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What is Paul’s Vision for the Christian Life? Dr. Jarvis Williams

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Guest: Dr. Jarvis Williams | Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Williams about Paul’s vision for the Christian life. Topics of conversation include:

  • Paul’s view of the law
  • How the New Perspective on Paul differs from a traditional understanding of justification
  • The vertical, horizontal, and cosmic aspects of salvation
  • What it means to live by the Spirit
  • Understanding Romans 7.

Dr. Jarvis Williams holds a PhD from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he has taught since 2013. He is the author of several books, including Christ Redeemed ‘Us’ From the Curse of the Law: A Jewish Martyrological Reading of Galatians 3:13 (T & T Clark, 2021), Galatians, in the New Covenant Commentary Series (Cascade Books, 2020), Christ Died for Our Sins: Representation and Substitution in Romans and Their Jewish Martyrological Background (Pickwick Publications, 2015), Redemptive Kingdom Diversity: A Biblical Theology of the People of God (Baker Academic, 2021), and The Spirit, Ethics, and Eternal Life: Paul’s Vision for the Christian Life in Galatians (IVP Academic, 2023).

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Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:15):

The story of Paul’s conversion is one of the best stories in Scripture. Paul grew up as a Jew and rose up through the ranks. And in Philippians three, he actually bragged about this upbringing. He said, “If anyone thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Paul believed he was doing service for God by killing blasphemous Christians. That is, until Acts nine. We read that Paul was breathing threats and murder against the church, and he was on his way to kill Christians when he met the risen Lord Jesus Christ. There, on the road to Damascus, a blinding light encircled him, and he saw the Lord. And his life was never the same.

Brian Arnold (01:03):

He was now part of the Christian faith that he once sought to destroy. And then Paul got busy making much of Jesus, preaching all around the Mediterranean and planting churches. Much of the New Testament is composed of his letters that he sent to pastors and churches in his absence. His heartbeat for salvation and the Christian life saturated his writings. If we want to know what it is to live as a Christian, we must understand Paul and his letters. And to discuss Paul’s vision of the Christian life, we have with us today, Dr. Jarvis Williams. Dr. Williams has taught at Southern Seminary since 2013, and he’s published numerous books, including Christ Redeemed ‘Us’ from the Curse of the Law: A Jewish Martyrological reading of Galatians 3:13. He’s written commentaries on Galatians and Romans. He wrote a book called Redemptive Kingdom Diversity: A Biblical Theology of the People of God. And for the topic of our conversation today, he wrote The Spirit, Ethics, and Eternal Life: Paul’s Vision for the Christian Life in Galatians. Dr. Williams, welcome to the podcast.

Jarvis Williams (02:01):

Thank you for having me, Dr. Arnold.

Brian Arnold (02:03):

So I always ask our guests one big question, and today the question is—what is Paul’s vision of the Christian life? And I think a lot of Christians kind of focus on the front side of salvation, without thinking much about our forward progress in the Christian life. And I wanted to talk today kind of about the holistic approach, everything from salvation through glorification, kind of what Paul lays out in Romans 8:29 through 30—what we call the golden chain of salvation. And that’s a lot to tackle. But maybe with your expertise on Romans and Galatians in particular, you could help lay out that vision of Paul—all the way from what does it mean to be saved, to how do we live out that Christian life?

Jarvis Williams (02:39):

Hmm. Yeah. As you know, I just published a book on The Spirit, Ethics, and Eternal Life in Galatians with the subtitle, Paul’s Vision for the Christian Life. And if we’re thinking about Galatians as a primary text to answer that question, I think Paul thinks of the Christian life in a threefold way. I think we can basically summarize it—that God saved…God has worked in Jesus Christ, through his cross and his resurrection, to make us right with himself by faith. So justification by faith is an example of that. He’s also worked horizontally through Christ. To make us right with one another. And part of that horizontal redemption that we have in Christ is the transformational power of the Spirit. So that in Christ Jesus, by the power of the Spirit, I can walk in the Spirit and by no means fulfill the lusts of the flesh. And live, of course, rightly related to God by faith in Christ, but also live rightly related to my fellow man and my fellow Christian brother or sister in Christ, in the context of the church, and in the context of society.

