Saul of Tarsus, by his own admission, was a pretty “holy” guy. He came from good stock. He states his pedigree in Philippians 3:5-6: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law–blameless.
The Apostle Paul, at the end of his life, proclaimed himself to be “the chief of sinners” (1Timothy 1:15).
Saul of Tarsus and Paul are the same man. Saul later became known as Paul (Acts 13:9).
So how can a man move from boasting about being blameless according to the law of God to referring to himself as “the chief of sinners“? He met Jesus–the resurrected, reigning King Jesus that, as a righteous Jew, he formerly hated.
Here is Paul’s own testimony of his life before meeting Jesus: “I punished [Christians] often… and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them…” (Acts 26:11)
This same man later testified in 1Corinthians 13: If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned,but have not love, I gain nothing.
How does such a drastic change occur? It occurs by moving away from religion and into a close relationship with Jesus, the resurrected Son of God. Saul of Tarsus (the “successful” Pharisee, member of the Sanhedrin–the Jews’ Supreme Court) knew what God’s law said on paper. He even claimed to live by it “blamelessly.” However, his “blameless” living could not stop him from being enraged against Jesus and Christianity.
You see, it is possible to live out the dictates of what the law says but not be changed by the law in your heart. You can not kill someone in actuality because the law says to not kill, but in your heart you can wish someone was dead because your heart is filled with hatred.
The Old Testament commanded the Jews: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Yet, it also commanded them, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) In order to “keep”the law of God, Saul “stood” by the coats of the people who stoned Jesus’ disciple Stephen to death (see Acts 7). He didn’t actually kill a man, but he murdered him in his heart. Yet, he claimed to be blameless.
The Apostle Paul would later proclaim as a follower of Jesus, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2Corinthians 3:6).
The Spirit gives life… Here is how self-righteous Saul became humble-servant Paul. Jesus stated before His death and resurrection “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you” John 14:16. There it is! There is the key!!
Christianity was never meant to be about “pulling yourself up by your boot straps” to gut out some laws so that God will forgive you in the end. No, Christianity is about having God Himself, in the Person of the Holy Spirit, living in you to help you live the Christian life–to change you from the inside out, to give you a new nature, to convict you of sin, but to help you walk in repentant obedience from the heart. That is how Paul went from being an anger-filled person into a person who wanted to love others with the love of Jesus (and how at the end of his life he knew he had not fully obtained it because he still referred himself as the chief of sinners).
You see, when a person comes into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, he/she comes into a relationship with the living God who is holy and who promises to help us in our times of need. No, no one is practically holy in and of themselves but we have a Helper to whom we can call upon to say, “O God, please help me! I feel very angry toward this person right now, but please help me to put my anger to death!” When a Christian is honest enough with God about his/her sin but also His promised help, that person will be amazed at how God can mold his/her character over time to be a person of love.
The question is, do you know God in this way or are you just trying to keep his laws in your own strength?
Jesus has made it very simple for us when He said: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13)