The apostle Paul was a man who had done many terrible things. He had “intensely … persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it” (v 13). By the time Jesus met Paul on the Damascus road , he had killed many innocent people. He was on his way to arrest and imprison more. He was filled with hate.
And yet Paul was also a man who had done many religious deeds. He had spent years seeking to live according to the Jewish customs and traditions. He says that he had beaten almost everyone of his own generation (“of my own age”, v 14) at being zealous for moral righteousness (v 14). And yet it had not made him right with God.
Up until this point in the Galatian letter, we have not been told the nature of the teaching of “some people” who were “trying to pervert the gospel” (v 7), but here is the first hint. Later we will see that they were encouraging the Gentile Christians to become full converts to Judaism, and to keep all the Mosaic laws of diet and dress, including circumcision (2:12; 3:5; 6:12). But Paul is saying: I’ve already been there and done that! I know all about this subject! You cannot make yourself acceptable to God by the most zealous and detailed following of moral, ethical, or cultural codes.
Before conversion, Paul was a great religious rule-keeper—and he knew it. He was filled with pride. And yet, despite all this, he was not only saved by Christ, but also called to be a preacher and leader of the faith. His testimony is a powerful witness to the beating heart of Christianity—the gospel of grace.
Grace is the free, unmerited favor of God, working powerfully on the mind and heart to change lives. There is no clearer example than Paul that salvation is by grace alone, not through our moral and religious performance. Though Paul’s sins were very deep, he was invited in.
Paul’s experience proves vividly that the gospel is not simply “religion” as it is generally understood. The gospel calls us out of religion as much as it calls us out of irreligion.
No one is so good that they don’t need the grace of the gospel, nor so bad that they can’t receive the grace of the gospel. Paul was deeply religious, but he needed the gospel. Paul was deeply flawed, yet he could be reached with the gospel. As C.S. Lewis once said: “Christianity must be from God, for who else could have thought it up?”