Did Jesus and Paul teach two different versions of the gospel? I don’t think so, but we’ve got some explaining to do.

Christianity Today’s online magazine posted an article with the intriguing and provocative title, Jesus vs. Paul. It points out: “Jesus preached almost exclusively about the kingdom of heaven, while Paul highlighted justification by faith—and not vice versa. What gives?”

Put simply, the dilemma is that Jesus in the Gospels doesn’t speak as much about being saved by faith as does Paul does in his epistles. Many find this confusing.

Evangelicals (who live somewhere between liberals on the left and fundamentalists on the right) historically have based soteriology (salvation teaching) upon Paul’s epistles. They proclaim that sinners are justified (pardoned and declared righteous) through faith in Christ and His righteousness. But a new generation of evangelicals embraces a more socially aware gospel that goes beyond getting forgiveness for repentant individuals. This progressive soteriology focuses less on forgiving personal guilt and more on Christus victor—how Christ conquered sin, death and the devil at the cross, liberating all humanity from evil powers opposed to the kingdom of God.*

We can frame these differing views of salvation in the context of the Lord’s Prayer. Evangelicals have always prayed “forgive us our debts” but increasingly now are emphasizing that God’s kingdom must come and His will be done on this earth as in heaven. The issue here is whether the gospel is more about Paul’s justification soteriology or Christ’s liberating, life-giving kingdom.

So what—does it really matter? Quite a bit, says Scot McKnight, the author of Christianity Today’s article: “It is not exaggerating to say that evangelicalism is facing a crisis about the relationship of Jesus to Paul, and that many today are choosing sides.”

Jesus vs. Paul? There’s actually no need to choose one over the other. It would be absurd to imagine that Paul promotes the gospel more than Jesus does—whose death is at the core of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith. Then why does the apostle’s soteriology focus more on faith vs. works while Jesus in the Gospels primarily proclaims the need for God’s kingdom to come—not only in eternity but also here and now?

We’ll look for the answer in part two.

First of three parts of an article posted on this website

*“Liberation theology” is an extreme expression of this perspective that portrays Christ as a social revolutionary and views sin more in terms of corrupt and abusive systems than as a mortal disease of the human soul necessitating divine punishment. Since liberation theology rejects the cross as God’s remedy for each individual’s guilt, it cannot be considered evangelical soteriology.