One Living Hope

Conversion: Sinners Saved by Grace (Acts 9:1-19a)


Illustration: I don’t know if you know Luis Palau but he is a Christian evangelist who travels all over the country, spreading the gospel. It has been estimated that he has shared Christian teachings with over 25 million people around the world in 70 nations. And so one of the places that he visited was Peru. And he shares of woman who was radically transformed by the power of Christ; her name was Rosario. And she was a terrorist, a brute of a woman who was an expert in martial arts. Don’t mess with her. In her terrorist activities, she had killed 12 policemen. And she learned that Luis was in town. And so, she made plans to kill Luis. And inside the stadium where Luis was sharing about Christ, she was contemplating how to kill him. But as she listened to the message he preached about Christ, eternal life, hell- she was convicted of her sins and embraced Christ as her Savior. 10 years later, Luis met this convert for the first time. And the former terrorist, is now a church planter, who planted 5 churches already, was a vibrant, active witness and worker in the church and even founded an orphanage that houses over 1000 children. Talk about a sinner saved by grace.

What we have been going through at Living Hope, what we have been thinking about is: what it means to be a healthy church. And we are looking at it through the Book of Acts. That we want to be a church, a people, not only on Sunday but every day including Sunday to walk and talk the gospel. But, as you may have noticed, in the book of Acts – the power of God unto salvation is on the move. It is moving forth. The gospel is going out- beyond the walls of a society, beyond ethnic and racial boundaries, beyond cultural boundaries, beyond social boundaries, beyond religious boundaries – it’s going forth. It cannot be stopped.

So, Robin, as the Pastor of LH, shared about how it’s very important to continue with the book of Acts- to give us a sense of direction, to increase our belief, to widen and deepen our vision of the gospel, to allow us to see a force that is something greater beyond ourselves. Not only that – to see people who are completely broken, in misery, devastated, completely ignoring the one true Savior- We want to be a church that is filled with compassion. We want to be a church that is on a mission. So, this Sunday, we starting a new series within our Acts study about PULLED IN, PUSHED OUT: A Church on Mission. We want to be “Pulled In” to God, specifically Christ, who helps us to think about how the gospel interacts with our lives, who helps us understand repentance, who overcomes our unbelief…we want to be so pulled into his grace that it just “pushes us out” so that by the power of God, we can make a difference in this city with the gospel. And this morning passage (Acts 9:1-19a) begins to help us unpack 4 key lessons of what it means to be a Church on Mission by looking at Conversion: Sinners Saved by Grace.

I. There is absolutely no one that is too far-gone for God v. 1-4

            No matter how big is your bad-ness might be, no matter how big your wickedness might be, and there is absolutely no one that is too far-gone for God. Look at Saul. What do we know about him? The man he was – he wasn’t all that splendid; well, 8:1 we know that he was disapproving Stephen’s death. 8:3- We know that Saul was ravaging the church- we do not get the full effect when we read it in our English translation but think of a picture of wild animal, like a lion devastating, ruining its prey, so, Saul is devastating, ruining, destroying the church like a wild animal, even going into personal property, dragging men and women, putting them in prison. 9:1- But Saul, still breathing murder against the Disciples of Christ…it literally reads “to breathe in, to inhale in” – One commentator said this, “Threats and murder were the atmosphere in which he breathed and by which he lived.” He breathes the very air of slaughter. The man’s lifestyle, his very life breath, is threat and murder against the followers of Christ. He was a killer. His goal was to completely destroy the Christians. He was a frightening, violent enemy.

We need to ask why? Why was Saul such a violent enemy towards the gospel of Christ? Who was he? He was a Pharisee. What does that mean? Pharisee are people who followed ALL, I mean all of God’s law, his rules, all of God’s commands. Everything that God commanded from the OT, they followed to the T. On top of that, over time, these people added more laws, more rules alongside with the laws of God to become the poster boys of being labeled, not physically beautiful people, nor athletic people, but they were the poster boys of being perfect people as they relate to God. Pharisee of Pharisees means that they kept all the rules, so Saul was that, he was the Jew of the Jews, the best of the best, and in regards to the law, he upheld them all, he was blameless.

