August 17, 2010

Unpacking the Difference Between the Gospel of Grace and the Works-Based Approach of Lordship Salvation

In the comment thread under the May 20 article by Phillip Evans Clearing Up Repentance: A Refutation of Lordship Salvation at IDOTG, *James Kime posed the following question to Lou Martuneac:

Lou, if a person wanted to still be an idolator and be a Christian, would you tell him:

a) he could not continue in idolatry

b) he would need to stop the idolatry after he accepts Christ
This is a loaded theological question that will require some careful unpacking. Yet, it is worthwhile to answer since it presents an opportunity to highlight once again the radical difference between the biblical, grace-oriented approach to salvation and the inherently meritorious, works-based approach of Lordship Salvation.

Some questions are laden with false assumptions that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” reply, or in this case a simple “a)” or “b).” For example, we’ve all heard of the classic case of prosecutorial entrapment where a man is asked, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” The very question is an indictment since it presumes that the man already stands guilty of spousal abuse. The same approach is commonly followed towards Bible-believing Christians who understand the grace of God. This should not surprise us since it was the same method employed by the religionists and Lordship Salvationists of Jesus’ day against Him. They repeatedly tried to frame the Savior by eliciting either one of two false answers from Him. See, for example, the Sadducees with the case of the resurrection and the woman who had seven husbands (Matt. 22:17-21) or the Pharisees in the case of tribute money that was to be rendered unto either unto Caesar or God (Matt. 22:23-32).

The theological question posed above by Kime follows a similar vein in the sense that it presupposes a person “could not continue in idolatry” and yet truly “be a Christian” or at least not “want” to continue in idolatry and still be a Christian. However, the way in which the question is framed begs several further questions. What does it mean if a person still “wanted to be an idolater?” Must the lost cease desiring all sin or certain serious sins like idolatry to make it to heaven? And what does it mean to “be a Christian?” Does this mean becoming a child of God or becoming born again (regenerated)? Or does it refer to living in fellowship with God after a person is born again? In other words, is Kime asking about the condition for becoming a Christian in the first place or the condition/s for living a consistently Christian life? Further, we must ask, why is idolatry chosen for the dubious distinction of being the damning sin? Why not other less conspicuous internal sins, like lust or pride, which the Lord also hates? And what is “idolatry” by Kime’s definition? What is it that we are being asked to agree to? These inherent problems require further elaboration below.

First, when it comes to being a Christian, we must ask whether it is possible to be a genuine, born again child of God and still continue in the sin of idolatry. This is an unfortunate reality in many of the lives of God’s children. The apostle John was acquainted with this reality as well. At the end of his first epistle, he closes with an exhortation, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols,” (1 John 5:21). Throughout the epistle the readers have been called “little children,” an affectionate term for the child of God. John assumes that his regenerated audience is comprised of genuine believers. Yet they are obviously capable of idolatry; otherwise, why would he even give them such a command in the first place? If a Christian, as legalistically defined by some Lordship Salvation proponents, is one who does not commit certain gross, heinous sins, then such commands in Scripture given to believers in Christ become absolutely meaningless.

Numerous examples exist throughout the Scriptures to show that the saints can actually continue in the sin of idolatry, such as Rachel (Gen. 31:34-35), the sons of Jacob (Gen. 35:2), Solomon (1 Kings 11:1-10), and the Ephesian Christians (Acts 19). Solomon not only engaged in idolatrous worship but built shrines all around the hillsides of Jerusalem to many false gods. Can you imagine a professing Christian leader today building mosques and temples here in North America to foreign gods? Lordship Salvationists would surely discount such an individual as a true child of God. And yet Solomon wrote three books in the canon of inspired Scripture—Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. Imagine, a writer of Sacred Scripture and yet an idolatrous child of God! Perish the thought.