Jarvis Williams (03:38):

And then also there’s a cosmic piece to this Christian life, that is that God in Christ has acted in order to renew and restore the entire creation. So right now, by faith in Jesus, we have tasted that not yet aspect of this cosmic redemption yet to come. But the already aspect of the cosmic redemption has been realized by the endowing presence and power of the Spirit. So when we think about the Christian life, it is not only about how my sins can be forgiven—although it certainly is about that—but it’s also about how, holistically, I can live a life pleasing to God in this current age as we anticipate the age to come and the kingdom of God.

Brian Arnold (04:16):

So if we can’t kind of unwind even some of those pieces, one of the key themes in Pauline theology seems to be his view of the law. So he’s coming up out of Judaism, and it seems like he’s wrestling through—what use is the law for Christians? How do we think through that? And then what does justification mean in light of his view of the law? Maybe we can start there.

Jarvis Williams (04:40):

Yeah. I mean, if you look at the argument in Galatians, I mean, he’s making a pretty precise argument trying to compel these Galatians not to turn away from his gospel and to embrace works of law. So it seems to me, in my view at least, the opponents in Galatia are likely Jewish people who profess to be believers, but I don’t think Paul thinks they are believers. And they’ve entered into these Galatian churches, and they’re preaching this other gospel which is focused on Torah works. I think some of the things they’re emphasizing are likely circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, and food laws. But Paul makes the point that the Galatians must keep the entire law perfectly—toward the end of chapter five—if, in fact, they’re trusting in the law. But, of course, he makes the argument in chapter two, verse 16 that the law is not the badge or the mark of the people of God. And the law is not the means by which sinners become right with God. But you’re justified—2:16—by faith in Christ.

Jarvis Williams (05:34):

He says that three times—”justified by faith in Christ, apart from the works of the law.” So in Galatians Paul doesn’t speak very positively about the law, except for when he talks about the law serving as a temporary guardian until Christ would come, so that we will be justified by faith in Christ. But in Galatians he’s particularly emphasizing that the Galatians have everything they need to live a life pleasing to God, because they have believed his gospel. And his gospel also includes the transformational power of the Spirit, because Jesus—he died on the cross, he resurrected from the dead. And because of his cross and resurrection, yes, we have our sins forgiven. Yes, we’re justified by faith in Christ. But Galatians, chapter three, verse 13 and verse 14 tell us that we also receive the Spirit, which is the blessing of Abraham. So the Galatians don’t need the law of Moses to live a life pleasing to God, because they have the transformational power of the Spirit.

Jarvis Williams (06:30):

But if you look elsewhere in Paul’s writing, such as in the pastoral epistles, Paul makes the point that the law is good if you use it lawfully. But the law is not a mark of the people of God. And it’s not the the means by which the people of God live a life pleasing to God. But rather, the gospel, and the Spirit, and faith are those things that mark us off as God’s people. And the Spirit empowers us and indwells us, so that we can live a life pleasing to God. Because of what Christ has done for us in his cross, and in his resurrection. And our union with him by faith.

Brian Arnold (07:00):

Man, what a articulate, concise description of a Pauline view of salvation. That is a tour de force. And thinking through…I love those levels of kind of the vertical, the horizontal, the cosmic relationships. Now Galatians has been a battleground epistle in terms of this view of Pauline soteriology. I’m thinking particularly something like the New Perspective on Paul, and I don’t want to take us too far outfield here. But how does that relate, especially when you’re thinking of the horizontal relationship? Because it does seem like one of the things the New Perspective camp has really tried to emphasize is some of those horizontal relationship aspects of our justification by faith. So how do we think through those pieces? And, you know, I know some of our listeners that’s probably brand new, thinking—but what is the New Perspective on Paul? So I’m going to ask you to do the impossible. If you could just <laugh> define that pretty quickly, and then explain how that goes through those three issues you mentioned on justification.

