The Christian Experience of Paul
April 29th, 1979 @ 10:50 AM
THE CHRISTIAN EXPERIENCE OF PAUL
Dr. W. A. Criswell
4-29-79 10:50 a.m.
It is a privilege and a gladness on our part to welcome the uncounted thousands and thousands of you who share this hour with us on television and on radio. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled Paul’s Christian Experience, the Christian importance of the apostle Paul.
In our preaching through the Book of Acts, we are in chapter 26 [Acts 26]. And this is the third time in this book that the conversion of Saul of Tarsus is recounted. And beginning at verse 15 [Acts 26:15]:
He said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.
But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a witness.
Wherefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision:
But showed first unto them in Damascus, then in Jerusalem, and then throughout all of the regions of Judea, and finally to the people of the world, to the nations, that they should repent and turn to God.
[Acts 26:15, 16, 19, 20]
Three times, as I said, in the Book of Acts is the conversion of Paul described. One time by Luke when he recounts it as a historical fact in the ninth chapter of this Book of Acts [Acts 9:1-18]. Then in the twenty-second chapter of the Book of Acts, Paul is standing on the steps of the tower of Antonio, which overlooked the temple court. And to a maddening throng before him that was seeking his life, in the Hebrew tongue [Acts 22:2], he told of his dramatic conversion [Acts 22:6-16]. Then the third time is here in the twenty-sixth chapter of the Book of Acts [Acts 26:12-20]. Festus, the Roman procurator of Judea, has invited Herod Agrippa II and his sister to sit with him on the raised dias [Acts 25:13, 23]. And as Paul stands a prisoner of Christ on the pavement below, he speaks the defense of his life, and recounts his glorious conversion to the Christian faith [Acts 26:1-20].
Now what I have done in the message this morning is to take all three of them, because each one will present a facet of that Christian experience that the other may omit. I have taken all three of them together. And we are recounting the Christian experience of Paul, which is our experience, if we know the Lord.
First: any Christian experience as his, any conversion to Christ as his, begins in a witness to the Lord by somebody else. In the case of the apostle Paul, it was Stephen, God’s first martyr. Years later, speaking here before that maddened throng, above the temple court on the steps of Antonia, toward the close of his life, Paul refers to Stephen in these words: “And when the blood of thy martyr Stephen was shed, I was standing by, and consenting unto his death, and kept the raiment of them that slew him” [Acts 22:20]. “I presided over that vicious and violent execution.” The conversion of the apostle Paul began in the personal witness of Stephen [Acts 7:1-53], God’s deacon and faithful martyr [Acts 7:54-60].
In the seventh chapter of the Book of Acts is recounted the address of Stephen before the synagogue of the Cilicians [Acts 7:2-53]. Luke wrote that. How did Luke, years and years later, recount every syllable that Stephen had said, as he testified to the truth of the grace of God in the Lord Jesus? The reason is very obvious. Seated there, in that synagogue of Cilicians, was Saul of Tarsus [Acts 7:58], and every word of that witness of Stephen burned like a fire in his soul. And that’s what the Lord meant when appearing to Saul on the road to Damascus, He said: “It is hard for you to kick against the pricks” [Acts 9:5]. The message of Stephen had entered his soul. And the martyrdom of Stephen was unlike any death Saul had ever seen. And the appeal and the striking power of the evidence and the witness of Stephen found repercussion in the soul of the persecuting Saul. And try as he might, he couldn’t drown out of his memory, of his thinking, even of his sleeping, the marvelous glory of the power of Christ that he heard in the voice of Stephen, and that he saw in his face when he died [Acts 7:58-60].
First: always a conversion is the result of somebody’s witness: in the case of Saul of Tarsus, Stephen, God’s first martyr. In our lives, it is always somebody remembered fondly and dearly. There is no such thing as anyone ever being saved without first that personal witness. It may be your mother, or your father, or your family, or the Sunday school teacher, or the pastor of the church, or a friend and neighbor; but always the Christian experience begins in a personal witness. Somebody tells us about the Lord, and whoever that somebody is, they are endeared to us forever.
