MVMT 07: Sovereign Grace

Acts 9:1-19

Acts 9:1-9 – But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

What is the most impressive conversion story that you know? Today, we are going to take a look at the most famous conversion story in church history. And this is not only the most famous, but it is also the most important conversion story. It is very important that Luke recorded it three times in the book of Acts alone. Most of us know Saul of Tarsus as apostle Paul. Now, I am going to go back and forth between using the name Saul and Paul. Contrary to the popular belief, Paul is not Saul’s Christian name. Saul did not change his name to Paul when he became Christian. Saul is his Jewish name and Paul is his Roman’s name. I know it sounds cool to say that God changed Saul to Paul but that is not true. Saul chooses to use the name Paul more often in his letters as he is called by God to be the apostle to the non-Jewish people. It is more logical for him to use his Roman’s name. But in our passage for today, Luke still refers to him as Saul. And Saul’s conversion is extremely crucial. Without apostle Paul, there would be no New Testament as we know it. Paul is the person God used to pen all the beautiful Christians doctrines that we love. He is the one who explained to us what the gospel is, justification by faith, adoption, eternal assurance etc. And in the story of his conversion, we see the sovereign grace of God.

Now, why is it important for us to know the story of Saul’s conversion? Listen to what he said. 1 Timothy 1:15-16 – 15 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. 16 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. Paul says that his conversion is an example to those who were to believe in Christ. So, when God saved Paul, God also has us in mind. Paul’s conversion is to give hope for us and to the people we want to see converted. It means that in his story of conversion, we can find a pattern for all conversion. Now, I am not saying that all of us need to experience what Paul experienced for us to become Christians. We do not need Damascus Road experience to be converted but we must experience the elements of conversion in the story. Every conversion story is different. My story and your story are not the same. Some stories are more sudden and dramatic, while others are more quiet and progressive. Nevertheless, all of us have a story. Acts 9 tells us how we become Christians.

Let me you why it is important to know the story of our conversion. I am convinced that many Christians do not know how God saved them. I mean, they know that God loves them and saved them, and Jesus died for their sins, but they don’t know what caused their conversion. And it leads to two things. First, it leads to lack of amazement of the gospel. Because we have no idea what God saved us from and how he accomplished our salvation. While the truth is that Christian conversion is the most profound change a human being can experience. Just look at different phrases that the Bible used to describe conversion: Born again; Dead but now alive; Blind but now seeing; New creation. Those are majestic supernatural wondrous experiences. And that is our story. Do we realize how beautiful our story is? We are a living miracle. If we know that, how can we ever get bored of the gospel? Our lack of amazement of the gospel is rooted in not knowing how God saved us. Second, it leads to a lack of confidence in sharing the gospel to others. Get this. When we think that we are the decisive factor in our salvation, we will not have the boldness to share the gospel with others. We will always think that we need to come up with the perfect presentation and the perfect answer to all their questions. We will put so much weight in what we must do, and it will rob us of the confidence of what God can do through us. So, I have two goals tonight. One is to increase our amazement of the gospel and two, to increase our confidence in sharing the gospel.

There are four elements of conversion that we can see from Saul’s conversion story. Sovereign grace; Spiritual blindness; Spiritual sight; Scandalous gospel.

Sovereign Grace

Acts 9:1-6 – But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

The story of salvation is the story of God’s sovereign grace. The story of Saul’s conversion is the act of God’s sovereignty. There is no escape from it. Some people said that salvation is ultimately up to us. We are the decisive factor in our salvation. We have the power to choose whether we want to accept Christ or not. And they said that what happened to Saul is special. It is not the norm. Saul is specifically chosen by God to accomplish God’s special plan for the gentiles. But that cannot be true. Because as we already read earlier, Paul himself said that the story of his conversion is an example for every Christian. And in his story, it is not Saul who decide for Christ but Christ who decided for Saul. Saul is not the decisive factor of Saul’s salvation. God is the decisive factor of Sauls salvation. Think about it. Saul does not want to have anything to do with Jesus Christ. He does not only dislike Christians, he hates Christians. He is devoted to his Jewish faith. He is a pharisee. Which means that he not only studied the Scripture, but he lives it out the best he knows how to the point that he persecutes the church because of his zeal on his Jewish faith. And he sees nothing wrong with it. As a devoted Jew, he sees persecuting and killing Christians as righteous acts.