Consider also the example of the Ephesian Christians in Acts 19. It says in 19:10 that Paul taught them the Word of the Lord Jesus for “two years.” Yet, the chapter goes on to report that subsequent to their new birth they came forward to confess and forsake their idolatrous, occultic practices (Acts 19:18-19). This was clearly NOT done simultaneously with their new birth. Acts 19:18 says that “many that believed came, and confessed, and showed their deeds.” The word “believed” is a perfect tense participle and indicates that these disciples had already believed in Christ PRIOR to their confession of idolatry and magic. It is for this reason that the great Greek grammarian of the last century, A. T. Robertson (who was no proponent of the “Free Grace” view), wrote in His Word Pictures the following concerning this passage:
Even some of the believers were secretly under the spell of these false spiritualists just as some Christians today cherish private contacts with so-called occult powers through mediums, séances, of which they are ashamed. . . . The black arts were now laid bare in their real character. Gentile converts had a struggle to shake off their corrupt environment.
Apparently these Ephesian believers continued in the sin of occultism for some time after they were saved. Did they continue in occultism ignorantly or unintentionally? Impossible. Did they have to want to stop practicing it before they could believe in Christ for salvation? Not according to Acts 19:18. This matter of “wanting” to sin will be addressed later.

But moving on from the example of believers actually practicing “magic” according to the Bible, we must return to the question of whether a person can be an idolater and still be a “Christian” or a child of God. We must ask, why is this particular sin of idolatry chosen for such a proposition? Is it worse than any other? It is generally recognized as one of the most blatant and unconscionable of all sins, so much so that many people cannot conceive of a believer practicing it and still being saved. But this leads us to ask whether a person can really be a Christian (i.e., regenerated) and commit certain other sins—heinous sins—“mortal” versus “venial” types of sins. (Here we see the similarity in theology and logic between Roman Catholicism and Lordship Salvation.) And yet, according to the Word of God, a “Christian” can even be a murderer! Peter writes, “But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters. Yet if any man suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf,” (1 Peter 4:15-16). Peter was writing to genuine, born again believers (1 Peter 1:1-3) who could either suffer for doing the will of God as Christians should or suffer for the consequences of their own sins, which included being a “murderer.” But if a person can be a murderer and yet still be a Christian (albeit a Christian who is not abiding in fellowship with Christ), then why is being an idolater impossible? A “Christian” by biblical definition, is not someone who doesn’t commit certain “major” sins, or even persist in such carnality (1 Cor. 3:1-4) like Solomon did (1 Kings 11). Rather, a Christian is someone who belongs to Christ and who is capable of committing any sin. Yet, when such a person does sin, it doesn’t demonstrate that he or she is not a child of God but only that this person is a child of God who has broken fellowship with God (1 John 1:3-10).

Pastor Tom Stegall

Please continue to Part 2 of this series.

Pastor Tom Stegall is author of the new book, The Gospel of the Christ: A Biblical Response to the Crossless Gospel Regarding the Contents of Saving Faith and pastor of the Word of Grace Bible Church in West Allis, WI.

Previous articles by Pastor Tom Stegall include:

Vigilance Regarding the Truth of the Gospel: Reengaging the Heresy of the GES “Crossless” Gospel

Does “Final Salvation” Serve as a Cover for Works-Salvation?

The Gospel of the Christ: The “No Lordship” Counter-Claim

Is the Message of Salvation in Luke’s Gospel?


  1. *James Kime, subsequent to his original questions that lead to this article, has been banned from this blog. Repeated personal ad hominen attacks and vitriol will never be tolerated at IDOTG.


  2. I believe this same rebuke applies to the LS proponent. They simply do not know what mannner of spirit they actually are. Were they actually to know and admit what they are, it would be easier to apply the Blood to it.

    Luke 9:55-56
    ...Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them...

