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Authentic Faith

Authentic Christians are transformed by the Holy Spirit.


In this series, we're going to be looking at 1 and 2 Thessalonians. These letters will emphasize two perspectives: They put a laser focus on the future. But they also emphasize what it means to live in the here-and-now.

Followers of Jesus Christ should live with one foot in this world and the other in the world to come. We should be fully engaged with this life. But we should also live with an awareness of eternity. One day—for one generation—Jesus Christ will break through the sky, and life as we know it will come to a screeching halt. For all others, it will be death that comes with a last breath—sometimes expected, sometimes a shocking intrusion.

Having the double perspective of this world and the world to come gives us wisdom. It shapes our priorities, our schedules, our dreams for our children, our decisions with our work, our concerns for our neighbors. It fuels our hearts for the gospel.

We're calling this series End-time People. These letters are for people living in the present, but living with the perspective of eternity.

The author of these letters is Paul. Paul goes on three—probably four—extended missionary journeys. Paul's strategy is to go to influential cities, and plant churches. From there the gospel will be carried into the surrounding areas.

On his second journey—in about the year 50—Paul and two of his associates—Silas and Timothy—go to the city of Thessalonica. Thessalonica is the capital of Macedonia. It is still today the second largest city in Greece. Paul goes there and a church is established, but it is a time of active persecution. And Paul is quickly forced from the community. You can read the details in Acts 17.

Paul leaves, but he is very much concerned about this church. He sends his associate Timothy back to the city while he continues on. Paul and Timothy meet back up in Corinth and these two letters are written about a year after Paul left Thessalonica.

What does authentic faith look like?

Paul begins the first letter by telling his readers that he is convinced they have authentic faith—that they're authentic believers. He describes what he knows of their lives. As he describes who they are we get a good sense of what an authentic believer looks like. Not everyone who calls himself/herself a Christian is one. Not every claim to know God is authentic. You may have been traumatized by someone who identified himself/herself as a Christian.

My wife and I enjoy watching Antique Road Show. If the appraiser wants to authenticate a piece of pottery, he may look for markings on the bottom of the vase. He is concerned with the style, the colors, the materials used. There are certain things the appraiser looks for to authenticate the pottery.

If we have an authentic relationship with God, if the gospel has taken root in our lives, there are certain things that should be present within our lives. If they're not present, that may indicate that we're a forgery, that we don't have authentic faith.

I see at least four things in this passage that characterized these first readers. These are the signs of authentic faith.

Authentic believers are marked by consistent service.

Letters in the ancient world weren't signed at the end, but at the beginning. Paul is writing on behalf of the missionary team. Verse 2: Paul begins by telling his readers that he is deeply grateful for them. He prays for them. Verse 3: Further, he sees within his readers the evidence of critical qualities or virtues that the Holy Spirit produces within the lives of believers. These are the virtues of faith, love, and hope. And Paul is confident that those are present within their lives because of the way they serve.

Notice that faith has produced work; it has led them to serve or use their gifts. We are all given spiritual gifts—special abilities to build into the lives of others. Some have speaking gifts; some have serving gifts. But we all have gifts. And these first readers are using theirs.

We exercise faith when we first received the Savior. But faith—a sense of trust and dependency—should be the on-going reality of our lives. And Paul sees their service as tangible evidence of their faith.

Notice also that their love produced labor. The term used in this passage refers to work that can be exhausting. These believers are using their gifts and serving to the point of fatigue. Again, behind this effort is love. I take it love for God, love for others. But these readers are responding to real needs.

Finally, there is also a stick-to-it-iveness as these believers are using their gifts. One writer defines the word translated "endurance" as "patience or persistence in the face of opposition." The term implies some level of persecution or resistance. Regardless, these readers continue to serve.

One mark of authentic faith is a desire to serve. Serving is not an optional extra. It's not a nice thing to do if you have extra time. If faith, love, and hope produce a desire to serve, and we're not serving—if there is no desire to serve—I take it what's missing is faith, love, and hope.