So, Saul comes to the high priest in Jerusalem and asks him for a letter that will allow him to persecute Christians in Damascus. And they do not have the mean of transportation that we have today. Saul cannot hop into a plane, train or bus to get to Damascus from Jerusalem. It takes anywhere between 7 to 8 days to travel from Jerusalem to Damascus. How much do you have to hate someone to travel 7 days just to capture them and then travel another 7 days to bring them back to Jerusalem? Saul passionately hates Christians. If anyone tells Saul that he would be the greatest Christian missionaries, that person is dead. But on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians, a light from heaven shines around him and he fells to the ground. What happens? Jesus shows up. Out of the blue, just like that, Jesus appears to Saul. Here is a question for us. Who initiated this encounter? It is definitely not Saul. Saul is on his way to kill Christians. It is not Saul but Jesus who makes the first move. It is Jesus who orchestrated the Damascus Road experience.

Here is good news for us. Just as Jesus orchestrated Damascus experience, Jesus orchestrated our salvation as well. The good news of the gospel is not that we pursue God but God pursues sinners. This is sovereign grace. You and I did not deserve to be saved at all. In fact, we did not even want to be saved. We hated God. We were God’s enemies. Just like a thief hides from the police, we hid from God. But there is not a millimetre in this universe that is beyond God’s reach. He pursued us to the end of the earth because of his sovereign grace alone. And this sovereign grace is what initiated our salvation. And let me tell you, it’s hard for us to comprehend this truth because you and I live in a culture of earning and deserving. We believe that in order to get something, we must earn it. Grace is unnatural to us.

Let me give you an example. As many of you know, I am a high achiever. I am the type who over-prepared for exams and whine for the whole day if I did not get a good grade. I whine to my MC about Greek and Hebrew exams all the time. In every class, you will find two opposite spectrums. At one end of the spectrum, there are people like me, the high achievers. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the typical party students who do just enough work to get by. They hardly study and they are more than happy with a pass. How many of you lean toward the high achiever spectrum? How many partiers? So, let’s say that the final Greek exam is worth 100% of the grade. I spent weeks preparing for the exam while the partiers cram everything a few hours before the exam. As expected, I do well on the exam even though I keep whining to others that the exam is too hard. And the partiers do very poorly on the exam. I am looking forward to receiving my grade while the partiers are already thinking about how they can appeal for mercy to the professor. Two weeks later, we receive an email that says our grade is already posted online. And when I check my grade, I dance and celebrate because I get a high distinction. Tears fall from my eyes as all of my hard work pays off. I deserved to get a high distinction after all the sleepless nights and weeks of studying. But surprisingly, the partiers also celebrate joyfully. They not only get a pass, but they also get a high distinction. The professor gives everyone in the class high distinction. What happens next? Everyone should be happy that they get a high distinction, right? Of course not. While the partiers could hardly believe their good fortune, I am outraged. I am extremely angry at the fact that those who deserved to fail have received the same top-grade as I have. It is unfair for the partiers who hardly do any works to receive the same grade as me who do all the hard works. Do you get what I’m saying? We are by default creatures of earning and deserving. The fact that we receive salvation simply because of God’s sovereign grace is offensive to us. We do not like the idea of sovereign grace because it crushes our pride. Sovereign grace shames and humbles us. It tells us that our salvation has nothing to do with us and solely based on God’s decision. We want to be the subject of our salvation and not the object of salvation. But God would not let us take the credit. It is the sovereign grace of God alone that brings our salvation.

Let me tell you why this is good news for us. If salvation is the works of God’s sovereign grace, it means that God can save anyone. No one is beyond the saving grace of Christ! Many years ago, I read an article with a provoking title. The title is this: “Can your gospel save a terrorist?” Imagine a leader of ISIS is converted and then preach Christ to his former jihadist. Can our gospel do that? Can our gospel save a person whom no one expect to be converted? Can our gospel save someone who has taken a public stand against Christianity and killed many Christians? And Saul’s story screams to us that the answer is yes. Saul is the terrorist of his day. And if God can save a terrorist, he can save drug dealers, serial killers, rapist, and he is definitely able to save our family and friends! God’s grace is not limited to those who grew up in a Christian family or has a clean moral track record. God’s grace is able to save the worst of sinners, of whom Saul is the foremost. Paul is saying to us that if God can save him, he can save anyone. Who do we think is unsavable in our life? Do not limit God.

