Misunderstanding Paul

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.”

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8 Responses to Misunderstanding Paul

  1. paulfpavao says:

    The problem is, most of us don’t know what grace is, so what matter is it if we are saved by grace alone? I just finished a booklet on grace, but I really think every Christian needs to know these four passages if they are going to believe “grace alone”: Romans 6:14; Tit. 2:11-14; Heb. 4:16; 1 Pet. 4:10-11 (or Rom. 12:6).

    In addition, they need to be told “grace is not mercy.” They are two different words, and we need both.

  2. Jim says:

    Great post Paul!

    “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.”

    I actually sat in a church service and listened to a reformed pastor say almost exactly that. How one lives on earth just doesn’t really make a difference in eternity. He did say it would make for a better life here on earth.

    The battle cry of the Reformation was “grace alone”. We are so committed to not giving an inch in that battle that we say the dumbest things to try to make sense out of the rest of the N.T.

  3. Anna says:

    I’ve been thinking about that lately. So many passages look different if you think about “entering the kingdom” or other phrases as being about something that happens while alive on Earth, not just about going to heaven or hell. In many cases, it also casts a different light on the question of “Can unbelievers go to heaven?”

    Tied into that is the basic tendency of theologians to look at the Bible and analyze it as a coherent system, a set of abstract terms that describe reality. The idea that the authors are clumsily making up descriptions that try to capture their own experiences seems most of the time to be lost.

    • paulfpavao says:

      I agree with you, but I do want to correct one thing. Usually, when the Scriptures talk about entering or inheriting the kingdom, the context really is after the judgment (e.g., Matt. 25:34; Gal. 5:19-21; 2 Pet. 1:10-11). John 3:3,5 may be an exception, but it also may not be.

      The problem is when we take a phrase like “have been saved” or “have been justified” and we make that into going to heaven. That is where the real problem lies, and it makes the first half of Romans contradict everything else in Scripture when we do that.

      • Anna says:

        Mmm. Looking it over, I think the “entering” the kingdom passages, with the likely exception of Acts 14, are best understood as being first about life on Earth (although the fullness of the Kingdom is only reached in heaven). You may be right about “inheriting” the kingdom passages though; those strongly favor a future tense or context which points at heaven rather than life on Earth. I do also agree that passages about justification are about here-and-now; passages about salvation seem a little more mixed, but are quite often or usually about here-and-now.

        • paulfpavao says:

          As I said on the other comment, I agree with this now. As for “justification” and “salvation” I agree, too. Salvation is a much bigger word; justification more precise.

      • Anna says:

        I am surprised you suggest the John 3:3 passage may or may not be about something that happens while alive on Earth; that whole passage (verses 1-21) seems to me to so eloquently capture the mystery of Christian life.

        • paulfpavao says:

          I have to admit you are right about this. I take back what I said. The issue for me was “entering” the kingdom of heaven, but now I’m thinking you’re right. The part about our inheritance seems to be always future, and “enter,” as make sense, can refer to either entering now or entering after the judgment.

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