What does it mean to confess “Jesus is Lord”?
I had a friend in college who I’ll call Sam. We had been in a discipleship group together until Sam dropped out of our group and let us know that he had found a different college ministry that he was going to plug in with. No big deal; that happens all the time in college ministry.
I didn’t think much of it until about a year later when I ran into Sam on the streets of downtown Athens doing street evangelism with his new group. I was glad to see him and so I went to speak with him. I asked him how it was going and what he was up to that night, and he told me that they were simply trying to get people to confess that Jesus was Lord.
That’s great, I thought. I wasn’t sure if I shared his strategy, but I appreciated the good end in mind and loved the gospel going forward.
That is, I loved it until I realized what he meant.
Sam said, quoting 1 Corinthians 12:3, just saying the words “Jesus is Lord” was literally all someone needed to do to be saved. His goal that night was to get people to verbally say, “Jesus is Lord.” If they said those three words, they were saved. That’s what 1 Corinthians 12:3 says!
There are several issues here, but two big ones come to mind. First, what do we do when we come to a passage of Scripture that seems to teach something that is contrary to other passages of Scripture? And second, what does 1 Corinthians 12:3 really mean? That is, what does it mean to “say ‘Jesus is Lord’ … in the Holy Spirit”?
LET SCRIPTURE INTERPRET SCRIPTURE
First, the principle in question: When we read the Scriptures, we need to be committed to letting Scripture interpret Scripture. We need to let the more clear passages help us make sense of the less clear passages.
For something like the doctrine of salvation, Scripture is very, very clear: God saves us not through works but by grace alone through faith alone in Christ Jesus alone. Ephesians 2 is clear: after showing us our death due to sin, and saying that God has made us alive in Christ, verses 8–9 give the summary: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
We could turn to other passages like Romans 10:9–10, or Galatians 2:16, or Titus 3:4–6, or many, many more and read the same truth. So to look at a single verse that says “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit,” as 1 Corinthians 12:3 does, and to take away from it the idea that if someone literally just utters the word “Jesus is Lord” then that person is saved, is to completely misread Scripture as a whole.
JESUS IS LORD
The specific issue for my friend was, what is meant by the end of 1 Corinthians 12:3? To help us understand it, let’s consider it in context:
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.1 Corinthians 12:1–3
Paul is in the middle of a section dealing with the church (chapters 11–14), and beginning in chapter 12, he’s dealing with a question that’s been asked of him about spiritual gifts (12:1).
Ultimately, it seems that the church at Corinth had an issue of abusing and giving too much weight to the spectacular, miraculous gifts of the Spirit—tongues and prophecy—while neglecting the other gifts. They’ve created a culture of superiority—if you’re really spiritual, you’ll speak in tongues. Or, if you’re really spiritual, you’ll be able to prophesy. They’ve made those things the litmus test of spirituality. Paul gets to the issue of speaking in tongues and prophesying in chapter 14; but first, he wants to remind them of what true spirituality is (and that includes 1 Corinthians 13, which isn’t just for weddings).
Paul starts by reminding the church that they’re spiritual simply because they’re people of the Spirit. Contrary to what pop culture tells you, to be “spiritual” means “of the Spirit” – it’s speaking of someone who has received the Spirit of God, someone who has the Spirit of God living in her.
Throughout this letter Paul has occasionally divided humanity into three groups: Jews, Greeks (or Gentiles), and the Church of God. That seems to be what he has in mind here in v.2-3. They were pagans following mute idols (living as Gentiles); there are those who say “Jesus is accursed!” (Jewish people who rejected the Messiah); and there is the true Church of God (those who say “Jesus is Lord!”).
The latter group is the concern for my friend Sam. Is 1 Corinthians 12:3 saying someone becomes a Christian just by saying those three words?
The truth is, of course, in light of the rest of Scripture and in light of these verses in 1 Corinthians 12 even, that’s not what 1 Corinthians 12:3 is saying. If that were the case, then whoever says out loud the first half of the verse – “Jesus is accursed” – can’t have the Spirit. It would mean that if I just read that verse out loud, according to my friend’s thinking, I would both not have the Spirit (because I said “Jesus is accursed”) and at the same time I would have the Sprit (because I said “Jesus is Lord”)!
1 Corinthians 12:3 is simply affirming the basic Christian confession that Jesus is Lord. Romans 10:9–10 helps us here:
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.Romans 10:9–10
Romans 10 describes a confession with the lips that is accompanied by a belief in our hearts. It describes a belief from the heart that affects all of who we are. It describes the Christian confession that:
- Jesus is God.
- Therefore, Jesus is the Sovereign King over all.
- And that includes my life.
Jesus is God, the Sovereign King over all, and therefore Jesus is the Sovereign King of my life.
This was as shocking of a statement in Roman society then and in the Jewish society then as it is our society now. It’s an exclusive claim: Jesus is Lord. Not Caesar, not the United States President or government, not the social media influencers or popular culture, not my bank account, not myself. Jesus is Lord.
It’s an exclusive claim, and it’s a Lordship claim. To say (to confess) that Jesus is Lord is to willingly surrender all my rights and all my status and to acknowledge that I am a servant of Christ the King in every area of my life.
That’s what it means to say Jesus is Lord. And the only ones who can make that confession, who not only say it with their mouths but also live out what is in their hearts, are those who are spiritual, those who have the Holy Spirit living in them.
What about you? Is that just a confession you make with your lips? Are you just saying words? Or is that a confession that you’re living out in your life? Do you believe it in your heart, in your core being, that Jesus really is Lord of all, and is that shown in your life?
Bert Watts has served since December 2016 as the Senior Pastor at Mountain Creek Baptist Church, where he has been on staff since 2012.
Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash
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