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Tom Wright on Conversion

Category Articles
Date September 17, 2002


Sovereign Grace Community Church, Sarnia, Ontario

by Brian Robinson

While browsing through the Indigo Book Store, I came across a book by New Testament scholar NT Wright entitled "What Saint Paul Really Said – Was Paul the Real Founder of Christianity?" Tom Wright is Canon Theologian at Westminster Abbey and SPCK Research Fellow, and the author of many other books including Jesus and the Victory of God. Wright is also a proponent of what has come to be known as the ‘new justification’ that has troubled the church in recent date. In the following article I try to tackle Wright’s understanding of what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus.

The Conversion of the Apostle Paul

All Christians are familiar with the conversion of the Apostle Paul. Paul, who was then called Saul, was on the road to Damascus to arrest the followers of Christ when he himself was arrested by Christ. We read in Acts 9:2, "He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem." As he approached the city, Paul was struck down by a brilliant light and heard a voice say to him, "’Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you Lord?’ Saul asked, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ He replied. ‘Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do’" (Acts 9:4,5). Paul, in that moment of truth, saw the risen Christ and realized that instead of fighting for God and His glory he, Paul, was actually opposing God and His glory.

Normally, we would designate the conversion of Paul as one of the most significant events in human history. But here the question is conversion to what? You and I who grew up some fifty years ago, even twenty-five years ago, would hear in Sunday School or from the pulpit that Paul was converted from ‘works righteousness’ unto a ‘righteousness’ that comes not from law but through grace. Before his Damascus road experience, Paul was "dead in trespasses and sins." He was lost and undone and on his way to hell, but on the road to Damascus Paul was converted by the Lord Jesus Christ. He was now a born again believer, and became by God’s grace a new creation in Christ Jesus, one who was trusting in Christ alone for his salvation. Christ, whom Paul had once considered under the curse of God, was now, to Paul, vindicated by God through the resurrection. That is, Christ suffered the curse of the law not, as we now know, for Himself, but in the place of others, whose transgressions brought them under the curse. Given this new understanding achieved by his remarkable conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul now become the spokesman, for all who are saved by grace and not the works of the law.

But new "studies" have begun to question the above explanation of what happened on the road to Damascus. They challenge whether Paul was converted at all in the traditional sense of the term. In that regard N. T. Wright has written a book entitled, "What Saint Paul Really Said," in which he challenges the Christian Church to think in different terms than it has done in the past about Paul’s conversion. Paul, he tells us, was not so concerned with individual sin and guilt as we are in the Western world. For Paul, salvation was primarily a community thing. In this regard Wright

"The picture I have drawn is very different from the picture of the pre-Christian Saul that I grew up with. I was taught, and assumed for many years, that Saul of Tarsus believed what many of my contemporaries
believed: that the point of life was to get to heaven when you die, and that the way to get to heaven after death was to adhere strictly to an overarching moral code. Saul, I used to believe, was a proto-Pelagian, who thought he could pull himself up by his moral bootstraps. What mattered for him was understanding, believing and operating a system of salvation that could be described as ‘moralism’ or legalism’: a timeless system into which one plugged oneself in order to receive the promised benefits, especially ‘salvation’ and ‘eternal life’, understood as the post-mortem bliss of
heaven." (Wright, p.32).

You may ask, "What is wrong with that?" Isn’t that what Paul was attempting to do as were many of his fellow Jews? Well, there is plenty wrong with that according to Wright. Wright tells us that:

"Jews were not interested in an abstract, timeless, ahistorical system of salvation. They were not even primarily interested in, as we say today, ‘going to heaven when they died.’ (They believed in the resurrection, in which God would raise them all to share in the life of the promised renewed Israel and renewed world; but that is very different from the normal Western vision of heaven). They were interested in the salvation which, they believed, the one true God had promised to his people Israel (pp. 32 & 33).

Of course, without getting too far off the topic, one wonders at Wright’s assessment of the Jews understanding of heaven. After all, we believe in heaven because of the teachings of Christ and the apostles. It is not out of place to say that in the West our views of the afterlife are largely taken from Apostolic teaching. Our Lord Jesus Christ tells us that He is going to prepare a place for us: "And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you may also be where I am" (John 14:3). Paul, himself, looked earnestly forward to his departure and being in the presence of Christ forever (Philippians 1:21-26). Clearly, the details of the afterlife may not be as delineated as we would like, and perhaps, even misconstrued by us, but heaven seemed to be a reality for the early church believers as it is for late 20th century believers. One does get a little weary of always being told by ‘scholars’ that the way we think today is very foreign to the way the writers of the New Testament thought in their day.

