As he looks back, Paul can now recognize that God’s sovereign grace was working in his life long before his actual conversion. When Paul says God “set me apart from birth,” (v 15) he means that the grace of God had been shaping and preparing him all his life for the things God was going to call him to do.
This is astonishing. Paul had been resisting God and doing so much wrong (see Acts 26:14), but God was overruling all his intentions and using his experiences and even his failures to prepare him first for his conversion, and then to be a preacher to the Gentiles (v 16). The Old Testament knowledge; the zeal; the training; the effort he was using to oppose God and His church (v 13)—all were being used by God to break him and to equip him to be God’s instrument for building His church. God had been working all along to use Paul to establish the very faith he had opposed (v 23).
This is a major theme in the Bible. Back in Genesis, Joseph told his brothers that their very effort to reject him as God’s chosen deliverer—in which they had gone so far as to try to kill him, and had then successfully sold him as a slave (Genesis 37:5-8, 19-20)—had actually been the means to establish Joseph as that deliverer (Genesis 50:19-20). The apostles insisted that the people who tried to oppose Jesus only served to further God’s purposes (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). All opposition to God will be seen in the end as having done nothing but confirm and further His design.
In chapter 9 of his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis tells of his school teacher, Kirkpatrick. Nicknamed “The Great Knock”, he was a furious debater and logician who taught Lewis how to build a case and make strong arguments. Kirkpatrick was an atheist, and he intended to strengthen Lewis in his own unbelief. But years later, when Lewis became a Christian, it turned out that “The Great Knock” had trained him well to become one of the greatest defenders of the Christian faith in the 20th century.
The gospel gives us a pair of spectacles through which we can review our own lives and see God preparing us and shaping us, even through our own failures and sins, to become vessels of His grace in the world.
So why did all this happen? Why did God choose, prepare and then call Paul, the proud persecutor of His church? Was it because Paul was in some way, in any way, pleasing to God? No, it was simply because God “was pleased” to do so (v 15). God set His loving grace on Paul not because he was worthy of it, but simply because God took delight or pleasure in doing so. This is how God has always worked. As Moses tells God’s people Israel in Deuteronomy 7:7-8: “The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you.”
God does not love us because we are serviceable; He loves us simply because He loves us. This is the only kind of love we can ever be secure in, of course, since it is the only kind of love we cannot possibly lose. This is grace.