Paul is More Puzzling than You Think

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

-Romans 15:14-18

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)

Categories: Bible Misunderstandings, Bible Thoughts, Christianity, church, devotional, Discipleship, Faith, False Teachers, Gospel, Grace, Hebrew, Law, Salvation, theology, Truth | 9 Comments

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9 thoughts on “Paul is More Puzzling than You Think

  1. “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”


    How are you doing? Paul also says that if “you have broken one commandment, you are guilty of breaking all of them”

    How are YOU doing, Jeff? Are YOU a doer of the law? Is that what you want to stand on when you are standing before the Lord?

    Not me. I won’t go there. I will point to Jesus and say that He died for me, sinner.

    Try picking out the verses of Scripture that speak of our being justified by faith alone, and NOT by works of the law.

    There are plenty of them in the N.T., also. The gospel trumps the law. That is a Reformation principle.

  2. If you’d like to hear St. Paul’s answer to the question, “How are you doing?”…then turn to Romans 7.

  3. Steve,
    Just a minor correction; it is James who says that if you break the Law at one point that you are guilty of breaking it all. And once again you have misapprehended my intention and my heart. It’s OK. I expect it at this point. My point in this post is that Paul called and expected that those who belong to Jesus and trust Him will in fact obey Him. The obedience doesn’t bring justification; it is the result of justification, and no it isn’t perfect in this life. But it does grow.

    And I don’t know why you treat Romans 7 like it is the end of Paul’s case. In Romans 8, he states that we have been “set free” from the law of sin and death that he talks about in Romans 7. So, his answer isn’t completed in Romans 7.

    And further on in Romans 8:

    13So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”

    I have stopped trying to guess why this is so hard for some people to grasp. The obedience that Paul talks about and that I am speaking of doesn’t come from fear of rejection by God; rather it is fueled by security in belonging to Him and love of Him as Abba (Father).

    Paul further answers your misconceptions at the end of Romans, as I have quoted it above, “For 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(Romans 15:18)” Lip service that isn’t backed by action is simply worthless. Not by my reckoning, but by God’s own Word.

  4. Jeff,

    You are right, that was James. (He was right on that score, anyway)

    Paul told the Galatians (I’m paraphrasing) “If you are going to be a lawkeeper, you’d better keep them perfectly…and if that is your focus then you sever yourself from grace.”

    You are also correct when you say that works naturally follow faith.

    Then why does one need to be goaded into doing them? They happen, and it is God’s doing…not ours.

    So why not focus on God’s grace? Use the law, not to make better (Paul says that all who are under the law are under a curse” “Cursed is anyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them.” He who through faith is righteous and shall live.”) ..Use the law, not to make better (“the law only stirs up sin”, St. Paul) but to expose our need of a Savior, and then preach the grace of Christ…and leave it at that. That’s the gospel (Romans 1:16)…that is how faith is born…by hearing the gospel.

    Works, schmirks…like you say, they will come naturally as the Spirit inspires the believer to do them. When one is constantly equating their faith with the need to do works, then the drop of ink is in the water and the motives are shot.

    It’s a subtle distinction, but I believe an important one.

    Thanks, Jeff.

  5. Paul told the Galatians (I’m paraphrasing) “If you are going to be a lawkeeper, you’d better keep them perfectly…and if that is your focus then you sever yourself from grace.”

    Not a bad paraphrase, but it is not a good understanding. I already explained Paul’s aim in Galatians in the post above, so I don’t really feel the need to repeat that, but that idea that Christ would be of “no advantage” to them, was written to Gentile converts to Judaism who imagined they had entered into the “covenant of promise” by natural means (conversion) as opposed to the only means available (for both Jew and Gentile), which is faith in Jesus. There are still some who seek some “tangible” means of entering the Kingdom of Heaven, be it confirmation or membership in a specific church or denomination that is the “chosen” one. Paul would certainly rail against such people today as well.

    Then why does one need to be goaded into doing them? They happen, and it is God’s doing…not ours.

    As for this question, maybe you should ask Paul about it. He spent a lot of time doing the same. Ephesians 4:1, 18; Colossians 1:10; 2:6; Philippians 1:27; 1 Thessalonians 2:12 are just a few examples of Paul exhorting believers to live out their faith in obedience in addition to the others I previously cited.

    With that let me correct another misstatement you made, that the “law only stirs up sin.” Paul uses it as the basis for instruction himself, for instance in 1 Corinthians 9:8-12; and 14:34 so that is obviously not it’s “only” function. Paul is the one who claims that it is profitable for “instruction, correction, reproof and training in righteousness” unless that is you claim that he didn’t intend to include the Law as part of the “all Scripture.”

  6. How are YOU doing, Jeff? Are YOU a doer of the law? Is that what you want to stand on when you are standing before the Lord?

