“And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.” (Acts 8:1-3)
This is our introduction to a man named Saul as found in the historical writings of Luke, a Greek physician. In case you don’t know, this is the same Saul, a Pharisee from the tribe of Benjamin, who through a phenomenal conversion became Paul, the missionary to the Gentiles, and probably the most influential writer of Christian theology. After all, religious men and women have spent the last 2,000 years studying and trying to explain what he taught with ink and parchment. He wrote the majority of the New Testament letters, planted numerous churches, and eventually died for his faith. He is what we consider the epitome of an apostle, but he was not always a preacher. Throughout his ministry he referenced his earlier life before the Damascus road experience and testified thusly:
“For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it… I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them…. I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as also the high priest and all the Council can testify. I even obtained letters from them to their brothers in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.” (Galatians 1:13, Acts 26:9-11, Acts 22:3-5)
While his conversion was a great story, and the early church rejoiced, there were brief moments when he struggled with the grace of God. The more I read Paul’s writings found in the New Testament, the more I believe he wrestled with the negative consequences of his prior actions. He seemed to grapple with the grace of God that was bestowed upon him and his guilt of persecuting the same people to whom he now taught the doctrines of Christ. Owing to his previous destructive actions, he felt out of place, never quite able to come to terms with his new calling and position in the church. Once he confessed, “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect,” (II Corinthians 15:9-10).
If you don’t think he had a difficult time reconciling the grace and the guilt, read what he wrote to Timothy, his young protégée in the gospel. “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst” (I Timothy 1:13-15). When was the last time you heard a preach sermonize about the grace of God and say “I am the worse sinner here today?” Notice he used the present tense of the verb: “I am.” He was continually in pursuit, trying to understand how God could overlook his past behavior through the amazing facet of grace.
In Romans 8:35, 37-39, we read where Paul wrote: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
He makes a compelling list of things that cannot separate us from the love of God. However, there is one glaring omission from Paul’s list: the past. If anyone knew the influence of the past, it was Paul. What outward circumstances, real-life dangers, weighty responsibilities, and inward fears could not do, former transgressions could do. Paul understood the struggles of the present and the murky unknown of the future did not have the suffocating power of the past. Earthly powers or spiritual principalities cannot sever us from God’s love, but the past, that unique set of remembered indiscretions, has the ability to paralyze us with regret causing us to shrink from the presence of a holy God. It has a unique way of haunting us with the accumulative guilt from the collective failures of our yesterdays. In essence, the past makes us feel unworthy. Oh the improbable power of the past!
After my conversion, it took a few years to mentally and emotionally work through the guilt of my previous actions. There were more than a few people who I left in a worse condition when I exited their life compared to when our paths first crossed. To some who have come back into my life I have offered an apology. Fifteen years after my conversion I still feel a sense of guilt and regret for certain moments in my life that I can never amend. The only thing I can do is resolve the guilt with the grace of God.
Paul often talked about his past, not to boast of previous sins, but rather that through his conversion story others may witness the grace of God clearly displayed. He was ashamed of his former lifestyle, but he never repented of the grace of God that he had received. In the last few weeks of his time here on earth he groaned “that everyone in the province of Asia” had deserted him (II Timothy 1:15). We can only speculate why they did it. Maybe there were some who could never move beyond his past shortcomings.
I have often wanted to talk about my past but was afraid to do so because I was not sure how others would receive it. Over the years I have observed the irony of the church. We come to Christ broken, confessing our sins and seeking redemption. However, after the grace has been supplied, we pretend that we had no sin and put on a façade of perfection. I now realize that all Christians have a redemption story. Usually it’s a messy, embarrassing, awkward narrative of our journey to the cross. Many have tried to hide theirs for various reasons, but I will choose to tell mine. If you would like to read my story, and see God’s grace, click on the tab “My Life’s Story.” I will update every week, more or less, until I’m done.
*All Bible quotes in this post come from the NIV. Article written by James C. Marse. Copyright © 2011.