The Transforming Power of the Gospel
Reverend Bryn MacPhail / September 8, 2002
In the first century, Thessalonica was, both, the capital of Macedonia and its largest city. Paul’s missionary visit to Thessalonica did not come under the best conditions. Paul’s visit there followed his release from prison in Philippi (Acts 16:11-17:4).
So, as you can imagine, when Paul went to Thessalonica, he was not going as a well-liked, well-regarded, evangelist. There was no 5-star hotel room waiting for Paul. It was not as if a stadium full of people awaited Paul’s arrival. No, Paul came with very little prestige, and those who had heard of Paul, greatly mistrusted him (Acts 17:6).
Nonetheless, I suspect that when Paul entered the synagogues in Thessalonica, he had great hopes that his countrymen would be convinced that Jesus was the Christ. Thankfully, many were convinced, and joined the ranks of the disciples (Acts 17:4); but the bulk of those who heard Paul refused the gospel, “formed a mob and set the city in an uproar”(Acts 17:5). As a result, Paul and his companions fled Thessalonica by night after witnessing only a modest conversion of souls (Acts 17:10).
Mindful of this background, we can now understand what is behind Paul’s joy as he writes his first letter to the Thessalonians. Though the number of individuals converted in Thessalonica was initially just a few, the group of believers there appears to have grown significantly—both, in number and in maturity.
Paul begins his letter with a word of encouragement, writing, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers”(1Thess.1:2). Paul then goes on to take inventory of their spiritual progress, commending them for their “work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ”(1:3).
Paul also notes how the Thessalonians have become “imitators of (the apostles) and of the Lord” in such a way that they have become “an example to all the Christians in Macedonia and in Achaia”(1:6, 7). It appears that some of the Christians in Macedonia and Achaia had communicated to Paul what they had observed in the Thessalonian Christians, “how (they) had turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God”(1:9).
Though Paul witnessed some conversions because of his ministry in the synagogues, we can see from his reference to worshipping idols (1:9), that the Thessalonian church now had a large contingent of Gentile believers. These Gentiles, who were accustomed to numerous forms of idol worship, had altogether abandoned these practices for the purpose of worshipping the One “living and true God”(1:9).
I would like to, first of all, point out the obvious. Becoming disciples of Jesus involved a profound change of behaviour for the Thessalonians.
So you see, becoming a Christian is not simply a matter of agreeing with a particular doctrine. Becoming a Christian is not simply a matter of agreeing that Jesus Christ is Lord. Becoming a Christian involves a change; it involves a total transformation of our nature.
Now where does this transformation come from? Is this transformation to be wrought by us? No. Paul tells us the source of this transformation in verse 5, “our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction”.
We have heard this elsewhere from Paul when he writes to the Romans, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation”(Rom. 1:16). We have heard this from the author of Hebrews, who writes, “the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword . . . and is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart”(Heb. 4:12). And we have heard this when the Lord spoke through His prophet Isaiah, “ (When) My word goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return empty, but it will accomplish what I desire, and it will succeed in the matter for which I sent it.”(Isa. 55:11).
What we find everywhere in Scripture is the notion that God desires to transform us, and that He desires to conform our character to His. And the way God does this is through the power of His word. God must first do the work, before we can do ours. Faith is not something we can generate, as John Calvin points out, "(creating) faith is the principle work of the Holy Spirit".
In verse 4 we learn that this process is initially set in motion by “(God’s) choice of you”. What follows God’s choice of you is God sending out His word to you. But, as Paul points out, if God has chosen to transform you, His word will be accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit to ensure that God’s word will “succeed in the matter for which it was sent.”
But what happens after the word of God succeeds in transforming our nature? What is left for us to do? Look at what Paul says about the Thessalonians in verse 6, “You also became imitators of us and of the Lord”.
When the Lord chooses you, when the Lord sends His word to you by the power of the Holy Spirit, He does not simply do this to keep you out of hell, but as Robert McCheyne points out, "(He does this) to bring you back to the image of His Father; to make you holy and happy.”
