The "lordship salvation" controversy (also "Lordship Controversy") is a theological dispute regarding key soteriological questions within Evangelical Christianity, involving some non-denominational and Evangelical churches in North America at least since the 1980s. The dispute spawned several books, pamphlets, and conferences. According to one website advocating Lordship Salvation, "the doctrine of Lordship salvation teaches that submitting to Christ as Lord goes hand-in-hand with trusting in Christ as Savior. Lordship salvation is the opposite of what is sometimes called easy-believism or the teaching that salvation comes through an acknowledgment of a certain set of facts." Another website critical of it defines it similarly, however: "As defined by its own advocates, Lordship Salvation could more properly be called "Commitment Salvation," "Surrender Salvation," "Slaveship Salvation," "Servantship Salvation," or "Submission Salvation" since in actuality the debate is not over the Lordship of Christ, but the response of a person to the gospel and the conditions which must be met for salvation."
"By grace alone" and "through faith alone" are two of the five solae of the Protestant Reformation. Many Protestants affirm these phrases as distinctively Protestant, whereas the Lordship Salvation controversy concerns what grace and faith must include, and what they must exclude, for a person to "have salvation" in the evangelical Protestant sense. The language of what must be included permeates the whole debate and is often transferred from the meaning of the concepts to the status of someone's experience; thus, "As a part of his saving work, God will produce repentance, faith, sanctification, yieldedness, obedience, and ultimately glorification. Since he is not dependent on human effort in producing these elements, an experience that lacks any of them cannot be the saving work of God."
Related to the issue of what must be included or not, the debate also looks at conversion using language which refers to concepts on "accepting Christ as ...." This is how the term Lordship became associated with the debate, by discussions of various ways to accept Christ; sometimes "accepting Christ as Savior" or "accepting Christ as Lord" were distinguished, and a debate ensued. This is reflected in various modern translations, taking a cue from Colossians 2:6 in the Good News Bible, which has "accept" for what is to be done about Christ. In the New International Version of the same verse, the word "receive" is used. Thus, a common question was "do (or did) you accept (or receive) Christ as Lord?" The controversy became defined by the question of whether or not this part is included.
Given the accepting-as phraseology of the popular GNB of Colossians 2:6, and the receiving-as phraseology in the widely popular NIV of Colossians 2:6, an exegesis based on the NIV, for example, offered an explanation of what manner of receiving this was. John F. MacArthur Jr, in turn, taught that such a receiving was both non-passive toward Christ and actively submissive to Christ, offering this as a way of understanding the English idiom, of what receiving a person "as" Lord, really means.
Yet the "as Lord" language was not the only metaphor for the controversy. In 1959, Eternity Magazine featured a twin set of articles which ignited the debate and the use of the idiom from the titles: what Christ must "be." This asked what Christ must "be" to the one accepting Christ: must he "be Lord" to "be Savior," both, etc. Ten years later (1969), Charles Ryrie used this idiom in a chapter title, verbatim, quoting exactly the title of the articles in Eternity Magazine, September, 1959. This idiom, what Christ must "be", was used to derive and discuss the implications for salvation associated with what Christ is. One author, Arthur W. Pink (1886–1952), had already associated Christ's Lordship with surrendering to it as a sine qua non at the initial point. Therefore, the controversy dates back to before 1959, to at least before 1953 in the case of Pink, and shows the subject's connection to evangelism. Baptist theologian John Gill in his 18th-century work in the exposition of Colossians 2:6 deals with an emphasis on Lordship.
In 1988, John F. MacArthur Jr published the first edition of "The Gospel According to Jesus". By defining salvation by what it produces and what salvation will not fail to produce, (not only glorification, but good works, repentance, faith, sanctification, yieldedness, and obedience) the book not only heavily spread the extent of the debate, but the debate expanded in scope, from questions about conversion issues, to questions about what is also necessary, and who it is who does what, throughout the Christian life. Using surrender language in the gospel became another issue.
