Biblical Thinking: The Pauline Paradox

Before I launch into this post, I have a somewhat tongue-in-cheek warning for any Calvinist friends who might be reading:  I’m going to be talking positively at some length about things like Free Choice  and Self-Effort. So, if you are a Calvinist, continue at your own risk. 😀 (Side Note: This will also be my last post for a week or so since I’m mired in finals. So hopefully this will give y’all something to chew on and debate about while I’m gone.)

Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way… Have you ever noticed that the Apostle Paul sometimes appears blissfully unaware of his self-contradictory statements?

Take these two very famous pieces from his epistles:

Galatians 2:20 I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me

Philippians 2:12-13 Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; For it is God that worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.

What did the rabbi say? He’s speaking in riddles. He says I live, yet I do not live. He tells us to work out our own salvation and then turns around in the very next verse and says it is God working in us. And then he goes on his merry rabbinical way with nary a clarification, leaving us sputtering, “But, but… you contradicted yourself! Which is it?”

And yet if you’re a Christian, you understand exactly what Paul means. When you look in the mirror at the end of a hard day, and you know in your heart you have not lied, you thank God for the strength he gave you. You fought your way through the day, but you did it through the strength of Christ within you. Christ will not run our race for us, but he will put the swiftness in our feet if we ask him.

And this is the gospel: On our own we are powerless. Yet if we daily call on the Father, he will answer us. We freely choose to follow Him, because He made us with free will. Each day is a crossroads. Even though we are alive in Christ, Satan is also alive and well, setting up roadblocks, showing us a tempting alternate route at every step. God could have made automatons who were “programmed” to follow His every command, but then we would not be acting out of love. Our choice for Jesus is only meaningful because we could have chosen otherwise.

This is why I dislike the common analogy of “lying down in the boat” while Jesus does all the work. It’s probing at something true, but it’s really not that biblical. It’s not an analogy found anywhere in the Bible, and it in fact directly contradicts some very clear analogies to the contrary. How are we supposed to “fight the good fight and finish the race” when we’re “lying in the bottom of the boat?” I believe that my analogy of the runner who is powerless without God but becomes swift in His strength is much closer to what Paul had in mind. It’s all in Philippians.

So, are we alive in Christ? Yes! Is Christ alive in us? Yes! They are both true, at the same time.

Are we working out our own salvation? I think that this verse is incomplete without the second verse, and the second verse is incomplete without the first. Even though it seems to create a contradiction, I think that both verses are necessary to give us the whole picture. The first verse taken by itself implies a works salvation, and it needs the second verse to provide the reality that we can do nothing apart from God. Yet the second verse taken alone could imply that God doesn’t demand anything of us, that the Christian life isn’t a daily process of choices. Taken together, they present us with a distinctly synergistic picture. Remember the catch phrase “you plus Jesus equals a majority?” Cheesy it may be, but it’s straight out of Paul. He is quite clear on the matter: It’s a team effort. It is you and Jesus working together. The will to press forward must come from you, and the strength to press forward must come from him.

Now let me get really Arminian (Calvinists, if you’re still reading, I warned you). I believe that we will ultimately become our choices. I see this theme in everything from Dante to C. S. Lewis. Two minds worlds apart in many ways, yet they both understood the same truth. Dante’s Inferno paints a picture of beings who spent their lives rebelling, rebelling, and rebelling. They pushed God away through the repeated process of unrepentant sin. So by the time they reach Hell, they have in a sense become their sin. At one point, souls are literally shown frozen in ice, to represent that they have  been frozen in sin.

Lewis’s Great Divorce is essentially a thought experiment about what it might look like to observe dead souls being granted a final chance at redemption. What Lewis sees as he stands watching the drama unfold (a character in his own novel) is that the harder they push God away, the smaller they become, until they finally disappear. The way that his guide in the novel (George MacDonald) describes one woman’s fate is that she has “become a whine.” Her self-hood is engulfed in her sinful nature. Yet this is beautifully contrasted with the fate of a man who burns with lust, represented by a lizard on his shoulder. An angel tells the man that he will have to let him kill it (the lizard), and after an agonized back-and-forth, the man consents. When the angel kills the lizard, it becomes a glorious white stallion. At the same time, the man himself is changed and purified. Then he mounts the horse and rides away. By contrast with those who would not let go of their sin, he has become more fully himself than ever before. And this is the beautiful mystery: When we give God our lives, he gives ourselves back to us. Dante sums this up when he reaches the top of Mount Purgatory (again, a character in his own work), and his will has been purified to the point where his guide (Virgil) appoints him ruler over himself:

No word from me, no further sign expect

Free, upright, whole, thy will henceforth lays down

Guidance that it were error to neglect,

Whence o’er thyself I mitre thee and crown. (Tr. Dorothy Sayers)



Like the characters at the end of The Last Battle, Dante can no longer want evil. His will is one with the Savior’s. Now he is ready to ascend to the heights of Paradise.

So there is my feeble attempt at resolving the Pauline paradox, with a little help from much greater minds than mine. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be hiding under the bed. If Paul Washer comes to the door, tell him I’m gone fishing.

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