Writing into a Roman context to tell people that the proper response to the gospel was to confess “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10.9) would have been provocative. “Lord” was the designation given to Caesar. Caesar was Lord and all other loyalties were subservient to him. You may pray your prayers to the god of your choice, but at the end of the day, when push came to shove, your god must submit to the will of Caesar. Everything, including your loyalties to your gods, must serve the greater purpose of the Empire and, more particularly, Caesar himself. To declare that there was a loyalty that was higher than Caesar to which one must submit was subversive to the unity of the Empire. If one dared to challenge Caesar in this regard, the full weight of Rome would come down upon him. Many of our fathers and mothers who confessed Jesus as Lord endured the consequence of challenging Caesar.
But Paul’s call was much deeper than the present empire situation. Sure, this was the situation into which he wrote. The Caesar situation was the challenge of his day where the rubber met the road concerning the implications of allegiance to Christ. However, in the section of the letter to the Romans in which this call to confession is found, Paul is speaking concerning the Jewish situation and their allegiances. Caesars come and go. Empires rise and fall. But the Jews worshiped the one true and living God: YHWH. Echoing what he has already claimed in Romans 9.5–that Jesus is God over all, blessed forever–Paul attributes to Jesus the word commonly used to refer to YHWH in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint): kyrios. Jesus is YHWH, the one true and living God, and, therefore, Lord over all. Failure to worship him is to reject the God of Abraham.
Confession of Jesus as Lord in response to the gospel changes everything for Jew and Gentile. Jesus has been declared Lord of the world by God the Father. Every area of life–from my individual life to the structures of nations–belongs to him and is to be conscious submission to him.
Consequently, the call of the gospel is an all-or-nothing commitment. Either a person comes to submit to Jesus as the one true and living God, having his life arranged under his lordship, or he is an enemy of Christ. If you were a Jew living in the first century, that meant giving up the old distinctions of he Law, confessing that Christ was the end of the Law (Rom 10.4). If you were a pagan Gentile living in the first century, that meant giving up your idols and not merely adding Jesus to the pantheon of gods to be worshiped. For all in the first century it meant that Jesus’ lordship over your life superceded every other lordship in the world, including the lordship of Caesar.
For twenty-first century Americans, the call of the gospel remains the same though the situations have changed. Confessing Jesus as Lord means the re-ordering of the way that I think and live. It means that no other loyalty supercedes loyalty to Jesus. All other loyalties are subservient to and are to serve the cause of Christ and his kingdom. We cannot confess the American creed that we are all “Americans first” and then Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc. Our allegiance to Jesus is not a slave to the “indivisible” nation. Friends and family, though good things, can never become idols that take my primary loyalty so that I will disobey Christ Jesus. Money or some position in the world cannot be the god that controls my life. I must have my thinking and the order of my life arranged under the lordship of Jesus.
Submitting to Jesus’ lordship is not an optional extra to the call of the gospel. It is the necessary response to the gospel. Because Jesus loves us and knows that any idol we serve as equal to or above him will destroy us, he cannot allow us to serve these other idols along side him. Though we all progress in different ways and at various rates in our growth in our understanding of Jesus’ lordship in our lives, submission to that lordship is not optional no matter our situation. Whether you are turning from a lifestyle of sexual immorality or covetousness, all idols must be forsaken. Idols of the lower class and idols of the upper class, idols of Africa or idols of America, must all be forsaken. If and when people forsake these idols, then and only then is the promise of salvation theirs.