Description / Transcription
Let’s pray as we come to God’s Word. Oh, God, speak to us now, that we may know the truth and the truth would set us free. Deliver us from the lies of the devil, the deception of the world, and the misguided inclinations of our own hearts. Teach us how to think and how to feel, for we have been pressed into the mold of the world more than we realize. Show us who we are and who we ought to be in Christ. Take every thought captive by Christ, for Christ, and in Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
We turn this morning to the book of 2 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians Chapter 2, just three verses, verses 13 through 15, as we continue this brief series through some of Paul’s prayers of thanksgiving in 1 and 2 Thessalonians. And this morning we come to the second chapter of 2 Thessalonians. Follow along as I read verses 13, 14, and 15.
“But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this He called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.”
We’re going to get to this text in just a few moments, I promise. But before we get there, and hopefully you’ll see why we’re starting here, I want to start with a little cultural and philosophical reflection. Most people in the western world, especially if you’re my age or younger, now operate with a philosophical assumption that shapes and defines their arguments, their instincts, and whether they realize it or not, their entire way of looking at the world and at themselves.
The assumption is this: Is equals ought. Is equals ought. What does that mean? It means that what you are is what you should be. Or to put it even more accurately, what you feel about yourself, what you believe about yourself, what you perceive about your true identity, all of that must be embraced. Not stifled, not rejected, not judged, but affirmed, accepted, and put into practice. That is the philosophical assumption that dominates most of the western world now, especially those who are young. Is equals ought. Whatever you feel yourself to be, whatever you make your own identity to be, you ought to live that out. And, if someone tries to tell you to be something or do something other than your own self-perceived, self-chosen identity, then that person is no friend and may even be a bigot.
Let me quote to you from one of the theologians of our age, and I think this person has perhaps not been quoted before from this pulpit. Lady Gaga. Not recommending her to you. If you haven’t heard of her, your kids and grandkids have. She played the Superbowl this past year. She is one of the best-selling musicians of all time, as of last year $146 million singles sold, as of last year, 2016. She had a song in 2011 called “Born This Way.” By the title, whether you’ve ever heard of the song or not, you might be able to guess sort of what it’s about. I won’t give you the whole thing but let me give you just a few lines. This is toward the end of the song. She says:
“no matter gay, straight, or bi, lesbian, transgendered life,
I’m on the right track, baby, I was born to survive.
No matter black, white, or beige, Chola or orient made,
I’m on the right track, baby, I was born to be brave.”
And here’s the chorus:
“I’m beautiful in my way ’cause God makes no mistakes.
I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way.
Don’t hide yourself in regret, just love yourself and you’re set.
I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way, yeah.”
Now, by my dramatic reading of that, you may be tempted to think “who believes this stuff? Who’s looking to Lady Gaga to find their moral compass in life?” Well, millions and hundreds of millions of people. Her and all the other entertainers like that. Because what we give from parents, church, school, institutions, is often no match, it seems, for the endless repetition coming in our ears, on our screens, this sort of message. Born this way.
Interestingly enough, although this song is only six years old, even this song is now dated because the cultural and sexual revolution has moved away from that kind of language, sort of biological claims, because “born this way” could be seen as limiting your own identity. It’s not so much what you are born with, but your own sense of who you are.
When I say “is equals ought,” our culture understands “is” to be not some sort of physical givenness, not your birth biology, but rather the “is” is about your self-direction, your self-perception, your self-definition. This is what I feel like, and this is what I should do. And if you tell me that I can’t do that or that I should be something or someone other than I feel myself to be, well, you’re not just telling me to do something, you are attacking the very heart of my personhood.
Now most people would not sit down and explain it in those sort of terms. That’s why it’s a philosophical assumption. It’s in the background. It goes without saying, whether we realize it or not, that is how most people in the western world see themselves.
