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The Lordship Debate

Phillip A. Ross

It was only a blip on my radar screen for many years. I couldn’t imagine what the ruckus was all about. Jesus was Lord, and the matter was settled. Who could possible debate the issue?

A friend gave me a copy of Lord & Christ : The Implications of Lordship for Faith and Life (Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, Philipsburg, N.J., 1994), by Ernest C. Reisinger. Although John McArthur, Jr., brought the controversy to full flame, it has been smoldering beneath a Christian veneer for centuries.

At issue is whether Christians, having faith in the grace of God through Jesus Christ, need to obey the Law. Does Paul’s statement in Romans 8:2 (“For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death”) mean that Christians are completely absolved of all responsibility for keeping biblical Law, specifically the Ten Commandments? Or are Christians, saved by grace, freed, not from the Law, but freed from sin so that they may apply themselves freely to the Law?

Even as I restate the issue it seems absurd to think that Christians might be free to ignore the Old Testament. Yet, more and more, “Christians” in pulpit and pew ignore and violate the letter and the spirit of the Ten Commandments. At issue is not the fulfillment of the Ten Commandments-—none but Jesus can fulfil them. Rather, the rub is whether or not to aim at their fulfillment.

Reisinger tells us the root heresy behind the nonlordship proponents is antinomianism, the core of which pertains to the relationship between justification and sanctification, or grace and works. Are works (sanctification or growth in Christ) necessary for salvation? Or is believing in Jesus enough? The same issue continues to play a major role in the Catholic/Protestant debate.

Those who proclaim Jesus as Lord insist that Christians endeavor to live by the Law, but not in order to attain salvation. Rather, having once for all been saved by the grace and blood of Jesus Christ, they endeavor to live by the Law in honor and celebration of the mercy of God through Christ Jesus. By aiming at the fulfillment of the Law Christians grow in sanctification (holiness).

The nonlordship proponents accuse their Lordship adversaries of legalism. While legalism is indeed a serious heresy, and while there are Christians who are guilty of both over emphasis and wrong emphasis on the Law, Reisinger assures us that the Lordship of Christ rests upon the dual pillars of grace and Law.

Reisinger does an admirable job of presenting and clarifying a complex issue. But the issue is likely to continue to produce both heat and light because the antithesis of each perspective is false belief. Both positions cannot be true.

Reisinger calls attention to the differences between saving faith and spurious faith. There is a kind of faith that believes but does not save (see Job 8:13, Proverbs 14:12; John 5:39-40). Spurious faith believes in Jesus Christ as Savior. It claims salvation in Christ, but wants “to be saved from the consequences of sin, but not from sin itself” (p. 35). Spurious believers want to be saved, and maintain a sinful lifestyle.

Another difference between saving faith and spurious faith is that “spurious believers never acknowledge the inconveniences that follow a commitment to Christ” (p. 37). For the spurious, faith is always perceived in a positive light, never honestly attesting to the sacrifices or difficulties of faithfulness. The spurious seek a constant diet of literature and teaching on how Jesus is going to make life better, richer, smoother, less stressful, etc. This kind of faith settles “for a change of mind not necessarily resulting in a change of conduct or direction” (p. 40).

The Lordship controversy goes to the heart of the many varieties of evangelical faith operant on today’s scene. There is historic faith, which is mere mental assent to the truths taught in the Scriptures as historical facts” (p. 41). But like the faith of Simon Magus (Acts 8:31-24), it does not save. Then there is temporary or delusive faith, which “has many marks of true saving faith… (to include) not only an intellectual reception of the historical facts but a joyful acceptance of them” (p. 41). But it fairs only as well as the seed sown on rocky soil (Luke 8:13). And there is saving faith, built upon true repentance.

A confusion spawned by spurious faith involves the teaching of a category of saints called carnal Christians. “The ‘carnal Christian’ teaching was invented to accommodate all the supposed converts of modern evangelism, which has left biblical repentance out of its message” (p. 79). Reisinger says that the carnal Christian category, which is halfway between nonchristian and Christian, is a false category that makes those who claim the faith but don’t practice it feel like part of the family.

But he says that their identification as Christian, albeit “carnal,” fails to draw them into deeper faith, but rather keeps them from it. The spurious falsely believe that their carnal Christian status is enough to guarantee salvation. In addition, other Christians are encouraged to falsely believe that they are superior to their “carnal” brothers and sisters, who have not had a “deeper experience” or a “second act of grace.” The carnal Christian teaching leads both Christians and nonchristians astray.

Reisinger does an admirable job of showing what changes when a person is born again and what assurance Christians can have of their salvation. He also points out the differences between false assurance (Galatians 6:3, Matthew 23:15) and true assurance (Romans 8:16, 1 John 3:14).

How can we know whether we have spurious or saving faith? True or false assurance? Scripture calls Christians to self-examination. “Self-examination is like a title search in religion. Counterfeiters do not want their money examined. But imagine if everyone on the rolls of our churches would take this duty seriously and pursue it biblically” (p. 138).

Yet, self-examination has its dangers. “The two most common errors in managing the duty of self-examination are (1) examining by a false standard or a false conscience, and (2) examining in such a way that leads to morbid introspection” (p. 136). Paul teaches Christians to examine themselves for fitness to receive Holy Communion (see 1 Corinthians 11:28). Consequently, self-examination is at the heart of the gospel.

Though many would not identify themselves with the nonlordship perspective, the lives they lead proclaim it. Conversely, many identify themselves as Christian, but the lives they lead deny it. True faith is at the heart of this controversy.

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