Was Paul an abuser before he was converted?

[July 18, 2022: There have been some changes made to this post. For more information, read the Editors’ notes at the bottom of the post. Editors.]

Prior to his conversion, Paul was on a religious crusade to crush the idea that this dead guy Jesus was the Messiah. Paul thought that idea was blasphemous to God, so he was trying to stop it spreading. He was wanting to protect the people of God from being sucked into that error. He fervently persecuted Christians, thinking he was serving God in doing so. He described this fervency when he was addressing the Jews from the steps of the Roman fortress in Jerusalem after the riot had been quelled by the Roman soldiers:

Men, brethren and fathers, hear my answer, which I make to you.

When they heard that he spoke in the Hebrew tongue to them, they kept the more silence.

And he said, I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and thoroughly taught in the law of the fathers. And I was fervent-minded toward God, as you all are this same day. And I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prison both men and women, as the chief priest bears me witness, and all the elders – from whom also I received letters to the brethren, and went to Damascus to bring those who were there as prisoners to Jerusalem, to be punished.  (Acts 22:1-5  NMB)

But on the road to Damascus, Paul was confronted by the light and heard Jesus speaking to him, and he realised he was wrong! He realised that Jesus is God. With that conviction he immediately asked, “Lord, what will you have me to do?”  (Acts 9:5, 22:6-10)

An abuser, by our definition, is a person who believes that for his own selfish gratification he is entitled to disrespect, mistreat and wield power and control over those he targets with his abuse. (I used the masculine pronoun generically in that sentence.) 

In his persecution of Christians, Paul did not evidence the base fleshly lust that characterises the abuser’s mindset and conduct. Paul did not think “It’s all about me!” Paul was trying to obey and serve God. And he was zealous in keeping the Law. Paul was not motivated by mere selfish gratification. He believed he was serving God by crushing the Christians.

Paul simply hadn’t yet believed that Jesus was God. Contrast this with an abuser: the abuser never wants to obey and serve God. He actually wants to be God. And the abuser wants his targets to treat him like God.

Paul testified that he received mercy because he did it ignorantly and in unbelief. This is not to excuse his slaughter of the Christians.

Paul said what convicted him was the law “you shall not covet”. Paul says he died — was slain — by the law:

What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. But I would not have known what sin meant, if not by the law. For I would not have known what coveting meant unless the law had said, You shall not covet. But sin took occasion by the means of the commandment, and wrought in me all manner of inordinate desire. For without the law, sin was dead. I once lived without law.

But when the commandment came, sin revived, and I was dead. And the very same commandment that was ordained for life, was found to be to me an occasion of death. For sin took occasion by the means of the commandment, and thus deceived me, and by the same commandment slew me.  (Romans 7:7-11  NMB)

We do not know whether the Apostle Paul ever had a wife, but the chances are he was married at some point prior to his conversion. I say this with a fair degree of confidence, because religious Jews took “go forth and multiply” as a command to marry and bear children. It was the norm for Pharisees to be married men.

Paul may have been a widow when he was converted. Early death from infection and disease was common; many women died in childbirth; any bacterial infection could lead to death in the days before antibiotics.

But what we can know for sure is that Paul didn’t do the kinds of things abusers do to their family  members. We know this because Paul testifies that before his conversion he was blameless according to the law and traditions of the fathers, at least as far as outward observance:

….as for the righteousness that is in the law, I was unrebukeable.  (Philippians 3:6  NMB)

The righteousness that is in the law that God gave through Moses stipulates that it is a sin to abuse another person.

Pastor Sam Powell has heard many testimonies from abused women and I’m quoting Sam’s words with his permission (trigger warning for some readers) —

Paul didn’t burn his wife with cigarettes because he got off on it. He didn’t rape his children or other people’s children. He didn’t call his loved ones fat and stupid and lazy and not worth loving. He didn’t go to synagogue and sing hymns of praise and then go home and abuse his wife just for fun, knowing he could get away with it.

Paul never had a sense of entitlement where he enforced absolute terror on his family, cause them to fear every waking moment. He didn’t keep them awake at night in order to terrify them into submission. He didn’t beat his children until blood ran down their legs. He didn’t pimp out his daughters or get drunk and push his wife down the stairs because she wouldn’t give him sexual intercourse. He didn’t starve his children, and make them watch him eat while they starved because they looked at him wrong.

And the church respond to those wives by saying, “Paul was a sinner too, and he repented. You still don’t have cause for divorce. You need to take him back.”

Sometimes victims are killed, like a woman in Minneapolis who was killed by her husband after her pastor told her she had to take him back. Sometimes victims are ex-communicated for contumacy, and left penniless and friendless.

Far too often, the person who systematically raped and terrorized is still accepted by the visible church as a member in good standing. And the abuser continues scrutinising the church attenders, looking for victims to rape, abuse and terrorize.

