Conversion is the heart of the Christian experience. Conversion is best described in the New Testament in the Letters of St. Paul, and with good reason - no one experienced a more dramatic conversion than St. Paul on the road to Damascus!
As recorded in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus himself called for conversion when he announced "the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15). 2
The Bible is filled with figures who sinned, became repentant, and underwent conversion, such as Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene. Peter denied three times that he was an Apostle of Christ during the Lord's Passion; when the cock crowed, he went out and "wept bitterly" (Matthew 26:75). Following the Resurrection, Peter accepted the command of Christ to "feed my lambs" three times (John 21). Saul (renamed Paul) became just as passionate spreading Christianity as he was in persecuting Christians before his conversion. Mary Magdalene was a woman of ill repute before Jesus drove out seven devils from her (Luke 8:2); she became an ardent follower, and was the first to see Jesus after his Resurrection (John 20:11-18).
St. Augustine describes his own conversion in his Confessions (Book 8, Chapter 12) while reading St. Paul's Letter to the Romans: "But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provisions for the desires of the flesh" (Romans 13:14). 3
St. Thomas Aquinas, in his discussion of grace in the Summa Theologica, describes St. Paul's own conversion as a sudden reception of grace (in contrast to the gradual transformation over time) as "Paul, suddenly when he was in the midst of sin, his heart was perfectly moved by God." 4
This paper will examine St. Paul's own experience and then his Letters in the New Testament to appreciate his theology of conversion and grace.
Paul briefly refers to his own conversion experience in only four places in but two of his Letters. In First Corinthians 9:1, Paul asks an emphatic question, "Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?" In First Corinthians 15:8-9, he relates, "Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the Apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God." He writes in Galatians 1:11-12 that "the Gospel preached by me is not of human origin. For I did not receive it from a human being, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ." He adds in Galatians 1:15-16, "When he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles."
But it is in the Acts of the Apostles, written by his frequent companion the Gentile Luke, where the description of Paul's conversion is most complete. Paul calls Luke "the beloved physician" in Colossians 4:14, advises Timothy that "only Luke is with me" in 2 Timothy 4:11, and that Luke is his "fellow worker" in Philemon 24. We also know that Luke accompanied Paul on his second, third, and fourth missionary journeys from the "we" passages in Acts 16:10-17, 20:5-15, 21:1-18, and 27:1 to 28:16.
Paul's conversion is first recorded in Acts 9:1-28, secondly to the Jews of Jerusalem in Acts 22:1-21, and finally to King Agrippa at Caesarea in Acts 26:4-23. Hedrick observed that the three episodes supplement each other, for the first account is a healing narrative, the second features healing and call, and the third is a commissioning narrative. 6
Saul consented to the execution of Stephen and had been persecuting the Church in Jerusalem before he was traveling the road to Damascus to do the same:
"Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him.
And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him,
"Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"
And he said, "Who are you, Lord?"
And he said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting;
but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do."
Acts of the Apostles 9:3-6
Notice that Jesus identifies himself with his Church! In Damascus, Jesus appeared to Ananias and tells him that Saul "is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites" (Acts 9:15). Ananias laid his hands on Saul, restored his vision, and baptized him. Saul is called Paul on his first missionary journey to Cyprus (Acts 13:9).
Paul returned to Jerusalem from his missionary journeys to bring a collection for the poor (Acts 24:17, Romans 15:26-28, I Corinthians 16:1-4). In the second narration of his conversion experience before the Jews of Jerusalem, Jesus identifies himself as a Nazarene, a resident of Nazareth:
"I am Jesus the Nazarene, whom you are persecuting."
Paul reports his commission and purpose given by Jesus before King Agrippa in the third account of his conversion:
And I said, "Who are you, Lord?" And the Lord said, "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.
But rise and stand on your feet; for I appeared to you for this purpose,
to appoint you to serve and bear witness to the things
in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you,
delivering you from the people and from the Gentiles -
to whom I send you to open their eyes,
that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God,
that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those
who are sanctified by faith in me.
