Jesus vs Paul?

Tuesday, 14 Dec 2010

Pitting Jesus against Paul used to be a hobby of liberal Protestants.  As this story has it, Jesus proclaimed a kingdom of wide-scale world-transformation, while Paul proclaimed a gospel of personal salvation. The liberal Catholic writer Alfred Loissy once quipped that Jesus announced a kingdom, but instead it was a church that came.  So on one side is Jesus, with his invitation to humanity to participate in his kingdom by bringing peace and justice, and on the other side is Paul who spoke instead of the church and personal salvation by belonging to it.

Today, however, it has become a critical question in evangelical circles.  In the latest Christianity Today cover story (“Jesus vs. Paul”), New Testament scholar Scot McKnight relates, “Many of us have made a move from Paul to Jesus, and an increasing tension remains among evangelicals about who gets to set the terms: Jesus or Paul?  In other words, will we center our gospel teaching and living on ‘the kingdom’ or ‘justification by faith?’”  In short, “Evangelicalism is facing a crisis about the relationship of Jesus to Paul, and many today are choosing sides.”

This conundrum shouldn’t surprise us.  Evangelicalism—especially its Anglo-American variety—is a confluence of Reformation, Anabaptist, and pietist streams.  Even the Reformation is largely mediated through pietism in the land that Bonhoeffer dubbed “Protestantism without the Reformation.”  So it’s no wonder that the Reformation gets saddled with all sorts of views that are actually more accurate descriptions of pietism.  Many of us were raised in pietistic backgrounds, where the kingdom of God was basically heaven and you get there by dying.  So a lot of younger Christians are reacting against this sort of privatized spirituality. Some are rediscovering the Reformation, but most are drawn toward Anabaptistism—that other stream that has shaped American evangelicalism, at least indirectly.  “While some Protestants seem to let Jesus be Savior, but promote Paul to lord and teacher,” writes Brian McLaren in A Generous Orthodoxy, “Anabaptists have always interpreted Paul through Jesus, and not the reverse.  For them the Sermon on the Mount and the other words of Jesus represent the greatest treasure in the world.  Jesus’ teachings have been their standard” (206).

What are we to make of this contrast?

First, we should acknowledge the obvious fact that Jesus uses the term “justified” only once, in his parable of the tax-collector who cried out for mercy, while the Pharisee thanked God for his piety (Lk 18:14).  McKnight notes, “We could add Matthew 12:37, and perhaps Luke 10:29 and 16:15, but we can’t find much in the Gospels that shows Jesus thinking in terms of ‘justification by faith.’”

Second—and here’s where I’ll be camping out for the rest of this reflection, only a crude biblicism would determine the importance of a particular biblical teaching by a word-count.  Otherwise, we’d have no basis for a doctrine of the Trinity, the hypostatic union, or a host of other doctrines that are clearly revealed when we interpret Scripture in the light of Scripture.  The unfolding story of the Bible generates doctrines.  It is from the history of God’s covenant faithfulness to his people who call on his name that we learn that he is faithful, merciful, loving, and righteous.  “Original sin” summarizes what Scripture tells us about what happened when Adam, representing all of us, transgressed the covenant.  The doctrines of the incarnation and redemption don’t come to us first of all in ready-made propositions, but in events that are interpreted in the light of the history of promise and fulfillment.

God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt in the exodus was the founding event upon which God gave the nation his laws, institutions, doctrines, and sanctions to be observed.  Similarly, the Gospels relate the actual unfolding of the drama, while the Epistles unpack the significance of those events for us and for the world: in other words, the doctrine.  Of course, there is doctrine in the Gospels and there is narrative in the Epistles, but for the most part this generalization works.

So what happens when we look at the unfolding events that ground the new covenant in the drama of redemption?  Front-and-center is the kingdom, which remains the wider eschatological horizon for Paul as well as Jesus, as we will see.  There is an “already” and “not yet” aspect to the kingdom.  John the Baptist announced that “the kingdom of heaven is near” (Mt 3:2) and Jesus announced that it had arrived, as he healed the sick, raised the dead, and declared after the return of the seventy disciples from their mission, “I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning” (Lk 10:18).  “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons,” Jesus said, “then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”  The strong man (Satan) has been bound, so that his house may be looted (Lk 11:20-22).  Above all, sinners and outcasts are being forgiven directly by Jesus, without any connection to the Temple machinery.  With Satan bound, the apostles are called to go into all the world and unlock the prison doors and free the captives.  They are given by Christ the keys of the kingdom, to bind and loose on earth what has been bound and loosed in heaven (Mat 16:19; 18:18; Jn 20:23).  This “binding and loosing”—the keys—is clearly identified by Jesus with the forgiveness of sins in those passages.

In his Olivet discourse, Jesus taught that he will come on the clouds of glory with all of his elect, but there are stages to be realized before this final event.  First, the Temple then standing will be completely destroyed (Mat 24:1-2), as indeed it was in 70 AD.  Then the disciples asked, “What will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” (emphasis added).  Jesus replied that there will be imposters, coming in his name, leading many astray, along with wars, “but the end is not yet.”  “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.  All these are but the beginning of the birth pains” (Mat 24:4-8).  There will be persecution and martyrdom for his followers, with many deserting Christ’s flock.  “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.  And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Mat 24:9-14, emphasis added).  On the last day, Jesus will return on the clouds of glory to “gather his elect” from the whole earth and to judge the living and the dead (Mat 24:29-31).  “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”  It will come when people least expect it (Mat 24:36-44).