Spiritual blindness

Acts 9:7-9 – The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

After Saul encounters Jesus, Saul loses his sight. He becomes temporarily blind. He lives in darkness for three days. Don’t miss the contrast. At the beginning of this chapter, we see the high and mighty Saul who is ready to travel 7 days just to persecute Christians. And the moment he encounters Jesus, he loses all his strength. He becomes so helpless to the point that he needs the help of others to lead him and bring him to Damascus. Encounter with Jesus brings Saul to the end of himself. What does it mean for us? Is that mean we need to become blind to receive salvation? I don’t think so. Saul’s physical blindness is the picture of our spiritual blindness. And when we encounter Jesus, we are awakened to the fact that we are spiritually blind. If you are blind, if you lived all your life in darkness, you have no clue that you are blind. David Wallace puts it nicely. There are two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way. The older fish nods at them and say, “Morning fellas, how’s the water?” and swim on. The two young fish stares at each other and say, “What the heck is water?” A blind man has no concept of darkness as a fish has no concept of water. We will only realise that we are spiritually blind if we have encountered the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. Encounter with Jesus awakens us to the fact that he is the only one who can save us. The sovereign grace of God awakens us to the fact that we were blind.

When we are able to see and look back at the times when we were spiritually blind, we will realise that there is nothing we can do can save ourselves. It is only the grace of God that can save us. But it does not stop us from trying. There are four roads that we run to in our spiritual blindness. First is sin. As I often say, sin is fun. If sin is not fun, you are not doing it right. So, we run to sin to give us a sense of meaning in life. Yet, after all said and done, we are still unsatisfied. And we keep searching and searching and it throws us into a downward spiral that eventually leads to our doom. Second is sincerity. Our culture has this famous saying, “It does not matter what you believe as long as you believe it with all your heart.” So, they tell us that everyone has the right to pursue what they believe as long as they are sincere about it. Or, to put in Disney’s phrase, “Just follow your heart.” Let me tell you that this is extremely foolish. Sincerity cannot save anyone. You can be very sincere and very wrong at the same time. How do I know? Because Hitler is extremely sincere. He is fully convinced that he is doing the right thing by exterminating the Jews. Will we see Hitler in the afterlife? Yes, if you end up in the wrong place. Just follow your heart is a terrible advice. It does not lead to a happily ever after. It leads to a very dark place.

Third is morality. And this is a slippery slope for many people, including Christians. We think that as long as we do good in life, then we will receive salvation. Let me illustrate it for you. I am stealing this from Charles Spurgeon. Once there was a gardener that grew carrot. Then one day, a huge carrot grew in his field. He was surprised by the size of the carrot and he took the carrot to his king. He said, “Your majesty, I am a gardener and I have a garden of carrot. And this is the greatest carrot that I have ever produced, and I want to give this carrot to you as a token of love. Only a wonderful king like you deserve to have this huge carrot.” The king appreciated the gesture and took the carrot from the gardener. As the gardener walked away, the king said, “I can see how much you love me by giving me your greatest carrot. You honour me. So, I’ll give you the huge land next to your garden so you can be a much greater gardener than you are now.” The gardener was surprised and went home rejoicing. There was a nobleman in the castle who saw what happened. And he thought, “Oh my, if the gardener received a huge land just for a carrot, what would I get if I give the king my greatest horse?” So, the next day this nobleman brought his greatest horse to the king and said, “My king, a wonderful king like you deserve the greatest horse. This is the greatest horse I raised, and I want to give it to you as my token of love.” The king looked at the nobleman, smiled, and said, “Thank you. I receive your gift. You can go now.” The nobleman was confused. He didn’t receive anything from the king. What happened to the huge land for a carrot? The king discerned his heart and said, “Let me tell you what happened. The gardener gave me the carrot but you, you were giving yourself the horse.” Can you see it? When we do something for God to get something from God, we are not doing it for God. We are doing it for ourselves. And that’s morality. We are not doing what we are doing out of love but out of our own selfish desire. If we still think that we need to do things for God to be saved, we cannot fully love God. Only a person who knows that God already loves them can truly love God.