Second: in the experience of the apostle Paul: after the witness, his conversion, his turning; in the ninth chapter of the Book of Acts, “And Saul, trembling and astonished said: Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” [Acts 9:6]. Heretofore, a burning fanatic and persecutor [Acts 8:3, 9:1-2; Galatians 1:13], now a humble suppliant, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” [Acts 9:6]. He is a changed somebody. He is a new creation. He is a man now in obedience, in humble submission and surrender to the Lord Jesus our Christ.
So it is in every life. There is a time in our lives when we consciously, volitionally, statedly accepted the Lord as our Savior. We were going in this direction, then we turned. We were thinking these thoughts for ourselves, then we begin to think God’s thoughts for Him. All of us have experienced that day, that moment, that hour in our lives when statedly and consciously, we have given our hearts to the Lord Jesus. A conversion, a regeneration. A saving of our souls. And that conversion experience always comes in a volitional decision. “I have decided for God” [Romans 10:8-13].
Often times, a man to whom I’m making appeal for the Lord will say to me, “But I don’t have any feeling. I’m waiting for a great feeling. And until I have that tremendous feeling, I’m not going to confess my faith in Christ.” That’s one of the strangest reactions that I could imagine as a man faces the call of God. “I am waiting for a great feeling.” You see, it would be impossible for a man to say, “I give my life in trust to the Lord,” and he come down an aisle and before angels and men confess that faith in Jesus, then according to the commandment of our Savior, he follow the Lord in baptism, then he face every future day, all the rest of his life in Christ; that a man could do that and have no feelings. It’s impossible. When a man faces God and give his life to Christ, confesses Him, is baptized, follows in the pilgrim way, he will have feelings every step of the way. And our emotional make up, shapes the response that we make.
Some of us like me, some of us weep. When I’m deeply moved, I cry. When I am wonderfully happy and glad, I cry. When I am deeply saddened, I cry. That’s just my makeup. Some people are just the opposite of that. When they are deeply moved, they will laugh, or they will show expressions of rejoicing and gladness. Some people are sort of stoic in their lives and they hardly show emotion. But the feeling and the emotion is not the conversion. It is not the committal. It is not the regeneration. The conversion comes in a great volitional act; I decide for Christ [Romans 10:8-13].
I am not saved in my head because I may have gone to school. I am not saved in my feelings. Feelings can be graphed. They rise up and down. And if you tie your conversion to your feelings, they will drag you to death. A man is converted in a great avowal; a tremendous decision. God said so! “Whosoever will, let him come, take the water of life freely” [Revelation 22:17]. “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” [Acts 9:6]. And when a man decides for God, he decides for Christ: “I have resolved to give my heart in trust to Him.” That is the man’s conversion. We are saved in our wills, in a great decision that we make for our Lord; in a tremendous commitment. “I have decided for Jesus.”
The third in the tremendous experience of the apostle Paul, third: he is admonished to follow the Savior in baptism [Matthew 3:13-17; Acts 22:16]. And there is no such thing as an unbaptized Christian. It just isn’t. It never was. It never will be. There is no such thing in the Bible as a believer unbaptized. It just isn’t.
Here in the twenty-second chapter of the Book of Acts, as Paul describes his conversion, that glorious Lord who appeared to him, told him to go into Damascus and there it should be told him what he should do [Acts 22:10]. And the Lord prepared a godly Christian saint by the name of Ananias. And Ananias, who lived on street called Straight, prayed for the Saul of Tarsus who was brought to him, led by the hand, blinded by the glory of that light of the appearance of Christ [Acts 22:11]. Ananias prayed for him. And when the eyes of the apostle were restored [Acts 22:12-13], Ananias said to him: “And now, why tarriest thou? Arise, and be baptized, and wash thy sins away, calling on the name of the Lord” [Acts 22:16].
