John MacArthur’s The Gospel According to Jesus has rekindled the debate long smoldering in Evangelical circles over Lordship Salvation.1 At the center of this debate is the question of the nature of saving faith: whether it entails a response of the human will to the lordship of Christ. Dr. MacArthur has become the leading proponent of the Lordship position.
At the same time, however, he has taken the Lordship account of faith a significant step further. Traditionally, Lordship advocates have extended faith to include commitment, but not obedience, which for them is faith’s sure fruit. But MacArthur, in a chapter entitled “The Nature of True Faith,” repeatedly speaks of obedience itself as constitutive of faith.2 For MacArthur good works are no longer merely the product of saving faith. They are an integral part of it.
This is a significant development. But it is also a serious departure from Evangelical Protestant doctrine. In fact, MacArthur’s proposal is virtually an invitation to return to the Medieval Roman Catholic understanding of “formed faith” (fides formata), the very notion that Luther repeatedly attacked in his famous 1535 commentary on Galatians.
II. MacArthur’s Account of Faith
There is an initial ambiguity, if not contradiction, in MacArthur’s account of faith.3 At times he describes the relationship between faith and works in the traditional terminology of cause and effect (works being the effect of saving faith). At other times he treats the relationship as one of a whole to its parts (works being a part of saving faith). But it is clearly the latter model that takes precedence for him.
MacArthur writes that faith “encompasses obedience,”4 and that obedience is “an integral part of saving faith.”5 Indeed, obedience is bound up in the very “definition of faith, “6 being a constitutive element in what it means to believe.”7 Thus any “concept of faith that excludes obedience”8 must be rejected because obedience is “indivisibly wrapped up in the idea of believing.”9 In fact, “the character of true faith” is nothing less than the “higher righteousness” of the Beatitudes of Matthew 5:3-11.10 MacArthur even suggests that obedience is “synonymous with” faith.11 And he quotes with approval Rudolf Bultmann’s dictum, “‘To believe’ is ‘to obey.'”12
It is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that when MacArthur invokes the traditional cause-and-effect model and says, for example, that faith “produces” obedience, this is the case only in a secondary sense, that is, only in the sense that faith already is obedience. Likewise, when he says that obedience is the “product” of faith, this too should be taken in a qualified sense. For as he plainly states, saving faith “embodies” righteous works.13 According to MacArthur, then, the works that follow faith are not, strictly speaking, its effects. They are rather the temporal manifestations or expressions of the obedience inherent in faith itself.
Of course, something like this has always been a central tenet of Lordship Salvation. Faith is defined in light of the lordship of Christ, a lordship that calls for obedience. It is just that MacArthur goes beyond the traditional account. For traditionally, obedience is said to be present in faith mediately, that is, by way of an act of personal submission or commitment, an inclining of the will in the direction of obedience.14 With MacArthur, however, it is present in the act of faith immediately: To believe is to obey.15
III. Scholasticism’s Account of Faith
A number of criticisms from a number of directions have already been leveled against MacArthur’s account of faith. Zane Hodges, for example, has made an exegetical case against it.16 Charles Ryrie, on the other hand, makes a theological one.17 And Darrell Bock has offered what might be called a philosophical critique—calling into question the coherence of MacArthur’s presentation.18 But I would like to approach MacArthur’s definition from a history of ideas perspective. For it seems to me that MacArthur has introduced into Lordship theology the old Roman Catholic doctrine of “formed faith.”
