Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?

From my piece at CT:

Many biblical scholars and lay Christians have noted that Jesus preached almost exclusively about the kingdom of heaven, while Paul highlighted justification by faith—and not vice versa. Some conclude that they preached two different gospels. Others argue that really they both preached justification; still others say it’s all about the kingdom. What gives?

Note: Clicking the “video” links placed in the article will take you to a segment from an interview with Scot McKnight about the implications of this story.

I grew up with, on, through, and in the apostle Paul. His letters were the heart of our Bible. From the time I began paying attention to my pastor’s sermons, I can only recall sermons on 1 Corinthians—the whole book verse by verse, week by week—and Ephesians. I don’t recall a series on any of the Gospels or on Jesus…..

But something has happened in the past two decades: a subtle but unmistakable shift among many evangelicals from a Pauline-centered theology to a Jesus-shaped kingdom vision. Sources for this shift surely include George Eldon Ladd’s The Presence of the Future, the rugged and unrelenting justice voice of Jim Wallis, perhaps most notably in his Call to Conversion, and a growing social conscience among evangelicals. (video) We can argue about factors, but what matters is that a shift has occurred.

Daniel Kirk, a young New Testament scholar at one of Fuller Theological Seminary’s extension sites, recently sent me a manuscript for review. The first suggested title was, Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul? That perfectly captures something I have observed in 15 years of teaching college students. Students love the Jesus part of the class, but their eyes seem to glaze over when we move from Jesus to Paul.

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. (video) I meet many young, thinking evangelicals whose “first language” is Jesus and the kingdom. Yet despite the trend, perhaps in reaction to it, many look to Paul and justification by faith as their first language. Those addicted to kingdom language struggle to make Paul fit, while those addicted to Paul’s theological terms struggle to make Jesus fit. I know the experience because I, too, struggled to make the Pauline message fit the kingdom vision, and that was after struggling to make Jesus fit into the Pauline message.

Evangelicals have offered two ways to resolve this dilemma—that is, to bring Paul and Jesus into a more perfect harmony. What stands out is that each approach imagines that it is articulating the gospel itself. One approach is to master Jesus’ gospel, the kingdom vision, and show how Paul fits. The other approach is to master Paul’s gospel, his theology of justification, and show how Jesus fits. Each approach requires some bending of corners and squeezing of sides but, with extra effort and some special explanations, each thinks it can show the unity of the messages of Jesus and Paul and that the gospel of the kingdom and the gospel of justification are one and the same…..

[Read the rest at the link above.]

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  • I enjoyed much about your article, Scot, but why (historically) has there been such a need to unify the spoken message? To me, this suggests Christendom has long since put too much emphasis on sunday sermons.

    Everything Paul *did* is not so different from everything Jesus *did*. Both men worked to build God’s Kingdom.

    This supposed problem reminds me of the apparent (semantic) contradictions between James & Paul, who were able to talk past one another just as successfully as NT Wright & John Piper have been doing recently.

    All those passages Paul wrote about “justification by faith” were addressed directly to local outposts of God’s Kingdom. And if Paul said “you were justified…” the word you was almost always a plural, because Paul wrote to the Kingdom of God.

    Paul was entirely focused on building God’s Kingdom.

  • Great insight, Scot! Thanks for pointing out that it was Jesus whom Paul preached! This unites them beautifully!

    I have often wondered if Paul was careful in his writings about using the word “kingdom” (and thus used it sparingly) since he was headed ultimately to Rome and wrote to communities that could get in a lot of trouble with Rome (as could he) for dealing in literature perceived as treasonous. Yet he taught things in direct opposition to the cult of the emperor. The kingdom implications had to be clear to the first-century Christ-follower without the need for “political,” i.e., “kingdom” language–beyond, of course, that which aspired to the age coming upon them.

  • JoanieD

    Excellent, Scot! I particularly liked at the end of your article: “both witness to Jesus as the center of God’s story. The gospel is the core of the Bible, and the gospel is the story of Jesus.”

    It took me a while spending time on religious blogs to figure out that because I was raised Catholic, I put more emphasis on the four books of the Bible that we call “The Gospels” than many of the other bloggers who were raised Protestant and focused more on Paul’s letters. No matter what some folks say about every word in the books of the Bible being as important as any other words in the Bible, I will continue believing that every word in those four Gospel books are more important than the other books of the Bible. One of the books of what we call the Old Testament has the priests concerned about mold and mildew and what to do about them. Now, these ARE important metters. We tore our old house down because of those problems. But those passages are not as important in the whole scheme of things as John 3:16. Yes, we need the other books to see how Jesus came to fulfill all that God wanted and we need the letters to the churches to understand how Jesus was preached and how we are to keep the faith.

