Introduction and Historical Background Leading up to the Anti-Lordship Salvation Movement
Not long after I became a Christian in 1983, the Lordship Salvation (hereafter LS) controversy arose. This was a movement against “easy believism” (hereafter EB). The climate was ripe for the controversy because churches were full of professing Christians who demonstrated little if any life change. Members in good standing could be living together out of wedlock, wife abusing drunks, and shysters to name a few categories among many. Sin was not confronted in the church.
Of course, no cycle of Protestant civil war is complete without dueling book publications. Without naming all of them, the major theme was that of faith and works. John MacArthur Jr. threw gasoline on the fire with The Gospel According to Jesus published in 1988. This resulted in MacArthur being the primary target among the so-called EB crowd.
During that time as a new believer, I was heavily focused on the issue, but was like many others: I rejected outright sinful lifestyles among professing Christians while living a life of biblical generalities. In other words, like most, I was ignorant in regard to the finer points of Christian living. I resisted blatant sin, and in fact was freed from some serious temptations of the prior life, but had little wisdom in regard to successful application.
We must now pause to consider what was going in the 80’s. Christianity was characterized by two groups: the grace crowd that contended against any assessment of one’s standing with God based on behavior (EB), and the LS crowd. But, the LS group lived by biblical generalities. Hence, in general, both groups farmed out serious life problems to the secular experts. This also led to Christian Psychologist careerism.
This led to yet another controversy among American Christians during the same time period, the sufficiency of Scripture debate. Is the Bible sufficient for life’s deepest problems? Again, MacArthur was at the forefront of the controversy with his publication of Our Sufficiency in Christ published in 1991. Between 1990-1995, the anti-Christian Psychology movement raged (ACS). The primary lightening rod during that time was a book published by Dave Hunt: The Seduction of Christianity (1985).
In circa 1965, a young Presbyterian minister named Jay E. Adams was moved by the reality of a church living by biblical generalities. The idea that the church could not help people with serious problems like schizophrenia bothered him. He was greatly influenced by the renowned secular psychologist O. Hobart Mower who fustigated institutional psychiatry as bogus. An unbeliever, Mower was critical of Christianity for not taking more of a role in helping people with serious mental problems.
Mower believed that mental illness is primarily caused by the violation of conscience and unhealthy thinking. His premise has helped more people by far than any other psychological discipline and Adams witnessed this first hand. Mower’s influence provoked Adams to look into the Scriptures more deeply for God’s counsel regarding the deeper problems of life. This resulted in the publication of Competent to Counsel in 1970, and launched what is known today as the biblical counseling movement (BCM). Please note that this movement was picking up significant steam in the latter 80’s and early 90’s.
In 1970, the same year that the BCM was born, an extraordinary Reformed think tank was established by the name of The Australian Forum Project (AFP). Its theological journal, Present Truth, had a readership that exceeded all other theological journals in the English speaking world by the latter 70’s. Though the project died out in the early 80’s, it spawned a huge grassroots movement known as the “quiet revolution” of the “gospel resurgence.” The movement believed that it had recovered the true Reformation gospel that had been lost in Western culture over time, and frankly, they were absolutely correct about that.
The movement was covert, but spawned notable personalities such as John Piper over time. Piper exploded onto to the scene in 1986 with his book The Pleasures of God which promoted his Christian Hedonism theology. Unbeknown to most, this did not make Piper unique, the book is based on the same Martin Luther metaphysics that the AFP had rediscovered; he got it from them. At this point, the official contemporary name for the rediscovered Reformation gospel, the centrality of the objective gospel outside of us (Cogous), was taking a severe beating in Reformed circles. This is because contemporary Calvinists didn’t understand what Luther and Calvin really believed about the gospel.
John Piper looked to emerge from the movement as a legend because he had no direct ties to the AFP, but during the same time frame of his emergence, Cogous was also repackaged by a professor of theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His name was John “Jack” Miller. Using the same doctrine, the authentic gospel of the Reformation, Miller developed the Sonship discipleship program. This also took a severe beating in Presbyterian circles. In fact, Jay Adams wrote a book against the movement in 1999. This was a debate between Calvinists in regard to what real Calvinism is. At any rate, Sonship changed its nomenclature to “Gospel Transformation” and went underground (2000). This started the gospel-everything movement. Sonship was saturated with the word “gospel” as an adjective for just about every word in the English language (“gospel centered this, gospel-driven that,” etc.). If anyone refuted what was being taught, they were speaking against the gospel; this was very effective.
