The Apostle Paul was a man of vision, a man of action, and a man of letters. A visit by the resurrected Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus changed the course of his life, and from that moment he dedicated himself to preaching the gospel, becoming one of the greatest missionaries in history. He was instrumental in taking the gospel to Jew and Gentile alike and in helping them to understand that through Christ they could be united in faith and love.
The Apostle Paul’s writings should resonate with Latter-day Saints since he lived in a time similar to our day with many of today’s challenges. The warmth, concern, and love he expressed to the Saints of his day reverberate through the years, and we can feel the power of his words as he testifies of the reality of the Savior and explains how we can have the blessings of the Atonement in our lives.
The Prophet Joseph Smith must have felt a deep kinship with the Apostle Paul. Both began their service to the Lord through a life-changing vision. Both were true to the vision they received and acted with unrelenting faith and courage to fulfill their missions, bearing testimony to a skeptical world (see JS—H 1:24–25). And both sealed their testimonies with their blood as witnesses to the gospel they had so fervently preached throughout their lives.
Joseph Smith read and loved the writings of the Apostle Paul. A scriptural index to the Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith lists over 1,000 references Joseph Smith made to Paul’s writings in his own teachings. 1 The Apostle Paul’s language can be seen in many of the Articles of Faith: in the first principles and ordinances of the gospel listed in the 4th article (see Heb. 6:1–2), in the Church officers listed in the 6th article (see Eph. 4:11), in the gifts of the Spirit listed in the 7th article (see 1 Cor. 12:8–12), and most notably in the “admonition of Paul” paraphrased in the 13th article (see Philip. 4:8). 2
The Prophet Joseph Smith even gave us a physical description of the Apostle Paul: “He is about five feet high; very dark hair; dark complexion; dark skin; large Roman nose; sharp face; small black eyes, penetrating as eternity; round shoulders; a whining voice, except when elevated, and then it almost resembled the roaring of a lion” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith , 180). Although it is possible that the Prophet Joseph Smith was citing an apocryphal source, it is also more than likely that he was speaking from personal experience. 3 So who was this man Paul, and what significance do his writings hold for Latter-day Saints?
Who Was Paul?
The Apostle Paul was a Hebrew born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, “circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin” (Philip. 3:5). Known as Saul before his conversion, he was undoubtedly brought up in a religious home and educated as a youth in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel, one of the leading rabbis of the day (see Acts 22:3).
A zealous Pharisee, Saul saw it as his religious duty to protect Judaism from apostasy. Because the Pharisees considered Christianity a heretical sect of Judaism, he viewed his persecution of Christians as an attempt to defend Judaism. Unlike Gamaliel, who argued for tolerance of the Christians (see Acts 5:34–36), Saul sought for the extermination of the Christians and was present at the martyrdom of Stephen (see Acts 7:54–60; Acts 8:1). In A.D. 33, “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1), Saul set out to find and arrest Christians in their synagogues in Damascus and bring them bound to Jerusalem for judgment before the high priest.
Man of Vision
While on the road to Damascus, Saul’s life was changed forever. As he was walking, he saw a bright light from heaven and heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” Saul answered: “Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.
“But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee;
“Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me” (Acts 26:14–18).
Thus, the Savior called Paul to be an eyewitness of His Resurrection and later to become an apostolic minister of the gospel to the world. The Apostle Paul often refers to this experience and the profound impact it had on his life. 4 The vision transformed his understanding of God. He learned that Jesus Christ was the Lord God of Israel who had come to fulfill the law of Moses and to atone for the sins of the world. And this message became the focal point of his ministry: “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).
The Apostle Paul’s conversion also changed the way he looked at his fellow beings. Having been raised a Jew, he was used to seeing the world divided between Jews and Gentiles, but through the Atonement he understood that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Throughout his life he attempted to share his vision with everyone he met: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16).
Man of Action
Two-thirds of the book of Acts focuses on the words and deeds of the Apostle Paul, beginning with his conversion in Acts 9. From that time forth, he would concentrate on one thing: “But this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Philip. 3:13–14). Zealously he had persecuted the truth, but now he shared the gospel with redoubled effort.
