A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Lordship Salvation versus Easy Believism versus Reformed Theology

Lordship Salvation destroys assurance. It promotes false guilt in believers who have a sensitive conscience. And it promotes hypocrisy in the visible church.

Lordship Salvation theology was created to push back against the error of ‘Easy Believism’ theology. But both these theologies are wrong. Many of our readers have wittingly or unwittingly been exposed to one or both of these errors.

Why am I writing about complexities of theology, when so many of our readers are exhausted and grieving from all the abuse they have suffered? Because while I know it can be a brain drain to wrap one’s head around theological debates, I believe it is immensely helpful for Christian victims of abuse to understand the errors in the theology they have been taught.

If we understand theology correctly we are much better equipped to identify and resist the spiritual abuse tactics which are employed to oppress victims of abuse. And our love for the Lord becomes even stronger and more vivifying, because we have sloughed off wrong ideas about God and the Christian life.

So dear readers, I encourage you to read this post in full. Take you time if need be. And see if what I’m saying makes sense.

Pastor John Fonville is well equipped to explain what Lordship Salvation is, how the doctrine originated, and, most importantly, how it diverges from biblical truth. He grew up as a Southern Baptist and studied at John MacArthur’s Master’s Seminary where he was taught Lordship Salvation theology. He later came to realize how erroneous Lordship Salvation was. So he is very able to explain what Lordship Salvation is…and what its errors are.

Note well: both John Macarthur and John Piper have a Lordship Salvation theology.

I urge all our readers to listen to this podcast: Lordship Salvation, with Pastor John Fonville. There is some preliminary material and then Ps Fonville comes on about 8:27.

I (Barb) had heard the term ‘Lordship Salvation’ before, but I didn’t know what it was. What an eye-opener it was to listen to this podcast!

The Lordship Salvation doctrine arose because of a concern back in the 80’s and early 90’s that the double benefits of salvation – justification and sanctification – were being separated.

Some guys from Dallas Seminary were saying that  justification and sanctification were separate deals. In his 1980’s book Absolutely Free, Zane Hodges from Dallas Seminary argued that you can accept Jesus as your Savior and be justified, but you don’t have to accept him as your Lord. This idea is commonly known as ‘Easy Believism’ and it produces antinomianism (lawlessness, libertinism). Hodges said that if you want later on to accept Jesus as your Savior, you can do that and thus become a disciple of Jesus. (By the way, this was not a new heresy. Heresies get recycled with variants and new labels down the centuries.)

In order to correct this error, John MacArthur wrote a book The Gospel According To Jesus: What Is Authentic Faith. He argued that Jesus is both Savior and Lord to all who believe. So MacArthur and his followers came to be known as the Lordship Salvation camp.

MacArthur was correcting the widespread mistaken teaching that you could answer an altar call and sincerely pray the sinner’s prayer and sign this line because you’ve “asked Jesus into your heart” and you would be saved. That kind of theology came out of revivalism. It is also steeped in a Wesleyan two-step view of salvation – a ‘higher life’ Keswick view of salvation – namely, that you can be justified initially but at some later point in your life you have this existential experience with the Holy Spirit and you truly become sanctified and at that point you become a victorious Christian and live the abundant Christian life.

But the problem was, as Michael Horton put it:

While MacArthur was pulling up the weeds of antinomianism [lawlessness], he also pulled up the flowers of the reformation. 

Lordship Salvation confuses and blurs the Law and the Gospel so that ultimately Law just consumes the entire Gospel.

John Fonville gives examples of how Lordship Salvation has infected a lot of the visible church. He uses the example of David Platt’s book Radical. (Platt has a Lordship Salvation theology.) Here is Pastor John Fonville at 33:00 in the podcast–

[Lordship Salvation] creates a taxing legalism. Platt issues a call to ‘live the gospel’.

Nowhere does scripture issue a command for believers to ‘live the gospel’ – that is the unique work of Christ alone. I’ve never met a person who has incarnated themselves. And I’ve never met a person who has perfectly through their active obedience given perfect perpetual personal obedience to God’s law. I’ve never met a person who has the authority to lay their life down on a cross and pick it up again the third day and propitiate the judgement and wrath of God for sin. So it’s a confusion of categories and it’s silly to call people to ‘live the gospel’.

