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Paul:  From Pharisee to Apostle of Grace

by David A. DePra

     Paul was the only apostle we know of who was not part of the

earthly ministry of Jesus. In fact, Paul never mentions that he even

heard of Jesus before Jesus was crucified and raised from the

dead. Paul, then called Saul of Tarsus, emerges on the scene

well into the book of Acts, chapter 7, as the leader of those who

stoned Steven to death, an event which probably occurred not

long after the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fell upon those

in the upper room. Before then, he is never part of any recorded


     It is actually quite amazing, and noteworthy, that Paul was used

of God to the extent he was used. God had at least 12 other

apostles from which to choose, Matthias having replaced Judas.

But as the apostle to the Gentiles, and as one God would use to

write as many as 14 epistles included in the Bible, God picked a

man who never met Jesus. On top of that, Paul was a man who

started out as the chief persecutor of the church; a man responsible

for the deaths of Christian people. And maybe even the most

amazing thing of all, was the fact that God picked a man who was

probably the most dedicated Pharisee who ever lived. THAT was

the person God chose to be the leader in the early church to preach

the gospel of GRACE.

     Why? Why did God pick Paul? Obviously, God saw something

in Paul that He could use. For one thing, if Paul believed something,

he went for broke. God wanted that kind of capacity and dedication.

And perhaps most importantly, the fact that God choose Paul as the

vehicle to preach the gospel of grace is a testimony to the rest of us.

Paul was not a friend or disciple of Jesus. Paul had not even been

an immoral sinner, as we might define it. No. Paul was one who

was anti-Christian, anti-grace, and anti-everything which Christians

stood for. And then, all of a sudden, he was one day ONE OF

THEM. He became God's champion of grace.

     Saul of Tarsus, persecutor of the church, and dedicated

Pharisee, became Paul, an apostle. There was no way to explain

this! Something changed him. What was it?

Steven's Witness

     As mentioned, we first hear of Paul, then called Saul, at the scene

of Steven's martyrdom. It is not a pretty sight:

Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears .....

And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid

down their clothes at a young man's feet, whose name was Saul.

And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord

Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a

loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had

said this, he fell asleep. And Saul was consenting unto his death.

And at that time there was a great persecution against the church

which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad

throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles.

And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great

lamentation over him. As for Saul, he made havock of the church,

entering into every house, and haling men and women committed

them to prison. (Acts 7:57 - 8:3)

     Since Saul was with this crowd, he probably was one of those

who, figuratively speaking, "stopped their ears." Note also that

it says that Saul was a "young man." Most certainly he was at least

thirty, however, since it is unlikely that he would hold a prominent

position before that age. This would make Paul, the apostle, about

65-70 or so when he was executed before the destruction of


     There are several significant points in this narrative. First, this

does sound a bit like a mob who stoned Steven, but a closer look

tells us that despite the anger and the mob atmosphere, there was

a certain "execution procedure" followed. First, there were those

called "witnesses." And they "laid down their clothes" at Saul's

feet. This was all commonly done when someone was to be

stoned. And it says that Saul "was consenting to his death." What

this is telling us is that Saul was, in fact, officiating at this execution. It

is almost certain that when they brought Steven before the council

that day that they were already entertaining stoning as a possibility.

This was no mob. It was a council of Pharisees who set up false

witnesses, and stirred up the people against Steven. We don't

really know how much of this involved Saul. But from the looks of it,

he must have been aware of all of this, if not responsible for most of


     Saul witnessed the death of Steven, indeed, consented to it. One

must wonder whether that stuck with him as a witness. Steven had

preached some strong words that day, and had died in faith.

The effect this had on Saul, however, was not immediately

evident. The next time Saul is mentioned, he is once again seeking

to destroy Christians:

And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the

disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, and desired of him

letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this

way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound

unto Jerusalem. (Acts 9:1-2)

     Paul, the apostle, would later write of these days:

And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due

time. For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet 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 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.

For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews'

religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God,

and wasted it. (Gal. 1:13)

Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious:

but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. (I Tim.


....And profited in the Jews' religion above many my equals in mine

own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my

father's. (Gal. 1:14)

     Paul was born "out of due time," in that he was not one of the

original apostles. And he openly confesses his former persecution

of the church.

     Paul did all of this in ignorance, because of unbelief. He did not

know, and apparently, did not want to know. But things were about

to change. For despite all of the terrible things Saul of Tarsus did to

the people of God, God had mercy upon him. He was about to call

him, changing his life, and everyone else's, forever.

Saul's Conversion

     The story of Saul's conversion is well-known. He was, in fact, on

his way to round-up more Christians and take them to prison when

a great light knocked him down to the ground. Then he heard,

"Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" And he said, "Who are

you, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. It

is hard for you to kick against the goads."

     This passage tells us much about what was going on in the mind

and heart of Paul -- during the time of his persecution of the church.

The rather awkwardly translated statement, "It is hard for you to kick

against the goads," is referring to the fact that Paul had been

resisting, or "kicking" against the conviction which God has been

bringing upon him. That conviction was the "goads." Apparently,

God had been prompting misgivings and tinges of conscience in

Paul. The Holy Spirit had been doing a work. Paul had been

resisting this.

