Chances are, like most of us who know and love Paul's epistles, you would take a deep breath and launch into a somewhat complicated explanation of the nature of salvation, faith, law, grace, and a number of other core Christian doctrines.
But was Paul really just a “theologian’s theologian,” a “super-scholar” who concentrated on doctrine and the theory of Christianity above all else? The answer, of course, is not at all. There are plenty of life experiences behind a great deal of what Paul tells us. We only have to look, for example, at his first letter to the Corinthian church. Paul has a great deal of practical guidance for Christians dealing with some of the problems and challenges of life. But we can go further than that. There is actually a practical side to most of what Paul wrote – we just don’t always see it.
When we look at Paul’s epistles closely, we find that he frequently divides his material so that the first half of his letter stresses theological issues and the second half of the letter stresses their practical application. We can see this quite clearly in Romans, Galatians, Ephesians and Colossians, but the principle applies to most of his epistles. In Ephesians, for example, the doctrinal portion of the letter (chapters 1-3) is followed by an ethical or Christian living section (chapters 4-6), and the whole epistle is structured around this balance.
But that’s not all. When we focus in on almost any section of the apostle’s writings, we find that he utilizes this balanced form of teaching continually. We just have to learn to see the pattern. In one half of his statements Paul often presents a theological fact, and in the other half we are given the application of that fact. Usually, it is first the doctrine, then the practice. In fact, at a technical level, Paul actually often balances two different forms of the same verb – first the “indicative” form stressing a fact, then the “imperative” form telling us what we must do about that fact. But the overall pattern of fact plus application of the fact is very clear when we look for it. Consider a few examples where the indicative factual statement is italicized and the imperative command is bolded:
“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love” (Galatians 5:13).
“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1).
Sometimes we have to continue reading for several verses to get to the practical application of a point, as in this example:
“For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature… ” (Colossians 3:3-5).
And sometimes Paul reverses the order – placing the practical application before the doctrinal fact – but if we keep the pattern in mind, we will see the balance is still there:
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13).
Whatever order he uses, once we see this pattern in Paul, every epistle becomes a clearly linked series of thoughts about what God has done and what we must do as a result. But it is not just a way of teaching what we must do. The “indicative-imperative dynamic,” as theologians call it, is just as much about helping us understand why we should do the things we need to do.
The balanced structure of teaching we see in these verses is certainly not something that was new to Paul – we find it occasionally in formally structured sections of instruction throughout the Bible. To take only two examples:
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me …” (Exodus 20:2-3).
“… Our Father in heaven, Your name be honored as holy” (Matthew 6:9 HSB).
But Paul uses this structure more consistently than any other biblical writer. If we look for it, we will find there is invariably a connection between what he tells us about what we should believe and the way we should live – between theology and morality, orthodoxy and orthopraxy, belief and practice, doctrine and living.
As we study his epistles, we should continually ask “What is the fact Paul is stating?” and “What is he saying we should do as a result of that fact?” If we do this consistently, we will often see the point he is making far more clearly – and not miss the guidance he gives us. Keeping this simple principle in mind can help us to navigate through Paul’s sometimes dense and even difficult writing (2 Peter 3:16) by better keeping up with his arguments and the significance of what he is telling us.
Paul wasn’t just about theology, and focusing on the practical side of his letters can often help us to better understand much of what he wrote. After all, it was Paul himself who said “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice” (Philippians 4:9).