Monthly Archives: September 2011

Identity Formation

When we gathered with Midtown Christian Community, I would sometimes open our services by reading a brief word of welcome that functioned to remind us of our identity.  Like some psalms, this is how Ephesians 1:3-14 functions within that letter, which was meant to be read aloud during worship.  It shaped the identity of the churches to which Paul wrote.  It’s helpful to remind ourselves of who we are, whose we are, and why we gather.  Here’s one of my words of welcome:

Welcome to Midtown Christian Community. 

Welcome in the name of Jesus Christ, who was sent by God into the world, not to judge the world, not to condemn the world, but to save the world.  He did not do this by shrewdly working his way up the social ranks, by making connections with powerful people, by organizing a slick marketing campaign, by hobnobbing with the rich and famous.  He didn’t do this by creating a beautiful image through carefully crafted commercials designed to show that while he is caring and compassionate, he is also sophisticated and worldly-wise.

Jesus is God’s solution to the brokenness of the world, and he redeems and saves by becoming brokenness, by going to those that are broken and beaten-down, by becoming the outcast and the stranger, by dying.

God shouted a resounding “YES” to what Jesus did by raising him from the dead and installing him as King over all creation.  When Jesus sat down on his heavenly throne, he sent his Spirit to dwell among us.  Not someone else or something else, but Christ’s own Spirit—Christ Jesus himself is here among us.

We gather together this evening, therefore, as people living in the presence of Jesus Christ, as people who are the Body of Christ.  By his Spirit, God dwells among us, giving us life, loving us, redeeming us, enjoying us as we enjoy him.

God gives himself to us.  He brings us to himself.  He gives us as gifts to one another.

This is the gospel, the good news that defines us, that determines all that we are and do, that gives us our worth and meaning, and this is all we have to say—Jesus loves us, Jesus died for us, Jesus frees us from sin and death, and Jesus is present among us to give us life.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.  Amen.

Reconceiving Gospel Commands

In several recent posts I stated that the gospel calls people to repent and obey Jesus.  Following Jesus by enacting new patterns of life is the instantiation or embodiment of faith.

This doesn’t sound right to many evangelicals.  It sounds legalistic.  It sounds like I’m putting the demands of the gospel up front, whereas we’re supposed to be calling people first to believe and only later talk about discipleship.

One possible reason for this is that many of us have a perverted conception of obedience to Jesus.  Here’s what I mean.

Imagine two realms of reality, two spheres, representing two ways of life.  On one side there is the realm of Sin.  We imagine that this is where there is ease, effortlessness, autonomy, rebellion, hope, promise.  This is the joyful way, where you can do what you want, where it’s interesting, fun, fulfilling, and free.

On the other side is obedience to Jesus.  Here, there is obligation, seriousness, demand, austerity, difficulty.  It’s all about performance, striving, perfection.  It’s a realm of sterility and joylessness.  Jesus calls us to obey, so we know we need to do it, but it’s tough.  And, if there weren’t such drastic consequences in that other realm, that’s certainly where we’d rather be.

That’s a fleshly conception of things, a deception, something far less than the truth.  But I think this is why so many people flinch when they hear the gospel grammar presented as I have done over the last week or so.  It just sounds so harsh.

Scripture presents the two realms differently.

On one side is the realm of Sin and Death.  While this way seems hopeful, promising, and life-giving, this is a deception.  It is the realm of loneliness, isolation, emptiness, fear, bondage, alienation.  This is the realm of inauthenticity and self-protection, where you are loved and accepted for your performance and social credentials.  This is the way of bondage, the way of crushingly heavy temporal and eternal consequences.

On the other side is the realm of life.  The gospel is indeed “good news” because it calls us to inhabit this sphere—the way of freedom, joy, and the liberation of forgiveness.  We are called to be restored to our true humanity, to have the breath of God’s very own life fill our lungs once again so that we can finally live.

Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.  Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble.  And you will find rest for yourselves.  My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30, CEB).

We are called to confess our sins, but not as a way of beating ourselves up.  Jesus calls us to finally speak frankly and truthfully about how we have walked in the realm of death, how we have bound ourselves to enslaving self-destruction.

This realm isn’t one of performance to earn God’s approval.  God pledges allegiance to us by having already sent Jesus to die and be raised again.  God guarantees us acceptance and a joyful welcome.  We are now freed to confess our sins as a way of increasing our joy in the forgiveness we already possess.  This is the realm of serious authenticity, where we are free to confess our failures, knowing that we have already been warmly welcomed by the God who knows us more completely than we know ourselves.