Contrary to the expectations of most of Jesus’ contemporaries (including John the Baptist and his own disciples), this single event will not happen all at once.  It will unfold in a series of fulfillments, and the space that we now occupy as the church today is the parenthesis in which the final judgment is postponed, so that the gospel of the kingdom can be proclaimed to the whole world. The exodus is past, but now is the era of conquest through the witness of the gospel to the ends of the earth.  Only when Jesus returns will the conquest be consummated as the kingdoms of this age are made the kingdom of our God and of his Christ.

So we must be careful not to fall into the same misunderstanding of the kingdom that was shared by Jesus’ contemporaries.  We want to see the kingdom in all of its visible power and glory.  We have seen harbingers of that day, with various healings and victories over the demonic forces in Jesus’ ministry, but we want to see fully realized here and now the consummation to which these signs pointed.  If necessary, we will bring about the consummation of this kingdom ourselves!  This is a danger that we have to resist, because it misunderstands that the most crucial vocation of the church in this present age is the proclamation of the gospel.  “Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, [Jesus] answered them, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There!” for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you’” (Lk 17:20-21).

The kingdom of God in this present phase is primarily audible, not visible.  We hear the opening and shutting of the kingdom’s gates through the proclamation of the gospel, in the sacraments, and in discipline.  Taking no notice of the kingdom of God, the nations will be going about their daily business, engaging in violence and immorality as in the days of Lot, “eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building,” when Jesus will return suddenly (Lk 17:22-30).

United to Christ, the church shares now in his humiliation and suffering, but one day it will share in his glory.  In his resurrection, Christ has inaugurated the final resurrection of the dead.  He is the “firstfruits” of the whole harvest.  Already, the verdict of the last judgment is being rendered in the present.  Those who believe in Christ are already declared righteous and those who do not are already condemned (Jn 3:16-19, 36).  “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1).  The decisive verdict of the Last Day is already known for all who believe the gospel.  That is why we are inviting—indeed, pleading with—our neighbors to come to the wedding feast.

When we return to Jesus’ teaching and actions in the Gospels, we can see that everything that was promised through the prophets (including John the Baptist) is indeed part of the kingdom that Christ brings.  In fact, it is true that they belong to one and the same event.  However, it becomes clearer as the Gospels unfold that the manifestation of this kingdom occurs in two phases.  At present, this Spirit is raising those who are spiritually dead and giving them faith, uniting them to Christ for present justification and sanctification as well as future glorification.  The Spirit brings conviction of sin and unrighteousness, opening hearts to understand and to embrace Christ and all of his benefits.  Yet believers, like unbelievers, still suffer common ills as well as blessings.  They eventually die, but believers die with the hope of the resurrection in a renewed heavens and earth.  By his Word and Spirit, Christ is now gathering a people for himself.  Only when he returns, however, will the angel proclaim with a loud voice, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev 11:15).

Until then, the kingdom of the world is common, not holy.  It is “east of Eden.”  Even the work of Christians in their secular callings is a temporal gift of God’s common grace, not a means of cultivating, guarding, and keeping his holy sanctuary.  Thus, the Great Commission is qualitatively different from the mandate that God gave to Adam and Eve in the garden and to Israel in Canaan.  In fact, the Great Commission is given to the church only because the Last Adam has fulfilled that creation mandate, fulfilling all righteousness, bearing the curse, and being raised as the first-fruits of the new creation.  Now, the command to “be fruitful and multiply” is fulfilled by the Spirit through the raising of a worldwide spiritual family, the true offspring of Abraham. This is God’s holy commonwealth in this age (1 Pet 2:9-10), the true “Israel of God” (Gal 6:16).

No longer “at hand,” the kingdom is “here,” Jesus announces (Mk 1:15; Mat 11:5-6; Mat 12:28; Mat 13:1-46; Lk 11:5-6; Lk 11:20; Lk 17:20-23; Lk 15:4-32).  The king is present, inaugurating his kingdom.  At the same time, he speaks of its full realization in the future (Mat 6:10; Mat 16:28; Mk 9:1; Lk 6:20-26; Lk 9:27; Lk 11:2; Lk 13:28-29). The kingdom is coming, but also has come (Mt 12:28-29; Lk 11:20).

The manner in which the demons respond to Jesus shows his authority over them, but not just a raw power: it is his coming in his kingdom of grace and forgiveness that they fear most.  Satan and his emissaries are busiest not with plotting wars and oppression; these are symptoms of the sinful condition that human beings are capable of generating on their own.  However, Satan knows that if the Messiah fulfills his mission, and the elect not only believe but take this gospel to the nations, the curse is lifted, his head is crushed, and his kingdom is toppled.  All of Jesus’ miracles are pointers to this saving announcement; they are not ends in themselves.  The kingdom comes with words and deeds.  In the miracles, it is said that Satan has bound these people (viz. ,Lk 13:11, 16). Christ is breaking into Satan’s territory, setting history toward a different goal, bound to his own rather than to demonic powers.

