Paul was the apostle from whom the New Testament Church learned about the grace of God. Therefore to understand this grace more fully New Testament believers ought to study the practical outworking of God’s grace in his life and then seek to imitate him. Paul urged the believers at Corinth, “I urge you to imitate me…follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” What was Paul’s attitude toward life? Let us examine it and then have that same attitude.
Instead of using the usual figures from the Old Testament as our model, we ought primarily to follow the footsteps of Paul as he followed Christ. Like him, we are New Testament believers—no longer in the Old Testament or living under the Law of Moses. Hebrews 10 tell us that the law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming–not the realities themselves to be found in Christ in the New Testament. The fullness of God’s grace has been revealed only to New Testament believers.
What were the actual result and practical outworking of God’s grace in Paul’s life? By answering this question New Testament believers can understand in what kind of grace we should seek to excel in this life. Paul urged the Corinthians to “see that you also excel in this grace of giving” (2 Corinthians 8:7), meaning that it is possible to excel in the various forms of God’s grace.
To do this we will examine different aspects of Paul’s life:
- Encounter with Jesus Christ
- Purpose in life on earth
- Personal holiness
- Ministry & producing fruit for the Lord
- Suffering & persecution
- Signs and wonders
Many Christians today seek benefits from God in this life through His love and by His grace—whether material, emotional, or spiritual. But Paul had a radically different perspective: In view of what God had already done for him through Christ, Paul encouraged himself and his readers to live holy, productive, and obedient lives on earth in the fear of the Lord—in anticipation of their reward in the next age. That was how the grace of God was revealed in Paul’s life. This is true, scriptural “Radical Grace.”
There is serious imbalance in some circles of the Church today in the understanding of grace. Today some very large churches teach on the kind of grace which results in God’s varied blessings to us in this life and focuses on what can God do for us now. When attending such churches one gets the strong impression that Almighty God’s primary occupation is to make Christians comfortable and feel good about themselves. This goes a long way in explaining why those churches are so “successful”. But the grace of God in Paul’s life led him to ask what he could do for God during his short span on earth. Let us examine this issue to find out on which kind of grace we should major, and on which kind we should minor.
Interestingly, even though Paul was brought up in Judaism—far more legalistic than traditional forms of Christianity found in the west—he did not suffer from an inability to experience God’s love and to understand His grace after coming to Christ. Yet many who have a strict religious upbringing have difficulty understanding God’s love and grace even after coming to Christ. Evidently something has been missing in the teaching of the evangelical Church. It should not take believers an entire lifetime to understand God’s love before they can start producing good fruit for Him.
1. Encounter with Jesus Christ
According to Acts 9, Paul saw Jesus in a vision while he was on his way to Damascus. He was blinded by the vision, and for three days did not eat or drink as he likely spent the time contemplating on what he had experienced and seeking the Lord whom he had seen. At the end of three days Ananias was sent by the Lord to lay hands on Paul. At that moment Paul’s eyes were opened and he was baptized in the Holy Spirit. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.
That was God’s amazing grace on Paul. After he was saved and healed and baptized in the Holy Spirit, Paul immediately began to preach the gospel. I also experienced the grace of God in a somewhat similar way. After I was baptized in the Holy Spirit many years ago, I felt the overwhelming and indescribable love of Jesus Christ flood my entire being. Although I was within a year of my Ph.D. at the University of California, I gave it up to serve the Lord. All I wanted to do was to tell people about Jesus and his love. Soon after that I was on the streets and sidewalks of Southern California with my powerful bullhorn urging people to repent and to believe in Jesus Christ. That was the grace of God, or shall we say, the Radical Grace of God. I can say that the grace that Paul experienced nearly 2,000 years ago is still available today. Do believers today desire this grace, or do they look elsewhere?
2. Purpose in life on earth
The grace of God enabled Paul to focus on one primary goal in his life. That goal was to win the prize for which God had called him to heaven—his eternal reward. God’s grace enabled him not to be distracted by the other pressing concerns in life. Everything in this life would pass away, but his reward would be eternal.
