Harmonizing Teachings of Jesus and Paul

Someone studying the Bible under a gas lamp, trying to harmonize Jesus' and Paul's teachingsassages

Harmonizing the Teachings of Jesus and Paul


To some people, the teachings of Jesus and those of the apostle Paul don’t always agree. Critics of the Bible and of the Christian faith like to point out what they claim are glaring differences between their teachings. Even solid believers are known to gravitate toward the teachings of either Jesus or Paul. But are Jesus and Paul really at odds? Is there a conflict between the two? In this article I affirm that there is no conflict and lay out some principles for harmonizing the two.

Some people see no problem between Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings. If this fits you, then maybe you can pass this article over. But many have this idea in the back of their mind that there is a conflict, and there are reasons for this.


Leaning toward Jesus or Paul

Evangelical Christians have a strong leaning toward the teachings of the apostle Paul and the gospel of John. Many evangelicals can’t reconcile Jesus and Paul, so they gravitate to the gospel they know best—John. Roman Catholics tend to lean toward the teachings of Jesus, especially those in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the synoptic gospels). But focusing on Paul’s teachings only without harmonizing them with those of Jesus leads to a weak theology and even error. And focusing on the synoptic gospels alone likewise leads to a poor understanding of the Bible.

Even some well-known theologians assert that there are major differences between the theologies of Jesus and Paul. A few popular beliefs even reject Paul completely. But is there really a divide as these people claim?

These “differences” are greatly exaggerated. We need to remember that Paul knew Jesus’ teachings quite well. In fact, Doctor Luke was Paul’s close associate, and Paul was involved in the writing of Luke’s gospel. Luke records most of Jesus’ parables, so it’s inconceivable that Paul didn’t have a good understanding of Jesus’ parables and allegories or of his teachings as a whole. And more importantly, Jesus Christ was the center of Paul’s gospel (1 Corinthians 2:2). So, it’s also inconceivable that Paul would contradict Jesus’ teachings in his own teaching.


Resolving apparent disagreements

There are many areas in which there are no obvious conflicts between Jesus and Paul. For example, both Jesus and Paul used the metaphor of fruit to describe the results of our faith (see John 15:8 and Philippians 1:9-11). But there are issues that Jesus and Paul do seem to have different views on. To resolve these apparent conflicts, theologians have developed theological systems that attempt to explain the differences, some of which are quite elaborate and complex.


Categorizing and labeling

We sometimes resort to categorizing and labeling to explain the differences. It’s easy to think that if two passages look different, then they are different, so they just describe two distinct topics or concepts. We then just put them into separate categories and give them different labels. Along these lines, some Bible teachers also assume that if the Greek words used by two teachers are different, then they must be addressing different topics.


Old and New covenants

Labeling has led to the abuse of the biblical concepts of the “Old Covenant” and the “New Covenant.”  Some Bible teachers label much of Jesus’ teaching as “Old Covenant” (since they occurred before his death on the cross), and Paul’s teaching as “New Covenant.” This way they can deemphasize the difficult teachings of Jesus and say that they don’t apply to Christians, who live under the New Covenant. While there are valid and important differences between the Old and New covenants in the Bible, this is never to be used as a catch-all explanation for Jesus’ difficult passages. And it should never be used to drive a wedge between Jesus and Paul.


Dispensational theology

Other theologians have attempted to explain Jesus’ and Paul’s differences by dispensational theology, that God had distinct ways of dealing with people before and after Christ’s death and resurrection. They argue that Jesus’ message of the “gospel of the kingdom” was intended mainly for the Jews and distinctly different from Paul’s gospel based on grace and faith which was intended only for the Christian church.



Instead of categorizing and labeling, we first need to make the effort to harmonize. Harmonizing is a more arduous process—looking more closely at Scripture to bring two seemingly conflicting passages together. To succeed, we need to let Scripture lead us, and not our theology. After a closer look, we see that some apparent conflicts are not conflicts at all.

To harmonize two passages, we first look at their context. What topic is being addressed? It’s possible that two passages do in fact address different topics or concepts, in which case harmonizing isn’t necessary. But in many cases, Jesus and Paul use different terms and metaphors to describe the same concept. Second, we study the terms and words that are used in that context. Do they convey similar or different ideas? Finally, we look at the historical setting. Was there a historical event or a time element that affected the terms or the teaching as a whole?

Let’s apply these principles to five topics in which Jesus and Paul are commonly seen to disagree.


1)  Jesus and Paul regarding salvation

One of the most common errors is the belief that Jesus and Paul taught different means of salvation. This belief comes from the fact that Paul speaks almost totally in terms of faith. In great detail he describes justification—acquittal of guilt before God—by grace through faith. But Jesus doesn’t mention the word grace and speaks mostly of loving God and spends much time addressing the conditions for discipleship. In some people’s minds these imply human effort which fall under the “Old Covenant” category.


