Biblical Studies (NT)/The Epistles of Paul: Saved by Grace
THE EPISTLES OF PAUL
Saved by Grace
- 1 INTRODUCTION
- 2 BACKGROUND OF PAUL'S EPISTLES
- 3 PAUL'S THEOLOGY
- 4 Test Your Knowledge
What Is an Epistle?
Epistle is another word for letter. The epistles of the New Testament are letters which were written by prominent people in the early church to individuals or communities within the church, or to the church in general. There are twenty-one altogether. Of these, the first thirteen were written by the apostle Paul and are often referred to as the Pauline Epistles. The other eight were written by several different authors and are referred to as the General Epistles. The epistle to the Hebrews, which does not name its author, used to be grouped with Paul’s epistles, but most scholars now believe that it was not written by Paul (see separate lesson on Hebrews). Unger’s Bible Handbook (Moody, 1967) says:
- In the four Gospels, the person and work of Christ are presented historically, eventuating in [Jesus’] death, resurrection and ascension. In the Acts, the result of these historical events is traced in the founding and growth of the church. In the Pauline epistles, the doctrinal revelation and theological significance of all these events are expounded.
Paul’s epistles are named after the churches or individuals to whom they are addressed. The order in which they appear in the New Testament is as follows:
- 1) Romans
- 2) 1 Corinthians
- 3) 2 Corinthians
- 4) Galatians
- 5) Ephesians
- 6) Philippians
- 7) Colossians
- 8) 1 Thessalonians
- 9) 2 Thessalonians
- 10) 1 Timothy
- 11) 2 Timothy
- 12) Titus
- 13) Philemon
Unlike some of the other biblical authors, Paul makes his identity plainly known. As these are letters which are written on the basis of his leadership position in the church, it was natural that he should leave no doubt as to his identity. He introduces himself by name in the opening sentence of each letter, as was customary. For example, Romans begins: “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ... to all who are in Rome” (1:1,7). The first letter to the Corinthians opens: “Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God... to the church of God which is at Corinth” (1:1 2). The rest of the letters open in a similar vein.
In reading these epistles, Paul's cultural and religious background must be kept in mind. His Jewish worldview colors everything he writes. Even though he had converted to Christianity, he was still a practicing Jew who had an expert knowledge of, and deep faith in, the Hebrew scriptures. As with the other New Testament writers, the greatest evidence of Jesus' Messiahship, for Paul, was not his miracles, but that he came in fulfilment of the Hebrew scriptures.
Paul frequently refers to the "law," and contrasts his old legalistic religion with his new life under grace, through faith in Christ. It must be remembered that (in most cases) Paul is not referring to law in a general sense, but specifically to the Law of Moses, through which, he says, no one can be "justified," and the very purpose of which was to show us how we are unable to enter into God's promises by our own merits, but are utterly dependent on grace.
The order in which Paul’s epistles appear in the New Testament is not the order in which they were written. The probable chronological order and approximate dates are as follows:
- 1 Thessalonians (52 AD)
- 2 Thessalonians (53)
- 1 Corinthians (55)
- 2 Corinthians (56)
- Galatians (56)
- Romans (57)
Prison Epistles (written while Paul was under house arrest in Rome):
- Philemon (61-62)
- Colossians (61-62)
- Ephesians (61-62)
- Philippians (62)
- 1 Timothy (62-66)
- Titus (62-66)
- 2 Timothy (66)
BACKGROUND OF PAUL'S EPISTLES
The Roman Empire
All of the places to which Paul’s epistles were directed were within the boundaries of the Roman Empire, and, more specifically, were within the areas which we know today as Turkey, Greece, Italy, and Crete. Were it not for the safety ensured by the Roman forces, the excellent standard of the Roman roads, and the trading ships constantly plying between the various commercial ports of the empire, communication between these areas might have been difficult or impossible, and the early church a lot more fragmented. As it was, Paul was able to travel extensively, establishing new churches everywhere he went, and having established them, to keep in touch with their progress and provide them with ongoing spiritual counsel through his letters. Some of these are preserved for us in the New Testament, but there were undoubtedly others which have been lost in the sands of time.
