It is remarkable how much disagreement persists among otherwise likeminded believers regarding how one is saved. Presently there are three basic views (though even more subtle nuances) on how one receives eternal life: (1) the lordship salvation view, (2) what I call ultra-free grace, and (3) the free grace view.
Lordship salvation has been defined and popularized by John MacArthur as synonymous with discipleship. MacArthur says, “Those who teach that obedience and submission are extraneous to saving faith are forced to make a firm but unbiblical distinction between salvation and discipleship. This dichotomy, like that of the carnal/spiritual Christian, sets up two classes of Christians: believers only and true disciples” (John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus, Revised and Expanded Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 35-36). MacArthur appeals to Acts 3:19 and Luke 24:47 for his definition of repentance as “turning from sin” (John MacArthur, Faith Works: The Gospel According to the Apostles (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1993), 24.). These comments introduce major components of MacArthur’s lordship view: salvation equals discipleship, there is no such thing as a carnal Christian, repentance is a turning from sin, and consequently, believers inevitably must (and will) bear fruit in order to demonstrate they are saved.
The ultra-free grace view (my term, not theirs) has been most recently advocated by the late Zane Hodges, and by Bob Wilkin’s Grace Evangelical Society (GES). Both Hodges and Wilkin reject the above components of lordship, and advocate that everlasting life is through belief of Jesus’ words. In a video explaining the position, Wilkin subtly asserts that belief of Jesus’s words is synonymous with belief in Jesus. In other words, one receives eternal life by believing Jesus’ words. Hodges says, “What faith really is, in biblical language, is receiving the testimony of God. It is the inward conviction that what God says to us in the gospel is true. That — and that alone is saving faith” (Zane Hodges, Absolutely Free (Grand Rapids, MI: Academie, 1989), 31.). Hodges’ and Wilkin’s view has been critiqued as a “crossless gospel,” in part because they assert that understanding the fullness of the gospel (who Christ is and what He did) is not necessary, but only believing in Him as the One who can provide eternal life. The ultra-free grace view does not view fruit as inevitable in the believer’s life.
The free grace view rejects the above components of lordship salvation. Charles Ryrie describes post-ascension disciples as “believers who are learning and obeying,” but cautions that “No disciple will fail to learn something (unless he is a deathbed convert). But how much, no one can say. No disciple will fail to bear fruit, but how much and how visible and how long, no one can say. Neither can anyone place quantitative requirements on learning or fruitfulness in order to prove the reality of the discipleship” (Charles Ryrie, So Great Salvation (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1989), 105). Further, there seems to be a substantial difference between free and ultra-free grace with respect to the object of faith. The free grace view asserts that the object of faith is Jesus Christ, Himself, and not just His words. In order for one to believe in Jesus Christ, there must be some awareness of both His person and His work.
Understanding the basic elements of these three prevailing views on salvation, the key question is which view (if any) is biblical. While there are many passages that inform us of the answer, the particular passage of consideration in this article is 1 Thessalonians 1. In this chapter Paul commends the Thessalonian believers, and describes them in this way:
2 We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers; 3 constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father, 4 knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you; 5 for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything. 9 For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, 10 and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come (NASB, 1 Thes 1:2-10).
Does Paul’s description of the Thessalonians’ example support one of the three views over another? Paul uses terminology some have interpreted as consistent with the lordship view — describing in close proximity their reception of the word (1:6), their faith in God (1:8), and their turning to God from idols (1:9).
Paul in 1:2 cites the Thessalonians’ work of faith (τοῦ ἔργου τῆς πίστεως). In the genitive here, their work is accomplished in faith. Paul is not describing the moment when they first had faith, but rather the work they are accomplishing in that faith. Adding reference to labor of love and steadfastness of hope, Paul completes a symmetrical compliment of the church — they are demonstrating faith, hope, and love. Later in the letter Paul will emphasize that the church needs growth in these areas hope, but nonetheless he offers no rebuke.
Paul recounts how the Thessalonians came to that state of relative maturity. First, they were chosen by God (1:4). Then the gospel came to them by word, and in power and the Holy Spirit, and by the good example of the apostles (1:5). Finally, they became imitators of Paul and of the Lord (1:6). Notably Paul expects imitation from believers, not unbelievers (see 1 Cor 4:16, 11:1; Eph 5:1).