In Luke 16:16, redemptive history is divided between the time of the law and the prophets and the time of the kingdom. N.T. scholar Herman Ridderbos writes in The Coming of the Kingdom,

Here the dispensation of the law and the prophets is opposed to the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom of God.  In other words, in the preaching of the gospel has been realized that which was only an expectation in the law and the prophets. This is why Jesus can call the disciples blessed not only for what they see, but also for what they hear. In this respect they were favored above the Old Testament believers even in their most important representatives (Mt 13:16-17; Lk 10:23-24). The preaching of the gospel s no less a proof than the miracles that the kingdom of heaven has come. (71)

Jesus is not just preaching a promise, but in his preaching inaugurates its fulfillment: “His word is not only a sign, it is charged with power…For the new and unprecedented thing here is not that forgiveness is being announced, but that it is being accomplished on earth.”

Christ’s Word brings the kingdom with it and it is founded in his blood.  Thus, only as prophet and priest is Jesus Christ also the king.  In all of his words and deed, Jesus is most self-conscious of his sacrificial death and resurrection.  He is purpose-driven to Golgotha.  It is his passion, his vocation, the whole point of his ministry.  This is clearly seen in the way in which he prepares the disciples for his crucifixion, followed by his institution of the Supper in the upper room, and in his high priestly prayer.

It’s not that the horizon of Jesus’ contemporaries was too broad, but that it was too narrow.  While they were settling merely for a messiah who would restore geo-political theocracy, Jesus Christ was bringing a universal dominion—not just overthrowing Gentile oppressors, but casting out the serpent from heaven and earth forever: “for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Lk 17:21).

Not surprisingly, then, the key sign of the Spirit’s descent at Pentecost was Peter’s proclamation of Christ, centering on his redeeming life, death, and resurrection; repentance and faith in Christ, along with baptism “for the forgiveness of your sins” (Ac 2:14-38). While individuals—“about three thousand souls” were “cut to the heart” by this message, repented, believed, and were baptized, they were organized by the Spirit into a human community. “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Ac 2:42). From this shared union with Christ, these pilgrims from faraway regions were so united with each other that the worshiping community itself was a witness to the world. “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Ac 2:47).  This is the kingdom!  In its present phase, the kingdom expands by grace and humility, in weakness before the world; yet it conquers the earth.

The forgiveness of sins and the new birth are at the heart of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom.  Proclaimed first to the Jews, this gospel will be preached to all nations.  This is the fulfillment of the prophet vision of a remnant from every nation—even those nations that had persecuted Israel—seeking the Lord where he may be found.  “In those days, ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’” (Zech 8:23).

Jesus’ message of the kingdom as the forgiveness of sins and the dawning of the new creation was inseparable from his promise to build his church and to give his apostles the keys of the kingdom through the ministry of preaching, sacrament, and discipline. It comprises the elements of the Great Commission: preaching the gospel to the world, baptizing, and teaching them everything he commanded.

So Was Paul a “Kingdom” Preacher?

This motif of the kingdom was hardly lost in the apostolic era.  It was this gospel of the kingdom that Peter and the other apostles proclaimed immediately after Jesus’ ascension (Acts 2:14-36; Acts 3:12-16; Acts 17:2-3).  And this is also the heart of Paul’s message (1 Cor 15:3-4).  Paul begins his Letter to the Romans (in the first few verses) with a richly compact summary of the story (the drama) that he then unpacks in doctrine and doxology all the way to the “reasonable service” (discipleship) that flows from it.

The apostles typically interpreted these prophecies as being fulfilled now in Jesus Christ and his gathering of a remnant from Israel and the nations by his Spirit.  Amos 9 speaks of the final restoration of Israel, in concrete terms.  Yet James interprets this prophecy as now being fulfilled in the kingdom of Christ, through the ingathering of a remnant of the Gentiles into the true Israel (Acts 15:14-18).  James’ interpretation is typical of the Christocentric reading of the whole of Scripture that Jesus Christ himself taught his disciples (Lk 24:25–27; Lk 24:31–32; Lk 24:44–49).

Hebrews 1:1–4 hails the ascended Christ as “heir of all things” and the ruler of all, “though we do not yet see all things in subjection to him.” The ascension of Christ to the place of dominion and rule assures us that although we do not yet see everything in subjection to him, the kingdom is present and will one day be universally manifested. Contrasting the kingdom with the church is another way of saying that the main point of Jesus’ commission consists in our social action rather than in the public ministry of preaching, sacrament, and discipline.  In other words, it’s another way of saying that we are building the kingdom rather than receiving it; that the kingdom of God’s redeeming grace is actually a kingdom of our redeeming works.

If the preaching of the gospel, no less than the miracles, is the sign that the kingdom has come, Paul’s message and ministry can only serve as confirmation of the kingdom’s arrival.  All of the realities that the gospels announce as evidence of the messianic kingdom—judgment and justification, forgiveness, a new birth, the gift of the Spirit, and the gathering of a people for the end-time feast—are central in Paul’s preaching in Acts and in his letters. Only if we have a different sort of kingdom in mind will the kingdom motif be thought to have fallen off of Paul’s horizon.  Only if we mistake Sermon on the Mount for the gospel rather than for the law that Christ delivered specifically to his disciples can Jesus be set over against Paul.