Although the empire facilitated the letters of Paul, its politics do not seem to have influenced their contents to any great degree. Nevertheless, Paul said:
- Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor. (Rom 13:1,2,7)
Paul himself lived these words to the letter. He submitted himself at all times to the governing authorities, yet at the same time, he did not hesitate to claim those privileges to which the law entitled him. His letters show that even when he was in prison, he believed that God was using the situation for the furtherance of the Gospel. In his letter to the Ephesians while under house-arrest in Rome, he referred to himself as “the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles” (Eph 3:1).
From the second century BC, Rome had expanded dramatically as money and merchandise flowed in from the provinces of the empire. By the first century AD, its population had reached more than a million, a fairly large city by today’s standards, but huge for those days. It was the political and commercial hub of the largest empire the world had known until that time. Located on seven hills, Rome was famous for its wide scenic avenues. Most of the population lived in large multi-storied tenement houses, while the more wealthy residents lived in houses with rooms which opened onto a central courtyard. They worshipped at whichever of the many beautiful temples dedicated to the Roman gods they chose, and amused themselves at the city’s many theaters, parks and public baths. The River Tiber, then as now, flowed through the center of the city.
The epistle to the Romans was written after Paul arrived in Corinth in about 57 AD, towards the end of his third missionary journey. From a reference in the epistle, it appears to have been taken to Rome by Phoebe, a woman of Cenchrea in southern Greece. Although this is the first of Paul’s epistles as they appear in the Bible, we can see in the chronological list that it was actually the sixth to be written. It probably was placed first because it so completely and clearly explains the significance of all that has preceded it in the gospels and Acts. It expounds in clear and logical terms the concepts which are at the very heart of Christian theology, and its influence on the thinking of theologians, philosophers, and other intellectuals down through the centuries has been immeasurable.
Unlike the other churches to which Paul’s epistles are directed, Paul had nothing to do with the founding of the church at Rome. It may have been started by Jews who were converted at the Pentecost festival in Jerusalem in 30 AD (see Acts, chapter 2). Regardless, it had expanded to include many non-Jewish believers. This letter served to introduce Paul to the Romans in anticipation of a future visit. It also gave them a clear and concise exposition of the basic tenets of the Christian faith. This enabled the leaders to present Paul’s basic teachings in advance of his coming, so that when he finally arrived he need only clarify what had already been taught.
The city of Corinth was the capital of the Roman province of Achaia, now in southern Greece. It was located on the isthmus (narrow strip of land) that joins mainland Greece with the area called the Peloponnesus. In Paul’s time, the city was already a thousand years old, having been established in the tenth century BC. Its location on the narrow isthmus gave it access to ports on both the Aegean and the Adriatic Seas, which led to its position of importance as a center of culture and commerce in the ancient world. It was known especially for its pottery and brass.
Because of its large Roman population, Latin was commonly spoken as well as Greek, and there was also a Jewish community. The city’s dependence on sea-going trade gave rise to the worship of Poseidon, god of the sea, but the worship of Aphrodite, goddess of love, was even more pronounced. Her temple on the Acrocorinth, an adjacent mountain, was served by more than a thousand prostitutes and drew visitors from all over the empire. Corinth still exists, but it has a greatly reduced population of about nine thousand people.
Paul wrote his first epistle to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians) in about 55 AD, while on his third missionary journey. In the course of his travels, he spent two years in Ephesus, and it was during that time that he wrote this letter. He had established the church at Corinth several years earlier, during his second missionary journey. The Corinthian Christians were faced with the daily struggle of living in an environment where immorality was rampant and temptation abounded, and there must have been great pressure to conform to the ways of their fellow citizens. It is not surprising, therefore, that one of the major themes of 1 Corinthians was the need to avoid sexual immorality. Paul also addressed other problems, particularly disputes among church members and confusion concerning spiritual gifts. Some of the clearest and most detailed teaching in the Bible in regard to spiritual gifts is found in the first epistle to the Corinthians.