     This explains an important thing. It shows that Paul's conversion

was not merely the outcome of an experience on the road to

Damascus. No. That experience was the climax of an ongoing

work of the Holy Spirit.

     It also tells us something about how we are made, and how God

works. Paul had been persecuting the church because he was

both ignorant of the Truth, and zealous for his religion. He simply

did not know any better. But God, in His mercy, and right in the

middle of Paul's hatred of the church, was at work. Slowly but surely

he opened Paul's heart -- perhaps not yet his understanding -- but

his heart.

     How? We do not know for sure. We do not know how many of

the people Paul arrested spoke to him of the Christ. Perhaps only

their unspoken witness was offered. But notice what was going on

here: The very persecution which Paul was responsible for was,

in large part, the vehicle God used to bring him to repentance. God

alone could do this.

     Thus, when Paul was struck down on the road to Damascus,

Jesus said to him, "How difficult you are making it for yourself, to

continually resist the Truth I'm trying to show you." Saul was ready

to become Paul.

Paul's Loss

     If the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ had been around for a

while, and had Paul merely become converted to it, say, through

one of the other apostles, then his conversion would be miraculous.

But Paul was not converted through any of the other apostles, and

the gospel of grace, as Paul would later reveal it, was not widely

known. Add to this the fact that Paul's religion had been the very

antithesis of the gospel he would now preach, and you have an

impossible miracle. This was real. And it was of God. That is the

only explanation.

     It isn't like Paul had a lot to gain by forsaking his Jewish religion.

In fact, he had everything to lose. Note the words which Jesus

spoke to Annaias regarding Paul, at the very outset of Paul's

conversion: "For I will show him how great things he must suffer for

my name's sake." (Acts 9:16)

     It happened that way, too. Paul would later write:

But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yes,

doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the

knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the

loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ,

(Phil. 3:7-8)

     Never think that it was material things Paul lost that were the most

valuable to him. No. The thing of greatest value which Paul lost

was the righteousness he had built by the works of the law. Saul,

who had been "blameless" through the law as a Pharisee, was now

exposed as a sinner who needed the mercy and grace of God.

Are we willing to LOSE our own righteousness -- that which we

accumulate to ourselves by our works -- for the sake of Jesus


     Some of us might reply, "Well, I don't think I'm righteous. In fact, I

continually feel condemned and unrighteous."

     If that is true, then you DO have a righteousness which is by your

own works. You do! How so? Well, it is a righteousness which you

are attempting to build, but failing to build. The only difference

between you and Paul is that Paul thought he succeeded in keeping

himself righteous. You think you have failed. But you and Paul are

both guilty of TRYING. And THAT is the problem. You are both

guilty of living by the righteousness which comes by the law. That

is unbelief, and it will keep you from experiencing the grace of God,

and the righteousness of God which comes by faith alone.

     If you and I live continually under guilt, fear, and condemnation,

and we are Christians, we are trying to live under the law. We are

trying to establish our own righteousness and failing. The guilt,

fear, and condemnation would not be there if we embraced the

fact that we are righteous APART from all of our works -- indeed --

apart for anything about us. We are righteous only because of

Jesus Christ. Our faith merely embraces this Truth and knows that

there is no sin so deep that the Redemption cannot reach.

     It is easy to become deceived in all of this. We think that people

hesitate to come to the grace of God because they think their sin

is TOO BAD. The Truth is, they don't come because they don't see

how bad it is! If we really saw how bad our sin is, we would rush to

the grace of God. It is because we do not grasp it's magnitude that

we do not realize how helpless and hopeless we are. We linger

and waver -- or are just completely blinded to God's grace by our

own attempts to become righteous through human effort.

     So the only solution is to LOSE my own righteousness -- the

righteousness based on me. That is a great loss to the flesh,

especially to religious flesh. But it is a great liberty to the spirit.

Paul lost everything about himself for the sake of Christ. Both

materially and spiritually. This is not a decision someone makes

out of self-interest. I'm sure Paul did not, at first, realize the loss he

would later suffer. But remember, he himself had persecuted the

church. He knew that wasn't going to stop because he converted

to the church. He knew that he would now be persecuted, and

perhaps hated more than all other Christians, by the people who

were once he friends. They would consider him a traitor.

Real Conversion

     Christianity is not the outcome of a logical argument. It is not

the outcome of a debate. You cannot convert someone to Christ by

winning a debate. You might win the debate, but Christ has not won


     Paul was a great thinker. He was a great debater. He was very

smart. Read his epistles. Does this sound like a fanatic -- one who

accepts things without thinking about them? No. Paul was a very

intelligent man. Not a fool. You weren't going to argue Paul into a

corner and get him to concede that Jesus must be Saviour.  No.

That is never the way God converts people. Instead, he reveals to

them something flesh and blood cannot reveal to them: Jesus

Christ crucified.  And raised.  This is what Paul saw. It ended, for

him, all the arguments. It was real and it was of God.

     Possibly the greatest Pharisee who ever lived was now the

one which God used in the greatest way to preach the grace of God

in Jesus Christ. That takes a miracle and it takes God. *

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