The bible calls us to believe the gospel and to obey the law.

The law and the gospel are to be carefully distinguished.

The law says ‘Do this and live. If you do not do it you will die.’

Ever since the Fall, we have been unable to keep the law perfectly. God’s law exposes to us our sin and misery. The Holy Spirit uses the law to reveal to us our need to repent of sin and our pretence of law-keeping.

The gospel gives us the remedy: receive and rest on Christ alone, through faith.

Christ met the demands of the law. He did this in two ways: his active personal perfect obedience to the law during his life, and his passive obedience to the law by suffering the penalty of the law, namely the wrath of God and death on our behalf. So all a repentant sinner needs to do is receive and rest in the finished work of Christ alone.

Because Lordship Salvation blurs law and gospel, it also has a defective understanding of discipleship. Fonville explains this (42:40 in the podcast) by giving the example of how Platt misinterprets the story of the rich young man in Mark 10.

In that section of the podcast I saw lots of parallels with how churches pressure victims of abuse to keep on submitting to their abusers in order to show radical surrender to Jesus’ lordship.

As we have said many times before at ACFJ, churches lay false guilt on victims if they don’t adhere to the church’s counsel. And they induce fear in victims of abuse by implying that if they don’t comply they are not true Christians.

Reformed theology rightly distinguishes Law and Gospel

The Reformed Confessions and Catechisms steer a clear path between the two errors of  Lordship Salvation (legalism, moralism) and Easy Believism (libertinism).

Here is Pastor Fonville (54:45  in the podcast)  —

The Reformed Confessions talk about how we are united to Christ by grace alone by faith alone. And we receive a whole Christ: Christ as Savior and Lord. We receive Christ with all his saving benefits. We receive the substance of the covenant of grace which is both justification and sanctification. … 

Qn 75 of the Westminster Larger Catechism speaks about progressive sanctification—[Barb has put the words from the Catechism in italics]

Sanctification is a work of God’s grace…

This is so important: it is a work of God’s grace. So right there, you know sanctification is not some synergistic effort between you and God to save yourself.

Sanctification is a work of God’s grace whereby they (that is the elect, God’s chosen people, whom God hath before the foundation of the world chosen to be holy) are, in time, through the powerful operation of His Spirit applying the death and resurrection of Christ unto them…

So it is a work of God’s grace through the powerful operation of the Holy Spirit who applies the death and resurrection of Christ to us. It’s not our work. And by that work of grace of the Holy Spirit applying the death and resurrection of Christ to believers, then 

they are renewed unto a whole man unto the image of God having the seeds of repentance unto life and all other saving graces put into their hearts, and those graces so stirred up increased and strengthened as that they more and more die unto sin and rise unto newness of life.

The Lordship Salvation crowd (MacArthur, Piper, etc.) blur the distinction between justification and sanctification, so you have to meet certain conditions in your sanctification-works in order to enter into heaven.

In contrast, the Easy Believism  (Free Grace/non Lordship) crowd separate justification and sanctification. They emphasize, legitimately, that assurance of salvation is clearly taught in the Scriptures, but in so doing they reduce faith to something less than the full orbed biblical teaching. They bifurcate justification and sanctification.

But the Reformed Confessions do not blur the lines between justification and sanctification, nor do they unscripturally separate or bifurcate justification and sanctification.

At 103:30 in the podcast, Ps Fonville explains the Law and Gospel hermeneutic of the Reformed Confessions. The Reformed Confessions distinguish between two types of covenants:

  • Law is the covenant of works which is first announced in Genesis 2:15-17.
  • Gospel is the covenant of grace which is first announced in Genesis 3:15 and finds its way from promise there to fulfilment in the New Heavens and New Earth.

Pastor Fonville says:

When you turn the gospel (the covenant of grace) into the covenant of works and make personal spirit-wrought sanctity a condition for salvation, you have just injected the covenant of works back into the covenant of grace and you have destroyed the gospel. That’s why it’s so important to make these distinctions in the bible and to have these categories. [the categories of Law and Gospel]

So what is the place of good works?

