Every now and then, I’ll hear (or read) someone mocking the idea of Jesus as a “personal” Savior. “What — you think you own Jesus, or something, like He’s your personal Savior? When did you become such a narcissist?” Sometimes, as I’m well-aware, they know what the phrase means; any faux-confusion just gives them an excuse to ridicule. Still, you never know — a genuine desire to understand might lurk behind the mockery.
My facetious nature is at times tempted to reply: “Well, what’s the alternative — an impersonal savior, who can’t be known or experienced? Just some vague cosmic liver shiver … How’s that an improvement?”
But, just in case there’s a legitimate question buried in there, I hereby bite my facetious tongue and submit the following: “Personal Savior” has a lot in common with another well-known phrase: born-again Christian. Both find their roots in the evangelical belief of “conversionism,” á la Bebbington’s Quadrilateral.
Conversionism simply means that nobody is born a Christian. Christian parents don’t beget automatically Christian children. Going to church, earning attendance awards or Bible memorization ribbons, or attending 300+ high school youth retreats doesn’t make you a believer. Being born in a supposedly “Christian nation” counts for — wait for it — diddly-squat.
Conversionism, in a nutshell: each individual must make a conscious decision to surrender to Jesus. He’s the Savior of the world, yes, but every individual in the world has a choice whether or not they’ll follow Him. A literal “come to Jesus” moment.
In other words, it’s personal.
Of course, some of the same people who smirk at “personal savior” have been known to turn their noses up at conversionism in general. You may have heard, “We’re called to make disciples, not converts,” in a tone of voice that subliminally includes the addendum, “you gibbering theological moron.”
They’re aware that discipleship is always predicated by coming to faith in Jesus (conversion) in the first place. Unconverted people, typically, make poor disciples (some converts also make poor disciples, but that’s a post for another time).
For example, after Peter preached his famous sermon on the Day of Pentecost, over 3000 people had personal “come to Jesus” moments and converted to faith in Christ. After converting, they embarked on the discipleship path and “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42).”
But the first step was making it personal with Jesus. Not relying on their Jewish heritage, synagogue attendance, or bar mitzvah, any more than we can rely on the country where we were born, the church we attend, or how many worship songs we know by heart.
With Jesus, it’s always personal.