Does Paul agree with Jesus about salvation?

Ted Grimsrud—December 23, 2011

Jesus’ approach to salvation was simple—he bypassed the sacrificial system and offered direct forgiveness. He answered a direct question about how to inherit eternal life by reiterating what he believed was the essence of the law and prophets: love God and neighbor. He told an amazing story about a terribly sinful son who is welcomed by his father back into the family simply by returning home.

In other words, if we take our cues from Jesus himself, we should not be investing his death with the kind of meaning that sees in his death the one necessary sacrifice that might satisfy God and enable God to bring salvation about. To the contrary, Jesus echoes the prophets by insisting that God operates according to the logic of mercy, not the logic of sacrifice, payback, reciprocity, and punishment. According to Jesus, God’s justice is restorative not retributive.

But what about Christianity’s greatest interpreter of Jesus’ message, Paul the Apostle? How compatible is Paul’s understanding of salvation with Jesus? Do we have to choose between the two? I think not. In this, my third post on salvation (the first was “Does Jesus’ death have meaning?” and the second was “Jesus’ death and my salvation”), I will make that case that Paul was faithful and accurate to Jesus’ main message (with the implication that later Christianity has actually misread Paul).

Like his Jesus and the prophets, Paul understands salvation in terms of God’s merciful intention to bring healing to a broken world.  Paul does not present salvation in terms of retributive justice or a mechanistic view of God’s holiness and honor.  Salvation, for Paul, is a gift of a relational God who seeks to free humanity from its self-destructive bondage to the powers of sin and death.

Romans 1–3

Paul’s most extended argument related to salvation comes in the first three chapters of his letter to the Romans. I will focus on that argument as a reliable statement about the core of his thought. Paul’s discussion of salvation here begins and ends with affirmations that justice and salvation go together and their meaning has been revealed to humanity through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Let’s first consider the opening and closing comments in this passage.

In 1:16-17, Paul offers a thesis statement, both for the argument that concludes in 3:31 and for his letter as a whole: For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith and also to the Gentile. For in it the righteousness [or justice] of God is revealed through faith for faith [i.e., from God’s faithfulness to human faithfulness]. As it is written, ‘the one who is righteous [just] will live by faith [faithfulness]. “To everyone who has faith” probably means, in effect, “to everyone who is faithful.” Paul has in mind a way of life that encompasses trust in God, belief in the content of Torah and the gospel of Jesus Christ, and faithful living—an entire way of life that imitates the way of Jesus in his ministry. I prefer “justice” to “righteousness” (and, then, also, “injustice,” “just,” and “justification”) partly because consistency in translating these terms helps us discern the development of Paul’s argument better than if we use the terms more common in recent translations (“righteousness,” “wickedness,” and “justification”) that obscure the direct connection among these various concepts in Paul’s argument.

Then, after setting out the problems to which the gospel speaks, the nature of salvation God provides, and the universality of the human need for salvation, Paul concludes his argument in this section at 3:21-31 with a sense of resolution—emphasizing the role Jesus plays bringing salvation:

But now, apart from [works of the] law, the righteousness [justice] of God has been disclosed and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness [justice] through faith in Jesus Christ [i.e., the faithfulness of Jesus Christ] for all who believe [i.e., are faithful].  For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified [i.e., made whole] by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement [i.e., a self-sacrifice enabling reconciliation] by his blood, effective through faith [faithfulness].  He did this to show his righteousness [justice], because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous [just] and that he justifies [i.e., makes whole] the one who has faith in Jesus [i.e., shares in the faithfulness of Jesus]. Paul’s reference to the “law” here in 3:21 echoes what he has just written in 3:20 that human beings will not be justified “by deeds prescribed by the law”—which is most likely a reference to the exclusivist, legalistic, and self-righteous approach to core commands by the “law-abiders” Paul has thoroughly critiqued beginning in Romans 2:1. I prefer “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ” over “faith in Jesus Christ” because it makes better sense in the context of Paul’s logic here to understand that what is crucial is how Jesus himself embodied the life of faithfulness—and is our model for what the life of God’s justice looks like.  Jesus’ faithfulness makes it possible for his followers to be faithful. “Justice,” “just,” and “justify” are relational and restorative terms more than legalistic, forensic, and impersonal terms.  The justified person in Paul’s accounting is a person who has been made whole through trusting in and following after Jesus, finding healing from brokenness, alienation, and injustice (as Paul himself had)—not a person “declared” innocent or worthy of God’s love as a legal fiction.

