Christian responsibility according to St. Paul

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A funny thing happened on my way through Paul’s epistles.

I read through all of Paul’s letters over the last couple days, trying to take note of the commonalities rather than the issues specific to the churches, such as the Judaizer conflict in the Galatian church, the disorder in the Corinthian church, etc. I wanted to identify his consistent baseline concerns for those he was writing to. I even read the lot in presumed chronological order, just in case there was a shift in his emphasis throughout time; I made note of no dramatic changes (this certainly isn’t to say that I disbelieve there are such), or even any indisputable nuances or drifts. But I did see more than I expected.

It felt like I rediscovered first century Christianity. You know, the first century Christianity most modern evangelical churches claim to be trying to “get back to”. And I must say, I was startled. A bit unnerved, even.

If you listen to the modernized version of Christianity so prevalent in America, you’ll come away thinking that Christianity was and still is to be lived out primarily by holding fast to good theology, witnessing to the lost to bring them into the fold, and, almost incidentally, attempting to be a better person. Quite recently I’ve made the argument that those who claim that Christianity was originally supposed to be about believing the right things were wrong; I’ve contended that our faith was always supposed to be about doing good, spreading the Kingdom of God. It turns out that even in my criticism I was only half-right. I want to show you what I heard Paul saying about two of our modern assumptions about how Christians are supposed to live.

  • Who is saved and who is not depends on whether one believes (some particular number of right things), not whether one acts a certain way.

If you ignore what’s in the air among Protestants today and listen directly to Paul, you’ll come away with the startlingly clear observation that only two simple and related beliefs were explicitly demanded: that Jesus was raised from the dead, and that this as opposed to following the Jewish law is what justifies us.

Things get muddy here: what is justification, and how is it different from sanctification, which throughout the Pauline epistles was asserted to be based upon putting away bad behavior and taking up righteous behavior? The popular, non-Holiness Movement response is that justification gets you “saved”, while personal holiness is our expected response. After all, Paul certainly said, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” The problem is, personal holiness is also unequivocallyin several of Paul’s letters listed to be the determining factor upon which ultimate salvation the outcome of our judgement as believers on the imminent “day of Christ” depends. [Edited: I was prompted to change my position on this last based upon two responses (one below and one in private correspondence) that made me go back and look at the epistles yet again; I concluded that I overstated this point. Paul did seem to teach consistently that our identification with Christ through faith is the determining factor of our salvation, although there are a couple passages that suggest he wasn’t quite sure how God was going to react if Jesus came back to find believers acting debaucherously. Thanks, Dan and Joe!]

For Paul, faith in practice was to consist almost entirely of what most modern Christians denominations and sects have dismissed as the “holiness” tradition. Yet how many sermons have we heard that insist that what believers actually do doesn’t affect God’s opinion of us (only that doing bad things makes Him sad); that “nothing we can do can make God love us more, and nothing we can do can make God love us less”; that Paul’s entire theology could be summed up as “works-based religion is bad, religion based only on believing is good”? These may or may not be true, but we should not gloss over his other clear teachings.

Not too long ago, I told someone that Jesus was certainly more interested in personal holiness and good works than you’d surmise from the impression given by the epistles. I was wrong about the epistles. I implore you to go back to Paul’s epistles and look for specific instructions for the congregations and the rationale given.

There are all kinds of convoluted theological constructs that try to ignore Paul’s emphasis on personal holiness or downplay Paul’s warning of the consequences, but if you read the words of Paul rather than the words of Paul through Luther, the conclusion is glaringly obvious. I even wrote down a lot of references when I was reading through the epistles, but I don’t want to proof-text anything or leave any question about whether there are other verses that I conveniently left out that support the other view; I’d rather just encourage you to empty your mind of presuppositions and read Paul’s epistles for yourself.

On the bright side, this puts the kibosh on the conclusion I’d reached that Paul’s and James’ view of soteriology were essentially different, if not contradictory. [Edit again: well, thanks to Dan and Joe, this tension resurfaces. 🙂 ]

  • Personal evangelism is an essential part of every believer’s Christian life.

The observation about the importance Paul placed on sanctification surprised me, but this positively startled me: I could not find one solitary instance in which Paul told the people of the churches to evangelize.

A couple times Paul exhorted believers to behave well toward outsiders, and to do their best not to offend them; he certainly told Timothy as a pastor to evangelize; he wrote a fair amount about evangelism — his, anyway. When discussing the proclamation of the gospel to unbelievers, he consistently wrote of it being done by an “us” group that always remained distinct from the recipient congregation. He besought the churches for prayer that he and others engaged in evangelism might be bold and the like. In the end, all of this is distinctly different from the common marching order given to Christians to actively evangelize everywhere we go. If it is truly a supreme duty of every Christian to bring others into the faith, we certainly do not know this because of anything Paul said; in fact, it is far likelier that an egocentric interpretive emphasis (“The Bible was written to me!”) and a de-emphasis on the crucial audience-relevance hermeneutic have influenced modern evangelicals (in both senses) to misappropriate Paul’s talk of gospel proclamation, the “thousands more were added” emphasis of the book of Acts, and Jesus’ Great Commission as being intended for every believer singly.

It will be argued from “just plain common sense” and from passages outside Paul that witnessing is a good thing. I am not trying to deny this. My point stands: it’s absolutely startling that Paul, the great evangelist so sure the return of Christ was right around the corner, never even once in passing expresses urgency about evangelism. If anything, he taught the church to be wary of interaction with unbelievers (the “unequally yoked” passage in 2 Cor 6 is about all relationships, not just marriage). And once again, this doesn’t itself mean the NT doesn’t teach personal evangelism, but as I’m sure you’ll find, it’s not in Paul. Don’t get me wrong — Paul was undoubtedly a passionate missionary and evangelist who fervently desired that more people hear the gospel, but it seems he really took his categorization of the duties of Christians seriously: he wasn’t going to tell everyone to do something that apostles and evangelists were supposed to be doing. (Here we have implied yet another thing my own evangelical tradition has denied, namely that the NT teaches a fairly sharp distinction between clergy and laity.)

I can’t underscore the significance of this omission enough. Not once in thirteen epistles amongst the myriad imperatives and exhortations to live in a way that would please the returning Christ did he so much as mention “witnessing” in passing. The closest he came was a couple scant references to watching how you deal with outsiders. For Paul, it certainly appears that evangelism was meant for “clergy” evangelists. Christians were to keep their heads down, being notable only in their humility and righteous living, by which they would be seen as worthy on the Day of Judgment when Christ was to return.

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Well, despite what it might sound like, I’m not concluding that both points above are incorrect, or even that Paul would necessarily have disagreed with them. I merely wanted to share my observation that what the majority of Christians believe about these topics nowadays is not Pauline, in the very important sense that we have a number of instances in which the necessity of sanctification for ultimate salvation was explicitly claimed and that we have no Scriptural record of him advocating active evangelism for all believers indiscriminately. Right or wrong, our church does not look like Paul’s, and if we’re to take his epistles and the book of Acts seriously, that means that the first century Church in general differed from ours in some striking ways.

This has gotten quite lengthy, so I’ll save another intriguing insight I had for another post. But this is quite enough for now, isn’t it?

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What are you still reading this for? Go read Paul’s epistles!

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