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Meteorologists knew the storm had the potential to inflict catastrophic damage. But nobody expected the post-landfall images to reveal the level of devastation left behind after Hurricane Katrina struck the Mississippi coast in late August 2005. Raging ashore with a massive, thirty-foot storm surge, practically every physical structure was wiped off the map like a breadcrumb on the counter after lunch.
A local news station in Jackson created a montage of pictures showing the coast before Katrina and after. Mature oaks and beautiful residences were not just damaged. They were gone. The before and after photos revealed in dramatic fashion how different the coastline now appeared. For several miles inland, concrete slabs remained where homes once had stood.
It was hard to believe.
Everyone living on the coast who experienced Katrina has a before and after story. Life before the storm and life afterward. It was a defining moment in the lives of Gulf Coast residents.
While the area has largely been rebuilt, you don’t have to endure a Katrina-like natural disaster to have a before and after story. And not all before and after stories include disaster. The point of a before and after moment is the defining aspect — something that serves as a line of demarcation. It can be something as simple as a before and after graduation, before and after marriage or before and after children. For some, it is a before and after the diagnosis.
In Galatians 1:11–24, the Apostle Paul shares his before and after story. While his experience is historically unique, the main features of his defining moment will be the same for every follower of Jesus.
11 I want you to know… 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.
Let’s remember that the reason Paul is writing this letter to the Galatian churches is to correct their misunderstanding of the gospel. After Paul had started these churches the previous year (in 47 A.D.) in what today is southern Turkey along the northern Mediterranean Sea, some people began claiming that Paul’s doctrine of salvation was inaccurate. He had preached that Jesus did it all. They were saying Jesus did a lot but that each believer had to do their small part. We call this a Jesus “plus” doctrine of salvation.
Paul writes this letter to remove the “plus” from their salvation equation, which is why he mentions in verses 11–12 that the message he had preached to them was not something he invented or learned from any human teacher. It was delivered to him directly from Jesus. Paul’s thesis to the Galatian churches is that, if the message he preached and they received is from God, the alternative message being taught in the Galatian churches is not from God. It is a counterfeit gospel, which is worthless and dangerous.
It is likely that those who were teaching a Jesus “plus” gospel were Jews who had received Jesus as the Messiah. Sadly, they had an incomplete understanding of what the cross had accomplished. While important, they saw the crucifixion of Jesus as insufficient, believing that for a non-Jew to be truly saved, he must become a Jew by fulfilling certain ceremonial obligations — the plus.
The Most Unlikely Preacher
Paul’s personal before and after story is important in this context because in verses 13–14 he claims to have been one of the most zealous and theologically advanced Jews in all of Judaism. In Acts 22:3, Paul asserts he was a student of the famed rabbi, Gamaliel, a highly respected Pharisees in the early first century during the ministry of Jesus and the formative years of the Apostle Paul. If anyone was a faithful, rising star among the Jews, it was Paul.
Not only was Paul a pure-bred Jew, but he was also a leading persecutor of Christians in the early church. If anyone alive hated Jesus at the time, it was the pre-converted Paul. In 1 Timothy 1:13, he says of himself, “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man.” This testimony is confirmed by his approval of the stoning of Steven at the end of Acts 7 as well as his intent to arrest and imprison Christians in Acts 9:1–2,
“1 Meanwhile, Saul (Paul’s Jewish name) was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any (disciples) there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.”
This background makes what we read in verses 15–16 all the more staggering, as it was on the very road to arrest and imprison Christians that Jesus was revealed to Paul. We read about this in Acts 9:3–5,
3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied.
The rest of the story unfolds with Saul being converted from his old ways in Judaism to a sold-out disciple of Jesus as the Christ. Unexpectedly, the chief persecutor of the church became the primary preacher in the church.
Oddsmakers in Vegas would have given Paul the proverbial snowball’s chance to become a follower of Jesus. We can understand why the reports about Paul spread. In verses 23–24, he says,
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.
The Miracle of Grace
In view of Paul’s story, we can safely say that saving grace is a miracle, which is confirmed in verse 15 when Paul confesses, “But then God.” Paul’s before and after story is utterly dependent on the sovereign intervention of God. It was not because of any good Paul had done or would do. Remember, he wasn’t ambivalent about Jesus. Paul hated him.
In God’s timing and in God’s way, he puts the brakes on the before and begins the new chapter of the after. In Paul’s words, God “set me apart from birth and called me by his grace.” Paul’s after was predestined.
Grace had targeted Paul from the beginning. God chose Paul and called Paul. Don’t miss the three keywords: “by his grace.” There is no human merit in the salvation equation.
Let’s get personal. What about your story of grace? How has the gospel made a difference in your life in the after? Maybe you are still in the before? If that is the case, this moment right now could be the defining moment of your life. Which begs the question: How does someone experience the defining moment of grace? In Mark 1:15, at the very onset of his ministry, Jesus tells us, saying, “Repent and believe the good news!”
How Does Someone Experience the Defining Moment of Grace?
1) Repent: Confess Your Need
For some, it is not hard to see our need for grace. Our lives are a wreck. We have the bruises to prove it. We can’t hide the fact that we are sinners.
For others, it may be more difficult to see your need for grace. That was Paul’s story. He was a Jewish Pharisee. Today, that would be equivalent to being an ultra-conservative Christian who lives in a subculture where everyone else is a bigger sinner than you are. Sure, you are a sinner. But not as needy for grace as (fill in the blank).
