One of the first challenges preachers face when preparing to preach the Gospels is understanding how the Gospels relate to the rest of the New Testament—specifically Acts and the epistles. A cursory reading of the New Testament reveals some marked differences between Jesus, or the evangelists who record his works and words, and Paul—not to mention the authors of the remaining epistles. Jesus talks a lot about repentance; Paul does not. Jesus talks a lot about the kingdom of God, while Paul says little about it. Paul develops the idea of "the flesh" as under the control of evil impulses and the idea of sinners being dead in their sin, yet this "radical language" does not appear in the Gospels.[i]
The problem cannot be explained by a mere development in the understanding of Jesus' life and teaching. While the Gospels give accounts of events that took place before Jesus' ascension, the evangelists who composed them did so after Jesus' ascension. In fact, the Gospels were written after most of the New Testament epistles were penned by the Apostle Paul and others.[ii] The Gospels "all are written from a post-Easter standpoint and know that the Christian church continues to exist, committed to the mission entrusted to it by Jesus."[iii]
In a 2010 Christianity Today cover story, "Jesus vs. Paul," Scot McKnight claims: "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."[iv] The "first language" of one side is Jesus and the kingdom, while the other side speaks the language of Paul and justification. "Those addicted to kingdom language struggle to make Paul fit, while those addicted to Paul's theological terms struggle to make Jesus fit."[v]
So are Jesus and Paul at odds? Is there irreconcilable diversity between the Gospels and the epistles—both the Pauline epistles and the general epistles? Does Jesus' theology contradict Paul's theology? Before preaching any of the four Gospels, a preacher must be able to answer these questions.
Esteemed New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall wants to stress the unity of the New Testament. The subtitle of his magnificent New Testament Theology puts it well: "Many Witnesses, One Gospel." This four-part series of articles will explore how to understand the Gospels in relation to the rest of the New Testament—both the book of Acts and the New Testament epistles penned by Paul and others. I will argue for an overarching consistency and unity in the message of the evangelists and epistle-writers. The diversity between the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, I propose, does not reflect fundamental differences in theology but rather differences in literary genre, purpose, audience, and authorial personality.
What Binds the New Testament Corpus Together?
So what leads us to believe in a harmonious relationship between the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, rather than irreconcilable diversity? Interestingly, both I. Howard Marshall and Scot McKnight, the two New Testament scholars already cited who have wrestled deeply with this issue, point to the same Scripture text to identify what binds the New Testament corpus together. This Scripture text is 1 Cornthians 15:1-11:
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. There is no need to fret over an alleged contradiction as if the message of kingdom and the message of justification are different messages. 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. For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.
What, then, provides an underlying unity for the New Testament Gospels, book of Acts, and the letters? The answer is "the gospel." According to Marshall, this text "affirms that he [Paul] and the first followers of Jesus preached one and the same gospel."[vi] Likewise, McKnight comments: "Behind or underneath both kingdom and justification is the gospel, and the gospel is the saving story of Jesus that completes Israel's story."[vii] Paul's vision of justification by faith dominates his preaching, while Jesus used the term "justified" as Paul did only once.[viii] Yet Paul preached the same gospel Jesus did because Paul preached the saving story of Jesus centered in Jesus' death and resurrection. Jesus' vision of the kingdom dominated his preaching so much so that the synoptic Gospels present him as preaching "the gospel of the kingdom" (see Matthew 4:23, 9:35; Mark 1:15; Luke 4:43, 16:16). Yet Jesus preached the same gospel Paul did because Jesus preached himself. In fact, the end of the book of Acts tells us that when Paul arrived in Rome to make his appeal to Caesar, he spent his time explaining and preaching the kingdom of God (Acts 28:23, 31).