The Catholic notion of faith has as its source Augustine’s illuminist account. For Augustine faith is a species of knowledge. It is not knowing in the truest or fullest sense. But neither is it mere opinion. Rather, it is a sort of middle way, a knowing based on the authority of preached truth. Thus faith is a kind of assent: “to believe is to think with assent” (credere est cum assensione cogitare).19
Yet, for Augustine, faith as assent is not saving. It is the basis of Christian experience. But it is not sufficient in and of itself to bring one into saving union with Christ. That “cannot occur unless both hope and love are added.”20 Simple faith, then, if it is to be saving faith, must be augmented. For biblical support Augustine quotes Gal 5:6 which in its Latin translation suggests that there is a certain kind of “faith which works through love” (fides quae per dilectionem operatur).21
But Augustine’s account of a faith augmented by love does more than simply remove the ostensive scandal of credere est cum assensione cogitare. It provides a handy means for reconciling James and Paul on the matter of justification by faith. Thus it soon found its way into the mainstream of the Pauline commentary tradition.22 Addressing passages like Rom 3:28, early commentators such as Rabanus Maurus, Sedulius Scotus, and Florus of Lyon, were unanimous that justification is according to Paul “by faith without works” (per fidem sine operibus). But they were also quick to point out the apparent contradiction of this by James for whom “faith without works is dead” and “a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.”23 Augustine’s reading of Gal 5:6 was a way out. Strictly speaking, we are not justified by works, but by faith. But faith, if it is indeed saving faith, is joined to good works through love.
Through the Glossa Ordinaria24 Augustine’s account of faith was finally handed on to scholastic theologians. However, under the influence of Greek philosophy the scholastics reformulated Augustine’s dictum in light of Aristotelian hylomorphism.25 Accordingly, “faith that works through love” (fides quae per dilectionem operatur) was replaced by “faith formed by love” (fides per caritatem formata).26 Peter Lombard, therefore, speaks of faith becoming effective (virtus) only when given shape (informat) by works of love.27 Likewise, Bellarmine later writes that “faith does not justify as such, unless it be formed by love (fides non justificat formaliter; nisi ab ipsa caritate formata).”28
In typical fashion, Thomas Aquinas explains:
The act of faith is ordered to the object of the will, which is the good, as to its end. But the good which is the end of faith, namely the divine good, is the proper object of love. Therefore love is said to be the form of faith (forma fidei) because through love the act of faith is perfected and given shape (perficitur et formatur).29
The shift from fides operatur to fides formata is a subtle one. But it is by no means an insignificant one. For with faith thus conceived, works of love stop being simply the fruit of faith and become the form of it.30 This means that Augustine’s causal model of a faith that produces good works is replaced by Aquinas’s model, where good works are involved in the very notion of faith as its forma, that by which it is what it is. In simpler terms, for the scholastics, works stopped being the product of faith and became an integral part of it.
But this is nothing other than John MacArthur’s account of faith in medieval philosophical verbiage! Because for MacArthur faith no longer merely produces good works; it “includes,” “encompasses,” and “embodies” them. And obedience is no longer simply the fruit of a faith that works through love (namely, commitment). It is “an integral part” of it, indivisibly wrapped up in its “definition,” in its “concept,” its “idea.”31
IV. The Reformers’ Account of Faith
It was in regard to the scholastic notion of faith, with its disjunction between faith as either “formed” or “unformed” that the Reformers proposed a third alternative.32 For Luther faith was not so much a way of knowing something as a way of relating to someone. He defined faith as fiducia, trust, and he disallowed altogether the distinction between fides informis and fides formata.
