How Paul's Life was Changed
11 For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. 12 For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. 13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 14 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. 15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 16 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; 17 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.
There were some in Galatia who said Paul got his gospel from the apostles, and like a game of “Password,” Paul had slightly changed the message along the way. We’re not really saved by grace alone. Obedience to the law justifies us along with God’s grace. Paul wants to make something crystal clear. He uses the phrase “For I would have you know.” This is a rhetorical device that recurs throughout Paul’s letters when he wants to stress a point. The point here is that the gospel he preached was not man’s invention but God’s revelation. The message came down from heaven in the person of Jesus Christ and was given as a revelation of his grace to Paul and to the Galatians.
Why does this matter? Because if it was man’s gospel, changing the message makes sense. More information, more insight, more time to think it over may provide valid reasons for altering the message. But Paul got his message from Jesus, not from man. Therefore, it is unchangeable because God is unchangeable. As John Frame says, “If God sets the standards, we may not argue with him. For us to debate with God is as ridiculous as for clay to debate with its potter (Isa. 45:9-11).” And arguing is exactly what these Galatian false teachers were doing. They were arguing not with Paul, but with God.
After all, Paul was a zealous Jew. If anyone was unwilling to bend the law at any point, it was Paul. He would have loved a gospel that came alongside the law, helping the law justify a sinner. But that’s not what the gospel does. It doesn’t sidle up to the law like a friend in an AA meeting. It comes in like a doctor to a patient on the operating table. Paul’s message was that radical, and his radical life-change gave credence to his message.
There was nothing in Paul’s past that set him up for a favorable reception of the gospel. He includes part of his story in verses 13-17 to show us the shift in his life. He was sincere in his Jewish faith but sincerely wrong in his conclusions. Rather than covering those sins, Paul writes them down for everyone throughout history to see! That’s the kind of change Jesus creates in the gospel. We become people willing to share our shameful past because of the bright future Jesus has given to us. When God reveals his gospel to us, we become honest about our past and use our story to help others understand God’s story. Only freedom in Christ can create such honesty.
Paul’s Judaism led him to persecute the church of God. What Paul was doing was an attack on the people he thought he was protecting: God’s elect. His desire for the purity of God’s word drove him to approve the killing of God’s people because he believed they were redefining the boundaries of Israel by following Jesus. He had no idea that Jesus had redefined the boundaries for them. It wasn’t their message. It was God’s. Paul just hadn’t heard it yet. When Paul did hear the gospel, he experienced a complete life change.
First, God set Paul apart from birth to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. Martin Luther comments.
God has sanctified, ordained, and prepared him. God has appointed, when Paul was still in his mother’s womb, that he who raged against his church would afterwards by God’s grace alone be mercifully recalled from this cruelty and blasphemy into the way of truth and salvation. In short, when Paul was not yet born, he was an apostle in God’s sight; and when the time came, he was declared an apostle before the whole word.
Thus Paul removes all thought of merit and gives glory to God alone, and to himself only shame and confusion. This is like saying, “All the gifts, both small and great, both spiritual and physical, that God intended to give me, and all the good things that at any time in all my life I would do, God himself had already arranged when I was still in my mother’s womb, where I could neither wish, think, nor do any good thing. Therefore, this gift came to me by the predestination and free mercy of God before I was born. After I was born, he reached out to me who was loaded with innumerable and most horrible iniquities. And in order to make very plain the unutterable and inestimable greatness of his mercy to me, he solely by grace forgave my abominable and infinite sins and moreover replenished me with such abundant grace that I not only knew what was given to us in Christ but also preach it to others.”
Our faith is not some divine accident. It is God’s predestined plan.
Second, Paul was called by God in his grace. Because Paul was set apart before birth to the gospel cause, in due course, Paul was called by God’s grace to believe the gospel. There are thousands of pounds of theological weight here. It was God’s electing grace that saved Paul, not Paul’s ability to achieve salvation on his own. If we boil the gospel down to the basic ingredients, this is one of them. We are called by God to repent and believe. How does this happen? By God’s gift of repentance and faith through his divine call. God overcomes our resistance to him by wooing us to himself and causing love to rise from our heart to him because his love has come into us and transformed us from God-haters into God-lovers.
Third, God was pleased to reveal his Son. This language shows us the beauty of God’s love. It’s not that God is compelled by Jesus’ sacrifice to now do something for his people that he wouldn’t otherwise desire to do. No, God the Father is pleased to reveal his Son, Jesus Christ. This shows us that the gospel is, at the foundational level, a story of God’s love. It is an exaltation of love in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Like a Father who has a surprise for his child hidden behind the couch, God the Father cannot wait to reveal his Son to Paul. He ushers him into the room, turns on the lights, and with a smile, brings Jesus out from the shadows. And Paul’s heart grows three sizes that day, as he beholds the Son in his glory. God is pleased to give us himself. And when he gives himself to us, he gives our joy to others as we share the gospel.