A Radical Transformation

A Radical Transformation

Paul

A testimony of a life committed to one cause!

Acts 9:1-22

Sally Versfeld’s testimony

Sunday 26th July 2020

9.30 am

Paul was actually born as Saul. He was born in Tarsus in Cilicia around AD 1–5 in a province in the southeastern corner of modern-day Tersous, Turkey. He was of Benjamite lineage and Hebrew ancestry (Philippians 3:5–6). His parents were Pharisees—fervent Jewish nationalists who adhered strictly to the Law of Moses—who sought to protect their children from “contamination” from the Gentiles. Anything Greek would have been despised in Saul’s household, yet he could speak Greek and passable Latin. His household would have spoken Aramaic, a derivative of Hebrew, which was the official language of Judea. Saul’s family were Roman citizens but viewed Jerusalem as a truly sacred and holy city (Acts 22:22-29).

At age thirteen Saul was sent to Palestine to learn from a rabbi named Gamaliel, under whom Saul mastered Jewish history, the Psalms, and the works of the prophets. His education would continue for five or six years as Saul learned such things as dissecting Scripture (Acts 22:3). It was during this time that he developed a question-and-answer style of teaching known in ancient times as “diatribe.” This method of articulation helped rabbis debate the finer points of Jewish law to either defend or prosecute those who broke the law. Saul went on to become a lawyer, and all signs pointed to his becoming a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court of 71 men who ruled over Jewish life and religion. Saul was zealous for his faith, and this faith did not allow for compromise. It is this zeal that led Saul down the path of religious extremism.

In Acts 5:27–42, Peter delivered his defense of the gospel and of Jesus in front of the Sanhedrin, which Saul would have heard. Gamaliel was also present and delivered a message to calm the council and prevent them from stoning Peter. Saul might also have been present at the trial of Stephen. He was present for his stoning and death; he held the garments of those who did the stoning (Acts 7:58). After Stephen’s death, “a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem” (Acts 8:1). Saul became determined to eradicate Christians, ruthless in his pursuit as he believed he was acting in the name of God. Arguably, there is no one more frightening or more vicious than a religious terrorist, especially when he believes he is doing the will of the Lord by killing innocent people. This is exactly what Saul of Tarsus was: a religious terrorist. Acts 8:3 states, “He began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.”

The pivotal passage in Paul’s story is Acts 9:1–22, which recounts Paul’s meeting with Jesus Christ on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus, a journey of about 150 miles. Saul was angered by what he had seen and filled with murderous rage against the Christians. Before departing on his journey, he had asked the high priest for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, asking for permission to bring any Christians (followers of “the Way,” as they were known) back to Jerusalem to imprison them. On the road Saul was caught in a bright light from heaven that caused him to fall face down on the ground. He heard the words, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He replied, “Who are you Lord?” Jesus answered directly and clearly, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (verses 4–5). As an aside, this might not have been Saul’s first encounter with Jesus, as some scholars suggest that young Saul might have known of Jesus and that he might have actually witnessed His death.

From that moment on, Saul’s life was turned upside down. The light of the Lord blinded him, and as he traveled on he had to rely on his companions. As instructed by Jesus, Saul continued to Damascus to make contact with a man named Ananias, who was hesitant at first to meet Saul because he knew Saul’s reputation as an evil man. But the Lord told Ananias that Saul was a “chosen instrument” to carry His name before the Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel (Acts 9:15) and would suffer for doing so (Acts 9:16). Ananias followed the Lord’s instructions and found Saul, on whom he laid hands, and told him of his vision of Jesus Christ. Through prayer, Saul received the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:17), regained his sight, and was baptized (Acts 9:18). Saul immediately went into the synagogues and proclaimed Jesus as the Son of God (Acts 9:20). The people were amazed and skeptical, as Saul’s reputation was well known. The Jews thought he had come to take away the Christians (Acts 9:21), but he had in fact joined them. Saul’s boldness increased as the Jews living in Damascus were confounded by Saul’s arguments proving that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 9:22).

Saul spent time in Arabia, Damascus, Jerusalem, Syria, and his native Cilicia, and Barnabas enlisted his help to teach those in the church in Antioch (Acts 11:25). Interestingly, the Christians driven out of Judea by the persecution that arose after Stephen’s death founded this multiracial church (Acts 11:19–21).

