“In giving his son he was giving himself. This being so, it is the Judge himself who in holy love assumed the role of the innocent victim, for in and through the person of his Son he himself bore the penalty which he himself inflicted.”1 The apostle Paul makes this point with the following: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
How do you adequately describe what the apostle describes as God’s “inexpressible, unspeakable, indescribable, gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15). “This gift too wonderful for words” (nlt); “No language can praise it enough!” (msg); “This gift which is beyond all praise!” (reb). God’s gift of Christ is the truth that compelled me to become a Christian. Christ crucified is the truth that compels me to hold to my faith in Christ. The sacrifice of Christ is the truth that urges me on to live for Christ. “For the love of Christ controls us once we have reached the conclusion that one man died for all” (2 Corinthians 5:14 reb). “The love of Christ controls us, urges us on, impels us, compels us.” “We are ruled by Christ’s love.” So the various translations help us hear the force of Paul’s words. Phillips paraphrases, “The very spring of our actions is the love of Christ” (jbp).
Consider the story of the apostle Paul. We are introduced to Paul as Saul of the city of Tarsus. Saul was driven by his faith in and zeal for God, both built on a Pharisaic understanding of the Law of Moses. He was highly educated. Saul was passionate about his faith. Convinced Jesus of Nazareth was a pretender and a blasphemer of God, Saul led a fierce persecution of the followers of Jesus. His goal was to wipe out the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Paul later described his pre-Christian life in texts such as 1 Timothy 1:13; Galatians 1:13-17; Philippians 3:5-6; Acts 22:3-4. In Acts 26:9-11 he speaks about the persecution he led against Christians.
“I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.”
In Acts 7:58 Luke introduces us to Saul as a young man, sitting and watching with approval the stoning of Stephen, a disciple of Christ. “And Saul approved of his [Stephen’s] execution….But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison (Acts 8:1, 3).
Likely you know the story. Saul the persecutor of Christians, the zealous young Pharisee defending the faith against the heretic and blasphemer Jesus of Nazareth became a Christian and an apostle. The persecutor became the persecuted! The fervent and zealous unbeliever became a believer!
“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest” (Acts 9:1). He asked for permission to go to Damascus to seek out and arrest disciples of Jesus. On the road to Damascus, as he was traveling with the intention of persecuting Christians, Jesus Christ appeared to and spoke to him. Saul was blinded. He did not know who was speaking to him. “And (Saul) said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And (Jesus) said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’” (Acts 9:5). Jesus told Saul to go to Damascus where he would be told what he was to do. “And for three days (Saul) was without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (Acts 9:9).
I have to ask, what was Saul doing as he sat alone, blind, and fasting for three days? Luke tells us Saul was praying. He also had a vision and was told a man named Ananias was coming to lay hands on him and restore his sight (Acts 9:11-12). Saul is blind, alone, praying, for three days. What is going on in his mind and heart?
Saul was convinced Jesus was dead and in the grave. Up to now he was certain Jesus was a liar, a blasphemer, and certainly not the Son of God. He had zealously given his life to persecuting the followers of Jesus, seeking to end this blasphemous sect. “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:13-14).
Here he is now confronted by the resurrected Jesus, contradicting everything he believed from Scripture, from tradition, from his education at the feet of the great rabbi, Gamaliel. A person does not forsake such an imbedded conviction in an instant. I have to conclude Saul was in a heart wrenching and soul wrenching struggle. During those three days of darkness, fasting, and praying he was humbling himself before God. Saul must have been fervently wrestling with what he had so fervently believed and the faith to which the resurrected Jesus was calling him. He reached the conclusion that Jesus was indeed the Christ. Jesus was one man who died for all. God was calling Saul to submit to the gospel of Jesus Christ, to submit to Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, and to surrender his life to God through Jesus Christ, not through Moses or the traditions of his fathers. Saul had a choice to make.
Looking back, the apostle Paul described the decision he made. “But whatever gain I had [from his faith and life as a Pharisee], I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith–that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:7-11).
For Saul of Tarsus becoming a Christian was more than learning the “steps of salvation,” hear, believe, confess, repent, be baptized. The metaphor is a simple way to remember faith’s response to the gospel. Unfortunately the “steps of salvation” often has turned into a check list without realizing the life changing impact of placing one’s faith in Jesus Christ. For Saul of Tarsus coming to faith in Jesus as Christ was more than obeying the right rules. It was more than getting into the right church. Faith in Jesus as Christ was more than the correct form of baptism.
Saul coming to faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, was a decision of the heart. His was a difficult choice of leaving behind what he had been taught all his life, totally reversing what he believed, forsaking that to which he had so passionately committed his life. Saul placing faith in Jesus Christ was a surrender of his heart, mind, soul, and life to Jesus Christ. Placing faith in Jesus as the Son of God was a commitment of his life to Christ.
“For the love of Christ controls (compels) us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15). “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). “Crucified” is a horrifying metaphor of being saved in Christ, of becoming a child of God. How powerfully it pictures the decision of the heart, the surrender of the heart, mind, soul, and life, the commitment of life to Christ that is the choice of becoming a Christian.
Perhaps for most who read this the choice to become a Christian was mostly a matter of accepting what we had known and were taught all of our lives. Others, having believed in Christ, made a choice concerning what was a fuller understanding of Scripture, for example of the meaning and significance of baptism. In the context of most of our lives few of us likely faced the type of struggle and the difficult choice Saul, and so many of the early Christian converts, had to make. This is why it is important for us to remember for ourselves and when teaching others, that to answer the call of Christ in the gospel is much more than taking some steps on a list or obeying the right rules.
Becoming a Christian, placing faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, and allowing oneself to be baptized in the name of Jesus, is a decision of the heart, a choice between self and Christ. Placing faith in Jesus Christ is a surrender of the heart, mind, soul, and life to God in Christ. Faith in Christ is a commitment of life, of body, heart, and mind, to Christ. “And he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:15).
How do you adequately describe what the apostle describes as God’s “inexpressible, unspeakable, indescribable, gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15)? “This gift too wonderful for words” (nlt); “No language can praise it enough!” (msg); “This gift which is beyond all praise!” (reb)?
How do you respond to God’s inexpressible, unspeakable, and indescribable love in Jesus Christ? Saul of Tarsus responded with the surrender of his heart, mind, and life to Christ.
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).
1John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 159.