So what’s wrong with this deep philosophical assumption? Well, besides pointing to some errant science, or often a lack of any science, or suggesting that it’s confused and contradictory, because it is, because this same message of “Born This Way” and however you perceive yourself to be, don’t tell them not to do that, somehow that breaks down. If, for example, you are trying to talk to someone who has an eating disorder, because there they have a self-identity that says one thing about their body, their body being too big, their body being overweight, their body being ugly. And you understand in that situation, part of love is to help that person see “no, what you understand about your physical body is not accurate.” But yet, in so many other instances, we’re told “no, no, no, whatever you think about our physical body, whether you think that you are male, female, whatever the fluid spectrum is, our world tells us you ought to embrace it. And if you tell me otherwise, shame on you.”
So all of that we could point to. But I just want to deal with it theologically. There is one major theological problem and I hope it would be obvious to you, but given the way the world presses in on us, it may not be obvious.
Here’s the one major theological problem: The message of “Born This Way” or the message that “is equals ought” has no doctrine of the fall. It’s Pelagianism at its worst. If you remember hearing of that ancient heresy, that we are born basically good, decent people. So our self-perception, our self-determination, our self-acceptance then becomes paramount, because we have no doctrine that says “no, you are filled, and I am filled, by birth with self-deception, self-centeredness, and self-destruction.” It has no theology of the fall and original sin.
I sometimes say Lady Gaga got it half right. “Born this way,” that’s true, we are born one way. But what if the Bible calls us to be born again another way.
See, like any popular heresy, and that’s what it is, it has a half-truth. We’re made in the image of God. We’re divine creatures in a way, wired to think and to, and to want this connection to God, so most errors that get a real cultural traction have some element of truth. If they were just so obviously blindingly false, no one would believe them. And like this one, there is something that is true. Here’s what’s partially true: Ethics is rooted in ontology. (Ontology is the study of being.) To put it another way, your identity does shape your obligation.
There is a profound Christian sense in which it is true that is equals ought. That is a true statement if, if you have a doctrine of sin and the new birth and union with Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Because if you know the New Testament, you know one of the chief motivations in the New Testament boils down to this: Be who you are. Be who you are. In Christ. Not in the flesh. Not who you are in the old man, but in the new. Not in darkness, but in light. Not in the first Adam, but in the second. Not in the flesh, but in the spirit. Not in sin, but in Christ.
So this deep philosophical assumption, which most people in the western world now embrace, “is equals ought, ” is a Christian truth if we fill it up with the right Christian doctrines. Without it, it becomes a damning heresy that says whatever you think yourself to be, that’s what you ought to be and that’s what you ought to do.
Okay, what does this have to do with 2 Thessalonians? It has everything to do with 2 Thessalonians. We have been looking for the past few weeks at a church to be thankful for. We’ve been looking at Paul’s prayers. What is he grateful for? What does a healthy church look like? What does a good church? What do we hope to be known for as the Body of Christ?
We saw week one the character of the people. Week two, the confidence in the Word. Week three, the strength of their community. And now this week, we see what is good about this Thessalonian church and why Paul is thankful. They are clear on their identity. We want to be a church full of people who know who they are.
Every age has to deal with different heresies and errors. And you don’t know how many times, and maybe you’re like this, too, that I’ve thought “Lord, I wish I could have been born in a different age, where all of the most controversial errors have to do with sex. Couldn’t have been about justification or something else? But of course, we don’t get to choose the age in which we are born, and we don’t get to choose the battles that we must fight, and we don’t get to choose the love that we must show.
Is equals ought. It’s true if, if you know what it is to be born again in Jesus Christ. The half-truth that our world teaches is that you really can only be who you are. The Bible wants you to be true to yourself. But the Bible wants you to know what your true self really is. And it’s not the true self that you’re born with, it’s the true self that you find by dying to your self and being born again in Christ.
So there’s a half-truth that our world believes and there’s a bridge to talking with your friends and neighbors. Even maybe some of you who are here. And let’s not kid ourselves. There’s people here, kids, grandkids, or any of you, that though you’re here and though you sit and you listen and you not and you think “that’s good, and I agree with that,” you think these things. You maybe haven’t sort of put that fine a point on it, but that’s the way you would talk in thinking about your friends. “Well, that’s who she is. That’s what he wants to be. How can I ask them to be something that they’re not?” Which is profoundly mistaken and profoundly Christian at the same time, if we fill it up with its proper meaning.
