How a Terrorist Became an Evangelist: The Amazing Story of Paul’s Conversion
May 13, 2001
Christianity is supremely a religion of conversion. Everything we say and everything we believe is built upon one fundamental and revolutionary premise: You don’t have to stay the way you are. Your life can be radically changed by God. Conversion is a miracle that happens when the life of God intersects with human personality. Once God enters the picture, your life will never be the same again. Until then, you may be religious and you may be a very good person and you may obey all the rules of the church, but you have not been converted.
Religion is one thing; conversion is something else entirely. It is the conviction that long-held prejudices can be overcome, lifetime habits can be broken, and deeply ingrained patterns of sin can be erased over time. Conversion is the certainty that what you were does not determine what you are, and what you are does not determine what you will be. You can be changed, you can be different, your life can move in an entirely new direction.
If you take that truth away from Christianity, it ceases to be a supernatural religion. If the possibility of real change is gone, then we have nothing to offer but a set of rules. Can the leopard change his spots? In himself and by himself, the leopard can never change his spots, but with God all things are possible.
The Greatest Conversion Story in the Bible
Of all the conversion stories in the Bible, none is greater or more profound than the conversion of the man called Saul of Tarsus. Raised a Jew, trained as a rabbi, he became a violent persecutor of the early Christian church. He hated Christ and his followers so much that he did his best to eradicate the new religion as if it were some sort of dreaded virus. He was a terrorist who did his evil deeds in the name of the God of the Bible.
One day he met Jesus and his life was permanently transformed. So bad was his reputation that at first almost no one believed that the change was real. Word quickly spread that Saul the persecutor had come to Christ. Over time he proved to be genuine in his faith. What happened to him made such an impact that the New Testament contains three separate accounts of his dramatic conversion. The first is in Acts 9, the second in Acts 26, and the third is in our text.
Paul’s story begins with a statement about the source of his gospel preaching. Evidently the Judaizers (those Jewish-Christian “converts” who claimed to represent the apostles in Jerusalem) were attacking both his apostleship and his message. In essence, they claimed that his message wasn’t true and he himself could not be trusted. That raises an interesting question. How do you prove that you are trustworthy? Answer: Tell your story and let your story speak for itself. That’s where Paul starts his defense in Galatians 1:11-12, “I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.” These verses emphasize two important truths. First, the gospel was not Paul’s idea; it was God’s idea. Second, because the gospel comes from God, it must be true. Paul is merely the conduit for the truth, not its source. Christianity does not spring from legends or vague dreams. It is not the result of scholarly argument nor a compromise arrived at by some ancient church council. The gospel message is truly Good News because it is God’s Good News.
With that established, Paul now proceeds to his own story. If you go to an evangelism class, you will be taught to use a three-point outline in giving your testimony: Point 1: Your life before conversion. Point 2: How you came to Christ. Point 3: Your life since coming to Christ. That’s precisely the outline Paul follows in our text.
When I come to the end of this sermon, I’m going to close with two sentences. I’m going to give those sentences now and ask you think about them while you are reading this sermon. Here they are: You cannot understand Christianity without coming to grips with the truth of conversion. Have you ever been converted?
I. Paul’ s Life Before Conversion 13-14
“For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:13-14).
These verses tell a chilling story. Before Paul came to Christ, he was perfectly happy in his career as a rising Jewish leader and an avid Christian-hater. He felt no remorse over his persecution of the followers of Christ, and in fact regarded it as his service to God. He had no desire to come to Christ and felt no need in his heart. His religion satisfied him in every way and he saw no need for anything else. He was like those people who responded to the “I Found It” campaign sponsored by Campus Crusade for Christ by promoting their own version: “I Never Lost It.” Was Paul interested in becoming a Christian? How many ways can you say no? He wasn’t looking for Christ … but Christ was looking for him. Only God could save a man like Paul. And it turns out, that’s exactly what God did.
Acts 8:1-3 tells us that Saul (Paul’s pre-conversion name) went from house to house in a sort of reverse evangelism. Knock, knock. “Any Christians here?” If the answer was yes, he dragged them out of their homes and had them put in prison. His heart was full of murderous rage against anyone who claimed to follow Jesus of Nazareth. He was “breathing out threats against the Lord’s disciples” when he was on his way to Damascus to root out the fledgling Christian movement in that great city (Acts 9:1-2). He approved of the stoning of Stephen and when other Christians were put to death, he cast his vote against them. In his mind, the best way to defeat Christianity was to kill all the Christians. In his zeal he had no peer—either as a student of the Law of Moses or as a fierce opponent of the church of God.
