Review of “Absolutely Free: A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation” by Zane C. Hodges

Zane Hodges' Absolutely Free: A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation
Zane Hodges’ Absolutely Free: A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation

I was recently asked by a friend of mine to read Absolutely Free, discussing Lordship controversy from a Free Grace position. This will be a quick look at the key points Hodges makes in each chapter. I will demonstrate why I believe Hodges is incorrect with interpreting Scripture and defend from the Reformed position. I hope you are edified while reading this so that you can further understand the controversy.

Chapter 1- Introduction: Father and Son

In the Introduction in chapter one, Hodges begins by talking about the prodigal son. He makes a statement rebuking the Lordship position, saying that Lordship teachers teach that “commitment to obedience must be a part of true spiritual conversion” (AF, 18). Now, I do not believe that obedience is required for conversion to have taken place, but rather that obedience is a mark of true spiritual conversion. That’s what the Reformed view teaches.

He makes a bold statement saying that Lordship Salvation “promotes a judgmental and pharisaical spirit within the church” (AF, 19). If by “judgmental” and “pharisaical” he means preachers exhorting their congregation to examine themselves to see if they truly are believers, then I guess he is right. However, in order to call these Lordship preachers judgmental you would have to say the same about Jesus, his apostles, and later the puritans.

He finishes this chapter by claiming that “lordship doctrine even goes so far as to disallow an individual’s claim to personal trust in Christ on the grounds that their life is so unworthy that the claim could not be true” (AF, 19). To correct this statement, let me just say that a profession of faith in Christ does not save anyone: faith in Christ saves. If an individual is truly trusting Christ alone for salvation, and not just saying they trust in Christ alone, then they are saved and have eternal life.

Chapter 2- Faith Means Just That – Faith

In the second chapter, Hodges starts to describe what saving faith is. Concerning John 6:47 which says that “most assuredly I say to you, he who believes in me has everlasting life,” Hodges writes that Lordship Salvation teaches that what Jesus should have said is “Most assuredly I say to you, he who believes, repents, and submits totally to my will, has everlasting life” (AF, 23). That is not true of what most Reformed people would teach. Instead, we recognize that all that is required for salvation is faith, and that repentance and submitting to the Lordship of Christ are the fruits of saving faith, but they themselves are not saving faith.

Hodges then goes on to say that we need to get all of our teaching from the book of John since “John’s Gospel is the only book in the New Testament which plainly declares that it was written with an evangelistic purpose in view” (AF, 24). In response to this, we must look at all of the gospel teachings found in the synoptics and not just the gospel of John. We must allow all of Scripture to speak because all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching.

Hodges goes on to say that “the most frequent code words encountered in Lordship teaching are… ‘Cheap grace,’ ‘easy-believism,’ and ‘intellectual assent.’ All three of these phrases are usually used to disparage the idea that eternal life can be obtained by a simple act of trust in Christ” (AF, 28). The Reformed tradition declares that everyone who trusts in Christ alone for their salvation will ultimately be saved. The terms ‘cheap grace,’ ‘easy-believism,’ and ‘intellectual assent’ are used to destroy the idea that faith produces no change in one’s life, which it does.

This is what I am against: saying one has been justified and become a new creature in Christ when there is no objective evidence in their life that they have actually believed. Hodges says that “the saving grace of God could never be described as ‘cheap in the negative sense this word often has” (AF, 28). When we use the phrase “cheap grace” we are not talking about the cost that Jesus paid for our salvation. Rather, we are talking about grace that produces no change at all whatsoever in the individual. In that case, Hodges would believe in “cheap grace.”

Later in this chapter he gives his definition of faith. “Faith…is receiving the testimony of God. It is the inward conviction that what God says to us in the Gospel is true… Faith then, is taking God at his word. Saving faith is taking God at is word in the Gospel” (AF, 30-31). To this, I issue an amen. I totally agree with that definition of Faith and so do most promoters of the so-called “Lordship Salvation.”

He concludes with this statement: “Lordship Salvation holds a doctrine of saving faith that is in conflict with that of Luther and Calvin and, most importantly, in conflict with God’s word” (AF, 32). So it seems here that Hodges is trying to protect the Reformed teaching, but as we see throughout this book, he does not believe what Luther or Calvin believed. For instance, he is a dispensationalist and not a covenant theologian, a synergist as opposed to a monergist, and believes that God’s grace produces no change at all whatsoever in an individual’s life – the opposite of what Calvin and Luther believed.