I want you to look at verse 15. You see verse 15: “So then, brothers.” When you get to that sort of language, you need to ask yourself what goes before it? There’s a little saying, sometimes when you see a therefore in the Bible, you ask yourself what is the therefore there for? What is the “so then” there for? “So then” alerts us that verse 15 is going to be a conclusion. Okay? All right. Having said that, so then here’s the conclusion in verse 15, and verses 13 and 14 are the reasons that drive us to that conclusion. Your identity is found in verses 13 and 14, and that identity then defines your obligations in verse 15. In other words, Paul says “I’m going to tell you what to do, but first I’m going to tell you who you are. And I’m going to tell you who you are by telling you how thankful I am for who you are, who you really are in Christ.”
And once you fill that up with your identity in Christ, then it’s safe to say “is equals ought.”
Let me tell you four things about your identity in Christ this morning, and then we’ll finish at verse 15 with Paul’s instructions. Four things about your identity in Christ.
Number one: In Christ, you’re family.
You see this language in verse 13, “brothers.” Again in verse 15, “so then, brothers.” And you can translate it as siblings, as brothers and sisters, it includes men and women. This language is common in the New Testament but it’s so common we should not overlook it. We’re part of a family. You look at Chapter 1, verse 2: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” So we have God as our father, we have Jesus Christ as our elder brother, our savior, bound together by the Holy Spirit, now we are brothers and sisters. We are family. And it’s a family not by virtue of birth.
John 1: “But to all who did receive Him, who believed in his name, He gave the right to become children of God who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
Did you hear that? You do not inherit the kingdom of God because of the family you were born into, which for some people, they say “oh, praise the Lord” and other people say “well, are you sure? Have you seen my family? You know how long we’ve been here?”
Jesus says no, you must be born again. That’s what Nicodemus was so confused about. “Okay, how does that work? How do I get into my mother’s womb a second time?” And he says “You are a teacher of Israel. You should have understood this.”
This is not natural birth, but supernatural birth. Which means contrary to much popular opinion, we do not just look out into the wide world and say “isn’t this wonderful? We’re all just family.” Now it’s true, we’re all made in the image of God, we all have that much in common. We’re all fallen, we’re all in need of a savior, so there’s many things that would bound us together as the human race. And yet it’s not true that we are all brothers and sisters. Don’t water down that language so that you think “ah, brothers and sisters, we’re all just family.”
No, it is an immense privilege that you and I, in Christ, can belong to the family of God.
It was one of the heresies of the Unitarians in the 19th and 20th centuries of protestant liberalism that said “God is father over all and we are all spiritual family together.” One person once said 19th century unitarianism could be described as the “brotherhood of man, the fatherhood of God, and the neighborhood of Boston.” That’s what it was.
And it sounds very nice, and you have it all the time. I had somebody one time in an interview ask me a question. It was a hostile sort of interview. And said “Now, you conservative evangelical Christians, you believe in this doctrine of Hell. How can you assert that a loving father is going to punish his child forever in Hell? How can you say that?” And I said, “I don’t say that. I do not believe because the Bible doesn’t teach that we all have God as our father. For those who have God as their father, he is always and ever for them and not against them. Even though he may discipline them, even though they may grieve the Spirit, He is always for them and not against them. We’ve been adopted into the family of God. There is no greater privilege than this spiritual adoption.”
What do you think about when you think about being a Christian? Do you think, “well, I’m a Christian. It means I hear a nice talk once a week and I try to find a church where the talks are less boring than other talks, and that’s what I do.” Do you think being a Christian is kind of a nice habit? And I go so that my kids will sort of stay out of trouble? Do you think being a Christian is good for community relations? It’s good, it’s nice. It’s about being a helpful part of my community.
Or do you think “I have been placed in a new family”? Not that doesn’t mean it erases your natural, national, or biological family. But listen, it does supersede it.
