March 24, 2014

Lordship Salvation: A Misuse of Scripture, 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10

For they themselves show of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; And to wait for His Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.

There is one passage of Scripture that virtually always comes up in the discussion of repentance with advocates of Lordship Salvation and needs to be carefully explained. How does John MacArthur, for the Lordship view of repentance, interpret the first verse of this passage?

As metanoia is used in the New Testament, it always speaks of a change of purpose, and specifically a turning from sin. In the sense Jesus used it, repentance calls for a repudiation of the old life and a turning to God for salvation. Such a change of purpose is what Paul had in mind when he described the repentance of the Thessalonians: “You turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). Note the three elements of repentance: turning to God, a turning from evil, and the intent to serve God. No change of mind can be called true repentance if it does not include all three elements. The simple but all too often overlooked fact is that a true change of mind will necessarily result in a change of behavior. Repentance is not merely shame or sorry over sin, although genuine repentance always involves an element of remorse. It is a redirection of the human will, a purposeful decision to forsake all unrighteousness and pursue righteousness instead. 9

What is the gospel, after all, but a call to repentance (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 17:30)? In other words, it demands that sinners make a change—stop going one way and turn around to go the other (1 Thess. 1:9). 10

Those quotes represent Lordship’s classic misuse of 1 Thess. 1:9. MacArthur starts by addressing the Greek word metanoia as it is used in the New Testament, and then quotes a verse that does not even contain the word metanoia. The Greek word for “to turn” is completely different; it is epistrepho (epistrephō) and means simply “to turn, turn to or toward.” Epistrephō does not mean “to repent.”

Through the balance of this section I am going to draw from the Inspired Commentary, the Word of God, to bring out the meaning and context of 1 Thess. 1:9. Before we can draw a conclusion on 1 Thess. 1:9 we need to begin by reviewing Paul’s initial evangelistic ministry to the Thessalonicans. In Acts 17:1-4 we find Paul arriving at Thessalonica and, “as his manner was,” preaching the gospel. He was preaching Jesus who suffered and rose again. He said, “…Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ.” He is exhorting the Thessalonians, in their unsaved condition, to change their mind about Jesus. In verse four we see that some were persuaded, “some of them believed,” but some “believed not.” What was it in Paul’s preaching that some were persuaded of and believed? That Jesus, who suffered, died and rose again, was the Christ. In Paul’s evangelistic appeal to the Thessalonians is there any call or exhortation for “turning from evil” or the “intent to serve” for salvation? No, there is not! MacArthur is forcing “turning from evil (sin) and the intent to serve God…to forsake all unrighteousness” into the narrative of Paul’s sermon.

Those who “believed not” set in motion a wave of persecution against the new believers (Acts 17:5-9). The events at Thessalonica set a pattern for what we find in Paul’s two epistles to the Thessalonian believers.

In 1 Thessalonians 1 Paul acknowledges and praises them for their “work of faith” and “labor of love.” They set an example for others on what Bible Christianity should look like. Their fine example was being set with “patience” (v. 3) in the face of “much affliction” (v. 6; Acts 17:5-9). They were setting the right example for fellow believers (Macedonia and Achaia, vv. 7-8) to emulate how to go through persecution. The reputation of the Thessalonian church preceded Paul in his missionary travels; therefore he did not need to speak of it (v.8). Their testimony of faith and patience in the face of persecution was a living example and a sermon without words. With respect to Lordship Salvation, this raises a serious problem. If the example of the Thessalonians in their willingness to change their behavior after they believed is considered the necessary condition of true saving faith, then in what way were the Thessalonians “examples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia” (v. 7)? How could they be the example to all other believers when all believers in Christ will necessarily live and behave just like the Thessalonians as Lordship advocates insist?

1 Thess. 1:9 opens with, “For they… .” The “they” is their “faith to God-ward,” which became known abroad. The Thessalonians “turned to God,” which put them in a position for the capacity to serve God. The example they became to other believers was the result of their believing the message Paul preached unto themthe One who suffered and rose again is the Christ. The “patience of hope” (v. 3) is defined in verse 10, “And to wait for his Son from heaven.” While they expected and patiently waited for Him to come they kept working out their faith and labored in love. Today when so many are occupied with His coming, we would do well to learn from the Thessalonians that we should keep occupied (doing something for Him) until He comes.

