From Acts to the Epistles
Arlen L. Chitwood
The Pauline Epistles
And consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation — as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you,
as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures. (2 Peter 3:15, 16)
The books of 1, 2 Peter deal extensively with one subject — the salvation of the soul (1 Peter 1:4-9; 2 Peter 1:2-11). This is the central message throughout both epistles; and if this is not recognized at the outset, it will be impossible to properly understand either epistle.
Peter, in his first epistle, dealt with the salvation of the soul in relation to testing, trials, and sufferings (1:5-11; 2:21-24; 4:12, 13, 19). And in his second epistle, Peter opened with thoughts surrounding maturity in the faith and the importance of always keeping the message surrounding the salvation of the soul uppermost in one’s thinking (1:2-19; cf. James 1:21). But then Peter took a different turn in his second epistle and began to warn against false teachers, paralleling, to a large extent, the content of Jude’s epistle, which also forms a warning against false teachers (2:1-3:8; cf. Jude 4-19).
Then, the warnings in both Peter’s and Jude’s epistles would have to do with the same false teachers whom Paul so often warned against in his ministry and epistles (e.g., Acts 20:29-31; 1 Timothy 4:1-3; 2 Timothy 3:1-8; 4:3, 4). All three writers dealt with the same subject matter (the saving of the soul), and all three warned against the same false teachers who would arise (those who would teach contrary to that which Paul, Peter, and Jude taught in their ministry — things pertaining to the salvation of the soul).
Then note that Peter ended his second epistle by calling attention to Paul’s writings. Peter, at the conclusion of that which he wrote, called attention to the fact that Paul had previously written about the same things that he had just finished writing about. And Paul had written after this fashion “in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things . . .” (2 Peter 3:16a).
Paul had dealt with exactly the same things that Peter dealt with in his two epistles. Paul had dealt with the same salvation (3:15) and the same warnings against false teachers (3:16b, 17).
Peter dealt with this message, Jude dealt with this message, Paul dealt with this message, and the writers of the other New Testament epistles (the writers of Hebrews, James, and 1, 2, 3 John) also dealt with various aspects of this message.
This is a message surrounding the kingdom of the heavens and a salvation to be realized therein. This salvation was offered to Israel prior to the events of Calvary and re-offered to the nation following the events of Calvary. And, throughout the present dispensation, this salvation has been and is being offered to the new creation “in Christ.”
The message surrounding salvation in relation to the kingdom of the heavens is the central message of the New Testament, introduced in the Old Testament. This is the message seen in the gospels at the beginning of the New Testament, leading into the finished work of Christ at Calvary; this is the message that continues in Acts, following Christ’s finished work at Calvary; and this is the message that continues on into the epistles and the opening four chapters of the book of Revelation (where God completes His dealings with the one new man “in Christ,” allowing Him to once again turn and complete His dealings with Israel [chapters 6-18]).
In this respect, correctly understanding the correlation between that which is taught in the four gospels, the book of Acts, the twenty-one epistles that follow, and the opening four chapters of the book of Revelation (which, for the Church, climax that which precedes, anticipating the marriage festivities and Christ’s millennial reign [chapters 19, 20]) is dependent on one thing. It is dependent on understanding basics pertaining to the message surrounding salvation in relation to the kingdom of the heavens — the salvation of the soul. The whole of the New Testament centers on this message — first as it pertains to Israel, and then as it pertains to the new creation “in Christ.” And that carries a person from the beginning of Matthew’s gospel to the opening four chapters of the book of Revelation, with the conclusion of the matter seen later in the book.
Thus, the importance of properly understanding this message can hardly be overemphasized. This is a message that pervades the whole of Scripture, beginning, not in the opening chapters of Matthew’s gospel, but in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis. It is a message introduced in the Old Testament (as Christ’s finished work at Calvary is introduced in the Old Testament [Genesis 3, 4, 22; Exodus 12; Numbers 21]), and it is a message that must be understood in the eyes of the Old Testament prophets (as Christ’s finished work at Calvary must be understood in this same respect [Luke 24:25-27]).
