Freedom from the Past

Dr. Jon Morrissette - 1/17/2021

This morning our topic is Jesus Gives Us Freedom From Our Past.

In Galatians 1:13-24, we come upon one of the most remarkable stories of transformation found in all of Scripture. Before the Apostle Paul became the “Apostle Paul” he was known as the notorious “Saul of Tarsus.” The whole trajectory of Saul’s life changed abruptly on a single day, on a dime. Every now and then we’ll hear a testimony of sudden transformation. Maybe you have one. The Spirit of the Living God can breathe wherever, however, on whoever, and whenever He so desires.

I don’t believe God’s typical pattern of working is sudden and fast. When you read the gospel accounts of Peter, James and John it seems everyone’s conversions were happening fast. But when you lay all the Bible accounts side by side, you’ll notice that even the apostles came to faith over a period or months. Jesus continually engaged them, preached, taught, pursued them.

The transformation of “Saul of Tarsus” was also supernatural, and sensational. What’s interesting is that Saul’s experience was different than those around him. He saw and heard things firsthand that his companions did not. What his companions did experience however was the “affects” of his transformation. And the only plausible explanation was that Paul did indeed encounter Christ.

There is a temptation for us to want to sensationalize our stories. Just as the Spirit of God can breathe wherever, however, on whoever, and whenever he desires… the Spirit of God can do “whatever” He so pleases. Nobody can really ever question or scrutinize your account of conversion. But what people can scrutinize is the “affect” of your encounter with Jesus. Are you new in Christ?

So, what are we to do with Paul’s account of his creation? It’s an atypical story. Unique. But what wasn’t atypical is the outline, flow, sequence of Paul’s conversion. As we mature in Christ, we can expect our stories to parallel the sequence of his. Paul’s transformation unfolded through four stages, and so will ours. As we outline Paul’s story, you might consider writing out your story in parallel. Let’s consider four stages of transformation. First, there is the matter of your past:

1. Ask, Who Have I Been? In Galatians 1:13-14 Paul says, “For you have heard about my former way of life in Judaism: I intensely persecuted God’s church and tried to destroy it. 14 I advanced in Judaism beyond many contemporaries among my people, because I was extremely zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.”

Galatians 1 isn’t the only place we read about Paul’s past. Whenever his past comes up, two points are always made. First, Paul was zealous for Judaism, for the traditions of his ancestors. As a religious zealot he checked all the boxes a young Jewish man could possibly check. In Philippians 3:4-6 Paul writes, “I have reasons for confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he has grounds for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised the eighth day; of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; regarding the law, a Pharisee; 6 regarding zeal, persecuting the church; regarding the righteousness that is in the law, blameless.”

The people attacking Paul’s credibility in these churches couldn’t hold a candle to him. In Acts 26:5 we learn that Paul was part of the strictest sect of Jewish religion. In Acts 22:3 we learn that Paul studied at the feet of Gamaliel, one of the greatest teachers in all Israel. When Paul checks off his credentials, it’s never to boast (as some so accuse). Paul has one goal and its identification. He knows heart, mind, soul, attitude, motives of these Jewish attackers inside and out. He was one of them!

The other fact that is also made about Paul’s past is he was zealous for bloodshed. He was eager to commit violence on God’s behalf. In Acts 8, Saul puts Stephen (the first Christian martyr) to death for his faith. Soon he turned his rage on the whole Church, going house to house, dragging off men and women, putting them in prison. In Acts 9:1-2, were told how Saul was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” He also “requested letters” authorizing him to drag people out of Damascus back to Jerusalem to be imprisoned.

In Acts 26:10-11 Paul confesses, “I actually did this in Jerusalem, and I locked up many of the saints in prison, since I had received authority for that from the chief priests. When they were put to death, I was in agreement against them. 11 In all the synagogues I often punished them and tried to make them blaspheme. Since I was terribly enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities.”

 In 1 Timothy 1:13 Paul summarizes his past with three words. “. . . I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an arrogant man.” When Paul checks off his crimes against the Church, it’s never to boast. Paul has one goal, and its identification. He knows the guilt, the shame, the dread, the fear, the anxiety living in hostility against God and man. He was a blasphemer—having everything about God wrong. He was a persecutor and murderer. He was so arrogant and proud.

We shouldn’t ever compare our past sins with that of another person. When you compare yourself to others, you might feel a tinge of righteousness. In 1 Timothy 1:15 Paul says, “This saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’—and I am the worst of them.’” Relative to Paul we might imagine ourselves good! But Paul isn’t our plumbline. The only comparison (plumbline) that matters is God’s Holy, Righteous, and Good character. And by that standard there is no room for pride, only for dread and fear of judgement. When was the first time you caught a glimpse of your dark and sinful self?

2. Ask, What Did God Do? We always dwell on the wrong part of our past. Not everything about our past is dark and sinful. Look at Galatians 1:15-16a, “But when God, who from my mother’s womb set me apart and called me by his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me. . .” My favorite two words in Scripture are “But God. . .” Our destiny doesn’t hinge on what we did in the past, but on what God has done from the past. What do I mean?

While we were still in our mother’s womb, God set us apart for service. In the womb God set John the Baptist apart. He set Jesus apart. The parents knew John and Jesus’ names and purpose before they were even born! We see this in the Old Testament too. God knew Adam and Eve would have a child (seed...Christ) tens of generations later who would crush Satan. God knew Jacob and Esau before they were born, and what kind of men they would become. God told Jeremiah, Jeremiah 1:5, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Isaiah 49:1, Isaiah says, “. . .The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name.”

