Who Do You Believe, Jesus or Paul?

Introduction

For nearly 300 years following the death of Jesus, Christianity was not a monolithic religion but was instead a collection of competing Christologies that held different interpretations about the nature of Jesus, his relationship with God and the theological meaning of his life and death.  Circa 325 C.E., the Roman Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicea for the express purpose of unifying these disparate but growing Christologies into one universal (catholic) Christology.  An important agenda of this council was to find a resolution to the controversy created by Arius who  asserted, contrary to the Proto-Orthodox view, that Jesus was neither co-eternal nor consubstantial (in Greek “homoousios”) with the Father, but was instead a created being who was endowed by God with an immutable character and divine powers.  Ultimately, the Proto-Orthodox Christians carried the day and Christianity has ever since been defined in part by this early Proto-Orthodox doctrine that the Son is of the same essence as the Father (although with no particular help from Constantine himself since he never quite understood the importance nuances concerning the Arian Controversy).  All competing Christologies were subsequently declared heretical and most faded into obscurity as a result.  Yet Christianity did not  anchor itself exclusively in the Biblical accounts of what Jesus taught or the theology of the early apostolic church.  Instead, Christian teaching evolved theologically over the next 2000 years because of the ideas expressed by such men as the Apostle Paul, Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi, Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Joseph Smith and others.  

Teachings of Jesus  – Repentance, Good Deeds & Adherence to the Law

Jesus saw his own importance as a messenger, or prophet if you will,  who brings light  (understanding) into the world about God’s plan for mankind  explained through two theological philosophies:  soteriological (proclamations of salvation) and eschatological (imminent in-breaking a new kingdom of God on earth).  Yet he continued to preach the importance of following the Mosaic Law according to his own interpretation of it.  He taught that to escape judgment[1] (achieve salvation), a person must repent and then adhere unfailingly to the central teachings of the Mosaic Law (which Jesus taught should be interpreted as Rabbi Hillel had taught 100 years earlier in contradiction to the dogmatism of his contemporary Rabbi Shamai):

  • Matthew 5:17 -18,  “Think not that I have come to abolish the Law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.  For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”
  • Matthew 5:20 “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
  • Matthew 7:12, “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the Law and the prophets.” 
  • Matthew 25: 40, And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me'” [about the consequence of deeds].
  • Mark 10:17-22, “And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.  You know the commandments: ‘Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.”
  • Luke 16:16-17, “The law and the prophets were until John [the Baptist]; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and every one enters it violently.  But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one dot of the law to become void.”
  • John 10:34-35, “Jesus answered them, ‘Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods'”?
  • Rev 20:12, “…  and the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books.”
  • Rev 21:8, ” But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.

All show that humans are judged by their actions and in the case of Rev 21:8, even faith alone will not bring salvation when not accompanied by one’s good works.

Jesus says nothing to suggest that his death would carry any theological meaning, so faith in any such interpretation was not at issue.  According to Jesus only those who repent, love one another and keep to the Law will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  This view is echoed in Revelation 20:12-13 which says,  “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books.  And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done.”

Teachings of Paul – Salvation by Faith Alone

 Paul had a very different belief.  According to Paul, keeping the Law would never bring about salvation.  To Paul, Jesus’ importance lay exclusively in his death and resurrection.  Therefore, salvation comes only through faith in the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection and not by one’s actions or adherence to the Law.  

  • Romans 3:20 – “For no human being will be justified in His sight by works of the Law, since through the Law comes knowledge of sin.”
  • Romans 7:6  “We are discharged from the law, dead to what held us captive so that we serve not under the old written law but in the new life of the spirit”
  • Gal 2:15, 16 – “We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners,  yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the Law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the Law, because by works of the Law shall no one be justified.”
  • 1 Cor 3:8,9  ” ….. that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God base on faith.”
  • 1 John 5:11 – 13 – “And this is the testimony that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.  He who has the Son has life; he who has not the Son of God, has not life.  I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life[2]

While Paul does not discourage one from conducting himself according to the moral teachings of the law, he nevertheless rejects any idea that observance of the law alone will lead to salvation.  Paul’s view is that salvation is achieved by faith alone.

The Questions

With that background, here are two important questions for Christians to puzzle over:

  1. Is  salvation achieved by following the teachings of Jesus or by following the teachings of the Apostle Paul?
    1. Apparently James doesn’t agree with Paul for he says in James 2:24, ” You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” 
    2. The author of Hebrews says in Heb 5:9, “and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” i.e. follow his teachings.
  2. Can the teachings of Jesus and Paul be reconciled into a single cohesive philosophy? 

Contemporary Christian Doctrine

It can be said that Jesus taught about his religion (Judaism) and that Paul taught a religion about Jesus..  This would certainly explain why Jesus and Paul differ about what one must do to achieve salvation but it gives us no help in deciding which of the two is correct. Could a Christian ever reject what Jesus taught in order to accept the teaching of Paul?

The contemporary Christian position on the subject of salvation is embodied in the following doctrinal statement: Faith (in Jesus as mankind’s savior) is the sole and a priori condition of salvation.  The seminal Christian argument for the Faith Alone doctrine appears in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.  There, Paul argued that the very nature of sin means that justification of sinners by their works is a contradiction i.e. if one is a sinner, he is under condemnation for his works and therefore he cannot be justified by them.  Paul bolsters his apologia for “faith alone” by reminding his readers that the Hebrew testament frequently speaks of God’s love for man and how this love resulted in His “gratuitous” forgiveness of man’s sins.  He therefore postulates that if God’s forgiveness is “gratuitously” given,  it cannot then be “meritoriously” earned.

But in a paradoxical turn about, Paul later seems to contradict himself a letter to the Church of Corinth where he admonishes them (I Cor 6:9-10) accordingly,  “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.”  How can this be reconciled with his “faith alone” thesis?  Is he saying that faith alone will not lead to redemption if one sins post facto or is he saying that faith is insufficient for salvation if one commits certain types of sins?

William T. Benson
November 15, 2004