    John Newton describes it well here in his fifth letter to a Nobleman

    Part 1

    "My last letter turned upon the Apostle's thought, Gal. 5:17, "You cannot do the things that you would." In the parallel place, Romans 7:19, there is another clause subjoined, "The evil evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing." This, added to the former, would complete the dark side of my experience. Permit me to tell you a little part (for some things must not, cannot be told), not of what I have read—but of what I have felt, in illustration of this passage.
    I would not be the sport and prey of wild, vain, foolish, and evil imaginations, but this evil is present with me. My heart is like a highway, like a city without walls or gates! Nothing is so false, so frivolous, so absurd, so impossible, or so horrid—but it can obtain access to my heart—at any time, or in any place! Neither the study, the pulpit, nor even the Lord's table, exempt me from their intrusion! I sometimes compare my words to the treble of an instrument, which my thoughts accompany with a kind of bass, or rather anti-bass, in which every rule of harmony is broken, every possible combination of discord and confusion is introduced, utterly inconsistent with, and contradictory to, the intended melody. Ah! what music would my praying and preaching often make in the ears of the Lord Almighty, if he listened to them as they are mine only! By men, the upper part only (if I may so speak) is heard; and small cause there is for self-gratulation, if they should happen to commend, when conscience tells me that they would be struck with astonishment and abhorrence could they but hear the whole!
    But if this awful effect of heart depravity cannot be wholly avoided in the present state of human nature. Yet, at least, I would not allow and indulge it; yet this I find I do. In defiance of my best judgment, and best wishes, I find something within me which nourishes and cleaves to those evils, from which I ought to startle and flee, as I would if a loathsome toad or a serpent was put in my food, or in my bed. Ah! how vile must the heart (at least my heart) be—which can hold a parley with such abominations, when I so well know their nature and their tendency! Surely he who finds himself capable of this, may, with out the least affectation of humility, (however fair his outward conduct appears) subscribe himself less than the least of all saints—the very chief of sinners!
    I would not be influenced by a principle of SELF on any occasion; yet this evil I often do. I see the baseness and absurdity of such a conduct, as clearly as I see the light of the day. I do not affect to be thought ten feet tall, and I know that a desire of being thought wise or good, is equally contrary to reason and truth. I would be grieved or angry if my fellow-creatures supposed I had such a desire; and therefore I fear the very principle of SELF, of which I complain, has a considerable share in prompting my desires to conceal it. The pride of others often offends me, and makes me studious to hide my own; because their good opinion of me depends much upon their not perceiving it. But the Lord knows how this dead fly taints and spoils my best services, and makes them no better than gilded sins!"

  3. Part 2

    “I would not indulge vain reasoning concerning the counsels, ways, and providences of God; yet I am prone to do it. That the Judge of all the earth will do right—is to me as evident and necessary as that two plus two make four. I believe that he has a sovereign right to do what he will with his own, and that this sovereignty is but another name for the unlimited exercise of wisdom and goodness. But my reasoning are often such, as if I had never heard of these principles, or had formally renounced them! I feel the workings of a presumptuous spirit, that would account for everything, and venture to dispute whatever it cannot comprehend. What an evil is this—for a potsherd of the earth, to contend with its Maker! I do not act thus towards my fellow-creatures; I do not find fault with the decisions of a judge, or the dispositions of a general, because, though I know they are fallible—yet I suppose they are wiser in their respective departments than myself. But I am often ready to take this liberty with God—when it is most unreasonable and inexcusable!

    I would not cleave to a covenant of works; it should seem from the foregoing particulars, and many others which I could mention, that I have reasons enough to deter me from this. Yet even this I do. Not but that I say, and I hope from my heart, Enter not into judgment with your servant, O Lord. I embrace it as a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptance, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners—and it is the main pleasure and business of my life, to set forth the necessity and all-sufficiency of the Mediator between God and man, and to make mention of his righteousness, even of his alone. But here, as in everything else, I find a vast difference between my judgment and my experience. I am invited to take the water of life freely—yet often discouraged, because I have nothing with which to pay for it.

    If I am at times favored with some liberty from the above-mentioned evils, it rather gives me a more favorable opinion of myself, than increases my admiration of the Lord's goodness to so unworthy a creature! And when the returning tide of my corruptions convinces me that I am still the same, an unbelieving legal spirit would urge me to conclude that the Lord is changed! At least, I feel a weariness of being indebted to him for such continued multiplied forgiveness; and I fear that some part of my striving against sin, and my desires after an increase of sanctification, arises from a secret wish that I might not be so absolutely and entirely indebted to him.

    This is only a faint sketch of my heart—it would require a volume, rather than a letter, to fill up the outlines. But I believe you will not regret that I choose to say no more upon such a subject. But though my disease is grievous, it is not desperate; I have a gracious and infallible Physician! I shall not die—but live, and declare the works of the Lord!”

  4. Eagerly looking forward to part 2! This LS position kept me in chains of little or no assurance for years, glad to see able people challenging & endavoring to correct it. The blog is excellent, there are echoes of E. F.'s "Marrow of Modern Divinity" here.

  5. Brian Ernsberger8/17/2010 12:05 PM

    To Lou and Tom,
    Thanks for the article. It is so very important to shed light on the reality that is the Christian's relationship with God through His Son Jesus Christ. Scripturally there is a distinction between salvation and sanctification, yet the LS proponents would seemingly have us to believe our sanctification is complete in this life at salvation. Positionally ,yes, we are complete in Him (Jesus Christ), practically, in this life, though, we are work in progress.

