When my wife had a recent school inspection, all the different aspects of the school were graded from Level 5 – “many important shortcomings”, up to a Level 1 “good with outstanding features”. One afternoon I was idly wondering how the apostle Paul might inspect the different churches he was writing to – or even how he might inspect this one! The church in Galatia I think might get a level 5, “Many important shortcomings”. Perhaps Corinth would get a level 4: “Some good features but shortcomings in important areas”. The church in Thessalonica on the other hand, would probably be a level 3: “Good features outweigh shortcomings”.
The church had been planted by Paul after a powerful work of the Spirit. Paul says in his first letter to the Thessalonians: “our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction”. But he also says “in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” After just three weeks in the town, Acts 17 tells us Paul had to escape to Berea under cover of darkness.
In spite of the persecution and the loss of its founding apostle, the church in Thessalonica is prospering. Look at 2 Thessalonians chapter 1 and verse 3: “We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing.” What a wonderful commendation!
But although these good features far outweigh the shortcomings, not everything in the Thessalonian garden is rosy. The opposition from unbelieving Jews has wrought confusion as to whether the Lord will come in judgement against those who oppose the church. Some are even claiming that the apostle Paul has said things he has not! But Paul insists that the Lord has not yet come, that persecution will continue, but he insists too that the Lord will judge and punish those who persecute the church.
There may be many differences between the church in Thessalonica and the church here. Perhaps you are not a young church without leaders. Perhaps you are not suffering from persecution. Perhaps the growth of this church has been slow and steady, not remarkable and rapid. Yet even if that is the case, I believe these verses have much to say to us.
Because just like the Thessalonians, I’m sure there is much to thank God for, but still much to put right. Your good features might well outweigh your shortcomings, but the important shortcomings will remain here nonetheless. As we look at the word of God, we must attempt to understand what the Lord is saying both to the Thessalonian church and to us here. We need to ask both “what is God saying to them” as well as “what is God saying to me”. I have four points for you: God’s choice brings thankfulness (v13), God’s calling brings glory (v14), God’s grace brings responsibility (v15), and God’s love brings strength (vv16-17).
So then, let’s see what the apostle Paul has to say. First:
God’s choice brings thankfulness
Look at 2 Thessalonians 2, verse 13: “But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.” The Thessalonians themselves may be discouraged because of the difficulties, but Paul is not. No, he will always thank God for these brothers loved by the Lord.
What causes Paul to be so thankful? He thanks God because God has chosen them to be saved. Theologians call the truth that God has chosen some to be saved the doctrine of election. Paul doesn’t say very much about the doctrine of election here, but it’s one found throughout the whole Bible. Very simply it means this: If you’re a Christian, it’s because God chose you to be saved. It may feel as though you chose God, but the Bible teaches clearly that He chose you.
How do you respond when you think about the doctrine of election? Perhaps you respond with distaste – after all there are many people who don’t like the idea that God is in charge of everything, that he even chooses who is saved. Perhaps you respond with misgivings – you know that the doctrine of election is something that the Bible speaks about, but you’re not sure that it’s something we should mention in case it puts people off, or causes division. Or maybe you respond with confusion – you’re just not at all sure how the Bible can teach that God chooses who should be saved and at the same time teaches that every man and woman has a responsibility to repent and believe in God themselves!
Or maybe you respond as the apostle Paul does here – look at verse 13. “I thank God for you… because from the beginning God chose you to be saved.” The doctrine of election may bring many responses, but if praise and thanksgiving are not among them, then you’ve not understood the glory of election.
The story is told of a child who had been adopted, receiving a great deal of teasing at school, because his parents weren’t his real parents. He faced down his tormentors with the simple response: “Yes, but my parents chose me”. That gave him value. That assured him of their love and their care. They weren’t just landed with him, they chose him. Do you see why thinking about election always causes the apostle Paul to be thankful and praise God?
