“Because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” — 1 Thessalonians 1:5
This is such a heart-probing Word. My prayer is that the Spirit of God will take this sharp Word and search every one of us today. It serves as something like a litmus test of our Christian ministry, even our Christianity itself. Has the gospel come only in word or also in power? How does the modern American church stand up to this test?
How does your ministry stand up to this test? How do youstand up to this test?
A critical question for all ministers throughout the ages: Was the gospel you received strong enough to merely clean you up a bit, or did the gospel come to you with power—power to make you a new creature, to birth new affections in your heart, and to both pursue and embrace the grace of repentance? Did it come to you with a power that left you rejoicing, thinking, Oh my! Everything is different now. Everything has changed!
The fact is that the religious world certainly has its own understanding of power. Carnality has ransacked church after church. It appears Mr. Worldly Wiseman holds the position of executive pastor in so many American churches. Oh, they recognize something must be coupled with the Word of God for there to be success, but their notions are totally misguided and wrong, and their metrics and understanding of success isn’t even biblical.
We are living in an age where more “religious” books are being authored than ever before, where Christian conferences cater to every denomination and market, and where we have nearly limitless access to preaching. With all this noise, with a church that is so busy speaking, what do we have to show for it? Never has there been a century so filled with religious words—but the fruit doesn’t at all correlate to the volume of output. And why? Because there is no power.
The church isn’t at a standstill. No, it’s trying all sorts of remedies—everything but the necessaryremedy. The worldly church supposes the one necessary element is salesmanship: Just treat the customer right, and you’ll have a church full of givers in no time. Tell them what they want to hear. Paint a pretty picture for them. Tickle some ears, and they’ll come. You won’t be able to keep them away. They will flock to your building and fill your theater seating. Whatever our target market is looking for, let’s give it to them— after all, it’s a win-win!
Plus, we’ve got gimmicks. Who doesn’t want a free T-shirt?This year we’ll win them with a hotdog; next year, a hamburger. Our competitor up the road is dropping five thousand Easter eggs from a helicopter, so we will fire ten thousand eggs from an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Mexico.
Churches are giving away everything from childcare to motorcycles. Every “freebie” is on the table—except the powerful gospel!But whatever it takes to win the world for Jesus, right?
Then you have the professional pastors. The way they see it, it all boils down to communication: We’ve got to get our messaging right. It must be polished. Personality and connecting with your audience are the need of the hour. If we keep the sermon under twenty-five minutes, sharing relevant and encouraging stories, we’ll have the right ingredients to really see the church grow. I need to have just the right amount of energy to stand to preach. I need to be fashionable and casual, just not too casual. We can’t look like we’re trying too hard to be relevant. All these ingredients working together, we can’t fail; we will achieve success as a church—no doubt about it!
To this laundry list of folly we could add psychotherapy, promises of prosperity, pseudo-spirituality, and entertainment. It’s an epidemic in our day. “Churches” are trying everything to build their little kingdoms. But this is all for nothing. And it will all come to nothing.
Gimmicks won’t cut it; God’s power is the one necessary thing. Entertainment can’t win the soul; empowerment is required. Clever communication has never convinced the sinner. What we need is full conviction. When hearing the gospel, people don’t need an encounter with vendors at Vanity Fair, they need a visitation of the Holy Spirit. They need something the world cannot give, something people can’t provide. Humanity, decaying and dead, needs something beyond the natural realm. The operation of the supernatural must be manifest, or all is lost. As Matthew Henry said, “[The Thessalonians] not only heard the sound of [the gospel], but submitted to the power of it. It did not merely tickle the ear and please the fancy, not merely fill their heads with notions and amuse their minds for awhile, but it affected their hearts: a divine power went along with it for convincing their consciences and amending their lives.”
Look at how Paul speaks of the gospel ministry among the Thessalonians:
Because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.
– 1 Thessalonians 1:5
1. “our gospel”
Not at as though there are many different gospels to choose from. No, Paul isn’t saying that at all. But rather, this is the gospel he preaches—the true gospel. Elsewhere in his epistles, he refers to the gospel as “my gospel” (2 Tim. 2:8; Rom 2:16; 16:25). This was the gospel that Paul proclaimed and possessed. This was the gospel that possessed Paul—it had completely apprehended him!
Are you a man apprehended by the gospel? Does the gospel have your heart?
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
– Galatians 1:8–9
This is the gospel Paul would gladly die for—and ultimately did die for. It is as though when Paul came to town, the gospel came to town. “Because our gospel came to you…” Here was a man consumed with and set on fire by the gospel.
2. “came to you not only in Word, but also in power”
The same power that attended Paul’s preaching in Thessalonica in that day must attend the Word of God in our day. Speaking the Word is necessary, but alone it isn’t enough. A holy life is necessary for gospel ministers, but it isn’t enough. “When necessary, use words” is as the saying goes—yet it is always necessary! Jesus lived theperfectly holy life, but He still opened His mouth and spoke words!
But gospel words alone won’t do.
This doesn’t mean we need something instead ofor betterthan the Word. No, the Word must come, but it must come with power, with the working of the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. The gospel is not merely the communication of an idea but the operation of God’s power and the illumination of the Spirit.
All around us, the Word is spoken, but there is no power. Sadly, this is all too common. The Word alone will not impact us, brothers. And in preaching it won’t impact your hearers. Power is necessary.
