Many of the most famous people who have ever lived were not at all popular among their contemporaries during their lifetime. Abraham Lincoln received only forty percent of the popular vote in 1860. The apostle Paul was despised and considered a teacher of dangerous doctrines by both the pagans and the Jews. Even many Christians had an intense dislike for him.
Why were so many people in New Testament times, all over the Roman Empire, so upset with Paul and his teachings? Interestingly, one of the prominent reasons that many people, Jews and Christians alike, were upset with him was because of his teaching about how a person is saved. What he taught is recorded in his letter in Romans 4:1–5. He says, “What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.”
Paul clearly states that a man is not saved by his own works. Salvation comes through grace alone, through faith, and not by means of money or by any effort on his part.
In the early church there were leaders, as there have been in all ages since then, who asked what would motivate people to do what is right. Notice what Paul said about that in Ephesians 2:8, 9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”
Salvation comes as a free gift from God when you exercise faith in Jesus Christ. That is what the apostle Paul told the Philippian jailor in Acts 16 when he came and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved? So they said, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ ” Acts 16:30, 31.
Salvation is not complicated; it’s very simple.
If you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, you will be saved. Sometimes people say that they believe in Jesus Christ but they really do not know what that demands. In the New Testament, the words “to believe,” or “to have faith” mean that you believe something strongly enough to make a commitment. To “believe” in Jesus Christ therefore means that you believe in Him to the extent that you acknowledge Him to be your Lord and act accordingly. Notice what Jesus said about that in Luke 6:46. Jesus asked the following question to the Jewish people. He said, “But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do the things which I say?”
When you believe in Jesus Christ as the Lord of your life, you will choose to follow Him. At that time you will receive salvation as a gift of the grace of God. It will not be because of anything that you do or that you deserve. Over and over again the apostle Paul taught this in his letters. Notice what he said in Galatians 2:16 when speaking to a group of churches in what we call Turkey today that had gone into apostasy. He said, “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.”
Paul taught that salvation came through grace alone when faith is exercised and when you believe in Christ as your Lord and Saviour. There are millions of Christians, even today, that do not believe this. Notice what Paul wrote to a young minister in Titus 3:3–5. He said, “For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.”
He emphatically taught that you cannot be saved by going through any manner of religious rituals. The Jews tried that. Expanding on the writings of Moses they added all manner of religious rituals and customs. There were so many rules and regulations that it was almost impossible for anybody to keep them all. Paul wrote that nobody can be saved because he goes through a certain religious rite or exercise.
Some may believe that being baptized saves them. Baptism, like other religious rituals, is a symbolic act. If all you have is the symbol, but do not understand what is symbolized, then you do not have the reality. That was the problem with the Jewish religion. Every sacrificed animal was a symbol of the promised Messiah to come Who would offer His life for the sins of the world. Unfortunately, they lost sight of the reality and rejected the Messiah. They continued with the sacrificial services, even though once Christ had come they had lost their meaning. In Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, in the 10th chapter, he wrote that animal sacrifices cannot take away your sins or provide salvation (Hebrews 10:4). It is only the blood of Jesus Christ that can take away sins and enable us to enter by faith “the Holiest” (verse 19) where our sins are forgiven.
What about baptism and circumcision?
In Colossians 2:11 Paul addresses that. He wrote, “In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.” Circumcision and baptism are both symbols. Circumcision is a symbol of cutting away sin in your life. Baptism is a symbol of washing away the sins from your life. If you go through the symbol, but never have the experience that is symbolized, then you can have no assurance of salvation.
Notice 1 Corinthians 12:13, where Paul said, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.” Here he talks about being baptized by the Holy Spirit. There will not be any person who is truly baptized with the Holy Spirit that will not be in the kingdom of heaven. But there will be millions of people who have been baptized with water that will not be in the kingdom of heaven because they merely had the symbol, but were never baptized by the Spirit. In fact, on the Day of Pentecost, it says in Acts 2:38: “Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ ” The whole purpose of baptism was to receive the Holy Spirit.
Acts 19:2–6 records a time when Paul met some men who had been baptized by John but had not received the Holy Spirit: “He said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ And they said to him, ‘We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.’ And he said to them, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ So they said, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ Then Paul said, ‘John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.’ When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.” A baptism of repentance is not enough. You need to receive the Holy Spirit. Have you received the Holy Spirit?
Baptism is a symbol of dying to the old life and rising to walk in newness of life. It is a symbol of being baptized by the Holy Spirit, receiving the new birth so that you have a new heart, a new spirit and a new mind. It was for this reason that many Jews and others did not like what the apostle taught because they wanted a religion where you had to do something to be saved. Paul taught the opposite: you cannot be saved by doing anything yourself. Salvation is a gift by grace through faith alone to all who believe in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and choose to follow Him. But this was not the only reason the people were unhappy with Paul.
