I’m going to talk to you tonight about conversion. A remarkable thing happened in the little small village of Northampton, Massachusetts. The pastor there was Jonathan Edwards and he wrote about it in a pamphlet which was actually published first in England and then later published in America and Germany and other places. That famous pamphlet, which was published in 1837, is entitled, “A Narrative of a Surprising Work of God.” Edwards was worried about the young people in the community. They had become increasingly rebellious and they were going out on what he called “night walks.” Now I think night walks were like what we did when I was a youth – we got in cars and just drove around town; ended up at the Pig Stand out there on North State Street circling around. But anyway, they were addicted, he said, to these night walks and they would roam the town until late into the night really acting out crudely and holding what they called “frolics.” Unfortunately, their parents didn’t act like parents and didn’t stop them from doing this and so there was a lot of dissention in town between the parents whose children were doing this and those who had their children at home. A lot of friction that came out in all sorts of ways. And the sad thing was that there didn’t seem to be anything that Edwards could do about this.
And then he says for no obvious reason at all there was a change and they started coming back to church and they lessoned their ceaseless roaming around the town. In 1733 Edwards says there was a really significant change though, because he could notice as he was preaching to the youth about his concern for them and then he was talking to the parents about not being parents that hearts were really softened and there was a change that came in the spirit and the attitude of the youths. Edwards took advantage of this and encouraged them to divide into neighborhood Bible studies. And those were so successful that the parents started imitating them and they started having their own neighborhood Bible studies. There was a young man who died in the community suddenly of pneumonia and the funeral sermon that Edwards preached had a marked impact on the youth. And then shortly after that there was this godly young married woman who went through a very serious illness and she had a wonderful faith and testimony and her faith and her testimony had a significant impact on the youth before she actually died too.
So what happened in this community was just an extraordinary work of God which is historical now, because in this community of 600 people, 300 of them were converted within six months. Not only were the young people converted but middle-aged people and even older people in their seventies and their eighties. This great work that happened there in Northampton was the same kind of thing that was going on in the context of our Scripture for tonight because after Jesus died and rose and the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples, there was this breakout of tremendous conversions there in the Holy Land where literally thousands of people were converted. But our Scripture passage for tonight, which is Acts 9, Acts 9, centers on one particular zealous Pharisee whose name of course was, at the time, Saul. And you’re going to have to forgive me tonight. I keep going back between Saul and Paul when I’m talking about him but I’m talking about the same fellow. Let’s give attention to this passage of Scripture. Acts 9. We’re going to begin at the first verse. But let me pray before we actually read it.
I pray, Holy Spirit, especially tonight that You would help us to understand the meaning of what we’re about to read and I pray that You would help us to see Jesus’ message in these words. I pray that You will help us to see how this passage relates to us personally and I pray that You would stir us up – men and women, boys and girls, youths here – to respond to You as You would have us to respond to this Bible passage. And I ask this in the precious name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Let’s read now Acts 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.
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.’ 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, 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.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.’ 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. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ 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.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.
For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ And all who heard him were amazed and said, ‘Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?’ But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.”
That’s the Word of God so far.
What is Conversion?
