Among our most oft quoted Paulisms is Ephesians 2:8-9. ”For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast.” ”By grace alone have we been saved!” we proclaim. ”And also by God’s grace!” we joyfully add. ”We are the furthest possible thing from legalistic!” we cry.
But you still have to do stuff.
Well of course you do. You still have to live life. And this, really, is what is so beneficial and relatively new about Paul’s contributions to the world of faith–his ethic.
There’s a fascinating passage in 2 Corinthians in which Paul actually does plenty of boasting. It seems that there were plenty of questions surrounding Paul’s authority in Corinth. Some other more glitzy teachers had rolled through the city and the young Christians were wondering whether Paul was actually legit. What were his credentials to be telling us what to do?
So Paul brags a bit about his background:
What anyone else dares to boast about–I am speaking as a fool–I also dare to boast about. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more (2 Cor 11:21b-23a).
So far, these are things we might expect a Jewish believer to brag about. These are all noteworthy credentials. But Paul goes on in an unusual direction.
I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn (2 Cor 11:23b-29)?
In a lengthy paragraph Paul goes on and on not about his victories or the miracles wrought at his hands, but he boasts of his embarrassments. From any normal perspective, these are precisely the opposite of what one might brag about so as to show their worth.
Finally, Paul wraps up the section with the highlight of his career.
If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying. In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands (2 Cor 11:30-33).
When Paul was trapped within the walled city of Damascus, he weaseled his way out rather than stand to face his enemies in a noble and confrontation. One might call this prudent, many others would call it cowardly. I am the opposite of a great man, Paul is saying. And ultimately, he does it for one reason.
Paul’s one goal in life is to continue living the life that Christ had lived previously. That may mean many things: healing the sick, raising the dead, casting out demons, etc. But it also means that Paul is on the same trajectory that led Christ to be beaten and abused and, finally, crucified. Paul desires for the cross to define his life and work.
The cross is Paul’s ethic.
I turn to JR Daniel Kirk again.
[A Christian ethic] is not about obeying some sort of ever-existent “moral law”; it is not about finding what is good and valuable in our society and excelling there; it is not about successful church growth and marketing. No, Christian ethics or spirituality is about living out our foundational narratives in the communities we have been joined to as followers of Jesus. We are to be living stories of the crucified Christ” (Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?, 87)
The point of Pauline ethics is not that we accept Jesus and then follow a list of rules. The point of Pauline ethics is, instead, that we become the kind of people who can faithfully express our corporate narrative of a crucified and risen King (88).
If Paul were to say it today, he might say it this way, “If someone can’t look at you and reasonably mistake you for Jesus–the same Jesus who both wrought the miraculous and went willingly to his own execution–then you’re doing it wrong.” Though it might seem obvious, Christians are meant to be Jesus people. And those are the works Paul endorsed.