He was a religious fanatic. A bigot. A zealot. A man wholly given over to his hatred of Christians. He would stop at nothing to prevent this new movement from spreading.
Paul tells his story this way because he wants us to understand that he wasn’t what we like to call a “seeker.” He wasn’t seeking anything—except more Christians to throw in prison. He had no sense of his need of salvation and no inner voice calling him to come to Christ. It would be hard to imagine a more hopeless case. Why bother praying for a man like that? He’ll never be saved.
Or so it would seem.
He was totally convinced he was right.
He was totally convinced Christians were wrong.
He hated Christianity and he loved Judaism.
He was lost and didn’t know it.
He enjoyed his life and wasn’t looking for something better.
We can sum it up by saying he was on a collision course with eternal judgment. What he desperately needed—but would not admit—was a strong dose of divine intervention.
Paul paints the picture black so the brilliant bright light of the gospel can be clearly seen. Not everyone has a story like Paul’s—but many do. I know many men who were far gone in sin before they came to Christ. Their testimony goes like this: “You think I was a bad guy. You don’t know the half of it. I was a lousy bum but then the Lord found me and cleaned me up. There is no way to account for my life apart from God’s amazing grace.” There are men in our church, who if you knew their past, you wouldn’t want to know their past. We have men who have spent time in prison and women who have been involved in all sorts of immorality. We have young people who have been on drugs and people who have been in and out of jail. There are former thieves, adulterers, and I’m sure there are some former murderers in our congregation. If you want to play “Name That Sin,” we’ve got winners in every category. And Calvary is not unique in any sense. Every church of any size could say the same thing. I often think it’s a good thing that we don’t know the naked truth about each other because if we did, some of us might choose to attend another church. Until we found out the truth about those people!
There are all sorts of sinners who make up the body of Christ. They have in common that they have been washed in the blood, forgiven by Jesus, justified by grace, reconciled to God, redeemed, restored, converted, and their lives have been radically changed. This is as it should be. “You wouldn’t believe it if I told you, but I was as bad as you could be. When I hit bottom, I looked up and found the Lord waiting for me.”
II. Paul’s Conversion 15-16a
“But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles” (Galatians 1:15-16a).
Focus for a moment on the first word. “But.” This is the great interruption. All that happened in Paul’s life came because of that one little word.
Paul was a sinner. But God.
Paul hated Jesus. But God.
Paul tried to kill Christians. But God.
Paul wanted to destroy the church. But God.
Paul enjoyed being lost. But God.
Paul wasn’t looking for a new life. But God.
Paul intended to kill more Christians. But God.
Note the change in subjects. When Paul talks about his former life, it’s always “I … I … I.” Totally self-absorbed. When he talks about his conversion, the focus shifts. Now it is God who moves into action. My friend Phil Newton points out God came into Paul’s life without permission. He didn’t wait to be asked. While Saul was on the road to Damascus, the Lord Jesus just barged right in. He didn’t ask permission because if he had asked, Saul would have said no. He came in where he wasn’t wanted or expected and took over the situation.
Notice why he did it. “God … was pleased to reveal his Son in me.” He came in because he wanted to come in. He chose to come in. He entered without ringing the doorbell. This is pure sovereign, saving grace. “That’s not fair,” you say. Paul would never say that. If God had waited for an invitation, Paul would never have been saved. He was lost just like Lazarus was dead. It’s not as if Lazarus was sitting around in the tomb saying, “I wish someone would raise me from the dead.” No, he was dead! Jesus came along and raised him without his permission.
Let us learn from this that salvation begins with God—not with us! Salvation is of the Lord.
The Hound of Heaven
There is another remarkable statement here. Paul says that God called him “from my mother’s womb.” This means that God was tracking him down from the very beginning of his life. God had his eye on Paul while he was still in the womb. While he was a toddler, God was watching his every step. During his rambunctious teenage years, God kept him in sight. During the long years of rabbinical training, God was calling him to salvation. Paul didn’t know it, didn’t feel it, was totally unaware of it, and in fact couldn’t see it at all until after he came to Christ. Then he could look back and see God’s fingerprints in every part of his life. The Hound of Heaven was on his trail and when the time had fully come, God reached down, slapped him down on the Damascus road, and brought him into the Kingdom. His whole life had been planned by God for just this moment. Nothing had happened by accident. All was ordained as part of God’s divine plan.