Nor can Jesus and Paul be contrasted in terms of a this-worldly kingdom and an other-worldly realm.  Jesus announced the kingdom—more than that, founded and inaugurated the kingdom—that Paul and the other apostles proclaimed.  The kingdom was present even as Caesar remained Israel’s oppressor.  In fact, Jesus said famously concerning taxes, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mk 12:17).  Over against the Jewish authorities indicting him, Paul invoked his Roman citizenship by appealing his case to Caesar (Ac 25:11), yet he also submitted and called Christians to submit to secular authorities (Rom 13).  It is not a kingdom that arises from any place or program on earth but descends from heaven. Wherever the King is present, his kingdom is present also.  Yet he was present in weakness and humility, for us and for our salvation.  Before Pilate, Jesus affirmed that he was a king, but said, “My kingdom is not of this world.  If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews.  But my kingdom is not from the world” (Jn 18:36-37).

When he comes in glory, his kingdom will be glorious in power and might. Paul too teaches that the new creation/kingdom has been inaugurated in Christ’s conquest: the righteousness of God has been revealed from heaven (Rom 1:16-17), including justification of sinners and new birth, the Spirit and his gifts poured out (Rom 5:5).  In Matthew 28:18, the climax is that all kingdom authority is in Christ’s hands, which Paul also emphasizes (Rom 1:3-4; Eph 1:18-22; Phil 2:9-11; Col 1:15-20).  The “already” / “not yet” view of the kingdom that we find in Jesus’ teaching dominates Paul’s horizon, as well as that of the other apostles.  As the writer to the Hebrews declares, Jesus Christ is already now “heir of all things” (Heb 1:1-4).  Our riches today are the spoils of Christ’s triumph that are poured out by his Spirit upon people “from every tribe, kindred, tongue, and people,” being made into “a kingdom of priests to our God” (Rev 5:9).

Since Christ’s ascension and the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost, we have been living in “the/these last days” (Ac 2:17; 1 Tim 3:1; Heb 1:2; Jas. 5:3; 2 Pet 3:3; Jude 18; 1 Pet 1:20; 1 Jn 2:18), before the “last day” (Jn 6:39, 40, 44, 54; 11:24; 12:28).  Christ appeared “at the end of the ages” (Heb 9:26), yet spoke of “the coming age” that even now is breaking in upon us through preaching and sacrament (Heb 6:5).  Paul says that “the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10:11), yet “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thes 5:2).  This is precisely how Jesus described his second coming in the Olivet discourse.  And one could hardly find better confirmation of Jesus’ promise that “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Mat 24:14) than in Paul’s mission and message.

Paul understood Christ’s reign as “already” and “not yet”: “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:25–26).  The presence of the Spirit in our hearts as a pledge (arrobōn) of the consummation assures that what he has begun in us he will complete.  The Spirit brings the blessings of the age to come into the present, which not only fills us with unspeakable joy but also with unutterable longing for the “more” still up ahead (Rom 8:18-25).  Furthermore, the renewal of the whole creation has already begun with the new birth.  Not only our souls, but our bodies, and not only we but “the whole creation” will share in this “glorious liberation” (Rom 8:20-23).  “For in this hope we were saved.”  Yet we do not yet see these full effects of Christ’s kingdom, Paul reminds us.  “But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom 8:24-25). “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised…up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:1, 4-7).  We are chosen, justified, and adopted.  We are being sanctified.  And one day we will be glorified.

At present, the kingdom of Christ is not a geo-political, economic, or cultural force.  Just as Jesus said that his kingdom is not of this world, Paul writes, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).  Our only weapons are the Spirit and the Word of the gospel.  Through faith in Christ we have “the breastplate of righteousness,” “the belt of truth,” “the shield of faith, and “shoes” ready to run with “the gospel of peace” (Eph 6:13-14).

Jesus’ announcement that he has bound the strong man so that the veil of unbelief may be torn from the eyes of Satan’s prisoners is elaborated by Paul (2 Cor 4:3).  Christ has triumphed over Satan at the cross (Col 2:13-15) and in his resurrection and ascension led captivity captive (Eph 4:8-10).  The apostles with one voice declare with their Lord that Christ is now reigning (1 Cor 15:25; Heb 1:3, 8, 13; 8:1; 10:12–13; Ac 2:24–25; 3:20–21).  For this reason, Jesus can assure his persecuted saints, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev 1:17–18).

In this interim period, the kingdom advances alongside the suffering and even martyrdom of its witnesses. Yet Christ “will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Heb 9:28; cf. 10:37).  The regeneration of fallen creation works in concentric circles, beginning with the inner person and then, at the consummation, including the resurrection of the body and the complete renewal of creation.  Wherever the New Testament treats the complex of Christ’s return, the resurrection, and the last judgment, no intervening raptures, resurrections, or judgments are mentioned.

