Many of Paul's letters are a strange combination. Part A is a theological treatise showing how grace comes to us through faith in Christ rather than by the works of the Law. Part A is then followed by Part B where Paul turns to a list of moral imperatives that Christian communities should follow.
It's a weird mixture that creates some whiplash. We are saved by faith but there are still all these moral things you still have to do. So which is it? If you want to preach a sermon about grace you pull your texts from Part A of Paul's letters. And if you want to preach a sermon about discipleship and holiness and moral purity you pull texts from Part B.
What can account for this strange mixture?
The traditional way of handling the disjoint is to discuss the relationships between justification and sanctification. Justification is the subject of Part A in Paul's letters. We are declared "righteousness" by God through faith in Jesus and not by the works of the Law. By contrast, Part B of Paul's letters deals with sanctification, the ongoing pursuit of conforming our lives to the example of Jesus. Justification starts us on the journey and sanctification keeps us on the path.
I don't wholly disagree with this way of handing the theological (Part A) and moral (Part B) aspects of Paul's letters. There is some truth here. But there is also much distortion.
Much of that distortion has to do with how we understand what Paul means by "works of the Law." As work in the New Perspective on Paul has shown, in Paul "works of the Law" doesn't refer to a legalistic moral effort aimed at "earning" our salvation. "Works of the Law" doesn't refer to the human conceit that we can, all on our own, become morally perfect and, thus, "earn our way" into heaven. "Works of the Law" doesn't refer to merit, a sort of moral currency we can collect through good deeds that can be used to purchase our salvation.
"Works of the Law" has nothing to do with any of that.
And yet, you will note, this is the very assumption that creates the disjoint between Part A and Part B of Paul's letters. If the "works of the Law" in Part A is referring to human moral effort to justify ourselves before God then, yes, there is a bit of whiplash when Paul apparently shifts and starts demanding moral behavior. True, the justification/sanctification frame helps a bit but it doesn't completely alleviate the tensions.
Many now think that this tension is being produced by a misunderstanding of what Paul means by "works of the Law." The tension between Part A and Part B in Paul's letters isn't a problem with Paul. The problem is with us.
If so, then what does Paul mean by "works of the Law"?
As the new Pauline scholarship has helped make clear, "works of the Law" mainly means circumcision, the means by which a person becomes a participant in the covenant of Abraham.
Salvation comes to us via the covenant God made with Abraham. Consequently, the critical question for Paul and the early Christian community was how the Gentiles gained access to that covenant. Among the early Christians there were two schools of thought.
The first school of thought was that the Gentiles had to convert to Judaism and be circumcised. This is what Paul is referring to by "works of the Law." It's not too much of a simplification to simply read "works of the Law" as "circumcision" when reading Part A of Paul's letters.
The point for our discussion is simply this. With this new understanding in hand we see that in Paul "works of the Law" isn't about human moral effort (trying to earn our salvation) than it is about identity, Jewish identity in particular. The only way to get access to the promises God made to Abraham was to become a part of Abraham's offspring. Thus, Gentiles needed to become Jews. Jews, yes, who believed that Jesus was the Messiah and that God's promises to Abraham were inaugurated and fulfilled in Jesus, but Jews nonetheless.
In contrast to this circumcision-based vision there was another school of thought, the gospel proclaimed by Paul. According to Paul, faith in Jesus--a circumcision symbolized by Christian baptism--was sufficient to gain access to the covenant of Abraham. Through faith the Gentiles could become Abraham's offspring and be grafted into the covenantal promises made to Israel. A Gentile didn't need to be circumcised. We are justified--brought into the family of God--by faith alone.
In short, Part A of Paul's letters isn't about the human effort to earn salvation. Part A of Paul's letters is about the inclusion of the Gentiles into the story of Israel via faith in Jesus Christ. And this issue was, we know, the central debate of the early church and the question at the heart of the first apostolic counsel recounted in Acts 15.
Readers well-read in this area will have been nodding along. Nothing I've just written is new. I'm just summarizing it for others to get everyone on the same page.
Because what I want to do in this post is shift focus to Part B of Paul's letters, to get a better vision of how what Paul is doing in Part A (his theological account about how Gentiles get included by faith) informs what he's trying to do in Part B (all his moral imperatives).
Specifically, how does Paul's rejection of circumcision specifically and Torah obedience generally inform what he's trying to do in Part B--the moral vision--of his letters?
The answer goes to how the Jews saw obedience to the Torah as an agent of grace in distinguishing them from the moral depravity of the Gentiles and pagans. The Torah made the Jews holy, separating them from the degeneracy of the world.