And along comes these weird groups of people called the Christians. What did they have to say? They were saying that these laws don’t matter anymore. There is this thing called grace, God’s mercy. Saul is saying, “no, you earn God’s favor by doing – doing all that God commanded, you earn God’s favor by keeping all the rules. If I keep all the rules, God will accept me, will love me, will bless me, if I obey it, I know God will bless me” and these Christians are saying, “No, you earn God’s favor only because of his free love, we can prove it to you by our Risen Savior, you don’t focus on your good deeds and follow all the moral rules by behaving well, no, you are already loved, accepted” That rocked him. That shattered him. That made him so angry like a wild animal. Because this Pharisee of Pharisee thought it was blasphemous to think that God had to become flesh, become human (had to become like us) to show his love. That’s why he was so fanatic about completely destroying these Christians and to stop spreading the name of Christ. These Christians were polluting his religion.

But take note of this: It’s not what he did that showed his depravity but who he was. It’s not his actions (they are a factor) but his condition of the heart that showed his great wickedness, his great bad-ness.

            One psychologist once mentioned that fanaticism is often the mask of inner turmoil. And I believe that Saul was battling an inner- turmoil, an inner disturbance because all this time, he thought that the way to get to heaven, they way to get one with God, the way to be saved or the way to have God’s favor, and the way to do that is to obey all the rules, obey them all of your life and be good as you possibly can. That’s what he believed in. He thinks, “This will make me right. This makes me somebody. This gives me meaning. This gives me confidence.”

But whose standard was he keeping? What was he trying to seek by keeping all the rules? Who’s standard? It’s on thing to say that I have never killed anybody. I never committed adultery. I never robbed a bank? I have never cheated on my taxes. You can say those things; you can actually perform those things too and check ‘em off. “Oh wow, I never done those things. I obeyed the law. I kept the rules.” But then you have to ask yourselves; have I ever had a grudge on somebody? Have I ever got a little upset at somebody of what they said? Jesus says that’s murder. Have I ever glanced for two seconds on someone walking by – Jesus says that’s adultery. Have I ever coveted something that, you know, someone else has- they got that new car, a new career, that great family, that great apt, have I never thought…hmm I wish I had that too. Jesus says that’s stealing- coveting is stealing. So, this is not something that we could check off but it is a law that requires absolute perfection. It is reflecting the character of God; who God is- God is holy, he is perfect. God says be holy as I am…and nothing short of that absolute perfection will do. So, Saul kept all the rules. Things that you and I could never even think of doing but Saul did, and he says – I obeyed them all.

But was he really obeying, NO…he was checking off the list. Never killed anybody – checked. Never committed adultery – checked…you see. He never got down to the heart. His condition. Who he was; not what he did. He never realized, until that Damascus road experience- that what God needed was absolute perfection.

Saul’s standard was his pseudo-salvation. That was his religion. But God’s standard is absolute perfection. One sin- you have broken it all. That is overwhelming. Utterly overwhelming; It’s unsettling. It’s unsettling to me, and most certainly it was unsettling to Saul.  That’s why Paul later can write, in Philippians 3:4-6 – he’s looking before the Damascus road experience!!! Saul is saying – God just gave me an A+ because I did everything that God demands. But he goes on in verse 7-9. – OH I CONSIDER EVERYTHING A LOSS COMPARED TO THE SURPASSING GREATNESS OF KNOWING MY LORD. But here, right now, he was in turmoil, all that struggle, all that striving, all that climbing, all that reaching after God was utterly useless, because righteousness has to be a gift. A gift from God! There is no way any of us can be perfect. Therefore God has to give us the status of perfection. He doesn’t want to lose his religion, his confidence in all that he did but God was prodding, poking, pushing, and challenging his unbelief. So he resisted. Yet in spite of his resistance, in spite of being an enemy, in spite of being a killer, in spite of him being a rule keeper of his own standard; there is absolutely no one, I mean, no one, that is too far-gone for God. God cuts through all of our false standards that we put up and shows us His mercy, gives us his grace

God met him. His conversion is the work of supernatural grace. God practically moved heaven and earth to moves in his heart for the gospel. And you think that God can’t save you. Oh really, are you that strong? You think that God can’t save the person that you have been praying for years? You think that God can’t save drug addict. You think that God can’t save a person who is totally proud. You think God can’t save your dysfunction family, You think God can’t save the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists. You think that God can’t radically save you. The God who parted the red sea, raised Lazarus from the dead, God who said, “let there be light and there was”, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, will raise you from the earth, and YOU think that God can’t save people. There is no one, I mean, no one who is too far gone for God. God moves radically in so that he can send you radically out. The gospel is always inside – out. The gospel PULLS YOU IN so that He can push you out. The gospel tells you that you are already loved, you’re already accepted and that makes all the difference.

