John MacArthur’s Lordship Salvation

In this post I addressed the aberrant view that justifying faith is assent alone apart from trusting in Christ. In that post I made a passing reference to another extreme view of faith – the “Lordship Salvation” gospel whose advocates not only define faith without reference to trust, but also add commitment of life to assent, which in turn eclipses the gospel and redefines how one might appropriate Christ as he is freely offered in the gospel. 

John MaCarthur is the most noteable proponent of this view. It is noteworthy that MacArthur does not subscribe to historical Reformed theology. In that respect, he is unchecked with respect to confessional theology in the Reformed tradition. Aside from having a baptistic ecclesiology and a dispensational view of the covenants, he has gotten the doctrine of justification wrong and justifying faith wrong. I address those errors here.

Saving Faith According to John MacArthur

Forsaking oneself for Christ’s sake is not an optional step of discipleship subsequent to conversion; it is the sine qua non of saving faith.

The Gospel According to Jesus, p. 142

By “saving faith” MacArthur actually means justifying faith. We may infer this because he is speaking of the faith that is tied to conversion. Accordingly, sanctifying or persevering faith is not in view. What is noteworthy is MacArthur cites “forsaking oneself” as an essential condition for our pardon in Christ. Yet that is radically different than how the Reformed tradition defines justifying faith.

Justifying faith is a saving grace wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and word of God, whereby he, being convinced of his sin and misery, and of the disability in himself and all other creatures to recover him out of his lost condition, not only assenteth to the truth of the promise of the gospel, but receiveth and resteth upon Christ and his righteousness, therein held forth, for pardon of sin, and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation.

Westminster Larger Catechism, #72 What is justifying faith?

The most detailed Confession in the history of the Protestant tradition defines faith quite differently than MacArthur. At the heart of justifying faith is receiving and resting upon Christ, which is absent in MacArthur’s ordo salutis. Moreover, to add forsaking one’s life(!) to the simplicity of faith is another gospel. It’s to add works to faith. Not only does MacArthur add forsaking one’s life to faith, he also asserts that personal commitment is essential to justifying faith.

Commitment is the disputed element of faith around which the lordship controversy swirls. No-lordship theology denies that believing in Christ involves any element of personal commitment to Him.

Faith Works, The Gospel According To Jesus, p. 43-44

John MacArthur contends that justifying faith, the faith that appropriates the benefits of Christ, entails “forsaking oneself” and “commitment.” It is not MacArthur but the Westminster Shorter Catechism that has it right when it states:

Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, he is offered in the gospel.”

Westminster Shorter Catechism, #86 What is faith in Jesus Christ?

It completely escapes MacArthur that personal commitment and forsaking of life are true works of righteousness, which are fruits of sanctification and not elements of faith. What MacArthur also misses is that justifying faith is merely an instrument through which the unrighteous lays hold of Christ’s righteousness. (Westminster Shorter Catechism #73)

Not only does MacArthur add works to justifying faith, he leaves out the crowing element of justifying faith, which is child like trust in the perfect righteousness of Another. But it is worse than that. Much worse. Not only does MacArthur add works to faith while leaving out trust, he would have us believe that the traditional view of trust (often referred to as fiducia) is not reliance upon Christ but rather surrender.

This “trust,” or fiducia, faith’s volitional component, is the crowning element of believing it involves surrender to the object of faith.”

Faith Works, The Gospel According To Jesus, p. 44

In essence, MacArthur takes the volitional component of justifying faith, fiducia, and turns it into something other than mere child like trust in the righteousness of Christ. MacArthur redefines trust. For MacArthur fiducia is not to exercise trust in Christ’s alien righteousness but rather it is the work of bringing to Christ our own righteous deeds in the form of forsaking of oneself, commitment, and surrender.


In MacArthur’s book Justification by Faith, MacArthur takes up the question of “Crediting righteousness to the Christian’s account.”

God actually credits righteousness to our account. He imputes righteousness to us; He infuses divine life into us; He regenerates and sanctifies us. He makes the unholy holy, and therefore declares that we are righteous. There is an ontological as well as a forensic declaration. There is a reality – God gives us righteousness, and thus He can declare that we are righteous.

Justification by Faith, p.121

God does not declare that we are righteous because he makes the unholy holy. God justifies the ungodly! (Romans 4:5) Nor are there two declarations, one for our ontic change and one for our imputed righteousness. The forensic applies to imputation, not infusion. Lastly, does God declare us righteous because he “gives” us righteousness?

One page later MacArthur states:

The believing sinner is justified by righteousness infused into him.

Justification by Faith, p,122

That is Rome, not Westminster.