The church did not simply accept Paul’s word that he had changed. As Sam Powell noted, “The church in Antioch only received Paul because they had supernatural revelation.” (See Acts chapter 9.)

The story of Saul / Paul is perhaps the only narrative in the Bible where a persecutor of the church changed instantly and miraculously. That is not the norm. God sometimes brings a person to regeneration very quickly, but the normal means of grace to bring a soul to repentance and rebirth are the preaching of the Word, the sacraments and church discipline.

UPDATE. Thanks to a suggestion from a new commenter (Jnsch), I would like to amend what I said in the above paragraph. The amendment is in red.

Sacraments and church discipline are not the same as hearing the Gospel preached. By themselves sacraments and church discipline do not lead to regeneration. Hearing the Gospel preached can and does, by God’s sovereign grace, lead some souls to repent unto the faith that brings rebirth / regeneration.

Hearing the Gospel preached can and does prompt born-again Christians to conviction and repentance in their ongoing walk while they live out their lives in their mortal bodies in this temporal world.

But so far in my searching of Scripture, I can find no Scriptural warrant to say that the sacraments, or the right use of church discipline can, in and of themselves, without the preaching or reading of the Word, bring a person to rebirth.

Paul was not an abuser by my definition. Here is how the ACFJ ministry defines abuse:

Definition of abuse: A pattern of coercive control (ongoing actions or inactions) that proceeds from a mentality of entitlement to power, whereby, through intimidation, manipulation and isolation, the abuser keeps his1 target subordinated and under his control. This pattern can be emotional, verbal, psychological, spiritual, sexual, financial, social and physical. Not all these elements need be present, e.g., physical abuse may not be part of it.

Definition of a domestic abuser: A family member or dating partner (current or ex) who has a profound mentality of entitlement to the possession of power and control over the one s/he1 chooses to mistreat. This mentality of entitlement defines the very essence of the abuser. The abuser believes he is justified in using evil tactics to obtain and maintain that power and control.

1 Sometimes the genders are reversed — see our posts about male survivors.

[July 18, 2022: Editors’ notes:

—For some comments made prior to July 18, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to July 18, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to July 18, 2022 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (July 18, 2022), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]

33 thoughts on “Was Paul an abuser before he was converted?”

  1. ….the normal means of grace to bring a soul to repentance and rebirth are the preaching of the Word, the sacraments and church discipline.

    Could you please provide Scriptural evidence of use of the sacraments and / or church discipline demonstrated to be ‘means of grace’ leading to regeneration or rebirth? Who was demonstrated in Scripture to have been regenerated or brought to repentance by a so-called sacrament or so-called church discipline?

    In reality, the withholding of ‘sacraments’ and its modern rendition of ‘church discipline’ have been universal tools of authoritarian, controlling abusers, from the Inquisitors to today’s false shepherds who ‘discipline’ anyone who challenges their words or deeds. You recite almost word for word the claims my former spiritually abusive pastor used to justify his ‘authority’ to control others by threats of discipline or ex-communication (withholding of sacraments). Countless victims of domestic abuse within the church, often defended and protected by the spiritual abuse of false shepherds will attest to the real use of such ‘means’ — and it ain’t about grace.

    Whereas the domestic abuser (very often) uses the distortion of teachings male authority to perpetuate abuse upon his victims, the Institutional church has always used the distortion of teachings on biblical authority and the practice of withholding of sacraments by ex-communication and, more recently, so-called church discipline to maintain control over others. I would respectfully urge you to reconsider your claim.

    1. Welcome to the blog, TSOO. 🙂

      I agree that many local church leaders, and many denominations, have misused the withholding of sacraments and church discipline as tools of unjust authoritarian control of their flocks. I agree that the Roman Church Inquisitors did that, and I agree that today’s false shepherds who ‘discipline’ anyone who challenges their words or deeds are doing the same kind of thing.

      I believe you when you say that your former spiritually abusive pastor used to justify his ‘authority’ to control others by threats of discipline or ex-communication (withholding of sacraments). In my observation and experience, many leaders in the visible church are twisting Scripture to ‘justify’ their oppressive control. But God will have the last word and will deliver perfect justice in the end — we can rest assured on that….though it doesn’t stop the hurt right now….

      You asked:

      Could you please provide Scriptural evidence of use of the sacraments and / or church discipline demonstrated to be ‘means of grace’ leading to regeneration or rebirth? Who was demonstrated in Scripture to have been regenerated or brought to repentance by a so-called sacrament or so-called church discipline?

      I think Ps Sam Powell will attempt to reply to your question in a few days. 🙂
      But let me attempt an answer now.

      Here is a Scriptural instance of church discipline moving people towards repentance.