But I must not digress. What happened to Paul on the road to Damascus according to N. T. Wright? Well, it was a conversion of sorts and a calling as well. You see, according to Wright, you must not think in terms of "lost and found" but of ‘found and founder." Paul was a Jew and was already living for God. But Paul was also a Jew who had not understood God’s dealings with the Jewish nation. He was not so much a sinner lost and undone but rather a sinner who had failed to reach new heights of sanctification and understanding of God’s dealing with His people.

This, according to Wright, was Paul’s dilemma. Paul was already justified by being a member of the Jewish race. He was already in the covenant and saved and going to be part of those vindicated by God on the day of the resurrection. But Paul, as a zealous Jew, longed for the vindication of Israel and the glory of God to be seen in all the earth. In fact Paul desired three things: first, Paul was zealous for God’s Law and, therefore, it was necessary to crush all who did not live in conformity to God’s Law so that the purpose of God could be realized; second, that he and others should keep the law so that they would be vindicated on the day of God’s coming at which time He would vindicate Israel and those who had been faithful; third, he could hasten the day of Israel’s vindication by punishing all those who were not living in harmony to the revelation God had given. Justification for Paul, then, would be the cataclysmic denouement of history when those faithful to the Torah would be raised from the dead in a new heavens and a new earth. As Wright points out, "Putting it another way, the Jewish eschatological hope was hope for justification, for God to vindicate his people at last." (p.32).

So then what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus? Was he a sinner being saved by grace from death and hell? To talk like that, so we are informed, is to think in proto-Pelagian terms or the unhealthy and guilt-ridden conscience of a western mind set, like say, Martin Luther. In fact, on the road to Damascus Paul was quite content with his standing with God. He had what Wright and others like to call a ‘robust conscience’. For he, Paul, was not in the throes of despair as we in the West have thought but was secure in his relationship with the God of his forefathers. For Wright, this means that Paul didn’t see himself then, or even later, as lost, in our understanding of the term, because Paul was secure in the knowledge that he was saved by grace and was now seeking to live a life pleasing to God in what is called ‘covenantal nomism’, as were most of the Jews in Paul’s day. Of course it is possible, we might ask, that Paul’s sense of security was misplaced? That is Paul had a robust conscience because he was falsely secure in his own righteousness! Thus, to our way of thinking, then, Paul was already saved, forgiven and on his way to heaven even though we are told Paul did not think in such pedestrian terms.

No, according to Wright’s understanding, of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus, it was not so much a conversion unto salvation but rather a calling, perhaps, a new way of looking at things:

"The significance of Jesus’ resurrection, for Saul of Tarsus as he lay blinded and perhaps bruised on the road to Damascus, was this. The one true God had done for Jesus of Nazareth, in the middle of time, what Saul had thought he was going to do for Israel at the end of time. (p.36). [The last sentence is italicised by Wright]

This stunning revelation was given to Paul by Christ because up until that

"Saul had imagined that YHWH would vindicate Israel after her suffering at the hand of the pagans. Saul had imagined that the great reversal, the great apocalyptic event, would take place all at once, inaugurating the kingdom of God with a flourish of trumpets, setting all wrongs to right. Defeating evil once and for all, and ushering in the age to come. Instead, the great reversal, the great resurrection, had happened to one man, all by himself. What could this possibly mean? [‘Israel’ is italicized by Wright to mean true Israel as opposed to those who were unfaithful] (p.36).

For Paul (the individual) it meant a change in perception. God was going to justify Israel on the last day. God, in covenantal mercy, would express His righteousness by vindicating His people and by crushing their adversaries, namely, the pagan idolaters of the Gentile world. However, to Paul’s utter surprise, God’s vindication of Israel came not at the end of the age but at the beginning of the end. That is, in the death and resurrection of Christ, God’s faithfulness was fully vindicated in the man Jesus. As Wright puts

"Saul’s vision on the road to Damascus thus equipped him with an entirely new perspective, though one which kept its roots firm and deep and is within his previous covenantal theology. Israel’s destiny had been summed up and achieved in Jesus the Messiah. The Age to Come had been inaugurated. Saul himself was summoned to be its agent. He was to declare to the pagan world the YHWH, the God of Israel, was the one true God of the whole world, and that in Jesus of Nazareth he had overcome evil and was creating a new world in which justice and peace would reign supreme." (p.37).

