I Thessalonians 4: 1-7
Ash Wednesday, 2023
+IN THE NAME OF JESUS+
The Lutheran Church and the Protestant Church in general have often been criticized because it is said that the doctrine of salvation by grace, which is the doctrine upon which the Church stands or falls, encourages people to become careless about the way they live in this world. It is said that if you teach people that they do not need to keep the law of God, the Ten Commandments, in order to get to heaven, you will encourage them to break the commandments.
Having said this, Let us be careful we do not not lose sight of the fact that all of us do have a tendency to become careless and indifferent in our devotion and consecration to the service of God, and the kind of life that is lived by Christians does at times cause a great deal of offense.
In the Lutheran Church make the claim, and rightly so, that our church has remained faithful to the Bible, that we teach the Word of God in its truth and purity. Can we with the same kind of assurance claim that all of us have always lived our daily life in such a way that it was, as St. Paul puts it in another place, “worthy of the gospel”? This is something for which we should strive, as we all know, and it is also taught us again by the text that we have before us this morning. On the basis of this text we shall meditate on:
THE LENTEN CALL TO REPENTANCE AND HOLINESS.
If ever there was a man who taught clearly and emphatically that men are saved, not by what they do, but by what the Lord Jesus Christ has done for them, it was the Apostle Paul. Paul wrote, “By grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8). It was the Apostle Paul who told the Romans, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28).
It was this same apostle Paul who had founded the congregation in Thessalonica and who wrote this letter to the Thessalonians from which our text is taken. The very first verse of this text demonstrates clearly that the preaching of the Apostle Paul did not encourage people to become careless about the kind of life they lived nor did the words of Paul have that effect.
When he said, “We beseech you, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus Christ, that as you have received of us how you ought to walk and to please God, so you would abound more and more,” his words make it clear that the proclamation of the gospel of forgiveness and salvation through the Lord Jesus had a good effect on the kind of life the Thessalonians were living.
When he says that they should abound more and more, he is surely not calling upon them to change the direction of their life, but he is asking them to do more of what they were doing. His words make it clear that the message of the Savior’s love has had a very beneficial effect on the type of life that was lived by the Thessalonian Christians. He expresses a very similar thought just two verses after our text, where he writes, “But as touching brotherly love you need not that I write unto you: for you yourselves are taught of God to love one another. And indeed you do it toward all the brethren which are in all Macedonia: but we beseech you, brethren, that you increase more and more.”
The gospel of God’s grace had a tremendous effect on the moral climate of Thessalonica and on the whole ancient world. In proclaiming the love of Christ, the gospel taught people to love each other and to love God. For example, the world in which the Apostle Peter preached was a world in which it was a common practice to kill unwanted children. Into that world came the Christian Church with the gospel of a Savior who loved little children, and for 2000 years the world was different because of that message. It is only in our own time, when churches everywhere have drifted away from that gospel, that the old savage, heathen attitude toward children is once more making itself manifest. The words of the apostle in this text also indicate why the gospel should have this effect.
He says that the Thessalonians had learned from Paul how they ought to walk and to please God. The desire to please God is a characteristic of a Christian heart. The Christian, who believes the gospel, knows that God has done something so wonderful for him that he can never really do enough to express the gratitude that he owes to the Lord. And if ever there is a time in the church when we ought to be aware of this, it is surely during the Lenten season.
When we see the Son of God betrayed and denied by his own disciples,
• when we see him crowned with thorns and scourged and beaten by his enemies,
• when we see him condemned by the church of his time for blasphemy because he said that he was the Son of God,
• when we see him sentenced to be crucified by the Roman governor, and
• when we see him forsaken, even by God, during those hours of darkness of Calvary, and
• when we know that he did all this willingly because he wanted to suffer the punishment we had deserved, so that we could go to heaven, even though we had not kept God’s commandments and had de served to go to hell,
• when we know and see all this and believe it, we will want to please God, who has done all that for us.
