I wrote a post on mortal and venial sins two days ago. I got a great comment from “Jody,” which included a suggestion that “this may explain why some people accused Paul of preaching an ‘anything goes’ type message.”
I think there’s a better explanation.
I think it is fair to say that almost across the board evangelicals, as I believe most of my readers are, equate salvation/justification with “going to heaven.” That being the case, it follows naturally from much of what Paul says in the first few chapters of Romans that “heaven is a free gift.” If heaven is a gift that is “apart from works,” then Paul did preach an “anything goes” type message.
We can argue that Paul’s message wasn’t an “anything goes” message because he strongly promoted righteousness (e.g. Rom. 6:13), but if heaven is a free gift, apart from works, then righteousness is optional. Anything really does go.
The problem is, evangelicals are wrong. Salvation/justification is not equivalent to going to heaven. That is why Paul can say we are justified apart from works (Rom. 3:28), yet go on to tell us that inheriting the kingdom of God requires avoiding sin (e.g., Eph. 5:5). That is also why Paul can say we are justified apart from works and James can say we are not justified apart from works (Jam. 2:24). That is why Paul can say we are justified apart from works, and Jesus can say only those who feed the hungry will inherit the kingdom (Matt. 25:31-46).
The Jews in Rome in Paul’s day, the ones who would have accused him of an “anything goes” gospel (Rom. 3:8), were not focused on “going to heaven” like evangelicals are. They already had an idea of justification as being a good citizen of God’s nation, Israel, in this life. That good standing required doing something. For most first-century Jews it was tied up in four things: circumcision, the Sabbath and feasts, sacricifes, and kosher foods.
Paul was telling Gentiles they needed to do none of these things. All they needed to do was believe, repent, and be baptized, and boom, they were in; they were good members of the kingdom of God here on earth without being circumcised or changing what they eat! Horrifying!
None of that, however, was about “going to heaven.” It was about right standing with God, right here, right now, in God’s kingdom on earth.
That’s why everything Paul says in the first few chapters of Romans is in the past tense. We were justified apart from those works of the Law of Moses. That’s done. We’re in. We’re born again, and we’re members of the kingdom of God based purely on believing the Gospel proclamation of a new King, the Lord Jesus. No works, just faith.
Paul only speaks in the future tense a couple times in the first part of Romans. In Romans 2:5-8 he mentions the future judgment, and works are right at the forefront. In fact, he says God is going to give eternal life to those who “patiently continue to do good.”
The second time he speaks in the future tense the “works” are not as easy to see. In Romans 5:9-10, Paul writes:
Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.
Here both things are in view. We are already justified and reconciled. This happened by Jesus’ blood and Jesus’ death. However, there is still a judgment coming, a judgment according to works, and the salvation from wrath needed at that judgment is provided not by his death, but by his life.
Paul explains in the next chapter that we died to sin in baptism and rose again to newness of life in King Jesus. Just as Paul did not live by his own life anymore (Gal. 2:20), so we put off the old man and put on the King to live a life of righteousness in him.
In this way, Jesus saves us by his life. Our good works are done by the power of his life—his Spirit—in us.
Most evangelicals are familiar with Galatians 6:7-8, where Paul tells us that there is punishment (death) for sowing to the flesh and reward (eternal life) for sowing to the Spirit. They are not so familiar with the next verse, where sowing to the Spirit is described as “do not grow weary in doing good.”
Evangelicals have taken the things Paul said about our “having been saved” and tried to apply it to our “shall be saved.” We shall be saved by his life. Sow to the Spirit, Paul says, and you shall, in the future, reap eternal life. To get his life, so that you can sow to the Spirit, you did (in the past) nothing but believe. He forgives, redeems, renews, and makes holy completely apart from works, based on faith.
That does not change the fact that there is a judgment waiting for all of us. It is impartial, and it is according to works, and Christians and non-Christians alike are warned of it (e.g., 2 Cor. 5:10-11; 1 Pet. 1:17).
Thus we see the real reason that Paul was accused by first-century Jews of teaching an “anything goes” gospel and why evangelicals misinterpret him as preaching an “anything goes” gospel. The Jews could not understand how Gentile Christians could gain good standing (justification/righteousness) in God’s kingdom without circumcision, kosher food, Sabbaths and feasts, and sacrifices. Evangelicals have no concept of the difference between justification and “going to heaven.”