Conversion of St. Paul
Dear friends in Christ. Although no one knows the exact day for sure, the western Church has chosen 25 January as the day to remember and celebrate the Lord’s grace in converting Saul to become Paul, His great missionary. What’s important is not so much the date, but what the Lord worked through His great instrument and the grace the Lord showed St. Paul and to the people who heard the Gospel through St. Paul, either from his mouth or from his pen—and that includes us. It is quite fitting, then, that we remember the day of Paul’s conversion in the Epiphany season, the season in which we remember that Jesus, the Baby born of the virgin, whose birth we celebrated one month ago today, revealed Himself as the Son of God and the Savior of the world. Not only did Jesus reveal Himself to St. Paul, but also through the preaching, teaching and the writing of St. Paul, Jesus has revealed Himself, Who He is and what He has done for the salvation of the world, to millions down through the ages. Yes, we do well to celebrate this great grace of God to St. Paul. He took blaspheming Saul who hated Him and His saving grace for all people and made him Paul, the great apostle who preached the simple message that we are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus, His Son and our Lord and Savior.
But what did Paul get for being one of our Lord’s Christians and His blessed instrument, His apostle? He got the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, every other heavenly and spiritual blessing; but he also received suffering, hardship, hatred, persecution and finally death for his preaching of Jesus and His saving Word. That then raises the question: is there a reward for being a Christian?
I. That is a question that often arises when we look at our situation and see that at least outwardly the unbeliever seems to fare better than the Christian. But we must remember that Satan will often use this ploy to try to lead us to reject our Lord and faith in Him. He wants to get us to think that since there is no outward advantage to being a Christian, why bother. This is a very appealing temptation to our sinful flesh, whose attitude is always “what’s in it for me?” But here, as the devil tempts us, let us look at the example of St. Paul. He did not seemingly outwardly, physically benefit, but by the power of the Holy Spirit he persevered in the faith. So what reward did Paul get?
Right before the words of our text, a rich young man asked Jesus what good thing he should do to have eternal life. He claimed he had perfectly kept the commandments. To show this man that he wasn’t even keeping the 1st Commandment but made his wealth his god, Jesus told him: If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me. That man went away very sad.
The disciples heard this exchange so Peter asked Jesus, See, we have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have? Peter was saying that in contrast to the rich man, they did everything Jesus had said. The disciples were saying, we did what we were suppose to do, so what’s in it for us? what reward, benefit, will we get? That is a very natural, a human reaction. I did what I was supposed to do, I played by the rules, so I deserve something for it. Here is where we must be on guard lest we fall prey to the devil’s deception. Just because something is so natural, seems so right, doesn’t mean that it is. What seems so right and so natural is really our old corrupt sinful nature; it is really the works-righteous notion which says the more we do, the more we earn and the more God owes us. It is a wrong sinful notion to say that I deserve something for being a Christian; I deserve better; God owes me because I did something, because I was so willing and obedient to Him. To make ourselves the master and God the debtor is exactly what a works righteous attitude does. It is a complete rejection of God’s grace.
When we find ourselves going along with our old sinful nature, when we think we deserve better because we’re Christians, when we expect and demand a reward from the Lord, may we repent of our sin of self-righteousness. Yes we are Christians, but not because of any of our work; we are Christians solely because of the Lord’s grace to us.
It does us well to look at St. Paul’s conversion and see God’s grace at work there because that is also a picture of our own conversion. The starting point of Paul’s conversion and our own conversion is unbelief. We read that Saul was breathing threats and murder against the Christians. He was even going outside of Palestine to round up Christians. Here we see such hatred of Christ and His Word and Work. However, let us not forget how we were before we came to faith in Christ. Scripture tells us that we are all conceived and born in sin and enemies of God and hostile to Him. God’s own verdict on us is that man’s heart is evil from his youth and through the apostle He says the fleshly mind hates God. It refuses to obey God’s law because it can’t obey it, and you…once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works. On our own we cannot come to know and love God and Christ Jesus His Son and our Savior. Would Paul on his own have come to be great apostle? Hardly! That’s why Christ in grace had to come to him and create faith in his heart. Would we be Christians had God left us to ourselves? Hardly! We would have continued in our way of sin and hatred of Him. We had no spark of spiritual goodness and life in us. Paul tells us that before we became Christians, we were all dead in trespasses and sins. There was no way we could make ourselves spiritually alive, there was no way that on our own we could become Christians. We did not one day “decide” to be a Christian. Jesus tells us You did not choose Me, but I chose you. Paul did not choose Jesus, Jesus chose Paul. You did not choose Jesus, Jesus chose you. Why did Jesus choose Paul? Why did Jesus choose you? Was it anything in you? In no way! All we were from conception and birth were sinners and all we had was sin. But in grace Jesus chose you and me. He came to us in the water and word of Holy Baptism, or later on in life in the Word, and gave us His Holy Spirit, worked faith in our hearts, gave us new spiritual, heavenly life, gave us the forgiveness of sins, and works in us the will and gives us the strength to love Him and to do His will.