      (Acts 5:1-11 NMB) [Ananias and Sapphira’s dissimulation]

      A certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold some property, and kept back part of the money (his wife also knowing of it), and brought a certain part and laid it down at the apostles’ feet. Then Peter said, Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you would lie to the Holy Spirit and keep away part of the proceeds of the land? Did it not belong to you alone? And after it was sold, was the money not at your own disposal? How is it that you have conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men, but to God.

      When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and gave up the spirit. And great fear came on all them that heard these things. And the young men rose up, and put Ananias apart, and carried him out and buried him.

      And then, about the space of three hours after, his wife came in, unaware of what had happened. And Peter said to her, Tell me, did you sell the land for so much? And she said, Yes, for so much. Then Peter said to her, Why have you agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and will carry you out.

      Then she fell down straightaway at his feet and yielded up the spirit. And the young men came in and found her dead, and carried her out and buried her by her husband.

      And great fear came on all the congregation, and on as many as heard these things.

      Peter was in tune with the Spirit; moved by the Spirit he prophesied the immediate deaths of the liars, and the liars died. And great fear came on the congregation. Fear / respect / humility / reverence towards God. Anyone in the congregation had been giving way to hubris and libertinism shrank and trembled in fear, and was pulled up short. Perhaps some of them sidled away, realising that this congregation would not tolerate their duplicity and they would be exposed if they hung around.

      Here is a scriptural example of the sacrament of communion (the sharing of the bread and wine) moving someone to greater hard-heartedness and resistance of the Gospel:

      (John 13:21-27 NMB)
      When Jesus had said these things, he was troubled in the spirit and testified, saying, Truly truly I say to you, that one of you will betray me.

      And then the disciples looked on one another, doubting of whom he spoke. There was one of his disciples who leaned on Jesus’ bosom, whom Jesus loved. Simon Peter motioned to him, that he should ask of whom he spoke. He then, as he leaned on Jesus’ breast, said to him, Lord, who is it? Jesus answered, It is he to whom I give a sop when I have dipped it. And he wet a sop and gave it to Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son. And after the sop, Satan entered into him.

      But it is harder to find a Scripture of the sacrament of communion moving someone to repentance. That’s why I appreciated your question so much — it really made me think! I may think of a better Scriptural example in the next few days, but all I can think of right now is the exhortation in 1 Cor 11 to examine ourselves before we take the elements of bread and wine in communion.

      (1 Cor 11:26-32 NMB)
      For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you show the Lord’s death till he comes. Therefore whosoever eats of this bread or drinks of this cup unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person therefore examine himself, and thus let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats or drinks unworthily, eats and drinks his own damnation, because he does not discern the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. If we truly judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened, so that we may not be condemned with the world.

      We like to encourage new readers to check out our New Users’ Info page as it gives tips for how to guard your safety while commenting on the blog.

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      1. I appreciate your response, but I fail to see what you suggest. Mind you, I am not saying that we should ever take God lightly, or presume upon the incomparable gift of His grace. In the case of Ananias and Sapphira, I do not believe we see ‘church discipline’ in action, but the direct reproof of God upon people with false hearts.

        In the case of communion, (which I do not believe is restricted solely to ‘priests’ or pastors, btw), note that the warning is to the individual to take personal heed, to examine his own heart. Again, there is no element of some ‘authority’ having the right to fence the table or prohibit the individual from ‘communing’ with God and others.

        Most importantly, I do not see any example of ‘means of grace’ — which is why I see them as falsely so-called — being the ‘means’ by which one receives the grace of God. It is a misnomer. Used properly, they may be meaningful to those who are already children of God, but I would challenge the notion that they lead to regeneration or rebirth, or that they were designed to be tools of an authority to manipulate or control others into repentance or obedience. That, in my opinion, is solely the role of the Holy Spirit, requires no ritualistic means and is a deeply spiritual process; never one of manipulation.

        I offer this not in a spirit of divisiveness, but out of sincere concern over the misuse of such concepts by the Institutional church through the centuries, by those who boldly use and misuse the most precious things of God for their own corrupt purposes, particularly authoritarian spiritual abuse over trusting souls.

  2. My h now says he did it out of ignorance (after years of claiming he didn’t “do” anything!”), so I have a hard time with that wording b/c in my h’s case, it’s not true. I think the bottom line is motive for behavior. Paul felt tasked with preserving the Holy and righteous name of God and since the “false claims” of Jesus’ followers were so anathema (to Paul’s understanding), he fought back aggressively in order to protect what he felt was under attack. Domestic abusers abuse for their own, personal benefit.

    1. Hi, Debby, this looks like your first comment so welcome to the blog! 🙂

      I think you’re spot on that the bottom line is motive for behaviour.

      We like to encourage new readers to check out our New Users’ Info page as it gives tips for how to guard your safety while commenting on the blog.

