The Conversion of Paul

By Thomas Hill Green

The Conversion of Paul is an extract from T. H. Green's lectures on the Epistle to the Galatians.

"[We] who know that a man is not justified"1 "by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified. But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we ourselves were found to be sinners, is Christ then an agent of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again those things which I tore down, then I prove myself a transgressor." – Galatians 2:16-18.

Belief in Jesus involves a breach with the law: therefore, if nonconformity to the law makes men sinners (as the Jews regarded the uncircumcised), belief in him makes us as much sinners as the Gentiles. This brings us to the question of the sort of revelation involved in 'Paul's conversion.' The sense in which he believed in Christ was conditioned by the antagonism which he felt and showed to the Christian teaching before his conversion. His belief involved negatively the abandonment of all claim to distinctive righteousness, and positively the duty of preaching a universal gospel to the gentile as well as the Jew. This belief is identical with life by faith in the Son of God, and this is identical with the life of Christ in Paul himself. This life, further, arises immediately out of, or is the positive aspect of, death to the law, which again is death through the law (produced by it). Another expression for this 'life' is 'righteousness,' or 'righteousness of God' (just as another expression for 'death' is 'condemnation'). 'The righteousness of God' means the perfect relation of man towards God. Just as the wrongness of the relation between man and God can only lie on the side of man's consciousness, so the change by which the relation is set right can only be a change of man's consciousness; a change by which the consciousness of alienation from God becomes the consciousness of adjustment to the divine will. Hence 'the righteousness of God' subjectively considered (or 'ex parte hominis') is 'peace' and 'reconciliation'; just as the opposite state is one of conscious alienation, which, by a transfer to God of man's consciousness -187- about him, is also spoken of as a state of being under God's wrath.

To understand how the law wrought death in Paul, a death which suddenly passed into a new life, is to understand his conversion, as described in this epistle. We must think of him, while in act and speech 'exceedingly zealous for the traditions of his fathers,' as yet the subject of that inward conflict, the recollection of which caused him to write the seventh chapter of the epistle to the Romans. (It is an extraordinary delusion to suppose that that chapter describes the state of the Christian in the condition of Paul's experience after conversion.) In this state he was seeking to attain the 'righteousness of God' by doing the 'works of the law.' That effort, as he afterwards thought, involved a contradiction. Man can only attain the righteousness of God in virtue of the presence of God in him. But the Jew's effort after perfect conformity to the law was an effort to 'establish his own righteousness.' Really the Jew's effort, just so far as the Jew thought it successful, meant a self-satisfaction which effectually prevented the inward communication of God. This is one effect of the law, the effect on the ordinary Jew; it may be called a death or alienation, but is not a conscious alienation, and probably not referred to here by Paul. Such a state cannot be suddenly changed into a new life. It was another mode of death by the law that Paul experienced before his conversion. He had found that he could not establish his own righteousness; the law of God seemed to command without giving power to execute; thus its only effect was to give the knowledge of sin, which Paul tended to identify with sin itself. The notion of sin to him is so much that of conscious alienation from God that knowledge of sin and sin almost coincide; e.g. 'the strength of sin is the law'; and cp. Romans 7:7, 9, 13, 14. Reflection on the perfectness of the law only made him more conscious of the carnality of the flesh, which was not of himself, yet which seemed to drag him down. The conflict as represented in the epistle to the Romans ends in a conscious split in his nature; 'I do that I would not.' Thus the law was the source of death as awakening the consciousness of the carnal separation from God, of moral paralysis, the consciousness of being under a curse or condemnation. 'Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?' i.e. the body to which, as -188- the seat and source of sin, death (or separation from God) attaches.