2. The very fact that we are Christians is all the grace of the Lord. We are Christians; we have left all and followed Christ. Did we do this on our own? Did we do something to make God obligated to us, to make God our debtor? Hardly! God owes us nothing. We don’t deserve a special reward for being Christians—it’s all God’s gracious work to us.
But here is the amazing thing: When in our text Peter said to Jesus: See we have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have? Jesus doesn’t scold him but gives him a wonderful promise: Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on 12 thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Here Jesus promises the disciples that at the Last the disciples will take part in His governing and will receive a special honor among the Christians, the saints who had been made perfect, the great company of the elect. What exactly all that promise means is yet to be seen, but it is a wonderful, gracious promise. Even though we in no way deserve it, God rewards the good works of the Christian. That the 12 left everything and followed Jesus, was solely the Lord’s work of grace on them. And now He rewards them for what He did for them. Jesus not only promises the 12 a reward of grace, but all His dear Christians as He says in our text: And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold and inherit everlasting life. All who have willingly given up things for Christ and the confession of His name, who have suffered loss because of the confession of the Gospel, that is, all who have been strengthened and led and empowered by the Holy Spirit will be rewarded. To put it differently, God will reward our good works.
But let us think about this a moment. On our own, we are spiritually dead and enemies of God; we do not and cannot do His will. Then He brings us to spiritual life and faith. He gives us His Holy Spirit who leads us to delight in His will and to do it. He leads and empowers us to do every good work. Scripture is clear: it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure, and as Paul testifies, it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So then, what does God do? He rewards the good work that we do. But if He rewards us for doing what He has led and empowered us to do, what is He really doing? He is rewarding us for what He is doing in and through us. Isn’t that God’s abundant grace? Far from giving us what we earn and deserve because of our sin, He brings us life and blesses us, rewards us, for what He is doing in us.
The Lord gives His dear Christians a reward of grace. That is, only because of His grace does He reward us. He rewards us in grace, not because we earned or merited it, but because Jesus did for us. Because we are sinners, we can only hinder and pollute what God works in us by divine grace and power. Even the good things we do are tainted with sin. But because Jesus suffered and died for our sins, all sin that clings to all we do, that would taint the good works the Lord works in us, is forgiven. So when God looks at the good works that we do, that He works in us, He does not see our sin but only the perfection of Jesus. He sees the good works that we do as if Jesus were doing them and rewards them accordingly.
Though we do not deserve any reward, in fact just the opposite, God does reward us for what He works in us. This is all by grace. But often the reward that we receive by God’s grace is not what our old sinful nature wants. When we now suffer and wonder what benefit it is being a Christian, when we look at unbelievers thriving but we see ourselves far from that, when we see that the Lord has called upon us to forsake so much, we often wonder: what and where is the reward of grace the Lord has promised? Even here we must often walk by faith, not by sight. Let us hear Paul’s words: But any advantages I had I considered a loss for Christ. Yes, I think it is all a loss because it is so much better to know Christ Jesus, my Lord. For Him I have lost everything and consider it garbage in order to win Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness which comes from the keeping of the Law but having the righteousness which is through faith in Christ and which comes from God by faith.
The good works we do, what we forsake and endure because of our confession of faith in Christ, God rewards already in this life. We will find already on earth a rich substitute in Christ and His kingdom for all that we have forsaken. Here, now, we enjoy the favor of God on account of Christ; here we enjoy His every heavenly and spiritual blessing; here we know that come what may, we are in our Lord’s gracious hands Who is working all things for our spiritual good; here we enjoy peace of conscience and joy in the Lord; here, now, we have the forgiveness of sin and the righteousness of Christ. All this is certainly worth 100x of what we have given up.
And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold and inherit everlasting life.
Come the Last Day the Lord will crown His work for us by giving us eternal life—not because our works deserved it but because God has promised and given us eternal life in Christ through holy baptism, before we could do any works.
Rejoice, dear Christian, there is a reward for being a Christian. But remember God is rewarding the good works He works in and through us. Look at the great grace of God to St. Paul as He called Paul to faith and worked mightily through him and finally brought him to eternal life. He shows you the same grace as He called you to faith, preserves you in the faith, leads you into every good work, and rewards you in grace both in this life and eternally. INJ Amen.