Failing to recognize that the Reformation’s hermeneutic inconsistency obscured more than just eschatology and ecclesiology, dispensationalists happily built upon the platform of Reformed soteriology. In failing to ascertain a purely Biblical soteriology, we (dispensationalists) became systems theologians, rather than Biblical ones. We perceived it was permissible and even profitable to construct a (dispensational) system that incorporated seemingly positive aspects of Reformed theology, as long as we rejected those conclusions that were incompatible with our new system. We defended the system with inconsistencies borrowed from the Reformers and from their spiritual fathers. Unwittingly we have built upon a framework so shifty that further construction yields fatal cracks if not addressed with a total reconstruction.
The soteriological controversies of the past thirty years represent attempts to resolve the methodological discord. And while it seems we are oft focused on critiquing the resulting conclusions – especially Lordship salvation on the one hand, and hyper-grace on the other, we give little attention to the methods that give rise to these doctrines, and perhaps even less attention to the other doctrines the methods derive. We have long understood that there is a distinctly dispensational eschatology, but we must also realize that there is a distinctly dispensational soteriology. In fact, dispensationalism is not a system focused on only a few representative topics, but it should be a vibrant and comprehensive understanding of the whole Bible through the literal grammatical-historical lens. If dispensationalism is not a Biblically accurate explanatory device, then its worth is lost and it becomes merely another system to which we pledge our loyalties, with no good reason for preferring it over competing systems.
Historically, soteriology has been heavily guided by systems, and provides fertile ground for case studies in methodology. The discussion that follows considers the role that hermeneutics plays in soteriology, considering 1 Corinthians 6:9 as a case study, in order to help us engage contemporary challenges in soteriology, and especially Lordship salvation. The outcomes in handling this passage remind us that our conclusions should be exegetically rather than theologically derived.
CONSIDERING 1 CORINTHIANS 6:9-11
9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, northe covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
9 Ἢ οὐκ οἴδατε ὅτι ἄδικοι θεοῦ βασιλείαν οὐ κληρονομήσουσιν; μὴ πλανᾶσθε· οὔτε πόρνοι οὔτε εἰδωλολάτραι οὔτε μοιχοὶ οὔτε μαλακοὶ οὔτε ἀρσενοκοῖται 10 οὔτε κλέπται οὔτε πλεονέκται, οὐ μέθυσοι, οὐ λοίδοροι, οὐχ ἅρπαγες βασιλείαν θεοῦ κληρονομήσουσιν. 11 καὶ ταῦτά τινες ἦτε· ἀλλὰ ἀπελούσασθε, ἀλλὰ ἡγιάσθητε, ἀλλὰ ἐδικαιώθητε ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι τοῦ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ καὶ ἐν τῷ πνεύματι τοῦ θεοῦ ἡμῶν.
In this passage Paul challenges the Corinthian believers to a walk that is more becoming of a believer than the Corinthian behavior of brother going to law against brother. The exegetical pivot point here is whether the unrighteous (ἄδικοι) refers to those of unrighteous position or practice (or both). If it refers to individuals of a particular position, then the unrighteous are unbelievers, and there is little complexity in the idea that unbelievers will not inherit the kingdom of God. However, if the term is unrelated to position and instead refers to practice, then there are significant questions to address.
If Paul is using the term homosexuals as a sample of the actions engaged by the unrighteous, then he is not making any soteriological statement at all, until verse 11, in which he describes the Corinthians as being characterized by these behaviors prior to their salvation. On the other hand, if Paul is describing those who are homosexuals as the unrighteous – and thus unbelievers by definition, then there is a soteriological implication in 6:9-10: that one must cease these actions in order to be washed, sanctified, and justified. Simply put, the question is this: does a person first receive washing, sanctification, and justification and then have the ability to demonstrate changed behavior, or are they first expected to change their behavior in order to qualify for the washing, sanctification, and justification.
Notice the practical emphasis by some notable interpreters. John Calvin observes that,
the unrighteous, then, that is, those who inflict injury on their brethren, who defraud or circumvent others, who, in short, are intent upon their own advantage at the expense of injuring others, will not inherit the kingdom of God…The wicked, then, do inherit the kingdom of God, but it is only in the event of their having been first converted to the Lord in true repentance, and having in this way ceased to be wicked…The simple meaning, therefore, is this, that prior to their being regenerated by grace, some of the Corinthians were covetous, others adulterers, others extortioners, others effeminate, others revilers, but now, being made free by Christ, they were such no longer.
To Charles Hodge, the unrighteous are basically those who break God’s laws:
The unrighteous in this immediate connection, means the unjust; those who violate the principles of justice in their dealings with their fellow-men. It is not the unjust alone, however, who are to be thus debarred from the Redeemer’s kingdom — but also those who break any of the commandments of God, as this and other passages of Scripture distinctly teach.
To Adam Clarke,
the unrighteous, αδικοι , those who act contrary to right, cannot inherit, for the inheritance is by right. He who is not a child of God has no right to the family inheritance, for that inheritance is for the children. If children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ, Romans 8:17. There are here ten classes of transgressors which the apostle excludes from the kingdom of God; and any man who is guilty of any one of the evils mentioned above is thereby excluded from this kingdom, whether it imply the Church of Christ here below, or the state of glory hereafter.
In John Piper’s estimation, “the unrepentant practice of homosexual behavior (like other sins) will exclude a person from the kingdom of God… (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).”
