Paul, the Apostle of Grace
Pastor Cornelius R. Stam
To the unbiased believer of the Word of God, there is overwhelming proof that the secret of God’s eternal purpose and of His good news to man was first communicated by revelation to the Apostle Paul, that he in turn might make it known to others. Not only does Paul himself declare this by divine inspiration but his declarations are amply confirmed by a comparison of his message and ministry with the messages and ministries of all his predecessors.
But while particular distinctions have often been noted in this connection, we feel that too little attention has been given to the broader aspects of his message and ministry as compared with those of his predecessors. Those great, grand truths which he was commissioned to unfold were the constant subject of his discourse and his letters, and his life and conduct harmonized perfectly with those truths and with the dispensation he ushered in.
THE DISPENSATION OF GRACE
Let us begin with his proclamation of grace.
We are sometimes asked: “Did not others before Paul speak of grace?”
Yes, others before Paul did speak of grace, but before we assume too much from this, let us consider a few basic facts:
It is not merely Paul, but the inspired Word which declares that “the dispensation of the grace of God” was committed to him (Eph. 3:2) and that it was his “ministry… received of the Lord Jesus” to make known “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). this claim was made for none of his predecessors, nor did any of them even mention the dispensation or the gospel of the grace of God so far as the record is concerned.
To the believer this evidence should be conclusive that Paul was God’s chosen vessel, raised up especially to proclaim the message and program of grace. But to those who hesitate to accept these inspired statements at their face value, we have further important evidence to offer in the fact that no other bible writer—not even all the others put together—have so much to say about grace.
The Hebrew equivalent of Paul’s word for grace is found only 68 times in the whole Old Testament (which is nearly twelve times the size of Paul’s epistles including Hebrews) and then not always relating to God’s grace, and never to the dispensation of Grace.
In the four Gospels (nearly twice the size of Paul’s epistles) the word grace (Gr. charis) with its derivatives appears in the original only 13 times (much less often in the English A.V.) and then rarely in even a doctrinal, much less a dispensational, connection.
By comparison, the epistles of Paul, only about one twelfth the size of the Old Testament and one-half the size of the four Gospels, employs the word grace and its derivatives no less than 144 times, more often than all the rest of the Bible together and nearly twice as often as the whole Old Testament and the four Gospels together! And then, in Paul’s epistles the word grace is nearly always used doctrinally, in connection with the dispensation of Grace.
Every epistle signed by his name opens with a proclamation of grace and peace “from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.” In the epistles we find that we are “justified freely by [God’s] grace” (Rom. 3:24), that “where sin abounded grace did much more abound” (Rom. 5:20) that grace might reign (5:21). There we read that we are “not under the law, but under grace” (6:14), that “God is able to make all grace abound” toward us that we may “abound to every good work” (II Cor. 9:8), that it is God’s purpose for “the ages to come” to “show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us through Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7). And we could go on and on adding up the evidence that “the dispensation of the grace of God” was indeed committed especially to Paul to make known to us.
An examination of the book of Acts reveals a similar comparison. There the word grace in the original is found four times before the raising up of Paul and 12 times after. Before the raising up of Paul it is not used once of the dispensation of Grace or of salvation by grace, but in later Acts, after his conversion, not only is the word used more often, but immediately it appears in connection with the dispensation of Grace.
When Barnabas “had seen the grace of God” in saving Gentiles at Syrian Antioch, he “was glad” (Acts 11:23). When Jews and religious proselytes at Pisidian Antioch received Paul’s proclamation of salvation through Christ, without the law, he and Barnabas “persuaded them to continue in the grace of God” (13:38,39,43). At Iconium, Paul and Barnabas gave bold testimony to “the word of His grace” (14:3). Later Peter confirmed Paul’s message, publicly declaring his conviction: “We believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we [Jews] shall be saved even as they [Gentiles]” (15:11). At Ephesus, Apollos proved helpful to “them…which had believed through grace” (18:27). On his way to Jerusalem Paul declared his determination to fulfill his Christ-given commission “to testify the gospel of the grace of God” (20:24) and then commended the Ephesian elders to “the word of [God’s] grace” (20:32).
