THE APOSTLE PAUL
A Sermon by Rev. James P. Cooper
Preached in Westville, South Africa May 26, 1991
“Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. Or is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also, since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law” (Romans 3:28-31).
The text for today’s sermon is taken from the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. This passage is extremely important because it is the key idea in the debate that Paul was having with the disciple Peter over the place that Jewish ritual and law would have in the Christian Church that they were in the process of establishing. It is also important because some fifteen hundred years after he wrote this letter to the Christians in Rome, church scholars would take it out of its proper context, totally reverse its meaning, and use it to support the heresy that God doesn’t care what you do as long as you believe that Jesus died for your sins.
We tend to ignore Paul in the New Church certainly we do not put the same emphasis on his works as do other Christian churches. We hardly ever read his letters to the early church leaders in spite of the fact that the Writings tell us that they are “good books for the church,” and, as we shall see in a moment, even say that Paul was inspired when he wrote them. We need to be aware of Paul’s contribution to the establishment of the Christian Church; we need to have the facts about his life so that we can separate the legend from the man himself; we need to know what he really thought so that we can separate those doctrines which are not his but are now associated with him from those that are his own.
The Heavenly Doctrines turn to Paul’s works for confirmation of the doctrine of genuine truth in a surprising number of cases. There are in the Writings at least eighty references to Paul by name, and hundreds of references to the letters that he wrote to the church leaders in Asia and Europe. Most of these references to Paul’s works are to use his teachings, which are widely accepted in the traditional Christian world, to confirm and support the doctrines of the New Church.
Although Paul never met the Lord Himself, he did in time come to know the disciples, and eventually, through his personality and his accomplishments, became the best known of the leaders of the early Christian Church.
Paul was born a Jew in Tarsus, and was named “Saul.” Later in life, when he began to write and preach in Greek, he adopted the Greek form of his name. It is possible that he changed his name as a symbol of the change of his faith.
History tells us that not only was Paul a Jew, but he was also a Pharisee, and a fanatical one at that! He was dedicated to the preservation of the strict application of the Mosaic law, and was willing to punish those who broke those laws, even to death. He (correctly) saw the Christian movement as a threat to the Jewish order that he worked so hard to establish and support, and so he fought hard against the early Christians. We know, for example, that he was personally involved in the murder by stoning of the Christian leader now known as St. Stephen. Some church historians believe that the calm way in which Stephen accepted his martyrdom made a lasting impression on Paul, and prepared him for what was to happen later in one of the most famous examples of miraculous conversion, the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus.
Briefly, what happened was that Paul was travelling with a company of other like-minded zealots to arrest and punish some Christians who were reported to be setting up a church in Damascus. The scene is described by Luke in the book of Acts (9:1-9):
Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. And as he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” So he, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what do You want me to do?” And the Lord said to him, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one. Then Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened he saw no one. But they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
This, coupled with his earlier experience at the stoning of Stephen, had a profound effect on Paul, and he turned away from persecuting the Christians and instead became one of them. It took some time for him to be accepted by the Christian community, as could be expected considering his record and background, but eventually he was accepted, and as we know, he travelled widely throughout Asia, Asia Minor, Europe and the Mediterranean islands spreading Christianity. Paul, himself a Roman citizen, was finally beheaded in Rome during one of the periodic persecutions of Christianity.
While the doctrines of the New Church say that Paul was inspired when he wrote his letters, yet they distinguish between the inspiration of Paul and that of those who wrote the gospels. We read from Spiritual Diary 6062:2:
… Paul did indeed speak from inspiration, but not as did the prophets, to whom the several words were dictated; but that his inspiration was that he received an influx according to those things which were with him, which inspiration is totally different; nor has it conjunction with heaven by means of correspondences.
This passage speaks volumes on the nature of the inspiration of the various prophets, far too much for us to go into now. It can only be said that the distinction between the inspiration of Luke, for example, and Paul is that Luke received his inspiration in a “living voice”; the words of his gospel were actually dictated to him from heaven in the manner of all the prophets of the Old Testament from Moses onward. Paul, on the other hand, was inspired according to his own character and experience (see TCR 154). Paul’s inspiration was that which we call the “enlightenment of use;” that is, by his attention to and affection for the teachings of the Lord, and through keeping himself in external order, his spiritual state attracted like- minded spirits whose presence with him inspired him to certain insights indirectly. To draw a parallel, the difference between the gospels and the epistles is like that between the Word itself and a sermon carefully drawn from the Word. Both are of value, but only the Word itself is of absolute authority.
Having established the background, let us now look at the question of what Paul really teaches about the heresy that salvation is by faith alone apart from works.
Those who teach the doctrine of faith alone quote a portion of our text from Paul as support and confirmation of their doctrine. They quote Romans 3:28, which says, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” We must admit that taken by itself, just as it stands, it does sound very much as if Paul supports the idea of salvation by faith alone. But some important questions have to be asked: What was the context of this statement? What “law” is he talking about? It is our habit, from reading the Old Testament and the gospels, to immediately assume that when it speaks about the law, the reference is to the Ten Commandments, but in this case, the assumption is incorrect. The context of the statement shows that Paul was engaged in a discussion with Peter about whether or not the Jewish rituals (such as circumcision) are necessary in the Christian Church. This was an important issue to them, as at that time Christianity was really more of a cult within the Jewish Church than a church in its own right.
