Paul Was Actually Pretty Big on Works


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)

And again,

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.


Faith v. Work


If you’ve spent any kind of time in a Western Protestant church, you’ve undoubtedly been taught, intentionally or otherwise, that all of Paul can basically be boiled down to a single simple Latin (Latin?) phrase: Sola fide.  If you’re not into dead languages (which, for some reason, people keep using!), that’s “faith alone,” as in “you have been justified before God by faith alone.”  Put negatively, you have certainly not been justified or saved by your own works.

Sola fide was among the five solae (it’s a Latin-fest!) that emerged in the Protestant Reformation: Sola scriptura (contra papal bulls & church tradition), Sola fide (contra saving indulgences), Sola gratia (Sola fide‘s twin sister), Solus Christus (contra priestly mediators), and Soli Deo gloria (contra the litany of Catholic saints).  They are all five reactions against perceived abuses within the early 16th century (that was 500 years ago!) church in Europe.

Now, Sola fide was originally meant to combat a tendency in which people within the late Medieval church were aiming to rack up good deeds in order to be accepted by God.  Against this, Martin Luther stood on the notion that one was saved by her faith in Christ rather than any accumulation of godly work she might put forward throughout her life.  After all, “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).  The doctrine continues as a central tenet of Protestant churches, as it should.

But there’s a problem.  By virtue of trickle down theology (which is a thing, sort of), Sola fide has transformed, for many in the church, into a do nothing ethic. If faith is all that matters, then really, what does it matter what you do after you believe? And if someone tells you otherwise, that indeed your actions do matter, your internal Sola fide alarm starts screaming, “Warning! Warning! Legalism alert!”

JR Daniel Kirk puts it this way in Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?:

If we tell a story whose lead is played by a human disposition of faith, we will inevitably create introspective communities, devoid of costly reconciliation and lacking in acts of mercy, because faith as a human disposition is a story of faith without the faithfulness of Christ unto death on a cross (89).

Was your church community hyper-introspective?  There was a reason.

But anyway, was this actually Paul’s ethic?  That is, was Paul actually all faith and no works?

Not at all.  In fact, there’s a good argument to be made that justification by grace through faith was neither Paul’s primary message nor original to him.

Rather, Paul’s ethic, as Kirk is keen to point out in his fourth chapter, is entirely based on the model of Christ.  If Paul ever heard from any of the apostles that Jesus had promised they would do the same sorts of things he did and more (Jn 14:12), he must have taken it to heart.  Paul’s ethic was a christological ethic.  Paul was an imitator of Christ.

Perhaps I’ll get into this more in a subsequent post, but Paul’s life work could be summed up in Philippians 3:10-11, which reads, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”

Yeah, this should be a second post.  Stay tuned for more on Paul’s works.

Was the Church Jesus’ Idea or Paul’s?


Among the modern complaints issued against Paul by many who have fallen in love with Jesus is that Paul set about organizing a religion that Jesus never foresaw nor intended. Jesus, they argue, was content to teach his merry band of disciples his own ways of seeing the world and interacting with it. Moreover, Jesus was likely happy to have these same disciples spread his message following his departure. But surely Jesus never envisioned the kind of organized institutions that Paul rampantly established throughout the Mediterranean world in the mid-first century.

Jesus was, like, the hippy spiritualist, but Paul was, like, the Man, man.

The Christian community is JR Daniel Kirk’s focus in the third chapter of his Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? While Kirk argues from the gospels to Paul to support the notion that the communal people of God was central to both Jesus and Paul, I think most believers who are skeptical on this front already recognize a community in Paul’s letters –the church–that they don’t necessarily see in Jesus’ story.

Yet community is absolutely at the core of the Gospel message. Never mind, for the moment, that in Jesus’ mind the second greatest commandment, like, OF ALL TIME was to love others as yourself (Mk 12:31). Instead, let’s focus on just what Jesus was doing with those twelve disciples.

Show up in the inner city playgrounds in America, and round up five athletic boys. Or, if you prefer, appear in a field in West Texas with eleven strapping young men. What have you just done? Depending on your locale and the number of lads in your circle, you have either just created a basketball or football team. And everyone around you knows it.

So when Jesus starts whipping up twelve young Jews to follow him around for a few years, everyone in Palestine knows exactly what he has just created. They were not, unfortunately, a new sports team, but a new nation of Israel (which was probably better in the cosmic salvation-history scheme of things).

