Shortly after I became a Christian, Paul became one of my major biblical heroes. As a newborn child of God, I quickly developed a hunger to study the Scriptures. I couldn't miss Paul's impact on what I was learning about Christian truth. After all, he penned at least thirteen New Testament letters.
I'll never forget one of my first encounters with this dynamic Jew-turned-Christian. I was a junior in high school,
16 years old, and I'd secured a copy of Dr. Kenneth Wuest's commentary on Philippians. With my Bible in one hand and Wuest's explanation (which included what he called "golden nuggets" from the Greek New Testament) in the other, I studied this letter word for word and sentence by sentence. I still remember my new insights.
As a young man who was still learning to speak good English, I was struck by the Greek word koinonia—a word Paul used to describe the Philippians' generosity in sharing in his life and ministry (Phil. 1:3-4, 10-19). The "good work" God had begun in their lives (1:6) related directly to their sacrificial spirit in supporting Paul financially after he had left them to go on to Thessalonica (4:14-16). Now once again they were caring for his physical needs.2
This truth, more than I realized, laid the groundwork in my heart and soul to motivate me to be a generous Christian and to learn more from Paul regarding God's perfect will for my life. I was also reassured that when I put God and others first with my material possessions, God will take care of me. I was a teenager when I learned this lesson, and now as a senior citizen, I can report that God has never let me down. Paul's words are true: "And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4:19).
My next significant memory is of an experience I had two years later. I was eighteen and a student at Moody Bible Institute. I'd been struggling with my view of eternal life. Since I had been reared in a religious environment that mixed faith and works for salvation, even after I had become a Christian, I didn't know for sure that I had eternal life. Consequently, I was often confused about my relationship with God. My spiritual life was like an emotional roller coaster.
And then something happened. Early one morning I was sitting in my dorm room reading Paul's letter to the Romans. Suddenly I was confronted with a very pointed question that almost jumped off the page: "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" Paul asked (Rom. 8:35a).
Just as quickly, Paul's answer rang out loud and clear, not only in chapter 8 but throughout the preceding chapters in this dynamic letter. I was overwhelmed. For the first time, I understood what Abraham understood centuries before—that "we have been justified through faith" apart from works (Rom. 5:1). I now understood that Abraham had been made righteous when he had believed God—not because of any human effort. His salvation experience had happened before he was circumcised and long before God would give the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai.3
Like a cool, calm breeze from heaven, I realized that I too had been made righteous by faith in Jesus Christ—just as Abraham (Rom. 5:1). He had looked forward to the cross and resurrection, and I looked back. Though I had received eternal life a couple of years before this wonderful morning experience, I now had the assurance of my salvation apart from my emotional moods, human failures, and spiritual doubts. I knew I was saved—then and forever. Paul's answer to this question penetrated my heart with new meaning:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:35, 37-39)
I've never forgotten that moment of truth. It changed my life.
A couple more years went by before I had my third life-changing experience with the Lord through Paul's New Testament letters. It happened after I had graduated from Moody Bible Institute. I was involved in radio ministry in Billings, Montana. At the same time, I was finishing my college under-graduate work. Someone had given me a book by John Strombeck entitled Disciplined by Grace, an exposition of a paragraph in Paul's letter to Titus. John Strombeck, Disciplined by Grace (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1991).
I had boarded the train in Chicago for a sixteen-hour trip across the great northwestern states. I opened Strombeck's book and began to read and reflect on what he had to say about Paul's words to Titus:4
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (Titus 2:11-14)
This was another dynamic moment for me with Paul the teacher. Even though I now knew I had eternal life, I still struggled emotionally over the warnings I had heard against this dangerous doctrine. After all, if we are confident we're truly saved—now and eternally—doesn't this mean we can live any way we want? Paul's answer to this question was a definite "No." He also made this point crystal-clear in his letter to the Romans where he raised this very question—and answered it emphatically: "Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?" (Rom. 6:1b-2).
Paul elaborated on this answer in his letter to Titus. His words penetrated my heart and soul. Another spiritual light went on. How can Christians who truly understand God's mercy in saving them take advantage of God's grace and live an ungodly lifestyle? Somewhere between Chicago, Illinois, and Billings, Montana, I began to comprehend my freedom in Christ. At the same time, I was deeply challenged never to use this marvelous freedom to "indulge" my "sinful nature" (Gal. 5:13). On the contrary, this new spiritual insight motivated me to respond to God's grace with love and holiness.
This life-changing encounter with the Holy Spirit through Paul's words to Titus also eliminated my lingering confusion regarding what it really means to be saved by grace through faith and not by works (Eph. 2:8-9). I also understood more fully his reassuring words to the Ephesians—that once we're saved, "we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to 5do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (Eph. 2:10).
Researching the life of Paul, teaching these lessons to my own people whom I serve at Fellowship Bible Church North, and then writing this book on his life, has, of course, been my most significant and comprehensive encounter with this great apostle and, more importantly, the Lord Jesus Christ. The lessons that flow from Paul's life and ministry are intensely convicting, motivating, and very practical. I now understand more fully his exhortation to the Corinthians and why he could say, "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" (1 Cor. 11:1).
As you read and study this book, hopefully the dynamic "principles to live by" that grow out of a study of Paul's life will impact your life too. If you'll allow God's Spirit to help you apply them in all of your relationships, I'm convinced you'll never be the same again. Furthermore, as you reflect on Paul's life, I challenge you to keep the words he wrote to the Philippians in the forefront of your mind, words that reflect his own goals as a Christian:
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:12-14)