Reading Paul Through First-Century Eyes

In this article, what I want to do is to help us rid our minds of modern and medieval thinking when approaching Paul’s letters, and step back into the first century context and read from their vantage point. 

My proposal is actually very simple. Read Paul’s words for what he actually says, not what we can make him say to address our concerns. For many today this is very hard to do. 

I don’t have any special insight into what was going through Paul’s mind—other than what he actually wrote, and the context and place in history in which he was writing.

Martin Luther’s concern was, “How does a filthy sinner like me stand before a holy God, be declared righteous and be allowed into heaven?” And that’s the same question many of us ask today. (At least those of us who have been influenced by the Protestant reformation.) That’s a very valid concern and we need to find an answer for it. But what we shouldn’t do is try to milk an answer to our question out of a passage or passages that doesn’t address the question the same way we’re asking it. 

Examples of Misreading Paul

To show why this is important, I’m going to start with a couple of extreme examples of misunderstanding Paul’s writings that have led to disastrous conclusions.

Was Paul an Imposter?

About ten years ago I was part of a church that split over the question of whether Paul was a true apostle of Christ or an imposter. One man firmly believed that Paul was an imposter and a heretic. He claimed that Jesus taught self denial, cross-bearing and obedience as the way of salvation, with no mention of grace; while Paul taught salvation by grace alone through faith alone. 

In his eyes, that clearly shows that Paul’s and Jesus’ messages are contradictory and irreconcilable. The answer for this individual was to reject Paul as a false teacher and just accept the pure words of Jesus as recorded in Matthew, Mark, and John. So his New Testament looks very different from the one that we accept. This particular church split was incredibly disastrous and influenced some people very dear to us to walk away from the faith altogether. 

Does Paul Supercede Jesus?

Now we also have the opposite side of this coin, and I know quite a number of people in this camp, including quite a few former Anabaptists. It’s called Hyper-Dispensationalism. Classic Dispensationalism is a very dangerous error and should be avoided at all cost, but Hyper-Dispensationalism takes the error to a whole new level, perhaps more consistently than the classic and more moderate kind of Dispensationalism. 

The Hyper-Dispensationalist position also teaches that Paul’s message and Jesus’ message contradict one another. However they conclude that since Paul is the apostle to the Gentiles, his message of grace is for us in the “Church age” and Jesus’ message of works was for the Kingdom of Heaven that he was offering to the Jews. Since the Jews rejected Jesus, this Kingdom was put on hold (along with Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom) and the “Church age” began. They say that the teachings of Jesus will once again be in effect at a future millennial reign of Christ, which they call the “Kingdom age.” Their cutting and dicing of scripture is based partly on 2 Timothy 2:15 from the King James Bible. 

Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” 2 Tim. 2:15, KJV

The key phrase for them is “rightly dividing.” And so they cut and divide the New Testament into different dispensations. Paul’s letters are for us the “Gentile Church,” (a completely made up category; there’s no such thing as the Gentile Church), while the Gospels, James, and Hebrews are for Israel in the millennium. Another verse they use to justify their slicing and dicing is in Isaiah 28:

Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts. For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little.” Isaiah 28:9-10, KJV

Based upon these verses they intentionally read not just Paul’s letters but the whole bible as a grab bag of sentences and verses rather than a unified story.

I’m not going to exegete Isaiah 28 and 2 Timothy 2 here, but the reason I bring up these two extreme viewpoints is to highlight the importance of reading Paul in context. Both in Paul’s historical context as well as the meaning and usage of words that Paul used himself. What’s interesting is that in both of the examples that I gave, their reading of Paul is basically the same (Paul preached grace, while Jesus preached works).

I brought up two extreme viewpoints, where one side rejects Paul and his teachings, and the other side rejects the teachings of Jesus as relevant for today. But I don’t want anyone to think that if you don’t fall into any of those two extremes that your understanding must therefore be correct. The reason that these two viewpoints were ever able to arise is because of some very foundational misunderstandings of Paul (and Jesus). So even if you don’t fall into any of these extreme errors, the question is, do you hold to a moderate misunderstanding of Paul that would naturally lead to these extremes if taken to their logical conclusions?

Does Our Theology Matter?