God has been very gracious in ensuring that 99.9% of the Bible has been passed down over the generations without any error or confusion. But in a tiny percentage of cases, there is sometimes a disagreement about what a particular word might be. By God’s providence, none of these words make any difference to any major doctrine, but they can sometimes cause a little confusion as to exactly what a sentence says – and unfortunately there’s just such a word in this sentence. If you’ve got an ESV, you’ll see that Paul says “God chose you as the firstfruits”, and the NIV has something similar in the footnotes. I really do think that’s what Paul was trying to say. He is thankful, he is encouraged, because he believes that those in the church are just the firstfruits of those who will be saved in Thessalonica, and there is a full harvest still to come. That’s entirely in line with Paul’s usual language, and reminds us again of why the doctrine of election brings so much praise to Paul’s mind. Every converted person is a reminder that there are more elect people out there just waiting to hear the gospel and be converted!
But with all this talk about election, let’s not miss how these Thessalonian believers were saved. Look again at verse 13: “God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth”. Here Paul wants to make certain the Thessalonians have understood the enormous difference between them and those who are not converted. That’s why he begins the verse with that word “but”.
Let’s go back to verse 10. Those who are not Christians, Paul says, “perish because they refuse to love the truth and so be saved”. Those who are Christians, the end of verse 13, are saved “through belief in the truth”. Verse 12 tells us that those who are not Christians “have delighted in wickedness”, whilst verse 13 tells us that those who are Christians are saved “through the sanctifying work of the Spirit”.
Paul then is very clear about what it means to be a Christian. A Christian is someone who loves the truth and lives the truth. Can you see that? A Christian is someone who loves the truth and lives the truth. But we mustn’t think that Paul is looking down his nose at those who are not Christians. It’s very easy to forget that Paul was once someone who delighted in wickedness. Remember, before he became a Christian he persecuted the church, he had many men and women thrown in jail, and was complicit in the killing of at least some. If you’re not yet a Christian, and think that Christians – perhaps even us – look down at you, then please think again. Not a single member of this church was born a Christian. Not a single converted member of this church is innocent or has any reason to be self-righteous. But every believing member of this church has been chosen “to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth”. What marks us out is not our righteousness, but God’s grace.
So how did these Thessalonians move from delighting in wickedness to being saved? In Paul’s words, they are saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit. If you want to be saved, then you need to be sanctified, that means “made holy” by the work of the Spirit, and you need to believe in the truth.
That’s what happened to Paul. It’s what happened to the Thessalonian believers. It’s what happened to every Christian here. There is no entrance into the Christian life other than through the cleansing work of the Spirit, and through belief in the truth.
Do you notice just how prominent God is in all of this? These are brothers “loved by the Lord”, by Jesus, they are chosen by God the Father, and they are sanctified by the Spirit. What a glorious work of salvation by the Triune God! If you’re not yet a Christian, then understand that trying harder, praying more, doing better, or being more sincere will not make you a Christian – only God can do that! Have you asked him? Pleaded with him? Acknowledged your own inability to save yourself, and begged him to save you? It’s not your choice to become a Christian, it’s God’s.
So, that’s our first point, from verse 13. God’s choice brings thankfulness. The second point, from verse 14, is this:
God’s calling brings glory
Look at verse 14: “He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Isn’t this an amazing verse?
You see the gospel message is not content with just telling the Christian that they have been chosen by God. The Bible goes on to tell us that the Christian will share, or take possession of the glory of Christ!
But we’re rushing ahead of ourselves, getting too excited by this amazing truth that we share in Christ’s glory. Let’s not forget how Paul starts the verse, because that will help us understand the doctrine of election better. In verse 13 he’s told them all about their salvation, and then he says in verse 14, “He called you to this through our gospel”.
Remember, the doctrine of election doesn’t cancel out the doctrine of personal responsibility. That’s why in 2 Thessalonians 2 verse 10, Paul can say that those who perish do so because “they refuse to love the truth”. You will not be able to stand on judgement day and say, “It was not my fault I am unsaved, I was not elect”. God will reply, “No, you are unsaved because you refused to love the truth”.
And just as the doctrine of election doesn’t cancel out the doctrine of personal responsibility for those who are not Christians, it doesn’t cancel out the doctrine of personal responsibility for those who are Christians, either. That’s Paul’s point here in verse 14. Again, God is fully involved in the salvation of the Thessalonians, He called them. But look at how he did so. He did so through Paul’s gospel. He didn’t send a angel. He didn’t write a message in the sky. He didn’t cause someone just to think about God one day, he sent a man to preach.