Read Psalm 119. Psalm 119 is an ode to God's laws, commandments, precepts and decrees. God's law set the Jews apart, creating a holy people characterized by moral integrity, an integrity that made Israel distinctive in contrast to the depravity of the pagans. God's law made Israel morally special, set apart and distinctive. The end of Psalm 147 sums it up well:
Psalm 147.19-20In the eyes of Israel the pagans were depraved and perverse, especially when it came to sexuality. Pagans were unable to control themselves, almost bestial in nature and appetite.
He has revealed his word to Jacob,
his laws and decrees to Israel.
He has done this for no other nation;
they do not know his laws.
Praise the Lord.
But because of God's law Israel was spared this fate. Torah obedience gave Israel a moral integrity that the pagans lacked.
Suddenly, we can see Paul's problem and why Part A flows into Part B of his letters.
If "faith alone" in Jesus Christ jettisons Torah obedience then Paul faces a quandary. Without the Torah how are all these morally depraved Gentiles going to be a people of moral integrity? Where is this moral integrity to come from if the Torah is marginalized? Because most of Paul's contemporaries would have felt that without the Torah it would be impossible for the Gentiles to become a people of moral integrity the way Torah-obedience Jewish Christians were.
In short, Paul's gospel of "faith alone" inaugurated a grand moral experiment. Perhaps "faith alone" in Jesus Christ could function as a sort of "circumcision" grafting the Gentiles into the promises made to Israel. But how could that "faith alone" gospel transform morally and sexually depraved pagans into a people characterized by holiness and moral integrity?
If the inclusion of the Gentiles was Paul's first big issue then the moral integrity of depraved pagans was his second big issue. Paul generally deals with the first issue--inclusion--in Part A of his letters and the second issue--moral integrity--in Part B of his letters. But the two parts are related in that they are both working through the implications--theological (Part A) and moral (Part B)--of marginalizing Torah obedience and the "works of the Law."
So there is no disjoint in Paul's letters. Paul is trying to bring the Gentiles into Israel ceremonially (through baptism rather than circumcision) and morally. Paul's letters are working both aspects of the problem.
With this in mind I want us to step back and ponder what Paul was trying to do and the skepticism he faced in starting these Gentile churches. Paul was setting up these Jesus-communities whose members consisted of, in the eyes of skeptical Jewish onlookers, morally depraved and wicked people. To Jewish onlookers it looked like Paul was handing the keys to the liquor cabinet to a bunch of alcoholics. Morally speaking, this was a recipe for disaster. Paul was hopping around, going from city to city, setting up these communities. And then leaving them! Without the Torah, and the habits of spiritual formation embedded in the culture of faith communities who had been shaped by Torah obedience generation after generation, how were these new Gentile Christians going to lead holy lives?
This was the great moral experiment of Paul's gospel. Could a new form of moral flourishing emerge among the Gentiles separate from the Torah?
Given how the Jews regarded the moral depravity of the Gentiles the prospects of Paul being successful looked bleak. There was no way pagans could become holy without the Torah.
But Paul took a shot at it.
So, how'd he go about doing it?
By way of summary I think we can note three things as being at the heart of Paul's moral vision.
First, there is Paul's pneumatology. Paul felt that, rather than the Torah, the Holy Spirit, having been poured out upon the Gentiles, would give them the capacity to be moral.
Second, and presumably taking a cue from Jesus, Paul reduces the moral code of the Torah to the Golden Rule:
Romans 13.8-10Finally, rather than pointing to the Torah Paul points to the example of Jesus. For example, Philippians 2.5: "In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus." Paul also points to how that example is manifested in his own life: "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ." (I Cor. 11.1).
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: "Love your neighbor as yourself."
In a nutshell this was the heart of Paul's vision for morally forming Gentiles: The Holy Spirit, the Golden Rule, and the Imitation of Christ. This, Paul felt, would be enough to transform depraved pagans into a "holy people."
And yet, these general principles couldn't cover all the moral situations Paul's fledgling churches would face. For example, consider the situation in 1 Corinthians 5 where a man is sleeping with this father's wife.
This was the nightmare scenario for Paul, the thing everyone predicted would happen if you tried to get sexually depraved Gentiles to be sexually pure without the Torah. See, the critics of Paul would chirp, Paul has always been on a fool's errand! Look at the sexual depravity of the Corinthian church! That's what happens when you don't follow Torah!
The catastrophe Paul faced in that situation--calling into question his entire mission and gospel--goes a fair way toward explaining the harsh measures Paul recommends in dealing with the situation:
1 Corinthians 5.9-13Paul doesn't care about outsiders. It's not his concern to judge those outside the church. But Paul's entire gospel hangs in the balance--this crazy moral experiment he's attempting--with the moral witness of his faith community. If they can't get their act together then Paul's gospel is discredited. The rival and alternative gospel of Torah obedience will win the day. Gentile Christians must become Jews.
