In his commentary on Acts 26, William H. Willimon offers a unique take on testimonials.
Today, many contemporary Christians are either suspicious of or bored by the hackneyed, stereotypical accounts of personal conversion experiences tirelessly reiterated at testimonial services in some churches or exhibitionistically narrated on the Christian talk shows of the electronic church. After hearing the ten-thousandth account of “What Jesus did for me when he came into my life,” can we blame those who flee from this radically subjectivized and relentlessly experiential approach to the Christian faith? “I was miserable.” “Then I found Jesus.” “Now my life is fulfilled and I am happy.” We have heard the testimonial pattern a thousand times. Note that when compared to Paul’s “testimonial” before Agrippa this pattern comes up short. First, nowhere does Paul say that he was miserable or felt the need for anything else in his life. Unlike modern people, Paul did not conceive of religion before or after his Damascus road experience as primarily a matter of self-fulfillment. Secondly, Luke goes to great lengths to demonstrate that nobody “finds” Jesus. Jesus finds us. Paul was not on his way to Damascus searching for anyone other than Christian heretics. The initiative in all these stories of change and turning around is God’s. Luke would know nothing of our rather smug declaration of spiritual expertise which believes that I found Jesus, I took Jesus into my life, or I gave my life to Christ. For Luke, most of the traffic on the bridge between us and God is moving toward us. Finally, there is the question of happiness as a result of conversion to Christianity. Well, Paul must have felt joy at being God’s instrument and at being par of the good news to Israel and Gentiles. Yet the man who testifies before Agrippa does so in chains. He has been beaten, stoned, imprisoned. It would be difficult to claim that meeting Jesus has solved all of Paul’s problems–in fact meeting Jesus has been from the very first the beginning of problems Paul would surely have avoided and would not have wished upon himself. (Willimon, Acts, 179-180)
In other words, Paul’s testimonial was the opposite of most contemporary Christian testimonials. Not even a hint of health and wealth goo-spill in it.
Jesus ruined Paul’s life in order to renew it.
Before Christ, Saul was a blazing star rising among the Pharisees. After Christ, was a faithful star shining in the universe. Saul was ambitious; Paul was content. Saul was comfortable; Paul was afflicted. Saul was a blasphemer; Paul was a worshiper. Saul was a persecutor; Paul was a preacher. Saul was violent; Paul was peaceful. Saul was powerful; Paul was weak. Saul was a free man; Paul was a prisoner. Saul was condemned by works; Paul was saved by grace. (Philippians 3:4-11; 1 Timothy 1:12-15)
Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
Paul learned by experience what that means — and so must we.
Jesus makes life better in some ways, and worse in other ways, so that it may be best in all ways.
Jesus takes our best life now and nails it to the cross, buries it in the tomb, and raises it to life, by his grace, for his glory, and our good.
Jesus finds us, we do not find him. Jesus takes us into his life, we do not take him into ours. Jesus gives his life to us, we do not give our life to him. Jesus prays us into his heart, we do not pray him into ours. There is one mediator between God and men.
This is the gospel of God’s grace. And such grace is good news indeed.
Painting by Benjamin West / Dallas Museum of Art