The Gospel is the Kingdom and the Kingdom is the Gospel

The “gospel of the kingdom” (Mat 24:14) and the “keys of the kingdom” (Mat 16:19) are really synonymous.  They both refer to the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins and the renewal of all things that has begun even now with the in-gathering of outcasts to Zion.  Furthermore, both of these phrases are synonymous with the Great Commission.  If John the Baptist could proclaim with seriousness, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mat 3:2), it is all the more urgent that we repent and believe now that the Messiah has come.  The foundation of this repentance is the forgiveness of sins, as John Calvin in Harmony of the Evangelists observed: “From this doctrine, as its source, is drawn the exhortation to repentance.  For John does not say, ‘Repent ye, and in this way the kingdom of heaven will afterwards be at hand;’ but first brings forward the grace of God, and then exhorts men to repent.  Hence it is evident that the foundation of repentance is the mercy of God, by which he restores the lost.”  Forgiveness is “first in order,” “…so it must be observed that pardon of sins is bestowed upon us in Christ, not that God may treat them with indulgence, but that he may heal us from our sins” (179).

Often as a corollary of the alleged Jesus/Paul contrast, there is a tendency sometimes today for Christians to talk about the gospel of the kingdom over against the gospel as the forgiveness of sins.  In other words, it is suggested that the kingdom itself (regarded as a gradual improvement of temporal conditions) is the gospel, more than the quest for personal salvation.  However, this was the mistake of Jesus’ contemporaries: namely, collapsing the kingdom of glory, manifested on the last day, into the kingdom of grace, which is present now.  As Calvin observes, in its present phase, the kingdom is the gospel and the gospel is the kingdom.  “Now the means is His Gospel.  Also that is why Jesus Christ spoke so often of the Gospel, calling it the Kingdom of God.  ‘The Gospel of the Kingdom’ can also be translated ‘the Gospel, which is the Kingdom.’  It is not, then, without cause that the Gospel is called ‘the Kingdom of God.’…Jesus Christ always has some company wherever the Gospel is preached.  For He is not a King without subjects.”

CNN has its own list of headlines.  In the West, history is divided into periods: ancient, medieval, modern, and postmodern.  More recently, it has been said that the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 “changed everything.”  For believers, however, the most decisive turning point was the year 33, when a Jewish rabbi—the Messiah—was raised from the dead in Roman-occupied Palestine.  Vindicating his claim as God incarnate, Savior, and Lord the world, Jesus of Nazareth proved that these titles traditionally invoked by Caesar belonged exclusively to him.  This turning-point is not only celebrated but is deepened and widened in its effects every Lord’s Day.  Wherever this gospel is taken, a piece of heaven—the age to come—begins even now to dawn in the dusty corners of this passing evil age.

For more on a New Testament theology of Jesus and Paul, be sure to listen to these White Horse Inn programs:

The Parables of Jesus (in 6 parts):

Part 1 – 
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Part 2 – 
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Part 4 – 

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Part 5 –
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Part 6 – 

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Jesus, James & Paul:

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The Theology of N. T. Wright:
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  • 14 Dec 2010
    Andrew DeLoach says:

    Fantastic post.

    I’ve always thought of the Jesus vs. Paul dispute as a giant red herring, or at least an adventure in missing the point. I know this post is responding to the different content in their teaching, but wouldn’t we be well served to remember that Paul’s teaching (different as it may or may not be) CAME from Jesus?

    In Acts 9:15 Jesus explains that Saul is his “chosen instrument.” In Acts 13:2ff the Spirit calls Saul for an express purpose. Paul is acknowledged by Luke as an Apostle of Christ in Acts 14:14, as well as by himself in Romans 1:1 (not to mention the beginning of his other epistles). Peter (with whom the same liberal scholars seem to have little or no dispute) equates Paul’s writings with “the other Scriptures.” In Acts 19:11 we see that God was working miracles through Paul. And if we may take Paul’s own words to drive home the point, in Galatians 1:11-16 (especially verse 12) Paul explains that the Gospel he was preaching was given to him, received through revelation, from Jesus Christ.

    Perhaps I’m completely missing something, but I don’t understand why this foundation — that Paul’s preaching was given to him by Jesus — is not forcefully and confidently laid before going on to explain the synonymous nature of their teachings.

  • 14 Dec 2010
    Scot McKnight says:

    Thanks Michael for this robust exposition of kingdom themes.

    My piece calls us to take a slightly different approach to find a deeper unity: christology. If we begin with christology the connection is obvious and profound, even more obvious and more profound than kingdom.

    • 14 Dec 2010
      Mike Horton says:

      Scot, thanks for your comment.   Yes, I was using your article to point up the growing cleavage I’ve also seen in evangelical circles over “Paul vs. Jesus,” not targeting your own proposal.  One of my concerns is the proliferation of “central dogmas” that always end in reductionism and distortion.  As I read your article, we’re on the same page there.  A whole emerges from the parts, and we need to take a step back and take account of the many elements that give meaning in the first place to key terms like “kingdom” and “justification.”   Often, biblical scholars have (quite justifiably) called theologians on the carpet for creating systematic-logical schemes that have little exegetical input.  However, deducing the whole of biblical teaching from a central dogma (or motif) happens a lot these days among biblical scholars also, as I’m sure you’d agree.   We can’t get “justification” from “the kingdom” or vice versa, but they’re both obviously crucial to the story.  So there has to be a broader narrative and web of doctrines that shows their relationship.