    I would imagine that LS men ban Pilgrim's Progress from their libraries. They are missing out on some rich Biblical applications for the believer's walk in this life.

  6. Brian:

    You wrote, "Scripturally there is a distinction between salvation and sanctification..."

    That is irrefutible yet the LS men have twisted passages meant for the born again disciple of Christ to force them into evangelistic appeals meant for the lost. They must redefine the plain teaching of Scripture this way to float LS presuppositions. Tragic!


  7. Hello Lou et al,

    I went back and read the "Clearing Up Repentance" posts from may, and, interestingly, found no clear definition of repentance in any of them. The closest Brother Phil got was saying, "You've heard the phrases “turn from your sins” and “repent of your sins” in order to be saved. Notwithstanding there is not a single Scripture reference that uses either of these phrases in regards to the salvation of a lost person."

    Later someone, Lou I believe, added that someone coming to Christ could no longer believe in anything else to save them from their sinful condition (I loosely paraphrase).

    It would be very helpful if you would lay out a concise definition of what a lost person's repentance must entail if he indeed would come to Christ.

    Thank you kindly.


  8. David:

    While I appreciate your input I am suggesting you take a question/discussion about repentance to one of the articles in the series by Philip Evans that you refer to. Phil and/or I will be happy to engage that topic with you there.

    FWIW, I do have 23 articles at this blog that deal with repentance directly or indirectly. Most address repentance in the context of the Lordship Salvation or the Zane Hodges “Crossless” gospel debates.

    For a brief Scriptural view of repentance may I suggest you read the following-

    Drifting Far Off the Marker, Part 2

    Lordship’s “Turn from Sin” FOR Salvation

    What is Biblical Repentance? This may be the most concise and primarily what you’re looking for.

    The Relationship Between God’s Grace and Lordship Legalism by George Zeller.

    This Link takes you to all 23 articles.

    For a thorough treatment of repentance in regard to the Lordship Salvation controversy you’ll need to get a copy of my book. There is a single chapter of 27 pages dedicated exclusively to that discussion.

    If you have any further questions or comments on repentance please post them in one of those threads.

    Kind regards,


  9. Hi Pat,

    You said This LS position kept me in chains of little or no assurance for years,

    What a shame!! And this is just one of the evils of LS theology... it puts Christians into bondage stealing their joy and their fruitfulness which in the end only robbs glory from Christ.

    Rom 8:15 For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.”

    Gal 2:4-5 4 And this occurred because of false brethren secretly brought in (who came in by stealth to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage), 5 to whom we did not yield submission even for an hour, that the truth of the gospel might continue with you.

    Gal 5:1 Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.


  10. David:

    One more important article that is related to the repentance issue. You should read-

    Lordship's (Out-of-Order) Salvation

    This answers Calvinism’s extra-biblical presupposition that faith and repentance are gifts and that they precede faith in Christ. This egregious error is one of the primary reason for the development of LS’s works-based theology.


  11. But this leads us to ask whether a person can really be a Christian (i.e., regenerated) and commit certain other sins—heinous sins—“mortal” versus “venial” types of sins.

    I find this comment of Pastor Stegall's very interesting. This kind of thinking is very prevalent in the Christian community. We do seem to have a sort of "default" option that categorizes certain types of sins as more hell-worthy than others. But God does not categorize sins this way. He says that if you fail to keep one command of the law, you are guilty of the whole law. You did not have to murder someone. You could have simply done work on the Sabbath. We could go on for a long time making similar comparisons.

    But the question about idolatry and salvation does seem to miss the point and I think Pastor Stegall is right that it does so because of presuppositions.

    The concern I have with it is that it shifts the subject from the objective of the truth of Jesus Christ crucified to the subjective of what the Holy Spirit theoretically should be convicting a sinner of, according to certain presumptions that are really beyond our ability to assess. I can use myself as an example of how this is not necessarily what He is doing in salvation.

    When I heard and believed the gospel, I was also involved in some New Age type activities, which can certainly qualify as idolatry. But this did not enter the discussion at all. Neither the person sharing the gospel with me nor the Holy Spirit brought these things into the conversation. I wasn't thinking about them and they never entered my mind. They were simply not in view. What mattered was the fact that I was a sinner, and therefore separated from God. What specific sins I was involved in was not relevant. What was an issue, actually THE issue, in my salvation was simply this:

    Was I going to agree with God (get on the same page as Him) regarding my lost condition, and was I going to accept the solution He provided (Jesus Christ and Him crucified)? The answer to both questions was "yes." I have been saved ever since.

