In the churches I grew up in, the apostle Paul was king. On most Sundays, we heard sermons from Paul’s letters. And theology derived almost solely from Paul’s writings were our basic belief system.
Because of this, we had this weird relationship with what we called “works.” We didn’t want to do our “works” — our good deeds — in order to earn favor with God, because we knew we couldn’t earn anything with God. Everything was a gift or “grace.”
I can’t count how many times I heard people say, “You can’t do anything to make God love you more than he does, or less than he does.” God’s feelings for us are fixed at 100% positive. This is because when he looks at us, it’s like we’re wearing Jesus masks; he sees only Jesus. The righteousness he sees in us isn’t our own. It’s imputed to us by Jesus.
But that left us with a conundrum: How could we motivate ourselves to do anything good if there were no benefits to doing good? No consequences for doing bad?
We could be the meanest, stingiest, vulgarest of people and yet have all the treasures of heaven at our feet. We had tickets to heaven in our hot little hands and no one could take them from us. Eternal security was ours and we owned it. Jesus was our righteousness and we were pure in God’s sight no matter what we did. And so the confession of sins was an odd affair. Unlike confession in our human relationships, it could not be for the sake of repairing a broken relationship with God (since we were already fully forgiven for sins past, present, and future) but purely for ourselves, to make us feel forgiven (since we were fully forgiven already). We didn’t know what to do with James and his call to confess so that we might be healed (James 5:6-8) or Paul’s call to make sure our relationships within the “body of Christ” (the church) are in good repair before eating the “body of Christ” (communion), because people had died by not doing so (1 Cor. 11:13-34).
And even though Hebrews 11:6 and Paul himself wrote of rewards in heaven, we didn’t know what to do with them. Rewards are earned. Rewards seem mercenary. How could Jesus say one servant gets a larger reward than another (and an inactive servant has his reward stripped from him) if we are all equally perfect in God’s sight? We did all kinds of exegetical gymnastics to deal with our you-can’t-earn-anything presupposition.
On the other end of the spectrum, we didn’t know what to do when we constantly came up against hard sayings of Jesus where we could actually lose something with God. For instance, we had no idea what to do with Jesus when he said, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15). Isn’t that works righteousness? Doesn’t that make our forgiveness by God conditional on our forgiveness of others? And if we weaseled our way out of it, we still had to deal with the parable which make the same exact point (Matthew 18:21-35).
The Sermon on the Mount was a huge problem, so we tossed the whole thing. Yep. We ditched it with theological slight of hand.
We didn’t like all of the things Jesus was telling us to do. He was setting the bar way too high and it made us feel like we would have to work really hard at it all (and that wouldn’t be a gracious, easy yoke), even though our beloved Paul was packed with imperatives. (Take a moment to count all of the verbs we are called to do in 2 Timothy alone. Paul wants action! And lots of it.)
We said about the Sermon on the Mount and everything else Jesus said that made us uncomfortable, “Those things were said before his death and resurrection. And they were said to Jews, not Christians. Therefore, they’re not for us. They just amplify the heavy weight of the Law of Moses that Jesus was getting rid of.” The radical call of Jesus as he lays out the ethics of the kingdom of God he’s been proclaiming was reduced to a lesson about how impossible it is to please God and how fortunate we are that by God’s grace we don’t have to. Instead of seeing the Sermon as a simple laying out of what it looks like when we love the Lord our God with heart, soul, and strength and our neighbors as ourselves, it was Jesus absolutely crushing us with the sledgehammer of Law that we might experience the healing hospital of grace.
Nice move, eh? In one swift motion, we get to keep Jesus as a theological icon while ignoring everything he said that makes us feel uncomfortable.
Horrors! We’d turned Jesus into a puppet. Is there any wonder why people have Jesus saying whatever they want him too say and ignoring what he actually did say? “I love you not matter what” is something never on his lips in the gospels, but we puppet masters have him repeating it nonstop. It’s in every youth pastor’s talk and in half of the sermons preached in America. I don’t dispute the never giving up love of God we see throughout the Scriptures, but I balk at putting things in the mouth of Jesus that he didn’t say or even come close to saying. When we say, “Jesus says…,” it better be followed by a direct quote.
