What Gospel Did Paul Preach? [Hint: It Wasn’t Penal Substitutionary Atonement]

What Gospel Did Paul Preach? [Hint: It Wasn’t Penal Substitutionary Atonement] October 11, 2018

What is the Gospel? Well, it depends on who you ask.

If you ask some Christians today, especially the Reformed kind, you’ll hear something that sounds like a description of the crucifixion. That’s also called Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory, or the Satisfaction Atonement Theory.

All you need to know is: That’s not the Gospel. At least, not according to the New Testament, or to Jesus. It’s also a very new doctrine that didn’t show up until about a thousand years after Christ. It’s also not the only theory about the atonement, or the oldest. It’s actually one of many theories. And, at any rate, it’s not the Gospel.

The Gospel that Jesus preached was the Good News [or Gospel] of the Kingdom.

What’s the Gospel of the Kingdom, you ask? Well, very simply, it’s the “Good News” that the Kingdom of God where He rules and reigns can be experienced today by anyone who surrenders their life to Christ as their King and begins to learn to follow Jesus in their daily life.

Jesus talks about the Gospel of the Kingdom all throughout his ministry, for example:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” – Mark 1:15 

“The kingdom of God has come upon you.”- Matthew 12:28

“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” – Matthew 24:14

“For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.” – Luke 17:21

“After his suffering, he [Jesus] presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” – Acts 1:3

In fact, Jesus spoke almost exclusive about the Kingdom of God. His parables almost always start with the phrase: “To what shall I compare the Kingdom of God? The Kingdom of God is like…” and then he will tell us a parable about man who finds a treasure in a field, or a man who seeks for precious pearls, or a woman who loses a coin, or a shepherd who seeks for his sheep, etc.

But nearly everything Jesus does and says is to emphasize something about the Gospel of the Kingdom.

Believe it or not, Paul also taught the Gospel of the Kingdom. The New Testament affirms this over and over again.

For example:

“I [Paul] have gone [among you] preaching the kingdom of God” – Acts 20:25

“We must go through many tribulations to enter the kingdom of God.” – Acts 14:22

“For the kingdom of God is…righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” – Romans 14:17

“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.” – 1 Cor. 4:20

“Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God.” – Acts 19:8

“He [Paul] witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus.” – Acts 28:23

“He [Paul] proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” – Acts 28:31

“Now I [Paul] know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again.” – Acts 29:25

So, the Gospel that Jesus preached and the Gospel that Paul preached are exactly the same.

For that matter, Philip and the other Apostles also taught the Good News of the Kingdom [because there was no other Gospel to teach]. As we read in Acts:

“But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” – Acts 8:12 

See also: Heb. 1:8; 11:33; 12:28; James 2:5; 2 Peter 1:11; Rev. 1:6; 1:9; 5:10; 11:15; 12:10

So, what’s the big deal?

Well, the problem is that many Christians want us to believe that the Gospel is not what we read from the lips of Jesus, or what we find repeated over and over again in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Instead, they want us to believe that – based on one single verse – that the Gospel was given to us by Paul [not by Jesus] and is found in 1 Corinthians [not the Gospels].

To them, this is the Gospel:

“Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried,that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” (1 Cor. 15:1-8)

So, there are a few problems with taking this one verse and declaring that this is the Gospel:

First, Jesus [not Paul] came to declare the Gospel [Good News] of the Kingdom.

Second, the Gospel is contained in the Gospels, not in a letter to the church in Corinth.

Third, no theologian worth a damn would ever base an entire doctrine on a single verse of scripture.

Fourth, Paul and Jesus both preached the same Gospel of the Kingdom, as evidenced by the 8 verses above – as compared to this one single verse in 1 Corinthians.

Finally, the passage in 1 Corinthians mentions “the gospel that I preached to you” and then, after that, mentions a specific emphasis on something Paul passed on to them as “of first importance”. But these two things – “the Gospel I preached to you,” and “what I passed on to you as of first importance” – are not necessarily the same thing.

What’s more, Paul is obviously not seeking to be thorough in his statements here at all. He references the Gospel without spelling it out. He explains the death, burial and resurrection of Christ as something important, but eliminates the details about Jesus appearing first to Mary Magdalene at the Tomb [skipping on to Cephas or Peter instead].

