Transforming Grace (Acts 9:10-31) | Jared Betts

The Demonstration of God’s Power

In our text today we see the power of God on full display, and if I were to ask you to describe for me what it is, what would your answer be?

There are probably some here that would draw our attention to Jesus’ ability to orchestrate the meeting of Ananias and Saul through visions. Others may point to God’s ability to strip Saul of His sight and then cause him to regain it at the appropriate time. Both of these certainly testify to God’s authority over His creation. Within the former example we see His providence at play, and within the latter we see His omnipotence. It is clear within these two events that all power and authority belong to Him both in heaven and on earth.[1]

May I, however, suggest that the greatest demonstration of God’s power in this text is not necessarily seen with His sovereign orchestration of events in order to achieve His purpose, or in His authority over His creation to manipulate it to His end. Rather, it is His taking a sinner whom He has saved by His grace and conforming them to His image for His glory. To put it simply, it is His power to transform a person.

Now, for some this does not seem like a very great and powerful work, and I believe that this is because we do not spend enough time considering our own depravity. Depravity being our moral corruption and wickedness. The predominant teaching of the world is that we are all inherently good and we all have the potential to be better people. Sadly, even among the Christian community this thinking has subtly gained ground in the minds of people and there are some who will acknowledge that they may not be the best of people, but they would neither go so far as to describe themselves as evil or wicked, nor believe themselves to be radically corrupted in body, soul, mind, and will. What they have done is departed from the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith regarding man’s depravity due to original sin.

The Scripture teaches that the human heart “is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?”[2] It teaches us that every intent of the thoughts of the human heart is continually evil from infancy.[3] Jesus said in Mark 7:20-23

20 That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. 21 For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, 22 deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. 23 All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”

There you have it! We are not inherently good. We are inherently evil. Our hearts are powerhouses of sin. This is what Paul concluded when he said of himself, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me.”[4] He said, “I find then the principle that evil is present in me.”[5] The reason that evil is present in us is because we are by nature children of wrath.[6] We are born sinners with sinful hearts. As David said, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.”[7] Romans 5:12 teaches us that we are born this way because we are all descendants of Adam:

“Just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.”

Humanity, in its fallen state, is enslaved to sin. Sin rules and reigns over the hearts and minds of men and women, which means that there is none good but God alone.[8]

We truly do not know the depths of our depravity and the extent of how evil our hearts are, for they are more deceitful than all else and desperately sick, who can understand them? If that is not bad enough, we need to understand that there is absolutely nothing we can do to change our own hearts. Outer moral reform is insufficient for the task. This means that we can do nothing outside of ourselves to alter its nature.

Consider Saul himself prior to his conversion. Pertaining to earthly standards, Saul was practically the pinnacle of perfection. He was, as he says of himself, “a Hebrew of Hebrews”. He followed every ritual, possessed the necessary birth rite, was of a respected tribe, held a high rank in society, was religious by every means, and was righteous by all outward appearances according to the law, yet none of this had any bearing on the condition of his heart.[9] Nothing good still dwelled in him. No matter how much outer moral reform had occurred, evil was still present.

Not only are our external attempts vain, but so are our internal ones. No amount of mental fortitude or emotional exercises can alter the nature of one’s heart. You cannot give yourself a new one. God asked this rhetorical question through the prophet in Jeremiah 13:23:

“Can the Ethiopian change his skin
Or the leopard his spots?
Then you also can do good
Who are accustomed to doing evil.”

The answer is obvious, “You cannot change yourself!”

We are all, therefore, wretched men and women in a pitiable state and in need of saving from our bodies of death. We need deliverance not only from sins penalty, which demands our eternal damnation, but also from sins power, which leads to our daily demise. Both redemption and transformation are our greatest needs, but neither are able to be obtained by our power.

The question is, who can save us from such a state? Who can deliver us from the punishment we rightly deserve, and liberate us from sins mastery? Who can set us free, and transform us? Who can give new hearts that earnestly seek after God causing our souls to thirst and yearn for Him, resulting in lives that conform to His glory? The answer is, Jesus Christ! Redemption and transformation come only through Him and His gospel.

The gospel promises to those who are in Christ through faith, not only that there is no more condemnation for them,[10] but that they are new beings. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says:

17 Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.”

