Sermon: The Gospel – The Fuel and Pattern of the Christian Life – A Brief Biography of the Apostle Paul

Today at Stonebrook I was honored to preach on the Apostle Paul. Here are my sermon notes for reference. Audio should be posted soon at Update: Audio has been posted at

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Sermon Text: 1 Timothy 1:1-17


Two weeks ago Brad talked about the story of the Apostle Peter, and drew out aspects of God’s grace and mercy from what the scriptures tell us about his life, and this morning, I am very excited to do the same with the Apostle Paul.

What I want to show you this morning is that Paul’s life and writings teach us, that Amazement at God’s Magnificent Grace is The Fuel and The Pattern for The Christian Life.

It is the fuel, because amazement at His Grace has the powerful ability to stir our hearts to true, deep, and lasting joy-filled worship, in every circumstance of life.  It is the pattern in that it sets for us the example, and gives us the foundational attitude and motivation alignment we need to carry out the commands of the new testament in a faith-filled, non-legalistic way.

I wish I had time to line this all out for you in detail today, but I hope to introduce this concept to you in way that is compelling enough to drive you to run hard after it, and I believe a good beginning point in this is a look at Paul’s life, so this is where we are going to start.

Paul’s life was very different from Peter’s, a vast contrast.  I think maybe the only thing they had in common, apart from Jesus, was the fact that they were both Jews, but even there, they were very different classes of Jew.   In Acts 4, we see the Jewish Ruling Council noticing that Peter was a common and uneducated man.   Paul, by contrast, had a mountain of credentials.

Paul’s Credentials

“If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more…” Philippians 3:4

  • Paul had all the religious credentials anyone could ask for (Acts 22, Philippians 3:4-6)
  • circumcised on the eighth day, 
  • A Roman citizen by birth
  • of the people of Israel, 
  • of the tribe of Benjamin, 
  • a Hebrew of Hebrews; 
  • as to the law, a Pharisee;
  • as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
  • Studied under Gamaliel

A quick note on Gamaliel

Gamaliel is such an interesting character to me that I think he deserves a little sidebar at this moment. Church tradition holds that Gamaliel became a believer and great friend of the church. Historical evidence also shows that Nicodemus, the Pharisee who had the discussion with Christ recorded in John 3, and who later became a believer and helped carry Jesus’ body from the cross, was Gamaliel’s son.

As far as being a noteworthy credential, Gamaliel was a very well respected and wise member of the Jewish council (the ruling religious party of the day). Perhaps a bit like a physicist studying under Albert Einstein, a Martial Artist studying under Bruce Lee, Basketball player under Michael Jordan, or pastor studying under Martin Luther or John Wesley.  But I think to me the most fascinating piece is what is recorded in Acts 5:33-39.

Of the apostles and this new Christian movement that the Pharisees were persecuting, Gamaliel advised: 

Acts 5:39

“keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!”

And it is very likely that his student, Saul, was there listening to this. Though he must have been pretty confident, young man that he was, that this undertaking was from man because… 

  • as to zeal, a persecutor of the church;  

Paul had it down.  He was one of those rare few who actually could keep up with religion.  He kept all the rules, including some extra ones they made up themselves.  He went to all the events, all the meetings, was super involved in everything.  

Of course we know that he was also hopelessly lost, which teaches us a very important lesson: it is possible to go through all the religious motions, with great zeal, and be completely lost.

Even after his conversion though, he amassed quite a resume that all of us need respect:

  • Planted many many churches
  • Wrote a third of the new testament
  • Physical offspring of Abraham, a Jew: 
  • with far greater labors, 
  • far more imprisonments,  
  • countless beatings, and often near death.
  • on frequent dangerous journeys
  • Miracle healer
  • Multitudes of converts
  • Raised a guy from the dead
  • SAW HEAVEN (and oddly enough, didn’t write a book about it….)

Look at everything God accomplished through him! Isn’t it amazing??