Jesus’ appeal to faith

Jesus doesn’t use the word faith very much in regard to forgiveness and salvation. But in all his examples, allegories, and parables about salvation, faith is implied or assumed. A good example is his teaching on how you must become like a child to enter God’s kingdom (Matthew 18:3). A child has trust in their parents, which is the same as faith. In many cases Jesus describes the people of God and what they are like (as in the Beatitudes), but not the actual process of becoming God’s child. But God’s people have a love relationship with God, which like the child’s trust, is based on faith in God’s goodness, not their own. And God’s goodness is closely tied to his grace.

In the following passages, Jesus directly links salvation with repentance and faith:

  • When the paralytic was let down through the roof to be healed:  “When Jesus saw their faith, he said, ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven.’” (Luke 5:20)
  • In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the one who in faith asked for mercy went away justified. (Luke 18:9-14)
  • To the sinful woman who anointed his feet with perfume he declared: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”  (Luke 7:50)
  • In his parable of the seeds and soils, the devil stole the seed that fell on the path, meaning those that didn’t believe the gospel and as a result were not saved (Luke 8:12).

In all the gospel stories and teachings, the assumption was that people were to have faith in him—Jesus the Messiah. The Old Covenant is never referenced. Faith is never described as an effort or “work” that satisfies some requirement, but a trust in Christ. And those who responded to his call to follow him also trusted and believed in him.

Paul’s appeal to faith

And this of course agrees fully with Paul’s teaching of salvation by grace through faith. This is not an issue of Old and New covenants, because God saved people by grace through faith both before and after the coming of Christ. The sacrificial death of Christ covered the sins of both those who were looking forward in faith to Christ’s coming, and us who are looking back on it in faith.

The disciple [of Jesus] who followed in the fellowship of the cross received exactly the same gift as the believer who was baptized after he heard the teaching of St. Paul. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship)

So, Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings on salvation don’t conflict. Paul describes the process and dynamic of coming to faith in Christ, while Jesus focuses on a love relationship with God which is based on faith in him.

Another source of confusion is when Jesus addresses his disciples and lays out the conditions for following him in service. Many people incorrectly assume that in these passages Jesus is laying out conditions for salvation, while in fact he’s speaking about discipleship. The fact that these conditions were difficult for many didn’t exclude them from being forgiven and justified before God through repentance and faith.


2) Final judgment

Another example of categorizing would be how some teachers approach the topic of the final judgment.  Jesus’ teachings of the final judgment have a different emphasis than Paul’s, and Jesus used a lot of fire metaphors in these teachings while Paul did not. Some then reason the two must be describing entirely separate judgment events, and that there is one judgment for believers and another separate judgment for unbelievers.

But in his parables and teachings, Jesus doesn’t talk about two judgments, but only one. Jesus’ parable of the “sheep and the goats” (Matthew 25:31-46) clearly describes an event wherein God judges both believers and unbelievers. If there was one judgment for unbelievers and another for believers, Jesus would’ve said so clearly.

Paul describes the “judgment seat of Christ” in 2 Corinthians:

“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” (2 Corinthians 5:10)

Many believe this judgment is only for believers when Christ will reward each for their service to him, as it fits into a premillennial theology. But the phrase, “we must all appear” strongly suggests that it speaks of all people and not just believers, in agreement with Jesus’ sheep and goats parable. So, they are likely referring to the same event. And regardless of one’s theological position on this, Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings clearly don’t conflict.


3) Jesus and Paul on the kingdom of God

Jesus talked a lot about the kingdom of God. Some commentators claim Paul’s view of the kingdom of God was much different than that of Jesus. But this is because Paul’s focus was different, not because he had another definition or view of God’s kingdom.

In his parables, Jesus addresses the kingdom from both personal and historical perspectives: how it begins, its effects, how it spreads, and how it’s completed. Jesus’ descriptions are naturally very broad and sweeping, going from its inception to its culmination in human history. In the Sermon on the Mount he describes the kingdom in more personal terms.

But Jesus made a few important statements that clearly link the kingdom of God to personal salvation:

I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. (John 3:3)

Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3)

In other words, just to enter the kingdom at all one must have a saving relationship with God through faith in him. Jesus’ subsequent conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 confirmed this. To Jesus, the citizens of God’s kingdom are those who have accepted God’s rule in their lives.

Paul’s focus

Paul tended to have a more personal focus on the kingdom: how to enter it (coming to faith in Christ), how it affects our personal lives, and the church’s role in advancing it. In Paul’s teaching, the kingdom of God consists of his eternal plan being carried out through believers in Christ. These believers live out their faith individually and collectively as the church. Paul frequently exhorts individuals in the church setting and gets into specifics of living “up to our calling.” He also explained the roles the Jew and the Gentile have in the kingdom.

Paul taught that the manifestation of God’s kingdom is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17) and spiritual power (1 Corinthians 4:20). He firmly states that the wicked or unrepentant will not enter the kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Galatians 5:21, Ephesians 5:5). Advancing the kingdom consists of spreading of the gospel and forming churches throughout the world (Acts 19:8, Colossians 4:11). On occasion Paul elaborated on the fulfillment of God’s kingdom at the end of time (see 1 Corinthians 15).

