The Pauline letters center on the glory of God in Jesus Christ. The gospel Paul proclaimed was fundamentally about God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:2–4). For Paul, the gospel is of first importance (1 Cor. 15:3), and since the gospel is about Christ, it follows that Christ is of first importance. Paul summarizes the gospel as the message that Christ died and was raised for our sins in accordance with what was prophesied in the Old Testament (1 Cor. 15:3–4). The Pauline gospel proclaims Jesus as Lord (Rom. 10:9), emphasizing that sinners must put their faith in Jesus as the risen and crucified Lord in order to be saved (4:25).
Because the gospel is central in Paul, we are not surprised to find that the salvation accomplished by Christ is described in multifaceted ways. No single term or metaphor can exhaust the riches of what God has done for us in Christ. Therefore, God’s saving work in Christ is described in terms of justification, salvation, reconciliation, adoption, redemption, propitiation, triumph over evil powers, sanctification, regeneration, and election, among other topics. All of these words warrant further study, for they color in the story of salvation for us. They are not merely abstract theological words, for we have been declared righteous by the divine Judge, have been rescued from sin, are friends with God, belong to His family, have been freed from the power of sin, have seen God’s wrath satisfied in Christ’s death, have conquered Satan and demons, have been placed into the realm of the holy, have been born again, and have been chosen by God before the world began. Informing the multifaceted description of salvation is the truth that salvation is due to the grace of God. Believers did not obtain salvation on the basis of their obedience or virtue. Salvation is a gift of God granted to those who put their trust in Christ (Eph. 2:8–9).
WHY SALVATION IS NEEDED
The Pauline letters breathe out an atmosphere of praise and thanksgiving because of the wonder of salvation that has been given to believers. Believers are deeply conscious that everything they enjoy has been given to them (1 Cor. 4:7). Their praise is also rooted in a deep realization of the sin that makes them unworthy of God’s grace. Sin is fundamentally a refusal to give thanks and glory to God (Rom. 1:21). Unregenerate human beings don’t give their lives to God, but give their worship and allegiance to the creature rather than the Creator (v. 25). Instead of being God-centered, they are self-centered, and therefore they turn away from God’s lordship over their lives. In other words, sin can be characterized as idolatry.
Sin also manifests itself concretely in the lives of human beings so that it is not a mere abstraction (Rom. 1:24–32). Human life is marked by fornication, adultery, jealousy, anger, murder, strife, dissension, deception, lying, stealing, arrogance, pride, coveting, and failure to obey parents. To put it another way, human beings have failed to keep God’s law. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). God demands perfect obedience, but no one has kept everything commanded by His law (Gal. 3:10; 5:3). By the standard of the law, that is, by the works of the law, no one will be justified before God (Rom. 3:20). The law cannot save, for it reveals the sin of human beings. Remarkably, human beings are prone to boast in their law-obedience even though they are sinners (Rom. 3:28; 4:1–5; 10:1–8; Phil. 3:2–9; Gal. 6:12–13; Eph. 2:8–9). This tendency reveals how deluded and arrogant we human beings are. Faith alone saves, for faith glorifies God because it recognizes that strength and power come from Him alone (Rom. 4:20–21). “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (14:23), for the failure to trust in God indicates a reliance upon the flesh and human potentiality, so that the glory goes to man instead of God.
The sinfulness of human beings is unpacked in Ephesians 2:1–3. Before salvation, human beings are under the control of the world, the flesh, and the Devil. We could say that sin is sociological, psychological, and spiritual. Sociologically, the pressure and the influence of the world summons humans to sin. Psychologically, the desires in the hearts of unbelievers are fleshly and selfish. Spiritually, unbelievers are under the dominion of the Devil and his demons (6:10–19). It is no surprise to learn, therefore, that sinners are enslaved to sin (Rom. 6:6). They have no capacity to submit to God and to keep His law (8:7–8). Human beings are not merely spiritually sick or weak but are “dead in [their] trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Indeed, human beings enter into the world as sons and daughters of Adam. Because of Adam’s one sin, we enter the world spiritually dead and condemned before God (Rom. 5:12–19). Human life is not fundamentally individualistic. All of us are children of Adam, who is our covenantal head, and thus we enter life as those who are guilty before God and without life.