Idolatry: The problem that Paul analyzes

So, precisely what problem does Paul believe humanity needs to be saved from?  The term he uses most often in our passage is “sin.”  From a careful reading of Romans 1:18–3:20, we may find at the heart of the sin problem for Paul the dynamic of idolatry, people giving ultimate loyalty to entities other than God.  Paul describes two distinct kinds of idolatry here.

These may be characterized as the idolatry of the nations and the idolatry of the covenant people—or, we could say using Paul’s language here, the idolatry of the Gentiles and the idolatry of the Jews.  Both types of idolatry put something in the place of the merciful God Paul has learned to serve through his linking his life with the faithfulness of Jesus.  This idolatry, in both cases, produces injustice and violence.

Paul analyzes how people move from the rejection of truth to lack of gratitude to trust in created things to out of control lust to injustice and violence.  This dynamic itself manifests “wrath”—not direct intervention by God but God “giving them up” to a self-selected spiral of death. We should understand “wrath” in relation to the gospel.  “Wrath” refers to how God works in indirect ways to hold human beings accountable, “giving them up” to the consequences of their giving their loyalty to realities other than life and the giver of life.

In 1:17 we have the saving “revelation” of God’s justice.  In the next verse, we have the suppression of truth that leads to the “revelation” of God’s wrath.  With “justice,” people see created things for what they are (pointers to the creator), not as false gods worthy of ultimate loyalty.  Such sight leads to life.  With “wrath,” the act of giving loyalty to created things results in truth being suppressed and a spiral of lifelessness.

The “revelation” of God’s wrath (1:18) concerns God giving those who trust in idols up to descent into self-destructive behavior (1:24).  People make an “exchange.”  They trade their humanity as God’s children for “images” that resemble created things.  This trade leads to an exchange of justice for wrath that leads to an exchange of justice for injustice. This exchange need not happen.  God has shown the world what is needed (1:19-20).  However, when human beings exchange “the glory of God” for images that resemble created things they lose their ability to discern God’s revelation.

When created things are worshiped they no longer reveal the God who stands behind them and gives them their meaning.  The paradigmatic expression of this dynamic for Paul is how inter-human love—which indeed reveals God in profound ways—comes to be reduced to lust, and relationships become unjust, broken, contexts for alienation.

Paul writes that “for this reason” (1:26) God gave those consumed by lust (the “lusters”) “up to degrading passions.”  When they exchange trust in God for worship of created things, the lusters are led into “unnatural” behavior.  What is unnatural is when intimate human relationships become occasions for death and alienation instead of life and wholeness.

Paul may have in mind the recent history of the Roman emperor’s court and its sexual behavior that had scandalized many.  When the emperor Caligula went down, many understood this to be an act of cosmic vindication. Paul sees lust as the problem because it diminishes humanness, reflects worship of “degrading passions” rather than God, distorts the revelation of God in the human, and fosters injustice.

In 1:28, Paul once more refers to the dynamic where “God gives them up,” in this case to a “debased mind.”  They can’t see reality as it is.  The revelation of God’s love becomes wrath for them rather than whole-making justice.  When people trust in things other than God, their ability to think and perceive and see and discern is profoundly clouded.

Paul refers to “things that should not be done” that result from “the debased mind” that follows from “God giving them up” (1:28), pointing ahead to 1:29-31’s wide-ranging description of the injustice and violence of those who trust in creation rather than the creator—paradigmatically, the Empire’s leaders.

In this discussion of idolatry in 1:18-32, Paul wants his readers to see their would-be Benefactors (the rulers of the Empire) as God’s rivals. The Benefactors claim to act on behalf of the gods and for the sake of “peace” (they use terms such as “Good News,” “Savior,” and “Peace of Rome”).  They desire people’s trust and loyalty. These Benefactors are actually unjust and violent.  Rome’s “peace” is actually based on the sword—it is a counterfeit peace.

When people worship “created things,” the progression moves inexorably toward injustice—suppression of truth (1:18), refusal to give thanks to God (1:21), darkened minds (1:21), the exchange of God’s glory for images (1:23), being “given up” to degrading lusts (1:24), the worship of the creature rather than creator (1:25), degrading passions (1:26), shameless acts (1:27), debased minds (1:28), and profound injustice and violence (1:29-31).

