The earliest book of the New Testament, 1 Thessalonians, begins by celebrating the conversion of the recipients in glowing terms. Around A.D. 51, Paul reached Corinth, after he’d been chased from Thessalonica and Berea and passed through Athens. Having stayed but a short time in Thessalonica, he was concerned for the Christians and sent Timothy to “establish and exhort” them in their faith (1 Thessalonians 3:1-5). After Timothy rejoined Paul in Corinth, he wrote this, the first New Testament letter.
In that short period, the story of the Thessalonians’ conversion reverberated throughout the province of Macedonia and neighboring Achaia. Paul says of them:
“And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1:6-10).
The Thessalonians not only preached the word, but the story of their own journey to faith became so well know that people reported back to Paul how they had “received the word” and turned from idols to serve the living and true God. The description of their “faith in God” in verse 8 is explained clearly in verse 9 as their conversion./1 Apparently the account of their conversion in the midst of persecution and trials impressed and encouraged many.
Paul used their story to good effect, also. In his second letter to them, he wrote, “We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring” (2 Thessalonians 1:3-4).
Using similar language, Paul praised the Roman Christians, whom he had never met. “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world” (Romans 1:8)./2 In his commentary on this verse, J.W. McGarvey said Paul gave thanks for them “because their faith had so openly and notoriously changed their lives from sin to righteousness …” The turning of the Romans to Christ was a story to stir many a heart. Moses Lard stated appropriately that “[w]ith the mention of their belief would circulate the name of Christ in whom they believed.”
The news of such conversions seems to spread often.
Peter tells the Jerusalem Jews of Cornelius’s conversion. “When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life'” (Acts 11:18).
After their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas returned to Syrian Antioch, gathered the church together and “declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27).
On their way to a meeting in Jerusalem about circumcision, Paul and Barnabas “passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers” (Acts 15:3).
In Acts, after Luke recounts Paul’s conversion in chapter 9, Paul himself tells his own story of conversion twice (chaps. 22 and 26).
Paul even remembers details such as which people were baptized first in an area: Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia (Romans 16:5), and the household of Stephanas, the first converts in Achaia (1 Corinthians 16:15).
Now the telling of these stories of conversion — and all the “examples” of conversion in Acts — each has its own purpose with details relevant to that purpose. Whether to teach the way of salvation, encourage Christians to be faithful or spur pagans to confess the name of Christ, each salvation story contributes to a spiritual purpose.
My story may comfort or strengthen someone in their resolve to follow Christ. Yours may also.
Just yesterday I told of a young man in Belo Horizonte, who, hearing his first gospel sermon in a meeting, obeyed without hesitation. When he heard the message, he knew that was what he’d been seeking. Though his decision was quick, it was not impulsive. Decades later, he is a preacher of the gospel and an effective evangelist in the kingdom of God.
Such salvation stories motivate us. To convert ourselves. To remain firm in the faith. To teach others.
Let’s tell these stories, because they move us toward the main story of salvation in the cross of Christ.
With such spiritual purposes in mind, Forthright announces a new segment, “Conversion Stories.” As brothers and sisters in Christ contribute their stories, we’ll publish them. Check this link for the first story online and how you can share yours as well. Share this link with both Christian and non-Christian friends.
1/ TDNT, vol. VI: 209, 217.
2/ “‘Faith’ means the receiving of the message of salvation and the conduct based on the gospel (he pistis, Rm 1:8 …).” O. Michel, in NIDNTT (retranslated from Portuguese into English). Just as the verb “believe” may mean “come to believe,” so also the noun often has conversion in view. Cf. TDNT, vol. VI: 203-204.
Christians’ stories about their conversion motivate us all to do the will of God.