December 3, 2020

A Structured Gospel


“Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you.” (Mt. 28:18-20, MSG)

“I am Jesus, the One you’re hunting down. I want you to get up and enter the city. In the city you’ll be told what to do next.” (Acts 9:6)

* * *

My pastor and I were talking the other day about the persistent tendency among Christians, pastors, and churches to use law to try and bring structure and order to people’s lives. Together we agreed that our job as ministers in particular is to proclaim the Gospel through Word and Sacrament, not practice behavior modification.

However, as we were talking, it occurred to me that I am now in a church tradition that practices what might be termed a structured Gospel. The Gospel that brings forgiveness and freedom to obey comes to us through ordered means that provide clarity for the life of faith through disciplined practices. These are not “works” that achieve anything about which we may boast before God or others. Rather, they are “means” that the Spirit uses to communicate grace to us and form us in Christ.

Let me give an example that I formerly did not appreciate in the free-form evangelical world in which I used to live and serve. In revivalistic religion, few stories are more powerful than that of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9 (see also Acts 22, and Acts 26).  When reading these texts, the revivalist tradition emphasizes the personal encounter Saul had with Jesus. And this is certainly dramatic.

Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.

The resurrected Lord appeared to Saul (1Cor. 15:8), spoke to him, and revealed his identity to him. He literally stopped the persecuting Pharisee in his tracks, knocked him to the ground, and blinded him. Jesus confronted him with the charge that Saul was actually fighting against God rather than serving him.

Let’s stop there for a moment.

Though this personal encounter with Jesus literally turned Paul around, it forms only the beginning of his conversion story. There is no word here about forgiveness. No good news was proclaimed. No “decision” was made. Paul did not pray a “sinner’s prayer,” confess his sins, or profess his faith. He did not simply pick up and go on his way rejoicing as a converted and transformed individual.

If I may put it this boldly, what happened on the road to Damascus was not enough to “save” Paul.

becomingcatholic_3On the road, Jesus got Paul’s attention. Then, he sent him through what we might call a structured Gospel process. What happened next?

  • Jesus instructed Paul to go into the city where he would be told what to do. Notice, he did not just tell him to “ask the Savior into his heart” or “pray silently” — he commanded Paul to go somewhere where he would have to do something.
  • The stricken man had three days of preparation and silence in the city. He fasted. Presumably he prayed. He waited.
  • A Christian named Ananias came into the picture and did specific acts with regard to Paul: he laid his hands on him, he proclaimed good news of Christ and God’s calling on Paul’s life and prayed that he would receive the Spirit. Paul regained his sight.
  • Ananias instructed Paul to be baptized in order to “have his sins washed away” (a strong text on the sacramental nature of baptism) as he called on Jesus’ name in faith (Acts 22:16).
  • Paul stayed with the congregation in Damascus for a time and took opportunity to witness to who Jesus was and what he had done for him.

You see, Jesus did not just “save” Paul directly through a personal spiritual encounter, a “born again experience,” a private conversion. It was not Paul’s “Damascus Road” experience that did the trick. It was what happened there plus what happened when Paul went into Damascus. On the road, Jesus got Paul’s attention in a dramatic fashion, introduced himself to him, and then sent him to the Church. There, through such practices as fasting, solitude, prayer, the laying on of hands, baptism, and public witness, Paul became a thoroughly converted, changed man.

As Cyprian of Carthage famously said, “He cannot have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother.” In today’s world of free floating spirituality and narcissistic consumer-oriented religion, wouldn’t it make sense for the Church in all traditions to make things clearer and more definite for people by presenting them with a structured Gospel rather than the nebulous “personal commitment” we so often hear being recommended?

Again, this is not to be confused with legalism. To paraphrase what someone said in one of our comment threads last week, when you sign up to be a Marine, you enter their world and take up practices that are demanding and life-forming. You don’t get to define the structure of Marine life. It is made clear to you from the start.

Jesus’ Gospel call contains this element too. Not only did he say, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” He went on to make matters clear: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me” (Matthew 11:28-29).