The Powers replace God as the center of people’s lives and as the objects of worship.  In doing so, they so distort people’s minds so that instead of recognizing that those who practice such injustice deserve judgment people instead “applaud” their unjust Benefactors (1:32).

Idolatry II: Works of the Law

Paul now adds a critique of the way people in the covenant community embrace idolatry in relation to the law. I will use the term “works of the law” for what Paul criticizes here—in distinction to Torah in and of itself, which Paul (like Jesus) embraces.

Paul’s use of the term “works of the law” in Galatians 2:16 (“We know that a person is justified, not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ”) helps us distinguish between Paul’s critique of how the law was being understood among his opponents and Paul’s own affirmation of the continuing validity of the law (Romans 13:9: “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’”). Paul himself, as Saul the Pharisee, before he met Jesus, had, in his persecution of Jesus’ followers, made an idol of works of the law in a way that made him just as guilty of injustice as the leaders of the Roman Empire.

Paul’s concern in 1:18-32 centers on idolatry and the need to be free from the bondage idolatry fosters.  If one points fingers at other idolaters while denying one’s own tendency to worship idols, however, one will never find such freedom.  Hence, “the very same things” (2:1) that those who point fingers (the “judgers”) are guilty of are themselves forms of idolatry. Paul experienced his own exchange—God for the boundary markers that required a violent defense.  Paul’s “degrading passions” were not sexual but ideological—and led to the same result, violence. The judgers mistakenly believe that in condemning the idolatry of 1:18-32 while remaining idolaters themselves they have God on their side.  In claiming that their judging accords with “truth” (2:2), the judgers actually align themselves with the “debased minds” who worship the creation rather than the creator and in doing so actually suppress the truth (1:18).

Paul makes affirmations about God in 2:4 that oppose all forms of idolatry.  The antidote to idolatry is recognition of God’s unconditional and abundant mercy.  God’s kindness comes first, then comes repentance. When Paul writes of “God’s righteous judgment” in 2:5 he uses the same terms translated as “God’s decree” in 1:32.  The “decree” is what the lusters know but ignore in their injustice.  The “judgment” is what will be revealed to the judgers “on the day of wrath.”  This parallel usage implies that the injustices of 1:29-31 and the judging of 2:1-2 are the same kind of phenomena; both blind people to God’s authentic justice.

Paul associates “sin,” a term he introduces in 2:12, with the idolatry he describes.  He sets out the basic dynamic in 1:21: sin and idolatry arise when people live without trust and gratitude, become futile in their thinking and darkened in their minds, practicing injustice and the moving toward lifelessness.  “Sinning under the law” (2:12) seems basically to mean making an idol of some rule or other and using it to underwrite injustice (as with Saul the Pharisee).

Paul argues that the law itself is not the problem.  He affirms in 2:14 that some Gentiles “do the law” even while ignorant of the written Torah.  They do it “naturally,” the idea linking back to Paul’s allusion in 1:18-32 that it is unnatural to worship the creature, to be ungrateful, to practice injustice, and to exchange the creature for the creator.

The faithfulness or justness or authentic obedience of Gentiles who do not know the written Torah shows that “what the law requires is written on their hearts” (2:15: to trust God, to live in gratitude, to do justice).  This comment echoes Paul’s earlier affirmation that “ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made” (1:20).

The universality of the dominance of sin

Paul does insist that we are “all” under the power of sin (3:9), but in saying this he is not so much asserting that each individual is (he has clearly stated that some do keep the law) as arguing that the Jews and Gentiles are equally liable to be under the power of sin (equally likely to be either lusters or judgers).

As bad as the idolatry of those who use Torah to justify sacred violence was, Paul makes clear here that this expression of sin is matched by the sin of the idolaters who give their loyalty to the Roman Empire.  People in both categories, Jew and Gentile, are all under the power of sin.  Paul underscores this point in 3:10-18 with a series of scriptural proof texts that lay out the universality of bondage to the power of sin.  This bondage creates the basic problem that humanity—Jew and Gentile—need salvation from. The true law exposes the sins of us all.  It helps us see when we exchange love for neighbors with trust in idols.  At such times, instead of practicing justice we instead practice injustice and violate God’s will for our lives.  This problem characterizes Jews and Gentiles alike.

