Jesus vs. Paul
Many biblical scholars and lay Christians have noted that Jesus preached almost exclusively about the kingdom of heaven, while Paul highlighted justification by faith—and not vice versa. Some conclude that they preached two different gospels. Others argue that really they both preached justification; still others say it's all about the kingdom. What gives?
Note: Clicking the "video" links placed in the article will take you to a segment from an interview with Scot McKnight about the implications of this story.
I grew up with, on, through, and in the apostle Paul. His letters were the heart of our Bible. From the time I began paying attention to my pastor's sermons, I can only recall sermons on 1 Corinthians—the whole book verse by verse, week by week—and Ephesians. I don't recall a series on any of the Gospels or on Jesus.
There were two annual exceptions to our Pauline focus. At Christmas, we heard a sermon on one of the narratives about Jesus' birth, and during Holy Week, we got something on Jesus' death and resurrection. We were Pauline Christians and not one bit worried about it. I learned to think and believe and live in a Pauline fashion. Everything was filtered through Paul's theology. Justification was the lens for the gospel, and "life in the Spirit," the lens for Christian living.
Then I went off to Bible college (now Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan) and majored in history while taking as many Bible courses as I could. Once again, Paul featured prominently. My senior year, I read the first volume of Ralph Martin's New Testament Foundations series and was taken with the freshness of the Gospels. But nothing overwhelmed me like my first experience in seminary. Sitting in Walter Liefeld's synoptic Gospels course at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, I was absolutely mesmerized by Jesus, his kingdom vision, and the Gospels. I decided then and there that my life's pursuit would be Jesus and the Gospels.
A few years later, I began doctoral work on the Gospel of Matthew, and a few years after that began teaching as a young professor at Trinity, where I even got to teach Jesus and the Gospels. I spoke so often about Jesus' teachings that one student quipped that I needed to give a lecture called "Jesus' View of Jesus," since I had covered Jesus' view on everything but Jesus!
Something was clearly happening to me. Formerly I had loved Paul and thought with Paul. Then, when I encountered Jesus, as if for the first time, I began learning to think with Jesus. One of my colleagues occasionally suggested I was getting too Jesus-centered and ignoring Paul. I'm not so sure I was ignoring Paul; after all, I was teaching a few of his letters on a regular basis. But I had unlearned how to think in Pauline terms and was thinking only in the terms of Jesus. Everything was kingdom-centered for me.
And, truth be told, I was so taken with Jesus' kingdom vision that reading Paul created a dilemma every time I opened his letters.
An Evangelical Crisis
My experience is not unusual. 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"?
The choice matters. It can be said without exaggeration that the evangelical movement owes its fundamental strength to the Reformation and the Great Awakenings and revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries; that is, it is a Paul-shaped movement through and through. The early 20th century arrival of the social gospel, which seemed to link "kingdom" with "liberal" and "justice," made the Pauline emphasis within the evangelical movement more pronounced. Furthermore, when some evangelicals recently rediscovered Jesus' kingdom vision, they were frequently warned that they were on the verge of falling for a social gospel.