      Certainly, Christology gives us a thick intersection of traffic between a whole host of key biblical motifs and doctrines.  However, high Christology has never guaranteed agreement on the kingdom or justification.  It might sound naïve, but I don’t think we have to (much less should) make Jesus definitive for Paul or Paul definitive for Jesus.  Christ speaks the words and performs the deeds that secure our redemption and Paul , as one of Christ’s authorized ambassadors, elaborates the meaning of our Lord’s words and deeds.  Coming from the Father, in the Son, through the Spirit, the teachings of the incarnate Son and Paul are of equal weight.  When Paul talks about justification and the new creation, he’s talking about the kingdom; when Jesus talks about the kingdom, he’s talking about justification and the new creation.

      So we agree that Christ is the center of Scripture, but aren’t we justified in concluding from the particulars in the Gospels and Epistles that the forgiveness of sins emerges as the central goal of the kingdom during this intermission between Christ’s advents?  Even the miraculous signs point to Christ’s saving office, as do the parables.  Christ was charged with blasphemy for daring to forgive sins directly—something that only God can do!  Surely, there’s more to the kingdom than forgiveness and reconciliation with God, but isn’t this the nuclear core that spreads its energies outward into myriad effects in human lives and in the world?  I think that this case can be demonstrated from the Gospels, not just from Paul, and if it can, then why not take the further step of saying that when we understand the kingdom chiefly in terms of the gospel as forgiveness, justification, and new-creation life in Jesus Christ, the very question of any discrepancy between Jesus and Paul fades?  Thanks for the conversation.

  • 14 Dec 2010
    Andrew says:

    Maybe it’s just me, but the audio links aren’t working, all they say is “Audio File not found”

    • 14 Dec 2010
      Eric Landry says:

      Thanks, Andrew. We’re working on providing better links. Sorry for the hassle.

      • 14 Dec 2010
        Mark Vander Pol says:

        The audio links are now working. Sorry for the inconvenience.

  • 14 Dec 2010
    Wade C. Davis says:

    Wonderful post! You have provided me with a way of looking at the Kingdom in a manner I have not considered before now. It is imperative for us to take all of scripture into account as we extract meaning from it and find the harmony of scripture – the same as you have done with this post. Although I lacked an understanding of the Kingdom that is as comprehensive as the one you have presented, I am somewhat at a loss as to why Jesus and Paul are a stumbling block to some. Paul was inspired the same as all of the Apostles. By the very nature of his ministry, Paul could not contradict Christ. It is my hope that this post may illuminate the struggle that some have had with this issue.

    May it all be for His glory!

  • 14 Dec 2010
    James says:

    Another aspect to this is that I have also found that some who promote homosexuality as an acceptable practice want to try to nullify Paul and all of his teaching. By doing this, it seems to me, they are trying to make it seem as though Paul is not teaching what Jesus taught in order to make Paul’s pronouncements against the practice of homosexuality void.

    Since Jesus did not, in print, specifically mention the sin of homosexual practice, they then use this as a way of justifying the practice by making Paul out to be an untrustworthy source as opposed to Jesus.

    I know full well that it’s a ridiculous exercise in illogic, yet I have seen this argument attempted.

    I personally find the first several chapters of Romans to be beautiful, wonderful and perfect truth. My spirit is convicted as the Holy Spirit witnesses to me that it is the words of jesus Himself being taught by Paul. When he speaks of Men and Women being given up to the evil passions of their heart, (in God’s judgement and wrath), and the shameful acts that they do, it is so pinpointedly accurate that it can only leave one speechless and in awe.

  • 15 Dec 2010
    Dr. Horton weights in on Jesus VS Paul of the Emergent churchs Scot McKnight « Pilgrimage to Geneva says:

    […] Jesus vs Paul? Dec.14, 2010 by Michael Horton in General […]

  • 15 Dec 2010
    Mike Storey says:

    OK, I have this one point of concern. I have been listening to Kim Riddlebarger’s Amillennialism 101 podcast series from his blog. It’s great stuff to be sure. But I want to address one of his points in reference to you point here. I understand that this will be a bit picky, but consistency is key and consistency is the appeal of covenant theology, right?

    The second point here talks about using Biblical word count as an argument for theological points. I wholeheartedly agree with this assertion. And yet Kim repeated mentions that the word “rapture” appears only once in the Bible as an argument against dispensationalism. I believe that you should not use the same logical construct from both sides of an argument or you destroy the construct for that discussion.

    Granted, in both cases, there exist plenty of evidence to support your respective positions, but then why address the word count issue at all? Perhaps, due to the constructs of the two issues, you have to use this discussion, but then Kim should necessarily avoid it in order to not lay waste to your assertion on this point.