Paul’s logic here follows this path: humanity is trapped in bondage to systems of injustice that claim to be our Benefactors and agents of God’s will.  This claim is false; such systems (be they Roman or Jewish) enslave rather than liberate.  We choose this bondage when we ignore God’s kindness and respond to what God does for us with ingratitude rather than gratitude.  This ingratitude toward God is manifested in human beings worshiping created things rather than the Creator.  This worship of created things may involve empire idolatry or it may involve Torah legalism and violent protection of the boundary lines of the religious institution.

The resolution: Justice apart from works of the Law

Paul ends his critique by stating that justification will not happen based on “works of the law” (3:20).  It will not be circumcision nor zealotry in defense of the standards of the covenant community nor the proclamation of one’s identity as an Israelite nor ritual purity and over-againstness vis-à-vis Gentiles that will resolve the problem. Nor, of course, will it be citizenship in the Roman Empire.

The resolution has to do with the justice of God, going back to the beginning of Paul’s argument where he proclaims that the justice of God is revealed in the gospel of salvation (1:16-17).  God’s justice is not something to fear or to counter-pose to God’s mercy.  It makes whole, bringing salvation as a gift.  In relation to the problem Paul has described, we could see God’s justice as God’s initiative to liberate human beings from bondage to the powers of sin.

This justice has been disclosed. God has disclosed or revealed the truth—the very thing idolaters suppress (1:18).  God will not be deterred by human obstinacy.  Humanity needs a breakthrough that will empower us to see the truth of God.  In seeing this truth, humanity will be able to understand God truly, the human situation truly, and creation truly—all bound together by God’s love.

This disclosure that Paul will describe “is attested by the law and prophets.”  This helps us understand Paul’s intentions.  He puts his understanding of the gospel in continuity with the biblical story. Paul fully affirms Torah (when properly understood as a gift from God calling for love of neighbor and not as a basis for sacred violence).  The contrast that he has in mind, then, does not center on a contrast between “Judaism” and “Christianity” or a contrast between Torah and mercy.  Rather, Paul means to contrast gratitude and wrath, to contrast justice and injustice.  Torah as properly understood sides with gratitude and justice over against wrath and injustice. The “disclosure” that Paul will now turn to, then, does not disclose a new economy of salvation over against the old economy of the Old Testament.  Rather, the disclosure reiterates what has been disclosed from the start.

The justice of God is seen in Jesus’ faithfulness (3:22).  Jesus discloses the true nature of God, the path to life, and the agenda of the Powers that seek to separate humanity from God’s love (Romans 8:38-39).  Jesus’ faithfulness breaks the illusions that make idolatry possible (both in relation to Empire and in relation to Torah-legalism).  The contrast could not be greater for those with eyes to see.  Jesus’ path led to his being accused, condemned, and executed by the leaders of the Empire in Jerusalem and the leaders of the religious institutions—all of whom claimed to be Benefactors but turned out to be tyrants (see Mark 10:42-45).

God’s justice disclosed through Jesus brings salvation “for all who believe.”  What Paul refers to here is not so much doctrinal assent as the connection of heart and soul with Jesus and his way. Those “who believe” are those who see Jesus and God for who they are, who see the Powers for what they are, and who commit their lives to the path of justice set out in Jesus’ life and enabled now by the presence of Jesus’ Spirit.

This healing justice is made available to everyone “without distinction” since everyone needs it (“all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” 3:23).  The point here, again, is not about every single individual.  Rather, Paul emphasizes that neither “citizenship” in the Empire nor in ethnic Israel saves anyone—both communities are in bondage to the power of sin, as seen in their dependence upon injustice and violence to sustain their boundary lines and identity.

The key point in this passage, though, is what follows: “all…are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (3:24).  Paul earlier asserted the universality of bondage to sin in order now to assert the universality of liberation from this bondage.  Just as God called Abraham and Sarah as a gift, just as God liberated the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt as a gift, just God gave Torah as a gift, just as God sustained the promise through exile as a gift, so too now Paul reminds his readers of God’s mercy through the ministry of Jesus Christ as a gift—a gift that brings redemption from bondage to the power of sin.

