Review of David Morlan, Conversion in Luke and Paul

Conversion in Luke and Paul“Conversion” may be difficult to define, but it is adequate for explaining the fact that people leave old commitments and associate themselves with Christ and his followers. Christians add additional complexity to the phenomenon of conversion when they affirm that God is active in the process. David Morlan proposes to do some “investigative reporting” about conversion in early Christianity in order to understand how Luke and Paul reflected theologically on conversion. His book, “Conversion in Luke and Paul,” includes the subtitle, “An Exegetical and Theological Exploration” (T&T Clark, LNTS, 2013). The subtitle opens the door for theological questions, especially on how the Christian might affirm both Luke and Paul.

While he is able to show significant similarities between them, it remains to be seen whether one can discern a unity. If, as Morlan argues, Luke assumes a “fundamental changeability in humanity” and Paul denies such a thing, is the Christian theologian then left with the unenviable choice of choosing either a monergistic Paul or a synergistic (if not semi-Pelagian) Luke?

Genre and Scope

This is a book in New Testament studies, however, and Morlan’s interpretive interests are more focused. He sets out to compare “Paul’s understanding of conversion with Luke’s version of conversion” (10). He poses three questions to select passages in Luke/Acts and Romans:

  1. What is the change involved when someone became a believer?
  2. Why is conversion necessary?
  3. Who is responsible for conversion?

Morlan selects texts that both mention metanoia (repentance, with one exception) and that avoid discussion of Paul’s own conversion/call. The mutually exclusive proposals of Bultmann, Campbell, and Segal for understanding Paul’s conversion warrant his claim that describing conversion from Paul’s experience is circular. Paul is not exemplary, but unique.

With these caveats in mind, Morlan examines three passages in Luke’s corpus: the parable of the Prodigal (Luke 15), the conversion of Jews in Acts 2, and the conversion of Gentiles in Acts 17. For the theology of Paul, Morlan centers on Romans 2 as arguably the only mention in Paul of metanoia for converting repentance, and Romans 9–11 as Paul’s developed theology of conversion. After two chapters of introduction, the book treats each passage in a separate chapter along with a summary of Luke’s and Paul’s respective theologies of conversion. The final chapter offers a six-page discussion of the similarities and differences between the two authors.

Conversion as Reversion or Inversion

For Luke, as seen in the parable of the prodigal, conversion involves a reversion, a return to the Father. The son in the far country realizes his own misery and decides for himself to return to the father as a servant. This is repentance. Likewise, Morlan argues that in Acts 2 & 17, Luke introduces us to people who have recognized their misery and who are searching for a return to the Father. In the speeches of Peter and “Paul” (one must assume Luke’s voice), the apostles overcome the ignorance of pious Jews and Gentiles who are already seeking God. The Jews were even “pre-conditioned for conversion by virtue of their piousness.” (133) There is divine agency in these narratives—the Pentecost miracle, Paul arriving in Athens against his will—but conversion itself, in Luke’s understanding, is “horizontal with two moving agents meeting together.” (136) The Father receives the son and give him more than he deserves, but the convert initiates conversion.

In Paul, according to Morlan’s analysis, the situation is quite the reverse. He argues that Romans 2, with its mention of repentance, is a hypothetical situation. This form of repentance is impossible, even for pious Jews, because of the prevalence of human sin. Rather than advocating a reversion to a former state of fellowship with God, Paul’s preaching proclaims an inversion, a reordering of the convert through the new creation word of “calling.” Romans 9–11 describes this process.

Morlan recognizes the strong elective terminology in Romans 9 and agrees with Chester (most recently) that “calling” language especially highlights the creative power of the divine word. But, Morlan observes that election in Romans 9 must respect God’s purpose to “produce a sense of humility among the saved and to make known his glory to the unsaved.” (173) This sense of humility arises when believers recognize that they cannot fulfill the Deuteronomy 30 conditions of repentance. Instead, they hear and believe the “word of faith,” (Rom 10:8) the announcement of Christ’s victory over death.

Paul’s key insight, according to Morlan, is to distinguish between the written law and the oral gospel. (183) That the gospel is announced orally by a preacher also shows the way in which it is to be received. Faith, then, in contrast to working for repentance, acknowledges “that which is already accomplished” by Christ. In addition, Morlan argues that believing in one’s heart (Rom 10:9) is now possible because the announcement of Christ in the gospel penetrates to the heart in ways that the written law could not (as in Rom 2:5). “In having the word of Christ preached, that word is already in the heart to begin the regenerative effect of salvation.” (187)

Answering the Three Questions

Morlan tenaciously raises three questions about these passages, and these summaries serve as the payoff from his research. For each, he juxtaposes Luke and Paul.

