Friday, August 21, 2009

Friday Paul: A Change in Life Direction 3

The first two posts of this chapter were:

Post 1
Post 2

And now, the conclusion of the chapter:
The story of Paul's "conversion" to Christ in Acts is often used as a model for how to come to Christ, how one becomes a "Christian." [7] One recent book by Richard Peace, while focusing as much on the disciples' supposed conversion as well, presents Paul as a model of 1) gaining an insight into your true state and who Jesus truly is, 2) turning direction toward Christ, and 3) transformation. [8] No doubt many individuals, particularly those now in their second half of life, resonate with this standard model of "getting saved." One recognizes his or her need for Christ and repents of one's sins. You exercise faith in Christ, acknowledging and surrendering to him as Lord. Then the Holy Spirit transforms you and makes you a new creation.

On the other hand, these old familiar themes may not seem so familiar to younger generations today. Indeed, part of Peace's goal in his book is no doubt to open the door for those whose awareness of and turning to Christ is much, much more gradual and a process. Repentance is not a real popular theme today, not when it is properly understood as a real, substantial recognition of what is wrong in your life and the real need for a change in your life direction. Ironically, never in history have Christians so easily confessed themselves as sinners... and never in history have they been so comfortable about it! True insight into Christ and true repentance entails a passionate desire to change, and in that sense we must doubt whether the majority of Christians in America today are even converted.

The question of eternal destiny is a distinct question from conversion. Who will God let escape the most definitive judgment yet to come? Many traditions, including my own, have tended to believe that God weighs each person "according to the light they have." [9] Certainly no one can be "saved" apart from Christ. But does God sometimes save individuals through Christ even though they have never heard of him? Does God weigh us according to the insight we have? My own tradition has tended to say so.

Insight into Christ might thus not be full knowledge. Indeed, whatever we think of postmodernism, it has rightly humbled our overconfidence in what we think we know and a too glib assumption that we can see the world with a God-like clarity of understanding. It does not take much reflection to recognize how embarrassing it should be to think we basically see the world the way God does.

Many of those who grow up in fervent Christian homes also do not have as radical a turning as Paul did. There are surely people who would have escaped God's judgment at every point in their lives. When they were children, they did not know about Christ and God would have accepted them. Then the first time they recognized the Lordship of Christ, they surrendered to him as king. They have served Christ ever since. Such individuals thus have been "saved" at every point of their life and never underwent a radical turning.

As we go through Paul's letters, we will see that the key moment in becoming Christ's for Paul is neither insight nor turning, but receiving the Holy Spirit. This is God's action when He puts His seal of ownership on us (e.g., 2 Cor. 1:21-22). The lead up in insight or repentance may take various lengths of time. But the Spirit is the key ingredient to being a Christian. That is, again, not to say that God may show mercy on individuals who have not come to this point. It is only to say that Paul seems to have drawn a fairly clear line on moving from "out" to "in."

When does this event happen? For some it is a dramatic experience, as Acts depicts Paul's entrance into salvation. For others it may be a later recognition of something that happened somewhere along the way without even realizing it. Luke says that John the Baptist was filled with the Spirit even in the womb (Luke 1:15), so we are in no position to say that some children do not have the Holy Spirit even long before they have the insight to confess faith.

So the conversion of Paul in Acts may resonate with some, particularly those for whom coming to Christ involved a radical turning from one way of life to another or from one understanding to another. Others may resonate more with the way Richard Peace and others use the disciples as a model of a long process of turning to Christ. [10] And still others, particularly those from traditions that baptize their children, may resonate more with John the Baptist's experience, a man who grew up following God's leading from his earliest days.

[7] We mentioned Krister Stendahl above in note 3 and referenced his book, Paul among Jews and Gentiles, as one of the fifty books a person might read to begin to master the study of Paul. In this book, Stendahl famously questions whether it is appropriate to use the word conversion in relation to Paul's believing on Christ. Stendahl prefers to think of Paul's experience as a "calling" rather than a "conversion."

On the one hand, Stendahl was more right than wrong in terms of how people popularly think of Acts 9. Paul was not changing religions, like we would say of someone today "converting" from Judaism to Christianity. Paul did not see himself changing religions but changing his understanding of the Jewish Scriptures and how God planned to move forward with His people.

At the same time, if we can resist using the word anachronistically, Paul did radically change in his understanding of Jewish faith. He turned from one sect with a distinct understanding to a quite different sect within Judaism. In that sense, we can still use the word conversion if we are clear about what we mean.

We must also keep in mind that we are not reading Paul's personal account of his conversion to Christ in Acts. It would have been quite acceptable for the author of Acts to tell the story of Paul's conversion in a somewhat dramatized way, perhaps even with some novelistic features. If we look at how differently the gospels sometimes tell the story of Jesus from each other, it is hard not to conclude that their versions of Acts would differ just as much from Acts, if they had written them. Scrupulous historical reconstruction, if we wish to do it, must thus always take into account the perspectives and tendencies of each source rather than assuming we are reading a verbatim or documentary style presentation.

[8] Peace, Richard, Conversion in the New Testament: Paul and the Twelve (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999) **. For a partial review of the book by me, see here.

[9] The Wesleyan-Arminian tradition.

[10] Remembering, however, that from the standpoint of Luke-Acts, the disciples could not properly be "converted" until the Day of Pentecost, because it was only then that Christ had sent the Holy Spirit. In Luke-Acts, as well as John, Christ's death and resurrection had to precede this event (e.g., Luke 3:16; John 16:7). In that sense, the lead up of the disciples to their "conversion" in Luke-Acts was seemingly longer than Paul's, but the conversion itself is portrayed as a moment in time, just as much as his.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Something about the Evangelical concept of a "saving knowledge of Jesus" bothered me from before and even after conversion.

It was Wright who articulated this as the Gnostic heresy/error and it is this error which I think we need to combat today.

When following Jesus has been reduced to holding Good Doctrine we must ask: Is Protestant Christianity still biblical and faithful to Jesus?