So, I believe that based on the overwhelming evidence at our disposal, we can say with complete confidence that the Gospel that Paul preached was exactly the same Gospel that Jesus preached.

Here’s what else I can affirm based on that same evidence:  The Gospel preached by Jesus and Paul was not Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory. It was very simply, and very obviously, the exact same Gospel that Jesus preached, and that was the Gospel of the Kingdom.

Even the phrase, “Jesus is Lord”, which Paul uses often in his epistles, is a statement about the Kingdom of God, because, in a kingdom you need a king, or a “lord”.

Paul affirms to both Jews and Gentiles alike that everyone who confesses that “Jesus is Lord” will be saved. [See Romans 10:9]

This means that Paul understood the “Gospel of the Kingdom” and he taught it all throughout his ministry.

The confusion comes because some Christians have lost the “Jesus-Centric” approach to scripture. They major on the teachings of Paul and wrongly ignore the things that Jesus talked about.

They also get easily confused when Paul says:

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.” [Gal. 1:6]

Some Christians even think that Paul must be saying that he taught people to “live in the grace of Christ” and that there must be another Gospel that Jesus preached. As if there were two Gospels: one preached by Jesus to the Jews and one preached by Paul to the Gentiles.

But that’s not what Paul is saying. Not at all. In fact, let’s look again at the full passage and please notice something at the end:

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.” [Gal. 1:6-7]

Did you catch it? Notice that right after Paul says that people are turning away from the Gospel of Grace he refers to this Gospel as “the gospel of Christ”.

Wait, what?

That’s right: Paul’s Gospel of Grace is the Gospel of Christ.

And the Gospel of Christ is what Christ preached: The Gospel of the Kingdom of God.

Keep in mind, Paul didn’t think he was writing the Bible. He was writing letters to friends and fellow Christians in various places who were struggling to follow Jesus in their respective lands.

Because of this, Paul doesn’t spend a lot of time repeating the Gospel of the Kingdom to these people. He knows they already know it. In fact, many of them knew this Gospel long before Paul knew it. Remember, when the movement stared, Paul [Saul] was persecuting the Church.

But we do know that Paul was aware of this Gospel of the Kingdom because:

A) he preached this Gospel all through his ministry [see references above] and

B) it was the only Gospel anyone in the Christian church had ever heard up to that point.

Elsewhere, Paul says we should prepare ourselves to preach the “Gospel of Peace” [Eph. 6:15], does that mean we have a third Gospel? Is the Gospel of Peace yet another Gospel competing for space with the Gospels of the Kingdom and Grace?

Of course not. There is only one Gospel. Paul knows that. The people he is writing to know that. There is no Gospel other than the one that Jesus preached.

Is the Gospel also about Grace? Yes.
Is the Gospel also about Peace? Yes, again.

Does the Gospel involve the life, death, burial and resurrection of Christ? Yes, but to reduce the Gospel to an Atonement Theory is to totally miss the actual Gospel that Jesus specifically came to proclaim.

As Jesus affirms:

“I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” (Luke 4:43)

There is only one Gospel and that is the Gospel that Jesus preached and that Gospel is the Gospel of the Kingdom, as found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and also in John.

Jesus and Paul both preached the Good News of the Kingdom of God.

We should too.


Keith Giles is a former pastor who left the pulpit 11 years ago to start a church that gives away 100% of the offering to the poor in their community. 

His new book “Jesus Unbound: Liberating the Word of God from the Bible”, is available now on Amazon and features a Foreword by author Brian Zahnd.

He is also the author of the Amazon best-seller, “Jesus Untangled: Crucifying Our Politics To Pledge Allegiance To The Lamb”.

Keith also co-hosts the Heretic Happy Hour Podcast on iTunes and Podbean. He and his wife live in Orange, CA with their two sons.

BONUS: Want to unlock exclusive content including blog articles, short stories, music, podcasts, videos and more? Visit my Patreon page.



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  • Guy Montag

    it is quite funny to hear an argument about which doctrine is actually true, the one from a fictional character in the gospels, or the one from a hallucinatory schizophrenic.

  • Aaron Ploof

    I don’t see why Jesus was fictional or Paul was hallucinatory. If you can prove either of these things without a doubt, please go ahead.

