A listener named Lawrence writes in about two seemingly conflicting Bible passages. He asks, “First Corinthians 12:3 says that ‘no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.’ Parallel verses in 1 John 4:2–3 say the same. However, in Matthew 7:21–23, Jesus says that there will be many who will say to him ‘Lord, Lord’ to whom Jesus will reply, ‘I never knew you.’ Pastor John, how are we to understand these two statements as true?”
The issue here is the tension between two texts and, really, texts and our experience as well. And there are more than just these, and I will probably point out one. 1 Corinthians 12:3 says, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” It’s a glorious text. We can’t. We are so dead and so resistant to the Lordship of Jesus we can’t say, “Jesus is Lord” except that the Holy Spirit worked that in us.
“Jesus Is Lord”
But Lawrence points out Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” So there is a tension. It sounds like, Whoa, they called him Lord and it wasn’t by the Spirit, because they are going to perish. They are not even doing the will of God. So how do the two texts fit together?
“We are so dead and so resistant to the Lordship of Jesus we can’t say Jesus is Lord except that the Holy Spirit worked that in us.”
Let me add one more tension before I try to solve it. Romans 8:15–16 says this: “You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”
So it sounds like, Oh, if a person says, “Abba, Father,” then they have the Spirit of adoption and they are Christians. But Jesus criticized certain Jewish leaders, because they did call God their Father, and he said, “You don’t even know God as your Father” (see Matthew 3:9; John 8:41–42). And today we know that people can call God “Father” and not be saved. In fact, the old liberal approach a hundred years ago was to prefer to call God “Father.” And they didn’t even have substitutionary atonement at all in their theology. They just loved the fatherhood of God. So it is possible to call God “Lord,” and it is possible to call God “Father” and not have it be any evidence of true faith at all. So what do we make of that?
Sincere Heart Cry
I think there are two pointers in these texts that help us understand how Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 and in Romans 8 wants to be understood so that if you call Jesus “Lord,” and you call God your “Father,” you are truly under the influence of the saving work of the Spirit. So what would that be? What are these pointers? In Romans 8:15 he says, “You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” Paul’s choice of the word “cry” is to communicate to us that this is sincerely coming from your heart.
This is not something that is just slipping off your tongue to cloak that there is no cry in your heart to God as your Father. You really mean this. This goes down deep into your heart. The cry that rises up and overflows is a real, child-like reliance upon a wonderful Father whom you trust. I think that is what he means when he says that “by the Holy Spirit we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” Not just, by the Holy Spirit we can say the words, “Abba, Father.” A computer can say the words, “Abba, Father.”
Here is the second pointer. It’s the same thing, really, in 1 Corinthians 12:3. There it says that “nobody can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” And the phrase is Kurios, Iesus. Kurios is Lord. Iesus is Jesus. And my guess is that in the context of Corinth at that time, this phrase (as opposed to Kurios Kaiseros — Caesar is Lord) would have carried such radical danger. In other words, this is treason. This is treason. You are going to stand up and say in public, “Kurios Iesus,” and have every eye turn to you and say, “You are dead. You are going to get your head chopped off for talking like that.”
My guess is that this phrase carried in itself, in that context, such loaded dangers and risks that only the sincere would say it. So when Paul said, “Nobody can say it except by the Spirit,” he meant nobody can say it and really feel it, mean it, be willing to risk your life because of it.
Depending on the Spirit
So I think the answer to both seeming contradictions in Romans and 1 Corinthians is that both of them intend for us to mean our confession of Jesus as Lord and our confession of Jesus as our precious Father must be real, and can only be real and authentic and heartfelt if the Holy Spirit is profoundly at work in our lives.
And so the implication for our lives would be, number one, to realize how helpless we are without the Holy Spirit. We cannot sincerely acknowledge Jesus as Lord and sincerely cry out like a little child to God as our Father if the Holy Spirit is not giving us the power. And secondly, we should cry out to him for the Holy Spirit lest we prove to be hypocrites and to be just playing games in the end.