    That’s my opinion, anyway! Jesus-shaped spirituality as Michael Spencer called it…that’s the way to go.

  • Susan N.

    Truth well-spoken! The clarifying manner in which you examine the seemingly incompatible biblical messages of Jesus and Paul, and show how they really do come together, inspires me (is “thrills” too dramatic a word here?).

    The very accessible manner of writing employed in your books and articles has been a blessing to me. I love the B-I-B-L-E, but, so much of what you’ve written has shed more light on and helped me to accurately articulate what I read in Scriptures. Thank you for gospeling through writing! May God cause these words to sink in, heart-deep, to renew our minds, and transform us more and more into Christ’s image-bearers 🙂

  • James

    Why does this bit of wisdom from Ecclesiastes come to mind as I read this?

    “It is good that you grasp one thing and also not let go of the other; for the one who fears God comes forth with both of them.” Eccl. 7:18, NASB

  • The perceived split between Jesus and Paul is a fascinating one for me. While I had some issues in my Church of the Nazarene upbringing, one of the things I thankful for is that I don’t think I grew up with this bifurcation. Yet, for a great many, this is indeed a major obstacle.

  • DRT

    Thank you for this Scot. I can’t wait for your book.

  • Pat

    I’m probably much too simplistic in my thinking, but I’ve never consciously thought of Paul and Jesus’ teaching as being in conflict. I see Paul supporting the kingdom through his teachings. We know that he felt unworthy to be named among the apostles and I think I’ve always viewed him as being propelled in his ministry and mission by his undying devotion to Christ. I guess that’s why I don’t see a conflict. I think what he preached can very well support the kingdom vision taught by Christ. Paul over the years has been my favorite person in the scriptures; I feel I can identify with him and his seeming passion for the Church, which just so happens to be where my passion lies. I want to see the Church be all that it can be for Christ and that often means preaching to the Church about things that will help it to succeed in it’s pursuit and furtherance of the kingdom.

  • Tim Gombis

    Great stuff, Scot! It seems that the perceived split between Jesus and Paul is largely due to post-Reformation readings that place justification at the center of Paul’s “theology” (inasmuch as we can recover “Paul’s theology” from occasional pastoral letters). As you say, Kingdom is not such a heavy emphasis in his letters, but if Luke rightly captures the thrust of Paul’s ministry at the end of Acts, perhaps it was more central than shows up in his letters, and perhaps his letters aren’t reflective of what he’d say if he showed up to preach. Interesting…

  • Michel

    Thank you for this great article. It leads me to ask what the purpose of proclaiming the gospel (so we know salvation has come to us?), of building the Kingdom (so God reigns?), of being justified by faith (so I can be accepted by God?) is all about? If it is the completion of Israel’s story, what does that mean to me, today, still living in a fallen world? The struggle of living a righteous life, to love God with all my heart, strength and understanding and love my neighbor as myself is still as difficult as it ever was…

  • Scot McKnight

    Tim, yes, I’ve pondered that one often … that last chp of Acts has Paul preaching the kingdom.

    Yet, yet, we don’t see Paul’s hermeneutic to be kingdom in his letters, at least kingdom is not as central as some other themes. I could go for an abstraction and say Paul’s theology is centered around salvation-history, but then it’s more of my construction than Paul’s explicit theology. I don’t see as much conflict between the terms kingdom and justification as I do see themes on parallel tracks.

  • Kurt Anders Richardson

    I would want to see the matter in its complexity a little more before we simplify things. There are two crucial points: 1) James and Paul; and 2) the Gospels and Paul’s Gospel. Although we cannot know to what extent James might have been responding to Paul, his epistle represents a profound appropriation of Jesus’s themes in the Gospel of Matthew. This makes problemmatic a reduction of Jesus’ message to ‘Kingdom of God’ only. Then there is the profound enigma that Paul apparently had nothing to preach about the life of Jesus – not even ‘Born of the Virgin Mary…crucified under Pontius Pilate’. Only the words of institution ‘on the night that he was betrayed’ (I Co 11). The incredible oddness of this (scripture comes without footnotes or any authoritative explanation on matters such as this) should give us great pause. There is little we can say one way or another. We have diachronic and synchronic interpretive methods, that is all. But the canonical shape(s) of the texts of scripture and what they ‘do’ probably should be passed over by us in silence and reverence.

  • Scot McKnight


    Good question, and yet I think it is this question that has gotten us into this mess after all. Asking about the implication is important. Letting the perceived implication guide how we tell the Story will create problems.

    In 1 Cor 15 Paul speaks of “for our sins.” Yet, that is connected to the death and not to the life, burial or resurrection — so there are other dimensions of implications not raised.