Jesus himself must be the beginning and end of our theology. Anything in our theological systems that disagrees with a single thing he says must be ditched, not Jesus and his words. Sure, let’s wrestle with him. The Scriptures allow us to wrestle with God, but they don’t allow us to ignore him or dismiss anything he says.
We must stop reading Jesus through the lens of Paul. We must instead read Paul and all the rest of the Scriptures through the lens of Jesus. He determines everything. He changes everything. We are Christ-ians, not Paul-ians. We follow Jesus, not Paul or Cephas or Luther or Calvin or Wesley (or Pete Santucci).
Let me switch gears for a moment and look at a different theological tradition within Christianity to make the same point from a different angle.
I have a friend who is an Orthodox monk and the stories he told me made me realize how important it is to step back from our theologies every now and then.
He told me of a young mother who brought her child to him after worship. Since the Orthodox consider the eucharist to be a mystery, they don’t require people to understand it in order to participate in it. Therefore, they commune infants. Well, this woman’s child had spat up after partaking.
So, what did my friend do? He scraped the spit-up from the baby’s shirt into a chalice, poured in some wine, and drank it down. It was a stupid thing to do, but his theology required it of him, because that spit-up contained the very body and blood of Jesus and couldn’t be washed down a drain into the sewer.
When our theology has us drinking spit-up or dancing with snakes or treating people with different skin color as inferior or having women wearing doilies on their heads or dumping the words of Jesus, we have to reconsider our theology. It may not be totally wrong, but we’ve taken a theological wrong turn somewhere along the way. We need to retrace our steps to find out where we’ve erred.
Bad theology leads to bad discipleship.
Bad theology can trample Jesus. It can trample our neighbors. It can trample our own hearts. It can lead to sins no one else is able to commit.
So, when we recognize our theology is leading to odd conclusions and/or bad behavior, it’s important to pause and question, to wrestle with God about it. It’s time to go back to Jesus, to immerse ourselves in the gospels and encounter our Lord, listening to him and learning from him as his disciples. Jesus first in our practice. Jesus preeminent in our theology.
In Luke 9:35, the voice of God from the cloud says of Jesus, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” We should heed the Voice by heeding Jesus.
I’m not saying we should have only red-letter Bibles, where the words of Jesus are in red ink while the rest of the Bible is in black ink. All of the Bible is the Word of God. Still, I want to make sure I give Jesus an honest listening to — where I’m listening so closely it just might cause havoc with the theology I’ve had and the life I’ve lived to that point. And that’s exactly what happened when Jesus started preaching, “Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand.” His listeners changed both their theology and their daily lives.
I still believe these words of St. Paul: 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 (Ephesians 2:8-9). But I see them as nuances on what Jesus said. And I refuse to hear them apart from what Paul wrote immediately afterward: For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:10). There is no battle between grace and works.
The author of book of James was the brother of Jesus and his letter sounds far more like the words of Jesus in the gospels than Paul does. And so does his rhetorical question in James 2:14 — What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? The answer to the question is an rhetorically emphatic NO! In fact, James answers his own question just a few verses later with: faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (James 2:17, and keep reading through verse 26 for a theological articulation that drove Martin Luther nuts with his Paul-first theology).
When we insist on starting with Paul instead of with Jesus, we create silly struggles, like Luther wanting to cut out James as a “right strawy epistle.” But when we spend time with Jesus in the gospels, we become like the group I led that spent time with a Jesus story week after week after week. Christians and non-Christians alike fell in love not with a theological system, but with Jesus himself. Jesus, sharp and cutting like a surgeon’s scalpel, opening up our hearts and reordering our lives with precise and necessary incisions. I can’t over-recommend doing so.
Paul cannot be king. Jesus alone is King. Listen to him!