A Trophy of Grace

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Acts 9:3-9

It’s difficult to say who was the greatest Christian of all time, but there’s no question at all about who was the most influential. That was the apostle Paul.

“His mads were madder and blues bluer, his pride prouder and his humbleness humbler, his strengths stronger and his weaknesses weaker than almost anybody else’s you’d be apt to think of; and the splash he made when he fell for Christ is audible still . . . [He knew] that the God who could work through the likes of him must be a God and a half.”

Novelist Frederick Beuchner’s assessment of the man we know as the apostle Paul well conveys his remarkable qualities. Paul, as Saul of Tarsus, once had been a raging, hard-hearted persecuter of Christians. But something happened to the young fanatic who set out for Damascus one day breathing fire, with murder in his heart. On the road Saul met the risen Lord Jesus Christ, and he was changed forever. He took a new stand of faith in Christ, from which he never wavered the rest of his life. Paul became a hero of the Christian faith, a missionary leader, a trophy of God’s grace. His life became “Exhibit A” of the proof that God is great enough and gracious enough to save anyone.

This zealous young rabbi, born to Jewish parents in the Roman colony of Tarsus on the southern coast of Asia Minor, educated in Jerusalem in the finest rabbinic schools under the tutelage of Israel’s greatest scholars, was on the fast track to a prominent career as a rabbi. He was a rigid defender of Jewish tradition, which for him meant punishing all who deviated from it. Like a secret police agent, Saul searched out the Christians throughout Jerusalem and dragged them before the authorities for imprisonment or execution, convinced that in so doing he was pleasing God. Such was Saul’s zeal that he even got permission from the authorities to carry his inquisition to places outside of Palestine. So one day he set out for Damascus, to hunt down the Christians in that city.

PAUL’S CONVERSION

He never made it there. At least, the man Saul of Tarsus had been never did. What happened on that road changed Saul forever, and altered the course of world history. So what did happen on the road to Damascus? Detractors of Christianity dismiss the idea that Paul had a supernatural encounter with the risen Jesus Christ. Secular thinkers refuse to accept that a heavenly vision miraculously turned Paul from a persecutor into an apostle. Such people reject this possibility on philosophical grounds. They don’t believe in miracles or that Christ really did rise from the dead. So they think Paul’s conversion must have some natural explanation. What Paul saw outside of Damascus that day must have been a hallucination. Maybe Paul was suffering from sunstroke. Or he had some sort of seizure. Some have suggested that psychological factors like guilt over what he was doing caused Paul’s abrupt transformation.

But the fact is, there is no humanistic explanation that can account for the radical change in Paul’s faith and life. The only explanation for what happened on the road to Damascus is the supernatural grace of God. Paul was changed instantly, by the powerful presence and words of the living Lord Jesus.

Of course, this does not mean that Saul of Tarsus had had no previous knowledge of Christ, or that God had not prepared him in any way to come to faith. On the contrary, Saul knew a great deal about the Christian way. He had been present at Stephen’s trial and execution (Acts 7). As a resident in Jerusalem, it is scarcely possible that Paul could have remained ignorant of the testimony and teaching of the other Christian leaders, especially of Peter. Indeed, it’s not at all unlikely that Paul had even seen and met Jesus himself. Many years later, as he recounted the story of Christ’s appearance to him on the road, Paul reported that the risen Christ had said to him, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14). Before his conversion it seems that the Lord had been prodding Paul, the way a peasant would drive a stubborn ox by goading it along with a sharp stick. And Paul was resisting. Perhaps God was pricking his conscience with the thought of the innocent people he had imprisoned or put to death. Maybe it was the truth of the repeated testimony Paul had heard about Jesus’ death and resurrection. Christ’s own words or actions could have been jabbing at Paul’s memory. Whatever the means, God’s Spirit was working on him. Though the moment of Paul’s surrender to Christ was instantaneous, it was really part of a process by which grace was transforming him. Paul’s abrupt turn-around on the Damascus road was not the beginning of God’s work in his life – nor was it the end.