One of the last acceptable idolatries among middle-class Christians is the idolatry of the family. And I say that as someone who deeply loves my wife and my kids and my family; it means the world to me. But Jesus is constantly telling his disciples, “I mean more. Let the dead bury their dead. Unless you love me more than you love your father and mother,” in fact, Jesus is so bold as to say “unless you hate them.” And there’s lots of kids saying “I always liked that verse from Jesus.” Well, it’s a hyperbole. It’s meaning that “unless by comparison you love me more, you’re not fit to come follow me.” That’s just a measure of what amazing good news it is that we have been called to be a part of the family of God.
Do you want to get together with this family? Do you feel burdened when a member of this family is burdened? Do you listen to the Father of this family? Do you know what a special thing it is to belong to this family?
I once heard a southerner described, now you’re all listening, “okay, what?” A southerner described as someone who knows where they’re from. I bet many of you do. You can tell me where you’re from, where your mommy and daddy were from, and your granddaddy was from. People who know where they’re from, know who they are.
Do you know where you’re from, spiritually? Because that’s much more important. Have we forgotten our family? Do you know your identity that is even more important than being an Anderson, a Johnson, a DeYoung? You’re a Christian, and you belong to the family of God, and we call each other brother, sister.
That’s the first thing that Paul says. You need to know your identity, your family.
Here’s the second: Not only are you family, but you are loved. You’re loved. Don’t by verse 13 too quickly. “We ought to always give thanks to God for you, brothers, beloved by the Lord.”
Think of what a sweet thing it must have been for the Thessalonians to hear that. Remember they were opposed. They were persecuted. They were oppressed. They were facing persecution. There were people in their lives who said “you are believing utter nonsense and we hate you for it.” And then the apostle Paul comes along and he says “you’re loved. You may be fools in the eyes of the whole world, but in the eyes of God, you are his beloved.”
Again, this is not generic “God loves everyone.” I saw a t-shirt or something one time that said “God loves you. Then again, he loves everyone.” Wah wah wah. That’s what some of us think. “Well, of course, God loves me, that’s that God does. He just loves people and I happen to be people and so he loves me.” Well, there is a sense in which he loves everyone, creatures made in His image, but most often the Bible is talking about the specific covenantal love. He loves you as his own child. You may say “I love all the kids in this church.” And you do. But I promise you, if your child was the one screaming in the nursery or having a fit, there would be a particular ear to hear it. And if there was some sickness, some fear, some danger, you would be particularly drawn because you love that child in a special way. It’s your child.
And so God loves us. He has a love for his family, for his people, for those who belong to Him.
Look at the beginning of verse 13. You see this contrast? He begins with the word “but” and it forms a contrast with what has come before. Look at verse 9: “The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who do not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” But, there’s the contrast.
You have this category: They are deceived, they’re sent a delusion, they’re unrighteous, they face judgment and condemnation—that’s the world. But, we give thanks for you. You’re family. You’re loved.
Which means, if you’re in Christ this morning, and God almighty, the creator of heaven and earth, loves you, what do you have to prove? You don’t have to earn something. You don’t have to be fighting every day, struggling for acceptance, getting up in the morning “how can I make these other people happy?” The God who said “let there be light” and there was light, that God who raised Jesus from the dead, that God says “I love you. You’re my child. You’re family.” And you embrace that, you feel confident in that.
This is an imperfect analogy, but it’s kind of the difference between dating and when you’re married. Now I’m not saying, married couples, that you stop trying; you don’t. But you know when you’re dating and it’s sort of “Is this going to work? Am I in or am I out? How did this go? I think that conversation maybe didn’t go so well” and you’re reading into, I don’t know, “the text, what does LOL mean? I’m confused. Is that the emoji? That’s it’s sort of an errr face. I don’t know, maybe they hit the wrong button.” And you’re sort of always wondering what’s going to happen. Then you get married and you wear the nastiest pajamas to bed, “It’s fine, she’s stuck with me, she promised.”