John says that God’s commands are not burdensome (1 Jn. 5:3), and James speaks of the “law of liberty” (Jas. 1:25; 2:12).  The way of obedience does indeed require Spirit-empowered self-discipline, but only to keep from returning to well-worn patterns of slavery.  We have grown accustomed to manipulating others, dominating others, protecting ourselves from being hurt, and serving our pleasures at all costs.  But this isn’t the way of freedom and ease.  Such practices stir up death and lead to ultimate destruction.

Now, there may be much to say about Christian communities that haven’t portrayed the way of Jesus properly.  Through hypocrisy and judgmental postures, they have portrayed the way of Jesus as one that is performance-oriented and joyless.  That’s an all-too familiar reality, the tragedy of churches having become worldly.

Scripture, however, portrays God’s commands as the way of life, behaviors that draw upon the life of God and that stir up the presence of the life-giving Spirit. 

We need to think of gospel commands as the call to truly and finally live.  When we see things this way, gospel commands become gracious invitations to finally rest in the joyful freedom of being children of God.

The Grammar of the Gospel: Implications & Conclusions

Last week I began drawing to a close some thoughts I’ve been developing over the last two months.  Today I’ll conclude this discussion, though related themes likely will continue to ride just beneath the surface of much of what I write on this blog.  Just to make things explicit, however, some conclusions and implications in thinking along with the grammar of the gospel.

First, because the gospel is the announcement of the arrival of the Kingdom of God, talk about any part of that multi-faceted redemptive and world-altering reality is “the gospel.”  All of these, then, are proclamations of the gospel: forgiveness in Christ for the guilty; a warm welcome among the body of Christ for the lonely and alienated; God’s defeat of Sin and Death in Christ; a satisfying meal among God’s people for the hungry; liberation from bondage through God’s Spirit and God’s people; reconciliation in Christ for formerly alienated groups.  These concrete realities, and so many others, are instantiations of God’s Kingdom as it invades and begins to transform an enslaved cosmos. 

Talking about any of them is talking about the gospel.

Second, the “call” of the gospel is the call to turn from sin, selfishness, and idolatry, and to take on Kingdom practices that enact, embody, activate, and participate in that reality.  The call of the gospel, then, is exhorting all people to receive forgiveness in Christ, to forgive others in Christ, to serve the poor in Christ, to reconcile with former enemies in Christ, to stop oppressing and manipulating others in Christ, to receive others as gifts in Christ, to celebrate redemption in Christ, to give thanks to God in Christ.  Concrete practices such as these are embodiments of Kingdom participation that draw upon and radiate God’s presence and power by God’s Spirit. 

To do any of them is to respond to the gospel.

As I said previously, the gospel speaks with a variety of voices depending on the situation.  To those oppressing others, the gospel will speak a word of rebuke and a call to inhabit the life-giving Kingdom of God along with others.  To those trapped in despair, the gospel sounds a note of sweet grace, relief, and comfort.  Christian people must inhabit and explore the richness of the gospel to learn how it overwhelms and transforms any and all situations for the glory of God and the good of the world.

Third, to respond to the gospel is to be compelled by this Kingdom reality and to begin enacting Kingdom behaviors among God’s people in Christ.

Fourth, evangelicals have typically prioritized an initial reception of the gospel through a saving transaction that involves nothing more than internal belief.  Only subsequent to that does human action come into view.  The New Testament grammar, however, is not one of subsequence, whereby an initiating transaction is isolated from the ongoing life of discipleship and scrubbed clean of any human action. 

Scripture takes a different tack to preserve God’s initiative and the purity of grace.  It reminds God’s people that God underwrites, enables, and empowers any and all human responses to God.  The connection between human response and God’s enabling must remain a mystery, however, and not be turned into a formula whereby human action and divine action are viewed as competing.

Fifth, I stated previously that transforming the gospel grammar into one of subsequence has been disastrous.  Many Protestants and evangelicals have made this move in the wake of the Reformation in order to protect the purity of grace in salvation.  This move distinguishes the initial human response to the gospel from the ongoing life of discipleship.  One responds to the gospel passively in the justification transaction, while the life of sanctification is one of active discipleship.  “Faith,” in this grammar, becomes internal belief and no longer fidelity and loyalty to Jesus.