Paul also wrote 2 Corinthians during his third missionary journey. After his two-year stay in Ephesus, he traveled to northern Greece, where he spent several months in the province of Macedonia. He was planning to continue south to Corinth after his stay in Macedonia, and he wrote this letter from there, knowing that he would soon be in Corinth in person. The epistle was written in response to teachers who were misleading church members about the Gospel message and denouncing Paul’s ministry. Paul defended his own ministry and warned the Corinthians not to be misguided by individuals whose goals were self-serving.
The name Galatia dates back to the time of the ancient Gauls, who settled the area in the third century BC. The region came under Roman control in 189 BC, but did not actually become a province until 25 BC. In Paul’s time, Greek culture and language prevailed, although there were Jewish communities in most of the major towns. It is in their synagogues that Paul first preached the Gospel when entering a new town. It is not known exactly when and where Paul wrote Galatians, but it is thought to have been in about 56 AD, about the time that the epistles to the Corinthians were written. Paul’s first missionary journey was concentrated in this area and he had founded churches in such cities as Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, and Antioch (in Pisidia) in the years between 45 and 48 AD. He revisited these churches on his second and third missionary journeys.
Many of the early Christians in these communities were Jewish converts. Notwithstanding their faith in Christ, most of them were still practicing Jews, a practice which Paul, as a practicing Jew himself, did not discourage. However, there were some (the “Judaizers”) who taught that converts to Christianity must still observe the Jewish laws and traditions as a requirement for salvation. While Paul encouraged a moral lifestyle, he felt that with Christ, the age of law (i.e. the laws of Moses) had been replaced with an age of grace, so that it was not necessary for Jewish converts to Christianity to observe every detail of Jewish law. He did not want the believers in Galatia to get caught up in trying to observe a code that was both difficult and, in his view, unnecessary. Paul’s purpose in writing, therefore, was to refute the teachings of the Judaizers and emphasize that salvation comes only by grace, through faith. In refuting the Judaizers, Paul was able to draw on his own credentials as a former leader in the Jewish community. He wrote of himself, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Gal 1:14). He was not just an authority on the Gospel, but also on the Hebrew scriptures and traditions.
Ephesus was a major city in the Roman world. It was at the heart of Greco-Roman civilization and was a thriving business and cultural center. It was an important seaport and was connected to other important cities by first class highways. It is thought that a quarter of a million people lived there in Paul’s time, a large city for those days. There was also an amphitheater in Ephesus which could accommodate twenty-four thousand people, and the main street was lined with columns and paved with marble.
Ephesus was also the center for the worship of the fertility goddess, Artemis (Roman “Diana”), and the temple built for this purpose was one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Werner Keller, in The Bible as History (Bantam, 1988) says:
- The foundations [of the temple of Artemis] measured 390 feet long by 260 feet broad, sheets of white marble covered the roof, and a hundred columns 65 feet high led the way into the interior of the temple, which was extravagantly decorated with sculptures, paintings and gold ornamentation.
Notwithstanding these distractions, the Christian church at Ephesus was a thriving and healthy spiritual community. It was chief among the churches in the Roman province of “Asia” (in western Turkey) and must have been very close to Paul’s heart, because he lived there for two years. Luke writes in Acts that during that time, “All who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10).
Paul’s reason for writing was to strengthen and encourage the church in which he had so many friends and in which he had labored so diligently. In the epistle, he speaks of the nature and unity of the church, and the responsibilities of believers as followers of Christ.
