Galatians 1:15 KJV

But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb, and called me by his grace,

How does Paul say he was separated in his mother's womb and called by grace yet he actually confesses that he had spent time persecuting the church prior to his conversion

Galatians 1:13 KJV

For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews' religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it:

How can one understand this separation?

5 Answers 5


It is the language of predestination for God in pride, showing how special he was in God's plan, as the other righteous saints are. Conversely, one show his repentance & regret by exaggerating (hyperbole) that he was a sinner from the time of his birth (even though it is impossible in reality) Psalm 51:5:

(HCSB) Indeed, I was guilty when I was born; I was sinful when my mother conceived me.

Paul says he was selected to be God's servant from the moment of his conception. The same applies to all elect or select of God from the divine perspective or predestination.

[Eph 1:3-5 ESV] 3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,

Interestingly, as a Pharisee, he was separated or dedicated from birth as well.

"Pharisee" is derived from Ancient Greek Pharisaios (Φαρισαῖος),[12] from Aramaic Pərīšā (פְּרִישָׁא), plural Pərīšayyā (פְּרִישַׁיָּא), meaning "set apart, separated", related to Hebrew pārûš (פָּרוּשׁ), plural pĕrûhšîm (פְּרוּשִׁים), the Qal passive participle of the verb pāraš (פָּרַשׁ).[13][14] This may be a reference to their separation from the Gentiles, sources of ritual impurity, or from non-religious Jews (Wikipedia: Pharisee)

Cambridge Greek Testament commentary states:

ὁ ἀφορίσας με. Cf. Gal 2:12. St Paul uses the same term of himself in Rom 1:1. In Act 13:2 it is also used of him and Barnabas, but with distinct reference to his first missionary journey. The separation is from others of his nation; cf. Num 16:9, of the sons of Levi, διέστειλεν ὁ θεὸς Ἰσραὴλ ὑμᾶς ἐκ συναγωγῆς Ἰσραήλ, Num 8:14; cf. also Lev 20:26. As “Pharisee” = “separated,” it is possible that St Paul consciously contrasted the Phariseeship of his family and training with that of grace, which God had in view for him from the very first. Mr Hart in the illuminating study of Pharisaism contained in his Ecclesiasticus (1909, p. 275), points out that as the root P-R-SH represents in the Targum of Onkelos the Hebrew B-D-L “separate,” the name Pharisee “is directly associated with the action of God Himself, who separated light from darkness (Gen 1:4), Israel from the nations (Lev 20:24), and the Levites from the People (Num 16:9).” To an English reader, it may be added, this may seem fanciful, but not to a Jew.

ἐκ κοιλίας μητρός μου. Probably = “even before my birth,” i.e. before I had any impulses of my own; cf. Isa 49:1; Jer 1:5. In Luk 1:15 the phrase apparently means from birth onwards.

καὶ καλέσας. When? For “the κλῆσις is never an act in the divine mind, but always an historical fact” (Meyer). Perhaps before birth (Isa 49:1), but more probably at his conversion, the call including the whole summons of which the revelation (to be mentioned immediately) was the culminating point.

  • 4
    "he was a sinner from the time of his birth (even though it is impossible in reality)". That's not necessarily true. Plenty of Christians do hold that one is a sinner from birth, even though one is too young to be responsible for sin. It is not necessary to have sinned to be a sinner. May 17, 2022 at 18:25
  • I know, it's traditionally called original sin, turning matter into sin rather than moral spiritual transgression, disobedience. It began in 4th century by Augustine, a Manichaean priest turned Bishop of Roman Church. I disagree with traditional religion of Rome. gospeltruth.net/OS100bibleverses.htm
    – Michael16
    May 18, 2022 at 2:46

The answer to this question is found in the next verse:

Gal 1:13-16 - For you have heard of my former way of life in Judaism, how severely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.

But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles ...

