Some cast the debate as one regarding the conditions for salvation, some over the necessary consequences of salvation, and others over assurance of salvation.
Let us begin with a scholarly definition. We will use one from Gentry:
The Lordship view expressly states the necessity of acknowledging Christ as the Lord and Master of one’s life in the act of receiving Him as Savior. These are not two different, sequential acts (or successive steps), but rather one act of pure trusting faith—Kenneth L. Gentry, The Great Option: A Study of the Lordship Controversy, Baptist Reformation Review (BRR) 5 (Spring), 1976, pp. 49-79 .Although this began as a debate within dispensationalism, Covenant Theologians have jumped in, as proponents of Lordship Salvation. As far as I know, no Covenant Theologians argue against Lordship Salvation. So the battle-lines are:
Lordship: Dispensationalists and Covenant Theologians
Now the terms used here are themselves controversial, because clearly nobody in the non-Lordship camp denies that Jesus is Lord. Alas, nobody has come with a better set of terms that is not viewed as pejorative by one of the camps. For example, the Non-Lordship proponents prefer to label their view with terms like the free-grace position, but clearly their opponents would not deny that grace is free. So for better or worse we will stick with Lordship and non-Lordship with the understanding that the terms are far from perfect.
Let us go back and try to put Gentry's academic definition into more nuts and bolts terms.
Another way the same debate has been cast is costly-salvation vs. easy beliefism. Again, the term easy-beliefism may be considering insulting, but we will use it nonetheless. Here we get a flavor for the debate: it is between those (Lordship) who say there is an immediate and inevitable cost to salvation (imitating Christ, picking up one's cross) and those (non-Lordship) who say that the "cost" of being a Christian does not necessarily begin immediately and in some cases may not be incurred at all.
Yet another way to formulate the debate is over the possible existence of "carnal Christians". A carnal Christian is one who has sincerely accepted Christ but has shown no change whatsoever in his lifestyle. He continues to live entirely in the world.
Lordship: There is no such thing as a carnal Christian.
Non-Lordship: Carnal Christians exists.
The Lordship position does not hold that every Christian has great piety and is overwhelmingly successful in battling sin from day one. It does say that the process of sanctification, evidenced by good works, begins immediately even if in very small and slowly growing quantities.
Finally, a negative way that the debate is described: between those (Lordship) who teach salvation by works and those (non-Lordship) who advocate a form of antinomianism.
The impact of this on evangelism is probably obvious. While one may not endorse the particulars of the following hypothetical encounter, it serves to illuminate further the question at hand:
After we had talked for a couple of hours, the young man seemed to be prepared to give himself to Christ. My friend, no doubt sensing that asked him a question: "In light of all we have talked about this evening, can you think of any reason why you should not become a Christian tonight?"
The young man sat for a few minutes, then looked back at him and replied, "No, I cannot think of any reason."
I was excited by this, but to my amazement, my friend leaned across the table and said, "Then let me give you some!"
For the next few minutes he began to explain the cost of being a Christian. He talked about the young man’s need to surrender his whole life, his future, his ambitions, his relationships, his possessions, and everything he was to God. Only if he was prepared to do this, my friend explained, could Christ begin to work effectively in his life.
… My friend then leaned even further across the table and asked, "Can you still not think of any reason why you shouldn’t become a Christian tonight?"
After another moment, the reply came, "I can think of some now."
My friend responded, "In that case, do not become a Christian until you have dealt with every one of those reasons and are willing to surrender everything to Christ." –Charles Price, Real Christians (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1987), 55-56.
The Non-Lordship observer wanted the witnessing to cease when the young man seemed eager to accept. The Lordship evangelist went on to explain the costs of being a Christian.
Here is a homework assignment: Go read how Christ witnessed, and decide whether he also emphasized the cost of following Him.
The history of the debate is not easy to ascertain. Some have tied the Lordship position directly to Calvinism:
Lordship salvation flows from a Calvinistic foundation. God has chosen a people and He will save them. He regenerates them and grants them the gifts of repentance and faith. Such a work of salvation transforms them. God has also justified them and He has begun the work of sanctification in them which He will also perfect. Through trials, difficulties, and even failures, they are not only eternally secure but will persevere in holiness and faith.—Richard P. Belcher, A Layman’s Guide to the Lordship Controversy (Southbridge, MS: Crowne Publications), 1990, p. 99.And indeed, those dispensationalists on the Lordship side of the debate tend to be from the Calvinist-leaning wing, such John MacArthur.
It may be an oversimplification but the Reformed school has always been on the Lordship side and so there was no raging controversy within Calvinism. For example when (Calvinist) J. I. Packer wrote in one of his most influential books:
In our own presentation of Christ's gospel, therefore, we need to lay a similar stress as Christ did on the cost of following Christ, and make sinners face it soberly before we urge them to respond to the message of free forgiveness.” –J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (InterVarsity Press) 1961, p. 73.
It did not cause a stir among Calvinists.
No, the battle didn't really rage until Packer's position was essentially endorsed by someone from within the ranks of dispensationalism: John MacArthur in his book The Gospel According to Jesus.
In his introduction, MacArthur writes:
This new gospel has spawned a generation of professing Christians whose behavior often is indistinguishable from the rebellion of the unregenerate. Recent statistics reveal that 1.6 billion people world-wide are considered Christians. A well-publicized opinion poll indicated nearly a third of all Americans claim to be born again. Those figures surely represent millions who are tragically deceived. Theirs is a damning false assurance.—John F. MacArthur, Jr., The Gospel According to Jesus (Zondervan), 1988.
MacArthur's position in a nutshell: Evangelism based on easy-beliefism has resulted in many who have a false assurance of salvation, as evidenced by the fact that their profession of faith has not changed their lives.
MacArthur's book generated many responses from within dispensationalism. Two of the more important are Charles C. Ryrie's So Great Salvation (Wheaton: Victor Books), 1989, and Zane Hodges' Absolutely Free. (Zondervan), 1989.
It what follows, it can be assumed that within dispensationalism, MacArthur represents the extreme Lordship position, Hodges the extreme non-Lordship, and Ryrie a moderate, in-between position.
In the next installment, we tabulate the positions of the MacArthur, Ryrie, and Hodges on a number of issues such as Repentance and faith. You may be amazed at the extent to which the dispensationalists differ on such fundamental topics.