The logic of the Gospel, traditionally understood, proceeds from Adam’s seminal act of disobedience (i.e. the myth of original sin) to Christ’s seminal act of obedience (i.e. the myth of the divine savior). Accordingly, the transgression of primordial man, so it is presumed, consigned all subsequent men not just to mortality and toil, as the Genesis story tells, but also to persistent and intractable moral failing (i.e. sin). Adam’s transmission of said sinful nature (and its postmortem consequences) to his descendants becomes the “fallen” human condition that makes necessary the atoning work of God in (or rather as) Christ on behalf of humanity.
This is the gospel as conceived through the theological and introspective lens of the West. The letters of the Apostle Paul have played the critical role in sustaining this perspective.
Yet, as some commentators have noted, the assumption of universal personal sinfulness sits awkwardly in the context of Jewish self-reflection. Saul of Tarsus, for instance, among other Jews, considered himself a faithful observer of God’s Law—as if the Lord’s commands were “not too hard nor too far away” so as to obey them with a whole heart (Deuteronomy 30:11). And so, despite the common perception of the Apostle as a guilt ridden sinner, Paul’s positive evaluation of his own moral constitution and ability finds expression both in his letters and in Lukan biography.
As to righteousness under the law, [I was] blameless.
You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers.
I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself…
Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.Philippians 3:6, 1 Thessalonians 2:10 (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:12), 1 Corinthians 4:3-4, Acts 23:1
Paul’s conscience, so it seems then, was robust. He did not struggle with obeying God’s commands either prior to or after the revelation of Jesus as Christ. Like faithful Jews before him, Paul was, we can assume, “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord” (Luke 1:6, cf. 1 Kings 15:5, 2 Kings 18:5-6, 23:25). This is to say that Paul did not consider himself a hopeless sinner—a lost sheep of the house of Israel or a prodigal son of Abraham. He required neither guidance back into right covenantal relationship nor repentance from evil deeds (cf. Luke 15:7). Paul was, rather, a healthy Jew, not a sick one (cf. Luke 5:31). He was a “Hebrew of Hebrews and a Pharisee of Pharisees,” a man “educated strictly according to [the] ancestral law, being zealous for God” (Acts 22:3).
Paul’s original sin
Paul did, of course, express remorse for sin. Yet his sin was not the habitual and all-encompassing moral deficiency intrinsic to a fallen human nature—as later Christians came to understand. Paul’s sin, rather, was the violent rejection of Israel’s Messiah, God’s own son. This and only this sin came to haunt the Apostle as he struggled to convince fellow Law-observant Jews of their grave error in regards to Jesus of Nazareth and his church.
As to zeal [for the Law], [I was] a persecutor of the church.
For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
Being zealous for God… I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison.(Philippians 3:5-6, 1 Corinthians 15:9, Acts 22:3-5, cf. Acts 9:1-2, 26:9-12)
It was this particular sin, further, that came to transform Paul’s understanding of God’s Law. For, as Paul knew personally, the Law’s good commandments—which many Jews kept without fault—had failed to restrain Israel’s prosecution of the Messiah. Indeed, it was Paul’s effective observance of the Law that captured him and his countrymen in this sin. By faithfully living out the works of the Law, Paul had, in effect, murdered Christ. Sin seized the opportunity “through the commandment,” so to speak (Romans 7:8). Although Law-observant Israel had been loyal to God, keeping his instructions, Israel as a nation had (quite unexpectedly) lacked the insight necessary to recognize the Messiah and thus honor God “at the right [eschatological] time.” Having come to faith in Christ by the intervention of God, however, Paul could now smell that there was something rotten in the Law—at least in the way he and others had been upholding it.
Christ became sin
Paul set out to craft a post hoc explanation for this baffling development. The manifestation of Christ as crucified—as “accursed under the Law” (Galatians 3:13, cf. Romans 3:21), as “numbered among the lawless” (Luke 22:37, cf. Isaiah 53:9-12, Luke 22:52), and in “the likeness of sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3, cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21)—had constituted, so Paul thought, a divinely-placed stumbling stone for the greater faction of Israel (Romans 9:30-33). These shameful depictions of Christ as one seemingly condemned by the Law, as Andrew Perriman concludes in his recent book, represent a “contemporary Jewish judgment of [Jesus’] efforts… [Jesus] was a ‘sinner’ not as a human person but as an offensive, transgressive first century Jew, and he suffered the extreme penalty of repudiation on a tree, cursed according to the Law.”1 Christ had therefore not merely suffered torture and death; he had suffered the ignominy of criminality, fashioning himself into the image of one stricken by God for iniquity.
Naturally then, or rather, paradoxically, it was only belief in this crucified Christ that could now save Law-observant Jews from that sin which the Law had proven powerless to restrain—the killing of God’s Messiah (Acts 13:38-41). Thus, working backwards from the contemptible death of Christ, Paul reasoned that Israel required a new way of observing divine law, one that would honor Christ, not persecute him unto death. Paul called this new mode of observance πίστις—faith. It was this πίστις form of righteousness, and this form righteousness alone—that δικαιοσύνη which Christ maintained before the rulers of the age—that would result in glory from God: the resurrection from the dead. Such righteousness was now accessible to all, to both the Law-observant Israelite and to the merely God-fearing Greek.
New Perspective on sin
Paul’s aim, therefore, was not to erect a division between grace and good works, nor between faith and obedience—every Jew was able and required to obey the commandments of God—but rather to reveal a great irony embedded in the Law of Moses: the “offense of the cross.”2 The very Law that testified to Christ had become the means by which God had “imprisoned” “all Israel” (i.e. corporate Israel) in disobedience vis-à-vis the Son and his messianic kingdom (Romans 11:28-32, Galatians 3:22). The Greeks, on the other hand—though God had imprisoned them to pagan debauchery for centuries—submitted to Christ when he was revealed, unencumbered by the Law.
Nor was Paul particularly concerned with the universality of personal sin. Yes, Israel as a nation had been guilty of covenantal disloyalty and Greek culture had fashioned its false gods. There was “no one righteous,” so to speak.3 But these were matters of universal corporate iniquity rather than of universal individual sin. There were, in fact, righteous Jews and noble Greeks who were, like Jesus before them, bravely hailing king and kingdom before tribunal and synagogue. Not every person was yet mired in personal sin and engaged in perpetual rebellion against the one true God.
At the Lord’s coming Christ would destroy the theo-political architecture of the Roman world and reward his servants who had preemptively abandoned it at great cost. Once the churches had come to rule over the nations—the problem of Greek civilization finally resolved—the myth of original sin would be reconfigured on behalf of introspective western man.
1—In the Form of a God pg. 207.
2—God implanted this irony in the Law so as to extend an eschatological opportunity to the Greek peoples on the heels of the messianic age.
3—Except, of course, those persecuted but “innocent” Jews among “the company of the righteous” who “love [God’s] name,” “take refuge in God,” and decry the total depravity of the earth (Psalm 5:11-2, 14:5, 53:4, Isaiah 59:7). Paul’s use of such texts in his condemnation of the the Jew and the Greek should give us pause (cf. Romans 3:9-18). These Israelite poems direct their outrage at “universal” sin away from the pious ἐκκλησία and toward the corporate agents of persecution (i.e. pagan empire, corrupt Temple establishment, etc.).