Defining Key Words in the Lordship Debate: Lord (Part 4 of 7)


by Doug Smith


When one speaks of salvation through trusting Christ, the concept that Jesus is a Savior is clear.   What, for some, is not so clear is whether saving faith takes as its object Christ as Savior or Christ as Savior and Lord.  In other words, can one trust Christ as Savior but not as Lord?   To discern the truth about this matter, one should examine the idea of Lord in the Bible and search out whether there is a connection between the lordship of Christ and salvation.


There are two words translated as Lord in the New Testament:   kurios and despotes .  Kurios is the most common word for Lord, appearing 747 times, while despotes appears 10 times.   Five times despotes is translated as Lord while it appears the other five times as master or master's.  Six times the word refers to God, while the remaining four occurrences refer to slave masters.   Kurios is translated 720 times as Lord, lords , or Lord's, while it appears 13 times as master, masters' or masters, or master.   A form of Kurios is also rendered as sir or sirs (12 times), God (1 time), and owners (1 time).  Kurios usually refers to God.  When Jesus is specifically spoken of as Lord or directly addressed as Lord, the word kurios is always used, so it should be the focal point of study for this issue.


What do the terms Lord , sir, master , God, and owner have in common?  They all denote someone of position and rank.   Furthermore, the idea of authority and therefore the right to give commands is inherent in each term.  Even the word sir, which may seem tame because of its identification as a common term of respect, probably had a meaning of a person who was the father or originator of another or one who had authority and dominion over others.  


Some try to explain away the idea of authority inherent in the word Lord, trying to convince others that submission to the “Lord Jesus” is an optional, second-level of Christianity for those who want a deeper commitment.   But can this idea be sustained?


Charles Ryrie argues that the title of Lord does not indicate that Jesus is automatically the Christian's master, but only that Jesus is received as God [1].   Certainly, Ryrie's assertion that Lord can mean God is a valid one.  In addition to its translation as God in Acts 19:20, kurios is the word used to translate the Old Testament JEHOVAH (the same name as YAHWEH/YHWH, and sometimes shortened into JAH/YAH) into Greek.   This is the name of God revealed to Moses in Exodus 3, and is a name that refers only to the true God of Israel.    In the English Old Testament, this name is usually represented by an all-uppercase LORD.  In most editions of English New Testaments, it is represented as the standard word Lord.  Compare the following Scriptures (my notes in [brackets]):


Old Testament

New Testament quotation/translation

The LORD [JEHOVAH] said unto my Lord [adonai], Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool. (Psalm 110:1)

The LORD [kurios] said unto my Lord [kurios], Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool? (Matthew 22:44)

And thou shalt love the LORD [JEHOVAH] thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. (Deuteronomy 6:5)


And thou shalt love the Lord [kurios] thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. (Mark 12:30)


These Scriptures clearly refer to God.   Notice that the same word is used to translate the Hebrew JEHOVAH and the Hebrew adonai.  JEHOVAH is related to the words God used to speak of Himself as “I am that I am,” denoting His self-existence (an attribute no other being can share), and is the name that evoked memories of His covenant relationship to His people, and faithfulness to keep His Word.   The word JEHOVAH was traditionally replaced with adonai out of reverence for this sacred name of God; the vowel markings in the Hebrew manuscripts give the vowels (added later) for adonai , and the original pronunciation may actually be lost.  Adonai means sovereign master or lord.  The concepts in both of these words are fundamental to the Biblical teaching about God. 


That this same word kurios, which translates JEHOVAH and adonai, is used for Jesus, certainly bolsters the claim that its meaning is God.   This is further reinforced when one surveys the teaching about Jesus' identity in the Gospels, and the way religious leaders responded to His claims (attempting to stone Him on more than one occasion because they perceived His words to be a claim to deity).


The claim that Lord = God in the New Testament, when referring to Jesus, is certainly credible.   But the idea that defining Lord as God in relation to Jesus eliminates the idea of submission to His lordship is in credible.  It makes no sense to say that Lord = God, therefore obedience to Jesus is optional, when God, as the true Supreme Being, and Author, Originator, and Creator of all, has unlimited rights over His creation, including the authority to tell everyone what to do.   Lordship is part of God's very essence.  In trusting Him to save us from our sin (not only its consequences, but the love of it and commission of it), we also trust Him to guide us with His Word to keep us from sin.   We are seeking to move from a life of disobedience to a life of obedience.  Constant refusal to submit to Christ's lordship is evidence that one has no desire to be saved from sin.   The Christian will not render a life of perfect obedience; only Christ could do that.  But part of what it means to be a Christian is that self and sin are no longer one's lord, but that Jesus Christ now calls the shots.


The one who is offered to sinners as a Savior does not leave His lordship as an optional part of the package.   Jesus' lordship was presented as part of his identity as Savior:   “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).  When we are called to trust Christ for salvation, part of that call is to trust Him as our Lord:   “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved” (Romans 10:9).   As God, He certainly has authority.  Every knee will one day bow to this Lord (Philippians 2:10 -11), who asks this question of those who claim Him as Lord:   “Why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say” (Luke 6:46)?  One may conclude that a salvation without Christ's lordship is a salvation that is defective and ineffective.


Some may respond in this way:  if Christ must be Lord and Savior to every believer, then every believer must obey perfectly, or else Christ is not actually their Lord.   As the Scripture says, “Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness” (Romans 6:16)?   They may say that this text proves that if one is sinning, Christ is not his lord, but if one is obedient Christ is his Lord.  But notice verses 17-18, written to Christians:   “But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you.   Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness.”   Believers were the servants of sin, but obeyed, became free from sin, and became the servants of righteousness .  Yet we also know that Christians still sin (“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” 1 John 1:8).   How can these truths be reconciled?   I believe it has to do with one's position before the Lord.  The non-Christian who sins is acting according to his natural state of being a sinner.   The Christian who sins is acting according to his natural state as a sinner but against his state as a child of God.   Lordship for the Christian does not mean perfect obedience anymore than being an employee means you will always please your boss, to whom you are subordinate and to whose authority you submit.   Likewise, the child of God may not render perfect obedience, but he recognizes God's authority in his life as his Lord.


[1] Charles C. Ryrie, Balancing the Christian Life (Chicago, IL:   Moody, 1969, 1994), 182.


NEXT TIME:  Regeneration


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