Indicators of Genuine Conversion 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5a
Turn with me to 1 Thessalonians chapter 1. Today as we begin our time together I want to begin with an illustration. I did not come up with this illustration, I believe I first heard it from Paul Washer. Say that I came in today, after I was graciously invited to preach, and I came in 15 minutes late; I rush up to the podium and begin to profusely apologize saying, “I’m so sorry I was late. You see, on the way here, I got a flat tire. And while I was changing the tire one of the lug nuts ran out into the highway; so, I went after it. As I was stooping down to pick it up, I looked up and behold a 40 ton log truck, and it was very large. It ran me over, but no worries, I’m here now ready to preach. Yes, the crushing weight of the tire was just on me moments ago, but here I am! You would probably consider firing me! Why? Because either I’m lying or I’m insane! You see, you can’t be hit by something so large as a 40 ton log truck, and not leave unscathed, unchanged. Isn’t it the same with the gospel? Isn’t you conversion experience the same? You were once one way, the Holy Spirit intersects with your life and you are now a new person! You’re born again. If you had gotten hit by a log truck there would be some clear physical indicators: you’d probably be dead; however if you had survived, you would probably be in the hospital. The damage would be clear! There would be no question something so large had come in contact with you.
So, what are the indicators of genuine conversion? What can we look for, at a rudimentary, an elementary, a basic level, to discover if our conversion is genuine? Paul notes some of these very things in his opening to the letter of the Thessalonians
1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.
2 We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.
- Genuine converts belong to a true church.
Look back at verse 1
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
Paul has set out on his second missionary journey. Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark join Paul from Jerusalem. In Antioch, Barnabas and John Mark separate from Paul and go to Cyprus. Silas (his Roman name Silvanus) joins Paul on the remainder of this missionary journey. He meets up with Timothy and bring him along as well. He’s about to go to Asia (where the churches addressed in Revelation are) when he receives a call to go to Macedonia. So he goes to Philippi, gets thrown in jail, eventually leaves with those city magistrates apologizing to the Roman citizens that had treated unjustly. Then they go to Thessalonica. This city was a free city because they supported the right emperor in times past. This had certain perks: The city could appoint their own leaders (unlike in Jerusalem), the city could mint their own coins, and they did not have to pay nearly as many taxes. In response, the city officials worshipped the Roman government that granted them all these freedoms. There was a coin minted there that portrayed the current emperor as the “Son of the Divine.” Anyone coming in this city making religious statements is by default making a political statement as well, there’s no way around it.
But all is not well in this city. This emperor they were commanded to worship did not bring a perfect society. He was considered a God, but all was not well. People plotted to bring him down. Earlier emperors had outlawed divination and astrology that was seeking questions about the emperor’s well-being. The Jewish expectation was a military Messiah who would conquer their wicked oppressors. A wide chasm existed between the well-to-do and the poor. Those in the city, just as today, recognized something was wrong. Just as C.S. Lewis puts it, pain is God’s megaphone to the world that something is not right!
Paul and his missionary company enters the city with this very proclamation: The Jewish Messiah is here! He’s here to conquer sin. He died to put sin to death, and rose from the dead ensuring his victory. And one day he will return to establish his kingdom!
As you could imagine, this message made some Jews upset. That’s not the Messiah, the Messiah is supposed to conquer the Romans now. Furthermore, the city officials hearing this message think it’s an announcement against the emperor, sedition against their government. They fine the missionary team, Jason gives the security saying that he would get his missionary friends to leave. Paul, Silas, and Timothy have no choice but to leave prematurely before they fill that the church is fully formed and ready to face the trials that will inevitably come their way.
That is why they write this letter in the first place, after hearing positive results that this people have not been stamped out, but rather are continuing to grow:
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
The church. The term of course, is εκκλεσια meaning literally “called out ones.” At this time in history it referred to an assembly without any holy connotations. This is the importance of the qualifications that Paul gives this assembly “of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
The church is of the Thessalonians; that is, it is made up of Thessalonians. The church is not a building, it is a group of individuals. The universal church is every believer everywhere without regard to time or space. And while this church is one, it does not manifest itself in one way because we are limited in time and space. We are forbidden (like Saul was) to commune with dead Christians. We are limited to commune with Christians from other nations because our inability to either teleport or be in multiple places at the same time. We are limited by languages in whom we can commune with.
