by William Webster
The past 20 years has seen an ongoing debate within the evangelical community on the issue of lordship salvation. There have been a number of works published addressing the subject but there is still much confusion within the evangelical Church concerning this issue.
There is much contradictory opinion as to what is necessary for an individual to come into the experience of salvation. On the one hand there are those who believe that lordship is absolutely essential while others deem such teaching a works salvation. No one involved in the controversy denies the essential truth of the deity of Christ, that he is Lord and God. In this sense it is impossible to ‘make Christ Lord’ since he is Lord. The controversy is not over the essential nature of Christ, but whether submission to him, as Lord of one’s life, is a necessary aspect of saving faith. There are those who claim that lordship is a betrayal of the Reformation in that it undermines the vital reformation principle of ‘faith alone’. And there are those who state that rather than a betrayal, the teaching of lordship is, in fact, an affirmation of both the biblical gospel and the historic Protestant faith. There is even confusion among those who consider themselves ‘reformed’ in theology. While we all agree that justification is by faith alone, we do not all agree on the meaning of saving faith. How do we resolve these differences?
I believe the answer is found in clarifying the discipleship teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. The teaching of Jesus is particularly germane to this whole controversy and is ultimately the definitive answer to the question of lordship. If he taught it, that settles it. The controversy over lordship is not an academic issue. It hits right at the heart of the gospel and the meaning of true salvation. Nothing less than the eternal destiny of men and women is at stake. When teaching on salvation Jesus has a great deal to say about hell, the kingdom of God, his atonement, union with himself, conversion, faith, repentance, sanctification and discipleship. Surprisingly, he has little to say about justification. In the context of Protestant-Roman Catholic ecumenism, Harold O.J. Brown recently made an interesting observation about the teaching of Christ. Referring to liberal Protestants and Catholics he states:
These comments apply to our present study. In order to hold our personal or denominational views on salvation, do we ignore or reinterpret some of the teachings of Jesus?
In any study of Jesus’ teaching on salvation what is striking is his constant focus upon himself as the source of salvation. ‘Come to me, follow me, believe in me, drink of me’ (Mt. 11:28-30; Mk. 8:34-38; Jn. 6:35; Jn. 7:38) are his constant cries. He says, ‘I am the way the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me’ (Jn. 14:6). According to Jesus, it is through a personal relationship with him that one comes into the experience of salvation.
He preaches the absolute necessity for the new birth (Jn. 3:3-6), for conversion (Mt. 18:3) and for sanctification (Mt. 7:21-24). He tells men that it is only those who do the will of God who will enter the kingdom of heaven, that those who truly belong to him will manifest the reality of that relationship by bearing the fruit of obedience in their lives (Jn. 15:1-8; 8:31).
He says that none can come to him except the Father first draw them (Jn. 6:44) and yet he calls men to repentance and faith (Mk. 1:15; Jn. 3:16; Lk. 13:3; Jn. 4:15-18).
He teaches that justification is not by works but based solely on the mercy of God (Lk. 18:9-14). He emphasizes faith in himself and his atoning work as the sole basis for salvation and complete deliverance from judgment and condemnation (Jn. 3:14-16; 6:35, 47-58, 5:24, 10:27-29), but he also equally emphasizes his authority as Lord, as clearly seen in his call to discipleship. His teaching on discipleship is his definitive teaching on the kingdom of God and what it means to enter into a relationship with himself. There is perhaps no greater confusion within evangelicalism in our day, however, than that which relates to this subject. For this reason we need to look at it in some detail.
Christ’s Call to Discipleship
In Luke 14, Jesus gives the following conditions of discipleship:
‘If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple’ (Lk. 14:26).
‘Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple’ (Lk. 14:27).
‘So therefore, no one of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions’ (Lk. 14:33).
It is clear that Jesus is not talking here about a process of discipleship, but a commitment of discipleship. While a biblical commitment to Christ results in a process of growth, in this particular passage Christ is talking about an initial commitment to himself. Jesus has enunciated unalterable and absolute requirements which he says must be met or one cannot become his disciple. Let us examine his words to see what exactly the Lord means by his teaching.
1.) Luke 14:26: ‘If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.’
To properly interpret the meaning of the Lord’s words, especially his use of the word hate, we need to refer to Matthew 10:37: ‘He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.’
What Jesus is dealing with here is love and devotion. Jesus demands first place in the heart of an individual. He must be preeminent in the life. All other relationships are to take a secondary place in relationship to himself. William Hendriksen makes the following comments on this verse:
2.) Luke 14:27: ‘Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.’
