(This is the second of a three part series. To access part one, click here.)
If Christ and Paul proclaim the same New Testament gospel, why is their teaching about salvation so different?
It’s a simple fact that Jesus in the Gospels focuses more upon the kingdom of God, whereas Paul in his epistles emphasizes justification by faith, as noted in Christianity Today’s online article “Jesus vs. Paul.” “Jesus preached almost exclusively about the kingdom of heaven, while Paul highlighted justification by faith.”
Many understandably find this confusing. Author Scot McKnight suggests a solution: Our starting point should not be with the disputed doctrines themselves (justification on one hand; Christ’s kingdom on the other) but with the story of Jesus as the core of the gospel. McKnight says: “My contention, then, is simple: If we begin with kingdom, we have to twist Paul into shape to fit a kingdom vision. If we begin with justification, we have to twist Jesus into shape to fit justification. But if we begin with gospel, and if we understand gospel as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, then we will find what unifies Jesus and Paul—that both witness to Jesus as the center of God’s story. The gospel is the core of the Bible, and the gospel is the story of Jesus.”
Fine so far: Jesus is the center of God’s story, and the gospel is the story of Jesus. But I don’t think McKnight is getting to the bottom of the apparent disparity between the soteriology of the Savior and that of the apostle.
Let’s consider a further remedial suggestion: The key to resolving the dilemma of Jesus vs. Paul is found in the common denominator of their teaching. In a word, “life.”
Jesus and Paul both have much to say about life vs. death as the bottom line of being saved or lost. Let’s start with the teaching of Jesus. In what seems like a mission statement, He announces: “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). He also differentiates Himself from the devil, who comes in “to kill and destroy.” Christ’s saving gift of life comes through not only in His public teaching but also in private evangelistic conversations. To Nicodemus He declares that whoever believes in Him would be born again into eternal life (John 3:3, 16). Next we find Him offering the woman at the well living water springing up into eternal life (John 4:14). Then He promises that whoever believes in Him will not come into judgment but has passed from death into life (John 5:24). Later He describes Himself as “the bread of life” (6:48), “the resurrection and the life” (11:35) and “the way, the truth and the life” (14:6).
Again and again we see Jesus teaching salvation in the context of life vs. death. And the same is true of the apostle Paul, for whom “the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life (Rom. 6:23). Justification by faith is “unto life” (Romans 5:18).
This theme of life in Christ being victorious over death in sin resounds throughout the heart of the book of Romans. In chapters 3 through 8 we find life or death mentioned nearly three times as often* as the justification vs. condemnation model that evangelicals traditionally ascribe to Paul.
This seems astonishing, given the dominant emphasis that evangelicals traditionally ascribe to forgiveness vs. guilt in Paul’s epistles. Of course sinners are guilty, but guilt is a subset of death, which is our fundamental problem as sinners. Other mortal cousins of guilt are shame, alienation, lust, pride, greed, gossip, sloth, ad nauseam—all of them citizens of death’s dark tomb. And together they were conquered by the life and death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, “the prince of life” (Acts 3:15).
Paul, by the way, is not shy about using kingdom language in proclaiming his soteriology of life in Christ. We “reign in life” through Jesus Christ (verse 17); just as sin once reigned in death, grace now reigns through righteousness unto eternal life through Jesus (verse 21).
What’s the bottom line of all this? Salvation is ultimately a matter of life vs. death—for Paul as well as Jesus. Thus the purported conflict between the soteriology of Paul and Jesus is a phantom dilemma. It is a crisis that evangelicals have created for themselves, not a problem of the New Testament.
More on this in part three.
*Life vs. death terminology is mentioned 64 times, in contrast to only 23 uses of justification vs. condemnation language (including the various forms of each word: justify, justified, justifying; life, live, alive; death, dying, died, etc.).
Second of three parts of an article posted on this website.