Now hopefully, if you have good marriage, it doesn’t mean that you stop wooing, you stop loving, you stop trying, but hopefully it means you stop worrying, you stop over-analyzing. In a healthy marriage there is security, there’s warmth, there’s acceptance, there’s love. There’s not perfection. It’s not that you don’t have to repent, it’s not that you don’t improve. But you know “I’m loved.” There is promises, these promises will be true.
How much more so if we who are sinners make these imperfect vows can we trust God when he promises to us “I will never leave you nor forsake you. You are my beloved. You are loved. You’re family.”
Here’s the third thing we need to know about our identity: You’re chosen.
You see that at the second half of verse 13…You’re chosen. Now don’t misunderstand. That doesn’t mean you were the best person for the kickball team and God picked you. And God looked out and said “I need some real heavy hitters here, and so I want you and you and you. You are amazing. Think your talent. Think of what you could be for me. I choose you.” No, no, no. Election is not a reminder of human accomplishment, it is a reminder of divine mercy. Because the Bible says before Jacob or Esau had done anything good or bad, God chose Jacob. Said “Jacob, I will love.” He set his affection upon Israel. He said “Israel, of all the nations of the earth, will be my treasured possession.”
He chose Abraham. Now we all know the song “Father Abraham had many sons, many sons had Father Abraham.” What a great hero he was. But you remember, of course, when God chose Abraham, he was a pagan. He was an Ur of the Chaldees. He was worshiping other gods. That’s the guy that God said “yep, you, I want you.”
He chose us. The doctrine of election is hard for some people to swallow. Here’s why it’s so important though. You ask yourself what is the decisive reason why I’m saved and not someone else. What’s the decisive reason? You say, “well, of course, it’s all by grace.” But unless you have divine election as the ultimate answer to that question, you have some reason to boast. You just say, “well, yes, it’s all by grace, but at the end, you know, I did, I did have, I guess I had better parents. I guess maybe I kind of made a better decision. I guess I saw something that he didn’t see.” If you reserve one little bit at the end of that train of thought for yourself, then you have reason to boast.
What is ultimately the decisive reason that you’re a Christian? God. God. God chose you. God in his own inscrutable, divine, wonderful mercy, said “I want you.” And so he gave us the gift of faith that we might believe.
You didn’t win some cosmic tryout. You didn’t even know how to play the game. But God said “I want you on my team anyway, and I want you in my family.” You’re chosen. Chosen for what? Not chosen for arrogance. Calvinists should be the humblest people in the whole world. Chosen for what purpose? Chosen that you might be firstfruits; that’s the Thessalonians, probably meaning “you were among the first converts in this region of Macedonia and there will be many more to come.” Chose as firstfruits to be saved. What does it mean to be saved? It means to be delivered from judgment. We’ve seen that already, 1 Thessalonians 1:10: “We wait for his Son from heaven whom he raised from the dead, Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come.” It means that we are raised with Christ. You see that in 1 Thessalonians 4:16: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” And we’ve been saved so that we might live with him. 1 Thessalonians 5:9: “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep, we might live with him.” We are chosen that we might be free from the coming wrath, that we might be raised with Christ, and we might live with him.
And how does this come about? Look at the last part of verse 13: “Through, ” so now we have a mechanism. How are we saved? So we’re chosen to be saved and how does that happen? Well, it happens through sanctification by the Spirit. Sanctification here could have one of two meanings, or perhaps both. It could be sanctified in the sense that the Spirit sets us apart, definitive sanctification sets us apart in Christ. You’re saved when the Spirit brought you out of the old life and set you apart, sanctified you, into the new, definitive sanctification.
Or it could be a reference to progressive sanctification. That’s how we usually think of the term. How God works in us as we work out so that we might become increasingly more and more like Christ. In that sense, the meaning would be He’s chosen you unto that final salvation, to persevere to the end, to escape the wrath of God, and to that end He is going to work in your life to make you more and more like Jesus. Sanctification by the Spirit.