From the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus was creating a new community, a new people of God, through whom God’s promises to bless the entire earth would be implemented. To be sure, Jesus had a unique role to platy, which the disciples could not do. But in the wake of his resurrection and ascension, it was up to this intentionally created band to act as their Master had been acting the three years previous.

So perhaps Paul wasn’t completely off his rocker in establishing these outlying church communities throughout the Roman Empire, after all. Perhaps he was simply replicating (albeit among Gentiles) what he knew Jesus had done at the very beginning. He was establishing a people, who collectively could embody the Spirit of their Lord, the Christ, and the God whom that Christ represented.

Paul’s New Creation Is Jesus’ Kingdom of God

Moving ahead in JR Daniel Kirk‘s Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? (I can’t get enough of that title, by the way), the connection is drawn between the Kingdom of God (Jesus’ most popular theme) and New Creation, a major emphasis for Paul.

It doesn’t take long before you’re nodding your head, muttering to yourself, “Of course!”  Think about it.  God creates the whole shebang.  The whole shebang goes sheboom.  And then God’s working to put the pieces back together.  As Jesus is hitting the scene, God is wanting to re-establish His jurisdiction, His kingdom over the whole earth, just as it was before that stupid serpent worked his voodoo on the first couple.  If God is successful at this restoration project, it would be as if creation had started all over again.  sheBam!  New Creation.

There are several elements that Kirk brings forward that I just love.  The first is the notion, being rediscovered all across Christendom, that Jesus’ work is about WAY more than just saving people’s souls for heaven.  The Gospel isn’t simply about saving people from an eternal ethereal torment so they can sit and play harps in the clouds for a really long time.  (Although, think of the callouses you’d develop.)  Yes, the Gospel is about restoring people’s relationship with God, but it also has everything to do with every other material object you see on this earth.

To highlight this, Kirk cites Romans 8.  Never mind the predestination issue tucked in there, Paul weaves together Jesus’ resurrection with the restoration of humanity’s primal purpose, which is to govern faithfully over the creation (ta-da!).  The creation itself will rejoice at the emergence of the sons and daughters of God (Rom 8:19-21).  Why would it rejoice?  Because the sons and daughters of God will cultivate creation, rather than stripping and abusing it.

Jesus did a whole lot more than save you from hell.  And Paul knew it.

Coupled with that, Kirk further highlights the incredibly significant role that humans were always meant to play on the earth.  Among the constant themes in this early part of the book is that humanity, since they are in the image of God, were meant to govern the earth on the Creator’s behalf.  Certainly, we’ve failed, but Jesus models that role and restores it to those who would receive his Spirit.  Therefore, humanity, as sons and daughters of God, have been granted again the mandate and capacity to see through the redemption of the entire creation.

Let me quote Kirk in some length for just a moment:

If new creation is the indispensable goal in general, then the accomplishment of such a creation by means of human agency is just as imperative.  The means God ordained for reigning over the earth was a human vicegerent, and if no human could ever fulfill that calling, then God would have to concede defeat to the powers that oppose God.  In other words, if God has to save directly, without human mediation, evil wins.  Human agency is absolutely essential to God’s fulfilling his purposes in creation (51-52).

If you’ve grown up in a conservative environment that discussed God’s sovereignty as if He were some benevolent dictator – He’ll do what He want whether we’re a part of it or not – then you’re screaming, “Heresy!”  But think it over.  When God created, He put humans on the earth to oversee it (Gen 1:26-28).  If He saves the day without using human agents to accomplish it, evil wins because it will have forced God to reject His creation to save His creation.  But the Lord is committed to every last aspect of His good creation.

The point, you matter, like, a ton in the establishment of this New Creation.

Was Paul Telling the Same Story as the Gospels?

In the realm of New Testament smart people, it’s been a long held belief that Jesus proclaimed the good news of God, while Paul preached a good news of Jesus.  So the smart thinking goes, Paul proclaimed a religion Jesus never intended.  The apparent discrepancy looks legitimate.  Jesus, after all, talked about the Kingdom of God being close at hand.  Paul, however, talked about salvation by calling Jesus Lord (Rom 10:9).

To the average believer confronted with this notion, it seemed a real crisis of faith.  Did Paul really invent Christianity wholesale?  Did Jesus really never envision a formal faith centered on himself?

Turns out, the smart people have been, well, not so smart.

The basic question that drives JR Daniel Kirk‘s first few chapters in Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? is whether Paul is really telling the same story the gospels do.

