Common Myths About Paul

by Mark M. Mattison


I. Myths about Paul's Conversion

"Before" and "After"

From "Saul" to "Paul"

Worst of Sinners

II. Myths about Paul's Ministry

Three Missionary Journeys?

Not by Works of the Law

III. Conclusion

To a large extent, the life and letters of Paul the Apostle shape and define the Christian life in evangelical circles. Paul's "Damascus road experience" is seen as the prototype for every Christian conversion, and his writings are used as the foundation for a Christian psychology grounded in human depravity and Divine sovereignty. Clearly, then, our interpretation of Paul's work and words, even of the nature of his ministry, has far-reaching implications for our Christian lives today.

Nevertheless it is amazing how much is assumed about Paul's life and ministry. Several myths about Paul persist within the Church, buttressing popular theologies and practices. What are these myths, and what are their consequences?


I. Myths about Paul's Conversion

According to one popular interpretation of Paul's conversion experience, when Paul was confronted by the risen Lord on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1ff) he changed his name from "Saul" to "Paul." This emphasized the difference between his old life and his new life in Christ. Later in Acts, Paul recounted the story when witnessing to unbelievers (Acts 22:6-16; 26:12-18). The Damascus road experience, then, was not only Paul's conversion experience, but his "personal testimony" as well, the story he would frequently tell about how he became a Christian.


"Before" and "After"

Often our attention is brought to this story, and we are told that our Christian conversion must be like Paul's. We should be able to point to that specific day and time when we were "born again." We should also have personal testimonies, like Paul, to tell others so that we can witness to them. Hearing how Jesus changed our lives will encourage others to accept Jesus also.

The best personal testimonies are the dramatic ones. The more dramatic the difference between the "before" and the "after," the better. The more vile the storyteller was before the once-for-all change, the more remarkable is the testimony of the conversion experience. When shared among Christian circles, they can sometimes provide "juicy" entertainment before the storyteller gets to the conversion point and ends the story.

Even then, however, the change will not have made the storyteller a better person. He will have peace and purpose, and his sins will not be as obvious and dramatic, but the sins with which he does struggle will be just as vile. Just as Paul was "least of the apostles" (1 Cor. 15:9, NIV) and even worst of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15) even after he became a Christian, so each subsequent Christian remains only a forgiven wretch. He is not any different than anybody else, just "forgiven."

This popular interpretation is not universally accepted by all Christians; some accept parts of the interpretation and not others. But many continue to perpetuate elements of this story and teach it literally as gospel truth.

True as it is that people continue to have conversion experiences today, and true as it is that many have inspiring personal stories, the historical foundation for turning these facts into universal models of every individual Christian experience is lacking.

For one thing, neither the book of Acts nor Paul's letters ever teach that Paul's personal conversion is the model for all Christian experiences. In fact, many Christians have no conversion experience at all. Unlike Paul and the earliest Christians who were born Jews or pagans, many of us were born to Christian parents and raised in Christian homes. A conversion experience happens when one leaves one religion to join another, or embraces a religion, having previously been without one. Dictionary definitions of "conversion" will bear this out. Granted, every individual must at some point make an informed decision to embrace or reject a religion; but many who grow up in Christian households simply grow into the faith, with no clearly defined conversion point and hence no entertaining "before" and "after" story.

For another thing, Paul's conversion was unique. His Damascus road experience was more than a conversion experience; it was also, at the very same time, a commissioning to go to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15; 22:21; 26:16-18; Gal. 1:15,16). As we will see, this is a critical point. In fact this truth about Gentile inclusion is part of the gospel message itself. When Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus, he was calling him to be the Apostle to the Gentiles.


From "Saul" to "Paul"

This is born out also in Acts' use of Paul's name. It is simply not true that Paul changed his name from "Saul" on the road to Damascus. In fact, he continued to be known as Saul all the way through Acts 13:9, long after he first became a follower of Jesus. And when the name "Paul" is first introduced at that point, this is what Luke writes:

Then Saul, who was also called Paul...