The following statements are from his mature lectures on Galatians given in 1531 (published in 1535), in which he repeatedly attacks the scholastic notion of fides formata. It is worth noting that he argues that both love and works must be excluded from the concept of faith:
They [the scholastics] say that we must believe in Christ and that faith is the foundation of salvation, but they say that this faith does not justify unless it is “formed by love.” This is not the truth of the Gospel; it is falsehood and pretense. The true Gospel, however, is this: Works or love are not the ornament or perfection of faith; but faith itself is a gift of God, a work of God in our hearts, which justifies us because it takes hold of Christ as the Savior… Therefore what the scholastics have taught about justifying faith “formed by love” is an empty dream. For the faith that takes hold of Christ, the Son of God, and is adorned by Him is the faith that justifies, not a faith that includes love.33
Luther is adamant that unadorned faith saves, that is,
faith in Christ, without the Law or works. The blind sophists [Luther’s favorite term for scholastic theologians] do not understand this. Therefore they dream that faith does not justify unless it does the works of love. In this way faith that believes in Christ becomes idle and useless, for it is deprived of the power to justify unless it has been “formed by love.” But you set the Law and love aside until another place and time; and you direct your attention to the point at issue here, namely, that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, dies on the cross and bears my sin.34
And he later adds:
Paul clearly refutes the gloss made up by the sophists about a “formed faith,” and, putting the Law aside, bespeaks only about faith. Once the Law has been put aside, love is also put aside, as well as everything that belongs to the Law; all that is kept is faith, which justifies and makes alive.35
Consider also the following comment concerning Abraham’s faith in Luther’s 1538 lectures on Genesis:
Then what? Is the Law useless for righteousness? Yes, certainly. But does faith alone, without works, justify? Yes, certainly. Otherwise you must repudiate Moses, who declares that Abraham is righteous prior to the Law and prior to the works of the Law, not because he sacrificed his son, who had not yet been born, and not because he did this or that work, but because he believed God who gave him a promise. In this passage no mention is made of any preparation for grace, of any faith formed by works, or of any preceding disposition. This, however, is mentioned: that at that time Abraham was in the midst of sins, doubts, and fears, and was exceedingly troubled in spirit. How, then, did he obtain righteousness? In this way: God speaks and Abraham believes what God is saying.36
To be sure, the faith Luther envisions produces a union with Christ that bears fruit in good works. On this point he could not have been clearer—he had to be, because his Roman adversaries repeatedly accused him of holding to something that from their perspective seemed to be mere intellectual assent (what they termed fides informis) as the basis for justification. At the same time, however, he was equally clear, as the above texts make plain, that a firm distinction is at all times to be maintained between faith as productive of good works and faith as somehow constituted by them.
On this point Calvin was also clear. Commenting on Rom 3:28, he writes:
Paul states his main proposition as being now incontrovertible, and adds an explanation, for when works are expressly excluded, much light is thrown on justification by faith. For this reason our opponents spend their greatest efforts in their attempts to involve faith in the merits of works. They allow indeed that man is justified by faith, but not by faith alone. In fact, they bestow on love the power of justification, though in what they say they ascribe it to faith.37
Of course, the way his Roman contemporaries placed the power of justification in love while at the same time attributing it to faith was by way of “faith formed by love.”
In terms of the present discussion it might be said that in repudiating the medieval account of formed faith the Reformers repudiated any account of faith and works where the latter is an aspect of the former. Works may evidence faith, works may be an effect of faith, but works are not a part of it.38 And for that matter, neither is love. Faith, understood not as a kind of assent but as personal trust, did not need to be “formed” or brought to completion either by love or by obedience. It was complete as it stood. For by it and it alone one was brought into a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.39
The relationship between faith and works has always been a problem for theologians. This is not likely to change any time soon. But, while attempts to give a consistent account of all the relevant biblical material have always left questions, Evangelicals have historically maintained that justification is by faith alone and that works are best understood as the fruit of faith. There is no doubt that John MacArthur would affirm the first part of this (justification by faith alone). But he has clearly departed from the second (works understood as simply the fruit of faith). In so doing, however, he has redefined faith so that he does not mean by “faith alone” what traditionally has been intended. Ironically—and tragically—he appears to mean the very thing that the Reformers originally rejected.
1John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988). See the responses by Charles Ryrie, So Great Salvation (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1989) and Zane Hodges, Absolutely Free! (Grand Rapids and Dallas: Zondervan and Redención Viva, 1989). For the debate at an early stage, see Everett Harrison, “Must Christ Be Lord to Be Savior?—No,” Eternity 10 (September, 1959): 14, 16,48, and John Stott, “Must Christ Be Lord to Be Savior?—Yes,” Eternity 10 (September, 1959): 15, 17-18,36-38.
