Updated: Jul 2
A post on social media asked, “If Paul’s letters weren’t in the Bible, would your Christianity look different?”, then added, “It shouldn’t. At all. Because Paul DIDN’T invent Christianity”.
Some people agreed, saying this was obviously the case. Some disagreed. Others feared this was anti-Paul, while some were glad it was anti-Paul.
As the author of this post, I explained that I was not against Paul, but against the misunderstanding of Paul that has plagued the Western church. Western Christianity is essentially Protestantism, which is the movement started by the Reformers in the 16th century in reaction against certain Catholic teachings.
The Protestant/Reformed tradition has the following traits:
To focus primarily on Paul
To read Paul through an Augustinian (Platonic) lens
To assume that Paul’s gospel is anti-Pelagian (Augustine’s opponent)
To see Paul’s gospel as “justification by faith”
To read the Bible through this interpretation of Paul
Reformation theology sees justification by faith as the core of the Bible, something John Piper, a leading Calvinist of our day, has admitted. That’s why if you disagree with anything related to justification, a good reformed person will distance themself from you, as I’ve seen repeatedly.
These conclusions have often had dangerous side effects:
A dependence on man’s traditions instead of God’s word
Centralizing faith and theology instead of Jesus
Making love obsolete or unnecessary
Centralizing personal religion instead of a community faith
Class divisions based on theology
Divisions with anyone who differs about theology (especially justification)
But is justification by faith the center of the Bible? The gospel itself?
If you look at some of Paul’s writings, it can appear so. It did to me for many years, as I was happily drowning in thousands of Reformed books, sermons, and commentaries.
Then I was challenged to question my presuppositions, and I did. I noticed that if one openly looks at the Old Testament, other Jewish documents of Paul’s day, early church writings, the gospel accounts in Acts, or the Gospels themselves, a different picture emerges.
This apparent contradiction between Reformation theology and the non-Pauline Bible is confusing, even troubling. That’s why Paul’s writings remain the focus in Reformation circles, and why Jesus and the Gospel accounts tend to be pushed to the side.
This shouldn’t feel right because it’s not. It’s backward: the Bible starts in Genesis and climaxes in the Gospels. What about justification by faith?
To be upfront, and put some at ease, I fully believe that a person is made righteous, given salvation, and welcomed into the family of God purely on the basis of faith in Jesus.
That’s not in question here.
Paul makes it plain that all nations are on equal ground at the cross because we’re all equally unqualified sinners who are equally saved by the mercy of God through faith.
The Reformers got the faith part right, as it is indeed the thrust of some of Paul’s points. But there is an entire infrastructure to Paul’s broader argumentation and the entire Bible that is often missed.
This isn't against Paul or the Reformation. It's for Jesus and the biblical story.
Two Claims for Continual Reforming
It’s not that the Reformed tradition is all bad. They did fight for true and noble truths. I learned valuable things from Reformed teachers. I appreciate the time I had with their musings, including Luther, Calvin, Spurgeon, and especially Jonathan Edwards. But now I see that they weren't perfect, nor are they the standard of Christian truth. Like the rest of us, they had biases and blind spots.
They had the right idea to challenge the status quo, but we do a disservice to their efforts if we stop with them. We must continue reforming, as others have said.
Biblical scholarship has submitted two conclusions in this direction. The first is that Paul always speaks of salvation by faith for the purpose of uniting Jews and Gentiles, not as an anti-Pelagian framework that is anti-works. His aim is always to promote “zeal for good works”, not nullify them (2 Tim. 3:16-17, Titus 2:14). That’s why all his letters that mentioned justification by faith always end in “there is therefore neither Jew nor gentile“.
This is something I explain elsewhere.
Yes, Paul said the entry point into Christianity was faith, but not faith in justification by faith (as the Reformed tradition supposes); rather, faith is in Jesus as the promised Lord: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom. 10:9).
“Jesus is Lord” is:
The object of our faith
The entrance into our faith
The definition of our faith
But it’s also the center of the gospel—the second claim of this article: the gospel is that Jesus is Lord.
Paul assumes that “Jesus is Lord” is the gospel, even as he immediately follows the confession into Christianity with obedience to Jesus as Lord (Rom. 10:16), but this isn’t defined in Romans 10. It’s spelled out in chapter 1, where he says:
“The gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 1:1-4).
This summary of the gospel for Paul has many parts:
It was promised through the Jewish prophets
It’s about God’s son
It's about the descendant of David
Jesus was declared God’s son by his resurrection
Jesus is now “Christ our Lord”
He roots his gospel in the Hebrew scriptures, which is the story of God in his pursuit to dwell with and bless humanity.
