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October 1980 · Vol. 9 No. 4 · pp. 3–9 

The Conversion of Paul: A Model?

Harold J. Dyck

The story of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus has long been of interest in any study of conversion. This has been so, first of all, because it is a highly dramatic one and, secondly, because the portraits of the earlier and later Paul seem to present themselves as the ideal model of the life reborn. Christians are frequently inclined to measure their own conversion against this model and to feel either reassured or disturbed by the comparison.


The Experience

The book of Acts provides three versions of the event. The first (9:1-19) is narrated by the author himself and the latter two (22:4-16; 26:9-19) form the core of Paul’s defense before Jews in Jerusalem and King Agrippa respectively. They present a fairly similar account.

Authorized by leading Jewish authorities, Saul extends his anti-Christian campaign to Damascus. On the way he is stunned by a brilliant light from heaven and falls blinded to the ground. He hears a voice asking, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” and asks in response, “Who are you, Lord?” He is answered, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” According to the first two accounts no further exchange occurs except to send the stricken Saul to Damascus to await further word. This comes three days later by way of Ananias who, having first been prepared by a heavenly vision, presides over the return of Saul’s sight and his baptism.

Statements of explanation provided in all three accounts agree in emphasizing his appointment to the service of Christ as an instrument to carry his Word to all. Two accounts explicitly include the Gentiles in this ministry (9:15; 26:17); the other implies it in “all men” (22:15), leaving it until later to make it specific (22:21). {4}

The first account locates the explanation in the vision of Ananias (9:10-16) but in the second, Ananias gives it to Saul, no mention being made of a prior vision. The omission seems natural enough since the story is given here from Paul’s point of view. That Ananias passed on the explanation to Paul is probably meant to be assumed in the first as well, though it is not expressly stated. In any case it serves the author’s purpose to stress the divine origin of the assignment in chapter 9, and, before Jews (chapter 22) the fact that it came through “a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there” (v. 12).

Chapter 26 makes no mention at all of Ananias. Here there are no three days of waiting but an explanation on the spot from the Lord himself (26:15-18). This is an obvious departure but it is not usually seen as a serious problem.

Such variations in the story have sometimes occasioned the question of its historical veracity. Whether Saul’s companions heard the voice (in 9:7, yes; in 22:9, no) and whether they were standing (9:7) or had fallen to the ground (26:14) are not significant in themselves but some have found these inconsistencies irreconcilable and regard the tradition as pious fiction. Others argue strenuously that the discrepancies are more apparent than real and that grammatical factors and the difference in circumstances adequately account for them. The explanations seem a little forced at times, but there is enough agreement in the three accounts to warrant the conclusion that the experience described was a real one.

The traditional view that the experience was a real appearance of the risen Christ continues however to find widespread support. 1 Certainly it is clear that Paul himself was entirely convinced he had met Jesus on that occasion (Gal. 1:12; 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8). Finally, attempts at historical reconstruction are probably less suited to provide understanding of Paul’s conversion than is the exegetical task which concerns itself with the actual intention of the writers.

The Meaning of the Experience

Studies of the relevant texts have led to the question whether the event is really meant to be a conversion story at all. “Conversion is not the best way to describe Paul’s experience,” writes Ladd, for “he was not converted from disbelief to faith, from sinfulness to righteousness, nor even from one religion to another, since he considered Christianity to be the true Judaism.” 2 Krister Stendahl concurs with this assessment of continuity and contends that the texts emphasize his call rather than conversion. 3 John E. Toews has sounded a similar note. 4 {5}

Attention is called to the accent on the assignment in all three of the accounts in Acts as well as in Paul’s own perception (Gal. 1:16). It is further observed that the language of Acts distinctly recalls the Old Testament model of the prophet. Similar allusions are seen in Paul’s claim that he was set apart before he was born and called through grace, not by “flesh and blood” (Gal. 1:15-16), for a mission to the Gentiles (cf. 49:1, 6-7).

This case gains further support from Paul’s description of the appearance of the risen Lord (1 Cor. 15:8-10) whereby he, although undeserving, was made an apostle by the grace of God. Moreover, from the standpoint of literary structure, the context of each account in Acts argues for call rather than conversion. In both chapters 22 and 26 Paul tells the story to defend his apostolic activity rather than his faith. The narrative in chapter 9 functions not so much to show how Paul becomes a Christian as to explain how it is that he comes to be part of that apostolic advance which is the subject of the book. It is made plain that this enemy of the church was called by the Lord himself and that his apostleship is, therefore, legitimate.