Saul took his first of three missionary journeys in the late AD 40s. As he spent more time in Gentile areas, Saul began to go by his Roman name Paul (Acts 13:9). Paul wrote many of the New Testament books. Most theologians are in agreement that he wrote Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Philemon, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus. These thirteen “letters” (epistles) make up the “Pauline Authorship” and are the primary source of his theology. As previously noted, the book of Acts gives us a historical look at Paul’s life and times. The apostle Paul spent his life proclaiming the risen Christ Jesus throughout the Roman world, often at great personal peril (2 Corinthians 11:24–27). It is assumed that Paul died a martyr’s death in the mid-to-late AD 60s in Rome.

  1. All people need to be saved
  2. All people can be saved -So, what can we learn from the life of the apostle Paul? First, we learn that God can save anyone. The remarkable story of Paul repeats itself every day as sinful, broken people all over the world are transformed by God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ. Some of these people have done despicable things to other human beings, while some just try to live a moral life thinking that God will smile upon them on the day of judgment. When we read the story of Paul, we are amazed that God would allow into heaven a religious extremist who murdered innocent women and children. Today, we might see terrorists or other criminals as unworthy of redemption because their crimes against humanity are just too great. The story of Paul is a story that can be told today—he isn’t worthy in our eyes of a second chance, yet God granted him mercy. The truth is that every person matters to God, from the “good, decent,” average person to the “wicked, evil,” degenerate one. Only God can save a soul from hell.

3.All people can know that they are saved -Second, we learn from the life of Paul that anyone can be a humble, powerful witness for Jesus Christ. Arguably, no other human figure in the Bible demonstrated more humility while sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ as Paul. Acts 20:19 tells us that he “served the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to [him] through the plots of the Jews.” In Acts 28:31, Paul shares the good news of Jesus Christ: “Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul was not afraid to tell others what the Lord had done for him. Paul spent all his days, from conversion to martyrdom, working tirelessly for the kingdom of God.

4.  All people can be saved to the uttermost -Finally, we learn that anyone can surrender completely to God. Paul was fully committed to God. In Philippians 1:12–14, Paul wrote from prison, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” Despite his circumstances, Paul praised God and continually shared the good news (see also Acts 16:22–25 and Philippians 4:11–13). Through his hardships and suffering, Paul knew the outcome of a life well lived for Christ. He had surrendered his life fully, trusting God for everything. He wrote, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Can we make the same claim?

Distinctive Emphases of Methodist Belief

John Wesley believed that certain aspects of the Christian Faith required special emphasis. Methodists today still hold to these emphases. There is no more simple or indeed better way of presenting these distinctive emphases than by using the four statements that collectively are called the ‘Four Alls’. Although this is a twentieth-century creation it admirably represents Wesley’s mind and is certainly more comprehensive than any single statement of his. The ‘Four All’s’ are:

1. All people need to be saved.

2. All people can be saved.

3. All people can know they are saved.

4. All people can be saved to the uttermost

C.1 All people need to be saved

Wesley stressed the biblical analysis of the human condition that all men and women are sinners having ‘fallen short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3: 23). Like Martin Luther at the time of the Reformation, Wesley’s sense of his own sinfulness gave a sharp focus to his theology. He was consumed with a passion for holiness and a living relationship with God. But his own life of ruthless religious discipline could not produce any relief from the consciousness of sin, or any real sense of fellowship with God. Even a period of missionary endeavour in Georgia served only to increase his feelings of alienation from God. As he wrote in his Journal towards the end of that period: ‘This, then, I have learned in the ends of the earth – that I am fallen short of the glory of God… and having nothing in or of myself to plead I have no hope…’ Wesley insisted that all of humankind was in this position and wholly incapable of extracting itself.

So everyone needs to be saved from sin and its consequences; there is nothing anyone can do to save himself or herself.