Rest. And a yoke. I know, the two sound incompatible. We usually associate being put under a yoke with the law. But apparently there is a Gospel yoke — signifying a structured, embodied practice that issues forth from the announcement of Good News. There are means of grace to receive, a path of grace to follow, and a community of grace in which to dwell.


  1. CM,

    I think you’re essentially right. Structure is necessary to support and sustain life.

    I was raised with a “structure”, it was called “The Plan of Salvation”. Went like this;
    1. Hear the “gospel”
    2. Believe it.
    3. Repent–swear off from sins
    4. Confess that Jesus is Lord and King.
    5. Be baptized by immersion.
    (6. Don’t sin again or you’re in deep doo doo.)
    (7. Always be there when the doors open.)
    (8. Adhere to a long list of do’s and don’ts.)
    (9. Do this all your life and you might make it to heaven.)

    I’m somewhat skeptical of “structure” in general. Who decides which is best?


  2. Sorry to be pedantic but for the sake of integrity can I just mention something. I think there are plenty of places in the new testament which back up your thesis but I’m afraid this one doesn’t. Paul seems to be the exception to the rule, but he doesn’t recommend a lonely path. He tried his best to get fellowship but circumstances and his background are against him. He doesn’t seek a solitary walk, it’s imposed on him. In all of his teaching however he encourages fellowship and discipleship within the context of “church”.

    Please note the rest of Acts 9 . He had a very brief encounter with “the church” in Damascus:
    Acts 9v19,20 “and after taking some food, he regained his strength. Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus”

    Then following death threats they helped him escape and he went to Jerusalem. He tried to join “the church” but after more death threats “the church” sent him away off on his own this time.

    Acts 9 26 – 31. “When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. He talked and debated with the Hellenistic Jews but they tried to kill him. When the believers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.”

  3. Paul gives his own version of events when he writes his letter to his friends in Galatia. I do not personally think his isolation is an example to be copied, but showing that his case is exceptional because the gospel needed an independent witness outside the Jerusalem group who could have become an inward looking sect. I think Luke did not include everything in Acts, he couldn’t possibly include every detail. Paul mentions the time lag between his conversion and his first visit to Jerusalem.

    Galatians 1v 11-17, Ch 2 v 1-6 :
    “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.

    Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles – only James, the Lord’s brother. I assure you before God that what I am writing to you is no lie.

    Then I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: ‘The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they praised God because of me.

    Then after fourteen years, I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain. … they recognised that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised.”

  4. I find that Paul talks a lot about church. Seems to take it for granted. However I would not agree that any parent relationship should exist with the church. Jesus is clear : “Call no man father.” The pictures used of Jesus relationship with us are a shepherd with a flock, a head with a body, an architect and building and a bridegroom and bride. There’s no hint of the church having a maternal relationship over us.

    • The early church would not agree with you.

    • Marcus Johnson says

      That verse (Matthew 23:9) is taken way out of context, a common problem when we proof-text. A few chapters earlier (Matthew 16), Jesus identifies Peter as the rock upon which he would build his church, so it would make absolutely no sense for Jesus to contradict himself.

      In the particular conversation you referenced, Jesus is berating the Pharisees for valuing their manmade institutions to the point that they had lost their sense of humility and subservience to God. That is a totally separate conversation from whether or not the church should play a role in the spiritual formation and education of believers.

  5. Mike,

    I fully understand your point.

    And I’d like to add my own flavor of “some things to the conversion process” in order to satisfy my need for verification indicators, or so-called signs, that a conversion experience is genuine in the life of some other person.

    However in our fallen world trusting anyone, or any group, to define, monitor and thus passivily or activily enforce external steps, or favorite proof tests, along the conversion journey seems very troubling to me.

    Guess that’s why the reformation leaders were so insistent that the entire process of convicting, calling, saving, and growing in sanctification was a God thing carried forth in the person of the Holy Spirit all because of Christ.

    Therefore we can model our favorite conversion behaviour steps as an example to others but we must release the process to God alone.

    Thank you for your always considered posts that I enjoy reading every morning.

    • I think if you look more carefully, you will see that the Reformation leaders did not insist on the things you say they did.

      • Overall point given, Mike, with some caveat.

