When we speak about sharing the gospel, what gospel are we talking about exactly? Knowing the existence of two gospels and the difference between them can resolve one of the biggest confusions of modern Christianity: grace that requires works.
As I’ve grown to understand the Gospel of Grace you might have seen me mention here and there that it is Paul’s gospel. This is true in a matter of speaking, however, it is more technically accurate to say that it was the gospel entrusted to Paul, as Paul did not make it up on his own accord. The gospel that was entrusted to him did not come from the letter of the law but by the Spirit of God. The gospel that was entrusted to Paul changed everything about the way man lived and saw the accomplishment of the cross. This gospel was known as the Gospel of the Uncircumcision.
The of is vital for some translations would see to have no issue translating it as to, which appallingly misses the mark. It assumes that the gospel given to Peter is the exact same as the one given to Paul, the only difference being the audience it was taught to. I assumed that Paul was chosen to spread the gospel simply because Peter didn’t have the resources nor the energy to carry it to the nations, but this has always carried a certain randomness to me. Why was Paul, the enemy of Christ and His followers, the one chosen for this arduous task? Could there have been a greater meaning or purpose in his conversion than simply acquiring another member to bring the gospel out? As we will see, Paul’s conversion is significant, not because of an act of repentance, nor because the glorified Christ appeared to him, but because he was wholly undeserving. Paul was chosen to to carry a message and that message was realized at the moment he fell to his knees in the face of blinding light.
To preface why Pauline theology is so distinct, there are over thirty major differences between the gospel entrusted to Peter-that of the Circumcision-and that entrusted to Paul. We will explore those differences in depth at a later point. Our purpose here, where our question is sin and what we are to do with it, is to uncover what the Gospel of the Uncircumcision is in its most basic form.
But, on the contrary, perceiving that I (Paul) have been entrusted with the evangel of the Uncircumcision, according as Peter of the Circumcision (for He Who operates in Peter for the apostleship of the Circumcision operates in me also for the nations) (Galatians 2:7-8 Concordant Literal New Testament (abbreviated as CLNT), bold mine).
The audience of the Uncircumcision, the audience Paul went to, were the Gentiles. They filled the nations apart from Israel (Ephesians 3:8). The audience of the Circumcision, on the other hand, was Israel, which is why in Circumcision writings the beginning of the letter always addressed them as such (James 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1). Circumcision was Israel’s sign of loyalty to God as His chosen people. Specifically, Israel was chosen to eventually judge and rule the earth during the future eons, but in order for Israel to be qualified they had to be loyal to the Torah. To put it succinctly, they had to work for their salvation through obedience to the law. The law was their gospel (Micah 4:2). They could never be perfect, but they had to at least try and set their hearts on serving it.
Along with Paul’s conversion, the key of his gospel is in the name. The Gentiles had never required circumcision, so if the gospel entrusted to Paul was the same as the one given to Peter, we would expect to hear a works based gospel, similar to that of Hebrews and James. Instead, Paul proclaims the opposite. In Romans, one of the most profound and beautiful images into the grace of God ever written, we read,
….For we are reckoning a man to be justified by faith apart from works of law. (Romans 3:28 CLNT)
For Sin shall not be lording it over you, for you are not under law, but under grace. (Romans 6:14 CLNT)
Teaching that one was justified apart from works of the law would leave an Israelite cold. For Israel, righteousness came from works and rituals and forgiveness through repentance. They were at the bottom of Mt. Sinai, expected to climb and keep climbing, even if they slipped. They were proud to do so, mind you, and are capable for their calling had everything to do with works. They were to be the judge of the nations in the coming eons (Matthew 9:28). But for Paul and his audience we don’t have to climb Mt. Sinai. We could fly up to its peak on a luxury jet.
Now to the worker, the wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as a debt. Yet to him who is not working, yet is believing on Him Who is justifying the irreverent, his faith is reckoned for righteousness. (Romans 4:5 CLNT, bold mine)
The vast depth of God’s grace is only fully realized in the letters of Paul, for while all Scripture is for us, it is only the letters of Paul that are written to us. This is why the letters of Paul seem at odds with the rest of Scripture. For centuries Christians have attempted to make Paul fit comfortably into the rest of Scripture for the sake of cohesion, but this approach does not “rightly divide the word of truth.”
Imagine you are reading the letters of Paul and you read Romans 11, where Paul proclaims, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works…” and you feel an immense sense of freedom wash over you. You realize that grace is undeserved and there is nothing you can or cannot do that will change who you are in Christ Jesus. Even if you deliberately sin, you are still justified (Romans 6:7).
However, you flip a number of pages over and you read verses such as,
For anyone who should be keeping the whole law, yet should be tripping in one thing, has become liable for all. (James 2:10 CLNT)
What is the benefit, my brethren, if anyone should be saying he has faith, yet may have no works? That faith can not save him. (James 2:14 CLNT)
Now are you wanting to know, O empty man, that faith apart from works is dead? (James 2:20 CLNT)
There goes my joy. There goes my peace and the freedom I thought I had. Did Paul not just say that he “who is not working” is saved and justified, as Christ justifies the irreverent? Now James is telling me that I must work or else my faith is dead and cannot save me? “I’m so confused” I want to say.
The good news is there is no need for confusion, because the answer is astonishingly simple. The book of James was written to the circumcised. We are not expected to do James or apply James and we never were. The books of James and Paul are irreconcilable and that’s exactly how they were meant to be. James is of the law, Paul is of grace. James’ audience works, those who hear Paul don’t rest in God’s grace and don’t work or strive to work in their own ability. The Gospel of the Circumcision is “God moves if you move.” The Gospel of the Uncircumcision is “God moves.” He moves whether you move or not, because your salvation and faith is not dependent on you. Faith comes from God as He calls us (1 Thessalonians 5:24), the Fruit of the Spirit belongs to the Spirit, and nothing is required of us. This was why Paul, a righteous and loyal Hebrew who found himself guiltless by the law, counted all of his works as “dung” (Philippians 3:4-8) and that remains true for us even to this day. In Paul’s letters to the Corinthians we read why this news is so exciting.
Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it (2 Corinthians 3:4-10 ESV).
If Paul was with me today my flaws and failings would never alarm him. My want of “sin” would never even phase him. If I went into a church and told them I loved the sight of a woman’s figure, I enjoyed the taste of wine, I let a cuss word fly on occasion, and sometimes I’d rather watch a film and play a video game than read the Bible, I might be frowned upon or prayed for. They might tell me those are things I need to keep wrestling and struggling with so that my flesh doesn’t rule over me.
However, if I went to Paul he’d laugh, tell me I was justified in spite of everything, and advise me not to even worry about it because the work belongs to Christ. He would tell me my sin was crucified with Christ and rendered dead and that my boast is not in my flesh but in the cross. He would tell me Christ has me in the palm of His hand, where nothing could ever snatch me away.