An Unlikely Convert
Sermon Text: Acts 9:1-19
Sermon Theme: God can save and change anyone.
So ill informed was Saul, that he thought he ought to do all he could against the name of Christ, and that he did God service thereby; he seemed to breathe in this as in his element. Let us not despair of renewing grace for the conversion of the greatest sinners, nor let such despair of the pardoning mercy of God for the greatest sin. It is a signal token of Divine favor, if God, by the inward working of his grace, or the outward events of his providence, stops us from prosecuting or executing sinful purposes. Saul saw that Just One (Acts 22:14; Acts 26:13). How near to us is the unseen world! It is but for God to draw aside the veil, and objects are presented to the view, compared with which, whatever is most admired on earth is mean and contemptible. Saul submitted without reserve, desirous to know what the Lord Jesus would have him to do. Christ’s discoveries of himself to poor souls are humbling; they lay them very low, in mean thoughts of themselves. For three days Saul took no food, and it pleased God to leave him for that time without relief. His sins were now set in order before him; he was in the dark concerning his own spiritual state, and wounded in spirit for sin. When a sinner is brought to a proper sense of his own state and conduct, he will cast himself wholly on the mercy of the Savior, asking what he would have him to do. God will direct the humbled sinner, and though he does not often bring transgressors to joy and peace in believing, without sorrows and distress of conscience, under which the soul is deeply engaged as to eternal things, yet happy are those who sow in tears, for they shall reap in joy.
A good work was begun in Saul, when he was brought to Christ’s feet with those words, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And never did Christ leave any who were brought to that. Behold, the proud Pharisee, the unmerciful oppressor, the daring blasphemer, prayeth! And thus it is even now, and with the proud infidel, or the abandoned sinner. What happy tidings are these to all who understand the nature and power of prayer, of such prayer as the humbled sinner presents for the blessings of free salvation! Now he began to pray after another manner than he had done; before, he said his prayers, now, he prayed them. Regenerating grace sets people on praying; you may as well find a living man without breath, as a living Christian without prayer. Yet even eminent disciples, like Ananias, sometimes stagger at the commands of the Lord. But it is the Lord’s glory to surpass our scanty expectations, and show that those are vessels of his mercy whom we are apt to consider as objects of his vengeance. The teaching of the Holy Spirit takes away the scales of ignorance and pride from the understanding; then the sinner becomes a new creature, and endeavors to recommend the anointed Savior, the Son of God, to his former companions.
[From Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary]
- Was it Saul’s worst imaginable nightmare to discover that Jesus was the Messiah, Christianity was true, the gospel was God’s truth, and he had been fighting God? What could be your worst nightmare? How do you get out of that nightmare? Are you delaying your repentance and allowing your heart to become hardened? For every time we refuse to repent, we continue to sin and our hearts get harder (cf. Hebrews 3:7-8). Every time a person says “no” to what’s right, it becomes a little easier to say “no” the next time. There’s a gradual hardening of the heart, a searing of the conscience (1 Timothy 4:2), that can numb an unsaved person to the point of being past feeling. This is a dangerous spiritual condition to be in. Tragically, there is a point of no return. God may eventually stop trying to bring the chronically rebellious to repentance and give them over to their own ways (Romans 1:28). We never know when this point of no return is, so the better part of wisdom is timely repentance.
- Are you responding to God’s calling? God always initiates the contact in salvation (cf. John 6:37; John 6:44; John 10:27-29; John 17:2; 2 Corinthians 4:6; Philippians 1:29; James 1:18). That was, and is, necessary, since unbelieving men, being dead in their trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1), cannot come to God on their own (cf. Romans 3:10-12; 1 Corinthians 2:14; Ephesians 2:4-10; Colossians 2:13). That salvation is initiated by God is nowhere more powerfully stated than by Paul to Titus: “For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:3-5).
- Do you take great encouragement in the fact that God saved Saul? God turned this great persecutor of the early Christians into the first great missionary. He took the man who had been doing most to harm the church and turned him into the man who did most to build it up. If God could do that with Saul, God can do the same thing today. If you have a son or daughter whom you are worried about, a child who is off somewhere not serving the Lord, or a husband or wife who is unconverted, keep praying for him or her. God can do something remarkable.
