To attempt to summarize the apostle Paul’s doctrine of salvation in the compass of a short essay might seem an act of folly. Yet try we must.
Paul’s preaching of the Gospel proceeds from the conviction that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised “Messiah” and Son of God, whom God sent into the world in “the fullness of time” to fulfill His promises to His people, Israel (2 Cor. 1:18–22; 6:2; Gal. 4:4). The great message of Paul’s preaching is the “mystery” of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Col. 1:26; Rom. 16:26; 2 Tim. 1:10). Though previously hidden, this mystery was now entrusted to him and the other apostles as “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1; Eph. 3:2ff.).
This Pauline conviction helps to clarify the relation between his teaching regarding salvation and the teaching of Jesus Christ in the Gospels. Just as Christ emphasized the coming of the kingdom of God, which introduces the blessings of the “age to come” into “this age,” so Paul emphasizes the coming of Jesus Christ as the One through whom the saving blessings of God are now being granted to His people. The teaching of Jesus in the Gospels is similar to a musical overture that announces the theme of the whole New Testament: the kingdom of God is “at hand.” Paul’s preaching develops this theme by offering a comprehensive explanation of the saving blessings of the kingdom.
But how does the apostle explain the salvation that Christ brings? What has Christ accomplished by His death and resurrection that provides redemption for those who belong to Him?
Paul summarizes his answer to this question in 1 Corinthians 15:3–4: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” This summary is similar to others in Paul’s epistles (see 1 Cor. 2:2; Gal. 6:14). In these passages, Paul declares that the Gospel he preaches focuses upon the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In Paul’s epistles, several biblical themes are used to designate distinct aspects of the salvation Christ has procured for believers. The principal themes that Paul uses to describe Christ’s work of atonement include: First, “sacrifice” for or “expiation” of the guilt of human sin; Second, “propitiation” of God’s holy wrath against his sinful creatures; Third, “reconciliation” or peace with God; Fourth, “redemption” from the curse and condemnation of the Law; and Fifth, “victory” over sin, death, and all powers that oppose God’s kingdom.
That Paul understands Christ’s death as a sacrifice for sin is indisputable. In 1 Corinthians 15:3, Paul declares that Christ died “for our sins.” In another passage, he says that God sent His own Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin” (Rom. 8:3). Paul also teaches that Christ’s death was a propitiation of the wrath of God. In His holiness, God can only abhor sin. However, the marvel of the Gospel is that God has lovingly propitiated His wrath through the death of His own Son (Rom. 3:25; 5:9−10; 2 Cor. 5:21). Christ’s atoning work is also a work of reconciliation. By His death, Christ has removed every obstacle to the sinner’s peace with God.
This work of reconciliation includes a God-ward and a human-ward aspect. It not only removes the obstacle of God’s wrath (Rom. 5:9–10), but it also summons the sinner to “be reconciled” to God (2 Cor. 5:20). The theme of redemption also figures prominently in Paul’s understanding of Christ’s atonement. The biblical idea of redemption emphasizes the payment of a price that secures the deliverance of the sinner from bondage (1 Tim. 2:5–6). In one of the clearest statements of Christ’s atonement as a work of redemption, the apostle Paul declares that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). Finally, an overlooked feature of Christ’s work of atonement is the victory that it achieves over the power of sin, death, and indeed every form of opposition to God’s kingly rule (1 Cor. 15:54–57). By His death and resurrection, Christ disarmed the powers that oppose God’s kingdom (Col. 2:13–15).
Undoubtedly, the central message of Paul’s preaching is that God has entered history in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, whose atoning death and resurrection have brought salvation. However, the Gospel according to Saint Paul also includes the application of salvation in Christ to believers who are united to Christ by the ministry of His Spirit. Even though Paul does not explicitly articulate an “order of salvation” (ordo salutis), the rudiments of such an order are evident in his epistles (see Rom. 8:30; 1 Cor. 1:30; 6:11).
The most inclusive way in which Paul describes the application of salvation is in terms of the believer’s union with Christ. When believers are joined to Christ through the ministry of His Spirit, they participate fully in all the benefits of His atoning work on their behalf (Rom. 8:2,11; 1 Cor. 6:11; Eph. 4:30).
For the purpose of our brief summary, three benefits of union with Christ are of particular importance to Paul’s understanding of the application of salvation: free justification, Spirit-authored sanctification, and glorification.
Free justification. We noted in our introduction that it has become popular in some circles to oppose Paul’s emphasis upon union with Christ to his teaching about forensic justification. This is a profound mistake, however. The Reformation was certainly correct to assert that a principal feature of Paul’s teaching was the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone. Moreover, contrary to the more recent claims of authors of the “new perspective” on Paul, Paul clearly views justification as a “soteriological” theme. Justification doesn’t simply answer the question whether Gentiles as well as Jews belong to the covenant people of God, as many new perspective authors maintain. It primarily answers the question how any sinner, Jew or Gentile, can find acceptance with God in spite of his sin and guilt.
According to Paul, justification is a gracious act of God whereby He forgives the sins of believers and declares them righteous on the basis of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ (Rom. 4:1–5; 5:15–17; 10:3; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9). Though all have sinned, Christ was put to death for the sins of His people and raised for their justification (Rom. 4:25). Apart from any “works” performed in obedience to the Law, God justifies those who receive Christ by faith (Rom. 3:28; Gal. 2:16). This benefit of justification is a thoroughly eschatological blessing of salvation, which declares that there is “now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
Spirit-authored sanctification. All those who are united to Christ are indwelt by His life-giving Spirit (Rom. 8:4–11). Believers are not only declared righteous in free justification, but they are also being renewed after the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:17–18). The power and reign of sin are broken. Through their union with Christ in His death and resurrection, believers are now to consider themselves dead to sin and alive to righteousness (Rom. 6:12–14). The new status that believers enjoy (justification) is always accompanied by a renewed life of obedience, which is worked in believers by the Spirit of Christ (sanctification).
Glorification. Though it is customary to think of glorification as the future consummation of the believer’s salvation, Paul speaks of glorification as a present and a future reality (Rom. 8:18ff., 30). Due to the intimate union of believers with Christ, the glorification of Christ in His resurrection and ascension is also the glorification of believers. Already now believers are seated with Christ in the heavenlies (Eph. 2:6). However, there remains the expectation of a still-future glorification of believers (2 Thess. 1:10). So long as they live in this world, believers wait eagerly for the day when their “bodies of humiliation” will be transformed to be like Christ’s glorious body (Phil. 3:21).
The Gospel according to Saint Paul can be summed up as the glorious message of God’s fulfillment of all His promises of salvation for His people in Christ. The central message of all Paul’s preaching is salvation through the crucified and risen Christ. Christ has provided an atonement for the sins of His people that answers to every aspect of their sinful condition. Through faith-union with Christ, believers enjoy all the benefits of this atoning work. In the remarkable words of 2 Corinthians 5:17: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come.” Those who are in Christ enjoy a new status of free acceptance with God, in spite of their unworthiness as sinners. They also experience the grace of a new life of obedience to the “law of Christ” by the working of the Holy Spirit. And they know the grace of present as well as future glorification, when the “first fruits” of salvation in Christ will issue in the eschatological harvest of complete participation in Christ’s resurrection victory.