OF THE GOSPEL OF PAUL
The Teachings of Paul Defended
When the apostle Paul composed his great Hymn of Praise to Love (1 Cor.13), he began by distinguishing between the vital religion of Jesus Christ, as it had gripped his own experience, and certain more or less imperfect and unbalanced forms of religion, which from that day to this have sheltered themselves under the name of Christianity.
Gifts and graces which God intended to be the adornment of the Christian community may cease to be its adornment, and become its snare:
All these one-sided and patently inadequate representations of the Gospel, Paul expressly repudiates. These are not the central themes of his message and they ought not to be the central themes of Christian Churches, though unfortunately they often are.
"Though I speak in the tongues of men and of angels" -- that is religion as ecstatic emotionalism.
"Though I have the gift of prophecy, and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge" -- that is religion as gnosis, intellectualism, speculation.
"Though I have faith that can move mountains" -- that is religion as working energy.
"Though I give all I possess to the poor" -- that is religion as humanitarianism.
"Though I surrender my body to the flames" -- that is religious asceticism.
Paul has been one of the most misunderstood of God's servants. Indeed, many have even tried to separate the Gospel of Jesus Christ from what they call the "Gospel of Paul". Today I want to very briefly summarise the message of this great apostle, stripping from his image all the nonsense that has accrued to it because of the misrepresentation of theologians and religionists.
1. The Teaching of Paul
There are, in Paul's writings, four dominant themes that consumed his vision of the Gospel. They are:
Everything else is secondary to his apostolic message. He did not, as some Christians try to make him do, set out to describe a system of belief and practice. He rather concluded that in the last resort one cannot measure and explain God -- one can only wonder and adore. The only way to see and understand the cross of Jesus is, for Paul, on your knees.
(a) The righteousness of God;
(b) The death of Jesus on Calvary;
(c) The reconciliation of the world; and
(d) The eternally living and present Christ
In this world, men kneel to what they love. Paul said: "Before the Name of Jesus, every knee should bow" (Phil.2:10). Love has a way of breaking through every carefully articulated system: it sees so much more than the system-makers. Paul did not attempt to co-ordinate every aspect of religious thought into a complete and perfect whole, leaving no loose ends anywhere, for he did not attempt to push systems and definitions into that ultimate region where God alone can speak. He never presumed to be so arrogant. And yet many Churches today offer you neatly packaged "gospels" claiming to do just that. Man has no right to take the divine into his possession; only God Himself can ultimately speak of God.
Paul was acutely conscious of that. Instead of saying: "Come, here is the fullness of the Gospel! Here is the fullness of Church organisation! Here is the true Church!" No, what he said was much more humble: "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, His ways past finding out!" (Rom.11:33, AV).
2. First Century Local Conditions
Another reason why it is a big mistake to try and systamatise Paul lies in the nature of the situation he was addressing. When Paul wrote his letters it was not with the purpose of giving a compendium of Christian doctrine. The lines he followed, the themes he dwelt on, were largely determined by local circumstances -- the outcropping of a syncretistic heresy at Colossae, the development of irregularities of practice and discipline at Corinth, the danger to the peace of the Church occasioned by little personal feuds and rivalries at Philippi, the Jewish attempt to shackle the free Spirit of Christ in Galatia -- these were the factors which were Paul's starting points in his epistles.
Thus, had it not been for some irreverent behaviour at Corinth, we might not have known what he believed about the Lord's Supper. Similarly, his letter to the Romans was not a theological treatise designed to set forth the whole Christian faith. And any attempt to use it as though it were would be a serious mistake.
Theological knowledge does not, in the final analysis in any case, come from reading Paul's letters or any other scriptural writing. Understanding theology -- and particularly Paul's -- comes through living out the Gospel in the missionary field, as Paul did.
Luther rightly said that "the only saving faith is that which casts itself on God for life or death". Paul's life was a daily risk -- his faith was that of a gallant kind. He had no comfortable illusions about the forces antagonistic to Jesus in pagan Asia and Europe. Of all men, he would have been the last to be seduced into the intricacies of speculations remote from the urgent realities of life.