Paul continues: I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds (Acts 26:20). In essence this is Pauline soteriology - to bring salvation to mankind by proclaiming the message of Jesus, to open their eyes, to transfer them from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God, to receive forgiveness of sins and a place among the people of God. The Good News of Jesus Christ leads one to salvation!
The Letters of St. Paul reflect his conversion experience on the road to Damascus.
Christ is the center and key to Paul’s theology, for Paul was saved by the risen Christ. Paul preached "Christ crucified." St. Paul enumerates throughout his Letters the spiritual blessings that occur with conversion to Jesus Christ our Lord.
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel,
and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
First Corinthians 1:17-18
Repentance7 conveys a sense of regret, sorrow, grief, or remorse for one's sins, that leads someone to conversion. The Hebrew verb niham - נִחַם, which means to be sorry, expresses this sense of regret.8 The Greek word metanoia - μετάνοια means a turning; literally in Greek the word means to change one's mind. For Paul the mind is not just the intellect, but the fuller holistic view of the mind as the seat of decision, the seat of the human soul. This change of mind is deeply personal, for it means a change of life, taking on a whole new way of thinking, priorities and commitments, a whole new direction in one's life. Metanoia carries with it a sense of repentance, and the word is generally translated as such, for the person turns away from sin and turns towards God. Spicq 9 notes: "in the New Testament, metanoia retains this basic meaning of change, but is used almost exclusively for the attitude of unbelievers and sinners returning to God." This concept of returning to the Lord is the traditional sense found in Hebrew Scripture in the verb shuv - שׁוּב which means to return. Teshuvah - תְּשׁוּבָה is the ten-day period of repentance, a return to the Lord, before the Day of Atonement -
יוֹם כִּפּוּר - Yom Kippur. 10
St. Paul used the word metánoia for repentance in three Epistles. The Greek phrase above is Romans 2:4 - "Do you not realize that the kindness of God is meant to lead you to repentance?" Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 7:9-10: "I rejoice now, not because you were saddened, but because you were saddened into repentance; for you were saddened in a godly way, so that you did not suffer loss in anything because of us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death." Paul employed the aorist participle form of metánoia - μετανοησáντων - in 2 Corinthians 12:21, expressing sorrow over sinners not having repented of their sins. In 2 Timothy 2:25 Paul advised "It may be that God will grant them repentance that leads to knowledge of the truth." 11
Repentance for St. Paul means one has faith in God through Christ Jesus, which leads one to obedience and discipleship. 12
The redemptive death of Christ on the Cross accomplishes our justification through faith. Justification in Paul is the act of restoring people to their proper relationship with God. For Paul this is already a fait accomplit through the grace of Christ Jesus. Our part is to have faith. The Greek noun for faith is pistis - πίστις. The Letter to the Hebrews (11:1) calls faith the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen. The very theme of Paul's Letter to the Romans presents this concept of justification: 13
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel:
it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith,
to the Jew first, then to the Greek.
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith;
as it is written, 'He who through faith is righteous shall live.'
One who has faith in Christ is justified by his grace - charis - χáρις as a gift (Romans 3:21-26).
Jesus Christ was obedient to the Father. The Letter to the Hebrews (9:26) records that Christ gave himself in sacrifice once and for all to take away the sins of many. Paul, in the First Letter to Timothy, emphasizes the necessity of the humanity of Christ Jesus, so that he could truly be a mediator between God and man, and thus be able to give himself as a ransom for all:
This is good and pleasing to God our savior,
who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.
For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and man,
the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.
This was the testimony at the proper time."
First Timothy 2:3-6
Let us again turn to Paul's Letter to the Romans, the most systematic unfolding of the Apostle's thought on faith in Christ as the source of salvation. Remember that Paul in the beginning (1:5) and at the end (16:26) of Romans writes the same expression the obedience of faith, which also serves as an inclusion. Obedience is contrasted to sin as a fundamental response to God. The etymology of the word "obedience" comes from the verb "to hear." The Greek verb akouw - ἀκούω means I hear, listen, obey, understand. The Hebrew expression for obey is שָׁמַע לְקוֹל – shama leqol, to listen to a voice. The Latin word for obey - obaudire derives from the word to hear. If one has faith and truly listens to the word of God, he will be moved to obey. But it is our choice! The one who listens to his parents, for example, is obedient! Our faith response to the Word of God is to listen!
