Why I Love the Apostle Paul

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

I have lived with the apostle Paul for over sixty years — admired him, envied him, feared him, pounded on him, memorized him, written poems about him, wept over his sufferings, soared with him, sunk to the brink of death with him, spent eight years preaching through his longest letter, imitated him. Ha! Imitated him! In ten lives, I would not come close to his sufferings — or what he saw.

Can you know a two-thousand-year-old man from thirteen letters (or even six, if you want to be really skeptical) and a short travel-log of his ministry by his personal physician, Luke (the book of Acts)? Yes, you can. And when you get to know him, you will either love him and believe him, or hate him as an imposter, or pity him as deceived, or, perhaps, simply be oblivious that you are dealing with a real man. No historical scholar I am aware of seriously thinks that the Paul we meet in the New Testament is a legend. As the decades of my companionship with Paul have gone by, I have come to love him and believe him.

Give Me Jesus

I find it impossible to separate my appreciation-love from my admiration-love. I am thankful not only for Paul’s life-giving teaching, but also for the admirable excellencies of his life and ministry. I owe my life to the gospel of Jesus — and no one has taken me deeper into the mysteries of the gospel than Paul. And after the Lord Jesus himself, no one has won my admiration more.

“When you get to know this man, you will either love him or hate him, pity him or ignore him.”

I am glad that he said, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Christ is the Himalayan touchstone — without sin! But Paul shares not only my humanity, but also my sinful humanity. Yet oh, what heights of greatness and Godwardness he attained — through suffering! I love him for the Christ he shows me, for the unsearchable riches of truth he opens to me, and for the constellation of his personal excellencies — all the more compelling because of how diverse, even paradoxical, they are.

Five Reasons I Love Paul

I originally thought of 32 reasons why I love Paul, but it would take a book to unfold all of them, so here are five of the most significant reasons, in some detail.

1. A massive change came into Paul’s life through his experience on the Damascus road, and turned him from being a killer of Christians into being a lover of Christ and his people.

You have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. . . . [But now those who once feared me are saying,] “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they glorified God because of me. (Galatians 1:13, 23–24)

“God turned this man from a killer of Christians into a lover of Christ and his people.”

Paul’s public life, before and after his conversion to Christ, was known by hundreds, probably thousands. His transformation, from murderer to lover, was widely known and undeniable. He is not claiming a private conversion experience. He is stating a public fact. His own explanation was that he had seen the risen Jesus and received forgiveness and a mission.

He [Jesus] was buried, and was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. . . . Last of all he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. (1 Corinthians 15:4, 8–9)

I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:16)

Everything that causes me to love Paul flows from this change. Either it is all owing to a great delusion, or it is worthy of my deepest amazement and admiration. The kind of human soul that emerges from his letters is not the soul of a deluded fanatic. Why I believe that is what this article is about.

2. Paul had an incomparably high view of God’s sovereignty in salvation mingled with heartfelt tears for those who were not saved.

“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (Romans 9:15–18)

My conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. (Romans 9:1–3)

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. (Romans 10:1)

However we may try to put God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility together, Paul himself cherished God’s sovereignty to save, and wept over those who refused to come. He saw and he lived this mystery. His mind is not so small or brittle that it breaks while encompassing complex greatness.

“Paul cherished God’s sovereignty to save, and wept over those who refused to come. He saw and lived this mystery.”

3. Paul was utterly devoted to the calling that the risen Christ had given him, even though it cost him incomparable sufferings.

“I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:24)

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness. (2 Timothy 4:7–8)

I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation. (Romans 15:20)

In this unwavering commitment to his God-given mission, the labors and sufferings were almost unbearable and unremitting.

[I have served Christ] with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:23–29)

If you say, this sounds like bragging, you would be right, in a sense. False apostles were trying to undermine his work in Corinth. They boasted of great credentials. So Paul says — and he knows this is very risky! — “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one — I am talking like a madman” (2 Corinthians 11:23).

In other words, only fools brag like this. So, yes! “I have been a fool! You forced me to it, for I ought to have been commended by you. For I was not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing” (2 Corinthians 12:11). That is risky. And I love him for taking the risk. Because I know from thirteen letters that this is not a craven egotist who needs propping up through praise. The difference between a sane man and a madman is that when the sane man talks like a madman, he knows it.

4. Paul knew he was not a perfect man, and he did not hide his flaws, but made them an occasion to help others fight for holiness and joy.

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . . . I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. . . . I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind. . . . Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:15, 18, 22–25)

“Paul was utterly and joyfully devoted to Christ, even though it cost him everything.”

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (Philippians 3:12)

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:15–16)

This is utterly astonishing, that a man with Paul’s authority and exalted role in the early church — commissioned by the risen Christ himself — should be as vulnerable with his own imperfections. This is not the way of a deluded or a deceptive man. It has the mark of deep and humble inner security and mental health.

5. Another mark of human maturity and mental well-being and authenticity is that Paul’s soul was marked by the beautiful interweaving of enormous powers of reason and profound capacities for emotion, both of which he put in the service of others.

Virtually all who have undertaken, with patience and rigor, to trace Paul’s thinking in his letter to the Romans agree: here is a towering intellect at work. Many have called it the greatest letter ever written — if only for the majesty of its content and the meticulousness of its reasoning. Even his enemies saw these intellectual gifts:

As he [Paul] was saying these things in his defense, Festus [the Roman governor] said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.” (Acts 26:24)

Paul believed that the serious application of mental power was part of what it meant to follow Christ. Though formally educated at the feet of a famous teacher (Acts 22:3), Paul did not see himself as the kind of intellectual who would use his powers to outwit others and exalt himself. On the contrary, he called all Christians to think for themselves:

Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. (1 Corinthians 14:20)

Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. (2 Timothy 2:7)

“The apostle Paul did not hide his flaws, but made them an occasion to help others fight for holiness and joy.”

I speak as to reasonable people; judge for yourselves what I say. (1 Corinthians 10:15)

The apostle Peter even drew attention to the complexity and difficulty involved in understanding some of what Paul wrote:

There are some things in [his letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. (2 Peter 3:16)

But in spite of the complexity and profundity of his thought, the balance and humanity of the man shines through the depth and tenderness and intensity of his emotions which (like his own imperfections) he is not hesitant to reveal.

We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. (1 Thessalonians 2:7–8)

My brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. (Philippians 4:1)

God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:8)

I am sending him [Onesimus] back to you, sending my very heart. (Philemon 12)

We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. In return (I speak as to children) widen your hearts also. (2 Corinthians 6:11–13)

The point here is that Paul’s combination of rationality and emotional authenticity are not the mark of a deluded or deceptive man. He bears the marks of a mature, mentally healthy, and stable man.

These are five of the reasons I have a deep affection and admiration and thankfulness for the apostle Paul. I love him. I believe what he taught. I hear the ring of truth in his letters. I see the mark of divine reality in his life and teaching.

I want the banner over my life to be the same as the one flying over his: to magnify the supreme greatness of Christ! “It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1:20).

Paul lived utterly for the glory of God in Christ. Why? Because this is why all things exist. “From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36).