        However I’d say that much of the reformation energy was directed against the specific hurdles that had been set up to control access, monitor regeneration steps, and then regulate church/salvation participation, all of which were tightly managed by that dominate church at the time. Many of these salvific step process matters, required by the dominate church, were viewed as irrelevant to justification by the reformation leaders. That was their essence of “protesting” within the church structure of the times.

        I’m do not wish to default to the mode of slicing the historic catechesis, or delving critically into the church dogma by specific statute, in order to bolster my premise, so I’ll just leave it at that.

        Bless you and best wishes.

    • Marcus Johnson says

      Um…the leaders of the Reformation? Like Martin Luther?

      The folks to whom you refer created their own institutions, dedicated to the spiritual formation of its believers apart from the dominant church institutions of their time.

      I understand the concern with “trusting anyone, or any group, to define, monitor and thus passivily or activily enforce external steps, or favorite proof tests, along the conversion journey.” However, “releasing the process to God alone” is kind of like saying that you can just put someone in a car, and they’ll figure out that whole driving thing on their own. There has to be some sort of education and guidance, within an institution that holds members accountable in the here and now.

      • Steve Newell says

        Luther did not want to start a new church but to reform the Roman Church. The leaders of the Reformation presented their theology to the Diet of Worms in the form of the Augsburg Confession. The Reformers wanted to remove those things from the Church that did not compare with Holy Scripture. They asked that their document be reviewed by the Roman Church. This was done at the Council of Trent where the Roman Church rejected the teachings of the Reformation, which at that time became the Lutheran Church.

  6. Well put, Mike! I think your analysis of Paul’s conversion rings true, and it certainly fits with the way the historical church from the very beginning understood conversion. I expect I’ll be quoting you — well, probably stealing from you — a lot!

  7. David Cornwell says

    “signifying a structured, embodied practice that issues forth from the announcement of Good News. There are means of grace to receive, a path of grace to follow, and a community of grace in which to dwell.”

    It seems to me that Paul was submittng to the early catechismal teaching of the Church. In order for his foundation in the faith to be sure this was necessary. Why do we resist this in the modern Church? Actually I think I know why. The churches themselves have no such grounding. They often rest on the prnciples of the founding pastor who has dreams of grandeur, bigness, and charismatic leadership. They confuse this with being “led by the spirit.” Each of us as individuals also prefer to go on our own merry way, referring to it as “living by faith” or some other nebulous form of God talk.

    The church I attend is liberal in many ways. However I’m always amazed in our bible study when the pastor, who I think is from an Evangelical and Reformed background quotes from the catehism of his youth. In many ways this is the basis from which we study the biblical passage for the following Sunday. From it’s form it seems to me to be the Heidelberg Catechism. Ths past Wednesday he quoted from memory the questions and answers referring to baptism. In other words, here is what the Church has taught, and at its best still teaches.

    If we neglect this, regardless of our “experience,” we will wander around lke the blind Saul who might never have recovered his sight.

  8. Paul was a rabbi. He sees Jesus and knows that He is the Messiah. He asked for forgiveness from the Lord and called on His name.

    Paul was given the work of helping us to understand the New Covenat. We see Jesus doing the work and Paul following in that work. The new covenant is not about legism at all. It is about freedom form the law of sin and death.

    • Steve Newell says

      Saul rejected Christ and was an enemy of the Church. Even after his conversion, he was to ready for the ministry that awaited him.

      He had to spend years unlearning what he was taught as a Pharisee and learn the doctrine of the Church.

      Paul instructs Timothy that a leader in the Church cannot be someone new in the Faith but one mature.

  9. Aidan Clevinger says

    Really loved this peace, Mike. Even in the Gospel, God is not a God of disorder, but of order. Structure does not necessarily equal legalism. Thanks for the share – very thought-provoking.

  10. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    If I may put it this boldly, what happened on the road to Damascus was not enough to “save” Paul.

    It was the spectacular first step in what turned out to be a process. The initial boost.

    With its roots in Revivals and Gospel of Personal Salvation, American Evangelicalism has developed tunnel vision on that first step and first step alone. Little or no attention to the rest of the process, only obsession on the start of the process. And with no follow-up, no process to cultivate the seed planted, the planted seeds die or go dormant.

