April 10, 2017

Archival Series: Lordship Salvation, A Misuse of Scripture

For they themselves show of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; And to wait for His Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.

There is one passage of Scripture that virtually always comes up in the discussion of repentance with advocates of Lordship Salvation and needs to be carefully explained. How does John MacArthur, for the Lordship view of repentance, interpret the first verse of this passage?

As metanoia is used in the New Testament, it always speaks of a change of purpose, and specifically a turning from sin. In the sense Jesus used it, repentance calls for a repudiation of the old life and a turning to God for salvation. Such a change of purpose is what Paul had in mind when he described the repentance of the Thessalonians: “You turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). Note the three elements of repentance: turning to God, a turning from evil, and the intent to serve God. No change of mind can be called true repentance if it does not include all three elements. The simple but all too often overlooked fact is that a true change of mind will necessarily result in a change of behavior. Repentance is not merely shame or sorry over sin, although genuine repentance always involves an element of remorse. It is a redirection of the human will, a purposeful decision to forsake all unrighteousness and pursue righteousness instead. 9

What is the gospel, after all, but a call to repentance (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 17:30)? In other words, it demands that sinners make a change—stop going one way and turn around to go the other (1 Thess. 1:9). 10

Those quotes represent Lordship’s classic misuse of 1 Thess. 1:9. MacArthur starts by addressing the Greek word metanoia as it is used in the New Testament, and then quotes a verse that does not even contain the word metanoia. The Greek word for “to turn” is completely different; it is epistrepho (epistrephō) and means simply “to turn, turn to or toward.” Epistrephō does not mean “to repent.”

Through the balance of this section I am going to draw from the Inspired Commentary, the Word of God, to bring out the meaning and context of 1 Thess. 1:9. Before we can draw a conclusion on 1 Thess. 1:9 we need to begin by reviewing Paul’s initial evangelistic ministry to the Thessalonicans. In Acts 17:1-4 we find Paul arriving at Thessalonica and, “as his manner was,” preaching the gospel. He was preaching Jesus who suffered and rose again. He said, “…Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ.” He is exhorting the Thessalonians, in their unsaved condition, to change their mind about Jesus. In verse four we see that some were persuaded, “some of them believed,” but some “believed not.” What was it in Paul’s preaching that some were persuaded of and believed? That Jesus, who suffered, died and rose again, was the Christ. In Paul’s evangelistic appeal to the Thessalonians is there any call or exhortation for “turning from evil” or the “intent to serve” for salvation? No, there is not! MacArthur is forcing “turning from evil (sin) and the intent to serve God…to forsake all unrighteousness” into the narrative of Paul’s sermon.

Those who “believed not” set in motion a wave of persecution against the new believers (Acts 17:5-9). The events at Thessalonica set a pattern for what we find in Paul’s two epistles to the Thessalonian believers.

In 1 Thessalonians 1 Paul acknowledges and praises them for their “work of faith” and “labor of love.” They set an example for others on what Bible Christianity should look like. Their fine example was being set with “patience” (v. 3) in the face of “much affliction” (v. 6; Acts 17:5-9). They were setting the right example for fellow believers (Macedonia and Achaia, vv. 7-8) to emulate how to go through persecution. The reputation of the Thessalonian church preceded Paul in his missionary travels; therefore he did not need to speak of it (v.8). Their testimony of faith and patience in the face of persecution was a living example and a sermon without words. With respect to Lordship Salvation, this raises a serious problem. If the example of the Thessalonians in their willingness to change their behavior after they believed is considered the necessary condition of true saving faith, then in what way were the Thessalonians “examples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia” (v. 7)? How could they be the example to all other believers when all believers in Christ will necessarily live and behave just like the Thessalonians as Lordship advocates insist?

1 Thess. 1:9 opens with, “For they… .” The “they” is their “faith to God-ward,” which became known abroad. The Thessalonians “turned to God,” which put them in a position for the capacity to serve God. The example they became to other believers was the result of their believing the message Paul preached unto themthe One who suffered and rose again is the Christ. The “patience of hope” (v. 3) is defined in verse 10, “And to wait for his Son from heaven.” While they expected and patiently waited for Him to come they kept working out their faith and labored in love. Today when so many are occupied with His coming, we would do well to learn from the Thessalonians that we should keep occupied (doing something for Him) until He comes.

Lordship advocates who use this passage as an illustration of repentance only quote verse 9, “and how ye turned (epistrepho) to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” Grammatically, however, there are two parallel infinitives of purpose, which are found in verses 9 and 10. The sentence structure, therefore, if breaking it down into main points and sub points, could be visualized this way:

v9, For
     they themselves shew of us
           - what manner of entering in we had unto you
           - how ye turned to God from idols
                 - to serve (douleuein) the living and true God
v10,             and 
                 - to wait (anamenein) for His Son from heaven,
                              -whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus,
                              - which delivered us from the wrath to come.

