Paul is our best interpreter of Jesus

March 15, 2016

I’ll have more to say about Fleming Rutledge’s latest book, about the cross of Christ, when I read it—I just ordered it on Amazon. But I entirely agree with Rutledge’s words from a recent Christianity Today interview.

You think justification is the most radical of ideas. Why?

The great biblical scholar F. F. Bruce was asked what being evangelical meant. He said it means nothing more and nothing less than the justification of the ungodly. I want to make that the centerpiece of my argument wherever I go—the justification of the ungodly.

This differentiates Christian faith from religion in general, because religion in general has as its purpose to create godly people. Godliness is the goal. But twice, Paul refers to the justification of the ungodly, which is the most irreligious thing that’s ever been said. It cuts against religion. We cannot achieve our own godliness. It must be given to us, and it has been given to us in this unrepeatable, world-overturning act of invasion of this satanic-occupied territory by the Son of God himself.

So you don’t believe the Cross is just a declaration of our righteousness.

It’s not an amnesty. This is why I talk about the inadequacy of forgiveness as a theme. God is not going to just forgive sin; he is going to do something about it. The sin, the error, the evil is to be wiped out and erased from memory. He will wipe away all tears from their eyes. This calls for a much stronger word than forgiveness. Reginald Fuller, an important New Testament scholar from England, said more than once in my hearing, “Forgiveness is too weak a word.”

Are we mistaken to think that New Testament writers, when they sum up the gospel, often use the word forgiveness to do so?

We have to be careful about that. Luke does that, but Paul does not.

The Gospel of Luke is justifiably beloved. We would be terribly impoverished without it. But at the same time, Paul needs to be the lens through which we read Luke and not the other way around, because Paul is more radical. Luke has, essentially, a gospel of repentance and forgiveness, but Paul conspicuously does not construe the gospel that way.

The horrible death envisioned for the Suffering Servant and the horrific death suffered by Jesus Christ respond to the gravity of sin.

It is not accidental that Paul does not speak of forgiveness or repentance in any significant way. He chooses this other word—justification—which includes within it forgiveness as a Christian quality, a Christian act. It is a Christian act to forgive. That’s clear. But the word repentance, which is definitely missing from Paul, is even more striking. The temptation is to say that repentance is necessary before God can forgive us. The truth is the other way around. Repentance is something that God works in us as a consequence of his prevenient grace. I love the word prevenient, “going before.”

Paul interprets the four Gospels for us in a way that we would not have been able to do for ourselves.

6 Responses to “Paul is our best interpreter of Jesus”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Ha! I did not read this post before I “mass-forwarded” my letter to the editor to CT earlier today, I promise! Just got to this as I am now typing! In all events, I have to stand by my letter. We don’t “reinterpret” what Luke says Jesus says based on what Paul says. The ultimate “gospel” is the “gospel according to Jesus,” as John MacArthur entitles his book on the subject. Paul can certainly help us “understand” the gospel better (as with all the other New Testament writers–indeed, the OT writers as well as they “presage” what Christ is about, looking forward to that fulfillment), but the rule still is, Jesus is his own best authority as to what Jesus means. if we seem to be getting “out of sync” with what Jesus plainly says by how we read Paul, we cannot just “cling to Paul.” We have to see how what Paul says is consistent with what Jesus says.

    And, as I pointed out in my letter and take issue with what Rutledge says, perhaps nowhere is this point as clear as when it comes to “repentance.” I know you like “prevenient,” as she adopts, but the point is that repentance is necessary to OBTAIN salvation, whether that is “engineered” by the Spirit or not. God does not just “dole out” salvation willy-nilly. He selects based on SOMETHING.

    So, what is that “something” that God is “looking for”? In my estimation it is a heart which is wiling to “turn towards God” (repent of the sinful life, be sorry for it, be willing with God’s help to attempt turning things around) when God “calls.” Zaccheus (sp?) is perhaps the perfect example of this. Jesus calls him, he goes home with Jesus, whereupon he makes his pledge to “live a new life,” whereupon Jesus notes that today salvation has come to this house, for this man too is a son of Abraham. He does not say this just because Zaccheus agrees to go to his home with Jesus as Jesus invited him to do, but only AFTER what Zaccheus says in RESPONSE to Jesus “invitation.” I confess to not being able to “gauge” someone’s reaction to the gospel to know whether repentance is actually there or not–mostly only God knows that. But that does not take away from its necessity. “Without holiness, no one will see God.” It is not just “imputed” holiness–i.e., that takes no effort on OUR part. It is a life turned in that direction. That’s my view.

    • brentwhite Says:

      For all we argue about this, it’s amazing how little I disagree with you! 😉 I do think repentance is engineered by the Spirit—but in response to a willingness on our part. But nothing Rutledge says in that interview is outside of historic Christian thought. Plus, she’s collected a wide spectrum of evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox, and even (heaven help us) mainline Protestant blurbs. I look forward to reading the book. I’ll get it tomorrow. I worry that she’ll under-sell penal substitution and God’s wrath, but Mark Galli loves the book, and he’s a lot like me, I think.

      I don’t agree with you about privileging the gospels (or at least the words of Christ) over Paul’s letters. I think we must interpret them in light of one another. The gospels are incomplete without Paul because their purpose is different. I largely agree with what someone said: the gospels portray the life of Jesus and Paul interprets that life. Something like that. But you can’t have a full picture of the gospel without both.

      We don’t have, in my opinion, “greater access” to Jesus when we read the gospels than Paul because Jesus himself speaks to us through both—by the Holy Spirit. At least that’s how I see it.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        So, I agree with you that all scripture is equally inspired. But, look, that works both ways. We can’t “elevate Paul” either. So, to achieve the right “balance,” we can’t just “interpret Jesus in light of Paul.” We have to just as much “interpret Paul in light of Jesus.” All I’m saying is that when it comes down to an “apparent” inconsistency between the two, I am going to “lean in favor of” what Jesus says first and foremost.

      • brentwhite Says:

        O.K. But Jesus isn’t interpreting (usually) his own words or actions. So my headline remains true, doesn’t it? We need both equally.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        I don’t think Paul is the “best interpreter.” Peter, John, and James are just as good. Paul focuses on grace a lot, whereas the other three seem to focus on “what we do” a lot more. (Although Paul gives a lot of “how to act” discussion as well.) Also, it is not just a question of “what Jesus did.” Jesus also TALKED a lot. He gave a lot of theology and “do’s and don’ts.” I don’t think I especially need Paul in particular to “interpret” for me what Jesus says.

      • brentwhite Says:

        For whatever reason, the Holy Spirit saw fit to have Paul, rather than the other apostles,write a disproportionate amount of the New Testament. So I don’t know that the other three are just as good. But I’m speculating, so who knows?


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