Jarvis Williams (07:54):

As you know, I mean, the New Perspective is not monolithic. It’s very complex. And I think one thing that the New Perspective is saying is that the traditional way of understanding justification, as articulated by Luther, for example, they challenge that way of understanding it. So just to clarify my view, and then to set it in conversation with a New Perspective understanding of justification. So I think justification is a forensic declaration, a forensic verdict, that God announces on our behalf, because of Jesus’ penal, substitutionary atonement for our sins, and his resurrection from the dead. So in Christ Jesus, I have Christ’s righteousness, his perfect righteousness, imputed to my account, transferred to my account by faith. And that righteousness becomes mine. But it’s not something that is inherent within me. It is a status of righteousness. It’s not transformative righteousness. It’s a forensic declaration, whereby God counts me as righteous in Christ, so that there’s no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Jarvis Williams (08:57):

So that’s a vertical declaration that God gives me, based on what Christ has done for me. But when Paul talks about salvation, although justification is a piece of his salvation, justification is not the only aspect of Paul’s salvation. So when I talk about salvation in Paul being vertical, horizontal, and cosmic, I don’t mean justification is vertical, horizontal, and cosmic. I mean salvation is. So when I say salvation, I mean simply—God’s saving action in Christ. And so I think of that in a threefold way, that is, vertical—justification by faith, horizontal—God reconciles us with one another and he gives us the Spirit, and then cosmic, God is also delivering the universe from its enslavement to sin. But justification in Paul is only forensic. It is not transformative. Whereas, the indwelling power of the Spirit is, in fact, transforming. So I think what I’m saying would differ with certain readings in the New Perspective, as it relates specifically to justification.

Jarvis Williams (09:54):

So that I see justification as a soteriological category that talks about imputation, and is connected to my union with Christ by faith, and is connected to penal substitution, and these sorts of theological categories. Whereas, certain advocates within the New Perspective will see the idea of justification being, yes, forensic, but they would see it more as this idea of God fulfilling his faithfulness to the covenant, always doing what he has always promised to do, which is to fulfill his promises to Abraham, in Abraham, through Abraham, and for the world. And they don’t emphasize, as I like to say, the entry language aspect of justification, namely that it’s a soteriological category. But although some would not like this sort of distinction, I think some New Perspective people would identify justification as an ecclesiological category, whereby God is simply saying—who are the people of God.

Jarvis Williams (10:45):

So one quick text to try to bring this…to try to land this very complex plane. So in Galatians chapter two, verses 11-14, there’s a Jew/Gentile issue happening there. And Peter’s in Antioch, and he’s having table fellowship with the Gentiles. But when some from James shows up, Peter pulls back. And Paul says, “Peter, look,” basically, “What are you doing? You’re not walking in a straightforward manner in the truth of the gospel.” And he emphasizes to Peter that—Peter, there’s no distinction between Jew or Gentile in Christ. Yes, there are Jews, and yes, there are Gentiles in Christ. But Jews and Gentiles, Peter, are in fact justified the same way. So when you get justification mentioned in Galatians for the first time, it’s in 2:16—in the context of this table fellowship issue. In my view, when Paul says, “we’re justified by faith in Christ” in 2:16, he’s giving Peter the theological reason why his behavior toward Gentiles is wrong—namely, because Jews and Gentiles, justified by faith in Christ, have Christ’s righteousness counted to our account by faith, have Christ’s righteousness imputed to our account by faith.

Jarvis Williams (11:44):

Whereas a New Perspective reading would say that the idea in 2:16 has nothing to do with the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. They would say it has nothing to do with a status of righteousness reckoned to our account on the basis of faith. But it rather is a declaration about who can have table fellowship together. Whereas I’m saying it’s a declaration, or an announcement, that God has made us not guilty. There’s no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus because of this redemptive work of God in Christ, by means of his wrath-bearing death and his victorious resurrection from the dead. I know that answer was way too long, but hopefully it is, at very least, clear for your listeners.

