Paul experienced a blinding, thumped-in-the-noggin’ conversion, but it was the kind of conversion that gives us hope for people hard-headed about accepting God’s grace.
Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus was quick and violent, but no more quick or violent than his persecution of Christians. An up-and-coming Jewish Pharisee, Paul was on his way to Damascus with letters allowing him to bind and arrest the Christians he expected to find there. Instead, he ran into the resurrected Jesus.
As a Pharisee, Paul lived by a basic tenet, that we must follow God’s law to the letter to be right with God. But the startling intensity of the encounter gave Paul immediate insight into an important truth. Because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, it’s possible for God to call undeserving sinners “righteous” despite their sins. We only need to accept the free gift.
The rest of Paul’s story involves a 180-degree turn in beliefs and a straight march into fervent grace-centered Christian preaching, church planting and eventual martyrdom. Paul became the apostle most responsible for spreading to the Gentiles word of Christ’s offer of salvation.
Sudden turnaround conversions like Paul’s have happened throughout the history of the church, and they still happen on a regular basis today.
Historically, several people who became great church leaders have had such experiences. In 386, the man we now call Augustine of Hippo abandoned the life of a 4th century party boy and began to pray to what he assumed was a very angry God. While praying and weeping in a garden, he heard the voice of an unseen child singing an odd phrase: “Pick up and read, pick up and read.”
He picked up a copy of the book of Romans he had been carrying with him and opened it at random, his eyes falling on what we now number as Romans 13:13-14: “Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”
After this moment, Augustine devoted himself fully to the Lord and helped turn the early church toward a deeper understanding of the importance of God’s grace.
Martin Luther, the trigger of the 16th-century Protestant movement, credited his willingness to take a stand for the authority of Scripture to the strength he received from a powerful eureka moment he had experienced earlier in life, one in which he finally understood the power of God’s grace.
And most of us in the Methodist church have at least heard references to founder John Wesley’s sudden “Aldersgate experience,” where he realized that salvation is a gift from God, something that can only be accepted, not earned.
While in seminary, I was blessed to see a room full of people have one of those aha moments where a deeper understanding of grace is revealed—where people who are striving for righteousness learn instead to accept what God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ.
Helen Musick was an experienced youth ministry instructor who terrorized the Asbury Theological Seminary campus each semester with her midterm exam.
Youth ministry. Sounds easy, right? Make the kids some popcorn, light a candle, sit around and sing “Kumbaya.”
Nope. Not in Helen’s class. Oh, we learned that youth like the popcorn-candle-Kumbaya thing now and then. But we also had to learn in great detail the biblical, theological, psychological and sociological reasons underpinning their likes and dislikes.
And every last bit of that background was on the midterm. One of her victims from an earlier semester told me, “Dude, be happy if you get a C.”
The day of the exam, I did not feel ready. Neither did most of my classmates. Helen handed out the thick exam packets face down. She then uttered the dreaded words: “You may begin.”
When I turned mine over, I was immediately perplexed. The first few pages were Bible verses, all having something to say about God’s grace. My first clear thought: “I don’t remember her saying anything about Bible verses on this test.”
As I flipped further into the packet, I received my second shock: I was certain I had been handed the “key,” the copy she would use for grading purposes. The answers were all there, in her handwriting.
I looked up to tell her of the mistake, and noticed for the first time that all of my classmates looked as confused as me. Helen had big tears in her eyes.
“For half a semester, I’ve been trying to get you all to understand God’s grace,” she said. “And it’s clear after half a semester that many of you still don’t understand.”
She went on to explain that she had set up the midterm exam as an example of how God’s grace works. It was a real test—the grades would go into her grade book. But everyone would get a score of 100.
We did have to do one thing. We had to put our names on our tests. We had to claim the perfect score as our own, even though we had not earned it.
Interestingly, a couple of students got angry. They had studied hard enough to win an A, they believed, and they thought it unfair that everyone was getting an A. We spent some time gently discussing the older brother in Luke 15:11-32.
Most of us were relieved. As best as I could tell, I might have scored a C on my own—maybe as low as a D.
That’s grace: getting an A from God even when we deserve to fail. I hope all of you learn the lesson gently, incorporating it into your life with ease.
But if not, may the resurrected Jesus whack you really hard, even blinding you until you understand the truth. Accepting grace is that important.