Some people may wonder why I’m so concerned with these “finer points” of theology, and “splitting hairs” over things that don’t really matter all that much. Well, I would just beg to differ that the interpretation of God’s word “doesn’t matter.” Everything that we believe has consequences and lead down a certain path. It may not be obvious to you right now but in the long run your theology charts a course for your life and for many others. The follower of Jesus should have a sensitive conscience and should care deeply about truth, whether or not our short sighted minds can see the consequences. 

Having said that, there are places where the meaning of scripture on a given subject isn’t totally clear. In such cases Christians should leave room for differences of opinion. Especially if the Church throughout history has held to different views. However in most cases, especially in areas of scripture that requires our obedience, we need to take a firm stand.

Finny Kuruvilla puts it this way:

“The greatest battle raging today within the church is how to understand and interpret the Scriptures. This battle affects practically everything: one’s view of God, the gospel, obedience and the church. It has even been said that the history of the church is the history of biblical interpretation.

The great temptations of Scripture – Adam-and-Eve’s temptation by the serpent in the garden, and Jesus’ temptations by Satan in the wilderness – we’re centered on interpretations of God’s word. Emblematic of humanity’s constant struggle, these temptations have morphed in character but not in goal. The goal is to kill and destroy humanity by warping God’s word. The stakes can hardly be overstated.”1Finny Kuruvilla, King Jesus Claims His Church, page 51

We must be very clear that Paul’s teachings are authoritative and binding for all who want to be disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. But the job of the reader is not to take certain words and phrases and ascribe modern meanings to them (or even medieval meanings) and then run with it. No, the responsibility of the reader is to harmonize Paul’s letters with the other apostolic teachers in the New Testament and of course most importantly Jesus himself. If they seem to contradict, then there’s something wrong with our understanding of them.

Here are a few quotes from three early Christian writers:

“I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you. They were apostles.” Ignatius, AD 105

“For neither I, nor any other such one, can come up to the wisdom of the blessed and glorified Paul.” Polycarp, AD 135

As I keep hearing the epistles of the blessed Paul read, and that twice every week and often three or four times. Whenever we are celebrating the memorials of the holy martyrs. Gladly do I enjoy the spiritual trumpet, and get roused and warmed with desire at recognizing the voice so dear to me. And seem to fancy him all but present to my sight and behold him conversing with me. But I grieve and am pained as all people do not know this man as much as they ought to know him. But some are so far ignorant of him, as not even to know for certainty the number of his epistles. And this comes not of incapacity but of their not wishing to be continually conversing with this blessed man. For is not through any natural readiness and sharpness of wit that even I am acquainted with as much as I do know, if I do know anything. But owing to a continual cleaving to the man and an earnest affection towards him.” John Chrysostom, mid-300s

As we see the early church held the apostle Paul in very high regard, as we should today. And they use very lofty language when talking about him, perhaps even more so than many of us would be comfortable with.

So here we stand in the year of our Lord 2023, two thousand years after Paul penned his letters to the various congregations in the Greek and Latin speaking world. And whether we know it or not, we are heirs of years and centuries and even millennia of accumulated traditions. Penal substitutionary atonement, imputed righteousness, and individualistic thinking. Our understanding of certain words and phrases are also inherited. For us here in the west we are especially influenced by the Protestant reformation. Martin Luther, John Calvin, etc. So words like grace, faith, righteousness, justice, law and salvation, often have fixed meanings in our minds. 

The New Perspectives on Paul

Within the last 30 or 40 years there has been some scholarly opposition to some of these long-held Protestant presuppositions that I just mentioned.

These viewpoints, often labeled the new perspectives on Paul, are based upon sound historical scholarship of first century Judaism and the context of Paul’s letters. One of the more well-known of these scholars is N.T. Wright.

Let’s talk about a new viewpoint versus an old viewpoint. Or a new movement versus an old movement. If the movement or the viewpoint is an attempt to shed all new innovations and get back to the original, it’s more like a revival of the old movement. So when we talk about the new perspectives on Paul we’re not talking about a new innovation but a rediscovery of the old.

But since Protestant scholarship has misunderstood Paul for so long and now some well known and respected scholars are starting to understand and correct some of these misunderstandings, this scholarship on Paul is being labeled the “New Perspectives.” These “new perspectives on Paul” are in fact not new at all among Kingdom Christians. What is new is that prominent Protestant scholarship is finally catching up to what Kingdom Christians have believed all along, especially with regard to Paul’s letters.

