Does The Apostle Paul Contradict Himself When Describing Salvation?

I had to write a paper for my college New Testament class, which has been teaching me how Paul contradicts himself frequently, and how the Gospels contradict each other left and right. Here is the prompt for the paper, and what I wrote (My sources were the class textbook, “Introduction To The New Testament,” by the popular Atheist, Bart Ehrman, and of course, the Bible.) 

Summarize the forensic and participationist models of salvation in Paul and mount an argument that these two models are contradictory to one another in various ways.  Now discuss: do you (actually) think that is true or not?

In Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he appears to be describing the entirety of his theology. While laying out his “Gospel” to the Romans, he seemingly depicts two different and contradictory models of salvation; the Forensic–or what Bart Ehrman labels the “Judicial Model” (Ehrman 254)–and the “Participationist Model” (Ehrman 255). However, upon closer inspection, these two “models” are actually describing two different facets of a single holistic method to salvation, and they don’t contradict at all.
Just what are these two models? The Judicial model relates sin and salvation to a judicial system of government. God is the lawmaker who has made the laws for all people; however, everyone has broken these laws, and the penalty for breaking God’s laws is death (Rom 6:23). However, Jesus interceded for mankind with his death, took our punishment, and then rose from the dead for our justification (Rom 4:25). We have the option to either accept or reject God’s gift of life, and we accept by faith alone (Rom 3:28).
The “Participationist” model depicts sin as a “cosmic power, an evil force that compels people to live in alienation from God,” (Ehrman 256). The problem for mankind under this model is that we are enslaved to sin’s power, and are unable to break free from our bondage (Rom 6:17). Sin itself blocks humans from God’s kingdom (Ehrman 256). We cannot set ourselves free; however, we can participate with Christ in his victory over death through baptism (Rom 6:5-8; 8:17).

As Ehrman points out, these two models appear to contradict each other. In the Judicial, sin is a crime, whereas in the Participationist model, it is a force. Moreover, in the Judicial model salvation is by or through “faith alone.” By contrast, in the Participationist model it appears that the individual must also act and do some of the work (i.e. baptism). When one juxtaposes these elements of sin and salvation, there seems to be an obvious confliction. Indeed, Christianity has been divided over these two models for centuries, some emphasizing the Judicial, while others emphasize the Participationist (Protestants and Catholics are good general examples). How can sin be both something that enslaves us, and also something we do? How can salvation be faith alone, and yet we must be baptized? Clearly, these models appear to contradict one another.  
However, I believe to say that these two models conflict would be like if two people went for a swim in the ocean, and one described it as “salty” while the other described it as “wet.” We could conclude that these two inconsistent “models” or descriptions of the ocean contradict, or perhaps we can examine them more closely and see that both descriptions are valid, and are describing the same object.
I immediately begin to doubt that the models of salvation Paul describes in Romans contradict each other for the reason that Paul was educated and very intelligent. What is more, Romans is one consistent letter. If Paul lacked mental aptitude, then perhaps it would be more likely that he would contradict himself in the letter. If Paul’s models were given separately and in different letters at different times, then the probability of contradiction would be higher. Seeing as Paul was intelligent, and described both of these models in the same letter, it is unlikely that he would so blatantly contradict himself, which is why I believe we should give Paul the benefit of the doubt, as we would any academic scholar. In order to really see what Paul is saying in Romans, we have to take into consideration the whole context of the passages in Romans. Instead of treating Ehrman’s models as separate, they should be considered together, and when we do this, we actually find that there is no logical contradiction.
Ehrman claims that the chief way Christians participate in salvation is through baptism, which acts as a simulation of Christ’s death (Ehrman 257). This point is valid, however, like many practicing Christians, Ehrman mistakes baptism in Romans for something it is not. Ehrman believes Paul to be referring to a water baptism, when he is actually talking about the baptism Jesus gives, which is the Holy Spirit, a baptism void of human works. Paul describes this as being baptized “into Christ” (Rom 6:3-4).  Additionally, when one considers what Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians and Galatians it becomes clear that Paul and Ehrman have different views of baptism. Paul makes a point to distinguish baptism as something that is not itself part of “the Gospel.” Paul makes this distinction in 1 Corinthians 1:17, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel.” Paul clearly did not emphasize water baptism (1 Cor. 1:14-15). In Galatians, we also see Paul’s adamant rejection of the works of the law, insisting that circumcision does not save, and that it is faith alone. Paul would have seen baptism in the same light, which is why when we apply the Holy Spirit baptism distinction to what Paul says in the Participationist model, it correlates perfectly with what Paul says in the Judicial Model (faith alone) as well as what Paul writes in pervious letters. The Holy Spirit can only come through faith, not an outward action, therefore baptism is the result of faith; Ehrman’s models work together, not against each other. 

