For centuries, the watchword of Christians within the reformed and evangelical tradition has been justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. However, those same Christians have taught and practiced definite standards of moral behaviour. Believing faith must and will be accompanied by true repentance.
What, then, is the relationship between salvation by grace and obedience to God’s moral law? Can a person be a believer without being a disciple? What must I do to be saved? Is it possible to accept Jesus as Saviour without bowing to him as Lord?
Such questions have arisen repeatedly over the years, but especially so in the so-called lordship controversy on the 1980s and 1990s in North America.
In 1998 evangelical teacher John McArthur published The Gospel According to Jesus, in which he launched an attack on ‘easy-believism’ (or ‘cheap grace’, to use Bonhoeffer’s term). He affirmed that a person who is truly saved will submit to the lordship of Jesus Christ; persistent disobedience to God’s revealed will demonstrates the inauthenticity of faith.
C.C. Ryrie and Zane Hodges, both professors at Dallas Theological Seminary, responded by denying that eternal salvation depends on submission to the lordship of Christ. If it did, they argued, this would be to add good works to faith as the means of salvation. They distinguished sharply between justification and sanctification, denying that the former is dependent on the latter. The admit that, regrettably, there is such a thing as a ‘carnal’ Christian – a person who is saved by faith but has not brought his life into conformity with the lordship of Christ.
The debate has been vigorous and sometimes acrimonious. Some evangelical teachers have sought to bridge the gap by finding truth in the core beliefs of both sides: genuine saving faith always leads to submission to Christ, but does not depend on that. But this approach is not really a middle way, but simply a re-statement of the lordship view, and few opponents of that view will accept that way of stating the issue.
Based on Olson, A-Z of Evangelical Theology, 317-319.