Chapter 4: Paul

Many Witnesses, One Lord
by William Barclay

Chapter 4: Paul

The Gospel of Faith

Paul’s problem was the problem of every man who is aware that there is a God; his problem was how to get into a right relationship with God, how to escape from a situation dominated by distance, fear, estrangement, frustration into a relationship enriched by intimacy, friendship, confidence and trust. In one of his novels, H. G. Wells has a picture of a big business man who was so tensed and strained with the pace of living that he was in danger of complete collapse. His doctor told him that his one hope of sanity and balance lay in finding some kind of fellowship with God. "What?" the man said. "That up there having fellowship with me? I would as soon think of cooling my throat with the milky way or shaking hands with the stars!" To him fellowship with God seemed an impossible dream.

Paul was a devout Jew and he had already reached the highest levels of his ancestral religion (Philippians 3.4, 5; II Corinthians 11:21, 22). What was that way towards fellowship upon which Paul had struggled only to find that it was a dead end? It was the way of obedience to the Law.

We shall never go far in the study of Jewish religion without coming upon the idea of the covenant. The Jews believed, and rightly, that as a nation they were in a special relationship with God. That relationship they called the covenant relationship. A covenant is not a bargain, an agreement, a treaty, a contract, for in all such relationships the two parties come together on equal terms and with equal rights. The covenant was a relationship in which the whole initiative lay with God. God on his own initiative, not because of any merits of Israel, out of his own free grace, had come to Israel with the special offer that they would be his people arid he would be their God. But the covenant was not without its conditions; the privilege was not without its responsibilities. The condition was that Israel must accept and obey the Law which God gave them. In Exodus 243-8 we have a vivid picture of the people entering into this relationship with God. The culmination of the initiation came when Moses took the book of the Law and read it to the people and the people said: "All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient" (Exodus 24:7).

The immediate consequence of this was that the Law became the greatest reality in the religion of Israel. It came to be regarded as divine and pre-existent, as absolutely final and complete, as that part of Scripture to which the rest of Scripture was no more than commentary and addendum. It came to be traced back until it could be said that Adam was circumcised and kept the Sabbath and that Abraham and all the patriarchs kept the Law, as it were, by anticipation. It came even to be said that God himself studied the Law.

It has to be carefully remembered that the expression the Law has three meanings. First, it can mean the Ten Commandments, which are the Law par excellence. Second, it can mean the Pentateuch, the first five books of the O.T. which contain both the moral and the ceremonial law. Third, it can mean the Oral Law. In the beginning the Law had consisted of a series of great principles, such as, "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy." The Scribes and Rabbis throughout the ages had taken these great principles and had worked them out in the greatest possible detail. For instance, the Law said that a burden must not be carried on the Sabbath; the Scribes spent pages and chapters defining what a burden was, until it came to be argued whether a man was carrying a burden if he wore his dentures or a wooden leg on the Sabbath. According to the ceremonial law the hands must be washed at certain times; the Scribes spent hours defining just how much water must be used, just what the correct actions were. The Oral or Scribal Law took the great principles of the Law and made them into an infinity of rules and regulations. Law had become legalism. And it must always be remembered that it was not the great principles of the divine Law which Paul was against; it was the legalism of the endless details of the Scribal Law.

Clearly, the other side of the Law is obedience. The Jews were the people who had taken upon themselves "the yoke of the Law" (Sayings of the Fathers 3:8). Law is irrelevant unless it is meticulously obeyed. Two facts are to be noted about this obedience.

First, for the devout Jew this obedience was a joy and a glory. "The Law is my delight," said the Psalmist. "Oh, how I love thy law!" (Psalm 119:77, 97). The law was not the yoke of slavery; it was the yoke which a lover takes upon himself when he dedicates himself in devotion to obey the least command of his beloved.

