I find that a lot of people presume that they have Paul “figured out” more or less. This is a function of years (millenia in fact) of theological presumptions that are so widespread they aren’t even questioned. We never dream that the words of Peter could apply to us:
15And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. 17You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. – 2 Peter 3:15-17
These words were written while Paul was possibly still alive, and we can confirm from other places in Scripture that Paul’s writing and teaching were misunderstood almost from the beginning of his ministry, both by the content of his own letters that frequently address these misconceptions, as well as by scenes like the one in Acts 21:17-24:
17When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. 18On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, 21and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. 22What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. 23Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; 24take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law. (emphasis mine)
It is interesting to note that Peter indicates that those who “twist” Paul’s words in error are “lawless people,” in light of this other passage in Acts. Apparently the notion that Paul taught that the Law was “done away with” or “canceled out” in some way was circulating before he was even martyred for his faith in Jesus Christ. Scripture calls this charge against Paul false here in Acts 21, yet many will try and do hermeneutic gymnastics to wave away the problem here in this passage. This has created an uncomfortable tension for many between Paul and James, particularly in a supposed contradiction between Paul’s proclamation of salvation by grace through faith apart from works and James adamant insistence on faith shown by works; or to state it in shorter form grace vs. works.
The problem with this particular conundrum is that it actually finds Paul in contradiction with himself in his own writings. In Romans for instance, Paul makes some rather startling statements about “works”:
6He will render to each one according to his works: 7to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. – Romans 2:6-8
For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. – Romans 2:13
But then of course, Paul goes on to say that all have sinned (i.e. no one keeps the Law anyway) and so it is argued that these earlier statements don’t mean what they appear to mean at face value (which is to say that obedience to God is important in some way), despite the fact that Paul concludes chapter 3 with an affirmation of that very idea:
Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
Is Paul self-contradictory? When he states in 1 Corinthians 7:19 that, “For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God,” is he just blowing smoke again? Or do we have a bad handle on what Paul is trying to say as a whole perhaps?
I have spent a lot of time lately reading the letters written by Paul that make up a great deal of our New Testament. I embarked on this with great care after encountering a couple of paradigm-shifting insights that came from two different sources. One is an excellent book called Paul the Jewish Theologian by Brad Young; and the other is a 29 part sermon series from D. T. Lancaster of Beth Immanuel, which you can listen to by following the link (I recommend you listen in order although many of them stand alone very well also). The information I have gleaned from these two sources have made reading Paul a much more understandable affair. He is indeed difficult to understand without context and effort, but the work that is put into understanding him correctly is well worth it. Paul’s epistles line up well with all of the other writers of the New Testament, once you understand his idioms and his perspective as a messenger, an Apostle, to the Gentiles.
Paul’s letters are written to Gentiles primarily as instruction, that they do not need to convert to Judaism to become a part of God’s people (see Romans 9-11); and his frequent admonitions against the “works of the law” are in most cases a rebuke of those who tried to convince the Gentiles that their justification would only be complete by conversion to a legal Jewish status i.e. “works of the law.” They are not an admonition to Gentiles to forsake obedience to the instructions given by God in the law that pertain to holiness (being set apart from the world). This is why Paul sees fit to include much in his letters that amounts to instruction in righteous living, instruction that is completely in step with the commandments of the Torah as regards a life that is pleasing to God. The Law was never given for salvation (not even to Israel as some seem to think). In fact, the idea that salvation could be obtained by obedience to the Law is not found anywhere in the Old Testament and yet some people seem to think that is what the Israelites believed and taught. In reality, the problem was a stubborn conviction that as God’s chosen people, they were automatically immune to any need to obey or follow His instructions (an attitude that shows up in many churches today), because God would forgive them no matter what they did. Paul lays the boom on this and consequently on Christians who might think that justification comes from some sort of “membership” in Romans 11:20b-23:
They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. 21For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 22Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. 23And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.
Paul is very direct in warning the Gentile believers not to be cocky about their newfound position within the people of God. This is sobering stuff and Paul continues to talk about this as he winds down the book of Romans:
14I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another. 15But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God 16to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. 17In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God. 18For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed
Paul’s own words of what Christ accomplished through his ministry is that the Gentiles were brought to obedience by word and deed. Two thousand years removed, there are still some who wish to diminish Paul’s message and ministry as they have done since the beginning “to their own destruction.” Let us not be like that, rather “take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.” (2 Peter 3:17b-18)