Acts 9 – Conversion or Call?

As I stated in the previous post, many Pauline scholars prefer to call Paul’s encounter on the road to Damascus a “call” rather than a conversion from one religion to another. This events similar to a prophetic call of an Old Testament prophet similar to Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel. Paul experienced the glory of God and was called to a prophetic ministry.

Stendahl, for example, argued Paul never left Judaism. He remained a faithful Jew, fulfilling the role of being the “light to the Gentiles.” 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 Hebrew Bible 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.

However, I do think that it is 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.

Using modern Christian categories like “conversion” and “call” to describe Paul’s experience is a mistake. Paul’s experience in Acts 9 is quite unique in salvation history. As we read the story in Acts, what is radical about Saul’s conversion at this point in the story? If you bracket out what we know Paul is going to say later in Galatians, to what extent is Acts 9 a calling or a conversion?

11 thoughts on “Acts 9 – Conversion or Call?

  1. When thinking about what happened to Saul on the road to Damascus it really is an eye-opening thing to be able to learn about. It is a good reminder of the power of God to take control of a life and bring it back to Him. God has a plan for every single individual in this life. I love how the encounter Saul has with God on his way to Damascus to do something that would be contrary to God’s will and to see how God completely blind sides him and changes the course of his life completely. Saul’s conversion is so very radical because he is the one who is opposing and persecuting God and then he is the one that is spreading God to the nations. I like how Saul describes what he was doing in Acts 26:14 where God askes him why he is persecuting him and kicking against the goads. In other words why is he going against His will? Saul is completely and radically changed by God in this moment where he now will go above and beyond to spread the Good News! Again, it simply leaves me speechless to think of what a wonderful powerful God who relentlessly pursues us no matter how far out of His will we are. No person is too far gone to be brought back, as we see in this so clearly in the account of Saul who became a man after God instead of opposing God. Paul after he is changed shows the people that God’s plan is not to follow all the laws, including circumcision instead it is about accepting the God through His Holy Spirit. I thank God when reading this account that He chose to change His plan and accept the dirty Gentiles, because that is the reason I am saved today!

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  2. I think it is interesting that you mention how some argue that Paul converted to Christianity the moment when he accepted the Word of God, and how others argue that he simply changed his outlook and is still a Jew. I think Paul would be similar to the new believers in the chapters prior (specifically at Pentecost in Acts 2) where the Jewish people there believed, yet still practiced Jewish tradition. As you mention, it is clear that he rejected specific traditions of Judaism, such as circumcision, but I would think that he still would behave in the way that he culturally knew.

    As for how Saul’s conversion was radical, I would have to say every part of it was special and amazing. From what we know of Saul at this point was that he was one of the biggest threats to the early church. Acts 8:3 makes clear of this where Saul dedicated himself to eradicating the church. But, similar to Judas, God displayed his protection of the church and not only converted Saul, but also made him debatably one of the biggest assets the early church had.

    I think the event that took place in Acts 9 was more of a conversion than a change of direction or understanding for Saul. Though it is possible, I hesitate to think that Saul was an actual believer during his persecution of the church. One potential indication of this is found in Acts 9:18 where Saul was baptized. This baptism often was mentioned to be done after the person was saved. Though it could have been done out of Jewish tradition, it could have meant that Saul was saved and then baptized.

    Again, I think that this event was more of a conversion of Saul, rather than a change in direction. I do however think that his conversion was purposeful, and that he was chosen to be a vessel for God to use.

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  3. Growing up, I always called it a conversion. He was a Jew, but on the Damascus road became a Christian. I still refer to it as a conversion, but I think calling is more appropriate. The God that Jews worship and the God we (Christians) worship are the same God. Jews are still waiting on their Messiah while Christians have received theirs. Looking at it through that lens, I would agree that what Saul/Paul went through was more of a calling. Don’t get me wrong, there was some serious heart change that had to go on to be able to go from killing followers of the way to preaching the good news in the Temple. I have no qualms with Paul still following Jewish traditions post “calling”. I don’t have issues with Christians today celebrating Jewish holidays or following Jewish traditions otherwise. The only time I would have any issues is if they hinged salvation on following Jewish practices. That being said, I think that Paul still following Jewish traditions further deepens the connection between the Jews and early Christians.

