Today’s lectionary scripture includes Acts 9, the story of Saul’s conversion into the apostle Paul. Many Christians view this story as a paradigmatic representation of what Christian salvation looks like. But we don’t seem to pay much attention to the details of the story. Saul’s conversion story is the basis for the basic premise of my book How Jesus Saves the World From Us — that Christian salvation is more about Jesus saving the world from us than saving us from something else. I think that what happened to Saul is precisely what needs to happen to every single one of us, not just once but every time we forget how dependent we are on God’s grace.
The most toxic thing about contemporary American Christianity is the way that we misrepresent Christian salvation. We have made it into an abstract problem. God has been depicted as a banker whose primary focus is to collect debt on the world’s sin. Because God charges infinitely high interest rates on every minor mistake, we cannot possibly repay him even if we really didn’t do anything terribly wrong in life beyond saying a few cuss words and raising our voice occasionally in family arguments. So God collects the debt for sin in one of two ways. Either Jesus pays back our debt through his suffering and death on the cross which we have to somehow “accept” through saying a prayer that is earnest enough. Or we pay back our infinite debt for sin through suffering eternal conscious torment in hell.
This monstrous caricature results from reading the Bible like a giant word problem in math class, presuming that you can take out all the adjectives and descriptive details to boil salvation down to a simple equation. Our sin + infinite debt = Jesus’ crucifixion OR our eternal torture in hell. None of the history matters. None of the nuances of language matter. All of the references to Jesus’ cross that don’t talk about it in terms of paying a sin debt can be cast aside and ignored. When we read the Bible in this kind of reductionist way, we become like Saul of Tarsus.
Saul of Tarsus was part of a Jewish sect called the Pharisees. Their name means to be “set apart.” They were very zealous about defending their faith from all impurities, which is why Saul and others like him persecuted the early Jesus movement, not just kicking them out of the synagogue but throwing them into prison and even brutally murdering them. Though Saul would later come to see himself as a murderer, he didn’t see things that way at all when he was persecuting Christians. He was blameless. And he had Biblical precedents he could use for justification.
He could cite the example of the Levites who were commissioned by Moses in Exodus 32 to slaughter 3000 of their fellow Israelites indiscriminantly as punishment for their idolatry of the golden calf. He could say he was following the example of Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, whose zeal for God’s honor compelled him to thrust a spear through an Israelite and Moabite woman while they were making love. There was no reason not to conclude from the Hebrew Bible that killing in defense of God’s honor was a righteous deed, even though the fifth commandment says not to kill without qualification.
To what degree are each of us in our own way emulating Saul of Tarsus? Obviously we aren’t going on murderous rampages of Christians. But how has your righteous zeal caused you to dehumanize the people you think are screwing everything up, whether they’re the liberals or the fundamentalists? I know that I’ve had many Saul of Tarsus moments where I write something really scathing that seems perfectly righteous, and I feel awesome about myself until Jesus convicts me.
What Jesus said to Saul on the road to Damascus in Acts 9 reveals a lot about what salvation really looks like and how Jesus accomplishes it. Here’s what Jesus doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, “Saul, do you think you would go to heaven or hell if you died tonight?” He doesn’t say, “Saul, I know you think good works will get you into heaven but your debt to God is actually infinite because He’s a perfectionist and has zero tolerance for the most infinitesimal of sins.” (Incidentally, whatever the apostle Paul later says about justification by faith must be interpreted through the lens of the most defining spiritual encounter of his life when he stopped being Saul of Tarsus.)
What Jesus says is “Saul, why do you persecute me?” He confronts Saul not as an all-powerful judge looking down from a throne on high, but as the crucified victim of Saul’s sin. What if the question Jesus asks Saul is paradigmatic for how Jesus convicts and rescues each of us in order to change our names to Paul and make us apostles? Maybe we need to understand that we are persecuting Jesus every time we fail to love our fellow humans. And that being saved means being saved from being a persecutor.
If I were to extrapolate the toxicity that Saul of Tarsus embodied as a zealous heresy hunter into a universal human quality, I would say that what Saul and all of us need to be saved from is self-justification. Being so in love with how right we are that we are ruthlessly cruel to other people. You don’t have to be a religious zealot to self-justify. You can just be a regular inconsiderate asshole like me who gets irritated with family members and other people when their needs require me to get off my lazy butt to help them with something. It’s incredible how warped and entitled I become when I pity myself for having to be a responsible adult and do my fair share within a community.
I constantly need to be reminded of two things: 1) I am a sinner whose self-justification is warped and unreliable, 2) I have been unilaterally and completely forgiven by God so I am free to come clean and release all my shame whenever I recognize the need for repentance. I need to understand that I have blindly crucified Jesus and I keep on crucifying him, but also that somehow his sacrifice has absorbed my sin and given me a clean slate whenever I choose to accept it.
It’s true that sin separates me from God, but it’s not because God is a ruthless banker who wants to hold my debt over me. Rather, God wants me to step into his light with all the other redeemed sinners of the world to create a community of complete honesty and vulnerability so that none of us are telling ourselves lies of self-pity and self-righteous indignation that make us toxic to each other like Saul of Tarsus was toxic. As long as I am clinging to my self-justification, I will keep myself out of God’s light and remain in the outer darkness no matter how loudly I’m pretending to be the perfect Christian.
The world needs to be saved from me. That’s the basic truth I recognize as a Christian. I can’t fix what happens in other peoples’ hearts. And the degree to which I’m going to be useful to creating a just, merciful world depends upon my own heart being infiltrated by God’s love. I need to be conquered by God’s love, which is paradoxical because God’s love is the most gentle, unconquering thing in the world. That’s why Christians talk about the importance of surrender. It’s easy to surrender to a Thor with scary lightning bolts. It’s much harder to surrender to a lamb who has been slain.
I don’t think it’s helpful to act as though this surrender is a one-time event. We have to keep walking the Damascus Road with Saul of Tarsus and listening for Jesus to show us how we keep on persecuting him. I am still in the process of being converted to Christianity. But I trust the incredibly comforting words that the apostle Paul said to the Philippians: “the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion” (Philippians 1:6). Amen.