THE PREACHING OF THE CROSS
Let us next consider Paul’s presentation of the death of the Lord Jesus Christ.
It was again by divine revelation that the apostle claimed that his was “the preaching of the Cross,” i.e., as good news, and that the theme of his message was “Christ crucified” (I Cor. 1:18,23). Again, THIS CLAIM IS MADE FOR NONE OF HIS PREDECESSORS. Furthermore, this claim also is amply confirmed by a comparison of his writings with those of all his predecessors.
In the Old Testament Scriptures the predictions of our Lord’s death, from Genesis 3:15 on, are purposely veiled in obscurity and we are explicitly told that while the prophets themselves “searched diligently,” they did not find out either “what manner of time” or even “what” the Spirit “did signify, when [He] testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow” (I Pet. 1:10-12).
It is the same with the Old Testament types of our Lord’s death. We can now look back at them and exclaim: “God had it in mind all the while!” but we are not told of one single case where those of that day were informed that the death of Christ was being prefigured.
Then when our Lord appeared on earth He did not even begin to tell His apostles that He must suffer and die until near the close of His ministry (Matt. 16:21; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22), and then we read:
“Then Peter took Him, and began to rebuke Him, saying, Be it far from Thee, Lord: this shall not be unto Thee” (Matt. 16:22).
So ignorant were our Lord’s own apostles of even the prophesied fact of His death (let alone its meaning) that later, in the very shadow of the Cross, when He told them again how He must suffer and die, they were still nonplused:
“And they understood none of these things: and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken” (Luke 18:34).
In fact, even at Pentecost, when the death of Christ had become a historical fact, its full accomplishments were not yet revealed or proclaimed.
In the early chapters of Acts we do not yet find the death of the Cross proclaimed for salvation. It is rather spoken of as a matter of shame to be repented of. Peter does not offer his hearers Christ’s shed blood for the remission of sins, he charges his hearers with that blood and demands repentance and baptism for the remission of sins.
But with the raising up of Paul all is changed. The crucifixion takes on a new and wonderful meaning. The Cross, the blood, the death of Christ become the very theme of his message. He constantly speaks of them, not in hidden meanings, but in open declaration, as good news, as that around which God’s eternal purpose revolves and from which all our blessings flow.1
NO OTHER BIBLE WRITER HAS SO MUCH TO SAY ABOUT THE DEATH OF CHRIST.
By the Spirit, Paul tells us that
While we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8).
When we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son (Rom. 5:10).
We are saved through faith in His blood (Rom. 3:25).
We have redemption through His blood (Eph. 1:7).
We are justified by His blood (Rom. 5:9).
We are reconciled in the body of His flesh, through death (Col. 1:21,22).
We have peace through the blood of His Cross (Col. 1:20).
We are made nigh by the blood of Christ (Eph. 2:13).
We are baptized into His death (Rom. 6:3).
We are made one Body by the Cross (Eph. 2:16).
The Covenant of the Law was nailed to the Cross (Col. 2:14).
Through death He destroyed him that had the power of death (Heb. 2:14).
He died that they which live should no longer live unto themselves but unto Him Who died for them and rose again (II Cor. 5:15).
He died that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him (I Thes. 5:10).
Christ crucified is the power of God and the wisdom of God (I Cor. 1:23,24).
We are to boast in the Cross alone (Gal. 6:14).
We are to show forth the Lord’s death till He come (I Cor. 11:26).
Little wonder Paul’s message is called “the preaching of the Cross” (I Cor. 1:18).
THE BELIEVER’S WALK
This is so again with regard to the broad subject of the believer’s spiritual life and conduct. no other bible writer devotes so large a proportion of his teachings to this subject.
Moses had much to say about loving God and obeying His commands, but it soon became evident that the Mosaic Law would not produce results, as God pronounced it “old”2 and promised to make a new covenant with His people, under which He would so work within them that they would spontaneously do His will (Jer. 31:31-34).
