The Ancient Faith
CASES OF CONVERSION: PAUL
John W. McGarvey
I have read you Paul’s account of his own conversion, as he gave it to that mob. I will now read from the First Epistle to Timothy some remarks that he made about it a great many years afterward, when addressing one of his brethren. Verses twelve to seventeen of the first chapter of First Timothy:
“I thank him that enabled me, even Christ Jesus our Lord, that he counted me faithful, appointing me to his service;” (of course, he would not appoint a man to his service if he did not consider him faithful) “though I was before a blasphemer, and a prosecutor, and injurious:” (I am inclined to think that a man who has been very wicked before becoming a christian, if he undergoes a thorough change, must be more thankful to God than if he had been a moral man). “Howbeit, I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief, and the Grace of our Lord abounded exceedingly with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.” (Implying that if it had been done knowingly, there would have been no mercy for him). “Faithful is the saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners;” (that is the great purpose) “of whom, I am chief:” (He did not feel, I suppose, that he was the chief of sinners when writing this; but that he was when Christ saved him). “Howbeit, for this cause I obtained mercy,” (that is, here is another reason why he obtained mercy) “that in me, as chief” (that is a chief sinner) “might Jesus Christ show forth all his long suffering, for an example to them who should hereafter believe on him unto eternal life.” (That no man might despair of salvation seeing that chief sinner had been saved. Here he breaks out in one of those grand bursts of thanksgiving with which he sometimes interrupts his train of argument). “Now unto the King eternal, incorruptible, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”
I have gone over the details of three of the cases of conversion which are recorded in the book of Acts to indicate how God turns sinners to Christ; to indicate how the sinner himself turns to the Lord and obtains salvation; and to-night I add a fourth, that of the great Apostle Paul. The record of his conversion is not all given in one place. A part of it is found in the ninth chapter of Acts, a very brief account. Another account given by himself, mentioning some of the details which had been omitted in the ninth chapter, is found in the twenty-second chapter, which I read to you in the beginning. And still another account given by himself to King Agrippa, furnishing some details omitted in both of the others, is found in the twenty-sixth chapter of Acts. When we put all of these together, we have all that we know on the subject, and we should use them all when we are endeavoring to form a conception of the event as it really transpired. Pursuing the same method as in the other instances, let us look a moment at this man just previous to the time that he was turned to the Lord. He himself declares in the passage just read that he had been a persecutor, a blasphemer, injurious; the very chief of the sinners of his day. All this is confirmed by the previous accounts; for Luke’s description of him when he started from Jerusalem to Damascus is that he was yet breathing out threatening and slaughter against the disciples of Jesus. He had already given his consent to the murder of Stephen. He had gone, at the head of a body of armed men, all through Jerusalem, seizing and dragging to prison both men and women, because they were following Christ; and he says to King Agrippa, “I punished them often in all the synagogues, and I strove to make them blaspheme.” “When they were put to death, I gave my vote against them;” “and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto foreign cities.” When he had scattered the church in Jerusalem, until there were no more meetings there; no more preaching there; and he verily believed that he had killed the first church; not contented with this, hearing that there were some of these scattered disciples at work in Damascus, one hundred and fifty miles from Jerusalem, he obtains authority from the chief priests to go down there and seize and drag back to Jerusalem every one of them for punishment. He is on that journey at the time he is turned to the Lord.