What Changes in Conversion?

Luke assumed a “fundamental changeableness” in the human condition. Repentance and conversion are a return to God—something both Jews and Gentiles are capable of beginning . The gospel message helps those already on their way to know God more fully.

For Paul, conversion is an acknowledgement that the work of salvation, which one is unable to do, has been accomplished in Christ. The divine call creates this situation (or response?) and so one can discern an “ontological discontinuity” between the past and future life of the convert.

Why is Conversion Necessary?

In Luke’s narratives, converts needed “another messenger to provide additional information as to what was necessary for reconciliation with their Creator.” (136) Luke assumes that all people are “related” to God, but need help in returning to him.

For Paul, conversion is necessary because we cannot enact true repentance or a change of heart on our own.

Who is Responsible?

For Luke, conversion implies “two moving agents meeting together,” that is, God and the person. The pre-convert’s activity alone is insufficient, but, it seems, the pre-convert takes the initiative.

Paul believes human hearts are unchangeable apart from the call of God, which is the gospel. Human response is required in that one must acknowledge God’s saving work in Christ.


This book raised good questions for integrating Romans 2 & 10 into a coherent Pauline doctrine of conversion. Morlan is brave to tread through Rom 10:1–8 and his suggestion that Paul intentionally avoids the word “repent/return” from Deut 30 is instructive.

He also notes that both Luke and Paul appeal to Joel 2:32 in order to demonstrate a proper “point-in-time” appropriation of salvation, which he calls conversion. Understood on this level, Morlan gives a helpful description of human response in conversion.

In the Luke section, however, despite his assurances, I am unsure if the selection of passages allows for a decision on Luke’s “theology” of conversion. For instance, while Morlan makes much of the son’s moral ability to come to his senses and return to the father, Luke’s other two parables of lost things (sheep and coin) emphasize how the divine agent sought and found these things. While the conversion speeches of Peter and Paul do focus on the need for personal decision, in order to specify divine agency, it might be helpful to look at Luke’s commentary, say, in Lk 13:48 (those appointed to eternal life) or 16:14 (Lydia’s heart).

Because Morlan includes in his title that this is a “theological” exploration, I wonder if he could allow voices from the history of interpretation to have a say? The way that Morlan has read Luke seems to assume the classic target of Augustine’s critique of Pelagius—that ought implies can. His reading of Rom 10, to my mind, would seem to fit certain readings of the Lutheran tradition, in which the preaching of the gospel creates the possibility of repentance and faith in those who are unresisting. As an analysis of contemporary New Testament studies, this book serves its purpose, but would it not be enriched by examining how the Christian church has read these foundational texts?

Two notes on the layout of the book as a revised dissertation. First, a clear statement of the thesis in the introductory chapter would have been a great help. As much as the book is a research project, one wants to know where it is going from the outset. Second, the author does not provide his own definition of “conversion,” or specifically Christian conversion. He hints that the introduction would be too early to let this out, but it seems that he has kept his secret to the end.

David Morlan

David Morlan

David Morlan serves as co-founder and pastor of Fellowship Denver, where as a pastor-theologian he has the opportunity (and responsibility!) to provide direction for fitting participation in the whole drama of redemption—appropriating both the witness of Luke and Paul. So, I imagine my theological concerns are primarily a function of his genre in this book. You can get an excellent taste of his dissertation in practice, since he recently preached on Romans 10.


Thanks to T&T Clark for the review copy.

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1 Response to Review of David Morlan, Conversion in Luke and Paul

  1. Dave Morlan says:

    Hey Jon. I really appreciate your review of this work. A couple of things to point out though for clarification. First, the major similarity I showed between Luke and Paul was that they both pictured the need for divine agency at work in order to initiate the conversion event/process. Of course, Luke describes it more from the perspective of the individual and Paul from the divine perspective but I think there is real unity to be had in understanding who initiates the process. Second, you were right to guess that the genre of the book itself restrained me a bit: as I am sure understand, there is a big difference between sharing all I actually believe to be true on the topic and sharing what I wanted to be “on the hook” for in the context of a viva.

    Thanks again for taking the time to think through this monograph. Also, it was a nice touch that you linked a sermon to the review.

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