Can God Save Anyone?

The Conversion of Ananias – Acts 9:1-18

The story of the conversion of Saul tests our faith because it causes us to wonder if we really believe that God can save anyone. Saul, the one who watched people’s garments while they stoned Stephen (Acts 7:58) and the one who was breathing threats against believers (Acts 9:1), was dramatically converted on the road to Damascus. When we read this in Acts 9, we are immediately confronted with our own faith. God radically saved Saul, but can God radically do the same for my family, my friends, my coworkers, and my neighbors? All of us know people who are very worldly, very apathetic, or very devoted to another faith. All of us have been guilty of thinking that God couldn’t save that person. We sometimes think, “They just don’t care about spiritual matters…there’s no way,” “She’s too devoted to her own religion…there’s no way,” “He loves living like the world so much…there’s no way.” Our preconceived or initial judgments condemn us. Our spirit testifies to this because we know there are times when we don’t speak to someone about Jesus because we have already convinced ourselves that they wouldn’t believe in Jesus regardless. We are very quick to affirm cognitively that God can save anyone, but we are very reluctant to affirm that God can save anyone through our obedience in bringing God’s good news to that person. This is why Ananias is so important to those of us who struggle with this. Acts 9 describes the conversion of Saul, but equally important is how Acts 9 describes the conversion of Ananias.

Who is Ananias? Scripture only speaks about Ananias in reference to the conversion of Saul. Ananias is a disciple in Damascus (Acts 9:10), a devout man according to the law (Acts 22:12), and is well spoken of by all the Jews who lived in Damascus (Acts 22:12). This is an honorable description that most believers strive for. We all want to be known as a follower of Jesus in our community. We want to be known as people who are guided by a moral code. We all want to have a good reputation in our community because we know that a good reputation is a good witness for Christ. How Ananias is described is how most of us want to be described. As a relatively obscure, moral, reputable disciple of Jesus, Ananias represents us in this story of Saul’s conversion.

But why does Ananias need to be converted? He does not need a salvation conversion, but rather Ananias needed a belief conversion about salvation. Just like us, Ananias doubted if God could really save anyone. In a vision, God tells Ananias to go find Saul of Tarsus. Ananias’ response reveals his doubts about Saul, “But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name'” (Acts 9:13,14). Notice the doubt, the fear, and the apprehension in his reply. This does not sound like a man who believes that God can save anyone. Ananias sounds like most of us, believing in our heads that God can save anyone but doubting that in our hearts. Despite his doubts about Saul, Ananias obeys the Lord and goes to visit Saul. His fear of God was greater than his fear of Saul, and for this reason we witness in Acts a very important kind of conversion. Ananias was converted from believing in “a God of possibilities” to believing in “a God of impossibilities.” Saul’s conversion challenged Ananias faith because Ananias had to decide if he truly believed that God could save anyone.

Jesus once said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). Jesus said this because his disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?” This popular phrase, “All things are possible with God” was initially related to Jesus’ statement about who can be saved. Jesus himself wanted his followers to believe that no one is beyond hope. Without question, the most impossible task we will ever face in life is trying to save ourselves. On our own, salvation cannot be obtained through being good or doing good. Be absolutely certain about this: apart from God salvation is impossible. Yet this most impossible task becomes possible because of Jesus Christ. He alone makes the impossible possible. Jesus lived perfectly, sacrificed himself for us by dying on the cross, and defeated Satan, sin, and death by resurrecting three days later. Because of this, we can have confidence that God did the impossible. Jesus saved us when we could not save ourselves. Ananias came to believe this through his involvement in the conversion of Saul. Ananias too was dramatically converted.

So what can we learn from Ananias’ example? Knowing that we want to believe wholeheartedly that God can save anyone, and knowing that we struggle at times to believe wholeheartedly that God can save anyone, what can we learn from Ananias?