Free Grace theology became an umbrella term for a variety of opposing or contrasting positions, sometimes arguing that Lordship salvation was legalistic, sometimes more opposed to it than that, for example, faulting it for not being specific about what degree, quality, and current visibility there must be to the necessary obedience. The controversy continues to be debated not only in discussions about all the gospels, but also in discussions about almost any of the Pauline epistles and the relationship of Paul the Apostle and Judaism, and the rest of the New Testament, as well as much material about salvation in topical studies, and in systematic theology.
Further information: History of Calvinist–Arminian debate
Figures of the Reformed tradition and their historical dispute with Arminian Protestants over a person's participatory role in salvation, a debate which many Calvinists identify with the original sin issue Augustine wrote of in his polemics against the British monk Pelagius, gave Reformed scholars and church leaders an intellectual tradition from which to oppose what they considered a false gospel.
An early discussion about the initial conversion aspect of the Lordship salvation issue was in the 1948 systematic theology of Lewis Sperry Chafer, using (and criticizing) the phrase "believe and surrender to God". AW Pink (d. 1952), also used this language, but anticipated (and advocated) key terms in the later debate, speaking of both 'surrender' and 'Lordship'. Connection of the word "Lordship" and salvation existed in a Ph.D. dissertation at Wheaton College in 1958. Therefore, the use of the term 'Lordship salvation' came before the first edition of MacArthur's 1988 book, possibly after the 1959 debate in Eternity magazine, Sep 1959, between Presbyterian Everett F. Harrison, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, and John Stott, an Anglican theologian.
The controversy moved to the forefront of the evangelical world in the late 1980s when John F. MacArthur argued that the one-third of all Americans who claimed to be born again according to a 1980 Gallup poll reflected millions who are deceived, possessing a false, soul-destroying assurance.
There was much-published response, particularly from seminary faculty. For example, an early review of the 1988 edition of The Gospel According to Jesus appeared in a Jan–Mar 1989 Bibliotheca Sacra article by Darrell L Bock. Also in 1989, Charles Ryrie published So Great Salvation and Zane C. Hodges published Absolutely Free! A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation. The two 1989 book publications confined the direct debate largely to their authors' footnotes, but the Bock article, in addition to specifically giving points of disagreement and agreement with MacArthur's book, added definitional discussion of terms such as "disciple" and "Lordship," and introduced the consideration of rhetorical devices such as overstatement, into the discussion. However, the debate was on. Since both MacArthur's and Hodges' books were published by Zondervan, some bookstores displayed them together under the banner, "Which One is Right?".
Yet very soon on their heels, in 1992 before the revised edition of MacArthur's work, an anthology of responses from various faculty of reformed seminaries appeared on the subject and include criticisms of both MacArthur and Hodges, especially in Michael Horton's contribution, "Don't Judge a Book by its Cover."
MacArthur later published Faith Works (1993) and Hodges published the second edition of his earlier title, The Gospel Under Siege, in 1992. Two ministries, The Grace Evangelical Society, founded in 1986, and the Free Grace Alliance, founded in 2004, arose to advance free grace soteriological views which opposed some concepts introduced by proponents of Lordship salvation. Each group contributed numerous books, journal articles and pamphlets detailing the problems of Lordship salvation or its alternatives.
"Free Grace" became the popular term for the opposing camp in the Lordship salvation debate, and the ideas against Lordship salvation by authors such as Charles Ryrie, Chuck Swindoll, Norman Geisler, and Bill Bright. While free grace was traditionally largely affirmed in Protestantism, and the "Free Grace view" affirms good works are a proper response to salvation, the Free Grace view argues they should not be taken as the only or sine qua non evidence of one's salvation or righteous standing before God.
Proponents of Lordship salvation, on the other hand, criticize opponents as advocating an acquiescence in sin by allowing greatly sinful behavior to exist together with the same assurance of salvation as someone who does not currently allow greatly sinful behavior, but is to some degree subduing sin.