Always that follows. There is no exception but that, that follows. The man who says, “I believe in the Lord Jesus as my Savior,” and is not baptized, has not believed in the Lord Jesus as his Savior. The man who says, “I received Christ,” but he does not follow the Lord in baptism, has not received Christ. The man who says, “I am a Christian, I’ve been saved,” but he has not been baptized, he is not a Christian and he has not been saved. There is no such thing in the Word of God as an unbaptized believer; an unbaptized Christian. It is not. I don’t invent this message. These things are not things that I think up. I am but an echo. I am but a voice. All I do is read that Book and declare what the Word of God has said. And that is the Word of the Lord. “Why tarriest thou? Arise, and be baptized, and wash thy sins away, calling on the name of the Lord” [Acts 22:16]. The first thing, absolutely the first thing, that a man feels in his soul, desires in his heart, when he’s saved is this, “I want to be baptized.”
You have a dramatic and a magnificently impressive illustration of that in the eighth chapter of the Book of Acts. Philip, Stephen’s fellow deacon and now an evangelist, Philip is told by the Lord to go down into the desert and standing by the road, he learns God’s reason for the mandate. The treasurer of Ethiopia is driving by with his chariot. And in Jerusalem, the Ethiopian treasurer has found a copy, a scroll of Isaiah, and he’s reading it out loud [Acts 8:26-28]. Always the Word of God is written to be read out loud; always. No part of it was written for any other reason except to be read out loud; all of it to be read aloud. When we read aloud the Word of God, we’re doing exactly what God wrote it for, to be read aloud.
And he was there in his chariot reading aloud the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah. And as Philip walked along, he heard him read it. And he said, “Do you understand it?” [Acts 8:30]. And he replied, the eunuch replied, “I do not. Who is this One who is bruised for our transgressions and by whose stripes we are healed?” [Isaiah 53:5, Acts 8:34]. So he desired Philip to come and sit with him in the chariot [Acts 8:31]. “And Philip began at the same Scripture, and preached unto him Jesus” [Acts 8:35]. All the Word of God points to Jesus, God’s Son. “And as they went on their way they came unto a certain water,” in the desert somewhere a pool of water. And the eunuch said to Philip: “Look, here is water; I want to be baptized, what doth hinder me to be baptized?” [Acts 8:36].
The first thing in a child of God’s heart who’s found the Lord, “I want to be baptized.” And Philip said: “If you believe with all of your heart you may.” And he replied: “I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the Savior of the world, and my own Savior” [Acts 8:37]. Then he commanded the chariot to stand still: then they both went down into the water: and then he baptized him [Acts 8:38]. “And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord took away Philip,” to his next assignment, “and that Ethiopian treasurer went on his way rejoicing” [Acts 8:39]. Always that! No exception to that. Upon a public confession of faith, “I want to be baptized.” It is a part of how you’ll do when you have met Jesus as your Lord.
Could I parenthesize here for just a moment on the meaning of that text? “And now why tarriest thou? Arise, and be baptized, and wash thy sins away, calling on the name of the Lord” [Acts 22:16]. There are people who read that text and say, “In baptism our sins are washed away. Arise, be baptized, and wash thy sins away.” So they say in the water of baptism our sins are washed away. Oh, no, it isn’t in the text! That’s not in the Bible. The Bible plainly tells us, such as in 1 John 1:7: “And the blood of Jesus Christ . . . cleanseth us from all sin.” Our sins are washed away; the stain of iniquity is taken out of our souls in the atoning blood of Christ. It is a spiritual thing. It is something God does for us. I can baptize you, a man can baptize you, but a man can’t wash your sins away . And there is no power in water to wash the stain of sin out of our souls.
What is this then? Baptism and its purpose? It is plain. “Why tarriest thou? Arise, and be baptized.” Next clause: “And wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord” [Acts 22:16]. Don’t put that to the previous clause: “Arise, be baptized, and wash thy sins away.” It doesn’t belong that way. It is not written that way; not in Greek, not even in the English translation. The word is: “Arise, and be baptized.” Then the next clause. “And wash thy sins away, calling upon the name of the Lord” [Acts 22:16]. Our sins are washed away in our calling upon the name of the Lord. It is Jesus who washes our sins away [1 John 1:7; Revelation 1:5], and our baptism is a public confession of that cleansing in the blood of our Savior.
