The Apostle Paul and Conversion

Was Paul called or converted? This question stands at the heart of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), a significant movement that has attempted to recover Paul’s Jewishness. This question may seem banal or unimportant to the layman but it captures the heart of the debate between “new” and “traditional” perspectives on Paul and has implications for conversion within Paul’s wider theology and what “conversion” looks like today.

In 1976 Krister Stendahl, a Lutheran bishop and Harvard professor, wrote Paul among Jews and Gentiles (just a year before E.P Sanders Paul and Palestinian Judaism would revolutionize Pauline studies). In his book, Stendahl argued that Paul’s Damascus road experience should be understood as a “call” rather than a “conversion.” Paul’s experience has been interpreted as a conversion, according to Stendahl, only because it has been read through the lens of Augustine and Luther’s conversion experiences (and read with Western concerns in mind, namely the assuaging of a guilty conscience). Stendahl and NPP interpreters feared that traditional understandings of Paul’s experience as a “conversion” implied that, “Paul underwent something like a Christian conversion experience (a la Augustine/Luther) of remorse and repentance or, more erroneously, a change of religions from Judaism to Christianity.”[1] NPP interpreters point out, however, that Paul understands himself not as one “converted to Christianity” but as one “set apart” and “called by grace to preach to the Gentiles” (Gal. 1:15-16, Michael Gorman points out that Paul’s language here echoes God’s gracious calling of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah). Moreover, any notion that Paul was guilty or remorseful before his Damascus road experience is explicitly ruled out in Philippians 3:4-6.

So, was Paul called or converted? As we have seen, the traditional understanding of Paul’s Damascus road experience as a “conversion” is clearly flawed. However, understanding Paul’s experience as a “calling” no different from that of Isaiah or Jeremiah is also flawed. As Jewish scholar Alan Segal has pointed out, “no historical prophet came around on his experience as Paul did when called to his task.” What Segal means, is that Paul’s experience radically transformed and reconfigured his understanding of God and Torah in a way that was unprecedented and not found in Isaiah or Jeremiah. Segal offers a middle ground between the NPP and traditional understanding of Paul’s experience by arguing from a sociological perspective that conversion does not necessarily mean a change of religions but a change of religious identity and community. Thus Gorman argues, “a conversion may be defined, more fully, as a radical reorientation of one’s fundamental commitment that is expressed in three things: belief, behavior, and belonging.”[2] On this definition Paul clearly was both called and converted, for surely he experienced a radical change in belief, behavior, and belonging (Philippians 3:7-11). It is important to recognize that the question of Paul’s call/conversion is not just an abstract academic argument but has real implications for how we understand conversion in the church today.

Typically, in traditional Protestant circles, Paul has been the quintessential epitome of a conversion experience. Understanding conversion through the famous conversions of Augustine and Luther, many Protestants have used platitudes like “accept Jesus into your heart” or “invite Jesus into your life” to articulate what conversion looks like.[3] This call typically follows an evangelistic sermon that has convicted the listeners that they are guilty sinners (and this guilt can clearly be known if they would simply look into their conscience/heart) who need to repent. If they do repent and “accept Jesus into their heart” then they are now Christians who have been made righteous by the grace of God. Thus, the divine-human relationship is understood in purely nominal or external- rather than participatory- terms. As Han’s Boersma has argued, the Reformation’s understanding of justification by faith alone was in great continuity with the nominalist tradition beginning in the 12th and 13th century. According to Boersma, “this continuity centered on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. The imputation- according to the Reformers, a forensic (legal) declaration- was external or nominal in nature.”[4] The imputation is external or nominal because while it changes your external standing in God’s ledger (from guilty to not guilty/righteous) it does not in of itself change a person. This is powerfully expressed by Luther’s famous simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously righteous and sinner).[5]

The problem with the traditional protestant understanding of conversion is that it understands faith and belief in purely nominalist/external terms. Faith is simply a matter of saying the “sinners prayer,” “accepting Jesus into your heart,” or “saying yes.” It is exactly this understanding of faith that has allowed for a separation between lived life/ethics and belief. The solution is not a jettisoning of “salvation by grace through faith” or requiring that works be done in order to be saved/made righteous, it is recognizing that for Paul (and the NT), “faith is a comprehensive response: trust, absolute surrender, obedience, and commitment to the covenant.”[6] It is as noted above, a radical change or reorientation in belief, behavior, and belonging. Furthermore, salvation and faith for Paul is inherently participatory in nature. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

For Paul, the life of faith is one in which Christians become partakers in Christ’s death and resurrection. As such they are not only declared righteous but they are actually delivered, liberated, and set free from sin (Romans 6:7, as Douglas Campbell argues Paul’s dikaio- language has a fundamentally liberative sense). The paradox of this freedom is that it looks like being made a slave to righteousness (Romans 6:17-18). Or as Jesus put it, “taking up your cross and following me” (Matt. 16:24).