During the early years of the Anabaptist movement, the established Roman Church had been around for over a thousand years. One could have charged the Anabaptists of starting a new movement and teaching new doctrines. But was it really new? Of course not; they were simply trying to be faithful and accurate in their obedience to the original teachings of Jesus without all these mountains of accumulated doctrinal innovations and traditions. 

What about us today? Will we follow in this same vision of faithfulness to the pure message of Jesus as recorded by the apostles, or be influenced by the doctrinal innovations of the Protestant reformers and their children? We have 500 years of Protestant teaching and tradition to overcome. I would argue that this influence is far more harmful and dangerous than what the early Anabaptists faced with the Roman Church. Since many Protestants were and are gifted Bible teachers, and since they hold the motto “Sola Scriptura,” we are being led to believe that we are just being taught the Bible.

However, I’m very much opposed to any new perspectives that people come up with. Dispensationalism by John Nelson Darby, Imputed Righteousness by Martin Luther and Original Sin and Just War theory by Augustine.

So, with all that out of the way, I have six points to help us in understanding Paul.

1. Paul’s place in the biblical storyline

One of the first questions we should ask when reading Paul’s letters is, “Where does Paul fit into the larger story?”

When my 10-year-old daughter picks up and reads a book, she doesn’t open up in the middle of the book and start reading, unless she already knows the context and the previous parts of the story that leads up to where she wants to read. (Some books like the Quran do not have a storyline, from beginning to end. But the Bible most definitely does. Beginning with creation and ending with new creation. The Bible is not a grab bag of verses. You can’t just reach in there and pull out a verse to suit your fancy.)

When we start reading in Romans or Ephesians, we need to read in the context of Jesus’ main message, the inaugurated Kingdom of God with Jesus as the supreme ruler. His teachings and commandments as the non-negotiable constitution of the land. Of course, the commandments that Paul gives us are also to be seen as coming from Jesus and are non-negotiable. 

Finny Kuruvilla puts it this way:

The early Anabaptists viewed Paul’s letters as an infallible exposition of Jesus’s words and deeds. But they preferred to begin at the Gospel accounts themselves. This manner of reading more appropriately uses canonical and covenantal structure as a hermeneutical lens. — Anabaptists “begin at the beginning” of the covenant (preamble, history and stipulations) rather than the later “prosecution of God’s covenant lawsuit” found in the epistles.”2Finny Kuruvilla, King Jesus Claims His Church, page 78

In other words, Paul’s letters build upon the foundation of the life, teachings, example, death, resurrection, ascension and enthronement of Jesus.

2. Paul preached the Kingdom of God, just as Jesus did

Jesus’ central message was the Kingdom of God. Paul’s message was absolutely the same as Jesus’. But of course Paul spoke a lot about grace. Which is God’s power enabling us to live in his Kingdom.

One of the most beautiful statements about the Gospel of the Kingdom is found in Romans 1:

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for 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, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.” Romans 1:1-6, ESV

This passage is so jam-packed with meaning—Jesus the anointed King of Israel, the fulfillment of the prophetic Scriptures, the hope of Israel, and flowing from Israel to the whole world to bring about the obedience of faith. A very rich passage indeed.

In Luke’s record of Paul’s traveling and preaching in the book of Acts, we read that Paul preached the Kingdom of God.

But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again.” Acts 20:24-25

The context here is Paul speaking to the Ephesian elders as he’s about to leave for Jerusalem. Here we see that the Gospel of the grace of God and the Gospel of the Kingdom are one and the same.

In Acts 28 when Paul arrives in Rome he calls the local Jewish leaders together and says this to them:

For this reason, therefore, I have asked to see you and speak with you, since it is because of the hope of Israel that I am wearing this chain.” Acts 28:20 

What is the hope of Israel? The Messiah and His Kingdom, the eternal Kingdom of God!

“When they had appointed a day for him, they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets.” Acts 28:23

This is the Kingdom foretold in the Law and the prophets. The eternal Kingdom without end, the throne of David.

“He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” Acts 28:30-31

Jesus preached the Kingdom of God, and, as we see, Paul preached the Kingdom that Jesus inaugurated—the hope of Israel.

The difference between Jesus and Paul is mainly that Jesus spoke about the Kingdom before his enthronement and coronation. Paul comes along later and explains what these significant events mean, practically and prophetically. 

