The gospel that 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.
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 (Matt. 7:13-23).
Present-day evangelicalism, by and large, ignores these 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. In this way, faith has become merely an intellectual exercise. Instead of calling men and women to surrender to Christ, modern evangelism asks them only to accept some basic facts about Him.
This shallow understanding of salvation and the gospel, known as “easy-believism,” stands in stark contrast to what the Bible teaches. To put it simply, the gospel call to faith presupposes that sinners must repent of their sin and yield to Christ’s authority. This, in a nutshell, is what is commonly referred to as lordship salvation.
The Distinctives of Lordship Salvation
There are many articles of faith that are fundamental to all evangelical teaching. For example, there is agreement among all believers on the following truths: (1) Christ’s death purchased eternal salvation; (2) the saved are justified by grace through faith in Christ alone; (3) sinners cannot earn divine favor; (4) God requires no preparatory works or pre-salvation reformation; (5) eternal life is a gift of God; (6) believers are saved before their faith ever produces any righteous works; and (7) Christians can and do sin, sometimes horribly.
What, then, are the distinctives of lordship salvation? What does Scripture teach that is embraced by those who affirm lordship salvation but rejected by proponents of “easybelievism”? The following are nine distinctives of a biblical understanding of salvation and the gospel.
First, Scripture teaches that the gospel calls sinners to faith joined in oneness with repentance (Acts 2:38; 17:30; 20:21; 2 Pet. 3:9). Repentance is a turning from sin (Acts 3:19; Luke 24:47) that consists not of a human work but of a divinely bestowed grace (Acts 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:25). It is a change of heart, but genuine repentance will effect a change of behavior as well (Luke 3:8; Acts 26:18-20). In contrast, easy-believism teaches that repentance is simply a synonym for faith and that no turning from sin is required for salvation.
Second, Scripture teaches that salvation is all God’s work. Those who believe are saved utterly apart from any effort on their own (Titus 3:5). Even faith is a gift of God, not a work of man (Eph. 2:1-5, 8). Real faith therefore cannot be defective or short-lived but endures forever (Phil. 1:6; Heb. 11). In contrast, easybelievism teaches that faith might not last and that a true Christian can completely cease believing.
Third, Scripture teaches that the object of faith is Christ Himself, not a creed or a promise (John 3:16). Faith therefore involves personal commitment to Christ (2 Cor. 5:15). In other words, all true believers follow Jesus (John 10:27-28). In contrast, easy-believism teaches that saving faith is simply being convinced or giving credence to the truth of the gospel and does not include a personal commitment to the person of Christ.
Fourth, Scripture teaches that real faith inevitably produces a changed life (2 Cor. 5:17). Salvation includes a transformation of the inner person (Gal. 2:20). The nature of the Christian is new and different (Rom. 6:6). The unbroken pattern of sin and enmity with God will not continue when a person is born again (1 John 3:9-10). Those with genuine faith follow Christ (John 10:27), love their brothers (1 John 3:14), obey God’s commandments (1 John 2:3; John 15:14), do the will of God (Matt. 12:50), abide in God’s Word (John 8:31), keep God’s Word (John 17:6), do good works (Eph. 2:10), and continue in the faith (Col. 1:21-23; Heb. 3:14). In contrast, easybelievism teaches that although some spiritual fruit is inevitable, that fruit might not be visible to others and Christians can even lapse into a state of permanent spiritual barrenness.
Fifth, Scripture teaches that God’s gift of eternal life includes all that pertains to life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3; Rom. 8:32), not just a ticket to heaven. In contrast, according to easy-believism, only the judicial aspects of salvation (e.g., justification, adoption, and positional sanctification) are guaranteed for believers in this life; practical sanctification and growth in grace require a post-conversion act of dedication.
Sixth, Scripture teaches that Jesus is Lord of all, and the faith He demands involves unconditional surrender (Rom. 6:17-18; 10:9-10). In other words, Christ does not bestow eternal life on those whose hearts remain set against Him (James 4:6). Surrender to Jesus’ lordship is not an addendum to the biblical terms of salvation; the summons to submission is at the heart of the gospel invitation throughout Scripture. In contrast, easy-believism teaches that submission to Christ’s supreme authority is not germane to the saving transaction.
Seventh, Scripture teaches that those who truly believe will love Christ (1 Pet. 1:8-9; Rom. 8:28-30; 1 Cor. 16:22). They will therefore long to obey Him (John 14:15, 23). In contrast, easy-believism teaches that Christians may fall into a state of lifelong carnality.
