I cringe every time I hear someone ask me if I’ve accepted Jesus as my “personal Lord and Savior”, primarily because I don’t know how to answer.
I identify as a child of the covenant. I was baptized when I was an infant, and when I was growing up, I responded to the promises that God made in my baptism. So while I do identify as a Christian, and a follower of Jesus, and a child of the covenant, I never had a time that I “accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior” and I never said the “sinner’s prayer.” I also cringe, because I do not think that this is the best way to think about it. I think that the language of “accepting Jesus” and “personal Lord and savior” are both problematic.
The language of “accepting Jesus” is appealing to the ear of American individualists, but it is problematic for two main reasons, the first of which we will discuss in this first part: talk about accepting Jesus is not entirely biblical.
The Bible, particularly the New Testament, does not speak of “accepting Jesus”. Some English translations do use the word “accept” in various places (such as the NIV), and below are some of the different ways that it is used. I have also included the lexical form of the Greek word that is used in each instance.
John 5:43, “I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; if another comes in his own name, you will accept [λαμβάνω] him” (NRSV)
John 14:17 “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive [λαμβάνω], because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you” (NRSV)
Romans 15:7 Welcome [(NIV: Accept) προσλαμβάνω] one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed [(NIV: accepted) προσλαμβάνω] you, for the glory of God” (NRSV)
Romans 10:16 “But not all have obeyed [(NIV: Accepted) υπακούω] the good news; for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message?'” (NRSV)
Romans 14:1 “Welcome [(NIV: Accept) προσλαμβάνω] those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. ” (NRSV)
1 Corinthians 2:14 ” Those who are unspiritual do not receive [(NIV: accept) δέχομαι] the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are discerned spiritually. ” (NRSV)
The easiest words to explain are υπακούω (hear, listen, understand, learn from) and δέχομαι (take, take up, approve or accept things, put up with or tolerate someone or something). The word that appears more often and requires a bit more discussion is λαμβάνω.
λαμβάνω generally means “take”, but it can have several connotations. It can mean to actively take as in take a hold of something or grasp, it can mean to take into one’s possession, it can mean receive or accept things, such as takes, it can mean to passively receive something or get something, and it can mean to take up receive including recognizing authority. This last interpretation is what we see above in John 5:43, and this is probably the closest way that one can talk about “accepting Jesus” as in recognizing Jesus’ authority. Another interesting aside, the usage of λαμβάνω in John 5:43 is descriptive rather than prescriptive, and denotes something that did or did not happen (or will or will not happen), not necessarily a command to do something.
While the Bible does not talk about “accepting Jesus” it does use two other words: believe and confess.
Romans 10:9 “because if you confess [ομολόγησις] with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe [πιστεύω] in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (NRSV)
Acts 16:31 “They answered, ‘Believe [πιστεύω] on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ ” (NRSV)
The word ομολόγησις refers to confessing as an act and not as a state of mind or a thought. The word πιστεύω refers to belief as in believe in something, to be convicted of something, to let oneself be influenced, convicted, trust, have confidence in. These are all connotations of πιστεύω, and these have the more intellectual or affectual undertones. I find it interesting that the passage above in Romans contains the words ομολόγησις and πιστεύω but not λαμβάνω, and moreover, it includes both an outward action, as well as an internal intellectual/affectual movement — which I suppose is similar to saying the “sinner’s prayer”. It is also important to note that Romans says to confess that Jesus is Lord, not accept that Jesus is Lord, and to believe that God raised him from the dead, not accept that.
The terms confess and believe referring to Jesus are far more biblical terms than “acceptance” which often carries the connotation of giving approval to or to give admission to, neither of which adequately describes our relationship to God.
Additionally, theologically speaking, it places the locus of control on us. I speak from a Midwestern American context, and in such a context we like to be in control of our lives. We like to feel like we can stand on our own two feet, and we like to feel as though we can control our own destinies. We like to feel as though if we fail it is because of bad choices, and we like to feel as though our successes are because of good choices that we made. It is only natural, then, that it should be up to us to accept Jesus or to reject Jesus. After all, it would not seem right for that decision to be made by anyone else but us. Moreover, talking about accepting Jesus places us in a position of control over God. If I apply to a job, they are the ones that have the power over me, because they do the accepting or the rejecting. Therefore, this acceptance language almost is as if we are in a position of authority over Jesus and we are the ones determining whether we should accept him or not.
This is problematic is because it places everything upon us. Our entire relationship to God is then dependent on us, as though none of God’s work was effective until we make it effective. In this worldview Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection only has meaning insofar as we give it meaning, and it has any efficacy only insofar as we accept its efficacy. This, certainly puts us in a position of power over God as we are the ones who determine if God’s work has any ability to restore or redeem.
I think the better question for us to ask is if Jesus will accept us!