was personally acquainted with some who differed on this controversy, and none of them were heretics. As far as I knew, they all loved the Lord and desired to live a godly life in obedience to the One who had set them free them from Satan’s spiritual death-grip (Ephesians 2:1-9). All of them were saved freely by God’s grace and were in varying stages of spiritual transformation (sanctification), which I believe is the normal Christian experience. Perhaps the whole debate focused too much on the articulation of biblical truths taken out of proper balance and out of their true theological order. The fact that these truths were presented by some very zealous defenders of the faith only added to the controversy. As is often the case, both sides appealed to Scripture in defense of their views, and when the fire died down and the ashes settled, the debate wasn’t really settled. The smoke still lingers. Looking back years later, as someone who was an interested observer at the time, I have to wonder why it went on as long as it did. Why were numerous books written on the subject? Why so much division among God’s people? Why all the confusion? Perhaps I will be charged with “easy believism,” but it seems rather foolish to me to dispute the fact that the free, saving grace of God is not free if so much as a hint of works is required: “For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness” (Romans 4:3). “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). On the other hand, I also know that God will not fail to perform His sanctifying work in the life of the man, woman, or child whose sins have all been washed away: “Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). “Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection” (Hebrews 6:1) . We must be mindful that of the correct order: Salvation comes first and sanctification follows. They are distinct; the one gives birth to the other. Paul and James are not in conflict when their epistles are rightly divided. I preach hard against sin (2 Timothy 4:2), and I do believe in “holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). No one who knows me can justifiably charge me with antinomianism. However, I also confess with equal passion: “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved” (Romans 10:9). Praise God, who didn’t make salvation too difficult for sinful men! I didn’t make promises of any kind when I came to Christ. I knew little of the great doctrines of the faith. The theological vernacular of repentance, regeneration, justification, sanctification, and Lordship was all foreign to me. What I did know was that I was a great sinner and that Jesus was my only hope for forgiveness and eternal life: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:16-17). Praise be to God that, through simple faith in Him, I am numbered among His children.

Where does this leave me, as far as the Lordship controversy goes? I guess you might say I am not in full agreement with either group. Both camps have said things worthy of our careful attention and study, and both camps were guilty of labeling the other side falsely to some extent. The free grace men I know do not believe in cheap grace, although some have erred in the rather strict limitation they have placed on the meaning of repentance. On the other side, the Lordship men I know are not tottering on the edge of heresy, although some adherents of this position have said things that could undermine the nature of saving faith. It is dangerous to stray even a little from the foundation of sola fide –- faith alone! Christians must beware of teaching something akin to the Catholic doctrine of formed faith.[1] All agree that Jesus is Lord and that true Christians should act like true Christians. I say amen to that! Those who don’t live in obedience will have a problem with their assurance of salvation.

I feel that both sides of the Lordship controversy have fallen short of claiming a victory for a number of reasons: One is the tendency for zealous men to overstate their case; a second is due to the employment of significant words without delineating their range of meaning; yet another is the simple fact that no man can see into the heart of another man. No one can claim to know what God alone knows. No man is endowed with the foreknowledge of God to see the end from the beginning. Having been involved in pastoral ministry for nineteen years, I have seen enough to be practically convinced that spurious conversions are a reality. Some abandon the faith because they never had true faith to begin with: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us” (1 John 2:19). Men I knew have professed Christ with their lips when their hearts were unchanged (Mark 7:6). I have also judged some to be among the unregenerate because their lives appeared to lack a Christian testimony, but in hindsight, my judgment was wrong. Some turned out to be extremely immature believers; others were deliberate backsliders who were enjoying the pleasures of sin for a season; both types were miserable in their condition. Absent from their lives was the joy of the Lord and a testimony worthy of the Savior’s love. They could not be used in fruitful service for Christ because they were too busy serving their fleshly desires. They were truly carnally minded. What I am learning through all this is to be more cautious when performing my spiritual examinations. I have been guilty of false diagnoses on more than one occasion. I should express my concerns, but not a final verdict. I am also learning to be patient, to set a good example in word and deed through my own life, and to pray earnestly that everyone who professes the name of Christ will seek His sanctifying grace day by day. A life of godliness doesn’t come effortlessly: “But refuse profane and old wives' fables, and exercise thyself (discipline yourself) rather unto godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7).

Finally brethren, let me conclude with the thought that no Christian of my acquaintance has fully surrendered his entire life to the absolute Lordship of Christ. If that is the requirement, none will be saved. The truth is that no born-again believer will ever be sinless this side of glory, though we must all strive diligently to be blameless in God’s sight. Liberty in Christ is no excuse for disobedience; we must take sin seriously (Romans 6) while we extend our hands in Christian love and grace to those struggling in what could be an intense and prolonged spiritual battle. “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). I would like to conclude by exhorting you to examine your profession of faith and walk in the Lord in the light of the whole counsel of God. Men can and do err in their theological pronouncements: “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (I Thessalonians 5:21).

“As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him” (Colossians 2:6).


Saved by grace through faith alone,

Pastor Tom


[1] Good works are an integral part of saving faith.