Dispensationalism and the “Antinomian” Libel

“Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed, and no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.” [1 Corinthians 12:3]*

This passage speaks to the heart of the current debate among some in evangelical circles concerning “Lordship salvation” versus what proponents on the other side of the debate describe as “free grace.” The latter position is represented by Zane Hodges in his works Absolutely Free and Harmony with God: A Fresh Look at Repentance, and Charles Ryrie in such works as Balancing the Christian Life and So Great Salvation: What It Means to Believe in Jesus Christ. The former position is represented most prominently by John MacArthur in his works, The Gospel According to Jesus, and its follow-up, The Gospel According to the Apostles.

At best, the “free grace” position seems to present a rather unsophisticated and not very well nuanced view of soteriology. At the worst, according to those in MacArthur’s camp, the “free grace” position suggests a bifurcated, two-staged process of justification in which believers are saved based on a splitting of Jesus’ role of Savior from His identity as God Incarnate [Lord]. Conversely, the “Lordship salvation” position teaches that genuine salvation, of necessity, cannot dissect Jesus’ function of Savior from His position as Lord; and therefore salvation requires the acknowledgment of and submission to Jesus Christ as Lord. Both parties accuse the other of promoting a different gospel from what is taught in Scripture. Hodges and Ryrie have accused MacArthur of promoting salvation by human works, while MacArthur suggests the “free grace” position is really promoting cheap grace and easy believism, based on mere intellectual assent to and recitation of a so-called “sinner’s prayer” rather than true regeneration and saving faith evidenced by repentance, confession and submission to the Lordship of Christ.

Other critics of Ryrie and Hodges go even further than MacArthur, accusing Ryrie [and, by extension, all dispensationalists] of promoting a heresy labeled as “antinomianism.” [A popular charge among covenant theologians such as the late John Gerstner.] While MacArthur would disagree with Gerstner’s assessment [being a dispensationalist himself, although he considers himself a “leaky dispensationalist”] that dispensationalism is, in and of itself, antinomian in character, he obviously agrees that Ryrie’s and Hodge’s soteriology is severely flawed and lacking in a sound foundation in Scripture. As presented in their works, the Ryrie-Hodges soteriological position lends itself to the common criticism of being nothing more than a fire insurance policy, and that it is opposed to the Gospel because it suggests that, having appealed to Christ for salvation, one can continue in unrepentance and sin of every kind, yet be uncondemned when standing before Christ for judgment.

It is to be expected that Ryrie and Hodges claimed that their view has been misrepresented. They also asserted that MacArthur’s view, that one cannot accept Jesus Christ as Savior without repenting from sin and acknowledging Christ as Lord, is actually a form of salvation by works.

These leads to three questions: (1) Have the views of Ryrie and Hodges been misrepresented? (2) Do the views represented by Ryrie and Hodges advocate antinomianism as properly defined? (3) Which view best represents the New Testament teaching on salvation?

Concerning the first question, while it appears that the “free grace” position has not been misrepresented, I question whether this is due to their proponents actually promoting error, or simply not nuancing their statements.  For example, Ryrie has written:  “Salvation is conditioned solely on faith in Jesus Christ.” (Ryrie Study Bible, NASB expanded edition, p. 2073) “Some of these [false additions to faith] are: 1. Surrender to the lordship of Christ. . . . 3. Repentance. . . when understood as a prerequisite, requiring the cleansing of the life in order to be saved.” (ibid.) Those statements, as a summary of Ryrie’s position, show his views have not been misrepresented, in spite of his claims–at least as regards the claim by MacArthur that Ryrie is presenting an unBiblical view of justification.

With that said, however, the “free grace” position being advocated by Ryrie and Hodges is not antinomian–at least as the term is defined in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Edition.  Ryrie does not suggest that salvation [or, more specifically, justification] grants a license for an individual to continue in sin without consequence.  Ryrie has specifically denied this accusation and claims to agree with Paul in Romans 6:1-2:  “What shall we say then?  Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?  Certainly not!  How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?” (NKJV)

Going further, Ryrie specifically identifies himself with a form of Calvinistic theology. For example, he states in comments on Ephesians 1:4-5: “Election—God’s choice of some individual’s who would believe—occurred before creation and was for the purpose of those believers being holy.” (Ryrie Study Bible, NASB edition, p. 1877) On Romans 8:29, he commented:  “The destiny of the elect is to be conformed to Christ.” (Ryrie Study Bible, NASB Edition, p. 1803) In Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth, his chapter on “Election” appears to be consistent with reformed theology. (Chapter 54, electronic edition)

However, Ryrie distinguishes his views from what he considers “hyper-” or “ultra-” Calvinism in that he does not adhere to the belief in limited or particular atonement. His claims to believe in Total depravity, Unconditional election, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the saints, and God’s Sovereign choice in Election are negated by the practical implications of his views on free will and the nature of justification .