There is a major problem for the Lordship position in claiming that 1 Thess. 1:9 is making the intent “to serve” a necessary description (thus condition) of genuine repentance/faith. If “to serve” is a condition/necessary description, then syntactically so must the phrase “to wait” be as well. Wait for what? “His Son from heaven,” i.e. the Second Coming of Christ. There is no other passage in Scripture that conditions the reception of eternal life on believing in Christ’s Second Coming or waiting for it!

There is simply no way the two infinitive clauses can be separated. They are both present tense, active voice, infinitives, and they are both subordinate, dependent clauses that are parallel to one another and dependent upon the main, independent clause of 1:9, “how ye turned to God from idols.”

To be born again do the lost need to believe in the Second Coming of Christ? If we accept MacArthur’s view that the Thessalonians were saved by “turning from evil and the intent to serve,” then the Scriptures also demand waiting for the second coming of Christ as a third condition for conversion.

There is, however, an even larger point with 1 Thess. 1:9-10. This passage is not even describing their initial, saving faith. The emphasis of the passage is clearly upon describing their faithful example in following the Lord subsequent to their initial, saving faith. In 1 Thess. 1:9 Paul is not speaking of how to become a believer; he wrote to them about their growth and testimony as believers.

This interpretation fits perfectly with Paul’s introductory description of these Thessalonians in 2 Thess. 1:3-4. Notice there too they are described not as to their initial, saving faith, as if Paul is saying to them there, “Your conversion was genuine.” No, he is pleased with the fact that their “faith groweth exceedingly” (1:3) and that they were exercising “patience and faith” amidst the trials they were enduring (1:4).

This interpretation, furthermore, fits perfectly with the Inspired Commentary on the Thessalonian Epistles that we have in Acts 17, where the Thessalonians’ initial, saving faith is described in 17:1-4, esp. v. 4 “persuaded” (peitho) or “believed” (KJV) and v. 5 “were not persuaded” (apeitho) or “believed not” (KJV). The content of their faith is described in v. 3, that is, they believed in Christ’s substitutionary death and bodily resurrection, which were according to the Scriptures (1 Thess. 4:14; 1 Cor. 15:3-4). There is no mention of turning from idols, serving the living God, waiting for the Second Coming, etc. Instead, what we see is that immediately upon believing, these baby Christians in Thessalonica were persecuted for their faith (Acts 17:5-9), particularly by Jewish unbelievers (1 Thess. 2:14-16).

From the Scriptures we can firmly conclude that 1 Thess. 1:9-10 is a post conversion passage. Paul is addressing the things that followed their conversion. He was teaching them post conversion truth. In verse ten he concerns himself with their growth in light of the Lord’s imminent return. At the time of their persecution Paul and Silas were ministering to them as new believers (1 Thess. 2:8). In both epistles to the Thessalonians Paul is ministering to them as new believers. Every chapter in 1 Thessalonians ends with Paul referencing the Second Coming of Christ, which is a vital truth for believers. In 2 Thessalonians 1 we find Paul speaking of their growing faith, charity toward one another and patience in persecution. Paul is commending them for their faith that grew out of their believing the gospel.

Lordship’s repentance, as MacArthur defines it, is to “stop going one way,” i.e. stop sinning and replace sinning with the “intent to serve,” i.e. do the “good works” (Eph. 2:10) expected of a born again believer. MacArthur changes the gospel from repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ to a man-centered message that conditions the reception of eternal life on the lost man’s, “purposeful decision to forsake all unrighteousness,” which is an upfront commitment to certain expected levels of behavior. Believing the gospel should result in some form of a change in behavior as one grows in grace. However, nowhere in Scripture is the gospel for the reception of eternal life defined by a sinner’s intention, commitment or resolve to change his behavior.

In Defense of the Gospel: Biblical Answers to Lordship Salvation, from the chapter, What is Biblical Repentance, pp. 133-138.

9) John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus: What is Authentic Faith,
p. 178.

10) John MacArthur, Faith Works: The Gospel According to the Apostles, p. 33.


  1. This is Freshly relevant and encouraging to me Lou. Thank you for your ongoing ministry and defense of the Gospel of Grace through faith in the finished atoning work of Christ. I have often heard it said that the Gospel is "done" and "secure", whereas LS has nothing to offer but "keep it up" and "maybe".

    1. Stephen, it's a pleasure to hear from you. I'm pleased to know you found this article helpful.