As we read on, Paul’s real view becomes clear. Fearing that he might be misunderstood (clearly a correct fear), he then explains himself more fully a few sentences later, saying, “Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law” (Romans 3:31), and in this case, he is referring to the Ten Commandments. There are other places in the letters of Paul where he demonstrates his view that works are as important as faith, if not more so (see Corinthians I 13:13, Cor. II 5:10, Galatians 2:14-16, Romans 2:6, 2:13, 3:27-31, James 2:17-26). Those people who have confirmed themselves in the doctrine of faith alone on the basis of that one verse have stared at it so long that, like someone who stares at the sun, they have become blinded to all the other teachings in the Word and in the letters of Paul where the laws of faith are listed as being the works of charity. They also ignore all those places where Paul declares that those who do not do the works of charity cannot enter heaven! In order to say that Paul supports the heresy of salvation by faith alone, one has to ignore everything else that Paul wrote except that one verse, taken out of context. The Lord says in the Divine Providence 115, “From this it is evident what blindness has been induced by a wrong understanding of this single passage.”
The other great heresy of the Christian Church is that of the division of God into three separate persons, who somehow, miraculously and mysteriously, are also one person. Many times the Heavenly Doctrines of the New Church draw on Paul’s teachings on this subject to illustrate and confirm what the Lord Himself taught, that He is One, indivisible, and Divine. Paul taught in his letter to the Colossians “For in [Jesus] dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (2:9), thereby teaching the truth that Jesus Christ was the bodily incarnation of Jehovah God, not some portion of God.
We could go on at some length discussing the various doctrines of the Christian Church that have been based on Paul’s teachings, but more important, we should be noting that Paul should not be blamed for the heresies that have been hidden behind his name. In spite of the fact that we regard him as less of an authority as do other Christian churches, that should not take away from our respect for all the things that he did accomplish.
The Apostle Paul was a man who, like many other men in the history of the church, was flawed, but in spite of his flaws (or perhaps because of them) the Lord could use him in a special way to establish His kingdom on earth. Moses and David are two other examples that readily leap to mind. We have to ask if a truly humble, peaceful, charitable Christian-type person would have had the dynamic personality required to establish the church and cause it to spread in the face of opposition from the Roman empire and the Jewish Church. What about our own Bishop Benade whose fighting spirit separated the Academy movement from Conference, and eventually led to the formation of the General Church when all the members of the Academy, led by his own hand-picked clergy, resigned and formed the General Church because of his abuses?
Paul’s own teaching on the relationship between faith and charity is quite correct and in accord with the doctrines that the Lord Himself taught while in the world, at least when seen in their correct context. His teaching about the nature of the Lord is also quite correct. Some of his other teachings, specifically those on the relationship between men and women, are suspect, but this is the essence of understanding Paul’s works and his impact on the Christian Church and the New Christian Church. All of his letters are a fascinating history of the early Christian Church. Some of the doctrines he teaches are quite good and state genuine truths quite clearly and well, but all of his letters, both the good and the bad, are his own opinion, not Divine authority like the Gospels. Therefore, Paul’s works are “good books for the church” because they teach us history, and can be used to confirm and illustrate the doctrines taught in the Old Testament and the Gospels, but one should not use Paul’s letters as the basis to establish a doctrine not taught elsewhere in the inspired Word. Amen.
Lessons: Joshua 24:19-24, John 15:1-14, TCR 506
True Christian Religion 506
… that Paul’s saying that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law (Rom. 3:28) was not rightly understood, for by faith here [it was claimed] Paul did not mean the faith of the present church, which is a faith in three Divine persons from eternity, but faith in the Lord God the Savior Jesus Christ; also that by “the deeds of the law” he did not mean the deeds of the law of the Decalogue, but the deeds of the Mosaic law, which were for the Jews; thus that by a wrong interpretation of those few words, two enormous falsities had been established: one, that Paul here meant the faith of the present church, and the other, that he meant the deeds of the law of the Decalogue. It is clearly evident [these claimed] that Paul meant the works of the Mosaic law, which were for the Jews, and not the works of the Decalogue, from what he said to Peter, whom he accused of Judaizing, although he knew that “no one is justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:14-16), “the faith of Jesus Christ” meaning faith in Him and from Him.
And because by “the deeds of the law” Paul meant the deeds of the Mosaic law, he distinguished between the law of faith and the law of works, and between the Jews and the Gentiles, or “circumcision” and “uncircumcision,” “circumcision” signifying Judaism here as everywhere else. Moreover, Paul closes with these words: “Do we then make the law of none effect through faith? God forbid; but we establish the law” (saying this in connection with the foregoing) (Rom. 3:27-31). Likewise in the preceding chapter: “Not the hearers of a law shall he justified before God, but the doers of a law shall be justified” (Rom. 2:13); again: “God will render to every man according to his deeds” (Rom. 2:6); and again: “For we must all be made manifest before the judgment-seat of Christ, that every one may receive the things done through the body, whether it be good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10); besides other passages in his writings.
From all this it is clear that Paul rejected faith without works, just as James did (2:17-26).