THE CONVERSION OF PAUL
FREE GRACE OR FORCED GRACE?
by Jeff Paton
Anyone who has read the account of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus must admit that this was quite an unusual circumstance. It is not a common thing for God to strike an individual with blindness in order to convey the message of the Gospel to them. Even though this is admitted to be unusual, many theologians and preachers still refer to this pattern of conversion as normative. They believe that in this recorded event, God is revealing His modus operandi of salvation for every believer. They take the conversion experience of Saul on the road to Damascus road to be more than just a recorded event, but a rigid theological statement that this is precisely the pattern God always uses. An appeal is made to their listeners to consider the fact that God intervened in Saul’s life, and apparently without his consent. This has been the primary whip for those who contend for a doctrine of fatalistic predestination.
Were these extraordinary events to be used as evidence for irresistible grace and predestination? Or were they to vindicate the calling of Paul to Apostleship? It is interesting to note that Paul never implies to his listeners that his conversion was any different than theirs. He was not saved by a different Gospel, or was any more special than anyone who hears the Gospel. Faith in the truth of the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was just as essential for him as it is for us. No appeals are made by the Apostle that we should wait for any irresistible calling of God to salvation. The Scriptures encourage us to respond freely when God reaches out to us (Romans 10:4; 10:10,11; 5:18; Col. 1:28; Titus 2: 11-14).
Most of what we do know of Paul’s conversion can be found in the following texts; Acts chapters 9, 22 and 26. However, what is usually left out in the discussion by the "forced grace" crowd, is Paul’s testimony of how God had worked upon his heart prior to this event on the road to Damascus. In Romans chapter seven, we learn how God preveniently convicted Paul of sin through the knowledge of the law (Romans 7: 8-11). In this, the legal Saul found hopelessness in achieving perfection and salvation through his own works. This struggle in his heart is not revealed to us in the Acts narratives, but it is in Romans chapter seven and eight. One passage is not to be taken as more true than the other. Both must be synergized to see the whole story. The Acts account neglects to mention the process of conviction prior to this event. This is not because the prevenient grace of God was not reaching out and convicting Saul, but because the purpose of the narrative is not meant to establish a norm of how God works in salvation! If we want to see a norm, we need to look at the whole of Paul's experience, not an isolated passage. The Acts narrative is not meant to be a theological treatise on predestination, but a facet of the conversion of Saul to becoming Paul. Romans chapter seven speaks of the process of conviction over time that led Saul to despair, and caused him to rely on Christ as his only hope. No lightening bolts are to be found there, and no irresistible call to salvation can be concluded from the information. What then is the purpose of the account of the Road to Damascus? Luke sets out, not to teach predestination to salvation by a decree of God, but to record the miraculous event in order to remove any doubt of Paul’s Apostleship. Luke is not stating a normative process of an individuals salvation, he is validating the extraordinary calling of the Apostle!
To see Paul as a Pharisee helps us to see how radical this conversion was. He was the ring-leader of the persecution of the Church. With great passion and assurance that what he was doing was right in the eyes of God, he aggressively hunted down the followers of Jesus. One cannot help but imagine what impact the words and actions of the saintly Stephen may have had on his heart. No one, including the legal Saul could has smugly walked away from the stoning unaffected.
After God convicted Saul the conviction about his failure to measure up to the law he became defeated. He came to the realization that even after all of his zeal and fame, he was powerless to secure the perfect life he had strived for. With this in mind we can see that “Paul’s conversion is regarded not as an abrupt beginning, but as marking a gradual inward transformation of opinion and feeling.” “Whatever the nature of the event that happened on the way to Damascus…, it was the turning-point in his career, (this) merely marks the logical result of increasing dissatisfaction with himself and his course as a Pharisee, and of deepening impressions concerning the truth of Christianity” (Stevens). As Paul struggled inwardly, he saw the hopelessness of being able to be justified by the law. With the conviction of the Holy Spirit upon his heart, Paul was ready for the experience on the road to Damascus.