Notice it is not said that Saul changed his name. The text indicates rather that Saul was also known as Paul. "Saul" was his Jewish name, and "Paul" his Greek name. Similarly, though I am known as "Mark" in the United States, if I were to go to Mexico I would be known as "Marcos." Someone could write that "Mark, who was also called Marcos...." This is a common convention of language.

But why is the Apostle referred to as "Saul" before Acts 13:9, and "Paul" throughout the rest of the book? In Acts 13 he had just begun his missionary journey to the Gentiles. From the point the Apostle's ministry truly began among the Gentiles, Luke began to refer to him as "Paul" rather than "Saul." This emphasized not the "before" and "after" elements of his conversion, but rather the significance of Paul as Apostle to the Gentiles, in keeping with his commissioning.


Worst of sinners

On the other hand, Paul's experience as "worst of sinners" was tied inextricably to his Damascus road conversion/commissioning. This point is significant. Paul did not express the despairing introspection of an Augustine or a Luther. On the contrary, Paul had a clear conscience before God and men (Acts 24:16). To the Corinthians he wrote, "Now this is our boast: Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, in the holiness and sincerity that are from God" (2 Cor. 1:12, NIV). Why, then, did he describe himself as least of the apostles and worst of all sinners?

The context of these Scriptures tell us why. Paul had been a terrible sinner because he had violently persecuted the church of God before his conversion. He wrote:

For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God (1 Cor. 15:9, NIV).

Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy....Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners - of whom I am the worst (1 Tim. 1:13-15, NIV).

By God's grace, Paul's vile state had been reversed (1 Cor. 15:10; 1 Tim. 1:14,16). No longer did he languish in guilt. Still less are we to conclude that this is to be the experience of every Christian; not every Christian is a former persecutor and murderer.

Regardless of one's former state, however, it is clear that when a person has repented of his sins and received the Spirit, he is forgiven and cleansed from sin. God's grace then helps the Christian to be a better person (Tit. 2:11-14). No longer is the Christian a sinner. He will struggle with sin and selfishness still, but God stands ready to forgive and help him at every turn (1 John 1:9). In this way, the Christian will find victory over sin in his life.


II. Myths about Paul's Ministry

Apart from Paul's conversion experience and personal conscience, what other aspects of Paul's story have been widely misunderstood, and what might another interpretation tell us? We have already discussed how Paul's ministry to the Gentiles helps to shed further light on certain aspects of his life's work. Let's consider how deep this thread will take us.


Three Missionary Journeys?

One of the most popular yet persistent myths about Paul's ministry is that Paul made three recorded missionary journeys. Every map outlining Paul's journeys breaks up his ministry into these three neat parts, each starting and ending in Antioch. This interpretation of Paul's journeys is so widespread, and so often repeated as certain fact, that few would think to question it.

However, the book of Acts nowhere states that Paul made three missionary journeys, and Paul never numbers his journeys anywhere in his epistles. The idea that Paul had three journeys is simply assumed.

Paul's first missionary venture is easy to pinpoint. It began in Acts 13:1 with the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas by the Antiochene church, and it ended at the end of chapter 14 with their return to Antioch. During this time Paul and Barnabas were "apostles" (Acts 14:14) or representatives of Antioch, specially commissioned to represent the church of Antioch. When they returned from their journey, they gathered the church together and gave their formal report of their missionary activities (14:26-28). They had completed the work for which they were commissioned.

After the conflict over circumcision recorded in Acts 15:1-35, Paul split with Barnabas and left Antioch for another missionary journey (15:36-41). Luke tells us something about the conflict, but as we will see below he does not record the entire story.