Philippians 3:12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind [forget the guilt and shame and failtures of the past] and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
1 Corinthians 9:25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.
Paul’s prize would be a crown: authority to rule with Christ in the next age which would last forever.
2 Timothy 4:7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day–and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
By God’s grace, Paul saw life as a race to be finished, and finished going away like the Triple Crown-winning racehorse Secretariat who won his final race by an astounding 31 lengths in 1973. Paul’s prize for finishing the race would be a crown of authority to reign with Christ in the next age. Many believers today do not see life in that way. For them, life on earth with God’s blessing is to be enjoyed to the fullest possible, and then after that they somehow graduate to heaven. That is the grace that they have been taught, and so they have not excelled in the Radical Grace which Paul experienced. Satan has used “American Dream theology” so prevalent in some churches to rob God’s people of that kind of New Testament Radical Grace.
A believer’s eternal reward in the next age is also by grace. Scripture teaches us that our reward will be greatly out of proportion to the relatively little that we have accomplished for God in this life.
“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ (Matthew 25:21)
That is the true Radical Grace of God.
We personally have chosen to excel in this Radical Grace. We are not interested in what this world has to offer. We have already traveled to three dozen nations in the world and counting and have seen much. But we are not impressed by what we have seen, and are seeking after something far more glorious: eternal reward from the Lord in the next age. Like Paul we are determined to finish the race going away. We have chosen to excel in this type of grace instead of the kind that maximizes earthly comfort and satisfaction.
Nor are we interested in being a superstar, one-man-show preacher. We prefer to remain low-profile and anonymous and to carry out our calling to equip “ordinary” disciples to fulfill the Great Commission. Our reward will be in heaven.
Like Paul, we want to be able to say:
“Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God.” (2 Corinthians 2:17)
All of our Training materials we give away freely without charge, for “freely we have received, so freely we give.”
Moreover, “we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Corinthians 4:2)
3. Personal holiness
By God’s grace Paul taught and excelled in holiness—overcoming sin and the works of the flesh in order to walk in obedience to the Lord’s command. This was of course a result of the work of grace in Paul’s life. Now exactly what did Jesus command?
Matthew 5:48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
It was surely Paul’s goal to obey this command.
Philippians 3:12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on…
Paul had not yet attained perfection, but he was pressing on toward that goal. Exactly what did he mean by being perfect?
Philippians 3:10 I want to know Christ–yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,
According to the context in Philippians, being perfect can signify “becoming like Christ in his death.” How was Christ in his death?
Philippians 2:8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death–even death on a cross!
Christ was obedient to His Father’s will for him to die on the cross. To be perfect therefore is to be obedient to God’s commands. Paul was obedient to put to death the works of his flesh in order to live a life of holiness for God.
Romans 8:13 …if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.
Paul did this so that he would not be disqualified for his eternal reward after having preached to others.
1 Corinthians 9:27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
He did not want to be disqualified from receiving his eternal reward because he allowed sin in his personal life. By exercising authority over his flesh and making it his slave, he could effectively put it to death. The sin nature would have no more power to control him any longer. He would be able to walk in actual holiness.
The grace of God therefore is far, far more than simply God forgiving us of our sins—past, present, and future (or so it is taught by some). The true grace of God enables us to walk in holiness as Jesus did. This is Radical Grace. We forget the guilt, shame, and failures behind us in the past and press on ahead toward our reward from the Lord.
Paul commands us to set our minds on things in heaven. He commands us to put to death sexual immorality, impurity, lust, and evil desires which enslaved us all at one time. By the grace of God, believers can actually do this.
Colossians 3:2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Colossians 3:5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. 7 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived.
I have experienced this grace in my own personal life. When I was younger, I was enslaved to pornography and fantasy lust as well as the behavior which inevitably accompanies such slavery. By the grace of God I have put them to death. In that area I can now live a life pleasing to God. Therefore this grace taught by Paul is available to believers today. It is far more than someone committing the sin of fantasy lust accompanied by masturbation over and over, and then each time asking and receiving forgiveness from God. Radical Grace rather enables us to overcome the sin entirely and live holy lives pleasing to God.
