Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Conversion or Forgiveness Paul in Acts 9:1-20 and Peter in John 21:1-19

I've been pondering what it means to say that Paul had a conversion in Acts 9. For many years I assumed that Paul had converted to a new faith on the Damascus road. After all the word “conversion” appears as a heading for Acts 9 in many bibles. Then I heard a podcast by Mark Goodacre (I think he teaches at Duke).

Goodacre asks some provocative questions to start about the narrative form of Luke Acts that seemed off target; but as I listened he really got into the meat of the Damascus Road story and the times when Paul shares some about that experience in Acts 16, Acts 23, and Galatians 1.

Paul was not converted from one faith (Judaism) to another (Christianity). Paul, according to Goodacre, is clear in his writing and speeches that he remained a Jew. He didn't let go of that identity in order to follow Jesus; quite the opposite he clung to his Judaism as he declared Jesus both to Jews and Gentiles.

So if Paul wasn't converted from one faith to another or from belief in the one true God who spoke through the prophets then what happened to him?

Maybe you think Goodacre is just splitting hairs. Or maybe he's asking a vital question about how we explain Paul's experience, and, in turn Peter's experience and our own experiences of God. Both Peter and Paul found themselves in opposition to God. Peter denying Jesus and Paul openly fighting Jesus. And Jesus forgave them both (even before they asked or were properly contrite) and called them to new lives.

Maybe ther better word to describe what happened to Paul in Acts 9 and to Peter after meeting Jesus in John 21:1-19 is forgiveness. Rather than conversion to new faith I believe they experienced the radical end and new beginning that comes through God's forgiveness.

Gerhard Forde, one of the great theologians to come out of Starbuck, Minnesota wrote about the cross and resurrection as a radical experience of God in which the old Adam and the old human order dies. He asked simply, “Will I survive forgiveness?”1 Looking at Peter and Saul it seems like the two had to die to themselves in order to live in Christ.

Maybe we have domesticated the concept of forgiveness. Perhaps we have so disconnected it from the cross and resurrection that we don't see either the radical cost in Jesus body and blood and the radical end to self that comes in God's forgiveness. What does it mean to say that we must die to ourselves and rise anew in Christ? Dr. Forde wrote,

We fear such talk of death and resurrection because we fear the loss of continuity. Is there not continuity between the old and the new person? Is there not something to carry us across? It is a real and serious question. But it is the same sort of question that one should address to the cross. What was the death into which Jesus entered? Was he assured continuity? The question is of the sort one must ask about forgiveness. “Will I survive forgiveness?” I may take it, perhaps, as old Adam and abuse it, use it as license, presume upon it, preserving myself, my continuity. Forgiveness itself will turn into a poison if it does not bring that death and resurrection. It cannot be mixed with such continuity. Such talk of continuity may be used just to protect us from death. But we have no need to fear. He has died for us. To believe that means to believe that my continuity is now entirely in him.

So perhaps instead of calling this Paul's conversion I will now call Acts 9 God's Forgiveness of Paul. The old Paul didn't survive God's forgiveness. The old Peter in John 21 didn't survive either. Instead they rose to new life in Christ surrendering their own to offer everything up for God.

1Gerhard Forrde “Seventh Locus, the Work of Christ.” page 1-100 in Braaten & Jensen Christian Dogatics Volume II. (Philadelpia: Fortress, 1984) page 96.

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