Second, it is nonetheless true that this view of religion produces, or is liable to produce, the most serious consequences. If a relationship is dependent on the obedience to law, especially if that law is conceived of in terms of rules and regulations, the idea of merit inevitably enters in. The man who obeys the regulations acquires a credit balance; the man who fails to do so acquires a debit balance. In this relationship a man can work his passage. It is possible to speak of those who have been justified in their keeping of the Law (II Baruch 51:3, 4). Hezekiah the good king trusted in his works (II Baruch 63:3). There is even a treasury of works. The righteous have with God a store of works preserved in treasuries (II Baruch 14:12). The good man has a treasure of works laid up with the Most High (II Esdras 7:77).

This situation can result in one of two things which depend largely on the temperament of the person involved. It can result in spiritual pride. The more detailed the Law became, the more the opportunities arose to score credits and to acquire merit. And it became possible for a man of a certain type of mind to congratulate himself on the meticulous performance of the regulations of the Law, and even to think that he had succeeded in putting God in his debt. Hence pride and self-righteousness arise.

The second result is the precise opposite of this. A man could become agonized and tortured and frustrated and defeated when he allowed himself to think of the sinner's attempt to satisfy the sinless One, of humanity's hopeless struggle to set itself right with deity. Clearly, this is a struggle doomed to defeat, and can result only in a terrible estrangement, conscious for ever of being in default to God and under the judgment of God.

It was the second situation in which Paul found himself. No human being had ever striven harder and succeeded better in keeping the Law. As far as the righteousness which was in the Law was concerned he was blameless (Philippians 3:6). But the harder he strove the further he became from God. "No human being", he said, "will be justified in God's sight by works of the Law" (Romans 3:20; Galatians 3:11). "A man is not justified by works of the Law" (Galatians 2:16). Paul knew, because Paul had tried it.

And yet the curious thing is that to the end of the day Paul never discarded the Law, although when he speaks of the Law in this sense it is not the Scribal Law, but the great principles of the Divine Law which he has in mind. "Do we then overthrow the law by this faith ? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the Law" (Romans 3:31). The commandment is holy, just and good (Romans 7:12). What then is the use of the Law and the place of the Law in the new scheme of things?

1. Quite clearly, the Law defines sin. If it had not been for the Law, Paul would not have known what sin was (Romans 7:7). Where there is no Law, there can be no charge of sin (Romans 5:I3). Through the Law comes the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20). To take a very simple example, in the early stages of the O.T. polygamy was practiced, but it was not yet wrong, for the divine law forbidding it was not yet known to men. There is a sense, a quite neutral sense, in which the Law creates sin. The Law came in to increase the trespass (Romans 5:20). To take an analogy, for long enough it may be quite legal to drive along a road in either direction; a regulation is passed making that road a one-way road; and immediately a new "sin", the sin of driving in the wrong direction, is thereby created. Certainly the Law is necessary to define sin.

2. But there is another sense in which the Law creates sin. Sin found its opportunity through the commandment (Romans 7:7-l1). It is a bitter fact of human experience that it often happens that no sooner is a thing forbidden than it becomes desirable. The very fact that it was forbidden to eat of the tree in the garden made Adam and Eve wish to eat it. The grass on the other side of the fence is always most succulent. The paradox and tragedy of the law is that it creates a desire for that which it forbids. Sin works in a man through that which is in itself good. So there arises a situation in which a man is consumed with desire for that which he knows is wrong and which one part of him does not wish to do, and a barrier is set up, stopping him doing what he really wishes to do. The Law has made him a split personality and a walking civil war (Romans 7:13-25).

3. Is then the Law totally wrong and useless? There are two things the Law can do.

(a) The Law shuts a man up under sin (Galatians 3:23). It compels him to see the slavery in which he lives. It compels him to fulfil the old Greek adage and to know himself. In this the Law is essential for the first step to freedom is to realize that we are slaves.

(b) The Law does more than that. It is, as the AV has it, our schoolmaster to lead us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). The word is paidagogos, and schoolmaster is not a good translation. The RSV has custodian; Weymouth, tutor slave; Moffatt has it that the Law held us wards in discipline; Kingsley Williams has the slave that disciplined us; the NLB, a kind of tutor in charge of us; Phillips has it that the Law is a strict governess. The fact is that the paidago gos had nothing to do with a boy's technical education. He did teach the boy manners and morals; and he did every day conduct the boy to the door of the schoolroom, and leave him there. He took him to school, but he never himself entered the school. He, as it were, handed him over and delivered him to the one who could teach him. So then the Law brings us to the door of Christ and leaves us there.