So what makes up a local church? Can you just sit in the deer stand with your Christian buddy and say you had “church”? Well, I think if you posed a question like that to Paul he would probably scoff.
To sum it up quickly a true church has biblical preaching, correct doctrine, keeps the gospel central, regenerate church membership, regularly practices evangelism, practices church discipline, is consistent in discipleship, regular in administering the ordinances, and has Godly pastors who are able to shepherd their flock.
You see, this Thessalonian assembly is not just an austere club or erratic cult meeting. This is an assembly “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” And I want to be clear here, because there are several places, buildings, assemblies that brand themselves as a church. Let me give you some tests, if you will, to determine if you belong to a true church.
Does the church believe the Bible is the very inerrant and infallible word of God? One of the true marks of a false denomination is when they believe the Bible contains errors. If you have to pick choose what the Bible says is true or false, you are no longer a person under authority, you are the authority. These supposed “mainline” denominations are dying, and their death is very apparent.
Does the church teach glaring biblical error? The Mormons consider themselves as part of a church. . . but they are also polytheistic, believing anyone can become a god. . . Pretty sure that directly contradicts scripture. The Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to be a part of the true church; however, they deny the divinity of Jesus.
Notice something in this text: You see the prepositional phrase here includes one preposition “in” and two persons within that one preposition. You see, Paul, even here, is putting the Lord Jesus on the same level as God the Father. This is what the Bible teaches.
Let’s examine the Biblical preaching for a moment. Is the main point of the text the main point of the sermon? Is the preaching designed to point you to Jesus or something else? I was just at a conference for pastors this past Friday where author Jared Wilson was giving some helpful analysis of preaching.
You remember back in the day when women were required to never where pants? And the type of preaching associated with this was legalistic “don’t do this. . . don’t do this. . . don’t do this.” Well, now we’ve swung to the opposite side of the legalistic pendulum. Wilson points out how seeker sensitive preaching works:
- Look for a felt need in a church (money, success, leadership, marriage)
- Look for that word in you Bible
- Give principles to how to attain that felt need and back it up with some verses
- If your verses don’t fit, just change the translation.
You see, this is just an alternate from of legalism! In stead of don’t do this, it’s do this, do this do this, all the while Jesus is conveniently forgotten. If you leave a sermon without recognizing your deep need of Jesus, it’s not a biblical sermon! Why is that? Are there not principles in the Bible? No, of course there are moral principles there, success principles there, but the whole point of the Bible is Jesus!
And this gospel message is exuding in Paul’s very greeting when he says, “grace to you and peace.” One commentator writes of this, “Grace is the source of all real blessings, [peace] their end and issue.” In other words, the only reason we have that which is good from God is because of grace! We don’t deserve to be happy. We don’t deserve a loving family. We don’t deserve anything from God. We deserve judgment. But instead, we get grace. How is that possible? Does God just sweep our sin under the rug? No! It’s the atoning sacrifice of Christ. Jesus died on the cross and took the punishment we deserved so God can give grace. And what results? Peace. External peace. God’s wrath is satisfied. And internal peace: this battle that we were fighting to be something we could never be is over because our identity is in Christ.
- A genuine convert’s behavior & attitudes are marked by faith, hope, and love.
We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
One commentator writes, “The triad of faith, hope and love is the quintessence of the God-given life in Christ.” You see, conversion is largely an invisible experience. Conversion cannot be manipulated by the preacher, but it can be faked. “The wind blows as it pleases, so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” You see, there’s a certain mystery to regeneration that is, being born again, that we cannot explain or manipulate, as much as we like. Christian evangelists have attempted for the past few hundred years to manipulate a person’s regeneration. If you can just get emotional enough, if you could say the magic sinner’s prayer, if you can jump through my few evangelical hoops, then you too can be miraculously born again. Then when someone says the prayer or comes forward to the altar, hardly any counseling is done, and their baptized into church membership. Then, when they start to rebel, never show up to church again, or live a life completely contrary to the gospel, the counselor never assumes the person might not be saved, but rather tells them they’re just backslidden!
