The Conversion of Paul
Free Grace or Forced Grace?

By Mr. Jeff Paton

        Any one who has read the account of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus must admit that this was quite an unusual circumstance. It is not a common thing for God to strike an individual with blindness in order to convey the message of the Gospel.

        Many theologians and preachers refer to this conversion as normative. They believe that God is revealing His modus operandi of salvation for every believer. This is based upon the belief that Paul's conversion experience occurred while he was on the road to Damascus. An appeal is made to consider the fact that God intervened in Saul's life, and apparently without his consent. This has been the primary whip for those who contend for a doctrine of irresistible grace.

        Were these extraordinary events to be used as evidence for irresistible grace, or to vindicate the calling of Paul to Apostleship? Paul never implied to listeners that his conversion was any different than theirs. He was not saved by a different Gospel. Faith in the truth of the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was just as essential for him as it is for us. No appeals are made by the Apostle that we should wait for any irresistible calling of God to salvation. We are encouraged to respond freely if God is reaching out to us as individuals.

        Most of what we do know of Paul's conversion can be found in Acts chapters 9, 22 and 26. What is usually left out however is Paul's testimony of how God had worked upon his heart prior to this event on the road to Damascus. The legal Saul found hopelessness in achieving perfection and salvation through his own works. This struggle in his heart has not been revealed to us in the Acts narratives, not because the prevenient grace of God was not reaching out and convicting Saul, but because the purpose of the narrative is not meant to establish a norm of how God works in salvation. Luke sets out to remove any doubt of Paul's Apostleship. He validates the extraordinary calling of the Apostle.

        To see Paul as a Pharisee helps us to see how radical this conversion was. He was the leader of the persecution of the Church. With great passion and assurance that what he was doing was right in the eyes of God, he aggressively hunted down the followers of Jesus. One cannot help but imagine what impact the words and actions of the saintly Stephen may have had on his heart. No one, including the legal Saul could smugly walked away from the stoning unaffected.

        After God convicted Saul about his failure to measure up to the law he became defeated. He came to the realization that even after all of his zeal and fame, he was powerless to secure the perfect life he had strived for. With this in mind we can see that "Paul's conversion is regarded not as an abrupt beginning, but as marking a gradual inward transformation of opinion and feeling." "Whatever the nature of the event that happened on the way to Damascus it was the turning-point in his career, (this) merely marks the logical result of increasing dissatisfaction with himself and his course as a Pharisee, and of deepening impressions concerning the truth of Christianity." (Stevens). As Paul struggled inwardly, he saw the hopelessness of being able to be justified by the law. With the conviction of the Holy Spirit upon his heart, Paul was ready for the experience on the road to Damascus.

        Paul was not yet converted since the mission of his travels was still the pursuit and persecution of the Christians. As Saul and his party neared Damascus a bright light blinded Saul. Many believe that this is where he was irresistibly drawn and converted, but this is not what the text says. For a voice comes from heaven saying "Saul, Saul, why art thou persecuting me?" And he said, "who art thou, lord?" And he: " I am Jesus whom thou art persecuting: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks." Jesus himself tells Saul that he is resisting the work of God upon the heart. In essence, Jesus is telling him that "it is hard to keep going against your conscience."(no irresistible grace here.)

        It is unlikely that the extraordinary blinding of Saul was all that was needed to convince him. For "it is inconceivable that an external miracle alone should have transformed a man of Saul's fiery temper and firmness of conviction from a Pharisee into a Christian." (Stevens) If Saul did not have any of these former convictions about his spiritual state he would have never yielded even under the most spectacular circumstances. He would have died a martyrs death before he would deny his Judaism. God was convicting him, and now. He was going to give Saul the answer.

        "This event on the road was not the conversion in fact. As in most cases, a human guide was needed, and Ananias, the disciple in Damascus, was that man. ( 9: 10f.). The first phase of the epochal experience was highly emotional (awakening, conviction, remorse). The second phase involved reflection and prayer (v. 11). The last phase ( 9: 17-19 ) brought instruction, encouragement, fellowship, and baptism." (Abingdon Commentary P1105) Ananias preached the Gospel to Paul and by doing so, Paul saw the answer to his dilemma. "Who shall save him from this body of death? He now says "I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" "He now saw that men had always been saved by grace on condition of faith, and that, in view of human weakness and sinfulness, they never can be saved in any other way." (Stevens)

        The process that transformed the fiery Saul is the same that all who are truly converted have experienced. Conviction that we are sinners, hopelessness to save ourselves.

        Then a disciple of the Lord is put in our path to tell us of the Gospel. From there, it is a matter of how we choose to respond. Do we reject Christ in hopes of another "gospel?" Or do we yield to the one who loved us so much that he died for our sins? If Paul could be accepted anyone can.

        R.C.H. Lenski encapsulates the preceding thoughts with crystal clarity.

"Jesus preaches the law to Saul; he confronts him with his sin and his crime; he smites and crushes Saul's heart with a consciousness of its awful guilt. But Jesus does not preach the Gospel to Saul, he orders him to go to a place where the appointed minister of the gospel will proclaim this to him; for "what is necessary that thou do" does not refer to works of law but to believing and receiving the grace and the pardon for his sins.

One thing alone is certain: when Jesus smote Saul with the law, this crushed him but did not kindle faith in him. It is often said that Saul was converted on the road to Damascus. Strictly speaking, this is not the fact. His conversion began in his encounter with the law but it was not accomplished until the gospel entered his heart by faith, and that did not occur on the road but in Damascus.

Jesus converted Saul, and he did it through his regular means, the law and the gospel; and no conversion was ever wrought without these means.

"When Jesus confronts the sinner with the law and his gospel, and the sinner, nevertheless, remains unconverted, the fault is wholly the sinner's own, Matt. 23:27; Acts 7:51; 13:46; 28:25-28."

        As to the circumstances that took place along the road to Damascus, these were exceptional. This was more than just a call to repentance; it was a call to Apostleship.

        Liddon remarks that " there is no reason to suppose that the power which effected this immense change in the purpose and life of Saul of Tarsus operated irresistibly upon his intellect and his will. When he tells Agrippa, "I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision," he implies that he was perfectly free to disobey. There is no such thing as irresistible grace in the moral world: if there were, man in receiving it would exchange freedom as a moral agent for the passive obedience of a vegetable to the law of its kind." There is no forced grace here, just the free grace of God .

        May we be witnesses to the fact of our own miraculous conversions.


The Pauline Theology, George Barker Stevens, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. 1892

The Theology of the New Testament, George Barker Stevens, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. 1947

Interpretations of the Acts of the Apostles, R.C.H. Lenski, The Wartburg Press, Columbus Ohio. 1944

The Abingdon Bible Commentary, Fredrick Carl Eiselen, Edwin Lewis, David G. Downey Editors. Abingdon Press, New York, Nashville. 1929

Essays and Addresses H.P. Liddon, D.D., LL.D., D.C.L, Longmans, Green, and Co. London. 1892

This article was written by Mr. Jeff Paton. Mr. Paton has read and studied many of the classic Methodist and Wesleyan theological writings. He is a supporter of Bible Believing Methodism and IMARC. We thank God for his insight and ministry. If you would like to contact Mr. Paton, you may feel free to do so.