To understand Paul, go out into the mission field. You will not understand him in the secluded and sheltered walls of a university or a theological seminary or a Sunday School class. For this reason, Paul refers to the Gospel as "the Way" (Ac.9:2; 19:9,23; 22:4; 24:22), because the Gospel is primarily a way of LIVING and not a "way of thinking".
For Paul, Christianity meant a new quality of life, a life in Christ -- God-given, supernatural, victorious. It was not, as many modern preachers would say, a question of "Just believe! Just believe!" -- who often shift the emphasis from a life to be lived to a system to be credulously submitted to -- but the exact reverse. First Century Christianity was so successful not because it confronted the world with a new intellectual or philosophical system but because it confronted the world with a new way of life.
The situation facing Paul demanded great simplicity. And that is what he offered -- the simplicity of Christ, the life in Christ. The world he addressed was not an educated one as ours often is. The circumstances of his mission were completely different from ours where men and women are highly educated and have different religious backgrounds.
3. Paul's Own View of His Vocation
When Paul wrote his letters, he was not aware that they would become Holy Scripture. He was not aware that future generations would pore over these letters and seek to fit together every thought they contained. Certainly, the least thing he would have imagined, when he set himself to send a message to one or other of his Christian communities, was that centuries later men would be building theologies on words thrown off to a secretary, as many of his words were, in moments of intense feeling. The fact of the matter is that Paul had no great love for systems, and very little faith in the speculations which produce them. As far as he was concerned, the wisdom of this world was such a poor thing (1 Cor.1:19-21; 2:13), and mere intellect so bankrupt, and the best formulations of doctrine so pitifully short of the mark, when they tried to measure Christ!
Once, however, Paul did conduct an experiment of philosophising Jesus (Ac.17:16-34); but his Athenian experience was the exception which proves the rule, and the failure of the experiment made him more resolute than ever not to exchange the herald's calling for the apologist's. Henceforward he was determined, as he told the Corinthians, "not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified" (1 Cor.2:2). It was faith in Christ, not faith in any creed or articles about Christ, that was the "master-light of all his seeing". Men do not gamble with their lives, nor stake their souls, on abstract truths and systems; but a great love is different.
4. The New Covenant Way
That is why the New Covenant Church of God has no complex system or articles of faith. We have some, as stated in our Constitution, but they do not, for example, demand that the believer accept a Godhead dogma such as Trinitarianism, Tritheism, or any of the other "-ism's" that are around.
That is why the New Covenant Church of God does not insist that those who are born again and enter its fellowship speak in tongues, prophesy, display great theological wisdom, prove their discipleship by their philanthropic deeds, show their faith by doing great supernatural feats, or anything like that. The only condition of membership in the Church is that its members love one another.
"Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away...even now, these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor.13:8,13, NIV).
At this level of the Gospel there will always be theological disagreements, but these will only disappear after a foundation of love is built. It is only after the foundation of faith in Christ, hope in Christ, and love of Christ and one's fellow man has been built, that the adornment of the gifts and graces can truly flow forth. And many truly have.
There are therefore no elaborate "plans of salvation" in the New Covenant Church. There is no particular "order" which New Covenant Christians are supposed to conform, no stereotype of the grace of God. It is a fatal mistake of the first order to beg men and women to agree and accept a scheme in order to be saved, for this kind of appeal always leads to a quenching of the Spirit (1 Thess.5:19). It is important for us to realise that such vitally important doctrines as predestination, repentance, faith, conversion, justification, sanctification, and the like do not come one after another as one might pass through a chain of shops along the High Street of the Christian life. This is no Pauline idea. One must first of all be converted to the love of Christ. Once a soul is bathed in this love, then -- and only then -- does the Christian Path or Way become more clearly laid out -- only then can one meaningfully talk about justification, sanctification, and other concepts. I would even suggest that an intellectual understanding of these things is unimportant in the genesis of a soul's Christian life. If it were, then there would be no hope of salvation for the simple, uneducated, or even children.
The Christian experience is not a drab, colourless uniformity. And it is hard for me, at any rate, to understand that the God whose Spirit is like the wind, blowing where is chooses, ever intended anything of the kind. To regularise salvation beyond a certain point is simply to revert from the freedom of the spirit to the bondage of the letter.
