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Fall 1991 · Vol. 20 No. 2 · pp. 125–34 

Paul's Success in the Conversion of Gentiles: Dynamic Center in Cultural Diversity

V. George Shillington

That Paul’s mission resulted in the widespread conversion of Gentiles and their incorporation into Christian communities is a truism of the first order. But the reason for Paul’s success is another matter. The aim of this article is to address the question: How can we account for the positive response of Gentiles to the preaching of this Jewish-Christian missionary? Gentiles had not been converting to Judaism (the parent of Christianity) in significant numbers, even though provision was made for their inclusion in the Jewish covenant community; and Judaism apparently had its missionaries who “traversed sea and land to make a single proselyte” (Matt. 23:15).

Paul is like one standing at a cosmic frontier.

Paul’s mission into the Gentile world, launched from Antioch, marked a critical turning point in the early Jewish-Christian movement. Gentiles began to accept the God of Israel and the Messiah of God as they had not up to this point. And more to the point, Gentiles were being accepted into the new community of Messiah, a phenomenon of some moment given the history of clashes between Jews and Gentiles (cf. Acts 15). {126}

In this article I intend to answer the question, Why was Paul’s mission to the Gentiles successful? First, I shall offer a proposal, and then I shall argue for its probability. The proposal is this: Paul preached Christ (Messiah) as God’s universal, dynamic center of life and thought that meshed spontaneously with the cultural particularity of his Gentile converts. If this proposal reflects a correct reading of Paul in his letters, then it represents a marked difference from the convenantal categories of contemporary Judaism where fixed distinctives marked the boundary of inclusion (and exclusion) of all members, native Jews and Gentile proselytes. “Boundary of inclusion” is the key term here. It contrasts with the “universal, dynamic center” for Paul’s Christian thought and preaching as proposed above.


The thesis is attested first by the character of Paul’s own conversion and call. The change of thought and life that overtook Paul when he encountered the resurrected Christ may be justly called “conversion.” “It is a call to mission” 2 to be sure, but Paul’s sense of mission and center of thought were transformed utterly by his encounter with the Christ of the Christian proclamation. The persecutor-preacher of Jewish persuasion became the persecuted preacher of Christ, as Paul himself is witness. In recalling his life in Judaism he writes:

[I was] circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless (Phil.3:5-6).

Did he then abandon his Jewish heritage altogether at conversion? I think not; he identified with his “brethren,” his “kinsmen by race” (Rom. 9:3), affirming both an attachment to his heritage of faith as a descendent of Abraham and an identity as an Israelite (Rom. 11:1-2). Nor did Paul exchange one God for another or one Scripture for another. Yet Paul had a change of vision. He gained a new understanding of the plan of God for the ages in the experience of Messiah resurrected. Previously he knew of Christ, as he says, “according to the flesh” {127} (katasarka), but his knowledge of Christ was radically transformed, as we may conclude from 2 Corinthians 5:16f: “We know him thus no longer.” Paul experienced a change in the basic pattern of thinking and knowing that he held prior to his encounter with Christ. However we wish to describe the change, we may be certain that something transformed his thinking from a covenantal boundedness to a relational, dynamic, spiritual “knowing” of Christ. “Whatever gain I had,” he says, “I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. . . that I might know him and the enabling energy (dynamis) of his resurrection . . . being shaped [in thinking and life] by his death” (Phil. 3:7-10).

This dynamic thought pattern surfaces in the letters in various ways: “God was pleased . . . to reveal his Son in me” (en emoi Gal. 1:16). “I live, and yet not I but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). “The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom. . . . We are being changed from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:17f). The implications of this new understanding of Paul’s life in relation to God in Christ point in the direction of a winsome proclamation for Gentile ears.

Paul’s experience and understanding of Christ sketched above had its antecedents in the preaching of the primitive church that settled in Antioch. The former Paul, the Pharisee, detected a threat to the standard Jewish categories from the new pattern of thinking and living represented in the speech of the hellenistic Jewish Christian, Stephen (Acts 7). This new Christ-thinking cracked open the boundaries of the traditional observance of the Law to which Paul had been so ardently committed. Eventually, however, he adopted the Christ-center, abandoned Torah-observance in light of end-time salvation (cf. Rom. 10:4), to become the most prominent exponent of the new reality of Christ among the Gentiles in the middle of the first century.


By the terms “Christ-center” and “dynamic Christ-center” I do not mean that Paul had studied the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth to know his words and emulate his deeds recorded in written gospels. His main access to the earthly Jesus was through the living word of the Apostles who remembered Jesus in the flesh. But in his letters Paul only rarely {128} appeals directly to any word or act of Jesus (cf. 1 Cor. 11:23-25; 7:10; 9:14). He was not dependent on the record of Jesus’ life for his new life of faith in Christ, nor were the multiple acts and words of the historical Jesus central to his preaching among the Gentiles. One act was central and generative: the act of God in raising the crucified Jesus from among the dead (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:3-5; Rom. 1:3f; 8:11; Phil. 2:6-11).

