In his seminal work Paul and Palestinian Judaism, E.P. Sanders contends that the Apostle Paul’s thought “did not run from plight to solution, but rather from solution to plight.”1 In other words, Paul perceived in Christ what was needed from salvation and from that foundation determines what the ultimate problem is. Paul did not move from a realization of his own sin, often taken to be presented in Romans 7, and then move towards a need for a Savior. This prevailing pattern of Protestant evangelism, where some sense of vulnerability, insecurity, and judgment is the necessary precondition for preaching Christ has impacted the reading of Paul, particularly Romans. Instead, Sanders argues that Paul’s evangelistic preaching focused on Christ’s resurrection.2
There is much to commend in favor of this, as when Paul recalls his evangelistic preaching, he specifically mentions the events of Jesus crucifixion.3 However, the question is did Paul even conceive of Christ as “solution” and then move backwards to the “problem?” Put differently, was Paul’s evangelistic preaching focused on persuading others that Christ is Savior, a role conveying a solution? If the sermons attributed to Paul in Acts are any indication, Jesus as Savior seems to not be a central part of his evangelistic preaching. Instead, Paul emphasizes Christ’s royal, Davidic ancestry in Acts 13:16-41 before talking about the “forgiveness of sins.” In his sermons in Athens recorded in Acts 17:22-35, Paul portrays Jesus as the coming judge evidenced by his resurrection. Before King Agrippa in Acts 26:2-23, Paul highlights Jesus’ Messianic role leading to being an instructor of Israel and Gentiles, echoing Isaiah 49:1-7 in a conqueror who restores Israel, brings light to the Gentiles, and takes a place of honor among royalty. In other words, the prevailing theme in these three sermons is Christ’s authority and power made known and realized through the resurrection. Similarly, in Romans, Paul starts his epistle by highlighting Jesus royal lineage from David and his Sonship,4 while presenting the gospel as the power of God as the central thesis of his argument5. In other words, Paul does not preach about a Savior; he preaches about the Ruler of Israel and ultimately the world, that Jesus is Lord. Christ is not centrally the means by which God reveals the problem of humanity nor the solution that humanity needs. Rather, Jesus is the one everyone will be impacted by as Lord.
Thus, one can posit that the center of Paul’s theology is not soteriological, nor even eschatological, but political. To be sure, conceptualizing Jesus as Lord does not inherently conflict with the notion of human rulers; there is not much evidence that Paul imagines Jesus as Lord as a direct act of political subversion. If Jews were given exception to not participate in the emperor cult, but simply to offer a sacrifice to God on his behalf, it is plausible that God’s rule was not considered directly antithetical to the existence of Roman power6. However, one can imagine in the background of Romans 13 that Paul stipulate governing authorities to be accountable for how they served their role, but such statements could not be stated directly. In the end, though, the ultimate significance of the political understanding of Christ is that Jesus is the central power of human life from which everything else is impacted; not simply life under Roman rule, but the entire domain of human experience.
In this case, we can understand the problem of sin and the solution of salvation as emanating from an understanding Jesus as Lord. As the movement of the planets are determined by the sun, the knowledge about sin and salvation are impacted by the gravity of Jesus as Lord. Jesus provides clarity to the problem and the solution that has been conceived by Israel, just as Copernicus clarified the knowledge of the planets as conceived by the Ptolemaic astronomy. In Romans 9:30-10:4, the rejection by Israel of Christ as the stumbling block shows that the Torah was not the basis for attaining righteousness; the problem of sin has been clarified that not only the Gentiles are beset by innumerable sin7 but Israel is too despite its possession of Torah8 because they put to death the righteous Jesus.9 Similarly, the solution to Christ’s salvation is not defined by an overcoming of worldly political powers10, but by overcoming the ultimate oppressive powers of sin and death11, which exist in the very flesh that Jesus himself took on and overcome in death and resurrection 12. The very crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus which reveals his power provides the basis for clarifying the problem of sin and the solution of salvation.
Understood this way, evangelism is not about preaching about problems or solutions. It is a claim that Jesus is ultimately in control of our world; from this idea comes many other beliefs, such as Jesus judging our works, Jesus defeating our true enemies so that we may be free, a future resurrection we will all participate in, redemption such that we may live a life pleasing to God, etc. Jesus is Lord is the central data point from which all our theologizing about human need, life, and hope orbits. From the fundamental belief in Jesus’s Lordship, Paul moves backwards to understand the problem of sin and the purpose of Torah and moves forward to comprehend the shape of salvation and the future hope of resurrection.
Therefore, instead of conceptualizing the development Paul’s theology through linear reasoning as the problem-solution framework suggests, Paul’s reasons works from a center and understanding emanates outward from there. Likewise, evangelism should not start from some attempt to persuade a person based upon some benefit to them, but it centers on Christ as Lord making known the all-defining reality, the Word through whom all creation came into existence and through whom new creation is coming into existence; establish this point, then Christian preaching may move to various problems and their various solutions understood in light of this all-defining reality. As pragmatic as persuasive appeals to human concerns may be for effective results in getting people to reach some arbitrarily determined checkpoint of belief, it provides the wrong foundation by which the Christian life may be defined, understood, and lived out. It sets out the shape of the Christian faith and life by the categories derived from human struggles and desires, leaving faith and life constrained to the prevailing patterns of discourse that the people and institutions of power judge as inoffensive and good, rather than God’s will in Jesus Christ.
- E.P. Sanders. PAul and Palestinian Judaism. [Philadelphia, Fortress; 1977], 443.
- Ibid., 444
- Galatians 3:1, 1 Corinthians 2:1-4
- Romans 1:4
- Romans 1:16
- although, certainly to certain claims about the divinity of Caesar
- Romans 1:18-32
- Romans 2:1-3:20
- It should be clarified that this is a statement abut Torah itself and not about ISrael, as if Israel is more sinful and guilty than the Gentile world; this is not fact by which Jews shuld be stereotyping as Christ-killers. It is a statement about the epistemic and spiritual limitations of Torah.
- hence, Paul’s encouragement to submit to Roman governance in Romans 13
- Romans 5:12-21
- Romans 6:1-14, 8:1-11