And that is a part of God’s great mandate for us. Listen to the Word of the Lord, Romans 10:9-10: “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth Jesus is Lord, and believe in thine heart that God raised Him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart one believest unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” That confession is a vital part of our commitment to Christ. And that confession is most dramatically and beautifully, significantly and meaningfully expressed in my being baptized.
Before the world, before God and His people, I follow the Lord in baptism [Matthew 3:13-17]. It is an open and public avowal that we have put on Jesus; we are dead to the world and buried with Christ, and we are raised with our Lord in the likeness of His incomparable resurrection, and we walk in the fullness and glory of a new life in Him [Romans 6:3-5]. That is always the meaning of baptism. It’s like a soldier that has volunteered for his country and he puts on the uniform of America. Baptism is like putting on the uniform of Jesus Christ. I have been baptized into Him. I have been baptized into the body of our Lord. I have been baptized into the fellowship of the grace and glory of Jesus my Savior, and am now a member of the marching throngs, who face heavenward with Him. That’s what a man will want to do when he’s saved. “Here is water. I want to be baptized” [Acts 8:36]. And on that confession of faith, he follows the Lord through the waters of the Jordan [Acts 8:37-38]. Bless His name forever.
Number four: the Christian experience of the apostle Paul. Somebody witnessed: Stephen [Acts 7:1-53]. Somebody listened to that witness: Saul of Tarsus was wonderfully converted [Acts 9:3-18], immediately he was baptized upon that confession of faith [Acts 9:18, 22:16]. Number four: a concomitant, a corollary, a thing inwoven that always attends: “Rise, stand upon thy feet, for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a witness” [Acts 26:16]. A witness: always and without exception, that also is true. When I am saved, immediately God places in me a desire to, and if I am converted, a longing to be a witness for my Lord: loving to see other people saved; rejoicing to see them come to Jesus; taking a part, insofar as God gives me an open door—taking a part in that ministry of the Word; telling others about what Jesus means to me. If I don’t do that, if I don’t do that, it is questionable about whether I have really been regenerated or not. And certainly I am a disappointing and disobedient follower of the Lamb. I am to be a witness for the Lord. My soul would thrust me into such a harvest.
I think of those men of God: Jeremiah, in the twentieth chapter of his prophecy, Jeremiah writes that while he was delivering the word of the Lord, that Pashur, who headed the temple service, Pashur seized him and beat him and put him in the stocks; put him in stocks [Jeremiah 20:1-2]. And Jeremiah in that twentieth chapter, he says: “I am in derision daily. People come by and mock me, ridicule me [Jeremiah 20:7]. Then I said in my heart: I will not speak of Him any longer. I will not talk in His name or deliver His word.” Then Jeremiah writes: “But His word was in my soul as a burning fire in my bones. And I could not forebear” [Jeremiah 20:9]. How does a man who knows the Lord ever hide the fact that his trust is in Christ Jesus? How could he do it? How does he do it?
Take again, reading in the life of Amos. Amos was a country preacher, uneducated, unlearned. When he speaks, his very words smell of a fresh-turned furrow. And he’s now there in Bethel, in the court of Jeroboam II. And he is delivering the word of the Lord, and Amaziah the prelate stands before Amos to hush him [Amos 7:10-17]. Just one of the countless numbers of incidents in history where a legate of the state has sought to hush and to close the mouth of the prophet of God.
How much of history is just that. To take God’s servant, and sometimes they cut out their tongues, sometimes burn them at the stake, sometimes throw them into dungeons to rot, sometimes hang them from trees and galluses. So Amaziah stands and listens to Amos deliver the word of the Lord. And Amaziah goes to King Jeroboam II, and says: “The land cannot bear his words. Hush him! Stop him” [Amos 7:10]. Jeroboam says: “You stop him. You stop him.” So Amaziah comes before Amos, and he says to Amos: “You ignorant country preacher, you go back to Judea where you came from, and you testify and witness to them, but not here. For this is the king’s court, and this is the king’s chapel” [Amos 7:12-13].