The Futility of Pagan Religion
Throughout his letters and preaching he showed the worthlessness of pagan philosophy, which made the pagans very unhappy with him. He opposed the philosophers when he spoke to them in Athens, as recorded in the 17th book of Acts. It says, “Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.
“Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’
“Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead. And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, ‘We will hear you again on this matter.’ ” Acts 17:22–32.
He pointed out that the true God is the One that made the heavens and earth, that He is Lord of all of it, and that He is not worshiped by replacing Him with things that you can make. The pagans did not like this teaching of the apostle Paul because, as you can see in the 19th chapter of Acts, they realized that if the apostle Paul’s teachings were accepted, the income that they made from their idolatrous religion would end. They were loath to lose that money.
The apostle wrote about this again in Romans 1. He explained the worthlessness, the futility of pagan philosophy. Notice what he said: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed beasts and creeping things.
“Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
“For this reason, God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.
“And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful; who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same, but also approve of those who practice them.” Romans 1:20–32.
The pagans did not like Paul’s teachings because it revealed that their way of life was futile, worthless, and even worthy of death. He exposed the futility of pagan philosophy over and over again in his letters. The pagans were upset with him because he explained that their way of life was empty and did not lead to life everlasting or salvation, but was worthless because it rejected the wisdom of the Creator.
The Jews Reject Paul’s Teachings
Although there were many pagan people, idolatrous people, who were unhappy with the apostle Paul as is documented in the book of Acts, the people that caused him the most trouble were the Jews. Why were they so upset with what he taught? The Jews, who had the Old Testament, believed themselves to be the greatest religionists in the world. Yet they too hated Paul because he exposed their heresies. He said, “You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law? For ‘the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,’ as it is written. For circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the law; but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. Therefore, if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision? And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the law, judge you who, even with your written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.” Romans 2:23–29.
Over and over again the apostle Paul dwelt on this matter. It is not whether or not you go through outward rituals, performing outward religious symbols, or keep certain religious observances that makes the difference. What makes the difference is whether or not you have been changed on the inside.
Jesus also reprimanded the Jewish people about this same experience. He said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. … first clean the inside … that the outside of them may be clean also.” Matthew 23:25, 26.
Paul effectually told the Jews that all of their religion was worthless if it was just a matter of outward action and their hearts had not been changed. In Romans 9:6–8, he said, “But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, ‘In Isaac your seed shall be called.’ That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed.” The Jews considered that simply because they were Jews, they were assured of salvation, but Paul told them that they were mistaken and that some of them were not even part of Israel.
Notice that for a person to be part of spiritual Israel he must be born again. It is the inward spiritual experience that determines a man’s destiny. When the heart is changed, it will be seen in his actions, but trying to change the outside when the heart is corrupt will not result in any lasting change. This is the doctrine that Paul taught the Jews that the majority rejected. Religion must involve a change of heart and not just a change in outward appearances.
The ceremonies that were given to Moses to instruct the children of Israel, had their time and place, but once Christ had fulfilled His mission they had lost their purpose and became empty forms. In Galatians 6:15, Paul says, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation.”
Paul Teaches the New Birth Experience
Have you been born again? Has your heart been made new? Remember, a birth creates a new being. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Most Assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” John 3:5. Have you allowed Jesus to create a new heart in you? If you have, you are a new person and what happens on the outside will reflect the new heart. You will hate the things you once loved and love the things that you once hated.
When you study the life of the apostle Paul, one of the most unbelievable things that stands out is that it was not only the pagans or the Jews who rejected his theology, but it was even many of the Christians who thought he was a teacher of dangerous doctrines. There are many Christians even today who do not understand that Paul clearly taught the importance of the new birth, even though it occurs in one form or another throughout his writings (see Ephesians 1:4, II Corinthians 7:1 and Colossians 3:1–3). Over and over again, the apostle taught that it was necessary to “follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.” Hebrews 12:14.
Paul taught that only those who were sanctified; in other words, only those who were living a holy life, would receive the gift of salvation. Now we are not holy, and we cannot make ourselves holy, for only God can make any person holy, but God has promised to make His children holy. He has promised His children that if they would follow Him, and follow His instructions, He would make them holy. That is what the new birth is about also, changing a person’s heart so that they live a different life. Paul says in Romans 7 that the law is holy, just and good (verse 12). The person who is a holy person will be keeping the principles of the law, the Ten Commandments.
Friend, do you have that essential ingredient to obtain the gift of salvation? Has the Holy Spirit made you new? Has the Holy Spirit given you a new heart? Are you living a new life because you have been made clean and holy on the inside? If not, ask the Lord to give it to you, so that you may be changed inside, and be made ready to receive the gift of salvation and eternal life when Jesus returns.
“And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.” Matthew 21:22.
(Unless appearing in quoted references or otherwise identified, Bible texts are from the New King James Version.)
Pastor John J. Grosboll is Director of Steps to Life and pastors the Prairie Meadows Church of Free Seventh-day Adventists in Wichita, Kansas. He may be contacted by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at: 316-788-5559.