It is important to note the continuity of the gospel message as it goes from Jesus to Paul. Marshall explains: "The gospel is a given, handed down to Paul by other Christians, and there is no evidence of any dispute with the leaders in Jerusalem over its essential contents."[ix] This is an important point given the account in Acts 15 of a dispute brought to the church at Jerusalem over whether Gentile believers needed to be circumcised. Had there been a dispute over the basic gospel message, we would expect the council in Jerusalem to have dealt with it and for Luke to have recorded it. Marshall then summarizes how the "content of the gospel" is "centered on the death and resurrection of Jesus, understood as the means through which people can be delivered from their sins and God's judgment upon them. The death of Jesus … is an act of deliverance or redemption that sets sinners free from their sin."[x] Marshall concludes: "This understanding can be traced back to the teaching of Jesus as recorded in the synoptic Gospels, where his death is understood as a ransom for many and as having a sacrificial character (Mark 10:45, 14:24)."[xi]
Two other observations may be helpful. First, as McKnight points out, "there's not a word here [in 1 Cor. 15:1-8] about either kingdom or justification!"[xii] While these are both key ways of framing and explicating the gospel, neither by itself tells the entire story. So, there is no need to fret over an alleged contradiction as if the message of kingdom and the message of justification are different messages. Both explicate the same gospel. Second, according to Marshall, "although some modern scholars tend to write as if the various New Testament authors lived on separate islands with no contact with other known figures, … Galatians 1-2 places it beyond any doubt that James, John, Paul and Peter knew each other and talked together, and in the immortal phrase of C. H. Dodd, 'we may presume they did not spend all the time talking about the weather.'"[xiii]
What Accounts for the Differences Between the Gospel and the Epistles?
Once we establish the gospel, or good news of God's saving activity in Christ, as the underlying unity that binds the Gospels and epistles together, it is not difficult to account for the differences between them. Three observations are helpful here.
First, the New Testament is comprised of "occasional" documents. What Gordon Fee says about the New Testament epistles certainly applies to the Gospels as well. Each New Testament book, whether a Gospel or an epistle, "is an ad hoc document, that is, a piece of correspondence occasioned by a set of specific historical circumstances, either from the recipient's or author's side—or both."[xiv]
Marshall shows how this accounts for the differences between Paul's epistles and the Gospel of John. "The theology of Paul is constituted in part by the debate with the Judaizers and with proponents of a way of thinking that was more indebted to Hellenistic ways of thinking that emphasized wisdom, knowledge and human status."[xv] As we might expect, "these matters are much less to the fore in the Gospel of John, where the dispute is much more with the synagogue and its rejection of Jesus as the Messiah and where the more specific issues of life within the church are not a primary concern."[xvi]
Furthermore, we should expect different emphases on the part of the gospel writers and the writers of the epistles for no other reason than the differences we find within Paul's own epistles! Marshall observes that there is less material on the pervasiveness of sin in Paul's other letters than in Romans.[xvii] Yet we do not fret over this, assuming that Paul must delve into all aspects of his theology at the same level of detail in every piece of his correspondence. Nor must we fret over this when Jesus says much about repentance and Paul says little about it. Both make the same points with different images.
Second, the literary genre itself accounts for some of the differences. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are telling stories rather than writing letters.[xviii] They communicate their message by narrating Jesus' evangelistic mission rather than by offering specific instructions as Paul does in his letters for the upbuilding of congregations.
Third, we should expect the authors' personalities and gifts to lead to differences in content. Nowhere is this more clear than in the differences between Luke and Paul. Luke is a bridge between Jesus and Paul, having written extensive accounts about both—Jesus in his (Luke's) Gospel and Paul in his sequel called The Acts of the Apostles. Noting the differences between the Paul of Acts (written by Luke) and the Paul of the letters (written by Paul), Marshall observes that "Luke did not have the depth of theological insight possessed by Paul. There is no point at which he contradicts Paul, but equally he does not share Paul's profundity."[xix] Marshall provides a helpful analogy here. He argues that Paul's theology is the same as Luke's theology but is stated at a different level, "just as a high Anglican liturgical service with its elaborate ritual and use of centuries of Christian language and music may have the same shape and content as a simple nonliturgical service that expresses an identical faith and experience in a different mode."[xx]
Salvation by Grave Through Faith Not Works-Righteousness
Still, despite all the talk of diversity within a fundamental unity, preachers of the Gospels—let alone readers!—are troubled by texts in which Jesus seems to preach works-righteousness rather than faith as the means of receiving God's salvation. A brief survey of two especially problematic teachings can help us see that Jesus' message, though articulated at times a bit differently than Paul's, is still an offer of salvation by grace through faith and not as a result of works. To keep the survey brief, I will limit the discussion to these teachings as they are recorded in Matthew's Gospel. What we discover there will help us read the parallel accounts in the Luke's Gospel as well as various texts in the other three Gospels that seem to hint at works-righteousness.
The first challenging text brings Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 to a stirring conclusion. According to Matthew 7:21, Jesus announces:
Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, "Lord, Lord did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?" Then I will tell them plainly, "I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!"