    I did eventually learn that the things I was doing were offensive to God and have since left them behind. But the fact of them being in my life at the time did not prevent me from becoming saved. I think I should also mention that there was a time previous to my hearing the gospel where I was considering becoming a witch. I mentioned this to a friend's mother, who quickly talked me out of it on the grounds that witchcraft was offensive to God. (She said it was like slapping God in the face.) I was not saved at the time and had never heard the gospel at all. However, I took her counsel and abandoned those plans because I did not want to "slap God in the face." Subsequent to my salvation I have forsaken many different sins of many different degrees of heinousness (from our human vantage point). But sandwiched in between, and wholly distinct from, these times of dealing with specific sins was the moment when I accepted God's judgment against me for my sin and placed my faith and trust in Jesus Christ crucified as my substitute and was born again.


  12. To All:

    For related reading please see the On My Walk blog. Kevin Lane has just published a new article titled Propitiation Plus?


  13. Jan: Was I going to agree with God (get on the same page as Him) regarding my lost condition, and was I going to accept the solution He provided (Jesus Christ and Him crucified)? The answer to both questions was "yes." I have been saved ever since.

    I 2nd Jan, that's it in a nutshell. :-)

    Lou: Most address repentance in the context of the Lordship Salvation or the Zane Hodges “Crossless” gospel debates

    There was a debate??? ;-) I must have missed that... the RFG crowd dodged and cried foul a lot, but I've yet to see anything from them that rose to the level of "debate". Nyuk Nyuk Nyuk. (sorry, just had to get that in...)

    On topic, I've begun engaging LS recently myself. Debunking RFG was easy, confronting LS was a little harder for me personally because the LS heart for strong and productive disciples IS desirable however misplaced as it relates to salvation.

    The bottom line for me is, and how I believe Tom's article can effectively be applied, is that when it comes to salvation/assurance I am never going to tell someone "If you want to know you're saved you need to sin less." Huh??? All kinds of people "sin less" and still aren't saved. I will always and only point them back to the moment of their belief in the finished work of Christ.

    When it comes down to it, you either believe it or you don't, and that's all there is to "salvation". Growing beyond that is "desired" but not "required" for salvation.

    @David: Repentance = metanoia = "Change of Mind". The suffix "noia" is literally "mind" so there's really no debate about the word demanding more than just that. One can debate the implications of having done that, e.g. the degree to which actions may or must follow a "change of mind", but those are all subsequent to the change of mind itself.


  14. Stephen:

    Thnaks for your commenst above.

    As you noted, debunking and refuting the GES reductionist Crossless gospel heresy was much easier than dealing with LS.

    You wrote, "because the LS heart for strong and productive disciples IS desirable however misplaced as it relates to salvation."

    Dr. Ernest Pickering in his critical review of JMac's TGATJ also noted that. He said, and I paraphrase, "we all desire to see Christians who produce lasting fruit, but the answer is not found in changing the terms of the gospel," which is what LS does.


  15. Stephen,

    I loved your comments, "I will always and only point them back to the moment of their belief in the finished work of Christ. When it comes down to it, you either believe it or you don't, and that's all there is to "salvation". Growing beyond that is "desired" but not "required" for salvation.

    This scriptural distinction you make between salvation and service, as well as the biblical basis you point to for Assurance of salvation is quite refreshing to hear.

    Salvation vs. Service:

    Indeed God "desires" that believers walk in good works AFTER salvation, but He does not "require" (nor will He accept)works to receive or maintian salvation.

    Biblical Basis for Assurace of Salvation:

    When talking about biblical assurace, we as Christians would do well to not use works/lack of works as a litmus test to determine if someone else is saved or not. We certainly don't use that litmust test on ourselves for assurance of salvation, so why do we impose an unbiblical litmus test (i.e. works/lack of works as evidence of saving faith) on others?

    With regard to biblical assurace of salvation Stephen, I couldn't have said it better; "I will always and only point them back to the moment of their belief in the finished work of Christ".

    Well done,

  16. Thanks for your kind words Jimmy. Just a few years ago my answer wouldn't have been so clear. Lou and the contacts I made through his blog a few years ago really helped me nail it down.