Eighth, Scripture teaches that behavior is an important test of faith. Obedience is evidence that one’s faith is real (1 John 2:3). On the other hand, the person who remains utterly unwilling to obey Christ does not evidence true faith (1 John 2:4). In contrast, easybelievism teaches that disobedience and prolonged sin are no reason to doubt the reality of one’s faith.
Ninth, Scripture teaches that genuine believers may stumble and fall, but they will persevere in the faith (1 Cor. 1:8). Those who later turn completely away from the Lord show that they were never truly born again (1 John 2:19). In contrast, easy-believism teaches that a true believer may utterly forsake Christ and come to the point of not believing.
Most Christians recognize that these nine distinctives are not new or radical ideas. The preponderance of Bible-believing Christians over the centuries have held these to be basic tenets of orthodoxy. In fact, no major orthodox movement in the history of Christianity has ever taught that sinners can spurn the lordship of Christ yet lay claim to Him as Savior.
This issue is not a trivial one. In fact, how could any issue be more important? The gospel that is presented to unbelievers has eternal ramifications. If it is the true gospel, it can direct men and women into the everlasting kingdom. If it is a corrupted message, it can give unsaved people false hope while consigning them to eternal damnation. This is not merely a matter for theologians to discuss and debate and speculate about. This is an issue that every single pastor and lay person must understand in order that the gospel may be rightly proclaimed to all the nations.
Adapted from John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994); John MacArthur, The Gospel According to the Apostles (Dallas: Word Publishing, 2000); and John MacArthur, “Getting the Gospel Right,” Masterpiece, Fall 1988, 6-10. For a fuller treatment of lordship salvation, consult these resources.
The Sufficiency of Scripture
It is significant that one of the biblical names of Christ is Wonderful Counselor (Isa. 9:6). He is the highest and ultimate One to whom we may turn for counsel, and His Word is the well from which we may draw divine wisdom. What could be more wonderful than that? In fact, one of the most glorious aspects of Christ’s perfect sufficiency is the wonderful counsel and great wisdom He supplies in our times of despair, confusion, fear, anxiety, and sorrow. He is the quintessential Counselor.
This is not to denigrate the importance of Christians counseling each other. There certainly is a crucial need for biblically sound counseling ministries within the Church, and this need is met by those who are spiritually gifted to offer encouragement, discernment, comfort, advice, compassion, and help to others. In fact, one of the very problems that has led to the current plague of bad counsel is that churches have not done as well as they could in equipping people with those kinds of gifts to minister effectively. In addition, the complexities of this modern age have made it more difficult to take the time necessary to listen well, serve others through compassionate personal involvement, and otherwise provide the close fellowship necessary for the church body to enjoy health and vitality.
Churches have looked to psychology to fill the gap, but it isn’t going to work. Professional psychologists are no substitute for spiritually gifted people and the counsel that psychology offers cannot replace biblical wisdom and divine power. Moreover, psychology tends to make people dependent on a therapist, whereas those exercising true spiritual gifts always turn people back to all-sufficient Savior and His all-sufficient Word.
A Psalm on Scripture’s Sufficiency Psalm 19:7–9 is the most monumental and concise statement on the sufficiency of Scripture ever made. Penned by David under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, these three verses offer unwavering testimony from God Himself about the sufficiency of His Word for every situation and thereby counter the teaching of those who believe that God’s Word must be augmented with truth gleaned from modern psychology. In this passage David makes six statements, each highlighting a characteristic of Scripture and describing its effect in the life of the one who embraces it. Taken together, these statements paint a beautiful picture of the sufficiency of God’s Word.
Scripture Is Perfect, Restoring the Soul In the first statement (v. 7), David says, “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul.” This word “perfect” is the translation of a common Hebrew word meaning “whole,” “complete,” or “sufficient.” It conveys the idea of something that is comprehensive, so as to cover all aspects of an issue. Scripture is comprehensive, embodying all that is necessary to one’s spiritual life. David’s implied contrast here is with the imperfect, insufficient, flawed reasoning of men.
God’s perfect law, David says, affects people by “restoring the soul” (v. 7). To paraphrase David’s words, Scripture is so powerful and comprehensive that it can convert or transform the entire person, changing someone into precisely the person God wants him to be. God’s Word is sufficient to restore through salvation even the most broken life—a fact to which David himself gave abundant testimony.
