Guest / Limited Access /
How Faith Works
Image: Photo by David Antis / Flickr
How Faith Works

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.

Sadly, the issue has not claimed the attention of systematic theologians as it should. Definitions of terms are fundamental in theological analysis. In the present debate they are often wanting, occasionally fuzzy, sometimes inept, and even theologically inaccurate. This problem of definitions accounts for the fact that persons holding the same theological views debate and disagree with one another. Their standards of reference are not common to them.

The Lordship Salvation debate is a debate over the gospel and, specifically, the nature of salvation, saving faith, and the relation of salvation to sanctification.

To have a standard of reference that evangelicals as a whole will accept in the main, I shall first clarify the definitions of justification, saving faith, and sanctification by referring to the Westminster Confession of Faith (the historic doctrinal summary for English-speaking Reformed Christians). Then I shall relate the concept of Lordship Salvation to these definitions. Persons from the Wesleyan tradition should not have too many difficulties with the Confession's definitions of these doctrines.

Justification by Faith

The seeds of the dispute lie in the 19th century with the rise of evangelistic campaigns and the "decisional evangelism" that characterized them— that is, the tendency to regard the raising of one's hand in a public meeting, the signing of a card, the walking of an aisle, or similar activities as evidence of salvation. It is not surprising that such terms as "easy believism" and "cheap grace" arose, for so many of the supposed conversions did not stand the test of time. This practice has led to confusion over what happens when we are "justified by faith."

The Westminster Confession defines justification in this way:

Those whom God effectually calleth he also freely justifieth; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous: not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone: not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing. or any other evangelical obedience, to them as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness by faith: which faith they have not of themselves; it is the gift of God. (11.1)

This grand central principle of the Reformation teaches that believers are declared righteous before God by the instrumentality of faith alone, Christ having made a full satisfaction to his Father's justice in their behalf by his death on the cross. They, therefore, receive the gift of righteousness and rest upon Christ and his work.

The Confession makes the point that, while God's righteousness is bestowed through faith alone and not by works, yet when faith is genuine it is "ever accompanied with all other saving graces"—that is, all other graces have their root in faith. Good works, then, are not the ground of justification but are possible only as its consequences. The Reformation battle cry was Sola fides justificat, sed non fides quae est sola, or, "Faith alone justifies, but not the faith that is alone." "Works," Luther said, "are not taken into consideration when the question respects justification. But true faith will no more fail to produce them than the sun can cease to give light."

The Confession recognizes that believers continue to sin, stating, "God doth continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified; and although they can never fall from the state of justification, yet they may by their sins fall under God's fatherly displeasure, and not have the light of his countenance restored unto them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance" (11.5).

Much of this is important for the debate over Lordship Salvation. It is plain that the Confession denies that faith is merely intellectual assent to truths about Jesus. MacArthur, Ryrie, and Hodges agree.

The Confession further sees our Lord as a divine being, for he is the author of a "full satisfaction to the Father's justice" in behalf of sinners. Thus he is properly called Lord; only a Lord can save souls by sacrificing himself.

The Confession states that the justified may fall into sin and carnality. In other words, a complete commitment is not a prerequisite of salvation. MacArthur, however, occasionally appears to be arguing the position that a full commitment is such a prerequisite. In other places he modifies his position. He has said that Jesus "never held forth the hope of salvation to anyone who refused to submit to His sovereign lordship" (p. 134), but he has qualified the demand for submission and obedience to a "willingness to obey" (p. 88).

The Confession clearly connects good works with justification as the expected issue of faith. Hodges, too, says good works are "expected" and "ought" to be found in the believer's life. He contends, however, that they are not inevitable (pp. 8, 94). On the contrary, Paul says works are the purpose of a "fore-preparing" God (Eph. 2:10). Shall a sovereign God's purposes be uncertain of realization?

Saving Faith

In the Confession the "grace of faith," by which the elect are enabled to believe and be saved, is the work of the Spirit "by the ministry of the Word"; and by the Word, the ordinances, and prayer, the "grace of faith" is increased and strengthened (14.1). In the next section, the Confession teaches that saving faith rests on the truth of God's testimony in the Word and that it yields obedience to its commands, although in section three it is stated that this faith is "different in degrees, weak or strong," and that it may be often "assailed and weakened." In section two an important statement is made about faith's make-up: "But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace."

What, then, may be inferred regarding saving faith? It is God's gracious gift by which we are enabled to rest upon the truth of God's Word and specifically upon Christ and his satisfaction of God's just claims against us by his atoning death. This belief in or on Christ, the Reformed theologians have contended, consists of knowledge, assent, and trust (or notitia, assensus, and fiducia, to use the classical terms). It is important to note that saving faith, while always in essence the same, is often different in degrees (see Heb. 5:13-14; Matt. 6:30; 8:10; Rom. 4:19-20).