Let us, for the sake of this discussion divide Paul's life into two sections:

  • BC = before conversion, and
  • AD = after Damascus

The event that separated these two halves of Paul's life was his conversion on the road Damascus as recorded in Acts 9. Thus much is well-known and not controversial.

Here is what we learn from Gal 1:13-16

  • Paul was chosen from birth to be an apostle to the gentiles
  • Paul remained unconverted before his conversion (duh!)
  • After Paul's conversion, at the time that God selected ("was pleased" V15), he was given a special revelation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Thus, it is immediately apparent that it was only when God chose to reveal the Son to Paul that he could become the apostle to the gentiles. That is, while Paul had been chosen from birth to be an apostle to the gentiles, it was only when God gave him the special revelation that his apostleship could begin.

Ellicott expresses it this way:

Pleased.—The word specially used of the free will and pleasure of God, determined absolutely by itself, and by no external cause.

God.—The word should be printed in italics. It is wanting in the true text, but is left to be supplied by the reader.

Separated me.—Set me apart, marked me off from the rest of mankind, for this special object (i.e., the Apostleship of the Gentiles). (Comp. Romans 1:1, and Note there.)

From my mother’s womb.—A comparison of other passages where this phrase is used seems to make it clear that the sense is rather “from the moment of my birth” than “from before my birth.” (See Psalm 22:10; Isaiah 49:1; Isaiah 49:5; Matthew 19:12; Acts 3:2; Acts 14:8.) From the moment that he became a living and conscious human being he was marked out in the purpose of God for his future mission.

Called me.—The call is identical with the conversion of the Apostle through the vision which appeared to him on the way to Damascus. As the Apostle was conscious of having done nothing to deserve so great a mark of the divine favour, it is set down entirely to an act of grace.

Barnes is more succinct:

Who separated me ... - That is, who destined me; or who purposed from my very birth that I should be a preacher and an apostle. The meaning is, that God had in his secret purposes set him apart to be an apostle. It does not mean that he had actually called him in his infancy to the work, for this was not so, but that he designed him to be an important instrument in his hands in spreading the true religion. Jeremiah Jer 1:5 was thus set apart, and John the Baptist was thus early designated for the work which they afterward performed.

  • 2
    The only improvement I can suggest is to change "AC = after conversion" to "AD = after Damascus". May 17, 2022 at 13:26
  • 2
    @RayButterworth - LOL - great suggestion!!
    – Dottard
    May 17, 2022 at 21:40

Paul does not say 'how', only 'that'. It did happen, to him, this 'separating' and this 'calling'. But when he goes on to say 'why', then the matter of God's sovereign, predestining arises for consideration.

This is what Paul said in Galatians 1:15-16

"...and when God was well pleased - having separated me from the womb of my mother, and having called [me] through His grace - to reveal His Son in me, that I might proclaim Him good news among the nations, immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood." - Y.L.T.

This indicates that God was well pleased at his separating Paul from his mother's womb. God was separating him for a purpose. In his gracious providence, God had ensured this baby was conceived - not by chance, or by a father's will - and prospered sufficiently in the womb to arrive at that point of separation - birth. God ensured the birth was successful. God ensured the baby grew to a young man who was well educated as a Roman citizen, being a linguist also deeply versed in the ancient Hebrew scriptures and ways of the Judaic religion. God knew before Paul was conceived that he would grow to learn at the feet of Gamaliel, a Pharisee of high renown (Acts 5:34 & 22:3). God also knew in the counsel of his will that Paul would witness the stoning of Stephen to death, and go on himself to wickedly persecute and imprison Christians, such was his hatred against Christ and his followers. But God knew why this young man arrived at that point, and at what precise point in time during that tirade that the risen Christ should break through into his life.