  • Herm

    Penal Substitutionary Atonement” by the will of our Father in heaven would be like my sending my son to die for the ignorant trespasses of my “terrible-twos” great-great-great-grandchildren. How much should I expect two year old children to get it all right without ever stepping on a toe or two? It would be much better news to find out that their great-great-great-grandfather was aware and able to watch out for them, than to have their great-great-grandfather die to pay their childish debts back to me, don’t ya think?

  • Herm

    … now that is unsubstantiated news, and not all that funny unless, of course, that you are the God of love, peace and joy that we’re seeking here. What credentials do you have that support such judgment?

  • Herman Veenendaal

    Then what did Jesus mean when he said in Matthew 26, v28 ” This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” That statement implies substitutionary atonement. Interestingly he only says this in Matthew, not in the other gospels which recount the same event.

  • Atheists are funny. Since they don’t believe in God why do they waste their time telling us that His son Jesus was fictional. This is irrational behavior as time is precious.

  • Jesus meant what he said. Without His sinless life and death we would not be reconciled to God and could not ever be part of the Kingdom. If grace were the answer then why were Adam and Eve not the first example of that miracle?

  • Herman Veenendaal

    I was pointing out to the author that Corinthians 1 is not the only reference to substitutionary atonement. It is also mentioned in Matthew so I believe the author needs to do some more reading. Nevertheless I still have to ask why the statement I referenced from Matthew 26 is not found in the stories of the last supper in Luke, Mark and John.

  • jekylldoc

    One of the reasons penal substitutiary atonement did not develop for 1000 years is that it is not clear what is meant. We read into it the doctrine we have been taught, but it really isn’t stated clearly. Nor need it be – the first thing to get about atonement is that it is not a piece of spiritual magic occurring offstage. Its actual effect on hearts and society is probably the effect that Paul had in mind, and probably the one that Matthew refers to. Outside of Hebrews there is no “mechanical” theory of atonement put forward, and Hebrews doesn’t go so far as to declare it a substitution.

    The second thing to get is that sacrifice for propitiation is symbolic language and the OT doesn’t even use it much. So the set of concepts Jesus and Paul were working with were every bit as poetic as “with his stripes we are healed.” Sacrifice is often a matter of making a covenant “sacred”, by sharing a meal offered to God. At that point it would not be like an ordinary agreement to provide barley at the next harvest, etc., but would be a solemn undertaking by both sides. The most vivid pronouncement about sacrifice in the OT is “I desire mercy and not sacrifice,” which Jesus quoted as a key passage for understanding our relationship to God.

    The third thing to get is that Jesus did not explain a mechanical, transactional role for his crucifixion. If he had wanted us to understand penal substitutiary atonement, if our salvation had depended on that understanding, it would be clearly explained. So what is going on with the Matthew pronouncement? One possibility is that it was written in by the next generation to explain why a Passover meal had turned into sharing the body and blood. Another possibility is that the symbolism of our forgiveness depending on Jesus’ sacrifice was something Jesus wanted us to think about, not so much because our salvation depends on it as because it invites us as the Body of Christ to continue pouring out our lives for others.

  • jekylldoc

    You look remarkably like Ben Bernanke.

  • Herman Veenendaal

    Thank you, well stated.

  • jekylldoc

    I appreciate your unpacking of the Kingdom vs. Atonement tension, which I agree is a modern invention. I don’t think I agree with everything you said in your unpacking of the I Cor passage, though I think it makes some crucial points that bear emphasizing: the overall good news was probably preached month in and month out and would not need to be spelled out again; and the gospel of the Kingdom is not separate from or subsidiary to grace and atonement. They are interlinked.

    I first recognized that Substitutiary Atonement was too mechanical when I realized that the early Gospel proclamations, in which I will include Paul’s I Cor passage, have resurrection as the point and culmination, not some straggling denouement. Substitutiary Atonement doesn’t deny any importance to the Resurrection, but it does put it in a subsidiary, could-have-been-omitted position. Rather I think the early church had a looser concept of “dying for our sins” that combines the ransom language found in many of Paul’s writings (and also found in the Synoptics and the OT) with a sense that the sinfulness of the world is concentrated in the military regimes then ruling the world. Jesus’ death rescued us from sinfulness because we now inherit the promise of resurrection and need not be afraid of “those who can put to death our body.” To the early church Resurrection was central to the good news of the Kingdom, and the astonishing counterpart to the Suffering Servant role that Jesus enacted. Resurrection is the seal of God’s fulfillment when we take up our cross, participating in the destiny of Jesus and the on-going salvation of the world.

