Recently I saw something I never noticed before about Paul’s calling. Many Calvinists say Paul is an example of God’s unconditional salvation because he was a persecuting murdering. Moreover they say Paul’s call into ministry was likewise unconditonal and could never have been connected to anything God saw within Paul because, after all, he was a hostile persecutor.
However this cannot be squared with how Paul looks back upon his life in 1 Timothy 1:12-13. What is most striking about Paul’s statement in 1 Tim. 1:13 is its connection to the preceding one he makes in verse 12, saying, “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he JUDGED ME FAITHFUL, appointing me to his service…”
It is then that Paul goes on to say “I received mercy BECAUSE I had acted ignorantly in unbelief…” In saying that God “judged [him] faithful”, or “considered [him] trustworthy” (NIV), Paul is not talking about his later years in ministry. He is talking about his initial call to ministry—specifically getting knocked off his horse and appointed by God as an apostle and witness of the risen Lord.
Yes, Paul was formerly a persecutor of the church and a violent one at that. But God also saw something within Paul—a zealous faithfulness to commit himself to what he thought was true—which at the time was Paul being “convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus” (Acts 26:9).
Yet it was this very quality of conviction and faithfulness that God was looking for and found within Paul. It is with this background context in mind that Paul says, “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer… But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief…”(vs. 11-12).
Paul is not boasting. He is overwhelmed with thanksgiving and gratitude that God “judged him faithful” despite zealously persecuting the church “ignorantly in unbelief.” Above all Paul sees his appointment to the ministry as God’s enablement (i.e. “I thank him who has given me strength”) and not as something he earned in any way.
Acts 26:19 ties everything together. Looking back upon his conversion and the ministry that was birthed out of it, Paul declared, “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.” This of course implies Paul could have been disobedient, had he so chosen. Paul never took God’s grace for granted, thinking the nature of divine grace made disobedience or rebellion impossible in his life. He was always conscious of the fact that divine grace was operating through him, and such grace would only continue to operate through him to the degree he obeyed God as act of his surrendered will.
No doubt most Calvinists would concede in principle to that last sentence. The problem is they equally hold to the principle that God also determined every instance wherein we do disobey his will— going so far as to insist (as John Piper does) that “God predetermined every tiny detail in the universe, such as dust particles in the air and all our besetting sins.”