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Lesson 16: The Encouragement of Our Salvation (1 Thessalonians 5:9-11)

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November 13, 2016

In a world where bad news and serious problems from around the world daily flood into our lives through various news sources, it’s easy to become discouraged and depressed. It often seems like the wicked prosper while the godly suffer. We may feel like crying out with David (Ps. 13:1):

How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?

Perhaps even the thought of Christ’s return and the final judgment fills you with anxiety rather than encouragement and hope. How can you be sure that the day of the Lord will be good for you and not an awful day of judgment? In 1 Thessalonians 5:8, Paul states that as believers we are to put on as a helmet “the hope of salvation,” which refers to the future aspect of our salvation when Christ returns and we shall always be with the Lord (4:17). He has just described that time as “the day of the Lord,” which will come on those in spiritual darkness suddenly, unexpectedly, and inescapably. But it will not surprise us who are children of light and day. We should be alert and sober as we live in anticipation of that great day.

But, even so, some Christians may feel a bit anxious about that day. They worry, “What if my life doesn’t measure up? What if my faith in Christ is a bit shaky or my love for God and for others is a bit lukewarm or even cold?” If our salvation is based on our performance, we might be anxious about that coming day. So Paul goes on to remind us of the basis of our salvation and to exhort us to encourage and build up one another with this truth:

Since our salvation is based on God’s purpose, God’s provision, and God’s promise, we should encourage and build up one another with this wonderful truth.

1. Our salvation is based on God’s purpose.

1 Thess. 5:9: “For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ ….” The verb translated “destined” means, “to destine or appoint someone to or for something” (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, by Walter Bauer, William Arndt, and Wilbur Gingrich [University of Chicago Press], 2nd ed., p. 816). It “is used regularly for God’s sovereign determination of events” (Milligan, cited by Robert Thomas, Expositors Bible Commentary [Zondervan], ed. by Frank Gaebelein, 11:284). Jesus uses it with reference to the apostles (John 15:16), “You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you.” Paul uses it to refer to his appointment as an apostle (1 Tim. 2:7). Hebrews 1:2 says that God appointed Christ “heir of all things.” Peter uses it (1 Pet. 2:8) with reference to those who stumble over Christ because they are disobedient to the word, explaining, “and to this doom they were also appointed.” All of these uses (plus others) “refer to God’s sovereign determination of someone for his own particular purposes” (G. K. Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians [IVP Academic], p. 152).

This is called the doctrine of predestination. Many Christians stumble over it, often because they do not understand it rightly. It does not mean that we’re pre-programmed robots, unable to make real choices. The Bible clearly teaches that we all make choices for which we are responsible. No one can blame God, his parents, or his circumstances for the unwise or sinful choices that he makes. While we’re all affected by our upbringing, our circumstances, our personalities, and many other factors outside of our control, we are still responsible for the choices we make.

What predestination means is that God has a plan or purpose for the ages and that He can and will carry out that plan. No one would consider building a house without detailed plans. It’s inconceivable that the One who spoke the universe into existence did so without a purpose or plan for what He chooses to accomplish through His creation!

The Bible repeatedly affirms this. At the end of his ordeal, Job answered the Lord and said (Job 42:2), “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.” Psalm 33:11 affirms, “The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart from generation to generation.” Psalm 103:19 proclaims, “The Lord has established His throne in the heavens, and His sovereignty rules over all.” Psalm 115:3 answers the nations that insolently ask, “Where, now, is their God?” with, “But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.” Isaiah 14:24 asserts regarding the demise of powerful Babylon, “The Lord of hosts has sworn saying, ‘Surely, just as I have intended so it has happened, and just as I have planned so it will stand.’” In Isaiah 46:10, God declares, “My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure.”

Since God’s glory through His plan of salvation is at the center of why He created the universe, again, it’s inconceivable that He would leave the outcome of that plan up to the choices of fallen, rebellious sinners. Paul says that Satan, “the god of this world, has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). “The natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Cor. 2:14). “The mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7-8).

These verses show that if anyone is going to be saved, it only can happen because God predestined and causes it to happen. The Bible plainly states this (Eph. 1:4-6): “just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love 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, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” Romans 8:29-30: “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.” The whole of our salvation, from start to finish, comes from God so that He gets all the glory.

God’s foreknowledge does not mean that He knew in advance who would choose Him, so He put them on His list. That would mean that He made up His plan based on the choices of sinners, who (as we just saw) are incapable of choosing Christ. It would mean that God peered down through history and exclaimed, “Oh, good! Paul of Tarsus is going to choose Me! I was hoping that he would do that, because I knew he would make a good apostle.” No, rather, as Geoffrey Bromiley explains (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology [Baker], ed. by Walter Elwell, p. 420), “God’s foreknowledge stands related to his will and power. What he knows, he does not know merely as information. He is no mere spectator. What he foreknows he ordains. He wills it.”