    • HUG, that has always been one of most mind-boggling aspects of Evangelical belief…..the “once and done” concept of conversion makes zero sense to me. While it is certainly true that someone CAN completely change their life in an flash of inspiration, this is the exception, NOT the norm. Even when someone “changes” it can take a good while to “stick”.

      CM…great post. You are thinking more and more like a Catholic…..or, at least, a catholic!!!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Obviously, Evangelicals fixated on “the exception” as the norm. JMJ/Christian Monist has related the accompanying belief/attitude that ALL regeneration and sanctification is complete and instantaneous (all “changes” instantly) and the damage this can cause.

        I heard that this fixation began as a result of Revival Meetings, where travelling evangelists introduced the Altar Call (and the Act of Contition knockoff “The Sinner’s Prayer”) to get a quick head count of new converts (or re-converts, or re-re-converts) and to get them up to the pulpit and stage to sign The Dry Pledge. Whatever its origin and for whatever reason it spread through American Evangelicalism and Fundagelicalism to where it is considered the ONLY valid method. (And since Evangelicals have redefined the word “Christian” sans adjectives to mean ONLY their own brand…)

    • Final Anonymous says

      Sounds like something akin to the endless “spiritual journey” we crazy liberals talk about. 🙂

      My one reservation is the “structured” part — are we heading into the idea that God structures the journey in One Specific Way for everyone? Because that’s where legalism peeks in and grace eventually falls out, every time.

      • FA: you will notice that I said churches in all traditions should work this out. There are certain non-negotiables, such as baptism, but each church has freedom to work out its own ways of catechizing converts and those who grow up in the church family.

        And yes, certainly we celebrate the unique gifts of grace God bestows on each individual, but incorporation into the community should probably have some standardization within a tradition.

  11. Was the thief on the cross next to Jesus saved because of a personal encounter with Jesus or a “Structured Gospel”?

    • Did the thief on the cross have options?

      There will always be exceptional cases. What I am talking about is the ordinary use of the means of grace.

      • Rom 3:1 “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? 2 Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.”

        What was the advantage of the Jews? That they had some structured means of grace infused into them? No, it was because they grew up being exposed to the word of God.

        • So then all those animals sacrificed at the temple weren’t for the forgiveness of their sins? Then why on earth did they do all that? Didn’t this Word of God they were exposed to command them to use a scapegoat?

          • Hebrews 10:4 “For [it is] not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins. ”

            The animal sacrifices were not efficacious in and of themselves. They were signs which pointed to Christ.

          • So then, in Leviticus 4:26, 31, AND 35, for example, where God says, “…So the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin, and he shall be forgiven,” God was lying? I suggest you have misunderstood Hebrews. The point wasn’t that the temple sacrifices did nothing: his point was that they don’t do enough. A single animal’s death would not cleanse you for all time (see Hebrews 4:2), but as ch. 9:22 says, “…without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Signs to not cleanse guilt: forgiveness is more than just an intellectual concept to acknowledge.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          What was the advantage of the Jews? That they had some structured means of grace infused into them? No, it was because they grew up being exposed to the word of God.

          I was first “exposed to the Word of God” in my teens — as a sin-sniffing Party Line used as a beatdown. (Thank you, Jack Chick. Thank you, Hal Lindsay. 30 years later and the damage is still there.) They were also very fond of quoting proof-texts, Chapter-and-Verse zip codes and all (Quote! Quote! Quote! Quote! Quote!).

    • The thief on the cross went through the same conversion process you and I do. From Romans:

      Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death

      …and from Galatians:

      I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

      He was literally “crucified with Christ” and thereby, through the Word of Christ (“today you will be with me in paradise”) united with him in his death and made a child of God, exactly the same way you and I are through our Baptism.

      …not to mention that God reserves the right to be exempt from any process he creates. This does not negate His own processes, it simply means that while we can depend on what God institutes to be reliable, God is still God and therefore free.

      …also, who’s to say that a “structured Gospel” and a “personal encounter with Jesus” are mutually exclusive? Baptism IS an encounter with Christ, because a Baptism requires both water and God’s Word (His triune name) to be placed on us. You cannot separat Christ form his Name or Word, and therefore in the waters of Baptism we truly do encounter Christ. It unites us with Him and makes us a child of God.

