“May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation” (Galatians 6:14-15).

I thought that I would present something a little different this time. Obviously fictitious, I imagined what it might have been like to run into the Apostle Paul at a bus stop one afternoon and what all might I have asked him. Enjoy!

I had an opportunity to speak briefly to the Apostle Paul a few weeks ago, and though I would call him extraordinary, Paul wasn’t so quick to accept such praise, but instead, he quoted from his letter to the Colossians, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17, NIV).[1] Paul settles the matter of boasting in himself, by indicating that benefits as well as troubles accompany the cross, both of which often come at the expense of human approval.[2] “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation” (Galatians 6:14-15). Paul’s basis for boasting is not in himself but in the cross of Jesus Christ.

Speaking of his letter to the Colossians put me in mind of his house arrest in Rome, and I asked him to talk further about his time in prison, specifically to elaborate a little on how it is that he sees his own suffering as a blessing. In contrast to the boasting of the false teachers of his day, Paul reaffirmed his commitment to taking up his cross, his life as a new creation in Christ Jesus, and that salvation is by faith alone. From the time of our encounter, my view of Paul has not so much changed as it has deepened, as a result of the apostle I encountered in the study of Acts and epistles.

Rejoicing in Suffering

My questions began with Paul’s letter to the Colossians. I asked him to tell me more about his time in prison, specifically to elaborate on how it is that he sees his own suffering as a blessing. At the time that I spoke with Paul, I understood that as children we are called to share in Christ’s sufferings in order that we may also share in His glory (Romans 8:17), and that is reason enough to rejoice, but I was less familiar with how Paul viewed suffering in light of God’s redemptive plan.

Throughout his letter to the Colossians, Paul tells his readers that he not only suffers for their behalf but for the whole church. “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body” (Colossians 1:24). After affirming his work as a minister of the Gospel in the previous verse, Paul goes into greater detail concerning his ordeals in 1:25–29. Despite all that he is contending for them and for others in their region (2:1), Paul’s message to the Colossians is ultimately one of celebration. Paul’s sufferings, including abandonment by his fellow Jews, (4:11) as well as his imprisonment in Rome, which he mentions twice in the closing (4:3, 18) demonstrates the importance Paul placed on its persuasive role.[3] Paul discloses that he suffers both for Christ and on behalf of the Colossians, and consequently, he rejoices, because the final result is glory to God. 

The way Paul refers to “I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions” in 1:24 is a matter of debate.[4] The term Paul uses for “afflictions” is thlipseōn, from the root word thlipsis, which is not a term the NT uses in reference to the physical sufferings of Christ.[5] While the Lord suffers when His church suffers (Acts 9:4), Paul’s hardships are a different kind intended for a different purpose than the sufferings and sacrificial death of Christ. Hence, Paul is not suggesting that his suffering fulfills something deficient in the saving power of Christ’s death; instead, he views his persecution as a service that Christ left for His followers to fulfill.[6] Paul suffered for the church as part of his ministry, and he rejoiced in that service to Christ. Paul’s suffering is “genuinely vicarious but not expiatory” in that his suffering confers benefits on the Colossians but does not serve as a means of forgiveness.[7] Although Paul has suffered much affliction on behalf of the Gospel, he admits to not yet being fully conformed into the image of the Savior in his own sufferings. Among the benefits derived, his afflictions surely enabled him to comfort believers going through their own trials and encourage them in their faith; thus, those who endure persecution faithfully will be raised as Christ was as Paul comforts the Thessalonians.

Paul’s modesty is shown in his second letter to the Corinthians in which he expresses a preference in boasting in his weakness.[8] No wonder when I asked Paul to sum up his motivation in a single statement he quoted from Matthew’s gospel, “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’” (16:24). Now, I have a greater appreciation of what Paul meant when he said that though the atoning sufferings of the Lord were finished on the cross, he has been called to follow in the Lord’s footsteps to Calvary. As Paul writes to the Romans, those in Christ are “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (8:29), his testimony to the Colossians reinforces that we should also view our own afflictions as a means to make us more like Jesus. No wonder Paul rejoiced!

A New Creation

Our conversation took us back to the road to Damascus and his conversion, where Paul recounted the day the Lord appeared to him and asked, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?” Paul said that even now, as then, the Head feels the sufferings of His body here on earth, referring to the Lord Jesus. Paul shared that God has shown him what it means to take up one’s cross, to fill up in one’s own flesh what is still lacking. And so, while counterintuitive to the world’s way of thinking, Paul cheerfully described it as the day when his life truly began! Quoting from his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul affirmed, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (5:17). 

Since the time of our encounter, I began to investigate the concept of imputed righteousness in relationship to the new creation Paul spoke. The doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ is a primary component in the historic Protestant understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith.[9] When God declares a sinner righteous, He “imputes, accredits, or counts the obedience and suffering of Christ” to the believer by grace alone through faith alone (Romans 4:1–8, 5:12–21; 2 Corinthians 5:17–21).[10] Though it may be difficult for modern readers to understand the historical-cultural significance of the claim that Gentiles are included among the people of God,[11] Gentiles have been adopted into the family of God alongside Jews, so all believers have the indwelling Spirit as a sign of their adoption into God’s family. “You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ” (Romans 8:9). 

