Transformed By the Gospel

Dr. Brian Allison

How would you define a Christian? You may say, "Well, a Christian is one who believes in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord." Or you may say, "A Christian is one who prays and reads his Bible, and endeavours to seek the Lord." Or you may say, "A Christian is one who performs good deeds and endeavours to help people." There are various definitions for what a Christian is, which are both true and helpful; but here is a challenging definition: A Christian is one who has been radically transformed by the truth of the Gospel so that he or she will become just like Jesus Christ. 1 Thessalonians 1:6,7 reads, "You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia." These verses pertain to modeling – modeling after another, as well as being modeled.

Imitating others

Whom are you modeling? After whom are you patterning your life? To model someone, to pattern your life after someone, does not necessarily mean that you are a hypocrite; that you are a phony. Modeling is a Biblical concept; and it is a necessary practice, especially in light of the fact that we can be very undisciplined in our behaviour and misdirected in our conduct. Modeling provides a goal for our character, as well as a picture of what we are to be like. A Christian is one who is to model another – "You also became imitators of us and of the Lord." There are some people – from the past, as well as present day – worth imitating, for their conduct and behaviour are exemplary. Polycarp is someone worth modeling. William Law is someone worth modeling. John Owen is someone worth modeling. Samuel Rutherford is someone worth modeling. Andrew Murray, A.W. Tozer, and John Piper are people worth modeling. In a special way, I am trying to model myself after the great Christian mystics of the Church, such as Augustine, St. Bernard, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, etc. To imitate the saints is proper. For instance, Hebrews 13:7 reads, "Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith." Again, Biblical imitating is an appropriate means for receiving guidance and training in what constitutes proper and commendable behaviour and lifestyle. It is not some kind of empty mimicking for the sake of mere external show.

Now, we follow and imitate other saints only in so far as they follow and imitate Christ – "You also became imitators of us and of the Lord." We are to primarily follow and imitate Jesus Christ; He is the prototype. He is the standard. He is the ultimate goal. And so, the apostle could write in 1 Corinthians 4:16, "I exhort you therefore, be imitators of me." And later, in this same epistle, says, "Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ" (11:1). We are not to glory in people. We are not to worship a man. We are not to slavishly follow anyone. The image and imitation of Christ are always to be our parameters. Who are you imitating? Are you imitating anyone? Can you self-consciously say, "I am patterning my life after so and so" or, "I am patterning my life after Jesus"? Are you humble enough to allow saints, both past and present, to be models for you; or are you beyond that? Do you think it is carnal to imitate another? Do you think it is idolatry? Or, do you think that you have spiritually arrived, and thus you do not need models? Are you allowing the saints to motivate you, to spur you on; or do you think that you are as holy and godly as you can be? Do you see Jesus Christ as your model? Thomas à Kempis penned the classic work, The Imitation of Christ. It begins as follows: "He who follows Me walketh not in darkness, saith the Lord. These are the words of Christ, by which we are admonished to imitate His life and manners if we would be truly enlightened and delivered from all blindness of heart. Let it therefore be our chief study to meditate upon the life of Jesus Christ. The doctrine of Christ surpasseth all the doctrines of the saints; and he that hath the Spirit, will find therein hidden manna. But it happeneth that many, from frequent hearing of the Gospel, are very little affected, because they have not the Spirit of Christ. But he who would fully and with true relish understand the words of Christ, must study to make his whole life conformable to that of Christ."

Transformed to imitate

Change must occur before one can imitate another – "You also became imitators." The idea of process is implied here; there is a sequence of events. What is the sequence of events? In having received the truth of the Gospel, these Thessalonians then became imitators of other saints and of the Lord Jesus – "having received the word." So, in first receiving the Gospel, one then has the ground and basis for spiritually imitating. The point is this: Only in personally accepting and believing the truth of the Gospel is a person radically transformed by that Gospel. It is in believing the Gospel that one knows 'the power of God unto salvation'. The Gospel does not simply consist of words; the Gospel is the power of God, through the Spirit, unto salvation; and one who has received the Gospel knows the transforming affect of it. Have you received the Gospel? Has your life been radically transformed? The power of the Gospel changes one's status – "But as many as received Him [Jesus], to them He gave the right [the authority, the power] to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name" (Jn. 1:12). The power of the Gospel also changes one's state – "Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold new things have come" (2 Cor. 5:17). The Gospel addresses a dead, stony heart and effects new life, and thus radical change. One acquires new desires, new aspirations, new tendencies, etc.

