“For Paul the goal of the gospel’s advance overrides all else; thus his personal inconveniences, sufferings, and imprisonment serve this end” (Peter O’Brien, commenting on Philippians 1:12-26 in The Epistle to the Philippians, [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991], 86).
Paul was all about the progress of the gospel. Maybe the reason why evangelicals place such a priority on the salvation of men and the spread of the message of the gospel (the propositional statements to be understood by the recipients) is that they take Paul as their model. So when John Stott says that evangelicals need to move in the direction of social and cultural agendas without losing the priority of the spread of the gospel message for the salvation and growth of the elect, I agree. We should not base our Christian life completely on Paul’s life and mission because he was a pioneer missionary. The majority of Christians were not pioneer missionaries, but local evangelists who lived in the pagan cities and communities. So if we base our whole ministry model on Paul’s life, the picture of what we’re to be will get distorted. We need to evangelize, share the message, and be primarily concerned about the salvation and eternity of men but the way we go about that is not the exact same way a church planting pioneer missionary does (though there will be overlap).
So with Jesus setting our priorities through Paul’s ministry, Jesus does not exhaust our way of doing it in Paul’s life and ministry alone. So let us as evangelicals be clear on the gospel and doctrine and proclaim the message with eternity in view, but let us do it with being part of the community and building relationships and giving back to the community while modeling a counter-culture in the church. So let us by all means preach and explain and teach the gospel, but let us model it and love the people and permeate the city and community God has planted us in so that the smell of Jesus and the gospel will be everywhere, whether they believe or reject the gospel message. So the teaching (with words!) and the modeling and giving (action over a period of time in the context of community and relationships) are under the one purpose of the advance or progress of the gospel.
So when we read the epistles, we should not only think of what Paul did and how he modeled things, but how the church lived and was commended to obey and apply what they received in the letters of the New Testament. I think I have largely ignored the latter of the two angles in applying the epistles.