The issue in this verse is that of self denial. We will be looking at this concept in more detail but these words by G. Campbell Morgan adequately sum up what the Lord Jesus means:
So, Jesus must not only be first in one’s affections, but his will must come first in one’s life. An individual’s will must be submitted to the will of Jesus Christ.
3.) Luke 14:33: ‘So therefore, no one of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.’
William Hendriksen explains the meaning of this verse in these words, ‘Wholehearted devotion, all-out loyalty, complete self denial, so that one places himself, his time, his earthly possessions, his talents etc., at the disposal of Christ, is what Jesus asks’ (William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary, The Gospel of Luke, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981, p. 737).
As a matter of summation, then, what Jesus is calling for in these verses is a forsaking of everything and the unconditional surrender of self to him as Lord if we are to become his disciple. These are the conditions he clearly sets forth for entering into a relationship with himself. It is a commitment that is necessary for entering the kingdom of God. Apart from this commitment to become his disciple we cannot be saved.
In order to show this is an accurate interpretation of Jesus’ teaching in Luke 14 it is essential that we look carefully at a number of additional passages that deal with Jesus’ teaching on discipleship. These are Mark 8:34-37, John 12:24-26, Matthew 11:28-30 and Mark 10:17-22. These passages reveal three general word pictures used by Jesus which are descriptive of his teaching on salvation and discipleship: the cross, the yoke and the grain of wheat. They each illustrate the attitude towards self we must adopt if we are to be rightly related to him. They teach us that a Christian is one who has died to his life, in this world, and given himself wholly to Christ, to love him supremely and serve him exclusively. We cannot follow Christ and possess eternal life unless these word pictures are descriptive of our lives.
Mark 8:34-37: The Cross
If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s shall save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? For what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (Mk. 8:34-37. Cf. Lk. 9:23-27).
This is another foundational passage related to discipleship. In fact, Mark 8:34 is in principle the same verse as Luke 14:27. But in Mark 8 Jesus amplifies the verse, so we will understand exactly what he means. Whatever it means in Mark 8:34 is what it means in Luke 14:27.
These words of Jesus to his disciples and the multitudes follow the incident of Peter’s attempt to dissuade the Lord from the path of the cross. Peter appeals to him to spare himself. Peter’s admonition springs from loving concern, but it is met with a stern, severe rebuke from Jesus. His reply to Peter is both revealing and instructive for it reveals to us the master principle that governed the life of Christ. And it is this initial response to Peter which forms the backdrop to his additional comments to all the disciples and the multitudes. Jesus utterly rejects Peter’s suggestion, actually ascribing it to Satan, and then says to Peter: ‘You are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s (Mk. 8:33).’ Here Jesus sets forth a contrast between two life principles: God’s interests and man’s interests. And he reveals that the two are in conflict with one another. But he leaves us in no doubt as to which principle dominated his life. Jesus was controlled by one master passion: To know and do the will of God no matter what the cost to himself. Jesus’ life was not governed by his own interests, but those of his Father’s. As he himself stated over and over again: ‘For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me’ (Jn. 6:38). Self interest is the very antithesis of the life of Christ. His one holy passion was the will of God, for the glory of God, even if it meant persecution, suffering and death on a cross!
There is the stark contrast here between man’s interests and God’s interests. It forms the context in which Jesus teaches about the cross and what it means to follow him. Being his follower means adopting the same attitude towards my life that he had towards his. After calling the multitudes and the disciples to himself Jesus says that if any man would come after him he must do three things: deny himself, take up his cross, and follow him. What does this mean?
Deny self: This means a turning from self-will, renouncing living for self. John Stott says: ‘Self denied...is not to deny things to myself, but to deny myself to myself. It is to say no to self and yes to Christ; to repudiate self and acknowledge Christ’ (John Stott, Basic Christianity, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972, p. 111).
Take up the cross: A cross is an instrument of death and is used in a metaphorical sense by Jesus. When the term is used in conjunction with the phrase ‘deny self’, it carries the idea of dying to my right to myself and of living to promote my own interests. John Stott comments: ‘To take up a cross is to put oneself into the position of a condemned man on his way to execution. In other words, the attitude to self is that of crucifixion. Every day the Christian is to die. Every day he renounces the sovereignty to his own will. Every day he renews his unconditional surrender to Jesus Christ.’ (John Stott, Basic Christianity, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972, pp. 111-112).