… once the Holy Spirit has worked Christ-embracing faith in our hearts, all conditions of salvation having been met in Him, do good works then cease to be necessary?

Of course not—why would they? Good works are glorifying to God, comforting to the soul of believers, and are used by God to win others to Christ. (source)

John MacArthur and John Piper do not have reformed theology. They do not subscribe to any Reformed Confessions. They do not follow the framework that the Reformers articulate. They do not rightly articulate the Law (the covenant of works) and the Gospel (the covenant of grace).  So they go very wrong on many things from there.

And here’s another caution. We need to remember that there are people who falsely claim to be Reformed in their theology who inject the covenant of works back into the covenant of grace and thereby destroy the gospel.  The Federal Vision crowd Norman Shepherd & Doug Wilson are obvious examples. But  many unstable presbyterian (PCA) ministers are in this group too.

Michael Horton rightly says–

When you collapse the covenant of works into the covenant of grace you don’t have law and gospel, you have glospel.  (1:06:00 in the podcast)

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we need to beware of false teachers in all tribes of the church.

One benefit of the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms is that they help us learn and pass on to the next generation the true doctrines of Christianity. And they help us identify the false teachers.

Lordship Salvation destroys assurance and it promotes false guilt in believers who have a sensitive conscience.

For a serious believer who is weak and sinning, Lordship Salvation doctrine destroys the believer’s assurance so it leads to despair. For a Christian victim of domestic abuse, Lordship Salvation induces false guilt and terror that they are going to hell if they don’t comply with the church’s counsel and the abuser’s demands.

Lordship Salvation promotes hypocrisy in the visible church.

The other thing Lordship Salvation does is promote hypocrisy in some people in the visible church. And we know what that leads to – it makes the visible church an environment that is conducive to wolves in sheep’s clothing and wolves in pulpits. These wolves create man-made laws by twisting scripture and they use these laws to oppress others. They hammer their man-made laws especially hard on victims of abuse when victims resist the oppression. And all the while these wolves are pretending to be law-keepers, but they are wicked hypocrites. Many people outside the church see this and decide to have nothing to do with Christ.

Which leads me to the only one problem I have with this podcast. It comes near the end of  the podcast (1:58:15). A female listener asks how is she to rightly understand these three warning passages in light of the gospel:

  • Matt 6:15  For if you do not forgive men their trespasses neither will the Father forgive yours.
  • Matt 7:2   For in the judgement you pronounce you will be judged, the measure you use is the measure that will be used against you.
  • Matt 10:33  Whoever denies me before men I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven.

I didn’t see any error in Pastor Fonville’s response to the listener’s question, but I thought his answer was inadequate because

  • he didn’t consider the possibility that this woman had been taught confusing and defective ideas of forgiveness (see my post Three kinds of forgiveness)
  • he didn’t consider that she might be dealing with a situation where she was rightly judging someone but her church was telling her that her judgement was wrong
  • he didn’t consider the possibility that she might be rightly standing for Christ and Truth but was being told by her church that she was denying Christ by her attitude and behavior.

UPDATE: please read the comments below by Marissa Namir and Colleen Sharp who are on the TheologyGals team. They explain that they had to edit Ps Fonville’s interview in order to fit it into the podcast. And they’ve followed up with the woman who asked that question, and supported her to move to another church.

***

Related posts at this blog
The connection between #MeToo and the rejection of ‘salvation by faith alone’ (Sola Fide)

The “Christian” Abuser: Couldn’t He be a “Carnal” Christian? (Part 1 of a 4 part series)

***

Pastor Fonville is the teaching elder at Paramount Church, Jacksonville Florida. See the church’s statement of faith here. In the podcast I’ve referred to in this post, Ps Fonville is being interviewed by Theology GalsTheology Gals is a podcast by women, for women. They bring a biblical, reformed Christian perspective to the table. They discuss theology, studying God’s word and the importance of applying it to the Christian life.

Theology Gals interviewed Jeff Crippen a while ago. The episode was called Abuse and the Church.