God set his affection on us from all eternity! Psalm 139:13-16, “For it was you who created my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I will praise you because I have been remarkably and wondrously made. Your works are wondrous, and I know this very well. 15 My bones were not hidden from you when I was made in secret, when I was formed in the depths of the earth. 16 Your eyes saw me when I was formless; all my days were written in your book and planned before a single one of them began.”

But then God called us by his own mercy and grace! But then God revealed his Son Jesus Christ to us! Do you want to know the sensational way God revealed his mercy, grace, and Son Jesus to me? It was through the ordinary church pulpit, through plain and simple but faithful preaching. In Galatians 1:16 Paul says the whole reason God called and rescued him was so he “could preach to the gentiles!”

Paul’s transformation was unique. In Acts 9:3-9; 22:6-11; 26:12-15, as Saul was headed to Damascus to destroy the Church, a light suddenly flashed from heaven. In an instant Saul fell to the ground and was blinded. A voice asked, “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me? I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting.” In Acts 26:16-18 Jesus tells Saul, “. . . get up and stand on your feet. For I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. 17 I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18 to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a share among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’”

3. Ask, What Did I Do? After Saul saw and heard the resurrected Jesus, his companions led Saul by hand to Damascus. He didn’t eat or drink anything for three days. He finds a man named Ananias, a man who Christ commanded to baptize Saul! In Acts 22:14-16 Ananias says, “The God of our ancestors has appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One, and to hear the words from his mouth, 15 since you will be a witness for him to all people of what you have seen and heard. 16 And now, why are you delaying? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’” After baptism, scales fell from Saul’s eyes.

But here is what Paul says happened next. Galatians 1:16-20, “I did not immediately consult with anyone. 17 I did not go up to Jerusalem to those who had become apostles before me; instead I went to Arabia and came back to Damascus. 18 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to get to know Cephas, and I stayed with him fifteen days. 19 But I didn’t see any of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. 20 I declare in the sight of God: I am not lying in what I write to you.”

Upon conversion, Paul didn’t rush to center stage in Jerusalem. He evacuated to Arabia, for three years, to a place of total obscurity! Oh how we get in such a big hurry to be used of God, we short circuit our development. Paul spent as much time in Arabia (3 years) as did the Twelve with Jesus. Paul had to grow after his baptism. In Matthew 28:18-20 when we baptize a person, we're to immediately then teach them to obey all Christ commanded. First comes baptism, second comes teaching people to obey, and finally Jesus’ mission to “go to nations!”

Here is the deal. For all God’s done in his grace, God always commands a personal response of faith. Not just “believe”, but repent. Not just repent, but confess. Not just confess, but “be baptized.” Not just baptism, but do we go on sinning that grace may increase? Absolutely not! We offer selves as instruments (See Romans 6:1-11)!

4. Ask, What is God Doing In and Through Me? Galatians 1:21-24, “Afterward, I went to the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 22 I remained personally unknown to the Judean churches that are in Christ. 23 They simply kept hearing, “He who formerly persecuted us now preaches the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God because of me.”

In Acts 9, we read how people were so astounded. Here was this man who had caused so much havoc, mayhem and death! Now he was growing stronger and stronger, confounding Jews in Damascus, proving that Jesus was the was Messiah. The Jews were so enraged they plotted to kill Saul, but he was rescued. But here is the headline… Acts 9:31, “So the church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.”

Since you came to Christ, how has God glorified himself because of you? In 1 Timothy 1:15-17 Paul says, “This saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them. 16 But I received mercy for this reason, so that in me, the worst of them, Christ Jesus might demonstrate his extraordinary patience as an example to those who would believe in him for eternal life. 17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”

I want to leave you with this parting thought. The biggest part of your story (the biggest headline) will always be what God has done in you. Yes, he has set your free from sin (week 1 of this sermon series). Yes, he has set you free from ignorance. God has revealed Jesus in you (week 2 of this sermon series). And yes, he has set you free from your past. The next biggest headline though, is going to be what God now does through you as his instrument.

Ephesians 2:1-3 (We were a hot sinning, sinful mess deserving wrath). But then Ephesians 2:4-10 says. . . “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, 5 made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! 6 He also raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might display the immeasurable riches of his grace through his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— 9 not from works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do.”

The best is still coming! Praise God!

Scripture Verses

Galatians 1:13-24; Philippians 3:4-6; Acts 8; 9:3-31; 22:6-10; 26:10-15; 1 Timothy 1:13-17; Galatians 1:15-24; Psalm 139:13-16; Ephesians 2:1-10.

Worship Playlist

Whole Heart by Passion

Cornerstone by Hillsong

Living Hope by Phil Wickham

The Church by Elevation

Study Questions

1. What do you notice about Paul’s testimony?

2. Summarize what more you learn about Paul from these passages in Acts: 7:34-8:3; Acts 9; 22:4-5; 26:9-11.

3. What additional details do you learn about Paul from 1 Timothy 1:12-14; 1 Corinthians 15:9; Galatians 1:13; and Philippians 3:6?

4. Briefly share your testimony or story with others in your group. (Three Parts of Your Story: Your life before Christ; How you found Christ; Your life in Christ)

5. Why are our personal testimonies so important for ourselves but also for others?

Apply It!


Write our your story in four parts:

  1. Who have I been?
  2. What did God do?
  3. What did I do?
  4. What is God doing through me?