Follow me: The tense of this verb indicates that it means to continually follow. Thayer’s Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament states that the Greek word follow means ‘to join one as a disciple, to become or be his disciple.’ To follow Jesus therefore means a death to self to become his disciple. I cease to live for my sake in order that I might live for his sake.
Why the imperative call to deny self, take up a cross and follow Jesus? ‘For’, he says, ‘whosoever will save his life shall lose it, but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s the same shall save it’ (Mk. 8:35). The key to understanding the meaning of this verse is the word lose. The Greek ‘lose’ is precisely the same Greek word that is translated perish in other parts of the New Testament. It means to die eternally:
‘The Lord is not...wishing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance’ (2 Peter 3:9).
‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life’ (Jn. 3:16).
To insure that we fully understand the issues involved Christ further explains and emphasizes his point in verses 36-37:
‘For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? For what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?’
Jesus is saying that if a man does not deny self, take up a cross and commit to be his follower or disciple then that man will perish—he will forfeit his soul. Jesus makes this same point in John 10:27-28 where he once again uses the word ‘follow’ as a characteristic of his sheep:
‘My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand.’
Who are the true sheep of the Lord Jesus? Who are the ones who hear his voice, to whom he gives eternal life and who will therefore never perish? It is those who follow him; those who commit themselves to him to become his disciples. The issue is one of eternity and salvation. Both William Hendriksen and R.C.H. Lenski make this point in their comments on Mark 8:34:
Based upon the meaning and contextual interpretation of the words Jesus used one can only conclude that Mark 8:34 is stating a requirement for salvation. This scripture clearly says that one cannot become a Christian without a commitment to Christ as a disciple. In Luke 14:27, the parallel passage to Mark 8:34, Jesus also relates discipleship to salvation. In Mark 8 Jesus says one must become his disciple or he will perish. In Luke 14 he amplifies for us the conditions which must be fulfilled if one would become his disciple. It is obvious from our study of the above passage that when Jesus uses the term ‘disciple’, he uses it as a synonym for the term Christian. To become a disciple, therefore, is to become a Christian. To become a Christian is to become a disciple. Thus, the whole passage in Luke 14 is the setting forth of his conditions for entering the kingdom of God. William Hendriksen’s comments on the importance of obeying Christ’s demands in Mark 8:34 and Luke 9:23 to deny self and take up a cross are worth noting:
In light of these passages it is clear that Jesus never taught that an individual could become a Christian and then at a later time make a secondary wholehearted commitment to him as a disciple. Jesus does not separate being a Christian from being a disciple. They are interchangeable terms. According to Jesus, if one is not a disciple he is not a Christian. When he calls men to himself to be saved he calls them to a discipleship commitment—to the taking up of a cross to crucify self to become a follower. And scripture teaches that all who truly belong to Christ have done that: ‘Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires’ (Gal. 5:24). There are a number of other examples which amplify and highlight this emphasis in the teaching and evangelism of Jesus.
Matthew 11:28-30: The Yoke
Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My load is light.
In Mark 8 and Luke 14 Jesus uses the image of the cross to communicate the conditions of discipleship. Here he refers to a yoke. What does Jesus mean by his yoke? In Jewish culture the yoke was used to harness animals, to control them and bring them into submission to one’s will, so that they could be used in labor. In this passage (Mt. 11), Jesus issues an invitation to men to come to him to find rest for their souls. He sets forth an invitation, a condition and a promise. The invitation is ‘come to me’. The promise is rest and the condition is ‘take my yoke upon you.’ Man is restless and burdened. Why? Because he is ruled by self and not by God. What Jesus is saying is that he can give us rest but it requires a certain kind of commitment. We must bend our necks under his yoke and come into submission to his authority and teaching. We must be willing to adopt the same heart towards self that Jesus himself has. He tells us in this passage that he is meek and humble in heart. His whole life is dominated and governed by God and his will and interests. If we would come to him and find rest we must repudiate self and selfish interests and submit ourselves to Jesus as Lord—to yield to his yoke, his authority and control. James Montgomery Boice makes these observations on the meaning of Christ’s yoke:
John 12:24-26: The Grain of Wheat
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone; but if it dies it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it; and he who hates his life in this world shall keep it to life eternal. If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there shall My servant also be; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.
Jesus gives us yet another word picture here which is descriptive of both his own life and that of the Christian. Again he is illustrating what it means to come into a saving relationship with himself. First of all, he depicts himself as a grain of wheat in describing his death on the cross. He is using a principle drawn from the physical world to teach a spiritual truth. What is that truth? Fruitfulness and life is born out of death. It is only as the grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies that it produces fruit. Just so, unless the Son of Man goes to the cross there will be no fruit, but if he dies there will be much spiritual fruit for the kingdom of God.