      • You’re right Miguel, they are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, my example shows both realities at work and I was careful to say that it was not the Damascus Road experience alone that brought conversion to Paul, but that plus his subsequent initiation into the Church.

        • You might even say that conversion is not an isolated or series of events, but actually a lifelong process. The sinner in each of us needs to be daily drowned in the waters of Baptism as we return to our initial child-like faith through continually walking in repentance. Even though believing, we continue to doubt, and to the extent we bring our unbelief to Christ for his aid we are still being converted. Understanding this was the nail in the coffin for my Reformed phase, as if flies in the face of the Perseverance of the Saints. There is no phase of the Christian life where our conversion is so secure that we cease to be in continual need of His grace. Unless, of course, your name is John Wesley. 😛

          • Josh in FW says

            I don’t get the Wesley comment. Can you point me to the words of Wesley that you are referring to?

          • No. He had this doctrine called “Christian Perfection” as part of his theology of sanctification. Latter theological developments of greater pietism have taken that idea and done worse things with it, but I’m just caricaturing this idea that Christians can attain to some more perfect or higher state of sanctification, because it’s both wrong and harmful. Wesley himself was, I believe, a fully sacramental Anglican clergyman.

          • Can you, then, point to anything written either by Wesley or by subsequent pietists which suggests that sanctification has anything to do with reaching a state where “our conversion is so secure that we cease to be in continual need of His grace”? Speaking as a Wesleyan, this very idea is utterly foreign to me.

          • This is where I learned of “Christian perfection”:

            …but like I said, I’m caricaturing the position, not necessarily representing it fairly. But either way, I’m convinced it’s a silly idea.

      • Miguel,
        But the very exemption you say God has from processes he has created means neither water nor the invocation of the Triune God are necessary for Baptism, as the admittedly exceptional case of the thief highlights.

        • There is the one account of the thief on the cross that no one may despair, but there is only one so that no one may presume.

        • Not quite… Washing with water and invocation of the Triune Name IS Baptism. Without either, you do not have a baptism. All the “exception” clause means is that God can save people without Baptism if he wants. Nowhere does he promise to, and there is no reason to go seeking an alternative method simply to avoid getting wet. If Baptism is actually unavailable, in case of emergency, God can still save. But the soul who will not be baptized is not saved because he does not have faith in God’s Word.

          But like I said, I don’t think the thief on the cross even qualifies as an exception: his crucifixion with Christ accomplishes the exact same thing our Baptism does.

          • I see you’ve been reading your Luther. Does God promise to save all those who have been baptized with water and the invocation of the Triune Name?

          • Those who do not afterwords apostatize, yes.

          • Robert F says

            So water baptism is not a guarantee that one will ultimately be saved, because behavior can void baptism of its saving efficacy; and lack of water baptism does not mean that one is not saved, because God may work outside the sacramental means. The guarantees and promises are conditional, as are the exclusions.

          • No, behavior doesn’t void Baptism. God doesn’t tolerate a believer’s sin to a point and then throw them out. Unbelief is the willful rejection of Baptism. But yet, Baptism is not a guarantee of salvation: it is a guarantee of salvation to those to believe. Just because God, being omnipotent, could potentially save somebody without baptism doesn’t mean it’s worth betting on. He has invited us to one Baptism for the remission of sins, and if we reject that, we reject remission of sins. God never promises to work outside the sacramental means, and even provided he does, there is no way for us to epistemologically verify this action. The earthy sacrament gives us a clear, empirical, existential handle on which to fix our hope that God has acted on us. The promises and guarantees are absolutely conditional, however, God himself fulfills both the terms and the conditions: He gives us our faith, His word regenerates us, His spirit and grace sustain us in that faith.

          • Oh, and don’t forget Mark 16:16: All who believe AND are baptized will be saved, but he who does not believe will be condemned.” Is baptism absolutely essential? Yes and no. But if it is a sign AND seal, how does faith reject the seal? It doesn’t: unbelief alone does this.

