By his own admission, Paul’s modus operandi was to forget the past and press on to what lies ahead (Phil 3:13–14). On the rare occasions when he does look back one point is crystal clear. In the words of a justly famous essay by Krister Stendahl:1
The Sin with capital S in Paul’s past was that he had persecuted the Church of God. This climax of his dedicated obedience to his Jewish faith [Gal 1:13, Phil 3:6] was the shameful deed which made him the least worthy of apostleship [1 Cor 15:9]. This motif, which is elaborated dramatically by the author of the Acts of the Apostles [Acts 9; 22; 26], is well grounded in Paul’s own epistles. Similarly, when I Timothy states on Paul’s account that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am number one” [1 Tim 1:15], this is not an expression of contrition in the present tense, but refers to how Paul in his ignorance had been a blaspheming and violent persecutor, before God in his mercy and grace had revealed to him his true Messiah and made Paul an Apostle and a prototype of sinners’ salvation [1 Tim 1:12-16] (p. 89)
Stendahl pressed his case against seeing Paul as the prototypical introspective conscience of the West by suggesting that “Paul knew that he had made up for this terrible Sin of persecuting the Church.” In as many words he indicated that Paul possessed no less robust an awareness of his own blamelessness after his initial encounter with the risen Christ than before.
Did Saint Paul really believe that he had made up for his cardinal sin of persecuting the Church of God? Stendahl wanted his readers to think so, and toward that end he quoted Paul’s own words: “… his grace toward me was not in vain; on the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I but the grace of God which is with me” (1 Cor 15:10). If this tells us anything about Paul, however, it only tells us that he thought he had to work harder than the rest of the Apostles, not that his work was complete or that he had somehow atoned for his violent past. In the same context he refers to himself as the ektrōma, the last of all to see the risen Christ and the only one who was, in the sterile, Elizabethan rendering of several popular translations, “untimely born” (1 Cor 15:8)
Modern studies of conversion have shown that converts typically tell their stories in language and concepts learned from their new communities. We may expect no less of Saint Paul, but it is difficult to believe that the early Jesus folk typically called themselves stillborns or abortions. This is Paul’s own choice of words, and it gives every indication that he experienced his vision of the risen Christ as a profound rupture with what he himself refers to as his former life in Judaism.
Saint Paul was not an especially introspective person nor did he often dwell on the past; that much is clear, but we ought to appreciate the fact that when he does recall his former life, some twenty or so years after his initial encounter with the risen Christ, what stands out is his excessive persecution of the Church and his zeal for the traditions of his fathers:
For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, that I was persecuting the Church of God beyond measure and trying to destroy it, that I was advancing in Judaism beyond many contemporaries among my people, being even more zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when the God who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through his grace was pleased to reveal his son in me, so that I might proclaim him among the nations, I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood … (Gal 1:13–16).
It is possible that Paul portrays himself in prophetic terms here as being set apart from birth for the special purpose of proclaiming the Son of God among the nations, a calling which he had only lately realized with the aid of revelation, but the proximity of his references to the “traditions of his fathers” and “his mother’s womb” suggests that the two are really one and the same thing, that Paul saw himself as being torn from his comfortable life in Judaism and cast out among the nations, an experience that came upon him suddenly and for which he was profoundly unprepared. The intersection of this language in with his self-characterization elsewhere as the ektrōma suggests that Paul viewed himself as lying dead in his sins at the very moment of his calling. A later midrash on Exodus portrays God’s redemption of Israel from slavery in Egypt in similarly visceral terms: “When I passed I saw you lying in your blood and I said to you, ‘Rise’”. The midrash goes on to describe how God nurtured Israel and adorned her in beautiful clothing, in much the same way Paul speaks of those who are baptized as having “put on Christ” (Gal 3:27).
Were we to ask Paul what were the sins in which he was stillborn, it is doubtful that he would say he had failed to meet the demands of the Law. In fact he almost certainly thought that his actions against the nascent Church were fully acceptable according to the Law. Whatever Paul experienced at the moment when he encountered the risen Christ, his subsequent reflections do not indicate much psychological turmoil over Judaism or the Law. The memory that he had persecuted the Church evidently stayed with him, however, and if we are reaching for a psychological explanation for his startling transformation then that memory is the place to go. Thus we can endorse Stendahl’s original insight that Paul was not especially introspective with the qualification that the risen Christ challenged him to be introspective. Paul’s blindness is a metaphor for his failure to see that, in his zeal, what he did not perceive as a transgression of the Law was nevertheless a sin against the body of Christ. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
If we persist in speaking of Paul’s conversion, in this light, we would do well to set aside the big religious questions and consider in the first instance what were the personal implications for Paul and, by application, for ourselves. If we persist in thinking of Paul’s conversion, in this light, we would do well to think of a moral conversion, a repudiation of coercive violence in the blinding presence of the risen Lord, the same Lord who had submitted himself to the violence of the cross. If we persist in thinking of Paul’s conversion, in this light, we would do well to think of an intellectual conversion, a stunning, catalytic realization that this Lord IS who they say he is. If we persist in speaking of Paul’s conversion, in this light, we would do well to think of a spiritual conversion, an immediate awareness that the power of life even now dwells in our decaying flesh. If we persist in thinking of Paul’s calling, in this light, we would do well to remember that he could not have been called without first being converted. This, at any rate, is how the Acts of the Apostles remembers Saint Paul.
Lent is our Damascus road, but in order to hear the voice of the Spirit speaking through Saul’s encounter with the risen Lord we need to attend to the details. The Damascus road is not about Judaism or Christianity; it is not about Law or Gospel; it is not about works or faith. It is about abject blindness in the face of glory; it is about hearing and heeding the words of the Lord. It is about being converted and being called.
Lent challenges us to look inward in an age when we are more inclined to extend ourselves outward in ever-expanding social networks. In an age of information without understanding, of breadth without depth, Lent is our time to contemplate what is the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of God, that we may be filled up to all the fullness of God (Eph 3:18–19). Lent is our time for moral, intellectual, and spiritual conversion; only then will we realize our calling.
As for your birth, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in cloths. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things for you out of compassion for you; but you were thrown out in the open field, for you were abhorred on the day you were born. I passed by you, and saw you flailing about in your blood. As you lay in your blood, I said to you, ‘Live!’ (Ezekiel 16:4&8211;6)
Other posts in this series:
Lent Is Our Damascus Road, Part 1: Blindness
Lent Is Our Damascus Road, Part 2: Two Perspectives
Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” Harvard Theological Review 56.3 (1963): pp. 199–215. ↩