The connection between faith and obedience becomes clearer in Romans 5. Romans 5:12 recalls the original sin of Adam and echoes Psalm 51:5.14 Paul presents the three periods of salvation history in Romans 5:12-21 (Adam to Moses, the period of sin and death; from Moses to Christ, the period of the law; and Christ, the period of redemption). Paul contrasts the obedience of Christ with the disobedience of Adam: "For just as through the disobedience of one person the many were made sinners, so through the obedience of one the many will be made righteous" (5:19).
Luke Timothy Johnson15 discusses the three uses of the word faith in Romans 3:22, 3:25 and 3:26, and emphasizes the strong connection between faith and obedience. Conversion by faith in Christ is a turning to the obedience of Christ, and a turning away from sin, and, in a sense, from the disobedience of Adam.
In Romans Chapter six, Paul explains that we receive a new life in Christ in Baptism. "Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life" (Romans 6:3-4). Baptism is also referred to in Galatians 3:27 and Colossians 2:12.
St. Paul has captured the eternal struggle that we all go through. Paul laments in Romans 7:15 - "For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate." Paul then cries out, "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin." (7:24-25). Have we all not been there?
The theme of Chapter 8 in Romans is a trumpet-call to the victory of God the Father's love through Christ in the Holy Spirit. The question arises: why convert? Because God's love seeks us, finds us, and brings us back to him! We return to him in gratitude, for saving us from the self-destructive ways of the flesh. After Paul captures the struggle and temptation of human life in the flesh, he writes that Christ brings us freedom and hope through life in the Spirit, and discusses the dichotomy between the Spirit and the flesh:16
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death.
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do:
sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin,
he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us,
who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh,
but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.
To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
St. Paul continues to reassure us that those who live in Christ through the Holy Spirit are children of God (Romans 8:10-14). Paul leaves no doubt as to God's love for those who have faith in him and seek his way. For while we were still sinners, He gave his only Son to save us. When we are discouraged, depressed, or losing our way, St. Paul gives us hope - the Greek noun elpis - ἐλπíς. "If God is for us, who could be against us" (Romans 8:31)!
The term conversion emphasizes the radical change that has come about in believers by the association with the death and resurrection of Jesus in baptism. Paul stresses the importance of this point when he begins the instructional section of his Letter to the Romans in Chapter 12:
"I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God,
to present your bodies as a living sacrifice,
holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,
that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect."
Again, are we going to be conformed to the world of sin around us, or are we going to be transformed to the life of the Spirit by the renewal of our minds? To be transformed requires an ongoing effort on our part, being the outward expression of what springs from within. Paul advises for us to be transformed by the renewal of our mind to the Resurrection life of Christ, through the Holy Spirit
Paul also uses the word transform in Second Corinthians: "All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as for the Lord, who is the Spirit." (2 Corinthians 3:18). Further on in 2 Corinthians, he again emphasizes this renewal of mind, to make "every thought captive in obedience to Christ." (2 Corinthians 10:5). St. John Chrysostom, in his Homilies on the Epistles of St. Paul to the Corinthians comments on this passage: "The word captive sounds bad, because it might be thought to suppress freedom, but here Paul gives it its own special meaning. It might also indicate something which has been so violently overpowered it will never rise again. This is the sense in which Paul uses it here. Moreover, the captivity in question is one of obedience to Christ which means the passage from slavery to liberty, from death to life, and from destruction to salvation." 17
In Paul's Letter to the Ephesians, even after the people of Ephesus learned the tenets of the faith, Paul still has to remind them that they must "no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds" (Ephesians 4:17). One can still be Christian, baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit, and be part of the Church, but still be living a basic life of paganism of the mind. The mind too needs conviction and to come under the dominion of the tenets of the faith.