      And after reading the New Users’ Info page, you might like to look at our FAQ page.

      1. Hi, Barb! Not new, I’ve just been gone a few weeks and it changes my icon. I also took a new job, moved to a new city and my old school email (which I JUST NOW REALIZED is where I was getting my ACFJ blog notices) is no longer an active email (no wonder I’ve been gone!). Anyhoo, need to know how to sign up with my new email. I’ll read your “new person” message to do that. I’ve been learning and taking steps toward freedom from abuse, thanks in part to ACFJ since 2015. Changed. My. Life!

  3. I, too, balked upon reading the sentence which TS00 commented on. Because I DO believe that it is GOD who initiates the new birth, not a spiritually dead, rebellious, born-in-sin human using his / her ‘free will’ to do the right thing and reach out to God. But the —

    ….sacraments and church discipline.

    —part made me choke.

    I appreciate your partial explanations here, Barb, and look forward to Sam’s reply later. I just finished listening to his sermon (from 8 years ago) on John 3 and Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus and what ‘you must be born again’ and “for God so loved the world.” means. It was wonderful.

    I DO want to understand this better (the Reformed view of salvation), and drank in his teaching on that chapter; so much that my “notes” on that sermon ended up being a transcription of about 90% of the sermon(!)

    Probably definitions for regeneration, rebirth, and repentance need to be part of that explanation. Thanks for following up on these concerns.

    1. Just for the record, those who reject the tenets of Reformed Theology’s soteriology also believe that it is GOD who initiates the new birth, not a spiritually dead, rebellious, born-in-sin human using his / her ‘free will’ to do the right thing and reach out to God’. It is a fallacious dichotomy, a red herring. The actual point of disagreement [between Reformed and non-Reformed] in a nutshell, is over whether or not the grace of God – all parties believing it is all of Him – is truly, legitimately offered to all mankind or only a select few.

      [‘Soteriology’ is the doctrine of salvation. Eds.]

      The former requires a response of faith by enslaved sinners to God’s gracious offer of pardon, freedom and life, illustrated by Paul with the response of Abraham in believing God. The latter requires an irresistible ‘gifting’ of grace by God to a ‘spiritually dead, rebellious, born-in-sin human’ as asserted by Calvin. Please do not be misled into thinking that non-Reformed believers perceive salvation as in some part ‘due’ to any ‘work’ of man; rather, they view Romans 4 as explicitly teaching that ‘faith’ is not a ‘work’, but the appropriate and necessary response of man to God’s solely accomplished offer of salvation.

      I would not tell you or anyone else what you ‘must’ believe, as that, in my opinion, belies the genuine definition of belief, which is individual and voluntary. I do believe you are spot on in pointing to the differences resting in the definitions of terms. Of course, merely asserting one’s preferred definitions does not make them true. It is helpful to the honest seeker to realize that these differences in definition exist, and to understand the value of studying and comparing the various interpretations of the words / concepts of Scripture, minus the pressure and threats of adhering to ‘orthodoxy’, i.e., the traditions of men. I humbly assert that no man or men have figured it all out perfectly (certainly not me!), but that we all see through a glass darkly.

      I perceive as spiritual abuse an authoritarian religious person asserting the doctrinaire right to declare what another individual ‘must’ believe to be true, versus encouraging their own Spirit-led, Berean study of all that is taught by mere men. If Paul viewed such independent reasoning of his own apostolic teaching as praiseworthy, I would suggest that modern so-called religious leaders ought be more humble concerning their own ‘truth claims’.

      1. Hi, TSOO,

        First of all let me explain why some of your comments have sat in moderation for a little while. All comments are moderated on this blog before they are published. I live in Australia so my time zone is pretty different from many of the people who comment at this blog. My assistant Reaching Out is in a different time zone from me, and she publishes some comments that come in, but she leaves some comments in Pending for me to consider when I wake up….and when I can get the time and mental space to decide what to do with them.

        It’s Sunday here for me and I’ve been to church in the morning and have only just now worked up the mental space / grit / determination to face the comments that are still in moderation. Please don’t take it personally if any of your comments take a while to be published. This happens to quite a few comments at ACFJ. It’s part and parcel of me doing my best to keep the blog a safe place where good teaching and respectful and thoughtful discussion can take place. I hope you understand. 🙂

        Now to respond to your comment.

        In my observation, there are some professing Christians who reject the tenets of Reformed Theology’s soteriology who do not believe that it is God who initiates the new birth in an individual; those folks believe that a spiritually dead, rebellious, born-in-sin human, using his / her ‘free will,’ can choose to reach out to God and be reborn. They believe that when an unregenerate person hears the good news of the Gospel preached, that unregenerate person has the ability and power in themselves (in the dead-in-sins fallen nature) to choose to receive and accept Christ. Now, I am quite willing to accept that you, TSOO, do not believe that. 🙂 But I’m asking you to open your mind to the possibility that there are some non-Reformed folks who do believe that. Arminius was one of them; he was a figure in the Reformation Era and it’s because of the controversy his teaching caused his name gave rise to the term “Arminianism”.