There are a number of passages indicating OT roots for the doctrine of imputation: the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16, Achan’s sin in Joshua 7, David’s sinful census in 1 Chronicles 21, and Joshua’s installation in Zechariah 3; however, many scholars basis this thesis primarily on Isaiah 53. Therefore, Paul does not create the doctrine out of nothing, but rather, draws it from Isaiah’s fourth Servant Song and applies it throughout his letters.[12] “After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:11). Foretelling Christ, Isaiah writes that his soul has been made an offering for sin, and all those who believe on Him will be reconciled by His blood He will be amply satisfied unto God.[13] Isaiah proclaims in verse 12, “For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” Echoing Isaiah, Paul writes, “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). The New Creation was foretold centuries before!

Misunderstood Misunderstanding

As his bus approached in a distance, we realized that our time together was coming to an end, so Paul explained that salvation by grace through faith in Christ should move us to love one another. Paul added that he doesn’t understand any misunderstanding between his teaching about salvation through faith alone and James’ teaching about faith without works being dead. Paul explained that it is through faith we are saved and through Christ good works are produced. Again from Matthew, Paul quoted the Lord, as he boarded his bus, “By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?”

After engaging in a discourse concerning the role of works in faith, James concludes the passage by stating, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26). Likening faith to the human body and works to the spirit, James bases his argument on the fact that a body without the spirit is lifeless, useless, and valueless. James doesn’t refute that salvation is obtained through faith, but presents an argument that one can recognize living faith by the good works it produces. James illustrates this point by referring to Abraham, “Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend” (James 2:21-23). 

The Gospel accounts emphasize the false confidence that the Jews placed in Abraham as their physical forefather.[14] Paul corrects the misguided idea that salvation can be earned by human merit or through a physical lineage; whereas, James rejects the idea that faith is nothing more than the mere acceptance of certain doctrinal truths like the existence of God.[15] Speaking of Abraham, Paul writes to the Romans, “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’” (4:1-3). Concerning Abraham’s faith, James writes similarly, “Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend” (2:21-23). James and Paul concur that Abraham should instead be regarded as a spiritual father of Jews and Gentiles alike who put their faith in the saving work of Christ.[16]  “And he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them” (Romans 4:11).

Therefore, not at all in conflict with Paul’s message of salvation by faith alone, but rather I believe that James sought to clear up misunderstandings already present at the time. Besides, James and Paul had presumably already agreed on the nature of salvation at the council in Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-29), as the Bible doesn’t record a dispute on this most fundamental principle of Christian faith between the two. Both Paul and James citing Genesis 15:6 reinforces their agreement concerning the link between Abraham’s faith and the righteousness credited to him. Peter may offer some explanation to Paul’s bewilderment that anyone would confuse this fundamental teaching of salvation. Referring to Paul, Peter writes, “He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16).

My Perspective on Paul

Paul, then known by his Hebrew name Saul, grew up in Tarsus of Cilicia where he lived with his parents and is believed to have been educated in Jerusalem.[17] Paul was of the tribe of Benjamin as well as a Roman citizen. His Roman citizenship provided him a position of privilege that ultimately proved advantageous in his ministry. When opponents in Jerusalem brought charges, Paul’s Roman citizenship afforded the opportunity to appeal to Caesar in Rome, and subsequently, take the Good News of the Gospel along with him. Through his life, his letters, and his theology, Paul would eventually become recognized as one of the most significant contributors to the Christian faith and Christian church.[18]

Paul is responsible for 13 of the 27 books of the NT. Chosen by God to take the message of the Good News to the Gentiles, Paul’s writing and preaching encouraged the early church and taught them how to live a holy life in a pagan world. The promise, according to Paul, was not subject to the weakness of the flesh but on the power of God.[19] His letters addressed problematic issues that arose in various first century churches that threatened their growth and survival. Paul embarked on at least three missionary journeys, which carried the Gospel throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, and despite the many difficulties endured, Paul accomplished the mission God ordained. 

Although scholars remark a variety of differences between the ministries of Jesus and Paul, Paul’s theology is “Christ’s own authorized extension of the Gospel of salvation for Jew and Gentile alike.” [20]One of Paul’s major contributions to Christianity is “justification by faith” also characterized as “faith alone.” [21] Faith rather than good works became a prominent theme during the sixteenth century, so much so that it eventually led to the break with the Roman Catholic Church and the formation of what we know as the Protestant Reformation. Paul’s writings, in particular Romans, strongly inspired reformer Martin Luther.[22] “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:21-22). Concerning the impact Romans had on Augustine centuries prior, authors, Elwell and Brough, cite an excerpt from The Confessions of St. Augustine, “I had no wish to read further; there was no need to. For . . . it was as though my heart was filled with a light of confidence and all the shadows of my doubt were swept away.” [23] Like those of Luther, Augustine’s writings exerted a profound influence on European civilization for a thousand years, and his ideas still command respect today.