If that is you, please listen. Awareness of another person’s sin and blindness to your own is the most dangerous spiritual condition. To have a grace defining moment, you need to see the sin beneath your sin. Not the outward badness but the inner judgmentalism and self-righteousness that fuels your anger and contempt toward those of different races, religions, and political affiliations. Remember, the gospel is not for the righteous but for sinners. Jesus did not come for those who can help themselves but those who cannot help themselves. So, confess your need.
2) Believe: Receive God’s Mercy
Jesus told a parable about two men at prayer in the temple. One was a Pharisee whose self-congratulatory prayer focused on his own goodness, especially compared to the other man, a tax collector, whose prayer was a simple but desperate plea for the Lord to have mercy and forgive him of his many sins. Jesus says the tax collector is the one who was saved because he recognized his need and looked with faith to the sacrifices being offered for sin in the temple — sacrifices which were shadows of Jesus’ coming sacrifice in crucifixion.
On a cross, Jesus received the judgment you and I deserve so that we could receive the mercy of forgiveness and reconciliation with God. Confessing your need and believing that you are truly and fully forgiven and accepted, not because of your goodness but because of God’s grace alone is the defining moment for every Christian.
Maybe you are living in the after part of your story but do not see the kind of change you expect or desire. You still struggle with besetting sin. Sometimes you don’t want to pray and when you read the Scriptures, they feel lifeless and empty. Where does life after grace get its power?
Where does life after a grace awakening get its power?
The power for living a new life as a disciple of Jesus flows from the hinge upon which the before and after turns. That hinge is nothing less than the cross of Jesus. Octavius Winslow agrees with this assessment, writing from England in the 19th century, “It is by simple, close, and searching views of the cross of Christ that the Spirit most effectually sanctifies the believer.” With the cross as the hinge to our new life, there are a few practical steps you can take that will help you maximize the influence and power of God’s grace in your life.
1) Sit and Soak
I think this is what Paul did for several years after the lights came on to who Jesus was as the Christ and what his crucifixion meant. He had to apply an entirely new law/gospel hermeneutic to interpreting the Old Testament. It took time for the glory of grace to sink in and calibrate his heart. The same will be true for each of us. You may not take off for three years to immerse ourselves in theological study, but you can sit and soak for a few minutes before the day gets started to allow grace to penetrate the pores of your soul. You may want to use The Five Affirmations of Grace for starters.
2) Pursue Theologically Like-minded Friends
After his personal discipleship with Jesus in Arabia, he goes to Damascus, a place where he knows there are other believers because he had attempted to imprison them before his conversion. Eventually, Paul seeks out a couple of leaders in the Jerusalem church, Peter and James. While he was committed to sharing the gospel with those who did not yet profess faith in Jesus, Paul found it valuable and life-giving to connect with theologically like-minded friends.
Whether you are a new believer or a long-time disciple, theological likemindedness is a significant factor in experiencing the power of grace as a follower of Jesus. Connecting for lunch or coffee with a like-minded friend on a regular basis or being part of a discipleship group that is doing life together as spiritual friends are just two ways to be intentional about pursuing theological like-mindedness, not to mention the most obvious connection between like-minded believers in the Sunday morning gathering. As the author of Hebrews exhorts, “Let us not forsake meeting together… but let us encourage one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
3) Imagine the Contrast
What would my life look like today if I were not a disciple of Jesus? Or, what could it look like if I consciously lived in view of the hinge? Imagine the contrast for encouragement and inspiration.
Some of us may say that we are not where we once were but not where we want to be. That is fine, as long as we keep our eye on the hinge, never forgetting that what is ultimate is not how our lives change as much as the fact of Jesus’ life being exchanged for ours. Nonetheless, according to Jesus’ teaching on the dynamics of spiritual life in John 15:4–5, to the degree my heart abides in his sacrificial and substitutionary work for me the more I’ll experience the powerful transforming work of the Spirit in and through me.
A Defining Moment in the Cold War
On September 26, 1983, Stanislav Petrov prevented a full-scale nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Petrov, then a 44-year-old lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces, was the duty officer at a secret command center outside Moscow that monitored early-warning satellites over the United States. While on shift, an alarm sounded, warning that five Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles had been launched from an American base and were headed toward Russia.
What Petrov did next was a defining moment of the Cold War. If he confirmed the attack, the Soviets would retaliate. It was his call.
He had his suspicions about the reliability of the early-warning detection system and thought that if the U.S. were going to attack, it would launch more than five missiles. Making what he later reasoned to be a 50–50 guess, Stanislav Petrov reported a false alarm. If he had reported the warning as an authentic threat, it is reasonable to assume that most of us would not be alive today. Defining moments have the power to alter the course of history.
Just like Jesus’ decision to submit to crucifixion is the defining moment that not only altered the course of history but of eternity. What we do with that event can be the defining moment of our personal lives, altering everything that follows.
Whether you have a before and after hinge moment of grace in your life that you can point to or not, what is most important is not our former lives but our present lives. What we do right now matters. What you believe right now is most crucial, because that is what has the power to impact the after for you personally — the after for your marriage, the after for your parenting. The after of everything.
Paul’s experience of grace in receiving Jesus as his Savior-King was the defining moment that he would live out of for the rest of his life. The same can be true for you today. Your story can be “in my previous life… but then God revealed his son and called me by his grace.” May you be awakened to grace now and then reawakened over and over again.
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