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Lesson 3: True Conversions (1 Thessalonians 1:5-8)

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August 7, 2016

In my pastoral ministry, I’ve often had times when I wondered if the person I was dealing with was truly converted. You’ve probably had the same experience with someone who claims to believe in Christ, but whose life does not back up his claim. Or, perhaps at times you even wonder about yourself: “How can I know whether I am truly converted?” It’s not just an academic question, since it concerns one’s eternal destiny!

Paul tells these new believers in Christ that he knows that God loves them and has chosen them for salvation (1 Thess. 1:4). But how did he know that? In our text, he gives his reasons for knowing that the Thessalonians are elect. First, he refers to the experience of the evangelists, who sensed the power of the Holy Spirit working through them when they preached the gospel there (1 Thess. 1:5). The Thessalonians could know that they were elect because the gospel had come to them through the apostles with such power. Second, Paul could see the effects in the lives of the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 1:6-8). Their lives were obviously changed as they joyfully received the word in spite of much persecution and they spread the gospel to others. While not comprehensive, these verses show us some marks of true conversions:

True conversions come through faithful witnesses who present the gospel in the power of the Spirit, resulting in changed lives that spread the gospel to others.

1. True conversions come through faithful witnesses who present the gospel in the power of the Spirit.

1 Thessalonians 1:5: “for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.” “For” gives the first reason that Paul knew that these people had been chosen by God and thus were truly converted: the gospel had come to them not as a philosophic lecture or through religious hucksters, but rather in the power of the Holy Spirit through men of integrity who were fully convinced of the truth of the message. We can break this into four aspects:

A. True conversion requires the gospel to be presented.

Paul refers to the message he preached as “our gospel.” Sometimes he called it “the gospel of God,” in that it is a message of good news that originates with God and comes to us from Him (1 Thess. 2:2, 8, 9; Mark 1:14; Rom. 1:1; 2 Cor. 9:7; 1 Pet. 4:17). Calling it “the gospel of God” affirms the authority of the message. It is not a humanly devised religious philosophy, but rather a message that comes to us from the living and true God. To reject it would be to reject the authority of the Supreme Ruler of the universe.

At other times, Paul calls it “the gospel of Christ,” because it is good news that centers on the person and work of the Messiah, the promised deliverer (1 Thess. 3:2; 1 Cor. 9:2; 2 Cor. 2:12; 9:13; 10:14; Gal. 1:7; Phil. 1:27). He gave Himself on the cross as the substitute for our sins. God raised Him bodily from the dead to authenticate that He accepted the death of His Son as the sufficient sacrifice for all who believe in Him. Paul also calls it, “the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess. 1:8), because the good news centers on the glorious truth that the Lord God took on human flesh in the person of Jesus. Embracing this good news requires submitting our lives to Jesus as Savior and Lord.

But here Paul refers to it as “our gospel” to reflect his own experience of embracing the gospel as true and the fact that it was entrusted to him to proclaim (see, also, 2 Thess. 2:14; 2 Cor. 4:3). Here Paul says that his gospel did not come to them “in word only”; but obviously, it did come to them through words. In our postmodern day, some minimize the importance of words or doctrine, saying that our lives and deeds should communicate the gospel without words. As we can see at the end of verse 5, Paul’s life backed up his words, but words were necessary to communicate the truth of the gospel. We must present the gospel clearly in understandable words for people to be truly converted.

In 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, in the context of defending Jesus’ bodily resurrection, Paul wrote a succinct statement of the content of the gospel: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” The essential facts are: (1) We have sinned against the holy God. (2) Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. Many Scriptures could be cited, but none is clearer than Isaiah 53:5-6:

But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.
All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him.

But, also, (3) Christ was buried (proving that He actually died) and was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. If Jesus had not died, He would not have paid the wages of our sin, which is death. If He had remained in the tomb, we would have no assurance that the Father accepted His death as sufficient payment for our sins. The fact that Jesus was raised on the third day was also according to the Scriptures. Jesus said that His resurrection was a fulfillment of the sign of Jonah (Matt. 12:39-41; 16:4), who was in the belly of the great fish for three days and nights. One further essential fact, which Paul does not include in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, but repeatedly emphasizes elsewhere, is (4) that we must respond to the gospel by believing in the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 16:31; Rom. 1:16; 3:22; Eph. 2:8-9).

Paul’s gospel is not primarily about how Jesus can help you with your marriage or help you rear your children or help you succeed in business or help you with your emotional problems, although He can do all of those things and more. Rather, the gospel is the message that we are sinners who deserve God’s eternal judgment, but Jesus rescues all who believe in Him from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:10). For true conversions to take place, we must present the content of the gospel clearly in words that people can understand (Col. 4:3-4).