        • I’ll throw in the Catholic Church’s reasoning on this. There generally are three types of baptism: baptism by water, baptism by desire, and baptism by blood. Water is the “ordinary” means of baptism, but the “extraordinary” means are no less effective. A person who has faith and fully intends to enter the Church but dies before water baptism is performed is still considered a Christian. If he or she had the opportunity they would have been baptized. Baptism by blood happens rarely but it happens. For example the Holy Innocents (the children of Bethlehem killed by Herod’s soldiers), the Good Thief (who professed his faith in God), and various martyrs who were killed for the faith. Some of those pre-baptized Saints were catechumens, but others were witnesses in an audience (sometimes executioners) so moved by the faith they saw that they immediately converted.

  12. melissatheragamuffin says

    I really want to agree with what you wrote, Chaplain Mike. I even used the story of Paul’s conversion to illustrate a point I wanted to make recently. However, I’ve seen the words “Community” and “Obedience to Community” used to really mean “Cult-like control.” I’ve seen people going over to other people’s homes to measure hem lengths and to try and dictate whether or not they could have flowers on their dresses.

    I also frequently find myself saying, “When Jesus said, “My burden is easy and my yoke light,” He didn’t say it so that the Society of Friends could feel free to pile it on.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      However, I’ve seen the words “Community” and “Obedience to Community” used to really mean “Cult-like control.”

      And that is the difference between Community and Control Freak.

      Doesn’t the word “Communism” have the same root as “Community”? And they were cultic control freaks really into “Obedience to Community”. Maybe these churches are getting their signals crossed or we’re seeing the same dark side on both sides or something.

  13. I found this extremely helpful and enlightening. Thank you.

  14. Kent Haley says

    Good thoughts…
    Also in Acts, Cornelius encounters God in his regular prayers, and then sends for Peter (leader of the church), who comes and proclaims the word and then baptizes.

    Also, the believers in Corinth received the Holy Spirit once Paul (another church leader) came, baptized, and laid his hands on them.

    Both of these cases seem to have some similarities to what you were saying about Paul’s experience.

  15. What’s missing from your interpretation of Paul’s encounter and conversion is the way the text doesn’t even hint at the possibility that Paul had any other option than to obey the commands that the Lord had given to him. The text, in fact, reveals a strong sense of God’s sovereignty in the matter, and can as easily be interpreted from a very Reformed perspective as illustrating a God who, apart from any human designs or intentions, apart from Saul’s zealous hatred and the nascent Christian community’s legitimate fear and desire to avoid people like Saul, sovereignly directs the situation to an outcome that he has determined beforehand. In that case, no formula can be distilled from the text as a template for how the church is to structure itself in all times and places, because what is being exhibited is the mysterious and unpredictable ways of the Lord, which can not be fit into any human institutional pattern nor guaranteed by any prudential human constraints.

  16. Maybe I’m the only one here who doesn’t “get it”, but I need to come to Jesus about five or six times a day. I usually count it a good day if I come once or twice. I remember being “born again” Evangelical style, and I even remember what it was like trying to convince others to do so as well, but the whole affair is just getting so fuzzy in my head.

    There are a hundred thousand fussy little rules in the Orthodox Church. Like I said before, it’s a Pharisee’s paradise, or could be. Anyway, I break ’em all, and I’m seldom all that tore up about it. What I love about the Orthodox Church is that she has given me back the pre-Christian me, the bad me, the not-nice me, the me that God wanted to scorch forever and ever and ever because I looked down some girl’s blouse and liked it. That’s the me He wants to save. The me He sent Christ to save. Not the self-important, posturing, Scripture-knowing me.

    Flannery O’Connor said it so well:

    “She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who , like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away.”

    When even your virtues are being burned away, now THAT’S conversion.

    • PS – Those fussy little rules? They should all be kept, fervently and ex corde.

      I wouldn’t want a single one of them changed.

    • I’ve heard it said that God doesn’t just want us to repent of our sins: We have to repent of our righteousness too. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that virtue is bad. But the idea of original sin and total depravity is that we don’t actually have any, and even what would appear to men to be virtue is tainted with sin and laid bare before an all-seeing God. We’re so good at lying to ourselves that we actually believe we have all these virtues when there are ulterior motives lurking behind every good work. The truth is, we usually do benefit from being a good neighbor and peaceful, productive, law-abiding member of society. Yet we love to give ourselves ribbons and badges for it. I’d wager that any true virtue present in any of us is probably something we are largely unaware of.

