Peter vs. Paul

Question
When Peter presented the gospel (e.g. Acts 2; 8; 10), people came to faith through some form of: 1) hearing about Jesus; 2) repentance; 3) baptism; and 4) reception of the Holy Spirit and continued living for God. But Paul's system was somewhat different (e.g. Acts 16:1): 1) belief in Jesus; and 2) continued living for God. Both scriptural, but they appear to have a different approach to God. Can you comment? I have found books supporting one side with total silence (or negative comments) toward the other side, but none with a balanced view.
Answer
Actually, in the Acts passages you mention, neither Peter nor Paul is describing what we might call a systematic theology of salvation. They are not attempting to lay out the particular things which one must believe, undergo, do, etc., in order to be saved. Rather, they are making gospel presentations. In those presentations, they blend all sorts of statements: historical accounts, gospel proclamation, personal accusation/conviction, exhortation to righteousness, etc. They do not by these proclamations indicate that every one of these points must be believed, received, done, etc., in order to gain salvation.

For example, in Acts 16:31 Paul states that belief in Jesus is necessary, but he does not state precisely what the belief must entail. The details of what one must believe are left out of the story, but Acts 16:32 tells us that those details were indeed related to the jailor and his household.

In Acts 10, Peter assumes that Cornelius already knows many facts of the gospel (10:37ff.), and offers only a short recap. When he explains his charge to preach the gospel, the only thing he lists is that the apostles have been ordered to "preach to the people" about Jesus, and "solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead." He does not even exhort them to faith and repentance, and we have no explicit mention of their faith or repentance. That these elements necessary for the process of salvation actually did take place, is made evident by Acts 11:18 where the church admits that these people were granted "repentance that leads to life." The biblical record does not give us all the details, but only those details that are relevant to the story. In the case of Acts 10-11, the point is not "how is one saved," but "Gentiles can be saved too."

The point is simply that we cannot assume that these passages are intended to teach us a theology of salvation. Other passages do directly address these issues, offering much more detailed explanations of the means of salvation. In those passages all the biblical authors agree that salvation does not depend upon works of any kind (compare Peter's statements in Acts 15), including baptism. Some indicate that baptism is a means through which God's grace works, as is faith, but none indicate that faith or baptism is a meritorious work unto salvation. A continued life of faith and good works is also part of salvation, but it is a result of salvation, not a cause. Moreover, while not all biblical authors taught on the same subjects or covered the same material, we know of their agreement in the tenets of the gospel (e.g. Gal. 2; 2 Pet. 3:16).

The fullest treatments of the nature and means of salvation that we find in the Bible are those offered by Paul, but many other writers record helpful information as well. However, all of the information provided can be harmonized into a unified system. Unfortunately, these days there is great disagreement as to what that system really was.

As you look for a balanced treatment of these issues, you will probably be hard-pressed to find one. Doctrinal treatments of the gospel itself are polemic and one-sided by nature. Few will present a strong case for multiple views and fail to choose between the views. This is simply due to the nature of the issue: if we can't figure out what the gospel is, we don't know what it takes to be saved. Everyone wants to be saved, so everyone is forced to align himself with some position.

It is also true that in the minds of most theologians, incorrect views of the gospel are not harmless aberrations but dangerous errors that may land their adherents in hell. It is for this reason that the Roman Catholic Church anathematizes all who hold the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone -- they are wrong doctrinally, but they rightly understand the importance of the disagreement.

Thus, I would suggest that in your pursuit of the truth you look not so much for a balanced view as for a fair and persuasive treatment of the issues. Perhaps you will find such a treatment couched in harsh polemics, and perhaps not. I myself have attempted to tackle these issues in a friendly but decisive way in my series on Biblical Soteriology (in our Magazine Online section, under Theology). Still, harsh treatments may also follow a legitimate biblical model where the defense of the gospel is concerned (see Matt. 3:7-12; 23:13-35; John 8:42-47; Acts 8:18-23; Gal. 1:5-10; 2:11-21; 3:1ff.).

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.