What does this mean? It can only mean that the Law drives us to complete despair. It shows us the good; it leaves us helpless to do it; it even wakens the desire to sin. Life is defeated and frustrated, arid there is nothing left to do but to come to Jesus Christ and accept what he has to give. The Law can take us so far, but only Jesus Christ can take us the whole way to God. What then is to be put in the place of Law?

Now we have arrived at the great Pauline conception of faith. Faith is a kaleidoscopic word, and we can only take the most summary view of it here.

1. Faith is loyalty. The faith of the Christians at Rome is proclaimed throughout the world (Romans 1:8). The faith of the Colossians and the Thessalonians is dear to Paul (Colossians 1:4; 1 Thessalonians 3.5). The Corinthians are to stand fast in the faith (I Corinthians 16:13). Man's faithlessness is contrasted with God's faith, God's reliability, God's loyalty to himself and to his promises and to his people (Romans 33). Faith is that loyalty which is the foundation stone of life and of religion.

2. Faith is a man's religion. The Christians were to find Paul preaching the faith he had once sought to obliterate (Galatians 1:23). The man who is weak in the faith must not be immediately introduced to debates about doubtful questions (Romans 14:1). We speak of the Christian faith in the sense of the Christian religion.

3. Faith is a creed, that in which a man believes and by which he is prepared to stand. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Ephesians 4:5)

4. Faith comes from hearing. It is the result of listening in the right way to a message which is a challenge and a rebuke and an offer (Romans 10:17; Galatians 3:2).

5. It is now that we come to the distinctively Pauline sense of faith. Faith is committal to an adventure. We walk by faith and not by sight (II Corinthians 5:7). It is launching out into the deep, accepting the plunge into the unknown, "betting your life that there is a God". It is venturing for the name of Christ.

6. Faith is the trustful acceptance of an offer. It is by faith that the expiation of Christ must be received (Romans 3:25). It is the committal of all life in time and in eternity to the trust that the offer and promises of God in Christ Jesus are true. It is casting oneself without reservation on God in the complete confidence that he means what he says in Christ.

7. Faith is the willingness to admit one's own helplessness. This is the essence of the contrast between faith and works (Romans 3:28; 9:32). The man who believes in works thinks consciously or unconsciously that he can do something to save himself, something to put himself right with God; faith means the acceptance of the fact that a man can do nothing except humbly and trustfully accept what God offers him. Faith is the realization that man can only take.

8. Faith can only work through love and must change the frustration of life into the joy of life (Galatians 5:6; Ephesians 6:23; II Thessalonians 1:3; Philippians 1:25). It is neither the arid intellectualism which thinks only of the mind nor the gloom which is obsessed with sin. It is the kindled heart and the joyous spirit whose confidence is not in self but in God

For Paul faith is exemplified in Abraham (Romans 4; Galatians 3:6-18). Abraham was not justified by works of the Law, nor by circumcision, because he lived long before the Law was given, and his circumcision followed and did not precede the establishment of his relationship with God. Faith in Abraham was simply the willingness to take God at his word even if the word seemed impossible. It seemed humanly impossible that a man of a hundred years of age with a wife as old should have a child, yet Abraham believed that what God promised God would do. Abraham was the man who took God at his word, and that is faith.

Paul expresses this new relationship between God and man in a series of metaphors.

1. There is the metaphor from slavery and the idea of emancipation. The Christian has been bought with a great price (I Corinthians 6:20; 7:23); God has purchased the Church with the blood of his own One (Acts 20:28). It is for freedom that Christ has set us free (Gal. 5:1).