What is the point? The point is this: you have to make sure you ask the right questions or you will get all the wrong answers. If you were to ask Wright, "Tell me was Paul converted on the Road to Damascus? Was he made straight on the street called Straight?" Wright would answer, "Most definitely." But you would be unaware that Wright is not speaking of the type of conversion you and I might have in mind. What Paul experienced on the Road to Damascus was a change of vocation. Formerly, he was God’s ambassador to bring about a change in Judaism that would render it possible for God to vindicate the Jews in the eyes of the world. But now, with the realisation that God has ushered in the coming age through his Son, Paul now sees that the Gentiles are included in God’s coming vindication. The new age has dawned. The old Judaism wineskin cannot hold the new wine. The new wine must find a new kind of covenantal vehicle to bring the glory of God and His name to all peoples. So Wright tells us:

"But if Jesus really was the Messiah, and if his death and resurrection really were the decisive heaven-sent defeat of sin and vindication of the people of YHWH, then this means that the Age to Come had already begun, had already been inaugurated, even though the Present Age, the time of sin, rebellion and wickedness, was still proceeding apace. (p.37)

To be sure, it would be foolish to say that Wright is not partly right. Truly, the conversion of Paul radically altered Paul’s way of thinking especially the realisation that the new order had come and the old order was on its way out. Further, included in Paul’s conversion, or at the same time, he was called to go to the Gentiles and announce the good news of what God had done in history to save His people. As Wright tells us, "For Paul, conversion and vocation were so closely identified that it would be hard even for a razor-sharp mind like his to get a blade between them." (p.37). You see, the problem is that we in the West (that faulty Western mind again) make too much of a distinction between conversion and calling, but, for Paul, such a distinction would be unrecognisable. Conversion is calling and vice versa. Or is it? Paul often introduces himself as first the slave of Christ (relationship) and then the apostle of Christ (calling). See for example such passages as Romans 1:1 or Titus 1:1.

But, nevertheless, this Western mind still wants to know if Paul, before he met the risen Christ on the street called Straight, was a lost sinner, without hope and without God in the world? Was he alienated from God and on another road called the road to Hell? Was he unconverted and just as lost as any pagan idolater in the ancient world? Well, the answer is no, that is, at least not according to N.T. Wright. Paul was on his way to Heaven (excuse me) on the road to the resurrection of the just on the last day, as were most Jews in Paul’s epoch. He belonged to the covenant people of God and was living in faithful response to God’s covenantal grace.

Paul did not expect to be saved by works. In fact, Wright insists, the idea that the Jews in Paul’s day thought they would be saved by works is the workmanship of bad exegesis by the Reformers. They read into the text their own "western rationalism" and "introspective conscience." What happened to Paul, then, was that he changed covenantal allegiance. He formally belonged to the covenant God made with Israel. The signs that he was a child of God, known as "boundary markers," such as circumcision and Sabbath observance, were now, as the New Age dawned, inadequate to meet the flood of incoming Gentiles who would see in Jesus the YHWH of the Old Testament. So, like Christ, Paul humbled himself and renounced his former status in the covenantal community for a new covenantal community whose boundary markers are faith.

You see, we in the Protestant and Reformed tradition have had it all wrong. Luther simply got it wrong. We have been looking at Paul through 16th-century eyes rather than 1st century eyes. We are the product of a robust individualism while Paul was the product of a robust collectivism. How a man got right with a Holy God was not Paul’s chief concern but how a community got right with God was. According to Wright, the language of justification is membership language. We enter into the covenantal community, and because of God’s righteousness, revealed in His faithfulness to the covenantal community, we will experience vindication on the last day. "Justification is not how someone becomes a Christian. It is a declaration that they have become a Christian." (p.125). But Philip Eveson in his book, The Great Exchange, disagrees and responds to Wright in this fashion. "The whole biblical revelation directs us to understand that the fundamental nature of the human predicament is not a matter of alienation from the group but alienation from God." (Eveson, p.149). And then goes on to quote Mark Seifrid who declared, "Rather than standing in opposition to the corporate dimension of Christianity the article on justification provides its necessary precondition."

The question that needs to be asked is what is Biblical justification? The standard answer, since the reformation, at the very least, is that "God declares sinners righteous in His sight by imputing to them the righteousness of His Son our Lord Jesus Christ." As Grudem puts it in his "Systematic Theology," "Justification is an instantaneous legal act of God in which he (1) thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and (2) declares us to be righteous in his sight" (Grudem, p.723). But again, that is a 16th-century legalize not first century ‘covenantal nomism.’