Conscious of this dramatic turn of the ages by the supreme act of God in raising Jesus Messiah, Paul’s every aspect of life was affected. He now viewed the sacred past, all of it, as pointing to the present reality of Christ, and the present reality of the Spirit of Christ as the foretaste of the resurrected life soon to come. Here we see, I believe, the distinctive thinking and preaching of Paul the Christian. The emphasis falls on God’s act in history on behalf of all humanity (Jew and Gentile) with the corresponding experience of the Spirit of God in hearts and minds of faith in Christ crucified and raised.

This is the good word that reached into Gentile lives where they lived. It did not require them to deny their culture, to abandon their heritage, to learn a new language, to be circumcised, to eat certain foods and not others, to observe certain days and not others, to attend feasts, to present offerings. They were summoned rather to accept a life-giving center around which the cultural fabric of their local lives was woven. This is how Paul’s letters read. They arise out of situations in the congregations. They answer recent questions, give apt directions in line with the situation of the people involved, but always with a keen eye to the enabling center of life in the Spirit of Christ. In short, the gospel Paul lived and preached was translatable, to use Lamin Saneh’s term. 3 It did not merely cross cultural lines; it entered into the cultural configuration of the particular people. Its universal character, to be sure, remained unchanged and unchangeable, as God is. But it had the inherent capacity to become incarnate in particular cultures, as God had become incarnate in Jesus.

To describe Paul’s thought in this manner runs the risk of making him an inconsistent thinker who allowed different situations to change his mind. On the contrary, I believe the heart of Paul’s thought and life was thoroughly consistent. But this “thoroughly consistent” center of thought should not be construed as a body of doctrine that Paul espoused and expected his converts to espouse before they entered the {129} community of Christ. His was a life-giving message infused with the unfathomable love of God in Christ; it was the good news of Christ that called Gentiles to be part of the plan of God for the end of the ages.


Now while we insist that the Christ-center of Paul’s preaching was not doctrinal but dynamic, we acknowledge a certain schema or pattern of interrelated ideas apparent in his letters and by analogy also in his preaching among the Gentiles. Not only are the ideas interrelated, they are charged with generative energy that Paul would call “the power (dynamis) of God that leads to salvation” (Rom. 1:16). As such this “truth of the Gospel” (Gal. 2:14) as a generative center is open to cultural variety and diversity of expression. But more on this point later. For the present we should highlight three principal facets in the schema of Paul’s thought that drive his mission to the Gentiles and open the door for their inclusion in the new people of God.


There is no denying that the figure of Christ stands out in bold relief in Paul’s letters. His thinking about Christ is vast, majestic, overpowering, dynamic. Paul acknowledges that the Christ was in the form of God (Phil. 2:6); that God “sent” him into the world for the redemption of humankind (Rom. 8:3; Gal. 4:4f); that he died in weakness on the cross to be raised again to universal lordship (1 Cor. 1:20ff; 15:3-5; Phil. 2:8-11); that his full presence in the world is still future (1 Cor. 15:20-55; 1 Thess. 4:13-18); that his Spirit indwells the community of faith in Christ to give life and hope (2 Cor. 3:17f; Rom. 8:9-27). And he further affirms that anyone from the human family who believes in this Christ thereby participates proleptically in a new creation that God has in mind for the world (2 Cor. 5:17f; cfr. 1:21-22).

Despite the spiritual overtones of the language just cited, the Christ of Paul’s thought is not a mystical figure (cf. Rom. 8:9f; 2 Cor. 3:17f). The revelation of the grace of God toward humankind comes not in mystical but in historical dress. The resurrected Lord has an antecedent on the other side of “the third day” (cf. 1 Cor. 15:3-5). There cannot be a resurrected {130} Christ apart from the crucified Christ, crucified in ordinary time and in human flesh to redeem both. Still, the Christ in Paul is defined primarily in transcendental terms, not restricted to the historical Jesus. Instead, Paul’s Christian thought in the letters is centered on the act of God in raising the crucified Jesus to universal lordship. It is a saving event for the world, represented every time the gospel is proclaimed. It makes Paul’s preaching good news. Something of great moment has happened in the world and for the world: God has brought out of human mortality a new form of incorruptible life in the person of the resurrected Christ. Paul lives and works in the experience of this event, and interprets all other saving events recorded in Scripture in its light. “The message that Paul finds in the Old Testament,” says Richard Hays, “is the gospel of Jesus Christ proleptically figured, a gospel proclaiming the inclusion of the Gentiles among the people of God.” 4 Now to the second principal element.

