From “Growing in the character of a disciple”: Chapter 14 – How to forgive people in practical terms – some advice on what to do and how to go about it
One of the greatest benefits of our forgiveness of another person is that it can open the door for that person to become a Christian. Not only can forgiveness influence others and even soften their hearts. It also has the effect of prompting God to intervene and to open their eyes. Consider the experience of Saul of Tarsus, who became the apostle Paul. He hated Christianity at first and did all he could to oppose it.
Then, one day he came across Stephen, who became the first Christian martyr. Saul of Tarsus was holding the coats of those who stoned Stephen to death for speaking about Jesus. He saw Stephen die. He also saw and heard the manner in which he died, in particular the way he prayed for God to forgive those who were stoning him:
58When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” 60Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep.Acts 7:58-60 (NASB)
There is good reason to believe that one of the ways that God answered Stephen’s prayer was by forgiving and saving Saul of Tarsus. Instead of punishing him, God then used Saul as a mighty instrument to do more for the sake of the Gospel than Stephen could ever have done. It did not happen immediately.
Saul continued to attack the church for a while longer, but it is quite likely that, even as he was doing so, he was coming under God’s conviction. Indeed, it is probably because of that very conviction that Saul tried so hard thereafter to resist the Gospel. But God eventually broke down his resistance and made him into the great man that we know as Paul:
1Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2Some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him. 3But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.Acts 8:1-3 (NASB)
1Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, 2and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; 4and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” 5And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, 6but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” 7The men who travelled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one.Acts 9:1-7 (NASB)
10Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and the Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11And the Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying, 12and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight.” 13But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Your saints at Jerusalem; 14and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.” 15But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel;Acts 9:10-15 (NASB)
Imagine how you will feel one day, on getting to Heaven, and discovering that some of your decisions to forgive people had, like Stephen’s, opened the door for others to believe in Jesus Christ and be saved. That alone would make it all worthwhile.