Through this word picture Jesus tells us the attitude he has towards his own life. His life is not lived unto himself but totally for the sake of others—first and foremost for his Father and then for people. He constantly gives of himself even to the point of death.
Jesus then applies this principle to all who would be his followers. He says there are two fundamental attitudes that we can adopt towards our life in this world: that of love and that of hatred. Jesus says that if we love our life we will lose it, but if we hate it we will keep it to life eternal. We must understand the word hate here in the same way that Jesus used it in Luke 14. He means that nothing is to take priority over himself and the kingdom of God in our hearts. Everything else is to be loved less. Our lives are not to be our highest priority. We are not here to live for ourselves but for our Lord. We are not to literally hate ourselves but our love for God and his kingdom must take absolute priority over our lives. If we love our life more than Christ we will lose it. This word lose is the same word Jesus uses in Mark 8 which means to perish. He is speaking here about eternal death and eternal life.
He then states that to be his servant we must follow him. If we would gain eternal life and truly know Christ there must be a death to self. I must become, in a figurative sense, a grain of wheat which falls into the ground and dies. I must come to an end of living for myself and this world. I commit myself unreservedly to Christ to be his follower—to love him supremely and to serve him exclusively. If I do not do this Jesus says I will perish. He says the same thing in Mark 8. We die to ourselves that we might live for God and his will and the result is fruit. The apostle Paul writes of this in Romans 12:1 where he exhorts believers to continually offer themselves to God as a living sacrifice: ‘I urge you therefore brethren by the mercies of God to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.’ F.F. Bruce makes these comments on the meaning of Jesus’ teaching about the grain of wheat in John 12:24:
The New Testament scholar, D.A. Carson, gives these insightful and sobering observations in explaining the essence of Jesus’ teaching:
The theme of Jesus’ teaching in John 12 is that of fruit. This is an important theme throughout the New Testament:
Discipleship is the essence of true Christianity. All who would come into the kingdom of God must submit their lives to Christ as his disciple to be his follower. This is evident in the commission that Christ gives to his disciples in Matthew 28:19-20 in the preaching of the gospel:
‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to Me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you, And lo I am with you always even to the end of the age.’
This passage of scripture is known as the Great Commission. It is the Savior’s commission to his followers to go into all the world and ‘make disciples.’
The Lord himself has already defined the word disciple in Luke 14. Therefore the word is going to retain the same meaning in Matthew 28. He is commissioning his followers to carry on the same ministry he has been engaged in—that of bringing men and women to himself through the preaching of the gospel. To ‘make disciples’ is to bring men and women to the kind of commitment that is defined by Jesus in Luke 14. Such people then become disciples or true converts. Then we are told to baptize them and teach them. Who does the word them refer to? Clearly to those who have been ‘made disciples’. We are to baptize and then teach those who have become disciples. This passage is not dealing only with a process of growth in discipleship, but with that point of commitment where an individual becomes a true follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord is commissioning his disciples to carry on the same kind of evangelism he has been involved in throughout his ministry. One clear example of this is seen in the incident of the rich young ruler.
The Rich Young Ruler
And as He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him and began asking Him, ‘Good teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments, Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’ And he said to him, ‘Teacher I have kept all these things from my youth up.’
And looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him, and said to him, ‘One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor and you shall have treasure in heaven, and come follow Me. But at these words his face fell and he went away grieved, for he was one who owned much property.’ (Mk. 10:17-22).
This passage of Scripture is very important as it relates to our present study. This man comes to Jesus earnestly seeking the way of eternal life. He specifically asks the Lord what he must do to be saved. And Jesus tells him that he lacks one thing. He must sell all he possesses, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow him. Again we are confronted with this key word—follow. This is the same condition Jesus lays before the multitudes in Luke 14: ‘Whoever does not take up his cross and follow Me cannot be My disciple...No one of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions’ (Lk. 14:27,33). The Lord places this condition before the young ruler as a condition for salvation. If he would enter the kingdom of God and inherit eternal life he must forsake all and follow Christ. As we have already seen the word ‘follow’ means to become a disciple. He can gain eternal life if he is willing to become a disciple. This means unreserved surrender to Christ as Lord. Walter Chantry makes the following comments:
Christ preached the law to the rich young ruler to bring him under conviction and to repentance. He put his finger on the young man’s idol and demanded a forsaking of that idol if he would inherit eternal life. Jesus did not tell the rich young ruler simply to ‘believe’ in him. He commanded him to become a disciple. This is Jesus’ message in evangelism, a call to discipleship. Thus, in Matthew 28:18-20 he is commissioning his disciples to follow his example.