Chapter 3- Do You Believe This?

The third chapter begins with Hodges quoting John 11:25-26 to further define saving faith: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26). In this chapter of the book of John, Jesus was talking to Martha after her brother Lazarus had just died. Hodges claims that “it is often claimed by those who teach Lordship Salvation that saving faith cannot be merely ‘believing facts’…For Martha to believe facts like these would indeed be an impressive exercise of faith!” (AF, 33). Let us first say that there is an aspect of intellectual assent in the concept of faith. The reformers identified three aspects of saving faith: knowledge, assent, and trust. So the reformed tradition would not necessarily disagree with Hodges here.

We know that Martha responded to Jesus with this: “Yes, Lord, I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world” (John 11:27). “The facts presented to her by the Lord are more than great facts. They are saving facts. That is, they are divinely revealed facts which are to be believed for salvation” (AF, 34). I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with Hodges here, but I take issue in one part: Martha isn’t just merely acknowledging facts about Jesus, she trusts him. That is the third aspect of saving faith.

Hodges does affirm this later in the chapter: “to believe that Jesus is the Christ – in John’s sense of that term – is to believe saving truth…Jesus was asking Martha whether she believed that He fully guaranteed the eternal destiny of every believer… by believing the amazing facts about the person of Christ, Martha was trusting Him. She was placing her eternal destiny in His hands… Everything depended on the truth of what she believed. It was not at all a question of what kind of faith she had. She either believed this or she didn’t. It was as simple as that” (AF, 35). Once again, here I could give a big amen.

Chapter 4- What Really Happened?

Hodges begins chapter four by quoting a couple of hymns. Hodges writes that “lordship thinkers feel that one must somehow ‘measure up’ if he expects to attain eternal well-being” (AF, 42). That my friend is simply untrue. No Lordship promoter would every say that they must measure up to God’s grace. That is heresy from the Roman Catholic Church. No Lordship or Reformed person for that matter would ever make this claim.

Hodges then starts to mention the assurance of the believer by saying that “when a person believes, that person has assurance of life eternal…a person who has never been sure of eternal life has never believed the saving message of God” (AF, 44-45). I don’t take much issue here as long as we recognize that faith is not assurance. People can believe and not have assurance of their salvation. We can doubt.

ZaneHodges
Zane Hodges (1932-2008), Professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary (1959-1986)

Chapter 5- No Return Trip

In chapter five, Hodges begins to deny the doctrine known as the perseverance of the saints (the teaching that all true believers will continue in the faith until the end) but he somehow affirms once saved always saved. He starts by talking about John 4:13-14, saying “whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:13-14).

He denies the perseverance of the saints by stating that Lordship teachers “say, in effect…that the drinking itself must go on and on. And they add that if the drinking ever stops it never really began…According to some of its proponents, if someone ‘really believes’ they will keep on believing to the end of life. And if this supposed faith fails, it was not true faith to begin with” (AF, 48). In response to this claim, the verb for “drinking” here in this verse is in the present tense, not aorist. So yes, the person who is drinking the water Jesus provides has eternal life, because he is always looking to Jesus for his hope.

To further defend his denial of the perseverance of the saints, he states that in Acts 16:31, the verb for “believe” is in the aorist tense: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” What Hodges fails to realize is that three verse later in Acts 16:34, the verb for believe is in the perfect tense: “having believed in God.” Therefore, his claim that just believing once counts is refuted.

Hodges concludes this chapter by stating that “our faith in Christ should continue. But the claim that it absolutely must, or necessarily does, has no support at all in the Bible…the Bible predicates salvation on act of faith, not on the continuity of faith” (AF, 56). That is a deceptive claim. What about Matthew 24:13 referencing the tribulation?: “but the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.” We know that those who walk away from the faith never were actually of it: “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19).

This perseverance in the faith is not a human effort, but is the work of the Spirit in us: “Now to Him is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy” (Jude 24). By saying that it is not promised for the believer to continue in the faith during our life, is to make perseverance a human work and not of God.

Chapter 6: School Days

Hodges starts chapter six by quoting Luke 14:26 and then stating that you don’t have to be a disciple to be a Christian: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Hodges writes that “these words set a high price on discipleship…they have nothing to do with the terms on which we receive eternal life” (AF, 60). If that is true, then why did Jesus preach on this so often and more importantly, why did he preach it to a multitude which included hundreds of nonbelievers? It really begs the question.

