Called By His Grace: 10 Theses on the Conversion of Paul

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If we want to understand grace, we should look at the conversion of Paul.

Not because grace is always so dramatic as to convert a murderer on the Damascus Road, but because grace can be so dramatic as to convert a murderer on the Damascus Road. As Paul explains in his letter to the Galatians:

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‘I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it,’ but God ‘called me by his grace’ (Galatians 1:15).

In other words, grace is more powerful and profound than we are generally willing to admit. If the grace of Christ could save Paul, the grace of Christ can undoubtedly save you and me.

1) Grace seeks the sinner

The narrative of Paul’s conversion begins with a focus on his sin. Known at the time as “Saul,” he had approved the murder of Stephen and then carried out a persecution of Christians in Jerusalem. This resulted in many Christians fleeing the city, but Saul was not done. “Still breathing threats and murder,” he sought from the high priest a warrant for the arrest of Christians in Damascus:

So that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem (Acts 9:1-2).

Yet God, by his grace, sought this great sinner, meeting him on the very road where he intended to hold God’s people captive. As Paul would write later to Timothy:

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost (1 Timothy 1:15).

2) Grace stops the sinner

Sometimes grace works gently, but at Paul’s conversion, grace was unexpected and bracing:

Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground… (Acts 9:3-4).

There’s a delicious irony here. Whereas Saul sought to arrest the Christians, it was Christ who arrested Saul, quite literally stopping him in his tracks. The scriptures do not say how Saul was traveling, but many artistic depictions of the moment show him falling from a horse, the long fall reflecting the reversal of his plans.

3) Grace calls the sinner

Though the work of grace on Saul is abrupt, it is also profoundly personal. Like God’s call to Abraham at Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:11) or Samuel in the temple at Shiloh (1 Samuel 3:10), Jesus calls Saul with a double invocation of his name:

‘Saul, Saul…’ (Acts 9:4).

Moreover, when Saul responds by asking for the identity of the voice, he receives a personal response:

And he said ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus…’ (Acts 9:5).

God has known his people from before all time, and in Christ, he reveals this intimate knowledge with his people, inviting them to a personal relationship by grace. Later, Paul will explain it this way:

…[God] saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began (2 Timothy 1:9).

4) Grace convicts the sinner

After calling out Saul personally, Jesus gets straight to the point, convicting Saul of his sin.

‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ (Acts 9:4).

Jesus names the persecution that Saul is committing. Moreover, Jesus says Saul is not only persecuting his people but actually persecuting him. Jesus repeats the idea a second time:

‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’ (Acts 9:5).

In other words, Jesus identifies himself with his people, such that the persecution of Christians is the persecution of Christ. The concept is reminiscent of Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 25, that whatever we do to the least of these, we do to him.

In Christ, however, our former sins are no longer a source of shame but rather a demonstration of the grace and glory of God. Thus, Paul would later admit this persecution but hold it next to his work as an apostle, a remarkable witness to the grace of God:

For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:9-10).

5) Grace blinds the sinner

Saul’s encounter with Jesus caused a temporary blindness:

Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing (Acts 9:8).

The practical effect was that Saul had to rely upon others:

So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank (Acts 9:8-9).

Why should grace blind the sinner? By blindness, we learn to rely upon others, not only on our neighbor but ultimately on God. The medieval English scholar Bede explains: “By no means would [Saul] have been able to see well again unless he had first been fully blinded. Also, when he had rejected his own wisdom, which was confusing him, he could commit himself totally to faith.”

In other words, grace causes blindness to make room for grace itself. As Paul would later be told by God:

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:9).

6) Grace befriends the sinner

At this point, a new character enters the story of Paul’s conversion, a believer named Ananias who lived in Damascus. God comes to Ananias and sends him to “look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying…and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight (Acts 9:11-12). God’s instructions to Ananias seem simple enough, but Ananias is afraid:

Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name (Acts 9:13-14).

Saul is a notorious sinner and enemy of the church, and Ananias has good reason to avoid him. Nevertheless, God calls Ananias to befriend Saul:

Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name… (Acts 9:15).

So Ananias goes to Saul, lays his hands upon him, and says:

Brother Saul… (Acts 9:17).

Thus, grace befriends the sinner, making brothers out of enemies. As Paul would later write:

Formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 1:13-14).

7) Grace unblinds the sinner

Though grace blinds the sinner for a time, the purpose of this blindness is that the sinner might regain a better sight. Ananias prays over his new brother in the Lord:

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 (Acts 9:17).

Notice that God uses the prayers of his people as the agent of his grace. The result in Saul is instantaneous:

And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight (Acts 9:18).

Saul’s recovery of sight is a kind of resurrection, coming on the third day. Bede writes: “Since he had not believed that the Lord had conquered death by rising on the third day, he was now taught by his own experience of three days of darkness by the return of the light.”

Grace restores sight to that we might see God in Jesus Christ, for:

He is image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15).

8) Grace baptizes the sinner

Having met the brother Ananias, and with his sight restored, Saul was joined to the body of Christ.
Then he rose and was baptized (Acts 9:18).
While not named, it is assumed that Saul was instructed by Ananias or the other believers how Jesus had commanded baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Paul’s later description of baptism as a joining with Christ in his death and resurrection thus draws upon his own experience of rising to new life on the third day.
By incorporating the sinner into the body of Christ and forgiving his sins, baptism is one of the most lavish expressions of grace. In Paul’s words:
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace (Ephesians 1:7).

9) Grace feeds the sinner

Then, there’s a small but interesting detail: immediately after being baptized, Saul is given food.

…and taking food, he was strengthened (Acts 9:19).

Now, the text does not go into any further detail. What kind of food was this? Probably a hearty meal designed to bring health back to a man who had not eaten for three days. But was it merely a hearty meal? Or did this meal include the “breaking of bread,” the earliest celebration of communion? That seems most likely, especially if we follow the pattern of the Jerusalem church at Pentecost. For at Pentecost, we see first the discussion of baptism:

So those who received his word were baptized (Luke 2:41).

And second a reference to the breaking of bread:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Luke 2:42).
Saul, likewise, was baptized and fed, strengthened by the grace of God.

10) Grace commissions the sinner

The remarkable conclusion of the story is Saul’s proclamation of Christ.

And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying “He is the Son of God” (Acts 920).

And to complete the irony, after a few days, “the Jews plotted to kill him” (Acts 9:23). Where Saul begins by persecuting Christ, he ends as a persecuted preacher of Christ.

Thus, Saul’s conversion sets forth God’s great truth that where sin increases, grace abounds. God can take sin and convert it into his glory. As Paul himself would write:

Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 5:20-21).

 


Image: Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (17th Century). 

Published on

January 25, 2024

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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