To call the Apostle Paul “Christ centered” is a bit like calling a circle round – it’s as much a definition as it is a description. This is true both in terms of what he preached and how he identified himself as a person. For Paul, the thing of “first importance” is this message: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures…he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). So singular was the focus of Paul’s missionary proclamation that he can even say that when he came to Corinth he “determined to know nothing among you except Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2); a message that was and ever is “scandalous and foolish” to the wisdom of this world but “to those who are called…Christ the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:23-24).
But again, Jesus Christ is not only the content of what Paul said; he is the core of Paul’s identity. Paul’s preferred self-designations are “slave of Jesus Christ” (Rom. 1:1, Phil. 1:1) and “apostle of Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:1; 2 Cor. 2:1, Eph. 1:1), and these identity descriptions point to Paul’s most basic thought about himself: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). The Paul who was famous for his “former life in Judaism” and who “persecuted the church” (Gal. 1:13), the Paul who was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil. 3:5), the Paul who was “blameless” in terms of “righteousness under the law” (Phil. 3:6), this Paul was not defined by these things – by the success or the status or the sin. In fact, by his own confession, he was the “least of the apostles” (1 Cor. 15:9) and wore the label “foremost of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). For Paul, there can be no hope in “a righteousness of my own that comes from the law;” hope, salvation, and even self are “found in Christ” and “through faith in Christ” (Phil. 3:9). As Paul puts in 1 Corinthians 15:10, having just acknowledged his own extreme unworthiness, “by the grace of God, I am what I am.”
To call Paul “Christ-centered” is not simply to point out that he talks a lot about Jesus or even to suggest that among Paul’s many themes Jesus is the most significant. Christ centeredness, as it comes to expression in the letters of the Apostle Paul, proclaims and trusts Jesus as the “one thing” (Phil. 3:13) – it confesses that my life and your life and all of reality have Christological coordinates. Jesus is the one in whom we “were chosen before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4) and to whom “every knee will bow and tongue will confess” (Phil. 2:10-11); the one in whom God’s love is demonstrated in that Christ dies for us “while we were still sinners” (Rom. 5:8). To know nothing but this Christ and him crucified is to know the scandal and folly that is “God’s power for salvation” (Rom. 1:16) and thus to celebrate with Paul that while “all sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), we are, by the grace of God, what we are: beloved children of the one who justifies the ungodly.