This is a really important question to consider. This issue of Jesus’ and Paul’s teaching being different is often raised by Muslims, who reject Paul’s teaching especially when he talks about Jesus as the eternal Son of God (see e.g. Philippians 2:6-11; Colossians 1:15-20). So does the Bible contain two different accounts of salvation, Jesus’ and Paul’s?
Let me be clear right at the start, the answer is a strong NO! Let’s have a look why.
- The gospel accounts identify Jesus as the Son of God (see for example, Matthew 3:17; 4:3, 6; 14:33; 26:63; Mark 1:1, 11; 15:39; Luke 1:35; 3:22; John 1:34, 49; 19:7; 20:23). Well Paul preaches exactly the same message: “at once [Paul] began to preach in their synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20).
- Before Jesus started His ministry, John the Baptist arrived preaching “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2). This is the same as Jesus’ message: “the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15; see also Matthew 4:17; Acts 1:3). Again, Paul preached this same message: “he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 28:31; 23).
- Both Mark and Luke tell us more about this repentance that John preached. It is a “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; cf. Matthew 3:6). Indeed, in each of these chapters in the gospel accounts, the idea is that the King is coming (that’s what the quote from Isaiah 40 means), and therefore you need to get ready for this king – you need to repent from your sins. Well, this is Paul’s message too: “… they tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the true and living God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9).
- We’ve seen that the message both Jesus and Paul preached has to do with sin (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; Matthew 3:6). So what did Jesus and Paul teach about sin? Jesus taught that sin is something that enslaves us (John 8:34), and that it’s something that causes death (John 8:21). Paul taught similarly; in Ephesians 2:1-3 Paul says that of the Ephesians that “they were dead in their transgressions and sins,” and he says of the Roman Christians that “you used to be slaves to sin…” (Romans 6:17).
- So how can sin be dealt with? On the last night before Jesus was betrayed, He ate the Passover meal with His disciples. During the meal Jesus passed the wine to them and said: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20). So, Jesus’ understanding is that His own blood (what the wine represents, cf. “this is my blood”) brings about forgiveness of sin. Where was Jesus’ blood shed? As He hung upon the cross. This agrees with Paul’s teaching too: in 1 Corinthians 11:25, he quotes Jesus’ words from Matthew 26:28; and in Romans 4:25, he says this: “[Jesus] was delivered over to death for our sins…”
So we’ve seen that both Jesus and Paul preach the same message about (1) the kingdom of God; (2) the same person: the Son of God; (3) the necessity of repentance; (4) the reality of sin; and (5) how Jesus’ death brings forgiveness of sins.
Paul delivered the gospel
It is worth mentioning that Paul gives a summary of the gospel he preaches in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.”
There are two things that are particularly noteworthy. First, Paul says he “delivered” to the Corinthians what he had received. This is a technical term the rabbis used, meaning that what they had received they faithfully passed on to others (it is a term that was also used in reference to passwords – the importance of passing them on faithfully is obvious). So, Paul is saying that what he had received, he faithfully passed on – in other words, what he preaches isn’t his own message, it’s what he had received from others. Second, this message that Paul preached, is in agreement with Jesus. Several times in the gospel accounts Jesus says:
“He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31; Matt 16:21; Luke 9:22)
So both Jesus and Paul say that Jesus would die and be raised three days later. The saying of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 additionally explains why Jesus would die (for the forgiveness of sins), but as we’ve already seen Jesus gives the same reason at the Last Supper (see e.g. Matthew 26:28).
Lastly, it’s worth considering why the gospels and Paul’s letters seem different (not in the sense of teaching different, contradictory things though). They’re different simply because they’re doing different things. The gospels are showing us Jesus, who He was, what He did and achieved, whereas Paul wrote after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Paul’s writings often address specific situations which a church was facing (e.g. 1 Corinthians, Galatians), and so applies the gospel into that specific situation. This doesn’t mean that he’s teaching different things to Jesus, rather he’s applying the same things Jesus taught, the same Gospel, into specific situations that Jesus didn’t need to address (since the church hadn’t yet been established).
So be assured, the teaching of Jesus in the gospels, and the teaching of Paul in his letters are in complete agreement, which gives us greater certainty and confidence about the way of salvation.