Lordship advocates who use this passage as an illustration of repentance only quote verse 9, “and how ye turned (epistrepho) to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” Grammatically, however, there are two parallel infinitives of purpose, which are found in verses 9 and 10. The sentence structure, therefore, if breaking it down into main points and sub points, could be visualized this way:

v9, For
     they themselves shew of us
           - what manner of entering in we had unto you
           - how ye turned to God from idols
                 - to serve (douleuein) the living and true God
v10,             and 
                 - to wait (anamenein) for His Son from heaven,
                              -whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus,
                              - which delivered us from the wrath to come.

There is a major problem for the Lordship position in claiming that 1 Thess. 1:9 is making the intent “to serve” a necessary description (thus condition) of genuine repentance/faith. If “to serve” is a condition/necessary description, then syntactically so must the phrase “to wait” be as well. Wait for what? “His Son from heaven,” i.e. the Second Coming of Christ. There is no other passage in Scripture that conditions the reception of eternal life on believing in Christ’s Second Coming or waiting for it!

There is simply no way the two infinitive clauses can be separated. They are both present tense, active voice, infinitives, and they are both subordinate, dependent clauses that are parallel to one another and dependent upon the main, independent clause of 1:9, “how ye turned to God from idols.”

To be born again do the lost need to believe in the Second Coming of Christ? If we accept MacArthur’s view that the Thessalonians were saved by “turning from evil and the intent to serve,” then the Scriptures also demand waiting for the second coming of Christ as a third condition for conversion.

There is, however, an even larger point with 1 Thess. 1:9-10. This passage is not even describing their initial, saving faith. The emphasis of the passage is clearly upon describing their faithful example in following the Lord subsequent to their initial, saving faith. In 1 Thess. 1:9 Paul is not speaking of how to become a believer; he wrote to them about their growth and testimony as believers.

This interpretation fits perfectly with Paul’s introductory description of these Thessalonians in 2 Thess. 1:3-4. Notice there too they are described not as to their initial, saving faith, as if Paul is saying to them there, “Your conversion was genuine.” No, he is pleased with the fact that their “faith groweth exceedingly” (1:3) and that they were exercising “patience and faith” amidst the trials they were enduring (1:4).

This interpretation, furthermore, fits perfectly with the Inspired Commentary on the Thessalonian Epistles that we have in Acts 17, where the Thessalonians’ initial, saving faith is described in 17:1-4, esp. v. 4 “persuaded” (peitho) or “believed” (KJV) and v. 5 “were not persuaded” (apeitho) or “believed not” (KJV). The content of their faith is described in v. 3, that is, they believed in Christ’s substitutionary death and bodily resurrection, which were according to the Scriptures (1 Thess. 4:14; 1 Cor. 15:3-4). There is no mention of turning from idols, serving the living God, waiting for the Second Coming, etc. Instead, what we see is that immediately upon believing, these baby Christians in Thessalonica were persecuted for their faith (Acts 17:5-9), particularly by Jewish unbelievers (1 Thess. 2:14-16).

From the Scriptures we can firmly conclude that 1 Thess. 1:9-10 is a post conversion passage. Paul is addressing the things that followed their conversion. He was teaching them post conversion truth. In verse ten he concerns himself with their growth in light of the Lord’s imminent return. At the time of their persecution Paul and Silas were ministering to them as new believers (1 Thess. 2:8). In both epistles to the Thessalonians Paul is ministering to them as new believers. Every chapter in 1 Thessalonians ends with Paul referencing the Second Coming of Christ, which is a vital truth for believers. In 2 Thessalonians 1 we find Paul speaking of their growing faith, charity toward one another and patience in persecution. Paul is commending them for their faith that grew out of their believing the gospel.

Lordship’s repentance, as MacArthur defines it, is to “stop going one way,” i.e. stop sinning and replace sinning with the “intent to serve,” i.e. do the “good works” (Eph. 2:10) expected of a born again believer. MacArthur changes the gospel from repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ to a man-centered message that conditions the reception of eternal life on the lost man’s, “purposeful decision to forsake all unrighteousness,” which is an upfront commitment to certain expected levels of behavior. Believing the gospel should result in some form of a change in behavior as one grows in grace. However, nowhere in Scripture is the gospel for the reception of eternal life defined by a sinner’s intention, commitment or resolve to change his behavior.