Brian Arnold (12:22):

Perfect. Oh, I love it. And Luther would be so proud of his disciple right now. <laugh> I mean this is the gospel that lights Europe on fire in the Reformation, and that transforms lives today. I thought you laid that out so beautifully. And to recognize this is the vertical aspect of it. And now, if we can shift even to that secondary—I don’t know if I want to call it secondary, right, salvation bound up in all these pieces—but justification by faith, handling the vertical relationship with God. But then there’s the life by the Spirit that you mentioned. And one of the things I love about the book of Galatians is Galatians five, thinking about this new life that we have, with this union in Christ now lived out through the Holy Spirit who’s indwelt inside of us. What does that mean for Paul? That we now live by the Spirit and walk by the Spirit?

Jarvis Williams (13:10):

Yeah. Scholars have pointed out in more recent scholarship that Galatians 5:13—6:10 is an integral part of his argument. It seems to me, when you get to chapter 3:2, from 3:2 to 6:10, that’s the central section of the letter. And Paul begins 3:2 with this question—”I only want to ask one thing of you: how did you receive the Spirit?” And he repeats that question on numerous occasions. It seems to me that one of the concerns Paul has is that these Galatians do not have the Spirit, because some of them are contemplating to turn from his gospel. And one point he wants to emphasize, I think, when you get to the central section of the letter, is that if they walk away from his gospel and embrace the law of Moses, they are proving that they have never been justified by faith in Christ. Because those were justified by faith in Christ—they don’t seek justification by means of Torah.

Jarvis Williams (13:59):

And furthermore, if they walk away from his gospel, they’re also proving that they have never received the transformational power of the Spirit, because justified people walk in the Spirit. If you’re pursuing justification by means of Torah, as opposed to by means of Christ, you do not have the Spirit. So when you get to Galatians chapter five, verse 16, he tells them that they have everything they need in Christ to live a life pleasing to God. Not a perfect life pleasing to God, but a faithful life pleasing to God. And so he says in 5:16 that if you walk in the Spirit, you will by no means gratify the lusts of the flesh. I think for Paul, he very well understands that believers have genuine battles with sin. We have battles with the flesh.

Jarvis Williams (14:43):

We struggle with different types of things in our Christian experience. But what he’s emphasizing in Galatians is that because of God’s saving action in Christ, because God offered Jesus Christ to die for our sins and God raised him from the dead, and he’s given us the Spirit who indwells our hearts, and he cries out, “Abba, Father”—every single believer has the supernatural moral capacity enabled by the Spirit to live a victorious Christian life in their battle against sin. Now again, that doesn’t mean there are no struggles. It doesn’t mean that we do that perfectly. But it does mean we can live a consistent pattern of gospel faithfulness, because the Spirit has enabled us, and freed our will to be compelled to obey God as we are enabled by the Spirit. So, for example, we can then have—because the Spirit produces in us—we can have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, compassion, and self-control; against such things there is no law.

Jarvis Williams (15:45):

We no longer have to be slaves to idolatry, or sorcery, or enmities, or strife, or jealousy, or outbursts of anger, or selfish ambitions, or factions, or divisions, or envies, or drunkennesses, or things like these. We can instead live a life pleasing to God, because God saved us for this purpose. Just to bring Ephesians in for a moment, Paul says this in Ephesians 2:1-10—we were dead in trespasses and sins, but then God made us alive together with Christ. And in 2:10 he talks about God…part of that salvation is that God is enabling us to live in accordance with the good works for which he has prepared for us. So one thing I think Paul wants us to learn from Galatians is that believers do not have to live a defeatist Christian life where we are subject to sin’s power, because we are liberated from sin’s power, Galatians 1:4. We’re redeemed from the curse of law, Galatians 3:13, and we have the transformational power of the Spirit.