- Is this the first time Saul had a prayer that God listed to? Prayer is the spontaneous response of the believing heart to God. Those truly transformed by Jesus Christ find themselves lost in the wonder and joy of communion with Him. Prayer is as natural for the Christian as breathing. Saul became a man of unceasing prayer. As a devout Pharisee Paul must often have prayed. But perhaps for the first time he was learning the difference between “saying prayers” and praying (the believer’s response to God’s grace to him in Christ). He isn’t just reciting the ritualistic prayers of religion. He is praying from the heart, really seeking God. No doubt he was first and foremost seeking God’s forgiveness for the many terrible things that he had done. He was probably seeking God’s guidance for what he should do next. He was seeking God’s revelation, so that he could really know Him, and Jesus Christ, whom He had sent (John 17:3). Truly converted people begin to pray in the true sense of the word for the first time.
- Was Saul’s salvation dependent on his nature and good merits or was it on God’s free grace? God did not choose Saul because He saw something of value in his nature. Saul had not done anything to make him worthy of God’s grace. God didn’t look down through time and say, “I can see that someday Saul will choose Me by his free will and then he will make a pretty good apostle, so I’ll make him one of My elect.” That would make God’s election depend on something good in man, namely his wise choice or his faith or his potential. If God grants salvation because of anything in man, then it is not by His free grace; it is by human merit. The Bible is clear that if salvation depends on anything in us, then no one would be saved, because no one seeks God (Romans 3:10). “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:8). Since faith and repentance are pleasing to God, the natural man cannot believe in Christ or repent of his sins unless it is granted to him (Ephesians 2:8-9; Philippians 1:29; Acts 5:31; Acts 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25). But this is great news, because it means that God can take a man breathing out murderous threats, a committed enemy of the faith, and change his heart from intense hatred to submission by His mighty power. That change of heart takes place instantly, although the fruits of true conversion develop and deepen over the years. God is able to convert the most unlikely of sinners.
- Did the salvation of Saul depend on the fallen will of man or was it on the sovereign will and power of God? The Lord did not appear to Saul and plead, “Oh, Saul, won’t you please trust in Me as your Savior? I have done everything that I can do to make that possible. Now the rest is up to you. It’s your decision, but I can’t force your will.” Rather, the Lord knocked Saul to the ground and completely overpowered him. He struck him blind. Then Jesus gave him very direct orders about what he had to do next. How much choice did Saul have? Saul was God’s chosen instrument to fulfill a very definite task, “to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:15). God ordained that Saul would suffer much for His name’s sake (Acts 9:16). It did not all hang on whether Saul would exercise his free will. God had it all planned from start to finish. As Paul puts it in Romans 9:16, “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.”
- Is the Spirit active and convicting in your life? The Spirit was active in Saul’s life, convicting him of sin (John 16:9), convincing him of the lordship of Jesus (1 Corinthians 12:3), converting him (John 3:5; Titus 3:5), placing him into Christ’s body, the church, and indwelling him permanently (1 Corinthians 12:13). The Spirit transformed Saul taking his natural strengths and refining them. Saul was a gifted natural leader, with strong will power. He was a man of strong convictions, a self-starter, bold, a master at using his time and talents, a motivated individual, and a profoundly gifted thinker and speaker. The Holy Spirit also eliminated undesirable characteristics and replaced them with desirable ones. He replaced Saul’s cruel hatred with love; his restless, aggressive spirit with peace; his rough, hard-nosed treatment of people with gentleness; his pride with humility. Only the Spirit of God can so thoroughly sanctify a life. Saul later expressed that truth to the Corinthians: “But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
- Are you a vessel of God for His good works? Do you know your purpose in serving the Lord? Saul was “a vessel of God’s choice,” a metaphor drawn from the work of the potter. As the potter made vessels for various uses, so God made human beings for his own purposes (cf. Jeremiah 18:1–11; Jeremiah 22:28; Hosea 8:8; 2 Corinthians 4:7; 2 Timothy 2:20-21). In Saul’s case, it was to take up the mantle of the suffering servant (cf. Colossians 1:24), for he would be “a light to the nations,” that Saul might “carry God’s name” to all people — Jews and Gentles (Acts 9:15; cf. Acts 26:22; Isaiah 49:6). Also, like Saul, we are chosen vessels of God. In Ephesians 1:4-5 we learn that we have been predestined to be His children, and in Ephesians 2:10 we read that He prepared good works beforehand that we should walk in them. It should be a great encouragement to us that God has chosen us, given us mercy and grace, and no matter how much we do not deserve His love, He has loved us and made us His workmanship designed to fulfill His purpose. Saul’s being a chosen vessel is not very different from how God works in our own lives.