II.  When God saves sinners; he brings us to a face-to-face encounter with Christ v. 4-9

            If you are a Christian here this morning, our conversion story was nothing like this passage; audible voice, flashing light, vision, people falling of the horse…Saul’s conversion was very unique, this is no ordinary conversion- his call comes from the actual, audible voice of the RISEN Lord Jesus. This is not a typical conversion story, he is not an ordinary Christian; he was the last apostle. It is true that the elements of this passage is unique but the reason why this story is told three times in the book of Acts alone – because his conversion is a template of every true Christian conversion. It doesn’t matter if you were raised in a Christian home, if you came to Christ dramatically, or if you came to Christ over gradual process that took weeks, months or years – the essential elements of conversion that are at work in Saul’s life are true for us.

            Look with me, Acts 9:3-4ff – Saul was on his way to Damascus. He was knocked to the ground, and blinding light and an audible voice. What happens? After Saul realizes that he is talking to Jesus, he’s talking to God Himself, the first thing that Jesus says to him is a command. That’s what we see in v. 6 – Jesus says, Paul, you thought you were obeying me but you weren’t you were obeying a bunch of laws, bunch of rules but now you obey me. Go to Damascus, rise and enter the city. Go to Damascus. This is the first time; Saul was not obeying a bunch of laws. Saul had to obey God himself. He shielded himself from obeying God because he was doing all these other things (that we talked about) where he put his confidence in, his flesh. And that wasn’t going to work anymore. And on his road to Damascus, he met Christ. He came face to face with God, face to face with Christ. And when he came face to face with Christ, he saw not only Christ but also all of his problems with his legalistic, earning God’s favor type of lifestyle.

One of the problems is:  There is incredible difference between genuine obedience and self-serving obedience. Self-serving obedience is like stopping at a street corner when the sign says don’t walk. Genuine obedience is taking your wife or your significant other out to a restaurant. Now, what’s the difference? Now, when you are at a corner and the sign says don’t walk- why do you stop there? Is it because you just love that pedestrians, how civil they are– you think that this whole world will fall apart if people didn’t stop at don’t walk signs. No, you are stopping at don’t walk signs because you know if you put one step into that street…wham! A bus or car can ram you. So, you stop there because you want to protect and preserve your life. But that is not obedience – that’s more like saving your behind. It’s self-serving. But now, let’s say that your wife or your significant other tells you, hey, let’s go out for dinner. It’s not really command, but a wishful thinking, or maybe a command– So, what do you say?  We respond by saying, When, where do you want to go, what kind of food do you want eat. You make reservations, you do it. One little command, you go out and do it. It doesn’t seem like obedience but it is. That’s genuine obedience. It’s obedience because not the thing that is said but it’s the person. It’s because you love the person. Whatever they say, no problem!

That’s is exactly how David in the psalms looked at God’s law. He says, I delight in God’s law. Why? Does he really delight in the law? No, he delights in the God who is behind the law. See, for Saul, his motive was not to love God, his motive was self-serving; He was trying to gain favor with God. Self-serving obedience is trying to say – you know if I do enough things, then God owes me. It’s interested in preserving or protecting yourself. Saving your behind. Doing the right thing. Earning brownie points. That’s true with God or with anyone else.