This still leaves the question of sin unanswered. Do our two descriptions of sin contradict? Not at all. Just as the two models described two different aspects of one mode to salvation, so too do these two models depict different attributes of sin. We are born into sin because of the sin of Adam (Rom 5:19) so sin is also a condition (or force) as well as disobedience. It is the enslaving force of sin that pushes us to commit the action of sin. Jesus must die to take away our guilt, and to also free us from continuing to commit the actions of sin. The Judicial model of sin and the Participationist model of sin are simply describing two different features of sin. These two do not contradict one another.
Probably the greatest evidence that Paul did not contradict himself in the two models is that Paul predicted that some might interpret him in just such away, and he employs “diatribe” multiple times to deal with possible objections. For if “faith alone” justifies, then should we continue to sin so God can continue to dispense grace? “By no means,” Paul vehemently proclaims (Rom 3:5-6; 6:1-2). Thus, faith alone justifies, but if we truly have faith, we will die to sin and be born again through a baptism into Jesus Christ. Again, the models cohere.
After reading all of Paul’s undisputed letters, his wisdom and intelligence are obvious. It therefore is highly unlikely that Paul would so palpably contradict himself in the same letter. When one unpacks the Judicial and Participationist models and takes them in context with the rest of Romans and Paul’s earlier writings, it makes much more sense that Paul knew what he was talking about, and didn’t erroneously contradict himself. When we take in the full context of Romans and Paul’s other writings, the implication is that the Judicial and Participationist models of salvation are actually both describing one unified concept. Knowledge of this leaves me wondering if our contemporary understanding of Paul’s vocabulary is imposing on the actual meaning he intended as a man living in the first century. I think more exploration should be done in order to create a more comprehensive view of the terminology Paul uses, such as salvation, faith, works, and baptism. 


  1. Very good post. I really enjoy this kind of stuff, and digging through scripture using logic.

  2. Are there other texts used in your class besides Ehrman’s? How ironic, that the main text to teach students about the New Testament would be one written by an athiest! Perhaps some other texts should be selected to counterbalance? Would not open minded classes encourage looking at issues from all sides? Michael Card’s God’s Own Fool comes to mind; the Bible is full of events, people, and theology which on the surface seem contradictory, but upon deeper contemplation are really actually beautiful, profound truths. Themes like justification, sanctification, and redemption have been heartily debated over the ages. To be honest, I doubt that those who are “sons of disobedience” and “darkened in their understanding” will be able to fully grasp the riches of God’s love toward us in Christ. Continue to press in to the Word and seek a fuller understanding. “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers… but his delight is in the law of the Lord… “

  3. You would think, but the professor insists that we are taking a mere “historical” approach to the New Testament, which must mean any texts by Christians would not be historical, and therefore biased. The professor prides himself on the fact that the class has no religious bias when approaching the class. He fails to realize that Secularism and Atheism are religions.

    So yes, the class is very biased, even though it pretends not to be. And I definitely agree with you. There are many beautiful paradoxes throughout scripture and how God is and acts.

    Thanks for the encouragement!

  4. Thanks! Glad you liked it!

  5. O.o . . . I find that whole first paragraph (what you said about how your professor views his ‘approach’ to the class) to be very saddening… :/

    But this post is wonderful! Thank you for sharing! 😀

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