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.”  This is widely known as theological determinism.
It may be suggested by some that Galatians 1:15 contradicts the points above. But that is not the case at all. There is no reason to assume that Paul being “set apart from birth” is a reference to Paul being unconditionally elected to salvation. Paul is talking about being set apart for apostleship—his election to Kingdom service. That is why in the next verse he ties in his being “set apart and called” with God’s purpose that he be sent to the Gentiles, saying “so that I could preach him among the Gentiles” (vs. 16).
For this view to be sound, we only need to assume that God had foreknowledge of Paul’s obedient response to the heavenly vision. In other words, God foreknew he was going to give Paul a vision and that Paul would “not be disobedience to the vision” he was given. In this sense, Paul was “set apart from birth” for a particular ministry, though that foreknown ministry was itself conditioned on God’s foreknowledge that Paul would become saved.
I believe all Christians have a specific call, an election to Kingdom service. I also believe that God’s foreknowledge of our repentance and faith can be the basis for that call. For example I have been serving as a missionary in S.E. 13 years. I have no problem believing God’s call that I depart the US and serve overseas was upon my life even before I was born. For if God’s foreknowledge of my life is largely informed by my free choices (and does not exhaustively determine all my choices as the Calvinist view demands), then there is no contradiction in saying my call to missions was conditioned upon my being saved, but occurred prior to my being saved (or even my existence).
In the same way, I believe Paul to be saying that he was set apart from birth to be an apostle. And if Paul was pressed on the matter, he would say his call to be an apostle was itself conditioned on his obedience to a divine vision—a vision and response foreknown by God.
An example from the Arminian scholar, Brian Abasciano may prove helpful. He once shared the following illustration with me. If God knows someone is going to be saved, he can then plan for the person’s service as a believer. It is like if a manager knows that John Doe is going to be transferred to his department (say his boss informed him), he can then choose the guy for some particular function in his department because of his foreknowledge.
Lastly, we have good reason to assume Paul’s perspective on being “set apart” for apostleship was being carried over from how he understood God to call other prophets/messengers before him—not to salvation per se, but to the nations. For example we read in Jeremiah 1:4-5 “Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
No doubt Paul saw himself as a continuation of this prophetic line for the nations/gentiles. Yet even here, Paul does not think that all his actions as a prophet are determinately controlled by God. Rather he always takes the biblical route that views our persistent obedience, or lack thereof, as being a reflection of our free response to partner with God’s grace or resist it. The former leads to God’s grace being formed within us, like fuel for a driver’s continuing journey. The latter leads to God’s grace being received in vain. The following verses reveal this biblical tension beautifully.
1 Corinthians 15:10: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I [i.e. yet I am not the sole/sum product of my laboring], but the grace of God with me.”
2 Corinthians 6:1: “And working together with Him, we also urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain.”
Paul’s urging that we work “together with” God’s grace and “not… receive the grace of God in vain” is clear evidence that Paul held to a robust theology of free will, not theological determinism. For it is absurd to think God’s grace acts upon us deterministically, such that it determines that we receive its deterministic nature in vain.