B. True conversion requires that the words of the gospel be proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Paul’s gospel did not come (1 Thess. 1:5) “in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit.” Some say that this refers to miracles that God worked through Paul and the other evangelists when they were in Thessalonica. While that may be true, in that God often authenticated the gospel through miracles at the hands of the apostles (Heb. 2:3-4), I think that Paul is referring to the changes that took place in the hearts of the Thessalonians through the Holy Spirit when they heard the gospel. (cf. G. K. Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians [IVP Academic], pp. 50-51). Leon Morris (The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians [Eerdmans], p. 57) puts it,

In many places we see evidence that the gospel is power, for God is in it (cf. Rom. 1:16). It is not simply that the gospel tells of power, though this, too, is true. But when the gospel is preached God is there and God is working.

That effective power of the gospel comes through the working of the third person of the trinity, the Holy Spirit, who worked to bring about the original creation (Gen. 1:2). Now He works to effect the new creation or new birth (John 3:5-8; cf. also, 2 Cor. 4:4-6).

This means that true conversion does not depend on slick salesmanship techniques or powerful rhetoric or convincing logic on the part of the evangelist, although we should be wise and persuasive when we present the gospel. But behind it all, we must pray for the Holy Spirit to work powerfully to open blind eyes to the truth of the gospel of the glory of Christ (2 Cor. 4:4-6). True conversion is not just getting a person to make a decision or pray the sinner’s prayer, but rather the Holy Spirit must impart new life.

C. True conversion comes through those who have full conviction of the truth of the gospel because they have experienced its life-changing power.

Some (C. H. Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 51:56-57; F. F. Bruce, Word Biblical Commentary, 1 & 2 Thessalonians [Thomas Nelson], p. 14) understand “full conviction” to refer to the assurance or “deep inward persuasion of the truth” that the Thessalonians had after they believed. But the first two parts of the verse relate to the manner in which the gospel came to the Thessalonians. So it is more likely that the third part refers to the conviction that Paul, Silas, and Timothy had when they preached the gospel there. After Paul had been beaten and wrongly imprisoned in Philippi (1 Thess. 2:2), it would have been natural for him to be a bit more cautious in Thessalonica. But his own boldness confirmed to him that the Holy Spirit was working through him (see Matt. 10:19-20).

Also, Paul was fully convinced of the truth of the gospel because he had experienced its life-changing power on the Damascus Road. As you know, he was vehemently persecuting Christians when the Lord struck him down, blinded him, and turned him 180 degrees so that he boldly proclaimed Christ, even in the face of repeated opposition and persecution. The story of Paul’s dramatic conversion is repeated three times in the Book of Acts (9:1-22; 22:3-21; 26:4-18). On two of those occasions, Paul used his testimony to bear witness, once to the angry mob in the temple in Jerusalem, and the other time to King Agrippa (see, also, Gal. 1:13-17). God used Paul’s full conviction of the truth of the gospel to bring the truth powerfully to the hearts of the Thessalonians.

You may be thinking, “That’s great for someone like Paul, who has a dramatic conversion story. But I grew up in the church. I don’t even know when I got saved. I don’t have such a dramatic story to tell.” That’s my story, too. But you don’t have to have a spectacular, sudden conversion story to be an effective witness for Christ. If you know Him, you know that He changed your heart. Before you were saved, being a Christian was routine—it was how you were raised. You went to church, went through all the motions, and probably were outwardly moral. But you didn’t love God or His Word. You didn’t hate your sin. And you probably thought that you’d go to heaven because you were a pretty good person.

But when God saved you, He opened your eyes to your self-righteousness, pride, lust, greed, selfishness, and many other sins. He worked repentance in your heart (Acts 11:18). As you see how much He forgave you, you love Jesus much (Luke 7:37-50). As you come to understand and believe the gospel, you grow to see the beauty of Jesus and how He fulfilled hundreds of Scriptures. You come to a full conviction of the truth of the gospel because God changed your heart when you believed. And that makes you a more effective witness for Christ.

D. True conversion comes through witnesses whose lives back up their message.

Paul adds (1 Thess. 1:5), “just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.” He, Silas, and Timothy were men of integrity. They weren’t preaching to get praise from people or to get rich from the gospel. They lived openly before God to please Him, not men (1 Thess. 2:4-6). John Calvin humorously commented on how preachers need to be obedient to what they urge on the congregation. He said (T. H. L. Parker, Calvin’s Preaching [Westminster/John Knox Press], p. 40), “It would be better for him to break his neck going up into the pulpit if he does not take pains to be the first to follow God.”

If you’re not living to please God on the heart level, please keep quiet about being a Christian! You’ll do more damage than good for the cause of Christ if your life does not back up the truth of the gospel. I’m not talking about perfection, but rather about integrity. Hypocrisy turns people off and hinders them from seeing the truth of who Christ is. True conversions come through faithful witnesses who present the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit.

2. True conversions result in changed lives that spread the gospel to others.

1 Thessalonians 1:6-8: “You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything.” Note four things:

A. True converts desire to become like the Lord Himself.

1 Thessalonians 1:6: “You also became imitators of us and of the Lord.” You might wonder whether Paul was arrogant to tell people to imitate him as he imitated Christ (1 Cor. 4:4; 11:1; Phil. 3:17; 1 Pet. 5:3). But the fact is, every one of us is an example to others, either of Christlike behavior or of selfish, sinful behavior. This is especially true for parents: your kids imitate your example.