It is clear from these passages that Christ taught that salvation requires a commitment to him as Lord. To understand why this is true we need to understand how Jesus’ teaching relates to the gospel message itself.
Matthew 7:13-24: Beware of False Prophets
Enter the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it. Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves (Mt. 7:13-15).
Christ warns that the gate is strait and the way is narrow that leads to life. It is narrow because Christ is the only way and because the conditions required for those who would enter are difficult. We do well to heed Jesus’ words of warning in Matthew 7: ‘Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves’ (Mt. 7:15). False prophets proclaim a false message resulting in false assurance. They dilute the demands of the gospel by making the gate wide and the way broad. Such teachers and preachers may acknowledge Christ as Lord, by affirming his deity, but deny that a commitment to him as Lord is necessary for salvation. But acknowledging the title or position of Jesus theologically and submitting to him as Lord are very different. Jesus tells us that those who profess his deity without a corresponding submission of life will not enter heaven. Only those who do the will of God will enter heaven:
‘Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophecy in your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” And I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’
The people Jesus mentions are sincere and orthodox in their view of Christ but they are lost. Jesus says the reason is that they practice lawlessness. 1 John 3:4 says, ‘Sin is lawlessness.’ Lawlessness is a heart of rebellion against God. A heart of self-will and self-rule. These people profess Christ as Lord but they do not submit to him as Lord to do his will. In preaching the gospel we must call men to Christ, but in doing so, we must impress upon them what that will mean. If we minimize Christ’s demands for repentance and faith we will in effect be wolves in sheep’s clothing—false prophets declaring to men a wide gate and a broad way of salvation. Martyn Lloyd-Jones gives this warning about the false prophets of Matthew 7:
Jesus’ Definition of the Word Disciple
The yoke, the cross, the grain of wheat, a follower, a servant —these are all terms used by Jesus to describe his radical teaching on what it means to truly know him. But much of his teaching is misinterpreted, misunderstood and misapplied. Many evangelical teachers today view discipleship as a process of sanctification or as a second, deeper commitment, not having anything to do with the conditions for entering the kingdom of God.
The word disciple is the Greek word mathetes, which means a learner. However, this definition is inadequate when used in relationship with Jesus Christ for he amplifies the term far beyond its basic Greek meaning. Just as the word for love, as normally used in Greek culture, was expanded and redefined by the writers of the New Testament, so the term disciple is given a whole new depth of meaning by Jesus. The normative meaning of the term in the Jewish and Greek cultures of Jesus’ day was that of one who committed himself to a teacher to become a learner. But when scripture uses the term in relation to Jesus Christ it gives an expanded meaning to the term for the obvious reason that we are not merely dealing with a human teacher in Jesus, but with the incarnate God! Our concept of discipleship must be according to Jesus’ definition and his words must be the standard by which we define the term. It is true that a disciple of Jesus will be a learner. But a disciple of Jesus is more than a learner, he is a follower who has denied self, taken up a cross and forsaken all to live for Christ and his kingdom. And according to Jesus, only a disciple is a true Christian.
The Demands of Discipleship and the Gospel
How does the discipleship teaching of Jesus fit into the overall scheme of the gospel of grace and salvation? To properly interpret this, we must understand the purpose of creation. We were not only created by God, but created to fulfil a specific purpose. Colossians 1:16 says that all things have been created ‘by Him and for Him.’ We have been created for God. He, himself, is to be the supreme purpose for our existence and the object of our love: ‘I am the Lord your God...you shall have no other gods before Me’ (Ex. 20:2-3).
This is reiterated by the Lord Jesus when he says that the first and greatest of all the commandments is: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’ (Mt. 22:37). God himself is to be the center of our lives. He is to have first place in our affections, the preeminent place in our hearts. No other person or thing must be allowed to displace him from his rightful place in our hearts. And no other purpose should be more important than knowing and doing the will of God. My own personal will, ambitions or interests, or those of another should never to take precedence over the will of God.
Man was created to be under God’s authority, to love him supremely, and to live in obedience to his will. Man’s fundamental problem, however, is that he does not live this way. He has rebelled against his Creator and does not live to fulfill God’s will but his own. The Bible calls this sin. God no longer holds his rightful place in the heart of man. The pursuit of personal happiness and self rule dominates the life rather than God. Men do not live under God’s rule but have become authorities unto themselves, living independently of him. Man is alienated and separated from God and is not rightly related to him as a person. Man exists in a state of sin and produces specific acts of sin.
