True Gospel Success
“2 We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 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, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 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. 9 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, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” 1 Thessalonians 1:2-10
Not much is worthy of our imitation these days. One need not think too much, or look too far, to be convinced of that – that is, if one has eyes to see. Integrity and principled living are rare finds. Faithfulness and commitment, especially when painful, is largely absent. Read a newspaper, watch the news, follow a sports hero or political campaign; again and again we find ourselves disappointed if not discouraged by the lack of honesty and abundance of insincerity. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find men and women whose characters are worthy of imitation. It seems integrity is a rare jewel.
Much the same could be said regarding churches. It’s not my intent to church bash, but only to state the obvious. It’s a sad thing to see with frequency how churches pattern themselves after the world. Though there’s a social aspect to the church, the church is not a social club. Though there’s a business aspect to the church, the church is not a business. Her leaders are not CEOs or managers. She has nothing to sell, only tell. And though health and wealth mark the pursuit of many (and unto damnation), health and wealth are, when understood biblically, had by those who relish and possess the riches of Christ.
Because our desire is to be a God-centered, Christ-exalting, Scripture-reflecting church, we need not reflect other churches. This is not, nor should it be, our concern. We need to pattern ourselves after churches commended in the New Testament. The church at Thessalonica was such a church. It was an exemplary church. Therefore, it’s a church worthy of our imitation. We see how Paul with his companions gives thanks to God for it. Its work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope fill their prayers. Without question these three phrases demand much attention and deep reflection. Apathy did not mark this church. Lethargy was no descriptor. And through thick and thin, hope remained. Theirs was a faith that worked, a love that labored, and a hope in Christ that endured. There was an energy to this church, a vitality, a life together that could not be missed. And Paul gives thanks to God for it. He gives thanks to God, the Giver of all life, the Granter of Christ-embracing faith, the Source of Christ-like love, and Fount of Christ-centred hope.
Praying, Knowing Their Election
Last time, we dwelled upon the second and third verses of our text. We move on today to the next verse. And in that next verse, in verse 4, we learn that Paul, together with Silas & Timothy, prayed with a great confidence. He prayed for this church, for this fellowship in 1st century Thessalonica. He prayed for these believers, knowing of their election: “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you.”
If anyone knows his Bible, he cannot deny the fact – election is taught. God chooses whomever he chooses. He elects whom he elects for salvation, to be the recipients of special, saving, redemptive, sin-freeing, God-entrancing grace. In love, the Father predestines unto adoption those who will be his sons and daughters. In love and in Christ, the Father, before the dawn of time, before the foundation of the world, before the creation of universe, chose a select few to draw to himself. I remind you of just a few verses that plainly and undeniably teach this doctrine:
2 Thessalonians 2:13-14. “But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation…”
Romans 8:29. “…whom He foreknew [i.e. whom God foreknew. The apostle here writes that God foreknew a people, not the choices of a people] ‘…whom he foreknew [i.e. whom he foreLOVED, which is how the Bible defines foreknew] “…whom he foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son…” Do not think of election as simple eternal security. If you think that way, you miss it, and you misunderstand it. Election is predestination unto the image of a Person, namely Jesus Christ, not merely unto the other side of the ‘River,’ as it were (Which is why we need to understand this whole law/sanctification thing). “Grace,” as Spurgeon says “does not choose a man and leave him as he is.” Not at all. The chosen are elected not simply to the beginning of salvation, but unto the end of salvation and full conformity to Christ.
2 Timothy 1:9. “[God] has saved us, and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted to us in Christ Jesus from all eternity.” So, God saves according to “His own purpose and grace,” and not according to “our works,” like making a ‘decision for Christ.’ By the way, it’s important to point out that election is not the same as salvation. Election is unto salvation. A sinner saved by grace was never active in his election. But he is active in his salvation. God elects. A man turns from his sin and trusts in the Person and Work of Christ. We must remember this. Election is the ultimate cause of faith in Christ. Why does anyone turn from sin and trust in Christ? He does so because he was ordained to do so. Acts 13:48 – “…as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” Amen!
Ephesians 1:5. “He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace…In Him (v. 11)…we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.”
Election: His will, not ours; His purpose, not ours; His grace, not our works; His love, not because we are love-able; not because He owes it; not because we loved Him or chose Him; but according to the “kind intention of His will.”
“Loved before the dawn of time
chosen by [their] Maker
hidden in [their] Savior
[They were His and He was theirs] Cherished for eternity.[i]
When Paul prayed for these people, he prayed knowing this to be true of them, that they were the beloved choice of God Almighty, that God had, before the dawn of time, singled them out for no other reason than His own purpose and grace, according to the kind intention of His will. He knew this, not because they were somehow attached to some special group, not because of their ancestry, not because they had the right parents, or went to the right church, and not because they used the right words and sounded churchy and religious and, dare I say, were “covenant children.” Paul knew because of two things: (1) the powerful word, and (2) the impressive result.