In Defense of the Gospel: Biblical Answers to Lordship Salvation, from the chapter, What is Biblical Repentance, pp. 133-138.

9) John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus: What is Authentic Faith,
p. 178.

10) John MacArthur, Faith Works: The Gospel According to the Apostles, p. 33.


  1. Excellent exegesis. The implications of the dependent subordinate serve/wait clauses cannot be ignored and must be reconciled exegetically by those asserting otherwise.

    1. Thank you Alex. Sadly, for the sake of bolstering the faulty logic that is Lordship Salvation, the implication of passages such as 1 Thess. 1:9-10 have been ignored, and/or wrenched out of shape by the teachers of Lordship Salvation.


  2. You know Lou, we're coming up on 30 years since John MacArthur's "The Gospel According to Jesus." In all of that time, and through all of the revisions of that book, and through all the releases of all the other books on the subject, and in all the sermons preached on the subject, the Lordship Salvation advocates have yet to find a single verse in Holy Writ that conditions the justification of a sinner on personal submission to the mastery of the Lord Jesus Christ. Likewise, we still have 150 times in the NT alone where justification of the sinner is conditioned on faith alone in Christ alone.

    I will ever be passionate about defending the Gospel of the Christ. I will continue to engage those who frustrate grace and put stumbling blocks in the paths of those who would be saved. Yet still Lou, more and more I realize that false teachers don't have a doctrine problem they have a character problem.

    I'm not dismissing their arguments to instead go after there character. I am the merely the least of men who have taken on each of their points for many years now. Other men writing other works such as your own book In Defense of the Gospel have also answered them point by point with clarity, understanding, and precision.

    It is time we get to the heart of the issue with these beloved souls. How can they truly know they are saved? Lou, I think we need to put these men on the spot. They have ministries of examining others, much like the Corinthians did with Paul. Perhaps it is time to echo Paul's words and say EXAMINE YOUR OWN SELF! The truth of Scripture brings man to surrender, not so as to become a slave, but to give up trying. It brings a man to see his sinfulness and need. The Gospel speaks to that needy one and provides full satisfaction for all the justice of God and all the need of the guilty soul. The Gospel isn't about God getting slaves, it is about God fulfilling justice so He may be JUST and the JUSTIFIER of the ungodly one who believes on Christ Jesus.

    1. Hi Kev:

      Appreciate hearing from you. You wrote, “It is time we get to the heart of the issue with these beloved souls. How can they truly know they are saved?”

      I often hear men suggest that John MacArthur, Lordship Salvation (LS) teachers, could not be saved men because he/they teach, what I also agree, is a false gospel. I tend to give benefit of the doubt and believe that these men have simply gone horribly wrong. I have always appreciated Dr. Ernest Pickering's statement, which I draw from his critical review of MacArthur's first edition of TGATJ. He wrote,

      John MacArthur is a sincere servant of the Lord, of that we have no doubt.... We believe in his advocacy of the so-called lordship salvation he is wrong. He desperately desires to see holiness, lasting fruit, and continuing faithfulness in the lives of Christian people. This reviewer and we believe all sincere church leaders desire the same.... But the remedy for this condition is not found in changing the terms of the gospel.”

      They have succumbed to a deception, and tragically are corrupting the gospel of Jesus Christ.

      My primary interest in the LS controversy it to expose the LS teaching for the man-centered, works based message that it is, identify the teachers of LS so that they may be avoided, and protect the unsuspecting from falling into the trap of Lordship salvation. That was and is the primary motive for my book and this blog.

      Thanks for stopping by,


    2. Hey Lou, I don't necessarily question the salvation of these men - though I am not ruling that out as something that is valid to do based on their own confession.

      What I do suggest though is to push back on these men and show them through their own experience how their gospel can offer not assurance to them and contrast that with how everyone in the Scripture who was saved had full assurance of that fact. People got messed up on what God would do or not do, but I can't think of a single instance in the Scripture where someone is wondering if they are truly saved or not.

