Founders Journal


Old Error Rediscovered

Tom Ascol

Recently, when surveying the scene of contemporary American Christianity, one of evangelicalism's foremost theologians made the following confession:

If, ten years ago, you had told me that I would live to see literate evangelicals, some with doctorates and a seminary teaching record, arguing for the reality of an eternal salvation, divinely guaranteed, that may have in it no repentance, no discipleship, no behavioral change, no practical acknowledgment of Christ as Lord of one's life, and no perseverance in faith, then I would have told you that you were out of your mind. Stark, staring, bonkers, is the British phrase I would probably have used.[1]

What J. I. Packer found unthinkable ten years ago, has become a tragic, pervasive reality within American evangelicalism today. Through the influence of erudite theologians and eloquent preachers the view that one may own Jesus as Savior and not own him as Lord has gained wide currency in conservative, evangelical churches. Challenges to this perversion of the gospel have given rise to the modern "Lordship Debate."

Basically, the debate may be framed by the following questions: Must Jesus be Lord of one's life in order to be Savior of one's life? Is it possible to believe savingly in Christ without submitting to his Lordship? Are receiving Christ as Savior and receiving Christ as Lord two separable experiences in the life of the believer? How you answer these questions reveals on which side of the debate you stand.

The issue is an important one. Nothing less than the gospel itself is at stake. If the "non-Lordship" proponents are right, then the "other side" is guilty of adding to the gospel of salvation by grace through faith. If advocates of the "Lordship" position are correct, then those who oppose it are guilty of cheapening grace and reducing faith to little more than a mental exercise.

Nearly 200 years ago Andrew Fuller was drawn into a debate which, at its heart, had the same issues at stake. His chief opponent was the Scottish Baptist leader, Archibald McLean. McLean learned his views on the nature of saving faith from Robert Sandeman, who, along with his father-in-law John Glas, taught that the faith which saves is nothing other than the "bare belief of the bare truth." Though the father-in-law was the primary architect of this view, it was the son-in-law who was its chief propagandist. Hence, "Sandemanianism" is the name which is usually identified with this movement.

McLean separated from Glas and Sandeman and became a Baptist. He retained, however, the Sandemanian view of faith and salvation.

Through his work with the Baptist Missionary Society Fuller established friendships with McLean and other Scottish Baptists. He had no desire to enter into public debate with McLean over their theological differences concerning faith and salvation. Only after "observing the nature and tendency of the [Sandemanian] system" for several years did he finally publish a treatise against it.[2]

His Strictures on Sandemanianism in Twelve Letters to a Friend (1810) is a formidable refutation of the errors of that system. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes, "it is generally agreed that Fuller more or less demolished Sandemanianism in those twelve letters."[3]

Fuller argues convincingly from the Scriptures that saving faith involves more than the mere assent of the mind to the facts of the gospel. Since faith is a duty, it must necessarily involve the will. Since it is a grace (imparted by the Holy Spirit), it cannot be restricted to the intellect. It must be the result of the Spirit's operation in the heart. It must involve the whole man or it is not saving faith.

Sandemanianism (in its ancient and modern forms) fails at precisely this point--distinguishing the nature of saving faith from its many counterfeits. McLean and his followers demonstrated this error by claiming that there is no essential difference between saving faith and the "devils' faith." Fuller's opponents contended that, "whosoever among men believes what devils do, about the Son of God, is born of God, and shall be saved."[4] Faith, in the Sandemanian scheme, is the acknowledgment of the facts.

Modern proponents of "non-Lordship salvation" have simply resurrected the errors of Glas, Sandeman, and McLean. Not only do they fail to distinguish between saving faith on the one hand, and faith which is merely temporary (Luke 8:13), vain (1 Cor. 15:2), or dead (James 2:17, 26) on the other, but they also regard any effort to do so as illegitimate (cases like that of Simon Magus notwithstanding -- Acts 8:13, 18-24). Saving faith, according to contemporary Sandemanians, consists of "merely 'believing facts.'" It is simply "taking God at His Word" (bare belief of the bare truth!).[5]

In Fuller's day as in our own, a misapprehension of the nature of saving faith brings deadly results. If salvation is nothing more than a bare assent to the bare facts, then evangelism is reduced to little more than the dispensing of those facts. Further, the converts of this type of system need not be acquainted with a "felt Christ." Belief, according to Sandemanianism, does not touch the affections.

Neither does it concern the will. So it is improper to expect all those who become "believers" to live holy lives. Some may pursue holiness. Others may live lawlessly. Which way one goes is neither dependent upon nor demonstrative of his faith. Consequently, where such teaching prevails it is not surprising to find churches whose memberships are comprised of large numbers of unholy "believers."

Modern ingenuity has led to the development of a complete "carnal Christian theory" to explain this condition.[6] Rather than entertaining the possibility that such believers may not possess genuine saving faith, this theory suggests that what is needed is some sort of second work of grace. Once this work is effected, then the believer will be enabled to live a life which approximates the biblical pattern of Christianity.

This second work of grace is variously labeled. Not infrequently is it described as "making Jesus Lord of your life" (the idea being that prior to this, through faith, He had only been Savior of your life). This second step is not necessary for salvation, and the believer who does not make Jesus Lord of his life is no less assured of heaven than the one who does. At the very worst, the former may lose out on some of the rewards which the latter will receive in the life to come. But salvation is equally certain in both cases.

The non-Lordship scheme of salvation inevitably leads to these theological and practical aberrations. It is a perversion of the gospel and a blight on the Church of Christ. It is incumbent upon every Christian -- especially those whose calling it is to shepherd the flock of God -- to understand the issues involved.

The design of this issue of the Founders Journal is to assist in this effort. In the articles that follow, the significance of Christ's Lordship for evangelism and salvation is examined from the perspectives of biblical exegesis (Terry Chrisope), theology (Ernest Reisinger), and Baptist history (Tom Nettles).

May God be pleased to bring a great host of this generation to bow savingly before our exalted and enthroned Lord Jesus Christ.