Through the power of the Gospel, one acquires a new nature, a new nature that is programmed for eventual perfection (i.e., to be morally and spiritually like Jesus Christ). Think about that for a moment. Consider the programmed or set radio stations on your car radio. You push one button and you call up a certain station. It does not matter how many times you push that particular button, it will always call up that particular set station. It has been programmed. Similarly, when you have acquired a new nature, you cannot help but pursue the goal, the end, for which that nature has been created and designed. So, through the power of the Gospel, which radically changes you, you will naturally and spontaneously desire and seek to pattern your life after godly saints and after the Lord Jesus Christ. You will not be able to do otherwise.

If your life has not been transformed by the power of the Gospel, even though you profess faith in Christ, you have not been saved; you have not really accepted and believed the truth. Perhaps you gave an intellectual assent or mere endorsement, but there has been no sincere heart-embracement of the truth. We must stop watering down the Word of God and compromising our standards. Professing Christians must live as Christians. If you are really a child of God, then live as a child of God. If you have really been born again, then demonstrate the reality of that new birth. You cannot believe the truth of the Gospel in your heart and not be radically changed; for the nature of the truth demands change. There are many people in the Church who have acknowledged Jesus as Saviour and Lord, but have not really believed; their lives have been unaffected and unchanged by the truth. If your life has been unchanged, my friend, you are not saved, you are still in your sin. To say that you are saved, without having a radically transformed life, is to contradict the teaching of the Gospel.

Believing the truth of the Gospel

You may ask yourself the question: How does one come to believe the truth of the Gospel? Many church attendees intellectually know the truth; many church attendees have been educated in Sunday school; many church attendees can rehearse the Bible stories, and yet may not have believed in the truth. Many know the truth, and yet they do not know how they can come to personally believe the truth. I have had different ones say to me, "I really would like to believe. I want to believe, but I cannot. How can I come to believe?" Is that your situation? Humanly speaking, how does one come to believe? First, you must bring your poor, needy heart to the Lord in prayer, and you must pour out your concern of unbelief before Him. This principle is found in Mark 9:24, with the account of a father bringing his demonized child to Jesus. Just after the event of the transfiguration of our Lord, the disciples could not heal this demonized child, and Jesus condemned Israel as an unbelieving generation. The child was then brought to Jesus for healing. We read, "[The father said], 'And it has often thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!' And Jesus said to him, 'If You can! All thing are possible for him who believes.' Immediately the boy's father cried out and began saying, 'I do believe; help my unbelief'" (Mk. 9:22-24). Is that your situation – "I do believe; help my unbelief"? If you were to be honest with yourself, would you have to conclude, by examining your heart, that you have a heart of unbelief? Then the first step for you, on the path of salvation, is to bring your poor, needy heart before the Lord in prayer, and pour out your concern of unbelief before Him.

Second, you must recognize and confess the sin of unbelief. In Hebrews 3:12 we read, "Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, in falling away from the living God." Now, remember that the Hebrew author was addressing professing Christians. My Christian brothers and sisters, we need to take a long, hard look at ourselves to see whether within us is an unbelieving heart. If we find such, then we must confess it as sin. Third, in coming to belief, you must share your faith struggle with trustworthy and mature Christians who can encourage you and pray for you. We read, "But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called 'Today,' lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin" (Hb. 3:13). Fourth, you must constantly expose yourself to the truth, whether through reading or through hearing. Immerse yourself in the truth. The Scriptures teach, "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ" (Rm. 10:17). You may say, "Well, I do not feel any reality. I turn to the Bible and nothing happens." My friend, persevere. You will not find spiritual awakening apart from the Word. In your humility and contrition, God may show you mercy. In a moment of time, the light may flood into your life, revealing to you your own heart and the glory of God. Fifth, if you want to come to belief, you must view belief as an act of obedience, for God desires and commands repentance and belief. Thus, we read, "And [Jesus said], 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel'" (Mk. 1:15). To realize that God requires belief from you, may, humanly speaking, provide you with the proper attitude for actually experiencing belief. Belief is not a human work, with respect to salvation, nor can we work up in ourselves the reality of faith, but we must responsibly endeavour to give that which God requires, looking to Him for grace in order to give. The act of faith is the act of obedience. Hebrews 3:18,19 reveals these synonymous truths, "And to whom did He [God] swear that they should not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? And so we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief." Unbelief is nothing less than disobedience to God's Word. Cry out to God that He would produce in you that which His holy will requires of you because if He does not, you are lost.