Understand the former (the message in the Old Testament), and you can understand the latter (the message in the New Testament); but ignore or misunderstand the former, and you will not possess the information that God has provided to help you understand the latter. The New is simply a continuation of and an unveiling of that which has lain in the Old from the beginning.
(Foundational material pertaining to the message surrounding the kingdom of the heavens — particularly as it relates to the progression of the message through the gospels and then through Acts [with events in Acts occurring during the time several of the epistles were written] — has been set forth in different places throughout the first nine chapters of this book. And these nine preceding chapters contain, in respect, the necessary foundational material that will allow one to go on from that point and properly view the central message of the Pauline epistles, the central message of the general epistles, and the goal and climax of the matter in the book of Revelation.
The present chapter will concern itself with the message pertaining to the kingdom of the heavens in the Pauline epistles, the next chapter  will concern itself with this same message in the general epistles, and the concluding chapter  will concern itself with the goal and climax of the matter in the book of Revelation.)
Each of the individuals whom God, through His Spirit, used to pen the words of the New Testament canon exhibited certain individual qualities and characteristics in that which they wrote. This was true relative to both their use of the Greek language and their use of different words, terms, or expressions.
The thought is not at all that the Spirit of God, in a mechanical fashion, moved men as they wrote. If this had occurred, there would not be the noticeable differences in styles, words, terms, or expressions used in the different epistles. There would be uniformity in this respect. But uniformity exists only in the thread of teaching throughout what they wrote, not in how they wrote.
It is evident that the Spirit of God took and used men within the framework of all their own individual qualities and characteristics as they penned the Word, which would take into account all their prior experiences in life. And this is something that falls within the scope of God’s sovereign control of all things, not only in the different writers’ generations but in all the preceding generations from which the writers’ particular and peculiar hereditary traits were derived as well. Nothing occurs in a haphazard manner within the scope of God’s plans and purposes.
The Spirit of God took and used men to pen particular parts of the Word of God, while, at the same time, He allowed these men to use their own language style, words, terms, and expressions as they wrote; and, through this process, the Spirit guarded them from error in that which they wrote.
And within the Spirit’s control after this fashion, the structure of the Word of God and the intricate fashion in which it was put together moved completely beyond man’s finite wisdom and ability. Those whom the Spirit of God used to pen the Word of God, though being allowed to write within the framework of their own individual traits, wrote strictly as “they were moved [‘borne,’ ‘carried,’ ‘led’] by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).
And the end result of the Spirit’s work in this respect — proceeded by God’s sovereign control in matters throughout not only the different writers’ generations but prior generations as well — was always the same. That which these men wrote was the very Word of God, down to the individual words that they used and the individual letters comprising each of these words.
Can man understand these things surrounding the inspiration of Scripture? No, but man can believe these things. And, because of the clear statements in Scripture and the evident nature from Scripture concerning how things were brought to pass, belief (faith) is exactly what God expects (Hebrews 11:6).
1. Paul and the Gospel
The manner in which God revealed His Word to man has been briefly covered for a reason. The epistles (Pauline and general epistles) were written by at least five — probably six — different men (the author of Hebrews being unknown), and certain individual distinguishing qualities and characteristics can be seen in their writings.
In Paul’s case, his extensive use of the word “gospel” — how and why he used the word — forms a major trait which makes his writings different from those of any other writer of a New Testament book. Paul, for evident reasons, appeared almost obsessed with this word, using it far more extensively than any of the other writers. And he used the word both alone and through qualifying it various ways (e.g., “gospel,” “gospel of God,” “gospel of Christ,” etc.), usually referring to the same thing, though possibly with different emphases.