Paul’s Amazement – Grace, not Accomplishments

What strikes me most about Paul’s life is this:  Toward the end of his ministry, after about 30 years of hard work, accomplishing more than any of the other Apostles, more than any Christian, possibly to this day, and what was he amazed at?

1 Timothy 1:12-13

I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent.

Paul is Amazed at God’s Grace.  Paul is not amazed at all the work he has accomplished, or the things he’s seen.  He is amazed that God asked him, of all people, to do this work.  After three decades of faithful and fruitful service to God, day and night successfully serving a singular purpose, and Paul is amazed that God chose to save him.

Are you amazed?

Brothers and sisters, we would do well to imitate Paul here.  Are you amazed that God chose to show Grace to you?   

Perhaps this is not amazing to you.  Perhaps you have the attitude, “well of course God had grace on me, I earned it”, or “I asked for it.”  Or maybe “Well what’s the big deal, I didn’t do anything that bad…” Or maybe, “What’s so amazing about that? Doesn’t God give grace to everyone? Isn’t that what God does?”  Well, what about Paul?

Why Grace Was Amazing to Paul

What made God’s decision to have grace on Paul so amazing to Paul?  Let’s go there, to that moment, when God announced to Paul that he had been chosen as a faithful servant of God.  

Acts 9:1–6 (more details in Acts 22 and Acts 26)

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him.  And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

Here is what Grace looks like: God looked at Paul, on his way to Damascus to murder and imprison Christians, and said, “That one! I want that one.” and saved him. Paul’s salvation taught him this absolutely critical truth:

1 Timothy 1:15

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.

Paul phrases it in Romans that Christ died for the ungodly, that Christ died for us while we were still sinners, and that while we were enemies of God, He reconciled us to Him.

Jesus put it this way to the Pharisees when they scoffed that he was hanging out with the non-religious types:

Mark 2:17

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

…and His point was not that the Pharisees were righteous, and therefore didn’t need Him. His point was that the Pharisees problem was that they thought that their good work was what made them right with God.  And we often make the same mistake as Christians.

Paul was perfect according to the religious rules, but completely blind to his sin.  In his zeal to serve God, in his desire to perform well for his community, to please his leaders, to please God, he completely lost sight of the fact that he was a violent, angry man. It didn’t click for him that he was murdering in the name of a merciful and righteous God! Paul had gone completely off the rails. 

He missed the entire point of the scriptures he so fervently sought to obey.

He missed the very Messiah those scriptures promised.

And yet that Messiah had mercy on Paul: mercy in forgiving Paul for his violent and blasphemous sin, mercy in stopping Paul from carrying out more of that sin, and grandest and most baffling of all: mercy in turning this insolent, blasphemous, enemy into the most important human agent in all of Christianity.  

This is what Paul means that God’s grace “overflowed” for him.  And this is what, for Paul, is so amazing about Grace.

A sidebar: marveling at God’s timing.

There a little twist in this story that really makes me think:  Paul tells us in Galatians 1:15 that God had chosen him before he was ever born. (Which by the way, Ephesians 1 and Romans 8 teaches is true of all of us.) The account of Paul’s salvation on the road to Damascus shows us that Jesus unilaterally intervened to bring that salvation about.  

So here’s my question: why did God choose to wait until after Paul had already carried out persecution and murder of Christians to save him?  If God already had Paul picked out, and was going to intervene, why didn’t he do it before Paul had a chance to do so much damage?

Speculation like this can be risky, but we don’t need to speculate here.  Paul tells us why.  God waited, because God wanted to send all of the rest of us a message:

1 Timothy 1:16

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.

God wants us to know that it is impossible to out-sin God’s Grace.  That it’s impossible to put yourself outside the reach of His arm.  God’s patience is perfect.  Not infinite, but perfect.  He knows exactly what He’s doing, and when He’s doing it.  The big idea is this: If God can save a self-righteous, blasphemous, murder like Paul, He can save you, and He can save me.  Amen?

