Liberals have been attempting to separate Paul from Jesus at least from the time of the nineteenth-century agnostic Matthew Arnold to today’s best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code. “Paul is the true founder of Christianity,” they say, not seeing this as a good thing. According to this view, Jesus preached a simple message of love. Then Paul came along to distort Jesus’ beautiful teachings into an oppressive institutional religion. Never mind that, by their own higher critical scholarship, Paul’s writings are the earliest documents of the New Testament, that they pre-date the Gospels of the life of Christ. Never mind that it is Paul who emphasizes what one would think open-minded liberals would especially appreciate; namely, grace, forgiveness, freedom from moralism, the diversity of the church, and social equality.
No, liberals cannot forgive Paul for teaching that wives should submit to their husbands, that women should not exercise authority over men, that citizens should submit to the governing authorities, and that fornication and homosexuality are wrong. (Liberal theologians try to dismiss Paul’s teachings about sexual morality by saying that this is “just the culture of the time,” even though the Greco-Roman culture that Paul addressed was notorious for both fornication and homosexuality.)
Evangelicals, on the other hand, like Paul. But they too can miss what he is saying by divorcing him, his teaching, and his terminology from Jesus Christ.
This is compounded by contemporary Bible scholarship, which likes to look for “the theology of Paul,” “the theology of Luke,” and the theology of other Bible writers as if they represent different schools of thought rather than constituting various facets of the inerrant, unified Word of God. But since Scripture interprets Scripture, the writings of Paul explain the life and the work of Christ. And the life and the work of Christ explain Paul’s writings. Theological terms such as “faith,” “grace,” “conversion,” “good works,” “law,” “justification,” and the like can be taken out of context and given many different referents.
The word “faith” must have an object. Positive-thinking evangelists preach the need to have “faith in yourself.” For Paul, “faith” — and “justification by faith” — has to do with trusting in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Strictly speaking, Christ saves us. We are not saved by our conversion; rather, our conversion marks when we first knew Christ’s salvation. We are not saved by grace, in the sense of being zapped and remade by God’s power, apart from Christ; rather, grace makes it possible for us to believe in the Christ who saves us.
Salvation, said the Reformers, is extra nos, outside ourselves. It is not to be found by scrutinizing our experiences, our virtues, or our inner lives. Rather, we are to look outside of ourselves to Jesus. It wasn’t Paul but John the Baptist who said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). And long before that, it was not Paul but Isaiah who said, “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6).
It would take a strange new perspective on John the Baptist to construe from those words that the Lamb of God just takes away our violations of the ceremonial law of Moses. What Christ takes away is “sin.” Not for a particular community but for “the world.” As for a new perspective on Isaiah, the prophet distinctly refers to this Suffering Servant being “smitten by God” for our “transgressions,” “iniquities,” “griefs,” “sorrows,” when we have “gone astray” and “turned every one to his own way” (Isa. 53).
Salvation does demand good works — Christ’s good works, which, in God’s mysterious imputation, are credited to us. When God looks upon those who are in Christ (by grace, through faith), He sees not our sins, but rather Christ’s good works — all of His acts of love, His miracles, His moral perfection so profoundly set forth in the Gospels — in which we are clothed.
Our sins do have to be punished and paid for. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree,” says Peter in 2:24 of his first epistle (unless one can devise a new perspective on Peter). On the cross, Jesus took upon Himself all of the punishment and paid all of the penalty our sins deserve.
We do live a new life. Christ rose from the dead, and we share in His resurrection (1 Peter 1:3). And if we are in Christ, how can we not do good works in love and service to our neighbors (1 John 3)?
Salvation does entail being brought into a new corporate community, the church. But the church is the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12).
The redeemed are “in Christ” (Rom. 8), connected to Him by grace. This happens when the Holy Spirit, working through the means of Word and sacrament, creates faith in Christ.
This is “justification,” not only in Paul but in all of Scripture. The new Paul is pretty much like the old Paul, a pious Pharisee pre-occupied with policing the purity of the group — until Christ gave him a new perspective.