He tirelessly traveled the length and breadth of the Mediterranean world. He tramped thousands of miles on the dusty roads connecting the Roman empire, preaching his apostolic witness of the Resurrection of Jesus and joyfully proclaiming the power of the Atonement. He boldly taught the gospel to the sophisticated cultural, intellectual, and religious centers of the Greco-Roman world: Athens, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, and Thessalonica. Finally he sailed to Rome, the center of the civilized world. Everywhere he went he proclaimed his message, first in the synagogues to the Jews, who under the covenant of Abraham had rights to the gospel, and then to the Gentiles, who through baptism could be adopted into Abraham’s seed: “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29).
His message was met with mistrust and jealousy even by some within the Church and with violent persecution from those who were not members. He suffered many trials and tribulations. He was driven out of cities, arrested, imprisoned and tried, stoned and beaten. On one occasion he was shipwrecked and bitten by a poisonous viper. Yet through his faith, he lived to heal the sick, raise the dead, and confound the wicked.
He preached the gospel to a world in great need of the words of salvation—to Jews, Greeks, Romans, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, men, women, and slaves. He often expressed the joy the gospel had brought to his life and rejoiced in the fruits of his work (see Acts 20:24). His love of the Savior and of his fellowmen was contagious. Gentiles flocked to hear him speak, he baptized and confirmed the repentant, and he established the Church throughout the Mediterranean world.
Near the end of his life, he expressed foreknowledge of his impending martyrdom, yet he faced this knowledge with joy through his faith in the Lord: “But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). The Apostle Paul wrote to his friend Timothy: “For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:6–7). Traditions and scholars alike agree that the Apostle Paul was killed in the persecutions of Nero between A.D. 64 and 68, thus sealing his testimony with his blood.
Man of Letters
Throughout his ministry the Apostle Paul wrote many epistles to the churches where he had served and to his friends. It is likely that he wrote scores of letters in his lifetime. 5 Fortunately, 14 of these epistles have survived the ravages of time. 6 These precious documents are unique in scripture. Nowhere else in the Bible do we have so many personal writings of an Apostle. These letters give us a window into the life and soul of this special witness of the Savior. Through his letters the Apostle Paul becomes one of the most accessible of all scriptural figures. These letters also bring the world of the early Church to life and document the challenges of the early members in learning and practicing the gospel.
For some, reading these letters can be quite challenging due to the complexity of the Apostle Paul’s style and language and the specific historical context in which they were written. He wrote in a Greek style of long sentences consisting of many clauses, and he used vocabulary with specific nuances and doctrinal import.
His epistles are personal letters written to specific individuals in the Church and address issues relevant to his time and place. Often he dealt with issues no longer completely relevant to the Church today—such as the law of Moses, the eating of food offered to idols, and the status of slaves and women in ancient society. He also addressed issues in the early Church that are still relevant today—the Atonement, missionary work, and the organization of the Church.
The Church at the time of Paul grew rapidly and experienced a huge amount of ethnic, cultural, socioeconomic, and intellectual diversity among its converts. New members who had little experience in the Church sometimes struggled among themselves in contention and misunderstanding and dealt with misguided and false doctrine.
The Apostle Paul is one of the great minds in the history of the Church. He was well educated in both Hebrew and Greek language and culture and was well versed in the Old Testament. Yet he easily balanced his intellectual powers with humility. Seeking to be a “servant unto all, … unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews. …
“To them that are without law [Gentiles], … that I might gain them. …
“To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor 9:19–22).
The Apostle Paul’s letters taught the members of the Church many things: the doctrine of the Godhead, the meaning of covenant, the purpose and organization of the Church, the place of Israel in the plan of salvation, the function of spiritual gifts, the Resurrection, and the Second Coming. He addressed problems of contention, false doctrine, how to live among the Gentiles, and the need for unity in the Church. But the central theme of all of his writings is how Jesus Christ redeemed the world and how the Saints can enjoy the blessings of the Atonement. This was his timeless message.
The Fall and the Atonement
The Father’s plan to bring about immortality and eternal life (see Moses 1:39) required a Fall and an Atonement. The Apostle Paul understood and taught these doctrines powerfully: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22).