And this Grace, Paul teaches us, provides us with the fuel and the pattern for The Christian life.  There are many ways in which this is true.  Let me explain a few of them.

Paul’s Fuel and Pattern for The Church

Those of you familiar with the book of Acts: have you ever wondered what it was that Paul gave the brand new church plants, in such a short amount of time, (sometimes just a week!) that allowed him to consider them churches, that he could leave, confident that they would remain until he was able to come back to them?

Answer: The Word of God’s Grace: The Gospel.

Acts 20:32

And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.

The Fuel

Grace is the fuel, because amazement at His Grace has the powerful ability to stir our hearts to true, deep, and lasting joy-filled worship, in every circumstance of life.  Here’s how.

Gospel Math

Several weeks ago, Paul Johnson gave his testimony and in it he referred to Luke 7:47. He did an excellent job with it, and I want to revisit a piece and put a fine edge on one corner of it.

Luke 7:47

Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.

A right summary of this concept is this: “He who has been forgiven much loves much, but he who has been forgiven little loves little.”  The “for she loved much” means “you can tell she realizes she has been forgiven much, because she loves much”.

Jesus point here is not that some people have been forgiven a lot and so will love God more, and some have only been forgiven a little, so they are doomed to a small love for God.  Those of us who have been forgiven have all been forgiven an infinite amount!  Any offense against an infinitely worthy God is infinitely bad!    So here we find a little concept I like to call “Gospel math”: Your love for God grows as a function of your understanding of the amount Jesus paid for you on The Cross.

When Jesus paid for your sin on the cross, how much of your sin was in the future?  (All of it!)  When we first come to faith in Christ, we admit that God is right and we are sinful beings who have rebelled against our creator who loves us, and we see, for the first time, like Paul on the road, an amount of what we have been forgiven. 

We see that our self-centered life has been offensive to God, and rightly feel the guilt for that sin, and then the gratitude of being freed from that guilt, and we love deeply because we see that have been forgiven a mountain of sin.  

Do you want to know how to grow in your love for God?  Seek to be honest about the depth of your depravity.  Meditate on your sinfulness, and on God’s Holiness.  Realize that the mountain of your sin you see may only half the story. (After all, you are still imperfect, and will continue to sin.) But revel in the relief that Jesus sees it truly and fully and yet forgives.  

When you fail again, do not pretend that it’s simply okay. Bring it to the pile as well in repentance, and realize that Jesus saw this one coming. That this sin was accounted for in His perfect sacrifice on the cross.  As your life goes on and you watch this mountain grow, be humbled that Jesus saw the whole thing at the beginning.  He knew.  And fall on your knees in gratitude for the magnitude of His Grace!

This is how God’s Grace can stir us, like the prostitute in Luke 7 and Paul in 1 Timothy 1, to true, deep, and lasting joy-filled worship.  We never outgrow our need to be told The Gospel.  It is the A-to-Z, not the ABC, of the Christian Life.

The key to growing for your love for God is not found in religious conformity, it is found in confession and acknowledgement of your need for Grace, and continual reflection on The Gospel of God’s Grace.

And it has this power in every circumstance because: If you understand what you’ve been forgiven, you understand what you deserve.  Every breath you take is an undeserved gift from God.  At our first sin, we deserved death.  We deserved to be wiped off the face of the earth.  We can accept each new day, each circumstance, and each moment that we are not suffering in Hell with amazed gratitude.

If you are having trouble connecting with this thought.  If you are pushing back on me about how bad you are, or how much you deserve, then I have this question for you.  Do you believe that without Christ, you are a sinner deserving of hell?  Do you feel the weight of your guilt before God apart from His forgiveness?  Or is there some part of you that doesn’t really think that you are that bad?  That you are one of His better children that He loves you because you are so love-able?

If this is the case then I argue that you do not believe the scriptures, that you are not leaning on Grace for salvation and are somehow hanging on to a shred of your worthiness because of your goodness or work, and therefore do not believe The Gospel, and therefore are not saved and are headed toward hell.  I would challenge you to search your heart, search the scriptures, have a conversation with a believing friend, and pray.