But does this not destroy the concept of freewill? Not at all. I believe that God gives us choices to make and then he holds us accountable for those choices. Like the song says, “He doesn’t make us go against our will, he just makes us willing to go.” God brought Paul to a place where he had no other choice but to freely choose Christ.
When God calls a man like this, he responds, he comes, he obeys. God will have it no other way.
God overcomes our reluctance, knocks down all our excuses, and slowly but surely draws us to Christ. We aren’t aware of it. From our side, we are “accepting Christ” and “believing on Christ” and “trusting Christ as Savior.” Sometimes we say, “I found the Lord.” True, but just remember that if the Lord didn’t find you first, you would never have found him. And in the end, God gets all the glory for our salvation. That is certainly how Paul felt as he looked back on his own amazing conversion.
III. Paul’s Life After Conversion 16b-24
“I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie. Later I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: ‘The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they praised God because of me” (Galatians 1:16a-24).
Paul’s emphasis in these verses is on what he didn’t do. He didn’t immediately go to Jerusalem to be trained by the apostles. And he didn’t start an evangelistic ministry right away. What did he do? He dropped out of sight for three years by going to Arabia. We would have put him on Christian radio and TV. We would have had him write a book and hit the Christian talk-show circuit. But that wasn’t God’s plan.
He spent three years in Arabia—evidently in personal study and meditation.
He went back to Damascus.
He made a brief trip to Jerusalem to meet Peter.
He went north to Syria and Cilicia to preach the gospel.
In all of this we see three new attitudes emerging:
1) A new attitude toward other believers. He went to Jerusalem to meet Peter.
2) A new attitude toward the truth. He declares in verse 20 that he is not lying.
3) A new attitude toward the gospel. He now preaches what he once tried to destroy.
Once he hated believers. Now he seeks their fellowship.
Once he hated the truth. Now he lives by the truth.
Once he hated the gospel. Now he preaches the gospel.
Once he was called Saul; now he is called Paul.
Same man, new man. Everything is different now.
Once he was a terrorist; now he is an evangelist.
Christ has made all the difference. The passage ends on a wonderful note as Paul says that the churches in Judea (which he once terrorized in his pre-conversion days) recognized the amazing change in his life. And they glorified God because of him. His life pointed people toward God. That leads me to a simple and profound question. Is anyone glorifying God because of you? Is your life pointing people toward God?
Four Take-Home Truths
As we wrap up this message, let’s focus on four key take-home truths:
1) The Christian gospel comes from God, not from man.
This is a hugely important point because we live in a pluralistic society that teaches us—over and over again—that all religions are basically the same, that we are all going to the same place, and that no religious system can be thought superior to any other system. This of course is nonsense, even on the face of it, but many people accept it as the gospel truth. Paul’s words in verses 11-12 point us in the right direction. The gospel is not the result of polling data or the work of a committee. It is not like the game “Gossip” where one person whispers a sentence in the ear of another person, that person repeats what he thought he heard, and on it goes around the circle, until the last person repeats what he thought he heard, and it bears no resemblance to the first statement. The gospel is NOT like that. It is based on the sober historical facts surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These things were not done in a corner. Anyone can check them out at any time. The gospel is true because it comes directly from God.
2) Conversion is a pure miracle that depends on God alone.
God takes responsibility for our salvation. He arranges the circumstances so that we can know him personally. We rarely see that in advance, but looking back we can clearly see how the hand of God was graciously drawing us to himself. Conversion is not a cooperative venture between God and man. Even the ability to believe in Christ is a gift from God. Thus all the glory belongs to the Lord.
3) The worst sinners often make the best saints.
Note the word “often.” Not every sinner comes to Christ. Regrettably, some do not come and because they do not come, they are not saved. And there are many great saints of God who were raised in godly homes and never openly rebelled against the Lord. But it is still true that God seems to delight in taking brutish sinners and deeply and profoundly converting them. Such men and women bear the scars of their past life and bring their baggage with them into God’s family. But when God’s work is done, those same saints of God are a powerful testimony to a skeptical world.