You should put away the old self of your former way of life,
corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds,
and put on the new self, created in God's way in righteousness and holiness of truth."
Paul uses a similar expression in Philippians: "We also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself" (Philippians 3:20-21). Christians have received the Spirit from God so that "We have the mind of Christ" (I Corinthians 2:16).
This conforming to Christ is an act of faith and a work in grace through the Spirit, but it is also a lifelong process. So if we are going to live a life that is dead to sin and alive in Christ Jesus, with God's grace we need to renew our minds to the reality of the redemptive death of Christ that provides the Resurrection life. Through Redemption, we have forgiveness - the Greek noun aphesis - ἄϕεσις of our sins (Colossians 1:14). This is a true metánoia, a true change of mind that conforms us to the life of Christ crucified and risen, which transforms our lives as we live the moral imperative, and choose time after time what is right! 18
Christ's redemptive death inaugurates the new (kainē) creation (ktisis) - καινή κτίσις (2 Corinthians 5:17). Father Joseph Fitzmyer notes that by "new creation," Paul means that God in Christ has created humanity anew, giving it newness of life (Romans 6:4), a life in union with the risen Christ (Galatians 2:20), a life destined to share in the glory of God." 19
Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation;
the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.
All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself
and gave us the ministry of reconciliation;
Second Corinthians 5:17-18
The response of one who has turned towards Christ leads to the new creation in the believer. The new creation is the new life that Christ pours out on us through himself. It is a living out of the Resurrection life of Christ, taking on a new way of life, the new self, living out the image of Christ, becoming the new creation.
Paul's Letter to the Galatians was written prior to Romans, and stresses the importance of faith in Christ Jesus, that we become children of God:
I have been crucified with Christ;
it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me;
and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God,
who loved me and gave himself for me.
For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith.
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female;
for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.
The Greek verb enduw - ἐνδύω means I put on or clothe. 20 To "clothe oneself with Christ" indicates the transmission of charactistics or virtues. Remember the passing on of the mantle from Elijah to Elisha (I Kings 19) was a symbol of the passing on of the prophetic role. Likewise, the Christian takes on and receives all the rights and privileges of Christ as an adopted child of God! Being sons of the Father and receiving the gift of the Spirit through Baptism brings the new creation. This new creation transcends all categories of creation (neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female), "for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). 21 This is symbolic for sonship or heirship (Galatians 4:4-7)
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth,
for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
Father George Maloney points out that Paul uses the expression to live in Christ or its equivalent 164 times! The concept derives from Paul's conversion experience on the road to Damascus, when he encountered the risen Christ. With this phrase in mind, Father Maloney defines metanoia as conversion of one's whole being in total surrender to make the indwelling Trinity the total center of one's life through the permanent union of life in and with Christ through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. God is love (I John 4:8), and our lives are infused with love, the Greek noun agape - ἀγάπη.
W. Meyer comments that "Paul's conversion was a lifelong process, a lifetime of faithful decisions he made in offering his life to the Lord." 23
St. Paul speaks of God giving the Holy Spirit as a pledge, deposit, or installment (2 Corinthians 1:22, 5:5, Ephesians 1:14).
God has given us through Christ the Holy Spirit to help us while we are in this mortal flesh! The word arrabon - ἀρραβών is a Semitic loan-word עֵרָבוֹן (Genesis 38:17, 18, 20; Job 17:3), which means a pledge, or earnest, or down payment, which has its closest modern parallel in hire purchase and the deposit system. This is similar to putting a down payment on a house, as a deposit, which may be used to buy construction materials or hire workers to build the house. It is the first installment and the promise of full payment in due course. God has given us the Spirit as a pledge of a future inheritance and as a first installment, so that we fully possess the promise of God for salvation, redemption and the forgiveness of sins.24
The Holy Spirit gives us grace through Jesus Christ (Romans 5:17), freedom (Romans 8:2), and dwells within us (Romans 8:9). Pope John Paul II, in The Holy Spirit, the encyclical Dominum et Vivificantem, quotes St. Paul that the Holy "Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus Christ" (Galatians 4:6, Philippians 1:19). "With the sending of this Spirit into our hearts," there begins the fulfillment of that for which "creation waits with eager longing," as we read in the Letter to the Romans (Romans 8:11, 15, 22). 25
St. Paul found comfort and hope in turning to Jesus Christ.
