Listen to today’s typical gospel presentation. You will hear sinners entreated with such phrases as “accept Jesus Christ as personal Savior”; “ask Jesus into your heart”; “invite Christ into your life”; or “make a decision for Christ.” You may be so accustomed to hearing those phrases that it will surprise you to learn that none of them is based on biblical terminology. They are the products of a diluted gospel. It is not the gospel according to Jesus.
The gospel Jesus proclaimed was a call to discipleship, a call to follow Him in submissive obedience, not just a plea to make a decision or pray a prayer. Jesus’ message liberated people from the bondage of their sin while it confronted and condemned hypocrisy. It was an offer of eternal life and forgiveness for repentant sinners, but at the same time it was a rebuke to outwardly religious people whose lives were devoid of true righteousness. It put sinners on notice that they must turn from sin and embrace God’s righteousness. It was in every sense good news, yet it was anything but easy-believism.
Our Lord’s words about eternal life were invariably accompanied by warnings to those who might be tempted to take salvation lightly. He taught that the cost of following Him is high, that the way is narrow and few find it. He said many who call Him Lord will be forbidden from entering the kingdom of heaven (cf. Matthew 7:13–23).
Present-day evangelicalism, by and large, ignores those warnings. The prevailing view of what constitutes saving faith continues to grow broader and more shallow, while the portrayal of Christ in preaching and witnessing becomes fuzzy. Anyone who claims to be a Christian can find evangelicals willing to accept a profession of faith, whether or not the person’s behavior shows any evidence of commitment to Christ.
Proof of Spiritual Life
One segment of evangelicalism even propounds the doctrine that conversion to Christ involves “no spiritual commitment whatsoever.” Zane Hodges, The Gospel Under Siege (Dallas: Redención Viva, 1981) 14. Those who hold this view of the gospel teach that Scripture promises salvation to anyone who simply believes the facts about Christ and claims eternal life. There need be no turning from sin, no resulting change in lifestyle, no commitment—not even a willingness to yield to Christ’s lordship. Those things, they say, amount to human works, which corrupt grace and have nothing to do with faith.
The fallout of such thinking is a deficient doctrine of salvation. It is justification without sanctification, and its impact on the church has been catastrophic. The community of professing believers is populated with people who have bought into a system that encourages shallow and ineffectual faith. Many sincerely believe they are saved, but their lives are utterly barren of any verifying fruit.
Jesus gave this sobering warning:
Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matthew 7:21–23, emphasis added).
Clearly no past experience—not even prophesying, casting out demons, or doing signs and wonders—can be viewed as evidence of salvation apart from a life of obedience.
Our Lord was not speaking about an isolated group of fringe followers. There will be “many” on that day who will stand before Him, stunned to learn they are not included in the kingdom. I fear that multitudes who now fill church pews in the mainstream of the evangelical movement will be among those turned away because they did not do the will of the Father.
Contemporary Christians have been conditioned to believe that because they recited a prayer, signed on a dotted line, walked an aisle, or had some other experience, they are saved and should never question their salvation. I have attended evangelism training seminars where counselors were taught to tell “converts” that any doubt about their salvation is satanic and should be dismissed. It is a widely held misconception that anyone who questions whether he or she is saved is challenging the integrity of God’s Word.
What misguided thinking that is! Scripture encourages us to examine ourselves to determine if we are in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5). Peter wrote, “Be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you” (2 Peter 1:10). It is right to examine our lives and evaluate the fruit we bear, for “each tree is known by its own fruit” (Luke 6:44).
The Bible teaches clearly that the evidence of God’s work in a life is the inevitable fruit of transformed behavior (1 John 3:10). Faith that does not result in righteous living is dead and cannot save (James 2:14–17). Professing Christians utterly lacking the fruit of true righteousness will find no biblical basis for assurance of salvation (1 John 2:4).
Real salvation is not only justification. It cannot be isolated from regeneration, sanctification, and ultimately glorification. Salvation is the work of God through which we are “conformed to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29; cf. 13:11). Genuine assurance comes from seeing the Holy Spirit’s transforming work in one’s life, not from clinging to the memory of some experience.
Wrongly Dividing the Word
Yet there are those who would have us believe that the norm for salvation is to accept Jesus as Savior without submitting to Him as Lord. They make the incredible claim that any other teaching amounts to a false gospel “because it subtly adds works to the clear and simple condition set forth in the Word of God.” Livingston Blauvelt Jr., “Does the Bible Teach Lordship Salvation?” Bibliotheca Sacra (January-March 1986), 37. They have tagged the view they oppose “lordship salvation.”
Lordship salvation, defined by one who labels it heresy, is “the view that for salvation a person must trust Jesus Christ as his Savior from sin and must also commit himself to Christ as Lord of his life, submitting to His sovereign authority.” “Does the Bible Teach Lordship Salvation?”, 37.