Fourth is knowledge. Let me make it clear that Christian faith is not the enemy of intellect. We cannot become a Christian without thinking. Christian faith is more than thinking but it is not less. Christian faith requires us to think. Knowledge is a crucial part of our conversion. Jesus appears before Saul and when Saul asks him who he is, he answers, “I am Jesus.” That’s knowledge. But knowledge alone is not enough. It is very possible to have all the right information and still blind to the glory of Christ. Look at Saul. Prior to this event, Saul had all the right information. He was studying the same Scriptures that Jesus said testified of Jesus. But Saul cannot connect the dots. Saul thought he knew God. He looked at the Old Testament and concluded that the Messiah could not die on the cross. Because it is written that cursed is everyone who hanged on a tree. Therefore, a cursed Messiah did not make any sense to him. Saul built his own version of God based on the knowledge he had. He had all the right information, but he did not treasure Christ. Until sovereign grace hits him and brings him to the end of himself.

Spiritual sight

Acts 9:10-19 – 10 Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. 14 And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; 19 and taking food, he was strengthened. For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus.

What a remarkable story of conversion. But let’s hit the pause button on Saul for few minutes. Let’s look at the role of Ananias in this story. Because he has a very important role in Saul’s conversion. Many theologians call him one of the unsung heroes of the Christian faith. Just think about it. He knows that Saul is coming to Damascus to get him. He knows that Saul is there to persecute Christians. Ananias likely knows many Christians who have been tortured and possibly killed because of Saul. And suddenly the Lord appears to him in a vision and tells him to pay a visit to Saul. What would you do if you were Ananias? You would ask, “Lord, are you sure? Are you really really sure?” Right? Because this seems like a suicidal mission. Saul comes to Damascus precisely to capture people like Ananias. And now Ananias is told to go and seek Saul. Or, let me put it this way. Rewind a few years with me to the year 2010. One day I was praying, and the Lord appeared to me in a vision and said, “Yosi.” “Here I am Lord.” “I want you to go to seven eleven in Chatswood and meet Osama bin Laden. I want you to bring him to your house and pray for him.” I’ll be like, “Lord, is this you or the pizza I ate last night?” This command did not make any logical sense. This is like asking Jerry to present itself to Tom. We would no longer have Tom and Jerry. But Ananias obeys the Lord. He goes to Saul, prays for him, and immediately, something like scales falls from Saul’s eyes and he can see. Then Saul is immediately baptised. Saul of Tarsus, the number one public enemy of Christianity has officially become a follower of Christ. And just like that, Ananias disappears from the story. We never heard of him anymore. But that one moment of obedience changes Saul’s life forever. And it not only changes Saul’s life, but Ananias’ obedience also transforms the world. My friend, do not think that you do not have a role to play in the gospel movement. Your obedience to spread the gospel has the potential to transform a city.

Let’s go back to Saul now. We can see Saul’s conversion from two sides. On one side, his conversion is sudden. He was blind, but now he sees. He was dead, but now alive. One moment he was the enemy of God, the next moment he is the adopted child of God. But on the other side, there is a long process that leads to his sudden moment of conversion. Listen to what he says about his conversion. Acts 26:14 – And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads. There is another line that Saul adds to his conversion story. Jesus says to him that it is hard for him to kick against the goads. A goad is a sharp stick that a shepherd used to get the sheep to go in the right direction. Sheep often want to find its own way and the shepherd will use a goad to direct them in the right way. And it hurts. With another word, many things had happened in Saul’s life that is preparing Saul to encounter the living Christ. On the outside, what we see is someone who pursues Christians to persecute them. But if you look at what happened behind the scene, what actually happened is Jesus pursuing Saul. And for a while, Saul continues to resist and kick against the goads. We are not sure what the goads are. It could be the death of Stephen or other experiences in his life. We do not know. But don’t miss the point. Our hardships could be the goads of God. Our struggles could be God trying to lead us to him. And to do so, God must often hurt us because he is concerned for us. He must show us that whatever we are building our lives on is vain. God allows everything we built to unravel before our eyes. And it is painful. But those are God’s tool of love. He is trying to tell us that he is the only one who can save and satisfies us.

After three days of blindness, Saul is ready. Ananias comes, prays for him, and he receives his sight back. How do you know if you have spiritual sight? It is simple. You know that you have spiritual sight if you realized you were blind. If you do not know that you were blind, then you do not have sight. If you have sight, you know you were blind. If you are blind, you do not know you are blind. It is like dreaming. How do you know you are dreaming? Because you are awake. When you are dreaming, you do not know that you are dreaming. But when you are awake, you know the difference between a dream and wakefulness. Christians are those who know that they were lost but they are found. Christians are those who say, “I was an idiot.” Every Christian has come to realize that they have been a fool. Christians know how to laugh at themselves. They see the truth about God in the new light. They no longer amazed at themselves, but they are amazed at the grace of God.