3. The Jew and Gentile controversy

Paul wrote his letters in the context of the controversy between new Jewish and Gentile Christians. This context is especially important to remember whenever Paul is addressing the works of the Law versus grace and faith. One thing is obvious when reading Acts or the letters of Paul, and that is that the Jew and Gentile controversy was front and center in these writings. It’s important to understand that the works of the Law that Paul talks about so often, are not works of just any law but the Mosaic Law and especially circumcision, as seen in the following verse.

But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” Acts 15:5

This is what Paul says about such people:

“Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.” Philippians 3:2-3

Circumcision was commanded by God to Abraham as an everlasting covenant. It was the sign of God’s land promise to Abraham in Genesis 17. I would argue that in the eyes of most Jews, circumcision was the single most important commandment. It’s what defined them as children of Abraham and heirs to the land that God promised to Abraham. But what does Paul say? “Look out for dogs and evildoers.” Wait a minute Paul, dogs are the uncircumcised Gentiles. Then he goes on to say, “look out for those who mutilate the flesh.” Paul couldn’t have struck at a more vital organ. This was the sacred, everlasting covenant of circumcision. It’s what defined them as Jews and heirs to the land. If someone wanted to join Israel and become part of God’s covenant people, the first thing to do was for the men to get circumcised. But what does Paul say? “We are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.” In other words, “We who are followers of Jesus, the circumcised of heart, are the real successors of Abraham, and heirs of the land promise.”

The Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised controversy was a very big issue for Paul. The Jews and Judaizers didn’t mind Gentiles joining Israel. That wasn’t the issue. Jesus even said that the Pharisees crossed land and sea to make proselytes. But these proselytes had to get circumcised and keep the law in order to be a part of Israel and its promises. Paul turned all those ideas inside-out and upside-down.

4. Corporate focus rather than individual focus

While God certainly cares about each of us individually and saves us individually, a major aspect of Christianity is that we are part of a larger group, the people of God. Many passages in Paul’s letters have a corporate focus. Particularly passages about election and salvation.

Let’s go to the Calvinists’ favorite chapter in the Bible. Romans 9, and see how Paul’s corporate focus affects its meaning:

“I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—  that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.”

This is the fleshly nation of Israel, a corporate group of people. From beginning to end this passage is speaking corporately.

“But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,”

One could say that God’s word has failed because most of fleshly Israel didn’t receive their Messiah. Here Paul is clearly speaking corporately and he’s contrasting fleshly Israel with the Israel of promise. So he’s using Israel in two different senses. You see this in other places as well where Paul uses “Israel” in different senses.)

“and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.”

Isaac was the child of promise, Ishmael the child of the flesh. Here Paul uses “offspring” in two different senses, Jesus does the same thing in John 8:37 and 39, “I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did.” Paul and Jesus both make a clear distinction between true children of Abraham to whom the promises belong, and “children of the flesh.”

8 “This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.”

Notice the two different ways in which “children” or “offspring” are used.

9 “For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

Again, remember that from the very beginning, this passage is speaking corporately. It’s not about Jacob as a person or Esau as a person but corporate entities or systems that they represent. Fleshly Israel versus the Israel of promise. Esau the firstborn is fleshly Israel and Jacob the younger is the Israel of promise.

14 “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”

Now here continuing with the same theme, Pharaoh represents fleshly unbelieving Israel.

18 “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.”

Again corporate entities. Fleshly Israel was hardened as a corporate entity, but not every individual was hardened.

19 “You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?”

In keeping with Paul’s theme from the very start, he’s still talking about corporate entities not individuals. Fleshly Israel was the vessel prepared for destruction and the Israel of promise was prepared for glory.

22 “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—  even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” (Romans 9:1-22)

A corporate entity of Jews and Gentiles brought together in Christ. The Israel of promise. Imagine if this chapter is not speaking corporately but individually, it would contradict everything else that the Bible teaches about free-will and our responsibility. And the Calvinists would be right that God created and prepared individual people for damnation. This chapter is only one example of Paul speaking corporately not individually. There are many more places like this, especially in Galatians:

“But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.” Gal. 3:22-24 

The law was “our” guardian until Christ came, the one upon whom our faith is to be placed. 

Paul is speaking about a specific Law that came into existence 430 years after Abraham. Verse 17 (ie the Mosaic Law.) “This Law was our guardian until Christ came.” Clearly the “our” in this passage is speaking about a collective group of people. God’s covenant people, the Israel of promise into which the Galatian Christians were grafted.

5. A proper understanding of words like Grace and Faith.

I could have added many more words to this list of misunderstood words from the writings of Paul. But for the sake of space I want to only focus on these two. Let’s take these words one at a time.