And then the second mechanism is by belief in the truth. The end of verse 13. You see that, by “belief in the truth.” Even faith is a gift. Don’t think “well, I’m not saved by works, I’m saved by faith.” And that means that faith is worth so much more than works that God looks at “well, you have faith and that counts for everything, and therefore I save you.” No, faith is not the work that saves us. Faith is the instrument by which that grace flows to us. Faith itself is a gift. We believe the truth. We are not a people who believe in the latest spin. Paul says to the Thessalonians: “That’s not how you were saved. You were saved by believing the truth.”
We’re a beloved people, we are a truth people. We always must be both. We’re loved people and we’re truth people.
I remember one time applying for a job and one of the questions was “Where would you put yourself on the continuum of grace and truth?” And I didn’t know, I still don’t know, if it was a trick question or not, but I said “I refuse to answer that question because Jesus came from the Father full of grace and truth and so I want to be both.” And that’s the right answer. Grace. Truth. You’re beloved. And you believe in the truth. So you’re family, He says. You’re loved. You’re chosen.
Here’s the fourth thing: You’re called.
We sometimes use that calling language to mean I’m called to be missionary, called to be a pastor, or even I’m called to be a teacher, or whatever you might feel led to do. Actually, that’s not the way that the New Testament talks about the calling language. When the New Testament talks about calling, it is this calling unto salvation. Says “you are called,” verse 14, “through our gospel,” through the gospel. What’s the gospel? It’s the Good News of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. That’s how people get saved.
People do not ultimately get saved because we tell them about what happened in our life. That may be important. That sometimes is a corroborating evidence of the gospel. But Buddhists have stories of their lives changing, Mormons have stories of their lives changing, Muslims have stories of how their lives have changed. So it’s not ultimately, “well, look at me.” That may be part of the evidence to get a hearing. We’re not giving people good advice merely, “let me tell you about being a Christian, there’s a lot of things you have to do.” Well, it’s true, but we’re first of all announcing good news. That’s the gospel.
And notice it says “He”, verse 14, “to this He called you through our gospel.” So Paul and his associates were preaching. That’s why he says “our gospel,” “my message.” But ultimately, he says, He, that is God, was the one who called you. This was God’s work. Yes, there was a human preacher. God used Paul, God can use us, but ultimately it’s not the preacher. If you are really saved this morning, it is because at some point in your life you heard the voice of God himself calling, and you responded. He calls through the gospel.
And what is the purpose of this calling? Look again at verse 14, the second half: “It is so that,” that’s a purpose clause, “so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We’re saved to escape the wrath of God. We saw that, but also that we might share in the glory that Jesus himself possesses. These two little verses, 13 and 14, they go by so quickly, and they have so much amazing truth in them. Do you see how they have the whole trinity working together in our salvation? God, the Father, chose you to be sanctified by the Spirit that you might obtain the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And do you see how in just these two little verses we have the great work of our redemption spelled out in miniature? We have the doctrine of election. We have the doctrine of effectual calling. We have justification. We have sanctification. And we finally have glorification.
Do you know what it’s so important that we be sanctified in this life? Some people get very nervous when you talk about holiness. They think “oh, I’m just going to feel bad and feel miserable and it’s just going to be legalistic and I thought you already said, Pastor, that I was loved and accepted and now you’re going to tell me I have to do a lot of things.” But you know why sanctification is so important? There is no heaven without sanctification.
Now listen. That is not to say God needs to look and you need to have so many holiness points and then you get into heaven. No, that’s heresy.
But sanctification is simply glorification begun on earth. And glorification is the process of sanctification completed in heaven. And what God begins on earth, He completes in heaven.
So if you have no evidence of this divine work going on now, why should we have confidence that it will be completed later? This is the point of Hebrews 12:14: “Strive for that holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
So we are saved, we are called, we are chose, we are justified, we are sanctified, and finally glorified. And it is as Romans 8 teaches us this wonderfully unbreakable chain, when the beginning happens, the end will surely come to pass. All those who are chosen will be called, will be justified, will be sanctified, will in the end be glorified. That’s who you are. You’re family. You’re loved. You’re chosen. You’re called.
