Our Lives: Living Letters

Dr. Brian Allison

It is good to periodically take a reality check. Here is one: Did you live as a Christian this past week? As you reflect on the conversations in which you participated, the interactions in which you engaged, the actions that you performed, the behaviours that you evidenced, could you conclude in your heart that you lived your life as a Christian this past week? If someone had observed you this past week, without your knowledge – the proverbial 'fly on the wall' – and he went everywhere that you went, listening to your every conversation, observing your every action, whether in public or in private, would he conclude that you lived your life as a Christian? This is a simple question, but the answer, for many, may be very disturbing. Now, I know that it may be impractical to observe someone incessantly over the span of a week; but let me rephrase the question: If I were to ask your husband, or your wife, or your son, or your daughter, or your uncle or your co-worker, or your employer, etc., whether you lived your life as a Christian before him or her this past week, what would he or she say? Does your life adorn and reflect the truth of the Gospel? In writing to the Corinthian church, the apostle Paul said, "Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you? You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts." My brothers and sisters, how did you 'read' this past week? As our friends, our neighbours, our family members, and our associates read our lives this past week, as the letters of Christ, what did they read?

The message of a changed life

The Gospel radically transforms an individual so that his or her life becomes an example for other believers. In being transformed by the Gospel, the sterling spiritual quality of one's life ought to be clearly seen. Accordingly, 1 Thessalonians 1:8 reads, "For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything." This verse has a parallel structure – the second statement echoes or restates the first. Furthermore, the arrangement of the words is that of a chiasmus (i.e., an inverted relationship between the syntactical elements of two parallel statements, which runs a, b, b, a). Let me give you an example: I will run (a) to the store (b), and from the store (b), I will walk (a). So, consider our verse – "For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you (a), not only in Macedonia and Achaia (b), but also in every place (b) your faith toward God has gone forth (a), so that we have no need to say anything." I mention this grammatical point because it helps us significantly in understanding the meaning of the text.

Given this parallel structure and the interrelationship of the sentence elements, we may interchange the subjects of these two parallel statements. What I am saying is, "the word of the Lord sounding forth" parallels "your faith toward God going forth." So, what is the point? The first phrase, "For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you" points to quality of life – what is seen – rather than content of speech – what is heard. Thus, notice the connection between verses 7 and 8. We read, "So that you became an example [by your lives] to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For [a connective particle, suggesting the idea of explanation] the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you." Furthermore, the verb "to sound forth" is metaphoric language. It is not saying that the word of the Lord was announced, or declared, or proclaimed, for then, of course, we would understand the language literally; but the verb means 'to ring out'. It is the idea of reverberation, of echoing, of booming out. We have in view something that is trumpeted out or thundered forth. The apostle Paul is simply saying, "The sterling quality of your lives has resounded throughout all Achaia, Macedonia, and in every place. The message of your lives was 'heard' loud and clear." The testimony of the lives of these believers was a preachment, a proclamation, of the truth of the Gospel. The Gospel actually went forth by how they lived. And so, notice the subsequent clarifying statement in verse 9, "For they themselves report about us what kind of reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come." Indeed, a picture is worth a thousand words. Similarly, the observance of the ordinance of the Lord's Table is a preachment of the Gospel. In 1 Corinthians 11:26, we read, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes." The picture of the Lord's Table is a declaration of the atoning work of Jesus Christ.

So, one's new life in Christ should be a visible message of the saving truth of Christ. Our changed lives should express the saving grace and power of Christ. We have a similar idea in Philippians 2:14-16, "Do all things without grumbling or disputing; that you may prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may have cause to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain." In looking at our lives, the world ought to 'hear' or 'see' the Gospel. How often has an unbeliever, maybe a relative, a family member, or a friend, said to you, "And you call yourself a Christian!" or "Why don't you practice what you preach?" Rather than adorning, reflecting, and confirming the truth of the Gospel, we often deny and contradict that truth; and the result is that people justifiably conclude that we are hypocrites. I was speaking to someone in ministry recently and my heart was grieved. This brother, engaged in ministry, and apparently doing a good work for the Lord, seems to take an unusual delight in embarrassing you, making you feel small. You do not know whether the brother is on 'a power trip', or whether he is insecure, or whether there are deeper problems, but there is a glaring contradiction. My brothers and sisters, that ought not to be. What kind of Gospel is your life sounding forth? Is it a Gospel of carnality or of holiness? It is a Gospel of forgiveness or of criticism and judgement? Is it a Gospel of peace and reconciliation or of dissension and division? Our lives speak so loud that people do not hear what our mouths are saying.