Let’s go to the scriptures Paul's gospel is based on.
The Gospel in Isaiah
The word evangelical is based on the Greek behind “gospe”: εὐαγγέλιον. What did εὐαγγέλιον mean to the first-century audience, and what did the New Testament authors think about this word? Turns out, it was a popular word with a rich history.
The Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint (LXX), uses εὐαγγέλιον and its verb form nearly thirty times. Most of them are about a kingdom, as when:
A victory was won by a Gentile king (1 Sam. 3:19)
A victory was won by Israel’s king (2 Sam. 18:19, 25-27)
A victory was won through Yahweh as king (Ps. 96:2, 67:11)
There are other usages that refer to salvation or righteousness, but these are always couched in God’s victory for his kingdom on earth, such as deliverance from the Babylonians, or a new heaven and earth.
One of the most influential usages of this term is in Isaiah 40-66, a popular book in Jesus’s day. This section is all about the coming of Israel’s God to rule the world in righteousness, which means salvation for the oppressed, judgment for the oppressors, and victory for God’s kingdom.
What a relief this news would be to the Jews in exile under Babylonian or Assyrian oppression, which is why Isaiah 40-66 starts out with, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God”. God is coming to make all things right.
Isaiah repeatedly uses εὐαγγέλιον to describe this event: “Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news [εὐαγγέλιον], lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news [εὐαγγέλιον]” (Is. 40:9).
What is the good news here?
“Behold, the Lord Yahweh is coming with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd” (vs. 10).
Setting aside the numerous quotations of this passage in the New Testament about Jesus, the point is that εὐαγγέλιον, “the gospel”, in Isaiah is about the coming of Yahweh to rule the world in righteousness.
Someone might say, “That’s nice, but how do we know that particular usage is in the Gospel author’s minds?”
Apart from the raving popularity of this text in the New Testament and other second temple texts, each of the Gospels quote Isaiah 40:3 about the “voice in the wilderness” who prepares “the way of the Lord” (Matt. 3:3, Mk. 1:3, Lk. 3:4, Jn. 1:23).
We know this is fulfilled by John the Baptist, so if John is the one coming before the Lord, then the one coming after him must be the coming of the Lord to bring God’s reign. This makes:
Jesus the fulfillment of the coming of the Lord
Jesus is identical with the Lord (Yahweh)
Jesus the bringer of God’s kingdom
Jesus’s arrival the gospel itself
The Jews in the first century were eagerly waiting for God’s reign to come, and Jesus claimed this was happening with him: “The kingdom of God is near” he shouted in every town.
This is the gospel in Isaiah, and it is perfectly synonymous with the gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (and Paul as we'll see!).
The Gospel in the Gospels
The first time I read the Gospels looking for justification by faith, I was perplexed. It should be the focal point of the Gospels if it is indeed the gospel, but it's not. In fact, when Jesus was asked about salvation by the rich young ruler, he never mentioned grace, faith, avoiding works, or anything resembling the Reformation gospel.
He did frequently mention repentance, turning, denying, loving, striving, and doing good works.
He said things like:
“Go, and do likewise”
“Do this and you will live”
“Sell all and you’ll have treasure in heaven”
“Go and sin no more”
He hardly talked about faith in comparison to the kingdom, justice, righteousness, mercy, and love. Less than 10% of the Gospels are even related to the concept of faith. That’s why if you ask most Western Christians to define the gospel they’ll go to Romans and explain the Reformation gospel.
How many could even explain the gospel using only the Gospels?
This is a problem because Paul did not invent Christianity nor was he the first to articulate the gospel of Jesus. He did not add to the Christian message, but simply reiterated it, reinterpreted it, and reapplied it in various living contexts—like the Roman context, or the Galatian context.
He didn’t add to the gospel, as he made clear in Galatians 1.
He wasn’t the center of the gospel, as he made clear in 1 Cor. 3:22.
He was simply a messenger.
He wasn’t even the first to write about it. No, the first authors of the gospel are Mark, Matthew, then Luke, probably in that order. The first presentation of the gospel of Jesus is a biographical narrative of a special Jewish man.
Here’s how it starts: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk. 1:1).
In the classic writing style of the day, and based on the Greek syntactical structure, this verse is a title to the rest of the book; a one-sentence summary of the account.
Notice how he doesn’t mention Reformation foci. The focus of Mark’s gospel is not a theology, or a doctrine, or a creed, let alone a 16th-century creed. It’s about Jesus; specifically, the identity of Jesus.
In fact, the Greek behind “of” is called a genitive, and it could be translated as “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Jesus is the center of the gospel. And Jesus alone.