It is astonishing that anyone would characterize that truth as unbiblical or heretical, but a growing chorus of voices is echoing the charge. The implication is that acknowledging Christ’s lordship is a human work. That mistaken notion is backed by volumes of literature that speaks of people “making Jesus Christ Lord of their lives.” “Does the Bible Teach Lordship Salvation?”, 38.
We do not “make” Christ Lord; He is Lord! Those who will not receive Him as Lord are guilty of rejecting Him. “Faith” that rejects His sovereign authority is really unbelief. Conversely, acknowledging His lordship is no more a human work than repentance (cf. 2 Timothy 2:25) or faith itself (cf. Ephesians 2:8–9). In fact, surrender to Christ is an important aspect of divinely produced saving faith, not something added to faith.
The two clearest statements on the way of salvation in all of Scripture both emphasize Jesus’ lordship: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31); and “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Peter’s sermon at Pentecost concluded with this declaration: “Let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36, emphasis added). No promise of salvation is ever extended to those who refuse to accede to Christ’s lordship. Thus there is no salvation except “lordship” salvation.
Opponents of lordship salvation have gone to great lengths to make the claim that “Lord” in those verses does not mean “Master” but is a reference to His deity. “Does the Bible Teach Lordship Salvation?” 38-41. See also G. Michael Cocoris, Lordship Salvation—Is It Biblical? (Dallas: Redención Viva, 1983), 13-15. Even if that contention is granted, it simply affirms that those who come to Christ for salvation must acknowledge that He is God. The implications of that are even more demanding than if “Lord” only meant “Master”!
The fact is, “Lord” does mean “God” in all those verses. More precisely, it means “God who rules,” and that only bolsters the arguments for lordship salvation. No one who comes for salvation with genuine faith, sincerely believing that Jesus is the eternal, almighty, sovereign God, will willfully reject His authority. True faith is not lip service. Our Lord Himself pronounced condemnation on those who worshiped Him with their lips but not with their lives (Matthew 15:7–9). He does not become anyone’s Savior until that person receives Him for who He is—Lord of all (Acts 10:36).
A. W. Tozer said:
The Lord will not save those whom He cannot command. He will not divide His offices. You cannot believe on a half-Christ. We take Him for what He is—the anointed Saviour and Lord who is King of kings and Lord of all lords! He would not be Who He is if He saved us and called us and chose us without the understanding that He can also guide and control our lives. A.W. Tozer, I Call It Heresy! (Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, 1974) 18-19.
Faith and True Discipleship
Those who teach that obedience and submission are extraneous to saving faith are forced to make a firm but unbiblical distinction between salvation and discipleship. This dichotomy, like that of the carnal/spiritual Christian, sets up two classes of Christians: believers only and true disciples. Most who hold this position discard the evangelistic intent of virtually every recorded invitation of Jesus, saying those apply to discipleship, not to salvation. The Gospel Under Siege 34-35; Lordship Salvation—Is It Biblical?, 15-16; “Does the Bible Teach Lordship Salvation?” 41. One writer says of this view, “No distinction is more vital to theology, more basic to a correct understanding of the New Testament, or more relevant to every believer’s life and witness.” Charles C. Ryrie in the forward to Zane Hodges, The Hungry Inherit (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1980) 7.
On the contrary, no distinction has done so much to undermine the authority of Jesus’ message. Are we to believe that when Jesus told the multitudes to deny themselves (Luke 14:26), to take up a cross (v. 27), and to forsake all and follow Him (v. 33), His words had no meaning whatsoever for the unsaved people in the crowd? How could that be true of One who said He came not to call the righteous but sinners? (Matthew 9:13).
James M. Boice, in his book, Christ’s Call to Discipleship, writes with insight about the salvation/discipleship dichotomy, which he frankly describes as “defective theology”:
This theology separates faith from discipleship and grace from obedience. It teaches that Jesus can be received as one’s Savior without being received as one’s Lord.
This is a common defect in times of prosperity. In days of hardship, particularly persecution, those who are in the process of becoming Christians count the cost of discipleship carefully before taking up the cross of the Nazarene. Preachers do not beguile them with false promises of an easy life or indulgence of sins. But in good times, the cost does not seem so high, and people take the name of Christ without undergoing the radical transformation of life that true conversion implies. James M. Boice, Christ’s Call to Discipleship (Chicago: Moody, 1986) 14.
The call to Calvary must be recognized for what it is: a call to discipleship under the lordship of Jesus Christ. To respond to that call is to become a believer. Anything less is simply unbelief.
The gospel according to Jesus explicitly and unequivocally rules out easy-believism. To make all of our Lord’s difficult demands apply only to a higher class of Christians blunts the force of His entire message. It makes room for a cheap and meaningless faith—a faith that has absolutely no effect on the fleshly life of sin. That is not saving faith.