The first apostolic epistle was written by “the apostles and elders . . . to the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia” (Acts 15:22ff). Its purpose was to clarify what was, and was not, expected of Gentile Christians. It was delivered in person by Paul and others (Acts 15). Other letters were written by Peter, John, James, and Jude, but Paul wrote the majority of the New Testament epistles. Of his thirteen, the earliest were to the Thessalonians and the last to Timothy. In studying these epistles, one finds biographical and historical details, life instructions and exhortations, as well as in-depth doctrinal explanations. As to “What I Learned from Paul’s letters,” here are a few things that stand out.
I learned that the gospel of Christ is the power of God unto salvation for those who believe. This is the fundamental proposition of the book of Romans (1:16ff). What is the gospel? It more than the message, it is the actuality of the facts behind the message—“that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3f). In view of man’s universal guilt and his total inability to justify himself, the only means for reconciliation with God is by faith/trust in the Savior, who is made known to us by the gospel message. The gospel reveals “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom. 3:22, ESV). Always the emphasis IS that all is possible only because of God’s grace (Rom. 3:24; Eph. 2:5).
I learned that though some would “pervert the gospel” and be accursed for preaching their error, there can be only one way of salvation (Gal. 1:6ff). Justification by faith (Gal. 1:23) precludes any system that supposes to earn or merit reward. “Now to him who works [i.e., depends on his own deeds], the wages are not counted as grace but as debt” (Rom. 4:4). No one can do anything to obligate God in any way. If we are saved, it is “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy” (Tit. 3:5). Any plan of salvation that incorporates human invention is a system of works and an affront to the grace of God.
On the other hand, I learned the justification only by faith does not mean by faith only. “The faith” which Paul preached (Gal. 1:23) requires action on man’s part. What one must do to be saved involves “obedience to the faith” (Rom. 1:5; cf. 16:26). To be saved one must believe in and “confess with your mouth” Christ’s resurrection (Rom. 10:9f). It is nonetheless essential to confess the same in the action of being baptized. “Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4f). It is at this point in obedience of faith when one is freed from the servitude of sin and made a servant of righteousness (Rom. 6:17ff). It has been said that at baptism, “redemption is reproduced in the redeemed.” For those who do not obey the gospel, Christ’s coming will be with vengeance.” (2 Thess. 1:8).
Another vital thing I learned is that the faith by which we become children of God is not an extension of the Old Testament system. Many Jews in Paul’s time wanted to bind parts of the old system (especially circumcision) on Gentile Christians. Among the various ways Paul refuted their heresy was to explain that the Law they were trying to follow had been only a temporary measure kept in place until “the faith” the Christian system, had come. It was a “schoolmaster” (tutor, guardian), a temporary guide. “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian [i.e., under that Law]” (Gal. 3:16-25, ESV). We have learned from Paul, therefore, that whether it is ritual circumcision or any other thing peculiar to the Old Testament system, it has no place in the church of Christ. To seek justification by that Law is to fall from grace (Gal. 5:4).
As to the matter of authority, I learned from Paul’s writing that the apostles are the “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20). The things they delivered are the things they received from the Lord (1 Cor. 11:1f, 23; 15:1ff). They alone had power and authority to inaugurate the new spiritual order, which involved putting into place the faith and practice which God intended to remain in place till the end of the world. Thus, his instructions are “commandments of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37). As the same was taught in every place, so it also applies in every age (1 Cor. 4:17). He encouraged the Philippians, “Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern” (Phil. 3:17). Then and now, Christians can be identified by their faithfulness to the apostolic pattern (Phil. 3:17).
From numerous warnings Paul gave, we learned that there will always be opposition to the truth, both from without and within. “Evil men and imposters will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tim. 3:13). “Some will depart from the faith” (1 Tim. 4:1ff) because they “will not endure sound doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:3ff). There would be a great apostasy (2 Thess. 2:1ff). Already there were “false apostles, deceitful works” (2 Cor. 11:13ff). Vigilance is needed to avoid them (Rom. 16:17ff). Those who are mature in the faith will not be “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14).
From First Corinthians I learned that the church consists of “all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord” (1:2). Thus, there is only one church of Christ. It is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20; cf. 1 Cor. 3:11). Seven foundation facts are the starting place for her doctrinal soundness–one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God (Eph. 4:4ff). Because of our mutual confidence in these pillars, it is incumbent upon us to hold together in regard to the rest of scriptural faith and practice.
I learned from his letter to Timothy that the conduct of the church must be according to what is written. In telling Timothy his plans to visit, he explained the necessity of his letter. “But if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). This epitomizes the authority of all inspired writing. In First Timothy are instructions regarding gender roles, elders, deacons, etc. To Corinth he wrote about proper conduct in the Lord’s Supper. In Ephesians and Colossians, he commanded congregational singing. In Colossians he warned against the false piety of “will worship” which only has authority in the “commandments and doctrines of men” (Col. 2:20ff). From Philippians I learned that a model congregation is one that is properly organized and united in zeal for the gospel (Phil. 1:1, 27).
From Paul’s letters I learned that Christian living is our response to God’s grace. It is grace that teaches us, motivates us, so “that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age” (Tit. 2:11ff). The “new man” in Christ has put away the sinful ways common to the world and seeks to do good. We are taught to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:20ff). Writing to Philemon, Paul shows how unnecessary controversy can be avoided by using Christian diplomacy.
In all of Paul’s epistles one thing always stands out: everything is about Christ. One would be pressed to find a sentence in all of Paul’s chapters without a direct reference to our Lord Jesus Christ. He said, “I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). He is our life (Col. 3:4). He is our hope (1 Tim. 1:1). He is our “all, and in all” (Col. 3:11). He is “the power of God, and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). He the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). His name is above every name (Phil. 2:9) So, with Paul we have learned not to glory “save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Gal. 6:14).