By Kathryn Wright
Many ministries, churches, and Christian organizations train believers to give their salvation testimonies as a tool for evangelism. In this training, the apostle Paul is often seen as the gold standard when it comes to how we are to share our own testimonies. His example in the book of Acts is used as our blueprint, especially regarding his life before and after meeting the Lord on the road to Damascus.
Using Paul’s testimony, a three-step process has become the common format for testimonies today. In Acts 22, for example, Paul describes his sinful state prior to salvation. He was a Pharisee. Not only that, but he was actively involved in persecuting the early church, killing many (vv 3 5). This is often seen as Step One in how all believers should start our personal testimonies: we should begin by describing our sinful lifestyle prior to faith.
Paul demonstrated Step Two when he described how the Lord came to him with a bright light on the road to Damascus (vv 6ff). Again, many are trained via this format to imitate Paul’s experience and to describe the moment they came to faith as an extreme encounter with the Lord.
Finally, Step Three is to describe your life after coming to faith, again imitating Paul’s description. After he was saved on the road to Damascus, Paul became a missionary to the Gentiles (v 21) and an apostle of God, wrote thirteen books in the NT, and established churches throughout the Roman Empire. Finally, he died as a martyr for the Lord.
This method has become so commonplace, many will ask, “What was your Damascus Road experience?” when they want to hear about your own salvation story. However, while Paul’s testimony is certainly worthy of our study, and can edify and teach us today, there are flaws in this popular application.
A CLOSER LOOK AT THE CONTEXT
Starting with the apostle’s description of his life prior to salvation, the setting plays a significant role in the application. Just prior to giving his testimony, Paul is in the temple. A group of Jews from Asia create a mob, leading to the apostle’s arrest (Acts 21:26-36). At the end of chapter 21, we are told of a noteworthy exchange that occurs. Paul was speaking Greek to the Roman commander who had come in response to the riot, but switched to Hebrew when addressing the mob (v 40). Luke emphasizes this point in 22:1. He said that the mob fell silent when they heard Paul speak in the Hebrew tongue.
Before we even get into the testimony, we see the apostle Paul making this strategic move in addressing the Jews. While they would have been able to understand Greek, Paul identifies himself with his audience by speaking Hebrew, and they respect him more for it. Further, in his first words to them, he identifies himself with his audience by calling them brethren and fathers. This is a sign of solidarity and respect.
Everything he says from that point on follows this approach. He repeatedly identifies himself with these men. First, he says that he is also a Jew—not just any Jew, but one taught by Gamaliel, a highly respected teacher among the Sanhedrin (v 3). This would have been the equivalent of Paul’s letting his audience know he had a Ph.D. in the OT. He goes on to say that he was not only taught in the strictness of the law, but that he is zealous for God—even more so than the mob itself. Simultaneously, Paul compliments the mob for their passion for God, while also claiming that he surpasses their zeal! He then describes his persecution of the Way, leading up to his journey to Damascus.
Was Paul using this first part of his speech to convince the audience of his sinful past? While the persecution of the church was a terrible part of Paul’s past from a Christian perspective, that’s not the perspective of these Jews in Acts 22. To the mob, everything Paul describes in Acts 22:16 would have been considered positive, not sinful.
Paul’s point wasn’t to describe his state prior to salvation to prove he was “really” saved by a transformation of lifestyle. Paul was simply trying to show his audience that he, too, once believed what they believed. He, too, is one of them. He taught the Law and was zealous for God. He, too, can speak Hebrew. He is a Hebrew. He is identifying with them so they will listen. We might say he’s buttering them up. This is not a list of “bad” things to the mob, but prestigious and compelling evidence for them to consider Paul’s message. Paul is simply saying, “I once believed the things you believe.” Paul’s three points all concerned his beliefs, not his actions.1
HOW SHOULD WE APPLY PAUL’S EXAMPLE ?
While this passage is often used to illustrate the negative characteristics of the unsaved, Paul is actually listing things his audience would have identified with and respected. He is relating to their way of thinking. That is a completely different application of this passage from how it’s normally used in the church today.
Paul also describes his life prior to faith in another book in the NT. In Phil 3:4-6, Paul writes:
4 Though I also might have confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: 5 circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; 6 concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.
Again, Paul lists several things: He is Jew, a part of God’s chosen people. He had fulfilled the covenantal command of circumcision. He is from the tribe of Benjamin. Perhaps above all, he was a Pharisee, a religious leader, known for his zeal for God.
Does this sound like the testimonies we normally hear? He does not mention sins and does not give a list of depravities that he has overcome. In fact, he does the opposite! He gives a very impressive list of accomplishments. He even goes so far as to say he was “blameless.”
This is shockingly different from everything we traditionally hear. What is the apostle’s conclusion to this list? All these accomplishments are meaningless when compared to knowing Christ. While the traditional testimony focuses on a transformed life, the apostle flips all of that on its head. Rather than a list of sins, he sidesteps all the moral and racially pure qualifications he possesses, calls it all garbage, and instead points to the Savior. This is an immensely helpful example when evangelizing to a moral unbeliever.
For example, while the traditional way of applying Paul’s testimony would be meaningless to a moral Catholic or Muslim, if we apply Paul’s testimony like we see in Acts 22, we show the moral unbeliever that he or she has nothing to cling to in regards to works. We can then point the moral unbeliever to Jesus and the gift of eternal life, apart from his or her self-righteousness (Eph 2:8-9; see also John 3:16; 4:10).
THE TESTIMONY OF BELIEF
There is something worth noting in Philippians. The apostle describes himself prior to salvation as blameless, especially as it relates to the law. However, at the end of his life, the apostle Paul makes another startling statement in 1 Tim 3:15 saying:
This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief (emphasis added).
While we often hear people describe their salvation experience by going from sinful to sinless, Paul’s description of himself stands in sharp contrast. The apostle simply does not point to some list of accolades as proof of salvation. He does use his religious background prior to salvation to connect with Jewish unbelievers. In the end though, he does the opposite of the traditional testimony. He paints himself in a very lowly place after he was saved. He considers himself the chief sinner, all while pointing to Jesus, and setting himself up as an example of one who was saved by grace. He was not saved by cleaning up his lifestyle.
While Paul certainly describes his life prior to salvation in terms of his sins elsewhere in Scripture—though not while speaking to unbelievers (1 Tim 1:13), he often described his life prior to salvation as very moral. This may seem conflicting. But it is not. His lifestyle prior to and after salvation, while relevant in persuading people to listen, or applying discipleship truths, are irrelevant when it comes to his salvation. When speaking to Timothy, Paul writes:
“However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life” (1 Tim 1:16, emphasis added).
At the heart of Paul’s testimony is belief. It isn’t about a grand change in lifestyle, or becoming the next great missionary, or speaking in tongues, or a bright light. If you think that Paul’s testimony was one of assurance of salvation based on his works, I fear you will spend a lifetime doubting your salvation. Paul, however, makes it very clear in 1 Tim 1:16 in what way he is a pattern for us. Not in works, but in belief. Therefore, instead of the traditional three-step process, let me suggest a revised version, based on Paul’s testimony. Step one, describe what you used to believe before being saved. Step two, describe what you have come to believe. Step three, describe why you find that to be the most cherished belief. If you have believed in Jesus for eternal life, you have followed Paul’s blueprint, and should seek to share that faith-alone message with others.
Kathryn Wright and her husband, Dewey, live in Columbia, SC. She is the GES missions coordinator, women’s conference speaker, writer, and Zoom teacher.
1 In part 3, he discusses his promotion of what he came to believe, and what he understands to be the proper understanding of Scripture.