Jesus concludes his sermon with a parable of the wise and foolish builders, likening those who hear and practice his words to a wise man who builds his house on the rock and thus survives the storm (Matt. 7:24-27). Has Jesus claimed that good works, or obedience, leads to salvation?
D. A. Carson wisely points readers to the context of the entire Gospel to help us understand that entrance into the kingdom turns on obedience—not one "which earns merit points, but which bows to Jesus' lordship in everything and without reservation."[xxi] He writes:
We ought not to forget that Matthew's record of the Sermon on the Mount must be taken in the context of his entire Gospel. It is not for nothing that his Gospel begins with a prophecy concerning Jesus that stresses his function as a Savior … (Matt. 1:21). Within this context, the Sermon on the Mount does not press men and women to despair, still less to self-salvation. Rather, it presses men and women to Jesus.[xxii]
The immediate context also helps preachers navigate Jesus' strong words. David Turner observes that Matthew 7:13-27 "presents an ethical dualism that vividly and repeatedly contrasts discipleship and antinomianism."[xxiii] Jesus uses the imagery of two gates/ways (7:13-14), two trees/fruits (7:15-23), and two builders/foundations (7:24-27) to make this contrast—a contrast that has its roots in the Hebrew Bible and is found in Second Temple Jewish literature.[xxiv] What Jesus says in the middle section (7:15-23) "clearly distinguishes between two kinds of fruit and two kinds of trees. This rejects any sort of 'cheap grace,' that teaches that the many who luxuriate on the broad path will somehow after all end up in the kingdom with those who make the rigorous trek of discipleship."[xxv] Jesus, then, is warning a group steeped in religious teaching and ritual that obedience is the proof of their commitment to him, not the cause of it.
The approach taken here will help preachers make sense of similar statements made by Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46—the so-called "parable of the sheep and the goats." As D. A. Carson notes, "the surprise of the righteous [at the reason for their admission to the kingdom] makes it impossible to think that works of righteousness win salvation."[xxvi]
The story of the wealthy young man in Matthew 19:16-30 presents another challenge. When this man approaches Jesus and asks what "good thing" he must do to get eternal life, Jesus ends up replying: "if you want to enter life, keep the commandments" (19:16-17). The discussion turns to which commands, and Jesus specifies six of the "ten words" given by God to Moses (19:18-19). The young man claims to have kept these and asks what he still lacks (19:20). Jesus replies with another "work." He tells the young man to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and then come follow Jesus (19:21). This is hardly the message Jesus gives to Martha after the death of her brother when he says: "The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die" (John 11:25-26)). So how are we to understand this?
Grant Osborne insists that "Jesus is not teaching a works righteousness within which we find eternal life by keeping the commandments."[xxvii] Instead, Jesus "is drawing the rich young man into reflection on the reality of his life of piety, probably to get him to realize his sin." Jesus, then, is tailoring his "gospel presentation" to account for this man's divided heart. His wealth was competing with his allegiance to God. There is no suggestion that this man will be able to keep these commands. In fact, Jesus assumes otherwise. As D. A. Carson observes, "What the man needs is the triumph of grace, for as the next verses show, entering the kingdom of heaven is impossible for him (v.26). God, with whom all things are possible, must work. The parable in 20:1-16 directly speaks to this issue."[xxviii]
A couple further observations regarding faith and works are worth making. First, the Gospel of John records Jesus speaking often of faith as the means through which people receive the gift of eternal life (see John 5:24, 6:35, 7:38, 11:25, 12:46). John himself emphasizes faith for entering God's family and possessing eternal life (John 1:13; 3:16, 36).
Second, the tension between faith and obedience also appears in Paul. For example, in the prescript to Paul's epistle to the Romans, he writes: "Through him [Jesus Christ our Lord] we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name's sake" (Rom. 1:5). Scholars have long debated the grammatical relationship between the terms "obedience" and "faith." Grammatically, faith can be the source of obedience, or faith can be the definition of obedience.[xxix] Douglas Moo suggests understanding the words to be mutually interpreting:
[O]bedience always involves faith, and faith always involves obedience. They should not be equated, compartmentalized, or made into separate stages of Christian experience. Paul called men and women to a faith that was always inseparable from obedience—for the Savior in whom we believe is nothing less than our Lord—and to an obedience that could never be divorced from faith—for we can obey Jesus as Lord only when we have given ourselves to him in faith.[xxx]
Paul simultaneously says that our salvation is "not by works" and that "we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works" (Eph. 2:9-10). Jesus preserves this balance, too.