At Pentecost there was a foretaste of this kingdom blessing as the Holy Spirit caused Christ’s disciples to prophecy (Joel 2:28,29) and also caused them to do His will (Ezek. 36:26,27).
Hence in the early chapters of Acts we find the apostles and disciples neither committing sins nor making blunders. They were all FILLED with the Spirit (Acts 2:4). Thus God demonstrated the fact that the only way in which even His own can perfectly obey Him is when He takes possession of them and causes them to do His will.
As we know, however, Israel rejected the King and His kingdom and that operation of the Spirit ceased. Today He no longer takes possession of men, supernaturally causing them either to prophecy and speak with tongues or to do His will.
But in God’s grace, Paul was raised up to show how even in “this present evil [age]” we may have spiritual victory by grace through faith, for while the Spirit does not cause us to do God’s will automatically, He does dwell within, always ready to help, and what is thus provided by grace we may appropriate by faith. What a challenge!3
This is why the Apostle Paul has so much to say about the operation of the Spirit now and about our spiritual life and conduct now in this time of Christ’s rejection. This is why the doctrines in each of his great epistles to the churches are followed by practical applications to our behavior in “this present evil [age].”
What a volume of Paul’s writings we could cite in support of these facts! The following are but a few representative passages:
“…reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof.
“Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God.
“For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:11-14).
“The law of the Spirit, [that] of life in Christ Jesus, hath made me free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2).
“But if the Spirit of Him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, He that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by His Spirit that dwelleth in you.
“Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh” (Rom. 8:11,12).
“What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?
“For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s” (I Cor. 6:19,20).
“I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called,
“With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love;
“Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3).
To all this much more could be added to show how no one until Paul proclaimed the truths of reconciliation, of the one Body, of our baptism into Christ, etc. How all this cumulative evidence marks Paul as the one especially raised up of God to make known the particular truths for the present dispensation!
But there is still more evidence of another nature.
Dr. J. S. Howson has pointed out how the Apostle Paul calls God for his witness more than any other Bible writer, and also has more to say about conscience, particularly his own.4 But Dean Howson did not see the relation of these facts to the revelation of the mystery and the dispensation of Grace.
How often the apostle speaks with an oath!
“God is my witness” (Rom. 1:9).
“I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost” (Rom. 9:1).
“As God is true…” (II Cor. 1:18).
“I call God for a record upon my soul” (II Cor. 1:23).
“As the truth of Christ is in me…” (II Cor. 11:10).
“The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is blessed for evermore knoweth that I lie not” (II Cor. 11:31).
“Behold, before God, I lie not” (Gal. 1:20).
“God is my record” (Phil. 1:8).
“I speak the truth in Christ and lie not” (I Tim. 2:7).
“I charge thee before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ” (I Tim. 5:21).
“I give thee charge in the sight of God” (I Tim. 6:13).
“I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ” (II Tim. 4:1).
As Howson says: “When [Paul] makes a solemn statement under the sense of God’s presence, he does not hesitate to express this” (Hulsean Lectures for 1862, p. 160).5
But had not others spoken under the sense of God’s presence? Indeed Peter, by the Spirit, says: “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God” (I Pet. 4:11). Yet even a superficial reading of the Scriptures will reveal that PAUL CALLS GOD TO WITNESS FAR MORE OFTEN THAN ANY OTHER BIBLE WRITER and mostly with regard to his personal integrity. Why is this? Why did he ever need to speak with an oath?
The answer to this question is again to be found in the distinctive character of Paul’s ministry as the apostle of the mystery.
John the Baptist did not need to speak with oaths, for he proclaimed the kingdom which had already been predicted by all the Old Testament prophets. The four “evangelists” did not need to speak with oaths, for they depicted our Lord as the prophesied Messiah. Peter at Pentecost could point out that “this” was “that which was spoken by the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:16), why would he need to swear that he was telling the truth? Moreover, both he and his associates were all evidently under the control of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4).