  • 05 Jan 2011
    Mike Bird says:

    Thanks for this. It is a very good exposition of Kingdom of God (KG) from a Reformed perspective. Let me raise two issues for consideration. First, I think the problem McKnight and others are getting at is that some evangelicals, esp. Reformed types, are very comfortable with Paul but do not really know what to do with Jesus. For case in point, consider John Piper’s sermon Did Jesus Preach Paul’s Gospel?. The very title makes Jesus subordinate to Paul (personally I find the question grossly irreverent). Since Piper defines gospel as justification and justification as imputation he is thereby committed to showing that Jesus preached the imputation of his own righteousness as his gospel. This does not work, it will not fly in the Synoptics or John! Can we link Paul and Jesus without trying to make Jesus into an English Puritan? The way you suggest, showing the links between gospel and kingdom is the way to proceed and there’s plenty of precedents in the Reformed tradition for doing this. But that means that the primary coordinates for understanding gospel (in the Gospels and in Paul’s letters) is the kingdom and not justification/imputation. Second, I have to query your statement: At present, the kingdom of Christ is not a geo-political, economic, or cultural force. You don’t have to be a social gospel liberal or a postmillennialist to think that God’s reign can redeem and sanctify human structures. Jesus taught a lot about money, helping the poor, and changing socio-economic practices as part of a kingdom mandate. When liberation wrought by God comes (and it’s not just spiritual) the KG is manifested. Is the church called to continue that work? I believe so! Anyways, a good post.

    • 05 Jan 2011
      Mike Horton says:

      Thanks, Michael. Good to hear from you and I hope you’re not in the area affected by all of the flooding.

      Yes, I agree that there is a tendency among some to make biblical theology subservient to systematic theology. “No, not ‘kingdom,’ but ‘justification'” is a false choice (as is the reverse). Yet I’ve been impressed in recent years especially with the extent to which Jesus’ teachings (and corresponding signs) converge on this single point: The kingdom that he brings (in its present phase) is forgiveness of sins and the inauguration of the new creation. As his ministry unfolds in the Gospels (especially the Synoptics), and he gets closer to Jerusalem, he not only takes authority over the Temple, but replaces it. He forgives sins directly; insiders become outsiders and outsiders become insiders. Those excluded from the Temple grounds by the self-righteousness of the religious leaders (yes, even after the NPP, we can still say that on the basis of the texts) are healed, their sins (which Jesus says are not signs of their moral punishment) are forgiven, the strong man is bound and his castle is being looted. The parables seem also to me to be focused on these realities.

      The problem, as I see it, is that writers like John Piper have not done enough with the biblical-theological motifs of covenant and kingdom as the broader context for justification, while the Anabaptist renaissance has an erroneous view of the kingdom on multiple levels. First, they rarely distinguish between the kingdom in its status of grace with its consummation in glory. I.e., it’s an over-realized eschatology. Second, they fail to distinguish between the continuing obligation of the world generally to the
      moral law and the radical discipleship to which believers are called in the kingdom. Either they reject the secular powers or they want to make the Sermon on the Mount (rather than the Decalogue/natural law) the canon for world-wide transformation of the kingdoms of this age into the kingdom of Christ. Third, Anabaptists have never been interested in justification; it’s a remarkably moralistic tradition of exegesis. So while we might agree with Anabaptists on the importance of the kingdom in the Gospels, we would have different conceptions of what it is, what it involves, and who belongs to it.

      As you know, there have been many Reformed biblical theologians (e.g., Witsius, Vos, Ridderbos, Kline, et al.) who have highlighted the kingdom motif, in a way that treats the Gospels and Paul as entirely harmonious. I think that a big part of the problem, then, is that a faulty view of the kingdom forces a choice between Jesus and Paul or encourages others to overlook the central importance of justification to the kingdom teaching of the New Testament.

      Thanks for your contribution to the conversation!

      In Christ,
      Mike Horton

  • 05 Jan 2011
    Michael Wimsey says:

    “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Acts 2:36 Interesting to me that the thing that cuts men to the quick when they hear Peter’s address is not the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins and that Jesus is both Messiah and Lord.

  • 05 Jan 2011
    Michael Wimsey says:

    oops. replace and with but. Seems like the early preaching focuses on things near and dear to NPP sensibilities and that the already but not yet Kingdom means that people do follow Jesus in ways commensurate with his teachings in the S on the M and elsewhere. So proclamation must be accompanied by a way of life that lives into the kingdom.

  • 05 Jan 2011
    Phil Vander Ploeg says:

    A little to much being made of Piper’s sermon title. Obviously, Piper never places Jesus in a subordinate position to Paul.

    Rhetorically the point is made, but not in a manner that is fair to the reality of Piper’s message.

  • 05 Jan 2011
    Justin Borger says:

    Prof. Horton, I could not help but notice that you did not respond to Prof. Bird’s specific question about your statement: “At present, the kingdom of Christ is not a geo-political, economic, or cultural force.” Could you please elaborate? Did the present kingdom not manifest itstelf as an economic force in the life of Zacchaeus? Did it not expand to manifest itself as an economic force in corporate life of the early church in Acts (esp. chps. 2,4,11)? Did it not expand to manifest itself further as an economic force in all of Paul’s fledgling Christian communities which participated in his collection for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem (Rom 15; 1 Cor 16; 2 Cor 8-9). Have these manifestations of the economic force of God’s present rule not rippled out into the wider corridors of culture in countless ways? E.g., historic Christian leadership in areas such as medicine and education? What am I missing here? Again, much thanks for a great post.