The Change of Aeons

The change from the old age to the new was not merely a piece of information Paul acknowledged. It became for him a reality of immense proportion, one that shaped his thinking and impelled his mission to the Gentiles. A cluster of questions present themselves: When did the change occur? What new frontier has the change brought about? And what are the consequences for Paul’s mission to the Gentile world? The questions interlock, as do the answers that follow.

C.J.A. Hickling has made the point that, for Paul, “God has already brought about in Christ a decisive and final transformation of time. 5 What was “decisive and final” for Paul was the reality of the resurrection of Messiah to universal status. Christ was the Messiah of the whole world and of all humanity. Paul’s new understanding of himself in relation to the plan of God was “of one standing at a cosmic frontier.” 6 God had raised Jesus from among the dead, signalling the dawn of a new order of life in the midst of ordinary history. The resurrection of Jesus Messiah marked a turning point for humanity and for the cosmos. From that point onward resurrected life in Jesus Christ was the new ontic reality to be reckoned with; it belonged at “the end of the ages” and the beginning of the new age to come (1 Cor. 10:11). 7

The Adam-Christ typology of Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 {131} fits within this pattern of thought, a typology that lies at the heart of the inclusion of Gentile people in the people of God. The first Adam (human being) became an animate physical being (psuchen zosan 1 Cor. 15:45a) whereas the last Adam became a life-giving spirit (pneuma zoo poioun 15:45b). The new creation in the last Adam constitutes a different order of existence from the first Adam. Yet both are Adam (human). The new rises out of the old by the power of God, and is related to the old as fulfillment to promise, antitype to type 8 (cf. Rom. 5:12-21). Significantly, Paul views the new Adam as the resurrected Christ, the life-giving spirit, “the man from heaven” (v. 49), not the historical Jesus. The change from old to new, from physical to spiritual, from mortal to immortal, occurred at the point where a radically new reality appeared to the eyes of faith: the resurrected Christ (1 Cor. 15:3-5). Such a new reality in the church and in the world was bound to have cosmic consequences, and it did. It transformed Paul’s worldview, his understanding of the Law (Torah), and his attitude towards Gentiles. His new way of understanding the Law was, more than anything, the catalyst that attracted Gentiles to the Messiah (Christ) of Paul’s preaching. More on this presently. But what of the third major element in the pattern of Paul’s Christian thinking to be considered?

The Ingathering of the Gentiles

This is not an optional issue with Paul. Nor is it merely obedience to a command to do mission work. Gathering the Gentiles into the new people of God is at the heart of the plan of God for the salvation of the world. If the Gentiles cannot be incorporated, then the plan has failed. But the plan cannot fail, so the Gentiles must be converted to Christ and included in the new community of the end time in preparation for the ultimate transformation of humanity into the likeness of the resurrected Christ. Moreover, Paul finds necessity laid upon him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles (1 Cor. 9:16), until their full number is gathered in (Rom. 11:25). Israel is being reconstituted and the Gentiles must be included, because the new Israel is in effect a new humanity under the new Adam (cf. Eph. 2:15). And sure enough, Gentiles were being included on the single basis of faith in Jesus Christ crucified and raised. And Paul ensured that they were accepted as full members along with their Jewish counterparts in Jerusalem. He brought {132} the “offering of the Gentiles” from the nations of the world to Jerusalem, sacred city of God’s salvation, as a sign of their full membership with the new people of God (Rom. 15:16).


We have identified three principal factors in the generative schema of Paul’s thinking as a Christian. We return now to the question of the effect this new way of thinking had on Paul’s view of the role of the Law in the plan of God for the salvation of the world. The success of Paul in the conversion of Gentiles hangs largely on his new understanding of the Law and its function, which fits roundly within the pattern as outlined above. The following four points, while they hardly represent a full discussion of the debated issue of the Law in Paul’s thought, do have a direct bearing on the proposition that Paul preached Christ as universal, dynamic center that interacted authentically with cultural particularity.

The law was not intended to give life (Gal. 3:21). The “truth of the Gospel” (Gal. 2:14) is that life is transmitted via the “life-giving Spirit” of Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:2; cf. 1 Cor. 15:22) through faith. Paul grants, of course, that the law had certain functions: it was added on account of transgressions, it consigned all under sin, it kept its adherents under restraint, it acted as a guardian until Christ came (Gal. 3:19-25). But at no time did God intend the law to provide life. Life is granted exclusively as a gift at God’s initiative. And God’s supreme initiative was in the giving of himself in the Son and in the Spirit of the Son (Rom. 8:3; 5:5).

A person is not justified (“righteoused” 9) by keeping the law (Gal. 3:6-18; Rom. 4:1-25). The record of Abraham’s relation to God proves as much. He believed in God who “righteouses” the ungodly, and his believing was reckoned to him as righteousness. Abraham then is seen as a paradigmatic type of the “ungodly” Gentile who believes in the Christ that Paul preaches and is thereby righteoused on the basis of faith alone.