  1. Say, “Here I am Lord.” Ananias responded to God by saying, “Here I am Lord.” This is reminiscent of Isaiah 6:8, “Here I am Lord, send me.” It’s a simple response, but it’s always the right response. Do you want to live your life as though you truly believe that God can save anyone that you might encounter today? Don’t get caught up in the details. Let it be sufficient to start by saying, “Here I am Lord.”
  2. Acknowledge your fears, but don’t embrace them. Ananias admitted his fears to God about Saul. He was aware of the evil Saul had already done and was capable of doing. Be honest with the Lord. In prayer, tell the Lord why you struggle with believing this person can be saved. But don’t embrace that doubt, that fear. Never. Leave the impossible to God.
  3. Embrace obedience. After Ananias confessed his concerns to the Lord, he listened to the Lord’s reply and responded in obedience. Go when God says go.
  4. Lay your hands on Saul. Ananias didn’t just pray for Saul from a distance. He got personal. He got involved. Ananias obeyed God and got so close to notorious Saul that he put his hands of him. If you believe God can save anyone, don’t be a witness from a distance. Have them in your home. Go to their home. Become friends with them. Learn what it means to rub shoulders with the people you once thought were beyond hope. You’ll likely be surprised how they have been crying out for truth, grace, and people from God all along.
  5. Speak Jesus to Saul. Ananias came to Saul as an ambassador of Jesus. He shared Jesus with Saul. That’s what people need to hear. Give them Jesus. No matter what, make sure you give them Jesus because Jesus is their only hope.
  6. Disciple Saul. Ananias played a role in baptizing Saul. We must not only be ready to believe that God can save anyone, we must be prepared for that reality. Be ready to disciple. Believe that God can save them, and be ready to show them the Christ-filled life.

 

There are Sauls all around us, people we thought would never believe, yet God disagrees. God is asking us to be Ananias. We must go get God’s Sauls. Believe that God can save anyone.

Is Christ unique?

What, then, does it mean to believe in Christ’s uniqueness in a world that is religiously pluralistic? It means that we have a gospel that cannot be bartered, boiled down, or minimized in order to accommodate those who do not like it. Christ is not up for sale. His gospel is not just one among many items in the market place of religious commerce. It is not a commodity we peddle, nor is it an item we can negotiate about.

He is not one among many possibilities; he is not one among many paths; he is not one among many teachers; and his gospel is not one among many gospels. ‘Salvation is found in no one else,’ Peter said. ‘For there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12). There is no other name, no other path, no other gospel, no other way of salvation than the salvation which God has wrought through his Son.[1]


 

[1] David Wells, “The Uniqueness of Christ” Proclaim Christ Until He Comes (Minneapolis: World Wide Publications, 1990), 306.

 

A word to those who say we should mainly focus on the lost at home

An excerpt from The Passion for Souls by Oswald J Smith

Do you remember when the Lord Jesus Christ fed the five thousand? Do you recall how He had them sit down, row upon row, on the green grass? Then do you remember how He took the loaves and fishes and blessed them and then broke them and gave them to his disciples? And do you remember how the disciples started at one end of the front row and went right along that front row giving everyone a helping? Then do you recall how they turned right around and started back along that front row again, asking everyone to take a second helping? Do you remember?
No! A thousand times no! Had they done that, those in the back rows would have been rising up and protesting most vigorously. “here,” they would have been saying, “come back here. Give us a helping. We have not had any yet. We are starving: it isn’t right; it isn’t fair. Why should those people in the front rows have a second helping before we have had a first?”
And they would have been right. We talk about the second blessing. They havent had the first blessing yet. We talk about the second coming of Christ. They haven’t heard about the first coming yet. It just isn’t fair. Why should anyone hear the Gospel twice before everyone has heard it once?

