The modern debate over the role of repentance in salvation began to heat up in the late 1980s between some of the theologians at Dallas Theological Seminary and John MacArthur through a very public exchange of pamphlets and published books. Although the terms “Lordship Salvation”, “Easy-Believism”, “Free Grace Theology” etc. are fairly recent in their origin, the ideas behind these terms are not new at all. A similar issue was hotly debated in the sixteenth-century between Martin Luther and his colleague Johannes Agricola, and again in seventeenth-century England among the Puritans during the so-called “Antinomian” controversy. Antinomianism (meaning ‘lawlessness’) is the opposite extreme of Legalism and teaches that Christians are not in any way bound by the moral law of God (ie. Ten Commandments). The seventeenth-century English “Antinomians” interpreted justification by faith alone (sola fide) to mean that good works were not necessarily required in order to have genuine saving faith. In other words, you could be saved by believing in Christ without truly repenting (turning away from sin)! But the controversy goes back even further than this. The Apostle Paul himself anticipated that his strong emphasis on grace alone through faith alone would be misunderstood by some. In Romans 6, Paul denounces in the strongest possible way, the ‘antinomian’ position that the Christian can continue in sin so that grace may abound. James also vigourously attacks the Antinomian heresy which was rearing its head as early as AD 40. Modern Day Muslims often interpret Paul’s emphasis on grace as a form of antinomianism and frequently attack Biblical Christianity on that basis.
The so-called “Free Grace” theology which has been advocated most strongly by Charles Ryrie and Zane Hodges of DTS, seems to indicate that salvation occurs in two phases. Justification is primarily an intellectual conversion when a person ‘believes’ the gospel truths and is saved. Later on, this person may come to a deeper understanding of the importance of Lordship and may commit themselves to the process of sanctification and begin to grow in holiness. “Free Grace” advocates do not deny the importance of sanctification or repentance in the life of a believer, but they do not insist that it begins at the moment of justification. It is quite possible for a person to have an intellectual conversion – even to trust in Jesus, and to remain in a perpetual state of “carnality” where the ‘Christian’ lives like a non-believer (cf. 1 Cor. 3:1). Some understand repentance to be a "change of mind" about sin (metanoia) rather than an actual turning away from sin. Because of these convictions, these “Free Grace” theologians do not believe that assurance of faith should be based on the presence or absence of good works in the life of a believer. Assurance comes from assent to the truth of the gospel and is frequently associated with a prayer to receive Christ when that person moves from unbelief to belief. Any person who truly believes and has received Christ is eternally secure.
The so-called “Lordship” position which has been strongly advocated in recent years by John MacArthur is basically identical with the emphasis of the Puritans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Like Calvin and the Puritans, MacArthur teaches that justification and the lordship of Christ go hand in hand. In other words you cannot divide Christ – you must receive Him as Saviour and Lord, or you cannot receive Him at all! Lordship theology emphasizes the critical importance of good works in the life of the true disciple and insists that every person who follows Christ must first count the cost by turning away from sin immediately! This is not to say that no sin remains in the life of the believer, or that a true believer cannot backslide, but rather that the Lordship commitment happens with justification, not afterward in a second stage. Like the Puritans, MacArthur believes that assurance of salvation can be gleaned from careful self-examination. If no evidence of regeneration is present in the life of a believer (ie. No changed affections, no love for the brethren, no good works, etc.), there are no grounds for assurance whether or not that person prayed to receive Christ. Assurance is the result of perseverance, and the evidences of grace which the Holy Spirit produces.Free Grace advocates frequently accuse Lordship Theologians of teaching a form of legalistic works- righteousness that compromises the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Lordship advocates frequently accuse Free Grace Theologians of teaching a form of antinomianism which cheapens grace and is leading thousands of “professing Christians” to hell by giving them false assurance of faith.