In this editorial we shall explore how the grace of  God shown to the Apostle Paul at his conversion  transformed his character and was inevitably interwoven in the teaching in his epistles. Saul’s  implacable hatred of Jesus Christ and his followers in the Jerusalem ecclesia could not be restrained  and he spared neither himself nor his followers in  his zeal to expunge those who were converted to this new sect. It was on the road to Damascus that  this foremost enemy of Christ was stopped in his tracks and his pillage and slaughter of saints was  brought to a halt.

“The terror of the Lord”

It is not easy for us to imagine the turmoil his mind  went through as “suddenly there shined round about  him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why  persecutest thou me?” (Acts 9:3–4). In all the afflictions Saul had dealt out to the saints, the Lord  had been afflicted. Saul enquired, “Who art thou,  Lord?” Th en came the startling revelation, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” (v5). Does this indicate  that Saul was having a tussle with his conscience?  Was he having doubts and finding it difficult to justify his actions?

Perhaps Paul was referring to this encounter  on the road to Damascus when he said, “Knowing  therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men”  (2 Cor 5:11). He must have feared being summarily  put to death, a punishment justified by his heinous acts fuelled by his misguided zeal. But he was  spared, the record informing us that “he trembling  and astonished, said, Lord, what will thou have me to do?” Not words of divine wrath but words of grace, underserved favour, were spoken: “Arise,  and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what  thou must do” (Acts 9:6). No details were provided  then but there was hidden in the words the great  commission he would be called upon to fulfil. In  the foresight of the Father, Saul was spared, and he  would be the one above all who would disseminate  the Gospel of the grace of God in Jesus Christ to  all nations.

“To testify the gospel of the grace of God”

In these words spoken to the Ephesian elders, Paul  summarised the commission given to him (Acts  20:24). Th at he should be the recipient of the grace of God, given that his days before his conversion  were devoted to the persecution and destruction of Christ’s body, left an indelible mark on him. He never forgot and always remembered the wonder  of this grace. His case is exceptional and remarkable: in it the principles of redemption in Christ are dramatized. He pondered the wonderful character of God that could save the greatest enemy of  the cross of Christ and allow him to become its  foremost advocate. Upon what basis could this be  justified? The answer lies in the unsearchable “riches  of his [God’s] grace” (Eph 1:7).

Reflections on his conversion

There are a number of instances in Paul’s epistles  where he makes a direct reference to the circumstances  of his conversion, the most extensive being  in 1 Timothy 1:12–16 (MLB):

“I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who  strengthened me; for he considered me to be faithful  and appointed me for service – me, although  I was formerly a slanderer, a persecutor and an  insulter. But I found mercy, for in unbelief I acted  ignorantly; and the grace of our Lord was present  in greater abundance with faith and love that rest in  Christ Jesus. Trustworthy is the saying and deserving  of whole hearted acceptance, that Christ Jesus  came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am  foremost. But I found mercy, so that in me, the  foremost of sinners, Jesus Christ might display his  unlimited patience, that I might be an example to  all who would put their trust in him for life eternal”.

Here are Paul’s much pondered reflections. If he  could be saved then so could others: in his salvation  Jesus Christ displayed his unlimited patience; his  was the example that would give all others hope.  And notice also his emphasis on the “grace of our  Lord” which “was present in greater abundance…”  We should all pause and wonder at the grace, the  unmerited favour that has come into our lives, giving  us forgiveness and the glorious hope of eternal  life and the Kingdom to come.

When setting forth the indisputable evidence  for the resurrection of our Lord to the Corinthians,  Paul relates his own personal experience on the road  to Damascus:

“And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one  born out of due time [RSV one untimely born]. For  I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be  called an apostle, because I persecuted the ecclesia  of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am:  and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not  in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they  all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with  me” (1 Cor 15:8–10).

Three times he lays emphasis on the grace that  was extended to him, even divesting himself of  any credit and pride for his abundant labours and  attributing them to the “grace of God”.

Again, referring particularly to the commission  given to him by the Lord, it is the “grace of God”  which was uppermost in his mind. To the Ephesians  he speaks of “the grace of God which is given me  to you-ward,” saying, “I was made a minister, according  to the gift of the grace of God given unto  me by the effectual working of his power” (3:2, 7).

Doctrinal implications

Paul’s personal experiences of the grace of God  in his conversion are reflected in his teaching and  epistles. It is notable that his epistles commence with the words, “Grace be to you, and peace from  God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ”  (Eph 1:2 etc) or similar, and often end on a similar  note: “Grace be with all them that love our Lord  Jesus Christ in sincerity. Amen” (Eph 6:24).

The Greek word “charis” which is translated  grace, favour [unmerited] etc occurs in the Gospels  on five occasions, and was never used by our Lord,  though he is the subject when it is used in them  (Luke 2:40, 52; John 1:14, 17). But it is found  translated as ‘grace ’no less than 99 times in Paul’s  epistles, and in them in particular we have the  clearest and most detailed expositions of how a  sinner can be justified before God. His epistles to  the Romans, Galatians and Ephesians are the stand  out writings on the subject.

To the Romans he said: “For all have sinned,  and come short of the [moral] glory of God; Being  justified freely [without cost – we have not earned  it] by his [God’s] grace through the redemption that  is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:23–24). It was freely and  liberally given, for Paul speaks of the “riches of his  grace” (Eph 1:7). Nobody knew better than Paul  that justification was not by works of the Law: his  Damascus experience cleared that up for all time: manifestly he was saved by the grace of God which  was exceedingly abundant in his case. Speaking in  the synagogue in Antioch he declared: “Be it known  unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through  this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of  sins: And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by  the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38–39).

Paul renounced his “own righteousness, which  is of the law”, desiring instead to be found in him  (the Lord Jesus), having instead the righteousness  “which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness  which is of God by faith” (Phil 3:9).

What then does Paul teach us about  justification?

There is no clearer exposition of this matter than  that found in Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians 2:4–10:

“But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great  love wherewith he loved us [mercy and love incorporate  and involve grace or favour], Even when  we were dead in sins [the state of all men which  has to be acknowledged, admitted and confessed],  hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace  ye are saved;) And hath raised us up together, and  made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ  Jesus [in baptism we died with Christ and are raised  with him and partake of his elevated status]: Th at  in the ages to come [his return] he might shew the  exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward  us through Christ Jesus [namely the gift of immortality  and rulership in his coming Kingdom]. For  by grace are ye saved through faith [here is God’s  part and man’s part in the equation of salvation];  and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:  Not of works, lest any man should boast [God is the prime mover and man is the blessed recipient  of His grace and mercy in Christ. Righteousness is  imputed or counted to man when he believes: he is not ‘righteous’ in himself: it is God’s gift]. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto  good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”

We are what we are by the grace of God, and  this means that the life we live as followers of  Christ should be fi lled with deeds motivated by  the knowledge that the love, mercy and grace of  God has saved and exalted us (cp 2 Cor 5:14–15).  What does this mean for us?

It means that we are very privileged people  indeed. We have been introduced to the grace of  God by various means; by family, by preaching, by  friendship. None of us have had a Damascus experience  like Paul’s, but the same principles apply to us  as they did to him. We were all sinners and in need  of the grace of God, “wherein he hath made us accepted  in the beloved. In whom we have redemption  through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according  to the riches of his grace” (Eph1: 6–7).

Let us, like Paul, respond to this grace of God  by lives devoted to our Lord and in serving one  another.