The message resounds to all

Notice the extent to which the message of the transformed lives of these Thessalonian's reached – "For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia [Greece], but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth." Do you find that astounding? These Thessalonian believers were making such an impact, had such transformed lives, that their reputation was widespread; the whole world, hyperbolically speaking, had been touched. What kind of lives were these people living that the report of the quality of their lives would find its way back to the apostle Paul so many miles away? Now, keep in mind that this kind of testimony was not peculiar to these believers; it was true of other believers as well. For instance, Romans 1:8 reads, "First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world." Consider also Romans 16:19, "For the report of your obedience [how you are living your lives, the demonstration of your faith] has reached to all; therefore I am rejoicing over you, but I want you to be wise in what is good, and innocent in what is evil." Here is the principle: A believer's transformed life can, and should, have far reaching effects. A transformed life is a miracle of grace, and thus it necessarily creates an effect. As Christians, our lives should make an impact on others. Keep in mind that these Thessalonians were pagans, idolaters, and occultists; but they had become radically changed. Suppose that you had a co-worker who had a notorious reputation; and suppose that he was moonlighting through pimping; and suppose that he was a Satan worshipper; and suppose that he had a very long criminal record; and finally suppose that he was very impatient, mean-spirited, critical, sarcastic, and insensitive. Now, suppose that he came into work one day as a Christian, saved by the Gospel, his life radically transformed. He gushed forth with love, kindness, and integrity, saying, for instance, "Oh, let me help you with that;" and, "Stop that profanity;" and "Stop telling those dirty jokes;" and "I just want to encourage you;" and "You go first, I insist;" etc. Now, what would you think? Would there be a 'buzz' in the office or work place? Wouldn't people say, "Hey, did you hear...?" "Can you believe...?" "What ever happened to...?" Do you think that you would tell your friends and relatives what had happened to your co-worker? That is the impact that transformed lives make; they create a stir.

Similarly, people, to some degree, should be talking about your transformed life. Your transformed life should cause people to wonder and to inquire. How often has someone said to you, "Oh, I have heard about you?" And your response was, "Well, do not believe everything you have heard!" or "Was it good?" What does this type of response imply and reveal about how we view our lives? We certainly are not living exemplary lives. Such responses are self-indictments, aren't they? What are people hearing about you? What is your reputation, my friend? Whether we like it or not, or whether we believe it or not, people are hearing about us. And if our ears could really burn when people talk about us, we all would probably have inflamed ears.

The message of faith published abroad

Notice the actual content of the 'pictorial Gospel' that was actually published abroad. What was the actual living message that went forth from these believers? – "But also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth." These believers evidenced a living, dynamic faith. People were saying, "Did you hear about so and so? Did you hear how zealous for righteousness he is?" "Did you hear how earnest for godliness she is?" "Did you hear the tremendous sacrifice that those Christians are making?" "Did you hear how he or she is continuing to persevere in the face of the most horrendous persecution?" The reality of their faith was going forth; their devotion and consecration to God was resounding throughout Greece, as well as beyond the borders of Greece. These believers had really believed, they had really embraced, the truth of the Gospel.

It is not a matter of producing good works in order to merit salvation, and it is not a matter of conforming to the traditions or rites of the Church in order to secure salvation, but it is a matter of faith toward God. The experience of salvation is the reality and fruit of faith. The one true God is the focus of the saving faith; not faith in the Church, or faith in one's service, or faith in sacrificial giving, or faith in the spiritual disciplines. Saving faith centres on God; and it is a faith defined in terms of lifestyle, and not merely in terms of intellectual belief. That is, a life of faith is a life which is lived in the presence of God; and that is why it is also a life clearly recognized by people, and which actually makes an impact on people. Is the reality and fruit of your faith going forth, being recognized by those with whom you come in contact? Are you living your faith, or simply speaking it?

In speaking to His disciples, our Lord said, "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do men light a lamp, and put it under the peck-measure, but on the lampstand; and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works [the outworking of your faith], and glorify your Father who is in heaven" (Mt. 5:14-16). Is your light shining forth – your faith toward God – that people may see your good works and glorify God Who is in heaven? At your work of employment, when you stop at the gas station, when you talk over the fence to a neighbour, is your light hidden under a bushel? Are you embarrassed about the Gospel? Do people have to shield their eyes because of the brightness of your life?

No further words necessary

The sterling quality of the lives of these Thessalonian believers required no verbal confirmation or support – "But also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that [here is the result] we have no need to say anything." People had already heard the astounding news about their lives therefore further commentary by the apostle and his company would be superfluous. Here is the principle: A Christian's testimony should be clear, unequivocal, and strong so that everyone knows exactly where he or she stands. Your light is to shine in such a way, and needs to be so bright (and I am not suggesting being deliberately offensive; I am talking about your lifestyle – how you speak, the kind of jokes you tell, the kind of virtues you evidence, etc.) that everyone within your sphere of influence knows exactly where you stand morally and spiritually, so that any evaluative comment would be superfluous. Your life is to be a sounding board for the truth of the Gospel so that if a fellow Christian were to go to your place of employment, or your place of recreation, or your place of seclusion, they would not need to tell anyone that you are a Christian; rather, others would be telling him or her. But how sad is the case when people who have known us for sometime, working with us, daily interacting with us, etc., must say to us when they finally discover our Christian commitment, "Oh, I did not know that you were a Christian?" or "Are you really a Christian?" How sad is the case when people read the letter of your life and the content is indistinguishable from that of the unbeliever. It is a sore tragedy that people do not know, by the way we live, that we are Christians.

We should live in such a way that people do not need to be told that we are Christians, but rather our lives clearly and beautifully broadcast to them that we are. We will win people by the beauty of our lives. Our lives should adorn and reflect the glory of the Gospel. For example, we read, "In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behaviour of their wives, as they observe your chaste and respectful behaviour" (1 Pe. 3:1,2). And what is said of wives, can be said of all of us in our respective relationships. We win people more by how we live, than by what we say, especially if we contradict what we say by how we live. As a Christian, you are a light of the world. Your life should be a 'pictorial preachment' to your parents, your siblings, your co-workers, your employees, your friends, etc. Are they hearing the Gospel through your life? What kind of Gospel are they hearing?