Lordship salvation vs. free grace—what is the biblical truth?

I remember having to write a paper about lordship salvation vs. free grace theology during my freshman year of Bible college, which was 30 years ago. If I remember correctly, we had to read The Gospel According to Jesus by John MacArthur, Absolutely Free by Zane Hodges, and So Great Salvation by Charles Ryrie and then write a paper elucidating the conclusions we arrived at based on the reading. The debate has not gone away. In the 22-year history of GotQuestions.org, it is both a frequent question and an issue that almost always raises the heat. Based on a few recent conversations, it seems like no progress has been made in deciding the issue or the two sides agreeing on any form of a compromise or balanced perspective.

To summarize the viewpoints briefly:

The free grace movement contends that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. There is no repentance and/or turning from sin necessary at the moment of salvation. Saving faith in Christ does not necessarily result in a life of good works, obedience, and following Christ. Spiritual growth, obedience to God’s Word, and a transformed life are greatly dependent on discipleship. It is possible for believers to remain in a carnal state for their entire lives.

Lordship salvation contends that while salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, salvation is also a call to turn from a life of embracing sin and rejecting Christ to a life of rejecting sin and embracing Christ. Saving faith will always and inevitably result in a transformed life of good works, obedience, and following Christ. Spiritual growth is greatly dependent on discipleship, but even an un-discipled believer will exhibit some spiritual fruit. It is not possible for believers to remain in a carnal state for their entire lives.

As with seemingly all things, there are extremes on both sides. And, frustratingly, the extremists on both sides are typically the loudest. The extremists on the lordship salvation side come dangerously close to making works necessary for salvation by emphasizing turning from sin and committing to following Christ as part of the gospel. The extremists on the free grace side come dangerously close to denying the fact that Christians are new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17), in which the old is gone and the new has come.

I applaud the free grace movement for its emphasis on salvation by grace alone through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). I applaud lordship salvation advocates for their emphasis that good works are the result of salvation by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:10). I agree with the free grace movement that we need to be extremely careful about adding any requirement for salvation other than faith (John 3:16; Acts 16:31). I agree with lordship salvation that the Christian life is one of producing progressively less of the acts of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21) and progressively more of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Free grace is correct that justification is by faith (Romans 5:1). Lordship salvation is correct that faith is justified (proven and demonstrated) by works (James 2:14-26).

As a result of this middle-of-the-road position, we receive constructive criticism (and not so constructive criticism) from both sides. Some lordship salvation advocates claim we teach easy believism and/or cheap grace. Some free grace advocates claim we teach a works-based salvation. I do not believe either accusation is accurate.

What do we at GotQuestions.org believe?

(1) Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The only “work” required for salvation is trusting in Jesus Christ, in His death and resurrection, as the full payment for your sins (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). Even this “work” of believing is empowered and enabled by God (John 6:44). Saving faith is not intellectual assent. It is not believing that certain facts are true. Rather, saving faith is trusting in Jesus Christ and the truth about who He is and what He did for us on the cross.

(2) Repentance is a change of mind from an embrace of sin and rejection of Christ into an embrace of Christ and rejection of sin (Acts 2:38; 3:19). Repentance, just like faith, is empowered and enabled by God (Acts 11:18), and often goes hand-in-hand with faith at the moment of salvation. The Holy Spirit’s convicting work is powerful (John 16:8). It is difficult to imagine how someone could understand the gospel, what Christ did for us on the cross, and for there to be no amount of repentance about the sin that put Jesus on that cross.

(3) A Christian is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). A Christian is saved, redeemed, reconciled, regenerated, and justified. It is unfathomable that those could occur and yet not result in a noticeable change in a person’s life. After listing a series of sins in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, the apostle Paul declared, “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11, emphasis added).

(4) Discipleship is the great commission (Matthew 28:19-20). Christians being discipled (taught, trained, baptized, mentored, encouraged, rebuked, and held accountable) plays a tremendous role in their spiritual growth. While it is perfectly within the power of the Holy Spirit for Him to bring a person to spiritual maturity entirely on His own, that is not typically how the Holy Spirit operates. If Christians are not discipled, or are discipled poorly, or never avail themselves of discipleship opportunities, there may only be a minimal amount of spiritual fruit in their lives (1 Corinthians 3:1-3; Hebrews 5:12—6:3).

I contend that the above presents the biblical balance of emphasizing salvation by grace alone through faith alone with the transforming power of the gospel (Romans 1:16) and the call to actively make disciples. While I see value in both free grace and lordship salvation, I do not consider myself a member of either movement.

Jesus saves. Jesus changes lives.

S. Michael Houdmann

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Lordship salvation vs. free grace—what is the biblical truth?