He has begun a good work in them which He will perfect until He returns.[11]

2 Corinthians 4:16 tells us that those whom He graciously and sovereignly saves are “being renewed day by day.” To be renewed is to be changed into a new kind of life as opposed to the former corrupt state. It is to be transformed, which is to go beyond or across one form to another. 2 Corinthians 3:18 says:

18 But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.”

We know that radical transformation had occurred among the believers in Corinth when Paul says to them in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”

The believers had been transformed. They were not what they once were because of the power of Christ in them. They were changed into a new kind of life as opposed to the former corrupt state. They had taken on a completely different form.

Truly, the greatest demonstration of God’s power is not His ability to manipulate the natural realm in some way, but in His ability to give life to a person dead in sin and then conform them to His image. It is His power to transform into light those accustomed to darkness. It is His capacity to bring about in a person a new kind of life as opposed to their former corrupt state. It is God’s power to set a person free from their enslavement to sin, so that they might walk in the newness of His life being enslaved to Him.[12]

This is what we see in our text, the transforming grace and power of God. We see that Jesus Christ truly changes people. He makes new creatures with new affections. He radically transforms them, and this is beautifully observed in the life of Saul.

The Transforming Grace of God

Consider the picture Luke has painted for us of Saul prior to his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus:

  1. Saul was a hater of Christ and rejector of His gospel.

Saul was neither ignorant of Jesus, nor of the good news of His death, burial, resurrection being espoused by those of The Way. He knew the teaching of the gospel well and he hated it. He was in hearty agreement with putting to death a man who boldly, accurately, and clearly articulated its glorious truths.[13] He thought to himself that he had to do many things hostile to the name of Jesus of Nazareth, so he persecuted those who professed faith in Him.[14]

  • Saul was a ravager of the Christ’s bride.

Saul acted upon the thoughts and intents of his heart and persecuted the Way to death.[15] He was breathing threats and murder against the disciples.[16]

            In our previous text, we saw how Saul had set out for Damascus so that he might do even more harm to those belonging to The Way. Jesus, however, intercepts him on the road, appearing before him in a blinding light, and revealing to him that He is indeed the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that no one can come to the Father but through Him.[17]

On that road, Jesus Christ took the foremost of sinners and sovereignly saved him with His amazing grace. Metaphorically speaking, He gave him who was blind the eyes to see, and He gave him who was deaf the ears to hear, and He gave him who possessed a heart of stone a heart of flesh so that he might begin to love that which Christ loves and hate that which Christ hates. He proved through Saul that He is the One who makes people alive and He will not cast aside the vilest of people who humble themselves at the foot of His cross and lean upon Him for forgiveness and life.

            In our portion today, we see that those whom Christ calls and saves are also those whom He transforms. After his encounter with Jesus, Saul was no longer the man he once was. He was metamorphosed; that is to say that he was radically transformed by the power of God. He was like an ugly little caterpillar that formed a chrysalis, liquified within it, and came out on the other side completely different:

  1. Saul’s transformation was confirmed by Jesus.

After Jesus tells Saul to enter the city of Damascus and wait to be told what to do, Luke says in Acts 9:10:

Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias.”

Now, this is not Acts 5 Ananias resurrected from the grave in which Peter’s posse placed his dead body. This is a completely different person. Luke tells us that the Lord appeared to him in a vision saying to him:

“Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 And the Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight.” 

Ananias’ response is certainly not surprising:

13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Your saints at Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.” 

Ananias was no fool. Every believer was well aware of Saul’s onslaught of the church in Jerusalem after Stephen was stoned, and they were privy to why he was coming to Damascus. Ananias was most likely one of the men he was coming for, given that the Scripture refers to him elsewhere as a devout man who was well spoken of by all the Jews who lived in Damascus.[18] From his vantage point this was a suicidal operation that made little to no sense.

            Acts 9:15-16 says:

15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; 16 for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.” 

In other words, “Ananias, you do not need to be afraid of him for I have changed him. He is not what he once was. He is no longer Satan’s tool, he is a chosen instrument of Mine.” Christ assures Ananias that he has picked Saul out for Himself and intends to use him for His glory, which was to proclaim the name he once persecuted. He did not need to fear him, because Christ had transformed him. He was not what he once was.

Luke says this in the beginning of verse 17:

So Ananias departed and entered the house.”

