Was Paul “converted” to Christianity? There is a problem with this question, since it 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.
For this reason, many prefer to think of Paul’s experience as a “calling” to a prophetic ministry (“the light to the Gentiles”) rather than a conversion from Judaism to Christianity. It is important to notice Paul’s description in the letters of his calling – he is given a commission by the Lord to do a specific ministry and some sort of revelation by the Lord directly which is unique to him. Galatians 1-2 makes this quite clear – he is called an Apostle because of a revelation from God, not by the appointment of men.
The traditional view of Paul’s conversion is that he underwent a spiritual and psychological conversion. Paul’s description of the “wretched man” in Romans 7:7-25 is important here. Does this text describe Paul’s struggle with sin prior to his conversion? Is this a recollection of his own spiritual and psychological reversal at conversion? If the answer is yes, the Paul is described in the traditional view as a Pharisee who struggled with his sin and the guilt from 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.
The traditional view that Paul struggled with keeping the Law for a long time before meeting the Resurrected Jesus is rightly criticized for important later theological questions into Paul’s conversion. 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.
While I believe Paul was a sinner, is there any real evidence that Paul struggled with legalism other than the very difficult text in Romans 7? Not really, he seems to be fairly confident in the standing before God prior to his encounter with Jesus in Acts 9. Are there other elements of the story in Acts 9 which might help us understand Paul’s “conversion”?