When Nancy arrived in Oregon to study to become a missionary, she was genuinely excited to be among a select group of people whose life calling was to spread the gospel to those who had never heard it. But she was also confused by what she found. While her class was preparing to spread the gospel to the far corners of the earth, a block away sat homeless and desperate people in great need of this message. Nancy and a few of her classmates took on the project. To their surprise, however, these people did not want the gospel they offered. It had seemed so simple to Nancy and her classmates: the people obviously needed the message; if they could just hear it, they would believe and come to faith.
Several decades ago a subtle but destructive shift took place in the Christian culture’s understanding of the message of the Christian gospel. The application of marketing principles to spreading the gospel (various “packaging strategies” for reaching the lost) has profoundly affected the way Christians perceive the fundamental gospel message. These techniques have perpetuated a false understanding of the gospel that reduces Christianity to a series of “how-tos” and faith to simply believing a set of facts.
Believing the message of Christianity, however, is not a simple process of accepting a particular set of beliefs. Coming to faith in Jesus requires a profound paradigm shift, a radical change within the heart of the responder. Because our hearts are inherently set against God and His message of grace and mercy, only God can bring about this change. Yet it appears that God has designed this change to take place over the course of a lifetime. The Apostle Paul’s conversion and subsequent experience illustrates the lifelong process that is an intricate and crucial part of the believer’s journey towards the inheritance.
The book of Acts records some of the important historical events surrounding Paul’s conversion. Paul was a prime mover in the persecution of the early church. Part of a group of Jews fervently intent on putting an end to Christianity, Paul played a significant role in imprisoning believers and, in some cases, having them executed. In Acts 9, Luke writes that Paul’s heart was murderous against those who followed Christ. Paul requested letters from the high priest in Jerusalem authorizing him to search for, arrest, and bring to Jerusalem for imprisonment or execution any disciples of Jesus he found in the synagogues of Damascus. This was the purpose of Paul’s journey when Jesus confronted him on the road to Damascus.
As powerful as this encounter was, however, Paul’s conversion did not occur until later. Paul’s whole world was turned upside down. He goes into Damascus blind, and he is so completely preoccupied with sorting out his life that he does not eat or drink for three days. This incredibly intense time does not end until Ananias (whom Paul had seen in a vision while praying) lays hands on him, whereupon Paul receives his sight (literally and metaphorically) and is filled with the Holy Spirit. Paul is then baptized, and finally, he eats and drinks. The immediate crisis was over. Through three days of struggle, Paul had resolved the issues that his encounter with Jesus had raised.
Paul’s conversion occurred on two levels. First, he had to completely reevaluate his commitments and beliefs about who Jesus was and what the God of the Bible was promising. This was the “content” of his conversion. Secondly, he had to face the revelation that his own heart was full of sin and deception and that he had been wrong for years. This was the “process” of Paul’s conversion, a process which undoubtedly continued for the rest of his life as he continued to confront personal sin in his own experience and through his relationships to those around him.
In 2 Corinthians 5:14-17, Paul describes several aspects of the extreme and intense paradigm shift that took place within him at the time of his conversion:
For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, that they who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf. Therefore from now on we recognize no man according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer. Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.
Prior to his conversion, Paul’s understanding of the law and its requirements was inaccurate. In his own mind, he had kept the law and all its requirements successfully. Consequently, he never had to consider the depth of his own sin. He was the Bible teacher who had taught the Bible to others during his whole adult life but who had never heard the true message himself until confronted by a crisis; for Paul, it was Jesus on the road to Damascus. Through subsequent events, Paul came to understand on a profound level his own sin and, consequently, his need for a sacrifice for that sin. He came to understand that he deserved to die as a result of his sin and that, in a very real sense, Christ took his place when He died on the cross.