In the Greek world it was possible for a slave to gain his freedom. He might during any free time he had work for a few coppers. Each time he earned some money he deposited it in the temple of some god. He might well have to go on doing this for many long years. When he had the total purchase price deposited, he took his master to the temple; the priest paid over the money; and then the slave became the property of the god and therefore free of all men. So Paul thinks of Jesus Christ as paying the purchase price, which brings a man into the possession of God, and from that time on a man is no longer the slave of sin but the servant of righteousness (Romans 6:14-23). Thus througb the price that Jesus Christ paid a man is liberated and emancipated from sin and becomes the property of God.

2. There is the metaphor from the family and the idea of adoption. Through Jesus Christ we have received the spirit of sonship or adoption (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:5, 6; Ephesians 1:5). We have become members of the family of God and can speak of God as Abba, Father.

 In the ancient world adoption was common, and in the Roman world it almost literally made a man a new man. All the obligations and debts of his past life were cancelled, and he became as really a son of his adopting father as any flesh and blood son was. He left behind him all the old debts and entered without restriction into all the new privileges.

3. There is the metaphor from friendship and the idea of reconciliation. We are reconciled to God by the death of his Son (Romans 5:10). God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (II Corinthians 5:18-20). The verb is katallassein and it is the regular Greek verb for effecting a re conciliation between two people who have quarrelled or drifted apart. Through Jesus Christ friendship between man and God is restored. But one thing must be noted -- it is always man who is reconciled to God, never God to man. It was not the attitude of God which had to be changed; that was always suffering, waiting, seeking love. It was man's heart which had to be changed so that the rebellion should become obedience and the fear should become trust.

4. There is the metaphor from sacrifice and the idea of propitiation. God put Jesus Christ forward as an expiation in his blood (Romans 3:25). We are here in the realm of the covenant again. We have seen that the existence of the covenant relationship depended on the keeping of the Law. Man being sinful the covenant relationship was bound to be broken. To meet that situation the whole sacrificial system was created. When a man broke the Law, he came with a sacrifice which was the sign and the symbol and the guarantee of his penitence, and thus the relationship was restored. It has to be noted that, whatever may have ultimately been the popular belief, the sacrifice was unavailing without the penitence of which it was the sign.

Sacrifice is therefore the way towards the restoration of the broken relationship between man and God in Jewish thought. So the life and death of Jesus Christ are the price at which man's relationship to God was restored. This sacrifice did not change the attitude of God, for, as we have seen, God never needed to be reconciled to man. The plea is: "Be reconciled to God" (II Corinthians 5:20). God's wrath never needed to be changed to love, for it was his love that God showed in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). It was God himself who in the wonder of his love thus reached out in the sufferings and death of his Son to touch the hearts of men.

5. There is the metaphor from the lawcourts and the idea of justification. It is here we reach the very heart of Paul's own faith, for here we reach the doctrine of Justification by Faith. No man can be justified by works; that Paul knew from bitter experience (Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16; 3:11). A man is justified by faith and therein finds his peace with God (Romans 3:28; 5:1).

It is unfortunate that here the word justification is being used in a non-English and an unusual sense. Usually the verb to justify means to produce reasons why a person was right to act as he did. But when Paul says that God justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5) it is clear that he cannot mean that God produces reasons to prove that the sinner was right to act as he did, and is right to be a sinner. In Greek the verb is dikaioun. Greek verbs which end in -oun, when they describe moral qualities, do not mean to make a man such and such a thing, they mean to treat, reckon. account, regard a man as such and such a thing. So when Paul speaks of God justifying the ungodly, quite simply he means that God treats the sinner as if he was a good man. In his amazing love God treats the hell-deserving sinner as a beloved son. The perfect example of Justification by Faith in action is the parable of the prodigal son. The son planned to come back and to ask to be received as a hired servant: he never got the chance to make the request; he is welcomed as a son (Luke 15:11-32). Here indeed is a Gospel. All that we could have expected is condemnation, and lo and behold we meet with welcoming love. The relationship between God and man is completely changed. We can now think of God not as the threatening judge but as the waiting father, and we can come to him in heart-broken penitence but nonetheless in childlike confidence and trust.

If every time we meet the word justification we translate it to come into a right relationship with God, the whole matter becomes clear. No human being can ever enter into a right relationship with God through works of the Law (Romans 3:20). Since through faith we are in a right relationship with God we have peace with him through Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1).