On the other hand, agreement that call rather than conversion is the real center of the story does not necessarily require the rejection of conversion as a description of Paul’s experience. Two of the accounts include elements that distinctly suggest conversion: 1) He is baptized (9:18), 2) His baptism is connected with the washing away of his sins (22:16), 3) Ananias announces he was sent so that Saul could be “filled with the Holy Spirit” (9:17).

Much rests too on one’s definition of conversion. Ladd’s reservations are stated more emphatically by Toews, who distinguishes sharply between the “specific experience” of Paul and “our experience in which the encounter with Christ concerns the conviction of sin and the birth of faith”. . . . Paul “already believed in God.” 5 A distinction is in order but is conversion here not rather narrowly defined? Could one not say the same of Nicodemus? or of those “devout Jews” who were instructed to “repent” and “be baptized for the forgiveness of (their) sins” (Acts 2:5,38)?

Our understanding of conversion is richly informed by its illustration in New Testament salvation stories, and these reflect an amazing diversity. Emphasis may be on moral reform (Zacchaeus), on worldly abandonment to follow Jesus (the rich young ruler), on inner rebirth (Nicodemus) or on receptivity to the truth (Cornelius). It is exegetically and theologically risky to specify too carefully what, other than the opening of one’s self to God at the point of confrontation by his Spirit, constitutes a conversion. {6}

In a narrower sense, metanoia (repentance or conversion) refers to an about-turn of a comprehensive and fundamental character and describes a set of effects as much as it does an experience. Both its meaning and its use in such context as Acts 2 suggest its proper application to Paul’s experience to the extent, at least, that such a change actually originated there.


Continuity in Paul’s Life

It must be admitted that Paul remained in many respects the same. As he had been zealous in his perceived calling before (Gal. 1:14), so he gave himself fully to his task now (1 Cor. 15:10). Nor did he turn from sinfulness to right living in the usual sense. His conscience “seems robust” (1 Cor. 4:1-5), 6 and his sense of sinfulness is related chiefly to his past record as a persecutor of the church. Moreover, Paul remained Jewish in heart and soul. 7 “His theology, his cosmology and his anthropology,” writes Fitzmyer, “reveal him to be still a Jew in his basic outlook.” 8

New Directions in Paul’s Life

F.F. Bruce remarks upon the prominence of the light in all three accounts, a light in which the risen Christ appeared to him. 9 Tasker identifies it as the “same direct vision . . . that Stephen had seen in his last moments.” 10 Munck sees recollections of Deuteronomy 28:28-29 in the light and Paul’s blindness. 11 In any case, it is the appearance of Jesus that becomes “the new factor that entered into his ken.” 12

Paul’s encounter was a humbling one that brought home to him the meaning of grace. He never forgot it and he came to see it as a liberation of cosmic dimensions (Gal. 1:15f.), 13 one which remained at the heart of his own self-conception and his theology.

His encounter with Christ was a “transforming revelation” through which he “saw clearly the true meaning of the facts with which he had been long acquainted. . . . This revelation of the suffering Messiah, God’s Son,” says Cole, “is itself the gospel.” 14 It is like God’s creation of light (2 Cor. 4:6) and it forms the basis of a new theology, for it is not alone a new task but a new insight that he attributes to divine revelation (Gal. 1:11-12; Eph. 3:3).

The integration of Christ as the key factor into a larger theology required {7} for Paul the re-examination of his deepest beliefs. This was necessary for an understanding of his mission, 15 but it was also a deeply personal reformation.

His Christology, as the first consequence of his encounter, began with the conviction that Jesus was alive. This had implications about the resurrection (1 Cor. 15) but also about his death (Rom. 5). That Jesus should reveal himself to Paul became further the explanation for the incarnation (Phil. 2). Jesus is no longer to be thought of “according to the flesh” as he had formerly done (2 Cor. 5:16); he is the one for whom a new conception of the Messiah now takes its character. 16

From this developed a new soteriology. Salvation, he now saw, lay not in obedience to the law but in the reconciliation wrought by the death of Christ (Rom. 5:6-11) and was made available by grace as a free gift (vv. 15-18).