This is true courage. True courage flows from one’s confidence in someone or something. A courageous person is not someone who lacks fear, but rather one who does not allow their fear to override their actions because they are confident in some known truth. Ananias obeyed because He was confident in Christ. He knew that Christ is faithful. He is worthy to be trusted and lived for. As the Psalmist says in Psalm 118:6, “The Lord is for me; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” Though the situation taught him to fear, Christ taught him to fear not because of His transforming work in Saul. Acts 9:17-19 says:

“17 So Ananias departed and entered the house and after laying his hands on him said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”18 And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized; 19 and he took food and was strengthened.”

  • Saul’s transformation was evident to those who knew him.

Acts 9:19-22 says:

“Now for several days he was with the disciples who were at Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 All those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, “Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” 22 But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ.

Saul was now a force to be reckoned with. The one who had determined to do many hostile things to the name of Jesus of Nazareth is now doing many things for Him. He is now a proclaimer of the faith he once persecuted with a passion. He is now propagating The Way he set out to destroy. This is radical transformation, and his former associates hate it. Acts 9:23 says:

23 When many days had elapsed, the Jews plotted together to do away with him.”

There is a reminder for us here, which is that conformity to Christ costs us. Jesus did not come to bring peace but a sword. Those transformed by Him experience relational loss. The more they conform to Him they greater the divide will occur among family, friends, and colleagues.

Those who desire to live godly in Him will suffer turmoil.

            Acts 9:24-25 says:

24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were also watching the gates day and night so that they might put him to death; 25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a large basket.”

Yes, there is loss with transformation, but there is also great gain with it and Saul experienced this. He lost old friends only to gain new ones. What was it that Jesus taught in Mark 10:29-30? He said:

“Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, 30 but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life.”

  • Saul’s transformation is seen by those he hated.

Acts 9:26-28

26 When he came to Jerusalem, he was trying to associate with the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple.27 But Barnabas took hold of him and brought him to the apostles and described to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had talked to him, and how at Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus.28 And he was with them, moving about freely in Jerusalem, speaking out boldly in the name of the Lord.”

Notice what Barnabas does here is testify to the transforming power of Christ in Saul. The disciples in Jerusalem thought he was attempting to deceive them in order to destroy them. Barnabas has but one aim, get them to see that Saul was not what he once was, and he was not what he once was because of Christ. The One who died, but now lives forevermore transformed him. He gave him a new heart with new affections. He renewed him.

The evidence that Saul was truly changed is seen, not simply in the fact he continued to suffer for Christ as we see in verse 29, but that:

31 The church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.”

It enjoyed peace because its persecutor had encountered the One who is not only merciful to save, but powerful enough to transform those who are trophies of His grace.

Be Transformed!

Through Saul, Christ show us He is able to save and transform the most deplorable of people through the message of Life. This is exactly what He has done with us. If He can do this work in you and me, then there is no person beyond His regenerating and transforming power.

An important question for us all to consider is this, is God demonstrating His power in us? Is He transforming you and me? Through our lives, does God prove to the people around us who are currently being ravaged by sins power and presence, and destined to be forever ruined for its penalty, that there is salvation for all who cling to Christ in faith? Do our lives not only prove to people that they can be saved from sins penalty and that they can be assured that one day God will save them from its very presence, but that they can be liberated from sins power over them? In other words, do we walk in the newness of life? Do our lives show that there truly is a newness of life to be had in Christ? Do they cry out that there is true healing for the spiritual maladies of man? Do we live lives radically transformed by the gospels power and message? Do we lead lives consistent with the gospel? Is His grace transforming you and me?

Understand the seriousness of a professing Christian leading an untransformed life:

  1. Their life inevitably undermines the gospels power and message and calls into questions Christ’s ability to save.

We profess to believe that Christ has saved us from sins penalty, and that He has saved us from sins power. We profess that He has made us new creatures which He is conforming to Himself and will one day glorify by saving us completely from sins presence. For a person to profess Christ but not be renewed is a failure to conform to Christ and a betrayal of their profession that Christ has called them to Himself and made them new.

  • Their not being transformed is an indication that they do not belong to Christ.

In other words, they are not saved but self-deceived. It is impossible for a person to have an encounter with Christ and remain unchanged. Understand that inner transformation of the heart always has outer effects. Those whom He begins a good work in, He will perfect. He will renew them day by day. If there is no renewal, there is no life.