Paul’s writings comprise slightly less than one-third of the New Testament, but of the one hundred thirty-two times that the word “gospel” appears throughout the New Testament — in both its noun and verb forms (euaggelion and euaggelizo respectively) — almost two-thirds of these occurrences are found in the Pauline epistles.
The word appears twenty-three times in the four gospels, seventeen times in the book of Acts, eighty-three times in the Pauline epistles, six times in the general epistles, and three times in the book of Revelation.
Why did Paul use this word so extensively? The writer of Hebrews only used the word twice; James didn’t use the word at all; Peter only used the word four times; John didn’t use the word in either his gospel or his epistles, though he used it three times in the book of Revelation; and Jude didn’t use the word in his epistle.
And, beyond that, what was Paul referring to when he used this word? The word “gospel” simply means good news. What was the good news to which Paul referred?
Invariably, people want to associate the word “gospel” with only one thing — the good news surrounding Christ’s finished work at Calvary. They see the word “gospel” in Scripture, and this is what invariably comes to mind. And, looking at the word after this fashion, they seek to understand any portion of Scripture where this word appears strictly in the light of the gospel of the grace of God.
And, interpreting Scripture after this fashion, they usually end up with a perversion, for the word “gospel” is used much more often than not — particularly in the Pauline epistles — referring to good news other than Christ’s finished work at Calvary.
And erroneously understanding the word “gospel” to refer to Christ’s finished work at Calvary in a text where it doesn’t will not only do away with the teaching in the text but it will also often result in a perversion of the message surrounding the simple gospel of the grace of God.
An example of the preceding would be the manner in which 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 is usually understood. The word “gospel” appears in verse one, and all four verses are usually looked upon as referring to the same thing — the gospel of the grace of God. But both the text and the context reveal that such an interpretation is not correct at all.
Paul used the word “gospel” in connection with that which is stated in verses one and two, but it is evident that this has no reference to the gospel of the grace of God. Salvation in these verses is spoken of as an ongoing process in the lives of those to whom he was writing, and it is also spoken of as something which can be lost. Neither would be true relative to the gospel of the grace of God which Paul had proclaimed to them “first,” referred to in verses three and four (referred to apart from the use of the word “gospel”).
And when individuals combine these four verses and attempt to make everything pertain to the gospel of the grace of God, that spoken of in verses one and two is always done away with, and that spoken of in verses three and four is often corrupted (through bringing elements [from vv. 1, 2] over into the gospel of the grace of God which do not belong there). And this same thing would be true numerous places in the Pauline epistles when the context is ignored and the word “gospel” is made to refer to something that the text doesn’t refer to at all (ref. chapter 8, “Paul’s Gospel”).
Paul’s extensive use of the word “gospel,” particularly his extensive use of this word to refer to something other than the gospel of the grace of God, goes back to his experiences at the outset of his ministry. Before Paul ever launched out on the ministry to which he had been called — to carry the good news rejected by Israel to the Gentiles — the Lord took him aside and taught him all the various things about the message that he was to proclaim. And after this, as Paul went about fulfilling his calling, it was only natural for him to use the word “gospel,” meaning good news, to refer to the good news (taught to him by the Lord) which he had been called to proclaim to Christians throughout the Gentile world.
This “good news” had to do with the mystery revealed to Paul by the Lord in Arabia. It had to do with Jews and Gentiles being placed together in “the same body” as “fellowheirs [‘joint-heirs’]” with Christ (Ephesians 3:1-11); and these Jewish and Gentile believers (Christians), together, possessed a “hope” relative to one day occupying a position of honor and glory with Christ in “his heavenly kingdom” (cf. Colossians 1:25-28; 2 Timothy 4:17, 18).
And Paul referred to the good news surrounding this message as “my gospel” (Romans 16:25), “our gospel” (2 Corinthians 4:3), “the glorious gospel of Christ [lit., ‘the gospel of the glory of Christ’]” (2 Corinthians 4:4), “the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1; 2 Corinthians 11:7), “the gospel of Christ” (Romans 1:16; Galatians 1:7), etc. Then, numerous times Paul simply used the word “gospel” alone to refer to this good news (Romans 1:15; Galatians 1:6).