It’s my understanding that MacArthur may have repented of his views of Justification, just like he repented of his denial of the eternal Sonship of the Second Person of the Trinity. He has not recanted on the nature of justifying faith, however.

My point is not to point out MacArthur’s errors. If that was my agenda, there’s more I might have written. My original point was to address the aberrant views of faith that flank the Reformed view. Two ditches to avoid. Yet one cannot help but realize the protective nature of Confessional Theology. One can attend an independent church for her entire life and believe that she is getting the pure milk of God’s word, when in fact she might be getting something quite foreign to the teaching of the Fathers and the Reformers. Nor is this just a matter of theological novelties and heterodoxy. It’s a matter of both faith and practice. Case in point, how many Reformed denominations are aligning themselves with MacArthur’s stance against the civil magistrate? That practice is rooted in dubious exegesis, arbitrariness and inconsistency. Often right but never in doubt is not a comforting formula for church leadership. I thank God for the checks and balances of Presbyterianism and the collective wisdom of the Reformed tradition.

3 thoughts on “John MacArthur’s Lordship Salvation

  1. Ron, thank you for addressing the erroneous understanding of justification. I agree with you wholeheartedly on everything you said.

    I just want to point out that the Hebrew and Greek definitions of justification both generally mean “to declare”.

    Justification by Louis Berkhof:

    “The Hebrew term for “to justify” is hitsdik, which in the great majority of cases means “to declare judicially that one’s state is in harmony with the demands of the law, Ex. 23:7; Deut. 25:1; Prov. 17:15; Isa. 5:23.

    The verb dikaio–o. This verb means in general “to declare a person to be just. Occasionally it refers to a personal declaration that one’s moral character is in conformity with the law, Matt. 12:37; Luke 7:29; Rom. 3:4.”


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  2. I think we agree. Context often dictates. It’s not always legal. It can mean vindicated, demonstrated or proved; for instance In James we read that Abraham was justified by works. Being in a sense wisdom literature, it’s no different than wisdom is justified (vindicated or proved) in her children. In the Luke passage it’s the people who are said to have justified God. I trust that’s not forensic. 🙂 That’s probably best understood as having *acknowledged* God as just. In the Romans passage the use of justified of course hearkens back to Psalm 51 where God is justified in his pronouncement against David through Nathan. So, rather than taking Romans to mean when man is judged, which is not in view, if we allow the Psalm to inform us on the relevance of the quote, then it becomes even clearer that it pertains either to (a) when God shall judge or (b) when God is “judged” (by man for God’s judgment of man). Either way, no difference for these purposes. God is justified in his judgement. Hence, the passage reads: “Let God be true but every man a liar.” The passage drives this point home even further in verse 5. Our unrighteousness proves the righteousness of God. I think the Matthew text is the most difficult for some but given the “analogy of faith” it presents no problem. If faith is the instrumental cause of justification and if justification is once and for all with nothing lacking, then our words cannot be the basis for justification in that legal sense. Words will vindicate us and also prove God’s judgement just. Words will demonstrate to a watching world. But words cannot justify in a forensic sense, lest we undermine the gospel.

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  3. R.S. Clark offers some relatively recent observations regarding the matter. Here are some excerpts with a link to Scott’s blog post at the very bottom.

    From a confessional Reformed perspective, however, there were some significant problems with the 1st edition of GAJ. Most significant of all was that MacArthur did not spend much time on the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone. Secondly, in both editions, there are places where it seems as if our good works make faith what it is. It is, however, even in the later editions (e.g., the 2009 reprint of the 2nd edition) marked by relative a lack of clarity on some important issues… MacArthur selectively invokes Reformed writers here and there (e.g., Louis Berkhof and Geerhardus Vos) but they serve as appendages or draftees in what is for them an extramural argument.

    That MacArthur expressed himself unhappily in the 1st edition should not be a controversial observation since he himself acknowledged as much and revised the book significantly (e.g., by adding a chapter on the doctrine of justification). Even in the second edition, however, infelicities of expression remain…. For its adherents, “Lordship Salvation” is the gospel. For adherents (including MacArthur himself) of (the 1st or 2nd) edition, any dissent “Lordship salvation” is regarded as heresy….

    The “Lordship Salvation” doctrine errs by failing consistently to distinguish the law from the gospel, the uses of the law, the order of salvation (ordo salutis), the three parts of the faith, justification from sanctification, and faith from repentance. To distinguish is not to separate but the whole Protestant Reformation rested on these distinctions and because the Dispensationalists are not deeply rooted in the Reformation neither side in this debate seemed to know to how articulate these issues in a consistently Protestant, Reformation way.

    Taken from here:

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