Let me ask you a question: Do you believe that the elect will get saved whether you tell them the gospel and pray for them or not? It’s not a trick question. It’s not a question designed to test your orthodoxy, or how good a Calvinist you are. It’s a question designed to see whether we’ve really understood and put into practice the doctrine of election.
Do you believe that the elect will get saved whether you tell them the gospel and pray for them or not? If you do believe that, if you do believe that the elect will get saved whether you tell them the gospel and pray for them or not, then… you believe differently from the Apostle Paul. You believe a different doctrine from the one that Calvin preached. And you believe a different doctrine to the one that the Bible teaches. Paul asks in Romans 10:14, “How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” In Acts 18 Paul discovered that God had some in Corinth who were elect, but not yet saved. What did he do? Did he leave, confident that if they were elect they would be saved anyway? Absolutely not! He stayed there much longer than usual – and never thought for a minute that he could move on to somewhere else because they were bound to be saved anyway. Calvin himself paraphrases God’s words in Ezekiel 3 like this: “‘If you don’t show the wicked that he may be converted, I will require his blood at your hand’, and Calvin then goes on to say, ‘by these words, teachers are warned that unless they wish to be guilty of blood before the Lord, they must do whatever in them lies to bring those which go astray into the way, and that they allow no-one to perish through ignorance.”
You see, God is completely sovereign. We cannot claim any credit for a single soul won to Christ. But that never, never, never, allows us to wash our hands of the responsibility God has given to us to take the gospel to all nations. God calls people through our gospel.
If God has chosen people in this area, he will call them through your gospel. If God has chosen your son or daughter, father or mother, brother or sister, it is likely he will call them through your gospel. If he has chosen your neighbour, your colleague, your friend, how else would he call them but through your gospel?
I wonder whether some of us need to repent of our lack of belief in the doctrines of unconditional election and effectual calling. Whether we need to admit before God that our practice has contradicted our theology. Whether we need to admit to God that we have rested in the comfort of election, but never risen to its challenges. At the end of his life, in 2 Timothy 2:10 the apostle Paul says, “I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus”. Will we be able to say the same?
And before we move on, please realise that in saying this I have been gentle, and I feel the challenge myself. We can perhaps just grasp that it will be through our gospel that God will call his elect in this village. But what about the housing estates and small communities near by? What about the villages and towns? Whose gospel will be used to call God’s elect there? What about Caerleon? Abertillery? Brecon? Llandovery? Rhyader? Tregaron? Llanidloes or Machynlleth? What about the vast areas of innumerable cities without a believing church? What about the districts of Cariff without an evangelical church? Places like Pontprennau? Pentwyn? Llanederyn? Cyncoed? What about the countless towns and villages without evangelical churches in rural Wales and England? What about Barmouth, Llanfyllin, Blaenau Ffestinniog, Denbigh, or St. Asaph? Does God have none that are elect there? Whose gospel will be used to call them? What about continental Europe? The middle-east? Central Africa? What about the former Soviet Union? Whose gospel will be used to call God’s elect there? Does not the word of God make these places part of our responsibility too?
God is concerned about all these places, and we should be do. I believe that God has is elect in all of those places. Do you? I believe that in all these places there are those there “who might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ”.
You know there are some phrases that would be heretical if they weren’t in the Bible. That is one of them. How can imperfect, doubt-laden, error-prone wandering sinners like ourselves share in Christ’s glory?! But this verse in Thessalonians is far from unique. Look at what else we read in the New Testament: Romans 8:17: Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. 2 Corinthians 3:18: And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord. Philippians 3:20: we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
This is what God has in store for the Christian. Heirs with God. Co-heirs with Christ. Transformed into his likeness with ever increasing glory. Transforming our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body! What a magnificent message for the Thessalonian church as they were downcast and suffering. Never forget that is why Christ called you. Never forget that God wants you to share in the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.
So far we have seen that God’s choice brings thankfulness (v13), and God’s calling brings glory (v14), now thirdly verse 15 tells us that
God’s grace brings responsibility
Look at verse 15: “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” With all these wonderful, gracious gifts of God: his love, election, sanctifying work, his gift of faith, his call, his gift of the gospel, and his sharing of His Glory, with all of these gifts comes responsibility. “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.”
