Conversion: What Is It? Part 4

1 Thessalonians 1
The last two verses of 1 Thessalonians 1 demand our very special attention. They furnish a remarkable statement of the real nature of conversion. They show, very distinctly, the depth, clearness, fullness, and reality of the work of God’s Spirit in those Thessalonian converts. There was no mistaking it. It carried its own credentials with it. It was no uncertain work. It did not call for any careful examination before it could be accredited. It was a manifest, unmistakable, work of God, the fruits of which were apparent to all. “They themselves show of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God; and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:9-109For they themselves show of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; 10And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come. (1 Thessalonians 1:9‑10)).
Here, then, we have a divine definition of conversion — brief, but comprehensive. It is a turning from, and a turning to. They turned from idols. There was a complete break with the past, a turning of the back, once and forever, on their former life and habits; a thorough surrender of all those objects that had ruled their hearts and commanded their energies. Those dear Thessalonians were led to judge, in the light of divine truth, their whole previous course, and not only to judge it, but to abandon it unreservedly. It was no half-and-half work. There was nothing vague or equivocal about it. It was a marked epoch in their history — a grand turning-point in their moral and practical career. It was not a mere change of opinion, or the reception of a new set of principles, a certain alteration in their intellectual views. It was far more than any or all of these things. It was the solemn discovery that their whole past career had been one great, dark, monstrous lie. It was the real heart conviction of this. Divine light had broken in upon their souls, and in the power of that light they judged themselves and the entire of their previous history. There was an out-and-out surrender of that world which had hitherto ruled their hearts’ affections; not a shred of it was to be spared.
And what, we may ask, produced this marvelous change? Simply the Word of God brought home to their souls in the mighty power of the Holy Spirit. We have referred to the inspired account of the apostle’s visit to Thessalonica. We are told that “he reasoned with them out of the scriptures.” He sought to bring their souls into direct contact with the living and eternal Word of God. He did not bring mere human influence to bear upon them. There was no effort to act on their feelings and imagination. All this the blessed workman judged to be utterly valueless. He had no confidence whatever in it. His confidence was in the Word and Spirit of God. He assures the Thessalonians of this very thing in the most touching manner, in chapter 2 of his epistle. “For this cause,” he says, “thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the Word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but, as it is in truth, the Word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe.”
This is what we may call a vital and cardinal point. The Word of God, and that alone, in the mighty hand of the Holy Spirit, produced these grand results in the case of the Thessalonians, which filled the heart of the beloved apostle with unfeigned thanksgiving to God. He rejoiced that they were not linked on to him, but to the living God Himself, by means of His Word. This is an imperishable link. It is as enduring as the word which forms it. The word of man is as perishable as himself; but the Word of the Lord endureth forever. The apostle, as a true workman, understood and felt all this, and hence his holy jealousy, in all his ministry, lest the souls to whom he preached should in any way lean upon him instead of on the One whose messenger and minister he was.
Hear what he says to the Corinthians: “And I, brethren, when I came unto you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything 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. 2:1-51And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. 2For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 3And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. 4And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: 5That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1‑5)).
Here we have true ministry — “the testimony of God,” and “the demonstration of the Spirit” — the word and the Holy Spirit. Nothing else is of any value. All mere human influence, human power, and the results produced by human wisdom or energy, are perfectly worthless — yea, positively mischievous. The workman is puffed up by the apparent results of his work paraded and talked of, and the poor souls that are acted upon by this false influence are deceived, and led into an utterly false position and false profession. In a word, the whole thing is disastrous in the extreme.
Not so when the Word of God, in its mighty moral power, and the energy of the Holy Spirit, are brought to bear on the heart and conscience. Then it is we see divine results, as in the case of the Thessalonians. Then indeed it is made apparent, beyond all question, who is the workman. It is not Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, but God Himself, whose work accredits itself, and shall stand forever; all homage to His holy name! The apostle had no need to reckon up and publish the results of his work at Thessalonica, or rather God’s work by his means. It spoke for itself. It was deep, thorough, and genuine. It bore, with unmistakable distinctness, the stamp of God upon it, and this was quite enough for Paul; and it is quite enough for every true-hearted, self-emptied workman. Paul preached the word, and that word was brought home, in the quickening energy of the Holy Spirit, to the hearts of the Thessalonians. It fell into good ground, took root, and brought forth fruit in abundance.
And let us mark the fruit. “Ye turned from idols.”* Here we have, in one word, the whole life of every unconverted man, woman, or child on the face of the earth. It is all wrapped up and presented to our view in the one expression, “idols” It is not by any means necessary to bow down to a stock or a stone in order to be an idolater. Whatever commands the heart is an idol; the yielding of the heart to that thing is idolatry, and the one who so yields it is an idolater. Such is the plain, solemn, truth in this matter, however unpalatable it may be to the proud human heart. Take that one great, crying, universal, sin of “covetousness” What does the inspired apostle call it? He calls it “idolatry.” How many hearts are commanded by money! How many worshippers bow down before the idol of gold! What is covetousness? Either a desire to get more, or the love of what we have. We have both forms in the New Testament. The Greek has a word to represent both. But whether it be the desire to grasp, or the desire to hoard, in either case it is idolatry.
