The difference in calling Jesus ‘Lord’ and ‘Savior’
Implications for contemporary discipleship
When we replace the statement ‘Jesus is Lord’ (which happens to be one of the earliest Christian creeds) with the statement ‘Jesus is Savior’, it fundamentally changes the way we read, understand, and live out the gospel.
I’m not interested in removing the salvation element from faith, but I’m also not interested in narrowing the gospel to the point where we reduce it down to a system of salvation that decentralizes the controlling message of Jesus and the Kingdom of God.
The central and defining message of the Gospels generally, and of Jesus’ life and ministry specifically, is the Kingdom of God that he inaugurated. As a result, the call to follow after Jesus is one that includes forgiveness of sins, but also transcends it, to embrace a much larger scope of Kingdom activity.
The summons of Jesus’ call to ‘follow me’ and the emphasis laid out in the remainder of the New Testament is a call to answer to the declaration ‘Jesus is Lord'. To make Jesus ‘Lord’ is to repent of self-centredness and our ongoing attempts to ‘go it alone’. Repentance is about ‘turning around’ and the statement ‘Jesus is Lord’ captures the essence of that reorientation, providing its focus and Kingdom-centered direction.
Do we, therefore, remove the ‘Jesus is Savior’ element in Christian faith? Not at all. Instead, we reorient our focus by making Jesus’ Lordship (as King) the focus of attention by giving it the central significance it requires.
As Bruxy Cavey once said, “when we make Jesus Lord, we get Jesus as Savior thrown in.” That is, it becomes part of the total package. The order is important.
- ‘Jesus is Savior’ emphasizes sins forgiven. ‘Jesus is Lord’ emphasizes a reorientation in life, which includes sins forgiven. I’m no longer the king of my domain, Jesus is. This reorientation changes everything.
- ‘Jesus is Savior’ impacts me. ‘Jesus is Lord’ impacts me and everyone around me.
- ‘Jesus is Savior’ is often deeply personalistic and privatized. ‘Jesus is Lord’ retains the personal dynamic, but spreads out to impact everything and everyone around me. It is mission oriented (as sent ones) and seeks to reflect Jesus to others.
- ‘Jesus is Savior’ affects only the so-called spiritual aspects in life. ‘Jesus is Lord’ affects all of life; it is holistic and all-encompassing. It isn’t limited to Sunday, or a mid-week program, or more generally to the religious side of life. Instead, it lays at the center of life and thereby orients, shapes, and informs everything else.
My concern, and I’m not alone in this, is that many people have decided to make Jesus their personal Savior, but have yet to truly embrace him as Lord. The first asks people to seek forgiveness of sins, the second summons people to a lifetime of devoted discipleship to Jesus, while inviting others to follow along in the pursuit of the Kingdom.
The first centres on self, the second on Christ and his Kingdom. Any model that switches the order will short-circuit the controlling message of the gospel and effectively produce a mutated organism.
Discipleship is not optional and is not directed towards the few who choose to take Jesus seriously. With Christ, it was all or nothing or nothing at all. It was a summons with expectations.
‘Jesus is Lord’ demands our everything. ‘Jesus is Savior’ does not. The first focuses on a lifetime. The second on a one-time decision.
Unfortunately, the second does not always lead to the first. In fact, only about 50% of those who make decisions actually become disciples. Why? Because we center the call to follow on ‘Jesus is Savior’ and not ‘Jesus is Lord’. One demands nothing of us. The second demands our everything.
So you see there is a difference between calling Jesus Savior and making him Lord. And, the title we choose to prioritize deeply affects the way we view and experience the entire gospel.
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