And as we think about this passage tonight, I want to ask the question first of all, “What is conversion?” We’ve had the story here where Saul makes this trip with the desired purpose of persecuting Christians. He’s really angry. He’s focused and he is spewing out threats against them because he wants to have them put to death. And the high priest is glad to give him this permission, these letters to the synagogue, so that he can go and seek out these Christians. So Paul is of one mind and one purpose at this point. And he begins this trip as a “Jesus-hater.” Now the trip is about 135 miles long and it takes a couple of days to travel by horse, and so when he gets close to Damascus as we’ve already heard, at noontime this bright light comes down and he is knocked to the ground and blinded. And the voice cries out to him asking him, “Why are you persecuting me?” And he replies, “Who are you, Lord?” And I think at this point that’s just a polite term. He doesn’t really realize at this point that it’s Jesus perhaps. But anyway, Jesus answers and says, “I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.” And Saul asks, “What should I do?” And He says, “Get up and go into Damascus and you will be told all that you are supposed to do.” So Saul goes temporarily blinded; he doesn’t eat or drink for three days. He’s just alone with his thoughts and I’m sure he’s processing this momentous encounter that he’s had with the Lord Jesus. And finally, the servant of the Lord, Ananias, comes, lays his hands on him, and the scales fall and the Holy Spirit comes into Saul and he is turned into from being a hater of Jesus to being a lover of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Repenting from Sin
So what has happened? I’ve already said we’re going to talk about conversion, so I want to ask the question, “What is conversion?” Well conversion has two parts to it. First, it’s repentance. Now when we think of repentance I think a lot of times we just think about how someone says, “Oh I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” You have repented; your children have repented. We’ve all repented in that particular way, but the Biblical meaning of repentance is “turning away.” It’s actually ceasing to follow whatever you were following and going in a new direction. It’s hating Satan now and loving the Lord Jesus Christ and following the Lord Jesus Christ. You go from disobeying Jesus to obeying Jesus. So that’s the first word – repentance.
Believing in Christ alone
The second part of conversion is believing in Christ. It’s a simple term that we throw around all the time but nevertheless we need to say that when we believe in Christ what we’re really believing is His Word, which of course is found in the Bible. We’re believing what He said, we’re believing His promises. And based on that, then we are committing ourselves to Him for this life and the life to come. So conversion is repentance and belief.
In this, we find then that someone is converting Paul. Who is the one who is actually converting Paul? Was it Ananias? Did Paul convert himself? Well the answer of course is that it was the Lord Jesus who was the converter. You see, when Saul says to Him, “Who are you?” He says, “I’m Jesus and here’s what I want you to do. I want you to go into Damascus and you will be told what to do.” He didn’t say, “Saul, I’m begging you. Let Me into your heart. Please, let Me take over your life. Would you think about it and come back to Me if you decide that’s the way you want to go?” No, He just said, “Go.” And that’s the way God does, frankly. He converts. If you think about when God came to Abraham centuries earlier He didn’t say, “Abraham, I have a great plan for you. Would you be interested in that?” No, He just says, “Abraham, I want you to leave here and I want you to go over here and you don’t have any children now, I’m going to give you a son, but beyond that I’m going to give you so many children you can’t even count them.” And think back when the Lord Jesus Christ was calling His disciples. He went to the fishermen and He just said, “Follow Me. I’m going to make you fishers of men.” Then He passed by Matthew who was at the tax collector’s booth and He said, “Follow Me,” and Matthew got up and followed Him. So we see in conversion that it’s the Lord; it’s the Lord Jesus who converts people.
Who does God Convert?
And I want us to notice also who He converts. He converts ordinary people, marginalized people, unimpressive people, people who seem to have nothing to offer Him. And Paul explains that to the Corinthians when he says, “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise, not many were influential, not many were of noble birth. God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise and he chose the weak things to shame the strong and he chose the lowly things of the world so that no one could boast.” When did all that choosing go on? Well Paul told the Ephesians that we who believe in the Lord Jesus, we who are His children, were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world. We weren’t a last minute thought on God’s part. We were chosen before He even created the world. He didn’t choose us for anything He saw in us. He chose us to demonstrate His love and His mercy.
And so we see it even happening today. Who is coming to Christ? It’s not the political leaders; it’s not really the intelligentsia, it’s not the great financiers. It’s the regular people, the common people. And just be glad to be grouped in that group if you love the Lord Jesus Christ because none of us can take credit for our conversion, can we? If you love the Lord Jesus Christ and if you know that He has redeemed you and converted you, be encouraged by this. If you have children you are worried about, if you have friends about whom you are worried or others, you can pray with a confidence knowing that God is the converter; it doesn’t depend on them. And ask Him to change their hearts to be Christ-loving, Christ-obeying, Christ-believing people.