Scandalous gospel

The gospel is scandalous. The gospel tells us that we are far worse sinner than we think we are and we are far more loved than we dare to hope at the same time. We can see both in this story. When Jesus appears to Saul, he says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” So, what Saul does is he not only persecute Christians, but he is fighting against Jesus. Saul’s sin is far worse than he thinks. A Christian is a person who has realized that he has not just disobeyed the laws, but he has been attacking Jesus. We are not Christian until we start to see that we had been slapping Jesus. That’s what sin is. Our sin is far worse than we think. Charles Spurgeon tells a story that explains it well. It is a true story. There were a nasty husband and wife who lived in a remote part of Britain. When they had a little boy, they sold him for money. They had no idea what happened to him. Many years went by and this couple became worse and worse. Eventually, the father became a robber. He would watch people along a deserted road and rob them. One evening, the father had a really bad day and he was particularly mad at rich people. And he saw a very rich looking young man coming down the road, and he got really violent and killed the young man. Do you know who it was? It was his son. His son became extremely successful and rich, and he came back to his hometown to find his birth parents and help them reform their life. After his father was arrested, he realized what happened. His father thought he was just breaking the law, but he was actually killing his son who wanted to save him.

That is what it means to be a Christian. We realised that our sin is far worse than we think. We have killed the person who came to save us. But the gospel is extremely scandalous. When Ananias comes to see Saul, do you know what he says to him? “Brother Saul…” Ananias calls the man who is out to kill him, brother Saul. There are no more beautiful words than that. The murderer of Christians is welcomed as a brother. How come? Because the gospel not only tells us that we are far worse, it also tells us that we are far more loved. The moment we put our faith in Christ, we are united with Christ. Every Christian is found in Christ. It does not matter what we have done, in one moment of faith, we are forgiven, we are adopted into the family of God, we are the heirs of the kingdom of God. Jesus’ righteousness is our righteousness. And nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. The gospel turns a murderer into a brother. It is scandalous.

And it gets even better. Acts 9:15-16 – 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Saul the terrorist not only receives a new identity, but he also receives a new purpose. And it is through him that we have most of our beloved New Testament letters. I mean, God could have used other person who was not as bad as Saul to be his chosen instrument to stand before kings and bring the gospel to us. But he chose the worst of sinners. I love the way J.D. Greear describes it. “God has determined to glorify himself in the saving of sinners and the deeper the depravity, the greater God’s glory in showing grace.” My friend, it does not matter what your past looks like, it does not disqualify you from future usefulness. God has a purpose for you.

Let me close with this. If you have yet to put your faith in Jesus, there is an invitation from the King of kings for you today. Today could be the day of your salvation. You are not listening to this sermon by accident. God is pursuing you and he is orchestrating your salvation. Surrender to him and accepts his grace. But for the Christians, are we living in God’s purpose for us? Why are we not playing our part in the gospel movement? Let me tell you why. Because we forget the sovereign grace of God. We forget the scandalous gospel. We are not captivated by it. We forget how amazing our story is. We were blind but now we see. We were dead but now we are alive. Nothing is boring about our story. If we remember our story, how can we not tell others about the gospel? How can we keep it to ourselves? Here is my encouragement. The same sovereign grace that has saved us can save people around us. God can save anyone. And he wants to use us to save the people around us. The power to save is not in us but the gospel. So be confident in sharing the gospel. None of us can be apostle Paul but all of us can be Ananias. Our obedience to share the gospel can transform lives, even nations. All it takes is for us to say, “Here I am Lord.”

Discussion questions:

  1. 1 Timothy 1:16 – But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. In what ways does Paul’s conversion story become an example to us?
  2. Explain what is “Sovereign Grace.” Why do people find it offensive?
  3. Look at the four roads of spiritual blindness. Which one is most striking to you and why?
  4. If you were Ananias, what concerns would you have?
  5. How does the gospel address these concerns?
  6. If your friends ask you, “How do you know that you are a Christian?”, how would you answer that question?
  7. The gospel is scandalous. Why?
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