The city of Philippi was in Macedonia, in northern Greece, about sixty miles east of Thessalonica. It was ten miles inland from the Aegean port city of Neapolis, known today as Kavala. The city was named after Philip II of Macedonia in 356 BC, who had a particular interest in the gold and silver mines in the area. It came under the control of Rome when the Romans conquered Macedonia in 167 BC. Its importance as a commercial center was partly due to its location on the Via Ignatia, the major east-west highway. The residents worshiped a mixture of Roman, Greek, Egyptian and local gods, and there was also a synagogue. Continuing excavations have uncovered extensive remains on the site, which is now uninhabited.
Philippians was the latest of the so-called Prison Epistles (it was actually a house-arrest). The year was probably 62 AD. According to Acts, the church in Philippi had been established by divine guidance (Acts 16:6-10) ten years earlier, during Paul’s second missionary journey. It was the first of the churches founded by Paul in what we now know as Europe. He apparently took great joy in the Christians at Philippi, for his letter is upbeat and personal. The Philippian church appears to have been a healthy spiritual community which gave generously in support of Paul’s work. It was one such gift that occasioned this joyful letter of thanks and encouragement to the Philippian Christians.
The city of Colossae was in the southern part of the Roman province of Asia, about eighty miles from the Mediterranean coast in what is now southwestern Turkey. It was located on the Lycus River in the region of Phrygia. From the fifth century BC, it had been an important commercial center, well known for its wool products and cloth-dying industries. The city ceased to exist in later Roman times. Its site was discovered in 1835, but it has not yet been excavated. The church at Colossae, while not founded directly by Paul, was an offshoot of his work in Asia Minor. It is thought that it might have been established by Epaphras, for Paul writes, “...as you also learned from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, who also declared to us your love in the Spirit” (Col 1:7-8).
We do not know for sure if Paul visited Colossae or not, but there is no doubt that the Colossians were well-acquainted with his work and reputation. He wrote to them to put an end to certain corrupting influences in the church there. From the contents of the letter, it appears that there were people who were trying to blend the teachings of the Gospel with other doctrines, a practice called syncretism. These doctrines came from such diverse sources as Jewish legalism, pagan religion, and Greek philosophy. Paul wrote to reaffirm the deity of Christ, and to reiterate that salvation is only made possible because of Christ’s atoning sacrifice.
The city of Thessalonica was in the Roman province of Macedonia, in what is today northern Greece. It was located at the top of the Thermaic Gulf, at the northwestern corner of the Aegean Sea. There is still a town on the site, though it is now known as Thessaloniki. The city was founded in 316 BC by one of Alexander’s generals, who named it after his wife. When Macedonia became a Roman province in 146 BC, Thessalonica became the capital. This was largely because Thessalonica, like Philippi, was located on the Via Ignatia, the main east-west route from the Balkans to Asia Minor, and also because of its busy sea-port. Some remains of the ancient city still exist. Of particular interest is the Roman forum, which can be seen in the center of modern Thessaloniki.
Among those of Paul’s epistles which he addressed to churches, the two which he wrote to the Thessalonians are the last to appear in the Bible. Yet they were actually the first to be written. Paul had established the church at Thessalonica on his second missionary journey in approximately 52 AD. He had to leave the town as a result of persecution, so he continued south to Berea, Athens, and Corinth. It was at Corinth that he wrote these epistles to the Thessalonians, probably in 52 or 53 AD. The first letter was written to clarify issues surrounding the second coming of Christ and the resurrection of believers. Some erroneous ideas had sprung up in the Thessalonian church which Paul found it necessary to correct.
The second letter was written just a few months later. Some of the Thessalonians had misunderstood Paul’s first letter to mean that the coming of Christ was imminent, and they had become slothful as a result. He therefore wrote to further clarify the issue and to remind them of their responsibilities as Christians.
The two epistles to Timothy and the one to Titus are referred to as the Pastoral Epistles, because they contain instructions for Timothy and Titus in their roles as pastors of the churches at Ephesus and Crete, respectively.