For the part of the gospels, they are multifaceted stories, telling (1) how Israel’s narrative reaches its climax in their true representative Jesus; (2) how God is reclaiming His jurisdiction over creation in His true representative Jesus; and (3) how the creation itself is restored to wholeness through the true human Jesus.  (You can see more on these themes and others in NT Wright’s How God Became King, which I worked through a year ago, starting here.)

Kirk then does well to demonstrate how Paul uses each of those key gospel themes in his interaction with the churches throughout the Mediterranean.  (1) The churches Paul was building and promoting were, in his mind, extensions of the story of Israel, now that the story had passed through Jesus and the cross (especially in 1 Cor 10).  (2) Jesus, according to Paul, was now Lord over the entire creation by virtue of his resurrection (see Phi 2:5-11).  And (3) Paul clearly recognizes that now, on the other side of the resurrection, a new creation has dawned (1 Cor 5:11-21).

All of this is to say that although Paul doesn’t always use the same language as the gospel writers, Paul is very clearly on the same page thematically, and is working to translate those themes to the new post-resurrection world he traveled.  Paul may have been using different words, but he and the gospels are telling the same rich story.

Who Is Your Paul?

Paul at St. Isaac’s via Wikimedia Commons

In this quest to discover Paul, it’s worth assessing who I thought Paul was in the first place.  That is, what picture of Paul did I carry whenever I approached any of his letters?  Who did I think was writing them and how did that color my perception of Paul?

Towards answering that question, JR Daniel Kirk provides a pretty great list of caricatures that I’ll basically quote entirely (these are taken from the introduction of Kirk’s Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?):

  • Paul the angry Reformed theologian, who delights in the God who takes pleasure in sending huge numbers of people to hell
  • Paul the promoter of internalized Christianity, who leaves saved individuals with little motivation for faithful work or life in community
  • Paul the Neoplatonist, who despises embodied life and the good things of the earth
  • Paul the exclusivist, who undermines Jesus’s missional ministry of indiscriminate embrace
  • Paul the oppressor, who lends his apostolic credentials to narratives of enslavement and domination
  • Paul the judge, whose whole life is lived in contradiction to Jesus’s admonition against judging articulated in the Sermon on the Mount
  • Paul the chauvinist, who doesn’t want anything to do with women–especially not in the ministry of the church and, preferably, not in sexual relationships either
  • Paul the imposer of order, who effectively squelched the Spirit-led worship and life that had characterized Jesus’s first followers

Sound familiar?  I found myself nodding my head at more than a few of these portraits.  It’s no wonder nobody likes Paul!  Yet all of these, writes Kirk, are distortions, which he assures us do not accurately reflect the real apostle.

What about you?  Who is your Paul?  And would you like to find a Paul who looks a little more like Jesus?  That’s what I’m looking for too.

A Quest to Meet Paul

When I left seminary with my degree in hand five (5!) years ago, I felt fairly confident in my grasp of the gospels.  This is in thanks to NT Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, Dr. Scott Hafemann’s remarkable course on the book of Mark, and Dr. Sean McDonough‘s Jesus class.  Without question, I still had (and continue to have) much to learn about the gospels, but I believe I had a decent working knowledge, let’s say.

This has not been the case with Paul.  Although I took courses on Romans and Philippians as a seminarian, I did not leave the academy with a solid basis for understanding the apostle.  My feelings of Pauline inadequacy were likely exacerbated by the fact that I do not hail from a Reformed background and the common atonement theologies associated with Calvinism (and other traditions) never sat well with me.  I’ve never felt they adequately encapsulated Paul or his core message.

But this isn’t a rant against Reformed theology or atonement theories.  Who needs another one of those?  AMIRIGHT?

No, this is a post about a quest to remedy my Pauline deficiencies.  This is why I took WAY too long to finally read EP Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism.  This is why JRD Kirk’s Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? is on my “to read” pile.  This is why I’ve pre-ordered NT Wright’s forthcoming Paul and the Faithfulness of God (coming Nov. 1).  This is why I’ve enrolled in Dr. Laura Nasrallah‘s edX offering, The Letters of the Apostle Paul (beginning in Nov.).

I suppose I’m searching for a narrative behind Paul.  I’m looking for a historical setting to place him.  You see, I’ve never been comfortable reading Paul’s letters as systematic theology, picking out individual sentences or phrases as though Paul were some mystic scribbling eternal aphorisms.  I want to better know his story and the stories of those vibrant and messy churches so I can better understand the one sided correspondence we possess today.

I’m out to get to know Paul.  I’ll try to display him here, as I meet him this autumn.