Paul imparts hope during a time that would have had to seem hopeless, and his message of hope in Jesus Christ continues to inspire the faithful today. Paul described both a tumultuous side to the Christian life as well as a peaceful one,[24] for example, Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7). Likewise, consider Paul’s words to the Corinthians, “Even if my letter made you sorrowful, I don’t regret sending it (even though I felt awful for a moment when I heard how it grieved you). Now I’m over-joyed—not because I made you sad, but because your grief led you to a deep repentance. You experienced godly sorrow, and as God intended, it brought about gain for you, not loss, so that no harm has been done by us. God designed us to feel remorse over sin in order to produce repentance that leads to victory, but the sorrow of the world works death” (2 Corinthians 7:8-10). 


My conversation with Paul began by talking about suffering for the Lord, and it was clear that Paul considered his own suffering as a blessing. At the time that I interviewed him, I understood that as children we are called to share in Christ’s sufferings in order that we may also share in His glory (Romans 8:17), and as time unfolded, I would come to see more clearly that through our suffering, we are conformed into the image of Christ. No wonder Paul rejoiced in his hardships!

 “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God” (Romans 6:8-10). Paul goes on to explain, “For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14). The apostle John’s conclusion about grace concurs with that of Paul’s when he writes, “We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands” (1 John 2:3); hence, in the new birth, the elect are granted a living, saving faith, by grace, which enables them to walk in “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5). In Jesus Christ, we are no longer under the law, but rather, the law is fulfilled in us, and as a result, obedience to God (Philippians 2:1-13). Paul instructs Titus that grace teaches us to “live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age (Titus 2:12).

Therefore, Paul indicates no conflict between grace and works, because he never taught works as a means of salvation in the first place, but rather, the result. Paul explains, “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (Romans 6:16). Paul presents a general axiom that slaves live in obedience to their master, and in our adoption into sonship, Paul describes a transfer from one master to another. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:8–10).

From the time of our encounter, the Paul I have come to know through study has deepened. I understood that Paul happily suffered for the faith, but since then, I have learned that he saw his hardships as a service that Christ left for His followers to fulfill. I understood that Paul viewed those in Christ as a new creation, but since then, I have learned that the new creation entails liberation from the slavery of sin to the freedom of obedience in Christ. I understood that Paul perceived no conflict between salvation through faith alone and works, but since then, I have learned the inherent relationship between salvation that comes from faith and the works that living faith produces. 

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages referenced are in the New International Version.

[2] Duvall, J. Scott, “Identity-Performance-Result’: Tracing Paul’s Argument in Galatians 5 and 6,” Southwestern Journal of Theology, 37 no 1 (Fall 1994): 36.

[3] Jerry L. Sumney, “’I fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ’: Paul’s vicarious suffering in Colossians,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 68 no 4 (October 2006): 666.

[4] Ibid., 667.

[5] John Reumann, “Colossians 1:24 (‘what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ’): history of exegesis and ecumenical advance,” Currents in Theology and Mission, 17 no 6 (December 1990): 455.

[6] William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary (NT), (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2016), 2043-2044.

[7] Sumney, “’I fill up what is lacking in the afflictions, 673.

[8] Jaap Doedens, “The Things That Mark an Apostle: Paul’s Signs, Wonders, and Miracles,” The Biblical Annals, 11 no 1 (2021): 100.

[9] J. V. Fesko, “Imputed Righteousness: The Apostle Paul and Isaiah 53,” The Master’s Seminary Journal, 32 no 1 (Spring 2021): 5.

[10] Ibid., 5-6.

[11] Jerry L. Sumney, “In Christ there is a new creation’: apocalypticism in Paul,” Perspectives in Religious Studies, 40 no 1 (Spring 2013): 42.

[12] Fesko, 6.

[13] MacDonald, 898.

[14] Samuel E. Waldron, “Paul’s Use of Genesis 15:6 in Romans 4:3,” The Master’s Seminary Journal, 32 no 1 (Spring 2021): 124.

[15] Elwell and Brough, Encountering the New Testament: A Historical and Theological Survey, 3rd Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2013), 336.

[16] Waldron, 127.

[17] Elwell and Brough, 237.

[18] Ibid., 256.

[19] Waldron, 123.

[20] Elwell and Brough, 240.

[21] Sumney, “In Christ there is a new creation’, 32.

[22] Stephen J. Chester, “Paul and the introspective conscience of Martin Luther: the impact of Luther’s Anfechtungen on his interpretation of Paul,” Biblical Interpretation, 14 no 5 (2006): 508-36.

[23] Elwell and Brough, 257.

[24] Sumney, “’I fill up what is lacking in the afflictions, 672.

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