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The epistles of Paul furnish a most valuable supplement to the narrative of his life as found in the Book of Acts. His language often reflects the time when he was “a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious” (1 Tim. 1:13), and we see him carrying the same fiery zeal—tempered into a calm, steady flame of Christian love—into his missionary labors. He pictures himself as a Pharisee, striving to obtain righteousness of his own by deeds of legal obedience (Phil. 3:9). In Rom. 7:7–25, we have a leaf from his pre-Christian experience, which shows how the conflict between sin and conscience raged within him until he found peace through faith in Christ. Like Luther, he had tried the path of pious works and ritualistic practices and had found that it led him only to despair. He could never be sure that he had fully done the divine will. He was haunted by the fear that the balance was against him. His conclusion was that the effort to achieve salvation by his own meritorious deeds was hopeless, and this conclusion drove him to Christ to accept salvation freely offered on the simple condition of faith. This experience was the foundation of Paul’s whole philosophy regarding the purpose and use of the law. It was, he says, a tutor unto Christ (Gal. 3:24). Its aim was to “humble the proud to desire Christ’s aid.” (Luther).
The epistles also throw important light upon the experience by which Paul became a Christian. They show how marked, and sudden was the transformation. He persisted in “making havoc” of the church up to the very moment of the change. On the day of his great experience, he rode at the head of a military troop toward Damascus to seize and imprison any Christians he might find there. But, though he knew it not, his doubts about his own acceptableness to God and his conscious failure to fulfill the law had been preparing him to welcome gracious salvation. He needed but to see that Christ was the true Messiah and Saviour to accept him with all his heart and soul. This disclosure was made to him on that memorable day when God graciously revealed his Son in him (Gal. 1:16). Spiritual changes commonly come suddenly in such natures as Paul’s. The course of divine providence and the processes of the Spirit, which had been secretly and mysteriously leading up to it, cannot be traced in detail, but when the change came, it was radical and thorough. Saul, the persecutor, was a new creature in Christ and a germinal apostle of Christianity to the nations. A new world opened before him, and a new love made him count all things as worthless in comparison with the excellency of the knowledge of Christ. – Phil. 3:8.
Throughout his life, Paul was true to the heavenly vision of Christ’s supreme glory, which flashed upon his heart that day on the way to Damascus. There never lived a more consistent and thorough-going Christian. Much as we admire Paul the missionary and Paul the teacher, we must admire even more Paul the sincere, earnest, consecrated Christian man. If he had not been such a man as he was, he could never have done the work which he achieved as a Christian apostle and theologian.
But the strength and robustness of Paul’s character are not more clearly reflected in his epistles than his tenderness. He wept as he wrote his letters of encouragement and warning to his beloved converts (Phil. 3:18). His friendships were very close and affectionate. How overflowing with love is his language to Philemon, Timothy, and Titus, and even to the most faulty and erring of the congregations under his charge. In a published sermon on The Tears of St. Paul, a distinguished French preacher, Adolphe Monod, says, toward the close: “The tears of the apostle have explained him to us. The power of his apostleship was in his personal Christianity, and his Christianity was a Christianity of tears. By tears of grief, he subdued others by gaining their sympathy; by tears of love, he gained their love, and by tears of tenderness, he persuaded others by the simplicity of his gospel.”