The Gospel and Salvation
The gospel is a message of reconciliation. It tells us that the just demands of God’s law, to which all men are accountable have been fulfilled through the life and death of Christ. But salvation means much more than a declaration of forgiveness, acceptance with God and the assurance that one has been delivered from hell. It means cleansing from guilt and defilement. But it also means restoration to a relationship with God. An individual repents of sin and rebellion, and God takes his rightful place in the life. That person now begins to fulfill the purpose for which he was created. He now no longer lives for himself but for Jesus Christ. In other words, salvation is deliverance from sin—its guilt and its dominion and power. Repentance is a turning from sin and selfishness with wholehearted commitment to God. This is conversion.
Scripture clearly teaches that repentance is a necessary condition for salvation along with faith. The Bible presents repentance as a separate and distinct concept from faith. They are two completely different Greek words, and they mean entirely different things, though in the experience of salvation or conversion, they are indivisible. J.I. Packer writes, ‘The gospel is a summons to faith and repentance. All who hear the gospel are summoned by God to repent and believe’ (Acts 17:30, John 6:29). ‘Faith and repentance are both acts, and acts of the whole man.’ John Calvin makes the following comment: ‘The sum of the gospel is held to consist in repentance and forgiveness of sins.’ (Luke 24:47, Acts 5:31). Any discussion of faith, therefore, that omitted these two topics would be barren and mutilated and well nigh useless.’ That repentance is necessary for salvation but is used as a separate concept from faith is seen in the following verses:
‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer, and rise again from the dead the third day; and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem’ (Luke 24:46-47).
‘Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent and believe in the gospel’ (Mark 1: 14,15).
‘Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish’ (Luke 13:3).
‘Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent’ (Acts 17:30).
‘I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house, solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Acts 20:20,21).
‘The Lord is not...wishing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance’ (2 Peter 3:9).
The word of God clearly states that repentance and faith are both necessary for salvation. Delete either one and you do not have biblical salvation or a biblical gospel. Faith without repentance cannot save because the Lord Jesus clearly says, ‘Except ye repent ye will all likewise perish’ (Luke 13:3). And repentance without faith cannot save because it is faith that justifies. Therefore we must conclude that salvation is the result of repentant faith. Both must be present.
It is also important to note that this call to repentance is not to be understood as something which applies only to the Jews in a different dispensation. The Lord Jesus commanded that it be preached as a part of the great commission to the whole world (Luke 24:44) and Paul in summing up the gospel that he preached to both Gentiles and Jews (Acts 20:19-20) said it consisted of repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Since repentance is necessary for salvation, what precisely is biblical repentance? In other words, if an individual is going to repent, what is that going to mean? How is this truth to be applied? The Bible answers this in the teaching of Jesus. In the passages we have looked at Jesus is defining and applying the truth of repentance. He tells us what it means in practical terms. The specific things which Jesus mentions in Luke 14—other relationships, one’s own life, possessions—are the very things which can displace God from his rightful place of preeminence in the heart. These are idols and Jesus says they must be torn down and cast away. Jonathan Edwards underscores this truth in these words:
Finally Jesus gives the warning in Luke 14:28-32 to count the cost of becoming his disciple. Why? Because he is in this world to build and to battle. He is here to further his kingdom. Any man who comes to him must forsake all (Lk. 14:33), submit his life to Jesus Christ as Lord and follow him to live for his kingdom. This is the nature of repentance. J.I. Packer makes this point in the following comments:
Christ’s call to discipleship is in principle the same call of God given to lost men and women during the Old Testament days of Ezekiel. It is a call to repentance—a turning from and forsaking of idolatry and sin:
Then some of the elders of Israel came to me and sat down before me. And the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their hearts, and have put right before their faces the stumbling block of their iniquity. Should I be consulted by them at all? Therefore speak to them and tell them, Thus says the Lord God, Any man of the house of Israel who sets up his idols in his heart, puts right before his face the stumbling block of his iniquity, and then comes to the prophet, I the Lord will be brought to give him an answer in the matter in view of the multitude of his idols, in order to lay hold of the hearts of the house of Israel who are estranged from Me through all their idols.
Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God, Repent and turn away from your idols, and turn your faces away from all your abominations.’
Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct declares the Lord God. Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you. Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies, declares the Lord God. Therefore, repent and live (Ez. 14:1-6, 18:30-32).