        I am well aware that this blog has readers from the Reformed stream and the Arminian stream. And I’m well aware this is a touchy subject and not one I want to discuss at great length on this blog as it so easily gives rise to offence. There are many other places where people can engage in the Reformed / Arminian controversy, but it’s not the focus here on this blog.

        You touched on the doctrine of predestination: you said that the point of controversy between Reformed and non-Reformed is whether or not the grace of God is truly, legitimately offered to all mankind, or a select few. That might be your understanding about the controversy, but it’s not exactly mine. As I understand it, many in the Reformed stream who would agree that the grace of God is truly, legitimately offered to all mankind and that Christ’s death paid the price for ALL human sin, but they would also say that since it is only God who can bring a dead spirit to life, it is God who sovereignly chooses and applies this grace to an individual spirit and brings that spirit from death to life. It’s a paradox, holding these truths in tension….and perhaps none of us can every hope to fully understand it until we (by the grace of God) are with Jesus and able to understand it in the New Heavens and New Earth, where we will have eternity to wrap our heads around it.

        But I get the impression you’ve been exposed to quite a few people who professed to hold Reformed Theology but were only using that kind of theology to obtain and maintain ungodly control over others. Maybe you’ve not met many Reformed believes who were blowing the whistle on that kind of authoritarian, spiritually abusive stuff that often goes on in so-called ‘Reformed Churches’.

        I agree with you that faith is not a work. I agree with you that many modern so-called religious leaders ought be more humble concerning their own ‘truth claims’. I agree with you that it is GOD who initiates the rebirth.

    2. I am wondering, are we getting mixed up with what is being described here as repentance. I, too, had to really think regarding the statement. As I see it, it is not talking about repentance as in the new birth experience when we are born again of the Spirit of God.

      I took it to mean when we have been wrong in our actions, words, thinking.

      Repentance often does come through the word of God, in the sense it is through that that leads to conviction and therefore either to rejection or to repentance. It is the word of God not only preached but read that God the Holy Spirit uses to bring us to repentance.

      The sacraments also have significance, in that when we take them, we are asked to examine ourselves if we are worthy, as the apostle Paul sets out. Therefore I do believe they do have (not in a man-made way, but a spiritual way) a means that God uses to bring us to realise sin as God the Holy Spirit reveals to us in partaking. They are not a means of salvation, but a means that God has ordained that not only are for remembrance, but also to remind us of the need for continual renewing that we may walk in holiness of life, of which in part is repentance.

      The godly discipline of good leadership, and I stress good and godly, then also can be means of bringing or leading us to perhaps realise our waywardness and failings and lead us to repentance.

      I’m not sure if that helps, but it is how I see that statement. I for one have been certainly led then, not by these means for salvation i.e. the new birth, but many times for reflection, conviction and unto to repentance.

      I hope this helps clarify a little. I too had to take a step back and think.

      1 Corinthians 11:17-34.
      Hebrews 12:10-11.

      1. I agree, Now Free, about repentance being multi-faceted. It’s not just part of one’s initial conversion experience, but definitely an ongoing part of a believer’s life, being made aware of his / her true state and offenses against God, then repenting and being purified and grown (….by God’s Spirit….and motivated by a loving relationship with Him).

      2. Now Free (Formerly Struggling To Be Free), I think that really brought some great context into the discussion! Very well said.

        I think you are spot on in speaking about our motivations versus the actual reality of repentance, new birth.

        The Bible says He disciplines everyone He loves. So godly discipline (must stress the word godly) is absolutely a form of love. And church leaders have a great responsibility to use it wisely, and with great caution as well.

        The primary way the Lord led me to repentance as an unbeliever was quite simple: from His written Word and from His moving on my heart in a personal and direct way.

        I did listen to other believers speak about Him. Much of what they spoke of might have just sounded like gibberish to me—-but some of it did stay with me.

        However, things like communion did not make much of an impact on me—and while such a thing IS precious—-it was more symbolic and therefore not necessarily as meaningful to my heart.

        LIVING out His sacrifice for me—“feeding” on His Word and “drinking” Him in was far more significant.

        I was really fed up and tired of outward, religious showmanship that never went any further than portraying a false image. Again, not at all to disrespect the beautiful and precious act of communion. But I was looking for something that went deeper than something that “represented” what He did for us. I needed the real deal inside of me because I was such a train wreck.

        My own salvation story reflects a combination of ignorance and arrogance. I have often wondered if some or most of us might say the same thing.

