Hell is a place of gnashing of teeth
There is no more surprising conversion than Saul of Tarsus. He changes from a creature with tireless zeal to persecute the church to a man whose ministry had more far-reaching effects than any other in Christian history.
The apostle Paul will later describe his pre-conversion nature as one of “raging fury” against Christians. He had a hellish disposition. Jesus taught that hell is a place of gnashing of teeth and darkness. Saul is described this way. In Acts 8:3, he was “ravaging the church,” an expression of a wild beast tearing a body apart.
In Acts 9:1, he is “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” After he is converted, “something like scales fell from his eyes,” indicating that he was a man who was blind to the spiritual life of God (verse 18).
Sin gives us a taste of hell. All men suppress the truth of God in order to protect their sin, whether it is vanity, immorality, or anything in between. Saul attacked the church because it proclaimed the truth of God, and commanded people they must repent. This message was good news because for Saul because he was headed for destruction, but it meant he was wrong about how he was living.
He was a legalist, and that spirit boasts in its own righteousness. It generates more anger, more indignation toward God and men. Jesus said the converts of the Pharisees were made twice more the children of hell as a result of the teaching they received. And Saul was the most dedicated Pharisee.
But the Lord was gracious to Saul. The conversion of Saul encourages the worst sinner that Christ is sufficient for you. Paul will say that he is a standing example of mercy to the worst of sinners (1Timothy 1:16). It is the kindness of God that leads you to repentance and life in Christ.
When we look at Paul’s conversion, we should remember that people come to know Christ in different ways. Timothy grew up learning of Christ from his mother and grandmother. The Ethiopian eunuch was unexpectedly joined by Philip to point him to Christ. The Samaritans disliked Jews, but a Jewish man brought the gospel to them, and many were converted.
What is true of every Christian is that the best providence in their lives is that by which God brings the gospel to them, and they hear and believe. John Flavel wrote of conversion: “In nothing does providence shine forth more gloriously. You are more beholden to him for this than for all of your other mercies. I cannot but think that your heart must be deeply affected by the thought of it. It is certainly the sweetest history ever told.”
Saul was interrupted in his path to destruction by the light of Christ. As the light from heaven shone around the shepherds at Christ’s birth, so the light suddenly shone around Saul, knocking him to the ground (Acts 9:3). An element of conversion is that the Spirt of God enlightens the mind to knowledge of Christ.
In 2nd Corinthians 4, Paul equates the conversion of a soul to the work of God in creation: “God said ‘Let there be light’, or ‘Let light shine out of darkness.’ This light will promote the exaltation of Christ, his person and work. His place in our heart will correspond to how we see his exaltation.
This soon became evident in Saul. Already he begins to pray to Christ. When the Lord tells his servant Ananias to go and seek Saul, Ananias is hesitant because he is all too familiar with the murderous ambitions of Saul. But the Lord said of Saul, “Behold he prays (verse 11).” Charles Spurgeon wrote one of his most well-known sermons on this verse about genuine prayer.
Saul went from desires to persecute Christ to praying in his name. Saul, as a Pharisee, would have prayed for hours a day. Pharisees were exceedingly disciplined in knowing the Scriptures and practicing all the spiritual disciplines such as praying. But legitimate prayer is only through Christ. He alone gives us access to the throne of God.
Now instead of being a child of destruction, Saul is a child of God. He no longer had hateful desires, but his soul thirsted after the living God. What he did, he now did in view of the mercies of God. Paul would say, “The life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
The Rev. Chris Shelton is the pastor of The First Presbyterian Church of Union.