None of these teachings collide with those of Jesus. They just address the topic from a different angle. Jesus was describing both historical and personal views of God’s kingdom, while Paul’s view was focused on its operation in the church age. We would assume this, since he was an apostle to the gentile churches.


4) The Church

Many people falsely assume that because Jesus’ teaching came before his death and resurrection, it was all based on the “Old Covenant,” so he didn’t teach about the church. It is true that the Christian church as a distinct body came into existence after Christ’s resurrection. And it’s true that the term church (Greek ekklesia) was introduced much later.

Jesus’ preparation for the Church

But Jesus anticipated and planned for the formation of the Christian Church:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.  (Matthew 16:18)

In his prayer for his disciples, he prayed:

 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. (John 17:20-23)

The vine and the branches

And Jesus’ allegory of the vine and the branches alludes to a body of faithful believers:

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.  (John 15:5-6)

This allegory clearly teaches that faith in Christ is necessary to be a member of God’s household and that God’s judgment will be on those who refuse. Although Jesus here addressed his disciples in all these teachings, the concept of a household of faith is evident. These roughly parallel Paul’s teaching regarding the Church.


Paul’s teaching on the body of Christ

Paul used a different metaphor to describe a very similar idea, but specific to the Church.

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.  (1 Corinthians 12:27)

Paul’s teachings on the Church completely conform to Jesus’ allegories. Jesus’ vine allegory speaks of a broader context than the Christian Church in that it includes the whole household of God: both Old Testament and New Testament believers, both Jews and Gentiles. Paul’s body metaphor focused on God’s work in building the Church, but perfectly described the unity of the believers that Jesus prayed for in John 17. Paul ‘s allegory expands on Jesus’ teaching by pointing out the various spiritual gifts given by God. Again, Jesus’ teaching was much broader in scope, but did not conflict with that of Paul.


5) The Mosaic Law

One common complaint about the Bible concerns the Law of Moses. Jesus stated in Matthew 5:17-19 that nothing in the law will be abolished (since it is God’s eternal standard of righteousness). But Paul wrote that Christ abolished “in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations” (Ephesians 2:15). Paul makes other similar statements about the law which, taken out of context, might lead one to believe that Paul taught the Mosaic Law had no use or purpose after Christ’s death.

How do we reconcile these teachings? First, by realizing that these statements of Paul about the law are only in the context of being forgiven and accepted by God, and eternal salvation. And second, by realizing what the law can and cannot do. Paul taught that:

  • The commandments of the law can condemn us but cannot justify us before God (Galatians 2:16).
  • The law can’t provide forgiveness or eternal life (Galatians 3:21).
  • The law can’t make us righteous before God (Galatians 2:21).

But the believer in Christ has been acquitted of guilt, justified, and forgiven through his sacrificial death. When Paul said Christ abolished the law, he was saying that the law can no longer condemn the believer in Christ. He wasn’t saying that the law no longer has any purpose at all. It is still good and righteous, and its original purposes are still valid:

So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.  (Romans 7:12)

We know that the law is good if one uses it properly.  (1 Timothy 1:8)

In all Paul’s teachings he affirms that God’s Law is still his eternal standard of righteousness. And in 1 Timothy 1:8-10 he teaches that the unrighteous and the wicked will be judged by it. This is in full agreement with Jesus’ teachings. A more thorough discussion of this is found in my article Do Christians need to keep the Mosaic Law?




To help explain apparent conflicts between Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings:

  • Jesus and Paul sometimes use different terms to explain the same thing.
  • They sometimes use different metaphors to teach similar concepts or events.
  • In their teaching they may emphasize different aspects of the same topic.
  • Jesus frequently addresses a topic very broadly. But Paul addresses it with a narrower focus, usually applying it to the Church.
  • Jesus doesn’t address some topics that Paul does because the Christian Church hadn’t been born yet. But Paul addresses church issues in detail, because he was an apostle to the Gentiles.

There are many more examples of apparent conflicts between Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings that can easily be resolved. As you encounter them, I hope that you as a Bible student will take the time to study them diligently, using good Bible interpretation principles. My book, Understanding and Applying the Bible, a Non-scholar’s Guide explores the most important principles and tools for interpreting the Bible.

I hope you will devote yourself to further study of the Scriptures. If you do, your fuller understanding will lead you into a deeper love for God.






Christ in Scripture is listed on Feedspot Top 200 Christian Blogs.

1 thought on “Harmonizing Teachings of Jesus and Paul”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Guidelines for Posting Comments

  • Comments on the website should be relevant to the content of the article.
  • Your comment will not appear automatically as it needs approval.
  • Christinscripture.com has the right to edit comments or not publish comments that are inappropriate or not relevant to the article.
  • Posting on Christinscripture.com will not put you on a mailing list. 
Personal Email for Scott ➤

Scroll to Top