  4. Hi! I really appreciate this blog and its content, but for the sake of the Gospel, I want to venture a correction. I also see a commenter asked the same thing. Sacraments and church discipline are not the same as hearing the Gospel preached. By themselves, they do not lead to repentance and regeneration, but hearing the Gospel preached does. I believe it would be an easy correction to remove that reference or note that it is not correct.

    Remembering that we would be dead in sin without the Gospel, and that our enemy continually counterfeits God’s word, it makes sense to me to be more vigilant about the Gospel than anything else and cling to it with all our might. I hope you don’t find offense in this, and again, thank you for your work on this blog.

    1. I appreciate your putting that more graciously that I perhaps did. My intention was not to be needlessly critical, nor to stir up doctrinal debate, but to point out how easily we adopt statements that sound very ‘Scriptural’ without having ever put in the time to see if they are Scriptural or accurately presented. Particularly when such statements are made repeatedly, authoritatively, by our teachers, as if unquestionable truth.

      I do realize that in Catholic and Reformed traditions (which I was in for over a decade) that sacraments and church discipline are held as sacrosanct. My desire is merely to encourage people to listen critically (in a good way, meaning not simply absorbing whatever is said!) and examine all ‘truth claims’, as did the commended Bereans.

      I believe Paul’s admonition to reject ‘any other Gospel’ points to his awareness of how easily a teacher – even himself! – could inadvertently distort the truth; not to mention his frequent warnings concerning false teachers. Moses and Peter went ‘slightly’ beyond what was actually prescribed by God, for which Peter was openly rebuked and Moses refused admittance into the Promised Land. This suggests to me that God intends for us to take seriously our personal responsibility to know and understand what He has actually said, rather than take someone(s)’ authoritative word for it.

      Too easily we adopt the statements of trusted teachers, and skip the Berean step of carefully examining what they teach to see if it actually aligns with Scripture. I believe Paul was instructing his listeners to be careful, active, critical thinkers rather than uncritical, submissive sheep who follow whoever steps forward.

      1. TSOO, thank you for your response. I have had a lot of experience in my life with being “tossed about by every wind of doctrine,” so I agree. Interestingly, abusers are very good at making a lie sound just like truth, so if we feel we must be careful and vigilant in this area, how much more in the area of our precious faith?


        ….to point out how easily we adopt statements that sound very ‘Scriptural’ without having ever put in the time to see if they are Scriptural or accurately presented.

        Well said!

    2. Since commenting above, I apologise, for I missed entirely what Pastor Sam said and I do not agree that they are means to rebirth. However as Scripture says, faith comes by hearing the word of God. That may come through preaching or reading His word that the Holy Spirit takes to speak to us.

      I do not see how the means of grace in this respect are for rebirth, but as I have said they are means of grace that enable repentance subsequent, but it is always God using His word and His Spirit to bring light and conviction that then leads to repentance. Perhaps Pastor Sam may clarify as I’m sorry if I have not picked up fully on the statement. I definitely thought it would not fit with Reformed Theology. I apologise profusely for my error, as initially I thought that was being said as it has with others set me back a bit. I missed the rebirth remark, my mistake entirely. Perhaps this can be clarified or changed as it gives perhaps the impression that perhaps the writer did not mean to convey.

      Deeply sorry, but I’ve tried to remove my original comment once I realised my error. :-/

    3. Hi, Jnsch, thank you so much for your comment, and welcome to the blog! 🙂

      I think your suggestion is great and I will amend the post. I will not remove or alter any of the original post, but I will add an update to it.

      You said:

      Sacraments and church discipline are not the same as hearing the Gospel preached. By themselves, they do not lead to repentance and regeneration, but hearing the Gospel preached does

      I think this ^ rings true for me. It rings true from my reading of Scripture, and it rings true with my experience.

      I was looking into Scripture this morning to see if I could find an example from the Old Testament of where the celebration of the Passover led to repentance. I looked at the story of King Josiah. He was one of the kings of Judah who sincerely and humbly followed God’s precepts. He effected a major renovation of religious practices in Judah, and in his reign the Passover was celebrated more seriously and with more dedication and sincerity than it had ever been celebrated before in the history of the kings of Judah.

      But on re-reading that story, I saw that what prompted Josiah to repent and bring about this renovation in Judah was Josiah’s reading the Word. The Passover celebration didn’t prompt repentance. That notable Passover celebration took place after Josiah had destroyed and cast out all the practices and paraphernalia connected with the worship of Baal, Molech, Milcom and the other false gods that the people of Judah had been worshipping. It was the Word that brought repentance. Reading that account of Josiah, it seems clear to me that the sacraments were practiced rightfully because the Word had brought repentance and purged the false gods, the false teachers, the false worship.

      And btw, Jnsch, since you are a new commenter let me invite you to check out our New Users’ Info page as it gives tips for how to guard your safety while commenting on the blog.