A commissionary’s conundrum: Babel or Pentecost? (Acts 2:5-13)

A commissionary aims to glorify Christ by making disciples of all nations. What is more worshipful to God than gathering more worshippers for God? This act of “gathering in,” however, first requires a “going out.” What then could be more glorifying to God than to devote one’s life to the spreading of His renown to all peoples of the world?

The early church began to understand this at Pentecost. It was not an innate part of their personality. On the contrary, they only started to participate in mission because they received the power for mission – the Holy Spirit. Pentecost happens, and right from the start God exposes his global purposes. What God did at Pentecost is a sharp contrast to what man tried at Babel. Let me explain.

First, here’s the text Acts 2:5-13

Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians – we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”

At Pentecost, God gathered the nations together for the purpose of announcing his gospel (the good news of Jesus Christ) to all nations. At Pentecost, many people from many languages understood the gospel through those possessed by the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost, it was God displaying His mighty work.

Babel is a completely different story (Genesis 11). At Babel, God scatters the people because man was told to fill the earth (Gen 1:28, 9:1,7) and they chose to gather and build a tower instead. At Babel, God intervenes and confuses their language. At Babel, it was not God displaying a mighty work, but man attempting a mighty work. Ultimately, Babel represents the opposite of a commissionary’s purpose in two ways. One, Babel represents self-reliance. The attitude that one doesn’t need God but can do it alone. Two, Babel represents self-exaltation. The motive to make oneself famous, instead of being motivated to make much of God.

So in light of this comparison, a commissionary has a choice between reflecting Pentecost or reflecting Babel. God has purposed for His children to be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Three closing questions.

1. Are you reliant on self (Babel) or reliant on God (Pentecost)?

2. Are you exalting self (Babel) or exalting God (Pentecost)?

3. Are you more concerned with your story of achievement (Babel) or with God’s story of achievement (Pentecost), what God has done in Christ?

Don’t be Babel. Be Pentecost. Be a commissionary.

A commissionary’s fear for the local church (Acts 2:1-4)

A commissionary’s purpose in life is to glorify Christ by making disciples of all nations. A natural result of this purpose is to gather with other like-minded individuals for the sake of further advancing that purpose, the glorious gospel that Christ came to save sinners. This gathering, this fellowship, this body, this bride of Christ, is the local church. She, the local church, is universally united in the bond of the Holy Spirit and under the supreme Lordship of Jesus Christ. She, the local church, is also locally expressed. This means that God has and is gathering a people for himself from every tribe, tongue, and nation to worship Him for all eternity in His presence! In the meantime, God is gathering His people together into local expressions, where they obsess over two divine purposes. The first purpose is to worship. The local church exists to worship God as sovereign and supreme. God is made known to His church by the power of the Holy Spirit and through the person and work of Jesus Christ as the propitiation and substitutionary atonement for sin. The second purpose is to witness. The church is called to witness about the truth of God in Christ Jesus.

In light of a commissionary’s desire to be united to a local church where they are obsessed about worshipping and witnessing, Christians everywhere are also deeply fearful about some common realities within many local churches. This can be seen through the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:1-4.

Here’s the text:

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.

The Day of Pentecost. The moment the promised Holy Spirit arrived, just as Jesus told them He would. From this text, I can glean four fears that a commissionary has for their local church.

Fear 1 – We’ve never experienced Pentecost.

Although it wasn’t the case for those followers who were all together in one place, Pentecost today has become synonymous with the Holy Spirit’s arrival. A commissionary often wonders, “Has the Holy Spirit ever been in the midst of these people? Is the personal presence of the Holy Spirit evident in this group?”

Fear 2 – We have no wind. We have no fire.