Brian Arnold (16:42):

Wow. Absolutely. I mean, I love that. I mean—you’re preaching, I’m turning the pages. Man, that is powerful, to think through how the Spirit…I love what you said—we don’t have to live the defeatist life. As you were saying that, it just triggered in my mind how many Christians live like they’re living the defeatist Christian life. The “woe is me” and trapped in patterns of sin and unable to progress. And so inward focused, navel-gazing that they’re not progressing in godliness. And I think part of that shift too, if I can bring this in and get your thoughts on it, is we live in a time that is so fearful of legalism, that people don’t want to walk in holiness. Or there’s not…if they’re encouraged to walk in holiness, they’re being labeled as legalists. Do you see that as a challenge? And I just want to say to those people—no, walk by the Spirit! I mean, there is a law of Christ. There is a Christian ethic, and Paul wants us to live in light of that, as you said, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Jarvis Williams (17:45):

That’s a very good word. I do think for those of us who are reformed—I’m thoroughly reformed in my understanding of salvation—I think we get a little anxious when we talk about obedience at times. And I don’t quite understand why that is, because Luther cared about obedience. Calvin cared about obedience. And I don’t know if it is because of cultural context that we’re living in, or what. But God’s saving action in Christ redeems us holistically, so that he has liberated us from the power of sin and death. And an aspect of that liberation is that yes, we get future resurrection bodies when Jesus returns at the end of the age, but also another, the already aspect of that, is that we have the Spirit of God living in our hearts, and we have eternal life right now.

Jarvis Williams (18:33):

And that life is manifested by means of a pursuit of living in step with the Spirit. So for Paul, the concept of Christian ethics, or pursuing an ethical life, or living in accordance with the standard of morality that the Spirit outlines for us—that’s not legalism. That’s just good old-fashioned Christian obedience, for which Jesus also redeemed us to live. But I do think you’re right. I do think there are people who, for whatever reason, get anxious when you talk about obedience. And I think some of that might be because of maybe the cultural moment we’re in, or also because of maybe a weak conscience, and they’re aware of the reality of their own sin. But what I want to say is that if your conscience is weak, all the more reason to embrace what God has done for you in Christ, which is a liberation of your will by the power of the Spirit, so that you can live a life pleasing to him that Jesus has purchased for you by his death and resurrection. So it’s not…so I would exhort Christians to consider—it’s not up to us to live the ethical life. It’s God in us, right? “The life I now live,” Paul says, “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” And I think more and more Christians need to tap into that reality. And I include myself in this as well, because I think, by default, I struggle with a legalistic mindset.

Brian Arnold (19:54):

Well, yeah. Guilty as well. And that’s actually the text, you just quoted Second Corinthians five, and that’s the text I preached for Easter this past week. And then combined it even here to Galatians 5:24—that belonging to Christ means we’re crucifying the flesh with its passions and its desires. How do we do that? The Spirit indwelling inside of us. How do we have the Spirit indwelling inside of us? We’ve come by repentance and faith to justification that God gives to make us right with Him. As you mentioned, all of his obedience transferred to our account. Not that we are the ones who have that righteousness, but it’s been counted, it’s been reckoned, considered ours. This is just the good old gospel, once for all delivered to the saints. So another…I’m going to put you on the spot one more time for a quick answer.

Brian Arnold (20:37):

Time is kind of winding down. Romans seven, I’ve seen a lot of times paired with Galatians five, in terms of the life of the believer. Where Paul says, “Why I do the things I don’t want to do?” And that’s been a topic of contention for New Testament scholars. How do you see Romans seven playing in? Because I do see Christians quickly go to that text, of saying—well, I would love to be walking in the Spirit, but here I am, constantly doing things I don’t want to do. How do you understand Romans chapter seven?