Authentic faith—a relationship with God—is demonstrated by the use of our gifts. It is demonstrated by consistent serving.

Authentic believers have been drawn to the gospel by the Spirit.

In verse 4 Paul writes that God has chosen his readers. He is referring to what is sometimes called election or predestination. Few issues have caused more confusion and even arguments among believers.

The Bible teaches two things. They seem to be contradictory. First, it teaches that God knows who will believe; he selects us/chooses us. Second, it teaches that God invites all to believe, he makes salvation available to all/he wants all to believe. The book of 2 Peter says, "God is not willing that any should perish, but wants all to come to repentance and faith." John 3:16: "God loves the world; he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."

All are invited to believe. It is a choice that we also must make. It's a mystery. But—on our side—what we must do is believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. And if we have taken Jesus as Savior we have been chosen whether we know it or not.

Paul knows that this is true for his readers because of the way they responded to the gospel. It was clear to him that the Holy Spirit had been involved in the process. The Holy Spirit had drawn them to salvation.

He explains how the process works. Verse 5: The gospel came to them … with words. The gospel involves a specific content—a message. There are two elements to the gospel: Jesus Christ died for my sins and was raised from the dead. Unbelievers have to hear that. We need to put the content of the gospel in front of those who haven't come to faith.

But we need more than that—notice the phrase "with power." Outside of Jesus Christ we are spiritually blind—our hearts are hard to the gospel. It means nothing to us. The gospel is not simply a concept or idea, it is a power at work within a person's life. In order for the gospel to break into someone's life, the message has to be communicated in power.

The next phrase—"with power"—gives us the source of this power: it is the Holy Spirit at work within the person's life. The Spirit takes the Word—the gospel—and penetrates the unbeliever's mind, heart, conscience, will.

When I share the gospel with someone, I always pray. It may be a quick arrow prayer, a single sentence, or a silent prayer. But I know that salvation is an internal work of the Holy Spirit. It is his work.

In a different passage, Paul refers to the Word as the Spirit's sword. The Spirit takes the message—the Word—and supernaturally breaks into or cuts into the person's life. This power—when it is welcomed into a life—continues to work, it transforms us. The anger, the bitterness, the addiction is taken away. God's love, joy, peace, self-control begins to fill our lives.

Finally we have the result of the Spirit's work: "with conviction." This may refer to Paul's confidence or conviction as he communicated the message of the gospel to his readers. But several writers believe that this refers to the response of the unbeliever as he hears the gospel. The Spirit moves within an individual's heart. He/she feels aware of sin and the need for forgiveness.

We feel drawn to this message. And yet troubled by it, disturbed by it—What is life all about? Is Jesus really the Son of God? What if this is really true? Paul refers to this work in Romans 8 as the calling of the Spirit. It is the Spirit's work of drawing us to the Son.

Authentic believers have experienced this work of the Spirit. If you've come to faith, you've experienced that in some way. If you haven't experienced this awareness of your own sin and need, a pull within your own life, then perhaps you haven't believed. Authentic believers have had the Spirit work within their lives.

Authentic believers have transformed lives.

Verse 5b: Paul and those with him modeled truth. They were visible, transparent, genuine; they lived out their faith. Verse 6: These readers then became imitators of Paul, Timothy, and Silas. One of the study Bibles makes the following observation about how this kind of imitation is very much promoted in the New Testament:

  • Believers in various churches are urged to imitate believers in other churches.
  • Multiple times believers are told to imitate their leaders.
  • Younger women should learn from older women.
  • Five times Paul will ask his readers to imitate him.

We need to see what truth looks like when it's put into practice. How do I act on this? What does this look like? I need someone to model this; I need a mentor. My wife and I became aware of a need for mentors when our sons were born. We sought out believers who knew how to parent, who did this with obvious skill. I wanted to see what it looked like to apply the Bible, especially the Proverbs—to my sons' lives balancing truth and love. We were blessed with some excellent examples.