The New Perspective on Paul, Jesus, and Judaism
Some New Testament scholars have questioned whether works-righteousness was a real problem in first century Judaism. These scholars have presented a "new perspective" on what Paul opposes when he talks about justification by faith. The "old perspective" that grew out of the Reformation saw the problem with "works of the law" as the problem of attempting to merit God's favor by doing good works. The "new perspective," championed by the likes of James D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright, argues that Paul did not oppose this kind of legalism because it was not a major problem in Second Temple Judaism. Rather, the problem Paul addressed was the insistence on maintaining Jewish identity of the Jewish nation through "boundary markers" such as Sabbath observance, circumcision, and eating kosher.
But what does this have to do with the Gospels? If the "new perspective" is an issue in Paul's letters, it is as well in the Gospels. As Simon Gathercole notes, the idea that Paul was concerned with an obsession with markers of one's Jewish heritage rather than with works-righteousness "is actually more a new perspective on Judaism than on Paul."[xxxi] This takes us right back to Jesus. If the new perspective on Judaism is correct, then this changes our understanding of the gospel as taught by Jesus as well as the gospel as taught by Paul. We have already established from 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 that both Jesus and Paul are proclaiming the same gospel.
So what are we to make of the new perspective? D. A. Carson and Douglas Moo claim that "the general tendency of the new perspective as a whole to redirect our attention to the Jewish matrix of Paul's thought and teaching is a welcome one."[xxxii] Admittedly, the description of Judaism in Paul's (and Jesus') day by the Reformers Calvin and Luther was colored by their anxiety about Roman Catholic works-righteousness in the 1500s.[xxxiii] However, even if Calvin and Luther somewhat caricaturized Second Temple Judaism's struggle with works righteousness, they were not entirely wrong about it either. A careful reading of writings from Second Temple Judaism shows that the problem of works righteousness did exist.[xxxiv] Here is a tiny sample of text during and shortly after the Second Temple period that reflects the presence of this belief.
The one who does what is right saves up life for himself with the Lord,
and the one who does what is wrong causes his own life to be destroyed;
for the Lord's righteous judgments are according to the individual and the household.[xxxv]
(Psalms of Solomon 9:5, c. 50 B.C.)
Miracles, however, will appear at their own time to those who are saved because of their works and for whom the Law is now a hope, and intelligence, expectation, and wisdom a trust.[xxxvi]
(2 Baruch 51:7, c. 100 A.D.)
For those … who live in accordance with our laws the prize is not silver or gold, no crown of wild olive or of parsley with any such public mark of distinction. No; each individual, relying on the witness of his own conscience and the lawgiver's prophecy, confirmed by the sure testimony of God, is firmly persuaded that to those who observe the laws and, if they must needs die for them, willingly meet death, God has granted a renewed existence and in the revolution of the ages the gift of a better life.[xxxvii]
(Josephus, Against Apion, 2:217-218, c. 97-100 A.D.)
From the didactic stories in the Apocrypha (Judith, Tobit) to the apocalypses of the Pseudepigrapha (particularly 2 Enoch), and from The Rule of Community in Qumran to the apologetic writings of Josephus, works righteousness appears in various forms.[xxxviii] while Jesus emphasizes good works as a result and proof of salvation, he never attributes the cause of salvation as anything other than grace. For Jesus and the Gospel writers who recorded his deeds and words, salvation comes through faith.
When preaching texts from the Gospels that seem to contradict what the Pauline or general Epistles teach, preachers can account for the differences and reconcile the alleged contradictions in six ways.
1. Remember that the Gospels, like the Epistles, are "occasional" documents that were written to address particular issues or concerns in the life of the church. Is Jesus going after complacency or wealth or pride? If so, what he says may be different than what Paul says to the Judaizers in his letter to the Galatians.
2. Remember that the Gospels communicate theology by telling the story of Jesus' evangelistic mission rather than by offering the kind of specific instructions found in the Epistles for the edification of local churches.
3. Expect to find personality differences between the Gospel writers and the writers of the Epistles. These differences include stylistic traits, theological depth, particular concerns, and modes of expression. Some writers tend towards more measured reasoning, others towards more bombastic rhetoric.