The Gospels labor to show that “Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (Matt. 1:16), so everyone can join Peter who confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16).
The gospel is that Jesus is the Christ.
As many people already know, the word “Christ” is based on the Greek word, Χριστός (khris-tos´), which is based on the Hebrew word for “anointed” (מָשׁיִחַ maw-shee´-akh), which is where we get the English word “Messiah”.
The word “Christ” means Messiah.
What is a Messiah? It was a term used of anyone who was “anointed” (or sanctified) for a special divine purpose, such as a prophet, a priest, or a king.
Since the entrance of sin and death in Genesis 3, the Old Testament has looked forward to a person who would make all things right, who would restore order from the chaos, making everything “very good” like it was in the beginning (Gen. 1:31).
This person was expected to fix the world by ruling it on God’s behalf—precisely the role Adam was raised up to fulfill but failed. This person would be a king, but more: a super king who would rule all nations.
The king of kings.
The term Messiah came to mean this special king, and one of the most popular texts about this king is Psalm 2. Psalm 2 is God’s answer to all the wickedness that goes on in the world: but he is so far from fretting that, “He who sits in the heavens laughs” (vs. 4).
How could God be so relaxed about all the murdering, prejudice, and oppression done every day?
“I have set my king on Zion” (vs. 7). That's his answer: "I have a ruler who will make all things right."
This king is the anointed one (Messiah) in verse two, who is also called God’s “begotten” son in verse seven. Sound familiar? When this king is activated, he will destroy all wickedness and bless all the righteous (vs. 7-12).
That’s why Mark clarifies that his gospel is about Jesus as the expected Messiah who is the son of God: the one chosen to rule the nations in righteousness. Jesus was even crucified because he claimed to be this Jewish king:
“The governor asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ Jesus said, ‘You have said so.’” (Matt. 27:11).
Psalm 2 is based on the Davidic covenant in 2 Samuel 7, where the “son” language is also used to describe a coming king who would rule God’s kingdom forever. This explains why the Messiah was called a descendent of David: “‘What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David.’” (Matt. 22:42).
That’s also why Paul spoke of the gospel in terms of the son of David and the son of God: they’re the same person: the coming king of the nations who would finally set the world right.
According to Mark’s title, the gospel is about the arrival of:
The son of God
The descendent of David
The righteous ruler of the world
I urge you to read any of the Gospels with this in mind—start with Matthew or Mark. They will make so much more sense. Every verse and every detail swells with new significance and meaning.
The Gospel in Paul
Now let’s reread Paul’s gospel:
The gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 1:1-4).
Paul says the gospel was spoken up by the prophets. We saw how one of the prophets, Isaiah, spoke about the gospel of the coming reign of God, when he would set all things right.
He mentions the son of God. We saw that the son of God is a reference to the Messiah, the super king who applies God's reign, as in Psalm 2.
He mentions a descendent of king David and concludes with Jesus as Lord and Christ. We also saw how this Messiah was expected to be a descendent of David, just as we saw that the background for the title “Christ” is Lord, which is why Paul often pairs "Christ" with "Lord". They're synonymous.
The only aspect of this passage we didn’t address was the resurrection. Paul states that this position of Jesus as the Messiah didn’t officially take place until his resurrection.
But the Gospels clear this up. In Matthew, after Jesus is resurrected, what is the first announcement he gives? “All authority has been given to me”, which is the foundation for making disciples from “every nation” (28:18-20).
As the resurrected Messiah, he is indeed the king with authority to rule the nations.
The resurrection proved that Jesus was the Messiah, which explains why Paul said faith in Jesus and his resurrection are required: Jesus’s resurrection is the divine declaration that he is Lord.
What about the other usages of “gospel” in Paul?
Paul never says the gospel is defined by justification by faith, or even as salvation.
Salvation is technically the result of the gospel: “Now I remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are saved” (1 Cor. 15:1-2).
That should make sense now because the gospel is that Jesus is Lord, the Messiah, the Son of God, the king of kings who comes to make all things “very good” again. And the result of this is:
This is the gospel in Isaiah all over again.
As John said of his Gospel, “I wrote these things so that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ and so be saved” (Jn. 20:31). The message of the gospel is that Jesus is the Messiah, and the result is salvation.
The Reformers taught us some good things but let's keep learning. They missed out on the broader story that the Bible tells, and so they miss place the things they did get right.
The Reformers did some good things, but let's continue reforming, starting with a Christ-centered view of Christianity that is rooted in the Judaism Christ came from.
The performers were right to fight against oppressive traditions of men, but let’s stop making their traditions another oppressive, man-made system that cannot be challenged.
Read here for more on how the gospel was presented in the sermons in the book of Acts.