THE POWERFUL WORD
Just look at it. “4 For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”
There are a number of things to be gleaned here. First, we must see how election evidences itself. Indeed it does. Paul knew of their election because their election bore fruit. When the gospel came to them by way of missionary endeavor and preaching, it was successful. We’ve already made something of their work of faith and labor of love and so forth. But here, and before that work of faith, when the word, the gospel, was preached to them, it came to them “not only in word.” It came to them “not only in word.” But to be absolutely sure, it in fact came to them by way of word!
Don’t miss this. In a day and age when words are discounted and undervalued and pushed aside for other things, like images, we must hold to the divine design. The word is the method. The word of the gospel is the means by which God saves His elect. Being nice, neighborly, friendly, funny, throwing fellowship parties, eating together: all these things have their place. But salvation comes by hearing, and hearing by a word. Of course you know, or maybe you don’t know, what that word is. That word is the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. Do you know this good news? Are you able to articulate it? If asked, could you repeat it? It is, after all, a word. Paul’s gospel came to them by word. It should shock us to learn of elders who could not answer this question of the gospel. Indeed, I know of this. If one cannot give answer to this gospel question, he should not serve as an elder. One wonders if that one is even a believer, if he can’t answer the question. We need not go far to see the answer. It’s made explicit for us in 1st Corinthians 15. There we are told in concise terms what the good news is, “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” This is good news. Christ died for our sins; the just for the unjust; the sinless for the sinner. He who knew no sin became sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God. ‘Christ was born under the law that He might redeem those under the law; it was for freedom that Christ set them free!’
“To Him that loved us, gave Himself, And died to do us good,
Has washed us from our scarlet sins In His most precious blood:
Who made us kings and priests to God His Father infinite:
To Him eternal glory be and everlasting might!”
Make sure you know how to articulate the gospel. The gospel is a word. It’s a message spoken. No words spoken equals no good news heard or received. And no word received equals no salvation. Folks, listen to me. Preaching, or sharing, the gospel means using words. So, do not let some popular saying – like “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words” – confuse you. It is necessary to use words!
‘Our gospel came to you not only in word,’ Paul writes. It came to them in word, a clear word, a spoken word, a preached word. But that word was not alone. It wasn’t a naked word. It came to them clothed with divine power, in power from on high. This has nothing whatsoever to do with how energetic the preacher may or may not be. Paul says nothing about that. His subject here is not the man, but the message. The word came in power, not the messenger! The man, the messenger, did not come in power. In fact, the preacher may be in great fear and trembling. He may rather boast in his weaknesses than glory in his strength. Isn’t that what Paul said of himself? Did he not say to another church that he determined to know nothing but Christ and him crucified, and that he was among them in weakness and in fear and in much trembling? Paul was nothing impressive; the success of one’s ministry does not rest upon the man, but upon the message. Paul’s message to the Thessalonians, because it was clothed with power from on high, was neither impotent, nor ineffective. Those who heard it did not merely hear the sound of it, but felt it. They were affected by it. They weren’t as those who sat in some grade school classroom, or some university lecture hall, bored out of their skulls. What they heard gripped them. It affected them. There was this power, this gravitas, to what they were hearing. As they heard about the things of God, how Christ came and lived and died and rose again, how they must because of that fact turn from sin, be turning from sin, trust in Christ, and be forever trusting in Christ, more was going on than vibrating eardrums. Minds were stirred! Consciences were pricked! Hearts were warmed! One wonders if what the two on the Emmaus road said could be heard years later in Thessalonica: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was speaking to us…?” “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was speaking to us…?” 4 … we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power…” Paul prayed for them knowing they were chosen by God, that they were the beloved of God. How did he know? The gospel came to them not in word only, but in power. “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” Paul writes, “for it is the power of God unto salvation…” (Rom. 1:16). And what of this power?
In The Holy Spirit
This power is spiritual power. “…we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit…” What does it mean for the gospel to come upon a people not in word only, but also in the Holy Spirit? It means this: the word comes not as a dead word, but one that gives life! It means that when God’s Word falls upon elect sinners at the appointed time, it is not naked, but clothed in God’s Spirit – the Holy Spirit! Word minus Holy Spirit equals nothing! Word minus Holy Spirit equals no conviction, no contrition, no joy, no response, no salvation, no anything! How many of our churches are but dead carcasses, full of corpses, “hot-beds of formalism,” and mere petri dishes of traditionalism and joylessness! Why aren’t more entranced and intoxicated by this grace, this amazing grace we find in this book? Is it because God has chosen not to attend the preaching of His Word? Do you pray for this? Are your prayers filled by this request, that God by his Spirit attend the proclamation of his truth? We pang and pine and long for this, even that our own church be full of spiritual life; do we, are we, praying, on our knees, begging God to garb His truth to us with His Spirit?
