By Steve Elkins
I used to have lunch with Zane Hodges about once a month. One time, right before his death, I was there a little early. He had just hung up from a call. Out of the blue he said, “They’re saying I changed my view on the gospel. I never changed my view. I’ll tell you what happened…”
I knew Zane hadn’t changed his view in the 30 plus years I’d known him. During my second year as a student at Dallas Theological Seminary, Craig Glickman, a fellow student, said we should take Zane Hodges for as many classes as we could. I began with Hebrews, then Acts, then the Epistles of James and John. I spent so much time in his office asking questions for my thesis, “Current Issues Concerning Lordship Salvation,” it was essentially a free class. As usual, he was the best question-answerer I’ve ever been around, not to mention the finest Christian gentleman.
Until he died, we had a monthly lunch and at least one yearly dinner when he’d come to our house to meet with forty-plus Young Life leaders and friends to enjoy “An Evening with Hodges.” What a blessing. There were also times I’d hoodwink him into answering questions for friends. I considered Zane my best friend and it was a deep honor to have been a pallbearer at his funeral.
Dozens and dozens of times I’d hear the same question asked of him: “So when you boil it down, what do I have to believe to be saved?” Or, “What’s the minimum-what’s the ‘bottom-line’ I have to believe to get eternal life?” Each time he gave the same answer-John 11:25-27. He would tell the story about Jesus and Martha, and then conclude, “You’ve got to believe that Jesus is the Guarantor of resurrection and eternal life.”
That was the same answer he gave in 1978 when I met him in the DTS library… the same answer he gave to those who’d argue with him in Hebrews class… the same answer in all his books… in all the meetings and Bible studies I attended with him… in his sermons at Victor Street… or messages at the Lord’s Table. His gospel came from John and it always had these elements, “believe…Jesus…for eternal life.”
Because of his understanding of Johannine theology, he understood that at the gospel’s core we are believing a Person, Jesus, for eternal life. That has some implications I’ll mention shortly, but that’s always been the bottom line of believing the gospel for Zane, since he first heard it as a kid. It was always the answer to those repeatedly asking, “What do I have to believe?”
Because he kept hearing that question, he gave the “deserted island illustration.” Even with the harsh criticism he’s received for it, he never repented because that’s always been his view of the gospel.
And that’s why his next sentences when I picked him up that day were so interesting. He went on, “I’ll tell you what happened. Those who say I changed my view were my students. They came to me asking questions about lordship [lordship salvation]. I answered their questions. They were satisfied. But they never got my core belief on the gospel.”
They got answers dealing with problem passages. They got theologically sound, exegetically accurate, and intellectually satisfying answers about lordship salvation. But they never got his baseline for the gospel.
That baseline was always, since his childhood, the primacy of John’s Gospel for understanding the message of eternal life. His view has some very important implications-implications nicely brought out in the deserted island illustration.
I knew Zane’s gospel from classes, from his books, and from countless hours discussing it with him (and a day doesn’t go by I don’t thank the Lord for it). But interestingly, where his bedrock, baseline gospel came through most was one evening at the Lord’s Table at Victor Street.
It was a small crowd as usual, twenty or so folks. He made an off-the-cuff comment, which was only a reminder to his beloved, well-taught group at Victor Street: “There are three implications in all these evangelistic passages in the Gospel of John. First, I need to believe Jesus that all I have to do is believe Him for eternal life. It’s not ‘believe and something,’ but simply ‘believe Him for eternal life.’ Second, I need to believe that what I get when I believe is eternal, it can’t end or be taken away. Until a person understands that what he gets is eternal, he hasn’t understood the gospel. Third, I need to believe that when I believe I have eternal life. I don’t have to wait to find out, bear fruit, persevere, or any of that. I know I have eternal life the moment I believe Jesus for it, or else I do not believe Him.” Those three implications arise from his bedrock understanding of John’s oft-repeated terms: “Whoever believes in Me has everlasting life.”
Zane never changed on that.
He changed on a few peripheral things, but never on his bedrock belief of the nature of the gospel offer. (Those are his words, not mine).
It’s been well-documented he adjusted his view on repentance (though not effecting his view on the gospel). Also, a number of years ago he adjusted from using the term trustwhen personally sharing the gospel. Previously he had seen trust as a functional synonym for believe. Upon realizing that people saw a volitional element implied in the term trust, as well as a possible lack of certainty, he decided from then on to stick with John’s word believe. (Zane felt the Biblical idea of believe has no volitional element, nor can it lack certainty.)
Someone might dig-up a quote here and there from Zane where he varied his terminology, but it should be understood as a restating of his corebelief, not a changing of it. Zane was a master of saying the same thing in different ways. For instance, in 1981, commenting on Hebrews and those who “through the fear of death were subject all their lifetime to bondage,” he said, “The real secret in not fearing death is found in the death of Christ. Rather than helping one’s assurance, looking at one’s works will probably make us doubt our salvation. Therefore, we must cause our gaze to go outward to the finished work of Christ. The soul will only find rest in that which is perfect, complete, and secure.”
Someone could take that quote and say, “See, Zane changed his view. He did believe you have to believe in the cross.” But that would take him out of the context he’s addressing. Further, it says nothing about his central belief of the gospel. A proper understanding of Christ’s finished work does give assurance. But Zane has always held unswervingly that the apostles had assurance, even when they hadn’t yet understood the cross.
Zane’s position has always been the same: the gospel is about believing Jesus for eternal life, period. Rather than seeking to establish some kind of Hodges-revisionism (which Hodges adamantly denied), the question should simply be, is John stating the gospel or not? Zane always believed he was. Hence he arrived at his baseline approach and the deserted island illustration.
Because of his take on John, Zane believed obtaining eternal life is as simple as believing Jesus for it (not believing a variable list of doctrines). He also believed that the gospel can be found complete in any number of verses. Further, Hodges’ personal ministry always emphasized simplicity and clarity. He had a lifelong belief that anyone can understand the promise of eternal life very well.
But sadly, some of his students didn’t know this. They got his intellectually satisfying answers about lordship, but failed to get his baseline belief on the gospel that drove it all.