(Originally published in New Dictionary of Theology.  David F. Wright, Sinclair B. Ferguson, J.I. Packer (eds), 496-499.  IVP.  Reproduced by permission of the author.)

PAUL. This article presents an overview of Paul’s life and work, his theology, place in early Christianity, and significance for today. 

1. Life and work

The apostle Paul, a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin, was born a Roman citizen, in Tarsus of Cilicia, with the Heb. name Saul.  Paul was most probably one of his Roman names.  Brought up as a Pharisee, he became highly skilled in Jewish law and tradition (Gal. 1:14).  While engaged in a violent persecution of the church, he was confronted, on the road to Damascus, with a blinding vision of the risen Jesus.  He continued to Damascus, and there regained his sight and was baptized c. AD 34 (Acts 9:3-19).  In obedience to his new Lord he began at once to preach Jesus as Messiah in the synagogues, and became in his turn the object of Jewish persecution (Acts 9:19-25; cf. 1 Thes. 2:14-16).

At this point he apparently spent some time in Arabia (Gal. 1:17), returning to Damascus for three years before going to Jerusalem (Acts 9:26-29). Persecution again followed, and Paul went to his home town, Tarsus, until brought by Barnabas to help in the growing multi-racial church in Antioch (Acts 11:19-26).  From there the two made a further trip to Jerusalem (Acts 11:30) in order to provide famine relief (c. 46).  It is fairly likely that this is the same trip as that described in Gal. 2:1-10, though some have identified the latter with the visit of Acts 15.

Back in Antioch, Barnabas and Paul were called by the Spirit to an itinerant preaching ministry (Acts 13-14), whose very success led to controversy over the terms of admission of non-Jews into the people of God (Gal.; Phil. 3:2-11; see Acts 15).  Paul made two subsequent journeys with Silas and others, spending considerable time in Corinth on the first journey and Ephesus on the second (Acts 16-19).  On his return to Jerusalem he was arrested and tried before the Sanhedrin and two successive Roman governors, a process which ended only when Paul used his right as a Roman citizen to appeal to Caesar.  He was thereupon taken to Rome by boat, being ship-wrecked en route off Malta (Acts 20 – 28).  The narrative of Acts ends with Paul preaching openly in Rome, mentioning neither trial nor execution.  Later church accounts fill in the gap, telling of Paul’s martyrdom under Nero, c. 64.

The surviving letters formed a vital part of Paul’s ministry, being the principal means by which he could, even when absent, exercise pastoral authority over the churches he had founded.  These letters raise three major questions: a. How is his theology to be understood? b. What role did he play in the development of early Christian thought? and c. How is he to be appropriated in the contemporary church? 

Paul’s theology

Some have put justification at the centre of Paul’s thought: others, his doctrine of ‘being in Christ’ (see Union with Christ).  Neither solution solves all the problems.  A better way forward is to see Paul as having rethought his pharisaic theology in the light of Jesus Christ, as follows.

a. Paul’s background. The basic affirmations of Jewish theology are monotheism (there is one God, the creator of the world) and election (this God has chosen Israel to be his people). This double doctrine finds classic expression in the covenant, whose focal point was the law (Torah).  Israel’s task was to be faithful to God by keeping the Torah, and God for his part would be faithful to the covenant (‘righteous’) by delivering Israel from her enemies.  As a Pharisee, Paul believed that this deliverance would take the form of a new age breaking in to the present (evil) age: Israel would then be vindicated (‘justified’, i.e. declared to be truly within the covenant) and those who had died faithful to the covenant would be raised from the dead to share in the new world order.  In the meantime, Israel’s one hope lay in fidelity to Torah, and in consequent exclusiveness and separation from defilement, particularly through contact with Gentiles.  It was the apparent loosening of these covenant obligations by the early Christians that led Paul to persecute them.  His vision of the risen Jesus caused a total upheaval not only in his personal life, through his acknowledgment of Jesus as Lord, but also in his thinking.  If God had raised Jesus from the dead, that meant that Jesus was the Messiah, Israel’s representative.  This realization led at once to the reassessment of Paul’s whole theological scheme and practical vocation.