The conversion of Paul is so important that Luke describes it no less than three times in the book of Acts, first in chapter nine as a straight narrative, and then twice more towards the end of the book (ch. 22 & 26) in first person accounts by the apostle himself. This is what happened: As Saul and his party approached the city of Damascus about noon one day, he saw a light brighter than the midday sun, which blinded him. He fell to the ground. Then a voice spoke to him, calling him by name and questioning him. It was Jesus, and when Saul realized the truth – hat the one whom he had rejected was alive, that the gospel he was laboring to destroy was the truth, that the people he was persecuting were the Lord’s – he surrendered on the spot. Theologian John Stott, in his commentary on the book of Acts, summarizes the real explanation for what happened to Paul on the Damascus road:

If we ask what caused Saul’s conversion, only one answer is possible. What stands out from the narrative is the sovereign grace of God through Jesus Christ. Saul did not “decide for Christ,” as we might say. On the contrary, he was persecuting Christ. It was rather Christ who decided for him and intervened in his life. . . . Gradually, and without violence, Jesus pricked Saul’s mind and conscience with his goads. Then he revealed himself to him by the light and the voice, not in order to overwhelm him, but in such a way as to enable him to make a free response . . . One can but magnify the grace of God that he should have had mercy on such a rabid bigot as Saul of Tarsus, and indeed on such proud, rebellious and wayward creatures as ourselves.

(J.R. Stott, The Spirit, the Church, and the World, p. 168,173)

PAUL’S CONVERSIONAND OURS

In reflecting on Paul’s story, it is important to recognize both the unique aspects of his experience and those things that are common to all Christian conversions. Paul saw a blinding light and heard an audible voice. This was more than just a vision. As he later claimed in a letter to the Christians in Corinth, Paul had witnessed a literal appearance by the risen Christ, the final such resurrection appearance (1 Cor. 15:8). Paul was changed instantaneously, “between the horse and the ground,” as someone has remarked. And, as an eye-witness to Jesus’ resurrection, Paul was also specially commissioned as an apostle, with a unique role and authority. In all those ways he is distinctive, and we should not expect that our experience of coming to Christ (or the ministry to which we are called) will be identical with Paul’s.

But in other respects, what happened to Paul on the Damascus road is the same thing that happens to every Christian who has been genuinely converted, who is born again. Paul’s example shows us that conversion is first and foremost an act of God’s grace. It begins with God’s initiative, not our decision. Paul reminds us that God offers his grace not to people who have earned it, but to those who don’t deserve it. Are you worried that you may have done things that would disqualify you from God’s love? Don’t be. Of course you have. So had Paul! So have I! The good news is that God loves us anyway, not because we’re worthy of his love, but just because he does.

Paul’s story also demonstrates what, in its essence, Christian conversion actually is. Conversion happens when, in a personal encounter with the risen Christ Jesus, we surrender unconditionally to his rule. “Who are you, Lord?” Paul asked. When he heard the answer, “I am Jesus, the same one you have been persecuting,” there was no question whatsoever from that moment onward who would be the Lord in Paul’s life.

Finally, conversion always includes a commission to serve Christ in some way, somewhere. Those who surrender in faith to the Lord Jesus are called to witness to him and to work for him in the world. And their primary mission is to love people the way he loves.

The word conversion itself means to “turn around.” That’s exactly what Paul did when Christ appeared to him. He changed the whole direction of his life. He stopped living for his religion, for tradition, for his career, for his own ambitions and goals. He started living unselfishly for Jesus Christ. Here is how he himself expressed it in a letter he wrote some years later, “I [that is, my ego] have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

A lot of Christians worry about their conversion- when did it happen, how did it happen, was it authentic, was it dramatic, was it real, can they name a date and a time and a place like Paul could? But none of those is the most important question regarding conversion. The most important question is simply this: are you converted right now? Are you turned toward Christ? Are you today living your life facing toward God? Or are you facing away from him? Do you need to turn around?