The fact that the mystery had been revealed to Paul, with Paul called to carry this message to Christians throughout the Gentile world, is the reason why he used the word “gospel” so often in his epistles. It was only natural for him to refer to the message that he had been called to proclaim through the use of a word which meant, “good news,” for the message was good news.
For the unsaved, Christ’s finished work on Calvary was “good news.” As unsaved individuals, this was the best news that they could ever hear. But once they had been saved, then they were to hear the “good news” about why they had been saved. And, as saved individuals, this was the best news that they could ever hear.
And Paul’s ministry centered on the latter, not the former. Paul’s ministry centered on proclaiming that which the Lord had revealed to him in Arabia. And the message contained therein was the best news redeemed man could ever hear, which was why Paul let nothing stand in the way of his proclaiming this message.
This “good news” had to do with the greatest thing God could offer redeemed man — positions as co-heirs with His Son, from a heavenly realm, in the coming kingdom. To use the writer of Hebrews words, it was “so great salvation” (Hebrews 2:3).
And Paul’s repeated reference to the message surrounding this offer as “good news” is one of the distinguishing characteristics of his writings.
2. Paul and the Faith
Christians at the beginning of the present dispensation, before they were ever called “Christians” (Acts 11:26), were known simply as those of “the way” (cf. Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). In each instance the word “way” is preceded by the definite article, and the expression should be translated, “the way.”
Those believing the message proclaimed on the day of Pentecost and following were singled out through the use of this expression. They were believing-Jews who followed a way different from that being followed by the remainder of the nation (which was looked upon by Israel’s religious leaders as a heretical way [Acts 24:14]), and the expression was later used within Gentile circles as well, though by Jews (Acts 19:9).
The origin of this expression is rooted in believing the message being proclaimed to Israel relative to salvation in the first seven chapters of Acts, and this salvation had to do with deliverance in the kingdom, not with one’s eternal destiny (ref. chapters 1-5, of this book). Those of “the way” had believed the message being proclaimed, and they were seeking, through every means possible, to bring about belief (in the same message) on the part of an entire unbelieving nation, the nation of Israel.
Prior to his conversion, Paul was going about the country seeking to destroy that which he and numerous other Jews viewed as a new and heretical Jewish sect by doing away with those “of the way”; and, on his journey from Jerusalem to Damascus, he had his eyes opened to the truth rejected by Israel. Resultantly, he became a follower of “the way” and subsequently exhibited the same urgency and zeal toward proclaiming “the way” as he had previously exhibited toward trying to destroy “the way.”
Years later, writing to the churches in Galatia, Paul described the message that he had sought to destroy by using the expression, “the faith” (Galatians 1:23). And not only did Paul use this expression writing to the churches in Galatia (to refer to the message surrounding the King and the proffered kingdom, the message described simply as “the way”), but he used it numerous times throughout his ministry, referring to the same message (e.g., Acts 14:22; Romans 1:5, 8; Ephesians 1:15; Philippians 1:27; Colossians 1:23; 1 Timothy 6:12, 21; 2 Timothy 3:8; 4:7 [“faith,” in each reference, is articular in the Greek text]).
And Luke (writing Acts) used it the same way relative to events prior to Paul’s conversion (Acts 6:7). And it was used this same way by those writing the other epistles (e.g., Hebrews 12:2; James 2:14; 1 Peter 5:9; 1 John 5:4 [also Revelation 2:13]; Jude 3). Then going back behind both the epistles and the book of Acts, it was used this same way by Christ during His earthly ministry (Luke 18:8 [“faith,” in each preceding reference, is articular in the Greek text]).