Although we are not told that Paul was commissioned by the Antiochene church for another missionary journey, it is assumed that his departure at this point commences his second missionary journey. In Acts 18:22,23, we read that Paul "went down to Antioch" (NIV) and spent some time there. We are not told what Paul did there, whether he gave a report and received a third commissioning; nor does Luke imply at all that this was the end of one journey and the beginning of a third. This is simply assumed. The simple fact is that after leaving Antioch (Acts 15:40), Paul passed through that city only once more in the course of his ministry, and on this slim basis we conclude that he had three missionary journeys as a representative of Antioch.

What is a more compelling account of Paul's ministry? After his missionary journey representing Antioch (Acts 13:1-14:28), Paul left Antioch, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord (albeit not commissioned to represent that church). His next journey took him through Asia, Macedonia, and Achaia (16:1-18:1) before finally settling down in Corinth for one and-a-half years (18:11), making Corinth his new headquarters instead of Antioch. Afterward, Paul traveled through Ephesus to Antioch and through Galatia and Phrygia, settling down this time in Ephesus for two years and three months (19:1-41), making Ephesus his new base of operations. Finally, Paul traveled through Macedonia, Greece, Asia, and Phoenicia to Jerusalem where he was arrested and shipped to Rome.

Throughout this time Paul was not an "apostle" or official representative of the Antiochene church. (Only during his first missionary journey does Luke use the term "apostle" to describe Paul.) After a conflict in Antioch, Paul moved his headquarters first to Corinth and then to Ephesus. Though this interpretation is not as "neat" as the three-journey interpretation, it nevertheless seems more compelling and more accurate to the written record.

What does this imply? It implies that whatever happened in Antioch in the wake of the circumcision conflict (Acts 15:1-35), it was an event of major proportions. The three-journey interpretation creates the impression of a smooth transition between journeys, interrupted briefly by the Judaizing conflict. A more historical interpretation is that a major crisis changed the course of Paul's entire ministry. In terms of importance, for Paul the Antioch incident was second only to his Damascus road experience. Why?

Luke has chosen not to tell us about everything that happened in Antioch. For this, we turn to Paul's testimony in Galatians.

After writing about his relationship with the Jerusalem apostles, Paul recounts his version of the circumcision conflict (Gal. 2:1-10), followed by a conflict over Jewish food laws in Antioch (2:11-13). He describes his rebuke of Peter beginning in verse 14.

It is commonly assumed that Paul won the argument in Antioch that day. However, we should note that the text doesn't indicate Paul's victory. In fact, if Paul had won the debate in Antioch, he would almost certainly have said so in order to bolster his position before the Galatians. On the contrary, it would appear that the argument had not at that point been settled. Paul's rebuke of Peter runs so seamlessly into his rebuke of the Galatians that it is not possible to tell where the transition occurs. At the beginning, in verse 14, Paul wrote, "I said to Peter in front of them all..." (NIV). By the time we reach 3:1, Paul is directing his rebuke directly to the Galatians. It would appear that the issue, far from being settled at Antioch, had spread to Galatia.

A likely reconstruction of events might appear something like this. After losing the debate about Judaizing in Antioch, Paul left, commended by the brethren to the grace of the Lord, and moved his headquarters to Corinth. Having established their position in Antioch, the Judaizing missionaries sent representatives to the churches Paul and Barnabas had established during their missionary journey, spreading their version of the gospel. When news of this activity reached Paul in Corinth, he angrily responded with his letter to the Galatians. This conflict which had come to a head in Antioch had spread to the very churches Paul himself had founded.

This sequence of events was very significant. It became the occasion for Paul's first letter dealing with the problem of justification with regard to the law, a theme that would more sharply define his ministry and articulation of the gospel message. With this fact in mind we will do well to consider what Paul was really saying about justification.


Not by Works of the Law

"...knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified" (Gal. 2:16, NASV).