      They have to see that there is no golden line where they have submitted enough, have turned enough, have forsaken enough so that they can truly know they have done it right and are somehow now justified. Truly when we look for faithfulness within ourselves (no matter by what means we suppose it to be present) if we are honest we find unfaithfulness, rebellion, pride, sinful desire... my heart breaks for the one who knows Christ died for their sins but can't put away enough of their sinfulness in order to truly have faith they are saved by Christ.

    3. Thanks for clarifying that for me.


  3. Hi Lou,

    Shouldn't we question the validity of a person's salvation if they advocate a false gospel or if they say they were saved by a false gospel? My benefit of the doubt leans towards giving that person the true gospel. I feel that assuming they are saved could be a big mistake. MacArthur did not in my opinion have a clear statement that he believes the gospel in his testimony interview with Phil Johnson. The thought was more that he was always saved and he knew this was true because he never "rebelled". If someone told me that I would proceed with telling them the true gospel.

    Jim F

    1. Hi Jim:

      Thanks for the questions and commentary.

      Shouldn't we question the validity of a person's salvation if they advocate a false gospel or if they say they were saved by a false gospel?

      On the former: I have answered that as best I can with what I think at the moment. I may change on that at some time in the future.

      On the latter: If I hear something that clearly indicates that this person was subjected to a presentation of a false gospel, and responded to how the teacher of that false gospel said with give him eternal life, I would feel compelled to question what he/she is depending on for their salvation. This answer would give me direction on want they need most. Reassurance, discipleship or to be born again the Bible way.


  4. I'm reminded of John 7:24 in the statement by Pickering above, “John MacArthur is a sincere servant of the Lord, of that we have no doubt.....He desperately desires to see holiness, lasting fruit, and continuing faithfulness in the lives of Christian people.

    This reviewer and we believe all sincere church leaders desire the same.... But the remedy for this condition is not found in changing the terms of the gospel.”

    Lou, has Pickering judged with a righteous judgment or according to appearance? Has he really proven all things? MacArthur is not just off in the gospel, which by itself is enough for us to be told to mark and avoid, not share in their evil deeds, that they are accursed, but even believers (Peter and Barnabas) were called hypocrites, and told they were to be blamed for they were not being straightforward about the truth of the gospel.

    Just as much as we'd be wrong to say we know for sure they are a servant of evil, I believe it's wrong to call them sincere servants of the Lord. How does he know this? By his fruits? John MacArthur is a false prophet according to his own proof text in Matt 7:15-23. Aren't we to shun them? Paul says nothing redeeming about their motives in 2 Cor 11:13-15. He says they are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.

    I know in myself, I'd like to think the men have good motives. Is holiness truly in his mind? I don't know... I'd say by the fruits of "Triple Fist Kiss" and the Master Chorale and the "JMac Rap", I don't see it. He might consider listening to those, or I'd be happy to share the lyrics, and John MacArthur's people idolization of him, to the point of swooning and fainting when he enters the room.

    I pray he'll turn and stop blaspheming the way of truth, but until then, his gospel is another, and the Judaizers were given no submission for even an hour, neither should we attribute good motives to false teaching should we? Isn't that sort of like commending him? Attributing good motives to MacArthur I believe to be judging according to his appearance. So young ones go listen to his teachings figuring they already have the gospel down? Haven't we made them stumble?

    Just some of my thoughts on what the Word says about people who pervert the gospel. Please call a false prophet a false prophet and don't soften the blow. In Christ.

    1. Those are very interesting thoughts Holly.

      I cannot bring myself to declare that Dr. MacArthur is saved. His own testimony of his conversion doesn't match any moment where he believed the Gospel, let alone his own perverted message.

      I believe that he is most likely saved, but I would never call the man a servant of the Lord. I have to call him accursed as Gal 1:6-9 most definitely applies. Just because he is a false teacher doesn't automatically make him unsaved. I don't what he has honestly believed, and I don't know how or if he got led astray from truth. The Corinthians were led astray to deny the resurrection but Paul is assured of their salvation in 1Cor 15.

      I think Pickering's quote is helpful for Dr. MacArthur's fans and followers, it softens the blow of seeing their prized teacher being questioned so harshly.