What I hope grabs hold of you this morning is the transforming power of the Gospel. My prayer is that you will clearly see that the Word of God has the power to change you. This is no ordinary Book. The Gospel is no ordinary message because it comes with power—God’s power. And God means to change you and I; He means to transform you and I, by His Spirit working through the Bible.
A number of years ago, after gaining, what I would call, a significant amount of weight, I determined to go on a diet. Now, as you can see, I am not a big man, but since I was used to being quite fit, my desire was to lose 10 pounds. At that time, there was a best-selling book written by a doctor who had developed a unique eating plan for losing weight. As I read this book I was extremely motivated and inspired. I then diligently followed this doctor’s eating plan and was successful in losing 10 pounds in less than a month.
But guess what? Within two months of reaching my target weight, I had regained the 10 pounds . . . and then some. How could this be? Very simple—the book had no real power to change me. The book was convincing, yes. The book was motivating, yes. But it lacked any real power to change me. The results I enjoyed came from my own efforts. Consequently, the results I enjoyed were both temporary and superficial.
I present this analogy to you by way of a contrast. The Bible is not at all like that weight loss book I read. The Bible “is the power of God unto salvation”(Rom. 1:16). The Bible “is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the (human) heart”(Heb. 4:12). The Bible is able to “accomplish what (God) desire(s)”.
What this means is, if God has transformed our nature, there should be a marked difference in our behaviour. And unlike, my short-term success with weight loss, the changes to our behaviour should neither be superficial or temporary. The changes to our behaviour should be profound and permanent.
The individual marked by vulgarity should soon be marked by politeness. The individual marked by bitterness should soon be marked by graciousness. The individual marked by hatred should soon be marked by love. The individual marked by drunkenness should soon be marked by temperance. The individual marked by immorality should soon be marked by decency.
It may be true that Jesus meets us wherever we are at, but it is also true that He does not leave us in that state in which He finds us. He says to us, “Go and sin no more”(Jn. 8:11), and then He gives us the power to carry out His command (Rom. 7:24, 25).
Paul tells the Ephesians that our transformation begins without any works on our part (Eph. 2:8,9), but he also tells them that one of the purposes of our transformation is “good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”(Eph. 2:10).
This should help us make sense of Paul’s statement to the Thessalonians, “We give thanks to God . . . bearing in mind your work of faith”(1:2, 3). The phrasing of the Greek here is describing work that is produced by faith. We are saved by faith alone, but it is faith that is not alone. Paul is teaching that where genuine faith exists, works will inevitably follow. And these works are not the basis of our salvation, but they are the evidences of it.
Next, Paul says that he thanks God for their “labour of love”. Again, the Greek is properly understood as “labour produced by love”. This is an important qualifier. It is not hard to go into a particular church and find people working. Working hard for the church is no guarantee that an individual has been transformed by the power of God. One of the distinguishing marks of a transformed Christian is that they will display an unmistakable love for Jesus when they serve Him. For the transformed Christian, love will be the motivation for everything they do.
I ask you this morning, if you profess to have faith in Jesus Christ, does the way you live your life substantiate such a claim? Or, let me phrase my question another way, ‘If it was a crime to be a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?’
Friends, if God has transformed your nature, are you being intentional about practicing righteousness? Or do you think that God is going to wave a magic wand to make you live righteously?
A few years ago, Jack Nicklaus was golfing in a celebrity golf tournament, and Jack's celebrity partner, after watching him putt, said, "I wish I could putt like that". Jack then turned to his partner and gave him this curt response, "I didn't get to putt like this by wishing".
Becoming a mature Christian, becoming a Christian that habitually practices righteousness, is hard work. It is hard work, but it is work made possible by God’s Spirit and God’s Word.
I implore you to take up this work—not as an onerous duty, but I implore you to take up this work as a labour of love. Amen.