We are beginning to wonder what will be done, what can be done, to turn into an humble disciple of Jesus Christ, such a man as that. In the case of the eunuch, you recollect that God sent out an angel to the preacher Philip, telling him to go down into a certain road, and he thus led the preacher to the sinner. In the case of Cornelius, an angel was sent to tell him to send for the Apostle Peter at Joppa, to hear words by which he might be saved. In the case of Lydia, preachers traveling on another continent were turned this way and that, and led forward until they came to the bank of the river on the Sabbath day, where Lydia and the women of her household were praying: but what shall be done for this man? Send a preacher to him? The preachers are the very men that he is after. It would have been a very dangerous thing for a preacher to meet him in the road, if Saul knew him to be a preacher. He would immediately have clapped chains around his arms. What shall be done, then? In this instance, no angel is sent from heaven; no preacher is sent to him from earth; but the Lord Jesus Christ himself comes down from heaven, and in a light, as Paul himself says afterward, that was brighter than the sun at noon. You never saw such a light. No man but Paul ever saw a light so dazzling. The light that was brighter than the sun shone around him. They all fell to the ground like dead men, as the guards did when the angel rolled the stone away from the tomb of Jesus. Only one of the company heard his name called, and that was Saul. I do not know whether the voice was very loud or not, but it arrested him. “Saul, Saul; why persecutes thou me?” Was it Stephen speaking to him? Was it some one of those other preachers who had been put to death in Jerusalem by him, reappearing to speak to him? Who could it be? “Who art thou, Lord?” is the natural question that broke from the lips of Paul. Although prostrated by the amazing sight, he was not frightened out of his wits; he knew what he was about. He was a bold man, not afraid of anything on earth. “Who art thou, Lord?” “I am Jesus, whom thou persecutes.” It is very difficult for us—I think it is impossible for any living man, now to realize what a revelation this was to Saul. The men who believed that the Jesus whom the Jews had crucified was the risen and glorified Son of God, and were honoring him as such, he was putting to death. He thought every man ought to die who propagated that belief. And now, here appears before my eyes, in a light that shines from heaven above the brightness of this noonday sun, a glorified being, who says to me, “I am Jesus, whom thou persecutest.” What shall I do? What shall I think? Is there any possible escape from the truth and reality of what I hear? None. It did not take him a thousandth part of a second to see that there was no way of escape from the fact. Here he is, alive, speaking to me; just come down from heaven! I have been wrong. He is the Christ; he is the glorified Son of God; I have been wickedly fighting against my King and my Redeemer. When this conviction came upon him, how did he act? What more had he to say? Just one word more: “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” That is all.
The Lord had some more words to speak to him. He said: “To this end, have I appeared unto thee,” [Instead of sending an angel, or sending a preacher, I have appeared myself for this purpose] “to appoint thee a minister and a witness, both of the things wherein thou had seen me and of the other things wherein I will appear to thee; delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom I send thee, to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive remission of sins, and an inheritance among them that are sanctified by faith in me.” Well now, what a wonderful thing it was, to take this persecutor and blasphemer and injurious man, and to lay out plans of work like this for him the rest of his days, before he had the slightest faith in the Lord! Paul afterward had it revealed to him that God had had that purpose concerning him from the day he was born—that from the very day of his birth God had intended to make out of him the great apostle of the Gentiles (Gal. i. 15, 16). He had that purpose, and this is the way he brings it about. God intended it because He knew what would be developed in that child when it was born, He knew what the man would be. He knew the time would come when that great and mighty soul would receive the truth and love it, and would be willing to labor and suffer for it as no other man has ever labored and suffered. He laid out His plans accordingly.
What was the answer to the question, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” Was it left unanswered? There are some preachers so ignorant in these days, that they are constantly exhorting sinners to go to the Lord and ask him what to do to be saved; urging them to pray the Lord, saying, “Lord, what wilt then have me to do?” Saul was excusable for putting that question, because he had had no good chance to learn; but every sinner who has ever heard the answer that was given to Paul, ought to know that that answer is the one for himself. What was the answer? “Arise, and go to Damascus, and there it shall be told thee of all things that are appointed for thee to do.” He told him what he was going to do with him in his future life, but as for his immediate duty, in order that he might obtain forgiveness of the awful sins of which he was guilty, Go there, and it shall be told thee what thou shalt do.