Remember what Amos replied? He said to Amaziah the prelate of the prince, he said: “It is true that I am no prophet. And it is true I am no prophet’s son. I haven’t been to the seminary. I’m not a graduate of the schools. It is true that I am a herdsman, a teacher and a gatherer of sycamore fruit. But the Lord God took me from following the flock, and the Lord God said to me: Go prophesy to My people Israel [Amos 7:14-15]. The lion hath roared, who can but fear? The Lord God hath spoken, who can but prophesy?” [Amos 3:8].
Every child of God feels that in his heart. “I must speak. I cannot hold my words. I must witness. I must testify. I must share this wonderful testimony of the Lord.” That’s what it is to be saved.
This last week, I’ve been preaching in Alabama. And in one of the places, delivering an anniversary address at a Bible college in Birmingham, before the evening hour, I ate dinner with the president of the school and his family. And he was just talking about his students in a Bible college; most of them converted maybe in later life and coming there to prepare for a ministry for which they do not have opportunity to spend long years in college.
So he was telling me about a young fellow who had been wonderfully converted, just gloriously converted and so ebullient and happy in the Lord. And he said the young fellow was standing on the street corner there in Birmingham at a bus stop and while he was standing there at a bus stop, he was standing by the side of an older man. And he began talking to that older man. And as they talked, why, the young fellow who had just been saved and was so happy in the Lord; the young fellow finally said to the older man, “Are you a Christian? Have you been saved?” And the older man replied, “Yes, sir, I have been a Christian over forty years.” And the young fellow said, “Well, if you have been a Christian for over forty years, how come you didn’t ask me first whether I was saved or not?”
You know, I have been thinking about that ever since; just turning that over in my mind. “If you’ve been a Christian over forty years, how come you didn’t ask me first whether I was saved or not?” Ah, the indictment that we feel when we speak of a daily testimony for our blessed Lord. Dear people, right down there is a businessman. He’s in one of those tall buildings. And I was talking to him, visiting with him upon a day. And the man about whom our discussion fell is in heaven. He’s dead now.
But as I talked to that businessman, the question came up, a discussion came up with one of the men in our church. And I said to that businessman down there, I said, “This man is a deacon in our church. And he’s one of my Sunday school superintendents.” And the man expressed amazement and surprise. “What?” he said. “He’s a member of your church, and a deacon, and a Sunday school superintendent?” And the man said to me, “I have done business with him over twenty-five years. I had no idea he was a Christian, or that he belonged to your church, or that he was a deacon, or that he was a superintendant of a Sunday school department.” Twenty-five years to do business with a man and never say aught to him about the Lord. I don’t understand. And the older I get, and the more I’m involved in this pastoral work, the less I understand. To say something good for Jesus, to invite them to the Lord, is a precious privilege.
You know, I’ve started doing the craziest thing you ever heard of in your life. When I walk into that barbershop now, and I go there every other Monday—when I walk into that barbershop, and the thing is filled with people, I walk in and say, “We had a great day at the First Baptist Church yesterday! People were saved and God added to His people. It was just like heaven!” I walk in and making that announcement. And all of those people look at me. It’s just a sight. It’s just a sight. And always some of them start talking to me. Always some of them start talking to me personally, personally.
Why, yesterday on the plane coming back, coming back, I made some announcement to a fellow who came up and shook my hand. I made some announcement, where the whole plane could hear it, about what I was doing over there in Alabama, preaching the gospel, and how God was blessing me. And if there were a hundred passengers on the plane, and there was, all of them turned around and look at me, look at me. O Lord, just bless us and help us. And in some sweet and beautiful way, that all of us can do, inviting a group of people to your house for dinner, and inviting a fine Christian man and talk about the Lord.
In a million ways does God every day open doors for us to witness for Him. And when I’m saved, that’s what it is: just praying, “God save the whole world, starting here with me and that man, or that woman, or that child. That’s what it is. “Stand on thy feet where I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a witness” [Acts 26:16].
Our time is so rapidly escaping. The last, the Christian experience of the apostle Paul: it was a sacrificial commitment. “For I will show him, says the Lord, how great things he must suffer for My name’s sake. How great things he must suffer for My name’s sake” [Acts 9:16]. And isn’t that an unusual corollary; an unusual concomitant; an unusual following after? That a man, when he gives his heart to God, would carry with it a tremendous and costly commitment?
