Someone asked me about this, and I want to say a few words about it. This is an age-old controversy that I remember from my days living in dorm at Bible College. First you had those who held to what I call Decisional Conversion. This was the belief that all you must do to be saved is mouth a sinners prayer, walk the aisle in a church, raise your hand, fill out a card, or ask Jesus into your heart. For many who held to this view there was a second apex experience, where once you had “accepted Christ as Savior” you were encouraged to “make Jesus Lord of your life.” Over against this view were those whose slogan was, If Jesus is not Lord of all He is not Lord at all. These folks lamented the absence of repentance from evangelism, and said that repentance and submission to Christ’s Lordship are conditions of salvation. A few years later John MacArthur popularized this second view in his book, The Gospel According To Jesus.
Here is my response: both of these views are flawed in that (1) they present a false dichotomy, and (2) they are more consistent with Arminianism than a solid understanding of biblical Reformed theology. Allow me to present what I believe to be the mediating and correct position. Don’t stop reading before you reach the end of this entry, because I want you to get the full story here.
First, God saves sinners. The dead unregenerate sinner must be quickened before he can respond to the gospel. Faith does not precede the new birth but follows it, inasmuch as one must be alive to believe. If a dead unregenerate sinner were able to believe and repent before being born again, then his faith and repentance would be a work of his flesh. He would in a sense be cutting a deal with God in exchange for eternal life, and thus would have a ground for boasting. Regeneration is monergistic–that is, it is the work of a single agent: God.
Now specifically, when God makes a sinner alive he also imparts the free gift of saving faith, whereby the sinner trusts the person and work of Christ, resulting in Justification (Rom. 5:1; Eph. 2:8-9). But what about repentance? Consider for a moment the following facts relative to this question. John’s Gospel was specifically written to tell us how to be saved (20:31). Words describing faith and believing are used about a hundred times in this biblical document as a condition of salvation. And repentance? Neither the noun nor verb forms of this word are used a single time in the gospel of John! This is a glaring omission if repentance is a necessary component in conversion. Go next to Romans and observe that repentance is not a central theme at all in Paul’s exposition of the gospel. Over and over he tells us that sinners are pronounced righteous by faith. Nowhere does he tell us we are justified by repentance. It seems to me that Peter also got it wrong with the Philippian jailer: He should have said, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ–and repent–and you shall be saved. I suppose it could be argued that Lordship and repentance are implied in all the above references, or that repentance is a component of faith: but inference is a slender reed upon which to build one’s doctrinal position.
Now here is how I sort this all out. As a biblical Calvinist I see salvation as a process beginning with the decree of God in eternity and culminating in glorification. I do believe Lordship and repentance are necessary for salvation because I believe in the perseverance of the saints. Truly elect sinners always make proof of their election and persevere to the end in their faith. They work out their salvation with fear and trembling because it is God at work in them both to will and do for His good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13).
But here’s the rub. While repentance and Lordship are necessary parts of the process of salvation, they are not necessarily spelled out as conditions of initial conversion. Let me explain. Would you tell a person you were witnessing to that to be saved he must not only believe on Christ but also persevere in the faith to the end of his life? Of course not! You would follow the biblical pattern and tell the sinner to believe or trust completely in Jesus Christ. Once they were genuinely born again they would go on to walk with him throughout the days of their life. They would also exercise repentance and submit to the Lordship of Christ.Not just once, but repeatedly. Not as a condition of conversion, but as an evidence of it.
As a matter of fact, rightly understood, repentance does occur in conversion, because repentance means a change of mind. Sinners must change their minds about sin, God, truth, and salvation in order to believe the gospel. A person who truly believes in Jesus knows He is Lord, whether or not he consciously submits every area of his life to Christ at the moment of faith. And, of course, the whole idea of making Christ Lord of one’s life is nonsense. He is Lord, whether you recognize Him as such or not.
Decisional conversion is just plain stupid if you ask me. But the classic doctrine of Lordship Conversion is an overreaction that compounds rather than corrects the problem. Preach the biblical gospel of faith alone in Christ alone. God will be pleased to save whom He will, and there will always be false professors. You cannot stiff-arm sinners into the kingdom of God with the hard sell of classic Lordship Conversion. Do your part, and stop trying to play the part of the Holy Spirit.