    • Damaris says

      What story is that from, Mule?

  17. Steve Wright says

    I would gently counter by pointing out the testimony of Stephen.

    Saul of Tarsus was there, he heard it all and saw it all. He of course knew what Christians were already preaching, that Jesus was the Messiah, in so much as he was actively rounding them up to persecute them.

    Plus, on the road, Jesus spoke (I interpret as do many) a reference to the conviction on Saul since that time (kick against the goads)

    All that to say, it is my belief that one either is saved or not at any instant (forgetting eternal security issues at this point). In a moment one goes from being lost on the way to hell, to being saved,forgiven and on the way to glory. If that moment is water baptism, then just say that. Saul was not saved on the road because he needed to get baptized first.

    That is not to say there is not a gospel process. I went through one myself and as a result I do not know the moment I got saved. I can tell you the general timeframe within a few weeks though. I do know that at one instant during those weeks I would not have been saved, and the next moment I was born again – without a sinner’s prayer, baptism, altar call or any other decision-type explanation.

    I simply came to believe the truth about Jesus – like Saul.

    That instant, that moment, happened to Saul/Paul somewhere. I believe the road is where it did. He first calls Jesus, “Lord” there – and the testimony before Agrippa mentions only the road details (ch26 12-19)

    Hypothetically, if I am understanding correctly, (and you do bluntly say what happened on the road was not enough to save Saul) that if Saul had died after the road but before Ananias showed up he would be in hell.

    I could not disagree more. As I think would the strong consensus of Church History that has taught Saul’s conversion took place on the road to Damascus.

    • No, I am not saying, “If Saul died after the road but before Ananias showed up he would be in hell.” There are so many wrong conceptions in that statement that I’m not going to try and unravel them and counter them here.

      Suffice it to say that what I’m talking about in the post is the normal process of “conversion,” which includes baptism and incorporation into the church.

      • Steve Wright says

        Mike, I’m not looking to argue and it looks like you can’t be bothered actually addressing my point. Seems like our eternal destiny as heaven instead of hell is rather a crucial “conception” and I fully agreed with you, using my own testimony, that we are not saved because of some decision. But we ARE saved at the instant of saving faith. In a moment.

        YOU wrote what happened on the road was not enough to save Saul. I explained pretty clearly what I think most would agree to – that we are either saved or not. To SAVE Saul is what you wrote.

        I recognize the use of ‘conversion’ as you speak of, obviously, in the sense of baptism and incorporation into the church – and was pretty clear that I was using the term in the salvific sense. Which certainly is Biblical and valid as well.

        I took issue with your assuming things you can’t such as Paul had heard nothing of forgiveness and such by pointing to Scripture as to Stephen’s testimony and Paul’s prior history of persecuting those proclaiming the gospel. I pointed to Scripture as to the details of what happened there on the road, especially as described later by Paul before Agrippa. Pointing to Scripture in his calling Jesus, Lord.

        So if you DO believe Paul was saved on the road, then we are in agreement (though you wrote otherwise). If you don’t, then I do not know why you mock the idea that the guy would be in hell if he had died before his “baptism and incorporation into the church”

        I’m done now. This isn’t rocket science to most of the Body of Christ – that a person at any moment is either saved or not, no option #3 – and if you are urging a larger point maybe Paul is not the best example. Looks like a couple other comments conclude the same above.

        • Steve, I’m saying you have a different conception of “saved” than those of us who see conversion as a process. Certainly what happened to Paul on the road was the key element in the process — that is where Jesus revealed himself to Paul! — but according to Acts, Paul’s sins were not “washed away” until he arose and was baptized under the guiding hand of a fellow Christian who had been called by God to lay hands on him and impart the Spirit, bring healing to his sight, and direct him to the rite of baptism. I believe God’s hand was on him through it all and no, he would not have been “in hell” if he had died.

          However, Paul’s experience was not instantaneous, it involved the church as well as Paul personally meeting Jesus, and it involved the use of sacramental means. I believe this sets an example for us.