SCRIPTURES: Acts 9:1-22; Galatians 1:11-24; Matthew 19:27-30
The Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation! Is. 12:2
Today we remember an incredibly important event: the conversion of Paul, his being changed from an enemy of Christ and His followers to an apostle of and preacher of Christ. We remember this event not only because of the impact it had upon Paul, but especially because of the impact his conversion has had upon us all.
Who was Paul, who before his conversion was known as Saul? He tells us about himself in our reading from Galatians. He says that, before his conversion, “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.” He devoted himself to learning and following the laws and traditions of his Jewish people, the chosen people of God, that he might be righteous before God. And then, he devoted himself to making sure his fellow Jews followed those laws and traditions, so much so that he persecuted, arrested and even killed his fellow Jews who had become followers of Jesus. (I say fellow Jews, by the way, because the first Christians were Jews. They were looked upon by those like Paul as heretics, Jews who were corrupting their Jewish faith.) And then came that fateful day when a light from heaven suddenly flashed brightly upon him and he heard Jesus Himself speak to him and say, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” From that day on he was an utterly changed man.
How so? In what way was he changed? He was not changed in his faith in God. Paul still fervently believed in the God of Israel, the one God who had revealed Himself to Moses, and now to him, also. The only change was that he now knew that this God was Jesus. He also still believed in the goodness and holiness of God’s Law. In fact, years later he would write: “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” (Rom. 7:12) What changed for Paul was that, after being confronted by Jesus on the road to Damascus, he suddenly realized that he had not, and could not, keep the Law and make himself holy and righteous before God, no matter how extremely zealous he was for God’s Law. In fact, his zeal had only made him more sinful. Only in Jesus could he be holy and righteous.
Last Tuesday I also experienced, although far less vividly than Paul, the inability of the law to change us and bring forth righteousness. I was driving up the Merritt and pulled into the service area just past exit 44 for a coffee. The parking area was pretty full, but I was lucky; the 2nd space, which was right next to the handicap space, was open. So, I started to pull in, but then I saw a sign in front of the space: reserved for fuel efficient/low emission vehicles. “What?” I thought. “You’re kidding me!! Who made this dumb law? And, what makes people who drive those cars so special? I think they should park farther away, since they’re so concerned about the environment and health!” I decided, the heck with this stupid rule!, and pulled in and parked. So, your pastor is a lawbreaker! Yes, I am.
Now, this law is certainly not on the same level as God’s laws. As Paul says, God’s law “is holy and righteous and good.” The parking law pointed out on the sign is absurd. But, it does illustrate this point: laws do not create the righteousness of glad and willing obedience. Admit it: even God’s good commandments create in you grumbling and a grudging obedience. How many times have you wanted to sleep in instead of worship your Lord? How often have you coveted what someone else received and justified your desire by saying to yourself that you were more deserving? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” says God. And so, “Love is the fulfilling of the Law” Paul points out (Rom. 13:10). We fail to do this, for we love ourselves. We are all lawbreakers.
But, “now the righteousness of God has been made known apart from the law—the righteousness of God through the faith of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and [all] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 3:21-24) Paul tells us this. This is what he was confronted with when Jesus, who had been crucified but was now not only very much alive but was speaking powerfully to him as God from heaven, knocked him off his horse. And this, ultimately, is what changed him from one who went forth in anger to punish people and force obedience to one who went forth in love to serve even his enemies with the love of Christ. How gladly would he sing with us the words of Isaiah 12: “The Lord God is my strength and my song, and He has become my salvation!”
This is the Gospel that Paul received from Jesus Christ, and which he then went forth throughout the world and preached. This is the Gospel that you have been blessed to be baptized into, and to hear and receive week after week in this house of the Lord. It is solely through faith in Jesus that you are righteous, and not through any obedience of your own. Paul sums it up so very well in Romans 7:
“If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness… The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.” (In other words, God’s Law is holy and righteous and good; but we are not. God’s Law therefore only ends up producing in us resentment, anger, grumbling, and grudging obedience.)
“We know that the law is spiritual,” Paul says, “but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate... sin dwells within me. I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out…
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
How blessed we are to have this preaching of Paul, this Gospel that the Lord Jesus Himself revealed to him! How freeing it is to know this; to know Jesus! We are not condemned and so are free to be unafraid of being sinners and confess our sins, for Jesus has borne them. In Him there is forgiveness! And, we are free to love God’s good law but not fear it, or think that we need to create other laws, as the Jews did, and find our righteousness in them. Christ has kept God’s Law for us and fulfilled it. “He is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes,” as St. Paul says in Romans 10:4. Don’t let anyone lay any guilt upon you for not being good enough or pious enough. Christ alone is your righteousness, and He is your through faith alone!
And so, with Isaiah, and Paul, and with all the saints in heaven and all of Christ’s people on earth, we sing:
“Give thanks to the Lord, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the peoples, proclaim that his name is exalted. The Lord God is my strength and my song, and He has become my salvation!”