Why by faith? Because all this sounds too good to be true, and all that we can do is to make the act of trust which accepts it as true, and which in that trust comes to God. Why through Jesus Christ? Because apart from Jesus Christ and without him no man could ever have discovered that God is like this.

The other name for all this is grace. Grace is something which a man can never earn, but which is freely and spontaneously given to him, and which he can only accept. The essence of the Pauline faith is the acceptance of the fact that we cannot save ourselves, but that we can only trustingly and lovingly accept that which God so generously offers.

But the matter cannot be left there. It would be posssible to interpret all that we have so far seen as a reason for holding that sin does not matter any more. If God treats the sinner as a good man, why worry about sin any more ? If grace is all-important, and if man must stop striving and start receiving, why not simply relax all discipline and let desire have full play? In point of fact this is precisely the argument that Paul had to meet, and we shall meet it again in other parts of the NT. Behind the questions in Romans 6:1 there is a hidden conversation. "What shall we then say? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?" The argument runs like this.

The Questioner: You say that grace can forgive any sin? Paul: I do.

The Questioner: You say that grace is the greatest and loveliest thing in the world?

Paul: I do.

The Questioner: Then, if that be so, let us go on sinning to our heart's content, for the more we sin the more this tremendous grace receives its opportunity to operate. All that it does is to provide an opportunity for the grace of God.

To that Paul would have returned three answers.

1. What Christianity does is not to supply a man with an excuse comfortably to live the old life; it supplies him with a dynamic for the new life. That new life which comes with baptism is a sharing in the resurrection life of Christ. In it a man has died to sin and lives to God; he is no longer the slave of sin but the servant of righteousness (Romans 6:3-19). The whole essence of Christianity is not that it makes a man free to sin, but that it makes him free not to sin.

2. If a man takes up that attitude he does not know what love is. The fact that our nearest and dearest love us and will love us and will forgive us no matter what we do is not a reason for doing the things which will break their hearts; so far from that it lays upon us the responsibility of for ever seeking to deserve that love. To know that we are loved, and to know that love will forgive, is not a reason for licence; it is the obligation to nobility.

3. The Pauline idea of justification is incomplete without the accompanying idea of sanctification. When the Christian is freed from sin and becomes the slave of God, the return he receives is sanctification (Romans 6:22). The sanctification of the Christian is the will of God (I Thessalonians 4:3). It is Paul's prayer for the Thessalonians that the God of peace may sanctify his people wholly (I Thessalonians 5:23). Christians are chosen for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit (II Thessalonians 2:13).

What is this sanctification? The word for sanctification is hagiasmos; Greek nouns which end in - asmos signify not an act but a process; and sanctification is the road to holiness, and it is precisely that road that the Christian must for ever walk. Take an analogy. Suppose there is a locomotive which must pull a train from London to Glasgow. It is facing in the wrong direction. It is taken to the turn-table and turned round. But then after that it must begin on the long journey to its appointed destination. Conversion, justification, the moment when we turn round and face God in the new relationship, instead of running away from him, is like the turning on the turn-table. Sanctification is like the long road which has to be made to the journey's end. Paul would certainly have said that a man is not saved by works; but he would equally have said that a man is saved for works. And unless sanctification follows justification, unless a moral change accompanies the new relationship to God, a man's Christianity is sadly incomplete.

But there is this one difference. The motive power is not now law but love. The constraint now is the love of Christ (II Corinthians 5:14). The dynamic is not now fear, but devotion to the Saviour who loved us and gave himself for us. Life has become a response to love, and has laid upon it the awesome responsibility of being loved.

When all this happens, then life is in Christ, a phrase which occurs in Paul's letters more than eighty times. It has been said that the only possible analogy to this phrase is in our relationship to the air which surrounds us. Unless we are in the air, and unless the air is in us, we die. And unless the Christian is in Christ and Christ in the Christian the spiritual life dies. Christ is the very atmosphere in which the Christian lives and moves and has his being, the standard by which he judges all things, the voice for which he continually listens, the presence who is always and for ever with him in life and in death.