Several years ago I heard about a big church that was on the cutting edge of Christian culture. They were experimenting with different ways of "doing" church, and a lot of those ways were hip, trendy, and cool. They were very much what you would call "seeker sensitive."
One of the new things they were doing was changing their terminology for Jesus. We commonly refer to Jesus as "Lord and Savior," after all, he's our Lord because he rules over us, and he's our Savior because he died to save us. This particular church, however, thought that the titles "Lord and Savior" were either too technical, too old fashioned, or sounded to much like "Christianese" speak, so they decided to change the language they used in reference to Jesus as "Life Leader and Forgiver." While this change in language may create a more palatable image of Jesus that is more welcoming and inviting to "seekers," it is a potentially dangerous change that we should be very slow to make. There are certain ideas and images that are given by the term "Lord," for example that are not necessarily communicated by the term "Life Leader." And "Forgiver" does not encompass the meaning of the term "Savior." But what's the big deal? Do we really have to insist on certain language in reference to Jesus?
As we consider Jesus' first coming this Christmas season, it is a good idea to full understand just who it was that was born into the world, and the language that describes him. In Luke 2, when the angels announce to the shepherds that Jesus had been born, they use three specific titles to describe him: Savior, Christ, and Lord: "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2.11). This is who was born: Jesus the Savior, Jesus the Christ, and Jesus the Lord. Let's briefly consider each of those three titles.
Jesus the Christ
The Greek word for "Christ" is "Christos," which literally means "anointed one." And "Christos is the Greek word for "Messiah" in Hebrew. So when the angels announce Jesus' birth and that he is the Christ, they are literally saying that God's anointed one has been born. But what does that mean? What does it mean that a person has been anointed?
In the Old Testament, certain people were anointed (set apart) for specific jobs or roles. For example, prophets, priests, and kings were all anointed - that is, they were set aside for a particular role. Jesus was anointed as well. He was set apart to be the Savior of all who would trust in him. But with him, the title of "Christ" or "Anointed One" is more than just a title or a role that he is to play - it is the essence of his being. He exists to be devoted to the service of God and performing the will of his Father. He has been separated from all other humans for this purpose (Philippians 2.7-8). So when the angels tell the shepherds that the Christ has been born, they're referring to the Son of God, sent into the world for the specific purpose of dying for the sins of the people.
Jesus the Savior
Jesus is only referred to as "Savior" twice in the gospels - once in Luke 2.11 and once in the gospel of John. The church I referenced earlier had changed their terminology for Jesus from "Savior" to "Forgiver." What's the difference?
The Greek word for "to save" is "sodzo" and it literally means to deliver or protect. Salvation is more complex than just forgiveness, but don't get me wrong: you must be forgiven in order to be saved. But you don't just need to be forgiven - you need to be saved and delivered. Why do you need a Savior? From what do you need to be saved or delivered? The answer is that you need to be saved and delivered from the punishment your sin deserves. That's why Jesus died on the cross. he bore the punishment for your sin, thereby saving you from punishment and delivering you from having to bear God's justice for yourself. That's more than just being forgiven.
Think of it like this: imagine that you're standing in a court room and you've committed a terrible crime and you've confessed your guilt. The judge is about to pass the sentence: death. But before he does, you say to him, "Your honor, I know that I've done wrong, and sir, I ask your forgiveness." The judge is moved by your plea, and he looks at you with compassion and says, "I believe that you are sorry for what you've done, and that you regret your actions. I forgive you." And then, BANG! He slams his gavel down and you are lead off to your execution. You can be forgiven, but justice must still be satisfied. What you need is to be saved from justice - you need someone to deliver you from the punishment that you deserve.
God can forgive your sins, but that will not satisfy his justice. In order for justice to be satisfied your sin-debt needs to be paid. You need someone to pay that debt for you. But even that won't be enough. Not only do you need your sins forgiven and your penalty paid, but you need to be perfect in order to be with God. This is what Jesus does. He earns your perfection through his life, and he takes the deserved punishment for your sins and he pays the price on your behalf so that justice can be satisfied, and in the process, your sins can be forgiven. And to be saved is to throw yourself on those realities - to put your faith in them - and to trust in them as you would trust in a parachute on a crashing plane. And through your faith, God applies the righteousness that belonged to Jesus to your account, and transfers all of the sin from your account to his, as he hung on the cross. So now you can stand before him as innocent - fully forgiven! - fully justified! - fully righteous! (2 Corinthians 5.21) When the angels tell the shepherds that the Savior has come, that is what they mean. Not just a Forgiver, but a Savior.
Jesus is the Lord
The Greek word for "Lord" is "kurios," which can mean "sir" or "master," or a title or respect. But in reference to God, it is a title that refers to one who is in supreme authority. The angels said that Jesus - the tiny baby born in Bethlehem - was the Lord, the one in supreme authority.
Jesus is not merely someone who comes alongside us and offers suggestions - he's not just someone who gives advice - he's not just someone who comes alongside and encourages his followers. Does he do all of those things? Indeed, but that is only the beginning of his power and authority. Instead, the Bible paints a picture of Jesus not as a life leader, but as the supreme sovereign of the universe, to whom every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord, and that his name is above every other name. Consider Colossians 1.15-18: "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him al things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities - all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.
Does that sound like a life leader to you? Not to me. Jesus is the Lord!
We use a phrase a lot in Christian circles in which we tell a person, "You need to make Jesus Lord of your life." We need to stop using that phrase, in my opinion, because it is quite simply impossible. You can't make Jesus Lord of your life - he already is. To say that I can make Jesus Lord of my life implies that his lordship relies upon my permission. Jesus isn't sitting at your feet, imploring you, "Will you please make me Lord of your life?" No! Jesus isn't Lord because you call him "Lord." He is Lord because he is the sovereign ruler of the universe, and that has nothing to do with whether or not you want to acknowledge his lordship. The laws of gravity don't apply because I believe in them, but because they simply are. Jesus is not Lord because you confess him as Lord, but because he simply is Lord. The question is not whether or not you will make him Lord of your life. The question is whether or not you will bow then willingly or by force. One way or another, you will submit to his lordship.
As we gather together in this Christmas season to remember the One who entered into the world as a tiny human being, I think it's important to realize just who it is that is lying in the manger: the Savior, the Christ, the Lord. Let us come and worship him and give him the glory that is due to the sovereign, self-sacrificing, Deliverer.