Because of this historic emphasis among evangelicals, discipleship to Jesus is seen as a secondary option.  A person can be a Christian but not be a follower of Jesus in any recognizable sense.  Calls to obedience are seen as legalistic impositions.  This is the sort of reality Scot McKnight is confronting in his book The King Jesus Gospel.  This is a major contributing factor to the problem in the West of nominal Christianity.

Sixth, the difference in these two gospel grammars lies at the heart of a growing rift in evangelicalism.  Some evangelicals have been awakening to the gospel’s call to redemptive action in the world.  Groups like Sojourners and Evangelicals for Social Action have been saying this for years, of course, and others have been catching this activist gospel vision.

This growing movement toward redemptive action, however, has met with resistance from neo-Calvinists and evangelicals associated with the Gospel Coalition.  They see this emphasis on “social justice” as a confusion of the simplicity of the gospel, tangential to the gospel, or perhaps an implication of the gospel.  While Christians ought to be interested in doing good in the world, such efforts are not essential to the gospel.  The gospel has only to do with the reconciling transaction of sinners to God.

Here again, however, is the grammar of subsequence.  This is an inappropriate narrowing of the gospel, thinning it out, dividing into essential and tangential what Scripture depicts as a singular robust reality.

Sadly, this move drains the gospel of its world-transforming and hope-generating power, turning it into something less than good news for the world.

Those who make this move see themselves as being faithful to a Reformed gospel grammar.  As McKnight argues, however, they impose a misreading of Paul onto the Gospels, muting the witness of the four Evangelists to the gospel proclaimed by Jesus.

They neglect the fact that Jesus and his disciples proclaimed the gospel of the Kingdom, announcing the reign of God and inviting any and all to participate in its life-giving and liberating practices.  Further, they overlook that the one thing Paul and the Jerusalem leaders agreed upon was the necessity of serving the poor, “the very thing [Paul] was eager to do all along” (Gal. 2:10).

We could go on to talk about how post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment, Western intellectual categories distort a gospel shaped within an ancient near eastern frame of thought, along with much more.  But for now, we’ll leave it at that.

Hope & Community

I’ve been thinking this week about the importance of hope for a community, and the necessity of community to sustain hope.  A community must be compelled by a hopeful vision in order to flourish.  And when hope diminishes for individuals, the sustaining power of the community can restore that hopeful vision.

This is beautifully depicted in The Book of the Dun Cow.  After Chauntecleer has exhausted himself, defeating Cockatrice in their climactic battle, the leader of the coop realizes that a far greater threat remains.

But it is entirely possible to win against the enemy, it is possible even to kill the enemy, and still to be defeated by the battle. 

Chauntecleer had not lost his life to Cockatrice , but he’d lost something infinitely more dear.  He had lost hope.  And with it went the Rooster’s faith.  And without faith he no longer had a sense of the truth.

I won’t spoil the novel’s conclusion, but it’s a lovely portrayal of just this redemptive dynamic.  Along with a few others, like Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry, this novel is one of a few must-reads for pastors and church leaders.

Prayer for the Weekend

Lord, You have always given
bread for the coming day;
and though I am poor,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always given
strength for the coming day;
and though I am weak,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always given
peace for the coming day;
and though of anxious heart,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always kept
me safe in trials;
and now, tried as I am,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always marked
the road for the coming day;
and though it may be hidden,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always lightened
this darkness of mine;
and though the night is here,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always spoken
when time was ripe;
and though you be silent now,
today I believe.

Lord, we believe.  Help, Lord, our unbelief.

Spontaneity vs. Intentionality in Spirituality

When evangelicals consider spirituality, they place a high priority on spontaneity, equating it with authenticity.  Especially when it comes to prayer we are largely resistant to anything planned or intentional.  “Ritual” in prayer and worship is something of a four-letter word for us, usually preceded by the adjective “dead.”

I once asked an undergraduate class how they might react in chapel if a person said, “let’s pray,” and then proceeded to reach into his jacket pocket, pull out a piece of paper, unfold it, and read his prayer.  The response was overwhelmingly negative.  They said it wouldn’t be genuine or authentic.  It wouldn’t be “from the heart,” which is how we should pray.

I then asked them what they would do if they were told that Barack Obama planned to visit our university for a day.  In addition to a campus tour, he asked to meet with one student for five minutes to conclude his visit.  “If you were selected to meet with the President of the United States,” I asked, “how would you approach that encounter?”

