This article originally appeared in the September 22, 1989, issue of Christianity Today. We are republishing it today because its themes have erupted again this month amid discussion of Alan Chambers’s views on grace, salvation, and sexual ethics.
We call Jesus both “the Savior” and “the Lord.”
How does our obedience (treating him as Lord) relate to our salvation (accepting him as Savior)? Christians seem to have difficulty sorting out that relationship. And with this difficulty comes doctrinal conflict and, occasionally, harsh words: legalism, works righteousness, easy believism, cheap grace.
After a debate over “Lordship Salvation” burst into flame once more, Christianity Today sought a senior theologian to analyze the issues and give guidance to our readers. Here S. Lewis Johnson Jr., veteran teacher of New Testament and theology, reviews the basics of our beliefs about grace and faith and sets the debate over Lordship Salvation in the context of classic evangelical teaching.
The phases through which the issue of “Lordship Salvation” passes may be likened to those of a volcano. The issue often lies dormant for years, but then it suddenly erupts violently. Unfortunately, unlike volcanoes, the issue of Lordship Salvation refuses to grow extinct. The issue is still active, emitting the smoke and sulfurous fumes of controversy.
The forerunner of the current debate erupted in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Two well-known evangelicals, Everett F. Harrison and John R. W. Stott, debated the issue in Eternity magazine in September 1959. Harrison was the first professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary and Stott was at the time rector of All Souls Church in London. Harrison took the position that, while the acknowledgment of Jesus as Lord is essential to salvation, the demand that “one must make Jesus his Lord as well as his Savior to be truly redeemed” is to confuse salvation with the legitimate obligations of the Christian life. Stott, on the other hand, insisted that one must “surrender to the Lordship of Christ” to be saved. “Lordship Salvation,” then, is the claim that, to be saved, one must not only believe and acknowledge that Christ is Lord, but also submit to his lordship.
In his 1969 book Balancing the Christian Life, Charles C. Ryrie, who was then professor of systematic theology at Dallas Theological Seminary, made the claim, now widely cited, that one could have Christ as Savior without having him as Lord. This rekindled the controversy throughout the 1970s. In my opinion, Ryrie was misunderstood. What he was trying to say was that a genuine believer might not always be walking in the light.
The latest eruption has occurred with the publication of The Gospel According to Jesus (Zondervan, 1988), by John F. MacArthur, popular California pastor and president of the Master’s College and Seminary. MacArthur’s book has produced an explosion of comment, discussion, and feisty debate.
One final name important to the current debate is Zane C. Hodges, former professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary. His book, The Gospel Under Siege (Redencion Viva, 1981), contains the charge that much evangelical gospel preaching is guilty of compromising the grace of the gospel. Hodges insists that there is no necessary connection between saving faith and works. In fact, to insist on good works as the evidence of salvation introduces obedience into the plan of salvation, compromising seriously, if not fatally, the freeness of the gospel offer.