Christ is the end of the law (Rom. 10:4). The troublesome term here is “end” (telos). It could mean termination or goal or purpose or all three. The idea of Christ being the end of the law is in keeping with the change of aeons from old to new at the resurrection of Christ. The law served its purpose until the {133} new age of Christ arrived (Gal. 3:19ff). At that point the resurrected Christ took over from the law, thus rendered its purpose and observance inoperative (see 2 Cor. 3:7-18).

The law is to be fulfilled in the community of faith by the enabling Spirit (Rom. 8:4). In saying this, Paul in effect upholds the law (cf. Rom. 3:31), but he does so by a new principle: “not in written code but in the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:6). In other words, he expects his Gentile converts who transfer into Christ to be led thereafter by the Spirit and thus to fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 5:16-6:5). The parameters of the fulfillment are, of course, really quite different from the Jewish concept of obedience to the commandments of Torah. Paul’s new understanding is that the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:14; Rom. 13:8ff).

The important point to be made here is that the practice of Torah-law is not a requirement for inclusion. Some of the standard apractices related to incorporation, such as circumcision, Sabbath-keeping and the eating of certain foods, were set aside altogether for Gentiles. He saw in these practices an obstacle that blocked the Gentiles from coming into the community, so he set the requirements aside. He encouraged the Gentile converts, rather, to form communities within their own cultural millieu without the unauthentic constraints of Jewish particularism. In what then did the successful conversion of Gentiles consist? The answer to this question will form the conclusion to our discussion.


Gentiles who responded to Paul’s preaching were expected to participate in the new community of faith in Christ formed within the society in which they lived. Entrance rested on a single requirement: faith in Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected. They had to adopt this new center of thought and confess the same with their lips, that Jesus Christ whom God raised from the dead is Lord (Rom. 10:9). The implications of this commitment and confession were significant. Converts had to abandon the worship of idols so as “to serve the living and the true God” (1 Thess. 1:9). They could eat food that had been offered to idols (1 Cor. 8:4-13; 10:23-30), but they could not offer food themselves as participants in an idol’s temple (1 Cor. 10:14-22) since they were already participating {134} fully in the body of the only living universal Lord, Jesus Christ. Participating thus in the “living” Christ the Gentile convert found a new center of energy for life in the world (Rom. 6:4) and a guarantee of a place in the world to come (2 Cor. 1:22).

The conversion of Gentiles also involved the proper control of physical passions (Gal. 5:16-26). Sexual sins figure with idolatry in that both fixate on the created order rather than relate to the Creator of the world (Rom. 1:24-25). Both contradict life in the Spirit (Gal. 5:19; Rom. 8:5-11).

Beyond these two basic areas of change-from idolatry to faith in Christ, from sensuality to life in the Spirit-Paul exercised remarkable freedom in the Spirit in guiding his culturally conditioned Gentile congregations in the way of Christ. He did not invite them into another system of cultural distinctives-language, name change, food, circumcision, etc.-that would extricate them from their own cultural heritage. He called them to experience the dynamic center of faith in Christ that would interact authentically with all aspects of their culture until the ultimate transformation of the old order at the parousia of Christ.


  1. The article is an abridged and revised version of a lecture given at a conference on conversion in Africa at Harvard University. May 1988.
  2. Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976, 7-23.
  3. From a lecture delivered at Mennonite Brethren Bible College in 1987. Lamin Saneh has studied conversion in Africa, and is currently professor of religion at Yale University.
  4. Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. New Haven: Yale, 1989, 13.
  5. C. J. A. Hickling. “Center and Periphery in the Thought of Paul,” Studia Biblica 1978. Vol 3. Sheffeld: JSOT, 1980, 208.
  6. Ibid., 209.
  7. “Resurrection is a historical-ontological category, manifesting in this world the dawning of the new age of transformation Resurrection language expresses the new age in the midst of the old; Paul stresses the resurrection of the body, not the resurrection of the flesh.” J. C. Beker, Paul the Apostle. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980, 153.
  8. On the Adam-Christ typology in Paul see Leonhard Goppelt, Typos: The Typological Interpretation of the Old Testament in the New. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982, 127-152; and V. G. Shillington, “The Figure of Jesus in the Typological Thought of Paul,” Ph.D. dissertation, McMaster University, 1985, 81-135 and notes.
  9. E. P. Sanders, recognizing the problem of using different English rootwords to render forms of the same Greek root (dik-), decided to make the adjective “righteous” into a verb (“righteoused”) to solve the difficulty. Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983, 6, 13 n.18.
George Shillington is Associate Professor of New Testament Studies at Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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