First century covenantal nomism also regards justification in forensic terms but not in an individual but a collective sense. To be truthful it is more of a vindication than a justification. As Wright writes:

"’Justification’ thus describes the coming great act of redemption and salvation, seen from the point of view of the covenant (Israel is God’s
people) on the one hand and the law court on the other hand (God’s final judgement will be like a great law-court scene, with Israel winning the case). Learning to ‘see’ an event in terms of two great themes like these is part of learning how the first-century Jews understood the world." (p.

Paul was obviously a first century Jew who conceived of justification, according to Wright, in the above terms. You were a member of the covenant. You then live a life of love and obedience unto God out of the great love wherewith He loved you. On the last day, those who have been faithful to the Torah would be vindicated or justified by God. Their faithfulness was not perfect nor were they required to be perfect, but, rather, they were consistent in belief and practice. Their vindication would come on the last day when God would judge them not guilty and show himself righteous in so doing.

What then becomes of the imputed righteousness of Christ. In Wright’s eyes is ‘imputed righteousness’ nothing more than a ‘legal fiction?’ Listen to Wright once again: "If we use the language of the law court, it makes nonsense whether to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant." (p.98) Such a concept is a legal fiction although we are not told why, except that human judges cannot give to another a righteousness that they themselves do not possess. But, we, or at least I, protest. To deny imputed righteousness is to gut justification entirely. Surely, God can do what a human judge cannot do? If God is satisfied and pleased to give to my account the very righteousness of God, who am I to complain?

Nevertheless, according to the new perspective it is your membership in the new covenant, the boundary marker being faith in Christ, or even the Trinity, that assures your present and future justification. As a member of the new covenant community you are assured of God’s righteousness that belongs to Him and Him alone. That righteousness exhibits itself in His utter faithfulness to the covenantal community. Furthermore, in the last day He will vindicate all who belonged to the Covenant community because they believed in the Trinity and responded to His love with works pleasing to Him. That is, they proved themselves to be members of the community and therefore, He will justify them at the end time.

"Within the context, ‘justification’, as seen in Romans 3:24-26, means that those who believe in Jesus Christ are declared to be members of the true covenant family which, of course, means that their sins are forgiven, since that was the purpose of the covenant. They are given the status of being ‘righteous’ in the metaphorical law court. When this is cashed out in terms of the underlying covenantal theme, it means they are declared, in the present, to be what they will be in the future, namely the true people of God. Present justification declares, on the basis of one’s faith in God, what future justification will affirm publicly on the basis of the entire life." (p.129)

In the new perspective, as I understand it, justification is an affirmation of God’s faithfulness toward His covenant people. That is very different from justification that understands it a declaration of "not guilty" upon entrance into the community of God’s people. In both systems you cannot be more justified in heaven that you are in the moment you believed. But in the new perspective you are simply declared to be a member of God’s covenantal people. In the reformed understanding of Biblical justification you are declared right with God through faith in Christ , through his imputed righteousness, at which time enter into all the covenantal blessings found within the new covenant. Despite the new perspective’s desire to cling to the reformed emphasis that anyone who is justified by God cannot be more justified in heaven than one is on earth, the truth is the new perspective greatly weakens the pronouncement for it fails to address the central issue, which is, our right standing with a Holy God as individuals, and not as a community of believers.

Thus, when passages are presented under this new exegesis concerning the "imputed righteousness" of Christ they suffer rather rude treatment. In 2 Corinthians 5:20-21 we read, "We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making his appeal through us. We appeal on behalf of Christ, ‘be reconciled to God.’ God made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."

Here is an example, one would have thought, of imputation, or reckoning something to one’s account that does not naturally belong to him. In Jesus’ case He knew no sin. He was not a sinner in any sense of the word. How, then, did our gracious Lord become a sinner? There is only one possible way, and that is, God must have reckoned our sin to be His sin. It would seem to follow that the parallel sentence would indicate the same in regard to our situation. We have no righteousness before God, but we become the righteousness of God by imputation, receiving to our account what does not rightfully belong to us but is possessed by faith in the grace that God had proffered to us..

