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Kevin Williams on Kingdom of Heaven and Justification


Kingdom of Heaven, Justification:  Is There a Conflict? Something Missing?

In this review essay, Kevin Williams responds to Scot McKnight’s article that introduces a conversation among theologians.

Scot McKnight, “Jesus vs. PaulChristianity Today (December, 2010), pages 24-29.

The December 2010 cover encapsulates the discussion:

Jesus preached almost exclusively about the kingdom of heaven. Paul highlighted justification by faith. Some say they preached different gospels. Others say Jesus and Paul both preached justification. Still others claim both focused on the kingdom. What gives?

This was a first for me, to review an article into which a series of videos had been embedded. Congratulations to Christianity Today for creating a format where the interviews do not interfere with the flow or appreciation of the text. I think CT has done an excellent job of allowing readers to access the video content without it being obtrusive to the written content.

I’ll begin with the title: “Jesus vs. Paul.” That is a teaser headline only. As soon as I read it, my mind immediately went to 1 Corinthians 1:11-13, “… that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas,’ and ‘I of Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”

Thankfully, the debate is not really pitting Jesus against Paul in McKnight’s article, but whether there can be harmony between the doctrine of Jesus’ “gospel of the kingdom,” and Paul’s doctrine of “justification by faith.”

The article begins with McKnight’s own doctrinal journey from a Pauline-based theology to his college years, including becoming a professor, where he became enraptured with Jesus, and subsequently, his struggles when he would open up Paul’s epistles. He, like others, often finds more incongruity than harmony between the two.

Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you?

By the time we reach page two, McKnight presses a very real sense of urgency: “It is not exaggerating to say that evangelicalism is facing a crisis about the relationship of Jesus to Paul” (p. 2). In this writer’s opinion, it is a stretch to proclaim it a “crisis.” From what I read in the Scripture, it is an ageless debate of kingdom living and justification by faith as old as the Patriarchs, with multiple examples present throughout the Old Testament. If it is as McKnight describes—a crisis—then it is a very old one.

Scot McKnight is Professor of New Testament at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary.

But McKnight’s concern does not appear to be over the age-old equilibrium between kingdom living and justification as I first suspected. As he puts it, it is “kingdom language on steroids, pushing out justification,” or more to the point, the social-justice teachings of the “unrelenting justice voice of Jim Wallis.” Rev. Wallis, of course, is an advisor to President Barak Obama and an out spoken advocate for social justice and liberation theology, a platform of the Obama administration that has raised considerable debate among the American people.

Can there be harmony between the gospel of the kingdom and justification by faith?

Taken to the extreme, or “on steroids,” a kingdom message of social justice preached from the church pulpit or the bully pulpit is a danger. Social justice, in this writer’s opinion, is a clanging gong (1Corinthians 13:1) if it is not offered out of compassion. But compassion can be neither mandated nor compelled. Social justice, at least as I have witnessed it, is often about compulsion through guilt rather than a response to real needs. When compassion becomes mandatory, it is about taking rather than giving.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Summer 2011

About the Author: Kevin M. Williams, Litt.D., H.L.D. has served in Messianic ministries since 1987 and has written numerous articles and been a featured speaker at regional and international conferences on Messianic Judaism.

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