Shuck and Jive

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Lord and Savior

(Conversations with Bob! More fun than a trip to the dentist! It's Bob's Turn!)

There are all kinds of topics that should be discussed before these, but here we are so here we go.

I think we need to start with the appropriate translations of the words. I’m going to stick to the Greek since we are talking about Jesus. The problem is that each of these words can mean a variety of things depending on the context. Thus kurios, the Greek word we translate as lord can mean, in context, God, a ruler of some sort, a master to a slave or a servant or even just one’s social superior. So let’s take a look at the context from which the Church has normally taken the basic meaning for this word: Romans 10:5-13;

5Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” 6But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7“or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8But what does it say?

“The word is near you,

on your lips and in your heart”

(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9because£ if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” 12For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (NRSV)

The specific context here the question of whether Israel, that is the physical descendants of Abraham, will be saved or not and if so how will they be saved. Paul, as he has throughout Romans, argues that all are saved by faith and not by works. The key verses are 9 and 10. They suggest that one must confess with one’s lips that Jesus is Lord to be saved. The problem is what does the word Lord mean here? We could, given verses 12 and 13 guess that the text means that Lord here means God. But let’s take the basic meaning of the word. Lord is someone who can give commands and expect them to be obeyed.

If "Jesus is Lord" means he can command and expect obedience then we have a basic definition of the meaning of the Christian confession. To put it in the terms of the Gospels, to say Jesus is Lord is to be a disciple of Jesus. We follow Jesus. We commit ourselves to do and live as Jesus commands.

This, of course, could create a problem with Paul’s whole argument. If we say that one is a Christian because one obeys Jesus then we argue the opposite of what Paul says throughout Romans, that one is saved by faith. Reformed tradition has claimed that Paul says in Romans that becoming a Christian changes the use of the Law for the Christian. While in the past obeying the Law was the way to salvation, now one is saved by faith through grace. But after one becomes a Christian one shows love for Christ (and seeks sanctification) by obeying Christ.

There are a variety of problems with this whole argument, not the least of which is recent study by Christians that suggest we have misunderstood the Pharisees and the use of the Law by 1st Century Jews all along, that the basic Jewish position was and is that God elected the people of Israel by grace and that obedience to the Law is not a way to earn God’s pleasure but rather a response to God’s grace. This is a developing argument in Romans studies today. But for our purposes let’s leave that argument alone. Let’s say that the confession “Jesus is Lord” means that the person who says this will be a disciple of Jesus and seek to obey him.

So that I suggest is the first part of the confession. To say Jesus is Lord is to confess that he has the right to command me, to tell me how to live.

The second part of the confession is just as problematic. The Greek word for Savior, soter, can mean healer, someone who saves your life, as well as the traditional way the Church has interpreted the word: that Jesus saves us from sin and thus opens the way to forgiveness and to the coming Kingdom of God.

In fact the New Testament uses the verbal form of the word much more often than the noun form. And the use of the verbal form is even more problematic. Paul uses the verb most often in the future tense, as in the passage I quoted from Romans above. The person who confesses that Jesus is Lord and believes that God raised him from the dead shall be saved. Salvation then is a future event. (And notice that Paul doesn’t say that a Christian is one who confesses that Jesus is Lord and Savior. He says that one who confesses that Jesus is Lord and believes that God raised Jesus from the dead shall be saved, a different statement altogether.)

Again, the Church has traditionally used the word Savior to mean that through Jesus one is forgiven of sins. And Paul does talk about Jesus as the means by which we receive forgiveness; specifically that Jesus’ death gives forgiveness.

(A brief excursus on forgiveness) Unfortunately people often take one Biblical image for forgiveness and claim that image is the one way to think about Jesus and forgiveness. The image chosen most often, at least in conservative or Evangelical circles is the judicial image or that of atonement. I suggest that forgiveness is so big that one image cannot contain all that is meant by it. I think we need all the images, including the judicial image but also the other images like reconciliation and that Jesus’ death exposes the powers of oppression. To claim that Jesus’ death on the cross can only be interpreted by one image is to miss the richness of the New Testament on the subject.

Let’s move out of Paul for a moment. After all, Paul is not the be all and end all of Christianity. In Luke 19:1-10 Jesus himself uses the word salvation. Here is the passage:

1He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

As we think of Jesus as Savior there are three critical aspects to this passage. Jesus does not proclaim that salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house until after Zacchaeus repents and reverses his earlier behavior. Salvation then includes a change in the way one lives. Jesus tells the crowd that salvation has come because Zacchaeus is also a son of Abraham. Thus at this point in Luke’s narrative salvation was only open to Jews, a position he changes later in Acts. Finally Jesus, using “the Son of Man” to refer to himself, says that he came to save the lost. Note that there is no content in this passage, if we isolate if from the rest of Luke and other New Testament material that suggests that salvation refers to the future, as it does in Paul. Here salvation means that repentance brings one back into the people of Israel. While Jesus often refers to the Kingdom of God in Luke as both future and present, he does not say that salvation is a future event. Zacchaeus receives salvation at once.

So if we use the word Savior to describe Jesus, what do we mean? Certainly we mean that Jesus brings forgiveness. Zacchaeus repents (after something happens during his lunch with Jesus), and receives salvation. But on the other hand Paul talks about salvation as a future event, suggesting to me that salvation only becomes complete in the Kingdom of God, (and yes I know, that is a term that Paul does not use. Instead he talks about the return of Christ.)

So to confess Jesus as Lord and Savior is to say that Jesus can command and we who confess that he is Lord must obey and that Jesus brings forgiveness when one repents. Ultimately salvation comes when Jesus returns.

Grace and Peace


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