Now, when Paul wrote those words in his letter to Galatian Christians, he could look back with hindsight and see the hand of God traced in all of that, but he still could not say 'how' God did that; only that he did. He must have reflected on the wonder of God's grace in allowing him to be born, despite what he would grow up to do (based on his beliefs). He came to realise that God had a purpose, and that God was calling him to be an apostle to the nations - the Gentiles. Paul became aware of that calling after his conversion to faith in Christ, but is it not the case that God's whole plan, calling and will for Paul, had been worked out in the counsels of eternity, before any creation started?

After all, God does not have Plan A, with another Plan B in reserve, in case anything goes wrong with the first one. The Almighty is sovereign over everything and everyone. Whether we like that idea or not, the scriptures show this, and Paul spoke of God's eternal plan in connection with himself (and this is the closest we can get to learning how God did this). Paul speaks of the hidden mystery of God, in Christ, not revealed in previous ages, but now revealed to the prophets and apostles:

"...whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of his power. ...And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ: To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be made known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord." Ephesians 3:5-11 A.V. (Bold mine)

The purpose (plan) to ensure a baby would be safely born on earth to grow to the manhood of Jesus Christ, to suffer, die and be resurrected, had all been worked out in the counsels of eternity, before any creating started. Likewise, the purpose (plan) to ensure another baby would be safely born on earth to grow to the manhood of Saul of Tarsus, who would then become God's evangelistic minister of the good news of Christ to the Gentiles, had all been worked out in the counsels of eternity, before any creating started.

It is illogical to think otherwise, because God had to know every last detail of every person created, then born on earth, and all circumstances pertaining to them, to ensure the fulfilment of his promise for "the seed of the woman" to culminate in baby Jesus, and for another baby to then become Jesus Christ's minister to the Gentiles.

The nearest Paul (and we ourselves) can get to knowing "how God separated him from his mother's womb", is what Paul said there in Ephesians. But what he said there shows the 'why' - the eternal plan, the mystery gradually revealed to humanity, requiring a man like Paul to play a part in revealing this mystery to the Gentiles. That is how to understand "the separation".


15 But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, 16 to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles...(Galatians 1 NKJV)

Paul states he was called to preach among the Gentiles. Of all the original apostles, and in particular, among those whom we are told were chosen by Jesus, only Paul was known to be a Roman citizen. This unique "earthly" qualification gave him worldly privileges the other original apostles lacked. In particular, as a Roman citizen, Paul was able to appeal directly to Caesar:

10 So Paul said, “I stand at Caesar’s judgment seat, where I ought to be judged. To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you very well know. 11 For if I am an offender, or have committed anything deserving of death, I do not object to dying; but if there is nothing in these things of which these men accuse me, no one can deliver me to them. I appeal to Caesar.”
(Acts 25)

Preaching before Caesar is something which can be seen as foretold at the time of his conversion:

But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. (Acts 9)

There were different ways a person could obtain Roman citizenship:

The commander answered, “With a large sum I obtained this citizenship.” And Paul said, “But I was born a citizen.” (Acts 22:28)

By saying God "separated me from my mother's womb," Paul is referring to his birth right of Roman citizenship which set him apart from the original apostles.

  • This is a creative theory, but I don't see anything in Galatians that would support it. There's nothing in the context to indicate that Paul is referring to his ethnic citizenship in this verse.
    – kmote
    May 24, 2022 at 2:22

Being separated for a purpose, even by God, does not mean you will actually end up fulfilling that purpose.

For example, if I call my dog, he might not come, even though he is called.

Or, I might carve a bowl out of a block of wood, and even set it on a shelf labelled "bowls", but then my child might come along and use it as a stepping stool. I destined it to be a bowl, but it was not living in its destiny.

If you look around the world, there are lots of people who are not living their original purpose. This includes Satan (see Ezekiel 28).

So when Paul says he was originally separated and called, he was telling the truth. And when he was not living in that calling, he was telling the truth.

  • @Magamtic - Excellent answer! Indeed, Paul was telling the truth he was called but didn't live it. His persecution of church was not part of God's call.
    – Sam
    Sep 1, 2022 at 5:02

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