It is easy to get carried away. It is an easy thing to be so taken up with the glory and excitement of the Christian life, than our feet no longer touch the ground. It is not to be that way, says Paul. The Christian is to stand firm.
It must be said that historically, Christians have a rather good reputation for standing still. You’ve all heard the joke: “How many reformed Christians does it take to change a light bulb?”, to which the answer is “Change! We don’t do change!”.
But Paul doesn’t ask us to stand still, he asks us to stand firm. He even tells us where to stand: we’re to “stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you”. If you have another translation of the Bible you’ll probably see the word “tradition” used instead of “teaching”. That’s a good translation of the Greek word parádosis, but it can take to make us somewhat nervous. Are traditions a good thing or a bad thing? Biblically, they are both. Paul makes it clear in Colossians 2:8, “See to it that no-one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.”
The responsibility that we have as recipients of this wonderful grace is to put Christ and his word first. Human tradition must have no place in the life of this church, nor in our own personal lives. What must shape our lives are the apostles’ teaching, or as Paul put it to the Corinthians “what we received from the Lord we also passed on to you”. Paul told the Thessalonians that it didn’t matter whether the traditions where written down or preached, but of course only the traditions that were written down have reached us. Paul never had a Dictaphone, so we don’t have any of the apostles’ teaching passed on by word of mouth. That means that whenever Paul speaks of holding firmly, obeying, receiving or being taught apostolic tradition, we need to think in terms of apostolic Scripture. For us today, Scripture is authoritative and normative in the same way that apostolic tradition was for the Thessalonians.
In fact, the church in Thessalonica nearly became unstuck because they departed from this. You can see from chapter 2 and verse 2 that they had become unsettled because they had been conned into believing teachings that were not part of tradition. That was bad enough, but verse five also tells us that they had forgotten the things that were part of tradition.
Now if you think that we are safe from such problems, because we hold onto scripture well, let me quote to you from a commentary by Michael Holmes on this passage:
To be sure, in theory, we do this pretty well. Nearly all churches… affirm the centrality, importance and authority of Scripture… But if that is the situation in theory, it is something else in practice. Far too many churches and individual believers… talk the talk but do not walk the walk with regard to Scripture. Instead of holding tightly to Scripture, we read it selectively, twist it, ignore it, supplement it, or supplant it; we find sophisticated ways to reject its relevance while appearing to follow it. In short, far too often we do everything but hold tightly to Scripture.
So, are you standing firm and holding to the teachings the apostles have passed on to us? If Michael Holmes is right, perhaps many of us are finding sophisticated ways to reject the relevance of the Bible whilst appearing to follow it. What about you? Are you standing firm? Let me give you seven signs that will warn you if you are not:
- Warning sign #1: You take verses out of context, and apply them to situations that the author never intended. Have you ever been encouraged in a small meeting because in Matthew 18:20 Jesus says that “where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them”? If so, then you don’t hold tightly enough to Scripture, because Jesus was not talking about small prayer meetings, but about the appropriate procedures for church discipline. We’ve twisted Scripture to get that meaning from that text.
- Warning sign #2: You’ve learned much of your theology from popular authors, hymn-writers, or even novelists. Have you formed your doctrine of angels from Christian novels? Is your understanding of God’s purpose for your life derived from popular self-help guides? Do you find it easier to quote theology from hymns instead of the Bible? It’s not wrong to learn from all these sources – that’s why I put so much time into the bookstall here – but if these become our primary sources, then we’re not holding fast to the apostles’ teaching.
- Warning sign #3: You emphasise one part of Scripture over another. Perhaps you often read the New Testament, and only rarely read the Old. Perhaps you focus on the Bible’s teachings about love, and neglect what it says about sin. If so, we’re not standing firm to the apostles’ teaching.
- Warning sign #4: You always see the relevance of the Bible to others, but only rarely see its relevance to yourself. If you’ve ever said “I wish my husband (or wife) was here to hear this”, then you’re probably not standing firm. If you get to the end of a sermon and can think of all the things your neighbour needs to put right, then you’re guilty of twisting and ignoring Scripture to suit your own purposes.