    Sorry, I almost forgot about this question. I am having a blast doing what I can. It is kinda like a little kid making crayon drawings for my Dad, but He treats them like DaVinci paintings because of His love for me and the work of His Son. I am not standing before the Lord based on my obedience (I would surely think you understand that by now so I expect that statement is a rhetorical flourish of some kind). My trust and my standing remains in the finished work of Christ. My excitement in following Him is that He has allowed me to live, truly live, by His Word.

  7. Jeff,

    St. Paul also tells us that the law was a tutor until Christ came. But Christ has come.

    St. Paul also tells us that “the law, written on stone tablets, is the ministry of death”. If that does not tell of the futility of being a law keeper…then nothing does.

    St. Paul advocates we keep the law, BUT not for righteousness sake. Life goes better for us and for our neighbor when we do, but our relationship with Christ has nothing to do with it. It’s the same for your own kids. When they do not do their chores or when they are disobedient to you, thay are still your kids and you still love them every bit as much as if they were to do everything perfectly. As you would not want them to have in their heads that they have to perform perfectly in their lives to garner your love, or even that they have to perform (at all) in order for you to love them.

    As I have said before, this law/gospel distinction thing is a subtle difference in our theologies but I believe a very important difference.

    And I’ll not bother you anymore on it.

    Thanks a lot, Jeff, for the ear and your remarks. God bless you and the family. Have a great dvent and Christmas Season!

    Your pal,


  8. Steve,
    I haven’t been ignoring you, but I didn’t have much time in the last couple of weeks. I was rereading your comment and something struck me. You said:

    St. Paul also tells us that “the law, written on stone tablets, is the ministry of death”. If that does not tell of the futility of being a law keeper…then nothing does.

    Your quote comes from 2 Corinthians 3:7 and is used contrary to the context as Paul intended it. Paul is making a kal vachomer argument in true rabbinic style. This is an argument not of opposition but of using a “lesser case” to support a greater one. Jesus does this kind of thing in Matthew 7:11 for comparison.

    In this instance, Paul actually invokes the imagery of the “new covenant” that is found in the OT by alluding to two passages in Ezekiel in 2 Corinthians 3:3:
    And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

    Paul gets this image from Ezekiel 11:19-21:

    19 And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, 20 that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. 21 But as for those whose heart goes after their detestable things and their abominations, I will bring their deeds upon their own heads, declares the Lord GOD.”

    And the same image is repeated further on in Ezekiel 36:24-27:

    24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

    I know that some like to point to the baptism imagery in this passage, but look at what the results are. The law gets written, not on tablets of stone (that bring death) but on hearts of flesh(and brings life). It sort of goes counter to the point that you were trying to make. This would be why Paul continues his argument for the greater nature of life by the Spirit, not in antithesis to the Law, but in agreement with it as God’s Way of living:

    12Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, 13not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. 14But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. 15Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. 16But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
    1Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. 2But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 3And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. 4In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
    -2 Corinthians 3:12-4:6

    Paul says that the content of the “new covenant” is there in the “old covenant” but that it has been missed by many who have their hearts veiled. He speaks of renouncing ” disgraceful, underhanded ways.” You would not presume to say that he speaks of the Law in such a way would you(see Romans 3:31)? What then is he telling them (and us) to renounce?
    What does it mean to “let our light shine in the darkness”? (see Matthew 5:14-16 and it will give a pretty good idea of Jesus’ opinion on the matter)

    You say that Paul advocates that we keep the law, and in fact he expects that only those who are righteous can do so, because of the indwelling Spirit. I agree with you in the sense of righteousness as justification. The law does not justify and never could or will. It is useful for those who are justified however; and not only useful, it belongs to those who are justified as it is written on our hearts.

    You speak of a subtle difference between us; but I still believe the difference is simply one of not hearing each other rightly. I am not telling people to “keep the law to be saved” by any stretch of the imagination, no matter how often some(mostly at your blog) accuse me of doing so. And I do not imagine you are telling people it is OK not to obey God’s commandments because they are saved, which would be wrong as well.

    I appreciate you coming through and commenting (it would get lonely around here much of the time without you). I pray that you have a blessed Christmas season as well. May God richly bless you and all of your loved ones.


  9. Thanks, Jeff.

    I think the distinction here is one of focus.

    Since the law is written upon the human heart, and justifying ourselves is our default position, then we just naturally gravitate there when the law is preached. So the law/gosp[el distinction needs to be clearly made.

    The Holy Spirit will inspire the believer to do the works of the law.

    But so often, in so many places where the focus is on us and our doing, the gospel takes a back seat (unwittingly) and the law takes over for folks.

    That’s why us Lutheran types (many of us, anyway) use the law as a mirror. We don’t soften it, but rather harden it, as Jesus did in the Sermons to despair in our ability to keep the law, perfectly (as St. Paul says in Galatians).

    Then the gospel can go to work on us.

    The good works. or works of the law, will naturally follow, even though they cannot be accurately measured by anyone other than God Himself, for only He knows the heart and the true motivation.

    Have a wonderful Christmas, Jeff!

    – Steve

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