Scripture Is Trustworthy, Imparting Wisdom David further expands the sweep of scriptural sufficiency in Psalm 19:7, writing, “The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.” David’s use of the word “sure” means that the Lord’s testimony is unwavering, immovable, unmistakable, reliable, and worthy to be trusted. It provides a foundation on which to build one’s life and eternal destiny.
God’s sure Word makes the simple wise (v. 7). The Hebrew word translated “simple” comes from an expression meaning “an open door.” It evokes the image of a naive person who doesn’t know to shut his mind to false or impure teaching. He is undiscerning, ignorant, and gullible, but God’s Word makes him wise. Such a man is skilled in the art of godly living: He submits to Scripture and knows how to apply it to his circumstances. The Word of God thus takes a simple mind with no discernment and makes it skilled in the issues of life.
Scripture Is Right, Causing Joy In verse 8, David adds a third statement about Scripture’s sufficiency: “The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart.” Rather than simply indicating what is right as opposed to wrong, the word translated “right” has the sense of showing someone the true path. The truths of Scripture lay out the proper path through the difficult maze of life. That brings a wonderful confidence. So many people are distressed or despondent because they lack direction and purpose, and most of them seek answers from the wrong sources. God’s Word not only provides the light to our path (Ps. 119:105), but also sets the route before us.
Because it steers us through the right course of life, God’s Word brings great joy. If one is depressed, anxious, fearful, or doubting, the solution is found not in self-indulgent pursuits like self-esteem and self-fulfillment. The solution is found in learning to obey God’s counsel and sharing in the resulting delight. Divine truth is the fount of true and lasting joy. All other sources are shallow and fleeting.
Scripture Is Pure, Enlightening the Eyes Psalm 19:8 gives a fourth characteristic of Scripture’s utter sufficiency: “The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.” This word “pure” could better be translated “clear” or “lucid,” and it indicates that Scripture is not mystifying, confusing, or puzzling. God’s Word reveals truth to make the dark things light, bringing eternity into bright focus. Granted, there are things in Scripture that are hard to understand (2 Pet. 3:16), but taken as a whole, the Bible is not a bewildering book. It is clear and lucid.
Because of its absolute clarity, Scripture brings understanding where there is ignorance, order where there is confusion, and light where there is spiritual and moral darkness. It stands in stark contrast to the muddled musings of unredeemed men, who themselves are blind and unable to discern truth or live righteously. God’s Word clearly reveals the blessed, hopeful truths they can never see.
Scripture Is Clean, Enduring Forever In Psalm 19:9 David uses the term “fear” as a synonym for God’s Word: “The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever.” This “fear” speaks of the reverential awe for God that compels believers to worship Him. Scripture, in this sense, is the divine manual on how to worship the Lord. The Hebrew word “clean” speaks of the absence of impurity, filthiness, defilement, or imperfection. Scripture is without sin, evil, corruption, or error. The truth it conveys is therefore absolutely undefiled and without blemish.
Because it is flawless, Scripture endures forever (Ps. 19:9). Any change or modification could only introduce imperfection. Scripture is eternally and unalterably perfect. It needs no updating, editing, or refining, for it is God’s revelation for every generation. The Bible was written by the omniscient Spirit of God, who is infinitely more sophisticated than anyone who dares stand in judgment on Scripture’s relevancy for our society, and infinitely wiser than all the best philosophers, analysts, and psychologists who pass like a childhood parade into irrelevancy. Scripture has always been and will always be sufficient.
Scripture Is True, Altogether Righteous Verse 9 provides the final characteristic and effect of God’s all-sufficient Word: “The judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether.” The word “judgments” in this context refers to ordinances or divine verdicts from the bench of the Supreme Judge of the Earth. The Bible is God’s standard for judging the life and eternal destiny of every person. Because Scripture is true, it is “righteous altogether” (Ps. 19:9). The implication of that phrase is that its truthfulness produces a comprehensive righteousness in those who accept it.
Contrary to what many are teaching today, there is no need for additional revelations, visions, words of prophecy, or insights from modern psychology. In contrast to the theories of men, God’s Word is true and absolutely comprehensive. Rather than seeking something more than God’s glorious revelation, Christians need only to study and obey what they already have. Scripture is sufficient.
Adapted from John MacArthur, Our Sufficiency in Christ (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1998). For a fuller treatment of the sufficiency of Scripture, consult this resource.
