What is Conversion?

Frank Sinatra’s song, “I did it my way”, would have made a good epitaph on my early life. I was brought up in a Christian home, believed in God and we went to church on Sundays. I thought Jesus was a good man sent from God but Easter didn’t make sense. If only Jesus had not died, he could have done so much more good in the world. I had a Bible but it had small print and was written in old English so I rarely attempted to read it. When I left home and went to work in London for the Civil Service, I never got round to finding a church. I tried to live by the Ten Commandments and hoped that when I died, in the scales, my good would outweigh my bad. I remember praying on the way to work thanking God for the beauty of creation but he always seemed distant, like a sepia photo of my great-grandparent, we were related but I didn’t know them. Then I had the opportunity to go to University at Sussex. I met two people, Trent and Ed,  who talked about Jesus as a personal friend.  They explained that God loved me and created me to know and enjoy him for ever. They told me what I already know – that I fell short of God’s standards and although I may not be as bad as I could be, I could never be as good as I should be. My sin cut me off from God and because the wages of sin is death. The good news is that God sent his son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to die in our place, to forgive our sins and give us the gift of eternal life. They showed me that the Bible promised, if I trusted in Jesus as my Lord and Saviour I would experience God’s love and forgiveness.

I would find the meaning and purpose for which He had created me. They took time to answer my questions. I remember feeling a mixture of guilt, joy and curiosity, as they shared with me more of what the Bible says about Jesus. They shared their own experience of him and introduced me to other Christians.  One night I got on my knees and prayed a simple prayer. Something like, “Lord Jesus I am sorry that I have been running my life my way and ignoring you. Thank you for dying on the cross in my place to take away my sin and give me eternal life. Please come into my life and make me a child of God. Amen” I soon found I had an insatiable thirst to read the Bible which had become alive.  I wanted to know God and make him known. That was 45 years ago. I know I have failed him on many occasions, but he has not given up on my. His love, grace and mercy have been constant and have sustained me. I can identify with John Newton, the former slave trader, who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace. “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.” That is my story, my testimony of how I came to know God through Christ Jesus. If Jesus is your Lord and Saviour, you too have a testimony. Have you ever shared your testimony? It is your personal experience of conversion.

Conversion is the process by which we become Christians. We were all conceived in our mother’s womb and born after 9 months, give or take a week. We all came into the world as helpless babies, and grew to be the people we are today. The circumstances of our birth, the time, place and name we were given are unique. But we all came into the world in the same way. The same is true spiritually. Conversion is about our second birth, being born again. Our testimonies are unique, but God’s desire is that through giving our testimony others will be born again also. There are many biblical analogies for conversion. Born of the Spirit, baptised in the spirit, lost and found, raised from the dead, the blind able to see.

This morning we want to explore the Apostle Saul’s testimony as told by Luke in Acts 9. There are three parts to his testimony. Before, during and after, just as there are for ours.

  1. Before: What Saul was like before He met Jesus (Acts 9:1-2)
  2. During: How Saul came to know Jesus (Acts 9:3-9)
  3. After: Some of the consequences of knowing Jesus (Acts 9:10-22)

One thing to say is Saul did not become Paul. Saul is Hebrew, Paul is Greek. He was always Saul and Paul, before, during and after he met Jesus.

  1. Before: What Saul was like before he met Jesus

“Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.” (Acts 9:1-2)

Saul’s Pedigree

Saul was from a wealthy influential family of Tarsus.  His father was a Pharisee, and Saul was trained as one also.  Saul had been taught by Gamaliel one of the most famous Hebrew scholars. Saul could therefore speak Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic.  He would have memorised most of the Old Testament. He was also a member of the Sanhedrin, the elite ruling authority  of Judaism. He therefore had good connections, access to the high priest.   Saul was also a Roman citizen, which meant he was part of the  upper class. Raised in Tarsus meant he had access to what was one  of the three most important universities competing with Athens and Alexandria. Saul had the best possible education, a combination of Greek  culture, Hebrew religion and Roman law.  Saul’s pedigree.

Saul’s Prejudice

“still breathing murderous threats against the disciples” (Acts 9:1)

I believe without a doubt that this is God’s word. One reason is because of the complete honesty of its human authors not to hide  anything under the carpet. By the time this was written Saul was a celebrity, the hero of the church. But Luke does not disguise or play down Saul’s past.  In Galatians 1:14 Saul admits that before he met Jesus he was extremely zealous for the traditions of his fathers.  In that zeal, he had developed an all consuming fanatical hatred for the sect known as Christians. In Acts 26:10 he admits that “on the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death I cast my vote against them.”   Quite a combination, a man of power and influence and a man with an all consuming passion to destroy the followers of Jesus. Saul’s Pedigree, Saul’s Prejudice.

Saul’s Plans

Not content to persecute the disciples in Jerusalem, he was  prepared to travel the 140 miles to Damascus in search of Christians. That was a long way in those days, especially on foot.

Saul’s Pedigree : he was an exceptional man of learning.
Saul’s Prejudice : he was a fanatic, consumed by hatred of his opponents.
Saul’s Plan  : the systematic extermination of Christians.