That I might learn to know him and the power of his resurrection,
and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,
that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect;
but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.
Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own;
but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,
I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
St. Paul continually reminds us of the moral imperative - Stop sinning! (I Corinthians 15:34). Galatians 5:19-21 lists the works of the flesh, "that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God" (5:21). Remember the day will come, at the hour of our death, when we will face judgment (Romans 2:5)! One of the spiritual works of mercy is to be patient with those in error. As St. Paul exclaims in Romans, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 7:25). Thank God for the Cross of Christ and his continued mercy through the sacraments of conversion (Reconciliation) and redemption (the Eucharist)!
Conversion is a lifetime experience!
We must have faith in Christ, hope that we accept the grace necessary to obtain salvation, and live a life of love (First Corinthians 13). "The Spirit gives life" (Second Corinthians 3:6). Therefore, may we all live the fruit of the Spirit, as described in Galatians 5:22-23: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control," on our own road of conversion to Jesus Christ.
And wishing you farewell in the words of St. Paul,
1 Andrew Minto. Pauline Soteriology. Class lectures and texts, Franciscan University, Steubenville, Ohio, 2005.
2 Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible, Second Edition. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014.
3 The Confessions of St. Augustine, Book VIII, Chapter 12. New York: Signet Classics, 2001.
4 St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, Part I-II, Question 112, Article 2, Volume II of V (Allen, Texas: Christian Classics, 1912), 1141.
5 Jerome Murphy-O'Connor. Paul: A Critical Life. (London: Oxford University Press, 1996), 71-101.
6 Charles W. Hedrick. "Paul’s Conversion/Call: A Comparative Analysis of the three reports in Acts." Journal of Biblical Literature 100/3 (1981): 415-432.
7 Robert C. Tannehill. "Repentance in Luke," in The Shape of Luke's Story. (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2005): 84-101.
8 Francis Brown. Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000.
9 Ceslas Spicq. Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, Volume II of III. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 471-477.
10 Andrew Minto, Pauline Soteriology, 2005.
11 Max Zerwick and Mary Grosvenor. Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament. Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1996.
12 Joseph L. Ponessa and Laurie W. Manhardt. Acts and the Letters of St. Paul. (Steubenville, Ohio: Emmaus Road Publishers, 2008), 45-50.
13 Joseph A. Fitzmyer. "Pauline Theology," in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, eds. Brown RE, Fitzmyer JA, Murphy RE (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1990), 1388.
14 Pope John Paul II. "Psalm 51 - The Miserere," in Psalms and Canticles. (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2004), 63-66, 136-139, 265-268.
15 Luke Timothy Johnson. The Writings of the New Testament. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 350-353.
16 Adrienne von Speyr. The Victory of Love: A Meditation on Romans 8. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 81-109.
17 St. John Chrysostom, "First and Second Corinthians," in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Volume VII (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 284-285.
18 Andrew Minto, Pauline Soteriology, 2005.
19 "An Interview with Father Joseph Fitzmyer." U. S. Catholic 65 (January 2000): 22-25.
20 William D. Mounce. Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar, Third Edition. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2009.
21 Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition. Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000.
22 George Maloney. The Mystery of Christ in You: The Mystical Vision of St. Paul. (New York: Alba House, 1998), 21-32, 132.
23 Wendel W. Meyer. "Sermon - The Conversion of St. Paul." Anglican Theological Review 85 (2003):13-17.
24 John Ziesler. Pauline Christianity. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 70, 99.
25 Pope John Paul II. Dominum et Vivificantem, the Encyclical of May 5, 1986, Paragraph 14, in The Encyclicals of John Paul II ed. J Michael Miller (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 1996), 267-339.