For Wright, this verse is an explanation of Paul’s ambassadorship not a proof text dealing with the sinner’s need for a righteousness that is not his own. "The righteousness that Paul is speaking about is not the righteousness of God imparted to the sinner but rather the embodiment of God’s faithfulness as exhibited in the Apostle’s" (p.105). The apostles, Wright insists, were simply living witnesses to God’s faithfulness to His covenant people by themselves living lives of utter faithfulness. Well . . . no doubt, they lived as those who were faithful to their heavenly calling but in all honesty is that Paul’s emphasis here? We recognise the brilliance of a man like Wright. You have to be brilliant to turn the Scriptures in this fashion, and I do confess that as a pastor, in the trenches of today’s spiritual warfare, I may not grasp all the subtle nuances of Wright’s brilliant attempt to reinterpret passages that seem on the surface at least to make clear that God certainly does impute His Son’s righteousness to those who have none of their own. An imputed righteousness is not a legal fiction – as Wright tells us – but the heart and glory of the Gospel message. It is, further, the comfort of all sinners and the glory of a gracious God to those devoid of any goodness of their own. But as simple as I might be I still hold to one of the sayings of my granddaddy who liked to say, when he saw common sense go out the window, "Even a walker can tell the difference between a horse’s head and a horse’s tail."


Was Paul converted on the road to Damascus? Was he made a whole new creation in Christ Jesus. If I have read Wright right, the answer is "No" if you mean in the traditional sense of the word. What happened to Paul was a deeper insight that led to a new vocation. It was a calling more than it was a conversion. Paul simply exchanged covenant communities. God had burst in on history and had fulfilled in His Son what Israel of the flesh could not do. The end time or the new age had dawned. The old age which would run parallel would have its darkness exposed by the increasing light of the new age. The old Mosaic covenant with it boundary markers of circumcision and Sabbath observance was now part of the old age.

The new covenant people would be recognised as those who confessed Christ as Lord and believe in the Trinity. Paul’s objection concerning the Jews was that they continued to cling to the old covenant after the new age had dawned. On the road to Damascus Paul had simply received a change of vocation not new life in Christ. As Wright puts it, "Saul of Tarsus, in other words, had found a new vocation. It would demand all the energy, all the zeal, that he had devoted to his former way of life.
He was now the herald of the King." (p.37)

Nevertheless if we reduce Paul’s conversion, we reduce everyone’s conversion. Moreover, getting right with God is no longer the burning question but rather, am I in the right covenantal community. Conversion becomes a simple matter of belonging to the proper community of God’s people who are distinguished by certain boundary markers. Justification is no longer entrance into that community but rather recognition by God that you belong to the community of His people. Of course that leaves those of us out who still have this burning question, "How can I, a sinner, get right with God?"

As all admit, justification has something to do with the law court whether metaphorical or actual. Thus I thought that we might close this debate in the law court. In this one act play there are three actors. One, for the defence of Luther’s view of justification; one, who is the prosecutor and the new perspective judge. The defence leads. "Sir, in the court of this new perspective.. ." (under his breath, "is anything new?" The judge scowls and says, "I heard that".) ". . . Sir, I was wondering about heaven. . ." "Objection!" cries the prosecutor, "Ahistorical and preoccupation of Western mind set." "Sustained." "Sorry, most learned judge," replies the defendant. He continues, "Sir, how does a man get right with…" "Objection! Bias toward individualism showing." interrupts the prosecutor once again. "Sustained." The defendant presses on: "Sir, this problem of guilt mentioned by Luther.. ." "Objection! Guilt is a 16th-century, if not Western preoccupation and morbid introspection." "Sustained!" says the young judge. "Well, sir when Paul mentions ‘imputed righteousness’ . . ." "Objection! Nowhere to be found in the writings of Paul, figment of Luther’s overactive imagination, purely, a legal fiction." "Sustained." "Begging you pardon Sir, I was thinking of Paul’s allusions to his own efforts to get right with . . ." "Objection! Paul had a robust conscience neither he nor his fellow Jews ever relied on works to get right with God." "Sustained."

"Sir, are we not saved by faith alone?…" "Objection! It is true faith gets us in but it is obedience (may I even say, your honor, the obedience of faith) that keeps us in." The smiling judge replies "Sustained." "Well, sir, if I am baptized as a baby, made a member of the covenant community, do my very best and believe in the Trinity will I one day be justified?" At this the prosecutor nods and says, "No Objections Your Honor."


Wright N.T. What Saint Paul Really Said, Eerdmans Publishing Company (Grand Rapids, Michigan) 1997 Eveson, Philip The Great Exchange, Day One Publications (Bromley, Kent) 1996 Grudem, Wayne, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Theology, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids Michigan, 1994


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