One of the great loves of my life is preaching the gospel in a variety of contexts whether it be from the pulpit, over the airwaves of Christian talk radio, or a through a multitude of other opportunities granted by God in personal evangelism. Weighty and eternal issues are at stake in this endeavor including the integrity of the message, method, and motive; the obligation placed upon us by God to evangelize and then disciple; the burning desire to see as many converted as possible; and the quality of our supposed converts.
It is this last issue that has gripped my heart for some time. If we are engaging in evangelism, it is incumbent upon us to evaluate the fruit of our witnessing efforts. Years ago I had to wrestle with the fact that most of the individuals I led to Christ never came for baptism or failed to remain committed church members. It occurred to me that the power of Christ in salvation ought to be more compelling than that. For example, those converted at Pentecost, all three-thousand of them, "continued steadfastly in the apostle's doctrine... (Acts 2:42)." They remained committed to Christ, to His church, and to His word.
A resolution on integrity in church membership is being proposed by Dr. Tom Ascol to the Southern Baptist Convention in June of this year. Ascol's rationale in such a proposal is that Southern Baptist churches boast over sixteen-million members while over half of those never participate in a meaningful way in the life of a Southern Baptist church. The primary concerns relate to Southern Baptist's historical and biblical commitments to a regenerate church membership and church discipline. Not to put words in Ascol's mouth, but it seems to me that Southern Baptists have abandoned both.
Many reasons exist as to why Southern Baptists, and indeed evangelicals at large, are failing in this area. One of those reasons is the failure to examine the quality of our supposed converts. That is, we suffer from a failure to evaluate the spiritual condition of our supposed converts and in so doing we fail to evaluate our evangelistic message, method, and motive. Questions should be raised in our own minds. Are we preaching a pure gospel or a watered-down version? Are we engaging in biblical gospel proclamation or man-centered, manipulative, powerless techniques? Are we motivated by the glory of God and the salvation of souls or the numbers that we can boast to one another?
As always, the Scriptures have an authoritative word for us. The apostle Paul evaluated the quality of his supposed converts. For example, he says to the Thessalonians, "knowing, beloved brethren, your election by God (1 Thes. 1:4)." Paul knew that God had elected them, and by inference saved them, and offered the evidence for that knowledge in vv. 5f.
As far as that evidence is concerned, he says, "For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance; as ye know what manner of men we were among you for your sake." Paul uses the term "our gospel" not because he made it up or that it is his product in some way, but, because God had called him and the other apostles out of darkness into His marvelous light and had set them apart to preach the gospel. Indeed it was and is the gospel of God (Rom. 1:1) while being at the same time the message given to Paul and indeed to us. In that sense, it is our gospel. The gospel is the message the King has given us to deliver. Our message to a lost world is that Christ died for sinners and rose again according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3-4). We are heralds of the good news of God's salvation in Christ.
When evaluating the quality of his supposed converts, Paul points out a number of dynamics. First, he points out that this gospel came to the Thessalonians not in word only. This dynamic is the first piece of evidence pointing to their election. They did not receive the gospel in word only. They did not view it as a mere human message. They did not hear it and then discard it. The gospel was God's message to them and it changed their lives. They became doers of the word and not hearers only (Jas. 1:22).
Second, the gospel came to them in power. This dynamic is the flip side of "not in word only." The gospel is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe because in it is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith. Just as it is written, the just shall live by faith (Rom. 1:16-17). They had received the dynamic power of the Holy Spirit upon their salvation just as God had promised (Acts 1:8).
Third, the power of the gospel comes by the operation of the Holy Spirit. Thus, Paul says the gospel came to the Thessalonians in the Holy Spirit. He is the agent of regeneration. He brings the dead sinner from spiritual death to spiritual life (Titus 3:5; Jn. 5:24-25). With the new birth, the Spirit gives the twin gifts of repentance and faith. The connection between the gospel being the power of God unto salvation for all who believe and the faith that they exercise in believing is the work of the Spirit. He regenerates dead sinners and in so doing grants them faith in Christ. Through that faith, they are justified in God's sight and saved.
One is reminded of Paul's words to the Corinthians on this issue and indeed they serve as a commentary regarding the operation of the Spirit and the receipt of the gospel. "And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God (1 Cor. 2:1-5)."