C.S. Lewis, in his early autobiographical sketch called, Surprised by Joy, has this passage about when he was converted. He says this. “You must picture me alone in my rooms at Magdalene College, night after night, feeling whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work the steady, unrelenting hand of Him who approached me, whom I so desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared at last had come upon me. In the Trinity term of 1929, I gave in and admitted that God was God and knelt and prayed and perhaps that night the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England, this prodigal son was brought in kicking and struggling, resentful with my eyes darting just looking for a place to escape.”
How does God Convert?
Let me ask thirdly, “How does God convert?” Well, when He converted Saul He did it in a really dramatic way. This blinding light, this temporary blindness of him, sending a disciple in an extraordinary way. But the usual way for us ordinary people is principally through the Word of God. That’s His main means or His main tool. It may mean that the Word preached – Paul says, “How shall they hear lest there be a preacher?” It may be the Word read – it could be a Gideon Bible in a hotel room somewhere. It could be the Word sung – as we’ve heard tonight. The Word sung was a conversion tool for Saint Augustine. He said when the Psalms were sung and he heard them it really moved his heart. Or it could just be a personal testimony. Paul heard the personal testimony of Stephen just before he went off on this trip to arrest Christians and that testimony of Stephen was as he was about to be stoned. You could just tell from Paul’s later reflection on that how much that personal testimony meant to him. And so it’s the Bible. And we know that Saul knew the Bible. He had studied at the feet of Gamaliel, he had memorized as a Pharisee the prophets and the Psalms, and so all these passages which he had in his head and his heart suddenly made sense after the Holy Spirit came into him and converted him and he was able to go and preach immediately in the synagogues saying that Jesus was the Christ because he knew the Scriptures and he knew the predictions there. So undoubtedly Saul did know the Bible.
And I have been struck so many times by testimonies of people who have told me how the Word of God, sometimes in unusual circumstances, was the thing that God used as a converting tool, if I may use it. I was teaching a class in worship out at the Reformed Theological Seminary one time and we were talking about how to conduct a wedding. And there was a student in there who told me that when he was at a wedding as an attendant, at Independent Presbyterian Church in Memphis, the minister read 1 Corinthians 13, you know the great love passage, and he said something clicked in his head. He had heard this Scripture and a lot of others all of his life. Something clicked and he suddenly realized the love of God. And he counted that as the beginning of his own conversion.
I was sitting out at Broadstreet. Most of you all know that place has a downstairs and an upstairs, Broadstreet Bakery, and I was up eating lunch one time about noon and I was reading something and this young man came over to me, finally, and he said, “I have been trying to figure out what your name is.” He said, “I know who you are because I used to go to First Presbyterian Church but I couldn’t remember your name. And so I called my mother at home to ask what your name was so I could come and tell you what had happened to me.” He said, “You may remember me.” And I did. He said, “I was in the Day School here and I attended church.” And I remembered him frankly as a pretty rebellious kid and I remember when he left, frankly, I was really sad because I thought he was headed down a bad path. And he told me that’s exactly where he was headed. He got into drugs, he moved to another state, and then finally he got into a halfway house where someone witnessed to him through the Word of God and he came to a genuine faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. He said also, “I credit my grandmother back in Jackson who I knew was praying for me every day and she was the first person I called.” She’s dead by the way now, but I know that must have been a wonderful thing for her. So it was the Word of God that was used in his conversion.
Now I want to say, by the way, that these are people who know exactly when they were converted. And some of you may too know. But others of you who are what we call “covenant children,” and there are covenant children who are up here too, who were given to the Lord in baptism, whose parents made promises, whose parents were faithful to those promises to lead them through Bible readings in the home and to pray with them, some of those have no idea when they came to Christ but they know they know Him. They were converted in a quiet way and that’s the way it ought to be with covenant children.
What are we converted for?
