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.

Justification

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 is 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.

Assent Alone And The Gospel

Most of the things we assent to, whether a priori or a posteriori, are not volitional. One does not will to believe that God exists any more than one wills to believe image-5the rose is red. These are mental assents that are not discursive; they are immediate and without reflection. The will is bypassed. However, the gospel always engages the will as the unbeliever counts the cost and by grace abandons all hope in himself while looking to Christ alone, finding rest in Him. Accordingly, it is inadequate to reduce justifying faith to belief alone when belief is reduced to assent without remainder.
Clarkians and easy-believism advocates promote that we are justified by belief alone. One is justified by assenting to “Jesus died for my me.” Another extreme comes from “Lordship Salvation” advocates who define trusting in Christ in terms of commitment of life, which eclipses the gospel and redefines how one might appropriate Christ as he is freely offered in the gospel. The focus of this post is on the former error.¹ Clarkians will assert that assent is synonymous with resting in or relying upon Christ. In this context it is suggested that to assent to Christ dying on the cross for my sins is to “trust” the proposition is true. Albeit the premise is true for true believers, this observation turns on a subtle equivocation over the word trust. Indeed, to trust a proposition is true is no different than to assent to its truth. So, in that sense trust and assent are synonyms. However, to trust that something is true is not the same thing as to trust in something because it is believed to be true. The latter idea of trust carries the meaning of reliance upon, whereas the former use of trust merely conveys an intellectual assent that might or might not be accompanied by reliance. Accordingly, to argue that trust and assent are synonyms in this way is to deny implicitly the need to trust willfully upon Christ alone for salvation. Clarkians redefine trust so that they might appear confessional since the Westminster standards clearly speak of not just “accepting“ the gospel as true but also relying upon (i.e. trusting in) the finished work of Christ. (It’s not just equivocal but also a downright case of special pleading to define “trust” as a synonym for assent and then on top of that limit its use to assent. Clarkians should outrightly deny trust rather than suggest they affirm it. The trust they equate with assent is not the trust of the Reformed tradition for that trust is metaphysical and volitional. It does not mean assent. It presupposes it!) Assent pertains to accepting something as true, even possibly with no reflection, whereas trust (or lack of trust) pertains to the degree of relevance a person might assign to the “assented to” proposition. Assent is a mental act that need not be accompanied by volition; whereas trust in Christ is always volitional in nature. Assent always pertains to accepting the truth of a proposition, whereas how one might respond in light of assent (e.g. trust, rest, exuberance, etc.) is commonly classified under the philosophical heading of disposition (which is not propositional assent). Whereas trust and other dispositions can evidence assent, dispositions need not accompany any given assent since assents can be mundane, occur without reflection and, also, be subjectively perceived as inconsequential. (This is why philosophers consider disposition to be a poor indicator of the presence of assent.) Assents or beliefs are propositional attitudes that can be distinguished from volitional, metaphysical movements. For instance, choices are mental activities that engage both the intellect and the will. This is more recognizable once we consider that choices involve both judgment and reliance. What one deems as true can result in a choice to rely upon that which the judgment contemplates, but the intellection of belief need not give way to volition. This is sufficient to demonstrate that belief and volition are not the same things though they often go together. This observation would seem rather uncontroversial in the Reformed tradition. It was presupposed in Jonathan Edwards’ writings and was taken up by men like R.L. Dabney, A.A. Hodge and even William Cunningham. Yet contra this popular view, Gordon Clark believed that it is an illusion (an illusion, mind you!) to think that such acts of intellection differ from volition. Clark went so far to say that belief in a chair is volitional. If assent and trust were synonyms, then either both would mean cognitive conviction or else volitional reliance. Conviction of truth (assent) could never give way to reliance upon truth (trust). If assent and trust are indistinguishable concepts and, therefore, mean the same thing, then it would be unintelligible to say that we rely upon anything we believe; nor would it be sensible to think that we believe anything we rely upon. Intellectual assent without reliance leaves no room for relying upon Christ; whereas reliance without conviction paves the way to trusting in Christ while not assenting to the gospel. Obviously, the concepts are indeed distinguishable as well as distinct principal acts of saving faith. 
¹In the not so distant future I plan to address the gospel according to John MacArthur and the nature of faith as the instrumental cause of justification. MacArthur fails to distinguish and ends up conflating the disposition of reliance upon Christ with the sanctifying grace that inevitably produces a faithful commitment of life to Christ.