Dr R Scott Clark’s interview with John Fonville:
https://heidelblog.net/2015/06/heidelcast-95-reformation-happens/

Dr R Scott Clark and his pastor, Chris Gordon, talk about the doctrine of justification: http://www.agradio.org/podcast/justification-scott-clark

R Scott Clark interviewing Michael Horton in 2013 about the Lordship Salvation controversy:
https://wscal.edu/resource-center/the-lordship-controversy

25 Comments

  1. Helovesme

    So there was a lot of amazing writing in this post. You did such a wonderful job! I did notice that in the two heresies described, the vital reality of being born again (in and through Him; it is a work of Him, not of ourselves) seemed to be missing. Pastor F thankfully brought it up: “they are renewed unto a whole man unto the image of God having the seeds of repentance unto life and all other saving graces put into their hearts…”

    There was also another huge piece of the puzzle missing in the two false teachings: Joy! Joy that the work is finished in Him, and by Him. Joy that all the law keeping, law abiding, law awareness in the world does not save. Trust that He did it ALL (and “all” means all) to ensure our salvation. I didn’t “have to” lift a finger, prove myself or “appease” Him in order to be saved. And to be loved? Well, He loved me even before I was born again, when I didn’t give one care for Him and frankly hated Him with virtually every bone in my body. No one has ever loved with such purity and perfection to reach out to me when all I cared about was myself. I was a mocker and a scoffer towards Him.

    Brother Paul pointed everything in his life to God’s grace working in Him, shaping and growing him in all he did and would become (1Corinthians 15:10). I don’t understand how and why grace is so overlooked and put on a shelf when Brother Paul lived by it as we should. If I tried to do any good works myself, even if I had the best of intentions, I know I would mess is up. And worst yet? God would not get all the glory as He so richly deserves. These awful teachings are stealing His glory and all the praise He alone deserves. He had a plan for salvation from the beginning and He accomplished it all on His own.

    There is nothing more wonderful and more satisfying than watching the Lord work. And He did His ultimate work on the cross for us. None of us were there, of course, but He was making sure that condemnation would have no part/no play in our lives anymore. He is forever done dealing with His believers on the basis of His wrath. Fully accomplished and fully satisfied on the cross. If you are attending a church or listening to pastors who are insinuating otherwise, read the Word and ask Him to reveal it to you. We often open ourselves up to deception by taking a pastor’s word that he/she is speaking God’s truth.

    • Thanks, Helovesme,

      I worked a long time on this post and it’s great to hear comments like yours. You get it. And yes, joy is missing from the heretical theologies. Pseudo-joy may be hyped, faked from the pulpit, manufactured, cranked out by the laying guilt on the flock who don’t show the veneer of joy… but true joy comes from being born again by the Word and the Spirit and being IN Christ with the assurance of no condemnation.

      bless you!

  2. Gany T.

    Such an important topic as these distortions (heresies) are wreaking havoc among God’s true sheep and giving great occasion for mockery of “the Gospel” by the world, and hurt between genuine believers in different camps. Much to mull over with more time, but 2 gems popped right out to me:

    “John MacArthur and John Piper do not have reformed theology.” I personally want to shout from the housetops, over and over!

    And, “The Holy Spirit uses the law to reveal to us our need to repent of sin and our pretence of law-keeping,” to repeat to myself, over and over.

    Thank you for this post!

  3. Marissa Namirr

    So thankful you are posting from this interview Barbara. Many have been blessed by John Fonville’s teaching on this topic. We interviewed John for 3 hours. The podcast is 2 hours, so it is not that John was unconcerned for the other issues you noted at the end, rather that we only had so much time. Hope that is understood.
    ~ Marissa Namirr, the guest host on this Theology Gals podcast.

    • Thanks Marissa, and it’s so nice to hear from you!

    • And thanks for explaining that you had to edit the interview because of time constraints. I am very very happy to hear you confirm that Ps Fonville is concerned about the issues I raised at the end of my post.

      It’s hard being a journalist, podcaster or blogger — one often has to cut and condense one’s material before publication.

  4. Marissa Namirr

    Thank you Barbara. John loves the sheep. Very protective. I friend requested you on Facebook. Gospel blessings!