“It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing…” (John 6:63). “Truly, truly, I say unto you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear shall live” (John 5:25).
Word minus Spirit equals nothing, except maybe an interesting Sunday morning (or maybe a dull Sunday morning). But word clothed in the Holy Spirit results in life, spiritual life, faith, repentance, turning from sin (like pushing sexual boundaries) and turning from idols of all sorts – like yourself and your children (Yes. Our children can be our idols). But Paul knew they were chosen by God, that they were the beloved of God, how? The gospel came to them not in word only, but in the Holy Spirit. God attended his preaching to them. God was active. God was working. “Grace does not choose a man and leave him as he is.”
And so we must come to apply this to our current state of things. There is a dreadful thing going on in the church at large. Far too many seem to look elsewhere for gospel success. What do I mean by that? Let me tell you. It is said that if we could only communicate better with the culture there would be more converts. What we need to do, it is supposed, is be better communicators, better speakers, better preachers. We need to use the language of the street to get our point across, or employ the latest psychological methods to turn people to Jesus. Communication? Is this the issue? Is this why sinners dead in their sins refuse Christ? Will some technological advance or tool fix the problem? Or, do we need to simply learn to communicate more effectively with our tongues? Granted, there is a place for good verbal skills. We must do what we can to make sure we communicate well. But, beloved, the power to convert a soul does not lie with us! Gospel success is not a matter of eloquent or clever speech! Nor must we look for the latest trend to influence sinners with the word of God. Not at all! We must not even try to make the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ relevant! Why not? Simple! The gospel of Jesus is already relevant! We need not be clever; what we need is confidence. We need a humble confidence. On our knees we must be, pleading to the Most High that he clothe his word with the Holy Spirit.
With Full Conviction
And last but not least, the gospel came to them not merely in word, but with “full conviction.” It is possible to understand this full conviction in terms of the effect of the apostle’s preaching. The gospel was preached with effective results so that it landed upon these folks with great conviction. That’s how it came to them. They were convinced of what they heard. They were sure about it. They had full assurance and confidence of its truthfulness in all that it both declared and demanded. Paul’s preaching affected their minds. It changed the way they thought. It filled their hearts with a new conviction, and one that would set them at odds with the world in which they lived.
This is one possible way to understand it. There are other possible interpretations. But we must not satisfy ourselves with possibilities. We must always be eager to know what the author himself intended to say. To be completely open and honest, I’m not absolutely certain what Paul means to convey at this particular point. I’ve wrestled with it, with what the apostle means by “our gospel came to you … with full conviction.” Indeed, the expositor must wrestle with the Scriptures – they are God’s word, after all! We must not assume that we are beyond misinterpreting them, especially at difficult points. Of course, God’s word is free from error; to be sure, it is impossible for it to be in error at any point. We can be absolutely certain of that! God does not lie or make mistakes! However, we ourselves are more than able to misunderstand, misinterpret, and even twist God’s word. So, we approach the Scriptures humbly, with respect, and with a keen sense of their gravity.
The best way to understand the phrase “our gospel came to you … with full conviction,” is, I now believe, as an expression of the way Paul delivered his gospel. Paul preached what he preached, the gospel of Jesus Christ, fully convinced it was God’s word. He was absolutely convinced that what he proclaimed was from God. Beloved, this is God’s gospel! That which Paul – the apostle and bondslave of Christ, the apostle once caught up into the third heaven, the Paul of the first century – what Paul preached is from God! Therefore, it is unthinkable that Paul’s preaching lacked vigour and zip and urgency and unction and authority.
Two things: First, we must understand that the true gospel is the one, and only one, Paul preached in the first century. We must grasp this and not let go. The gospel of Jesus Christ originates from God, was preached by Paul, and is preserved for us in the New Testament. Therefore, we are not free to tamper with it for any reason, change it in any degree, or “update” it to make it less offensive. I need not convince you that far too many have this agenda. You know the reality. Allow me to quote Dr. John Piper, a much-loved and deeply-respected American pastor and theologian. What he says is worthy of much repetition and reflection. He says:
“There is a sad irony in the seeming success of many churches and schools. The irony is that the more you adjust obscure Biblical doctrines to make Christian reality more attractive to unbelievers, the less Christian reality there is when they arrive. Which means that what looks like success in the short run, may, in the long run, prove to be failure. If you alter or obscure the Biblical portrait of God in order to attract converts, you don’t get converts to God, you get converts to an illusion. This is not evangelism, but deception.”
The gospel is not an “obscure” doctrine. But what Dr. Piper says here is equally applicable to the plain doctrines of the Bible. Mess with them, adjust them, defang them, soften them to get converts, and we practice not genuine ministry, but deceit! We desire true gospel success, and nothing less! Amen?