It is easy to understand how one burdened with this consciousness would at first seek to overcome it by more abundant zeal for the law. Across this zeal came the preaching of Christ by Stephen; the preaching of him as the true Messiah, who had borne the penalty of the law because he had declared that the privileged Jewish worship of God was to give place to a universal and spiritual worship, and whom God had declared to be the true Messiah by raising him from the dead. It was because Paul saw that the acceptance of such a Messiah involved the falsehood of the Jewish idea of righteousness, as consisting in the special observance of a special law, that it provoked him. But the conception of the Messiah as manifested under conditions of the extremest carnal humiliation, and as bearing the penalty or curse of the law, suddenly took a new character when his own consciousness of the burden of those conditions, and of being under that curse, came to a head. He found that that conception was just what he wanted. The subjection of the Son of God to the death in which he found himself was his own deliverance from it, as showing that God was not the giver of an external law which could not be obeyed, but a God who communicated himself to man under conditions which had seemed to separate from him. Thus the death wrought by the law, wrought by it, though spiritual in itself, owing to the relation in which it stood to our carnal nature, through the participation of Christ in it becomes death unto the law'; that is, the deliverance of man from the attitude in which he stood to God as servant to taskmaster, and the substitution for this of the consciousness of communion with God (Galatians 4:3-7). This deliverance from the law has two aspects, corresponding to the two aspects of the 'works of the law.' It is the extinction of the imaginary legal righteousness of the Jew; it puts an end to 'works' as the Jew understood works. On the other hand it is the condition of the true fulfillment of the law. The substitution of the consciousness of the presence of God as 'working in us' enables us to fulfill the law through love, as it could not be fulfilled when regarded as imposed from without.

Being 'under the law' is, with Paul, equivalent to being 'in the flesh.' The carnal man is the selfish man, and the -189- Jew, 'going about to establish his own righteousness,' feeding his pride on the consciousness of his separation from other men, is living 'after the flesh' almost in the sense of living selfishly. But the man who has passed out of this pride into the state of bitter humiliation described in Romans 7, is still in bondage to the flesh, because, owing to his sensuous nature, he presents God to himself merely as an external law-giving power. As from the death under the law, so from 'the flesh' (or 'body of this death') Christ delivers us by sharing it; sharing, that is, not in actual vice, but in the consciousness of alienation from God.

The spiritual revulsion, the deliverance from the death which he was conscious of carrying about and with him, came to Paul under certain accidents of vision and ecstasy on his journey to Damascus, when he recognised God in the crucified Jesus whose claim to Messiahship had provoked him. As the negative side of this revelation was the extinction of legal righteousness, its positive side was the mission to the gentiles. A controversy may be raised as to the objective reality of the appearance of Christ to Paul.

What is objective reality? An actual picture on the retina and agitation in the tympanum of the ear? The only available evidence of this would be that of his companions. If the others had heard and seen what he did, then we should say that it was not merely that his state of mind affected his nervous system, but that there was some physical operation on his sensitive organs. As to such evidence we cannot say much; there is a discrepancy between Acts 9:7 and 22:9. The question being thus understood, if there was such a picture, at any rate its only meaning and reality arose from the ideas associated therewith, a state of mind of which we have certain knowledge, whereas there is no corresponding evidence about the objective reality. Without those associated ideas the sensuous impression was practically nothing. Thus the true objective reality lay in the truth of those ideas as to law and grace, which truth was proved by the success of Paul's apostleship to the gentiles. Thus, though he appeals to the vision of Christ, yet he says the 'seal' of his apostleship is found in the congregation which he founded.


1^ "Justified" in Galatians 2:16 may be read as "reckoned righteous."

Top ↑

Thomas Hill Green
British philosopher and social theorist,
an early leader of the British Idealists.
Elected a Fellow of Balliol College, Uiversity of Oxford, 1860, Whyte's Professor of Moral Philosophy, 1878, he died at the young age of 45.



Green, Thomas Hill. Works of Thomas Hill Green, "Miscellanies and Memoir," vol. 3 of 3. K. L. Nettleship, ed., London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1888 pp. 186-189.