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.
What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”
It's all coming apart at the seams in 1 Corinthians 5. Paul's calling, mission and gospel hang in the balance. So we can, perhaps, understand a bit of Paul's severity and forcefulness.
All of this brings me to my final and concluding observations. The point of the post.
First, the reason I've gone into describing all this is that I think it helps us understand Paul's harshness, Jewishness and conservatism. Specifically, Paul's Gentile churches were moral demonstrations to Jewish skeptics. And I think this explains a lot of why when Paul gets outside the core of his moral vision--the Golden Rule, the example of Jesus--he falls back upon Jewish (and Greco-Roman) visions of moral flourishing. I think this is why, for example, Paul's household codes are patriarchal. That's what Jewish moral flourishing at that time looked like. And given the skepticism Paul faced he was keen to make Gentile households look like Jewish households, seasoned albeit by the love ethic of Jesus (e.g., mutual submission).
Still, despite the Jewish flavor Paul occasionally inserts, the moral flourishing in Paul's Gentile churches was different from the moral flourishing found in Jewish communities. Which brings me to my final and more provocative point.
While Paul's moral directives have a Jewish and conservative bent (in relation to the surrounding pagan culture) it remains a fact that the moral flourishing observed in Paul's churches was not Jewish or conservative, at least by orthodox Jewish standards. Paul was doing something risky and experimental, cultivating a new form of moral flourishing with a group of people considered to be morally and sexually depraved. True, Paul was morally demanding of these communities, but this was necessary to create the moral distinctiveness his gospel needed to legitimate itself before Christian Jewish skeptics.
In short, by failing to understand the backdrop of Jewish skepticism about Paul's churches Paul's moral conservatism and harshness can mask just how novel, liberal, uncertain, innovative and experimental these communities were in creating a new form of moral flourishing. They were trying to be holy Gentile communities. And that idea was both radical and outrageous.
In the end Paul was vindicated in that a new form of holiness--Gentile Christian holiness--did emerge out of his missionary efforts. Morally speaking, Paul's gospel had created something new and unprecedented.
And Paul's moral experiment continues. Every time the gospel message enters a new cultural context a new form of moral flourishing has to be worked out. At this time and place and with these people what shape will a Christ-centered holiness take?
And taking a cue from Paul here's what I think about how we should approach that question.
As the early Jewish criticism of Paul's churches has waned I think we can revisit the core of Paul's moral vision: the Holy Spirit, the Golden Rule and the Imitation of Christ. That is, as new forms of moral flourishing emerge with the advance of the gospel we go back to these central elements.
Now, of course, some might also want to carry forward, piecemeal, Jewish (and Greco-Roman) particulars that Paul used in various instances to resolve specific issues his churches faced (e.g., the household codes). But I think that would be missing what Paul was doing. Paul wasn't demanding that his churches be morally identical to Jews. His churches were experimental and different from Jewish communities. But Paul did need to show, in the defense of his gospel, a least a family resemblance between the two communities.
Again, what Paul was after was a moral demonstration. Paul wasn't trying to give timeless laws. He was trying to show that Gentiles could be holy, albeit in their own distinctive way.
In short, the moral flourishing among the Gentiles was innovative, unprecedented and not a legalistic adherence of the Torah. And this suggests to me that insisting upon the cultural practices rooted in Torah observance within Paul's moral teaching--that we must follow these parts slavishly, literally and legalistically--ironically misses the point that Paul was resisting a slavish, literal and legalistic observance of the Torah.
Legalistically and literally following Paul's specific moral directives misses the point that Paul was cultivating, tweaking and experimenting with a new, innovative and unprecedented form of moral flourishing.
To follow Paul slavishly, literally and legalistically misses the risky, daring and experimental nature of what Paul was doing. Now, does that mean anything goes? No, Paul had some central principles that he kept coming back to. We have to do the same, over and over again.
But let's be clear, Paul took a risk. Paul didn't know how it was all going to turn out. Neither will we. You can only judge by the outcomes by the degree to which they conform to the self-giving love of Jesus and the fruits of the Spirit. At the end of the day, that's how Paul assessed his own moral experiments.
Paul wasn't getting his churches to follow a new set of rules, a new Torah of his own making. Paul wasn't trying to be Moses. So we shouldn't treat him as Moses. Paul was curating, nurturing, shaping and cultivating communities to bring into existence a new and innovative form of moral flourishing where pagans could become shaped into the image of Jesus.
And I think that adventure continues.
Along with all the uncertainty, open-endedness, controversy, innovation, experimentation and risk that characterized the ministry of Paul.