Again, is His grace transforming you and me? Is He demonstrating His power through you by sanctifying you?

Maybe some of you look within yourself and conclude your being transformed to His image to be an impossibility. In a certain respect your conclusion is correct. With man it is impossible, but it is not an impossibility with Jesus Christ. All things are possible with Him.[19] Christ is the vine, we are the branches, and the Father is the vinedresser who prunes away the imperfections of His people so that they might bear more fruit.[20] We as branches do not produce the fruit. We merely bear the fruit the vine produces in us, for “the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine.”[21] True transformation is, therefore, impossible apart from Christ, for as He says, “Apart from Me you can do nothing.”[22] This means that with Christ, we can do all things through Him who gives us strength.[23]

By His grace and power, true transformation can be a reality for all who are in Christ! One can truly be changed into a new kind of person as opposed to their former corrupt state. Peter tells us that God’s divine power has granted us everything pertaining to life and godliness.[24] In other words, He has graciously given us the very means to be transformed:

  1. We have His living and active Word.

If you want a renewed life, you need a renewed mind. The Scripture repeatedly commands this. According to Colossians 3:10 we are to put aside the old self and:

10 Put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him—”

Most of us are familiar with Paul’s words in Romans 12:2:

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Ephesians 4:22-24 says:

22 that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, 23 and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.”

In order for your mind to be renewed, you need your mind to be sanctified in the truth, which is exactly what Jesus prayed for His people before He vicariously died for their sin and victoriously rose again on their behalf. In John 17:17 He said to the Father, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.”

If you want a renewed life, you need a renewed mind; and if you want a renewed mind, you need one that is set apart in the study of the truth of the Scripture.[25] Jesus said that man cannot live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.[26] Study His all sufficient word which is enough to teach you all matters pertaining to life and godliness, and let it richly dwell within you in understanding, and through you in application.

  • We have His Spirit.

The Spirit was given to us so that we might not do the things that we please.[27]

The Spirit is the Helper. He does what He came to do, and teaches our hearts the beautiful truths of Christ. As Jesus said in John 16:14:

“He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you.”

He convicts us of our sin, brings to bear upon our hearts and minds the reality of Christ’s suffering for our sin and intercession as our High Priest, and then gives us the strength to put such sin to death.[28]

The Spirit is the sanctifying agent within us who prods us on to further conformity to Christ. Paul told the Colossians that he strove according to God’s power which mightily worked within him.[29] We are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling knowing that God is at work in us both to will and to work for His good pleasure.[30]

  • We have the Son.

One cannot be transformed into His likeness if they do not know His appearance. We must, therefore, turn our gaze to Him as He has revealed Himself in His Word, and purify ourselves just as He is pure.[31] As the author of Hebrews says:

“Let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”[32]

My desire and prayer for you all is found in the Apostle Paul’s prayer for the believers in Colossae and Ephesus, which is that:

“The eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe.”[33]

My desire and prayer is:

“That you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; 11 strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might.”[34]

It is:

16 that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.”[35]

It is that you would be transformed by His grace and for His glory! As Paul goes on to say:

20 Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, 21 to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.”[36]

[1] Matthew 28:18

[2] Jeremiah 17:9

[3] Genesis 6:5; 8:21

[4] Romans 7:18

[5] Romans 7:21

[6] Ephesians 2:3

[7] Psalm 51:5

[8] Mark 10:18; Romans 3:10-12

[9] Philippians

[10] Romans 8:1

[11] Philippians 1:6

[12] Romans 6:1-22

[13] Acts 8:1

[14] Acts 26:9

[15] Acts 22:4

[16] Acts 9:1

[17] John 14:6

[18] Acts 22:5

[19] Matthew 19:6

[20] John 15:1-2

[21] John 15:4

[22] John 15:5

[23] Philippians 4:13

[24] 2 Peter 1:3

[25] 2 Timothy 2:15

[26] Matthew 4:4

[27] Galatians 5:17

[28] Romans 13:8

[29] Colossians 1:28-29

[30] Philippians 2:12-13

[31] 1 John 3:3

[32] Hebrews 12:1-3

[33] Ephesians 1:18-19

[34] Colossians 1:9-11

[35] Ephesians 3:16-19

[36] Ephesians 3:20

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