It appears that most of the confusion and tension between the Ryrie-Hodges camp and the MacArthur camp lies in the distinctions being made between the justification and the sanctification aspects of soteriology.  The view of Ryrie and Hodges is simply a whitewashed version of Keswick theology, a variant of Wesleyan perfectionism which teaches that even though one may experience the new birth, one can go for days, weeks, months, and even years without ever demonstrating true Christian character or the fruit of the Spirit.  It is only when one experiences a second, clearly identifiable, crisis experience that one can be said to be sanctified.  The most concise formalation of this sort of unScriptural nonsense can be found in the tract “Have You Made The Discovery of the Wonderful, Spirit-Filled Life?” published and promoted by Campus Crusade for Christ [or simply “Cru” as they prefer to call themselves now].  MacArthur’s teaching on this area, on the other hand, is consistent with Scripture:  that sanctification is both positional, beginning from the moment of regeneration/justification, and progressive, giving evidence through a gradual maturation process until we are perfected, either at death or the return of Christ for His own.  It also appears that while MacArthur may not be as clear concerning crucial distinctions between logical and temporal progressions, Ryrie and Hodges have either ignored or falsified the meanings of those distinctions.  What appears to be common to both sides of the debate is their neglect in explaining the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, justification and sanctification. This is unfortunate, because, in so doing, in many respects both camps wind up with a mechanistic view of soteriology which reduces salvation to saying certain formulas and engaging in certain rituals in much the same way as the five-finger exercise popularized by the nineteenth-century evangelist Walter Scott in the Stone-Campbell movement. Although in the balance, the more egregious errors in these regards falls on the Ryrie-Hodges camp.

Although I concede that MacArthur is right in emphasizing the necessity of sanctification beginning at regeneration, I find that he is wrong in not finding this teaching in the writings of Ryrie and Hodges.  The problem is that Ryrie’s and Hodges’ explanations present an inconsistent, incoherent, syncretistic blend of Reformed theology and semi-Pelagian heresy.  Although MacArthur has been accused of lifting statements from context and building straw-man arguments, that is not the case here.  In this case, MacArthur is basing his points of criticism on sound exegesis and application of Scripture while Ryrie and Hodges are seeking philosophic validation without reference to Scripture.

MacArthur errs, however, in that early expressions of his teaching on sanctification were almost suggestive of an instantaneous type of maturity which does not correspond to the realities of day-to-day life.  He failed to show recognition of the fact that all believers struggle with temptations and sins as they grow into conformity to the image of Christ, a fact acknowledged by Paul in Romans 7:13-24.  However, it must be noted in MacArthur’s favor, that, unlike Ryrie and Hodges, he has taken the time to review and revise his expressions with updated editions of his works to better express what he is trying to communicate.  This is in contrast to the published works of Ryrie, which display an attitude of smug self-assurance and incorrigibility due to his adamant refusal to accept correction from peers or Scripture.

Because of these crucial distinctions, I find the greater weight of error with the Ryrie-Hodges view in that, as I stated earlier, it fails to distinguish between logical and temporal progressions in key respects, and, unlike more recently expressed views of MacArthur, Ryrie neglects to develop a theology which respects the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life in accomplishing regeneration, justification, and sanctification.  In other words, the Biblical testimony is that those who are the elect will be regenerated by the Holy Spirit, and being regenerated, they will be justified, and will be led by the Holy Spirit into sanctification. Because they are regenerated, the Holy Spirit indwells and fills them and they will acknowledge Jesus as Lord, even if their lives imperfectly display submission to His Lordship. As they mature, their lives will display greater evidences of godly behavior and beliefs.

So, are the soteriological views of dispensationalists antinomian in nature, as covenant theologians like John Gerstner and R. C. Sproul claim?  Antinomianism [as defined in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Edition] is the belief that once we have been justified, we have no responsibility or even a possibility of growing in holiness.  While the writings of Charles Ryrie and Zane Hodges deny this, claiming they are not advocating for a soteriology that condones licentiousness and are therefore not promoting antinomianism, the practical effects of their soteriology, being grounded in the Keswick theology popular in the early 1900s in Great Britain, invalidate and nullify their claims.

However, Gerstner and Sproul ignore the distinction that the primary emphases in dispensationalism are eschatology and ecclesiology, not soteriology. There are non-dispensationalists who would have no problems with the soteriology of Ryrie and Hodges [such as those in the Church of the Nazarene, the Free Methodist Church, the Evangelical Covenant Church, and the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana)], yet Gerstner does not accuse them of antinomianism because they hold to either an a-millennial or a post-millennial eschatology. There are five-point Calvinists such as MacArthur and James R. White who have no bone to pick with dispensationalists on their eschatology.  [MacArthur considers himself to be a dispensationalist and White, while not defining his eschatology in any of his writings, simply does not consider eschatology to be a definitional doctrine—but has written that he considers the copy of the Scofield Reference Bible he received as a young man to be a valuable resource.] In this respect, Gerstner was being disingenuous, if not hypocritical.  Gerstner elevated eschatology not merely to the level of definitional doctrine, but made it the sine qua non as to whether or not one should be recognized as a believer.

The final measure of any teaching is not whether or not it accords with any theological system, but how it measures up to Scripture. Although MacArthur has been accused of divisive language, my familiarity with his writings lead me to believe that MacArthur is not being intemperate. His words are the words of a loving pastor who believes the only sure basis for unity is being grounded in truth. However, the undisguised scorn, sarcasm, and bombast writers such as Gerstner and Sproul have demonstrated in their writings, are a disservice to the body of Christ.

* Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures are from the New King James Version. Copyright ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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About davestheology

I found a book that was kind of worn, But to my surprise, not a page was torn; It had a title, that I could not read, "Red Letter Edition" was all I could see.
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