Jesus vs Paul?

Difficult issues series

Jesus and Paul

It doesn’t take a lot of reading in the New Testament before you notice that Paul seems to have a different emphasis to Jesus.

Can we learn something from these apparent differences?

Some of the differences

I wouldn’t expect Paul, speaking to Gentiles, to have exactly the same message as Jesus, speaking to Jews. So I don’t think we need to be concerned about some minor differences – as, for example, are summarised here (the author is a lawyer!). But there are some major variations.

The kingdom of God?

Scholars are virtually unanimous that Jesus’ main message (his “good news”) was the dawning reality of God ruling on earth, through him (e.g. Mark 1:14-15). But for Paul, the “good news” or gospel was about justification by grace (e.g. Ephesians 2:8-10).

We shouldn’t over-state this difference. Jesus did teach the need for repentance and God’s grace (e.g. Luke 18:9-14) and Paul did see God’s “big picture” plan (e.g. Romans 8:18-25), but nevertheless there appear to be significant differences in their core teachings.

Faith vs works

Jesus taught the importance of both faith (Luke 7:50) and an obedient response to God’s call to care for the poor and marginalised (Matthew 25:31-46), with him requiring those who believe in him to follow him in doing good works (Luke 9:23-26, Matthew 28:18-20). It is interesting that Jesus’ brother has this same emphasis (James 2:17).

However Paul is very strong on salvation by grace through faith in the death of Jesus (Ephesians 2:8-10, Romans 7:21-25), something we cannot earn – though even then he still stresses that good works should follow salvation (Ephesians 2:10).

Again, it is possible to find the importance of both faith and works in both Jesus and Paul, and Jesus definitely taught (e.g. at the Last Supper) that his death was a sacrifice to provide forgiveness of sins, but there is no denying each has a different emphasis.

How much does Paul know or care about Jesus’ life?

Paul mentions the life and teachings of Jesus rarely, mostly focusing on Jesus’ death, resurrection and position as the heavenly Christ, Lord of the universe (e.g. Colossians 1:15-20). This has led some to claim that Jesus knew little about Jesus the man, or wasn’t that much interested, or was deliberately inventing a new religion.

Again, this view is often overstated. Paul’s letters contain dozens of brief references to Jesus the man and his teachings, and anyway, it is argued, Paul assumed this information was already known to his hearers. Nevertheless, Paul refers to very few of Jesus’ teachings and none of his miracles (apart from the resurrection), and it is difficult to understand this.

The Law of Moses

Paul taught that the Law (contained in our Old Testament) no longer binds the christian believer (e.g. Romans 7:6, 2 Corinthians 3:6), whereas, it is argued, Jesus upholds the Law (e.g. Matthew 5:17-20).

However I think this view of Jesus’ teachings misses a few things, such as:

  • the rest of Matthew 5, which shows Jesus correcting or superseding the Law,
  • Luke 16:16-17, where Jesus makes the startling claim that the Law applied up until John the Baptist, but is now replaced by the good news of the kingdom, and
  • his inauguration of a new covenant in the Last Supper (e.g. Luke 22:20), quite an amazing claim!


These differences mean that Jesus and Paul “evangelised” in different ways. Paul followed an approach much closer to modern evangelical approaches, pointing our human sin, the need for forgiveness and the necessary sacrifice of Jesus on the cross to pay for that sin, and calling people to turn to God in repentance and faith.

But Jesus was more flexible; he had different messages for different people. But generally, he called people to follow him in their attitudes and behaviour. He said little about sin and repentance to the common people, but made greater criticisms of and demands on the leaders.

Resolving this issue

Various response have been made to resolve this dilemma. I will only briefly sketch a few of them.

Write Paul off

People of various viewpoints (e.g. sceptics or atheists, Jews, liberal christians or humanists) simply say Paul got it wrong when he changed the teachings of Jesus (whether they see him as a failed end-times prophet, or a teacher of peace and love) into what has become modern day christianity.

It seems to me that this view ignores a whole bunch of facts:

  • the view of Jesus as a teacher of peace and love owes more to the hippies or the new age movement than it does to the Jesus of history, who was a much tougher character,
  • the apostles had already formed their gospel before Paul came on the scene (that’s what he was persecuting), and Paul claims he received his gospel from them,
  • while there was some friction between Paul and the apostles (Galatians 2:11-14) and James (Acts 15), they ended the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) apparently united,
  • the gospels were transmitted, compiled and published by the early christian church, and they apparently didn’t see any conflict, and
  • it ignores the apparent work of the Spirit, shown throughout Acts, especially in Acts 9 (Saul’s conversion) and Acts 10 (Peter taking the gospel to the Gentiles) in broadening the Jewish focus of Jesus’ ministry.

In the end, this may (perhaps) be a view that a sceptic can reasonably hold, but I cannot see how someone who believes Jesus was sent from God can think his ministry could have been perverted so seriously and so soon.

