10. Paul: Conversion
Lecture: Paul: Conversion
Now with regard to the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, there have been lots of attempts to try to explain this. People who don’t believe in the supernatural, that are not evangelical in that sense, agree that something happened to the guy. What went on that caused him to have a religious conversion experience? And a couple of things that people talk about are that he was a very troubled young man, full of guilt, and was ripe for a major conversion experience. One of the things that he had going on in his life that caused him trouble was this great struggle with regard to the law. If you read the Book of Romans, he says [Romans 7:15-19], “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing,” and you have this tremendous attempt, like Martin Luther, “to be perfectly righteous by keeping the law,” and he can’t do it. So he has this tremendous problem in his innermost being that causes a breakdown on the road to Damascus.
Well, what does Paul himself say about his pre-conversion experience concerning the law? In Philippians 3 (the chapter we looked at where he’s talking about himself), after having said that he was [v.5], “…circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee....” In verse 6, he says, “As to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” That doesn’t sound like he had a tremendous guilt complex. You may say that there is nobody who can keep the law perfectly, but there are a lot of people out there who think they do. There are a lot of people out there who consider themselves good people – who feel pretty good about themselves. They don’t understand the law. Paul’s understanding of what the law really teaches comes after his conversion, and then he realizes that he’s the greatest of sinners, etc. But before, he seemed to say “I was great – no one was better than me with regard to the law.” And all you have to do is read the Talmud, and you’ll find at times people were very content with their keeping of the law. One Pharisee says that “If there were only two people who were righteous in the whole world, it would be my son and me.” But Paul has that mentality. As far as the law was concerned, he was very content. He was up there – he was righteous and blameless.
Another attempt to explain his conversion is that there was another thing that troubled him – he was very troubled over what he was doing. When you persecute people, that many times brings on a deep psychological problem, a guilt complex into your life. And Paul, no doubt, as he saw Stephen’s death, as he was bringing these innocent Christians to prison and so forth, was very troubled by this. Well, he doesn’t seem to say that about his early life, either. In Galatians 1, you read, “You have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.” He doesn’t say that he had reservations about doing this. If you take seriously, like an evangelical would, what he says in 1 Timothy 1:13, “Though I formerly blasphemed and persecuted, and insulted him, I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief.” Paul looks back at his life and recognizes that God was merciful to him because he was ignorant of what he was doing. Therefore, he forgave him as a result. That’s very different from saying that the whole time he was uneasy about what was happening, and unsure. He was absolutely floored when a voice from heaven, and, instead of commending him and saying “Hey, you’re doing real well, I’m proud of you, Saul,” rebukes him. When the voice from heaven comes, we do not hear Paul saying “I’ve been worried about something like this happening for a long time.” He says , “Who are you, Lord?” And when he hears, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he’s aghast. So Paul’s conversion cannot be explained psychologically this way, I think you’d have to say the easiest way of explaining it is that God met him on the road to Damascus. Others say that he suffered a sunstroke. Well, if you suffer a sunstroke, you suffer a sunstroke. But you don’t get converted. So something happened there, and the evangelical understanding is that he met the Lord at that time.