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A Christian cannot be spotted by his actions, since his actions are not what determined his Christianity. A Christian became a Christian by God's grace, completely independent from any works on the part of that feeble sinner who was so fortunate as to be showered with God's saving grace. Furthermore, the possibility exists that a grace-saved Christian might never even take the first step toward Christian maturity, and he may never reflect the standards set by Paul in the prison epistles. Still, if he was saved by grace, his heavenly destiny is sealed, and he will reign with Christ forever. Also, even an unsaved person can, at times demonstrate some of the traits which Paul gives. Let's study Paul's standards for obedience according to his admonitions to Christians in his prison epistles.
A word study of Paul's prison epistles reveals how many times the following words are used:
I believe that this list explains what Paul considered to be important, and what he emphasized most in his teachings.
First of all, the words "Jesus Christ" dominate these epistles, by far, more than any other words or themes. The reason for the epistles is Christ. Without Christ, there would be no gospel and no faith in which to grow. Paul is clearly establishing priorities by mentioning Christ in every other verse on the average. Paul is acknowledging the Christian's identity with Christ. We are in Him, we share in his grace, He is our example, and we are bound by obedience to Him. This is the overall theme of these prison epistles. All other themes are categorized beneath this one.
Perhaps the most dominating admonition in the prison epistles is to do everything "in love." "Show forbearance in love", "speak the truth in love", etc. By this Paul is teaching that our mental attitudes must be free of all bitterness and ill will, and we must be willing to actively pursue the well-being of others. This mental attitude of love should control our hearts and our actions relative to Christ, as well as to other men.
Paul begins and ends each letter with "grace", and this grace is found throughout each of the prison epistles. Our salvation is due to the saving grace of Christ, and we should exercise grace as we grow as Christians. This suggests a free and no-strings-attached attitude. As Christ freely gave us salvation with no strings attached, our attitude and actions toward God and toward men should be one of freedom without attaching requirements of merit to the objects of our grace. Grace is free, unmerited, undeserved giving, which needs no human external motivation. True grace is given liberally, decisively, excitedly, personally, freely, desirable, readily, willing, voluntarily, and cheerfully. Grace is complete freedom, liberty, and truth. God gives grace to us, and we reflect His grace to others.
Grace is not merited or deserved, or given in exchange for anything else. Grace is not paid for anything expected, and it is not owed for anything received. It is the non-compulsive, non-pressured favor of God. Grace relieves all pressures and stress, and it gives us the happiness and relaxed mental attitude that Paul illustrates throughout Philippians. Only grace can provide a truly personal relationship with God, and Christians
MUST understand grace in order to live the Christian life of submission and obedience to God.
Perhaps the most evident lesson taught by the prison epistles is that Christians must continually learn God's word. We are repeatedly admonished to gain knowledge and wisdom by filling our minds with the Word of God. How else would we know of such core doctrines as grace and love, if it weren't for our study of God's word? Bible study is where the Christian life begins, and it is the root from which all growth stems.
Paul wants all Christians to have peace. This "peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus." This peace is closely intertwined with God's grace. It is peace from God, and it is available to all Christians. It is what allows us to have relaxed mental attitudes, even during times of suffering.
Philippians is an admonition to be joyful. Joy is in, and worry is out. We are to rejoice in our Christianity, and this shouldn't be hard to do in light of all that Christ bought for us on the cross.
All the things mentioned here come from God. This not only demonstrates God's grace, but also his power. Our power is in Him. That's why we don't have to worry. We don't have to do things on our own power. We rely on God's power. We can now stop worrying and relax, because God will do everything through us that He wants done.
We are commanded to pray. The prison epistles stress three aspects of prayer. First and foremost, we pray with thanksgiving. Just think of all the things we have to be thankful for. Even if we forget about God's daily provisions for our food, clothing, and shelter, just consider all the things we are listing in this document. We should be thankful for God's grace, peace, joy, love, and power! I believe that a large part of our prayer life should be devoted to thanking God.
Secondly, we are to praise God. We need to continually express to God that we know that he is the sovereign God. I believe Paul has us to do this so that we won't forget that He is sovereign.
Thirdly, we are to bring our requests, petitions, and supplications to God. In light of God's power, grace, and love, I don't even think we have to dwell too much on our petitions. Just tell God what they are, thank Him and praise Him, and he will provide!
All the prison epistles stress edification and building up each other, and Ephesians 4 is especially strong on helping each other to grow to maturity. We are to GROW in all the things we have mentioned here--God's grace, power, love, etc. We do that by studying His Word, and then we build each other up through mutual encouragement.
Though humility isn't explicitly mentioned as many times as some of the other doctrines, it is nevertheless a core doctrine of the prison epistles. One cannot exercise grace, peace, and love, without exercising humility! Our attitudes must be selfless. No command is more straightforward than ". . . regard others as more important than yourselves!"
Unity is also a common theme here, but I believe that since we are all imperfect, this is a little more idealistic than the other doctrines. We shouldn't go overboard on unity and carry it over into the realm of ecumenical circles. We are to be united IN Christ, to the extent that each member of the union adheres to God's word. However, I do not believe
that Paul is suggesting compromising God's word to a single degree.
As you might expect, a Christian filled with grace, peace, and love will be a Christian of great patience. If you don't have an attitude of grace, you'll be hard-pressed to exhibit Christian patience.
These are the traits that identify a Spirit-filled Christian: being like Christ; love; grace; learning God's Word; peace; joy; power; prayer; edification; humility; unity; and, patience.
Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn bushes, or grapes from briers. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks. (Luke 6:44-45)
However, 1 John 1:8 warns that "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. Although Christians are not perfect, others should be able to see the evidence of God's fruit in our lives.
Owen Weber 2009