My wife and I have been happily married for 37 years and counting. We actually say “good morning” and hug each other every morning after we wake up. We are kind and courteous to one another. By God’s wonderful grace, we have learned how to love one another, putting to death our own selfish desires in obedience to the Lord’s commands. We believe we are leaving a good example for our daughters to follow. We believe this pleases the Lord.
Neither of us has ever been divorced; we are each in our first (and only) marriage. Only death shall do us part, as we vowed to each other and before God many years ago. Of course divorce in some cases is in order according to Scripture, and even when it is not it is forgivable when there is confession and repentance. But it is better, if possible, for believers never to go through divorce.
This is the grace which is available to New Testament believers. Again, it is far more than simply forgiveness after we have sinned or fallen short. Rather it enables us to obey the Lord’s command to live in holiness, without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). This is the Radical Grace of God which was evident in the life of Paul. And it is available to believers today.
Radical Grace as seen in the New Testament, therefore, does not have much to do with outward blessing or earthly comfort but rather the supernatural strength to live a holy life pleasing to the Lord. The earthly comfort will follow by itself. “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. 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 appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ… (Titus 2:11-13)
By the grace of God we are in very good health even though I am at the age when I am eligible to retire. Compared to our contemporaries with the same level of formal education, we have negligible savings set aside for retirement. But I am in very good health; my blood pressure is that of a young person. For the past two decades we have had no medical insurance of any kind, and by God’s grace have not needed any. (Paul apparently did without it.) And by God’s grace neither will we need retirement benefits to live on because we never intend to retire. The Lord has given us the grace to exercise self-control over what we eat, and the discipline to exercise at the gym about six times a week when we are at home and not away on a mission trip.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)
This is the result of God’s Radical Grace in our lives. It cannot be bought with money. If we had to choose, should we major in God’s grace for good health and godly contentment, or for material blessing and success in the world?
4. Ministry & producing fruit for the Lord
Paul also excelled in the grace of working hard and bearing good fruit for the kingdom of God.
1 Corinthians 15:10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them–yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.
Interestingly, Paul here strongly implies that God’s grace to us can be without effect, that is, in vain. Sadly this is what happens to many believers. God’s grace is available for us to work hard for God in obedience to His commands with our eternal reward in mind. But because of a distorted teaching on grace the terms “good works” and “obedience” have become almost impolite in some evangelical circles.
But God’s grace to Paul was with great effect. He served the Lord very diligently preaching the gospel and teaching the word of God and was arguably the greatest missionary of all time.
God’s grace to my wife and me was also not without effect. In 1978, two years after I accepted Christ, my wife and I left the United States as missionaries to share the gospel to people who had never heard in remote primitive regions of Indonesia. At that time I was completely unprepared, humanly-speaking, for such an venture. I had not yet quite finished reading the Bible. I had never preached a sermon or taught Sunday School in church. We had no financial support from any church, and no mission agency to direct us. No church sent us. No one invited us to Indonesia, and no one in Indonesia knew that we were coming. I had only a 28-day tourist visa when I arrived in Jakarta. Later when we flew into the primitive state of West Borneo, we had no idea who was going to pick us up at the airport, where we were going to stay, or what we were going to do. But by the grace of God within the space of three months we planted two churches in two remote villages in West Borneo where for all practical purposes the gospel had not been heard.
To download and read the story of our beginnings, click on Dancing on the Edge of the Earth.
That was in 1978. After our nine years as missionaries in Indonesia, we pastored local churches in New York City and in Houston. In 2000 we started The Elijah Challenge, again by God’s grace. By 2012 we had ministered and taught in three dozen countries and counting, and trained tens of thousands of disciples around the world to minister in the spirit and power of Elijah. God has graciously made us very fruitful. We have worked very hard, yet not we, but the grace of God that was with us. And we are still far from finishing our race. In recent years God’s grace has been increasingly evident upon us, His most unworthy servants.
Therefore God’s grace is radical and it is available to believers. But it is up to them whether or not that grace will be with effect, or be in vain. It is up to us to choose to excel in the grace of serving, giving of ourselves and ministering to others instead of excelling in the “grace” of receiving God’s blessings and comfort in this life. It is better to give than to receive. In a practical sense it may be very difficult to excel in both kinds of grace in our life on earth. We must have a single focus.
