THE ANATOMY OF AN AMAZING CONVERSION
1 But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. 4 And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 8 Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. 10 Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. 14 And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized.
— Acts 9:1-18, ESV
This text records the most amazing conversion story in the history of Christianity. We even derive a name from it, the Damascus Road Experience, for any dramatic story of a really bad person coming to real faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. But the truth is, every genuinely born again Christian has their own Damascus Road.
This is not to say that the Pharisee Saul’s conversion to the Apostle Paul was not outstanding in its own right. It completes the trifecta of Christ’s great commission. The early church took the gospel to Jerusalem and Judea, from Pentecost to Stephen’s stoning. Philip took the gospel to Samaria and beyond. Now, Paul was chosen, converted, and commissioned to take the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth. Apart from the Lord Jesus Christ, this Saul of Tarsus who became the Apostle Paul would do more for Christ and Christianity that any other mere mortal who ever lived.
Yes, this is an amazing conversion of an amazing man, and we want to see it in full. But as we do, you will notice the road that brought Paul to Christ are the same steps you traveled when you were reconciled to God. All grace is amazing, whether it be poured out upon a famous person like Paul, or just an average Christians like you or me.
An Amazing Convert
I used to hear it said often by preachers in semi-pelagian or arminian churches that to become a Christian, you must take the first step, then God will take the rest. That’s true, if you acknowledge that the first step is to sin. Then, God has to do the rest because sinners are spiritually dead, totally depraved, and utterly incapable of saving themselves, or even of assisting God in any way during the process.
The Pharisee Saul certainly did his part. Though clothed in sheepish religious garb, Saul was a ravenous, sinful wolf who hated the body of Christ, the church; therefore, he hated the Lord Jesus Christ. He used the religious freedom Rome gave to the Jews to conspire with other Pharisees and Sadducees to imprison and execute members of “the Way,” one of the first names given to Christianity, based on Jesus’ declaration recorded in John 14:6. Those who hate Christ and go out of their way to murder Christians deserve the lowest level of Hell. But God, amazingly, gave grace to this one.
God’s grace appears to man in a brilliant flash of light, in this case, literally. Shining brighter than the sun, the Son of God, crucified and resurrected about a year earlier, revealed Himself personally and powerfully to Saul. He spoke to Saul, told him who He is, and convicted Saul of the sin of persecution, among his many other sins. Saul the sinner was convicted, by Christ, and soon he would be converted into Paul the Christian, the Apostle, the first and foremost missionary the world has ever known.
In spite of Saul’s vast knowledge of Holy Scripture, and this brilliant and blinding Christophany on the Damascus Road, the gospel of God’s grace still had to be presented and explained by one beggar to another. So not only did God appear personally to Saul, He sent a human witness, another Christian, to explain to Saul all that was involved in becoming the new man, Paul. Ananias was his name, a bold witness for Jesus if there ever was one. With the Apostolic power of the early church, Ananias healed Saul’s blindness, preached Jesus to him, and like a skilled obstetrician or midwife, helped birth Saul into the kingdom of God and church of Christ.
With all the excitement of Saul’s conversion to Paul, from lost Pharisee to saved Christian, it is easy to overlook a stated theological question and answer. Why did Saul get saved? He didn’t deserve it. He had tried to save himself by works through Pharisaical Judaism. He was truly blind, spiritually, before Jesus blinded him, literally, on the Damascus Road, and could not contribute one iota to his salvation. Saul was saved because he was chosen by God, because of the great grace of election, the foundational decree of every salvation experience. As Paul realized what it meant to be “a chosen instrument” of God in the ensuing years, he would write inspired letters explaining salvation, from election in eternity past to security through eternity future, better than any other biblical writer (ref. Romans 8:28-30; Ephesians 1:3-14; etc.).
While salvation is all of God and all of grace, it does make room for free and willing human choices that matter, for eternity. Saul stopped persecuting Christians, and no doubt repented of a magnitude of other sins. Saul believed the good news about Jesus Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and in his case, reappearance. Saul was willingly baptized and became a member of the church he had once tried to destroy. And so Saul became Paul, with a lot more decisions to make, and a redemptive story to tell that will encompass most of the New Testament.
An Average Christian
Most Christians might think they could never be like Paul, or any other famous Christian such as Augustine, Luther, Calvin, or Spurgeon. You might think you could never accomplish some special purpose for the Lord. On the other hand, you might think you’ve never been as bad as Paul was, or that your conversion to Christ need not be as miraculous and spectacular as his. And, you’d be wrong.
