Hoyt H. Houchen
The conversion of Saul is recorded in Acts 9, 22, and 16. There are many false impressions about his conversion, and yet by summing up the accounts as recorded by Luke, there is not a plainer case of obedience to be found in the entire New Testament. What Saul of Tarsus did in order to become a child of God was no different from what any other person did to become such. While the circumstances in the cases of conversion were different, the conditions of salvation in all cases were exactly the same.
There is a great deal said about Saul in the New Testament. Saul, later known as Paul, said of himself in Philippians 3:5-6, “circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; as touching zeal, persecuting the church; as touching the righteousness which is in the law, found blameless.” Reared in Tarsus of Cilicia, Saul was a Roman citizen and he had been sent to Jerusalem where he studied at the feet of Gamaliel, one of the great educators of all time.
The contrast of Saul before his conversion with his life and work after his conversion is most interesting. Before his conversion he had been aggressive and bitter in his work. He was not only content with punishing those who came in his way but he was ambitious enough to travel as far as Damascus to a strange city to carry on his work. Although he was persecuting the church, he was sincere in his undertaking. (Acts 23:1; 26:9.) There are many today who are sincere in their beliefs and worship, yet like Saul of Tarsus before his conversion, they are unsaved. The idea that “just so you are sincere it does not make any difference what you believe” is refuted by the example of Saul of Tarsus. It does make a difference what we believe, else Saul of Tarsus in his sincerity would have been justified before God prior to his conversion. Sincerity alone, then, does not make a person right. There is only one right way that is set forth in God’s word and it must be followed.
But let us consider Saul’s conversion. He had been threatening slaughter against the disciples of the Lord and he was on his way to Damascus to bring them bound to Jerusalem. Acts 9:3 tells us what happened on that road: “And as he journeyed, it came to pass that he drew nigh unto Damascus: and suddenly there shone round about him a light out of heaven: and he fell upon the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” There are people who claim that Saul was saved then and there when he saw the light, but there is nothing in the reading that even remotely hints of such an idea. Saul asked a question, verse 5, “Who art thou Lord?” and the voice identified itself by the words: “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.” It is to be noted that the Lord himself did not tell Saul what to do to be saved but he told him in verse 6, “rise, and enter into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.”
Nothing could be made plainer that Saul was not saved on the road to Damascus. But notice the following: (1) If Saul of Tarsus was saved on the road to Damascus, the Lord did not know it because he told Saul to go into the city where he would be told what to do. Can we conceive that a person would be saved and the Lord not know anything about it? (2) If Saul was saved on the road to Damascus, Saul himself did not know it because the Lord told him to go into the city where it would be told him what to do. Who can imagine that a man could be saved and the man himself not know it? (3) If Saul was saved on the road to Damascus, he was saved without having his sins washed away because in Acts 22:16 after Saul was in Damascus, Ananias commanded him: “Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on his name.” By what stretch of the imagination could anybody suppose that a man could be saved and not have sins washed away? (4) If Saul was saved on the way to Damascus, he was a miserable saved man because the record tells us that “he was three days without sight, and did neither eat nor drink” (Acts 9:9). When people are saved, they rejoice (Acts 8:39; 16:34). No, Saul of Tarsus was not saved on the road to Damascus. Why then did the Lord appear to Saul on the Damascus road? He appeared to him to the end that he might become a minister and a witness (Acts 26:16). Saul was not told what to do to be saved until he reached Damascus.
The Lord appeared to Ananias and told him to go to the street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for one named Saul, a man of Tarsus. Ananias protested bemuse he had heard how much evil Saul had done to the saints in Jerusalem. But the Lord gave assurance to Ananias by saying to him, “Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles and kings, and the children of Israel: for I will show him many things he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:16). Ananias then departed and entered into the house and laid his hands on Saul. Verse 18 says that Saul received his sight and he was baptized.
Saul of Tarsus was commanded to be baptized. (Acts 22:16.) He was so commanded because Jesus made baptism a necessary condition of salvation. (Mark 16:16.) Saul was a penitent believer and this is the kind of person who is required to be baptized. It was not the water itself that was to wash away the sins of Saul, but Saul was commanded to be baptized in order that his sins would be washed away. Gospel preachers do not preach “water salvation.” Baptism requires water (John 3:23; Acts 8:36), but the water itself is not the cleansing power. It is the blood of Jesus that cleanses us from sin, (1 John 1:7), and it is baptism in water that makes that cleansing possible. The term “wash away” in Acts 22:16 is translated from the Greek verb apoluo which means “to wash off or away.” Commenting upon the use of this word, Thayer, in his Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, on page 66 says:
For the sinner is unclean, polluted as it were by the filth of his sins. Whoever obtains remission of sins has his sins put, so to speak, out of God’s sight—is cleansed from them in the sight of God. Remission is (represented as) obtained by undergoing baptism; hence those who have gone down into the baptismal bath (lavacrum, of. Tit. 3:5; Eph. 5:26) are said to have washed themselves, or to have washed away their sins, i.e. to have been cleansed from their sins.
Baptism is necessary to the washing away of sins, the forgiveness of sins, the remission or cleansing of sin. There is no other way to reach the blood of Christ than by baptism. We observe that we are baptized into the death of Christ (Rom. 6:3) but Christ shed his blood in death (John 19:34); therefore, we reach the blood of Christ by baptism, that blood that washes away sins.
Saul of Tarsus obeyed the gospel, and as a result he was saved. Several years after his conversion Paul wrote in Romans 8:2, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and death.” The law of the Spirit is the teaching of the Spirit or the Gospel of Christ. Paul obeyed that law and thereby he became free of sin. He declared in Romans 5:1, “Being therefore justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” It was obedient faith or obedience to the faith, the Gospel (Rom. 1:16) that saved Saul. It is that same kind of faith that saves people today. Sinner friend, have you obeyed the Gospel?