Some will answer that like Abraham we are called to be “blessed to be a blessing.” Yes, indeed. But the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. As we seek to be blessed in order to be a blessing, many of us will be enticed to enjoy the blessings so much that the motivation to be a blessing will become an afterthought. Either we are preoccupied with seeking after the blessing of comfort on earth, or we are busy seeking to bless and minister to others. It is difficult to serve two masters.
Paul’s focus was clearly on spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms, and not in the earthly realm.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. (Ephesians 1:3)
Let us examine Paul’s position on finances. Keep in mind that Paul was the “apostle of grace.”
Philippians 4:12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.
Paul was not a wealthy believer; sometimes he was in need. At times he lived in want and went hungry. But the grace of God enabled him to be content in any and every situation. Paul personally did not experience the grace of God to be wealthy, owning homes and lands and businesses.
Yet today we are taught in some circles that by the grace of God all believers can receive abundant financial blessings, even becoming millionaires. New Testament servants of God who live humbly like Paul are said to have a spirit of poverty, to have not sowed liberally into a good ministry, or even to have been cursed by God under Old Testament law according to Malachi 3:9.
It is not recorded that Paul ever raised funds for his own ministry. In 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 he did encourage the Corinthians to give liberally to help believers in famine-stricken Judea. But nowhere in the New Testament did he ever make a direct appeal for his own ministry, although in his letter to the Philippians he did express appreciation to those who supported him. We can say that Paul did not excel in the “grace” of receiving offerings for his own ministry as some do today. Interesting, Paul did not teach tithing to the local church as is so heavily emphasized today. Rather he taught giving cheerfully—and not under compulsion by the fear of being cursed by God for failing to tithe.
2 Corinthians 9:7 Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
Note that the context of Corinthians here is not tithing to the local church at Corinth, but rather giving to help the believers in distant famine-stricken Jerusalem.
My wife and I have decided to follow in Paul’s footsteps. We personally do not raise funds for the ministry the Lord has entrusted to us. (On one occasion we did bring up a need for a pastor couple in West Borneo, Indonesia.) We never demand an exorbitant fee or charge dearly for our services as some well-known preachers customarily do, but are content with whatever the Lord provides through His people. As a result of this position, we know what it is to be in need, and we know what it is to have plenty. But God’s grace has enabled us to learn the secret of being content in any and every situation. We are content to live on an annual personal income of US$36,000, sufficient for our simple basic needs. We are able to have impact on the Great Commission around the world far out of proportion to our modest budget. This is God’s grace and true prosperity according to the New Testament. Prosperity as seen in Old Testament is but a shadow of the spiritual riches we now have through Christ. Paul described himself:
…Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything. (2 Corinthians 6:10)
By giving away for free what the Lord has so graciously given and entrusted to us, we are making many others rich in ministry. We have nothing, yet we possess everything. We will understand this better as we move on to the next age.
We are not at all saying that believers cannot be wealthy, or that they cannot own profitable businesses. But it must be clear that there is a definite purpose for wealth in the hands of a disciple. Paul “commands those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.” (1 Timothy 6:17-19)
Therefore the primary purpose of earthly riches for a wealthy believer in this life is for him or her to store up treasure in heaven, not primarily to enjoy life on earth. Too often we forget that we are New Testament believers and have passed out of the Old. Our primary model should be New Testament disciples like Paul, and not figures from the Old Testament which is but a shadow.
6. Persecution & suffering
Persecution because of Jesus Christ is also a form of grace, because it results in a great reward in heaven.
Matthew 5:11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Paul endured physical suffering in various ways because of his ministry for the kingdom of God. Did Paul regret this suffering? Was his suffering in vain? Of course not. This again is God’s grace—the grace to suffer for His name’s sake.