  5. Coleen Sharp

    I really appreciate that you’re talking about this subject. I believe this teaching has caused many to struggle with assurance because they’re taught to look to their works instead of to Christ.

    I wanted to add to what Marissa said regarding the last question. I know the gal and have been working with her on the topic she brought up, something I told John also. Podcasts should never be seen as a thorough handling of a topic or question. This episode was already way over time. In order to include everything you mentioned would have taken a lot of time and we were in a rush to wrap it up. I’ve given her those things privately, including helping her find a new church.

    Thanks for a great summary of the topic!

    • Thanks Coleen. And it’s wonderful to hear that you have followed up with that woman. Bless you!

  6. Daniel Lynem

    Well done. I’m somewhat familiar with Lordship Salvation Theology but I haven’t done an in depth study as you’ve presented here. I am going to listen to the podcast. In a few short conversations with a couple Elders at my church, they expressed the same concerns you’ve presented here and have the same position. . Reading your article has motivated me to do some homework, and I’ll start by listening to the podcast. Thanks!

    In His Grip,
    Daniel

  7. Clockwork Angel

    I hate to say it, but my abuser dad would have loved this post. He was really, really into Michael Horton and even went to Kim Riddlebarger’s church for a long time. When he got into monergistic sanctification, he got even worse. He just sat around waiting for God to zap him while he indulged in anything he pleased. His drinking got worse, his abuse got worse.

    This is no silver bullet. You can never tell someone like my dad that he needs to repent and stop the bad behavior, because God might monergistically zap him tomorrow and therefore who are you to judge? (I mean “you” in the general sense.) He would say he can’t do anything unless God does it for him. In other words, he can’t help it and can now blame shift his sin onto God, which is also what he did.

    • Thanks CA for this interesting story.

      What a clear snapshot you’ve given us of how abusers can use reformed theology to evade responsibility. What you said here —

      He would say he can’t do anything unless God does it for him. In other words, he can’t help it and can now blame shift his sin onto God, which is also what he did.

      – yes, an abuser can shift the blame to God. He can blame God for letting Adam sin. He can blame God for allowing all mankind to inherit a sin nature (‘original sin’) from Adam. He can claim that he doesn’t even have to make any self-efforts to rein in his bad behaviour for the sake of others and he doesn’t have to seek Christ’s mercy because the initiative in salvation comes from God not from man. So he can pass the buck to God for not zapping him into repentance and saving faith.

      It sounds like you father had really honed and perfected these kinds of evasion tactics!

      What high-handed sin! What deliberate wickedness! What defiance! What arrogance! What blasphemous taunting of God!

      If your father was reading the Bible and the Reformer’s writings at the Monergism website, he knew full well that he was storing up wrath for himself on the Day of Judgment. Look at Romans 2:5,6,8,9a —

      But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who WILL RENDER TO EACH PERSON ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS: …
      to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil…
      (NASB)

      Because of your hardened and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment is revealed. He will repay each one according to his works: …
      wrath and anger to those who are self-seeking and disobey the truth while obeying unrighteousness. There will be affliction and distress for every human being who does evil (CSB)

    • So I trust, Clockwork Angel, that your abusive father would NOT have loved the comment I just put in reply to yours. He would have gnashed his teeth at it and wanted to destroy me.

      • Clockwork Angel

        Thanks, Barb! Yes, he would hate what you just said!

        What does disturb me, however, is that he didn’t seem to be getting these things from Dr. Riddlebarger’s church. (And, I”m sure you know, he and Michael Horton co-host the White Horse Inn radio show.) Other churches that said anything about holiness at all he would hate and say bad things about the pastor, no matter how much the pastor qualified his statements that it is God who makes us holy. Somehow, there was a disconnect at this church. Michael Horton and Dr. Riddlebarger may have things down on paper one way, but in daily preaching to their congregations, what exactly do they have? My father’s conscience was never bothered at that church. Only in other churches.

        No silver bullet, alas. The abuser always wiggles out of personal responsibility, and sadly, even churches with the right doctrine don’t have the guts to preach anything hard.

