But they had heard only, That he which persecuted us in times past now preaches the faith which once he destroyed.
As Gentiles by birth, we have peculiar interest in all that relates to St. Paul, not only in his conversion, as on this day commemorated by the Church, but generally, as sinners, we may often recur to this conversion, and derive from it instruction and encouragement. If there were such longsuffering on the part of the Redeemer, that He bore with a man who thirsted for the blood of the saints, and in place of visiting him with vengeance, constrained him by His grace to accept salvation through His death; who can ever have right to think his own case hopeless, and suppose himself beyond the reach of forgiveness? Now, we know of St. Paul that he sinned in ignorance, and that whilst persecuting the Church of .God, and endeavouring to exterminate Christianity, he evidently thought that he was doing God service. He had been educated in the strictest forms of the Jewish religion; and felt a zeal for the law of Moses, whose authority he thought attacked by the followers of Jesus; and he regarded it as a most solemn duty to strive by every means to eradicate the rising superstition. Hence, it becomes a grave question how far this ignorance was an excuse for his crime — how far, that is, it can be taken as a palliation of doing wrong that a man suppose himself doing right. We certainly cannot admit that St. Paul was not to blame, because he all along obeyed the dictates of his conscience. It is clear that the apostle did not regard himself as, on this account, innocent, for he speaks of himself in the days of his unbelief, in terms which strongly mark a sense of the guiltiness of his conduct. St. Paul was answerable for cherishing such a blind and bigoted attachment to the law as prevented his admitting the pretensions of the gospel. He was answerable for that misguided and uncalculating zeal which allowed him not to see that the law was but fulfilled, in place of being destroyed, by the gospel. He was answerable for the rejection of all the evidence from miracle and prophecy, which we know to have been sufficient, and by which, therefore, he ought to have been convinced. We think it of great importance that men should rightly understand that they are to the full as answerable for their principles as for their practices — for the rule of conduct adopted as well as for their adherence to it when once it has been adopted. For we often hear of men acting up to their belief, and the assertion is made as conveying the opinion that a man is responsible for his conduct, but not for his creed. And what is done in ignorance is represented as necessarily done excusably; and thus the simple principle is overlooked, that there may be a sin of the understanding as well as a sin of the flesh, and that it may be just as easy to offend by closing the mind against truth, as by putting forth the hand to do wrong. All that can be said is just this — If a man sin in ignorance, obeying the dictates of a misinformed conscience, and if he die in his ignorance, and therefore without repentance, we have no right to think he will be pardoned at the judgment, unless his ignorance were unavoidable, so that it could not have been removed by any carefulness of his own. St. Paul indeed obtained mercy, but the form which mercy took was not immediately that of full forgiveness, but that of greater instruction, so that the persecutor might retract his error and turn his zeal to the right channel. Let us now consider the conversion of St. Paul as furnishing evidence to the truth of Christianity. You will all admit that the change which had been made in Saul was of the most extraordinary kind, and not to be accounted for by any of those sudden transitions which one sometimes sees in unstable and vacillating characters. He was a man whose whole prejudices, feelings, and interests were enlisted against Christianity. He could become a Christian only by the sacrifice of position, of property, and perhaps even of life. He must have thought Christianity attested by supernatural evidence, whether that evidence were real, or whether it was the product of his own excited feelings. And, accordingly, the scriptural account assigns a miraculous manifestation as the cause of Saul's conversion. The only man who would be likely to imagine a miracle on the side of Christianity would be a man pre-disposed to that side — anxious to embrace the religion if he can but prove it true. Such a man might possibly take that for miraculous which was only natural, and he persuaded by certain sounds that he was holding a dialogue, though he himself were the only speaker. But that a man in Saul's circumstances should have done this — indeed, it seems to us that it would have been a greater miracle than that which is said to have overcome the apostle. Besides, how could St. Paul have been altogether deceived? Perhaps he only fancied the great light; perhaps he only fancied the voice; but could he fancy his own blindness? He must have been sure that he could not see. This was not a point upon which he could deceive himself. And whence came the blindness? If you say from the great light, then it is almost saying that the light was supernatural; and, therefore, there was miracle. Or, if you think the apostle might have been struck blind by a common flash of lightning, what shall be said of the recovery of sight? Is this, also, natural? You may think it was. Observe what pains are taken to prove the recovery miraculous. St. Paul sees, in a vision, a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hands on him that he might receive his sight. A corresponding vision is granted to this Ananias. He is sent to visit Paul, and lay his hands on him that his blindness may be removed. And how came the two visions to tally with such precision? Ananias, left to himself, would never have thought of visiting Paul. The disciple would not have put himself in the hands of the persecutor; and so indisposed was he to go, that, even when directed by God, he remonstrated on the danger. We are sure, therefore, that Ananias really thought he saw a vision; and we may be equally sure that St. Paul really thought he saw a vision. But then men may easily fancy visions, and little dependence is to be placed on dreams. Admitted. But how will you account for the precise coincidence between the visions? for the thorough accuracy with which they fitted into each other? Will you call this accident? You may account for anything by such reasoning; but candid men will not go along with you in such theories as these. Paul's vision by itself might have proved nothing. Ananias' vision by itself might have proved nothing. But when the two are precisely coincident, the correspondence demands authority for each. It is too surprising to be referred to accident, and if not to accident, it must be referred to Divine ordering; so that we unhesitatingly maintain the circumstances of the whole transaction to have been such, that Saul, who certainly could have had no interest in deceiving himself, could not himself have been deceived. And, this being established, we can point to the conversion of this apostle as irrefragable evidence of the truth of Christianity. The brightness which struck down Saul of Tarsus lights up the moral firmament of every after generation. The voice by which he was arrested sends its echoes to the remotest lands and the remotest times. Yea, even those "unto whom the ends of the world are come," have derived their religion through the preaching of Paul, and may prove its divinity by his conversion. These, my brethren, are the chief points of view under which it is most interesting and instructive, to survey that great event which the Church this day commemorates. It may indeed moreover be, that the whole history we have been reviewing is typical, for it has been assumed by many learned men that St. Paul was throughout a type of the Jewish nation — a type in his opposition — a type in his conversion — a type in his preaching Christianity. You may easily trace the types if you remember that the Jews, after centuries of fierce and unrelenting hostility to Christianity, had been banished from the land of their fathers, and that after their conversion to the faith of Jesus, they became preachers to the heathen, and carried Christianity to the earth's remotest families. We rather wish to guard you against an opinion, which has been often entertained and supported by such instances as that of St. Paul. The opinion is that if conversion be genuine, its period must be strongly marked, so that a man shall be able to fix the precise time of its occurrence, and the exact process by which it was wrought. Now we are sure that a rule such as this would decide against the genuineness of the religion of a great body of professing Christians. The operations of God's Spirit are various. To profess to reduce them under a single description were to betray ignorance of their nature and effect. If the renovating process be in some cases rapid and vehement, in others it is gradual and silent, and is not to be discovered except by its results. One man may be converted by a sudden flash from heaven, and another through successive applications of the common means of grace. We know of no proof of conversion except the fruits by which it will be followed.
(H. Melvill, B. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: But they had heard only, That he which persecuted us in times past now preacheth the faith which once he destroyed.