Here is an analogy. Imagine the healing of a paralysed man by Jesus as an image of salvation. According to a free grace understanding, it might go something like this. Jesus says, “Do you believe I can heal you? Would you like to receive my healing?” The paralysed man replies, “Yes Lord, I believe. I receive your healing” The Lord replies, “Now you are healed.” The man has received healing- however, whether or not he gets up and starts walking is secondary. The man could stay on his bed for the rest of his life and claim that he has been healed by his faith, and yet be in effect still a paralysed man. His healing is purely a passive decision to receive healing, without any requirement at all to actually do any walking.
By contrast, the conversation according to a lordship salvation understanding might go like this. Jesus says, “Do you believe I can heal you? Would you like to receive my healing?” The paralysed man replies, “Yes Lord, I believe. I receive your healing”. Jesus says, “Get up then and walk”. It is only as the man responds to Jesus command to get up and walk that he finds he actually is healed. Note that the only way that the man could get up and walk was by the miraculous power of God, for there was no power within him to walk. Yet, it was the act of responding in faith to the command to walk by which he actually received his healing. He could not remain lying down and claim to have received healing if he had not claimed the promise to get up and start walking.
This is not an argument for either position. It is just an analogy which I think explains the difference quite well. As for me, I hold to the lordship salvation understanding, as I find it is a far better interpretation of the witness of all the scriptures. In this post I will not spend time arguing the case, but just note that I am in good company in holding this position. Some in the free grace crowd give the impression that anyone who holds to a lordship position have a deficient understanding of the gospel, do not truly believe in God’s grace and are subtly adding works to salvation. That’s bad news for the majority of evangelical theologians throughout history! See below for some of the most prominent evangelical theologians’ views on the matter from recent times:
Wayne Grudem: “It is misleading to brand ‘Lordship salvation’ as if it were some new doctrine, or as if it were any other kind of salvation—MacArthur is teaching what has been the historic position of Christian orthodoxy on this matter…”. Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1994),715.
Michael Horton: “…James Boice, J.I. Packer, and others have argued in their works [that] no respected, mainstream Christian thinker, writer, or preacher has ever held such extreme and unusual views concerning the nature of the gospel and saving grace as Zane Hodges [and his free grace counterparts]… In our estimation, there is not the slightest support for Hodges and Ryrie to claim the reformers’ favor for their novel views”. Christ the Lord: The Reformation and Lordship Salvation , (Wipf and Stock:2009), 11.
Michael Bird: “Strange parts of American evangelicalism –the so-called “no lordship” advocates – have even contended that one should not even preach Jesus as Lord in evangelism, but only as Saviour. Apparently making Jesus lord of one’s life is something that is not meant to happen until much later in one’s Christian walk. Such a view, quite frankly, merits the mother of all theological face palms. Profession of Jesus as Lord is not asking for assent to the mere fact of his deity, but calling people to faithfulness, obedience, and allegiance towards him. Jesus wants followers not fans!” http://www.harvardichthus.org/2015/06/kyrios-christos-the-lordship-of-jesus-christ-today/
Millard Erikson: “It is important for us to understand the nature of true repentance. Repentance is godly sorrow for one’s sin together with a resolution to turn from it…. The Bible’s repeated emphasis upon the necessity of repentance is an incontrovertible argument against what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” (or “easy believism”). It is not enough simply to believe in Jesus and accept the offer of grace; there must be a real alteration of the inner person. If belief in God’s grace were all that is necessary, who would not wish to become a Christian? But Jesus said, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 19:23). If there is no conscious repentance, there is no real awareness of having been saved from the power of sin.” Christian Theology, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 937-938.
DA Carson: “In America, the basis of Christian assurance has erupted as the distinguishing banner of a small but vociferous segment of evangelicalism. The movement is strong enough to have formed its own organization, the Grace Evangelical Society, complete with its own journal. All of the publications that have emerged so far are at the popular or semipopular level; but that ensures wider circulation, not less. Doubtless the most influential of these writings is a book by Zane Hodges, The Gospel under Siege. The popular preacher John F. MacArthur Jr. has responded at about the same level, but with so large a number of unguarded statements or overstatements that his work has spawned more controversy than healing. The concern of Hodges and his colleagues is to make Christian assurance absolutely certain. To accomplish this, they tie assurance exclusively to saving faith and divorce it from any support in a transformed life. The countless passages that tie genuine discipleship to obedience are handled by making a disjunction between “discipleship” passages and those that promise eternal life. Eternal life turns on faith in the saving Son of God; discipleship turns on obedience; and Christian assurance is tied only to the former. To link assurance in any way to the latter, it is argued, is to corrupt a salvation of free grace and turn it into a salvation partly dependent on works. If my salvation depends only on free grace, then the basis of my assurance is as steadfast as the freedom of that grace. But if my assurance depends on observing certain changes in conduct in my life, themselves the fruit of obedience, then implicitly I am saying that, since I cannot be assured of salvation without seeing obedience, salvation itself depends on some mixture of faith plus obedience—and free grace is thereby destroyed. Hence the name of this new evangelical society. Its members are persuaded that the purity of the gospel of grace is at stake. There are numerous entailments to this analysis. Those who disagree with them are dismissed as supporters of “lordship salvation,” understood to mean that these opponents insist that part of the requirement for becoming a Christian, for receiving salvation, is the confession of Jesus as Lord. In the view of Hodges and his colleagues, trusting Jesus as Savior is all that is required for salvation. “Repentance,” in their view, must be understood in a narrowly etymological sense: it is the mental “change of mind” that accepts Jesus as the Savior, but entails no necessary sorrow over sin or turning away from it. That is the fruit of confessing Jesus as Lord; it is the fruit of obedience, and properly emerges from the confidence of knowing that one’s sins are already forgiven.” “Reflections on Assurance”, in Still Sovereign, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), eds. Thomas Schreiner and Bruce Ware, 252-253
John Piper: The Bible makes it plain, I believe, that people who persistently refuse the command of Jesus’ lordship have no warrant for believing that they are saved. Such people should not be comforted that they are saved simply because there was a time when they “believed” gospel facts or walked an aisle or signed a card or prayed a prayer. In fact, Jesus seems far more eager to explode the assurance of false “professions of faith” than he is to give assurance to people who are intent on living in sin. Where does he ever bolster the “eternal security” of a person unwilling to forsake sin?
I am not saying that only perfect people are saved. There are no perfect people on this earth. We sin every day and every good work we do is tainted with sinful remnants of corruption. I am saying that a person who goes on willfully rejecting the commands of Jesus for his life has no warrant for salvation.
JI Packer: “If, ten years ago, you had told me that I would live to see literate evangelicals, some with doctorates and a seminary teaching record, arguing for the reality of an eternal salvation, divinely guaranteed, that may have in it no repentance, no discipleship, no behavioral change, no practical acknowledgment of Christ as Lord of one’s life, and no perseverance in faith, then I would have told you that you were out of your mind. Stark, staring, bonkers, is the British phrase I would probably have used.”
“Repentance is more than just sorrow for the past; repentance is a change of mind and heart, a new life of denying self and serving the Savior as King in self’s place…More than once Christ deliberately called attention to the radical break with the past that repentance involves.”