- What is the way? What is the truth? What is the life? The description of Christianity as the Way appears several times in Acts (Acts 19:9; Acts 19:23; Acts 22:4; Acts 24:14; Acts 24:22). It apparently derives from Jesus’ description of Himself as: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The Way is an apropos title for Christianity, since it is the way of God (Acts 18:26), the way into the Holy Place (Hebrews 10:19-20), and the way of truth (2 Peter 2:2). Are you confused in the way your life is going? You never seem to find a path or purpose in life? Do you ever feel like you are locked out of life? Have you tried so many doors, only to find that what is behind them is empty and meaningless? Are you looking for an entrance into a fulfilling life? Do you have a spiritual hunger that is not satisfied? If so, the reason you feel hungry, the reason you seem to be lost in darkness, the reason you cannot find meaning in life, is that you are separated from God. The Bible tells us that we have all sinned, and are therefore separated from God (Ecclesiastes 7:20; Romans 3:23). The void you feel in your heart is God missing from your life. We were created to have a relationship with God. Because of our sin, we are separated from that relationship. Even worse, our sin will cause us to be separated from God for all of eternity, in this life and the next (Romans 6:23). How can this problem be solved? Jesus is the way of salvation. For Jesus declared, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). Jesus died so that we could live. If we place our faith in Jesus, trusting His death as the payment for our sins, all of our sins are forgiven and washed away. We will then have our spiritual hunger satisfied. We will know our true good shepherd. We will know that we will have life after we die — a resurrected life in heaven for eternity with Jesus.
1) THE LORD SHARED OUR HUMAN STATE (By Basil the Great): For it is written, “And when all things are made subject to him, then the Son himself will also be made subject to him who subjected all things to him.” (1 Corinthians 15:28) Do you not fear, O man, the God who is called unsubjected? For he makes your subjection his own, and, because of your struggle against virtue, he calls himself unsubjected. Thus, he even said at one time that he himself was the one persecuted; for he says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” when Saul was hastening to Damascus, desiring to put in bonds the disciples of Christ. Again, he calls himself naked, if anyone of his brothers is naked. “I was naked,” he says, “and you covered me.” (Matthew 25:36) And still again, when another was in prison, he said that he himself was the one imprisoned. For he himself took up our infirmities and bore the burden of our ills. And one of our infirmities is insubordination, and this he bore. Therefore, even the adversities that happen to us the Lord makes his own, taking upon himself our sufferings because of his fellowship with us. [From Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture]
2) Does God Hear Non-Christians When They Pray?
Throughout Scripture, we find repeated warnings that God does not hear the prayers of the wicked. In Jeremiah 14:11–12, for example, we read: “The Lord said to me: ‘Do not pray for the welfare of this people. Though they fast, I will not hear their cry, and though they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them.’” Proverbs 28:9 tells us that the prayer of a lawless man “is an abomination.” Over and over we read that God does not listen to the prayers of the wicked (e.g., Psalm 66:18; Proverbs 21:13; Isaiah 1:15; Jeremiah 11:11–14). What does this mean? Is God not omniscient? Does He not know all things? Of course He does. Scripture tells us that God knows all things and that no creature is hidden from His sight (Hebrews 4:13). God knows every thought in our minds (1 Chronicles 28:9), and He knows the words we are going to say even before we speak them (Psalm 139:4).
How, then, can the Bible also say that He does not hear the prayers of the wicked? In order to understand what Scripture is saying, let us first consider Isaiah 59:1–2. Here, the prophet writes: “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (emphasis added). The prophet affirms that God can hear. In other words, God is omniscient. He can hear the prayers of the wicked in the sense that He knows that they are praying, and He knows what they are praying. God is omniscient.
However, Isaiah then immediately turns to note that the problem is not God’s omniscience. The problem is the wickedness of the ones praying. Because of their wickedness, “he does not hear.” What this means is that God is not going to listen to those who flout His law. As Zechariah makes clear, “As I called, and they would not hear, so they called, and I would not hear” (Zechariah 7:13). If unbelievers persist in wickedness, God will not grant their requests. They pray in vain.
There is one prayer that a wicked person can pray, however, that will be heard by God. It is the prayer of repentance. We see an example of this in 1 Kings 21:17–29. Here God condemns the wicked king Ahab (1 Kings 21:17–24). Upon hearing the words of judgment, Ahab repents in sackcloth (1 Kings 21:27). The Lord sees his repentance and declares that the judgment will fall on Ahab’s descendants rather than on Ahab himself (1 Kings 21:28–29). Consider also the repentance of the Ninevites described in the book of Jonah. When the king of Nineveh heard the words of the prophet, he and the people repented, and God relented (Jonah 3:1–10). God knows and hears all things, but the only prayer of the wicked to which He will listen is a prayer of genuine repentance.
Dr. Keith A. Mathison (Professor of systematic theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, FL)
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