      And after reading the New Users’ Info page, you might like to look at our FAQ page.

      1. Hi, Barbara! Thank you for the welcome! You really blessed me with your note about searching into the Old Testament. I hadn’t read that particular story yet; thank you for taking the time to expound the meaning for me.

      2. Also, thank you for making a note on your post as well. It was a great compliment to me, but even more so a compliment to your love for the Lord.

  5. Hi, Barb,
    Since we are discussing Reformed Theology, I wanted to ask if you, if when you have a moment, you could point me / us to a good primer on what Reformed Theology actually “believes” as to things like the Holy Spirit, the spiritual gifts, etc., and who as far as teachers and theologians old and new are Reformed. For instance, was Calvin Reformed?

    1. Hi, KoA, I do not know of a good primer as in a book, but that doesn’t mean such a book or books do not exist.

      I did, however, find this article by Gavin Ortlund — Is cessationism the Reformed view? [Internet Archive link] I appreciate the article because it explains that within the Reformed stream there are a variety of views on whether the spiritual gifts have ceased, when they ceased, which of them have ceased, and why they have ceased.

      Please note that I have not read the books which the above article links to. And please note that I have publicly expressed concerns I have about Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware and John Piper in regards to their views on gender roles and some other aspects of their theology. So my linking to this article does not imply I endorse Grudem, Ware and Piper in other areas. Nor does it imply that I endorse any of their views on the spiritual gifts.

      As to well known names in Reformed Theology, for a historical overview you could look at this page on Wikipedia: Reformation [Internet Archive link]. The best known names are Martin Luther and John Calvin (though they differed in some points). Many people these days are unaware that the Anglican Church, at least in the first century or so of the Protestant Reformation, was espousing Reformed Theology –– you can see this if you study the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church. A good example of an Anglican who held Reformed Theology on the doctrine of salvation is George Whitefield. By the way, there are still a few Anglican churches who give more than lip service to the 39 Articles, but those churches are pretty rare.

      You can also explore Reformed Theology if you look at the various Reformed Confessions and Catechisms: the Augsburg Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Westminster Confession, The London Baptist Confession, to name just a few.

      But it depends on what you consider is essential to Reformed Theology and what you consider inessential, and there are various opinions on that. Some consider that you can call yourself Reformed so long as you hold to Reformed soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). But some consider you can only call yourself Reformed if you hold Reformed soteriology, and believe in infant baptism, and you follow the checks and balances of Presbyterian church government rather than government by bishops & priests (as Anglicans do), or individually self-governed churches (as Baptists do).

      For well known names in Reformed Theology these days it’s a bit of a grab bag, and many people would argue that some of these names do not in fact hold classical Reformed Theology. But here are some well known names: R C Sproul Sr, Joel Beeke, R Scott Clark; some Presbyterian denominations, Reformed Baptist churches. Some people argue that John Piper is not really Reformed and I would agree with them.

      Sorry for what is probably an overly long answer!

  6. Thanks, Barb, no problem with the length, I was delighted with such a detailed answer and appreciate it. I’ve already read the Gavin Ortlund article and will look up the other things throughout the next couple of days.

  7. I thought about this post a lot because it was so intriguing. I seem to recall a short Facebook discussion about this question (was Paul an abuser?) so some of the things that were brought up were familiar to me.

    At first I experienced some familiar “jumpy” feelings in my stomach when things like Paul’s ignorance and sincere belief that Christians were a danger came up. Like some or many of us, our abusers may have tried to use that narrative to avert accountability. Or, enablers of an abuser might have tried to convince us of similar things: say, your abuser didn’t know what he or she was doing and therefore isn’t as “bad” as you make them out to be.

    But I believe Barb used and stuck to Scripture brilliantly here. That is crucial.

    By the way, I’ve heard the narrative that Paul may have been married. I read that to be a part of the Sanhedrin council, it was required that you be married. Paul was a part of that council, which voted to put Stephen to death. Please feel free to correct me if that’s not accurate. But we don’t know anything beyond that.

    In America, there have been murder investigations that played out in the public. One case in particular stands out. A woman was missing and found to be dead. It came out that her husband had been cheating on her, which gave him a motive for possibly wanting to kill her.

    But too many people rushed to assume that if he was a cheater, he was a murderer. That is a dangerous thing to do. Being guilty of cheating does not mean you are also guilty of murder. The two are separate and different sins (the latter is a crime punishable by the courts, but adultery is not against the law in America).

    While the Bible does say that sin leads to more sin (2 Timothy 3:13), cheating does not mean it will automatically lead to the sin of murder. Cheating can easily lead to more cheating, for example.

    Here are some verses I tend to recall when I think about Paul’s former life. They are chilling, but as Barb pointed out, they don’t seem to fit the definition of an abuser.

