This is meant to be a friendly but straight forward response to Mike Abendroth, whom I like and think is a reliable resource on many issues. After reading his articles on his “Pilgrimage from “Lordship” to Law/Gospel” I don’t think this is one of those areas where I think Mike is reliable. I think he has muddied the waters. I acknowledge that this is something of Mike’s story and I cannot argue with that. He obviously has had some misunderstanding’s that have been corrected, and the law/gospel distinction has been very helpful to him. This is understandable and commendable. The problem lies when he is addressing a theological position in a fallacious way. The problem is some of the conclusions he reaches are neither Biblical nor historically mainstream reformed. This kind of fight picking resembles what was going on the 17th century between the Antinomians and the orthodox reformed. My motive and method is to simply walk through his articles and try and clear the waters.
Mike starts out of the gate misrepresenting the Lordship position and thus muddying the waters. Lordship Salvation was a nickname given to a theological debate that began in 1959 in a debate between Everette F. Harrison and John Stott. The position that someone must believe in Jesus as Lord as well as Savior became known as the Lordship Salvation position (from now on LS). The debate heated up when Dallas Theological Seminary’s journal included an article that called the view that one not only had to believe in Jesus as savior but also be committed / submitted to His sovereign authority as Lord to be saved—Lordship Salvation. It came to its hottest point following this article in the 80’s between John MacArthur and some professors at DTS. For many folks the LS position is the reformed view as stated by James M. Boice in his last written words, “Those who take this position call the Reformed understanding of the gospel “Lordship salvation”. (Whatever Happened to the Gospel, 2001). R.C. Sproul’s ministry endorses MacArthur’s book “The Gospel According to Jesus” which might be the most famous book dealing with the issues in the debate, as “a modern day classic” in dealing with easy believism issues. Pretty much everyone acknowledges LS is not a great term. The label has a context and it is dealing with the error of cheap grace; a type of Antinomianism. At this point, you might, if you have been conditioned by this modern “reformed” type of thinking, be in agreement with the Dispensationalists on this point, like evidently Mike at some level is. I want to make sure we understand our terms. The word committed as defined in the 1828 Websters dictionary simply means to entrust into the power or hands of another. The historical reformed position is and has always been. To be saved one must entrust oneself into the power or hands of (or just use one word: Commit—used to help us understand what it means to believe) Christ as Prophet, Priest and King; Lord and Savior. Some of our great Reformed Fathers have used the word commit in their definition of faith such as Warfield, Loyd-Jones, Spurgeon, and J.M. Boice. Believe in this sense—commitment (as a part of fiducia—third element of faith), is not meritorious but that it simply gives oneself into the hands of Christ, as Calvin said, “it leads us into fellowship with the righteousness of Christ” (Calvin). The Bible is crystal clear that one must bend the knee to Jesus sovereign Lordship if one is to be saved (Phil 2:9-11). To bend the knee is a clear reference to a posture of submission to sovereign authority. The heresy is to say someone could be saved and not be willing to submit to Jesus sovereign authority as Lord (Rom 10:9, Mt 7:21-23; Lk 6:46). What were the Dispensationalists doing? They claimed to be bringing the true reformed gospel back to the church (the same thing Mike is saying he is doing). How did the Dispensationalists do this? Well, they had a deficient hermeneutic.
The Dispensational Hermeneutic was a system by which they understood the Bible. They placed this on top of the Bible and then understood the Bible through this lens. This is how they ended up chopping up the Bible and wrongly dividing the Word of God. Interestingly enough, Mike adopts what he calls a Law/gospel hermeneutic. This is an interpretive grid by which he places over the Bible and divides up the Word of God, although differently than the Dispensationalists in many ways, he comes to a similar conclusion with this doctrinal controversy. While I certainly affirm the law/gospel distinction is biblical (defensible from the Bible even), the hermeneutic he employs I believe is problematic.
Mike claims that surrender is the key to unlocking the essence of LS. I certainly have read reformed men like B. B. Warfield, who in defining faith said, “an absolute transference of trust from ourselves to another,’ a complete self-surrender to Christ.” This to me seems to be pretty main stream but Mike evidently is offended by such language. He seems to think the sinner should be able to hold on to his personal autonomy when he comes to Christ; to retain his independence and rebellion and still be made right with God. But making surrender the key to unlocking LS? I have never heard this in my life, again think about the context of what LS is. I consider myself in the historically Reformed understanding of the gospel. I was trained formally at a Seminary committed to the Westminster Confession of Faith. A staple textbook in our theology classes was Francis Turretin. I personally hold to the 1689 LBCF. But in the context of cheap grace, of someone claiming to be able to be saved without repentance, of being able to believe in Jesus as their savior and not as Lord—then absolutely I am in the LS camp. This may be a useful word that some LS advocates use in describing the difference in the context of No-Lordship folks and LS folks to help achieve a portion of what it means to believe in Jesus in a saving way verses a false faith. But I am going to have to call Mike out here and say this is a straw man fallacy. He is acting like it is a view of the gospel that people have settled into by choice that is different than the historical reformed position, as though these folks by exegesis have come to see the gospel in a new way and have come to this position and their cry is – to quote him, “’Surrender’ is a key to unlocking the essence of LS”. Rather than union with Christ and all he has done to save us. He is forgetting the context. He is forgetting that LS is a label assigned by heretics to the historic reformed position. He puts this straw man at this point and then he is going to easily knock it down later. Before we move on, let’s clear the waters.
The LS position is the historical reformed view and sees union with Christ, knowing Christ, believing in Christ as He is revealed to us in all His saving offices as the essence of salvation. We are saved not by law or a covenant of works of any kind. But we are saved by a covenant of grace – in Christ and through whom “God testifies to us that His purpose is to save us freely by His only Son, provided that, by faith, we embrace Him as our only wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption (1 Cor 1:30)” (Beza). To take a polemical point in a debate that is very important in a specific context and then make it the essence of their belief system is fallacious. That is what Mike is doing.
Then Mike says the call to discipleship is often labeled the gospel in LS. Well, again, context is important. If someone claims a person can be saved and not yet be a disciple like the No-LS folks were saying then we might understand their point. If you walk up to a known LS advocate and ask them what he gospel is and they say, “It is a call to discipleship.” Then they walk away, that would definitely be a problem. I doubt MacArthur, Boice, Sproul, Packer or any other fruitful servant of God would say such a thing. But this is the impression you get by reading this article. This kind of misrepresentation is discouraging and sad.
But let us ask – is becoming a learner of Jesus (disciple means learner/follower): law or gospel? If this is law (the conclusion Mike wants us to come to) then what are we to make of the great passage in Matthew where Jesus said to those who were under the heavy yoke of the Pharisees? “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt 11:28-29). We would have to conclude that this is actually law, not gospel. This brings us to Mike’s next big point – What is the law / gospel distinction?
I am all for the law/gospel distinction. The Reformed, Lutherans, and Antinomians all believed in the importance of the law / gospel distinction, the wrestling since the reformation has been how to make this distinction. I think Mike goes too far in his distinction. I will show this in the next post.
John Goodell is the pastor of New Life Fellowship Church in Grant Nebraska. By God's grace he came to know the Lord as a young adult. John attended the University of Nebraska at Kearney and is a graduate of New Geneva Theological Seminary in Colorado Springs. John is happily married to Angela and enjoys all five of his children.