Just last week a new book showed up on my desk that I want to draw attention to: Paul and the Economy of Salvation: Reading From the Perspective of the Last Judgment (Baker Academic, 2021). It represents the fruit of decades of work on Paul’s letters and theology by Brendan Byrne, SJ, from his doctoral work (published 1979) to today. In this book, Byrne looks at salvation in Paul’s letters from the perspective not just of the beginning or the middle but especially the end—the final judgment and life with God in the new creation.
One way to introduce this book is to talk about another book (which I will not name here). A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to read and review a book about Paul’s letters and “the good life.” Basically, the book took issue with stereotypical tent-revival type interpretations of the gospel that focus only on getting to the beginning of one’s life with God, with coming to faith or baptism, but do not spend any time emphasizing all of the ongoing conversion that Jesus and the apostles speak so much about in the New Testament. The book did a good job of highlighting how Paul’s letters to churches are concerned about believers living a lives of true virtue and goodness as the Holy Spirit leads them in lives full of hope and charity in union with Christ’s death and resurrection. Something I noticed as I read it, though, is that this book’s response to a sole focus on the beginning of salvation became only focused on the middle, on life with God in pilgrimage now. It didn’t have much about the end, the goal of God’s gift of grace and of the Holy Spirit’s leading us in love and repentance. And it never mentioned the stakes that Paul sees involved in our living in the Spirit, that is, the final judgment and resurrection of God’s holy ones to eternal life.
But for Paul these are inextricably connected. Looking forward, deliverance at the last day is a significant goal of conversion and continued conversion. As an evangelist, Paul called pagans to believe in Jesus as Messiah and follow him as Lord, so that by turning to the one God in Christ they might be “delivered … from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:9–10; cf. Romans 5:8–9). And Paul’s letters call people who are already converted to continued repentance and faithfulness, that they might “reap a harvest” of what they have sown by their acts of faith, hope, and love through the Holy Spirit (Galatians 6:7–10). Obviously there are other reasons for the importance and human benefits of conversion and a life of virtue, but Paul does not speak about them without also looking to the future judgment and the promise of what lies beyond it. Paul is very interested in the “journey” but, despite our bumper stickers, no less about the eternal destination.
This is also true looking backward from the perspective of the final judgment. In 1 Corinthians 15, after addressing problems of immorality and disunity in the Corinthian church, Paul turns to correct a willful doubt many Corinthians express about the future resurrection of believers from the dead. This might seem a shift away from Corinth’s moral problems, but it isn’t. The Christian “journey,” how we live in the gift of salvation in the middle time in our earthly lives, is something Paul sees is affected by what hopes and beliefs we hold about the end. Not only will we think differently about our dead loved ones if they will have no resurrection to life (1 Corinthians 15:18), we can also lose one motivation for faithfulness and enduring charity. “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (1 Corinthians 15:32). The Christian life is one of love, but specifically a love that is cruciform, one that is ready not just to be “nice” or “not mean” but a love that follows Christ in enduring self-giving and sacrifice for the truth and for the benefit of others. And that suffering kind of love for God and neighbor can be taxing. But if we “look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come” (as the Creed puts it), we are reminded that we have something to look forward to on the other side of the suffering. And if we consider the future judgment, we see the value of the Spirit’s gift to free us from sin and lead us in “sanctification, the goal of which is eternal life” (Romans 6:22). Indeed, if we lose sight of Christ’s return to judge and save, Byrne argues it becomes easier to misunderstand not just the role of Paul’s ethical exhortations (in, say, Romans 5–8) but even the meaning of many of the words Paul’s uses to describe “salvation.”
Byrne follows Paul’s own logic here and reemphasizes the importance of the final judgment in Paul’s thinking about our life with God. He considers all of the letters (except Philemon) but especially Romans, whose main arguments are addressed and interpreted in five of Byrne’s thirteen chapters. The last chapters press beyond with more synthetic reflection on Paul’s theology—“The Universal Need for Salvation” (ch. 9), “The Sending of the Son” (ch. 10), “The Divine Act of Reconciliation” (ch. 11), “Living in the Hope of Glory Revealed” (ch. 12), and finally “Paul and the Economy of Salvation: Theological Reflection” (ch. 13). Byrne engages with Pauline scholarship old and new (including, flatteringly, Sacred Page authors Michael Barber, John Kincaid, Brant Pitre, and myself) and addresses theologically some of the questions that have historically proved divisive on topics of sin, forgiveness, sanctification, and salvation. And he does it in under 250 pages. It is very worthy of attention from students of Paul.