The individual facets of the Christian experience cannot in any case be dragged apart and studied as a biologist might study a dissected animal. You cannot chop apart justification and sanctification, for example. To Paul, these were simply two sides of the same coin. God's justifying act was itself the sanctification of the sinner. If Christians had placed less emphasis on schemes and systems, and more emphasis on the actual realities of life, where forgiveness can in point of fact be seen any day creating goodness in the forgiven, and doing it by its own inherent power and love, many damaging blunders in the interpretation of the Gospel could have been avoided. Who that has ever experienced forgiveness does not know that it is the forgiveness itself, and not any subsequent effort of his own, which is the really creative thing, the moral power that structures the future? But as it is, endless misconceptions have been caused by isolating the various elements in the Christian experience from one another, and assigning each its place on a chronological chart.
It would be truer to say, that in Paul's view, everything is gathered up in the one great fact of communion with Christ, and that these other elements of the Christian experience are not so much isolated events as aspects of the one reality, not parallel lines with gaps between, but radii of the same circle of which union with Christ is the centre.
All too often the makers of theology try to ascribe the thought forms of their own age to writers like Paul. Few theologians have little inward sense for the Hebrew and Biblical ideas which formed the atmosphere of Paul's thinking, or any of the other New Testament writers. Indeed, most of current Christianity owes is thought-forms not to Jesus, Paul, Peter or any of the other apostles, but to the thought-forms of the classical theologians of the Christian Church from Origen onwards. (See our pamphlet, Fundamental Differences between New Covenant Christian Doctrine and some "Orthodox Traditions", New Covenant Press, Oslo, 1993, which shows how the bulk of Christendom has abandoned its Hebrew roots).
New Covenant Christians have made a clean break with all of this. Each age has constructed a Paul in its own likeness. In one age, where the force of law predominated, the law was stressed beyond all sense of proportion. In another age, sacrifice was "discovered" to be the key to everything. And in our liberal age, where law is virtually meaningless, it is grace that is stressed to the point of the ridiculous: "Just believe...just believe!" is now the rallying cry.
Orthodoxy varies from age to age, recreating its Paul's and Jesus's in its own image. But for Paul, what mattered the most -- far more than theological minutiae -- was love, joy, peace, and long-suffering. It is this Pauline orthodoxy that the New Covenant Church embraces.
How are these things lost? They are invariably lost when men try to make too precise a definition of the Gospel. Paul, like the Hebrews, thought in pictures, not words as we do in the 20th century. That is why ordinances were so important for the Hebrews, as they are for New Covenant Christians. For Paul, the atonement, for example, is described not in complex theological terminology but as an analogy or parable (1 Col.2:14ff). The great pictorial passage in Philippians 2:5ff has been overloaded by theologians with doctrine as to make it practically incomprehensible. Even the Godhead doctrine, which has been clothed with such baffling complexities by the analysis of later generations, presented few intellectual difficulties for Paul who had arrived at it, not along the line of speculation, but through the sheer pressure of experienced fact.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ must of course, from time to time, be defined in precise words in order to counter heresies and develop a deeper understanding of the mysteries. But for Paul, the force of the Gospel was not theological definitions but an open vision, a ringing conviction, and a great love. And often when men have succeeded in defining Paul's doctrine most closely, they have lost Paul's Christ most completely. And the practice of isolating sentences, thoughts and ideas from their immediate context is nearly always fatal when applied to Paul. As one wise theologian remarked: "Solitary proof-texts have wrought more havoc in theology than all the heresies". The Gospel must be seen as a whole -- as a way of living -- not as a loose connection of isolated scriptural proof-texts grostesquely glued together to establish the correctness of a denominational system. Paul did not indulge in scriptural ping-pong and neither should professing Christians.
The Christianity of Paul was alive and vital; it was an open vision where God kept revealing more and more. So it is for us. Whilst the New Covenant Church of God has a highly developed theology in the Church of the Firstborn this is not, for us in the Local Colonies of the Church, the main thing. More for us -- and this is the rock of the whole New Covenant Church -- is the vital, empowering, freeing, joyful Spirit of Christ which cements our fellowship so tightly in love.
And we would like to invite you to be a part of it. If you would like to know more, please get in contact with us.
This page was created on 30 December 1997
Updated on 21 February 1998
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