There is a difference between confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and accepting as Lord.
In American evangelical Christianity, some variation of “accepting” Jesus is offered as the hallmark of conversion. Getting saved is often associated with asking Jesus to be our Savior or — more commonly — accepting or receiving him as such.
I’ve always been uncomfortable with the active verbs here. It has always felt like we are doing Jesus a favor.
To confess Jesus as Lord and Savior is an entirely different thing. When we confess, we state what is true. To use a contemporary common example, we a person confesses a crime, they are simply stating the truth that they did such and such things. The things happened whether the criminal confesses it or not. To confess is to acknowledge what is already the truth, even if unknown to others. To confess Jesus Christ as Lord is to say that Jesus is Lord whether I acknowledge it or not. I am just now coming around to acknowledge that truth.
This strikes me as theologically and practically important. We Christians proclaim the good news that Jesus Christ has defeated death and broken the power of sin and that he will one day judge the world. This is not a claim that he will judge those who have accepted him. It is a claim that he will judge the world.
I believe that on the cross and in the tomb, Jesus really did save the whole world from death — including those who had already died. This is why there will be a general resurrection. All will be resurrected to eternal life. All will stand before the judge. The book of life will opened and all will be judged.*
When we confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, we are proclaiming this truth. At the risk of putting it too strongly: Jesus is not my savior. He is THE savior.
It is because of this, that I shy away from the traditional sinner’s prayer. It is not that I think new birth is unimportant, but because I think new birth is not about us “accepting” Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. I think, rather, it is about a work of the Holy Spirit in us. It is the Spirit opening our blind eyes to the great truth of Jesus’ love and lordship. Perhaps in response to that new birth we might utter words very similar to the sinner’s prayer. Perhaps in seeking to have that new birth we might utter that prayer. But unlike Joel Osteen, I don’t believe the uttering of those words is the same as being born again.
The Spirit blows where it will.
What we need to be given is the gift that allows to confess from the depth of our very soul the great truth. Jesus is Lord. Jesus is savior. Jesus loves me, even me, and died so that I might live.
*The standard of judgment appears to be how we have lived rather than what we believe or say, which opens up for me lots of interesting questions that would derail the simple point I want to make here.