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Monday, February 25, 2013

A Changed Life Testimony Begins in the Heart

 At once [Saul, later called Paul] began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God [following his conversion]. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.  --Acts 9: 20-22 NIV

It is normal for people to look for patterns in past behavior to try to predict future behavior, and a good part of that analysis goes into trying to understand other people's intent.  The past few weeks have been a parade of examples of this system breaking down, and so today I wanted to talk about a rather delicate subject called "life testimony" for new Christians.

I'm not talking about the story of your conversion, which you might share in a church setting, or among friends. I'm talking about the things you say and do every day, and what they imply to unsympathetic onlookers.  Your words need to express the intention of your heart, and your actions need to follow through, or else your observers will doubt your claims that your life has changed.  As the Bible cautions, "A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold," (Proverbs 22: 1 NIV).

This is an especially important lesson for new Christians, because they often have a negative history of words and deeds to overcome.  How can an individual's "bad reputation" be sanctified and purified after that person begins to follow Christ?

Saul: Ex-murderer, New Evangelist?

In the weeks, months, and possibly years immediately after Saul's conversion, Christians and Jewish non-Christians were skeptical of him, to say the least. Only a short time before, he had acquired a reputation for hunting down, imprisoning, and murdering Christians. He even acted as the legal witness at the first Christian martyrdom, the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7: 58 ; 8: 1). 

It's no wonder, then, that Saul, later called Paul, would spend a lot of his time proving his intentions at the beginning of his ministry.  The leaders of the early church hesitated to acknowledge him and even questioned his conversion (Acts 9: 26). They were afraid of him!

Eventually, though, they got over their fear and accepted Saul.  A big part of that came from the friendship and support of a man the believers had nicknamed "Barnabas."  But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Before Saul/Paul had really been established as a Christian (while there were still "rough edges" as we might say), he changed dramatically.  Instead of trying to prove why Christianity was wrong using might, he was trying to prove it right by using every bit of the rhetoric and education he had available.  Instead of being an outspoken critic of Jesus, word spread quickly through the synagogues (the Jewish meeting houses) that he was talking highly of Jesus.  He went from having the Sanhedrin (the Jewish high counsel) and all the Jewish leaders and scholars on his side, to having them hunt him to kill him, escaping narrowly with his life (Acts 9: 22-25).

I think it was this level of life-and-death commitment to his faith, together with some guidance from God, that convinced Barnabas and the early Christians to accept their former enemy.

To Modern-Day Sauls

To those of you who are new Christians with a lot of negative reputation to overcome, I can say that Saul (aka Paul) charted the way for you.  It is possible to gain a new reputation as a Christian that overshadows everything in the past.

 This comes from a total break with the past bad habits.  Paul let his new intentions be known to all, and then he followed through with action.  This wasn't a superficial change, meant to manipulate people, but rather a heart change that was coming out in the way he spoke and behaved.

 Paul couldn't have followed a Savior he didn't love, and he certainly couldn't have sacrificed friendships and potentially his own life to follow a cause he didn't believe in. Paul loved Jesus and he wanted to be more like Jesus, who he had made Lord of his life.  Because of this love, Paul wanted to please his Savior instead of hurting Him by persisting in all the things that made Christ's sacrifice necessary.  He wanted to honor the wishes of the God he had put in charge of his life. Without this deep love as a motive, Paul could not have changed.

When we recognize the love of our Savior, we cannot help but love Him back, and His love begins to change us.  His very goodness makes us reconsider our priorities and analyze our motives, through the gentle prompting of the Holy Spirit. Jesus makes us want to be honorable, as a way of showing our respect and admiration for our Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit shows us what changes need to happen.  This change is almost like a heart transplant, it is so dramatic in its effects (Ezekiel 36: 25-27). It is only logical that these changes in our hearts and thinking (Romans 12: 2) come out in our words and actions.  How can our hearts believe one thing and our mouths say we believe another?

Let me emphasize again that it is not possible to change our behavior or reputation in this way simply because we just want to be accepted among Christians or get a "rep" for being a good person.  At least, with such shallow motives for change, the transformation won't last.  We can only change in a permanent way because we know God and love Him, and because He has transformed our hearts.  Other people only come into this picture as a side-effect or afterthought.

So, today, if you are wanting a new, redeemed life testimony, know that it begins with a love for your Savior that lets Jesus move in and change you.  When He tells you to change, take His advice, and when He moves you to speak or act according to His pattern for your life, obey Him. Then watch the old reputation fall away like a bad memory.