Written Word

Paul’s Conversion – Part 3

Through the ages, man has made the mistake of thinking that he can make himself right with God and Herculean efforts have been undertaken to achieve this. The “you can save yourself” religion flourished in the days of Jesus, with the Pharisees developing this to a fine art. Jesus often spoke out against this belief. In his parable about the Pharisee and the publican, he had a particular audience in mind: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable.” (Luke 18:9)

Saul was in this category – confident of his own righteousness. He was convinced that observing his religious duties produced a standard of righteousness acceptable to God. And he was not alone in this way of thinking; his view was shared by many of his fellow Jews. After his conversion, he laments for them, knowing that they are following a belief system he once embraced: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israealites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own [righteousness] they did not submit to God’s righteousness.” (Romans 10:1-3)

A Flawed Righteousness

How could such good people, such zealous people for God, such believers in God not be right with God? These people, like Saul himself, were not lost because they made no effort to keep the law of God; they made a supreme effort. In fact, they were very enthusiastic in their endeavours. Since that was the case, wherein lay the flaw? Our Lord provides an insightful instruction on this subject. (And one could be forgiven for thinking that Jesus is teaching legalism here when in fact he is teaching grace.) He says, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) Is Jesus saying that we need to out-perform the Pharisees? If they fast twice a week, do we need to fast three times? And if they donate 10% of their income, do we need to donate 11% or more? Is that what Jesus is teaching? Most certainly not.

Jesus has always been seeking people who serve from the heart, people who live for God out of sheer love and gratitude for his extension of grace to them. These people are obedient to the laws of God because God has “put [his] laws in their minds and written it on their hearts.” (Jeremiah 31:33) Furthermore, these are the people to whom God has given a heart transplant. He says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27) Obedience springs from a new heart given by God, a new Spirit given by God, a new desire to be obedient given by God, accompanied by the gentle nudging of the Holy Spirit. Therefore the life of obedience is not an attempt to earn credit that can be exchanged for a place in heaven. Obedience that comes from the heart is the outgrowth of a relationship that already exists with God.

After his conversion, Paul wrote of the utter futility of trusting in pedigree and religious performance, even though they once were of great importance to him. That which was once “very important” he now considered as “garbage”, not because these things were immoral or evil in themselves, but because they could not do the one thing Paul trusted them to do – save him from his sins and secure his place in heaven.

He says, “I once thought all these things were so very important, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the priceless gain of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I may have Christ, and become one with him. I no longer count on my own goodness or ability to obey God’s law, but I trust Christ to save me. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith.” (Philippians 3:7-9 NLT)