In this text, the Holy Spirit is described as wind and as fire, as “a mighty rushing wind” and as “divided tongues as of fire.” The Holy Spirit is like wind, like Jesus said to Nicodemus “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). So much can be said about John 3:8, but an underlying premise is that the Holy Spirit is a total God-thing. No one can take credit. The Holy Spirit is windy, and His breeze has just brought breath into the life of your local church. A commissionary always hopes he can say that of his local church. The Holy Spirit is also like fire.  The phrase “on fire” is something a commissionary craves for his local church. That’s not crazy or sensational or emotional, but purely and overwhelmingly Spiritual. A commissionary is fearful that his local church has never inherited the Wind. A commissionary is also fearful that his local church is not flammable, that they have never caught the Fire. There’s nothing worse than being on a sailboat without any wind, to be in utter darkness without any light.

Fear 3 – We all are not filled.

Acts 2:1-4 is a wonderful example of the Spirit’s universal filling of every believer. In other words, not only did the Wind fill the entire house, and not only did divided tongues of fire rest on each one of them, but most importantly THEY WERE ALL FILLED WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT! The Holy Spirit is not prejudiced, racist, or biased when it comes to the children of God. The Spirit of God dwells within every true follower of God. Knowing this, one of the worst nightmares for a commissionary concerning the local church is to have an attitude that God’s Spirit only works through a select few. Not true! Not true at all! As evident at Pentecost and in other New Testament texts, the Holy Spirit universally pours Himself into all believers. As a result, all believers are Spirit-filled, are given Spiritual gifts, are capable of displaying the fruit of the Spirit, and are equipped for every good work that God intends for His church to do. A commissionary dreads a local church that thinks the Holy Spirit is reserved for radicals.

Fear 4 – We are Spirit-less.

A commissionary dreads being part of a Spirit-less local church. Yes, it is possible to have an amazing fellowship with dynamic preaching and music and still be hollow. Yes, it is possible to be part of a local church that perceives it is doing the work of God without possessing the Spirit of God. I am convinced that a true born-again believer fears being part of a Spirit-less church, and that’s why there’s so many complaining in the form of tweets, facebook posts, blogs, articles, books, etc. SO HOW DOES A COMMISSIONARY FACE THESE FEARS?

Follow the example of the early church. Don’t fabricate Pentecost. Submit to the person, work, and words of Christ. Let the Spirit do His work. Trust me, the Spirit loves doing His work because He loves revealing the magnificence of Christ and the glory of God. Don’t create the wind. Don’t create the fire. Humble yourself and let Christ reign through the personal presence of the Holy Spirit! He will come. He will breeze on you. He will fire you up. He will fill you. He will give you Himself!

A commissionary’s guide for making decisions (Acts 1:12-26)

How do you make decisions to the glory of God? How do you make decisions that foster obedience towards the Great Commission? After all, a commissionary’s ultimate aim is to glorify God by making disciples of all nations. How do you do that in every decision, big and small? In this text, I believe there are three great guidelines for making God-glorifying, disciple-making decisions.

Here’s the text:

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers. In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) “For it is written in the Book of Psalms, ‘May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it’; and ‘Let another take his office.’ So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us–one of these men must become a witness to his resurrection.” And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles. ~Acts 1:12-26

So the apostles had to replace Judas. How did they make the decision? If you are familiar with this text, please know that I’m not going to recommend “casting lots” or “rolling the dice.” However, I do believe God gives us at least three guidelines.

1. Make decisions through prayer.

In Acts 1:14, it says “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer…” Again, in Acts 1:24, it says “And they prayed…” This is an obvious guideline, but oh-so-neglected! All decisions, big and small, should be based in prayer.

2. Make decisions that reflect a concern for the fulfillment of Scripture.

A very important phrase in this text is when Peter addresses the 120. He says in Acts 1:16, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled…” Peter demonstrates through his speech how their need to replace Judas is based on their concern for the fulfillment of Scripture. When you’re making a decision, do you even care to think about the fulfillment of Scripture?