While Paul’s understanding resulted in a radical change in his theology, on a much deeper level it represented a profound shift in his perception of himself. Recognizing his own sin, Paul understood that he rather than Jesus deserved to be on the cross. This understanding began to transform Paul’s perceptions and desires, and he concluded that he should no longer live for himself, but he must live for Christ; Christ’s love for him would determine how he sought to live his life and conduct his ministry.
Trusting Christ not only transformed Paul’s perception of himself, but it also transformed his perceptions of Jesus and of his fellow man. Prior to his conversion, Paul had judged Jesus by external considerations and had concluded that Jesus was the enemy, taking people away from faith in God; for Paul, it was impossible that Jesus was the promised Messiah of the Scriptures. After his conversion, Paul recognized Jesus as the Messiah and the sacrifice for his sin. Finally, Paul’s conversion changed how he saw and related to other people. External factors (lineage, social and economic status, religious affiliation) no longer determined Paul’s estimation of other people, and so he became the apostle to the gentiles.
In the II Corinthians passage, Paul describes his own process, the subjective transformation that took place within him. He then steps back and applies his own experience to all who are “in Christ.” He uses the term “new creature” as a metaphor to describe the transformation he saw in himself, but the transformation Paul experienced is true for all Christians. If a person is “in Christ,” he is transformed into a “new creature.”
Paul’s conversion experience demonstrates that a person’s conversion is more than an intellectual assent to a particular set of beliefs. It is also a profound paradigm shift within the heart of the believer that only God can produce, a shift which allows for the existence of a new reality in which God is God and we are creatures in need of His mercy and grace.
C. S. Lewis’s allegory The Great Divorce, in which some inhabitants from Hell take an incredible bus ride to Heaven, graphically illustrates how difficult it is to shift from unbelief to belief—even when faced with compelling evidence. The story’s narrator observes a host of beings very different from his expectations and comes to some significant realizations through observing their interactions. In one encounter, he observes the interaction between two people who had been married to one another on earth: a man visiting from hell and a woman resident of heaven. The narrator sets the stage by describing each: the beauty and clarity of the woman’s innermost spirit and, in contrast, the man’s ghostlike lack of substance, horrible thinness, and unattractiveness. The contrast between human love motivated by self-need and the selfless, fulfilling love the woman has realized in eternity becomes evident not just in the words the woman speaks, but in the way she speaks them. Her whole being communicates this transcendent love, as she pleads with her former husband to accept the gift of eternal life. Yet despite her efforts and the clarity of her goodness, the man remains unable to accept her selfless love. He views it instead as evil; his deep self-pity and insatiable demand for affirmation has blinded him to the reality and beauty of divine love. The narrator and a heavenly guide discuss the man’s rejection of the woman’s gift, and the guide concludes:
Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouths for food, or their eyes to see.
Lewis’s allegorical story and the true story of Paul’s conversion exemplify our need for God’s dramatic supernatural intervention. In Paul’s case, God took an enemy of the gospel and transformed him into the apostle to the gentiles: the person who probably had the greatest impact on spreading Christianity. In contrast, Lewis’s phantom-man, apart from God and despite good evidence, rejected the beautiful gift of heaven and returned to hell.
The Apostle Paul’s conversion is a dramatic example of someone whose life is heading in a definite direction when a confrontation with Jesus turns his world upside down. This experience was not easy or comfortable for Paul. After he submitted to Jesus’ message and received his sight from Ananias, three years passed before the other apostles began to take his conversion seriously, and according to some sources, he spent a full fourteen years preparing for his ministry as the apostle to the gentiles. If the Apostle Paul confronted issues in his conversion and subsequent life experiences that required intense discomfort to resolve honestly, we can only conclude that the process of our own shifts in perceptions and desires ought not be any less difficult. Shifts in belief do not come easily. Fortunately, at the heart of true Christianity is God’s commitment to mature the character of our faith. He accomplishes this end through life experiences and relationships by opening our eyes to the reality of our sinfulness and, consequently, to our need for His mercy.