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  4. Words like “calling” get thrown around a lot in modern Christianity. People say that something is their calling because it’s something they enjoy or might be somewhat good at. Now, there are lots of things that could be someone’s “calling” in life. I think that if someone is serving the Lord in the best way they can, then they are, to some extent, fulfilling their calling. That can be in any number of professions, from businessman to missionary. Very few people experience a calling like Saul did.
    When Jesus called out to Saul, it wasn’t something like a vision in his sleep. Saul was on his way to Damascus when a light from Heaven shone upon him and his men. Jesus called out to Saul, asking why he was persecuting Him. Not only could Saul hear Jesus, but so could them men traveling with him. (Acts 9:3-7). This was the turning point for Saul in what would become ministry to the Gentiles. People today don’t get audibly called with brilliant light from Heaven telling people what God wants them to do with their life. So, it is accurate that Saul was called by God into what he would eventually do, but it’s not to be mixed up with our modern definition of a calling. And like you said, it was very much a conversion as well. Saul’s beliefs were overhauled when he started to minister to the Gentiles. He wasn’t still holding on to his connections to Jewish Law, in fact a lot of what he preached was saying that we no longer need the Law. So, to say that he was still a rabbi after this point would defeat the purpose of his ministry.

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  5. What is radical about Saul’s conversion at this point in the story?
    This is a story of hope and redemption. This shows that no matter where someone is at in life Jesus Christ can and will get to them. Saul was a man that despised the gospel and wanted nothing to do with it. This man was allowing the murder of Christians. This is a message for those that have committed sins that they feel there is no way they could be accepted to do something great for a God that is so loving. There is redemption from our past and God will use everyone and anyone to do great things for his kingdom.

    The call on Saul’s life was something that God had known from the beginning and in order to make it such an impactful story for others we were able to see his past. The past that was left so far behind that God gives him a new name and uses him to reach a nation that will impact the world and is still impacting it today. Saul’s conversion was just as important. We see God bringing people to his kingdom all the time and they weren’t people of high stand making wise choices. They were poor and weak, rich and greedy. God has the power to change everyone’s heart and that means there is hope for everyone.

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    • I like how you referred to this story of Saul’s conversion as a story of hope and redemption. You are exactly right too with what you said after that in which I completely agree with you. It doesn’t matter to God about who we are and what we’ve done, no matter if it’s good or bad. He still loves us all just as equally and that is such a good thing to know!

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  6. Saul to Paul has been a radical story that has been shared throughout the church and its history. The two views of Saul becoming Paul and the difference of it being a conversion or calling. I interpret it as both. I understand it as that God in His own way works and changes the mind, heart, and soul of Saul into Paul. Paul in this conversion is led and feels called to be a voice for the Gentiles of the hope and salvation brought by Christ Jesus. Paul still understands the law and practices of the Jewish traditions, his roots of Judaism to draw him close to God. These traditions are basically spiritual disciplines that are used to grow and connect with God. In addition over time, Paul is shown and acquires a new direction of the way faith in God is lived out. The movement has sparked the beginning of the modern church as not just Jewish converts but the Gentiles are now entering the picture of Christianity. Thus, Paul’s process of ministry took a conversion of God that transformed him into the working out the calling that God had designed for the task of restoration of his people beyond the Jews.

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  7. Paul’s experience on the Road to Damascus is a very interesting story. Since he is converting from a Jew, to a Christian. The more interesting part of this article is that of the very end, where we get into the issue of calling this a “call” or a conversion” which I have always called it either of these two. The power of God is capable of anything. The interesting fact here is that this makes it easier for us to understand Paul. Since much of acts we read a lot of his speeches, his interactions he is key throughout the Bible. Since Saul to Paul is one of the more interesting changes. Since Saul has a bit of a hardened heart towards the disciples, I truly think of this a conversion. Saul went blind, he then saw a vision as to where he regains sight after. Then immediately starts proclaiming the name of the Lord. (Acts9:19) As modern Christian thinking as I can get this would definitely be something that we would consider a conversion. Saul was on the road to Damascus, the Lord made him blind, then giving him sight. He then began proclaiming God’s word. That’s just like saying some of us, had wicked ways before Christianity, then after our experiences before getting saved, we then start rejoicing in what God has done in our lives and live to live out our lives for Him. This is a powerful portion of scripture.

