Putting Paul in Perspective: Righteous Saul or Redeemed Paul

(This is the sixth in a series of articles assessing the New Perspective on Paul)

Was Saul of Tarsus comparable to King Saul in that he needed a new heart, or was Saul a man who merely needed to tweak his messianic theology? The New Perspective tends to think of the pre-Christian Paul as a man with a robust conscience. The Old Perspective tends to see him as a man like Martin Luther before his conversion, struggling under the weight of the law.

The problem here relates to something that was mentioned earlier. Judaism could not take away anyone’s burden of guilt, any more than the blood of the bulls and goats could. Christianity can’t take away guilt either. Words on a page are in themselves impotent. Abstractions are impotent. And it does not matter if the words are true or God-breathed. As Jesus said, “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me” (John 5:39). In other words, you can use the Scriptures as a mural or as a window. If you use it as a mural, it does not matter how true the picture is, it is still false. If you use it as a window, you encounter the saving Christ through His Word.

So when the New Perspective denies that Judaism was incapable of taking away Paul’s guilt, the New Perspective is confounding things that are really quite simple. The questions of whether Judaism could take away Paul’s guilt and whether Jews in the first century, given the means of grace available to them, could be forgiven of their sins, are two completely separate and distinct questions. There were many forgiven Jews of that time, and they were forgiven precisely because they were not trusting anything so abstract as Judaism, or anything so wicked as themselves. A short list of the faithful would include our Lord’s mother, Joseph, Zachariah, Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna, the entire list found in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, et al. If they were forgiven, then so could Paul have been. But Paul was not forgiven, and this was not because of any failure of Judaism. This was because of a failure on the part of Paul to see what the Scriptures were actually teaching. Paul was the sinner, not Judaism.

There were plenty of faithful Jews awaiting the arrival of their Messiah, and they recognized Him when He came. And there were faithless Jews, right alongside the first group, who didn’t have a clue. These faithful and faithless Jews often sat in the same row at the synagogue (just as Christians do at church today), and when a theologian comes along twenty centuries later, examines their statement of faith, and breathlessly announces that theirs was a religion of grace, that theologian is missing something quite important— the people involved.

Paul was a faithless (but externally faithful) Jew, and this set up an enormous tension in his life. It is simply false to the data to suggest that Paul was a faithful Jew who turned into a faithful Jew who simply added a belief in Jesus. As mentioned earlier, Paul refers to his pre-conversion state as one of wickedness, not one of mistakenness.

How do we meet Saul of Tarsus? We were introduced to him by Stephen, who encountered him in public debate.

And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people. Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen (Acts 6:8-9).

In this public debate with Jews from a particular synagogue, Stephen ate their lunch. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake (v. 10). These Jews were from various parts, including Cilicia, which happened to have been Saul’s home province. Because they were not able to withstand Stephan in debate, these men decided to take a more drastic approach.

Then they suborned men, which said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God. And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and caught him, and brought him to the council, and set up false witnesses, which said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law (Acts 6:11-13).

It is important to note that there are two groups here. The first is the group which lost the debate, and the second group was made up of the false witnesses which the first group suborned. Now Saul appears for the first time (by name) when Stephen is being killed. He was there giving approval to the execution, holding the cloaks of the false witnesses who were required by law to be the ones throwing the stones (Acts 7:58). This indicates that Saul was clearly a member of the first group, one of those who enticed false witnesses to lie against Stephen in a capital case. Immediately after this, Saul assumes leadership in the persecution that broke out against the church (Acts 8:1-3), indicating yet again that Saul was no small, bit player in all this.

Of course we know that Saul was a gifted, intelligent, and intense man—a genius of the first rank. Imagine such a man in an unconverted state, and imagine how he would take to losing a debate to someone like Stephen. This is not a difficult thought experiment. But taking it a step further, such an intelligent man would also know that killing a man is not the same thing as refuting him.

In this narrative, Stephen is obviously the great heir of Moses. He did wonders and miracles among the people, just like Moses did. When he was arrested and brought to trial, his face was radiant, like that of an angel (Acts 6:15). Moses came down from the mountain with a radiant face. Stephen did not fill up Jerusalem with frogs from the Nile, but if he had done so, the point would hardly have been more obvious. These things were plain, and Saul of Tarsus poured out his hostility upon Moses by helping to kill Stephen, and it was all done in the name of Moses. It is little wonder that Saul was wound up tight as a fiddle on the Damascus road— before the Lord appeared to him.

There were fundamental moral issues at stake here—love of God versus hatred—and not just scholarly disagreements over covenantal boundary markers. Men of faith from the time of the older covenant would have to work through the issues surrounding covenantal nomism, but they did so with great eagerness, and without a lot of bloodshed.

And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so (Acts 17:10-11).

We have two synagogues, one in Thessalonica and one in Berea. One of them was ignoble and the other noble. But both had the same covenantal boundary markers. The distinction between them was found in things like faith, hope, and love. The differences between the two would hardly be distinguishable to a theologian squinting at them from two thousand miles (or years) away. They were both examples of Second Temple Judaism, and the Judaism they shared was a religion of grace on paper. But grace does not adhere to paper. Grace adheres, or does not, in individual hearts.

Before his conversion, Paul was more like the ignoble Jews in Thessalonica than the Jews in Berea. He minces no words when he talks about this. When Paul looks back on the time before he submitted to Jesus of Nazareth, he describes himself with moral loathing. And he does not hold back when describing men who were just like he was.

Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you, to me indeed is not grievous, but for you it is safe. Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision. For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh (Phil. 3:1-3).

Those who have confidence in the flesh, in their covenantal boundary markers, are dogs, not men. They are mutilators. They are unclean animals. They are evil workers. The polemical voltage here cannot be accounted for by learned appeals to covenantal nomism. This is a deeply moral indignation, and can only be justified as a moral indignation.

If this dispute really were about those boundary markers, then this means that Paul’s language (not to mention Christ’s) easily qualifies as anti-Semitic. If a man attacks a Jew and calls him a dog, simply because he adheres to the ancient customs, it is hard to avoid the charge of anti-Semitism. But this problem evaporates when we acknowledge that the covenantal boundary markers were given by God, but that some who took pride in them were corrupted in their attitudes. They were faithless, and God always blesses the faithful.

Having “confidence in the flesh” was high defiance against the God of heaven. Proud flesh attaches itself to the strangest things. If it does not submit to God in faith, then this practice of strange bonding is something it cannot help doing. Proud flesh has tried to commend itself to God on the basis of many odd things—skin color, having been baptized by a famous person, tribal affiliation, merit badges, having a lurid testimony involving cocaine and a pardon from the governor, and so on. Paul does not hesitate to lambast the form of it that he was most familiar with, which was the form that God saved him out of.

Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless (Phil. 3:4-6).

Now there is something important here. Many have noted that Paul describes himself as “blameless.” Does not blameless mean blameless? The short answer is no. Blameless here means a spotless crystal vase filled to the brim with raw sewage. Paul has just finished warning the Philippians away from men who were still just as he had been, and he described them as dogs, as evil workers. And he did not mean blameless dogs, he meant unclean scavengers. While he had done everything he thought he was supposed to do on paper, he had come to know in Christ that all this was worse than useless. This was not a genuine blamelessness.

But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ (Phil. 3:7-8).

He had lost what he had before, and he reckoned all that external righteousness, all his previous confidence in the flesh as so much dung. The force of the word he uses here ( skubalon ) is striking. Let us just say that dung is a polite translation.

But what Paul had left behind was not Judaism, but rather his own wicked perversions of it. Simeon had not twisted his covenant faith in this way, and neither had many others. But Saul had done this, and consequently, he did not know or experience the grace of God. He was an unconverted man. As such, he did what unconverted men always do—attach themselves to something they like and use it to boast before God. When God brought him up short, he learned at that point to rely on the righteousness of another.

And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith (Phil. 3:9).

When this happened, his burden of guilt was removed by Christ. It was not removed by Judaism. It was not removed by Christianity, or by the Westminster Confession, or any such propositional statement. That Paul came to understand his sinfulness through his encounter with Christ is plain enough.

This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief (1 Tim. 1:15).

While I am at this point, I would beg the reader to allow a somewhat tangential excursus for just a moment. I have just unwittingly revealed that I naively hold to the Pauline authorship of the pastorals. This I gladly affirm, and will throw in the book of Hebrews to boot. Call, and raise you ten. And on top of that, I will assert that serious theology cannot expect to get anywhere until we knock off the urbane silliness that characterizes so much theological discussion today. The Scriptures say the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; some have taken this to mean that unbelief and autonomous rationality must be the beginning of knowledge. In light of this, the ache that some conservative scholars have to be taken seriously in the unbelieving academy is a pitiful thing indeed, and so I would like to take this opportunity to give the whole thing the universal raspberry. What Princeton, Harvard, Duke and all the theological schools in Germany really need to hear is the belly laugh of all Christendom. I mentioned earlier that proud flesh bonds to many strange things indeed, and I forgot to mention scholarship and footnotes. To steal a thought from Kirkegaard, many scholars line their britches with journal articles festooned with footnotes in order to keep the Scriptures from spanking their academically-respectable pink little bottoms.

That noted, Paul said near the end of his life that he had been the chief of sinners. He did not mean to tell us that he had been the head covenant nomist. He was a sinner, and this meant that he had been unclean. In the Jewish vocabulary, this confession meant a great deal. It was almost as though he held an office (Luke 7:39). In the Jewish mind, sinner was not a label that was attached to all humans (even though it was acknowledged that all have sinned), but rather referred to that class of people who lived in a condition of disobedience.

They answered and said unto him, Thou wast altogether born in sins, and dost thou teach us? And they cast him out (John 9:34).

Then answered them the Pharisees, Are ye also deceived? Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him? But this people who knoweth not the law are cursed (John 7:47-49).

When Paul confessed that he had been the chief of sinners, he was confessing that the status which he thought he had (blamelessness) was not in fact the status which he actually had before God (greatly to be blamed). His previous opposition to the gospel of Christ was not an honest opinion, honestly arrived at. It had required a consistent and perverse reading of the Old Testament Scriptures. There was indeed a sense in which he had been externally blameless. Perhaps he had managed this by tithing mint, dill, and cumin while neglecting the weightier matters of the law. Perhaps he did it by treasuring up wrath against the day of wrath. Perhaps he did it by swallowing camels and straining gnats.

But it is astounding that here we are, two thousand years later, and scholars are still swallowing the camel. Judaism was not a religion of camel-swallowing, they solemnly announce. Of course it was not, but Judaism had to deal with sinners, who are inveterate camel-swallowers, wherever they go. And if they cannot find a camel to swallow in the sacred text, they make one up. And those who live like this are unforgiven, and go home unjustified. This was the spiritual condition of Saul of Tarsus until God took away his sins in Jesus Christ.


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