Understanding the Lordship Controversy

By J. I. Packer

If, ten years ago, you had told me that I would live to see literate evangelicals, some with doctorates and a seminary teaching record, arguing for the reality of an eternal salvation, divinely guaranteed, that may have in it no repentance, no discipleship, no behavioral change, no practical acknowledgment of Christ as Lord of one's life, and no perseverance in faith, I would have told you that you were out of your mind. Stark, staring bonkers, is the British phrase I would probably have used. But now the thing has happened. In The Gospel Under Siege (1981) and Absolutely Free! (1989), Zane Hodges, for one, maintains all these positions as essential to the Christian message arguing that without them the Gospel gets lost in legalism. Wow.

Nor is this all. Hodges lashes the historic reformational account of the Gospel, which he labels "Lordship salvation," as a form of works-righteousness, because it affirms that repentance turning from sin to serve Jesus as one's Lord is as necessary for salvation as faith turning from self-reliance to trust Jesus as one's Savior. Such repentance, says Hodges, is a work, and justification is through faith apart from works. To preach and teach in reformational terms is to compromise the grace of the Gospel. It is vital, says Hodges, to see that there is no necessary connection between saving faith and good works at any stage.

Hodges comes out of that branch of the dispensationalist stable which has consistently assured everyone that by biblical standards Reformed theology is systematically off center and misshapen. Hodges' argumentation had already in essence appeared in the Scofield Bible and the writings of Lewis Sperry Chafer and Charles Ryrie. He might not have attracted much notice had not a distinguished fellow-dispensationalist with a Reformed soteriology, John MacArthur, Jr., attacked his view in The Gospel According to Jesus (1988), a strongly worded book with forewords by Boice and Packer. Absolutely Free! was Hodges' reply to MacArthur.

It is an odd situation. Both sides proclaim that God's grace is absolutely free, that justification is absolutely central, that faith is absolutely necessary for salvation and that the other side's account of what it means to be a Christian is absolutely wrong. Hodges calls MacArthur's position "a radical rewriting of the Gospel," "Satanic at its core," which has "turned the meaning of faith upside down," destroying the ground of assurance and producing doctrine that the New Testament writers would find unrecognizable. MacArthur calls Hodges' position a "tragic error" that "destroys the Gospel," "promises a false peace," "produces a false evangelism," and "offers a false hope." What, we ask, is the point of cleavage that so drastically divides men who seemed to agree on so much? The question is not hard to answer. It has to do with the nature of faith.

Hodges defines faith in exclusively intellectual terms, as mental assent to what God tells us in the Gospel. This intellectualism recalls the Roman Catholic conception of faith as believing what the church teaches. It corresponds exactly to that of the eighteenth-century Scottish eccentric Robert Sandeman, who affirmed that "everyone who is persuaded that the event (Christ's atoning death) actually happened as testified by the apostles is justified." It corresponds also to the view of Karl Barth, for whom faith is simply believing that because of Christ's death and resurrection one is already justified and an heir of eternal life, as is everybody else.

By contrast, faith according to reformational teaching is a whole-souled reality with an affectional and volitional aspect as well as an intellectual one. It is, as the seventeenth-century analysts put it, notitia (factual knowledge), assensus (glad acceptance), and  fiducia (personal trust in a personal Savior, as well as in His promises). It is a principle of new activity, as the Westminster Confession brings out:

By faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word.yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace (XIV 2).

Clearly, if the intellectualism of Hodges, Sandeman, and Barth is right, Westminster confuses, misplacing the emphasis. Equally clear, if Westminster is right, what Hodges, Sandeman, and Barth define is less than faith, and will not of itself bring salvation.

As is apparent, I think Hodges is wrong, and ruinously so. I find his doctrine of faith involving four major errors.

The first is an error about Christ.

Is Christ divided, or divisible? Has not God joined the three roles of prophet (teacher), priest (atoner), and king (Lord and Master) in the mediatorial office of His Son? Does He not in Scripture require mankind to relate positively to each? Does not Christ's own Gospel teaching, well set out by MacArthur, show that He Himself does not accept the separating of salvation from discipleship, whereby He is acknowledged and taken as Savior but rejected as Lord? My answer is not Hodges' answer, and his teaching does not seem to me to honor my Savior.

The second is an error about works.

Hodges equates faith as a psychological act ("closing with Christ," as the Puritans put it) with faith as a meritorious work, and so argues that to call for active commitment to discipleship as part of a saving response to the Gospel is to teach works-righteousness. But this is a confusion. Every act of faith, psychologically regarded, is a matter of doing something (knowing is as much a mental act as are trusting, receiving, and resolving to obey); yet no act of faith ever presents itself to its doer as anything but a means of receiving undeserved mercy in some form. Hodges' inability to distinguish faith as an act from faith as a work makes him increase, rather than dispel, the confusion about the terms of the Gospel that he rightly sees as bedeviling us today.

The third is an error about repentance.

In Scripture, repentance and faith go inseparably together; repentance means turning from sin, faith means turning to Jesus. Dispensationalists do not always observe this connection. Some, fastening onto the etymology of repentance in Greek (metanoia), explain it as merely a change of mind about who Jesus is; Hodges, seeing that repentance means in Scripture a change of life, detaches it from the way of salvation (thus contradicting the Westminster Confession, which on the basis of Luke 13:3, 5, says that "none may expect pardon without it") and depicts it as a voluntary adjustment to God that may come before salvation or after salvation or never at all. To say the least, he fails to convince.

The fourth is an error about regeneration.

When Scripture speaks of regeneration, which it represents as a new birth, a quickening of the dead, what is in view is an inner transformation of one's being, or "heart," which makes it impossible for one to go on living under sin's sway as one lived before. The effect of regeneration is that now one wants, from the bottom of one's heart, to know, love, serve, trust, obey, and honor the Father and the Son, so that obedient devotion and discipleship spontaneously spring up where there was only resentful hostility to God before. Hodges' account of Christian discipleship as a prudent and fulfilling, though not a necessary option, shows that he does not understand this at all. In particular, he does not see that the faith that justifies only appears as an expression of a regenerate heart.

The pastoral effect of this teaching can only be to produce what the Puritans called "Gospel hypocrites" persons who have been told that they are Christians, eternally secure, because they believe that Christ died for them, when their hearts are unchanged and they have no personal commitment to Christ at all. I know this, for I was just such a Gospel hypocrite for two years before God mercifully made me aware of my unconverted state. If I seem harsh in my critique of Hodges' redefinition of faith as barren intellectual formalism, you must remember that once I almost lost my soul through assuming what Hodges teaches, and a burned child always thereafter dreads the fire.

(From: Tabletalk, May, 1991, published by Ligonier Ministries, Inc., P.O. Box 547500,Orlando, FL 32746)




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