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: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.
a) he could not continue in idolatry
b) he would need to stop the idolatry after he accepts Christ
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?