Paul himself defines this word for us. So let’s take Paul’s own definition and apply it to other places where the word is used.

For the grace of God has appeared, [Okay, what does the grace of God do?] bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.” Titus 2:11-15

This is what Paul says that grace does—teaching us to live godly obedient lives. If someone lives disobediently and says “Oh that’s not a salvation issue; I’m saved by grace.” I can assure you from the teachings of the apostle Paul that such a person is not saved by anything, much less by grace. They are simply using grace as a cover for their disobedience and a license for their sin.

Strong’s dictionary defines grace/charis this way: “the divine influence upon the heart, and its reflection in the life.” In other words, This definition agrees with Paul’s definition in Titus 2. Grace is not merely a concept or favorable feeling. It’s an actual power that teaches and changes us from the heart outward.

Now let’s look at some other passages about grace:

For the law was given through Moses grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17) 

Now let’s take Paul’s definition of grace and apply it here. God’s powerful life changing and transforming work comes through Jesus Christ. It’s very simple, not complicated.

Ephesians 2 is a very well known and often quoted passage about Grace. Let’s read the first ten verses:

1 “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—  among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

Notice that a sinful and disobedient life is being described.

4 “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—”

I.e., changed from being sinful and disobedient to holy and obedient. Saved.

6 “and raised us 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. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

I.e., God’s active, powerful grace, not your own bootstraps or the Mosaic Law.

10 “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:1-10)

As mentioned before grace is a power that changes us and enables us to live for what we were created for. This entire passage and particularly verse 10 teaches us what grace actually does.

When we understand the biblical definition of grace, these passages and all others make beautiful sense:

“Salvation’s purpose is to transform us into what we have been created to be and enable us to live out our vocation in this present world as renewed humanity in Jesus. The goal is not for you to go to heaven when you die. Rather it is for heaven to be manifest in you to this world.” –Charlton Sweazy

That is a truly powerful statement about salvation by grace and what grace does.

There are many other passages about grace in Paul’s letters, but we won’t look at them here for the sake of space. Let me just say something about what grace is not. Grace is not God overlooking our sins or false teachings. And grace is not God’s favor in our sins but rather God’s favor to overcome our sins. 

God’s grace does not coddle people in their sins and false teachings. Grace teaches and empowers us to overcome.  We lament the lukewarmness and apathy in many churches today. Could it be that it is due to a castrated version of grace, as simply “unmerited favor”? While grace is unmerited it is not unconditional or inactive. And while it is also favor, it is empowering not overlooking. Is it any wonder that many churches are impotent and powerless?


Paul repeatedly tells us that our faith is what God counts as righteous. If we are concerned with our standing before God then we should understand what this word means. Let’s look at a few passages.

What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, [works of the Mosaic Law; we’re told that specifically in Galatians] he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” (Romans 4:1-5)

Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.” (Romans 4:9-11)

“No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:20-22)

The Greek word is pistis, often translated as “faith,” and pisteuo is the verb form, often translated as “believe.” While I’m not a Greek scholar, I can quote Greek scholars. Here are two of them.

“I have made the claim that pistis, which has traditionally been translated as “faith” in Paul’s letters, is better understood as allegiance when speaking of how the gospel of Jesus unleashes God’s power for salvation.” Matthew Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone, page 78

This translation makes perfect sense of the way that Paul uses the word. According to Paul the call of the Gospel is a royal call into Christ Jesus’ Messianic Kingdom. So pistis is allegiance to the King. And God considers that to be righteous. In Abraham’s case, allegiance to God. In our case allegiance to God through His Son.

This is what Finny Kuruvilla writes about pistis.

“Another important example is the word faith or belief. Imagine that a friend asks you, “Do you believe in God?” Most people would take such a question as, “do you believe that God exists?” But consider how differently we understand each of the following 3 questions:

  • Do you believe that God exists?
  • Do you have faith in God? 
  • Are you faithful to God?

In the Greek of the New Testament, all 3 senses are captured by the word translated as “faith.” The word “faith” is a translation of the Greek word pistis. The Septuagint, New Testament and the first-century Greek literature often uses the word pistis and its cognates in the sense of being faithful, loyal and reliable. The first definition of pistis from a prominent Greek lexicon is: “the state of being someone in whom confidence can be placed, faithfulness, reliability, fidelity, commitment. . . .