And yet the two things may be very unlike in their outward development. The former, that is, the desire to get more, may often be found in connection with a readiness to spend; the latter, on the contrary, is generally linked with an intense spirit of hoarding. There, for example, is a man of great business capacity — a thorough commercial genius — in whose hand everything seems to prosper. He has a real zest for business, an unquenchable thirst for making money. His one object is to get more, to add thousand to thousand, to strengthen his commercial foundation, and enlarge his sphere. He lives, thrives, and revels in the atmosphere of commerce. He started on his career with a few pence in his pocket, and he has risen to the proud position of a merchant prince. He is not a miser. He is as ready to scatter as to obtain. He fares sumptuously, entertains with a splendid hospitality, gives munificently to manifold public objects.
He is looked up to and respected by all classes of society.
But he loves to get more. He is a covetous man — an idolater. True, he despises the poor miser who spends his nights over his money-bags, “holding strange communion with his gold”; delighting his heart and feasting his eyes with the very sight of the fascinating dust, refusing himself and his family the common necessaries of life; going about in rags and wretchedness, rather than spend a penny of the precious hoard; who loves money, not for what it can get or give, but simply for its own sake; who loves to accumulate, not that he may spend, but that he may hoard; whose one ruling desire is to die worth so much wretched dust — strange, contemptible desire!
Now these two are apparently very different, but they meet in one point; they stand on one common platform; they are both covetous, they are both idolaters.* This may sound harsh and severe, but it is the truth of God, and we must bow down before its holy authority. True it is that nothing is apparently more difficult to bring home to the conscience than the sin of covetousness — that very sin which the Holy Spirit declares to be idolatry. Thousands might see it in the case of the poor degraded miser, who nevertheless would be shocked by its application to a merchant prince. It is one thing to see it in others, and quite another to judge it in ourselves. The fact is, that nothing but the light of the Word of God shining in upon the soul, and penetrating every chamber of our moral being, can enable us to detect the hateful sin of covetousness. The pursuit of gain — the desire to have more — the spirit of commerce — the ability to make money — the “fac rem” — the desire to get on — all this is so “highly esteemed amongst men,” that very few, comparatively, are prepared to see that it is positively “an abomination in the sight of God.” The natural heart is formed by the thoughts of men. It loves, adores, and worships the objects that it finds in this world; and each heart has its own idol. One worships gold, another worships pleasure, another worships power. Every unconverted man is an idolater; and even converted men are not beyond the reach of idolatrous influences, as is evident from the warning note raised by the venerable apostle, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:2121Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen. (1 John 5:21)).
(* The two Greek words to which we have alluded in the text are, πλεονεζια (pleonexia-the desire to get more), and φιλαργυρια (philarguria — the love of money). Now it is the former that occurs in Colossians 3:55Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: (Colossians 3:5) — “Covetousness, which is idolatry”; and there it stands in the terrible category with some of the very vilest sins that stain the pages of human history.)
Reader, will you permit us to put a plain, pointed, question to you, before we proceed farther? Are you converted? Do you profess to be so? Do you take the ground of being a Christian? If so, have you turned from idols? Have you really broken with the world, and with your former self? Has the living Word of God entered your heart, and led you to judge the whole of your past life, whether it has been a life of gaiety and thoughtless folly, a life of busy money-making, a life of abominable vice and wickedness, or a life of mere religious routine — Christless, faithless, worthless religion?
Say, dear friend, how is it? Be thoroughly in earnest. Be assured there is an urgent demand for out-and-out earnestness in this matter. We cannot hide from you the fact that we are painfully conscious of the sad lack of thorough decision amongst us. We have not, with sufficient emphasis or distinctness, “turned from idols.” Old habits are retained; former lusts and objects rule the heart. The temper, style, spirit, and deportment do not bespeak conversion. We are sadly too like our former selves — too like the openly and confessedly worldly people around us.
All this is really terrible. We fear it is a sad hindrance to the progress of the gospel and the salvation of souls. The testimony falls powerless on the ears of those to whom we speak, because we do not seem as though we ourselves really believe what we are talking about. The apostle could not say to us, as he said to his dear Thessalonian converts, “From you sounded out the word of the Lord.... so that we need not to speak anything.” There is a want of depth, power, and markedness in our conversion. The change is not sufficiently apparent. Even where there is a work, there is a tameness, feebleness, and vagueness about it truly deplorable and discouraging.