THE PERSON OF CHRIST AND THE HOLY SPIRIT
What Paul says about sin impresses upon us the wonder and glory of the salvation that Christ has accomplished for those who belong to Him. Astonishing redemption must have been the work of an astonishing person, and Paul unpacks for his readers the identity of Jesus Christ. He is the son of David—the Messiah promised in the Old Testament (Rom. 1:3; 2 Tim. 2:8) who fulfills the promises made about the Davidic dynasty (2 Sam. 7; Ps. 89; 132). He is the second Adam, the One who has conquered the sin of the first Adam and clothed His people with His righteousness (Rom. 5:12–19; 1 Cor. 15:21–22). He is the exalted Lord who was glorified and exalted after suffering death for the sake of His people (Phil. 2:6–11). He is the Son of God who shares God’s very nature (Rom. 1:3–4), and therefore shares the same identity as God Himself (Rom. 9:5; Titus 2:13). Jesus the Christ is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15) and is the Creator of all things (Col. 1:16; 1 Cor. 8:6). All of God’s fullness is in Jesus (Col. 1:19; 2:9), and therefore He is preeminent in all things (Col. 1:18).
The Christian life, then, is radically God and Christ-centered. Whatever believers do, even drinking and eating, must be done to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). But another way of expressing this truth is that everything that believers do is done in Jesus’ name, “giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). How do believers live in a way that pleases God? According to Paul, such a life is lived by the power of the Holy Spirit. Believers must be filled with the Spirit to live joyfully and in accord with God’s will (Eph. 5:18). As believers walk in the Spirit, yield to the Spirit, march in step with the Spirit, and sow to the Spirit, they conquer the desires of the flesh (Gal. 5:16, 18, 25; 6:8). The Spirit of the Lord brings freedom (2 Cor. 3:17), so that those who walk in the Spirit do the Lord’s will (Rom. 8:4). Pauline theology, then, is radically Trinitarian—the great salvation that is ours is the work of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.
Believers are not saved in isolation. It was always God’s intention to save a people for His glory—the church of Jesus Christ. Paul emphasizes that the church brings glory to God (Eph. 2:7; 3:10). The church is described as the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27) and as God’s temple (1 Cor. 3:16). It is particularly important to Paul that the church be united. Therefore, he exhorts believers to edify one another when they gather together (Eph. 4:11–16; 1 Cor. 12–14). The Spirit grants gifts to believers so that they can build up and strengthen other believers, not so that they can advertise their own spirituality or giftedness. Both strong and weak believers should consider what is loving and refrain from living to satisfy their own desires and aspirations (1 Cor. 8–10; Rom. 14–15).
A central feature of Pauline theology is eschatology. Eschatology must not be limited to the “last things,” for according to Paul, the last days commenced with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The last days have been inaugurated but not yet consummated in Jesus Christ. Believers, then, live in the interval between the already and not yet. They are already saved but await the fullness of their salvation on the last day (Rom. 5:9). They are redeemed now but await their final redemption—the resurrection of the body (Rom. 8:23; Eph. 1:7). Perfection will not be the portion of believers now since they still have mortal bodies and await final sanctification (Phil. 3:12–16; 1 Thess. 5:23–24). Believers, however, have a certain hope of future salvation. Jesus will come again, and those who trust in Him will be raised from the dead (1 Thess. 4:13–18). Death will be conquered as the last enemy (1 Cor. 15:26), and those who refuse to trust in Christ will face eternal judgment (2 Thess. 1:5–10), while those who trust in Him will experience a joy that never ends.