Overflowing Grace for All Who Believe
The Conversion of the Chief of Sinners
In the New York Times, recently there was a full-page ad for Columbia University. It advertised seven fields of study in which a person can get a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies: America Studies, Ancient Studies, East Asian Studies, Islamic Studies, Jewish Studies, Medieval Studies, and South Asian Studies. Richard John Neuhaus spotted this ad and wrote an editorial about it, asking, Where is Christian Studies? Ancient, Islamic, Jewish, and so on, but no Christian Studies. He ponders four possible reasons and then settles with this one:
Nervousness is caused by the awareness that there are an awful lot of people who really believe in Christianity. The university is a cosmopolitan space where “religious traditions” can be subjected to critical examination but are not to be taught as though they might be, well, you know, true. Even in religious studies departments, faculty members who are Hindus, Buddhists, and believers in Mystical Crystals can quite openly profess their faith. Muslims and, usually, Jews can, too. Nobody raises a question about their “proselytizing.” Not so with Christians. The fear is that Christianity might be taken altogether too seriously. The absence of Christian Studies in the Columbia program, it turns out, is not an insult to Christianity. Those of the other faiths, however, might have reason to be offended.
I think he is right. We live in a land where the rising prejudice and discrimination against Christianity is a back-handed tribute. It’s an honor. Giving Christianity a fair shake — a fair open hearing, a serious focus of attention — makes secular people nervous, not only because there are so many people who really believe Christianity is true, but also because they believe it is true for everybody!
Christianity Is a Converting Religion
They believe everybody has sinned against the one and only Holy God, and that his one and only Son has come into the world to die once for all in the place of sinners so that anyone and everyone who repents and believes will be reconciled to God and have eternal life, and those who don’t will perish. And not only that, millions of these Christians believe the most loving thing in the world you can do is to pray and witness and live so as to persuade others to change the way they think and feel and live, and become Christians.
“God had you in view when he saved Paul.”
This is the way it was from the beginning. Christianity was seen as a converting religion. It tried to win converts from all other religions because besides Jesus “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
The Pharisee Saul, who later became the missionary Paul, saw this very early. He saw Christianity as a threat to his own religion, so he attacked it with tremendous zeal — until the undeniable truth overcame him and made him one of the greatest converts Christianity has ever had.
Paul’s Conversion Was for You Personally
What I want to do this morning is look at the story of Paul’s conversion. I want you to see all of its parts from a very special angle — namely, that this conversion was for you personally. That is, God’s design in converting Paul is to give you hope for yourself and for the people you want to see converted.
I want to be sure you see this. Look at 1 Timothy 1:15b–16, Paul says, “I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” In other words, God had you in view when he saved Paul. That is an awesome thought. But that is what it says. God saved Paul for your sake. So that you would see “overflowing grace” (1 Timothy 1:14) and divine “mercy” and “perfect patience” and take courage and hope for your own salvation and for the salvation of others.
So let’s go back now to Acts 9:1–19 and look at the conversion of Paul from this angle. What was it like and how does this encourage me?
1. The Conversion of a Zealous Opponent
The conversion of Paul was the conversion of an utterly committed opponent of Christianity.
What Luke Stresses
Luke really stresses this. In Acts 8:3 he says, “But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.”
Then in Acts 9:1–2 Luke says that Paul was not just threatening the Christians, he was “breathing threats.” It is as though persecution was the air he breathed. This was not a minor or peripheral thing in Paul’s life. It went right to the core of who he was as a Pharisee. Christianity with its message of salvation by faith apart from meritorious works would turn Paul’s religious achievement in a pile of rubbish (Philippians 3:7–8) and be the end of all his boasting.
So Paul was breathing threats and murder against Christians. He was even taking his persecution 150 miles north to Damascus and planning to bring Christians back to Jerusalem for punishment.
What God Wants Us to See
This is the kind of person that no one expects to be converted. His opposition is too deep and too articulate. So much of his life would be threatened if Christianity were true! And he has taken such a public stand that it would be utterly humiliating to change his mind and support what he had fought. It would be like Molly Yard becoming pro-life and doing rescues. Or Madalyn Murray O’hair believing in Jesus and pushing public prayer. Or Saddam Hussein getting converted and becoming a Christian missionary to Muslims in Saudi Arabia.
“We should not be despairing for those who show no signs of being prepared for conversion.”
So what God wants us to see in this conversion is that the most unlikely people can be converted and are converted. God’s mercy and power are not limited to people who have been set up for Christianity by a good family or a church association or a clean moral track record. The chief of sinners was converted. And that means hope in evangelism and in your own faltering walk with the Lord.
2. Sudden and Unexpected
The second thing to notice about Paul’s conversion is that it was sudden and unexpected. Verse 3: “Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him.” The whole thing came out of the blue, as we say.