Can you see what Paul is doing here? He’s just building up to this crescendo. Do you realize who you are? It’s just this, this snowball rolling down the hill. Look on the news sometime—you’ll see what snow looks like. It’s really cold and white and fluffy, and it goes downhill, and it picks up. He’s just picking up more and more and more.
“So then,” verse 15, what are our obligations in light of this identity? What is our “ought” because of this “is”?
We might think, because this is the way that some Christians do their logic, we might think that he would say “you’re family, you’re loved, you’re chosen, you’re called all the way to glory so then relax…Sleep in. All right? It doesn’t matter what you do. God loves you no matter what. It doesn’t matter. Just go on, just, you know, be yourself.” That’s what contemporary prophets of cheap grace will tell us, but that’s not what the Bible tells us.
There is a lot of things Paul could say by way of conclusion, and the rest of the Bible has dozens of these implications, but here Paul has two specific commands in mind. He says “so then, knowing who you are, I have two things to say to you.” It’s really one thing said two ways. Stand firm and hold on.
We tend to think that the lack of movement is a sign of boredom and stagnation. We want people going places. We want adventure. Nobody says “well, tell me about your life.” “Well, my life has been an adventure in standing still, staying in the same place.”
You may have heard that famous, and to some infamous, line that Charles Hodge, the great systematic professor at old Princeton in the 19th century, he once said very proudly that there never was a new idea that came out of Princeton. I think that’s not the case anymore, but he said it in the 19th century, meaning, you know, some people looked and said that’s everything that’s wrong with Charles Hodge and with reformed theology: They’re not changing with the times. But he meant it to say “look, we just need to pass on what we already know is true.” So he meant it as a boast.
I can tell you that immobility, standing still, feels very good after you’ve been tossed back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. In February, now don’t judge here, okay? My wife and I went on a cruise. It was a Christian cruise, I was speaking on the cruise, don’t judge. Okay? Those things exist. They said it’s a marriage cruise, we’ll pay you and your wife to go. You preach two times and go on a cruise, and I said okay.
What we didn’t know when we said yes several years out was that by the time we got to the cruise, we would have a 7-month-old baby, which, not my recommendation for cruises, but we went. And you know, some of you have been on these or you’ve heard these, for about a month, I think, maybe longer. Patricia felt like “I do not feel like I am standing still,” and had a headache and just said “I am never going on one of these again” because it was four, five, six weeks you get out of bed and feel like “I’m rocking, I’m still rocking from this week on the boat, still rocking.” If that’s your life, tossed to and fro, rocking back and forth, don’t you think standing still would feel really good?
If you’ve ever been on an airplane with turbulence, or as they call it now, rough air, if you’ve ever been on a plane with some rough air and you get through that, you don’t say “aw, man, it’s so static, this is boring, give me adventure.” You say “oh, thank you, thank you that we’re through to smoother air, smoother sailing.”
Immobility feels good if you have been tossed back and forth, back and forth. To stand in the same place is not bad if you happen to be standing in the right place. So he says “I want you to stand firm, and I want you to hold on.”
And he says there are some things threatening you. And in the book he gives two things in these letters. First, he says what’s threatening your stability is opposition. We’ve seen that already. Persecution, affliction. There are people in the world who don’t like what you like, don’t believe what you believe, think that what you’re doing and what you’re into is complete hogwash and worse. So there’s that. That tends to blow us to and fro. I don’t know, people don’t think this makes sense anymore.
And then he says the other thing is false teaching. Look at Chapter 2: “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,” this is verse 1, “and are being gathered together to Him, we ask you brothers not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction.”
He’s saying you have two things that are seeking to pull you off your moorings. It’s oppression, opposition, persecution, the pressure of the world, and it’s false teaching. He said don’t listen to them. There are some people who are saying that I wrote a letter that said the end has come, but I haven’t. That’s why Paul will say explicitly in verse 15 “I want you to hold to the traditions taught by us, either by our word or by our letter,” he’s referring to 1 Thessalonians. He says don’t be tossed around, don’t be blown off course. Hold fast to the truth.
