The audio for this week’s evening service will be available at Sermon.net, as is a PDF file of the notes for the service. You should be able to download the audio directly with this link, if you prefer.
Was Paul “converted” to Christianity? There is a problem with this description, since i implies he more from one religious belief to another (perhaps as a Catholic might “convert” to Protestant, or a pagan might convert to Christianity.) What the question really asks is – “how much of Paul’s worldview changed on the Road to Damascus?” When we examine Paul’s own theology and compare it to Pharisaical Judaism, the status of his “conversion” is less obvious. It is possible to describe Paul as a Pharisee who now believed Jesus was the Messiah. Who was working out the implications of this new belief while doing an evangelistic ministry. Yet there do seem to be major breaks with Judaism, especially in the treatment of Gentile converts. What Paul is preaching is not really a sub-set of Judaism, whatever it may appear in the earliest years.
The traditional view of Paul’s conversion is that he underwent a spiritual and psychological conversion. If Romans 7:7-25 deals with Paul’s apparent struggle with sin prior to his conversion, then we do have a spiritual and psychological reversal in Paul’s conversion. Paul is described in the traditional view as a Pharisee that struggled with sin and the guilt of not being able to keep the Law. His conversion releases him from the weight of the guilt of his sin; he experiences justification by faith and converts from Judaism to Christianity.
Critics of the traditional view often note that Paul’s experience is described in terms of Augustine’s conversion or Luther’s. Both men found their experience parallel to Paul’s and meditated deeply on what God did in their lives to release them from the weight of their guilt. Their conversion experience colored their theology of salvation. Since Augustine and Luther are massively influential theologians, their view of Paul’s conversion has influenced later theology.
Beginning with Krister Stendhal, a new view of Paul’s experience has emerged. Rather than a conversion from one religion to another, Paul received a call of God that is quite parallel with the prophetic calls of the Old Testament, especially that of Jeremiah. This view sees the Damascus Road experience as a theophany, not unlike what Isaiah experienced in Isaiah 6. Paul experienced the glory of God and was called to a prophetic ministry. Paul never left Judaism, Stendahl argued, he remained a faithful Jew who was fulfilling the role of being the “light to the Gentiles” from Isaiah. In this view, Paul received a new calling, but still served the same God. He was to remain a Jew who was called by God to be the witness to the gentiles as anticipated in the prophecies of Isaiah. Paul is therefore not “founding a new religion” but rather a new understanding of the Jewish Law. His gospel is a new interpretation of the Old Testament and Judaism, he simply changed parties within Judaism..
The problem with this new view of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus is that it does not do justice to the radicalness of Paul’s Gospel! To reject circumcision even for Gentile converts is not a minor re-interpretation of the Jewish Law, it is a radical change that is unanticipated in the prophets. The reaction of the Jews in Acts is key. Everywhere Paul announces that God has called the Gentiles to be saved without circumcision, they riot and attempt to kill Paul.
Philippians 3:7-8 make it clear that Paul is not just moving to another party within Judaism, but rather that he is rejecting his Pharisaic roots completely. He is breaking with his past way of life and his past theology. While there are many points of comparison between Paul’s theology and Judaism, there are far more radical breaks with the Judaism of the first century.
It is, however, problematic to think that Paul is converting from Judaism to Christianity. Paul seems rather clear in Galatians that he was called by God to be the apostle to the Gentiles in a way that is quite distinct from the apostles in Jerusalem that were called by Jesus. He stresses his independence clearly in Galatians. He never joins the Jerusalem church, nor does he receive his commission from them, but he seems to be called by God to do something quite different – to be the apostle to the Gentiles. Despite the expansion of the apostolic witness to Hellenistic Jews and God-Fearers, the Twelve do not appear in Acts to do ministry outside of the house of Israel. Galatians 1-2 seems to be saying that there was a tacit agreement between Paul and Peter marking the “boundaries” of their ministerial territory. Paul will go to the Gentiles and Peter to the Jews. Ephesians 3:1-6 seems to be the clearest statement of the uniqueness of Paul’s ministry.
It is probably best to see Paul’s Damascus Road experience as both a conversion and a call. But to think of the categories “conversion” and “call” in modern Christian categories is a mistake, Paul’s experience in Acts 9 is quite unique in salvation history.