Further, Paul describes (1:6) how they had received the word even amidst trial and joy in the Holy Spirit (Acts 17 describes how the gospel came to Thessalonica, and how there was an immediate persecution of believers), and how they ultimately became an example to believers in Macedonia and Achaia (1:7). In other words, Paul is not describing the single event of their salvation, but rather the entire process of their early maturing. For example, 1:9 describes how their reception of Paul and their turning (ἐπεστρέψατε) to God from idols was reported after the fact. Paul was there at the proclaiming of the gospel and its reception (1:5), but he is hearing second-hand of their progress, including how they turned to serve God rather than idols and to wait for His Son from heaven.
Paul adds in 2:7-9 a reminder of how he developed a fondness for them, which resulted in his continual proclamation of the gospel even after their salvation. He notes how he behaved in laboring constantly to proclaim the gospel to them as believers (2:10). Literally, Paul says “how righteously and blamelessly (καὶ δικαίως καὶ ἀμέμπτως) toward you the believing ones (ὑμῖν τοῖς πιστεύουσιν) we became (ἐγενήθημεν).” Paul’s dealings with the Thessalonians extended beyond their conversion, and he continually appealed to them, as a father would his children (2:11), that they walk in a manner worthy (2:12). This is a very similar exhortation to the one he gives in Ephesians 4:1 — to believers whom he demonstrated were positionally already in Christ. Are unbelievers ever told to walk in a manner worthy of their calling? Of course not.
Instead of exhorting unbelievers in this way, Paul challenges the Thessalonian believers that their faith was still incomplete (3:10, ὑστερήματα). He tells them to excel still more (4:1, 10), and encourages them that God will sanctify them completely (5:23, ἁγιάσαι ὑμᾶς ὁλοτελεῖς). Paul’s commendation of the Thessalonian believers is descriptive of a long period of growth, and not merely a moment of conversion. Further, even at the point of Paul’s writing, they still had a long way to go. God was still working with them, growing them, and setting them apart. Just as Peter told believers to “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts” (3:17), Paul is encouraging the Thessalonians to continue in their growth.
It is notable that Paul describes a similar process for the Corinthians (1 Cor 15:1). He gave them the gospel, they received it, and they stood in it — just like the Thessalonians. The difference between the two churches is that one grew and matured quickly, while the other floundered in carnality. The Corinthians were believers, but undeserving of the commendation given to those at Thessalonica. Likewise, Paul describes a similar process with the Ephesians — they had heard the gospel, believed, and were sealed with the Spirit (Eph 1:13). Paul tells them of the riches of their position (chs. 1-3), and encourages them to walk in a manner worthy — just as he had exhorted the Thessalonians.
Paul’s commendation of the Thessalonians is not indicative of a lordship gospel from Paul. On the contrary, it demonstrates the differences between immature, fleshly Christians and those who are spiritually healthy and growing to maturity. The Thessalonian example illustrates that learning and obeying takes time. Considering in parallel the Thessalonian, Corinthian, and Ephesian examples, it is apparent that the lordship position is deficient in that it fails to distinguish between the salvation event and the process of discipleship. Further, these examples show that in all three cases extensive understanding of the person and work of Christ was involved in the positional salvation of each group (note Paul’s description of the gospel in 1 Cor 15:1-8), and that the Person, not the message was the object of faith (e.g., Eph 1:13). Of the three views, Ryrie’s free grace perspective is the most compatible with the Thessalonian example.
Dr. Christopher Cone serves as President of Calvary University, and is the author or general editor of several books including: Integrating Exegesis and Exposition: Biblical Communication for Transformative Learning, Gifted: Understanding the Holy Spirit and Unwrapping Spiritual Gifts, and Dispensationalism Tomorrow and Beyond: A Theological Collection in Honor of Charles C. Ryrie. Dr. Cone previously served in executive and faculty roles at Southern California Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, and in pastoral roles at Tyndale Bible Church and San Diego Fellowship of the Bible.