That is the single, central, foundational, and distinguishing article of Christianity. It is also the first essential confession of faith every true Christian must make: “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).
The belief that someone could be a true Christian while that person’s whole lifestyle, value system, speech, and attitude are marked by a stubborn refusal to surrender to Christ as Lord is a notion that shouldn’t even need to be refuted. It is an idea you will never find in any credible volume of Christian doctrine or devotion from the time of the earliest church fathers through the era of the Protestant Reformation and for at least three and a half centuries beyond that. The now-pervasive influence of the no-lordship doctrine among evangelicals reflects the shallowness and spiritual poverty of the contemporary evangelical movement. It is also doubtless one of the main causes for evangelicalism’s impoverishment. You cannot remove the lordship of Christ from the gospel message without undermining faith at its core. That is precisely what is happening in the church today.
Jesus’ teaching and ministry always kept the issue of His lordship at the center. He never once shied away from declaring His authority as sovereign Master. He proclaimed it to disciples, to enemies, and to casual inquirers alike—refusing to tone down the implications of His demand for unconditional surrender. So the true gospel according to Jesus is a message that cannot be divorced from the reality of His lordship. When Jesus called people to follow Him, He was not seeking companions to be His sidekicks or admirers whom He could entertain with miracles. He was calling people to yield completely and unreservedly to His lordship.
A Word About Words
The expression most often translated “Lord” in the English New Testament is the Greek word kurios. It speaks of someone who has power, ownership, and an unquestionable right to command. A nearly synonymous Greek term also sometimes translated “Lord” in the New Testament is despotes. That word (the root of our English word despot) describes a ruler with absolute power over his subjects. Professor Murray J. Harris distinguishes the two terms this way:
Clearly despotes and kyrios largely overlap in meaning; both may be rendered “lord” or “master.” If we are to distinguish the two terms with regard to emphasis, kyrios signifies “sovereign Lord,” and despotes “absolute Lord.” Murray J. Harris, Slave of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: Apollos/InterVarsity, 1999) 112.
Both words are very powerful. They were part of the vocabulary of slavery in New Testament times. They describe a master with absolute dominion over someone else—a slave owner. His subjects are duty-bound to obey their lord’s directives, not merely because they choose to do so but because they have no rightful liberty to do otherwise. Therefore, wherever there was a lord (kurios) or a master (despotes), there was always a slave (doulos). One idea necessarily and axiomatically implies the other. That explains Jesus’ incredulity at the practice of those who paid homage to Him with their lips but not with their lives: “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46).
You may recognize the Greek word doulos because it is quite a common term in the New Testament. The word and its derivatives appear more than 130 times in the New Testament—frequently as a description of what it means to be a true Christian: “He who was called while free, is Christ’s slave [doulos]. You were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 7:22-23).
Doulos is not an ambiguous term. It suggests a very specific concept, which—while repugnant to our culture and our natural minds—should not be toned down or backed away from. It is the main Greek word that was used to describe the lowest abject bond slave—a person who was literally owned by a master who could legally force him to work without wages. In other words, a doulos was a person without standing or rights.
Unfortunately, readers of the English Bible have long been shielded from the full force of the word doulos because of an ages-old tendency among Bible translators to tone down the literal sense of the word—translating it as “servant,” or “bond servant” rather than “slave.” No doubt that reflects our society’s longstanding discomfort with the practice of slavery and the severe abuses that have always occurred in institutionalized versions of human slavery.
Still, service and slavery are not really the same thing, and it is extremely unfortunate that the full impact of the expression doulos has been obscured in our English translations for so long.
Doulos speaks of slavery, pure and simple. It is not at all a hazy or uncertain term. It describes someone lacking personal freedom and personal rights, whose very existence is defined by his service to another. It is the sort of slavery in which “human autonomy is set aside and an alien will takes precedence of one’s own.” Edwin Yamauchi, “Slaves of God,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 9, no. 1 (Winter 1966) 37. This is total, unqualified submission to the control and the directives of a higher authority—slavery, not merely service at one’s own discretion.
For example, in Matthew 6:24, Jesus said, “No one can be a slave to two masters” (literal translation). That translation is much stronger (and actually makes better sense) than what you will find in most versions: “No one can serve two masters.” An employee with two jobs could indeed serve two masters. But slavery—not merely service—is what the word doulos and all its derivatives speak of.