Nothing to see here, move along now

Various attempts have been made to minimise the apparent problem. These have varying degrees of historical basis:

  • Many christian teachers just ignore the problem. This generally means reinterpreting Jesus in the light of Pauline and Reformation theology, and often leads to interpretations of Jesus’ parables and teachings that are historically quite unlikely.
  • John Piper has argued that Jesus preached Paul’s gospel, that is “the imputation of his righteousness by grace alone through faith alone”. But this approach seems to me not to respect the Bible (an accusation that would horrify Piper), but rather makes the gospels and Jesus conform to Piper’s reading of Reformed theology.
  • Evangelicals (e.g. David Wenham) can also try to show how Paul really teaches the kingdom of God, just in other words. I think this is a better and more Jesus-honouring response than Piper’s, but I still think it distorts Biblical teaching.

Perhaps there are reasons for the difference?

Some christians find explanations for the differences, including:

  • Jesus was speaking to Jews, Paul to Gentiles. Since we are mostly speaking to Gentiles, we should adopt Paul’s approach.
  • Jesus was speaking into a culture that was burdened down with an unwieldy religious tradition, whereas Paul was speaking to pagans. Since our culture (in the west) is jaded with religion, we should follow Jesus’ approach.
  • Jesus was speaking before the cross and resurrection, so we should follow Paul who was speaking after these critical events.
  • Jesus was the son of God speaking to all humanity, whereas Paul was speaking into specific Graeco-Roman culture, so we should start with Jesus’ teachings and modify as appropriate.

I can’t help feeling there is some truth in each of these understandings, but in the end there is no “killer” argument to take us one way or the other.

Develop a new understanding

Eminent historian NT Wright argues that Paul’s views were built on his Jewish understanding of God’s covenant with Abraham and the Jews, in which God promised to deliver them and restore them. But the coming of Jesus the Messiah achieved far more than the Jews expected. Wright says: “Paul’s teaching on justification, the law, etc. is best understood as the radical reworking of these debates around the new fixed point: that Israel’s God had returned in the person of Israel’s Messiah and that, in his crucifixion and resurrection, he had not only launched but had also redefined the “age to come””

Wright has set out his reflections in the 1700 page Paul and the Faithfulness of God, and, not having read it, I can’t pretend to understand his views well. But it is apparent that Wright re-interprets Reformed concepts like salvation and justification. He accepts that Paul taught differently to Jesus, but argues that this was the necessary next step in saving the world.

Scott McKnight takes a somewhat similar, but simpler view. He argues that the key to understand Jesus and Paul is the gospel (= “good news”). Jesus presented the good news in terms of the kingdom while Paul presented it in terms of justification, but they both see the gospel as being the story of Jesus, “the saving story of Jesus that completes Israel’s story”.

McKnight argues that Jesus saw his life in this way, and Paul’s summary of his gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 is also an outline of the story of Jesus (a claim I think is a little unjustified).

I am a great fan of both Wright and McKnight (see my review of McKnight’s King Jesus Gospel) but I can’t help feeling they too gloss over the differences a little, and explain some things away.

A way forward?

I am not a theologian, but simply a practical christian. I think there must be a simple way to approach all this, otherwise most of us cannot know what God wants us to believe and how he wants us to live. So while I recommend reading Wright, McKnight and others on this matter, here is my very tentative provisional response.

1. Stop expecting the Bible to present one consistent view.

The experts tell us that the Jews saw their scriptures less as a set of immutable teachings, and more as a source of different ideas which expressed different approaches to and aspects of God’s character. We can see the logic of this, for God must be so far “above” us that we can only understand him by analogy and via incomplete statements.

As christians who have been given the Holy Spirit, we should pray for wisdom to understand what God is saying to us through his scriptures. Rather than explain away a difficult passage by reference to one we find easier, we should seek the Spirit’s guidance (collectively) to show us how to balance the different perspectives we see in scripture. And we shouldn’t be afraid of uncertainty.

2. It is Jesus we are following.

Western Protestant theology has (in my opinion) over-emphasised Paul’s theology at the expense of Jesus’ teachings and actions. This surely can’t be right! But there is a slow turning in present-day christianity, leading to a more Jesus-centred approach, which broadens our understanding of Gods good news and which cares less for denominational or theological positions.

I wholeheartedly endorse this move. I think this approach is more faithful to scripture and to Jesus than trying to resolve what God has not resolved for us. But we need to remember that we are not Jews (most of us) and many of Jesus’ statements were directed at his fellow Jews. We need to allow the Spirit to guide us how to apply these.

3. We should try to be faithful to both Jesus’ and Paul’s perspectives.

If we respect the scriptures, we will try to read each book in context and absorb its message, and not allow some parts to over-write the message of other parts.

I think it is possible to be faithful to both perspectives. I have outlined an attempt to do that for the doctrines of salvation in What message?. In my next post I will explore some ideas about faith vs works.

4. We will do mission differently.

Instead of always closely following Paul’s salvation message, we will follow Jesus and try to speak what will be most meaningful to our cultures and to the individuals we are speaking to. We will invite them to follow Jesus, and offer them positive hope when we can (like Jesus offered two women accused of sexual sin (Luke 7:36-50 and John 8:1-11).

