10 Feb 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 9:1-31. The Conversion of Saul.
Now that Stephen and Philip have contributed their pioneer preparations for the world mission of the church, Luke is ready to tell the story of the two notable conversions which launched it. The first was Saul of Tarsus, who became the apostle to the Gentiles (Rom. 11:13), and the second of Cornelius the centurion, who was the first Gentile to be converted. Saul’s conversion belongs to this chapter, and Cornelius’ to the next.
Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus is the most famous conversion in church history. Luke is so impressed with its importance, that he includes the story three times, once in his own narrative and twice in Paul’s speeches. He is evidently anxious, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it, that we should ‘have his wonderful conversion in remembrance’.
As we read it, however, a crucial question forms in our minds. Does Luke intend us to regard Saul’s conversion as typical of Christian conversion today, or as exceptional? Many people dismiss it as having been altogether unusual, and as constituting no possible norm for conversion today. ‘I’ve had no Damascus Road experience,’ they say. Certainly some features of it were atypical. On the one hand, there were the dramatic, supernatural events, like the flash of lightning and the voice which addressed him by name. On the other hand, there were the historically unique aspects, like the resurrection appearance of Jesus, which Paul later claimed it was, although the last (9:17, 27 and 1 Cor.15:8), and his commissioning to be an apostle, like the call of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Exekiel to be prophets, and more particularly to be the apostle to the Gentiles (cf. Acts 9:5; 22:14-15; 26:17-18,20; Rom. 1:1, 5, 13; 11:13; 15:15-18; Gal. 1:15-16; 2:2, 7-8; Eph.3:1-8; Col. 1:24-29). In order to be converted, it is not necessary for us to be struck by divine lightning, or fall to the ground, or hear our name called out in Aramaic, any more than it is necessary to travel to precisely the same place outside Damascus. Nor is it possible for us to be granted a resurrection appearance or a call to an apostleship like Paul’s.
Nevertheless, it is clear from the rest of the New Testament that other features of Saul’s conversion and commissioning are applicable to us today. For we too can (and must) experience a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, surrender to him in penitence and faith, and receive his summons to serve. Provided that we distinguish between the historically peculiar and the universal, between the dramatic outward accompaniments and the essential inward experience, what happened to Saul remains an instructive case study in Christian conversion. Moreover, Christ’s display of ‘unlimited patience’ towards him was meant to be an encouraging ‘example’ to others. (1 Tim.1:16).
Another kind of assault on the story of Saul’s conversion has to be considered, however, namely the attempt to eliminate its supernatural element altogether. In the last century, some commentators speculated that Saul was overcome by sunstroke or by an epileptic seizure. In our generation a partly psychological and partly physiological explanation of his conversion has been proposed, especially by Dr. William Sargent in his book *Battle for the mind*. Subtitled ‘a physiology of conversion and brainwashing’, the book’s object is ‘to show how beliefs…can be forcibly implanted in the human brain, and how people can be switched to arbitrary beliefs altogether opposed to those previously held’, while the book’s conclusion is ‘that simple physiological mechanisms of conversion do exist’. Basing his thesis on Pavlov’s experiments with dogs and on his own wartime treatment of patients who had broken down under ‘combat exhaustion’, Dr. Sargent conjectured that something similar happened to Saul. After ‘his acute stage of nervous excitement’ came ‘total collapse, hallucinations and an increase state of suggestibility’, made more intense by three days of fasting. In this condition new beliefs, exactly contradictory to those he held before, were implanted in him first by Ananias and then by ‘the necessary period of indoctrination’ by the Christians in Damascus.
We have no quarrel with Dr. Sargent’s general analysis of the terrible technique of brainwashing, in which the mind is incessantly bombarded with alien ideas until it breaks down and becomes totally docile and suggestible. Nor do we deny that something of this kind happens both through the rhythmic drumming and dancing of primitive religious cults and even through some forms of manipulative, emotional evangelism. Our disagreement is with Dr Sargent’s artificial attempt to fit Saul’s conversion into this pattern. For the facts do not support his reconstruction. There is no evidence of any ‘technique’ having been used by anybody to ‘bombard’ Saul until he collapsed, unless it be Jesus himself. But that would posit a supernatural explanation, which would undermine Dr. Sargent’s thesis. Also, the conversion experiences in the Acts are so varied that they cannot all be explained away in physiological or psychological terms.
In complete contrast to the attempts by unbelievers to discredit Saul’s conversion, I would like to mention an eighteenth-century letter from Baron George Lyttelton to Gilbert West, which was published under the title *Observations on the Conversion and Apostleship of Saint Paul*. He was so convinced of the authenticity of Saul’s conversion that he believed it was in itself, aside from other arguments, ‘a demonstration sufficient to prove Christianity to be a divine revelation’. Drawing attention to Paul’s references to his conversion in both his speeches and his letters, he worked out his case in considerable detail. Since Saul was neither ‘an impostor, who said what he knew to be false, with an intent to deceive’, nor ‘an enthusiast, who by the force of an over-heated imagination imposed on himself’, nor ‘deceived by the fraud of others’, therefore ‘what he declared to have been the cause of his conversion. and to have happened in consequence of it, did all happen, and therefore the Christian religion is a divine revelation’.
So then, accepting the fact that Saul’s conversion did take place on account of an intervention by Jesus Christ, and accepting the need to distinguish between its essential and its exceptional features, we are now in a position to examine its cause and its effects. We shall look successively at Saul himself in his pre-conversion state, at Saul and Jesus in their encounter on the road, at Saul and Ananias who welcomed him into the church in Damascus, and at Saul and Barnabas, who introduced him to the apostles in Jerusalem.
Tomorrow: Acts 9:1-2. Saul himself: his pre-conversion state in Jerusalem.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.