When I was in high school the most common word that I heard associated with Jesus was “Savior,” as in, “Jesus is my Savior.” It was a prominent youth group emphasis: Jesus was always shown in the “rescuer” role, as the one who pulled us all out of our sin and expresses God’s grace and love. So we sang things like, “I am a friend of God,” and, “Jesus’ blood never fails me,” and it slowly shaped our faith.
All of this, of course, is true. But in our emphasis on Jesus as Savior, I wonder if we have developed a blind spot for His other—and equally important—role.
In recent years, evangelical thinkers from Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost to Francis Chan and David Platt have begun to focus on another name for Jesus. “Jesus is Lord,” has become the battle cry for a generation of young evangelicals who are tired of the cushy, safe, anesthetized versions of Jesus that have been far too prevalent in our American Christian subculture. We are experiencing a renewed emphasis on radical discipleship, in which we take the commands and the red letters of Lord Jesus more seriously with greater authenticity and real devotion. “Jesus is Lord,” the earliest of Christian creeds, is making a comeback.
Perhaps this renewed emphasis on the Lordship of Jesus is a helpful corrective. I’ve seen the frustration of church leaders as they have wrestled with the lack of discipleship in their communities. Why is it, they ask, that so many people call Jesus their Savior and yet continue to live self-centered, morally compromised lives? Why is it that people can praise Jesus on Sundays and then curse out their neighbors and family members on Monday? Why is it that people will give millions of dollars for bigger church buildings and louder sound systems, and not take up the causes of social justice and world missions?
Perhaps contributing to this is the fact that we’ve only glimpsed a part of the fullness of who Jesus is. We’ve emphasized “Jesus as Savior” over and against “Jesus as Lord.” But in doing so, we have told people a half-truth. We’ve told them that God loves them, but forgotten that God has also commissioned them. We’ve told them that they are forgiven, but failed to remind them that they are now temples for the Holy Spirit. We have not remembered Paul’s words: “You are not your own; you were bought at a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19). We’ve allowed ourselves to get comfortable with Jesus saving us while forgetting that He bought us for a purpose.
“Jesus is Lord” is a helpful counterweight to the overly comfortable, seeker-sensitive, consumer-oriented evangelicalism that has characterized too many American churches. It reminds us that there’s no room in His call for self-centered living. He came to bring us from death to life and invites us to be a part of the kingdom He is building.
But it must remain just that—a counterweight—rather than a new emphasis to swing us out of balance once again to the opposite extreme.
Because the new emphasis on radical obedience to Lord Jesus runs the risk of becoming the new legalism. Too many times I’ve seen my own generation gravitate toward a new kind of super disciples. In an effort to shake their fellow Christians out of the malaise of comfortable Christianity, they begin to heap expectation and guilt down upon their brothers and sisters. We begin to hear phrases like, “Who is really a disciple of Jesus?”
The result is that the Christian faith becomes a new list of to-do’s. When Jesus becomes Lord to the exclusion of Savior, we risk making Jesus into nothing more than an angry taskmaster: Someone who is sitting on His throne waiting for the apocalypse, all the while hurling down commands for His people to get into shape. I’ve seen too many Christians crushed by this new Pharisaism, thinking that they have somehow disappointed their Lord unless they are perfectly living out the Sermon on the Mount.
So how do we strike the right balance?
I think we begin by looking to the cross. When Jesus was crucified, the Roman soldiers nailed a sign above his head: “This is the King of the Jews.” Who is Jesus? He is the crucified King, the suffering Lord. In Jesus, we see the Lord of Time, the pre-incarnate Word, the one who holds the universe in his hands, living in our midst. We see the Lord who becomes our Savior.
What we must remember is that, yes, Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him. Yes, He tells us to go and make disciples of all nations. He certainly lays out commands for us to follow and obey. But He is also the Lord who tells us that He is always with us, to the very end of the age. Jesus is the Lord who gets down in the dirt with us to lift us up when we fall.
The truth is that Jesus is both our Savior and our Lord. When we reduce Him to one or the other, we minimize the power of His message. And when we begin to see Jesus in the fullness of who He is, as crucified Savior and as reigning Lord, we are moved to worship Him more fully ourselves.
Nick is currently enrolled full-time at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis in the M.Div program. He is the proud father of two kids and happily married to his wife of four years, Jenny. He writes regularly on his blog, Prodigal Preacher.