There is another great lesson taught right here. Suppose that a man is directed to go to the Lord, and pray, saying, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” and the Lord should actually appear and answer him; what would the answer he? Would he tell him what to do? No. Would he not say, Arise, go to Damascus with Saul of Tarsus; learn what he was told to do, and do the same thing? Arise and go to some man who has been taught how to direct sinners, ask him what to do, and then do it. So Saul arose, and being led by the hand of some of his companions, he went into the city.
Now I wish to pause awhile before I go further with the story, and ask, how much progress has this wicked man made toward becoming a Christian? Does he believe in Christ now? Yes, he does—with a faith that never wavered from that moment to the end of his life. Why, my brethren, it seems to me Paul could have said, as he afterwards did say, “I know whom I have trusted.” I saw him; I heard him. It was more nearly a matter of absolute knowledge with Paul, than a matter of belief. Oh! how strong his faith in Christ from that moment on!
Well, has he repented of his sins? For three days and nights, he neither eats nor drinks; not a morsel of food or a drop of water passes through his lips. That was a terrible fast. Under favorable circumstances going without food and drink for so long a time would be very exhausting; but he was praying all that time, and in a great agony of guilt, weighing him down and almost crushing the life out of him. What a terrible experience it was! And how could it be otherwise, when he remembered the blood of innocent men and women which he had shed—guilty of the blood of Stephen, and that of many others—guilty of the sorrow and pain which he had caused to so many households by driving men and women away from home to escape his clutches, and by seizing others and dragging them to prison, and scourging them to make them blaspheme the name of Jesus! No man ever had more reason for agony of soul, and no man, therefore, ever more bitterly repented than Paul repented in those three days. There can not be any doubt about his faith, or about his repentance. He himself said afterward, if we accept the common version of a remark in the Epistle to the Romans, “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God;” and a great many persons have supposed him to teach that the very moment a man believes, he is justified by faith and has peace with God; but Paul was a believer for three days and three nights, and instead of being justified as yet, he was in an agony of guilt and condemnation, and had no peace with God. Consequently, if you interpret that language in the light of his own experience, you see at once that the conception of it that I have just given, is a mistaken one, Now let us proceed with the story.
During those three days, the Lord Jesus, looking down, allowed him to continue in his agony. I suppose he thought the man deserved it. I suppose he thought it would be good for his soul to writhe in that agony for three days and nights; but at the end of that time, he appeared to a Christian in the city by the name of Ananias, and told him to go to Saul. He would find him in a certain house, and find him praying. Ananias knew how to direct such a man to peace and rest in the Lord, so he went to the house. One of the very men whom Saul had come up there to seize, and put in chains, and carry back to Jerusalem, and who was afraid to go when the Lord first told him to go, goes in and finds him there prostrated, worn out, pale and nervous, still in agony, still in prayer. He says, “Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus who appeared to thee by the way, has sent me to thee that thou mightest receive thy sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” He laid his hands on him and said, “Receive thy sight.” Something like scales dropped off his eyes, and he could see. Then Ananias goes on: “The God of our fathers hath appointed thee to know his will, to see the Righteous One, and to hear a voice from his mouth. For thou shalt be a witness for him unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard. And now why tarriest thou? Arise and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on his name.” He arose, was baptized, and then they put some food before him, and he ate and was strengthened. His agony is over; he has received his sight; his sins are forgiven; he is filled with the Spirit of God; he is a Christian now; and this is the simple story of his conversion.
Now let us go back over the story a little, and ask ourselves, first of all, what was it that convinced him of the claims of the Lord Jesus Christ? It was the preaching of Philip that convinced the eunuch; it was the preaching of Peter that convinced Cornelius; it was the preaching of Paul that had the same effect on Lydia. What was it that convinced Paul? It was preaching, still, only now the preacher is the Lord Jesus Christ himself. That is the only difference. I, this glorified being whom you see, am the Jesus whom you are persecuting.