Saul was not the kind of person you would want to meet outside church one night….  From those few verses we learn a lot about the kind of person Saul was like before he met Jesus.  The story also tells us a lot about God. God’s patience, God’s perseverance, God’s sovereignty. God had a plan for Saul, but the early Christians didn’t know it. They couldn’t understand why the Lord allowed them to suffer at  Saul’s hands, but we know with hindsight the Lord was indeed at  work. Gamaliel’s words in Acts 5:39 were quite prophetic when he said, “If this is from God you will not be able to stop these men, you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”   If verses 1-2 tell us how God tolerates Saul so patiently. That was the first part of his testimony.

  1. During: How Saul Met Jesus

“As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” (Acts 9:3-5)

Notice the Lord says to Saul, “Why are you persecuting me?” (9:4)

Not persecuting Christians but “me”.  God took Saul’s sin personally. The power of the risen Lord Jesus, revealed in the blinding light, brought Saul to his knees.  The presence of the risen Lord Jesus through the voice that spoke brought Saul to his senses.

Rather drastic you might think, but Saul was a dangerous man, a ruthless man.  God uses the minimum force necessary to bring a person to the point of repentance and forgiveness. No one is immune or impervious from God’s call. Saul was full of prejudice but he found that nothing can impede the Holy Spirit’s convicting work. Saul had evil plans but he found out that no one interferes with God’s church with impunity.  45 years ago I came face to face with the realisation that God was Sovereign, and that I had been running away from him.  I could run away no longer. God tolerates the Saul in all of us so patiently. God takes the sin in us so personally. That’s why Christ came.

  1. After: Some of the Consequences of Knowing Jesus

“…the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” (Acts 9:15-16)

Few individuals could fulfil such a mission, but in God’s timing  Saul became that person. I wonder when the Lord began to sow the seeds of doubt in Saul’s mind. When the light and voice confronted him on the road to Damascus, Saul already knew who it was speaking to him. Saul says, “Who are you, Lord?”  Saul was a chosen man. Saul was a changed man because of that meeting with Jesus. I’m glad that I haven’t been given the kind of assignment Ananias got! Is there anyone in our church you find it hard to get on with? How does Ananias greet Saul when they meet?  He calls him “brother”. The next time you feel like giving up with a particular person you don’t like, remember how hard it would have been for the church at Damascus to accept Saul.  Only the Lord could transform Saul from a zealous persecutor of the church into one of its foremost missionaries.

“Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.  All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” 22 Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.” (Acts 9:19-22)

Now if you had been one of the apostles, say James or Peter, how would you have responded to Saul?  Made him Principal of a theological college? The Bishop of Athens?  That’s probably what we would do, but what did the Lord do? He took all Saul’s training in the scriptures and the law, his gifts of languages and culture, his key contacts from all over the world and what?

“After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him, 24 but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. 25 But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall.26 When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple.” (Acts 9:23-26)

What a start to his new ministry… In fact the Lord let Saul rot in prison, or stay on the run for most of his Christian life.  God transforms his saints providentially, but he does so, so often in ways we would not expect. What is the explanation for the great influence of Saul? True, he did found more churches than the other apostles. Yes, he did probably travel more kilometres for the gospel than any other Apostle. Yes he did write more letters in the NT than the other Apostles. But this was not because of his pedigree, but his dependence on  the Lord. Saul’s great strength, his driving energy, his insatiable desire to share the truth about Jesus Christ, arose out of his own awareness of God’s grace, his own weakness, and God’s strength. When he was overwhelmed by the physical struggles, the Lord said to Saul “My Grace is sufficient for you for my power is perfected in your  weakness.”  (2 Corinthians 12:9)

We have here then Saul’s testimony.

Before : How the Lord tolerates Saul so patiently
During : How God takes sin so personally
After  : How God transforms his saints providentially

How did Saul’s life end?  In retirement on Crete? with a church pension? With book offers from publishers for his autobiography? his own TV station?  With churches named after him?  We don’t know. God did not think it that important to ensure it was recorded. Tradition has it that Saul appealed to Nero and after two trials was executed in AD 68 on the Ostian Way outside Rome. Executed for the crime of being a follower of Jesus Christ.

Saul is a model. A model of the way, God tolerates His Saul’s like you and I so patiently. How God takes our sin so personally, that’s why Jesus died in our place. How God transforms us so providentially. God is powerful enough to turn His enemies like Saul from blind religious fanaticism, into His friends. If He could do it for Saul, think what He can do in and through us.

I began by sharing my testimony. We have looked briefly at Saul’s testimony. Now it is your turn. I want to help you think about your testimony. We have all been influenced as we have heard what God has done for others, like Saul. Then realise that by God’s grace, other people may be brought into the kingdom my your testimony.  When you came in you should have received a paper ‘Your personal testimony’. Please take it out because I want to take you through it.

How to prepare you personal testimony

In Acts 26, we read of how Saul shares his testimony before the Roman Governor, Felix and the Jewish King, Agrippa. Agrippa is clearly being convicted of his sin, because he cries out,

“Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” Saul replied, “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.” (Acts 26:28-29)

May the Lord give you opportunities this week to share your testimony of what he has done and is doing in your life, because conversion is not a once for all event but a continuing process of becoming more and more like Jesus Christ every day.