A Christian knows that his God wants him to lead a holy life. As St. Paul says, “This is the will of God, even your sanctification.” And that is really enough reason for a Christian to do it. His old Adam needs to be reminded again and again that the Lord punishes those who sin—as St. Paul also says in our text that the Lord is the avenger of all wrongdoing—but the greatest motive for Christian living is just this: our God who loves us wants us to live that way.
The apostle also gives us a few examples of what God wants from us and in what our sanctification consists. In the moral climate in which we live today, it might be well for us, at the very beginning, to note that St. Paul does not call upon the Christians in Thessalonica to correct all the evils in the world. He starts with the personal life of the Thessalonian Christians. He writes in our text, “This is the will of God, even your sanctification, that you should abstain from fornication: that every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honor, not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God.”
The sanctification, the holy living that God wants from us begins in our family life. The world in which the Thessalonian Christians lived was one in which fornication was not even considered to be a sin—just as in our day many of those who speak of the depravity of our society and the obscenity of our political system are often in the forefront of the movement to destroy marriage and the family and to make ours once more a world in which fornication and adultery are a part of everyday living.
But the God who created man male and female and who joined Adam and Eve together in marriage, in which there was nothing of which they needed to be ashamed, still wants husbands and wives to live together in sanctification and honor, respecting each other and loving each other as people who are both loved by the Lord Jesus—or, as St. Peter puts it in his First Epistle, “as being heirs together of the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7). Such a marriage will surely rest on firmer foundations than one which exists only for what the apostle calls the “lust of concupiscence.”
The second example of what God wants from his people—and of which the apostle speaks in our text—is also one that does not change the system nor restructure society, but which would go a long way toward making any system work. He says that the Thessalonians should not defraud, that they should not cheat the brother in any matter, in any business deal.
Thessalonica was one of the chief trading centers in the Mediterranean area, and cheating and defrauding— crooked business—was as much a part of the way of life as fornication and immorality. And yet Paul does not call upon the government to pass all sorts of regulations, and he does not call upon the Christians to agitate in the streets for reform. He just tells the members of his congregation that they should be honest and deal with their fellowmen in love, also in their business dealings with them.
But, you may be thinking, what if my life heretofore has not been one of consistent sanctification and holy living? Pastor, what if my personal life, as you put it, has not been the kind of life St. Paul speaks of in this lesson? Remember to whom Paul was writing. The Thessalonians were still sinners and why Paul wrote His words of encouragement. You and I are still sinners as Luther says, “We daily sin much.” If you daily sin much, you are the one for whom Paul penned these inspired words. You are in a world like the Thessalonians. You battle with the devil, the hostility of the world and most importantly your own sinful flesh. The flesh does win more often than we would admit to each other.
In this lesson, Paul calls the Thessalonians “Fellow Christians” even in the midst of all their faults and failures. This letter was meant for you as well. Your Lord poured the water of His baptism over you. In His Word of absolution through the pastors, Jesus forgives you and embraces you as one of His little ones. Held in His arms of forgiveness, He lovingly points you to the cross and invites you to gaze in faith upon His love, not condemnation. Never are the words of our Savior more important now as we enter the Lenten season: “Whoever comes unto me, I will never cast away.”
Yes, as your pastor I will continue to tell you that you are saved by grace and justified by faith. As your pastor, it is my hope that you will take this whole text to heart, so that the lives that are lived by our people will never bring any disgrace on the gospel that is proclaimed here from this pulpit. One of the reasons we exist as a congregation is that we might help and encourage each other to live the kind of lives that will adorn the gospel of Christ. What else could you expect from people who have knelt together at the Lord’s altar and have together eaten the body and the blood that was given and shed for our salvation? God help us to that end. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
It is easy to see why this should be so. Even the world says that one good turn deserves another. If someone does something very nice for us, it is a very normal reaction to want to do something to express our gratitude.