At least Hodges does affirm a statement here that all Christians should affirm: “Christian experience can appropriately be described, with Peter, as a process of growth.” I agree with that. We don’t submit fully to the Lordship of Christ because if that were the case we would never sin. However we are willing to submit to his Lordship. That is what Hodges is missing.

Further Hodges makes the claim that “when…lordship teachers claim that ‘salvation is a gift, yet it costs us everything,’ they are not speaking the language of the Bible” (AF, 64). If being a Christian doesn’t cost us everything, then why is it that so many were martyred in the early years of the church? It’s because they understood that if they wanted to come to Christ, this is what it would have cost them. They understood that there is no such thing as a secret Christian. They were either all in, or they weren’t in at all.

The book Hodges is responding to was written by John F. MacArthur.
The book Hodges is responding to was written by John F. MacArthur.

Hodges further argues in this chapter that John MacArthur is teaching works salvation when he says that “obedience is the inevitable manifestation of saving faith” (AF, 64) and then reminds us that “lordship theology has abandoned the Reformer’s view of the nature of saving faith” (AF, 65). Once again, as I have said earlier, Hodges does not believe what Luther or Calvin believed, because it was them that used the phrase “justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone.”

When he talks about assurance of salvation he quotes MacArthur who writes that “Genuine assurance comes from seeing the Holy Spirit’s transforming work in one’s life, not from clinging to the memory of some experience,” (AF, 66) and rebukes the statement by quoting Bell who says that “Calvin emphatically warns against looking to ourselves, that is, to our works or the fruit of the Spirit, for certainty of our salvation. We must turn from ourselves to rest solely on the mercy of God” (AF, 66).

Hodges says that “what is wrong in lordship thought is that a life of good works is made the basis of assurance, so that the believer’s eyes are distracted from the sufficiency of Christ and His Cross to meet his eternal need” (AF, 67). What Hodges is failing to realize is that we don’t find our assurance in our works, but in the Spirit’s work. Everyone who is looking to Christ and trusting in him alone for salvation will produce works. So our first basis for assurance is that we look to Christ. But there is a secondary assurance that lets us know that we are looking to Christ, which is the Spirit’s work in us.

I was incredibly amazed when Hodges argued that “James 2:14-26 does not teach, and cannot correctly be made to say, that faith inevitably produces good works,” (AF, 68) but that is exactly what James teaches. He didn’t expound on his statement in this chapter but maybe he will later.

To conclude the chapter, Hodges writes concerning Ephesians 2:10, which reads that “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” that “Paul declares God’s purpose for us. God wants us to walk in good works” (AF, 70). God won’t cause us to walk in his ways? In other words, it is up to us? That is exactly the point Hodges is making. He argues this by saying that the phrase “we should walk” is in the subjunctive case which could also be translated like this: “that we might walk in them.” However the subjunctive case is also used in 1 John 1:9 which in the original Greek is translated: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just that he might forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9, italics added). Does this mean that God might forgive our sins if we confess? No, God will forgive us if we confess. Hodge has overlooked that.

Chapter 7: Dropping Out

Chapter seven starts to get interesting. Hodges writes that “‘becoming my pupil,’ says Jesus, ‘is like going to war. Moreover, it is like going to war against forces which greatly outnumber you’” (AF, 77). In reality however, being a Christian is a constant war. This is why Paul reminds us in Ephesians 6 that we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, and exhorts us to put on the full armor of God. Being a Christian is not easy. It is hard, and anyone claiming to be a Christian who does not struggle is deceived.

He then starts to discuss God’s love which has a lot to do with the theological system known as Calvinism: “Lordship Salvation is combined with a harsh system of thought that denies the reality of God’s love for every single human being. According to this kind of theology, God dooms most men to eternal damnation long before they are born and really gives His Son to die only for the elect” (AF, 79).

First let me say, as a convinced Calvinist, that I strongly believe that God does have a universal love for every single person, but that does not mean he loves everyone the same way. He has a different love for his elect than he does for his non-elect. The reason men are damned is not because of the divine decree of predestination; it is because they rejected God, which all men will do before God calls them. Hodges further declares that “for such thinkers, the declaration that ‘God so loved the world’ (John 3:16) must be tortured into meaning something less than His universal love for humankind” (AF, 79). Here Hodge is relying on tradition, and not Scripture to define what the term “world” means here. It is commonly thought that the word “world” in the Greek always means every single person who ever lived although this is not always the case since there are about ten different uses of the world “world” in the gospel of John. Here I believe the term “world” has to do with humanity in general. We have to understand that the focus here in John 3:16 is not on us, but is on God loving sinful, hell-deserving men. That is the focus; not on the world.