If not for this change in strategy, John Piper would have been the only survivor of Cogous. Instead, with the help of two disciples of John Miller, David Powlison and Tim Keller, the Gospel Transformation movement gave birth to World Harvest Missions and the Acts 29 Network. It also injected life into the Emergent Church movement. Meanwhile, most thought the Sonship movement had been eliminated, but this was not the case at all. In 2006, a group of pastors that included this author tried to get a handle on a doctrine that was wreaking havoc on churches in the U.S. and spreading like wildfire. The doctrine had no name, so we dubbed it “Gospel Sanctification.” In 2008, the same movement was dubbed “New Calvinism” by society at large. In 2009, spiritual abuse blogs exploded in church culture as a direct cause of New Calvinism. We know now that the present-day New Calvinism movement was birthed by the AFP.
The Protestant Legacy of Weak Sanctification
The anti-Lordship Salvation movement came out of the controversy era of the 80’s. The following is the theses, parts 2 and 3 will articulate the theses. The theses could very well be dubbed The Denomination Myth. All of the camps involved in these Protestant debates share the same gospel, but differ on the application. The idea that the debate involves different gospels is a misnomer.
The Protestant Reformation gospel was predicated on the idea that the Christian life is used by God to finish our salvation. The official Protestant gospel is known as justification by faith. This is one of the most misunderstood terms in human history. Justification refers to God imputing His righteousness to those whom He saves. Many call this a forensic declaration by God. At this time, I am more comfortable saying that it is the imputation of God’s righteousness to the saved person as the idea of it being forensic; it’s something I have not investigated on my own albeit it’s a popular way of stating it. This is salvation…a righteous standing before God.
Sanctification, a setting apart for God’s holy purposes, is the Christian life. The Reformers saw sanctification as the progression of justification to a final justification. In Reformed circles, this is known as the “golden chain of salvation.” So, the Christian is saved, is being saved, and will be finally saved. Christians often say, “Sanctification is the growing part of salvation.” But really it isn’t, salvation doesn’t grow, this is a Protestant idea. The Christian life grows in wisdom and stature, but our salvation doesn’t grow, the two are totally separate. One is a finished work, and the other is a progression of personal maturity.
The Reformers were steeped in the ancient philosophy of the day that propagated the idea that the common man cannot properly understand reality, and this clearly reflected on their theology. The idea that grace is infused into man and enables him to properly understand reality would have been anathema according to their spiritual caste system of Platonist origins. This resulted in their progressive justification gospel. Justification by faith is a justification process by faith alone.
Every splinter group that came out of the Reformation founded their gospel on this premise. John Calvin believed that salvation was entering into a rest from works. He believed that sanctification is the Old Testament Sabbath rest (The Calvin Institutes 2.8.29). Hence, the Christian life is a rest from works. The Christian life must be lived the same way we were saved: by faith alone. Part 2 will explain why we are called to work in sanctification, and why it is not working for justification.
Another fact of the Reformation gospel is “righteousness” is defined as a perfect keeping of the law. To remove the law’s perfect standard, and its demands for perfection from justification is the very definition of antinomianism according to the Reformers. A perfect law-keeping must be maintained for each believer if they are to remain justified. Thirdly, this requires what is known as double imputation. Christ not only died for our sins so that our sins could be imputed to Him, He lived a life of perfect obedience to the law so that His obedience could be imputed to our sanctification. So, if we live our Christian life according to faith alone, justification will be finished the same way it started; hence, justification by faith. For purposes of this series, these will be the three pillars of the Reformed gospel that we will consider:
1. An unfinished justification.
2. Sabbath rest sanctification.
3. Double imputation.
As a result of this construct, Protestant sanctification has always been passive…and confused. Why? Humans are created to work, but work in sanctification is deemed to be working for justification because sanctification is the “growing part” of justification. Reformed academics like to say, “Justification and sanctification are never separate, but distinct.” Right, they are the same with the distinction being that one is the growing of the other. A baby who has grown into an adult is not separate from what he/she once was, but distinct from being a baby. Reformed academics constantly warn Christians to not live in a way that “makes the fruit of sanctification the root of justification.” John Piper warns us that the fruits of sanctification are the fruits of justification—all works in sanctification must flow from justification. Justification is a tree; justification is the roots, and sanctification is the fruits of justification. We are warned that working in sanctification can make “the fruit the root.” In essence, we are replacing the fruits of justification with our own fruit. This is sometimes referred to as “fruit stapling.”
How was the Reformation gospel lost?
To go along with its progressive justification, the Reformers also developed an interpretation method. The sole purpose of the Bible was to show us our constant need to have the perfect works of Jesus imputed to our lives by faith alone. The purpose of Scripture reading was to gain a deeper and deeper knowledge of our original need of salvation, i.e. “You need the gospel today as much as you needed it the day you were saved.” Indeed, so that the perfect obedience of Christ will continue to be applied to the law. This also applies to new sins we commit in the Christian life as well. Since we “sin in time,” we must also continue to receive forgiveness of new sins that we commit as Christians. So, the double imputation must be perpetually applied to the Christian life by faith alone. John Piper often speaks of how Christians continue to be saved by the gospel. This is in fact the Reformation gospel.
But over time, humanity’s natural bent to interpret the Scriptures grammatically instead of redemptively resulted in looking at justification and sanctification as being more separate, and spiritual growth being more connected to obedience. This created a hybrid Protestantism even among Calvinists. Nevertheless, the best results were the aforementioned living by biblical generalities. Yes, we “should” obey, but it’s optional. A popular idea in past years was a bi-level discipleship which was also optional.
This brings us to the crux of the issue.
Since the vast majority of Protestants see justification as a golden chain of salvation, two primary camps emerged:
A. Christ obeys the law for us.
B. Salvation cannot be based on a commitment—obedience must be optional.
Model A asserts that since we cannot keep the law perfectly, we must invoke the double imputation of Christ by faith alone in order to be saved and stay saved. Model B asserts that since the same gospel that saved us also sanctifies us, any commitment included in the gospel presentation must then be executed in sanctification to keep the process of justification moving forward. Therefore, obedience in sanctification must be completely optional. A consideration of works is just fruit stapling. If the Holy Spirit decides to do a work through someone, that’s His business and none of ours, “who are we to judge?”
This is simply two different executions of the same gospel. Model A does demand obedience because it assumes that Christians have faith, and that will result in manifestations of Christ’s obedience being imputed to our lives. Because this is mixed with our sinfulness, it is “subjective.” The actual term is “justification experienced subjectively”; objective justification, subjective justification, final justification (redefined justification, sanctification, and glorification). However, model B then interprets that as commitment that must be executed in the progressive part of salvation.
This is where the EB versus LS debate comes into play. This is a debate regarding execution of the same gospel while making the applications differing gospels. Out of this misunderstanding which came to a head in the 80’s, comes the anti-Lordship Salvation movement (ALS). Conversations with proponents of ALS reveal all of the same tenets of Cogous. First, there is the same idea of a final judgment in which sins committed by Christians will be covered by Jesus’ righteousness; “When God looks at us, all he will see is Jesus.” Secondly, there is the same idea of one law. Thirdly, there is the idea that our sins are covered and not ended.
They do differ on the “two natures.” Model A holds to the idea that Christians have the same totally depraved nature that they had when they were saved. Model B thinks the new birth supplies an additional Christ-like nature that fights with the old nature. Model A, aka Calvinists, actually think this is Romanism/Arminianism. Indeed, authentic Protestantism rejects the idea that any work of the Spirit is done IN the believer. Model B has several different takes on this including the idea that Christians are still dead, but the life of Jesus inside of them enables them to obey.
In part 2, we will examine why this construct is a false gospel, and why both parties are guilty. In part 3, we will examine the new birth and the idea that Christians have two natures.