        I know people at my father’s congregation would help him to stalk me and my Mom after he left. They helped him abandon us. The elders didn’t care. He had slandered even me to them, and would come home with advice from them to kick me out when I turned 18. And they had never even met me. They never met my Mom. That church helped him wreck our lives financially. Shucks, I know he was even preying on members of their congregation to commit sexual immorality with them. At the very least, I know that that those elder knew my father was a drunk. That church gave all the grace to my father, none for innocent people they never even met. I forgive them, but why is their preaching and practice so inept?

      • Thanks Clockwork Angel!

        You are right: it is very often the case that even churches with the right doctrine don’t have the guts to preach anything hard.

        This is why we have to keep blowing the bullhorn and naming the well known pastors and leaders who are doing this. We believe you, CA, and we are happy to let your testimony stand as naming Dr. Riddlebarger and his church.

        And today I tweeted Michael Horton to give him a heads-up about your testimony in this thread. What’s the bet he ignores my tweet?

      • Clockwork Angel

        Hmm, lemme check my magic 8 ball. It said “yes”, Michael Horton will ignore your tweet.

        Let me know if he miraculously does say anything. I’m sure all of us would be eager to hear.

        Thanks again, Barb!

      • I just checked my twitter. Horton has not responded to my tweet.

      • Clockwork Angel

        Thanks for your followup, Barb! Yeah, I’m not surprised that Michael Horton did not reply. Sad. 😦

  8. Valerie

    I’ve understood Lordship salvation to be the answer to easy believism according to Scripture. I have not experienced proponents of this theology claim that works are indeed required for salvation but rather are evidence of it.

    To take the example in the abuse dichotomy, the abuser is very adept at saying the right things. The victim of abuse may ask the abuser to remember to pick up groceries, put the kids to bed, or other specific requests. The abuser retorts that he doesn’t have to do the specific things to prove his character. That is an unnecessary burden and shouldn’t be required. But on the outside as we discern the situation we can say that the fact that he consistently refuses these requests and has no desire to work toward the underlying attitude that would accompany these requests is proof that he is not the person he claims to be.

    Would the abuser be claiming Lordship salvation (by analogy) in saying it is unreasonable for others to make specific expectations of them? Or can abuse victims and people helpers discern the situation in such a way to say that the fact that the abuser consistently chooses to ignore the specific expectations or other similar expectations as proof that Christ is not the Lord of his life?

    I guess to surmise I’m wondering at what specific points proponents of LS go from claiming repentance and fruit fullled living is evidence of salvation to actually claiming it’s required for salvation. It may seem like a foggy line but as I read scripture I see countless evidence that a transformed life, aspiring to holiness and servanthood in response to our salvation is reinforced repeatedly. We also do these things joyfully because of our gratitude for God’s mercy is calling us when we were dead in our sin and therefore unable to respond to Him without His grace and mercy intervening.

    Am I missing something? I do wholeheartedly agree that I have seen evidence of LS taken to the extreme that keeps abuse victims oppressed in the way described; but I believe this is the result of those taking a far end of the continuum- extremists, just as there are for any other teaching under the sun. I have heard many messages from teachers who left me feeling defeated and shamed rather than motivated to joyfully serve. And I’d also say some of those times it was the Spirit convicting me that I’ve been far too self focused and it was the enemy who used that conviction to discourage me. Just some thoughts.

    • Hmm. I’m trying to write a response to your comment Valerie, but haven’t got it together yet. Let me keep mulling on it.

  9. PB

    Good blog, thank you for exposing this. I had been a victim of some lordship salvation street preachers. I began to believe their heresy and felt defeated all the time. I was bewitched as the book of Galatians puts it.

    I was a victim of domestic abuse and the group of street preachers I was in condemned me for speaking up against the abuse my (now ex-) husband has done. A couple of the women took me aside and told me I would be judged my the same measure I had judged my husband and that I was in sin for not being discrete.

    It was during the time of me separating from my ex that I began to see the ugly fruit, the hypocrisy and heresy of those lordship salvation street preachers.

    • Thanks so much PB for sharing this. 🙂 🙂 and many blessings to you!

      Well done you …for seeing through the deceptive and enslaving teaching of the Lordship Salvation pedlars.

  10. Michael

    Magnificent article!

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