What do you think?

I’m interested to hear how others think about this question, what other authors you have read on the subject, and whether you feel the church presently has got this right. Please leave a comment.

Other references

Besides those quoted in the post, you may be interested in these:

Photo Credits: Nick in exsilio via Compfight cc and G.dallorto (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons.


10 thoughts on “Jesus vs Paul?

  1. Richard Worden Wilson says:

    To me, as I read through the New Testament prior to encountering Christ, or more likely being encountered by him spiritually at the age of 30, and even after becoming his follower, I experienced the scriptures as an unified whole. I didn’t have any preconceptions about the gospel, didn’t have any denominational guides to pass on to me their preconceptions or obligations (!), so I didn’t think there was any divergence between the teaching of Jesus and that of Paul, other than the chronological transformational differences one would expect from world changing consequences of Jesus’ life, teaching, death, resurrection, and spirit endowing coming of the kingdom in new covenant power.

    OK, so I’m not going to get into a verse by verse reprise of the transformations of thinking necessitated by the new things God accomplished in those events in order to undo the theological cultures that have evolved since the reformation in particular, the insistence on a law/grace dichotomy or the attempts to dismiss or undermine the teaching influence of Paul as he has been (mis-)interpreted, because that is not my calling as a pseudo student of scripture. Suffice it to say that I think if one were willing to see a unified purpose and process of God behind the whole canonical history the assumptions about Jesus and Paul having different gospels or even different theological or ethical differences could easily be dismissed.

    For those in the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition the way of dealing with these kinds of debates goes under the rubric of their being “neither Catholic nor Protestant.” Needless to say, Jesus and Paul were neither as well (not to mention not being Gospel dismantling critics). For a biblicist (non-literalist) it is easy for me to see that Jesus’ teaching regarding the Kingdom of God smoothly and uniformly transitioned into Paul’s teaching on the supremacy of Christ, the messiah King, the teaching of whom coincided precisely with that of Paul. For Paul the reality of God’s Kingdom was appropriately centered on the rule of Christ, God’s most intimate representative. After learning of the kind of debate in discussion here, it was so readily evident to me that Jesus and Paul were engaged in the same spiritual work that I named my son Matthew Paul.


  2. unkleE says:

    Hi Richard, thanks for your comments and the insight into your journey. I think having no “denominational guides” was probably an advantage.

    I think if it all looks consistent to you then that is good – the best way to be. But if one comes to the conclusion that there was an apparent inconsistency, then it has to be worked through. I have found that journey very stimulating and helpful but it isn’t a journey everyone needs to go on.

    Thanks again.


  3. invernest says:

    I believe a consistent theme in the old and New Testament is that of God looking at our hearts (faith), looking at our lives (works) and judging us (God’s judgement).

    And this seems to be the pervasive theme which we would miss if we look at a Salvation from the evangelical point of Jesus as a “ticket” to heaven.

    If it’s as easy as reciting a “Sinner’s Prayer” – which does not exist in Scripture, then Jesus wouldn’t warn us of how many would be surprised – not all who say to him Lord, Lord would enter the kingdom of heaven.

    Yes. We need Jesus to justify and purify us from all fallen self. But there is a clear need for repentence and there is judgement for all.

    So, to me, many may be surprised when we die. It isn’t as simple as what some evangelical churches proclaim – especially the so called Hypergrace ministry. The gate remains small and the road narrow. He may say “I never knew you”. Why did Jesus say that?

    Perhaps I digress from a strict Jesus vs Paul post. But I hope you see my point…


  4. Richard Worden Wilson says:

    To say that Paul presented the gospel “in terms of justification” is not an uncommon perspective, but I’d guess that only about 5% of what he said about the gospel was couched in those terms. The righteousness of God is not just related to justification as conceived by majority Protestant thinking. Paul said desire was to “bring about the obedience of faith.” Justification and “righteousification” go together for Paul: “the [justificaseousness] of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The one who by faith is righteous shall live.”

    I look forward to your thought on faith and works.


  5. Wesley Rostoll says:

    This is an interesting article. I think another reason for the different emphasis of the same message might have something to do with Paul’s personal journey. A persecutor turned promoter would surely be overwhelmed by the justification that he received. His gospel in a sense was his own personal testimony.


  6. unkleE says:

    Thanks for the thoughts, guys. I kind of think all you both say might be so, but still there is something left to understand and explain. It’s something to keep thinking (and praying) about.


  7. backtojesusnow says:

    unkleE I’m pleased to see that your eyes are beginning to open. The first seeds are beginning to sprout. Pray for eyes that see, ears that hear, and a heart that understands. I hope that you continue on this journey.


  8. unkleE says:

    Hi BTJN, thanks for reading and commenting – and at least partially agreeing. I think I may not be on exactly the same journey as you, but I am interested to discuss. What did you think about my conclusion, which tries to apply both Jesus and Paul to how we live and believe today?


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