On account of the Fall of Adam, all mankind suffer a mortal death as well as a spiritual death—that is, to experience life cut off from the presence of God. Although the death and Resurrection of Christ make it possible for all to be resurrected, our own sins create a separation from God: “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
Thus, the Atonement was offered to reconcile us to God. Describing this doctrine, the Apostle Paul uses the Greek word katallagå, usually translated as “reconciliation” (see Rom. 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:18; Heb. 2:17) or in one case as “atonement” (see Rom. 5:11). The English word atonement captures precisely what this “reconciliation” means—that God and His children can be reunited or arrive at a state of “at-one-ment” again. The Savior provides a way for us to repent of our sins by “reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them” (2 Cor. 5:19).
The Atonement came about through the “grace of God,” and grace is an important concept in the Apostle Paul’s writings. The Greek word for grace, charis, simply means “favor” or “gift” and refers to the fact that the Atonement is a gift. Through the grace of God, the Atonement offers two gifts. The first gift is immortality and is given to all mankind: “For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor. 15:21). But the second gift is eternal life and this gift is reserved for those who become “saints of God.”
The Apostle Paul addressed his epistles to the members of the Church “called to be saints” (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2; see also 2 Cor. 1:1). The word saints comes from a Greek word, hagioi, meaning “holy ones.” In the Old Testament the Lord commanded His covenant people, “Ye shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2). The same concept was taught by the Savior in the Sermon on the Mount when He said, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).
Thus, “saints” is a title borne by members of the Church who through the covenant of baptism are committed to becoming “holy ones” like unto God. The Apostle Paul describes the process and end result of becoming holy as “sanctification,” from the Greek verb hagiazõ, meaning “to make holy,” and solemnly bears witness that sanctification can take place only through the Atonement. The ultimate gift of the Atonement offered to the Saints is eternal life: “But the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).
Those who become like God through the Atonement are offered the opportunity to live a life like God through the gift of eternal life. So how do we—who, like our brothers and sisters of old, are “called to be saints”—become such? The process begins with four principles: faith, repentance, baptism, and the laying on of hands (see JST, Heb. 6:1–2, footnote 1a).
The First Principles and Ordinances
Faith is paramount in the Apostle Paul’s teaching. Like the men and women of old, we must each exercise our faith in Jesus Christ in order to become Saints (see Heb. 12:2). He explains the power of faith as the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (see Heb. 11:1). Faith is also the power through which the worlds were created (see Heb. 11:3) and the power by which the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets accomplished their great works (see Heb. 11).
Exercising faith in the Lord Jesus Christ gives one the desire to repent. The Apostle Paul teaches that “godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation” (2 Cor. 7:10), and he frequently urges the Saints to turn from sin and toward a life of faith.
Those who have exercised faith unto repentance partake of the power of the Atonement by entering into the waters of baptism, thus vicariously participating in the Savior’s death and Resurrection. The Apostle Paul taught that through baptism the “old man is crucified” with Christ (Rom. 6:6) and that we are spiritually reborn: “Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).
Faith, repentance, and baptism are followed by the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost. This process of being born by water and by the Spirit is in the likeness of our mortal birth. Just as we begin life in mortality through water, blood, and spirit, so can we be born again into eternal life through the Atonement.
The Apostle Paul invites “those called to be saints” to return to God through water, spirit, and blood and eloquently teaches the doctrines of justification and sanctification underlying these symbols. Latter-day revelation confirms his use of these symbols: “By the water ye keep the commandment; by the Spirit ye are justified, and by the blood ye are sanctified” (Moses 6:60; emphasis added).
Justification means being forgiven of our sins through the power of the Holy Spirit. As we exercise faith in Christ, repent, are baptized, receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, and participate in sacred covenants, “the Holy Spirit can justify the candidate for salvation in what has been done” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. , 408).
The Apostle Paul describes justification with the Greek verb dikaioõ, meaning “to make righteous.” He succinctly summarizes the process this way:
“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;
“ Therefore being justified only by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:
“Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation [redemption] through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins. …
“… that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (JST, Rom. 3:23–26, footnote 24a; emphasis added).
While faith in Christ is a requirement for justification, so are good works, as the Apostle James teaches: “By works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (James 2:24). In the Joseph Smith Translation, the Apostle Paul confirms that justification depends on faith and works through the grace of Jesus Christ: “Therefore, ye are justified of faith and works, through grace” (JST, Rom. 4:16, footnote a; emphasis added).
