The story of Paul’s conversion is often described as arising from an introspective conscience in which he recognizes God’s righteousness, the heavy requirement of the law, and his incapacity to keep the law, which gives rise to his sense of wrong and his guilty conscience. He meets Christ and understands that deliverance is now provided from the requirement of the law, as Christ has met the requirements, paid the penalty, and grace is now available in place of wrath and punishment. In other words, the story of Paul’s conversion is like Luther’s – or more accurately Luther’s conversion and theology become the lens for a revisionist understanding of Paul’s conversion. It is necessary to narrate his story in this way (knowing God, the law, one’s incapacity) as it is a link in notions of judgment and justification which depend on universal access to basic knowledge of God (through nature or as a Jew) and the law (the law written on the heart or given to Moses) as the basis for condemnation and release in Christ. Realization of law and guilt serves as an unchanging universal foundation in this understanding, in which incapacity of will is the problem resolved in Christ.
Contrary to this typical depiction, Paul narrates his pre-Christian understanding as guilt free and “without fault” in regard to the law. As he describes it in Philippians, he considered himself righteous, zealous beyond his peers, and bearing the highest qualifications and impeccable credentials: “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Php 3:5–6). No introspective guilt-stricken conscience here. No notion of a failed works righteousness makes its appearance. In fact, even the notion of an individually conditioned salvation is missing – Paul’s Jewishness, his descent from Benjamin, his thorough Hebrewishness (presumably linguistic and pertaining to family practice) are not things he achieved. These are not earned merits in which he exercised or failed to exercise his will but are corporate ethnic markers beyond his control. His break from his Jewish notion of salvation is not because he felt it inadequate. It was perfectly adequate, and more than adequate, as he excelled in his pre-Christian self-understanding.
Paul depicts a radical break with his former knowing and his former identity: “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ” (Php 3:7–8). There is no continuum of knowing, no building on the law of the heart, no guilt and relief. Paul is describing an apocalyptic, holistic change in which one world and identity is displaced by another. There is no ethical continuity based on the law leading to a guilty conscience. Paul does not begin from what he knew as a Jew, or his status as a Jew and thus arrive at his understanding of Christ.
Profit and loss are changed up in the economy of salvation as former advantages in attaining righteousness are loss. The previous system is “excremental” or “garbage” in comparison: “I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ” (Php 3:8). Whatever he knew previously has been displaced, and not built upon, by knowing Christ. His viewpoint, his knowledge, his ethical understanding, has been turned inside out as the former system, which was to his advantage, he now sees as a disadvantage.
Paul is not describing a progressive realization, a slow conversion, but is juxtaposing two worlds, two ways of knowing, two modes of identity. His former glory is now his shame, and his former sense of his own goodness – his zeal – is evil (the same sort of zeal that killed Christ, the ultimate evil). The very thing he would have counted as part of his basic righteousness, is evil in that it makes him “the chief of sinners” in persecuting the Church. This former knowing was deceived, misplaced, and gave rise to evil. The Jew is at no advantage, and though Paul speaks of the Jew having a knowledge of God it is misguided. You cannot get to the one by clinging to the other; the picture is not one of rightly knowing the law, failing to keep it, feeling guilty, and realizing that Christ accomplishes what one could not.
Far from the usual narrative, Paul is completely positive in his Jewishness, blameless in regards to the law, glorying in his status and accomplishments – all of which describe what he characterizes as “knowing according to the flesh.” The negative evaluation of his former condition only arises in retrospect of having known Christ. There is no available light (he has even misconstrued Jewish light), no natural knowledge, no sense of wrong, even given the special revelation to Israel, by which Paul might be judged. In his own pre-Christian judgment, he is without external transgression according to which he might be condemned guilty. Paul’s problem is not that he discovered himself guilty and in need of deliverance from God’s wrath. Paul discovers he was completely deceived in regard to his former manner of life.
What is the basis of judgment (if not universal law) and what is the nature of salvation (if not deliverance from the law)? If Paul, by his own description, has ascended to the Jewish theological heights and judged himself flawless in regard to the law and, by the same token, the chief of sinners, it turns out the human condition is much worse than commonly reported. One can be evil in good conscience and precisely by means of a zealously clear conscience. Religion, law, Temple, sacrifice, even of a kind prescribed by God, can be so misconstrued so as to promote evil. And ultimately this is what is at stake in the two ways of narrating Paul’s story and the theologies surrounding those divergent versions.
The very meaning of good and evil is at stake in the two main versions of Christianity. In contractual theology, evangelicalism, and the main stream of Roman Catholicism, there is a naturally given recognition of good and evil. One has light available through law, ethics, conscience, and nature. There is a natural understanding of God (as the singular creator who is omnipotent and omniscient), a given notion of law, and the universal recognition of an incapacity to keep the law. Christ does not displace an already realized understanding but provides relief for this recognized incapacity and guilt.