In this respect, it can clearly be shown that “the faith” was a commonly used expression, seen throughout the New Testament, to refer to teachings surrounding the proffered kingdom. Those of “the way” in Acts were those who held to “the faith.” And though Paul used the expression, “the faith,” extensively throughout his epistles after this fashion, he was far from alone in so doing. Other writers of Scripture are also seen using this expression in the same manner as Paul used it.
Thus, the expression, “the faith,” refers, not to belief in general (i.e., as often expressed, “all the great biblical doctrines of the faith [referring to the virgin birth, blood atonement, etc.],” but belief in particular. This is what the article shows, used to point out something particular, something that would be evident by the context. And to say that verses such as 1 Timothy 6:12, 2 Timothy 4:7, or Jude 3 (among many others) refer to holding to that which is looked upon as “all the great biblical doctrines of the faith” is not only textually wrong but theologically destructive.
Scripture is to be interpreted in the light of Scripture, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual” (1 Corinthians 2:13); and when this is done, going back into the book of Acts and carrying the matter through into the epistles, it can be clearly demonstrated exactly what the expression, “the faith,” refers to. And to misinterpret and teach contrary to that which Scripture clearly reveals about “the faith” not only obscures that which is taught in one realm but also invariably results in false teachings in another realm.
3. Paul and the Saving of the Soul
The Greek word psuche, meaning either “soul” or “life,” is used a number of different ways in Scripture, referring to things surrounding man’s life in both the physical and spiritual realms. However, the word is never used in Scripture after the fashion in which it is often used in Christian circles — associating the saving of the soul with one’s presently possessed eternal salvation.
Rather, in Scripture, in the spiritual realm, the saving of the soul refers strictly to a future salvation — a salvation presently being brought to pass in the lives of the redeemed, but not realized until a future time (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18; Hebrews 1:14; 1 Peter 1:9).
The writers of the four gospels and the writers of Hebrews, James, and 1 Peter all used the word psuche, soul/life, after the preceding fashion (e.g., Matthew 16:25-27; Mark 8:35-38; Luke 9:24-26; John 12:25; Hebrews 10:35-39; James 1:21; 1 Peter 1:4-9). And these same writers (with the exception of James) also used the word referring to the physical realm as well (e.g., Matthew 6:25; Mark 3:4; Luke 12:22; John 10:11; Hebrews 12:3; 1 Peter 3:20).
Paul used the word psuche thirteen times throughout the course of his epistles, and with the exception of two instances (2 Corinthians 12:15; 1 Thessalonians 5:23), he used the word referring only to the physical realm (e.g., Romans 11:3; Philippians 2:30). In the epistles, references, in so many words, to Christians either realizing or not realizing the salvation of their souls within the framework of the mystery revealed to Paul are seen in the general epistles, not in the Pauline epistles.
“The salvation of the soul” is not really Pauline terminology, though it is correct terminology and Paul alludes to the matter in both 2 Corinthians 12:15 and 1 Thessalonians 5:23. Paul, referring to things surrounding this future salvation, used two main expressions — “the gospel” and “the faith.” Those writing the general epistles, referring to things surrounding this same salvation, used three main expressions — “the gospel,” “the faith,” and “the saving of the soul.”
However, though the writers of the general epistles used the word “gospel” after the same fashion Paul used this word (e.g., Hebrews 4:2, 6; 1 Peter 4:17), any extensive use of the word after this fashion was left to Paul. The “good news” surrounding the mystery had been revealed to him, and he was the one who, logically, would continually reference this “good news.”
Thus, the terminology used by Paul and that used by the writers of the general epistles, referring to things surrounding the salvation to be realized by Christians in the coming kingdom, differs in the preceding respects. But all the various things surrounding the message and the end of the matter remain the same.
It all goes back to how the Spirit of God used different men to pen the Word. All the writers of the epistles dealt with exactly the same thing, though their emphases on different aspects of the matter were different, and their ways of expressing and saying certain things were, at times, different.