Illustration: let me illustrate this further- Now, I have been teaching young college students and this year, I have been teaching a class on Ethics and during one of our class sessions, we were talking about the topic on lying. When is it ethical to lie? Do we lie? Can we lie? Well, basically, one of my student- highly opinionated, bright, she has nothing to do with religion or God, better still, wanted no part of Jesus. But what she said was remarkable – she said, “I don’t lie, because I hate feeling guilty.” I thought, WOW, how profound that statement is; here she was, she doesn’t want to lie, she doesn’t lie. And that is a good thing. Any culture would say lying is wrong but why is she doing it? Is she doing it because she believed in truth? Because she realizes that lying breaks down society, that lying is wrong. No! She doesn’t lie because she doesn’t like the consequences of lying. She doesn’t like to feel guilty. Maybe she is really a bad liar and she always got caught. I don’t know her, I only know her as a student in my class. But this is what she said. See that strikes at the heart of so much of our obedience isn’t it. See, we obey, Saul certainly obeyed, simply because we want to get out the consequences of not obeying.  We want to look good. We want to look good to others. We want to look good towards God.

            We always have to watch our motives – I have to say this to myself. Why am I doing this? Am I doing this to look good for other people? Am I doing this too look good for God? Am I doing this to get something from him? If that is the case, then that’s not obedience. That is using God, manipulating God, trying to get something from Him. It is turning God into a vending machine. That is what Saul was doing, obeying God, serving God with a wrong motive,  in order to get things from God. But truly converted people obey God to get GOD, to delight and resemble him.

            The other problem worth noting is: You cannot love Jesus and hate the church

Saul was going on his way to Damascus and then a flashing light and hears an audible voice v. 4 – “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me”, Saul response, “who are you” – I am Jesus !! I wonder what went through his mind when he heard that! Wait a second, here. I thought your dead, maybe your alive now, but what have I done to you. It’s these Christians, these blaspemers- what do you mean I am persecuting you. I haven’t done anything to you. Never met you in my life.

The real issue with Saul is, why are you persecuting ME- Jesus says. Remember, Saul/Paul, he will write most of the NT, and do you know what is the most common metaphor for the church that he writes about? The most common metaphor he writes about is the “body of Christ”, what you do to Jesus, you do onto his Body. Listen: you cannot love Jesus and hate the church. It’s impossible. You just can’t. Maybe you are thinking, I am all about being spiritual, I love being spiritual, me and my friends are sooo spiritual, feeling so refreshed, clean, things are going great, I am everything about Jesus, because he is so spiritual, I have nothing against Jesus but it’s the church that I am not going to commit to. It’s the church I complain about, it’s the church that I have no affection for, it’s the church that I would rather avoid. I’m not saying that there is never a reason of being disappointed of a particular church because pastors, leaders are humans, last I checked, everyone here, including the pastor, are all humans, even sinners; there is bound to be disappointments but the reality is — wanting Jesus and not his bride- to that Jesus say, Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting ME. You want the head but not the body. You cannot love Jesus and hate the church. The confrontation for Saul is to realize that when he burned with zeal and murder, and hatred for the disciples of Jesus, he hated Jesus himself. Saul was persecuting Jesus himself, the head of the His body, the church. When someone is harming us, he is harming the Lord. There is this organic, indissoluble union between Christ and His people. Truly converted people love the fellowship of the saints because we are members of One BODY and of one Head; Christ.


When God saves sinners, he brings us to face to face with the living Christ. He brings us to meet Jesus so that we can be attracted to Him, not so that we can get things from Him but so that we can GET Him, to see hope, forgiveness, the mercy of Christ and most of all – to see Christ and His bride- a profound picture of a person who is truly converted living in one of the most deepest bonds that you will ever experience – living the gospel with each other.

When God saves sinners, he brings us face to face with the risen Christ.


III.  When God saves sinners; he makes us anew and gives us a new purpose v. 13-16

            Let’s take a look at v. 13 – here we have an account of what others thought about him- esp from Ananias – When he himself had a vision from the Lord telling him to commission a man who has killed many Christians like a wild animal. And now, he is on his way to Damascus to get letters of authority. He says exactly about Saul’s life in v. 13- Lord, I heard from many (so people were talking about this man, but where they saying, they were saying…), how much evil he has done to your saints.

When God saves sinners, God is out to do a comprehensive reworking of everything. He is going to do an out of this world, comprehensive reworking of you. That means, he is here to redo creation. Christian salvation is not just a vague idea or a kind of spiritual elevator to help you over the humps in life. It’s not some inspiration, or some general sense of forgiveness. It’s starting a whole new race. A new creation; To renew you totally. That’s good news. It’s a totally new life. When God saves you, He brings in a whole new world. He brings in a whole new creation. He is here to remake you from ground up and it can’t be stopped. It will never stop until eventually it will purge your soul and spirit of all imperfection; and even your body will be completely be changed.

