Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

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Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Conversion of St. Paul

The Conversion of St. Paul
The Baptism of Titus Ruben Baier
January 25, 2009
Text: Acts 9:1-22

This morning we commemorate the conversion of St. Paul, once known as Saul the Pharisee, a violent persecutor of the Church, now the great apostle who made it his life’s work to preach Christ crucified and risen. We learn a lot about God’s work of conversion in the account of Paul’s conversion in Acts. First, though, perhaps we should point out some things about Paul’s conversion that differ from the way God ordinarily works conversion today. For example, when God converts Paul, He operates in a less than subtle way. Suddenly a great light flashes around Paul and his companions, and the voice of Jesus booms, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? … I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4-5; ESV). I think we can agree that blinding lights and voices from heaven are not typical of our conversion experiences today. Nor, by the way, has God ever promised that any of us would have such spectacular conversion experiences. Even those in Paul’s day who were converted by God did not always have spectacular experiences. By and large, they were converted in the same way that we are, through the preaching of the Word and Baptism. But this was certainly a special circumstance, the conversion of St. Paul, a conversion recorded no less than three times in the book of Acts (cf. 22:1-21; 26:12-18). The account of Paul’s conversion is so important because it gives legitimacy to Paul’s apostleship. It shows that he was called directly by Jesus, as apostles always are, and that therefore Paul’s apostolic preaching and letters have all the authority of Jesus Christ. They are, in fact, the very Word of Christ, penned by inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

But notice now the similarities between Paul’s conversion and the way God always works to convert, to turn hearts away from sin and the desires of the flesh to a living faith in Jesus Christ and His salvation. To begin with, note very carefully that at no point does Saul the Pharisee and persecutor of the Church of Jesus Christ choose to believe in Jesus and become His apostle. Until Jesus acts upon him, Saul is out to arrest and kill Christians. Until Jesus acts upon him, Saul hates Jesus Christ, His Word, and the baptized who bear His Name. This teaches us, dear brothers and sisters, that until God acts, until God does the converting, until God sends us His Holy Spirit, we have no freedom of the will to choose Jesus Christ. Our wills are bound. What I mean by that is that we can only choose against God, never for Him. We can only choose unbelief, never faith. We can only choose sin, never righteousness. We always think we have a free choice, but we are deluded. In reality, we are slaves of sin. Satan is our master. He possesses us wholly. And there is nothing we can do to free ourselves. Remember that each one of us is born spiritually blind, dead, and enemies of God. We are blind, which means that we cannot see or discern the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to us (1 Cor. 2:14). We are dead. St. Paul writes, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked” (Eph. 2:1-2). What can a dead man do to raise himself out of death? Clearly nothing! What kind of decision can a dead man make for himself? If I were to say to a dead man, “I’m going to Starbucks. Would you like a double-short latte, or a triple-tall?” what kind of response would I get from the dead man?[1] If we are born spiritually dead, you see how ridiculous it would be to attribute to ourselves any sort of “decision for Jesus.” And then there is the matter of our hatred for God. St. Paul writes, “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Rom. 8:7). Until God acts to convert us, we actually hate God. That is to say that while we may be amenable to the idea of God, we want to fashion Him in our own image, not be fashioned in His image. We want a god of our own making, who operates the way we think he ought to operate. That is why there are so many religions in the world. Human beings, by nature, hate the one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as He has revealed Himself to us in His Word. He’s not politically correct. He declares that He alone has a corner on the truth. He is adamant that He gets to decide what is right and what is wrong. He always insists on all the credit for our salvation. He gives us none of the glory. That’s not a God we can, in our fallen nature, accept.

