Summary: Saul’s conversion into Paul is an example of the fact that no one is too far from God or too far beyond God’s reach or God’s power to save, to transform a person, and give them a new heart … a heart for Him alone.
Today, doctors can literally give you a new heart … well, new to you at least. It once belonged to someone else. Someday medical science may be able to give us a mechanical heart … but I truly believe that only God can give you a change of heart. When I say that, I’m not talking about this heart [point to my chest]. This heart is only a muscle that pumps blood throughout our bodies. It has no feelings, no emotions.
When I say that only God can change a heart, I’m obviously not talking about a muscle, am I? I’m talking about our emotional or spiritual heart … and no doctor, no psychologist, no priest, no rabbi, no pastor can change a person’s spiritual heart … only God can.
Now … I’m going to go a little bit “John Calvin” on you right now and talk about “irresistible grace.” “Irresistible grace.” The perfect description of what happened to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus.
Before we get to the “irresistible” part … let’s talk briefly about “grace” itself. Grace is the free and unmerited favor of God as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. It is kindness from God that we don’t deserve. There is nothing we have done or could ever do to earn this favor … and it is irresistible because there’s no saying “no” when God wants you and calls you.
Many regard Saul’s conversion as the most important event in the history of the church since Pentecost. It is also regarded as second only to the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the most convincing proof of the truth of the Christian faith. More space is given to the telling of Saul’s conversion than any other story in the New Testament except for the crucifixion of Jesus.
How did this militant and enthusiastic opponent to Jesus Christ and His followers become Christianity’s most ardent advocate? Why would he go from zealously persecuting Christians to enduring the terrible suffering that he went through as a zealous follower of Jesus Christ unless he was convinced that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead? Through the Holy Spirit, Luke saw Saul’s conversion as a watershed event in the early church. He repeats the story of Saul’s conversion three times in the Book of Acts, his relatively short history of the birth and expansion of the early Christian church. You’ll find Saul’s conversion story in Acts 9, Acts 22, and Acts 26.
Saul was not a likely candidate to receive a new heart. Luke states in verse 1 that Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against Jesus’ disciples. He was a man consumed with one driving passion … to eradicate all of Jesus’ followers … if not from the face of the earth … at least from the nation and faith of Israel. It was not enough that he participated in the breaking up of the newly emerging Christian community in Jerusalem after standing by and witnessing Stephen’s death … he considered it his sacred duty to travel around Asia Minor and cities like Damascus to round up Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem in chains. As I said, he was on a crusade … a mission … to rid the Jewish faith and the community that he loved so much of this heretical new movement that was starting to spread like yeast or leprosy beyond Jerusalem. His fear of this new movement was so great and was such a powerful driving force that Luke tells us that he even arrested women as well as men … caring little about what happened to their children. He had such an intense hatred for Jesus Christ and His followers that he felt that any pain and suffering that he inflicted on them and on the Christian community and movement as a whole was justified. “Indeed, I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And this is what I did in Jerusalem: on the authority of the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison,” he later confessed, “but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme,” says Paul, “and since I was furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities” (Acts 26:10-11). It wasn’t enough for Saul just to drive them out of the city of Jerusalem. His rage and hatred for these early followers of The Way was so great and so intense that he volunteered to go and hunt them down wherever they fled to find safety in the surrounding cities and countryside.