“Just as in English, the adjective form of a word provides valuable insight to what the cognate noun means; for example, the relationship of strong to strength. “Faithful” captures an important dimension of what the word “faith” means. 

The meaning of the word faith cannot be restricted to just one sense; Its semantic range is broad and different contexts will highlight different senses. But we must be careful not to be overpowered by Protestant sensibilities where faith is nearly always contrasted to works. The New Testament sometimes contrasts faith to disobedience (for example John 3:36; Hebrews 3:18-19; 1 Peter 2:7). By setting up faith as a contrast to faithful obedience, the propaganda of disobedience games a major victory.”3Finny Kuruvilla, King Jesus Claims His Church, page 119

Contrast this with the propaganda of disobedience, in this case represented by John MacArthur when he writes about the assurance of salvation:

“If the preservation of salvation depends on what believers themselves do or do not do, their salvation is only as secure as their faithfulness, which provides no security at all. According to that view, believers must protect by their own human power what Christ began by His divine power.”4John MacArthur, Saved Without a Doubt, page 39

It’s hard to confuse the New Testament concept of faith more than MacArthur does here. According to MacArthur, you can have faith but not be faithful. That’s like saying you can have strength but not be strong. Having strength and being strong are two different ways of saying the same thing. Like having faith and being faithful. 

“On the basis of our faith in him, Jesus Christ ushers us into this grace in which we stand.— Although faith is necessary for salvation, it is God’s grace—not the believer’s faith—that has the power to save and keep him or her saved. We are not saved by divine grace and then preserved by human effort.”5John MacArthur, Saved without a doubt, page 44

Notice how MacArthur completely misunderstands both grace and faith.

In other words, according to MacArthur, being faithful to Jesus is being “preserved by human effort” and “protecting by our own power.” It seems to me that he doesn’t believe in Paul’s definition of grace at all. And he directly contradicts Paul who says that Abraham’s faith is what God considered righteous. He calls our faithfulness/faith being “preserved by human effort” and inserts the idea of grace being an external righteousness, i.e. imputed righteousness. Rather, biblical grace enables us to be faithful.

Another example of the propaganda of disobedience can be found in John Piper. Piper, like many Calvinists, says he believes in obedience, but his theology completely denies its necessity by creating a system that separates our obedience and faithfulness from our standing with God on the basis of imputed righteousness. Here’s his commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:21:

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21)

This passage is pretty straightforward. Paul says that we might become the righteousness of God. That’s grace empowering us to become something. But Piper in commenting on this passage says the exact opposite.

“But if Christ’s being made sin for us implies the imputation of our sin to Christ, then it is not arbitrary or unnatural to construe the parallel—” 

Notice how he says “it’s not arbitrary and unnatural” and then proceeds to insert something arbitrary and unnatural like imputation.

“our “becoming the righteousness of God in him”—as the imputation of God’s righteousness to us. We “become” God’s righteousness the way Christ “was made” our sin. He did not become morally sinful in the imputation; we do not become morally righteous in the imputation. He was counted as having our sin; we are counted as having God’s righteousness. This is the reality of imputation. And the righteousness imputed is not our faith but an external divine righteousness.

 I affirm again that, in the New Testament, justification does involve a positive imputation of divine righteousness to believers, and this righteousness does not “consist of faith” but is received by faith. Paul does teach that God imputes to believers an external, divine righteousness that is ours as a gift of grace. This conclusion, I have tried to show, is the fruit of exegesis, not the imposition onto the Bible of foreign ideas.” John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ, page 69

Notice how he shoehorns foreign ideas into the Bible (like imputation) and then says “this is not the imposition onto the Bible of foreign ideas.”

These teachings by Piper and MacArthur make me think of a quote by N.T. Wright:

“Once you can make scripture stand on its hind legs and dance a jig, it becomes a tame pet rather than a roaring lion. It is no longer “authoritative” in any strict sense; that is, it may be cited as though in “proof” of some point or other, but it is not leading the way, energizing the church with the fresh breath of God himself.”6N.T. Wright, Scripture and the authority of God, page 71

Philip Hess describes actual righteousness very well.

“Righteousness, or the lack thereof, is shown by our actions. We cannot really know if someone is righteous until we have observed them react to positive and negative situations enough to see what is coming out in their responses. However, God knows the heart. He knows if a person has the kind of heart disposition that will lead to righteousness. This heart disposition that will lead to righteousness is called “faith.” If God sees faith in the heart, he does not need to wait until the person demonstrates it in righteous acts to declare that the person is righteous. God knows what will be the result.

