Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
(1 Corinthians 15:7-11)
59. Who are made partakers of redemption through Christ?
Redemption is certainly applied, and effectually communicated, to all those for whom Christ hath purchased it; who are in time by the Holy Ghost enabled to believe in Christ, according to the gospel.*
With the possible exception of David there is no person in the Bible about whose public and inner life we know more than the Apostle Paul’s. This bounty of information would appear to make a study of “effectual calling” based on Paul’s life and thought a straightforward undertaking. It is not.
It is not because there is no person in the Bible whose faith, mission, character and relationships intersected with controversy more than did those of this Great Apostle. To engage with Paul is to encounter the deepest issues of faith with all hope for the quiet life lost. It is to come face to face with the contradictions and frailties of human nature yet somehow redeemed and sanctified by impossible grace. To engage with The Apostle Paul raises uncomfortable questions about the identity and meaning of Christ, about God’s sovereignty, about our responsibilities as willful creatures, about our gender relationships, about the potential for human fellowship – about every issue that vexed the Roman world and that vexes us still to this day.
Another problem is the vastness of Paul’s work, both in volume and depth. His actions dominate the Book of Acts. We also have a corpus of fourteen Epistles (though some are in dispute), each one a treasure trove of theological thought hidden within the shifting kaleidoscope of culture, conflict, politics, relationship and love that drove Paul’s pen by the Spirit’s Holy power.
Paul’s imprint on primitive Christianity is so powerful that some historians have declared him to be its true founder. Such a claim would have been rejected by this slave of Christ as a terrible blasphemy. And yet, Paul’s work, carried out on the razor’s edge of faith, politics and cultural norms, was indeed setting in motion a movement that would ultimately overcome the great Roman Empire and then much of the world beyond.
Was Paul the Great Apostle, filled by the Holy Spirit in order that he might carry the Gospel to the Gentiles? Or, was Paul the interloper who hijacked The Way and turned it in directions never intended by its Founder?
You, dear reader, may wonder at the inclusion of such stark questions at the very beginning of this journey. After all, Paul’s letters are safely included in every New Testament. His words are read during worship around the globe. But, for all that, Paul remains a figure saturated by controversy, held at arm’s length even by many in the Church, always in danger of being rejected once the next verse is read.
The early Church has spoken with one voice – he is the Great Apostle. That is, he is not Christianity’s corruptor, not it’s true founder; he is rather its faithful vessel, carrying its anazing Good News to a dark and dying world.
The error of his critics (or are some of them admirers?) is to mistake the vessel for its filler. The Apostle Paul was indeed the most notable vessel of this Good News that remade the world. He was not, though, anything but that, a vessel emptied of pride, position, past fellowship – all – to be refilled with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. No one was clearer on this point than Paul himself.
This is the Apostle that I will follow, a broken and redeemed man. So transformed by his encounter with Jesus Christ that no suffering, no barrier, no loss could possibly compare to the surpassing joy of serving his Lord and Savior. He remained broken, but even that was transformed through Christ’s power into spiritual light that shows the way forward.
He still beckons us to follow. Not as a shining example of human success, but rather as a humble, weather-beaten sign who’s only self-understood value is in to what it points – the Lord and Savior of humankind, Jesus, the Christ.
*The LARGER CATECHISM, The CONSTITUTION of the PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH (U.S.A.) PART I BOOK OF CONFESSIONS