The Sovereignty of God
No doctrine is more despised by the natural mind than the truth that God is absolutely sovereign. Human pride loathes the suggestion that God orders everything, controls everything, and rules over everything. The carnal mind, burning with enmity against God, abhors the biblical teaching that nothing comes to pass except according to His eternal decrees. Most of all, flesh hates the notion that salvation is entirely God’s work. If God chose who would be saved, and if His choice was settled before the foundation of the world, then believers deserve no credit for any aspect of their salvation.
But that is, after all, precisely what Scripture teaches. Even faith is God’s gracious gift to His elect. Jesus said, “No one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father” (John 6:65). “Nor does anyone know the Father, except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him” (Matt. 11:27). Therefore no one who is saved has anything to boast about (Eph. 2:8-9). “Salvation is from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9).
The doctrine of divine election is explicitly taught throughout Scripture. For example, in the New Testament epistles alone, we learn that all believers are “chosen of God” (Titus 1:1). We were “predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11, emphasis added). “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world. …He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will” (Eph. 1:4-5). We “are called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son …and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified” (Rom. 8:28-30).
When Peter wrote that we are “chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father” (1 Peter 1:1-2), he was not using the word “foreknowledge” to mean that God was aware beforehand who would believe and therefore chose them because of their foreseen faith. Rather, Peter meant that God determined before time to know and love and save them; and He chose them without regard to anything good or bad they might do. Scripture teaches that God’s sovereign choice is made “according to the kind intention of His will” and “according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will”—that is, not for any reason external to Himself. Certainly He did not choose certain sinners to be saved because of something praiseworthy in them, or because He foresaw that they would choose Him. He chose them solely because it pleased Him to do so. God declares “the end from the beginning …saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure’” (Isa. 46:10). He is not subject to others’ decisions. His purposes for choosing some and rejecting others are hidden in the secret counsels of His own will.
Moreover, everything that exists in the universe exists because God allowed it, decreed it, and called it into existence. “Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases” (Ps. 115:3). “Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps” (Ps. 135:6). He “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11). “From Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (Rom. 11:36). “For us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him” (1 Cor. 8:6).
What about sin? God is not the author of sin, but He certainly allowed it; it is integral to His eternal decree. God has a purpose for allowing it. He cannot be blamed for evil or tainted by its existence (1 Sam. 2:2: “There is no one holy like the Lord.”). But He certainly wasn’t caught off-guard or standing helpless to stop it when sin entered the universe. We do not know His purpose for allowing sin. Clearly, in the general sense, He allowed sin in order to display His glory—attributes that would not be revealed apart from evil—mercy, grace, compassion, forgiveness, and salvation. And God sometimes uses evil to accomplish good (Gen. 45:7–8; 50:20; Rom. 8:28). How can these things be? Scripture does not answer all the questions, but it does teach that God is utterly sovereign, perfectly holy, and absolutely just.
Admittedly, these truths are hard for the human mind to embrace, but Scripture is unequivocal. God controls all things, right down to choosing who will be saved. Paul states the doctrine in inescapable terms in the ninth chapter of Romans, by showing that God chose Jacob and rejected his twin brother Esau "though the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls" (v. 11). A few verses later, Paul adds this: "He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy" (vv. 15-16).
Paul anticipated the argument against divine sovereignty: "You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?" (v. 19). In other words, doesn’t God’s sovereignty cancel out human responsibility? But rather than offering a philosophical answer or a deep metaphysical argument, Paul simply reprimanded the skeptic: "On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use?" (vv. 20-21).
Scripture affirms both divine sovereignty and human responsibility. We must accept both sides of the truth, though we may not understand how they correspond to one another. People are responsible for what they do with the gospel—or with whatever light they have (Rom. 2:19-20) so that punishment is just if they reject the light. And those who reject do so voluntarily. Jesus lamented, "You are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life" (John 5:40). He told unbelievers, "Unless you believe that I am [God], you shall die in your sins" (John 8:24). In John 6, our Lord combined both divine sovereignty and human responsibility when He said, "All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out" (v. 37); "For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him, may have eternal life" (v. 40); "No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him" (v. 44); "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life" (v. 47); and, "No one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father" (v. 65). How both of these two realities can be true simultaneously cannot be understood by the human mind—only by God.
Above all, one must not conclude that God is unjust because He chooses to bestow grace on some but not to everyone. God is never to be measured by what seems fair to human judgment. Is man so foolish as to assume that he, a sinful creature, has a higher standard of what is right than an unfallen, infinitely, eternally holy God? What kind of pride is that? In Psalm 50:21 God says, "You thought that I was just like you." But God is not like man, nor can He be held to human standards. "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts" (Isa. 55:8-9).