Paul emphasizes that God initiates the needed liberation—strictly out of God’s mercy.  Just as God “put forward” Moses and freed the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, Paul asserts that God “put forward” Jesus to free Jew and Gentile alike from enslavement to the power of sin.  God is not the recipient of this act but the doer of it.  In no way, according to Paul’s argument, does the liberation come from God’s own retributive justice.  Rather, the liberation comes as a gift that a merciful God gives as an expression of God’s restorative justice.

God puts Jesus forward as a “sacrifice of atonement” (3:25).  What does Paul mean by “sacrifice of atonement” (Greek: hilasterion)?  The meaning of this term continues to be highly contested.  Let’s just point here to some points about the broader context of Paul’s thought (with the assumption that his meaning here is not to be determined by focusing on this one isolated term).  God is responsible for this saving action, the one who offers the sacrifice (not the one who receives it).

How is Jesus a “sacrifice”?  Not as a blood offering to appease God’s anger or honor or holiness but as one who freely devoted his own life to persevering in love all the way to the end.  Thus, the “sacrifice” should be understood as Jesus’ self-sacrifice expressed in faithful living, his way of being in the world.  How does Jesus’ self-sacrifice act as an “atonement”?  Jesus’ self-sacrifice reveals God’s saving justice (that is, God’s mercy) that is available to everyone (Jew first and also Gentile) with eyes to see and responsive hearts.

The “atonement” (at-one-ment, reconciliation) is not a sacrifice to God that satisfies God’s neediness (that God is not needy for sacrifices has been established back with Psalm 50).  The “atonement” illumines the truth that humanity has suppressed (Romans 1:18), truth that helps (or allows) sinners to see God’s welcoming mercy clearly.  This illumination makes “one-ment” with God possible—not from God’s side (God has always welcomed sinners) but from the human side (when we see accurately we will be freed from our fearfulness toward God that leads to ingratitude and trusting in idols instead of God).

The “sacrifice of atonement” is given “by Jesus’ blood” (3:25).  What does “blood” signify here?  Does God after all need a blood-sacrifice to satisfy God’s anger or honor or retributive justice or sense of “evenness”?  Hardly.  Since God never did need or even desire such a sacrifice, it is impossible to imagine that Paul has such a sacrifice in mind here.

The Old Testament makes it clear that God does not need offerings—God is not “hungry.” Rather, the need for offerings rests on the human side.  Offerings are necessary to concretize for the human imagination the reality of God’s mercy and the expectations God has for life lived in light of that mercy.

Jesus himself made it clear that God desires works of mercy not ritual sacrifices that take the place of such works (see his quotes of Hosea in Matthew 9:13 and 12:7, “I desire mercy not sacrifice” and his actions of by-passing the sacrificial temple system with his direct offer of forgiveness).

So, then, what does Paul mean by “blood” here?  It seems to symbolize Jesus’ life of self-giving, giving to the point of being killed by the Powers.  This “self-sacrifice” by “blood” is “effective through faithfulness” Paul states (3:25).  That is, Jesus’ faithfulness makes the sacrifice as he faithfully devotes his life to love of God and neighbor; our faithfulness in “taking up our cross” links us with Jesus’ self-sacrificial way of life and, hence, with his path of freedom from bondage to the powers of sin.

God “did this” (i.e., “put forward Jesus”) to show God’s justice.  Our sense of what Paul means here, of how “putting forward Jesus” expresses God’s justice, will be determined by how we define “justice” in this broader Romans passage.  Notice that in 1:16-17, Paul links the revelation of God’s justice directly with the bringing of salvation.  Here in 3:21-24, Paul links the disclosure of God’s justice directly with sinners being justified (made whole, saved) by God’s grace.

Clearly, the revelation of God’s justice in Jesus has to do with God’s healing and restorative work.  So, God “put forward Jesus” out of love in order to heal—not out of rigid holiness that requires a violent sacrifice in order to satisfy God’s honor or turn away God’s anger.  Jesus’ work expresses restorative justice, not retributive justice.  This “showing of God’s justice” leads to the direct consequence of reconciliation between former human enemies (Jew and Gentile) and between human and divine enemies (see Romans 5:1-10).