How does this bear on the Lordship Salvation controversy? It appears clear that a total commitment of one's life to Christ in all life's details is impossible; yet saving faith envisions such a change of life that its bent is forever after toward righteousness. Speaking of the people of God, the late John Murray of Westminster Seminary wrote:

They are not perfect in holiness. But they have been translated from the realm of sin and death to that of righteousness and life. Sin is their burden and plague. Why? Because it is not their realm, they are not at home with it. It is foreign country to them (cf. 1 Peter 4:3-4). They are in the world, but not of it.
They who are of the world are those who live in sin, in the realm of sin. They are those to whom holiness is abhorrent even though they may be able to keep up a good front before the church and the world. They do not hunger and thirst after righteousness. Their aspirations are not heavenly. They are not strangers and pilgrims on the earth, looking for the city which hath the foundations. (Works, 3:278-79)

Murray's words are true to the lives of the great saints of the Bible, as the experiences of Abraham, Jacob, Lot, and others indicate. Even Paul could say, "I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not therefore acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me" (1 Cor. 4:4).

The rhetoric on both sides of the debate is not always helpful. Cries that "total commitment" is necessary to salvation or the citing of the weary aphorism, "If he is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all," are surely misleading, and those who use such words usually in other contexts modify them. The Confession's statement that there are degrees of faith, and that it may be assailed and weakened in one's life, is true to Christian experience (see Acts 10:14—"Not so, Lord!").

In his book, Zane Hodges never carefully defines the faith that saves. One cannot satisfactorily interact with him on the subject. When faith is left undefined, it is inevitable that one leaves himself open to the charge of "easy believism." There are people who profess faith who do not genuinely believe (Titus 1:16).

Authentic faith, given by God, includes knowledge of the gospel's great historical facts, an assent to the truthfulness of them, and a trust in Christ who accomplished them. Is not this the faith that saves?

The Nature of Repentance

The Confession says, "Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ" (15.1). In repentance, sinners, moved by a sense of the danger and filthiness of their sins and by the apprehension of God's mercy in Christ to the penitent, so grieve over and hate their sins "as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with him in all the ways of his commandments" (15.2). No one may expect pardon without it, although the Confession strongly makes the point that it is an "act of God's free grace in Christ."

The term repentance is the translation of a Greek noun derived from the Greek verb metanoeō. It is composed of a preposition meaning after, and a verb meaning "to perceive" or "to think." The resulting compound has the general sense of "to have an afterthought" and, since such afterthoughts are usually different thoughts, the verb has the sense of "to change the mind." Repentance, then, is a changing of the mind, and its uses in the New Testament suggest a change of mind in relation to one's sin (see Luke 5:32; 15:7, 10; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 8:22) and in relation to God (Acts 2:36, 38; 17:29-30; 20:21). The change of mind, however, is not simply that; it is to lead to "deeds worthy of repentance" (Acts 26:20; see also Matt. 3:8).

It is clear that the apostles Peter and Paul preached repentance, finding it a necessary emphasis in the gospel. It is the view of most orthodox theologians that repentance is an essential part of saving faith, both repentance and faith being God's gifts (Acts 5:31; 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:25; Eph. 2:8-9). It is an interesting fact that John the Baptist, presented by the evangelist Matthew as preaching repentance, is said by the apostle John to have come bearing witness "that all might believe through him" (John 1:7; see also Matt. 3:2). There is no contradiction between the two. Perhaps repentance underlines the negative aspects of a proper response to the gospel, while faith more easily stresses the positive commitment to Christ.

Sanctification

Concentrating on the major facet of sanctification, its progressive character, the Confession makes the point that under the influence of the Word and the Spirit, through the virtue of the redemptive work of Christ and the new, created life of regeneration, believers begin to grow in holiness. "The dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed" (the Greek word is better rendered by the NIV "rendered powerless"). The graces of the new nature are "more and more quickened and strengthened" to "the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord" (13.1).

This sanctification is "imperfect in this life; there still abide remnants of corruption in every part" of our human nature. A "continual and irreconcilable war" with the flesh lusting against the Spirit abides throughout this life (13.2).

Further, while "the remaining corruption for a time may much prevail" (see Rom. 7:23), by the strength supplied "from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ," the regenerate life grows in grace, "perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (13.3).

Sanctification as defined in the Confession does not include complete deliverance in this life, for the struggle in our members is always present (Gal. 5:17; 1 Pet. 2:11). Perfection in holiness comes only at death.

The believer, by union with God's covenantal representative in death and resurrection, has made a definitive break with sin and has become obligated to a life of holiness and good works. In the purpose of God, justification has as its intermediate goal deliverance from the dominion of sin and growth in holiness (Rom. 6:6; Eph. 2:10). We may, therefore, expect such things, especially when we consider the sovereign power of God in accomplishing his purposes (see Isa. 46:10; Ps. 135:6). The test of God's purposes and desires is his accomplishments.

It is at this point that we must consider the question of Christian ethics. The redemptive work of Christ provides the supernatural power of the indwelling Spirit of God and the stimulus that strengthens the failing human will to perform works pleasing to God. The connection between justification and sanctification, that of ground and issue, is crucial.