Paul was not yet converted since the mission of his travels was still the pursuit and persecution of the Christians. As Saul and his party of rough-necks neared Damascus a bright light blinded Saul. Many believe that this is where he was irresistibly drawn and converted, but this is not what the text says. For a voice comes from heaven saying, “Saul, Saul, why art thou persecuting me?” And he responded, “who art thou, lord?” And he hears, “I am Jesus whom thou art persecuting: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” Jesus himself tells Saul that he is resisting the work of God upon the heart. In essence, Jesus is telling him that “it is hard to keep going against your conscience.” No irresistible forced salvation is to be found here!
To say that the extraordinary blinding of Saul was all that was needed to convince him, is unlikely. For “it is inconceivable that an external miracle alone should have transformed a man of Saul’s fiery temper and firmness of conviction from a Pharisee into a Christian” (Stevens). If Saul did not have any of these former convictions about his spiritual state he would have never yielded even under the most spectacular circumstances. One thing that appears to be consistent with Paul, both before and after his conversion, is that he was uncompromising in his convictions. Most likely, if there were no prior process of conviction leading up to this, he would have chosen to die a martyrs death before he would have denied his Judaism.
“This event on the road was not the conversion in fact. As in most cases, a human guide was needed, and Ananias, the disciple in Damascus, was that man (9: 10f.). The first phase of the epochal experience was highly emotional (awakening, conviction, remorse). The second phase (three days, v.9) involved reflection and prayer (v. 11). The last phase (9: 17-19) brought instruction, encouragement, fellowship, and baptism” (Abingdon Commentary, P.1105). Ananias preached the Gospel to Paul and by doing so, Paul saw the answer to his dilemma. “Who shall save him from this body of death? He now says “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
“He now saw that men had always been saved by grace on condition of faith, and that, in view of human weakness and sinfulness, they never can be saved in any other way” (Stevens). The process that transformed the fiery Saul is the same that all who are truly converted have experienced. Conviction that we are sinners, utterly hopeless to save ourselves. Then a disciple of the Lord is put in our path to tell us of the Gospel. The Holy Spirit convicts and calls us to repentance and belief. From there, it is a matter of how we choose to respond. Do we reject Christ in hopes of another “gospel?” Or do we yield to the one who loved us so much that he died for our sins? If Saul, the chief enemy of the Church, the "Christian killer" could be accepted, anyone can.
Commentator, R.C.H. Lenski, encapsulates the preceding thoughts with crystal clarity.
“esus preaches the law to Saul; he confronts him with his sin and his crime; he smites and crushes Saul’s heart with a consciousness of its awful guilt. But Jesus does not preach the Gospel to Saul, he orders him to go to a place where the appointed minister of the gospel will proclaim this to him; for “what is necessary that thou do” does not refer to works of law but to believing and receiving the grace and the pardon for his sins.
One thing alone is certain: when Jesus smote Saul with the law, this crushed him but did not kindle faith in him. It is often said that Saul was converted on the road to Damascus. Strictly speaking, this is not the fact. His conversion began in his encounter with the law but it was not accomplished until the gospel entered his heart by faith, and that did not occur on the road but in Damascus.
Jesus converted Saul, and he did it through his regular means, the law and the gospel; and no conversion was ever wrought without these means….
When Jesus confronts the sinner with the law and his gospel, and the sinner, nevertheless, remains unconverted, the fault is wholly the sinner’s own, Matt. 23:27; Acts 7:51; 13:46; 28:25-28.”
As to the circumstances that took place along the road to Damascus, these were exceptional. This was more than just a call to repentance; it was a call to Apostleship.
Another commentator, H.P. Liddon also denies any fatalistic salvation by a sudden bolt of God's grace. "[T]here is no reason to suppose that the power which effected this immense change in the purpose and life of Saul of Tarsus operated irresistibly upon his intellect and his will. When he tells Agrippa, "I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision," he implies that he was perfectly free to disobey. There is no such thing as irresistible grace in the moral world: if there were, man in receiving it would exchange freedom as a moral agent for the passive obedience of a vegetable to the law of its kind." There is no forced grace here, just the free grace of God .
May we be witnesses to the fact of the process of grace in our own miraculous conversions.
The Pauline Theology
The Theology of the New Testament George Barker Stevens
Interpretations of the Acts of the Apostles R.C.H. Lenski
The Abingdon Bible Commentary Multiple contributors
Essays and Addresses H.P. Liddon, D.D., LL.D., D.C.L
BIBLICAL THEOLOGY ETERNAL SECURITY.US