Because God’s mercy serves as the basis for salvation, we have no basis for “boasting” (3:27).  By “boasting,” Paul has in mind the kinds of attitudes and behaviors that characterized his own life as a judger (or, we could say, a law-idolater).  These included exclusivist attitudes, practicing sacred violence, and self-righteousness about his ethnic and religious identity.  These were possible because of a sense of superiority that is absolutely contrary to the appropriate response to God’s mercy shown to sinners (which include Jews first but also Gentiles).

The “boasting” that is excluded here followed directly from trusting in works of the law.  These works are the opposite of faithful works—boundary maintenance with “necessary” violence as opposed to love of neighbor (friend and enemy).  The law that excludes boasting is the “law of faith” (or, we could say, the law of faithful acts of love and generosity).  The contrast Paul makes here has to do not with a distinction between ethics and belief (“works” vs. “faith”) but between exclusivism and inclusive, healing, restorative justice.

Paul offers an important summary statement that requires careful unpacking in light of what we have seen as his message in Romans 1–3: “A person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (3:28).  By “justified by faith” Paul means how we are made whole through faithfulness.  This faithfulness involves trusting in Jesus in such a way that one commits oneself to following Jesus’ way of life.  The desire and ability to follow this way of life come from having hearts transformed by God’s love.  By “apart from works prescribed by the law” Paul means apart from the boundary marking idolatrous legalism that appropriates Torah for nationalistic and exclusivistic purposes that lead to injustice and sacred violence.

Paul concludes that God justifies (makes whole) in only one way (3:30).  God justifies on the ground of faithfulness.  This is true for circumcised and uncircumcised alike (a point emphasized in Paul’s discussion of Abraham’s justification in chapter four).  The emphasis on one method for justification reiterates what Paul wrote earlier: Justification is offered by God’s justice apart from the law but attested to by the law and prophets (3:21).  Justification has to do with faithfulness (Jesus’ and his followers’), not with ethnic identity, relation to the Empire, a punitive sacrifice, or doctrinal belief.

Justification and salvation are about a living relationship with God that is manifested in love of neighbor.  Paul makes this affirmation perfectly clear in 13:8-10 where he again presents himself as summarizing Torah.  Jesus famously, of course, already made this understanding perfectly clear when he responded to the question about how we attain eternal life with the reiteration of Torah and the prophets: love God with your entire being and love your neighbor at yourself (Luke 10:25-28).  For Paul in Romans, the embodiment of this saving commitment to love finds its paradigmatic expression in the social wholeness of reconciled Jew and Gentile in the community of faith.

Paul’s final comment in our passage is to once more emphasize that the saving faithfulness he understands the gospel to be centered on does not stand over against Torah.  It is not even in tension with Torah.  This saving faithfulness is precisely what Torah itself calls for.  With this faithfulness, “we uphold Torah” (3:31).

God’s saving justice

Paul makes very clear, in full continuity with the rest of the Bible, that the salvation he describes comes to humanity due to God’s initiative.  As Paul presents God here, God has no need for appeasement or satisfaction prior to revealing God’s healing mercy—the mercy exists without limit and is given unconditionally.  God is the actor in the process of salvation, not the recipient.  We see no hint here of anything being needed on God’s side of the human/divine relationship as a precondition for God’s saving work.

So, the “justice of God” that stands at the center of Paul’s theology of salvation clearly from start to finish is restorative justice, not retributive justice.  God seeks to help humanity see God’s true nature, creation’s true nature, as merciful.  God breaks through idolatry’s blinding dynamics in the witness of Jesus—seeking to convey to any with eyes to see and ears to hear that God’s welcome remains unconditional for all who turn toward it.

Paul adds no new spin to the Bible’s salvation story.  He reiterates what the call of Abraham, the exodus, the gift of Torah, the sustenance of the community in exile, and the message of Jesus have all (in harmony with one another) expressed: God is merciful and offers empowerment for just living for all who embrace that mercy and let it transform their lives.

God’s mercy frees people from bondage to the Powers.  Such freedom empowers people of faith to experience transformation themselves and to be agents for others transformed living—moving from injustice and violence toward genuine wholeness and shalom.  And, Paul confirms God’s healing strategy as seen in Genesis 12 and witnessed to throughout the story wherein those human beings who trust in God’s way of wholeness embrace the vocation to be witnesses to this wholeness and thereby bless all the families of the earth.