Second, we ourselves must proclaim the gospel with equal conviction, with a “full conviction.” In the words of the Apostle Peter, we must speak “as one who speaks oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11). Let it be known! Let it be heard! The Bible is God’s word! Those entrusted with preaching and proclaiming the Bible need to grasp this. They must preach with conviction, confident in the divine origin and therefore authority of the Scriptures. There is no room for the nonsense that occupies so many pulpits; having a conversation, or engaging in dialogue is not preaching. The exposition of a thousand possible interpretations is not preaching. The pulpit is not an altar on which truth is sacrificed and offered up to the masses intoxicated by the spirit of the age. It is one thing to be humble. And yes, we must be humble when we approach the Scripture text. However, the one who speaks the oracles of God must beware of humility misplaced. The 20th century British writer, poet, and philosopher, G.K. Chesterton, masterfully explains our current situation:
“What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition and settled upon the organ of conviction, where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.”
Any successful, gospel ministry is always “undoubting about the truth.” It, and its preachers, may doubt many things, but never the truth of Christ. Beloved, be fully convinced of the authority of Scripture. The Bible is God’s word!
THE IMPRESSIVE RESULT
To remind ourselves of the text before us, I call your attention to it once again:
“For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 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, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.”
How did the apostle know these Thessalonians were chosen of God? Did God reveal extra insight to Paul about them? Was Paul somehow permitted to look into the Lamb’s book of life, written before the foundation of the earth (Rev. 13:8; 17:8), in order to discover the names written on its pages?
The text before us makes it obvious. Paul was not privy to the secret counsels of God regarding the matter. The apostle did not see the names written in the book of life. The apostle’s confidence rose from two realities. The first reality we have already explained. Paul preached the gospel in power, in the Holy Spirit, and with full conviction. The second reality proves these Thessalonians got the message. Verse 6 tells they transformed. There was a great transformation, a great change, in the way they lived, in their behaviour. They “became imitators of [Paul] and of the Lord.”
These folks were not unmoved by the Word. In the fullness of time, when it was appointed that they would hear and believe, they did so. They were greatly affected by the gospel. It changed them immensely. There was a change in them. They changed! Once they were faithless, hopeless, worshipers of worthless, pagan idols, so in step with the world. But now they were anything but; they were the exact opposite of that.
Election evidences itself. It is the mother of holiness, the fountain of godliness, the spring from which flow the waters of righteous living. We will not camp here today. But we must be mindful that there is no hint here of the unruly, disobedient, rebellious, and idol worshiper. Paul says these folks became imitators of him, his companions, and the Lord Himself! They became model believers!
Who do you look up to? Who do you pattern your life after? Who’s your hero? In verse 7, Paul says they became an example to all the believers in Macedonia. As a body of believers they were worthy of imitation by other believers. That’s how Paul knew God chose them. That’s how he knew they were elect of God! That’s how he knew the gospel came to them not in word only, but in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. It changed them. It radically changed them. “Grace does not choose a man and leave him as he is.”
What should a church be known for? That is the question I’ve put before you. The answer is quite simple. A church should be known as the place where God gives evidence to his electing grace. It should be known for how the gospel has come to a people by means of a word clothed in the powerful activity of God, where God has unleashed his miraculous saving, life-giving power in concert with his word. Communication problem? There is no communication problem with this! Communication is not the problem! Too many times we default into thinking, ‘If I only said that better,’ or ‘Time for a new pastor,’ or ‘Let’s try this new program.’ Communication is not the problem. The Thessalonians heard the truth of the gospel.They heard. They were converted because God was active. God attended the preaching of his word by his Spirit. What should a church be known for? Should it be known for compromise, for tolerance, for mimicking what others outside the church do? God forbid!
2 We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction…. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord …7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.”
It isn’t safe to assume we’re amongst the elect, especially if grace hasn’t changed us. If grace hasn’t changed you, if you’re the same today as you were 5, 10, or 15 years ago, don’t assume you’re loved before the dawn of time. Grace changed these people. Their election was visibly, and undeniably, marked. The gospel came to them not in word only. You may have heard the gospel. But did it come to you in power? You may have been baptized. But did the word come to you in the Holy Spirit so that you started walking in holiness, with spiritual fruit produced not by you but him? Election is not something to be assumed if there’s no evidence of it. Believe the gospel. Behave accordingly. Love Christ. Obey the word. Walk by His Spirit. Make His calling and election sure with all diligence. Amen.[i] Stu Townend, “Salvation Song.”
Pastor Braye studied at Canadian Theological Seminary and the University of Alberta. Presently he labors for “Pastoral Leadership Development at Action International Ministries” In the past he served as pastor of Sovereign Grace Baptist Church and Beckwith Baptist Church. He is From Edmonton, Alberta