In the previous essay I presented two of three archetypes of conversion in an attempt to expand our appreciation of salvation. Salvation, while God’s action, requires a human response, but not just a single response. Varying and multiple responses are required when God offers us his grace. The archetypes offer us images of these varying responses. The first can be summed up with the binary of repent/receive and is illustrated in scripture by John the Baptist’s message of, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.” The second can be summed up with the binary of accept/receive and is illustrated in scripture by Gabriel’s appearance to Mary and her affirmation of Gabriel’s message (and resulting reception of the divine grace of becoming the Theotokos) of, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Saul’s encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus (when he was given his Christian name, Paul) gives us a third archetype of conversion. This one offers us the binary of see/recive. Saul is a complicated person to understand. When we consider his own description of his life before Damascus, we have to conclude that he had a heart for God. In Philippians 3 Paul describes that life. “As to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (5b-6).
This description could describe many deeply devoted Christians, both lay people and even monks who spend their days striving (ie, Heb 4:11, “let us strive to enter the rest”) to become holy or defending against false teaching. Saul’s problem was not his heart (he was seeking God and not self) nor his discipline (he was evidently an authentic “ascetic” or “spiritual athlete”). Yet, in spite of his efforts and good intentions, something went horribly wrong and those good intentions became truly evil as he sought to exterminate Christianity (his version of “false teaching”) from the face of the earth.
I believe the key clue to what went wrong can be found in 1 Corinthians, and specifically his distinction between earthly and divine wisdom. He offers his basic argument in ch. 1:19-24.
19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
Keep in mind that Saul fits both categories of being a Jew and a Greek. He was evidently a leading “debater of this age.” He was also looking for “signs” of the Messiah. But because he approached his faith through the lens of what we would call propositional truth today and what he describes as earthly wisdom, he missed the signs that God gave through Jesus because Jesus didn’t meet his expectations of a proper Messiah. The Messiah was supposed to defeat the Roman overlords. Instead, Jesus was crucified. Jesus was thus a “stumbling block” to his Jewish sensibilities, and “foolishness” to his Greek sensibilities.
So, based on his testimony, it seems that while his heart was converted and he could rightly be called a follower of God, the problem was his intellect, which had not repented of its reliance on human wisdom (or propositional truth). But the intellect is one of strongest and most devious of our emotions, and it often requires quite a shock to the system to shake the intellect out of its self-sufficient blindness. So it is that the risen and living Jesus Christ himself encountered Saul on the road. “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4).
The intellect is such that it can soften the harshest truth and excuse the most evil action (killing Christians because they are Christians, killing Jews because they are Jews, etc.). The intellect is so seductive that it can even seduce an otherwise righteous person into great evil. So it is that conversion which requires intellectual repentance can be one of the most difficult conversions to make. It is therefore not surprising that what we find on the road to Damascus is a scene of terror. Heavenly light flashed around Saul and it left him trembling and unable to even stand.
Truth is personal and living. Most of us prefer to distance ourselves from the living fire of Truth by diminishing it to propositional truth, or book truth, what Paul calls the letter of the law. God “has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). And when someone of Paul’s remarkable self-discipline and spiritual advancement is confronted by the living, personal truth, something remarkable—and terrifying—happens.
Later Christians who have been confronted by this same living Lord and who have had to face conversion through repentance of the intellect often called this living presence “the Shekinah glory,” or “the Divine Light,” or “the Divine Energies.” Paul describes it as being transported to the third heaven, and in that state he “heard things that cannot be told, which no mortal is capable or uttering” (2 Cor. 12:4).
This gets to the heart of the problem with the intellect. The intellect is always trying to frame what it knows so it can be uttered. The framing process boxes in the bit of truth so that the intellect is able to grasp, thus reducing it to less-than-truth, or in the case of Saul, non-truth. But true Truth, being not only personal, but divinely personal truth (the very Word of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity), explodes the limitations of the intellect, leaving us with mere babbling (2 Tim. 6:20) and seeing through a glass darkly (1 Cor 13:12).
The archetypes of Mary and Paul are dramatic and far beyond any experience we are likely to have. (This, by the way, is why they are archetypes: they illustrate conversion in the extreme.) But they dramatically remind us why salvation not only cannot be separated from repentance, but why salvation requires repeated conversion of different sorts of repentance. Encountering Christ and being saved is not the end of the road. We need a conversion of the heart (John), and conversion of the will (Mary), and a conversion of the intellect (Paul). Furthermore, every time we begin to settle in because we believe we’re getting a handle on things, we need yet another encounter with the living God, the burning light of Christ, to remind us that we don’t know the half of it. This is the gospel of repentance in its various manifestations.