Every now and then, I hear (or read) something that mocks the idea of Jesus as a “personal Savior”.
The rationale is usually along the lines of: “What? You think you own Jesus, or something? Like, He’s your personal Savior — what a narcissist you must be, to think you’re that important!”
Sometimes, as I’m well aware, the person uttering the comment actually does know what the phrase means, and is only pretending to be confused because they want to mock. But even so, when I pause to think about the phrase “personal Savior”, I think it’s worth the time to explain. You never know — behind the mocking might lurk a genuine desire to understand.
(Of course, my facetious nature is at times tempted to respond with something like: “Well, what’s the alternative? An ‘impersonal’ savior, who can’t be known or experienced? Just some vague cosmic liver shiver — how is that an improvement?”)
But then, just in case there is a legitimate question buried somewhere, I realize that a facetious, bumper-sticker-level ‘zinger’ is exactly the wrong way to respond. So, I hereby bite my facetious tongue and would like to submit the following:
The idea of a “personal Savior” is very similar to another well-known phrase: “born-again Christian”. Both find their roots in the evangelical belief often referred to as “conversionism” (á la Bebbington’s Quadrilateral).
Simply put, “conversionism” means that nobody is born a Christian. Christian parents don’t beget automatically Christian children. Going to church, getting attendance awards or Bible memorization ribbons, or attending every high school youth retreat ever held doesn’t make you a Christian. Being born in a supposedly “Christian” nation counts for absolutely diddly-squat.
Conversionism is the assertion that each individual must make a conscious decision, at some point in their life, to surrender to Jesus. He is the Savior of the world, yes, but each individual in the “world” needs to decide whether or not they will follow Him. Literally, a “come to Jesus” moment of decision.
In other words, it’s personal.
Of course, some of the same people who mock the phrase personal Savior also look down their noses at the entire concept of conversionism, usually with statements like: “we’re called to make disciples, not converts,” (in a tone of voice that subliminally includes the addendum, “you drooling theological moron”).
Nine times out of ten, they are fully aware that discipleship is always predicated by coming to faith in Jesus (conversion) in the first place. Unconverted people, typically, make poor disciples (some converted people also make poor disciples, but that’s a topic for another time).
For example, after Peter preached a passionate sermon on the Day of Pentecost, over 3000 people had their own personal “come to Jesus” moment, and were converted to faith in Christ. After which, they were discipled as they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, and to prayer (Acts 2).
But it all started with them making it personal with Jesus. Not relying on their Jewish heritage or synagogue attendance or bar mitzvah, any more than we can today rely on the country we were born in, the church we attend, or how many worship songs we know by heart.
With Jesus, it’s always personal.