This word of the prophet is echoed in the New Testament by Jesus when he says, ‘Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish’ (Lk. 13:3). Jesus is saying is that to become a Christian, one must become a disciple. The two are synonymous terms. The Bible knows of no such concept as that taught so widely today that a person can be a Christian and yet not be a disciple. The Lord Jesus forever nullifies such a concept by his teaching. If a man does not become a disciple by denying self and enthroning Jesus as Lord, he will perish. Acts 11:26 tells us that ‘the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.’ Before they ever received the name Christian they were called disciples.
The essence of sin is self-will and self-rule. In other words living for self. Sin is defined in 1 John 3:4 where we are told ‘sin is lawlessness.’ Vines Expository Dictionary says that lawlessness is ‘the displacement of the will of God with the will of self.’ Therefore sin in its essence is self-will. Or as John Stott puts it, ‘sin is self.’ Repentance means turning from sin. Dr. Thiessen says:
Therefore since the essence of sin is self-will, repentance is turning from self-will or self-rule and submitting the life to Jesus as Lord, thereby becoming his disciple. If a man has not dethroned self and enthroned Jesus as Lord, he is still living in self-will and self-rule and has therefore not truly repented. He will perish. Repentance is towards God. It is a change of mind toward God as the rightful ruler and authority in one’s life. The Scriptures emphasize salvation as a total concept. Justification is but one aspect of salvation. Salvation is in Jesus Christ. He is the Savior. He has done the work. It is by his merits and his alone that any individual is forgiven and accepted by God. His righteousness is imputed to the believer. But salvation becomes the personal possession of an individual only when Christ becomes the personal possession of the individual and he is in turn possessed by Christ. Salvation is applied to an individual through union with Christ when an individual receives Christ as prophet, priest and king through repentance and faith. I trust him as Savior and commit myself to him as Lord. The Westminster Confession says:
The Confession states that saving faith involves receiving Christ for justification and also for sanctification. What it means to receive Christ for sanctification is described by the Puritan theologian John Owen in these words:
What Owen is saying is that the process of sanctification will begin when there is first a commitment characterized by submission to Christ. The process flows out of the commitment. John Murray points out that the term sanctification in Scripture has two meanings: an initial commitment and consecration of the life to Christ from the world and sin, which he calls ‘definitive sanctification’, and the process of growth in the Christian life. He describes it in these terms:
A saved man is a man who has received Christ as Savior and Lord. He is both justified and sanctified. He is regenerated and converted. Because of union with Christ and a new nature, he lives a life in conformity to Jesus Christ in the power of his resurrection by the enabling of the indwelling Spirit. Where there is no submission to Christ as Lord there simply is no true Christianity. James Montgomery Boice offers this sober warning regarding the salvation teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ:
A.W. Tozer makes these comments:
The Bible makes it very clear that submission to the Lordship of Christ is a necessary condition for salvation. This is seen not only in Mark 8:34-37 but also is clearly stated or implied in the following verses:
‘For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living’ (Rom. 14:9).
‘That if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and shalt believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved’ (Rom. 10:9).
‘But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life’ (Rom. 6:22).
‘He died for all, that they who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf’ (2 Cor. 5:15).
‘For they themselves report about us what kind of reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God’ (I Thes. 1:9)
The Issue Of Works
The Bible clearly teaches that salvation is a gift of God and not of works lest any man should boast (Ephesians 2:8,9). Conservative evangelicals emphasize and rightly so, that no man can work his way to heaven. They preach consistently and forcefully against good works as a basis for salvation. They preach the need of turning by faith to Christ alone as the Savior, resting in his finished work and in the merits of his shed blood and righteousness. We commonly hear, ‘Baptism will not save you, church membership will not save you, tithing, witnessing, your moral life, your good deeds, your fastings, your prayers, indulgences, etc. None of these things can give you a standing before God.’
There must indeed be a turning from all self-righteousness if one is to come to know Jesus Christ as Savior. However, many of the same evangelicals who preach the need to turn from self-righteousness in order to be saved will not preach repentance from self-will and self-rule. Why? Many wrongly believe that demanding men to turn from self-will adds works to the gospel of grace. The question is this: What is the difference between turning from self-righteousness to Jesus as Savior and self-will to Jesus as Lord? If the one is a form of works then so is the other.
The fact is, neither of them is works. Repentant, saving faith is a gift from God. Faith is a gift from God (Eph 2:8) as is repentance (Acts 11:18): ‘When they heard these things, they held their peace and glorified God saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.’