Some people seem to flourish in formal mentoring relationships. Others seek out mentors through friendships or small groups. We need these mentors/these examples. Christianity is a team sport. If we're on the sidelines—only marginally connected; we simply cannot do what this passage describes.

Notice that these readers also imitated the Lord Jesus Christ. They had the original WWJD bracelets. Human mentors may let us down. Jesus Christ is the ultimate model—the ultimate example.

But the gospel profoundly changes lives. Jesus—in the parable of the soils—describes how the gospel impacts hearts and minds. The gospel is like seed; our hearts are like soil. Some soil refuses to accept the seed. But when seed is planted in the right soil it germinates and grows—at times in powerful, surprising ways. An acorn put in the right soil will become an oak tree.

The gospel is like that. It is living, powerful, transforming. It produces new minds, new marriages, new creations. There is no human explanation for what takes place. Notice in verse 6 that the transformation of the readers took place despite "severe suffering." Believers in the first century lived with a great deal of persecution. Officials in the Roman Empire were beginning to arrest and execute followers of Christ.

Believers in many parts of the world today live with a great deal of persecution. I saw an article this week about the persecution of believers in the Middle East and Africa. Horrible things have been done. Believers have been slaughtered, tortured, raped. As many as two million people have had to flee. Believers suffer terribly in North Korea. Believers in China can still face persecution and even prison.

The New Testament teaches that all followers of Jesus will face rejection. I don't know the details for these readers. Again, it is simply described as "severe suffering." We're also told that despite the externals their lives continued to be transformed. With this suffering also came a supernatural joy produced by the Holy Spirit.

Authentic believers have transformed lives. Verse 7 says that the imitators now become the ones who model truth for others. Authentic faith transforms lives. The evidence of the new birth is a new life. We should ask ourselves—or better yet, ask your spouse, children, or close friend: Is my life different today than when I first believed? Have I grown this past year?

Conclusion: authentic believers communicate their faith.

These new believers embodied the truth—acted on the truth. They also communicated the truth. They seem to have done this in two ways. First, they openly announced the news of the gospel. "Rang out," which translates a term related to our English word "echo." It is used for trumpets or thunder or other loud sounds as they echo across space. But the idea is that the gospel is reverberating across the hills and valleys of Greece. But the gospel went out directly.

John Stott says that this means that the gospel also went out indirectly. Notice (v. 8): "Your faith has become known everywhere." Apparently those who had not yet believed were talking about what was happening in the lives of those who were believing. There was a buzz moving through the region. Something extraordinary is going on in Thessalonica. Such and such a person has come to believe in God; and is a different person. It is like a new society has come into being.

First, these believers had turned away from idols. An idol is anything the human heart substitutes for God. It doesn't have to be a statue made of wood, stone, or some precious metal. An idol is anything we substitute for God. It can be money, power, status. It can be our work, another person. It can be food, alcohol, sex. It is anything that we use to fill the emptiness of our human hearts.

Second, these believers had turned to the true and living God. The God of the Old Testament. The God who sent his Son into the world to die for our sin. The God who loves us and knows us.

Third, these believers were oriented toward the future. They believe that history is going somewhere, it's not endlessly cyclical, random, or meaningless. One day Jesus Christ is going to return to this planet, he will save us from the future judgment that will be unleashed on this planet.

But authentic believers have a desire to communicate their faith. They're concerned about their neighbors, family members, and co-workers who don't know the Savior. And if we are not—if we don't care—then perhaps we've never come to know the Savior ourselves.

Please don't misunderstand. Salvation comes by faith in Jesus Christ. Period. Salvation doesn't come by our works, by the externals. But when we believe, the Spirit is planted within our lives. We're not the same people. Salvation is by faith alone, but saving faith is never alone.

Jim Nite is the pastor of Center Point Community church in Naples, FL.

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Sermon Outline:


I. What does authentic faith look like?

II. Authentic believers are marked by consistent service.

III. Authentic believers have been drawn to the gospel by the Spirit.

IV. Authentic believers have transformed lives.

Conclusion: authentic believers communicate their faith.