The first of the epistles to Timothy is believed to have been written after Paul was released from his period under house-arrest, but before his final imprisonment and execution, which would place it between about 62 and 66 AD. The second was written in about 66 AD, during the persecution of Christians under Emperor Nero. Paul wrote it from his prison cell, knowing that his execution was close at hand, which makes it especially poignant:
- I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day; and not to me only, but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Tim 4:6 8)
We are introduced to Timothy in the sixteenth chapter of Acts. The setting was Paul’s second missionary journey, the year about 51 AD. Luke writes, “Then he [i.e. Paul] came to Derbe and Lystra. And behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a certain Jewish woman who believed, but his father was a Greek” (Acts 16:1). Luke goes on to tell us that Timothy was well-respected in the local church and that Paul decided to take him along on his missionary travels. Despite Paul’s rejection of the notion that Christians need to obey the Mosaic rite of circumcision, he had Timothy circumcised to avoid any controversy with the Jewish community.
Apparently, there had been prophecies concerning Timothy, for in the first of his letters to him, Paul writes, “This charge I commit to you, son Timothy, according to the prophecies previously made concerning you” (1 Tim 1:18). Timothy traveled with Paul to Macedonia in northern Greece where he assisted him in his work in Troas, Philippi and Thessalonica. Afterwards, Timothy stayed on in Berea to care for the new church there while Paul went on ahead to Athens. Timothy later joined Paul in Athens for a time, before being sent back to Thessalonica to strengthen and encourage the new church. He then rejoined Paul, who had moved on to Corinth, and they lived and ministered together there. On Paul’s third missionary journey, Timothy was with him during his long and fruitful stay in Ephesus.
Though he was half-Jewish, Timothy chiefly evangelized and ministered among non-Jewish people. Paul obviously considered Timothy a capable and trustworthy servant of God, for in his letter to the Thessalonians, he wrote, “We sent Timothy, our brother and minister of God, and our fellow laborer in the Gospel of Christ, to establish you and encourage you concerning your faith, that no one should be shaken by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we are appointed to this” (1 Thess 3:2-3). From other references in Paul’s letters, we know that Timothy was much younger than Paul, that by nature he was reserved and timid, and that he was afflicted by frequent ailments. Nevertheless, he was willing to accompany the apostle on dangerous journeys and to be sent on difficult and challenging missions. In his epistle to the Philippians, Paul says, “As a son with his father, he has served with me in the Gospel” (Phil 2:22). He was Paul’s closest companion and greatest help. He is mentioned more times and with greater affection than any of Paul’s other associates.
The epistle to Titus, like the first of the epistles to Timothy, was written after Paul’s release from house-arrest but before his final imprisonment, which places it between about 62 and 66 AD. Titus was a minister of the Gospel who, like Timothy, was taught and nurtured by Paul. He may have been one of Paul’s converts, for Paul called him “my true son in our common faith” (Titus 1:4).
During his third missionary journey, Paul sent Titus to Corinth to deal with problems of immorality in the church there, and to ask for material assistance for the church in Jerusalem. This visit seems to have been a success, for in 2 Corinthians, Paul writes, “We rejoiced exceedingly for the joy of Titus, because his spirit has been refreshed by you all” (2 Cor 7:13). Later on, Paul delegated to Titus the job of overseer to the churches in Crete, telling him to “set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city” (Titus 1:5). Paul wrote him this epistle to give him encouragement and guidance.
Unlike Timothy, who was circumcised to appease the Jewish community, Paul refused to have Titus circumcised. This is probably because, while Timothy had a Jewish mother (Acts 16:1), Titus’ parents were both Greeks. Paul made it clear that as far as he was concerned, “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but only faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). Soon after this incident, it was officially decided by the Jerusalem Council that it was not necessary for non-Jewish believers to be circumcised.