Jesus Christ is both Savior and Lord. He cannot be divided. If a man comes to Jesus he comes to him as he is, as both Lord and Savior. There must be a turning from self-righteousness for Jesus to be Savior and there must be a turning from self-will or self-rule for Jesus to be Lord. This is not a form of works but true biblical repentance which is a gift from God. True repentance is turning from self, while faith is turning to Christ. The result is conversion. As A.W. Pink says:
We need to distinguish between discipleship as an initial commitment and discipleship as a process, for it is both. Much of the confusion about commitment to Christ as Lord as ‘works salvation’ comes from a failure to distinguish between the two. When Christ calls men to himself he calls them to a commitment of discipleship, as we have seen. From that commitment issues a life of good works in discipleship or sanctification. But unless this initial commitment is made there will be no new life of holiness because there is no union with Christ. The Holy Spirit does not indwell the heart. The individual is not converted. Many do not make the biblical distinction between an initial lordship or discipleship commitment and the process of sanctification. If we understand the distinction between the commitment of discipleship and the process of discipleship which is growth in sanctification, the confusion can be avoided.
The Results of Repentant Faith
What will be the result in the life of a person who truly repents and believes? The result will be a totally changed life. The overall bent or direction of the life, from the heart attitudes and motivations to the outward behavior, completely changes. Where the life used to be centered around self and the pursuit of selfish interests, it is now centered around Christ and His interests.
No Christian will live a perfect life, but the desire of the heart—the practice or habit of the new creature in Christ—is to know and do the will of God. The issue is not perfection, but a changed life. If a person’s life has not been fundamentally changed from one of self centeredness to one of living for the will of God, then that person has never come to know Jesus Christ. The evidence of true conversion is a changed life.
This is clearly taught in the Bible. Matthew 7:21 and I John 2:17 emphatically state that the only people who will enter the kingdom of heaven, possess eternal life and abide forever are those who do the will of God.
‘Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven’ (Mt. 7:21).
‘Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If any one loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him...And the world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God abides for ever’ (I Jn. 2:15,17).
In I John 2:1 we read, ‘My little children, I am writing these things to you that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.’
I John 1:9 it says, ‘If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’
The apostle John readily admits in these verses that the possibility of sin is very real. He does not teach perfection but in the book of 1 John he teaches that if a person’s life is not characterized by change, that person has never come to know Jesus Christ. In other words he has never truly repented and believed.
He says in I John 5:13 that he has written what he has written in order that men might know if they really possess eternal life. He says if a person has really believed in the Son he has life: ‘He who has the Son has life’ (I Jn. 5:12). But how does one know whether or not he has the Son and therefore has life? The answer to that question is clear. If the life passes the tests he has written about in all that precedes chapter five, the person can know he has eternal life. If the things he writes about are not evidenced in the life, then that person does not have the Son and therefore he does not have life. He has not believed savingly. He has what James calls ‘dead faith’ because he has no works or changed life.
John is not teaching perfection. Again, the issue is not perfection; the issue is a changed life. The following are some of the tests he gives:
‘And by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him’ (I Jn . 2:3,4).
‘Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If any one loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God abides for ever’ (I Jn. 2:15-17).
‘No one who is born of God practices sin; because His seed abides in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother’ (I Jn. 3:9,10).
‘We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren’ (I Jn. 3:14).
J.C. Ryle states:
John MacArthur makes the following comments about the necessity for a changed life:
When did your life change? When did you turn from living for yourself and surrender yourself unreservedly to Jesus as Lord to become his disciple? When did you come to him on his terms as he has defined it in Mark 8, John 12, Luke 14 and Matthew 11? Who do you live for, yourself or Jesus Christ? Who rules your life? What do you live for? This world and the fulfillment of your own interests, plans and ambitions or the kingdom of God?
When did you deny self and take up a cross and die to yourself that you might follow Jesus Christ to be what He wants you to be, to go where He would have you go, to do what He would have you do?
When did you forsake all to follow him? In other words, when did you repent? ‘Unless you repent, you will ... perish’ (Lk. 13:3).
William A. Webster is a business man, living with his wife and children in Battle Ground, Washington. He has already authored The Christian Following Christ as Lord and Salvation, The Bible, and Roman Catholicism, The Church of Rome at the Bar of History and just recently published (Sept. 2001), from which this article is taken, and the three volume series, Sola Scriptura, co-edited by David T. King. Mr. Webster is a founder of Christian Resources, Inc., a tape and book ministry dedicated to teaching and evangelism. You can visit his website at:
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