When Abraham believed God, God looked into his heart and saw trust in God there. God counts that kind of heart attitude as righteous even if no righteous works have yet happened. So “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Rom. 4:3

God knew that Abraham’s faith was the kind that would lead to righteousness, so he declared Abraham to be righteous before Abraham demonstrated it in action.

Because the heart represents the core of your personality, what is in your heart is who you truly are. If you are brain damaged so that you cannot move, cannot speak, cannot perform any righteous acts – cannot do anything – but you have a heart full of faith and love for Jesus, you are righteous. Righteousness may be seen in external actions, but righteousness itself is more than actions.”7Philip Hess, Penal Substitution on Trial, pages 51-52

Let’s take the thief on the cross for an example. He had true faith at his encounter with Jesus on the cross, but afterwards that he didn’t have the opportunity to be faithful. Had he been taken down from the cross he no doubt would have been faithful to Jesus. This is an example of someone justified by grace through faith.

6. Read with honesty, no matter what the demands might be.

If one reads the scriptures from a surrendered heart and will, and is willing and eager to obey what the text requires, this opens up the meaning of scripture that perhaps would otherwise be missed. This is sometimes called the “Hermeneutic of Obedience.”

When speaking of the Jews who rejected Jesus, Paul gives the example of a veil over the eyes. They can’t even truly understand the Old Covenant. All the Old Testament points to Jesus Christ and His eternal Kingdom. When we surrender to the Lord the veil is taken away and the true meaning of scripture (Old and New Testament) becomes open to us.

“For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory. Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.” 2 Corinthians 3:11-16

One early Anabaptist author puts it this way.

Since, then, an ungodly man cannot teach aright, and he is really an ungodly man who transgresses and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, as John says (2 John 1:9), it follows incontrovertibly that no one can teach God’s word aright unless he himself abides in Christ and in his doctrine. But no one may understand the doctrine of Christ, much less abide therein, except through the Holy Ghost; and no one who has the Holy Ghost but those who are no longer carnally minded, but spiritually minded. (Rom. 8:9-10)….. Therefore whoever has not died unto sin, and does not live unto righteousness, has not the Spirit of God. But whoever has not the Spirit of God does not comprehend the word of God, and cannot discern spiritual things.” (Dietrich Philips, Handbook of the Christian doctrine and religion, pages 183-184)

I would put it this way: if our heart is darkened then our mind and understanding is dark as well. Let’s not approach the text of scripture with a determination of what it cannot mean or what it has to mean. But rather let’s read the Bible from a heart surrendered to our Creator, and a mind willing to accept its meaning, even if it means difficult lifestyle changes and even rejection from family and friends.


N.T. Wright summarizes Paul’s teachings and ministry well:

Paul believed that it was his vocation, a very Jewish vocation, rooted in Israel’s scriptures, to announce that the promises and purposes of Israel’s God had been fulfilled, overcoming the dark powers of evil and thus enabling idol-worshiping, sexually immoral, and ritually impure Gentiles to come into the transformative obedience of faith. Thus, by fulfilling Israel’s scriptures, the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy, while Jews like Paul himself would celebrate the world changing achievements of Israel’s true Messiah.” N.T. Wright, page 504, The New Testament in its world. 

So as we read Paul’s letters, we can see that he taught obedience to the Gospel of King Jesus wherever he preached.

  • 1
    Finny Kuruvilla, King Jesus Claims His Church, page 51
  • 2
    Finny Kuruvilla, King Jesus Claims His Church, page 78
  • 3
    Finny Kuruvilla, King Jesus Claims His Church, page 119
  • 4
    John MacArthur, Saved Without a Doubt, page 39
  • 5
    John MacArthur, Saved without a doubt, page 44
  • 6
    N.T. Wright, Scripture and the authority of God, page 71
  • 7
    Philip Hess, Penal Substitution on Trial, pages 51-52

1 thought on “Reading Paul Through First-Century Eyes”

  1. WOW, LOVE how you said, “Read Paul’s words for what he actually says, not what we can make him say to address our concerns. For many today this is very hard to do.”
    This is VERY IMPORTANT to do as a true follower of Jesus Christ. Or like the Apostle Peter wrote happens when we don’t understand his (the Apostle Paul’s) writings→(2 Peter 3:16 KJV).

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