Fourth in a series on St. Paul.
Trained as a Pharisee, Saul knew the expectations of his people. He had studied under Gamaliel the Great. He had pondered the prophets.
He knew the promises God had made, and that God would be faithful. So, like many Jews of the first century, Saul waited for the promised Messiah, who would deliver Israel from bondage and oppression. He urged people to keep the Law meticulously, to hasten the day of the Messiah’s coming.
Then he learned that the day had already arrived. The Messiah was Jesus. And deliverance had come in a way no one expected.
Several lifetimes of study could not have prepared Saul for the fulfillment of God’s plan. The prophets had evoked images of a suffering Messiah, but the national tradition had dwelt instead upon the idea of a conquering king, who would expel the pagan rulers and reestablish divine Law in the promised land.
Saul had expected the Messiah to be a king who would restore the throne of David. God sent his own eternal Son, incarnate as a Son of David.
Saul expected deliverance to bring peace and prosperity. But God’s idea of salvation was greater: He would deliver his people from sin and even death; and he would lead them to share his own divine life. Salvation was not merely from something; it was for something. God delivered his people from sin so that they might become his sons and daughters.
When Paul became an apostle, he struggled to find language adequate to express the meaning of salvation. He used terminology from the courtroom, saying that we have been justified (see Romans 5:16–17). He drew analogies from the marketplace, to say we’ve been “redeemed” — “bought at a great price” (1 Corinthians 7:23). He drew military analogies, portraying us as the object of a divine rescue mission (2 Timothy 4:18). He said we were “set free” from “slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
But all these metaphors lead to his favorite: our adoption as children of God. God had brought about redemption for the sake of adoption (Romans 8:23) — “to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:5).
This is the deepest meaning of salvation (see Titus 3:4–7).
Some interpreters would have us stop short of this. They put the focus instead on justification. But in doing so they are ignoring the cultural context of Paul’s metaphors. Supremely important for him (as for all Jews) was the idea of covenant. It was the covenant with God that constituted Israel as God’s chosen people.
Covenant created a family bond; and with Jesus’ “new covenant” (1 Corinthians 11:25) that family bond was made immeasurably stronger. Salvation has made us like Jesus — children of God in the eternal Son of God (see Galatians 3:26). Fidelity to the covenant is what Paul intends when he uses terms like justice and justification.
St. Paul knew that God was not content to be merely our judge. He wished to be our Father (see Ephesians 1:5). That is the essence of salvation (see Romans 8:14–17).