Inside-out / outside in?

What difference does being a Christian really make?

Huw Williams | 15:52, Tuesday 24 February 2015 | Turin, Italy

Let me start with the same question that we begun our Bible study with yesterday evening – does being a Christian make a difference to a person's life? Only the most cynical would answer 'no' to that question. But let me continue with the second question I asked – then what difference should being a Christian make? We had a lot of different answers.

We were beginning a new series in Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians and looking at chapter 1 together, we were all struck by how closely Paul links the outward signs of faith in the Thessalonian believers with the inward work of the Holy Spirit. Thus the outwardly visible evidence of their faith, such as their "work", "labour" and "steadfastness" is produced by "faith", "hope" and "love" respectively. And Paul doesn't stop there, his confidence of their being genuine believers is based on the fact that their reception of the gospel message was "in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction." (v5) led to their becoming imitators of Paul and his companions (and also of the Lord!) in the most extraordinary state of joy in suffering, the "joy of the Holy Spirit" (v6)

the inward work of the Spirit in these believers producing visible evidence of their faith

Pick a verse, it doesn't really matter where you jump into this chapter, you will find the same thing – Paul's rejoicing at the inward work of the Spirit in these believers producing visible evidence of their faith. Paul's theology is unambiguously inside-out, he is convinced that genuine gospel transformation begins with the Spirit's work in the heart and works outwards. It doesn't go the other way – good habits, decent living, great discipline doesn't produce a changed heart; when teachers began advocating the outside-in theology of circumcision or other forms of law-keeping in Galatia or elsewhere, just watch Paul go!

And as we looked at this great chapter the other night, we felt the weight of the challenge – more than one person in the group commented with genuine concern how their family and friends don't seem to see the same transformation in them as people saw in the Thessalonian believers. And this challenge is very real, we catch a glimpse here of authentic Christianity at work, and it is no small thing, it is life-changing and we should expect people to notice, because the Bible does.

How are we to respond to this passage?

So then comes the crucial question of application. How are we to respond to this passage? It is so easy (and I know because I often find myself going here first) to look at how our behaviour must change. What lifestyle changes must I put in place to get people's attention? Where should I tighten up, where should I be more disciplined, polished? How does my behaviour need to change in order to get the desired results? And, slow as I am, I only gradually see the irony of such a flagrantly outside-in response to such a clearly inside-out message.

And so we return to the text and ask the question again, how are we to respond to the challenges of this passage? And there we see it, spelled out for us in verses 9 and 10. We continue as we started, by turning "to God from idols to serve the living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven…" Repentance is not remembering to say sorry as we plough through life our own chosen route, it is a change of direction, a change of posture and gaze, from idols to the living and true God. And as our focus remains on him and his risen, returning Son, and as his Spirit continues his work in our hearts, we experience the inside-out transformation which God is doing in the lives of all his people.

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