Fourth, when the gospel comes with the Holy Spirit, it also comes in much assurance. That is, the Thessalonians were convinced by the power of the Spirit that Paul's message was true. It came with deep conviction. It came with deep conviction of sin, of need, and of the sufficiency of Christ as Savior. It came with the assurance that Christ's person and work is that which is needed for salvation.
Fifth, the Spirit also convinced the believers at Thessalonica what manner of men Paul and the others were for their sake. They were men of character. Their behavior among the Thessalonians was proof of their integrity and the integrity of their message. They were not in this endeavor for themselves. They were not peddlers. They were "not as many, which corrupt the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God [spoke they] in Christ (2 Cor. 2:17)." They were different from the traveling philosophers of the day who sought to take advantage of unsuspecting people.
Further, Paul and his fellow ministers came to the Thessalonians for their sake, that is, for the sake of the Thessalonians. They had a need and Paul had the answer to that need. They needed Christ and Paul had the gospel. The evidence of their election was their recognition that Paul was sincere and that his message was sincere. They saw that sincerity by the Spirit.
Sixth, Paul cites more evidence of their election. "And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost (v. 6)." They became followers of Paul and the apostles. Paul does not mean here that they followed mere men. He means at least two things. First, as Paul followed Christ, they followed Paul. Second, the church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ being the chief corner stone (Eph. 2:20). As Paul had been set apart by God for this ministry (Gal. 1:15), he and his message carried weight and authority. As he took part in laying the foundation of the church it may be said that those who believed his message followed him. He does not have his own glory in view here but rather the glory of Christ as His message is Christ.
Seventh, do not miss the very next phrase which has bearing upon this issue. Yes the Thessalonians became followers or imitators of Paul, but they also became imitators of the Lord. They had been born of the Spirit and were now following Christ and indeed being conformed to His image.
Eighth, there is another sense in which they became imitators of Christ. They "received the word in much affliction." Just as Christ was afflicted, so too his followers will be afflicted (Matt. 5:10-12). All who live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution (2 Tim. 3:12). It was not easy in this pagan culture to turn from idols to serve the living God (v. 9). But, they did and they persevered in the faith.
Ninth, the good news is that even though Christians are afflicted and suffer persecution for the sake of Christ, they also receive the word with "joy of the Holy Spirit." That is, they receive a joy that comes from the Holy Spirit. Christian joy does not refer to being exuberantly happy about dire circumstances. Rather, it refers to the peace and indeed happiness that comes from an assurance that God is on the throne of the Universe and that He orchestrates all things in our lives for our good (Rom. 8:28f). His plan and purpose cannot be frustrated. Our joy is grounded in the hope we have in Christ (v. 3). Our joy is grounded in the fact that our suffering is for a purpose and goal. "My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience... Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him (Jas. 1:2-3; 12)."
Tenth, Paul notes that the result of their receipt of the word was that they "were ensamples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia (v. 7)." It was the fact that the gospel came to them not "in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance," and the fact that they "became followers of [Paul], and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost" that caused them to be examples to other believers. The transformation that had been wrought in their lives and their willingness to be "sold out" as it were for Christ was a tremendous example to others. Their commitment to Christ in light of great persecution was an encouragement to others to believe and then persevere in the faith regardless of external circumstances. Note well that sometimes we need examples to follow that we might be encouraged. But, how much better is it to be the example for their comfort and strength and the glory of the Lord. Because of the Thessalonians, others were saved (v. 8f). May it be so in our lives.
Note the plan of God here. As faithful men proclaim the gospel, not as peddlers, but as sincere men, the gospel comes to a group of people by the power of the Spirit. As it does, they receive that gospel not in word only, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: the demonstration of the Spirit's work in changing their lives. As their lives are changed, the word goes forth to others. That change is a contributing factor that the Spirit uses in the conversion of those others for their joy and Christ's glory. The circle is complete.
It is time we evaluate the quality of our supposed converts. Souls are at stake. God's glory is at stake. Our integrity is at stake. Do those individuals you have led to Christ bear evidence that they have received the gospel not in word only, but in power? Is it time to evaluate not only your converts, but also your message, method, and motive? It's the Pauline thing to do.
Dr. Paul J. Dean is the pastor of Providence Baptist Church in Greer, SC, and hosts a daily, live, call-in radio talk show: "Calling for Truth." He serves as the Director of Applied Ministry at the Greenville, SC extension of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a Regional Mentor with the International Association of Biblical Counselors. Paul speaks at several conferences throughout the year and provides training for ministers and churches on a regular basis. He is married and has three children.
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