“Would you think,” I continued, “‘well, I really do want to be authentic and genuine, so I’m going to just put it out of my head until the very last minute and when I meet him I’ll just say whatever comes to mind?'”

I gave another example.  I asked our female students how they’d respond if, in the midst of a 6 month-long dating relationship, their boyfriend took them on a very special date and said the following: “Well, I’ve wanted to tell you how much you mean to me, and I really wanted it to be genuine, so I didn’t plan anything.  I just wanted to spontaneously express my appreciation for you.  So, here goes: Your eyes are like . . . waterfalls that . . . no wait, they’re like birds that fly . . . okay, let me start over.  Your soft skin is like silk when you . . . okay, there’s a deer, and he’s . . .”

After a few minutes of awkward stumbling and bumbling, you’d probably say, “uh, let’s just look at the menu, shall we?”

Intentionality doesn’t necessarily work against genuineness and authenticity.  Just the other day, I was in a gathering to discuss a certain topic.  The person leading the discussion introduced the topic and then said, “now, before we begin, I’ve composed a prayer for this occasion in order to orient our time and to set it in the context of worship and service to God.”  He then read it and we all said, “amen” in order to make it our own. 

The prayer was thoughtfully written just for that occasion.  It was very direct, carefully worded, wonderfully simple, and functioned to both focus our minds and orient us rightly toward one another and toward God.

If we knew we were going to meet with Barack Obama, I think we’d plan carefully what we’d say.  And it seems to me that we truly honor those we love when we give careful thought to the specific ways they are precious to us and to how much we appreciate them. 

To then do the hard work of carefully expressing this does not at all diminish authenticity and genuineness.

We ought to approach prayer in the same way.  This might open up the prospect of learning to pray from our fathers and mothers in the faith, from the Psalms through to contemporary prayer books, such as those of Phyllis Tickle and others.

I’ve enjoyed the exercise of writing prayers and reading the thoughtful prayers of others.  Anyone else discover the joys of thoughtfully intentional prayer and worship?

A Few Thoughts on the New NIV

I’ve dipped into the new NIV for one reason or another recently and I must say that I really like it.  I’ve typically cited two passages in classes to highlight certain inadequacies of English translations.  The updated NIV nails them.

The first is 1 Corinthians 3:16-17.  I use this text to point out that English translations don’t catch the communal character of Paul’s statement about the temple here.  Here’s the NASB:

Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are.

English speakers don’t have an expression for the 2nd person plural, perhaps with the exception of folks like American Southerners (y’all) and Northern Irish (you’s uns).  We miss, therefore, that Paul is saying that the Corinthians as a church are God’s dwelling place and anyone who breaks up the unity of the church faces God’s judgment.

The NIV has the following, capturing Paul’s intention very well:

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.

The second text is Philemon 6, which the older NIV translated as follows:

I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.

But Paul isn’t praying for Philemon to be effective in evangelism at all.  He prays that Philemon would realize the profundity of what God has done in uniting Philemon, Onesimus, Paul, and all other believers in “the fellowship of faith.”  Paul prays that this reality would become effective to the extent that it shapes Philemon’s choices in the situation they all face.  The new NIV remedies the former translation and does so very well.

I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.

We’re reading through Mark in the NIV as a family right now and I like it, too.  Now, we just need to fix Galatians 3:10 in the next update.

The Grammar of the Gospel: Salvation as Gift

In a recent conversation about the relationship of divine and human action in salvation, someone used the following analogy.  This person was trying to demonstrate that salvation is pure gift and demands passivity from human recipients.  The magnitude of the gift is so overwhelming that any human involvement in the salvation transaction diminishes God’s glory.

He said that the gift of salvation is like a very wealthy nobleman in the ancient world who purchases the freedom of a slave.  There is just no way that the slave could ever repay the patron, so any effort he would undertake to do so would be an insult to the magnanimous nobleman.

In the same way, humans passively receive salvation from God as pure gift.  Any action on our part is perceived as an effort to repay the gift and diminishes God’s glory as gracious gift-giver.

This analogy makes sense with how Protestant evangelicals tend to regard the salvation transaction and how they might attempt to keep it free of any human merit.  But it doesn’t represent the character of salvation very well.

The relationship of God to humanity and the character of salvation isn’t simply an economic one whereby all actions are payments or fulfillments of debts.  Salvation involves an introduction into a divinely-created reality and human responses can be regarded as participatory.  Furthermore, there are kinds of human responses that embody reception of a gift.

