I wrote this piece a few years ago, but I republish it now because I think these observations are important now more than ever. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we make Justification a completely vertical reality pertaining only to God, but don’t think often think of it as effecting our horizontal relationships with other people. But we are wrong in this. Being justified before God is part and parcel of being in just relationships with other persons. We cannot have God and ignore our neighbors. I think my journey to this realization began a few years ago with this post.
Saul’s Conversion: The Rest of the Story
It struck me this morning that Saul’s conversion story in Acts 9 is just as much a story about his reconciliation with other people as it is a story about his reconciliation to God. After all, it is not God in some abstract sense that Saul curses in vs. 1. No, it is the Lord’s disciples whom he is “breathing out murderous threats against.” (1)
In other words, Saul’s sins are a violation of God’s law made tangible in his sin against the Lord’s disciples. It is precisely there, in that broken human to human relationship, that Saul’s sins against Christ exist and become incarnate, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (9:4)
Here the 2 Great Commandments – love of God and love of neighbor – are shown to be so intertwined that separation is nonsensical.
Saul is a sinner against God because he does not love his neighbor as himself.
Saul is a sinner against other human beings because he does not love God with his entire heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Interestingly, I’ve never heard this passage preached this way. I always hear it as a ‘gospel’ passage whereby God reconciles Paul to Himself and Himself alone.
But this is only half the story – God tells Saul to go into the city and await instruction. Saul later encounters a group of disciples who are afraid of him; he then spends several days with them (19), probably seeking their forgiveness, learning from them, and healing a very broken relationship with them. It is this part of the story I’ve never heard from an Evangelical pulpit.
But if contemporary Evangelicals wish to maintain some moral authority in the postmodern world, we must begin to pick up this other side of this story. No longer can we permit ourselves to believe the gospel is just a spiritual reconciliation of “my” individual self and God. No, no, we must see that the gospel inescapably entails reconciliation between “me” and the larger community of human beings created in God’s image…especially those whom I have hurt or excluded. The true gospel necessarily holds together love for God and love for neighbor. Any gospel that doesn’t proclaim both isn’t THE gospel.