Let me ask quickly and finally, “What are we converted for?” In the fifteenth verse of the ninth chapter it says, “But the Lord said to Ananias, ‘Go to Saul for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kinds and children of Israel. I will show him how much he is to suffer for me.’” Ananias immediately said to Saul, “What are you waiting for? Why don’t you rise up right now and be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” And Saul did and he immediately set out on his task by going into Damascus and preaching the Lord Jesus Christ. What I want to say is, the reason why we are converted is so that we can serve. We are converted so that we can worship God. We are converted so that we can witness to the saving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Where do you start doing this? You start right where you are – your church family. You start with the talents or the gifts that the Lord has given you. You start in the place where you are and all of these things will indicate to you your field of service for the time being. Someday, the Lord may call you to a very exotic place with a far off kind of calling or something like that, but right now we are called to witness, to worship, and to serve the Lord Jesus right where we are.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was already an Anglican pastor, he had served as a missionary in the United States; he was actually trying to be the best godly young minister he could be but he was depressed because he had no sense of his own personal salvation. And he told this to a Moravian friend of his who said to him, “Here’s what you should do. Keep on preaching salvation. One day it will come through to you.” Wesley had the privilege of leading a young prisoner to the Lord Jesus Christ but he still had no peace about his own salvation. So he says that on the morning of May 24, 1738 he got up at five in the morning, opened his Bible, and read this. “There are given to us exceeding great and precious promises, even that you should be partakers of the divine nature.” That night, he went to a meeting at Aldersgate and you will know this; I’m sure you’ve heard it many times. There was a layman reading from Luther’s commentary on the Romans and he was just reading the preface of this and as he was reading this he was reading where Luther said that God works a change in our hearts through faith in Christ and Wesley said as he was reading this, “I felt my heart strangely warmed and I felt that I really did trust in Christ alone for salvation and assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins.” Wesley marked this as the time of his conversion.
Let me say in conclusion-conclusion that there’s a painting in Saint Paul’s Cathedral that I like a whole lot. It’s by Holman Hunt and it’s called, “Christ the Light of the World.” And for many years it was in a side aisle where you couldn’t see it very well but it is now in a place of prominence lighted beautifully. And the colors in it are brilliant and the composition is great. And you see the Lord Jesus Christ standing in kingly robes with a crown on His head and He has a light in His hand and He’s knocking on a door, the humble cabin. Now unfortunately the door does not have a knob on it and Holman thought that when Christ knocked on the door that we had to open the door, that Christ was paralyzed. He could only knock and it was dependent on whoever was inside of that cottage to open it up. Now I don’t agree with his theology but I still love the painting a lot for what it is. No, Christ is the King of the universe. He has the whole world in His hands and when He calls to us we hear His call and we are responsible to respond to that call.
Respond to His Call
When Saul was called he said, “What should I do, Lord?” and the Lord told him what to do. If you sense at some time or the other the Lord working in your own heart, that you feel strangely moved also or you feel just some compelling call from the Lord, I would encourage you not to dismiss that but to respond in your own heart to the Lord. How do you respond? You can respond by praying to Him, just talking in ordinary ways praying to Him. You can respond by reading the Scripture, reading the Bible because He talks through the Bible. You can respond by worshiping regularly with fellow Christians. You can respond by going to Bible study groups and so on like that. The important thing is that you know that none of us is ever too young or too old for God either to call us for the first time to Himself or to have a renewing work in our heart where He is calling us to deepen our faith and our commitment to Him. So when He calls, respond.
Heavenly Father, I thank You that You converted Saul to be Paul and I thank You for how we have benefitted from him – all those letters he wrote in the New Testament that have been so important to us. I just pray that You would help us to be sensitive to the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. I pray that in this church You would convert the unconverted, that You would strengthen people who feel spiritually weak. I pray that You would encourage people who doubt. I pray that You would lead every one of us to a faithful walk with the Lord Jesus Christ in our lives at this time and in the days to come and the years to come until we someday see that blessed face of our Lord Jesus Christ for ourselves and have a chance to thank Him for the glorious grace that He has poured out into our lives. I pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.
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