12Ibid., 176. The quotation is from the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament 6:205. Bultmann’s account of faith, however, is not so much a result of his philological competence, as of his existentialism and his disenchantment with traditional religious institutions before and during World War II. It is not surprising that a similar account of faith is given by Bonhoeffer: “Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes… faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience” (The Cost of Discipleship [New York: Macmillan, 1963], 69). A similar disenchantment lies behind contemporary performative theories of faith which define faith in terms of praxis. (See Avery Dulles, “The Meaning of Faith Considered in Relationship to Justice” in The Faith that Does Justice, Woodstock Studies 2 [New York: Paulist Press, 19771, 10-46). In this regard it is worth remembering that the overriding concern driving Lordship Salvation theology is an intense desire to reverse the trend toward spiritual complacency in the Church today. My own sense is that the psychological parallels here are extremely suggestive. Thc history of the Church is replete with examples of individuals whose legitimate concerns have had significant adverse effects on their theologies.
14Thus J. I. Packer in his foreword to The Gospel According to Jesus speaks of “transforming commitment to the living Christ” as the specific difference of saving faith. Packer is apparently unaware that MacArthur is saying something different from him.
15This explains why MacArthur has found it necessary to supplement the traditional cause/effect language for describing the relationship of faith and obedience with the language of a whole and its parts.
21Sermon, 2.8 (MPL 38, col. 32). In fairness to Augustine, the Latin translation he used added a relative pronoun (quae, which) and so suggests a closer relationship between faith and love than the original “faith working through love” (pistis di’ agapēs energoumenē).
22Thus Augustine’s Sermon 2.8 is quoted in explanation of Rom 3:28 in Rabanus Maurus’s Enarrationum in epistolas Beati Pauli libri triginta (MPL 111, col. 1344), in Sedulius Scotus’s Collectanea in omnes Beati Pauli epistolas (MPL 103, col. 45) and Florus of Lyon’s Expositio in epistolas Beati Pauli (MPL 119, col. 286). See the discussion in Charles Carlson, Justification in Earlier Medieval Theology (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1975).
26Luther would later complain: “And so [according to scholastic theology] love is the form of faith, and faith is merely the ‘matter’ of love. In this way they prefer love to faith and attribute righteousness, not to faith but to love. For that by virtue of which something is what it is [i.e., its form], is the same thing, only more so” (Luther’s Works [henceforth LW], 26:269).
31I would also argue that Lordship theology does much more than simply end up (à la MacArthur) with a scholastic notion of faith. It actually recapitulates the whole medieval process from credere est cum assensione cogitare to fides quae per dilectionem operatur to fides per caritatem formata. In both cases (Roman Catholic theology and Lordship theology) the initial assumption is that faith by itself is mere assent and must therefore be augmented (either by love or commitment), and in both cases a faith productive of good works eventually becomes a faith somehow constituted by them.
32Echoing Luther’s critique of scholasticism, Harnack writes: “Faith is either fides informis, therefore not yet faith, or fides formata, therefore no longer faith. In fact fiduicia can find no place.” (Outlines of the History of Dogma [New York: Funk and Wagnall Company, 1893], 494).
38In an appendix to The Gospel According to Jesus, MacArthur quotes extensively from the Protestant tradition in an attempt to show historic support of his position. However, a close reading of texts from Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin reveals that they have no concept of a faith of which works are an integral part, but only of a faith of which works are either directly or indirectly the fruit. Thus (in the texts quoted) Luther speaks of works that “flow out” of faith, that “blossom forth” from faith, and are caused by faith as heat and light are caused by fire. As for Calvin, he only indirectly links faith and works. For him it is not faith but the presence of Christ and the Spirit in the believer’s life that produces works. In some of the later Reformed authors quoted, however, faith and works do coalesce. But they do so only mediately, that is, only through an act of commitment or surrender that is somehow present in faith. For an insightful study of the shift in the definition of faith in late Reformed theology, see Tom Lewellen, “Has Lordship Salvation Been Taught throughout Church History?” Bibliotheca Sacra 147 (January-March, 1990), 54-68. At any rate, in the texts quoted in this appendix MacArthur’s part/whole model is nowhere to be found.