For example, consider again the analogy above from the ancient world.  A wealthy person purchases the freedom of a slave and sets him free.  Does it not bring honor and joy to the wealthy patron for the slave to live into that freedom, to enjoy it to the full, to revel in good company, and to truly fill out all that it means to delight in a good life?

That is to say, receiving such a gift looks like certain actions and patterns of behavior.

Consider another analogy, this one from my friend David Vinson.  A father of two sons builds a business and trains his boys to work in it and understand its various aspects.  One day he turns it over to them, giving it to them as a gift.  Doesn’t it honor him and bring him glory if they work together to share equally in the business, build its capacity, increase its productivity, and bring happiness to their families as they enjoy the profits?  As they do so, they fill out and live into the training they’ve received from their father over the years.  And they increase his fame and reputation as people realize how well he taught his sons.

These analogies are more faithful to the character of salvation in Christian Scripture.  The life-giving and world-renewing Kingdom of God is among us by the power of the Spirit and we enter it, enact it, and receive it through redemptive actions that embody obedience to Jesus.

We confess that we are sinners, we name the good things we enjoy in this world as gifts from God in Christ, we give thanks for God’s forgiveness in Christ, we welcome others as gifts from God, we forgive others, we stop oppressing and manipulating others, we stop the crushing pursuit of social approval, we identify and lay down wearying idolatries.

These are all redemptive behaviors to which God calls all people.  They embody reception of the gift of salvation.  They are not the means whereby we repay God for the gift of salvation.  Such actions, rather, draw upon God’s very life as the Spirit animates us and renews us.

The character of the gift-giver and the nature of the gift God calls us to enjoy determine the manner in which it is received.

The Grammar of the Gospel

My posts since early August have been working toward what I’m calling the grammar of the gospel.  It’s something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while, it rides just under the surface of debates in Pauline studies over the last three decades, and has much to do with Scot McKnight’s new book, The King Jesus Gospel.  I’ll draw out what I mean by that today and then perhaps in a few subsequent posts elucidate some ways that grammar has gone wrong.

In the New Testament, “the gospel” is the announcement of the arrival of the long-promised Kingdom of God in the person of Jesus and among his followers.  The story of Israel and the nation’s mission to be God’s agent of redemption for the nations is being completed and extended in Jesus and his people by the power of the Spirit.  This is a very large and multi-faceted reality.

The “call” of the gospel is the invitation to everyone to join the community of Jesus-followers.  God’s radically new and reality-transforming reign of redemption has invaded God’s broken creation with the sending of Jesus into the world.  This is the announcement of the gospel, and everyone is called to receive it, to join it, to enter into it through renewed practices.

Everyone is called to turn from idolatries, selfishness, oppression of others, hatred of enemies, lack of care for the poor and needy, lust after riches and pleasures, and all other behaviors that embody disobedience to the God of Israel.  All are called to turn to Jesus to begin cultivating behaviors that embody obedience to the God of Israel who is revealed in Jesus.

Narrowing in on our point, repentance and faith are embodied in actions of obedience to Jesus.  Entrance into the Kingdom of God is through embodied or performed obedience to Jesus.  We could also say it this way: Reception of salvation looks like something.  Receiving salvation is an embodied act, performed through obedience to the Lord Jesus.

This is why John and Jesus can say that salvation is contingent upon repentance (Luke 13:3), and why John and Jesus’ disciples can preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4; Acts 2:38).

Obedience is embodied in a number of ways throughout the Gospels.  It might look like calling upon Jesus for healing, pleading with Jesus to help one’s unbelief (Mark 9:24), obeying Jesus’ demand to sell one’s possessions (Luke 18:22), responding to Jesus’ instruction to throw away credentials and start over (John 3:3-8), or obeying John’s call to stop oppressing others (Luke 3:12-14).  Belief is embodied through reaching out and touching Jesus’ garment (Matt. 9:20-22), and sending a message to Jesus to merely speak a word of healing from afar (Luke 7:6-9).

By “the grammar of the gospel,” I’m referring to the logic by which we configure the human response to the gospel call.  Many Protestant evangelicals are anxious to preserve the purity of grace and the priority of God in salvation.  While this is a noble goal, many have attempted to meet it by changing the gospel’s grammar to one of subsequence

According to this grammar, the transaction of salvation is isolated and walled off from any contact with human action.  Faith is seen as passive reception of salvation without any connection to human action.  Only subsequent to that reception does human action come into view.