What is Paul here saying? The most common interpretation in churches today runs something like this. The law of Moses is a system of merits by which the Israelites tried to earn their salvation. It imposes the obligation of strict moral perfection. Anyone who tries to obey the law in every detail will necessarily fail (Gal. 3:10; 5:3). Worse, anyone who tries to obey the law will develop only self-righteousness (Phil. 3:9; Rom. 10:3) and a feeble reliance one one's own meritorious efforts to "earn" salvation. This is hopeless, since the law cannot be kept. That is why justification cannot come through the law; the law cannot be kept, therefore justification before God comes only through faith. Seeking to be justified by human effort is both useless and contrary to the gospel (Gal. 3:1-3). The total sovereignty of God is thus maintained in the face of a depraved human race, which cannot do anything right. In fact, every person must first be crushed by the demands of God's impossible law in order to receive God's grace.

This scenario is not without elements of truth, but it is out of place and somewhat removed from Paul's historical context. For one thing, it fails to consider the Scriptures' own estimation of Moses' law. Nowhere do the holy Scriptures indicate that Moses' law was impossible to keep. For example, Deuteronomy 30:11 says, "Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach" (NIV, emphasis mine). Scripture also states not only that people could obey the whole law, but that some did in fact obey the whole law. Luke writes that Zechariah and Elizabeth "were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly" (Luke 1:6, NIV, emphasis mine). Similarly, Paul writes that he was "found blameless" in his observance of the law (Phil. 3:6, NASV).

How is it that the law could be kept? For one thing, contrary to popular Christian tradition, the law never required moral perfection from the Israelites. In fact the sacrificial system was built right into the old covenant, as part of the law itself. The law had a redemptive side as well as an ethical one. The law was not a system of "merits" by which individuals tried to earn their justification before God. Paul's argument about justification, therefore, was not that justification comes through faith because the law cannot be kept.

What then was Paul's argument about "the works of the law"? If those "works" were not human efforts to "earn" salvation, what were they?

The context of Galatians 2:16 provides us a ready answer. The "works" about which Paul was debating were circumcision (2:1-10) and food laws (2:11-14). The Judaizers were not asking Gentiles to earn their salvation, but to adopt Jewish customs in order to be justified. Paul's argument against Peter was not, "You are a sinner, and cannot earn your salvation before God. How is it, then, that you force others to earn their salvation?" His objection was rather, "You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?" (2:14, NIV)

Similarly, in Galatians 3:1-3 Paul does not contrast "simply believing" with "human effort," as the NIV implies: "Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?" (v. 3, NIV). That is not what the text says. It says rather, "Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?" (NRSV). The reference is to circumcision, not meritorious human effort to earn salvation.

On what basis did Paul argue against Jewish "works" like circumcision and food laws? On the basis of God's promise to Abraham that His covenant would be extended to include Gentiles (v. 6-9). To require Gentiles to be circumcised and observe Moses' food laws would not be to accept Gentiles on their own terms; it would rather be to force them to become Jews. After the crucifixion of Christ, obeying God's law no longer meant that one had to observe such culturally-distinctive laws ("the works of the law").

This is apparent from 3:10-14. According to the traditional interpretation, Paul's point in Galatians 3:10 is that anyone who attempts to obey the law is under a curse, since no one capable of obeying the law. But if "the works of the law" and "doing the law" are two different things, then Paul's point is really quite different. "All who rely on the works of the law are under a curse" (3:10a) because in so doing they are not in fact obeying the law (3:10b). Paul does want his readers to obey the law (Gal. 5:14; 6:2), but enforcing circumcision and food laws is a transgression of the law under the new covenant. Why? After all, doesn't Moses' law require circumcision (Gal. 3:12)? Yes, but this aspect of the law must give way to the promise (Gal. 3:11). How is the promise fulfilled? By the death of Christ on the cross (Gal. 3:13). By hanging "on a tree," Jesus was placed outside of the law. Yet God vindicated him in resurrection; therefore all those who previously were "without law" (i.e., Gentiles) are now ushered into the covenant (3:14). The discriminating tyranny of the law, the law as cultural barrier between Jew and Gentile, had been dismantled (cf. Eph. 2:14-16). The law under the new covenant, the law of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 9:21), does not require Gentiles to be circumcised and obey food laws.

