I received the following question:

Question that has been bothering me.  If the Apostle Paul was ignorant and everybody in the Acts Period could hear the message only once without the Spirit turning His back on them, what was the Apostle Paul doing at Stephen’s stoning?  Was this guy just not paying attention and didn’t hear the message?  If he was giving approval to his death, it seems like he would have heard Stephen’s message.  So then he wasn’t ignorant of his persecuting the church.  

You are correct. This is a difficult issue. There are a few facts that are important to note regarding this.  First of all, read through the argument Stephen makes to the Jews carefully.  You will see that he ends his argument with, “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.”  (Acts 7:51-53)  After this, he made the incredible statement, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”  These statements are true, and they convicted the listening members of the Sanhedrin.  Yet notice that there is no hint of the gospel in these words.  Never is it stated that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again.  Thus, though Stephen spoke by inspiration, and his words were given the evidence of signs to prove their truth (Acts 6:15,) Stephen never actually spoke the gospel to those listening to him.  Most of them, of course, would have heard the gospel already, and rejected it.  Yet Paul never did. Our best guess is that he was out of the country while Christ and the early apostles were preaching.  Thus, this would have been Paul’s first chance to hear the gospel, and yet he never heard it. What he did hear was Stephen’s defense of what he had done, and a condemnation of those who rejected the truth because of what they had done.  So, whatever we might accuse Paul of, we cannot accuse him of rejecting the gospel, since he never heard it.

Secondly, remember Stephen’s plea to the Lord as he was dying.  He kneeled down and cried, ““Lord, do not charge them with this sin.”  (Acts 7:60)  I have always thought this was an interesting comparison with Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest, who, when he was being stoned, cried out, “The LORD look on it, and repay!” (II Chronicles 24:22) Stephen had learned such forgiveness from His Lord, and he demonstrates an amazing spirit of grace towards his executioners.  Ultimately, I believe the Lord granted Stephen’s request, and the sin they committed in slaying him was not charged against them.  Now most of those who killed him already had other, fatal sins against them, particularly, the rejection of the gospel.  Yet Paul did not have such a sin, since he had never heard the gospel.  Thus, for him, the possibility of forgiveness was still open.

Finally, Paul himself, in I Timothy 1:12-14, reveals to us the reason God showed him mercy.  He says, “And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.”  So, Paul himself tells us that the reason he received mercy was not just because he was given grace, but because he did it ignorantly.  It was in unbelief, but it was in ignorant unbelief.  This means that he was not fully enlightened to the truth, as was typical in the Acts period. The normal Israelite of the Acts period, once he had heard the Word specially inspired to reach him, once he had had the Holy Spirit work in his heart to convict him of the rightness of what he had heard, and once he had had the Word confirmed to him with signs following, could then be in unbelief, but he could never claim to do it ignorantly.  From then on, if unbelief was his choice, it was unbelief in spite of knowing the facts, not unbelief in ignorance.  Yet Paul’s actions were done in ignorant unbelief.  That is because he never actually heard the gospel, and because the Lord preserved him so that He could show His abundant grace through him.  That is why Paul is an exception to what is generally the rule in the Acts period.