But with Paul it was a different matter. Separate from the twelve, who were widely known as the apostles of Christ, Paul had been raised up to make known a wonderful secret which God had kept hidden from all who had gone before. While in no way a contradiction of prophecy, this secret was nevertheless not to be found in the sayings or writings of any who had preceded him—not even in veiled language.6 Moreover, the revelation of “this mystery” brought with it a revolutionary change in message and program, a new dispensation. Hence it is appropriate that the apostle should insist again and again that he writes as in the presence of God.
In the same way the apostle was keenly aware of conscience, and taught others to be so. Indeed, HE HAS MORE TO SAY ABOUT CONSCIENCE THAN ANY OTHER BIBLE WRITER.
In Acts 23:1 we have his words to the Sanhedrin:
“Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.” (See also II Tim. 1:3).
He had even been conscientious (though conscientiously wrong) in his persecution of Christ (Acts 26:9) and while it is clear that he was not saved through obedience to his conscience, this characteristic of his make-up became the more strongly marked after his regeneration and enlightenment by the Holy Spirit.
To Agrippa he could say, with regard to his Damascus road experience.
“Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision” (Acts 26:19).
To Felix he could say:
“Herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offense toward God and toward men” (Acts 24:16).
And he proved this to Felix himself as he refused to yield to the temptation to seek freedom by giving him a bribe (Acts 24:26).
To the Corinthians he could write:
“For our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom, but by the grace of God, we have had our conversation in the world, and more abundantly to you-ward” (II Cor. 1:12).
And this is representative of many similar passages.
Further he appeals to the consciences of others.
“…not walking in craftiness, nor handling the Word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (II Cor. 4:2).
Timothy was exhorted to keep faith “and a good conscience” (I Tim. 1:19), and was reminded that the deacons must hold “the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience” (I Tim. 3:9).
In dealing with the believers’ relations with each other, the apostle beseeches them to be sensitive with regard to not only their own, but each other’s consciences (I Cor. 8:7-12; 10:25-29).
It is interesting to note that the apostle both showed and exhorted conscientiousness, especially where financial matters were concerned. Not only did he exhort others to “provide things honest in the sight of all men” (Rom. 12:17) but he himself practiced this. In connection with the larger contributions being made by the Gentile churches to the saints at Jerusalem, he wrote to the Corinthians that along with Titus (sent to collect their contributions) he was sending another brother, who was well known to all the churches and appointed by them to travel with him in taking the gift to Jerusalem:
“Avoiding this, that no man should blame us in this abundance which is administered by us:
“Providing for honest things [what is honorable] not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men” (II Cor. 8:20,21).
Indeed he had already written:
“And when I come, whomsoever ye shall approve by your letters, them will I send to bring your liberality unto Jerusalem.
“And if it be meet that I go also, they shall go with me” (I Cor. 16:3,4).
Does not all this indicate that the kingdom program had been interrupted and the dispensation of Grace ushered in? There would have been little need for such precautions and exhortations or even for such collections, had the Pentecostal program continued uninterrupted, for “the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which is possessed was his own; but they had all things common….Neither was there any among them that lacked…” (Acts 4:32-34).
Under such Spirit-controlled conditions it would be superfluous to caution one to regard the conscience of another. They all lived for each other. Indeed, two who sought to join the company by means that disregarded conscience were stricken dead (Acts 5:1-11). It would likewise have been superfluous to exhort Peter and his brethren at Pentecost to hold the truth in a pure conscience for they were all “filled with the Holy Spirit” according to promise.
But the supernatural manifestations of Pentecost have since passed away and we now live under the dispensation of Grace. It is supremely appropriate, therefore, that our apostle has so much to say about conscience, urging us always to maintain personal integrity and to show due consideration for the spiritual welfare of others, thus bearing the fruits of grace.
- See the writer’s booklet: “The Preaching of the Cross.”
- “In that He saith, A new covenant, He hath made the first old” (Heb. 8:13).
- For a fuller discussion of this subject see the writer’s booklet: “The Believer’s Walk.”
- Hulsean Lectures for 1862.
- An important commentary on Matthew 5:33-37.
- Indeed even the mere fact of Christ’s death was spoken of only in a veiled way, as we have seen.