Repost from 2015. Edited, rewritten, and corrected.
Several years ago, Van asked:
In one of your recent posts, you made reference to the four different plans of salvation in the NT: one each from Jesus, Paul, Peter, and James. In that post you said Paul’s was the prevalent teaching in 21st-century evangelical churches, and you expounded on Jesus’. Can you summarize the Peter and James plans, and ‘compare and contrast’ the four plans?
This is a great question. In the Old Testament, it is quite clear that salvation depended on the Israelites keeping the law of God. Evangelicals will go to great lengths to find the gospel of grace in the Old Testament, but such attempts are wishful thinking. Salvation belonged only to the Jews and was contingent on them keeping the Law — all 635 laws. This was the religious system Jesus was born into, as were all the Apostles. There’s nothing in the Bible that suggests Jesus repudiated the religion of his ancestors and parents. For many years, Christianity was considered a subset of Judaism.
I am of the opinion that Jesus’ Christianity is defined in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7. Any cursory reading of this passage reveals that Jesus’ Christianity was rooted in how a person lived. Jesus was saying, you want to be my disciple? This is how a disciple of mine lives. The Christian church would be well-served if it returned to the Christianity of Jesus. Imagine how much better off the world would be if Christians practiced the teachings of Christ found in the Sermon on the Mount.
Peter’s salvation was rooted in the laws of Judaism. While he was certainly a follower of Jesus, he believed, at least for a time, that a person had to be circumcised to be saved. He and Paul got into an argument over this issue. In Galatians 2 we find:
And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision. Only they would that we should remember the poor; the same which I also was forward to do. But when Peter was come to Antioch, I (Paul) withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation. But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews? We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.
This passage reveals a sharp contrast between the gospel of Paul and the gospel of Peter and Barnabas, another man Paul had a falling-out with. In Acts 15, we find that there was great controversy over whether a Gentile had to be circumcised to be saved:
And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.
A council was held in Jerusalem to settle the matter and the church decided that circumcision was not required for salvation. They did, however, give Gentiles the following commands:
That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.
James, who was likely the brother of Jesus, sets forth the conditions of his gospel in the book of James, chapter 2. Here, James says that faith without works is dead:
What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
James is clear — a faith without works is no faith at all.
We find this same faith-plus-works gospel in the book of 1 John. Evangelicals rarely understand I John. Often used as a source for proof texts, I John actually advances a works-based salvation that goes so far as to say that any Christian who sins is not a child of God. Evangelicals love to quote 1 John 5:13:
These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.
Evangelicals love the part that says, that ye may know that ye have eternal life. They proudly say that they have a know-so salvation, yet they ignore the first part of the text where John says, these things have I written unto you. What things? The things John wrote in the previous four chapters — things that clearly show that NO Evangelical is a child of God.
Paul, the supposed writer of most of the books in the New Testament, taught a different gospel — a gospel of right belief. While he often mentions the grace of God, God’s grace was contingent on believing the right things. A Christian was one who believed A, B, and C. In the book of Romans, Paul taught a gospel that Evangelicals have turned into what is commonly called the Romans Road:
- For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God Romans 3:23
- As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. Romans 3:10,11
- For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Romans 6:23
- But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8
- That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed. For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. Romans 10:9-13
- Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: Romans 5:1
- There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:1,38,39
This is the gospel that dominates modern American Christianity. Various sects will throw in requirements such as water baptism or being baptized with the Holy Ghost, but the main ingredients of their gospel can be found in the verses mentioned above.
Two thousand years removed from the time when Jesus walked along the shores of Galilee, it is clear that Paul’s gospel won the gospel battle. While many progressive/liberal Christians preach a works-oriented social gospel, Evangelicals are very much the children of Paul. It is clear that there were competing gospels within the early church. Anyone who suggests that the early Christian church had one gospel and was some sort of pure Christianity hasn’t read much of the Bible. They wrongly assume that what we now see in Christendom is what always existed. As Steven Pinker pointed out in one of his books, Christianity is constantly evolving, giving birth to new Christianities. I suspect Paul, Peter, James, John, and Jesus would find twenty-first century Christianity to be quite strange, perhaps even heretical.
Most Evangelicals rarely read each book of the Bible as a stand-alone text. Instead, they invest vast amounts of energy into trying to reconcile the various books of the Bible and the competing gospels found within its pages. I am not inclined to do so. I have no need to make my theology fit a particular system. What I see are competing gospels, and history tells me that Paul, for the most part, won the gospel battle. These other gospels make an appearance here and there throughout history, but Christianity continues to be dominated by Paul’s gospel of believe the right things and thou shalt be saved.This is a short explanation of the various gospels found in the Bible. It would require thousands of words to do this subject justice. I hope this post is enough to challenge Evangelical assumptions about Jesus, the gospel, and salvation. The Bible says, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, but as this post shows, such a claim is false, or some sort of ideal that has never been realized.
Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.
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