The depth of your gratitude to God for His Grace drives the fervency and joy with which you pursue the Christian way of life.  God’s grace is the Fuel of our worship. It is also the pattern for the Christian life.

The Pattern

God’s Grace is the pattern in that it sets for us the example, and gives us the foundational attitude and motivation alignment we need to carry out the commands of the new testament in a faith-filled, non-legalistic way.  And here’s how.

Some people separate The Gospel (the message of salvation) from Christian morality. They consider the Gospel as sort of the entry point into Christianity, at which point you move on into “deeper meat” of the Christian way of life.  Some see both as essential at all times, but still separate.

Some have them separated conceptually but then try to rejoin them by saying something vague like “good works follow faith”, as if somehow having faith automatically generates obedience to an otherwise unrelated way of life. This is more true then separating the two completely, but I contend that the way the New Testament demands that a Christian live their life flows logically from belief in the message of Grace.  How?

We are to ask not “What would Jesus do?” but “What has Jesus done?”

Philippians 2:5–8 

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Jesus gets at this same concept (oddly enough) from the negative perspective, with a parable he tells, as recorded in Matthew 18, about an unforgiving servant, who owes the king 200,000 years wages, but pleads for mercy, the king forgives the debt. The servant then turns around to another man who owes him 100 days wages, and has that guy thrown into jail.   The point being the obvious disconnect in this servant’s brain.  We are forgive as we have been forgiven.   To love as we have been loved.

The Gospel Lens

I call this “The Gospel Lens”.  If Jesus, who was God, willingly gave up His rights to dwell in paradise, command worship, conquer his foes, and receive praise and adoration, in order to serve, teach, and heal a blind, and fallen race of rebels (us), allowing himself to be tortured and murdered in our rightful place, how then should we, who acknowledge him as Lord and Savior, treat each other?  When someone offends me, how am I to react? When someone needs my help, how should I respond?  If Jesus died for his enemies, allowing them to mock him and hang him on a cross, all the while offering them salvation and love, how ought we act toward a belligerent coworker? Someone who cuts us off in traffic? 

If Jesus gave up his personal preferences (the only personal preferences, by the way, which were 100% correct at all times), and went without rest or a meal, to heal stray sheep who would never thank him, how ought we treat our wives and children after a hard day at the office, or how ought we treat our husband after a hard day alone at home with the kids?  

The applications here are endless, fitting every situation of life.  My final application point is to commit Philippians 2:5-8, and Ephesians 2:1-10 to memory, and look at the world through those lenses.


So to try and summarize: Even after decades of faithful and astonishingly successful ministry as The Prominent Christian Figure, Next to Jesus, in History, Paul still marveled at his salvation. And we are to follow his example.  Amazement at God’s Grace fuels our life of worship as we increase in gratitude and love for him as we realize in deeper and deeper ways just how much we have been forgiven by him.  It also provides us the pattern by which we conduct the Christian life as we strive to love as we have been loved, and forgive as we have been forgiven.

And a final note: there is a subtle trap the devil will try and snare us with.  We will fail to love as we have been loved, and we will fail to forgive as we have been forgiven.  We will not be as amazed at God’s Grace as we know we ought to be, and our worship will not be as fervent as God deserves.  Keep in mind that Jesus’ performance was complete and perfect, and covers even these failures.  Do not be drawn into needless guilt by the accuser who will point to your lackluster worship and scoff in your face at your failure. Look him right back in the eye and tell him “You’re right.  And isn’t it amazing that Jesus forgives me of even this?”  He hates that.

Our final song is “All I Owe” that reflects on this “Gospel math” and praises God for paying the debt we owe Him.  Pay special attention to the third verse of the song, which has this line, a prayer asking God to help us let the world know that we have been shown Love and Mercy, by the way we are loving and merciful.

Teach me Lord, on Earth to show by my love, how much I owe. 


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