For example, Jesus just had said in Acts 1:8 “…and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Have you ever thought of the fact that all of your decisions, big and small, carry consequences concerning the fulfillment of the Great Commission? Jesus also said in Matthew 24:14 “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” Do you realize your decisions and the resulting actions carry significant weight towards fulfilling what Christ has said in Scripture? In Revelation 7:9, the Word gives a vision of things to come; “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…” Are you aware that these verses are yet to be fulfilled, but will be fulfilled, and the Lord will fulfill them in spite of you or in light of you? Do you now possibly see why a desire to see Scripture fulfilled is so important in making decisions?

3. Make decisions that reflect the Lord’s decision.

In this text, they let the Lord decide. This is the part of the narrative where they casted lots. Have you ever wondered why they did this? Were they abandoning critical decision-making for apathetic fatalism? I don’t believe the text gives such an indication. On the contrary, in Acts 1:24 shows their desire to let the Lord make the decision; “And they prayed and said, ‘You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen’.” At the moment of any decision, the core thought should never be what they want or what I want, but what God wants. That’s not being mystical or irrational; its simply being spiritual.

Need to make a decision? Pray about it. Desire for scripture to be fulfilled in your decision. (I suppose it’s like saying to God, “Lord, I want you to be glorified in this.”) And let the Lord decide and trust the sovereign guidance of the Holy Spirit.

A commissionary’s mission (Acts 1:8)

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. Acts 1:8 (ESV)

A commissionary lives, eats, breathes, sleeps, drinks, dreams, obsesses over Christ’s words here in Acts 1:8. This is the Great Commission, worded differently than the popular version from Matthew 28:16-20. It’s a familiar verse to all mission-minded and mission-active Christians, therefore let me provide a few reminders for all Christians about Christ’s words in Acts 1:8.

1. Power is paramount.

It’s essential to state the obvious. It’s absolutely necessary to overemphasize this. You cannot live on mission for God apart from the Spirit of God. Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as the power to be His witnesses. Without the Holy Spirit, you’ll wimp out. Without His empowerment, you’ll be a dud. Are you Spirit-filled? Have you been born-again? Jesus said this to Nicodemus. I am now saying it to you: you must be born-again!

2. The Spirit comes upon you. You don’t come upon the Spirit.

Jesus said “when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” not “when you’re ready to let the Holy Spirit come upon you.” That’s utter foolishness to think we can function on our timetable instead of His. Remember, this mission is not your mission; it’s His mission and we are His privileged participants. We are not the caretakers of His timing. We are the obedient responders to His will. One of the greatest tragedies is to only be His witness when it is convenient to you. Sorry, this is not the Great Convenience, it’s the Great Commission. The Holy Spirit is the One who calls the shots.

3. It’s both/and, not either/or.

The greek word “kai” is very important in this verse. Jesus commands us to be His witnesses in all of these places, not just some of these places. Anyone who advocates local missions to the neglect of foreign missions is unbiblical. In the same way, anyone who commends foreign missions to the neglect of local missions is unbiblical. This verse declares neither extreme.

4. Don’t forget Samaria.

Jesus is very particular with his words. He incorporated Samaria into his geographic spectrum for a very special reason. Some say Jesus is metaphorically saying, “Be my witnesses in your city (Jerusalem), in your state (Judea), in your nation (Samaria), and in the ends of the earth.” Although Jesus is clearly making geographic references, to liken Samaria to one’s nation is biblically and geographically incorrect and extremely culturally insulting to a Jew. To say it quickly, Jews and Samaritans don’t mix. They despise each other. So why did Jesus incorporate Samaria into his Acts 1:8 mission plan? Because He wanted it to be comprehensive. Jesus was telling His Jewish followers at the time to be His witnesses in all places and to all peoples. This means we are not only to witness “inside our circles of reference,” but also to witness “outside our bubble.” I hope this comes across with much love and clarity: we need to burst our bubbles, step outside our comfort zones, and reach other people for Christ that are not like us! For this reason (to be His witnesses among different people) Christ included Samaria into his final commission. As you are being His witnesses in all places, don’t forget the Samaria’s and the Samaritans of the world.