Man's Best
The Conversion of St. Paul
25 January 2017
Today the church commemorates the conversion of the Apostle to the Gentiles. St. Paul is the paradigmatic conversion; being taken from life under the law to life in Christ through the unexpected and unmerited intervention of the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. If anyone could have found righteousness before God through the law and its works, it would have been St. Paul. He excelled in the law far beyond anyone else. According to human standards that's all very laudable, as far as it goes. The problem is it does not go so far as keeping the standard required by God.
Oh yes, human righteousness is a good and honorable thing, especially when we exceed the expectations of our fellows, but it will not sustain divine scrutiny. So from Damascus Road on, Paul recognized the utter impossibility that human righteousness under the law should survive in the presence of God. Before man he could boast; before God he recognized that he was a pauper. He realized his accountability must strike him dumb before God (Rm 3:19).
He never considered himself a "bad" Pharisee. He was a good Pharisee, even the best. But man's best, no matter how good, will never suffice in the presence of the holy God. Here is his pauper's boast: " For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers" (Gal 1:13-14). Paul knew this best was never going to be good enough. Only Christ's was and is.

Rev. Dr. Scott R. Murray
Memorial Lutheran Church

Martin Luther
"Nothing is needed here but word study. Paul is citing his own example: 'I once defended Pharisaism and Judaism more vigorously and steadfastly than you and your false teachers did. Therefore, if the righteousness of the law were worth anything, I would have remained a Pharisee. For I, too, was a Pharisee, and I pursued the traditions of the fathers with greater zeal than the false apostles do today. And yet I regarded them and all Judaism as of little worth. 'Thus I, too, suffered greater trouble in vigils and fasts when I was a monk than all those who persecute me today. I was superstitious to the point of delirium and insanity, and to the jeopardy of my body and its health. Whatever I did, I did with great zeal and for the sake of God. I sincerely adored the pope, and not out of a desire for ecclesiastical appointments or riches. And yet in comparison with the righteousness of Christ I threw away this dung. But our blind and hardhearted opponents do not believe that I, as well as others, have had experience with such Pharisaism.

"Here Paul does not call the traditions of the fathers (Gal 1:14) 'pharisaical' or 'human' traditions....For in this passage he is not discussing the traditions of the Pharisees; he is discussing a much sublimer issue. Therefore, he calls even the holy law of Moses 'the traditions of my fathers,' in the sense that they were handed down and received as a legacy from the fathers. He says, 'For these I was very zealous when I was a part of Judaism.' He speaks the same way to the Philippians: 'As to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless' (Phil 3:5-6).  It is as though he were saying: 'Here I may brag openly and put myself against the entire Jewish people, even the best and holiest of all those who belong to the circumcision. Let them show me, if they can, a more zealous and earnest defender of the law of Moses than I was! I was an outstanding zealot for the traditions of the fathers, a devotee of the righteousness of the law. This in itself, you Galatians, should have persuaded you not to believe these deceivers, who lay great stress on the righteousness of the law as an issue of great importance. For if there were any grounds for boasting in the righteousness of the law, I would have more grounds for boasting than anyone else."  

Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians, 1.14
Galatians 1:11-24

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man's gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.
But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord's brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only were hearing it said, "He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy." And they glorified God because of me.   (ESV)
Collect for the Conversion of St. Paul
Almighty God, as you turned the heart of him who persecuted the Church and by his preaching caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world, grant us ever to rejoice in the saving light of the Gospel and spread it to the uttermost parts of the earth; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
For Bob Bennett, Executive Director of the Luther Academy, that he might be safe while on his sojourns
For Better Summers, who was injured in a pedestrian accident, that she would be strengthened and granted a full recovery
For lawyers, that God the Lord would strengthen them in their calling to uphold the rights of the downtrodden, that all might have equal protection under the law
Art: CARAVAGGIO  The Conversion of St. Paul  ( c. 1600)
Memorial Lutheran Church
©  Scott Murray 2017