    Meanwhile, Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers. So he went to the high priest. (Acts 9:1, NLT)

    Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities. (Acts 26:11) [NIV]

    I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished. (Acts 22:4-5) [NIV]

    Galatians 1:13, and 1 Corinthians 15:9 speaks of his former zeal. He claims he tried to destroy the church of God, and he worked hard to do so. He wasn’t lukewarm about it at all. He even went through “proper procedure” to do so, going to the high priest and making sure he had written authorization to persecute Christians.

    One thing that I recalled to mind is that Paul wrote much of the NT, and all of it was under the influence of the Holy Spirit. There is NO way that Holy Spirit would allow Paul to mislead his readers in any way, shape or form.

    This is why I think we can wholeheartedly believe Scripture such as 1 Timothy 1:13:

    Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. [NIV]

    Paul is the last person who I believe would try to excuse his sins—that again would mean he was not under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, because there is no falsehood in Him.

    Barb’s words brought to my mind John 16:2-3:

    They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me. [NIV]

    Is it just me, but is this a fairly accurate description of Paul’s former life? And that last sentence seems to describe rather well, WHY he did what he did. He honestly thought his persecution of Christians was a service to the Lord. Also, he did not know the Father or the Son. He had no belief or knowledge of Him until He confronted him—-and asked those famous words:

    ….”Why are you persecuting Me?” [Acts 9:4]

    I think that Paul could have chosen to reject the Lord. I DO believe, however, that it is only the Lord that brings us to repentance, and we choose Him as a work of Him. What I mean to articulate is that God never takes away our free will. Even though, again, repentance and choosing Him IS a work of Him—-our free will seems to have at least some form of participation.

    How it all comes together is hard to put into exact words. When I think back to my own salvation story—-I am not shy in admitting my level of pride and rebelliousness. I do believe I could have rejected Him, but I was worn down and worn out by my sins. I was ready to be born again, and I believe He prepared me for that. My conscience woke up because He gave me a wake up call—-and I could not have done that myself.

    The Bible says a light from Heaven surrounded Paul and his men that was brighter than the sun. But the Bible indicates that “signs and wonders” don’t convince people that He is real. Jesus made that clear, and the Bible also warns in trusting in so-called miracles; they may not be from Him (Matthew 24:24).

    By the way, we don’t know what happened to the men that were with Paul. They experienced the same miraculous, heavenly experience, but the Word does not say if they converted to Christ along with Paul. The Bible says:

    The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. [Acts 9:7 NIV]

    The voice from Heaven didn’t speak to those men directly, only to Paul. But I have wondered what became of them. That is not an experience you would easily forget!

    1. Thanks, Helovesme. I think you put those Scriptures together really well. And I think you’re right that the description in John 16:2 does apply to Paul’s former life.

      Yes, it’s interesting to think about those men who were present with Paul on the road to Damascus. Like the soldiers who were guarding the tomb they experienced a powerful supernatural event, but how they reflected and responded to that later is anyone’s guess.

      1. Thank you, Barb, for writing this post. It must have been a real labor of love, focusing on Scripture and being very careful to not stray from that.

        What I was trying to articulate in using the example of cheating and murdering—-was to illustrate that just because Paul admitted how he persecuted Christians in public, it did not automatically mean he was an abuser in private.

        I know the temptation of jumping to such conclusions.

        For example, I tried to kill myself before I became a believer. I also used to cut myself and had many violent and suicidal thoughts for years. I was bullied and berated at school as well, which only added fuel to those fires.

        A profile like that might have led some to assume that I might be a danger to society, or would become one. Or that I already was one.

        But I had never laid a hand on anyone, and never planned to. The only person I was a real danger to was myself. Not that that was a great idea to hurt myself like I did, but I hope you see what I mean.

  8. Thank you, Helovesme, for your writing here this week. I have been so encouraged by the real gems of wisdom gained from your life.

    I know what it’s like to be right at the end if your tether and embarking on suicide. I have found what you have written this week a real blessing and it just proves you have a vital ministry to encourage us and others. We are richer for the fact you are still here.

    I am especially encouraged for what you say regarding abusers, as when it’s screamed in your ear falsely for long enough you begin to think you have lost it, and perhaps it is yourself to blame for everything. I had to battle with that and the very real fear of becoming an abuser. So your words really tug my heart strings and bless me – thank you.

  9. In Romans 7, Paul said what convicted him was the law “you shall not covet”. In this passage from Romans 10, he could have been speaking from his own experience when he says:

    Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they might be saved. For I can attest that they have a fervent heart for God, but not according to knowledge. For they are ignorant of the righteousness that is admitted before God, and go about to establish their own righteousness, and therefore give no heed to the righteousness that is of value before God. For Christ is the end of the law, to justify all who believe. (Romans 10:1-4 NMB)

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