Jarvis Williams (21:04):

Yeah, that’s a very good question. So I take Romans seven to be part of a section that starts back in Romans 5:12. I do take 5-8 as one section as a whole, but I think 5:12 up to seven hanging together as well, in terms of the argument. So Adam…in chapter five, Paul tells us that in Adam, because of Adam’s transgression, we all sin, and we all are conceived in sin. And we also participate in sin, because we are conceived in sin. But in Christ Jesus, Christ has reversed Adam’s curse for us. And so where Adam’s transgression was triumphing, Christ conquered and triumphs super abundantly over Adam’s transgression. And so then when you get to chapter six, Paul makes the point that we’re liberated and freed from the power of sin, and that we can live a life of righteousness pleasing to God.

Jarvis Williams (21:51):

Because sin no longer rules over us as an evil tyrant. And then when you get to chapter seven, I think Paul is making the point that the law does not lead to life, but Christ does. And so when Paul is using this language of, “what I do, I don’t want to do, what I don’t want to do, I do, but not me, but sin dwelling in me,” I think he’s talking about Paul and the Jew in Adam, apart from faith in Christ, and all people in Adam, apart from faith in Christ. That’s our predicament. That is, we are enslaved to the law, enslaved to the power of sin. The law doesn’t liberate us, the law doesn’t help us. But Christ Jesus—toward the end, he says in Roman 7—does. And of course, a challenge to my reading is that Paul uses the first person singular “I,” and he talks about…it sounds like he’s making an autobiographical statement.

Jarvis Williams (22:41):

But for me, I think a key piece to the argument that I’m trying to make is in Roman seven, Paul says that he isn’t—I’m paraphrasing him—but he basically says, I’m enslaved to the power of sin in Roman seven. But that’s the opposite point he makes in Roman six. He says—we’re not enslaved to the power of sin. So then I read Romans 5:12 up to seven, toward the end, together. And I think what Paul is saying in Romans seven is that Saul of Tarus, in Adam, and all Jews, in Adam, apart from faith in Christ—that we are all enslaved to sin’s power. But in Christ—Romans six—we’ve been liberated, and there’s no condemnation—8:1—for those who are in Christ Jesus. So practically this raises questions about—what about the Christian’s battle and struggle with sin?

Jarvis Williams (23:30):

Well, my point is that, yes, Christians battle and we struggle with sin. But that’s not the point, I don’t think, Paul is making in Romans seven. I think that could be a point that you find in Galatians five, where you have the flesh and Spirit that are waging war against each other, and they have nothing in common. And sometimes Christians, they are subdued by the attractiveness of the flesh—Galatians chapter five—and Paul’s calling us away from that, to live in step with the Spirit. Because that’s the realm into which we’ve been delivered, and we’ve been delivered from the realm of the flesh. Whereas in Romans chapter seven, he seems be making a point about the fact that in Christ Jesus, Jews and Gentiles have liberation from sin, and the law, and the power of sin, and how sin uses the law to condemn us. But he’s not talking, I don’t think, about the Christian’s battle with sin in Romans seven. That’s not my reading of the text. But I realize, you know, I could be wrong. And the evidence is evenly matched, quite frankly. It could go out either way. But at this point, that’s how I land in my interpretation.

Brian Arnold (24:29):

Yeah, it is. And I actually wrote a PhD paper on that for Tom Schreiner, and actually took the other position. But I think you are convincing me that your position is a better reading of that text, and that Galatians five still talks about that sin/flesh or the Spirit/flesh struggle. Well, unfortunately, we are out of time, but I do want to mention your book again, The Spirit, Ethics and Eternal Life: Paul’s Vision for the Christian Life in Galatians. Hopefully this conversation has given our listeners…whet their appetite for reading deeper into your book. And I’m just sorry that I finished my PhD in 2013, it’s when you came to teach at Southern. I wish I’d have had you as a professor during my MDiv days. I appreciate how you put together the gospel there so clearly for us and for those listening. And I appreciate you taking the time to be with us today.

Outro (25:17):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we’ve been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you’re called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can’t join us on campus, I’d like to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you’ve heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at

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