But because of God’s sovereign control in matters surrounding these men’s lives and the Spirit’s work in the matter of guarding these men from error as they wrote, that which these men wrote was exactly, in every detail, what God wanted man to possess in order to understand all the various things about His plans and purposes. It was the very Word of God, as stated in 2 Timothy 3:16, the breath of God.
What are the ramifications of either seeing or not seeing the Pauline and/or general epistles after the fashion in which the different men wrote, along with correspondingly either seeing or not seeing the central subject matter of these epistles? The answer is evident.
At the outset, the former will provide a correct grid and the latter an incorrect grid to work with. And, as individuals work their way through the epistles, they will either be building on that which is correct or on that which is incorrect, with the end result either being in line or out of line with that which each man wrote.
But a proper understanding of the epistles doesn’t begin with the epistles themselves. Rather, such an understanding begins with “Moses and the prophets.” It begins where God began, “In the beginning…” (Genesis 1:1ff; cf. Luke 24:27).
If a person wants to properly understand a particular part of Scripture, at any point in Scripture, there is never an exception to one rule of interpretation. The person must always begin with Moses. Begin here and study forward. This is the way in which God has designed and laid out His Word, and this is the way in which He expects man to acquire knowledge of His revealed plans and purposes.
God laid His entire Word out in a dual fashion: (1) through providing a foundational framework at the very beginning, upon which the whole of subsequent Scripture rests (Genesis 1:1-2:3); and then (2) through providing all that which rests upon the foundational framework, revealing the complete structure, as He would have man to see and to understand it (Genesis 2:4-Revelation 22:21).
In the foundational framework, everything pertaining to God’s restoration of a ruined creation throughout six days (throughout the entirety of Man’s Day) moves toward a seventh day of rest (the Lord’s Day). And the remainder of Scripture is simply a building upon this septenary structure, whether dealing with events during Man’s Day or with events during the Lord’s Day. The remainder of Scripture simply reveals God’s work throughout six thousand years (work to restore a ruined creation), with a view to the seventh one-thousand-year period (the day of rest, following restoration).
And it matters not where a person is reading and studying in Scripture, this whole overall thought, established by God at the beginning, must be kept in mind. This is foundational, fundamental, and primary (ref. the author’s book, The Study of Scripture, chapters 2-4).
And when a person begins to look at the New Testament epistles, this has to be kept in mind, for these epistles must all rest on the foundational framework that God set forth at the beginning of His Word. They must have to do, first and foremost, with God working six days, six thousand years (to bring about the restoration of a ruined creation), with a view to God resting on the seventh day, the seventh one-thousand-year period (following the completion of His work).
But the preceding is only foundational. In order to properly place the epistles in their correct perspective, there are numerous things that must be understood about God’s work throughout the six days and His rest on the seventh day. And uppermost in the matter would be to properly understand the message surrounding the proffered kingdom throughout both the gospels and the book of Acts (and properly understanding the message in the gospels and the book of Acts is contingent on properly understanding a number of things that precede it, things previously revealed in “Moses and all the prophets”). This would involve numerous things about Israel, allowing one to understand the Church being called into existence following God’s dealings with Israel in the gospel accounts, necessitating the subsequent writing of the epistles.
The Church was called into existence to be the recipient of that which Israel had rejected — the kingdom of the heavens. And the epistles would only naturally deal with Christians in relation to this message. From a biblical standpoint, there could really be no other reason for the epistles being written.
And a person can do one of two things when studying the New Testament epistles. He can either make a proper connection with proceeding Scripture (begin in Genesis and work forward into the gospels and Acts) or he can make an improper connection with preceding Scripture (ignore or misunderstand that which proceeds).
And these two approaches to Scripture parallel two related directions that can be taken in the Christian life — the narrow way and the broad way (cf. Matthew 7:13, 14; Luke 13:24). The former leads to life, which the former that leads to life is what the instructions in the epistles are about; and the latter that leads to destruction is what the warnings in the epistles are about.