Updated: I’ve included a few quotes from Charles Ryrie and Robert Wilkin to demonstrate my concerns with their truncated understanding of faith.
Although it has been some time since John MacArthur’s The Gospel According to Jesus launched a biblical salvo into the Free Grace Movement, every now and again I come across people who believe in Non-Lordship Salvation. I have Charles Ryrie’s book So Great Salvation book on my shelf—a book that argues against Lordship Salvation—because a friend who denied Lordship salvation gave it to me as a free gift.
But the trouble with Ryrie’s position is the way in which Scripture itself speaks of faith. In one place he writes, “it seems that many believers do not settle the matter of personal, subjective lordship of Christ over the years of their lives until after they have been born again” (68). Aside from the convoluted grammar of that sentence, he essentially suggests a faithless faith, a belief that may never bear the fruit of faithfulness. As Robert Wilkin, the executive director of the Grace Evangelical Society, puts it, “Christians can fail to endure, fall away, and prove to have been wicked,” and thus “salvation is based on faith in Christ, not faithful service for Christ” (Four Views of the Role of Works at the Final Judgment, 29, emphasis his).
If this sounds like amazing grace to you, it doesn’t ring true with all Scripture says. Because in the Bible, faith is qualified by terms like obeying the truth, following Christ, feeding on Christ, honoring the Son, and keeping God’s commands. For instance, in both Romans 1:5 and 16:26, Paul speaks of securing the “obedience of faith” in the gospel. What does that mean? In short, it means that saving faith is more being convinced or giving creedal affirmation of the gospel, which is Ryrie’s stated definition of faith (So Great Salvation, 144).
By contrast, a new covenant understanding of the question describes faith as the life and breath of a man or woman made alive by the Spirit. Thus, from the beginning, faith in Jesus Christ has eyes to see who Christ is (2 Corinthians 4:5), a desire to turn from all other idolatrous lords (Acts 3:19; 26:20), and a willingness to submit oneself to him. This is what a full examination of Scripture indicates and what Luke 7 demonstrates.
What Luke 7 Adds to the Lordship Discussion
In Luke 7, Jesus had just finished speaking to the people about rightly applying the Law (ch. 6), and now upon entrance into Capernaum he encountered a centurion, a Roman soldier well known in that town, a man obviously well-respected, but still a man that was a Gentile. Yet, like the woman of Samaria (John 4) and the Caananite woman (Matthew 15), faith is best seen in those who otherwise wouldn’t be expected to believe. And in this case, we find a clear example of faith—and faith that submitted to the Lordship of Christ from the beginning.
The account tells of how the centurion had a valued servant on the edge of death (v. 2). In response to hearing that Jesus was near, he sent what appears to be some of his friends who happened to be Jewish elders from the local synagogue. Obviously, these men thought highly of the Gentile centurion for they went and pleaded his merits to Jesus: “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue” (v. 6).
As the story goes, it becomes evident Jesus agreed to come to the man, which was not the mans’ intent. Thus, when he learns of Jesus’ coming, he sends another delegation with a far different message than the Jewish elders: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you But say the word, and let my servant be healed” (v. 7). Here, the heart of the man is revealed.
Unlike the elders who lobbied for Jesus’ grace on the merit of this man’s service to Israel, the centurion is far more modest. And his next words reveal the kind of faith he had: “For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come, and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (v. 8). Thus, the man shows the kind of faith he has in Jesus. He both believes that the Christ has power in his words to give commands—power even over sickness. And, by not presuming upon Jesus, the centurion who is himself a powerful, synagogue-building Roman soldier—a man who has power before Gentiles and Jews—submits himself to the authority of Christ.
And what does Christ conclude? He concludes that his man has faith. Luke reports,
When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well. (vv. 9–10)
In Jesus’ description we see that the centurion’s confidence in Jesus’ authority and his personal willingness to submit to him and to his word, even from a distance, demonstrates the kind of faith lacking in Israel.
In truth, Israel possessed the kind of presumptuous faith evidence by the Jewish elders: they believed in God that if they did enough good God would bless them. This is what belied the whole system of works that Jesus (Luke 18:9–14) and Paul (Romans 10:4; Philippians 3:3–8) confronted. Indeed, Israel’s faith was not a pure submission to the free grace and sovereign power of God; it was instead a bargained faith. It praised God for his grace, but it also coupled grace with covenant-keeping (=works of the law), thus removing the graciousness of God’s grace.
By contrast, the Roman centurion is spotlighted by Luke and marveled at by Jesus for demonstrating the kind of faith that the new covenant brings. Without seeing Christ, the genuine believer submits to his power and his promises, his Lordship and his law. The born-again Christian does not presume upon the grace of God and flippantly recite a believers prayer. In other words, as Michael Lawrence so powerfully captures it in his new book, saving faith does not make a decision, it demonstrates discipleship (see ch. 3 in Conversion: How God Creates a People).
Indeed, true faith understands who Jesus is, what he has done, and what he is now doing. And truth faith, as a gift from God, submits to the gracious Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Saving Faith: God’s Gracious Gift of Humble Submission to King Jesus
In truth, saving faith is not generated by man. It is the gift that God gives his sheep who hear the voice of his Son. In fact, by hearing his voice, the Son (by the Spirit) gives both the message of salvation to believe and the spiritual power to believe the message of salvation. As John quotes from Isaiah 54:13,
It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me— not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. (6:45–46)
In this we see how God grants his followers saving faith (cf. John 6:44, 63), and how all whom the Father elects will be granted humble hearts to submit to King Jesus. Indeed, this is what faith is, and why such saving faith is always conjoined with ongoing repentance. In truth, from Christ’s first call of the kingdom, salvation has always come by faith and repentance (Mark 1:15). Such faith always leads to good works (Ephesians 2:10) and why any faith devoid of love (Galatians 5:6) or good works (James 2:14–26) is only presumption—a kind of unbelief that masquerades as belief.
Tragically, some genuine believers preach a false gospel when they claim that free grace only requires a momentary decision of faith. In truth, such perceived exaltation of grace only diminishes the radical power of life-transforming grace. Because the gospel raises the dead to life, it gives to the sinner what he needs to see, believe, follow, and bow down to the Lord Christ. And like the centurion, this “vision” is not dependent on physical sight; it is the gift Christ promises to Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
So, in the end, we must extol the graciousness of grace, but that does not mean altering the nature of faith. As other texts tell us that saving faith endures and bears fruit (cf. Matthew 24:13; John 15:4; Colossians 1:23; etc.), so we see in this centurion’s faith that saving faith submits to the Lordship of Christ from the beginning. Lordship is not something a disciple grows into later. A child doesn’t become human after they finish gestation in the womb. No, Lordship salvation begins the moment a born again believer is conceived by the Holy Spirit, and thus we ought not shy away from saying so.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds