Galatians 1:11-24 11 I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. 13 For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. 18 Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 I saw none of the other apostles– only James, the Lord’s brother. 20 I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie. 21 Later I went to Syria and Cilicia. 22 I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23 They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they praised God because of me.
Preaching Professor Tom Long once described a short story by Lynna Williams called “Personal Testimony.” This story is about a twelve-year-old girl, the daughter of a fire-breathing evangelistic preacher, who is compelled every summer to spend a couple of weeks at a fundamentalist Bible camp. During the day, this Bible camp is similar to most other camps – there’s hiking, softball, sailing and arts and craft. But at night, every night, a revival meeting is held for the campers, a highly emotional service of worship where there is “come-to-Jesus” preaching and the kids are pressured to give their lives to Christ. The unwritten expectation is that at some point, every camper will come forward to give a moving personal testimony.
The problem is these campers are just kids, and a good many of them don’t have personal testimonies. That’s where our twelve-year-old preacher’s daughter comes into play. She’s figured out that she can make a little money on the side as a ghost writer for Jesus, writing personal testimonies for the other campers. For example, for five dollars, she wrote a wonderful testimony for a boy named Michael, about how in his old and sinful life, he used to be bad and take the Lord’s name in vain at football practice. But now that Jesus has come into his heart, his mouth is as pure as a crystal spring.
Michael’s “testimony” was a good one, no doubt, but this girl’s most dramatic personal testimony, her best piece of work, was written for Tim Bailey. It was about how his life was empty and meaningless until he met Jesus in a nearly fatal, and utterly fictitious pickup truck accident in Galveston, a near catastrophe in which Jesus himself had seized the steering wheel and averted disaster. That one took some imagination; she charged twenty-five dollars for it.
When it comes to personal testimonies, it is easy to feel inadequate if one doesn’t have a dramatic story to tell. It would be tempting to hire a ghost writer to spice up one’s story. Well, if there was anyone who did NOT need a ghost writer for his personal testimony, that person would be the apostle Paul. As most of you know, Paul is the poster boy of the dramatic personal testimony. After all, he went through the original “Damascus Road experience,” encountering the risen Christ in such a vivid way that it changed even his name, from Saul to Paul. In his old life, Saul was a devoted Jew. If they had dictionaries back then, under the heading of “Upstanding Jew,” you would have found Saul’s picture there. In Philippians 3:4-6, Paul described his old life this way: “If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” Unlike most of the testimonies we hear in revival meetings, where people describe how wretched their lives were before becoming a Christian, Saul basically was on top of the world before he met Christ. Saul was on the fast track to becoming the top Pharisee. He was basking in the approval of other men as he played the role of protector and enforcer of Pharisaical Judaism. Saul had his ticket punched for great things . . . ah, if only he hadn’t met Jesus on that road to Damascus.
The day Saul became Paul was the day that his tidy little world was turned upside down. On that day, Paul became the Benedict Arnold of the Jewish religion, a traitor and a pariah. It would be like Billy Graham converting to Roman Catholicism or Islam. Imagine Saul’s once proud parents now disowning him. Imagine his once loyal friends now shunning him if not outright condemning him. Imagine his once sure ladder of success in Pharisaicism collapsing like a house of cards. But that’s not all, imagine those Christians leaders in Jerusalem whom Saul relentlessly persecuted wanting nothing to do with this newly converted Paul. Imagine both Jews and Christians questioning Paul’s motives and skeptical of his transformation. Before meeting Christ, Saul was absolutely clear about which side he was on. After meeting Christ, Paul became a persona non grata; no one, Jews or Christian, accepted him. For Paul—and for many others after him—becoming a Christian was not the end of his troubles; in fact, it was just the beginning. Meeting Jesus and becoming His follower basically ruined Saul’s life. We don’t hear about those kinds of testimonies very often, and not one kid at that fictional Bible camp would have paid even a dollar to have such a testimony written for them.
But that’s exactly the kind of testimony we get from Paul in our epistle lesson this morning. In this letter to the churches in Galatia, Paul found himself being attacked by other Jewish Christians who accused him of preaching a man-made gospel. Paul had to defend himself against Jewish Christians who doubted his apostleship because he was not one of Jesus’ original twelve disciples. Paul had to make the case that even though he received the gospel independent of the apostolic authorities in Jerusalem, it was not in contradiction to them because he received the gospel revelation directly from Jesus Christ.
For Paul, the gospel meant the good news that Jesus Christ died on the cross so that everyone—not just the Jews but also the Gentiles—might be made right with God. But how does one preach the good news of Jesus to a Gentile, non-Jewish audience—where the Jewish law may have been known but was not followed? Paul argued that non-Jews did not have to follow the Jewish law. Paul’s detractors most likely thought that Paul’s failure to require circumcision for Gentile converts was just a way to pander to them by watering it down the requirements that all Jews had to meet. I can imagine them saying, “Paul, you just want to be liked and you’re just saying things that you think those people want to hear.” Paul’s critics accused him of tailoring the Gospel to pander to his constituency, just like speakers who exaggerate their personal testimonies to make them more dramatic, or politicians who embellish or fabricate their military service history. But Paul was not seeking the approval from any human beings, whether they be the Christian apostolic authorities in Jerusalem or his mostly Gentile audience. In his testimony, Paul wrote: “When God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was.” Paul did not need validation from others, because he had already received validation from God, who set him apart from birth and called him by His grace.
Paul never chose to become a Christ follower; Paul chose to persecute Christ followers and was moving up the career ladder because of it. But by His grace, God called Paul to get off that successful career path to follow Christ. Once a Christian, it would have been so easy for Paul to go and ingratiate himself with those in Jerusalem who were the powerbrokers of this new religious movement. He could have easily positioned himself to be the next bishop of Jerusalem and to wield power and authority over Jewish Christians. Instead, by His grace, God was pleased to reveal His Son in Paul so that he might preach Him among the Gentiles far outside the comfort zone and walls of Jerusalem. By His grace, God chose a zealot Jew to become an apostle to the Gentiles. By His grace, God chose a persecutor of the faith to now preach the faith he was tried to destroy. This shows, if nothing else, that God has an ironic sense of humor!
Grace has often been defined as the unmerited, undeserved favor of God, and that is certainly true. But many preachers, myself included, have often tailored our messages about grace to pander to our audience. Too often in our eagerness to please the crowds, we testify God’s grace as getting something for nothing, a “free pass” for all our past wrongdoing, and a magical amulet to shield us from any future struggles and failings. Accept God’s grace, some preachers seem to imply, and all of life’s troubles and problems will fade away. It makes for a comforting and feel-good sermon that leaves everyone happy.
Alas, Paul’s testimony of grace this morning will not let me preach such a message today. True, Paul did not deserve forgiveness for his heinous persecution of Christians. Paul did not deserve nor could he have earned the love, acceptance and salvation of God in Christ. Paul did not deserve to be commissioned as an apostle to the Gentiles. All these things are true, but it is also true that Paul did not deserve to be accused of preaching a man-made gospel. Paul did not deserve to live a life of hardship because of his obedience to God’s missionary call. Paul did not deserve to be imprisoned, flogged, stoned, shipwrecked and persecuted because of his preaching among the Gentiles. Grace – that unmerited, undeserved favor of God – is surely free and comforting, but I think it is also true that the grace of God is also costly and challenging.
God’s grace is free, but it is not cheap. When we have been captured by the grace of God, we will seek only the favor of God, which will cost us the favor of other people, maybe our parents, our bosses, our spouses or even other Christians who disagree with us. The grace of God that calls us into mission will challenge us out of our comfort zones to go to places we’ve never been, to people we’ve never met, to situations we’ve never faced, all for the sake of preaching the faith. If it weren’t for Paul, we wouldn’t be here today because our ancestors were beneficiaries of Paul’s preaching to the Gentiles. If it weren’t for Paul, we males would have to be circumcised before becoming a Christian. Praise God for Paul that we’re not called University Circumcision Church! Because of the grace and validation of God, Paul was more concerned about pleasing God and less concerned about pleasing others. After all is said and done, Paul could say in verse 24: “And they praised God because of me.”
Too often in my life, instead of wanting people to praise God because of me, I want people to praise me because of God. But once I do that, I’m no longer living out a testimony of grace. Instead, I’m living out a testimony of wanting others to validate me as successful, upright, and advancing in Christian maturity. I’m living out a testimony of my own anxiety to avoid suffering and hardships at any cost even to the extent of ignoring the grace of God’s call. Too many times, I’ve settled for a watered-down version of grace that is all about comfort and security. But that thin gruel always leaves me hungry, weak and afraid. What I need is a grace that is hearty and meaty, a grace that is sufficient to nourish my identity in Christ, to strengthen me in the midst of hardships and to challenge me to do great things for God that can change the course of history. That kind of grace is fulfilling because God will fill me with His identity and purpose. That kind of grace is liberating because God’s love will cast out my fear of needing other’s approval and validation. That kind of grace is empowering because God will energize and equip me for His mission. That kind of grace is . . . well, amazing.
John Newton was born in London in 1725. His mother died when he was seven. His father sent him to sea at age eleven. He was forced to enlist on a British man-of-war seven years later. Recaptured after desertion, the disgraced sailor was exchanged to the crew of a slave ship bound for Africa. It was a book he found on board—Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ—which sowed the seeds of his conversion. When his ship nearly sank in a storm, he gave his life to Christ. Later he was promoted to captain of a slave ship. Commanding a slave vessel seems like a strange place to find a new Christian. But at last, the inhuman aspects of the business began to pall on him, and he left the sea for good.
While working as a tide surveyor he studied for the ministry, and for the last 43 years of his life he preached the gospel in Olney and London, and led the abolitionist movement in Great Britain, exposing the evils of slavery. At 82, Newton said, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.” Newton’s tombstone reads, “John Newton, Clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.” That is a testimony of God’s grace, and it has found musical expression in the most famous of the hundreds of hymns that Newton wrote, “Amazing Grace.”
We are continuously in the process of writing our testimonies. At the end of the day, will our life story also be a testimony of God’s amazing grace? Amen.
Go now with the amazing grace of God, and as you go,
May you be filled you with God’s identity and purpose
May you be liberated from needing the approval from others
May you be empowered to fulfill God’s commission
So that as you live and give your testimony, people may praise God because of you.
 Thomas G. Long, “Once I Was Blind, But Now . . . ?” in Preaching John’s Gospel: The World It Imagines, eds. David Fleer and Dave Bland, pp. 53-54.