When God saves sinners, he makes us anew. That’s exactly we see in Saul. His condition was so bad, he was at the bottom of the pit. He was a violent opponent of Christianity, he was a murderer but he had hope.

Look with me because hope comes in v. 15 and it says this about Paul- this man is my chosen instrument. Those two words: underline, circle it; these two words-chosen instrument- one deals with you as a person, a work of God, God sovereignly sets his gracious commitment to you no matter what, un-conditional bestowal from God, sovereign grace, your made anew; the other deals with your purpose; one deals with your identity and the other deals with your calling. See, Christ had reached out to Saul before he became a follower of Christ. Even though, he is still a persecutor, still an enemy, and for a guy who thought that the whole idea of the death on the cross was utter foolishness. For a guy who thought; how in the world God become flesh and die a sinner’s death for humanity. It was foolish. The messiah, the savior, the Redeemer, He doesn’t die on the cross. How stupid is that? That is what he thought. And yet, what Jesus is saying is that when I was on that cross, I died for you. {This is EPHESIANS 1:3ff] That was for you. You are my chosen one, I set my love on you. And so, you have hope.

What was Saul thinking because he had three days, blinded by the flashing light, didn’t eat or drink- and over and over on his mind, he must have been realizing what everything he had done up to that point, how fruitless it was, how useless it was, how worthless it was, and yet at the same time, he must have realized God’s mercy and grace. That God had come to him. That found Him. That God had placed His love on him. That God chose Him before Saul even chose. That’s why he can write letter to the Galatians 2:20 – that he has been crucified, that he no longer lives – think about that – The old Saul is dead, paid for in the death of Christ. He’s made anew. Who lives now – Christ who lives in me. Why? Because He lives because of the fact that Jesus committed his love, placed his love on him by dying a death he rightly deserved, that’s sovereign grace. New life! New person. It utterly changed his life. His conversion is seeing Christ of who He really was. For realizing Christ died on the cross for Saul. So all that striving was worthless. Conversion is the work of supernatural grace. Supernatural grace alone. Because it is the only thing that changes us; The persecutor will become the persecuted. The one who wanted to destroy Christians, who wanted to destroy the gospel, he will do more than anyone to get it out and to defend it!!

When you become a Christian, you may wake up in the morning with the same family, same job, same house, same money, same looks, but make no mistake, you are a new person and you have a new purpose. This purpose is so big, big enough to captivate you, sweet enough to satisfy you and strong enough to sustain you.

And if you think that Saul—- “man, he had a great purpose. He’s going to come before the kings, gives lots of talk, write sthe bible but what is my purpose.” Maybe you think that you don’t even have a great purpose because your family might be dysfunctional, the situation that you are facing right now is not at all that you have ever dreamed of being in, don’t have a family yet, still single, not married, thought you would be, or a career never seemed to take off they way you wanted, never had the successes that you dreamed of, planned for, never wanted this illness or depression but did you know that the same language used by Paul in Romans 9, that all of God’s chosen ones, all of those people that God saved, they are saved to be VESSELS for HIS Glory. ALL of God’s chosen ones – they are instruments of the gospel for the praise of His name. That’s good news – no matter where you might be- whether you grow up to be somebody or cleaning up poops after your kids, or having a dead-end job that you are not excited with or finding a job or in school, not sure what you are really doing there – God has a purpose. You are a vessel of mercy, which God prepared beforehand for glory. God chose you; way-before you even acknowledged your need for a Savior so that your purpose in life is being an instrument of the gospel of grace. What priveledge!! What honor!!!!


IV. When God saves sinners; we welcome the prodigals into our church v. 17

            We have the awesome, wonderful privilege to embrace a prodigal, embrace a person who we would never, ever imagine being part of a grace-centered community. One of the best ways to sense or guage a church their gospel-centeredness is not just from the preaching but how quickly do they embrace or welcome those whom GOD converts, those misfits, those criminals, those people who are not like us, those who are not in our social class, those who are not in our economic class, those who are not composed of twainise or Indians, or even those who are so unlikely to be converted to Christianity. Grace is not only the free offer from God in Christ but also how free are we to welcome the prodigals into our community.         