On the other hand, in an apocalyptic understanding cosmic re-creation through resurrection founds a new form of humanity on a different foundation. The failure of humanity in the first Adam is total: it has cosmic consequences in the reign of death, the law of sin and death, and the subjection of creation to futility. The specific nature of this futility (the root meaning of the word) is that a lie reigns in place of the truth. The truth of Christ is not additional information to what has already been received, but the counter to the lie, an overcoming of the prevailing darkness, and a defeat of the reign of death. The difference between the two comes down to the most basic question: is it the case that what is taken to be good is actually evil (a total incapacity of discernment) or is it simply that good and evil are known quantities and the problem is in the will?
There is no part of the interpretive frame which is not affected by and which feeds into these two understandings (as I have shown here it pertains to every key doctrine). But the point of division is centered on Romans 1:18-32 which can be read as a universal, ongoing condition, or as a reference to Genesis and Exodus which pertains universally. Is Paul telling us how history continues to repeat itself for everyone or is he describing biblical history as it has impacted all people? Do all people know God, realize his basic nature, understand his ethical requirements, and reject him for idolatrous religion – all the time recognizing their incapacity and guilt? Or has the past rejection of God, who was known because he walked in the Garden, revealed himself audibly, manifested himself in various theophanies, and was rejected by the first couple and their progeny (Cain, Lamech, the Generation of Noah, the Babelites, the Jews at Sinai, all of whom knew God or knew of him because of direct, special revelation) impacted subsequent history? The difference between the two readings already depends upon the theology which flows from each. If humans are individualistic, rational, and in possession of the basic truth about God and ethics, then Paul cannot be thought to be describing a corporate condition of history in which the early reception and rejection of God has created ignorance of his existence. On the other hand, if sin is corporate, being found in Adam means that there is a generational accumulation compounding the problem.
Paul’s characteristic way of describing Gentiles is, in fact, as those “who do not know God” (e.g., 1 Thess 1:9; 2 Thess 2:8; Gal. 4:8-9; I Cor. 1:21). He engages what little knowledge of God he finds on the Areopagus (the height of Greek philosophical learning) by proclaiming to them the God which, by their own acknowledgement, is “unknown.” God is unknown because people “were slaves to those which by nature are no gods.” They “have come to know God, or rather to be known by God” (Ga 4:8–9), not because they have applied themselves to their philosophical and natural studies, but because they have been delivered from slavery to the law of sin and death. Paul depicts human wisdom as no help in knowing God, and perhaps is precisely the obstacle to such knowledge: “the world through its wisdom did not come to know God” (1 Co 1:21) and on the basis of this same wisdom judges the true revelation and deliverance to be foolishness (I Cor. 1:23). This deliverance is not conditioned on their knowing, but as Paul points out, on God first knowing them. The shift is from belief in what is not God, but a dead inanimate object, to the living God (I Thess. 1:9). The passage is from out of a Satanic deception to truth (2 Thess 2:8) and is not passage from a frustrated incapacity of the will.
Romans 7, Paul’s depiction of his own, Adam’s, and every human’s interior predicament, is sometimes taken to be Paul’s depiction of his guilty conscience, but this passage is Paul’s retrospective insight. The law (the prohibition in Eden or the Mosaic law), through the deception of sin, becomes another law (a different law – 7:23), but this law is not available to the understanding or conscience (7:15). It is only as a Christian that Paul can look back on his former life and realize the Mosaic law, like the prohibition in Eden, becomes twisted by sin’s deceit: “this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me” (Ro 7:10). The prohibition and the Mosaic law, in reception and practice, become the law of sin and death as life is thought to reside in the law and true knowledge (God-like) is thought to reside in the law. This is not the truth but the lie, which justification theory or contractual theology, seems to continue to promote.
Paul depicts the work of Christ, and particularly the resurrection, as deliverance from the law of sin and death, which is not God’s law but the deceived human orientation to the law. The shift is more radical and all-inclusive than we might have imagined as these two laws, two ways of knowing, and two worlds do not intersect. One is either found in Adam or in Christ, and to be found in the first is not an aid but the obstacle overcome in the second. Paul’s picture is that Adam instituted the age in which sin and death rule and Christ is inaugurating a new age.
To die to sin is to break the rule and power of sin and to enter into the reign of Christ. Baptism (dying to sin) is a participation in the death and resurrection of Christ in which there is a fusion with Christ through the Spirit which involves one in a different communion, community, identity, and culture (Rom. 6). Christ’s Kingdom is overcoming and defeating all the dominions and powers of this world and the latter is not preparation for but that which is annihilated by the former (I Cor. 15:24). Paul’s former manner of life was not a propaedeutic to his faith but a deceived “fleshly confidence” – garbage to be disposed of.