A Question I Was Asked:

In His Epistles Occasionally Paul Seems to Break With Salvation by Grace and Almost Teaches a Works Salvation; What is the Explanation?

Hi there. I accept all the doctrines of grace which you so correctly teach. I don't have the slightest problem with them especially since I also am reformed in theology. We can't save ourselves and could do nothing without Christ and His atonement; I accept all of that. I just have this one problem: just sometimes Paul seems to write in his epistles as though we do have to do good works to be saved. How do we explain that? Yes, it is Paul who explains the teaching of grace, yet it is also Paul who writes things like 1 Corinthians 9:27 and Philippians 2:12. Can you help me with this?

UK Apologetics Reply:

Okay, let us look at this and start with the two Scriptures which are mentioned:

Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:26-27; NIV throughout).

Paul seems to be suggesting here that after everything he has done for the Lord, his Lord might still abandon him and disquaify him, that he might be a 'castaway' (KJV). This seems very odd, didn't Paul have assurance of salvation? Was it not Paul himself who wrote Romans 8 with its marvellous assurance that God never rejects those whom He has called?? Why did Paul write here as though he did not agree with his own conclusions in Romans 8 and elsewhere?

Now let us consult Philippians 2:

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed - not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence - continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, (Philippians 2:12).

Is this suggesting that Paul believed that we must work to achieve salvation? Actually, no. Paul did not believe that our own works can ever save us, here he is discussing something slightly different; there is a sense in which we must work to organise our own Christian lives. God does not come along and specifically communicate exact paths for us to follow, we must use our God-given minds and intellect to make choices. Unquestionably, we will later be able to see that our God was behind some of these choices and decisions, yet He still expects us to stand on our own feet during this life. That is what he meant in Philippians 2:12. Paul meant 'organize your lives as a people called to salvation.'

But what about the 1 Corinthians 9 text? Also one or two other New Testament Pauline texts have Paul admonishing Christians (especially at Corinth) to behave decently if they hoped to be saved. But how can such Scriptures come from the pen of the same Paul who wrote Romans 8, and Scriptures such as the following:

But as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not "Yes" and "No." For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us - by me and Silas and Timothy - was not "Yes" and "No," but in him it has always been "Yes." For no matter how many promises God has made, they are "Yes" in Christ. And so through him the "Amen" is spoken by us to the glory of God. Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. (2 Corinthians 1: 18-22).

Paul also writes the following in Ephesians:

And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession - to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1: 13-14).

Now that is very clear and very, very positive. As John wrote, nobody will ever snatch us out of God's hands!

Overall, I would make 3 points on this topic:

1. Like all of us, Paul occasionally got a little depressed and he certainly occasionally received enormous opposition, 1 Corinthians 9:26-27 is a reflection of that. His statement there is not so much a theological statement but much more the words of a man feeling a little 'down in the dumps' and somewhat sorry for himself. Listen: Paul was only human!

2. Several commentators have remarked that Paul's epistles show a growth in spiritual understanding. This should not be surprising, it should be exactly what we ought to expect. Paul seems somewhat more tentative on certain theological points in 1 Corinthians (written as early as 54 or 55AD), than he does in his later epistles. 2 Corinthians dates to circa 56AD and even in the space of that year Paul seems somewhat more confident on certain of his theological points. Finally, we have the 'towering and mature' Paul of his later epistles. Romans is 57 or 58AD and Ephesians is around 60AD. In Ephesians and Romans we find a Paul who takes no prisoners, as it were. His knowledge is now supremely deep. Without question, he now understood things much better than when he set out on his first missionary trip, and his understanding of grace and election now seem especially deep (hence Romans 8 and Ephesians 1 are 'late Paul').

3. The third point is this: Paul the Apostle regularly warned the churches which he visited/wrote to about their standards of behaviour. Later on much more of this would fall to the deacons and local elders but Paul was a real pioneer having to take much of this responsibility on himself. Paul knew that God's elect will tend to manifest their position of election by their standards of behaviour. However, he also understood by that time that the church in this world necessarily has some 'tares' mixed in with it. These people certainly needed reminders on behavioural standards. Of course, he knew better than anybody that even the best spiritual conduct could not guarantee entrance into heaven, moreover, the matter of elect or non-elect is invisible to human eyes. But in admonishing and encouraging on the matter of good Christian behaviour there is often no point going into deep theology so Paul often kept it simple for a people who were still very much 'learners.' Frankly, it is often easier to say, 'if you expect to be in heaven, that is no way to behave.' But Paul - better than anybody else - knew it was not as simple as that. Ultimately, it is about eternal election and whether one's name is recorded in The Book of Life. Is such and such a person truly converted or a tare? Literally, only God knows the answers to some of these questions at the present time.

Robin A. Brace. December 19th, 2014.