Is It Possible for Jesus to Be Your Savior but Not Your Lord?

In 1988, The Gospel According to Jesus by John MacArthur was published. The basic thesis of the book was that if you wanted to be saved, you needed to accept Jesus as your Savior and Lord. It seemed to me like a very simple and almost obvious message, but while the majority of responses were positive ones, it also attracted many critics, even Christians. The term “lordship salvation” came into vogue within evangelical circles to refer to the position stated in MacArthur’s book. That, of course, implies that another kind of salvation exists: non-lordship salvation, or Jesus as Savior only. “Carnal Christian” is another phrase that came increasingly into vogue; it refers to a Christian who does not live in obedience to Jesus. There are authors and preachers who say that this obedience is optional; in other words, as long as you believe and profess that Jesus is your Savior, then He is, regardless of your behavior.

As with almost any question like this, we have to look at Scripture, and since MacArthur’s book focused on what’s recorded in the Gospels, let’s look at a couple of verses from them. In John 14:15, Jesus says, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” In Luke 9:23, Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Those verses, along with many others, make it clear that obedience to the Lord is necessary; notice especially the word “daily” in the second verse.

In 1993, MacArthur wrote The Gospel According to the Apostles, which affirms that the apostles’ message is the same one that Jesus taught. James 1:22 says, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” And here’s a verse the apostle Paul wrote, Romans 6:15: “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” There are those who write and preach that we are under grace–but who stop there. A few years ago, I sat through a sermon where grace was the focus, but to the exclusion of obedience to the Lord. Had I been a non-Christian listening to that sermon, I would have concluded that grace is the only thing necessary for salvation–in other words, that a change of behavior is not required.

A common misunderstanding of the Lordship of Christ as something necessary is that we need to somehow be more acceptable to Jesus before we can embrace Him as Savior and Lord. However, that is a misunderstanding of salvation; after we are saved, we have the desire to obey Jesus and therefore do so. In other words, obedience is the result of salvation, as our way of thanking the Lord for His amazing grace.

A common objection to Christ’s Lordship that I have heard over the years goes something like this. “Look at David in the Bible. He was an adulterer and a murderer, but he was saved, right?” Acts 13:22 gives us the answer, where Luke writes, “He [God] testified concerning him [David]: ‘I have found David son of Jesse a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.'” I Kings 15:5 affirms this but mentions an exception–admittedly a significant one–to David’s doing everything the Lord wanted him to do: “For David had done what was right in the eyes of the Lord and had not failed to keep any of the Lord’s commands all the days of his life–except in the case of Uriah the Hittite.” So, why is it that the Bible can still refer to David as doing right in the eyes of the Lord? In 2 Samuel 12, the prophet Nathan confronts David with his sin and verse 13 says, “Then David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.'” David wrote an entire Psalm (51) confessing his sin, repenting, and asking the Lord for forgiveness. In other words, the Bible does not “define” David as an adulterer and murderer, but as a man after God’s own heart. (I should also add, however, that if you read the rest of the story, you will discover that David experienced the consequences of his sins.) David’s repentance is what fundamentally distinguishes him and other true believers from so-called “carnal Christians,” who claim to be Christians but defend their sinful behavior and continue in it rather than repenting.

Many years ago, there was a megachurch leader who preached that obedience to Jesus was something to be strived for, but that it was possible to be saved without it. Well, he was discovered to have been engaging in sexual immorality for ten years; he was subsequently removed from his post. Did he repent following this? I don’t know. But regardless of whether his sin was a result of his theology or vice-versa, it points out the danger of such teaching–in this case in the life of the preacher himself.

Over the years, my wife and I have joyfully witnessed baptisms of people that we know and love. Some of them, thankfully, have given evidence of true salvation in a change of lifestyle, but sadly, many have not. Some have even renounced their faith, sometimes very publicly. We have communicated with some of them, praying that the Lord will truly be their Lord and that we will ultimately see them in heaven.

It should be obvious by now what the answer to the question in the title of this post is. If you are a Christian and are close to someone who claims to be one but is clearly living in disobedience to Jesus Christ, I hope that you will confront him or her. You will almost certainly experience backlash, but maybe this person will respond like David–perhaps not immediately, but eventually.

3 thoughts on “Is It Possible for Jesus to Be Your Savior but Not Your Lord?

  1. For one to be saved, they must acknowledge that they are sinners in need of the mercy of God to wipe their hearts clean. That implies an understanding at salvation, that sin is wrong and, with his help, is to be avoided by following him through his word. A “salvation” experience that is lacking the understanding that we have been washed clean from our sins with his blood shed while he was being tormented by the enemies of God, is no salvation at all. Salvation isn’t words. It’s a turn of heart from sin to the one who redeemed you from that sin with his blood.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, and maybe that lack of understanding of being washed clean from sin is why some of those we love who have been baptized have since renounced their faith. In my most recent post, which you can access here, https://keithpetersenblog.com/2021/10/06/coddling-in-american-universities-and-churches/, I wrote about how so many pastors today don’t like to use the word “sin” and its related forms anymore. I like the fact that you used the words “sinners” and “sin(s)” five times in your comment! Another reason is easy believism and an overemphasis on grace, seemingly not understanding that a person’s actions give evidence, or lack thereof, of salvation. As you wrote, salvation isn’t words; it’s repentance that manifests itself in a changed life.

      Liked by 1 person

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