As Harris points out, “there is an important difference. A servant gives service to someone, but a slave belongs to someone.” Slave of Christ, 18. It is not merely a nuance. Scripture repeatedly and emphatically places Christians in the latter category: “Do you not know that . . . you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). We have a Master who purchased us (2 Peter 2:1). To be specific, we were purchased for God with the precious blood of Christ (Revelation 5:9). This is the very essence of what it means to be a Christian:
For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. (Romans 14:7-9)
The Problem with a Feel-Good Gospel
The idea of the Christian as a slave and Christ as Master is almost totally missing from the vocabulary of contemporary evangelical Christianity. Not only is slave a bad word loaded with political incorrectness, but our generation also loves the concepts of freedom and personal fulfillment. Modern and postmodern people crave autonomy, and as the church has become increasingly worldly, the biblical truth of our duty to Him as our absolute Lord and Master has all but disappeared from the evangelical consciousness. The church in our generation has reduced all of saving faith and Christian discipleship to a thoughtless (but more politically correct) cliché: “a personal relationship with Jesus.” The ambiguity of the phrase reflects the destructive vagueness with which evangelicals have been handling (and mishandling) the gospel for the past several decades. As if Christ could be someone’s intimate friend without being that person’s Lord.
That is, after all, the whole gist of the no-lordship message: You can have Jesus as Savior and Friend here and now and decide later whether you really want to submit to His authority or not. It is hard to imagine a more disastrous twisting of what it means to be a Christian. Remember that among the original twelve disciples, only one wanted to be seen as Jesus’ “friend” without ever really bowing to His authority as Lord and Master—and that was Judas. A lot of people (and Satan as well) had some kind of “personal relationship” with Jesus during His earthly ministry without submitting to Him as Lord.
We need to let Scripture speak for itself, and it is time to face squarely the reality of this difficult truth. Slavery to Christ is not a minor or secondary feature of true discipleship. This is not merely symbolic or illustrative language devoid of any literal sense. It is exactly how Jesus himself defined the “personal relationship” He must have with every true follower (John 12:26; 15:20).
As a matter of fact, the fundamental aspects of slavery are the very features of our redemption that Scripture puts the most stress on. We are chosen (Ephesians 1:4-5; 1 Peter 1:1; 2:9); bought (1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23); owned by our Master (Romans 14:7-9; 1 Corinthians 6:19; Titus 2:14); subject to the Master’s will and control over us (Acts 5:29; Romans 6:16-19; Philippians 2:5-8); and totally dependent on the Master for everything in our lives (2 Corinthians 9:8-11; Philippians 4:19). We will ultimately be called to account (Romans 14:12); evaluated (2 Corinthians 5:10); and either chastened or rewarded by Him (Hebrews 12:5-11; 1 Corinthians 3:14). Those are all essential components of slavery.
What Would Jesus Say?
Jesus himself introduced the slave metaphor in the New Testament. He frequently drew a direct connection between slavery and discipleship. In Matthew 10:24-25, for example, he said, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master.” In the parables he told, He often used slavery as the symbol of discipleship. The words of Matthew 25:21 are what every true disciple should hope to hear at the end of life: “Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”
Jesus always described true discipleship in such terms, and he did so with no effort to adjust the message to make it sound more appealing to worldly minded sinners. Both his preaching and his private discourses were notable for their unvarnished directness. Nothing he said about the cost of discipleship was ever toned down, dumbed down, lightened up, glossed over, mitigated, understated, or pillowed in soft words.
He was not the least bit encouraging toward people who wanted to follow Him around just for the food and the miracles. In fact, He did everything possible to discourage people like that (John 6). He called only broken people who were sick of their sin, who understood their hopeless condition, and who were therefore willing to forsake everything else to be His disciples (Luke 5:32; 14:33). He never muted His description of what it would cost to follow Him. And (contrary to what some church leaders advocate today) He didn’t reserve the hard words for people who were already believers. He said the same things whether He was speaking to unconverted crowds (Luke 14:25-35) or to individual would-be followers who claimed they were ready to follow Him anywhere (Luke 9:57-58). Sometimes He sounded almost as if He were trying to turn away as many inquirers as possible—and indeed, He did turn away multitudes of merely curious and halfhearted admirers (John 6:66-67).
He demanded that people deny themselves completely. He required their implicit obedience. He instructed them to be ready to die for Him. He called for them to relinquish all their normal priorities—including family, friends, personal plans, ambitions, and everything else in this world. Their whole lives were explicitly and irrevocably placed under His authority. His lordship was total and nonnegotiable. Those were His terms, and would-be disciples who tried to dictate different terms were always turned away (Luke 9:59-62).