You know what I have learned? Let me give you a little rule, an unfailing rule. When you face a decision and the road constantly forks in our lives, down any avenue, it turns, it forks. And there are decisions and decisions and still decisions. Let me tell you a little rule. A little rule in life is this: if you don’t know the will of God and you’re seeking the will of the Lord, here’s the little rule. If it entails sacrifice, that’s where God is. If it’s at a cost, that’s the decision God would have you make. If it costs, if it’s at a sacrifice, that’s God. That’s God.
I can’t explain that. Why isn’t it God’s will that if I am saved, then I’m at ease in Zion; no work, no toil, no cost, no sacrifice. It isn’t that way. When I give my heart to God, immediately there is a great mandate and a great sacrifice. “I will show him how great things he must suffer for My name’s sake” [Acts 9:16].
As most of you know, when the Second World War broke out, I was at the very beginning of the height of my pastoral work. In the little city where I pastored before coming here, the United States Army built an enormous training base, a camp just outside the city. And there were more soldiers there than there were in the little city. And I just lived in those days; the confrontation of that Second World War.
In those days, I was told about a group of French soldiers who were standing in a station, waiting for the train to take them to the front. There was in the station a mother and a very young son, a youth, a teenager. And when the time came and the train rolled in, why, the mother fondly and dearly kissed that boy, saw him get on the train, and as the train pulled out of the station, why, the boy waved his handkerchief to his mother. And the mother had a little French flag in her hand, and she waved the little French flag to the boy until he went out of sight.
After the train had pulled out, and the boy had disappeared, the mother collapsed in the station. Like a wilted and crumpled flower, she just fell on the floor unconscious. Some of the few soldiers who remained in the station ran to her. One of them brought water, bathed her face. And as she slowly regained consciousness she began to sob. And slowly and sadly to say, “This war, oh, this terrible war. They took my husband and he’s killed. He’ll not come back. And then my eldest son and he’s been killed and he’ll not come back. And my other son, they took him. And for months he’s been away in the war. And now, my youngest boy, the widow’s staff, they have taken him.” And as she sobbed that sad, lonely, poignant hurting word, her eye happened to fall on the little French flag that had heedlessly fallen to her lap. When she saw it, her eyes blazed. She picked it up. She held it to the height of her arm and began to cry, “Vive, la France! Vive, la France!”
That is exactly what it is to belong to the family of God. We dedicate to the Lord our house and home. We dedicate to God our children, our boys and girls. We dedicate to God all that we have and are. That’s what it is to be a follower of the Lamb. “I will show him how great things he must suffer for My name’s sake” [Acts 9:16]. It is an ultimate and final commitment, everything we have and are. And that is the Lord’s invitation to us. “Come, take up your cross and follow Me” [Matthew 16:24].
“And Lord, having heard Thy voice, I answer with my life. To take Thee as my Savior, I do [Romans 10:8-13]. To make that great decision for Christ, I do. To follow Thee in baptism [Matthew 3:13-17], I will. To be numbered in the family of God’s redeemed people, I will. And to devote to Thee the issue of my heart and life, I do. And here I stand, so bless me and help me, Lord God.”
In a moment we stand to sing our hymn of appeal. And that is our invitation to your heart this precious morning hour. “Today I accept the Lord Jesus as my Savior [Romans 10:8-13]. This moment, I am coming forward publically to avow that commitment to Christ. I want to be baptized” [Acts 8:36]. Or, “I want to bring my family, and we are all going to be a part of the fellowship of this wonderful church” [Hebrews 10:24-25]. As God shall press the appeal to your heart, out of the balcony, you; in the throng on this lower floor, you; down a stairway, down an aisle, “I have decided for Christ, dear pastor, and I am on the way. Here I am.” Make the decision now in your heart, and when you stand up, stand up taking that first step. Angels in heaven, the Spirit of God will accompany you and bless you and strengthen you every step of the rest of the way. Do it now. Make it now. Come now, while we stand and while we sing.