    I suspect we need to learn to see the Problem to be the unresolved dimensions of the Story of Israel that come to completion (fulfillment) in the Story of Jesus. That Story saves and forgives and justifies, to be sure, but I doubt very much that Acts 2 or 10-11 or 13 or 14 or 17 can be reduced to simply saving, forgiving, justifying. There’s a bigger matrix at work here: God at work in this world through Israel and the need for a King or Messiah and Jesus is that Messiah. In other words, Lordship is far more central to the gospel than some seem to suggest.

    I’ll put it strongly: the old Savior first and Lord later abominates the apostolic gospel.

  • We struggle because we’ve been taught to read Paul through reformed theology lenses, some give up on Paul and become red-letter Christians, others sweep the broken lens pieces aside and with the help of NTWright & friends re-read Paul and find life and some harmony again. And yes, imagine life from and through the red-letter lenses again, how beautiful, how meaningful, the kingdom of God right here, right now, in all of its strange, heart-warming grace. The meal has flavor again.

  • Scot McKnight


    Thanks. First, the problem between James and Paul is caused by elevating justification by faith too much, which was precisely Luther’s problem. If we raise Christology to the top, then we have very little, if any, problem: James’ letter drips with absorption of Jesus as the Wisdom of God. He mention Jesus only at 1:1 and 2:1, but he alludes to his teachings constantly and quotes him but once in chp 5.

    On Paul’s gospel not having the birth narratives. I guess I don’t see that as a problem since Paul’s summary in 1 Cor 15 and the sermons in Acts have so much about God at work in Jesus, and the incarnation at some level is assumed. The birth narrative extend the basic Markan narrative about Jesus into the earlier parts of the life of Jesus, and what needs to be seen is that those narratives are soaked with the theme of Israel’s Story coming to completion/fulfillment.

  • Jay W

    I actually wrote my masters thesis on the problem of the kingdom of God in Paul and found that Paul did indeed have a view of the kingdom of God as a not-yet/already present reality. I did not expect to find this in my research, but indeed it seems very evident that Romans 14:17 and 1 Corinthians 4:20 leave no doubt that Paul knew of Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom and employed it in his own ministry, even if he did not use the language often due to various complex reasons. If anyone were bored and were interested in thumbing through my thesis, you could e-mail me at

  • steve_sherwood

    Bill #1, could you say more about Piper and Wright moving past their differences? I don’t keep too close a track of them, particularly Piper, but the last I did Piper had written a book arguing against what he believed Wright believes and Wright had written “Justification” in response. Has there been movement toward one another since then? That would be encouraging.

  • Michel


    I can see the Lord and Savior aspects as completing each other, but it still leaves me baffled as to what I’m doing in the middle of this. Shouldn’t this be a central question for us? This would be like someone bying a field, taking the trouble of plowing it and sowing, and then stand there clueless as to what should be done with the crops.

  • JoeyS

    I guess I’ve always thought that where Jesus was proclaiming the Kingdom, Paul was living it (in the same way the disciples learned when they were sent out in pairs). The same goes for the other disciples. The question Paul and Peter were asking is how can culturally different people fit into the Kingdom and Paul’s way of answering that question was to fight for a consistent ethic of justification. There was less need to tell of the coming Kingdom because they were living Kingdom lives even as they waited on its fulfillment.

  • Interesting, Rick Warren tweeted last night:
    To be truly Christian, you must begin with Jesus, not anyone else. Jesus interprets Paul & all theologians, not vice-versa!

  • Jon G

    I know reform guys aren’t too valued around here, but I found this video by Tim Keller to be pretty helpful on the subject (he discusses it after the 11-minute mark if you don’t want to listen to the whole thing):

  • Randy Gabrielse

    I have lived this transition. I grew up in the Christian Reformed Church. From high school through college in the 1980s I heard much of Paul and little of Jesus. But in reading the gospels, I decided at some point to follow Jesus rather than Paul, figuring that the word from the Son of God was more true than that of anyone else.

    The change came for me in 1996, when I read Walsh and Middleton’s Truth is Stranger than It Use to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age.” Their way of making scripture a story through a critically postmodern vision of scripture, really appealed to me and led me to N. T. Wright.

    For me, and I suspect many others, it was Wright’s recognition that Paul’s presentation was not MERELY justificiation and sanctifiction — two issues that felt like non-verifiable theological “head games” to me — but that he spoke over and against Rome that led me back to seriously considering Paul. I was being trained as a historian, so seeing Paul read as against a given historical background made sense to me. I have richly enjoyed Paul ever since.

    Randy Gabrielse

  • #20,

    While I appreciate any effort to keep Jesus front-and-center, there’s something about this formulation of Warren’s that feels wrong to me. It diminishes the reality that Paul does, himself, “interpret Jesus” to his audience in the epistles themselves.