The effect on his view of the law was devastating. It meant that the righteousness by which he was justified came “apart from the law . . . through faith in Jesus Christ” (Rom. 3:21-22). This, believes Tasker, was the great truth which became clear to Paul at his conversion. 17 J. H. Schoeps considers Paul’s loss of confidence in the law to be based on a misunderstanding of it. His hellenistic Judaism and his use of the Septuagint had caused him to see covenant (Heb., berith) largely as one-sided divine arrangement (as suggested by the Greek word, diatheke, or “testament”), as a result of which “he tears asunder covenant and law, and then represents Christ as the end of the law.” 18 Paul’s view of the law is indeed somewhat different from that developed in the Old Testament, although we should beware of reading into Paul a harsher view of the law than he himself held. What he did insist was that Christ and not the law was the means of salvation.

Paul’s understanding of the universality of the gospel is entirely consistent with his new soteriology. If faith rather than the righteousness of the law is the issue in salvation, then Jew and Greek stand on the same footing. A new people of God is being established in which race, sex and status do not matter. They are “all one in Christ Jesus” and therefore “Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:28-29), a new Israel “by adoption” (Gal. 4:1-7). Paul’s mission to the Gentiles is thus fortified by an understanding of the church that welcomes all without reserve into full participation. Eschatological hopes of Israel are, in his view, being fulfilled in the church, which is now the carrier of God’s purpose.

His ecclesiology, finally, retains the mark of his first introduction to Jesus. The close identification of Christ and his church in the question “Why are you persecuting me?” was unmistakable. The church was {8} the body of Christ. Only that shattering realization can account for his transfer of covenantal identification from Israel as a nation to that spiritual Israel he saw in the church.


Aside from his call, then, Paul’s encounter with Christ had two important personal effects. It caught him up short in the realization that what he had regarded as service was really resistance to God’s program, prompted him to acknowledge as Lord the one he had attempted to crush, and it forced the reorganization into a new theological framework of all former ideas concerning Israel, the Gentiles, the righteousness of the law, salvation and eschatology.

It was a conversion from a flawed conception of God’s activity in the world to a new understanding of it, from a false confidence in the efficacy of the works of the law to a dependence on the grace of God, from opposition to Christ to willing bondservice, from a narrow view of the scope of God’s program to a vision of universal proportions.

It was a conversion tailored to Paul’s need. Already a firm believer in God, already zealous to serve him and already a practitioner of righteousness, he remained in the dark and so he was given the light of revelation to which he responded and which transformed his life.

The story of Paul’s conversion does not, however, imply that others need a dramatic experience or a particular quantity of theological insight. Nothing in it requires imitation or qualifies the conversion of others; in fact the reverse is true, for it is what is already known about conversion that enables us to recognize his. Paul’s conversion is, therefore, more of an example than a model and functions better as illustration than as prescription. It stands in the company of countless other such “stories” of lives turned around by the miracle of grace, all of which illuminate and are illuminated by the experience of others. If Paul’s conversion is special, it is because of its biblical visibility and its association with that mission to which we are all indebted. {9}


  1. This position is refuted in G. E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1974), pp. 366-8.
  2. Ibid., p. 368.
  3. Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), p. 7.
  4. John E. Toews, “Paul: Converted or Called,” Christian Leader, 15 February 1977, p. 17.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Stendahl, p. 15.
  7. Herman Ridderbos, Paul and Jesus (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1958), p. 91.
  8. J. A. Fitzmyer, Pauline Theology (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1967), p. 9.
  9. F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1977), p. 113.
  10. R. V. G. Tasker, The Old Testament in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1954), p. 72.
  11. Johannes Munck, Acts of the Apostles (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1967), p. 217.
  12. W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism (London: SPCK, 1955), p. 324.
  13. Guenther Bornkamm, The New Testament: A Guide to Its Writing (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973), p. 84.
  14. Adam Cole, The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1965), p. 47.
  15. C. H. Dodd, The Meaning of Paul for Today (Cleveland, New York: World Pub. Co., 1957), p. 46.
  16. F. F. Bruce, Paul, p. 99.
  17. Tasker, p. 81.
  18. H. J. Schoeps, Paul: The Theology of the Apostle in the Light of Jewish Religious History (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959), p. 218.
Harold J. Dyck is Assistant Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas.

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