[1] Michael Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord, 59.

[2] Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord, 60.

[3] It is important to understand the connection between Augustine/Luther and these platitudes. I do not think a proper reading of Augustine or Luther (either their theologies or their conversions) justifies typical protestant “evangelistic calls” or the phrase “accept Jesus into your heart.” However, Augustine and Luther’s conversion experiences have risen to such a level in the evangelical cultural imaginary that they have taken on an archetypal role for what conversion is and how it operates. Furthermore, while these platitudes might be rare in more intellectual circles of Protestant evangelicalism, the critique still applies to those who use verses involving “trust,” “believe,” or “faith” evangelistically  in nominalist, non-participatory, ways.

[4] Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation, 92-93

[5] It is important to note that the debate over continuity/discontinuity between the nominalist tradition and the reformation is an ongoing one. Both Calvin and Luther themselves contain continuities and discontinuities. That being said, I do contend that post-Reformation scholasticism and evangelicalism are highly nominalist. For an extended discussion of this debate see Boersma, Heavenly Participation, 84-94.

[6] Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord, 348-351.

The Problem of Paul and Jesus According to Schweitzer

“What endless trouble theology has given itself about the problem of Paul and Jesus, and what shifts it has been put to explain why Paul does not derive his teaching from the preaching of Jesus, but stands in this respect so independently alongside of Him! In doing so it is talking all round a problem, which it has first made insoluble by failing to grasp it in its completeness. The discovery that Paul takes up an independent attitude towards Jesus is misleading, unless one at the same time recognizes all that he has in common with Him. For Paul shares with Jesus the eschatological worldview and the eschatological expectation, with all that these imply. The only difference is the hour in the world clock in the two cases…

… Truth is for him (Paul) the knowledge of redemption as it results, on the basis of the eschatological expectation, from the fact of the death and resurrection of Jesus… In drawing the logical inferences from the altered world circumstances Paul is forced by the position to take, in his teaching, an original attitude alongside of Jesus. But in this he is merely recasting in accordance with the conditions of time the fundamental conceptions, derived from eschatology, which are common to them both….”

– Albert Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle

Did Paul preach a different gospel than Jesus? The orthodox reaction is obviously “no.” Yet, this question continually shows up in New Testament scholarship, and not without warrant — the emphasis on forgiveness of sins and the kingdom of God/heaven in the gospels versus the concept of justification and confrontation with Law/circumcision in Paul’s epistles. These things don’t seem to overlap. Yet, Schweitzer is convinced that much scholarship has missed the continuity between the theology of Jesus’ preaching and Paul’s epistles because it has badly misunderstood the eschatological redemption around which both Jesus’ and Paul’s thought revolves.

For Schweitzer, the essential difference is not the gospel, but the realization in history of the gospel’s content. Jesus’ death is understood eschatologically both in the gospels and Paul’s epistles. The essential “difference” is their location with reference to the eschatological world clock. Jesus certainly preached eschatological sermons and saw his death as integral to the eschatological redemption promised by God (this is one of the key insights of Schweitzer’s “Quest”). For Paul, the issues are simply not the same as before because the eschatological event actually transforms the cosmos and creates new problems to address (I apologize, my JL Martyn is showing). According to Schweitzer, Paul believed this is what Jesus would have him preach if Jesus were still walking on earth at the time (not to mention it was the Gospel he received “through a revelation of Jesus Christ” Himself, Gal 1.12). To simply run to Jesus’ sermons before His death and resurrection is to minimize His apocalyptic death and resurrection which now is the key to everything.

Once Paul’s theology is understood as centered in the eschatological death and resurrection of Jesus breaking through in the death and resurrection of those “in Christ”, then our reading of the Gospels becomes less disjointed from Paul’s vision. Does Christ not announce the end of God’s enemies? Does Christ not bid his disciples to come and die