Reflections on the Book of Acts #9: Saul

Here’s the link to Acts 9.

Do you believe imprisoned serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer and David Berkowitz have been forgiven by God and have become born again Christians? Because it’s understandable if someone is skeptical of such stories. However, if God can’t forgive even the vilest offender, then can we really proclaim Christ as Savior and believe that his atoning death was enough?

Think about these words from the well-known hymn, “To God Be the Glory”:

O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood
To every believer the promise of God
The vilest offender who truly believes
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives

Must not these words–which express deep biblical truth–also apply to the most criminal, the most violent among us, if they apply to any of us at all? Otherwise, aren’t we making the mistake of thinking that the grace and mercy of God only applies to those of us who aren’t so bad? And if that’s so, doesn’t that mean we’re saying we deserve God’s forgiveness in some measure because we’re not as bad as that person? Such a mindset–conscious or unconscious–negates the power of the cross. It turns the death of Jesus into an extra bit of help to get us over the finish line. It makes a mockery of Christ and what he accomplished through his sacrifice.

Enter Saul. He was a zealous Pharisee seeking out followers of Jesus to imprison them. He was present at the stoning of Stephen. Acts 8:1 says Saul agreed with putting him to death. He is described as breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. So, not a nice guy.

While on his way to Damascus to continue persecuting Christians, he was knocked to the ground by a flash of light and a voice from heaven. Right then and there, the risen Lord Jesus brought Saul to his knees. The man who was the greatest enemy of believers became the greatest missionary of the first generation of the church. He started all kinds of churches in Asia Minor and large portion of the New Testament consists of letters he wrote to churches and church leaders.

But not everyone was convinced that Saul–who would later be referred to as Paul–really became a Christian. They knew exactly who he was and what he had been doing. The Lord called one man, Ananias, to welcome Saul into his home and lay his hands on him.

Unsure of all this, Ananias responded with skepticism: Lord, I have heard from many people about this man, how much harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has authority here from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.

Even after Saul had begun proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues in Damascus, others doubted the veracity of his faith. Isn’t this the man in Jerusalem who was causing havoc for those who called on this name and came here for the purpose of taking them as prisoners to the chief priests?

And once more in the passage: When he arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, since they did not believe he was a disciple.

See what’s going on? Even these Christians were finding it hard to believe that his conversion was on the up and up. Maybe he’s lying. Maybe it’s a trick. Maybe he’s up to something.

Maybe it was hard to believe that someone who had been up to such wretched things was now persuading others that Jesus is the Messiah.

Maybe it was Saul’s past that led him to pen these words in 1 Timothy 1:15: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—and I am the worst of them.

Saul–who we can now call Paul–was self-aware enough to realize the depth of his sinfulness. But he also became aware, thanks to Jesus’ direct intervention, of the reality of God’s grace and forgiveness. The one who consented to the murder of believers began proclaiming the gift of eternal life in Christ.

I know that we can’t really compare Saul to serial killers. But I opened with mentioning them for a reason. We can hardly think of anyone in our society that’s worse. Yet if the grace of God is real at all, then it must apply to all. No exceptions. If either Jeffrey Dahmer or David Berkowitz genuinely came to faith in Jesus, then they will join the worshipful throng in the new heavens and new earth. And rather than find such a notion either repulsive or unbelievable, perhaps instead the very thought ought to propel us to praise God for the power of his grace. Because it’s through that same grace we are forgiven too.

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