The island of Crete, where Titus was sent by Paul, lies in the eastern Mediterranean, at the southern end of the Aegean Sea. It is 30 miles from north to south and 150 miles from east to west. It was the home of an ancient and powerful civilization which had long since faded into obscurity in Titus’ and Paul’s day. Halley’s Bible Handbook (Zondervan, 1965) says:
- The highest mountain in Crete, Mt. Ida, was famous as the legendary birthplace of the Greek god Zeus. It was the home of the half-mythical lawgiver Minos, son of Zeus, and of the fabulous Minotaur. The people were akin to the Philistines and thought to have been identical with the Cherethites (1 Sam 30:14). They were daring sailors and famous bowmen, with a very bad moral reputation.
Titus is believed to have remained in Crete until he died.
In the opening of his epistle to Philemon, Paul refers to him as “our dearly beloved, and fellow laborer.” He also mentions “the beloved Apphia” and “Archippus our fellow soldier,” which are generally thought to be Philemon’s wife and son. Philemon lived in Colossae and may have been quite affluent, as the church met in his house (Philemon 2) and he was the owner of at least one slave. We know this latter fact because the subject of the letter is Onesimus, a slave who had run away from Philemon’s household and had come to Paul in Rome.
That Philemon had a slave, and that his slave had run away, might lead us to have a bad first impression of Philemon. Nevertheless, he appears to have been a sincere and dedicated Christian, for Paul writes, “I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers, hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints. For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother” (Philemon 4,5,7). Onesimus, the slave who was the subject of the epistle to Philemon, had apparently robbed his master and run away to Rome, where he somehow found his way to Paul. Whether Onesimus deliberately sought out Paul or came to him by chance is not known, but the meeting was to be a life-changing experience for him. Paul first converted him to Christianity, then persuaded him to return to Philemon. Paul gave him this letter to take with him, in which he implored Philemon to take Onesimus back, not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. In spite of Paul’s commendation, it must have taken a good deal of courage for Onesimus to return to Philemon, for he could have been executed for deserting him. The tone of the letter, however, leads us to believe that Paul had every reason to believe that Philemon would honor his request for clemency toward Onesimus.
Paul as Pastor
Acts contains an account of Paul’s ministry written by Luke, in which we see how Paul devoted his life to expanding the Christian movement beyond the borders of Jewish society, fervently evangelizing the non-Jewish population of the Roman Empire in the face of tremendous opposition. While the account is both moving and instructive, it is largely impersonal. It is only when we leave Acts and move on to Paul’s epistles that we begin to sense the deeply personal nature of Paul’s relationship with the churches which for the most part were established by him, and which he nurtured and served with all of his being.
The picture that emerges of Paul is one of a person who had strong paternal instincts towards the Christians under his leadership. He had a tremendous love and concern for them and felt great joy when they did well and great sorrow when they did not. For example, in his letter to the Galatians, he sharply rebukes them for being led astray by legalists, saying, “How is it you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? I am afraid for you, lest I have labored in vain. I desire to be present with you now and to change my tone; for I have doubts about you” (Gal 4:9,11,20). In contrast to that stern letter is the one to the Philippians. After receiving a gift from them when he was imprisoned in Rome, he wrote back, “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy. For God is my witness, how greatly I long for you all with the affection of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:3,4,8).
Saved by Grace
There are many theological concepts that come to light in Paul’s epistles, but the theme of salvation is central to all of them. Paul’s view on salvation is summed up in these words which he wrote to the church at Ephesus: “By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8). The doctrine of salvation put forth by Paul presupposes the following:
- 1) All humans are in a fallen state.
- 2) The natural consequence of our fallen state is endless suffering.
- 3) To escape endless suffering, we need to be saved from our fallen condition.
- 4) We are incapable of saving ourselves.
- 5) Therefore, we need a Savior.
Paul apparently considered that the need for salvation was self-evident, for he did not dwell on the circumstances of how human beings came into their fallen state, but focused on the solution, which, for Paul, was the forgiveness of sin made possible through the atonement of Christ:
- By one man [i.e. Adam] sin entered into the world, and death by sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned. But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, have abounded to many. (Rom 5:12,15)
Beyond the basic understanding that salvation is a gift which is available to all through faith in Christ, Paul’s doctrine of salvation encompasses various theological concepts. A familiarity with some of these concepts helps us to better understand the nature of salvation as it is presented in Paul's epistles. The next few sections will deal with the major themes.