In each of these comments, the interpreters conclude in favor of the practical view of the unrighteous. The unrighteous are those who do unrighteous things, In order to be washed, sanctified, and justified, there must be some resolution with regard to the actions that exclude the actor from the kingdom of God. John MacArthur’s Lordship salvation view accounts for that resolution by asserting that a person must repent from (by which he means to turn away from) his or her sin, and that person must be submitted to the Lordship of Christ in order to receive washing, sanctification, and justification. But in examining MacArthur’s understanding of 1 Corinthians 6:9, an interesting progression over time is evident. In a 1975 message on 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, MacArthur handles the passage exegetically, and concludes in favor of the positional approach to the unrighteous:
The unregenerate, it says very clearly people that in verse 9, these are unrighteous people. And in verse 11 it says “Such were some of you before you were saved.” So we know it’s talking about unsaved people. People who were unregenerate and didn’t know God…This passage is not teaching that if a Christian every does any of these things he’ll lose his salvation, it’s simply categorizing the world and saying you used to be one of those kind…And a new life demands a new lifestyle.
But notice that in later handlings of the same passage, MacArthur abandons that textual argument in favor of a theological argument. This is evidence of a substantial drift in MacAthur’s hermeneutic method.
In a 2012 message on 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, MacArthur says of homosexuals, “these people practice a sin which excludes them from the kingdom of God.” “They will never belong to God’s kingdom as long as they continue to live in that lifestyle.” In that same message, after quoting extensively from Deuteronomy and Leviticus in order to cite homosexuality as an abomination, MacArthur observes that Christ did not end the Law, He fulfilled it. MacArthur adds that “God’s moral law is unchanging and absolutely unchangeable.” Notice one significant result of MacArthur’s hermeneutic shift is an inconsistency in applying the Law. He suggests that those laws are still binding today, but he disregards the legislated penalties (which are part of that law) for sexual crimes committed under the Mosaic Law. In doing so, MacArthur is exegetically inconsistent and ignores the progress or revelation, the distinction between Israel and the church, and the distinctions in the administrations of God. Rather than justify the sinfulness of homosexuality from passages outside the context of Mosaic Law, he is placing under the Law the church and even all unbelievers – two groups that were never under the Mosaic Law.
MacArthur’s employment of the theological hermeneutic (or, reading a theological position into the Biblical text) is evidenced also in his direct affirmations of Lordship salvation. In 1994 he lamented that,
The church’s witness to the world has been sacrificed on the altar of cheap grace….The promise of eternal life without surrender to divine authority feeds the wretchedness of the unregenerate heart.. Enthusiastic converts to this new gospel believe their behavior has no relationship to their spiritual status – even if they continue wantonly in the grossest kinds of sin and expressions of human depravity.
In the same context he adds,
If you think Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith makes it possible for people to lay hold of Christ without letting go of sin, consider…1 Cor 6:9-11…For Paul, perseverance in the faith is essential evidence that faith is real. If a person ultimately and finally falls away from the faith, it proves that that person never really was redeemed to begin with.
In these statements, MacArthur reflects an abandonment of the positional interpretation of the unrighteous, in favor of such an extreme practical view that he concludes that if someone does not let go of their sin, they were never redeemed in the first place. In addition to showing disregard for stages of growth and progressive sanctification in the believer’s life, MacArthur unabashedly equates discipleship and positional salvation. At that point he has conflated positional and practical (or progressive) salvation.
He illustrates this further when he asserts, “A predilection for such sins reflects an unregenerate heart.” In that statement MacArthur seems to disregard the fact that the Corinthians (whom Paul acknowledged were believers in 1:2) were still heavily involved in some of these sins. Paul was writing to challenge the Corinthians to growth and maturity – exactly as MacArthur observed in 1975.
John MacArthur’s embracing of the theological hermeneutic over and against the literal grammatical-historical hermeneutic has been a driving force behind the development of Lordship salvation, and consequently, of one of the greatest soteriological controversies of our time. That theological hermeneutic is applied generously in Covenant theology, and is foundational in the derivation of such doctrines as limited atonement and replacement theology. (Perhaps this is one reason MacArthur self identifies as a “leaky dispensationalist,” as he holds to one and flirts with the other.)
Until we address with finality the issue of consistency in our own hermeneutic methodology, we will fail to recognize that the roots of our soteriological crisis are indeed hermeneutical, and we will continue to be embroiled in controversial issues without any means of resolution. Our challenge is to humility and consistency in how we handle the word of God. Our prooftexting needs to end, and our exegesis needs to be better grounded in the literal grammatical-historical hermeneutic.
 New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update, 1 Cor 6:9–11 (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995).
 Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, Matthew Black et al., The Greek New Testament, 4th ed., 449 (Federal Republic of Germany: United Bible Societies, 1993).
 John Calvin, Commentary on Corinthians, Vol I (Grand Rapids, MI: CCEL, 1999), 126-129.
 Charles Hodge, An Exposition of 1 Corinthians, (Albany, OR: AGES Software, 1997), 121.
 Adam Clarke, Commentary on 1 Corinthians, viewed at http://www.studylight.org/com/acc/view.cgi?book=1co&chapter=006 on 10/13/2013.
 John Piper, “The Tornado, the Lutherans, and Homosexuality” athttp://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/the-tornado-the-lutherans-and-homosexuality, 8/19/2009.
 John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus, Revised and Expanded (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 178.
 John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus, Revised and Expanded (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 34-36, 192, 221.
 John MacArthur “Forgive Because You’re Forgiven: 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, athttp://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/1826/forgive-because-youre-forgiven, 11/02/1975.
 Ibid., 21:41.
 Ibid., 40:55.
 John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus, Revised and Expanded (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), xxi.
 Ibid., 249-250.
 John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus, Revised and Expanded (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 35-36, 221.
 John MacArthur, Faith Works: The Gospel According to the Apostles (Dallas, TX: Word, 1993), 127.