Hodges closes this chapter by stating that “we certainly must not assume that a person who has ‘dropped out’ of the [sanctification] process is necessarily unsaved” (AF 81). Actually we can assume this since the apostle John told us that “no one who denies the Son has the Father” (1 John 2:23). If you do not believe, you are lost. I don’t care if you say you believed once. If you do not currently believe, you can be assured that unless something changes, you will be damned.

Chapter 8: The Royal Battle

There wasn’t too much I took problem with in this chapter, just some false statements that needed to be addressed. Hodges writes that “according to Lordship theology, the failure to persevere successfully in the Christian race and in the Christian warfare is a sign that one is not really born again. All true Christians end up as winners, we are told” (AF, 84). Now I don’t know any Lordship proponent who would state that. I certainly wouldn’t. Christians fail, sometimes miserably—but they never completely fall away. God promises his elect that they will never totally fall away although they may backslide.

Hodges concludes by saying that “what Lordship Salvation really does is to strike a heavy blow to Christian morale. Instead of assuring that the believer belongs to God, come what may, lordship teachers tell Christians that they should actually verify their salvation by victorious living” (AF, 85). It’s funny that Hodges doesn’t quote anyone on that statement. He can’t, because I don’t know any Lordship Salvationist who would say that. We don’t verify our faith by our works, although works do give evidence that we do believe. We verify our salvation by looking to Christ, which will produce good works.

Chapter 9: The Shield of Faith

Chapter nine proves first and foremost that Hodges is completely out of the Reformed tradition which he seems to try to uphold. He claims that “it is impossible, so lordship teachers tell us, for the faith of a believer to collapse entirely” (AF, 92). You are absolutely right, Hodges. If the faith of a believer collapsed entirely, then God’s work would fail. He would be unfaithful to finish the work he started. “MacArthur argues that Eph 2:8-9 teach that ‘the entire process of grace, faith, and salvation is the gift of God’…the phrase in 2:8 ‘and that not of yourselves’ can be readily taken as a reference simply to the salvation spoken of here” (AF, 92). In other words, Hodges states that faith comes from the human will but not from God. The faith spoken in this passage is also stated as the gift of God because if we take any part in our salvation, even just one percent, we have something to boast about. This would make it man’s decision—and not God’s mercy—the primary cause of our salvation, which is what Paul warns against.

Hodges says further that “MacArthur apparently holds the Reformed view that regeneration logically precedes saving faith” (AF, 92). I hope you see that Hodges doesn’t even agree with Luther and Calvin, who held that faith was a result of regeneration and not the other way around. What happened to Ephesians 2:4-5, which tells us that “God made us alive in Christ” (Ephesians 2:4-5)? It doesn’t say he made us alive because we chose him, but Hodges would like it to say that there.

Hodges writes that “the Christian himself cannot be sure he has the faith of God’s elect unless he perseveres to the end” (AF, 93). Now this is a straw man. I know I believe. Why? Because I love God. Am I perfect? No. Do I love God perfectly? No. Do I love God at all? Yes I do. Because I love God I know I am part of the elect, because no one who is unregenerate can possibly love God with a heartfelt desire to serve him. Hodges once again argues that “maintaining our faith in God involves a struggle whose outcome is not guaranteed simply by the fact that we are saved” (AF, 94). In other words, Hodges tells us that perseverance in the faith is a human work. God does not promise it. That is our job if we want rewards in heaven.

Finally, Hodges maintains the conclusion that true believers can shipwreck from the faith and be faithful because 2 Timothy 2:13 says that “If we are faithless [believe not], He remains faithful; He cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13). However, this verse does not mention God’s faithfulness to us, but his faithfulness to himself, because the preceding verse says that “if we deny him, he will deny us” (2 Timothy 2:12). That is a verse of judgment and not of assurance as Hodges claims.

Chapter 10- The Choice is Yours

There is not much to talk about in this chapter. Hodges states that “Lordship thought does not understand the real nature of grace” (AF, 104). I would argue that his position does not understand grace at all. I strongly believe that the grace of God that takes a sinner and saves him from hell is the grace that will also change the man and conform him to the image of Christ. Hodges does not believe that. He believes that grace simply releases someone from the penalty of sin but not from the power of sin.