This week I ran across this wonderful sentence: God does not recruit heroes. No, he doesn’t. Not many mighty are called, not many noble, not many powerful, not many great as the world counts greatness. God doesn’t go for the big names to populate heaven. He takes ordinary folks and then does extraordinary things through them. But even that isn’t the full story. When God wants to recruit some frontline soldiers for his army, he goes into the enemy camp and rounds up a handful of the orneriest, meanest, toughest, roughest, wildest looking sinners he can find. Then he draws them to Christ, saves them, justifies them, converts them, sanctifies them, cleans them up, fixes them up, dresses them up, and then he sends them out to do battle in the service of the King of Kings.
That’s the point Paul makes in Romans 5:6-9 when he says that we were “powerless,” “ungodly,” “sinners,” and even “God’s enemies.” But even so, Christ died for us that he might reconcile us to God. Thus does God turn his enemies into his friends.
4) No one is beyond the reach of God’s grace.
Surely this is one reason Paul’s story shows up three times in the New Testament. If God can save a man like Paul, he can save anyone. That ought to encourage those of us who are praying for friends and loved ones to come to Christ. Often our prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling. We pray for months and for years with no apparent result. But do not despair. What we see is not the whole story. No one would ever have predicted Paul’s conversion. Ten minutes before it happened, it seemed impossible. Five minutes before it happened, no one had any reason to expect anything. Ten seconds before the light broke and the voice spoke, Paul’s heart was as hard as ever.
So keep on praying, keep on witnessing, keep on believing. You never know what God will do.
And as we think about those who are far from the Lord, we can take this comfort. It is an irony of God’s plan of salvation that the worse their rebellion, the greater will be the glory when they are saved. The farther they are from God today, the greater will be the celebration when all those prodigal sons and daughters finally come home to the Father’s house.
Last weekend Marlene and I spent some time at an annual event in Oak Park called May Madness. Basically, it’s a one-day street party in the heart of the village. Thousands of people come for the food, the rides, and the fun. As a dedicated civic leader, I felt it was my duty to take part and to personally test the food stands to see that everything was safe. I was worried about the funnel cakes so I had to check them twice to be sure. While we were strolling through the park, I heard a voice say, “Pastor Ray.” A young man in his 20s walked up and began talking to us. I knew him well because I had baptized him early in my ministry at Calvary. It had been a while since I had seen him and I knew that he had been going through a rough period. He made some bad choices and suffered the consequences. But on this night, he was smiling and his face had the look of a man whose life was on the right track. We talked for a few minutes. Before we parted, I told him that I had full confidence in him and that I believed God was at work in his life. Thinking back on our conversation later, I recalled something his mother told me eight or nine years ago. Actually, it was something she used to tell her son during his days of rebellion. She was and is a mighty woman of prayer. “God is building a testimony in your life,” she would tell him. I believe she is right, and I believe her prayers are being—and will be—answered by the Lord.
Since this is Mother’s Day, let me add a personal application. I believe there is no force in the world more powerful than the prayers of a godly woman. When God stirs up a mother to start praying, you had better back off because something is about to happen. There are mothers who have prayed their prodigal children into the Kingdom one by one. Many godly grandmothers have prayed and wept whole generations of children and grandchildren back to the Lord. And the same is true for sisters, aunts, and single women. God will not waste the tears and prayers of righteous women. When God gives a heavy burden for prayer, I believe it is because he intends to answer that prayer sooner or later.
And the reason we pray is because Jesus is still in the life-changing business. He still saves, he still converts, he still rescues men and women who are far gone in sin. There is no case too hopeless for the Great Physician. The words of II Corinthians 5:17 are still true: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” The story of Christianity is the story of twice-born people. Think of the list: Zaccheus, Matthew, the man with the legion of demons, the woman caught in adultery, Peter, Paul, Lydia the seller of purple, Constantine, Augustine, Luther, John Newton the slave trader, Billy Sunday the ball player, Mel Trotter, Malcolm Muggeridge, C. S. Lewis, Chuck Colson, and the list goes on and on.
Let me end with those two sentences I mentioned earlier. You cannot understand Christianity without coming to grips with the truth of conversion. Have you ever been converted?