4) Thinking Deeply about Paul
There is a commonly held misconception that Paul misunderstood Jesus and defined what was later to known as ‘Christianity’ in his own image. I think this is wrong.
Paul had been an opponent of Jesus and the followers of The Way. He had been one of those who revered the Law and were desperate for everyone (else) to keep it. His life was turned base over apex by a profound experience that led him on the kind of journey he was previously determined to prevent anyone else from taking.
Whatever it was that happened to him on the road into Damascus, Paul came to understand fully the difference between Jesus and his detractors. Rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus, summarised the law as: ‘Whatever is hateful to you, do not do such to others’. Jesus’ own summary was a call to ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Not doing the wrong thing is transformed into a call to live transformatively.
Paul had completed a theological about-face as regards the value of law-keeping. Now that his eyes had been opened to the psychological damage and inevitable hypocrisy associated with outward compliance, his zealotry was focused upon others who still believed adherence to every detail of the law gave them a head start in holiness. The majority of his letters, which he addressed to the ‘Saints’ (those who had been made right with God through grace) in each town, were written to admonish those who were putting burdens upon Gentile converts that contradicted the grace they had received.
So the contrasting theories of atonement that Evangelical theology places front and centre of Paul’s theology were directed at these Judaisers. Paul is saying to them: be assured that every ‘I’ has been dotted and every ‘t’ crossed so THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN ADD BY YOUR OUTWARD OBSERVANCE. Don’t slip back into transactional thinking. Get on and live the life without fear that it may not be good enough. And allow those who have been added from other cultures to do the same. All are one in Christ because all have received the same gift of grace.
So why have we turned detailed instructions from Paul aimed at preventing transactional thinking into… a different form of transactional thinking? We have turned ‘follow Jesus’ into ‘worship God for sending Jesus’ and have been doing it for so long that our culture has filled the landscape with modern temples and a professional religious caste to service them. Paul uses three tenses to describe the salvation he attributes to Jesus’ work on the cross: past, present and future. He also describes it as a process and never an event. (Philippians 2:12-13).
What many of us know as ‘Christianity’ does not work. Heed the warnings of Paul and become inspired by the call of Jesus. We are Saints simply because that is who God says we are. Spend your life learning how to live the way Jesus did, and do it within a community of fellow saints who are trying to do the same. But don’t start with the ostentatious bits like miracles because that will lead you down an entirely new transactional dead end.*
And the grace of God will be with you.
*more about this in future posts.