  • Herm

    Bob, who were Adam and Eve?

  • The OT points to the birth of Christ and the reasons for His birth. The NT reveals Jesus and God’s purpose. For example:
    Hebrews 2:9
    9 But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.
    Not everything is duplicated in each gospel. That does not diminish the verse.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    According to the lexicon, the Greek word “aphesis” translated “forgiveness” properly means “release” or “freedom” – the passage should therefore more accurately read: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the deliverance from sins…” there is no implication in the passage that God requires Jesus’s death in order for him to forgive sins.

  • Theodore A. Jones

    “Outside of Hebrews there is no “mechanical” theory”? “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13 NIV

  • jekylldoc

    I can’t even tell what you are saying here. You will have to explain. When I read Romans 2:13 it appears to me to be saying we need to obey the law. Does this somehow constitute a mechanical theory of atonement?

  • Theodore A. Jones

    The soteriological paradigm I’ve quoted was written by the apostle Paul. If an individual has the faith to obey that law Paul has referenced the result of obeying only that law has the outcome of being declared righteous by God for any individual who has the faith to obey it.

  • jekylldoc

    There’s a reasonable investigation of Paul’s intention going on which concludes that he was setting up (i.e. with a series of what we now call verses) an argument that the law was the way God provided for salvation of the Jews and the martyrdom and resurrection of Jesus was the alternative path which had become available “in the last days” for the Gentiles. Regardless of whether you buy that interpretation, I think it is a mistake to read that passage from Paul as a mechanical statement about magical results of obeying the law. If you obey the law you are a better person for it, and participate in the salvation process.

  • Theodore A. Jones

    There is only a singular gate. God not being a respecter of persons there are not gates.

  • Herman Veenendaal

    Thank you. I have long wondered if the modern translations from the Greek, including the King James, were slanted toward a doctrine which engenders guilt in believers. The idea of substitutionary atonement would create guilt. I have attended various churches services of different denominations, all follow a similar pattern of creating guilt and then offering redemption. I recently read an interesting article which compared a passage from Romans as written in the original Greek with a more modern translation, which translation would clearly achieve the guilt many churches seem to desire in their followers. Here’s a quote from the article.

    Romans 3:21-26

    New Revised Standard Version

    “But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed,
    and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God
    through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

    For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God;
    they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption
    that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of
    atonement by his blood, effective through faith.

    He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed
    over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time
    that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith
    in Jesus.”

    Authentic Letters of Paul

    “Only now has God’s reliability been made clear, independent of the tradition
    from the law, although the whole of scripture offers evidence of it.

    God’s reliability has now been made clear through the unconditional
    confidence in God of Jesus, God’s anointed, for the benefit of all who
    come to have such confidence – no exceptions!

    After all, everyone has messed up and failed to reflect the image of God.

    At the same time, we are all accepted by God freely as a gift through the
    liberation that comes when we identify with the Anointed Jesus, whom God
    presented publicly as the one who conciliates through his unconditional
    confidence in God at the cost of his life, in order to show God’s
    reliability by overlooking, by divine restraint, how we messed up.

    This shows God’s reliability at this decisive time, namely that God is
    reliable and approves the one who lives on the basis of Jesus’
    unconditional confidence in God.”

    There is a considerable difference in meaning in these two translations, the first one clearly suited to church doctrine. I have to wonder how much of the NT was translated in this fashion. Preaching sin/guilt/redemption would keep the pews filled.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    I’d be interested in a link to the article. There is a lot of theological assumptions overlaid in the Greek in most translations, so I understand, although I had heard that the NRSV was one of the better ones. I have to say the translation you give really doesn’t sound like a literal translation either, but reads more like yet another interpretation (albeit differently slanted) of what someone thinks the text “really means”.

  • jekylldoc

    I don’t think it is a question of gates, but of ways by which the peaceable kingdom comes to people’s lives.

  • Theodore A. Jones

    There is only the Way.

