Was Paul “Predisposed to Conversion”?

[I wrote this post almost exactly six years ago, September 14, 2011. Howard Pepper asked some good questions in a recent post about the idea of conversion, so I thought I would re-publish this as part of the recent series of posts on Paul’s background.]

Like most who write on the conversion of Paul, John Polhill asks if Paul was “predisposed” to conversion (Paul and His Letters, 55).  To what extent did was Paul “prepared” for his encounter on the road to Damascus?  Certainly Paul thought that God had prepared him to preach the grace of God (Gal 1:15), but this question usually is more interested in Paul’s psychological state of mind when he met Jesus.

The Wretched Man

Like the discussion of Paul’s conversion, the New Perspective on Paul has had quite a bit to say here.  In fact, I recently summarized the NPP’s thinking about Paul’s conversion in this post.  Traditionally, Paul is described as struggling to keep the Law perfectly and was in despair over his inability to do “the whole of the Law.”  Usually Romans 7 is the key text here.  Paul himself is the “wretched man” who must be delivered from his body of death (Rom 7:25).  He has been “kicking against the goads” for some time, according to Acts 26:14.  Paul knew that he was unable to live up to God’s righteous standards and lived in a state of perpetual wretchedness.  His encounter with Jesus on the Road to Damascus freed him from the weight of his sin and guilt and he became the apostle of the Grace of God.

But this reconstruction has been questioned by the New Perspective, especially by E. P. Sanders, following Krister Stendahl.  Sanders challenged what he saw as the Lutheran domination of Pauline studies on justification.  In the twentieth century (primarily Lutheran) scholars have made justification by faith the “center” Pauline theology. This leads to the unfortunate result of anti-Judaism – Jews become proto-Pelagians, Paul is Luther bashing the RCC’s.  Judaism is thought to be the antithesis of Paul’s Christianity and Paul’s theology develops out of a struggle against Judaism.  Sanders changed the debate by arguing that the questions posed by the protestant / RCC debate have nothing at all to do with Judaism of the Second Temple period.   For Sanders, this totally obscures what was actually happening in the first century and how Christianity developed out of Judaism.  In addition, Sanders points out that the protestant Paul was never recognized by Jewish scholars (Sandmel, for example), he was incoherent or inconsistent.

According to Sanders, Paul was not a guilt-ridden sinner trying to justify himself through the good works of the Law.  In fact, it was Luther who was a guilt-ridden sinner trying to justify himself, not Paul!  Paul was therefore not converted on the road to Damascus.  Obviously this has huge implications, since the theological edifice of the reformation is guilt on Luther’s understanding of Paul, and there have been some fairly strenuous arguments against Sanders and the other more recent New Perspective writers.

Is Polhill is correct in the end when he states that Paul’ encounter on the road to Damascus was a radical event for which he was totally unprepared (55)?

3 thoughts on “Was Paul “Predisposed to Conversion”?

  1. While I believe that God was likely working behind the scenes to prepare Paul for conversion and mission, I must side with Sanders in the sense that I believe that Paul’s conversion was mostly unexpected. The experience of seeing Jesus in His glory is a mind-blowing thing – just ask John! (Revelation 1:17) Paul was passionate about keeping the law: “Paul was ‘zealous’ to keep the law to the point that he was willing to persecute those that did not conform to the law” (Long 29). If Paul was willing to persecute and even kill those who did not keep the law, I would propose that he was not guilt-ridden regarding the law, but rather, he was seeking justice in order to defend its sacredness.

    In order to view Paul’s attitude in this way, we must observe the text in a different manner – one that supports Sanders view of Paul’s conversion. When Paul recounts his experience to King Agrippa in Acts 26, he states that before the Lord tells him, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads,” He asks Paul, “Why are you persecuting me?” Perhaps the “goads” phrase does not refer to Paul’s inability to live up to God’s righteousness, but rather, what if it refers to the vain pursuit of persecuting the church? He was hurting his own spiritual life by attempting to correct others. In regard to the other passage from Romans 7, I have never taken that passage as referencing Paul’s life before conversion. I believe that he was converted on the road to Damascus, but after conversion, he continued to struggle with sin just as every believer does. As it says in Romans 7:15, he does what he does not want to do. We may strive to follow after God’s will, but we still have a sin nature; however, as it says in Romans 8:1, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Thanks be to God!

  2. I do think that many interpreters of the Bible in the past have never really understood Paul’s heritage and how it would possibly affect his ministry, while he was persecuting Jews and after the encounter with Jesus on the road. Paul obviously wanted justice for those who did not follow the Jewish laws and traditions, hence the reason he started to kill Christ- followers when they became a threat to the traditions. “His excessive religious devotion and fervor prompted him to take extreme measures to eradicate the nascent Jesus movement. Such zealots was not uncommon in Jewish tradition” (TTP, 29). Acts 22:4-5 states some of the persecutions that Paul hosted.. With Paul being so “passionate” about his traditions and beliefs I believe that the conversions was totally out of Paul’s hands and was a surprise radical event. Why would someone all of a sudden shift their beliefs so abruptly, if they were preparing for it?

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