This move has been disastrous for theology and for the life of the church.  This is not the grammar one finds in Scripture, which protects the purity of grace and priority of God in salvation by other means.

Paul the Pharisee

I’m taking up a few more considerations this week with the aim of getting to grips with the grammar of the gospel.  A misconstrued gospel grammar relies upon setting Judaism over-against Christianity as a religion of legalism wherein God’s grace must be supplemented by works.

Though very common, I don’t think this depiction of Judaism is at all helpful or faithful.  That debate won’t be settled to everyone’s satisfaction.  Rather than discussing Judaism generally, however, we’re better off focusing on Paul as a Pharisee.

The first thing we need to say about Paul as a Pharisee is that he never stopped being one.  Before the Jewish leaders, Paul declares, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 23:6).  This shouldn’t surprise careful readers of Acts.  Luke notes earlier that many priests, Pharisees, and thousands who were “zealous for the Law” were part of the first generation of Jesus-followers (Acts 6:7; 15:5; 21:20).

Second, we must understand Paul’s aims as a Pharisee.  The Pharisees didn’t hold belief in the resurrection as one of their doctrinal points like our churches regard their doctrinal statements.  The resurrection was a political, religious, and cosmic hope.  It was synonymous with the climactic day of judgment and salvation to which Jews looked forward with great urgency.  Pharisees longed for the God of Israel to fulfill his promises to free them from oppression, defeat Israel’s enemies, and restore the nation to its rightful place as the throne from which God ruled over all the earth.

Israel’s desperation to be freed from domination at the hands of Rome set the agenda for the Pharisees.  The nation had been sent into exile for unfaithfulness to their God, for idolatry, for neglecting the Law and its practices.  If unfaithfulness to the Mosaic Law led to exile, then renewed faithfulness to the Law at the national level would surely move God to pull the lever of salvation and judgment.  The resurrection would occur, Israel would be saved, and the nation’s enemies would be wiped out.

“Salvation,” therefore, had national, international, and cosmic dimensions.  God would bring about national renewal, sending the Spirit to give life to the nation.  This would set Israel in its proper place internationally.  Israel would finally take its place as God’s choice nation, teaching, judging, and shepherding the nations on God’s behalf.  Finally, God’s salvation was cosmic in scope, because God’s supra-human enemies—Satan, Sin, Death, and the powers and authorities that oppress creation in the present evil age—would finally be defeated and destroyed.

Before his conversion, then, Paul was part of an effort to bring about a renewed nation, to present to God a purified people, zealous, like Paul, for the “traditions of the fathers” (Gal. 1:14).  He was likely convinced that once the nation was pure and obedient, God would be moved to send Messiah who would bring God’s salvation.

Further, this was done through violence, coercion, and persecution of sinners among the people.  This explains Paul’s persecution of the early Jesus-followers.  Because they were worshiping the one whom God had cursed (Gal. 3:13/Deut. 21:23), they were standing in the way of God fulfilling his promises.

After his conversion, of course, Paul’s ultimate aims don’t change.  He is still passionate about the resurrection of the dead and God fulfilling his promises to the fathers (Acts 26:6-7).  It’s just that now Paul knows that this eschatological orientation involves suffering with the persecuted, multi-national people of God, praying and longing for Christ’s return, and participating with the Spirit’s project of producing cruciform, non-violent love among the people of Jesus.

All this is to say that using the term “legalism” only confuses things.  It leaves many with the impression that before his conversion Paul was convinced that he had to produce good works in order to work his way to heaven.  And he was traveling around teaching others that they had to work their ways to heaven, too.

But the contrast between pre- and post-conversion Paul is not that he once was a legalist and is no longer.  The contrast had to do with the manner in which he conceived of God fulfilling his promises to Israel.  How would this come about?  Does God act to restore his people by his own grace?  Or can you violently coerce conformity to the Law to produce a people that will move God to act?

The contrast is between coercive and manipulative treatment of God and others, on one hand, and self-giving love for God and others, on the other. 

Previously, Paul violently coerced others and sought to manipulate God to act.  He now loves others, suffering on their behalf and praying for their good.  And his posture toward God is one of deference, praying for and longing for the day of Christ, knowing that God in his wisdom will come to save in his own time.