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).

-EV

[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.

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2 thoughts on “The Apostle Paul and Conversion

  1. I couldn’t disagree more and I’m utterly offended. That’s a lie. This is helpful summary of a complex issue, and implications abound. I appreciate your work. Faith is often understood as some sort of abstract belief, in which case a sinner’s prayer will suffice regardless of what one does afterwards. I think you rightly define faith as a comprehensive, participatory response. The question that I am wrestling with is what to make of conversion experiences. What exactly happens in the “existential moment?” Should pastors use alter calls, and if so, how? I want to emphasize the importance of regeneration by the Holy Spirit, which seems to begin at the conversion experience in the NT, but I also don’t want give the impression that someone can say a prayer and then do whatever he or she wants. Thoughts?

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    • Hey Eli! I appreciate it man and I think you certainly raise some important issues/questions. I think conversion experiences are obviously a real/biblical thing. The question for me right now is are they a matter of having faith- understood as just saying a few words or a prayer- or having faith- understood as “a comprehensive response” as noted above, something that radically reorients our belief, behavior, and belonging. I think this is why alter calls (as I understand them) are an unhelpful thing, they typically seem to emphasize the importance of the first definition of faith (just changing my belief) rather than the second (which as a comprehensive response does include a change in belief but can’t be limited to that). As for what exactly is happening in that “existential moment” as you put it, that is a interesting question that I certainly don’t have a good answer to at the moment! I think it would be interesting to look at Paul/NT use of “calling” or “kaleo” language (like Romans 8:30 and Galatians 1:6) which typically seems to carry an “elective” meaning and think about how that relates to conversion. Obviously what you think is happening in that moment is going to be tied to your thoughts on election. I’m not sure if any of that made sense, I’m typing completely off the cuff right now (maybe Ethan can help us out) but I’m definitely going to have to be thinking about that more. Who knows maybe we can try and figure that out together next semester?!
      -EV

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