If you are a true Christian, and many think they are but are not (ref. Matthew 7:21-23; 1 John 2:4), your road to salvation may not have been named Damascus, but it was virtually the same path. Compare the experience of an average Christian to the amazing conversion of the Apostle Paul.
Your first step, like Paul’s, is to be confronted with your sin, sinning, and sinfulness. The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah (ref. Jeremiah 17:9) and our New Testament Apostle Paul (ref. Romans 3:10ff) own our two covenantal Ph.D.’s on hamartiology.
We all sin in this life, continually, because we are sinners. Until one comes to grips with this fact, and its dire consequences of separation from God (ref. Isaiah 59:2), certain death (ref. Ezekiel 18:4), and punishment in Hell (ref. Matthew 10:28), the bad news will never give way to the good. Both newspapers, bad and good, are revelations from God.
No one can know God unless God reveals Himself to them (ref. Matthew 11:25-28). In Paul’s case it was quite personal, namely the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God. In every case, however, it is personal in the third person, as the Holy Spirit is the presence of God present at every conversion to Christianity (ref. John 16:8). The Holy Spirit’s favorite two tools in revealing God and the gospel to mankind are the word of God and a witness for Christ.
In Paul’s case, and again in virtually every case, before God moves upon a person to save them, He moves upon a present Christian to witness to them. Ananias was instrumental in Paul coming to an understanding of sin and salvation. In my case it was a Freewill Baptist preacher named Bill, along with some other Christians’ influences. Who witnessed to you? Who will you witness to?
Of course, the greatest witness to the gospel and salvation is God Himself. The Father grants sovereign grace to elect all who are His children, whether it be Jeremiah (ref. Jeremiah 1:5), Paul (ref. Acts 9:15), or anyone else who has ever been saved (ref. Ephesians 1:4). The Son brought the gospel to earth, preached it for three years, then died and rose again to make it effectual upon whomever the Spirit of God implants it. All Christians are saved because God chose them, Jesus died and rose again for them, and the Holy Spirit came to live within them.
Even so, every born again Christian is a cognizant and willing actor in this divine drama. The intellect is engaged, the emotions are triggered, and the human will enjoins the will of God in repentance and faith. Proof and profession of saving faith is found in an eagerness and willingness to be baptized and become an active part of Christ’s church.
The irony of Saul’s conversion to Paul is that he spent the rest of his life building and expanding and exhorting the very entity, Christ’s church, he heretofore had actively tried to tear down. So it is with the average Christian, who before conversion either tried to destroy the church with attack or neglect (neglect destroys more buildings than an active wrecking ball), who now takes their place in the Lord’s church on the Lord’s day and serves as an ambassador for Christ and church every day.
An Anatomy Lesson
No one is so sinful that they cannot be saved by God’s grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. King Manasseh, son of good King Hezekiah, may well have been the worst person in the Old Testament world. He did more to undermine God and His word, destroy the foundations of Israel, and corrupt the souls of men than anyone else in those days. God saved him. God saved the Christian-hunter Saul of Tarsus and turned him into the Apostle Paul, missionary, church planter, and biblical author extraordinaire. With God, nothing is impossible, especially salvation (ref. Matthew 19:26).
No one is so good that they do not require a miracle of grace to be saved. Saul of Tarsus could fit into this category, too. If one could be saved by adherence to religion, obedience to a moral code, or otherwise doing more “good” than “bad,” then he would have never needed Jesus. But one sin is enough to condemn a human before a supremely holy and just God, and the truth is we all sin about once, per second. Sin kills (ref. Ephesians 2:1), only grace awakens (ref. Ephesians 2:8-10).
God is sovereign, and no one will be saved apart from His divine decree. Yet one of His persistent revelations is that He will save anyone, anywhere, anytime when they “call upon the name of the Lord” (ref. Genesis 4:26; Joel 2:23; John 6:37; Acts 2:21; Romans 10:13). Salvation is God’s will, but those who are saved willingly come to Christ, to the baptismal waters, and to responsible church membership.
This is the anatomy of the amazing conversion of the Apostle Paul, and the anatomy of the conversion of any person who has truly come to Christ. Amazing grace is always followed by the aftermath of faithful service and fruitful ministry. We will see how Paul’s journey, and ours, continues in the next text.