How Paul Describes His Own Experience
Sometimes people try to show that Paul was tormented a long time by a guilty conscience because he had stood by at Stephen’s stoning (Acts 7:58; 8:1). But that is not what Paul tells us about his own experience. When he tells his own story in Galatians 1:13–14, he simply says that he was extremely zealous for the traditions of his fathers and that he was advancing in Judaism beyond all his contemporaries. And when he tells his testimony in Acts 23, he says that he had lived in good conscience up to that day.
Paul never links his conversion to any preparatory work of God in his life at all. He did not see his conversion as the climax of a long process of God’s convicting him of sin or of frustrating him with his life or of scaring him with death or hell. All those things may have happened in an instant. But there was no long process. The conversion was sudden and utterly unexpected.
This means that we should not be despairing for those who show no signs of being prepared for conversion. It is a mistake to think that prayers for others are only effective if they have an immediate effect in some kind of openness or interest or spiritual sensitivity. Paul was not open and not interested and not spiritually sensitive. He was utterly closed and utterly convinced that Christianity was untrue and spiritually dead in trespasses and sins as he says in Ephesians 2:3.
He was not “ripe for the picking” as we like to say. He was way beyond picking. He was hard and dry and shriveled up. What happened to Paul was sudden and utterly unexpected, and that means the same can happen for others. We should keep praying and keep speaking the truth in love.
3. A Work of Divine Sovereign Grace
Paul’s conversion was a work of divine sovereign grace. Jesus totally took over on the Damascus road. He was not responding to anything Paul had done to win God’s grace. It was utterly sovereign — that means it was utterly free and unmerited and that it came with overwhelming authority and power. Whatever resistance Paul might have been able to put up against this sovereign grace gave way before the triumphant love of God.
Evidences of God’s Sovereign Work
Look at the evidences of God’s sovereign work here. First, God causes a light to flash from heaven with blinding brightness. In fact, it left Paul blind for three days—that is, until Ananias laid hands on him (verse 17) and prayed. So God blinded him and God took the blindness away. He gave Paul a powerful sign of the actual spiritual darkness he was living in.
Second, notice that the voice that speaks to Paul from heaven does not ask for Paul’s free decision to believe in Jesus; it tells him exactly what he is to do. Verse 5b–6: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Jesus is seen here as totally authoritative. He means to have Paul in his service and there is no question but that he will succeed.
Third, verses 15–16 make this crystal clear. Ananias is afraid to go pray for Paul, but Jesus says to him in a vision (verse15): “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
“Conversion is a work of sovereign grace where God moves in on our lives and surprises us with joy.”
Jesus has chosen Paul long before Paul chose Jesus. In fact, Paul says in Galatians 1:15 that God had set him apart before he was born. And since he is chosen by Jesus, Jesus does not speak as though Paul might not go along with it. He will. So Jesus speaks of the great ministry Paul is going to have with kings and nations and Israel. And he speaks of how much he must suffer — not might suffer.
So it is clear that this conversion is a work of divine, sovereign grace. God moved in on Paul’s life and, as C.S. Lewis said, surprised him with joy — and with suffering.
Go Further Up
There is so much more we could draw out of Paul’s conversion. We could talk about the fact that it involved three days of darkness and fasting; that it involved miraculous signs like a light and voice from heaven and blindness and visions and healing; that God used another person, Ananias, to complete the sovereign work; that the call to Christ was also a call to serve and to suffer; and that the climax of the conversion involved the laying on of hands, the filling of the Spirit, and baptism. But we don’t have time to develop all those. I want to close with the point we started with.
4. For Your Sake
Paul’s conversion was for your sake. I want you to take this very personally as we close. God had you in view when he chose Paul and saved him by sovereign grace. First Timothy 1:15–16 are very precious here:
I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience [literally: the whole of his longsuffering] for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.
If you believe on Jesus for eternal life — or if you may yet believe on him for eternal life — Paul’s conversion is for your sake. It is to make Christ’s immense “longsuffering” vivid for you. Paul’s pre-conversion life was a long, long trial to Jesus. “Why do you persecute me?” Jesus asked. “Your life of unbelief and rebellion is a persecution of me!” Paul had been set apart for God since before he was born. So all his life was one long abuse of God, and one long rejection and mockery of Jesus who loved him.
That is why Paul says his conversion is a brilliant demonstration of Jesus’s longsuffering. And that is what he offers you this morning. It was for our sake that Jesus did it the way he did it. To show “the whole of his longsuffering” to us. Lest we lose heart. Lest we think he could not really save us. Lest we think he is prone to anger. Lest we think we have gone too far away. Lest we think our dearest one cannot be converted — suddenly, unexpectedly, by the sovereign, overflowing grace of Jesus.