Well, in all these other cases, there was some form of miraculous evidence going along with the preached word, to prove the truth of it; and there is like evidence in this. If Saul had heard that voice coming out of the sky, but had seen no miraculous light, no evidence that it came actually from heaven, he would have regarded it as a mystery that he could not understand; but he could not have been convinced by it that Jesus is the Christ. But that word from the lips of Jesus was accompanied by that miraculous light, and the visible miracle proved that the voice came from heaven. This caused him to believe, and when he believed, his faith was that which threw him into the agony of repentance. Then, when he heard the word, “Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on His name,” he does not stop to raise any questions. This thing of raising questions about the ordinance of the Lord—why is it necessary to be baptized? Is it absolutely essential to be baptized? Are our sins certainly washed away when we are baptized?—the time to raise such questions as these had not come yet. This was a time of simple faith. Men believed and accepted what the messengers of God said, just as they said it. That is faith. The very moment he heard the command, he arose from his prostrate position and was baptized. Now he is satisfied. His agony is gone; he eats the food he had refused for three days and nights; and what is more, he goes straight way to the synagogue, as soon as the Sabbath comes, and stands up there to preach in the name of Jesus, to the amazement of the unbelieving. Jews. They exclaimed, This man came here to take to Jerusalem them who believe in the name, and behold, he preaches the faith that he came to destroy! He “confounded the Jews that dwelt in Damascus,” proving by the testimony of his eyesight, and the testimony of his blindness, and all these other events, that Jesus is the Christ. The statement that he “confounded” them, means that he shut them up so that they could not think of what more to say in opposition to his preaching.
Now this is the story of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. Suppose that you, or some other sinner, is a great blasphemer and injurious to the cause of Christ. If such a man is brought to the conviction that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, repents of that sin, and all the sins of his life, and then, upon being told to arise and be baptized, he does it; can’t that man eat food with joyfulness and gladness of heart too, and go to work in the vineyard of the Lord, and try to turn sinners to the Saviour? Is not he a Christian too? Surely, if the Apostle Paul became a true disciple, was a genuine convert to the Lord, the man who walks in the same way, though he may be brought to faith in an entirely different manner, as the eunuch, and Cornelius, and Lydia were; yet if he has the faith, the repentance, and the obedience, he is a Christian as surely as they.
I do not suppose I address any one tonight who ever had such feelings toward Christ and toward the apostles and the disciples, as Saul had, but, my dear friends, you know this—all you that have never come to Christ—you know you are sinners. You know that you belong to that same great class who are without God, without Christ, without hope in this world; and the only hope is in Christ Jesus—faith in him; abandonment of sin from the heart; humble obedience to him; walking in His ways. Are you willing to live and die in that class? There are yet two great classes into which Christianity divides the world—the sinner saved, and the sinner unsaved—those who will be on the right hand in the judgment, and those who will be on the left hand. Without stopping now to raise any question about the awful fate of those on the left, are you willing to be one of them? I do not believe you are. I do not believe there is a man in this city, or a woman, who is willing to deliberately make that choice. You have promised yourself that you will not be, though you are now. You have promised yourself that you will change, though you have not changed. You have said, The time is coming when I will take the right stand and be with the people of God; but the time has not come. Perhaps it has come and passed—the time that you once thought you would—and you have put it off to another day. That day has also come and passed, and if you continue thus you will find yourself suddenly in the face of death, when it is too late. You will need in that hour all the comfort that the Christian faith can give, to enable you to die; and it is a bad hour in which to seek for that faith and to cry for that comfort. Why not, then, come tonight? You never saw a day or a night more suitable for obeying the Lord, than this blessed Sunday evening. You never will. Then, in the name of the Lord Jesus, I ask you, I invite you, I urge you, if you believe these things, while we rise and sing the song of invitation which declares,
“Just as I am, without one plea,
I beg you to come and make your peace with God.
[This was taken from J.W. McGarvey’s Sermons Delivered in Louisville, Kentucky (1894). Subtitles were added for reading ease].