Evidences of belief

Now, you may say, "How do I know if I believe?" Well, we have come full circle, haven't we? You know that you believe if you evidence a transformed life, which is the necessary experience through the power of the Gospel. Again, if there is no change in your behaviour, in your aspirations, in your desires, etc., then you are not saved; you know nothing of the reality of being united with the living God. Again, how do you know if you believe? The experience of salvation is self-attesting, it is self-verifying. The Holy Spirit bears witness with our spirits that we are the children of God. If you are born again, then you will know it; and you need not that anyone tell you. Every true believer has the inner testimony and proof of the Spirit.

The external evidence, along with the internal testimony, is also suggested by our text – "Having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit." What was the context in which these Thessalonian believers received the Gospel? The context was that of persecution. For instance, 1 Thessalonians 3:3,4 reads, "So that no man may be disturbed by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this. For indeed when we were with you, we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction; and so it came to pass, as you know." These believers received the truth of the Gospel in the context of persecution. Having really believed the Gospel, they did not reject nor abandon the faith; they did not quit. They persevered. Real faith results in perseverance. You cannot quit, you cannot abandon Christ, once He has laid His hand upon you. The fact is that you have laid hold of the truth, or better, the Truth has laid hold of you, and will not let you go. Accordingly, it does not matter what people say or what they do to you; it does not matter if they torture or mutilate you, or destroy your family, you will not be able to deny Him once He has acknowledged you. You cannot say that you do now know Him, once He has declared that He knows you. You are willing to die for the Name. Are you persevering?

Second, not only does faith result in perseverance, but it also results in the joy of the Holy Spirit. I have emphasized joy much in my ministry, and I have done so because I believe it is essential for what is involved in really knowing the living Christ. You cannot see Him, you cannot experience Him, you cannot be in His presence without being filled with joy. This joy is inspired by the Spirit, in actually realizing the truth and all that it entails. Through the truth, you realize that you are in living union with a living God. You realize that you are in fellowship with the Creator of the universe. You realize that now you have access into His very presence. You realize that your sins have been paid for and you have eternal life. You realize that the blessings of heaven are yours; and in that realization, how can you not have joy? If you do not have the joy of salvation, even in small measure, then you are spiritually dead. Your perpetual sadness and depression reveal that you do not have the truth, that you do not understand what you profess.

So, true joy ensues from real faith. Matthew 13:44 reads, "The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field." My friend, nothing compares to having secured the Pearl of great price. If you enjoy anything more than being in relationship and fellowship with Jesus Christ, you have a sick soul. You have not seen Him because when you see Him, you realize that He is the all-together lovely One and you do not want anything else, anyone else, more than Him. Have you seen Him? How is your joy?

Imitators become examples

Of course, it is self-evident that in imitating godly saints, in imitating Christ, one becomes worthy of imitation. In one sense, I do not think we have a greater honour, nor a more splendid privilege, than to be used of God as models for other believers, to be worthy of imitation – "So that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia." When you imitate Christ, you will, you must, become an example of the believer, and for the believer. To change the language, God gives you the grace to produce after your own kind. If people were to model you now, what would be 'the crop'? If your children, parents, friends, co-workers, etc. were to imitate you as a model, what would be the fruit? Do they see commitment? Do they see faithfulness? Do they see surrender in you? What are you producing? You will give an account of your 'harvesting'. But what an honour to produce, after our own kind, trophies of grace for the Master. Can you imagine, on that day, when we stand before Him, we may say, according to His grace, "Lord, here are trophies for You. By Your mercy, I have produced them for You. They are the spiritual fruit of my life and labour." Then we will have joy! What are you producing?

My unbelieving friend, you can have a changed life. God can make the difference between night and day in your life, if you believe the Gospel. The Gospel saves and transforms; you can become a new creature in Christ. Professing Christian, you who claim to know Christ and yet there is no power in your life, no difference in your life, can I plead with you to cry out to Christ. Don't be complacent any more. Don't be indifferent any more. Don't be worldly any more. A mere profession of faith will not save you. May God awaken you and show you the deceitfulness of your heart. The Gospel radically changes. Has that happened to you?