- Warning sign #5: You believe certain truths in the Bible simply because that’s what everyone else believes. Perhaps you’ve come to an amillennial understanding of the end-times, not because you’re convinced that’s what the Bible says, but just because most of the people you know are amillenial. Or perhaps you’re a Baptist – or a paedobaptist – because that’s the tradition you’ve grown up in, and not because you sure that’s what the Bible teaches. If so, then you’re holding to human tradition, and not standing firm on Scripture.
- Warning sign #6: You emphasise guarding the truth, but downplay living the truth. Warren Wiersbe has written “One of the best ways to guard the truth is to put it into practice. It is good to be defenders of the faith, but we must not forget to be demonstrators of the faith. Lazarus did not have to give lectures on the resurrection.”
- Warning sign #7: When you’re reading a Christian book or listening to a sermon, you only occasionally look up the Bible verses they quote. Perhaps you’re reading a book, and the author explains that one verse is explained by another – but you don’t actually look up the verse to check he is right. Perhaps you’re listening to a sermon, but you don’t have an open bible in front of you to check the preacher is saying what the Bible is saying. It’s good that you trust the author, it’s great that you trust the preacher – but it’s a thousand times better that you trust the Bible.
You see, it’s not just the Roman Catholics or the wackiest charismatics who hold to the traditions of men and do not stand firm and hold to the apostles’ teachings. We’re in as much danger as they – more, perhaps if we do not realise our peril. Jim Packer said, “other things being equal, it is the Christians who eat up the Scriptures on a regular basis who are likely to achieve most for our Lord Jesus Christ”. God’s grace brings responsibility to stand fast to God’s word.
So, we’ve seen that God’s choice brings thankfulness (v13), God’s calling brings glory (v14), God’s grace brings responsibility (v15). Finally, and briefly,
God’s love brings strength
Look at verses 16 & 17: “May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.”
Perhaps you’ve got this far in the sermon, and frankly feel overwhelmed. You’re glad that God’s choice brings thankfulness and thrilled that God’s calling brings glory, but weighed down because God’s grace brings awesome responsibility. God’s word often weighs down our hearts.
But I don’t want you to go away from this message feeling that there is too much that you must do for God. I don’t want you to go away feeling weighed down. That’s not how Paul ends this chapter, and it’s not how I’ll end this sermon.
After the demands of verse 15, verses 16 & 17 often a tremendous encouragement. Look at what Paul says. He calls on Jesus Christ, and God the Father, and he reminds himself and the Thessalonian church of what God has done. He has loved us and gave us eternal encouragement and good hope. Do you notice the tense of those two verbs? In Greek grammar the tense is known as the aorist. It’s past, it’s completed. God has given us eternal encouragement and good hope. It’s already done. It’s done at the cross.
It was at the cross that Christ finished the work that he came to do. It was at the cross that he bore our sins. It was at the cross he took our punishment. It was at the cross that his righteousness was put on our account. It was at the cross he demonstrated his great love for us. It was at the cross that he demonstrated his perfect obedience to his father. It was at the cross that He gave himself to us. It was at the cross that he gave us encouragement not just for a day, not even for a week or a month or a year, not even for a lifetime, but Paul says, he gave us eternal encouragement.
How can we be downhearted, how can we be overburdened when we stand in the shadow of the cross?
It is to this Jesus that Paul prays that your hearts would be encouraged and you would be strengthened in every good dead and word. Reassured by what God has already done (verse 16), strengthened by what the Holy Spirit has done and is doing (verse 13), we persevere in hope, looking to the time when faith will become sight, to the time when Jesus will be revealed in all his glory that He will share with us (verse 14). To quote Calvin again,
Our determination and power to persevere rests on our assurance of divine grace alone. When God calls us to salvation and stretches out His hand to us, when Christ offers Himself to us for our enjoyment by the teaching of the Gospel, when the Spirit is given to us as a seal and pledge of eternal life, then we are not to grow despondent, even though the heavens should fall.
Oh, what a joy to know Christ and to make Him known, verses 13-17. What a freedom to know that we rest in his strength, not our own. What a release to know that God’s choice brings thankfulness, God’s calling brings glory, God’s grace brings responsibility, and God’s love brings strength.