4. Look to the context for clues as to why Jesus uses hyperbole or parable or language that seems to contradict the teaching of the Epistles. For an alert reader, Jesus' words to the wealthy young man in Matthew 19:16-30 reflects a strategy to zero in on the obstacle to faith—the young man's preoccupation with his wealth—rather than a works-righteousness kind of teaching.
5. Look to the context for an emphasis on grace. Following the report of Jesus' encounter with the rich young man (Matt. 19:16-30) is a parable that speaks to God's grace (Matt. 20:1-16).
6. Remember that the Gospel text you are preparing to preach is connected to the gospel story as summarized by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11.
Unified, Rich, and Diverse
My experience growing up was similar to Scot McKnight's.[xxxix] The churches in which I grew up focused on the Epistles. I only heard an occasional message on the Gospels, predictably at Christmas or Easter. I pray that God will raise up a generation of preachers who proclaim the gospel from both the Gospels and the Epistles. I pray that a new generation of preachers will show the unity of the New Testament without flattening out the differences between Paul and Jesus and will show the New Testament's diversity without driving a wedge between the fundamental message proclaimed by both Paul and Jesus.
As I wrap up this article series, I think of David, a steel broker in his late thirties who found his way to a congregation I pastored more than a decade ago. David was bright, respectful, and yet skeptical of the gospel. We frequently discussed the claims of Christ over coffee. He had a philosophical bent, so I suggested that he read Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis. Still, he would not budge from his skepticism. A couple years into our discussion, David showed up on a Sunday when I preached Mark 10:17-31—yes, the story of the rich man who was instructed by Jesus to sell all of his possessions and give to the poor. David had heard me preach dozens of sermons prior to this day. But this is the sermon that God used to bring David to faith. Instead of creating confusion between what David had read and heard from the Epistles, this text crystallized everything David had heard before about salvation by grace through faith and not works. It exposed the last obstacle to his unbelief—material wealth. After the worship service, David sought out one of our leaders who had also developed a relationship with Jesus. The two talked for half an hour, and David moved from unbelief to belief.
There is no contradiction between the message of the Gospel and the Epistles. Personality differences on the part of the writers? Yes. Varied theological emphases and pastoral concerns being addressed? Yes. Different literary forms and thus different strategies? Yes. A different message? No. What Marshall says about Paul and John applies more broadly to the Epistles and the Gospels: "We have two different artists or schools of artists who see the same subject in different ways, but it is the same subject, and we need both sets of pictures to bring out the richness of the common theme."[xl]
[ii] See D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 156, 182, 210, 267, 394, 448, 464, 487, 507, 522, 543-44, 572, 578, 583, 592, 608, 626, 646, 663, 676, 692, 707, 712. They suggest Matthew was published shortly before A.D. 70, Mark in the late 50s or 60s, Luke in the mid or late 60s, and John somewhere between 80-85. As for Paul's epistles, Carson and Moo date Romans around A.D. 57, 1 Corinthians around 55, 2 Corinthians around 56-57, Galatians around 48, Ephesians in the early 60s, Philippians between the mid 50s to early 60s, Colossians in either the late 50s or early 60s, 1 Thessalonians in 50, 2 Thessalonians in late 50 or early 51, 1 Timothy in either the mid 50s or mid 60s, 2 Timothy around 64-65, Titus between the late 50s and middle 60s, and Philemon in the early 60s. As for the general epistles, Carson and Moo date Hebrews prior to A.D. 70, James in the early or mid 40s, 1 Peter in 62-63, 2 Peter shortly before 65, the three epistles of John in the early 90s, Jude in the mid to late 60s, and Revelation about 95-96.
[vii] McKnight, "Jesus vs. Paul," 28. The italics are McKnight's.
[viii] The reference is where Jesus speaks first about the humble tax collector and then a proud Pharisee: "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God." Other possible references include , , and . In the latter two, Jesus uses "justified" more in the sense of personal, self-justification rather than a forensic declaration as in Paul. In , Jesus' saying is more proverbial than forensic.
[xxix] The term (pisteos, faith) can be read as a subjective genitive emphasizing the source ("obedience which comes from faith") or an epexegetic genitive equating the two ("obedience which is faith").
[xxx] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 52-53.
[xxxi] Simon Gathercole, "What Did Paul Really Mean?" 51/8 Christianity Today (August 2007): 24.
[xxxvii] This translation is from H. St. J. Thackeray, transl., Josephus, Vol. 1 The Life Against Apion in the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926), 381. For a discussion of the date, see Helyer, Exploring Jewish Literature, 347.