  • jekylldoc

    I must tell you this sounds like an effort to exclude. I will give you the benefit of the doubt, though, since I am sure you understand that Jesus is the only gatekeeper.

  • Theodore A. Jones

    The murder of Jesus Christ by crucifixion only increased sin.

  • Herman Veenendaal
  • Iain Lovejoy

    They have a cheek. Their translation bears little resemblance to the original Greek, as far as I can tell, and far less than the NRSV.
    They translate “dikaiosyne” as “reliability” which it simply doesn’t mean: while “righteousness” might sometimes possibly a bit off, the alternative would be “justice”, not anything like “reliability “. What they translate as “the tradition from the law” is just the one word “law”, which could either refer to any law generally or specifically the Jewish law but definitely doesn’t have anything to do with extra-Biblical traditions. They paraphrase the actual Greek’s “law and the prophets” as “scripture” for no good reason. They “translate” as “the unconditional confidence in God of Jesus” the Greek which says literally either “faith in Jesus” or (possibly) “the faith / faithfulness of Jesus” and in which the word “God” does not even appear. “No exceptions!” purportedly translates Greek which says “because there is no difference”. They have simply rewritten the Greek “hysterountai”, which means ” fallen short” as “failed to reflect” and “doxa”, which means “glory”, as “image” with no justification at all. The Greek “dikaioumenou”, “declared righteous / innocent” becomes “accepted”. “That comes when we identify with” is simply made up where the Greek just has “in”. The literal Greek “through faith by his blood” somehow becomes “through his unconditional confidence in God at the cost of his life”. They add a nonexistent “decisive” to the Greek “at this time”. In the last phrase “the one who lives on the basis of Jesus’s unconditional faith in God” bears no resemblance to the Greek, which just says literally “the one who has faith in Jesus” (or conceivably “the one who has the faith of Jesus”).
    The purpose of the “translation” seems to be to have Paul say npt what he did say but what they think Paul ought to have said if Paul believed what they think he ought to have believed.

  • I experienced Christ as the consciousness of the Sun. I wrote an ebook about my experiences which is available to download in pdf form and is also available on blogger, links are below

    link to my free ebook, “Messages from the Sun God, Jesus Christ”

    link to the ebook on blogger: https://messagesftsg.blogspot.com/

    blog http://www.jesuschristsungod.com

  • Summers-lad

    Galatians 1:6-7 has bothered me for some time, as my conviction has grown that the gospel commonly preached (whether expressed as penal substitutionary atonement or more broadly as depending on Jesus to save us from hell which is otherwise our destiny) is not the gospel that Jesus, or Paul, or any of the other apostles preached. Paul goes on to say “let him be accursed” (v8) of anyone who preaches a different gospel. But what does that mean in practice? A traditional view would be to say that anyone who preaches a different gospel is going to hell (which is pretty much what the Good News Bible says for v8). Therefore it would be wrong to take any part in a church which teaches that doctrine, and those who believe it are not Christians.
    I think – but haven’t fully worked out – that the gospel of the Kingdom leads us in a different direction. The condemnation to hell of believers in a different gospel is part of the “different gospel” package that we are familiar with. But can I have fellowship with believers in Christ who have been brought up with, and hold to, penal substitutionary atonement? I can, and I do. But am I downplaying Paul’s teaching on a “different gospel”? I think I am. Help!!
    One other point. While I agree with what you wrote, I find in Acts that a consistent theme of the Apostles’ preaching is that Christ is risen! The resurrection, as much as the Kingdom, is at the core of the gospel. Otherwise the king is dead.

  • Herman Veenendaal

    Thanks Iain. The only Greek I know is ‘Souvlaki’.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    Strictly speaking, I don’t know any Greek either: I’m mostly muddling along with an on-line dictionary. It’s relatively easy to work out what the passage doesn’t say – I’d be struggling more to work out for definite what it does.

  • Widuran

    Paul preached Christ crucified ie penal substitution. Read Hebrews.

  • Theodore A. Jones

    I concur with your judgement that the soteriological belief preached by today’s churches ls not the gospel that Jesus, or Paul, or any of the other apostles preach. Jesus specifically states that it is the Holy Spirit’s objective to convict the world of guilt in regard to sin. Jn. 16:8 I suspect that if any contemporary church does that an accident has occurred.