Can’t you see the major idolatry in our age? We’d rather base our salvation on some experience rather than on the Savior! Jesus saved you! Nothing else! You see Paul is not remembering them because they prayed a prayer or came forward during an altar call, but rather because of three particular marks of a genuine convert: faith, hope, and love.
The work of faith is that work, those actions that are now motivated by faith in God. Legalism says do this or don’t do this because it’s right! Licentiousness says do whatever you want because you’re free in Christ. Luther notices the behavior of a drunken man who squanders all his money on alcohol leaving his family with nothing. When it was time for him to own up to his sins, he had simply purchased an indulgence. You see this was a work of selfishness. In the same way, legalism is a work of selfishness. You work to please. You work to make yourself look better, in God’s or other’s sight.
Dear believer, you cannot disappoint God. Hold on to this dearly. You see, it’s not as though you mess up, you sin, and God calls up a meeting with you and says, “well, I thought you were going to be a good asset to our team, but perhaps not.” God created you in his image. It is for you that Christ died, was buried, and rose again! It is you the Spirit indwells and sanctifies. God does all things for you good. And it is the joy that we experience in this faith that motivates our works! Are your works motivated by faith or self?
The labor of love. Love is not merely an emotion or social virtue. But rather “The present and continuing relationship between God and his people through Christ.” In that sense, does your actions toward God, self, and others reflect your relationship to God? The Apostle John puts it this way, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” 1 John 4:7-11.
Let me ask a more stinging question in regard to this: “How can we truly express this love to one another if we willfully and purposefully neglect gathering together on the Lord’s Day”? I’m not talking about individuals who are unable for whatever providential reason to attend, but those individuals who are able to come but refuse because some idol has gotten ahold of them.
Have you ever dealt with a stubborn toddler whose favorite word is, “NO!” Picture this scenario if you will: You’re getting your kids ready for bed after a long day dealing with all sorts of things. You finish your family worship, begin praying over their kids as they lay in bed and you say, “alright, come give me a hug.” And your toddler crosses his arms and shouts “No!” with a grumpy face. What is a hug? It’s a means of expressing love, expressing our relationship with one another. For this stubborn toddler to withhold this hug, although we cannot imagine what could be going on in a toddler brain, still screams “I don’t love you!”
Look at the means that God has given us to express or love for him and fellow believers: assembling together. When we refuse to fellowship with one another it’s as if we’re the toddler. God’s the Father saying, “come give me a hug,” and we cross our arms in our idolatry and scream “NO!” And what do we expect? Judgment? But how much grace he has given us. Is your labor marked by love? Do you find joy in displaying your relationship with God or is God cold and distant to you?
Faith brings about works, love brings about labor, and hope brings about steadfastness. “Hope is bound up with the conviction that ‘he who has begun a good work’ in you ‘will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ’.” (Phil. 1:6) Hope is a word thrown around a lot in our day. We use it with equivalence to “wish.” We can say, “I hope the Rams win the super bowl.” Or “I hope it doesn’t rain today.” This is not what the Bible means when it uses “hope”. This idea “I hope Jesus comes back” as if it might not happen was unfathomable to the Biblical authors. Hope in an all-powerful God is certain. God does mean all things for my good. God is working for my sanctification. Jesus will return and make all things right. This hope acts as an anchor that stabilizes in our tumultuous world. The world around us is changing so fast. Things are going to chaos! Our amazing Western civilization where we casted all our hopes has proven to be a kingdom that can be shaken! It’s crumbling! The huge earthquake of relative truth and post-modernism has torn it apart! How can we remain steadfast? Because our hope is in Christ!
Is your hope in Christ, or are you experiencing fear from the crumbling society around you?
- A genuine convert’s regeneration is more than an intellectual exercise
4For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.
Have you seen people treat the gospel as an intellectual exercise? They get the gospel and then move on to “bigger” and “better” things? This cannot be so for us, the gospel is the bigger and better thing. We cannot move beyond the gospel message.