In his letter to Titus, Paul writes:
- Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior. (Titus 3:5 6)
Regeneration, or rebirth, happens at the time of conversion. The necessary conditions are faith and repentance. Having faith means trusting in the grace of God for salvation, and acting upon that faith. Repentance is the decision to redirect our lives away from materialism and toward God, with Christ as our guide. When these conditions have been met, spiritual growth begins. Jesus said, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:3). Just as we were once born into the physical world, at the time of conversion we are born into the spiritual world. We begin the path toward spiritual maturity, just as a child is born and grows towards physical maturity.
Justification, in this context, is a legal term, related to the word "justice". To "justify” means to "make just” or, in more familiar terms, to "make innocent" -- in effect, to receive a verdict of "not guilty." The standard by which our guilt is measured is the Law of Moses, from the last four books of the Torah (books 2-5 of the Hebrew scriptures, or Old Testament). According to Paul, we have been redeemed by Christ, allowing us the status of "not guilty", even though in reality we are guilty of failing to live up to God's standards as expressed in the "Mosaic Law". Paul writes, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:23 24). Two basic concepts are apparent here:
- 1) We all fall short of God’s standard of righteousness (as it is represented in the Law of Moses), and are therefore guilty of wrongdoing (sin).
- 2) We are justified (exonerated of any wrongdoing) as a result of “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
To illustrate the concept of redemption: we can obtain a loan from a pawnbroker by leaving an object of value in his possession, but in order to get the object back, we have to redeem it, which means that we have to pay a price. Similarly, Christ paid a price to redeem us. He did this by sacrificing his own life in place of ours. Since atonement has already been made, we are justified (i.e. adjudged "not guilty") in the sight of God and will not be subject to the final judgment. (For more on the final judgment, see the lessons on Revelation.)
To “sanctify” is to “make holy or pure.” Some people believe that sanctification happens instantaneously at the time of conversion, like regeneration and justification. But it is also seen as a progressive process which begins at the time of conversion and continues throughout the believer’s life. It is really a matter of how one defines the word, for there is a scriptural basis for both views.
In the Old Testament, when something was sanctified, whether it was a person, a place, an object, or a day in the calendar, it was set apart for God and henceforth belonged to him. Sanctification took effect immediately and completely. This definition can be applied to the believer, who from the time of conversion belongs to God completely and eternally, even though he or she is not yet perfected. Therefore, if one defines the word to mean “set apart for God,” sanctification is immediate rather than gradual, taking place at the time of conversion.
According to the second definition, sanctification means, to quote Paul, “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29). It does not merely mean to set apart, but to make holy and pure. This is a process which begins at the time of conversion, but is ongoing throughout the believer’s life. This is why some people talk in terms of progressive sanctification.
Faith in Christ
Foremost among the principles of salvation expounded in Paul’s epistles is the need to have faith (trust) in Christ. It is an ever-present theme and Paul uses the word "faith" about a hundred and forty times. In Paul's view, we cannot have access to justification (see above) or the grace of God except through faith:
- Having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we also have access by faith into this grace in which we stand. (Rom 5:1-2)
While Paul exhorts believers to adhere to a moral lifestyle and believes such a life is a consequence of faith, he emphasizes that good deeds do not have any saving grace in and of themselves. While good deeds are desirable, righteousness (i.e. rightness with God) comes through faith alone:
- But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the law and the prophets -- even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe... We conclude that a person is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. (Rom 3:21-22, 28)
While a number of themes related to salvation arise in the writings of Paul, they all hinge on faith in the grace of God, through which justification, regeneration, sanctification, and salvation itself are possible. Through faith in God, Paul anticipates a rich reward at the end of his life, as we see in these words to the church at Corinth: "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Cor 2:9).
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