When Sovereign Grace Leads To Treasuring Jesus
Acts 9:1-19 / Philippians 3:1-9
Reverend Bryn MacPhail / September 1, 2002
Because we know how this story ends, I fear that Christians often take for granted the incredible nature of Saul’s conversion. Because we are so familiar with the teaching ministry of Paul, I fear that we often forget that this Paul used to be a Christian-killer named Saul.
This is the way Acts, chapter 9, begins, “Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of (Jesus), went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”
Surely, this is not a typical description of a person who is about to be converted to Christianity. This is the kind of person that no one expects to be converted. His opposition to Christianity is too intense. And because Saul’s opposition to Christianity was so severe, and so public, it would be utterly humiliating for him to change his mind at this point. It would be like Saddam Hussein becoming a Christian and then embarking on a missionary campaign to witness to Muslims in Saudi Arabia.
In the conversion of Saul then, what we have is a profound reminder of God’s sovereignty in the process of salvation. We see how the quickening power of the Holy Spirit can penetrate the most hardened heart. We see that God’s mercy is not limited to those who have been set up for Christianity by a good family or a church upbringing.
This should give us tremendous hope in thinking about our unconverted friends and family. We should not be despairing for those who show no outward signs of being prepared for conversion. Saul certainly was not open to conversion—he was too busy arresting and executing Christians! Saul was not what we would call “a seeker”. No, he was utterly closed, and violently opposed, to Christianity. That is . . . until that day on the Damascus road; that day when Saul met Jesus.
“Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around (Saul); and he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ And (Saul) said, ‘Who art Thou, Lord?’ And He said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting . . . And Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing”(9:3-6, 8).
The account of Saul’s conversion ends with Saul being met by a man named Ananias, who lays his hands on Saul and says to him, “ ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road to (Damascus), has sent me so that you may regain your sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately there fell from (Saul’s) eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he arose and was baptized”(9:17, 18).
Notice the evidences of God’s sovereign work here. First, God causes a light from heaven to blind Saul. Second, notice that the voice from heaven does not invite Saul to consider asking Jesus into his heart. No, the voice from heaven is far more authoritative than that, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting . . . rise, and enter the city, and you shall be told what to do”(9:5, 6).
For Saul, gaining salvation was not about being open to Christianity—he was utterly opposed to it! Gaining salvation was not about choosing Christ—Christ chose him; Jesus says to Ananias, “Go, for (Saul) is a chosen instrument of Mine”(9:15).
So you see, that even though the conversion of Saul seemed highly unlikely from a human vantage point, it was never in doubt from a Divine vantage point.
Friends, what a message of encouragement we have from this account of Saul’s conversion! We should not despair that our unconverted friends and family are showing no signs of openness to Christianity. We should persevere in prayer for them with the hope that they too are God’s “chosen instruments”.
As you can see, Acts 9 describes for us the history of Saul’s conversion. But here, we only see what happens to Saul on the outside. We see God’s intentions towards Saul, and we see what God does in bringing about Saul’s conversion, but we do not see what Saul’s mindset is through all of this. If we want to know what was happening to Saul on the inside we need to turn to Philippians 3.
Let’s pick up Paul’s pre-conversion mindset in Philippians 3, verse 4, “If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.”
Before meeting Christ, if someone were to have asked Paul, ‘What makes a person acceptable in the eyes of God?’, he would have answered with this list. Paul had come from an elite tribe, from an elite religion, from an elite nation, he had gone through all of the religious rites, and he surpassed his colleagues with his zeal and his morality. If anyone could have legitimately thought they might merit salvation, it was Paul—and he did think that . . . Until he met Christ.
19th Century minister, Robert McCheyne, comments on this when he writes, “Every natural man seeks salvation by making himself better in the sight of God . . . (he) tries to cover his past sins by religious observances; he becomes a religious man, prays, weeps, reads, attends sacraments, is deeply occupied in religion, and tries to get it into his heart; all to make himself appear good in the eye of God, that he may lay God under debt to pardon and love him”(Bonar, Memoirs of McCheyne, 65).
What McCheyne is saying here, and what Paul is saying here, is that we cannot merit our salvation. We cannot obtain God’s favour by engaging in religious activity, or through moral behaviour.
I fear that we sometimes forget this. Someone asks us, ‘What makes a person acceptable in the eyes of God?’, and how do we answer? We might be tempted to say, ‘I was baptized as an infant; I studied the catechism and was confirmed; I regularly attend Sunday worship and am faithful in attending Holy Communion; I read my Bible and pray on occasion, and I try to contribute to the good of society.’
We might say that’s how we earn God’s favour, but that’s not true. No amount of good works and religious activity will earn us God’s favour. What is true is what Augustus Toplady wrote,
Not the labours of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring;
simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.
What is true is what the apostle Paul recognized after his conversion, “I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith”(Phil. 3:8, 9).
If you have ever wanted a summary of what it means to be a Christian, I can find no better text than this. I don't want you to miss the strength of Paul's statement, "I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish". The Greek word translated "rubbish" is the word "skubalon". And the word, "skubalon", literally translated is dung, or excrement. Compared to Christ, Paul says that everything else in life is as valuable as manure.
Keep in mind, also, that what Paul regards as manure is his credentials. Paul is not saying that only his sin is like dung, but the things he valued are dung when compared to Christ.
I find this to be truly amazing. As human beings, we prize many things. We prize our possessions—our homes, our cars, our bank accounts. We prize our hobbies—golfing, gardening, woodworking. We prize our career, our reputation, our standing in society. We prize our relationships—our spouse, our children, our friends. Admittedly, there are many things in this world worth prizing.
There are so many things in this world that I greatly value, yet I must discover, and you must discover, what Paul discovered—that compared to Christ, everything we treasure has the value of manure.
I ask you this morning, have you discovered this truth? Have you come to understand that heaven is unobtainable for you if you are trusting in your own efforts? Have you come to understand, not simply the value of knowing Jesus, but the surpassing value of knowing Jesus?
Perhaps you have, but some of you have started to recollect the rubbish. If Christ was such a treasure to you once, if He was the surpassing One to you once, is He less than that now?
You may be engaged in some very worthy pursuits, I grant you that. The Christian life does not demand that you withdraw from every worldly pursuit. What Paul is reminding us of is that none of our earthly pursuits can compare to the pursuit of knowing Christ.
Make no mistake; negligence in serving Christ has little to do with how ‘busy’ you are; it has everything to do with how much, or how little, you treasure Jesus Christ.
If God has redeemed you by His sovereign grace, the only appropriate response is to treasure Jesus Christ above all else. Nothing short of this can bring you lasting joy. Nothing short of this will bring God the glory He deserves. Amen.