Summary: This sermon was written as kind of an evangelism primer in that it discusses how people come to know Christ and what that means for us as we try to live out our Christian life of witness.
Conversion of St. Paul
There once was a brier growing in a ditch when a gardener came along with his spade and dug it up. He dug around it and gently lifted it out of the ground, bringing the brier to ask itself, “What is he doing? Doesn’t he know I’m a worthless brier?” But the gardener took it and placed it in his garden anyway. He planted it among his most prized and beautiful roses, prompting the brier to think once more, “What is this guy doing? What a mistake he’s made.” But then the gardener did an even more unusual thing in the brier’s mind. He came once more and made a slit in the brier with his knife. He grafted it with a rose and when the summer came to close there were lovely flowers blooming from the brier that previously had none. Then the gardener said, “Your beauty is not due to what came out of you, but to what I put in.”
“Your beauty is not due to what came out of you, but to what I put in.” Now everyone knows, of course, that plants don’t speak or have minds of their own; but this personified account of a well-known, readily accepted and often practiced procedure called grafting is quite apropos for us to reflect on today as we broach the subject of conversion, regeneration, new birth (or as some call it, being born again). It’s especially applicable when one considers how many speak of this conversion to Christ or this “being born again” as “their” coming to Christ, “their” decision to follow him. For the new birth is an inner recreation of our fallen human nature by the Holy Spirit. It changes us from lawless, godless self-seekers into those who love and trust. It moves us to repentance for past rebelliousness and unbelief. It works a loving compliance with God’s law and enlightens, liberates and energizes us to serve the Lord. The regenerate man has forever ceased to be the man he was; his old life is over and a new life has begun; he is a new creature in Christ, buried with him out of reach of condemnation and raised with him into a new life of righteousness.
But such a birth is not from us. No birth is. The one being born has nothing to do with it, as any mother in this sanctuary this morning can verify. And so it is with the conversion, regeneration or new birth of the Spirit. James Packer said it well. “Infants do not induce or cooperate in their own procreation and birth; no more can those who are dead in trespasses and sins prompt the quickening operation of God’s Spirit within them.” James Packer, Your Father Loves You, Harold Shaw Publishers, 1986. Conversion is by no man’s word. It’s by no man’s power; not his own or another’s. It’s the whole point of Paul’s case as he authenticated his Gospel and his ministry to the Gentile Christians in Galatia and elsewhere.
Here’s the background. From the very beginning the church knew Christ is Lord of all and that the Word of the Lord must be shared to the ends of the earth, not just among the Jews. The question, however, remained. “How were Gentiles to be brought into The Faith? Were all the marks and tokens of God’s covenant with Israel to be discarded? What of circumcision? What about Jewish dietary laws? Were Gentiles to be forced to become Jewish in every way or merely receive the Good News of Christ as Savior?”
The council at Jerusalem was called to deal with these questions when Paul and Barnabas’ missionary trip and teaching among the Gentiles had brought these matters to a head. They couldn’t be put off any more. A Council of the Church in Jerusalem was convened to provide some answers, and Acts 15: 28, 29 records their reply that came in the form of a request from the Jews to the Gentile converts. “Please abstain from food and practices which your pagan past makes easy for you that are abominable to your Jewish brothers and sisters in the faith.” It was not so much as a demand for salvation as it was a burden of love. And if this were a burden of love on them, the Judaic brethren were also to assume a burden of their own in not expecting and asking more. The people of God were to learn by this the as the Word of the Lord grew they were not to use their freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love to “be servants of one another.”
Thus the struggle was resolved, or at least is was in principle. There were still Judaizers, people who insisted that Gentiles had to become Jews in every way in order to be part of the people of God and join in salvation. And these were still spreading their beliefs to the churches of Galatia where Paul and Barnabas had traveled on their first missionary journey. They discredited his call as an apostle of God and they raised questions about the Gospel he preached; claiming that Paul’s gospel of salvation by mere faith in an absolutely free and forgiving grace of God omitted essential demands of God and would result in moral dangers.