This painfully hit me when our oldest daughter was just a toddler. She was in her car seat when I rounded a blind curve on a mountain road near our home in California and nearly rear-ended a guy who had stopped in the road to admire the view. I slammed on the brakes, hit my horn, and yelled, “You jerk!” Behind me I heard a little voice repeat, “You jerk!” I thought, “Oh, no, my precious little girl is learning impatience and anger from her father!” I immediately asked the Lord to forgive me and realized the heavy responsibility on me to be an example of Christlikeness to my children. Again, this doesn’t mean perfection, but reality in your walk with Christ. When you sin in front of your kids (as we all do), ask their forgiveness and explain that you have asked the Lord’s forgiveness and are seeking to obey Him.

Paul mentions his and his companions’ example ahead of Christ because it was through them that the Thessalonians first saw the reality of the gospel. They heard how God had changed Paul from being a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a violent aggressor (1 Tim. 1:13) to a man who was willing to lay down his life so that others could come to know the Savior. That kind of change is always attractive. So the Thessalonians were changed from being self-centered, pleasure-seeking pagans to loving Christ and wanting to be like Him. True conversion always includes repentance from sin (1 Thess. 1:9; cf. my sermon, “The Mark of True Conversion,” 5/23/10).

B. True converts welcome the word joyfully even in the face of persecution.

The Thessalonians “received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess. 1:6). True joy does not come from comfortable circumstances or the absence of trials, but from the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Today, many are led to believe that if they trust in Christ, their trials will go away. They will have an abundant life, which is often presented as financial prosperity and miraculous healing from every illness. That’s a false gospel and those who are duped by it are often unprepared and disappointed when trials hit. They conclude that Christianity must not be true.

But Jesus plainly prepared His disciples for hardship and persecution. He said (Matt. 5:11-12), “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” When Paul led people to Christ, he followed up by telling them (Acts 14:22), “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” Of his own trials he wrote (Rom. 5:3-5), “And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”

James (1:2-4) wrote, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” Peter wrote to believers suffering horrible persecution under Nero (1 Pet. 4:12-13), “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation.”

During his relatively short time in Thessalonica, Paul had taught these new believers to expect afflictions because we have been destined for this (1 Thess. 3:3-4). So we need to reject the heresy that the gospel brings health and wealth if you just have enough faith. Rather, true converts experience the joy of the Holy Spirit as they encounter difficult trials and persecution.

C. True converts become examples to others.

Paul says (1 Thess. 1:7), “so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.” This is the only verse in the New Testament where a congregation is viewed as a model for other churches (Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 99). As I’ve already said, you are an example to others; the only question is, “What kind of example are you?” Your children are learning from your example. Younger believers are watching how you live to learn how they should react when trials hit or when things don’t go the way they had hoped. What they should see is your joy in the Holy Spirit and your faith toward God (1 Thess. 1:6, 8).

D. True converts spread the gospel to others, both locally and beyond.

1 Thessalonians 1:8: “For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything.” “The word of the Lord” refers to the gospel. It comes to us from the Lord, not from any human religious philosopher or theologian. It centers on the Lord Jesus, who gave Himself on the cross for our sins. Thus we can “sound it forth” with confidence to others.

The Greek verb translated “sounded forth” occurs only here in the New Testament. It is a strengthened form of a weaker verb from which we get our word echo. In other literature, it was used of a clap of thunder, the loud cry of a multitude, a rumor that runs everywhere, or the sound of a loud trumpet (Green, p. 101). It means that the Thessalonians were not mealy-mouthed milquetoasts when it came to telling people about Jesus. It always amazes me that even Paul asked for prayer that he would be bold in proclaiming the gospel (Eph. 6:19-20)! That would suggest that all of us need to put “boldness in witness” on our personal prayer lists.

Conclusion

So true conversions come through faithful witnesses who present the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit, resulting in changed lives that joyfully endure hardship as they spread the gospel to others. As I said, there are more tests of true conversion in the New Testament. The letter of 1 John gives three main tests: (1) Theological: believing the truth about who Jesus is; (2) Moral: obedience to God’s commandments; and, (3) Social: love for others (Robert Law, The Tests of Life, cited by John Stott, The Epistles of John [Tyndale], p. 53). In our day of so much counterfeit Christianity, make sure that you are truly converted. And, help others to be genuine in their faith.

Application Questions

  1. What is the greatest obstacle we face in trying to make the gospel clear? How can we overcome it?
  2. Should we automatically share assurance of salvation with someone who has just prayed the sinner’s prayer? Why/why not?
  3. Discuss: Should a believer who is defeated by secret sins (such as pornography or dishonesty) tell others about Jesus?
  4. Why is it crucial to teach new believers how to handle trials (see Mark 4:16-17)? Why is the “health and wealth gospel” a dangerous, destructive heresy?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2016, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation)

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