Everyone knew him. Christians feared him. In his zeal for God, the man championed the old ways of the Law of Moses. How do you stop a zealous, religious persecutor? You certainly cannot convert him. Or can you? Paul summarizes his change in his letter to the Galatians. “And I was still unknown by face unto the churches of Judaea which were in Christ: but they only heard say, He that once persecuted us now preacheth the faith of which he once made havoc; and they glorified God in me” (Gal. 1:22-24 ASV).
The conversion of Saul is one of two conversions in the Bible that God recorded three times. In Acts 9, Luke records the conversion as an historical event. Later, Paul rehearses his conversion as a defense before the Jewish court in Jerusalem (Acts 22), and then before the Gentile court in Caesarea (Acts 26). “Conversion” means change. Saul changed from the persecutor to the preacher. Before we hear Paul describe his own conversion, note the ungodliness of Saul of Tarsus.
Saul’s Crime Against Man and God
The first time we see Saul, he is wreaking havoc on the church. At the stoning of Stephen, the witnesses laid their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul (Acts 7:57-60). This same Saul “…laid waste the church, entering into every house, and dragging men and women committed them to prison” (Acts 8:1-3 ASV). In the United States of America, only a firefighter can enter your home without a search warrant. Not so with Saul. He invaded many homes without justifiable cause.
In describing Saul’s persecution, Luke paints a picture of a man who is pawing at the ground and snorting out hatred like a mad bull, saying, “But Saul, yet breathing threatening and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord…” (Acts 9:1 ASV). Paul describes himself as one who “persecuted this Way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women” (Acts 22:4).How is it possible to get close enough to even start the process of conversion with someone who will take your life at the very mention of salvation or the name Jesus? Man cannot. God could.
His fame was widespread. Even rulers in high places knew of “these things” because they were not done “in a corner” (Acts 26:26). The nearest analogy, and one that I think captures the point, is the many instances in the 20th century in which secret police forces such as the Gestapo or the KGB targeted people for arrest, imprisonment, or even death. Saul was such an agent.
Saul’s Conversion In His Own Words
Turn to Acts 22 and Acts 26. Read Saul’s conversion in his own words. He introduces the event by telling his audience of the time and circumstances. He was on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians (Acts 22:1-5). Although he saw and heard the Lord, the Lord did not tell him what to do to be saved. Here is what was said on the road:
And it came to pass, that, as I made my journey, and drew nigh unto Damascus, about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me. And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And I answered, Who art thou, Lord? And he said unto me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest. And they that were with me beheld indeed the light, but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me. And I said, What shall I do, Lord? And the Lord said unto me, Arise, and go into Damascus; and there it shall be told thee of all things which are appointed for thee to do (Acts 22:6-10 ASV).
Obeying to the heavenly voice, Saul went into the city, but he was still lost. The Lord chose a devout man, Ananias, to teach Saul what he had to do to receive remission of sins (Acts 22:12-16). Ananias came unto Saul, letting him know that he had been chosen of God to bear witness to the world of the things he had seen and heard. Then Ananias did what only an earthen vessel had the right to do. He told Saul what to do to be saved. He said, “…now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on his name.” Since Saul needed his sins washed away, he was obviously still guilty in the eyes of God. He was guilty because no one had told him what to do until Ananias spoke the wonderful words of forgiveness.
Later, drawing upon his own conversion in a letter to the brethren at Rome, Saul — now called Paul—taught the Roman brethren that he, as were they, was baptized into Christ by a burial in water (Rom. 6:3-4). This obedience changed his state before God. He was no longer a sinner, guilty of causing others to lose their souls. He was a servant of righteousness, having obeyed “that form of doctrine”—the doctrine and instructions of deliverance from sin (Rom. 6:16-18). He was free.
Paul believed and taught people to believe in the Lord (Acts 9; Rom. 10:9-10). He confessed publicly what he believed and taught people the need for them to confess with their mouths the faith that was in their hearts (Acts 9; Rom. 10:9-10). He repented and taught that all men everywhere were commanded to repent (Acts 17:30; 26:20). He was baptized and taught people to be baptized in the name of the Lord (Rom. 6:3-4; Gal. 3:26-27). He believed and taught God’s salvation was for all.
The sins that you and I have committed cannot be greater than the sins of Saul of Tarsus (1 Tim. 1:12-16). God forgave him and God will forgive us, no matter how horrible we might think our sins are.
You cannot be more sincere than Paul, but in his sincerity, he was still wrong and lost. Cartoonist Charles M. Schulz said, “The way I see it, it doesn’t matter what you believe just so you’re sincere.” This ungodly philosophy permeates society, costing millions their souls. Saul had a clear conscience as he sincerely served God according to the Law of Moses and as he persecuted Christians (Act 23:1; 26:9). But a clear conscience is obviously not a safe guide since Saul recognized he was lost in his sincerity.
Instead of following the philosophy of Schulz, hear Saul of Tarsus who obeyed God and then lived a life in service to the King of Kings.