b. God and Jesus. Paul’s view of Jesus caused, and shaped, the revolution in his view of God. If God had vindicated the crucified Jesus as Messiah, then in him — in his suffering and vindication — God’s action to save his people had already occurred.  Since the OT saw that action as essentially God’s own, Paul concluded that Jesus himself was God in action: ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor. 5:19, RSV).  What Jesus did on the cross is something only God can do: so Jesus, who before becoming human was ‘in the form of God’, did not regard that equality with God as something to take advantage of, but revealed the true character of God by his self-abnegation, incarnation and death (Phil. 2:6-8).  The resurrection is God’s affirmation that this self-giving love is indeed the revelation of his own life and character (Phil. 2:9-11; cf. Rom. 1:4).  The God who would not share his glory with another has shared it with Jesus (Is. 45:22-25; cf. Phil. 2:9-11).  Monotheism is thereby redefined, not abandoned: Paul draws on the Jewish metaphor about the ‘wisdom of God’ by which God made the world, to ascribe that agency in creation, as well as in new creation, to Jesus (1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:15-20), placing Jesus alongside ‘the Father’ in formulations which are themselves restatements of Jewish monotheism over against pagan polytheism.  This striking new vision of God, highlighting especially the divine love, is filled out further by Paul’s view of the Spirit at work in men and women to accomplish that which God intends, the giving of true life (Rom. 8:1-11; 2 Cor. 3:3, 6, 17-18).  Finally, Paul recognizes that monotheism cannot remain content with dividing the world into two halves.  If there is one God, and one Lord, there must be one people (Rom. 3:27-30, 10:12; Gal. 3:19-20).  His new view of God thus points to a new view of God’s people (cf. Church).

c. The new covenant. In recognizing Jesus as Messiah (‘Christ’ in Gk.), i.e. as the one in whom God’s purposes for Israel had been summed up, Paul was compelled to rethink the place of Israel, and of her law, in God’s over-all purposes. Unless God had changed his plans (which was unthinkable), that which had happened in Christ must have been God’s intention all along.  The cross and resurrection gave Paul the clue: since the Messiah represents Israel, Israel herself must ‘die’ and be ‘raised’ (Gal. 2:15-21).  Reading the Scriptures again with this in mind, Paul discovered that, in the very passage where the covenant promises were first made (Gn. 15), two themes stood out: God’s desire that ‘all nations’ should share in the blessing of Abraham, and the faith of Abraham as the sign that he was indeed God’s covenant partner (Rom. 4; Gal. 3).  But this meant that Israel’s understanding of her role in God’s plan had been wrong.  She had mistaken a temporary stage in the plan (her land, her law and her ethnic privileges) for the final purpose itself.  The law, however, although coming from God and reflecting his holiness, could not be the means of life, because of sin.  But now Christ, not Israel, took centre stage: and in Christ, God’s plan for a worldwide family was being enacted.  Israel’s political enemies were merely a metaphor or symbol for the real enemies of God, namely sin and death (1 Cor. 15:26, 56), which held sway over not merely Israel but the whole world.

These ultimate enemies had been overcome in the cross and resurrection.  As the innocent representative of Israel, and hence of the human race, the Messiah had allowed sin and death to do their worst to him, and had emerged victorious.  Sin’s power had exhausted itself by bringing to his death the one human being who, himself without sin, could properly be vindicated by God after death (2 Cor. 5:21).  The cross thus stands at the heart of Paul’s theology, as the basis of his mission (2 Cor. 5:14-21), and of his redefinition of the people of God.  The fact of universal sin (Rom. 1:18-3:20) demonstrates the necessity for a saving act of pure grace (3:21-26): the divine wrath (1:18 – 2:16) is turned aside, as at the exodus, by the blood of sacrifice (3:24-6).  Had Israel herself not been captive to sin, covenant membership would have been definable in terms of law and circumcision: but in that case Christ would not have needed to die (Gal. 2:11-21).  The resurrection provides the basis for the true definition of God’s people.  God has vindicated Jesus as Messiah, and has thereby declared that those who belong to him, who in the Heb. idiom are ‘in Christ’ (cf. 2 Sa. 19:43 – 20:2), are the true Israel.  The marks of new covenant membership are the signs of the Spirit’s work, i.e. faith in Jesus as Lord, belief in his resurrection, and baptism as the mark of entry into the historical people of God (Rom. 10:9-10; Col. 2:11-12).  ‘Justification’ is thus God’s declaration in the present that someone is within the covenant, a declaration made not on the basis of the attempt to keep the Jewish law but on the basis of faith: because faith in Jesus is the evidence that God has, by his Spirit, begun a new work in a human life which he will surely bring to completion (Rom. 5:1-5; 8:31-39; Phil. 1:6; 1 Thes. 1:4-10).  The present divine verdict therefore correctly anticipates that which will be issued on the last day on the basis of the entire life of the Christian (Rom. 2:5-11; 14:10-12; 2 Cor. 5:10).  This double verdict is thus based on two things — the death and resurrection of Jesus and the work of the Spirit: Christ and the Spirit together achieve ‘that which the law could not do’ (Rom. 8:1-4).  ‘Justification’ thus redefines the people of God, and opens that people to all who believe, whatever their racial or moral background.