John F. MacArthur, Pastor of Grace Community Church in Los Angeles, California and President of The Master's Seminary
John F. MacArthur, Pastor of Grace Community Church in Los Angeles, California and President of The Master’s Seminary

Hodges then comes back to James 2:14 which says “what does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? That faith cannot save him, can it?” (James 2:14). Hodges argues that “James clearly means to say that faith cannot save the man he is describing. But James is not talking here about salvation from hell” (AF, 110). Oh yes he is. This is a horrible perversion of the text. Why does James say a few verses later that “the demons believe, and shudder?” (James 2:19). James says this to illustrate that intellectual assent will not save a person. Even the demons believe the facts about Jesus. James is making the point that you and I can say that we believe all we want, but we do not know someone truly believes if there is no evidence in that person’s life pointing to their profession of faith. That is James’ point here. In other words, a profession of faith that has no evidence of its existence is not saving faith and will not save a person.


Chapter 11: Dining With Jesus

In chapter eleven, Hodges feels the further need to mention God’s love and sovereignty. He writes that “of course, in his sovereignty, God could impose himself on every Christian person. Indeed, He could do so with every individual in the world. He could compel everyone everywhere to love Him. But of what value would that be to God?” (AF, 114). First, God does not force anyone to love him. In fact, no one can love him without them being given a new heart to love him. However, everyone who God regenerates will love him. He makes an outrageous claim that “lordship teachers affirm that no true Christian fails to love God” (AF, 114). That is just simply untrue. No one can love God perfectly. Every time the Christian sins, he fails to love God perfectly as he deserves to be loved. Lordship promoters do not claim that we love God perfectly.

Hodges writes further that “love is not an automatic response which every believer inevitably gives to God. The Christian is not a robot who has been programmed to love the Lord and who can do nothing but what he or she was programmed to do” (AF, 117). I don’t think it is a huge surprise that this is a straw man. Calvinists do not claim that we are robots. We do, however, emphasize that every believer will love God. It is a natural response because we have a new nature. We will not love God perfectly, but we will love him.

Chapter 12: Repentance

At the very beginning of this chapter, Hodges states that “New Testament repentance is not confined to the unsaved or to the moment of conversion” (AF, 125). I think we see that Hodges does not feel that repentance needs to happen in salvation. Hodges states that “neither Calvin nor Luther treated repentance as a condition for eternal salvation. Both stood firmly for the great Reformation insight expressed in the words sola fide – ‘faith alone’” (AF, 126). Hodges is right so far here. Calvin and Luther saw repentance as a fruit of saving faith, but Hodges does not see that. Hodges writes further that “faith alone (not repentance and faith) is the sole condition for justification and eternal life” (AF, 127). Once again Hodges doesn’t understand that repentance is a fruit of faith. Hodges says that “the call to faith represents the call to eternal salvation. The call to repentance is the call to enter into harmonious relations with God…though genuine repentance may precede salvation, it need not so” (128-129). I hope you notice here that Hodges does not agree with Calvin or Luther. The reformers believed that repentance was a fruit of a regenerate heart and saving faith.

Chapter 13- Justified by Works

There was only one statement in this chapter that I took note of: “lordship theology abandons Reformation thought about the nature of saving faith and thus also abandons Biblical thought” (AF, 153). We’ve already seen that Hodges does not believe what Calvin and Luther taught so he really shouldn’t be defending the Reformation. Lordship theology would agree with the Reformers that saving faith is knowledge of the facts, assent to the truth, and trust in the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ.

Chapter 14- Why Do You Call Me Good?

In this chapter Hodges begins to explain what happened with the rich young ruler who did not follow after Jesus. Hodges is right as far as it goes that “this young man’s heart had not been properly penetrated by the convicting work of the law” (AF, 163). This was the only chapter I really didn’t have a problem with. The problem with the rich young ruler is that he did not see his sin. This has always been the Reformation interpretation of this passages and Hodges is right here.

Chapter 15- Our Living Lord

This last chapter doesn’t contain much I disagree with. It only contains a discussion on romans chapter ten. I agree with Hodges on most everything here, and I hope you have seen that Hodges tries to say that he is defending the Reformation when in fact he is not. What he is identifying as sola fide the reformers would never agree with. It was the Reformers who said that “we are justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone.” Faith without repentance, faith without obedience to the Lordship of Christ, is faith that will not save. Both Calvin and Luther said this.

I hope this review of each chapter of “Absolutely Free” has been edifying to you. Just remember this: all who believe in Jesus will be saved, but if that faith is a dead faith, then it is not a true belief in Jesus.

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