And that is why Saul must persecute Jesus and His Church. He cannot do otherwise. His will is bound. That is, until Jesus acts. Jesus makes His decision for you. Conversion begins, is carried out, and has its completion in God. It is God’s initiative, not yours. But this is where we see, by the power of the Holy Spirit who heals our blindness, that our salvation really is by grace alone without works, not even the work of some sort of choice on our part to believe, or even some sort of willingness on our part to believe. God does it all. He gives us sight. He brings us to new life. He makes peace with us. It is all by grace, without any merit or worthiness in us. It is all because God loves us, because He gave His only Son for us to be crucified for our sins, to be raised for our justification, who now sits at the right hand of God and intercedes for us, and rules His Church and the entire universe, in fact, for our benefit, for our salvation. The Holy Spirit does the converting. He calls us by the Gospel. He enlightens us with His gifts. He sanctifies and keeps us in the one true faith of Jesus Christ. Conversion, and perseverance in the faith for that matter, is His work. Saul did nothing in terms of coming to faith in Jesus Christ. And neither did you. God took you, just as unworthy and despicable as Saul, and gave you new life in Christ Jesus, gave you His Holy Spirit, gave you saving faith.

But if there isn’t a blinding light or a voice from heaven when we are converted, how exactly does God accomplish all of this in us? He does it in His Word and Sacraments, the means of grace. He does it through preaching and Scripture reading and Holy Absolution. He does it as His Word becomes a part of you when it is put on your lips in the liturgy. He does it particularly in Baptism, where He brings even little infants to faith. We’ll come back to that in just a moment. He continually creates and strengthens your faith in the Supper of His body and blood. Now this may not seem spectacular. But if you believe the Word of God has the power to do what it says, and if your eyes have been opened by the Holy Spirit, you can see that there is nothing more spectacular in the whole world. The water in the font this morning is just ordinary water, but when it is combined with God’s Word it becomes a Baptism, that is, a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit (cf. Titus 3:5-8). Through this Baptism God saves us (1 Pet. 3:21). He washes away our sins, brings us to faith, gives us His Spirit, covers us with Christ’s righteousness, gives us all the benefits of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and makes us God’s own children. Through Baptism we enter the community of believers that is the Holy Church, and are called to Jesus’ Table where He gives us His true body and blood under the forms of bread and wine for the forgiveness of our sins. Again, if your eyes have been opened by the Holy Spirit, you see that it must be so, that there must be more than just bread and wine in this meal, because the Word of God says so. Spectacular! Really, just as spectacular as the conversion of St. Paul. And even with St. Paul, though his conversion had many spectacular features like blinding light and the voice of Jesus from heaven… even St. Paul was ultimately converted by the Word and by Baptism. Paul knew the Scriptures of the Old Testament quite well as a Pharisee. They had been working in his mind and heart from infancy, preparing him for the day of his conversion. And the voice of Jesus was, of course, the Word of Jesus. So also, Ananias was instructed to baptize Paul. Using water, Ananias baptized Paul in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Which brings us to what we witnessed here this morning. Titus Ruben Baier was baptized with water in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. God converted Titus before our very eyes. Titus was given faith in his Lord Jesus. Remember, faith is not intellectual knowledge or the ability to confess that faith, although these things are fruits of faith later on. Faith is simply trust in Jesus Christ. Just as Titus trusts his mother and father, so now he trusts Jesus. He’s been given the Holy Spirit. He’s been given faith as a gift. He’s been baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. All his sins have been washed away, original sin and actual sins. He’s been cleansed. His eyes have been opened. He’s no longer blind. He’s been given new life. He’s no longer dead. He’s been made God’s own child. Now he loves God, because God first loved him. This conversion is all God’s work, His gift in Christ Jesus.

It is an old Christian tradition, rarely observed these days, of naming a child after the saint whose feast falls closest to the day of the child’s baptism. Tomorrow is the feast of St. Titus, Pastor and Confessor. I don’t know if Jeremy and Megan planned it that way, or not. St. Paul was St. Titus’ father in the faith (Titus 1:4). There is even a letter of Paul to Pastor Titus in the New Testament. How appropriate, therefore, that on this day of the Conversion of St. Paul, one day before the feast of St. Titus, we celebrate the Baptism and conversion of little Titus Ruben. May God grant to Titus Ruben, and to all of us here this morning, the same blessing He gave to St. Titus and St. Paul, that we persevere in the one true faith of Jesus Christ unto life everlasting. This is, after all, God’s doing. And I am convinced that He who began this good work in us, and in Titus Ruben, will bring it to completion at the Day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6). In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Many thanks to the Rev. Ernie Lassman, Messiah Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington, for this illustration.

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