3. “and in the Holy Spirit”
This power is never divorced from the activity and work of the Holy Spirit. It emanates from Him. He is the all-powerful One. When William Burns preached in Perth in 1840, one hearer, apparently converted in that meeting, said, “It is surely something altogether unearthly that has come to the town.”That is what the Holy Spirit can and will do.
The Spirit of God was active in Thessalonica when Paul came to town. He was illuminating minds, giving understanding of the things Paul spoke, softening hearts, convicting of sin, awakening consciences, and birthing new life. Indeed, the Holy Spirit is the all-powerful administrator of regeneration. Oh men, we need the messages we preach to be carried to the hearts and minds of the people by the Spirit. With all His penetrating influences, we as gospel ministers greatly need Him.
And my speechand my messagewere not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spiritand of power.
– 1 Corinthians 2:4, emphasis mine
Paul not only had the communication (“my speech”) and the content (“my message”) right but he also experienced in himself and in his hearers the power of the gospel. How does that compare to your ministry? Can we further commit together today to pray for more of this in our churches?
4. “and with full conviction” (“and in much assurance,” KJV)
The apostle Paul didn’t have to sell the gospel, and his hearers didn’t have to work up faith to believe it. The Spirit of God so powerfully applied the truths Paul communicated that the Thessalonian converts were fully convinced. They had no lingering doubts, no further objections, and no regrets at all. The Son of God was shining in the hearts of these hearers, and now they could really and finally see things as they are.
So, I am not asking you today if you know the words of the gospel, but do you and have you known the power, the Spirit, the full conviction? It isn’t enough to be able to recite memory verses or to be completely orthodox in your theology. For one to be born again, a life-altering encounter with the Word, coupled with power, is needed. For a minister to thrive in both his ministry and in his living unto God, the Word must continually be coming to that man in power and in the Holy Spirit.
Recall Jesus condemning the Pharisees: “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matthew 22:29). They were wrong on both fronts. They knew neither the Scriptures nor God’s power. We need to be right on both fronts. We need to know the Book of God andthe power of God. This is what undergirds the Christian ministry. The simplest among us, if they have that, can exercise a powerful and fruitful ministry.
“For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power.”(1 Corinthians 4:20)
How does this compare to your experience? It seems far too many in our day are content with preaching a popular gospel that won’t disrupt the people too much, won’t disrupt the lifestyles they love. But that’s the thing with this powerful gospel. It is going to sweep across lives and change everything. It’s going to step on toes (ours included). It is going to hurt feelings. It will even cause people to despise the very things they used to love. It is a disruptive power, a transformative influence. Yet it is the most beautiful and life-giving power there is and ever will be.
How acquainted are you with this power? Will you stand with those who have the reputation of being alive but remain dead within? Yes, they may be those people full of words—words written, words spoken, words prayed, words sung—but they are still unchanged. They are still in Adam. They are still in the flesh.
The Word apart from the Spirit, apart from power, may change a person. Without a doubt, it often does. But it is all externals—habits, preferences, moods. Yet the foundation, the internals, the fundamental things remain the same. And that is all a powerless Christianity can do. It can amend some practices, house some homeless, and appear evangelical, but it will leave the man positionallyright where he has always been—dead, depraved, and in darkness.
This is where the trap of all traps lies: a Christianity without power. It is something like a child unwrapping the greatest toy ever, only to read on the packaging “Batteries not included.” How disappointing!
But then again — it is not quite like that because this trapwill prove entirely and eternally devastating to those caught in its grasp. Christianity without power is much like the fig tree Jesus cursed. From a distance it appeared to be a tree producing figs, but up close, upon inspection, it didn’t have any fruit. The gospel produces new life, and with that, it necessarily produces a fruitful life—some thirty-fold, some sixty-fold, and some a hundred-fold, but all fruitful.
And with the power of the gospel comes resurrection, new beings, people who, born a second time, will never die again.
If this is not the end result of the gospel you received, then it is not the gospel that Paul preached at Thessalonica, or anywhere else for that matter. If this is not the aim of your ministry, then it is not the gospel ministry that Paul labored in.So, how does your gospel ministry compare with Paul’s gospel? How does your own life compare with a life impacted by both the Word of God and the Spirit of God? And what about your preaching—is your new life breeding new life?
I think these are the real questions a text like this is asking. These are the big issues, just as much so in our day as they were in Paul’s day. So, let the Word of God stand before you as a mirror today. Examine yourself in light of these realities, and then look up to Christ. He’s there, seated at the right hand of the Father. He’s listening, watching, working. Whatever deficits you find in yourself, lay it all before the Lord—all your insufficiencies, all your neglect, all your carelessness. Cast them at His feet. Mourn over them.
But then, let the grace of Jesus Christ wash over you afresh. Let the healing power of forgiveness cleanse your heart and mind. Be renewed and restored today. Jesus Christ receives sinners and saints.
And then, from this day forth, give our Sovereign no rest until He visits you day by day with a right understanding of His Word along with a demonstration of His power.
You who put the Lordin remembrance, take no rest, and give him no rest.
– Isaiah 62:6–7
Give Him no rest, dear brothers. Power is necessary.
Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Volume VI–I, Acts–Romans(Woodstock, Ontario: Devoted, 2018), 100.
Islay Burns, Memoir of the Rev. Wm. C. Burns, M.A., Missionary to China from the English Presbyterian Church(London: James Nisbet & Co.., 1873), 100.