Now, when we read a story like this – we tent to focus on Saul and his unique conversion but the account on Ananias is just gospel-saturated. HE is one of the forgotten heroes of the gospel in the Christian church. This is verses 9-17.

He was living in Damascus, probably a long time resident, he grew up, he was a Christian, part of the Jewish Diaspora. We are not sure when he became a Christian but the spreading of the gospel beyond the wall of Jerusalem was greatly impacted and influenced. And he receives a specific vision. And it goes something like this (v. 10ff all the way up to v. 17)

“I need you to go to Straight street,–yea—-, and you know Judas (not Judas Iscariot but another Judas), go to his house and you will find a man from Tarsus, his name is Saul —-ummmm, wait…what was that – yes, his name is Saul, and he received a vision as well, that some guy name Ananias is coming—–WOOOOHHH WOAHHH  that’s my name—yes, you go there, he’s blind, lay hands on him—-Ummm, Lord, Ananias says, I have heard of this guy, I don’t like him, he is persecuting Christians, he’s a bad man. He killed Stephen, and now he’s in town with a letter to drag us out—- Yes, I know but he is my chosen instrument…now, verse 17 is one the most remarkable, beautiful verses in all of the Bible. Ananias gets up, walks down the street called Straight, knocks on the door at Judas’ house, – hey, do you have a guy in there from Tarsus, his name is Saul—yea, he’s inside. He goes in, probably scared out of his mind, the guy who destroyed the churches, dragging Christians to prison, probably one or couple of his friends who had been killed and the very first thing out of Ananias mouth was this —“BROTHER SAUL, Saul, my brother” WOW!!!!  IS there a better Christian, Christ follower, out there than him to welcome a prodigal home? Ananias made room in his family for another brother. It’s like an African American Man going up to a recently converted KKK clan and says “Brother”; this is grace. It is one thing that changes us and creates a new community. It is a community built by grace. Christian community is full of people who are sinners saved only by grace. The world needs to see a bunch of misfits, a bunch of sinners saved by grace. A community where you can find CEOs and prostitutes, church ladies and bikers, cops and drug-dealers, millionaire and mailman,s drunkard and deacon – they are all saved by grace.

We can pray for revival, conversion, people coming to Christ but if we pray for conversion, it means you and I have to change as well.

Are you ready to welcome a person like Saul of Tarsus, a former killer to come here at LH? Are you ready to go where Saul is? Sometimes we think- I want the church to grow, I want people to come to know Christ, I want people like me to come here to the church, I want people who got it all together, people who do not have major issues, people who can serve in the nursery or children’s ministry. Are we ready to open up our family to get a new brother or a new sister, even if it’s a person like Saul. Will we welcome those whom we never imagine coming here? Are we ready for the gospel to actually work at LH? Because that is exactly what the power of God can do.

Because you know why…? Because we have a prodigal God. A God who squandered his throne so that he can die a criminals’ or sinners death. That’s what the gospel says – that we were the enemies, that we were the Sauls of Tarsus. You and I! We resisted His irresistible grace that gives us life. BUT there was someone who stood before a bunch of self-righteous Pharisees who were trying to be the best by keeping all the rules or even playing all the rules. Yet the truly best one – became the absolute worst. The one who kept all the rules died as a rule breaker. God treated him as if he was sin. This happened to Jesus when he was on the cross. God made him the very worst person in the whole world. Why? Because to welcome you and I into HIS FAMILY; and if that doesn’t move you or excites you, fills you with joy, I don’t what will.

See, the message that changed me is not that Christ came into the world to teach me (which is what Buddha, Muhammad and others did), not that he came into this world to help me save myself either. Jesus Christ came into the world to be in my place. The cross became the tree of life to me because he climbed it but to him, it was death. That changed me. That converted me to Christianity. That I am a sinner saved by grace; I can be welcomed as a Brother, Jesus calls us brother and become part of His family; that’s amazing grace; The grace that found me when I was lost; I was blind but now I see.  Let’s pray.


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