The whole world is thus the sphere of God’s redeeming action in Christ, and men and women without distinction are summoned by the gospel to submit to Jesus’ lordship and so to enjoy the blessings of life in the covenant community, both in the present world and in that to come.  God’s people form, in Christ, that true humanity which Israel was called to be but by herself could not be.  Paul expresses this appropriately by referring to the church, the people of the Messiah, as ‘the body of Christ’ (Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12).  This membership in Christ must be lived out by individual Christians allowing the Spirit to direct their actions, enabling them to live in the present as appropriate for the heirs of God’s future kingdom (Rom. 8:12-25; Gal. 5:16-26; Col. 3:1-11).  Since they are already thus participating in the new age, the final return of Christ may be soon or late, but should find them ‘awake’, not asleep in sin (1 Thes. 5:1-11; cf. Phil. 3:17-21).  And when that day comes, not only human beings, but the whole creation, will share in the renewal which the one God has planned for his world (Rom. 8:18-25). 

d. The righteousness of God. This picture of the renewal of all creation through the work of Christ and the Spirit completes Paul’s picture of God himself. In the letter to Rome, Paul takes the standard Jewish question concerning God’s righteousness (If Israel is the people of God, why is she suffering?), intensifies it in the light of universal sin (If all, Israel included, are sinful, how can God be true to the covenant?), and answers it in the light of the gospel.  The cross and resurrection, he declares, demonstrate that God is in the right: he has been true to the covenant with Abraham, he has been impartial in his dealings with Jew and Gentile alike, he has dealt with sin on the cross, and he now saves those who cast themselves on his mercy.  The further question, whether God is righteous in thus apparently allowing the original covenant people to miss the messianic salvation, is answered in Rom. 9-11.  God has been true to his promise, which always spoke of a worldwide family: Israel’s present casting away is a necessary part of the over-all divine purpose, since only so can Gentiles be welcomed in and Jews themselves saved, as they will continue to be, by grace alone.  Paul explains the apparent oddities of the divine plan as the outworking of God’s love and mercy in the face of human, including Jewish, sin.

Paul’s theology thus effects a redefinition of monotheism and election, based on the death and resurrection of Jesus and the work of the Spirit.  This theology is at every point characterized by love: the love of God for his world and his human creatures; the love of Jesus in his atoning death; and the love for God and for one another with which, by his Spirit, God is transforming the corporate and individual lives of his new covenant people, so that they become the fully human beings God intends, reflecting his own image, which is Jesus himself (2 Cor. 3:18; Col. 3:10). 

2. Paul in early Christianity

It thus becomes clear that Paul was not responsible for the ‘Hellenization’ of early Christianity, i.e. the transformation some have postulated from a pure Jewish faith into a philosophical construct.  Nor, on the other hand, was he simply using rabbinic methods to perpetuate a Jewish system of thought.  He was putting into effect that Jewish redefinition of Judaism which came about through Jesus, allowing the cross and resurrection constantly to inform the Jewish message of worldwide salvation which he preached.  He came to be mistrusted by those Christians who felt bound to uphold the special status of Jews even within the new covenant. Conversely, his ideas were misused by others (e.g. Marcion) to denigrate the Torah and portray the church as a purely Gentile entity.  His work and writing nevertheless formed a key part of the foundation for the life and thought of the second, and subsequent, generations of the church.

3. Paul for today

Since the Reformation, it has been customary to read Paul as the enemy of ‘legalism’ in religion (see Law and Gospel).  Though important in its own way, this issue does not represent Paul’s central thrust.  Instead, the contemporary church would do well to learn from Paul the true significance of Christ-shaped monotheism and of the new covenant in the Spirit, which together provide the basis, rationale, content and pattern for the church’s life and, particularly, its responsibility for world-wide mission.


  • F. Bruce, Paul, Apostle of the Free Spirit (Exeter, 1977)
  • W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism (Philadelphia, 1980)
  • E. Käsemann, Perspectives on Paul (London, 1969)
  • S. Kim, The Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI, 1982)
  • W. A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven, CT, 1983)
  • H. N. Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (Grand Rapids, MI, 1975); E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (London, 1977)