2 Corinthians 11:23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. …25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea,
In 2001 I was chased by angry Muslims from an outdoor meeting in Karachi, Pakistan where I was preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. They threatened us with physical harm. In 2003 my wife and I had to flee from a large evangelistic meeting in Vietnam when the communist police showed up to arrest us. Such experiences are neither glamorous nor fun but frightening at the time. To suffer such for the kingdom of heaven is the grace of God; it means that we unworthy servants have been counted worthy.
Acts 5:41 The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.
Are believers today taught about the grace of suffering for the Lord? Rarely so. Rather in some circles they are taught about God’s grace for “effortless success, wholeness, and victorious living” in order to enjoy His blessings in this life. The model they are taught to follow is not Paul or Jesus, but rather often some materially blessed figure in the Old Testament—but these are mere shadows. At the risk of being repetitious, material blessings from God seen in the Old Testament are but a shadow of the reality to be found in Christ. The reality is the hope of eternal life which we have in Christ. The reality is the glorious reward over and above salvation which we receive from the Lord in the next age based in part on our works and personal holiness in obedience to the Lord’s commands. The shadow cannot be compared with the reality. Let us remove the veil from our eyes.
Should we prefer to excel in the grace which was so evident in Paul’s life, or rather major in the grace to receive blessing and comfort now? Not that we do not desire this satisfaction on earth, but where should our priorities lie? My wife and I now experience “heaven on earth” because many years ago in response to a prophecy we decided to obey God like Abraham and Sarah—to seek His kingdom and His righteousness in our lives first before seeking anything else. We do experience abundant comfort from the Lord in our lives on earth now, but we did not seek after it. Rather we first sought His kingdom and His righteousness.
7. Signs and wonders
Romans 15:19 by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ.
2 Corinthians 12:12 I persevered in demonstrating among you the marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles.
God’s grace was also evident in Paul’s apostolic ministry in the form of miraculous healings, signs and wonders. While not all believers are apostles, Jesus promised that believers would do the works that He did, including healing the sick, casting out demons, preaching the gospel, and making disciples.
John 14:12 Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing…
The grace to heal the sick and cast out demons is available to every believer, especially for preaching the gospel to the lost. That is what is taught in The Elijah Challenge. We freely teach believers to excel in that kind of grace for the sake of the Great Commission. But sadly, many believers would rather excel in the grace of receiving and enjoying God’s blessings and comfort in this life.
Why not enjoy our pie now and later in heaven as well?
God of course does not forbid us from receiving both kinds of grace. But you cannot serve two masters; you will experience uncomfortable conflict when you have two different priorities in life. Therefore in which kind of grace will you choose to excel and major? Will you focus on enjoying your reward primarily in this life, or later in the next age?
Psychological studies have shown that while children prefer to receive immediate reinforcement now rather than wait to receive a greater reward later, adults make the opposite choice. Adults do not mind reinforcement which is delayed in anticipation of a much greater reward later.
And so Paul urged the Corinthian believers, “Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children.” (1 Cor 14:20) “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” Why did Paul live the way he did? It was because the grace of God was revealed to him, and it was not without effect. More than anyone else in the New Testament, he understood the grace of God and lived by it.
We understand that some who come from a strict religious background or were raised in a home lacking parental love will need reassurance of God’s love. But again, an entire lifetime should not be spent seeking God’s comfort. Let us press on to serve the Lord, obey His commands, and produce good fruit for Him. His grace is available for you to accomplish this. He is coming soon. His reward is with Him, and He will give to each person according to what they have done.
Contrast: Popular teaching on God’s Grace
Feedback from Keith Roussel, Missionary to the Philippines
“I just wanted to email you and say that I enjoyed your article on Radical New Testiment Grace. Here in the Philippines there seems to be a grace movement spreading. This movement basically teaches that Jesus just wants you to be saved and just to love God, live your life and that’s it. It is stripping believers of any duty or responsibility of bearing fruit, shining their light in the dark world, bringing in the harvest, walking in holiness and purity. It’s causing believers to hold on to a form of godliness yet denying its power to bring change into their lives as well as in the lives of others. It’s as if God gives us a spiritual car (representing his grace) and the devil comes with this teaching and sucks all the gasoline out of it so they can’t go anywhere.”