But did not the law evoke self-righteousness from those who sought justification through it (Phil. 3:9; Rom. 10:3)? Paul was not writing of self-righteousness in these verses, but of a righteousness peculiar to Jews as over against Gentiles. This is what Paul was arguing against in the fledgling church; he was arguing against setting up cultural barriers within the body of Christ, of once again using the law as a cultural barrier. After all, "There is neither Jew nor Greek" in Christ (3:28, NIV). That was what was at stake in the Judaizing conflict.

Many traditional interpretations of this conflict do not sufficiently take into account Paul's context. The way these verses are used in many sermons, we are led to believe that Paul was dealing with philosophical issues about Divine sovereignty, human inability, and Christian psychology. Jews, Gentiles, circumcision, and food laws are seen as only secondary aspects to these discussions, merely the framework in which these central philosophical questions are played out. In fact the reverse is true: The real issues were between Jews and Gentiles, and they centered primarily on circumcision and food laws. As John Howard Yoder put it in his classic, The Politics of Jesus:

The heresy Paul was struggling against was not that the Jewish Christians continued to be committed to keeping the law; Paul was quite tolerant of those who held to such a conviction. He went out of his way to share their ritual faithfulness when in Jerusalem. Nor was it their thinking that by keeping the law they would be saved, for the Jewish Christians did not believe that. The basic heresy he exposed was the failure of those Jewish Christians to recognize that since the Messiah had come the covenant of God had been broken open to include the Gentiles. In sum: the fundamental issue was that of the social form of the church. Was it to be a new and inexplicable kind of community of both Jews and Gentiles, or was it going to be a confederation of a Jewish Christian sect and a Gentile one? Or would all the Gentiles have first to become Jews according to the conditions of pre-messianic proselytism? (John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1972, p. 220.)

What does this mean for us today? If Paul was really writing about the social makeup of the first-century church, are his points still relevant? Absolutely.

We no longer fight about food laws, meat sacrificed to idols, circumcision, and those other "works of the law," but we do fight about worship styles, doctrinal differences, racial issues, and a host of other things. Paul's message about justification has just as much meaning today as it did in the first-century Church. We must not insist that people do things just the way we say they should in order to be Christians. In the body of Christ today, we differ about practices such as baptism and communion, for example. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who sprinkles, does so to the Lord. He who immerses, immerses to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who pours, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God (cp. Rom. 14:5b,6). That is the way we can most appropriately apply Paul's language about justification.


III. Conclusion

The life and letters of Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, is understandably of great importance to the Church. Whole systematic theologies rise and fall on differing approaches to this one man's writings, and not without reason. God used Paul as a special instrument to administer His grace among the nations. The Judaizing issue was of central importance in the Church in that day; Christianity had to be established as a multi-cultural religion if it was to survive the turbulent days to come. Had "the works of the law" prevailed in the Church, doubtless Christianity would have died the obscure death of a Jewish sect, like the Essene and Zealot movements. As it was, Christianity survived and thrived. And if the Church is to continue to thrive today, it will be because we continue to return to our origins, to revisit those first-century principles that continue to have relevance in the Church.

The more we take into account Paul's historical context, the more accurately we can reflect God's intention for the Church today. The "before" and "after" conversion story may be appropriate for some Christians in the Church, but to impose this experience upon everyone is to take Paul's experience out of context. And to interpret Paul as being "simultaneously a sinner and a saint" is to miss his point about what life in Christ entails. Far from being "just forgiven sinners," Christians are actually made holy, part of the new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). Finally, looking for dogmatic statements about Divine sovereignty and human nature in Paul's writings may not be fully justified (no pun intended), but other equally important insights can be gleaned from his real meaning in its full context. The study of Paul's life and work remains critically important in the life of the Church.

For a more detailed and academic treatment of this topic, see Paul and the Law.

Presented by:
True Grace Ministries

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