If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.
“Will you accept Jesus as personal Lord and Savior of your life?”
At just about the same rate as children are born in the United States, an evangelical pastor asks this question. It is asked so much, one would assume that accepting Christ’s invitation to become one’s personal authority is a common subject of the Bible. But to the surprise of the person who assumes such, these words are nowhere to be found within the pages of scripture. This should be of great concern to the Christian who has confidently uttered this phrase. If this is not the case, then the common belief that a simple confession of Christ as personal Lord does not suffice as a proper interpretation of that which Paul instructs in Romans 10. In contrast to this popular understanding, scripture teaches that the lordship of Christ is all-encompassing rather than merely personal. Instead of mere inward subjection to one’s conception of Christ, true faith confesses holistic lordship.
The Meaning of Lordship
In order to properly understand the soul-saving confession of Romans 10, one must first come to a proper definition of the word, ‘Lord’. The Greek word that Paul uses is kurios. While it can be used to refer to a slave-master, or simply as a formal title for a man (similar to ‘mister’ or ‘sir’), these are not primarily the ways in which the word is used in the case of Christ. Rather, in Paul’s context, there are two uses of the word which are most applicable to Christ, and helpful in understanding the meaning of this text. First, the word was used as a title for the emperor of Rome, and bore both a political and divine connotation. The definition of the word in this sense would be something along the lines of, “the highest authority” or “king of kings”. If you think that sounds a bit worship-y, then you get the idea. The confession that Caesar is Lord essentially meant, “Caesar is god, the highest authority over all.” This confession was at certain points compulsory to citizens of the Roman Empire, and was therefore a point of great conflict between Christians in the Roman Empire during the first and second centuries. This conflict was because Christians could only with good conscience attribute divinity and complete authority to one man: Jesus of Nazareth. It is no doubt that Paul, when he wrote his epistle to the Romans, was well aware of the Roman confession. Therefore, he also knew very well the corollary of the statement that Christ is Lord; Caesar is not Lord. But this is exactly what he intended to communicate. This salvific confession of faith is the proclamation that we are members of a royal priesthood, belonging not to the Empire of Rome or the United States of America, but rather to the Kingdom of God. It is a confession of complete submission, not to Caesar, but to God.
The second important use of this word is found in the Greek version of the Bible which Paul used, called the Septuagint. In the Septuagint, the Hebrew word adonai, which means ‘lord’, is translated to its Greek equivalent, kurios. More significantly, in order to show reverence for the proper name of God, Yahweh was commonly replaced by Jews with the title adonai. In carrying on with this practice, the translators of the Septuagint also translated Yahweh as kurios. While other people are referred to as ‘lord’ throughout scripture, the usage of the word in Paul’s confession is unique to any other use in reference to a man. It is applied to him in a way which would only have been used by Jewish people in reference to God. It is one thing when Paul refers to Christ as “Lord Jesus”. If we had no passages to back up His divinity, we may be able to interpret that to be a simple honorary title (though even that is a stretch). But when a Jewish man such as Paul utters the phrase, “Jesus is Lord”, there’s undoubtedly something more going on. This is a phrase which he would have known to be blasphemous were Christ not God. It must be concluded then that Paul is confessing Christ to be not a lord, but the LORD. Therefore, to confess that Jesus is Lord is to confess that Jesus is Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament.
Now that we have that settled, it can be clearly seen that the confession of Jesus as one’s personal authority simply will not do. The confession that Jesus is Lord is instead something far more holistic, with greater implications for both the world and for our personal lives, two of which I will discuss. First, Jesus is not simply the Christian’s personal Lord, but is instead the Lord, or highest authority, over the whole world. Jesus says, before commissioning the Church to make disciples of all the nations, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). This is our Lord’s own definition of His lordship. As Abraham Kuyper once said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” In other words, there is no neutral ground; it is all subjected to our King. This means, then, that there is no such thing as autonomy. There is no human, no creature, no institution which is not subject to His reign, and which has any right to rebel against it. In the abortion debate, many use the argument, “My body, my choice!” They believe they have bodily autonomy. I often respond with something like, “Go ahead and try that argument when you use your body to murder a born human being…” It simply does not work. That is because even our own bodies are subject to the righteous rule of the Lord Jesus. Likewise, there is no government which has any right to make iniquitous decrees. One cannot say to justify himself, “It is the law of the land!” The law of the land, apart from its compliance to the law of God, is no law at all. It is simply rebellion. This is because there is no such thing as autonomy. All that exists is theonomy (for lack of a better word), or else rebellion.
Second, subjection to the lordship of Christ means utter submission, sometimes to the point of great loss and possibly even death. It means complete devotion to Christ, to the point of abandonment of anything which wishes to elevate itself above His seat of authority. Christ describes the call to submission in the Gospel of Luke: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27). He is saying, in other words, “You must submit to Me over all that you hold dear, even unto death, or else don’t come at all.” These words are difficult to accept, but since they come from the mouth of our Lord, we would be wise to take them to heart. The reality is that every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord (Philippians 2:10, Romans 14:11). The only difference is that some will do so willingly in this life, and so bow in adoration at the advent of Christ, and some will refuse in this life, and so bow by the coercion of shattered kneecaps. The option is not whether to instate Christ as Lord, but whether or not to submit to Him as the Lord who already reigns supreme. And the response of the true disciple is always submission. To believe is to submit. To have the freedom of the Spirit is to be a slave to Christ. This means that there is no such thing as a “carnal Christian”. In the words of R.C. Sproul, “There is simply no such thing as a Christian who is totally carnal. It is a contradiction in terms.” You are either born of Spirit and simultaneously brought into submission to Jesus, or else you are spiritually dead. There is no in between. You cannot have one foot in the world, and one foot in the kingdom of God. This is because the lordship of Christ means that there is no neutrality. Quite simply, there is submission, and there is rebellion.
We see an example of such submission in Paul’s confession. As I mentioned earlier, his words are intentionally similar to the Roman confession that Caesar is Lord. Not only that, but it was a phrase which would have been considered blasphemous by any unbelieving Jew. Paul himself, as well as the Romans to whom he wrote, lived in a society made up of Romans and Jews. Therefore, their confession put them at odds with just about everyone in the society around them. For the sake of such a confession, they were kicked out of synagogues, disowned by family, falsely convicted of crimes, flogged, and crucified, burned alive, or fed to lions. And all of this for sake of submission to Christ. But this is not a begrudged submission. While calling Christ Lord and ourselves His suppliants is certainly true, the description does not fully describe our relationship to Him. Not only are we humble servants who come to His holy presence in fear and trembling, but also His coheirs of the immeasurable riches of the Father’s grace. And it is in Christ Himself that we find these innumerable, all-satisfying riches. In Scripture, we find Christ’s description of the nature of our submission to his kingship, when He says, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). The Christian, like the man who found treasures in a field, when we discover Christ will give up anything to have Him. Similarly, the Psalmist writes, “at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). Anyone who has recited the Apostle’s Creed can quickly recognize the similarity to the location of these eternal pleasures and the location of the ascended Lord Jesus. This is no coincidence. In fact, they are descriptions of the same thing. In Christ Himself are our pleasures forevermore. He Himself is the immeasurable riches of God’s grace. Our confession of, and submission to, the lordship of Christ is then our acknowledgement that He is far more satisfying than anything this life has to offer. Therefore, there is no vain pleasure which can entice us away from the faith, no friend’s betrayal which can hinder our obedience, no government official’s threats which can evoke a denial of our loyalty to the one true King.