When he says “hold to the traditions,” he doesn’t mean “little t” traditions that we come up with for Christmas, or the way we do things. No, he’s saying “capital T” traditions, that is the apostolic tradition. That is, gospel preaching, gospel teaching, that’s what he means by “tradition.” Just like he says in 1 Corinthians 15: “What I received, I passed on to you as a first importance: that Jesus Christ died according to the Scriptures, was raised again on the third day, appeared to many witnesses.” That’s the tradition he’s talking about.
He says “I want you to hold fast to that because of who you are. You’re my people. You’re loved. You’re chosen. You’re called. You got here by believing in the truth, now stick with it.” That’s who you are. Is equals ought. But the “is” cannot be defined by human experience and autonomous human reason, rather it is defined by biblical categories, biblical truth, and biblical identity.
A church to be thankful for is a church that knows who they are, and therefore will stand firm. Not with a grimace and a growl, a sort of all-the-time finger wag, but a warm embrace, and open arms for anyone who will die to themselves, repent of their sin, and put their faith in Jesus Christ. And if you ask us to deny the gospel or one iota of biblical truth, we will say, as Luther did, “here I stand, I can do no other.” It is not right to violate my conscience. I will not be moved.
We’re naïve if we think that there aren’t pressures from the world, from our hearts, from false teaching. Pressures. The false teaching is not going to come advertised as false teaching. It’s not going to be on the jacket blurb. But there’s plenty of blogs out there and they’ll find you.
Will you stand firm? Now obviously many of us are going to think of sexuality and all of the ways in which our culture and our world is telling us to budge, and to move, on that issue. Will you stand firm? Teenagers, 20-somethings, 30-somethings, will you stand firm? You’re not going to stand firm if you just say “well, I kind of, just what I’ve always been taught, and it doesn’t make any sense to me, but I’ll just, I’ll hold onto it.” You’ll hold onto it until then you get pressure or it costs you a promotion and then it’ll be gone. Or somebody does something really nasty and says they don’t like you on Facebook. Unless you know who you are.
For others, it’s not that big cultural issue, but it’ll be personal difficulty, where what you want to do with your life will come right up against what the Bible says. Maybe marrying an unbeliever. Maybe how you want to spend your money. You say, “well, I think there’s another way to look at this.” Or for many of us it’ll come by way of personal pain, suffering, hardships we didn’t expect. And you will find it hard to believe the promises of God and to carry on and you’ll think maybe there’s another answer out there.
The word to give you this morning is not first of all “try harder, do better.” That’s not wrong advice in its context. We do need to try harder at things. But it’s not the first word. The first thing you need to know, and maybe it’s the last thing you need to know as well, is who you are in Christ. Because all the things that you can say about sexuality, all the things you can say about suffering in life, all the things you can say about your own personal difficulties, will not make sense until you get this right: Do you know who you are in Christ? You say you’re a believer. You say you belong to Jesus. What does that mean about who you are.
I think the great heresy and struggle in our day will be to have a proper sense of our own identity.
Do you know that you’re a part of the family of God? Loved by your heavenly Father. Chosen unto holiness. Called unto glory. We think of good churches as churches that know where they are going. They have a bold vision and mission and that’s important. But perhaps even more important is that the church knows what it is, because we won’t know where to go if we don’t know who we are. And we won’t be a church to be thankful for until we have learned to embrace and love our true identity, which is found only in Christ.
Let’s pray. Our Father in heaven, what a privilege we scarcely think about it, to call you our father. You made us. You called us. You love us. Help us, Lord, these things will be interesting intellectual discussions for some of us, and for others they will meet us right where we are at. People struggling this very morning with their own identity, their own sense of gender, their own sexual desires, and their own sense of who they are. Help us to be a loving people as you have loved us, and help us to be immovable from the truth. We pray this in the One who is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, Jesus. Amen.