Good works in biblical thought are those works that proceed from evangelical faith and are done for the glory of God. The unregenerate may do works of benefaction that in the eyes of the world merit the term "good," but they fall short of the divine approval. One can see, then, how important it is to insist on the redemption of Jesus Christ as the necessary ground of ethical behavior acceptable to God, and to expect such behavior as the evidence of faith.

While on the one hand MacArthur overdoes the absolute commitment, the "complete change" (p. 32), the "willing to forsake everything" (whence does the willing come?), on the other hand Professor Hodges seems bent on discovering how sparse the faith that justifies can be. These overemphases are not helpful.

Mercy and Lordship

I will conclude with some observations that follow from the definitions and terms discussed above and bear on the claims of Lordship Salvation—the view that one cannot receive Christ simply as Savior, but must also give him total control of one's life, and if this is not done, one is not saved.

First of all, it is true that one must confess the lordship of Christ to be saved. Only a sovereign God can save sinners, and the calling on the Lord for mercy is an implicit recognition of his lordship and of his right of control over us.

Second, such confession must be genuine, not mere profession without reality. John MacArthur handles this point ably.

Third, the preeminent term by which salvation is received is faith, or belief (I regard repentance as a necessary part of faith). Understood properly, this is not easy believism; in fact, such faith can only be given by God (Eph. 2:8-9, 1 Cor. 12:3). It was Jesus himself who said to Jairus, "Only believe, and she shall be well" (Luke 8:50). The Gospel of John was written to induce faith, and its demand is for faith alone (John 20:30-31).

Fourth, as we have seen from the Confession, the realization of Christ's lordship in growing obedience and submission to his will is the work of sanctification, not justification. The two great teachings must not be confounded, or the peril of mixing things that differ threatens us.

Fifth, as is clear from the Confession's words regarding saving faith and sanctification, Christians may for a time live in carnality, but only for a time, since divine discipline, which may become severe enough to necessitate physical death, is applied by God (1 Cor. 5:5; 11:29-30). The term "the carnal Christian," therefore, is not a category of a Christian acceptable to God, nor does it represent a permanent status in the Christian life.

Sixth, to insist on a complete submission to God's will as necessary for salvation is unsupported by not only the Gospel of John, but also the Book of Acts. Prof. Everett F. Harrison has claimed, "A faithful reading of the entire book of Acts fails to reveal a single passage where people are pressed to acknowledge Jesus Christ as their personal Lord [he seems to mean personal Lord in the sense of complete submission to his will] in order to be saved." The insistence is contrary to the experience of many well-known Christians who relate more easily with the progressive sanctification experience set out in the Confession.

Seventh, it is sounder and simpler to keep to Paul's invitation as delivered to the Philippian jailer: "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household" (Acts 16:31, NASB). If we keep in mind that the Lord Jesus is he who has offered himself as a propitiatory substitutionary sacrifice for sinners, and if we remember that saving faith comprehends knowledge, assent, and trust, and if we see that the new life and standing given in justification must issue in a new submission to God's will, then we shall have our gospel thinking in order.

It was inevitable that the volcano should erupt again and the smoke of controversy arise. It is discouraging to preach the gospel and see so little convincingly genuine and longlasting fruit. The glory of the gospel of grace and a limited response do not seem compatible, but the solution is not to be found in inducing shallow professions that do not last by the questionable methods of "decisional evangelism," or by introducing sterner demands that have problematic biblical support.

Let us remember that our sovereign God alone saves souls, and he can be trusted with that work. Let us do our work of preaching his saving Word. Lewis Sperry Chafer used to exhort his students (all men in those days), "Men, preach an accurate gospel." That's still good counsel. Then the results may be left safely with the Lord.

S. Lewis Johnson Jr. (1915-2004) was a pastor for more than 45 years, most notably at Believers Chapel in Dallas, Texas. He also served as professor of New Testament and professor of systematic theology at Dallas Theological Seminary, and as professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. This article originally appeared in the September 22, 1989, issue of Christianity Today.

Today's other related articles on salvation, grace, antinomianism, sexual ethics, and other matters include a news story on Alan Chambers's recent statements, a Reformed response from Michael Horton, and a Wesleyan Arminian response from Ben Witherington.

Read These NextSee Our Latest
RecommendedAn Explosion of Joy
Subscriber Access Only An Explosion of Joy
What it means to be the apostolic church.
TrendingNew Executive Orders on LGBT Discrimination Don't Exempt Religious Orgs
New Executive Orders on LGBT Discrimination Don't Exempt Religious Orgs
(UPDATED) But Obama won't withdraw memo on religious discrimination.
Editor's PickIntroducing the Bible! Now with Less!
Introducing the Bible! Now with Less!
Delete the chapter and verse numbers. Kill all the notes. Make it one column. Make a million bucks.
Comments
View this article in Reader Mode
Christianity Today
How Faith Works