First Mennonite Church
February 5, 2017
“Have Your Returned?”
Text: 1Tessalonians 1:2-10
Today and next Sunday, I want to address a topic that is very basic in our experience as followers of Jesus Christ: Christian conversion. As we might know, there are many kinds of conversions. For instance when for one reason or another a person who had a good taste for burgers, steaks, and all kinds of sausages suddenly becomes vegetarian. Or when a confused Westerner says he or she finally got to connect with the divine through some kind of Easter religion. Or, when an alcoholic quits drinking and goes sober after a close call with death. These life-changing events can be called conversion experiences. Yet, none of them can be called conversion in the Christian sense. If Christ is not the reason for the change and his service is not the objective in the lives of those who change, none of the above mentioned experiences can be called Christian conversion. If a life-changing experience does not involve abandoning sin and turning to God on the basis of Christ’s redeeming work on the cross it simply cannot be called Christian conversion.
Now, before I go any further, it would be good for us to know that the word “conversion” although central in our understanding as the basic Christian experience for our spiritual journey, only appears once in the Bible and only in some translations. The adjectival form is found in several passages to describe people (see Rom. 16:5; 1Corinthians 16:15; 1Tim. 3:6 NIV). And even here the word translated “convert” literally is “first fruit.” The only place we find the word “conversion” is in Acts 15, verse three, where it speaks of the “conversion” of the Gentiles. The word “epistrophen” translated conversion literally is the “turning” of the Gentiles. This is a good examples why “word-study” in the Bible at times can be difficult to pursue. On the other hand, would this apparent absence of a word which Christians insist on being central to Christian experience prove we have developed a requirement that is foreign to the Bible? Maybe not! In the Old Testament Israel is repeatedly called to “turn” or “return” to Yahweh. The Hebrew word “shubb” return or turn is used to describe an action Israel was supposed to do in light of its wandering away from the covenant it entered with Yahweh. Although the word “shubb” does not imply a change in religious belief or the call to embrace a completely new way of life, the call is to come back to something Israel had walked away from—God and his covenant. Yet the meaning of the Hebrew word “shubb” is the closest concept of conversion found in the New Testament and which is central in the Christian practice.
The New Testament writers describe both Jews and Gentiles coming to faith as “turning to God.” These are Peter’s words to the Jews after Pentecost:
17 “Now, fellow Israelites, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. 18 But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Messiah would suffer. 19 Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, 20 and that he may send the Messiah, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus (Acts 3:17-20).
And Paul wrote to the Corinthians: 16 But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
Paul was speaking about the Israelites’ difficulty understanding the Law. Paul says the Israelites continue having a veil over their eyes that they cannot understand God’s will, but whenever anyone turns to the Lord, God’s will becomes clear to understand. Again here, the idea of being reconciled to God is expressed in the word “turning.” In regards to Gentiles coming to faith, Luke wrote in Acts 11, verse 21, Great numbers became believers and turned to the Lord. Paul when describing the Thessalonian experience coming to faith he wrote: how you turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God.
As we will see, even when the actual word “conversion” is not prominent in the New Testament, the reality of such an experience is powerfully portrayed in the dramatic conversion experiences of people in the New Testament writings. We will look into that next week.
But for now, let me address one major implication Christian conversion has in the middle of our pluralistic and especially relativistic society.
The New Testament gives witness of three unique characteristics regarding “turning to Christ” or Christian conversion, if you will. Christian conversion is unique in the sense that (1) it is centered in Christ; (2) it involves a supernatural experience, and (3) has eternal consequence.
- Christian conversion is the experience of being reconciled with God through Christ. Conversion happens when the light of the good news dawns in our heart through the working of the Holy Spirit by bringing conviction of sin, at the same time pointing to the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as the source of redemption. Christ and his work are central in the Christian conversion experience. Paul says in Ephesians 2, verses four and five, “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” Or, as Abraham J, Heschel says, “Long before we searched for God, God was already searching for us.” God finally decided to come through his Son to call us to return to him.
- It involves the supernatural. If conversion is judged by changed behavior alone, Christian conversion would be similar to other kinds of conversions. Yet, the underlying force that brings about change between other conversions and the Christian conversion is the presence and sanctification of the Holy Spirit in the individual. While other conversions take place on the basis of human will-power to change behavior, Christian conversion is only possible when the Spirit of God and guided by the Word of God, the new believer finds a new direction for life and has the power to live by that new orientation.
- Christian conversion has eternal consequences. Our turning to God in Christ as in the words of the apostle Peter, transforms us into a royal priesthood, holy nation, God’s special possession, and transfers us from darkness into the glorious light of Jesus Christ. In other words, our identity and destiny are completely transformed. It involves more than the present and the physical world. Christian conversion affect our eternal destiny.
I would like to add a fourth characteristic about Christian conversion and that is that every convert has a story to tell. Again in the words of the apostle Peter:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,
God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him
who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once
you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once
you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1Peter 2:9-10).
Declaring the praises of God is more than through words.
These four unique characteristics about Christian conversion are what put it at odds with our relativistic society. Relativism is the understanding that every beliefs systems is true only to those who hold said belief. Relativism cannot concede that there could be an ultimate truth or reality. Therefore, when we claim that there is no alternative path towards God if not through faith in Christ, it naturally clashes with the relativistic premise. Moreover, to claim that our transformation and source of power to continue living a transformed life are dependent on God’s grace through the work of Jesus Christ also challenges the assumption that inside each individual resides endless power if only we know how to unleash it.
So now, let just go back to our passage and to be more precise, to verses 9b and 10. Paul tells the Thessalonian church what he has heard from Christians in other regions.
They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve
the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son
from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus,
who rescues us from the coming wrath.
The Thessalonians “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” Conversion implies there is a change. The neighbors and Christian friends of the Thessalonians clearly saw the difference between the past life and the new life after the Thessalonians received the word of God. The Thessalonians abandoned their idol worship to worship and serve the living and true God.
My dear friends, Christian conversion is not only a spiritual or private matter or experience. Christian conversion is visible to the world. Your spouse, friends, and neighbors should be able to see that Christ has indeed brought change in your life. Your speech, your character, your priorities, your world view, the way you manage everything in your life should be affected when you turn or return to God. Have you returned or turned to God? Can those around you see there is a changed you?
Next Sunday we will continue look at this topic and how it was reflected in the lives of those who returned to God in Christ.
May the Lord empower us to show concrete signs of having returned to the Lord. Amen!
 Abraham J, Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1995) 136.