Paul’s distinctive contribution to the biblical salvation story lies in his powerful portrayal of the problem of idolatry both in the Empire and in the faith community.  He witnesses, based on his own life, to the transforming power of God’s mercy embodied in the ministry of Jesus—and sustained in the presence of the Spirit of the risen Jesus Christ among the community of his people.  Just as Paul, walking in the Spirit of the risen Christ, now powerfully practices shalom-making despite his earlier career of extreme and blasphemous violence, so too may all others who accept the disclosure of God’s justice in Jesus (and not in Caesar and not in works of the Law).

[A more detailed version of this essay may be found here.]

3 thoughts on “Does Paul agree with Jesus about salvation?

  1. Language. What a troublesome thing it is. Two examples from your essay, Ted:
    1.) “To everyone who has faith” probably means, in effect, “to everyone who is faithful.” 2.) “By “justified by faith” Paul means how we are made whole through faithfulness.”
    At practically every turn, we need to INTERPRET Paul’s words. As though we just don’t get it. The vocabulary is obviously too complex for us. After all, Paul was writing a theological treatise. (That last sentence is intended as irony.)
    The surprising thing is that there are many other passages which NEVER have needed this interpretive calisthenics! “Sell all that you have and give to the poor.” “Love your enemies. What good is it if you love only your friends? Even the evil ones do that.” Such sentences don’t need interpretation in the sense of EXPLAINING THE VOCABULARY, even if it remains contentious, what ‘love’ actually entails.
    This simple fact leads me to the conviction that the problem is Pauline translation itself. We have been far too literal in our translation. It has remained at the perfunctory level of transliteration. Which of course suits the needs of theologians to have an esoteric message that they alone can mediate to the general public.
    I believe that the English text should never say “to everyone who has faith”. Terrible, terrible. We need much better translators, who can write good English and who actually write “to everyone who is faithful” (as you did, Ted).
    The consequence might well be that we have much less need of theologians like yourself! So on the other hand, forget what I’ve just written. Since I believe we need your good words, Ted.
    Many thanks,
    James Jakob Fehr

  2. so after reading this and the preceding two articles, a couple of points stuck out to me. let me know if I understood you correctly.
    1. Jesus did not have to die on the cross for anyone to be saved. His death was a violent, unnecessary act, not part of God’s plan (although God can use anything for his Glory).
    2. Jesus did not need to be resurrected after his death for anyone to be saved. His resurrection was simply God’s affirmation of his faithful life.
    3. Salvation is realizing God’s love and mercy for us, and then acting toward our fellow man with love and mercy in response to God’s love.

  3. Ted, I appreciate your many good insights in this post and in your longer article on Paul and Salvation, such as an atonement paradigm based on restoration and healing rather than on satisfaction of God’s anger or legal requirements, a Roman Empire background to Romans 1-3, and the violent exclusionary meaning of “law” that Paul is contesting.

    And simply your asking, in your previous post, about how JESUS understood salvation seems like a self-evident question, but is often not asked when questions of salvation and atonement come up.

    I hope I’ll be able to read your book on salvation when it comes out. In it I would value an examination of why the mercy-restorative salvation/atonement perspective you set out has been overshadowed by satisfaction-theory atonement theology in its various forms throughout so much of Christian history, not least in conservative evangelical (including traditional Mennonite) expressions. Is it the long shadow of Augustine? Do some of us have a psychological need for a retributive God? And, how does a legalistic, sacrifice-requiring image of God reinforce the grip of the idolatrous Powers, including the exclusionary and sometimes violent religious legalism you talk about?

    I would like to hear more about how Jesus’ revelation of an unconditionally loving God “breaks through idolatry’s blinding dynamics,” how “the truth that helps (or allows) sinners to see God’s welcoming mercy clearly” actually frees from bondage to the Powers. That revelation, and that freeing, it seems to me, rarely happens in a flash, but is a continuous and often arduous process (including backsliding), since the Powers can be so seductive and subtle. Maybe here we’re getting into “sanctification.”

    This may go beyond your book, but I also would like to hear more about statements like this: “The desire and ability to follow this way of life come from having hearts transformed by God’s love.” How does this transformation of heart happen? Not a few believers, it seems to me, know the truth of God’s love in their heads, but, because of temperament, psychological damage, lack of loving Christian community, etc.—and no dramatic “conversion” experience–have trouble feeling it in their “hearts.” How does “heart truth” become known in one’s Christian experience, if it is possible to analyze such a thing?

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