A close companion to justification is sanctification. Sanctification means becoming purified through the atoning blood of Jesus Christ (see Heb. 13:12). Sanctification is not the immediate result of baptism. It is both a gradual, lifelong process and a final state—a state of being pure, clean, holy, and free from sin.
The Apostle Paul compares sanctification to the purifying of a vessel: “If a man therefore purge himself … , he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work” (2 Tim. 2:21). He also writes to the repentant Corinthians, “Ye are washed, … ye are sanctified, … ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11).
Sanctification and perfection are closely linked. They are possible only through the purifying and renewing power of the Spirit and the Atonement. As the Apostle Paul taught, Jesus “hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified” (Heb. 10:14).
In latter-day revelation, the Savior repeats the invitation to be sanctified through His power: “Sanctify yourselves; yea, purify your hearts, and cleanse your hands and your feet before me, that I may make you clean” (D&C 88:74; emphasis added).
The Savior’s power to sanctify us is commemorated in the ordinance of the sacrament, in which those “called to be saints” renew their covenant to take upon themselves the name of the Son, to remember Him, and to keep His commandments (see D&C 20:77, 79). The English word sacrament literally means “to make holy” or “to consecrate,” and it is through this sacred ordinance that the Saints are promised that they “may always have his Spirit to be with them” (D&C 20:77, 79).
The Apostle Paul warns that the sacrament should be partaken in worthiness (see 1 Cor. 11:29) and describes the sacrament: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16). The Greek word for communion, koinonia, means “fellowship,” “participation,” or “partnership.” The Atonement makes it possible for the Saints to have fellowship with the Holy One of Israel.
The Apostle Paul’s voice echoes through the centuries addressing us who are “called to be saints” in the latter days. He shares with us the joy he found in his glorious vision of the resurrected Lord, and his life stands as a witness of his testimony and as an example of overcoming adversity to preach the gospel. In his letters we can feel his passion for the gospel and his love and concern for the members of Christ’s Church. His words instruct us in the doctrines of the Atonement and inspire us to enjoy its blessings. The Apostle Paul reminds us that we, as His Saints, are “the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27).
The Apostle Paul gave us a tool to measure the degree to which we are Saints. The Spirit gives spiritual gifts to each of the Saints, “but the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal” (1 Cor. 12:7). Foremost among the gifts of the Spirit are faith, hope, and charity, “but the greatest of these is charity” (1 Cor. 13:13). The supreme manifestations of the power of the Atonement among the Saints is the love they show each other.
The Apostle Paul teaches us how through the Atonement we can become the Saints we are called to be. He exhorts us to have faith, to repent, to be baptized, to receive the Holy Ghost, and to be obedient. He explains that through our faith and the grace of God, we may repent of our sins and become righteous, without sin, justified before God. Through the blood of Christ, or the power of the Atonement, we can become sanctified, holy ones, Saints. And the Apostle Paul promises us: “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together” (Rom. 8:16–17).
See Scriptural Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith (1993). The index lists over 1,100 references to the epistles of Paul.
See J. Philip Schaelling, “Paul,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow, 5 vols. (1992), 3:1070; and John W. Welch, An Epistle from the New Testament Apostles (1999).
Joseph Smith did not give the source of this description. A description of Paul is found in the apocryphal book Acts of Paul and Thecla that shows some similarities with Joseph’s account. On the other hand Joseph Smith recorded that “divers angels, from Michael or Adam down to the present time” appeared to him bringing keys and knowledge (D&C 128:21). It may be that Paul was one of these messengers.
Three epistles are mentioned in Paul’s writings that have not survived (see 1 Cor. 5:9; Eph. 3:3; and Col. 4:16). Most of the epistles preserved in the Bible come from the middle to the end of Paul’s ministry. A note in one of the earliest epistles, 2 Thes. 3:17, suggests that Paul had already written many letters, implying that many were lost anciently.
The epistles are ordered in the Christian canon according to their length, beginning with Romans, the longest, through Philemon, the shortest. Because some Christian authors have questioned whether Paul wrote Hebrews this lengthy epistle was placed after Philemon. Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explains that the Prophet Joseph Smith confirmed that Paul wrote Hebrews (see Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols. [1966–73], 3:133).