    • 05 Jan 2011
      Mike Horton says:

      Thanks for asking, Justin. To be sure, there is a ripple-effect as the new creation dawns in this fading evil age. What we don’t see in the examples you gave, though, is a vision of the institutional church as executing a divine blueprint for reorganizing the economic, political, and social systems of the Roman Empire. The Sermon on the Mount gives us a glimpse into the consummated kingdom, but it’s already anticipated here and now in the little flock that follows a pattern of life together that is radically different from the laws (also divinely ordained) that govern nations and neighborhoods.

      Will the communal life of these embassies of grace be “salt” and “light” in the culture? What’s more, will the citizens who form these colonies of heaven on earth be “transformed by the renewing of [their] mind,” so that they love and serve their neighbors with distinction in their worldly callings? The answer to both is “Yes!” But in this present age, the secular kingdoms are not yet the kingdom of Christ and even the kingdom of Christ in its present condition is “simultaneously justified and sinful,” often reflecting the disorder and strife of the world. In its present phase, the kingdom is mandated with preaching the gospel, baptizing, communing, fellowship, prayer, teaching and looking after the spiritual and temporal welfare of the flock. Christians have many mandates in their various callings; the church as an official institution has a limited mandate with limited authority, announcing a greater judgment and liberation than nations can legislate or enforce. Unlike the old covenant theocracy, the church is not a geo-political, socio-economic, ethnic, or cultural institution. It has its own polity, with its own constitution and rites, carrying Christ’s own authority to bind and loose through the ministry he exercises through it.

      A Christian police officer (for example) will not turn the other cheek when threatened by a transgressor of civil laws, but will do so in the case of persecution for the faith. One Christian may argue for a more capitalist economic system, while another defends socialism. Both may be orthodox Christians, convinced that their favored policy is the best way of loving and serving their neighbors, but there simply is no New Testament blueprint for settling that debate. On the other hand, a church that doesn’t care for the physical welfare of its flock is derelict in its diaconal duties.

      So, does the church influence culture? To be sure, along with Moslems, Jews, Hindus, and atheists. Does the church have a vision and a certain hope of that kingdom that will one day characterize the whole world? Absolutely, and it proclaims that to the world. However, the church has no mandate to jump the gun and transform the kingdoms of this age into the kingdom of Christ.

  • 05 Jan 2011
    Howie says:

    Mike – This is a timely discussion. I’ve just finished Willard’s ‘Divine Conspiracy’ and was struck by his description of the Kingdom and his use of it as an organising motif for his book, but the book had a highly moralistic tone and heavy use of the Sermon on the Mount all without the cross. No mention of justification either. I’m guessing this is the Anabaptist/Pietist stream? I’m keen for a future discussion on Whitehorse of the distinctions between the three strands of American evangelicalism – Reformed, Anabaptist and Pietist – and given the influence of Willard, Foster and others across the Pacific and Atlantic – could you critique some of their views for us?

  • 05 Jan 2011
    Justin Borger says:

    Thanks for responding, Prof. Horton.
    The point of the examples I cited was not to prove that the Bible endorses a specific economic philosophy like capitalism or socialism. It was not to argue that the Bible gives us “a vision of the institutional church as executing a divine blueprint for reorganizing the economic, political, and social systems of the Roman Empire.” That would be a substantially different question. Rather, the point of the examples I gave was to challenge your specific assertion that at present, the kingdom of God is not an “economic force.” Wouldn’t you say that this rather sweeping denial flies in the face of those specific examples I gave?

  • 06 Jan 2011
    Dave Davis says:

    I agree with this article and authors such as N. T. Wright that there is compatiblity between the Kingdom of God and Paul’s gospel. But, nobody, nobody is talking about the fact that Jesus is addressing the message of the Kingdom of God to Jews (Israel) only. Sure, gentiles enter the Kingdom as ‘third stringers’ behind the two types of Jews in the parable of the banquet, but the fact that Jesus’ message was primarily to Jews under the law makes a difference. There are extreme views along this line of reasoning, but context makes a difference. Perhaps Jesus’ picture of the Kingdom is like looking in a mirror, like what Paul said of the law.

  • 06 Jan 2011
    Flotsam and jetsam (1/6) « scientia et sapientia says:

    […] Michael Horton responds to Scot McKnight on Jesus vs. Paul. For believers&the most decisive turning point was the year 33, when a Jewish rabbi—the Messiah—was raised from the dead in Roman-occupied Palestine&.This turning-point is not only celebrated but is deepened and widened in its effects every Lord’s Day.  Wherever this gospel is taken, a piece of heaven—the age to come—begins even now to dawn in the dusty corners of this passing evil age. […]

  • 15 Jan 2011
    Steve Loosley says:

    Dr. Horton, I’ve read and re-read this post several times. Each time I come away encouraged, not only on account your fine scholarship, but more importantly, by the hope of the one has come and inaugurated his kingdom and will come again to consumate the work that he began. Your words sing praise to the one who is faithful, Jesus our King.

  • 17 Jan 2011
    WHI-1032 | The Gospel of the Kingdom - White Horse Inn Blog says:

    […] Jesus vs. PaulMichael Horton The Great AnnouncementMichael Horton The Return of the KingMichael Kruger WHI Discussion Group QuestionsPDF Document RECOMMENDED BOOKS […]

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