  • Scot:

    I just pre-ordered One Life for Kindle and look forward to reading it on the plane Thursday as I fly back to Atlanta. Thanks for this article in CT. I think you are spot on. Of course, my understanding of Jesus completing Israel’s story is not replacement or making Israel obsolete. It is both-and. Also, I would add that a mystical understanding of Jesus as the Presence, the Radiance, the Logos, explains how his identity is the message. It is who Jesus is that makes for kingdom, justification, redemption, consummation, etc.

    The message is Christology.

    Derek Leman

  • T

    Great stuff, Scot. Wright and M. Gorman really helped me see that Paul’s favorite topic, much more than justification by faith or anything else, was all that God was doing “in Christ.” Paul was Jesus-centered above all, and centered on Jesus as “the Christ” which can’t be separated from its Lord/King/Kingdom connotations, least of all by Paul; he took them for granted. Once we connect, as Paul does, each the “Christ” reference, which are everywhere in Paul, with the living head and heart of “kingdom”, Paul is clearly picking up where Jesus left off.

  • Fish

    I just have a hard time picturing Jesus telling women to be silent and not hold authority. Paul was a Pharisee and that background, that legalistic lens, stayed with him. He was human and therefore incapable of perfectly reflecting God’s word as God would say it.

  • johnfouadhanna

    Great point T. Lord, Christ/Messiah are kingly/kingdom titles. Given Jesus’ self-identification with the Kingdom in his own proclamation, this insight substantially enhances the case for continuity.

    Thanks for the Keller link Jon G. As a practitioner who’s also thought about and read widely on these issues, he’s someone worth listening to, even for those who aren’t going to be in total agreement.

    An interesting person in this whole discussion is [suprisingly] a Westminster Seminary professor probably not known to most readers here at Jesus Creed but known to Scot – Richard Gaffin. Following and expanding on theologians Geerhardus Vos and Herman Ridderbos, Gaffin didn not identify justification as the “center” of Paul’s theology. Focusing on 1 Cor 15, as Scot does, he identifies Messianic suffering and glory – death and resurrection – ushering in eschatological already/not yet fulfillment in “saving significance.”

  • Rick


    “I don’t see as much conflict between the terms kingdom and justification as I do see themes on parallel tracks.”

    That’s a helpful way to phrase it. Thanks.

  • L.

    Fish – Paul was writing about a specific situation,a specific point in time – a time when women were not educated and therefore didn’t know enough theology to teach about it.

  • johnfouadhanna

    Just to expound a bit more, the sufferings and glory of Messiah is what Jesus himself explains as the fulfillment of Israel’s story in Luke 24.

  • Steve #17 – do a google blog search on [2010 ETS Wright Justification] or some variation on that. Piper didn’t make it, but a good sampling of commentary on that debate should provide what you’re looking for, I think.

  • Richard

    @26 Fish,

    Valid concerns but I’m not convinced that Paul does/did/said those things and I tend to hold that many of us have misunderstood his teachings about women in the church, especially in light of his context and the way those passages are written.

    I might recommend as a good source for an alternative reading of those passages from Paul that seem chauvinistic regarding women.

  • Joe Beach

    Scot, great article. My CT arrived in the mail this week and I immediately jumped into your article. At first, I thought you were being too nice to the “justification first” group and too hard on the “kingdom” group (because it seems to me that you can make a case that Jesus completed Israel’s story by announcing/embodying “the King and his Kingdom.” But, however one puts it, I very much appreciated your emphasis on the gospel, keeping the big story intact, and on Christology. I think that’s quite helpful. The last section of Acts (as has been mentioned) seems to do the same thing, bringing these themes together much as you have: “explaining and declaring the Kingdom” being connected to (if not equated to) “convincing them about Jesus from the Law and prophets” (28:23) and then, again, the same thing at the end “preaching the kingdom and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ.” It seems that preaching the Kingdom IS “gospeling” which IS telling the story of Jesus (who is the King who brings a Kingdom, thus fulfilling Israel’s hopes, dreams, and visions of a coming King/Kingdom through his life, atoning death, and resurrection). Which brings us back to where we started. But, I think that “gospel” might be a better way to unify various camps and relieve much of the Jesus/Paul tension. BTW, I also think Warren’s “Paul as just interpreter” to minimize his role in continuing to proclaim the same gospel story Isaiah and Jesus were proclaiming.

  • Mike M

    Perhaps the difference is pre- vs. post-resurrection. Jesus proclaimed the emergence of the kingdom of God and proof that what he said was true was going to be his resurrection. Paul spoke of having faith in the message of the Messiah BECAUSE of his resurrection (Acts 17:18).