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The Lordship Controversy: Specials from the S. Lewis Johnson Miscellaneous Files

March 17, 2011

In my recent exercise sessions, I’ve been listening to an assortment of topical messages from S. Lewis Johnson.  Interesting topics have included reviews of John MacArthur’s book Charismatic Chaos, another concerning MacArthur and the Lordship controversy, as well as John Stott, George Muller, and Israel and the PLO Peace Treaty.

The “Lordship Controversy” message was recorded in 1989, soon after the publication of MacArthur’s book, “The Gospel According to Jesus” and as an accompaniment to an article that S. Lewis Johnson had published in Christianity Today magazine (September 1989).  Amongst all the rhetoric over the years on both sides (and I have concurred with the MacArthur view, as best as I understand it), SLJ presented the proper perspective:  that we really need to understand the definitions and terminology that the different people are using.  Zane Hodge didn’t clearly define what he meant.  Ryrie apparently stated some things in an unclear way so that he was misunderstood, but elsewhere Ryrie stated his belief as one that is more accurate.  MacArthur for the most part is right, but in his book he showed some inconsistency — in some places saying that the believer first coming to Christ must give Him total 100% commitment/Lordship, but then backing off in other places and saying, well not 100%.

The matter really involves understanding the difference between justification and sanctification, and MacArthur’s book (as he himself has said) came out of his own frustration at seeing the easy-believism methods and techniques used to bring people to the Lord, but then not proving to be true conversions.  Interestingly, S. Lewis Johnson picked up on this as the likely thing that prompted MacArthur to write the book (the general feelings of pastors, teaching a lot and disappointed with the results), even though at that time he was unfamiliar with the details that MacArthur would mention in later interviews.  I recall, for instance, MacArthur telling about the times he met strangers (such as on airplanes), who asked him basic questions about how to be saved — and he would right then and there give a gospel presentation and guide them into making a confession of faith.  But then when he followed up with those people, the conversions proved to be incomplete and false.

The confusion between justification and sanctification, though, is an age-old one — and again I refer back to J.C. Ryle’s classic work, Holiness, as a good source for understanding the difference between these two doctrines.  See also my previous blog on the introduction to his book for more background concerning that book and the “Holiness” Keswick movement of the late 19th century.

  1. March 27, 2011 at 7:04 pm


    A year or two ago I listened to the same message. I found Johnson’s thoughts about the Lordship Controversy to be very interesting, particularly because he doesn’t simply agree with MacArthur the way many of us would probably expect us to do given the high esteem in which SLJ is held among MacArthur fans.

    With his references to the WCF, of course Dr. Johnson comes across as more reformed, but it seems to me that he agreed a little more with Ryrie than he did with MacArthur. He said he thought Ryrie had been misunderstood and IIRC questioned certain statements in MacArthur’s book. (I think that some Reformed people misunderstand Ryrie’s position on this as well, often wrongly equating it with Hodges. There were also Reformed people at the time who noted that MacArthur was unclear on some points and didn’t stress sola fide enough.)

    However, it may be appropriate to note that this message was given before Ryrie’s “So Great Salvation” was published in 1989 and before “The Gospel According to Jesus was revised in 1994 to include some clearer teaching on justification, among other things. Those publications may have cleared up things a bit, but I don’t know that SLJ’s response would have changed significantly.

    I also found it interesting that Dr. Johnson appealed to the WCF, IIRC sort of assuming that it was something that everybody ought to respect and/or agree upon. While many in that generation of DTS faculty had had some previous connection with Presbyterian churches (albeit those who typically weren’t altogether confessional) use of the WCF today for any purpose will likely be denounced by many in the “Free Grace” community.

    After listening to the message, I requested and received a copy from Believer’s Chapel of the Christianity Today article. As I recall it, it’s basically the same as his message, practically word for word in most respects.

  2. March 27, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the additional background on it. I had looked for that Christianity Today article online, but only found references to it — which sounded similar to the audio talk, especially mentioning the WCF definitions. Yes, times have changed as regarding acceptance of the WCF as well; in googling I found a few cases such as you mentioned, people today who denounce his use of the WCF standard.

    You make a very good point about how Johnson disagreed with MacArthur’s stance, unlike how so many MacArthur fans would expect. As I continue to listen to Dr. Johnson’s sermons, it’s something I’ve begun to notice in a few other areas as well — relatively minor differences, also in areas such as church leadership (senior pastor-led, versus ruling elders and “gifted men” who teach). It’s interesting, and the differences point me back to scripture itself to consider these matters — rather than to just take MacArthur’s word (or Johnson’s) concerning these issues.


  3. July 9, 2012 at 11:55 pm

    YES, SLJ did a fine job on his crit of MacArthur.

    Lynda you might be interested in this post on the Lordship question http://sovereigngracesociety.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/westboro-baptist-church-lordship-to-the-max/#comment-109

    • July 10, 2012 at 7:38 am

      Thanks, bography, that’s interesting, and learned more about the Fred Phelps cult group too. I can’t access the link you posted in the comments there (workplace has blocked it), but will come back and look at it at home when I can.

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