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  8. What makes it so radical is that Saul was the most zealous persecutor of Christians and all a sudden he becomes zealous for Christ and joins The Way. This went against all odds and the apostles had a hard time believing it was true! Shortly after Paul’s conversion it is recorded,

    “When Saul arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to meet with the believers, but they were all afraid of him. They did not believe he had truly become a believer!” (Acts 9:29).

    So, this is a shocker to those who knew Saul was a heavy persecutor of Christians. However, this light that he encountered on the way to Damascus was something special. Polhill believes it to be a heavenly encounter in saying, “The light represents the heavenly epiphany, the divine glory that enveloped the little caravan ”( Polhill, Acts. p. 233). By saying “heavenly epiphany” it can infer that this light was the light of Jesus piercing through his own human senses and overwhelming them to the point where he knew he was in the presence of the Lord (Acts 9:5). Former Prophets have had similar occurrences in that the divine encounters them and they answer God’s call. If God has encountered, you in such a way it is reasonable to say it is God commissioning you to do something He has planned (Eph. 2:10).

    I am a little confused to your initial point and then your end point. Initially you say Paul has rather been given “a new understanding of the Jewish Law”. Continuing, “His gospel is a new interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and Judaism, he simply changed parties within Judaism.” And then in another place say,

    “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.”

    I agreed with your first point in that Paul did not begin a new religion rather he had gained a deeper understanding of the Jewish Law which would have separated him from the other sects since they still had a finite understanding. Paul’s belief in the resurrection made it easier for him to accept Jesus’ Gospel. Polhill affirms this by stating, “The certainty of the resurrection turned Paul from Jesus’ most zealous persecutor to his most ardent witness.” (Polhill, Acts. p. 235)
    What Paul is a witness to is that which he already believed and seen come to life right before his very eyes and giving witness to this reality. The Messiah was not foreign to the Pharisees, so I am unsure if Paul ever forsakes his Pharasitical roots. In Acts 26, Paul argues that he was trained from an early age in Jewish customs and traditions under the Pharasitical sect and that those who persecute him think he has denied the law with his new belief (Acts 26:6-8). Festus knew there was not a valid charge against him and exclaimed “Paul, you are insane. Too much study has made you crazy!” (Acts 26:24).

    Paul has deeper revelation of how the Law and the Messiah fit together and I would argue that Paul does keep the Law like Jesus did in ways for Jesus did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). Paul in his letter to the Romans says, “Well then, if we emphasize faith, does this mean that we can forget about the law? Of course not! In fact, only when we have faith do we fulfill the law (Rom. 3:31).

    Paul makes similar cases in other places (Rom. 14 especially 22-23, 13:10, Gal. 5:14 etc.)

    So, I agree to an extent that Paul’s devotion to the Pharisee sect and theology was considered rubbish in the sense of knowing Christ goes way deeper than what he knew. Paul takes a Romans 14 philosophy as well as 1 Cor. 9:19-23 as being things to all people and ministering under their convictions. Furthermore, 1 Cor. 9 distinguishes “not being without the law toward God, but under the Law of Christ” (v.21). What is the Law of God and the Law of Christ? Could this law of Christ be a deeper picture of what the Law of God is in such a way it is through the lens of the law of Christ?

    This appointing of Paul to be the apostle to the Gentiles makes him a perfect candidate to reach those who grew up knowing the Law and those unaware of Yahweh.

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  9. Honestly it would seem that in Acts 9 I would say my personal opinion leans on both sides. Like you stated it is a mistake to try and use modern christian words to explain Paul’s experience. I believe that it is a mixture of the two but even that is an underplaying of Paul’s experience. Yes he was still practicing some traditions of his Jewish heritage like going to the temple and taking part in the Nazarite vow. Yet, his belief in the resurrected Christ and even rejecting the important tradition of circumcision by explaining to the Gentiles that it is about a circumcised heart. Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-9 that works isn’t what saves a person. The law and the sacrifices that the Jewish people made is what was thought of their salvation. Paul didn’t convert to a new religion, he didn’t abandon his heritage either. He combined the two and changed his theology on certain topics. He was still worshipping the same God but understood the reason that Jesus came to earth.

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