I have often heard people use the phrase, "Jesus is my Lord and Savior." This is a legitimate way to express one's relationship to Jesus. However, the phrase can be misleading if it's not understood in context. I have heard more than one overzealous pastor try to usher new converts into the kingdom by claiming that they need to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior to be saved. At one time this seemed to me to be the crux of the gospel, but now it makes me cringe. It warps the saving message of Jesus until it is no longer recognizable. The problem is that it takes the requirements for discipleship and lumps it together as if it is also a requirement for salvation.
As we try to understand the distinction between salvation and discipleship, this is a phrase that needs to be examined. It contains both a declaration of salvation and a declaration of discipleship, although most who use it may not realize its dual nature.
So what does it mean to believe in Jesus as savior? We don't have to guess. In fact, John chapter four gives us a great example of a group of people who believed in Jesus as savior. After Jesus shared the gospel with the woman at the well in Sychar, she went into the village and evangelized it. The people came out to meet Jesus and convinced him to stay there a few days. He continued to teach them. Now, read John 4:41-42 to see this excellent example of a group who believed in Jesus as savior.
And many more believed because of His own word. Then they said to the woman, “Now we believe, not because of what you said, for we ourselves have heard Him and we know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world.”1
There is no question about it. These people got saved. They received everlasting life the moment that they believed in Jesus. How do we know that? We know it because John is incredibly consistent throughout his gospel. He points out that whoever believes in Jesus has everlasting life.2 The phrasing he uses to describe salvation, "believe" is used here. So we know these people just became believers and received eternal salvation. To say otherwise is to contradict everything that the Gospel of John teaches.
So what exactly did they believe? As we mentioned in the last chapter, they believed that Jesus was the giver of everlasting life, and they believed that he was offering it to them. They wanted everlasting life and therefore believed in him for it. All of this is encapsulated in the term, Christ. They understood that the Christ was the one who gives everlasting life and specifically was the one who would bring about the future resurrection.3
So declaring that they believe Jesus to be the Christ shows that they had already believed and received everlasting life. Now they use an interesting synonym for the word Christ. Do you see it?
…we know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world.”4
They used the phrase, ‘Savior of the world’ as a synonym for the Christ. They were saved by believing Jesus was the Christ, and since they used ‘Savior of the world' as a synonym, that means they were saved by believing that Jesus is the Savior of the world.
That is significant to us because ‘Savior' is a much more common word than ‘Christ.' In fact, most people probably assume that Christ was Jesus' last name. In fact, it was a title that conferred on him the equivalent of world savior.
Therefore, believing in Jesus as Savior is a salvation issue, obviously. Someone can believe in Jesus as savior to gain everlasting life, provided that they believe in the gift of everlasting life, and that the giver is Jesus. If that is what is understood and believed when someone believes in Jesus as Savior then great, they are saved.
Here comes the twist, though. What about the first part of the phrase, "Jesus is my Lord and Savior”?
When we say that Jesus is our Lord what does that mean? Once again, we don't have to guess. Jesus told us plainly what it should mean. Jesus says it this way.
“But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?5
Jesus points out that if someone calls him Lord, it implies that they should intend to do what he says to do. Calling Jesus ‘Lord' means that we should obey him as Lord. This brings up a vital question. Does someone have to obey Jesus as Lord to be saved?
There is no shortage of pastors and teachers who say that we must obey Jesus as Lord in order to be saved. In fact, I recently received a message from a young man struggling with this very issue. His church teaches that obedience to Christ was a requirement for salvation and they use Matthew 28:19-20 to back up that claim. Ironically that is one of the exact verses that best illustrates how obeying Jesus' as Lord fits into the Christian life. Read this familiar passage from Matthew 28:19-20.
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”6
By now you should be getting accustomed to our trigger words ‘salvation' and ‘discipleship.' Do you see either of those words in the passage above? It's not hard to find. It opens with,
Go therefore and make disciples7
Everything that follows this phrase is a description of how to make disciples. Jesus was sending out his students to teach what they had learned. His instructions show that the ultimate goal of ministry is bringing believers into discipleship. Basically, He is showing us that the successful disciple is the one who obeys Jesus as Lord. Yet, the question remains unanswered. Is there any indication that obeying Jesus' as Lord is required to be saved?
Nope! Clearly, he expects individuals to first believe in Him for everlasting life before they undertake discipleship. It's a given that discipleship is for believers who have counted the cost8, and decide to follow Jesus on a daily basis. However, nowhere in this passage, or anywhere in the Bible, does it say that discipleship can earn a person their salvation. It doesn’t say that discipleship can maintain a person’s salvation either.
This verse is showing us what to do with people once they get saved. Turning someone into a disciple can't get them saved, and it isn't a method to keep them saved either. It's not even an indicator if they are saved. There is nothing like that in any of these verses.
Of course, discipleship is the ultimate goal for believers, but there is no indication from any verse that it is required for everlasting life. If there was, we would have to stop teaching that salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone. On the contrary, the gospel would be much more clear if others would stop teaching that salvation comes by discipleship. Jesus didn't teach that, and his disciples didn't believe it.
The mission of disciple-making is two-fold, according to the above verses.
“…baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”9
First, a believer is to be baptized into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Baptism shows that the person has believed in Jesus as Savior at a previous point. Baptism, being the first step of discipleship, is then to be followed by a journey of learning and doing.
“…teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you;”10
The life of discipleship is one in which the disciple is taught to observe everything that Jesus' commanded. Anyone who mistakes this for the plan of salvation is teaching a work-for-salvation gospel. By this, we understand that obeying Jesus as Lord is a vital part of a disciple's life, but it is not what is required to be saved. Knowing that there is a distinction between salvation and discipleship helps us to see that, while the ultimate goal of every believer should be reaching maturity in Christ, not all operate at the same level of obedience, and possibly some don't obey at all.
Salvation requires us to believe in Jesus as Savior. Discipleship requires us to obey Jesus as Lord. These two are separate decisions. If someone says, "Jesus is my Lord and Savior," hopefully what they mean is, "I'm saved by faith, and I'm a disciple by choice." Believing in Jesus as Savior and obeying Him as Lord is the most rewarding experience a human can have in this life and the next.
1 John 4:41–42.
2 John 3:16-17, 3:36, 5:24, 6:47, etc. etc.
3 John 11:25-27
4 John 4:41–42.
5 Luke 6:46.
6 Matthew 28:19–20.
7 Matthew 28:19
8 Luke 14:26-33
9 Matthew 28:19–20.
10 Matthew 28:19–20.