Tomorrow evening, I’ll lead the final part of a four session Lenten series on Acts 8. We started with the martyrdom of Stephen, with Saul standing by, watching approvingly, moved on to Philip in Samaria and with the Ethiopian Eunuch, and this week, we’ll wrap it up by bringing the story full circle as Paul meets Jesus on the Damascus Road.
With Saul/Paul on my mind this week, it is no wonder, then, that I find myself drawn to the Philippians lesson appointed for Sunday. Reading Paul’s take on Paul is always fascinating, but with these words from John Stott fresh in my mind, it is even more so.
If we ask what caused Saul’s conversion, only one answer is possible. What stands out from the narrative is the sovereign grace of God through Jesus Christ. Saul did not ‘decide for Christ’, as we might say. On the contrary, he was persecuting Christ. It was rather Christ who decided for him and intervened in his life. The evidence for this is indisputable. (168)
To ascribe Saul’s conversion to God’s initiative can easily be misunderstood, however, and needs to be qualified in two ways, namely that the sovereign grace which captured Saul was neither sudden (in the sense that there had been no previous preparation) nor compulsive (in the sense that he needed to make no response).
First, Saul’s conversion was not at all the ‘sudden conversion’ it is often said to have been. To be sure, the final intervention of Christ was sudden: ‘Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him’ (3), and a voice addressed him. But this was by no means the first time Jesus Christ had spoken to him. According to Paul’s own later narrative, Jesus said to him: ‘It is hard for you to kick against the goads’ (26:14). By this proverb (which seems to have been fairly common in both Greek and Latin literature) Jesus likened Saul to a lively and recalcitrant young bullock, and himself to a farmer using goads to break him in. The implication is that Jesus was pursuing Saul, prodding and pricking him, which it was ‘hard’ (painful, even futile) for him to resist. What were these goads, with which Jesus had been pricking him, and against which Saul had been kicking? We are not specially told what they were, but the New Testament gives a number of hints.
Saul could not suppress the witness of Stephen. There was something inexplicable about those Christians – something supernatural, something which spoke of the divine power of Jesus. The very fanaticism of Saul’s persecution betrayed his growling inner uneasiness, ‘because fanaticism is only found’, wrote Jung, ‘in individuals who are compensating secret doubts’.
His conversion on the road to Damascus was, therefore, the sudden climax of a long-drawn-out process in which ‘the Hound of Heaven’ had been pursuing him. The stiff neck of the self-righteous Pharisee bowed. The ox had been broken in.
If God’s grace was not sudden, it was not compulsive either. That is, the Christ who appeared to him and spoke to him did not crush him. He humbled him, so that he fell to the ground, but he did not violate his personality. He did not demean Saul into a robot or compel him to perform certain actions in a kind of hypnotic trance. On the contrary, Jesus put to him a probing question, ‘Why do you persecute me?’ He thus appealed to his reason and conscience, in order to bring into his consciousness the folly and evil of what he was doing. Jesus then told him to get up and go into the city, where he would be told what to do next. And Saul was not so overwhelmed by the vision and the voice as to be deprived of speech and unable to reply. No, he answered Christ’s question with two counter-questions: first, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ (5) and secondly, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ (22:10). His response was rational, conscientious and free.
To sum up, the cause of Saul’s conversion was grace, the sovereign grace of God. But sovereign grace is gradual grace and gentle grace. Gradually, and without violence, Jesus pricked Saul’s mind and conscience with its goads. Then he revealed himself to him by the light and the voice, not in order to overwhelm him, but in such a way as to enable him to make a free response. Divine grace does not trample on human personality. Rather the reverse, for it enables human beings to be truly human. It is sin which imprisons; it is grace with liberates. The grace of God so frees us from the bondage of our pride, prejudice and self-centeredness, as to enable us to repent and believe. One can but magnify the grace of God that he should have had any mercy on such a rabid bigot as Saul of Tarsus, and indeed on such proud, rebellious and wayward creatures as ourselves. (Stott, John, R.W. “Acts” in The Bible Speaks Today series, p. 171-173)
Paul’s story is vivid and powerful, but in many ways, it isn’t that unlike the story any of us carries. God is at work, behind the scenes, slowing tending the soil of our hearts. When we finally see the fruit, the results can be miraculous.