C.2 All people can be saved

Into such a black and hopeless situation comes the grace of God with the gift of salvation. Since no one can save himself or herself, Wesley believed that salvation must be a gift of God. Yet as a gift he believed an individual must respond by accepting it, for God will not force that gift upon anyone. Here Wesley differed from Reformers such as John Calvin seeing God’s grace as, first of all, setting the human will free in order to allow the individual the space to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation (sometimes referred to as Prevenient grace). All can be saved but not all may choose to be saved. For followers of John Calvin such an idea was unthinkable, seeing God’s grace as totally overwhelming. They believed that God had already chosen who would be saved, and his grace would finish the work. Wesley, however, could not accept what he saw as a limit on the grace of God. As Charles Wesley put it in one of the many hymns with a similar theme:

Come, sinners, to the gospel feast, Let every soul be Jesu’ s guest; You need not one be left behind, For God has bidden all mankind. Sent by my Lord, on you I call; The invitation is to all;

Come, all the world; come, sinner thou! All things in Christ are ready now. (Hymns and Psalms 460, verses 1-2)

All men and women without exception have the opportunity of experiencing God’s free gift of salvation.

So everyone can be saved because God makes it possible. All that is required is faith in Christ crucified.

 The Methodist Church in Ireland

C.3 All people can know they are saved

What do people know when God’s free gift of salvation has been received? They know that they have been justified (put in the right with God), pardoned and accepted by God. They know that they have a new life as a child of God and a new power with which to live this life. But how do they know? Wesley believed the ‘how’ was through the work of the Holy Spirit. He referred to the direct and the indirect witness of the Holy Spirit. He quoted from Romans when he stated: ‘(God’s) Holy Spirit speaks to us deep in our hearts and tells us that we are God’s children’ (Romans 8:16). So deep within the believer there is what Wesley called the ‘inward consciousness’ of the assurance of salvation. While such an assurance may be accompanied by feelings it was more than emotion or feelings. The ‘inward consciousness’ is the direct and inward impression of the Holy Spirit on the individual. The indirect witness of the Spirit is the development of Christ-like attitudes and actions in the everyday life of the individual, described by Paul in his letter to the Galatians (Galatians 5: 22-23) as ‘the fruit of the Spirit’. The words of Charles Wesley are again appropriate:

How can a sinner know

His sins on earth forgiven?

How can my gracious Saviour show

My name inscribed in heaven?

His Spirit to us He gave,

And dwells in us we know;

The witness in ourselves we have

And all its fruits we show

(Methodist Hymn Book 377, verses 1 & 7)

In the early years Wesley was quite dogmatic – ‘unless they knew their sins were forgiven they were under the wrath and curse of God’ but he mellowed in later years accepting that not every Christian did enjoy such assurance. Nevertheless he still maintained it to be the ‘common privilege of the children of God’ and urged every Christian to expect and pray for it.

So every person can know that he or she is saved. It is not simply a doctrinal truth but an assurance given them by the Holy Spirit in the heart.

C.4 All people can be saved to the uttermost

Wesley maintained to the end of his life that Christian Perfection was the key emphasis of the Methodists. Convinced that there was no limit to what the grace of God could do in us and with us he used the concept to spell out what he saw as normal Christianity. In his classic essay, The Plain Account of Christian Perfection (1766), he concluded with six statements, which highlighted what he saw as essential in understanding Christian Perfection. So, in Wesley’s words, Christian Perfection is:

– Loving God with all our heart and our neighbour as ourselves.

– Renewal in heart, not only in part, but in the whole image of God. – Being cleansed from all pollution both of flesh and spirit.

– Having all the mind of Christ and walking as he walked.

– Devoting soul, body and substance, not in part, but all to God.

– Giving God all our heart with one design ruling all our tempers.

– In Wesley’s understanding this is what it means to be a real Christian. Both in terms of a relationship with God and relationships in the world this requires total commitment. Wesley refused to countenance the notion of being what he called ‘half a Christian’. He held before the people a quality of Christian living that was dynamic and vibrant, like that described by Jesus Christ as ‘abundant life’. It was a quality of Christian living available to all through grace, energised by the Spirit and continually encouraged by the means of grace, such as corporate worship, prayer, scripture, the sacraments, fasting and fellowship.

Of course the use of the term Christian Perfection has created confusion with notions of sinlessness and infallibility. Yet if properly understood and rightly presented this distinctive emphasis offers an effective way for the promotion of inward spiritual growth as well as outward social righteousness. Everyone can be saved to the uttermost. Everything is of grace. There can be no limits on what God can do in our lives.

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