Paul has already mentioned God’s choice of the Thessalonians and the fact that God called them to salvation (1 Thess. 1:4; 2:12; 4:7). He will repeat these truths again (2 Thess. 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 through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Why does Paul emphasize this so often? Is it just a theological point that doesn’t have much practical value? Hardly! It’s at the basis of our salvation. It means that God set His love on you and prepared a glorious future for you before the foundation of the world. He sent His own Son to pay the price required for your redemption from sin. So your salvation from God’s wrath is secure, not because of your feeble grip on God, but because He planned it and He will finish it (Phil. 1:6). As Jesus declared (John 6:37-40),

“All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.”

Before we leave verse 9, note also that there are two and only two final destinies for all people: salvation or wrath. In the context, “wrath” is the opposite of the eternal life of salvation, so it refers to the eternal wrath of God (Matt. 25:41; Mark 9:47-48; Rev. 20:10-15; John 3:16). God’s wrath is His settled opposition to all sin. Salvation refers to all of the blessings that God promises to His elect (Eph. 1:3; Rom. 8:28-39; 1 Cor. 2:9). John 3:36 clearly contrasts these two opposite destinies: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”

I recently listened to a sermon by a local pastor who said that he does not believe in the eternal, conscious punishment of the wicked. He said that either they will be annihilated (cease to exist) or they eventually will be reconciled to Christ. He wasn’t sure which view he believes. While eternal punishment is a difficult doctrine, it’s really inescapable in God’s word. In Matthew 25:46, Jesus concluded His discourse on the end times, “These [the wicked] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Just a few verses earlier (Matt. 25:41), Jesus says that the wicked will be cast into “the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.” If eternal life lasts forever, then eternal punishment in the eternal fire lasts forever.

So Paul’s first point is that our salvation is based on God’s eternal purpose, which can never fail. If you ask, “How can I know whether God has destined me for salvation?” my answer is, “If your trust is in Christ alone, you’re destined for salvation.”

2. Our salvation is based on God’s provision through the death of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul says that salvation is “through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us” (1 Thess. 5:9b-10). If 1 Thessalonians was Paul’s earliest writing, then this is the first time in his writings that he states the specific means by which Christ procures our salvation (Thomas, p. 285). By mentioning this briefly in passing here, we can assume that Paul had emphasized it when he was in Thessalonica. Also, in Acts 17:3, Luke summarizes Paul’s preaching in the synagogue there. He reasoned with them from the Scriptures, “explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.’” The substitutionary death of Christ is at the heart of the gospel (John 3:16; Gal. 2:20).

Someone may ask you or perhaps you wonder, “Why did Jesus have to die for our salvation? After all, if someone wrongs me, I can just forgive him. Why couldn’t God forgive us without Jesus needing to die?” The answer is: If God didn’t punish all sin, He would not be holy and just. As the righteous Judge of the universe, He has declared that the wages of sin is death (Gen. 2:17; Ezek. 18:20; Rom. 1:32; 6:23). Since we all have sinned many times, we all deserve death, which is ultimately eternal separation from God in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:10-15). But in His great love and mercy, God sent Jesus, His eternal Son, to bear the penalty that we deserve. As Paul explains (Rom. 5:8), “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

This means that our salvation is not based on how many good works we can pile up or how many merits we may accumulate. Rather, it is based on God’s gracious choice of us and His provision of Jesus Christ to bear our sins on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24; 3:18). The good news is (Eph. 2:8-9), “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Or, as the beloved John 3:16 states, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Salvation, which means deliverance from God’s wrath or perishing, is God’s free gift to all who believe in Jesus and His death for their sins.

But, how do we know that this is true? Maybe it’s just Paul’s wishful thinking.

3. Our salvation is based on God’s promise of eternal life.

After stating that Christ died for us, Paul adds (1 Thess. 5:10b), “so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him.” If we will live together with Christ, it means that He is alive forevermore. God raised Jesus from the dead. Our entire faith rests on this historical truth (1 Cor. 15:17): “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.”

Jesus repeatedly predicted both His own death and resurrection (Matt. 16:21). In the Upper Room, He told the anxious, sorrowing disciples (John 14:18-19), “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. After a little while the world will no longer see Me, but you will see Me; because I live, you will live also.” Jesus kept that promise by revealing Himself to the disciples after His resurrection. They were so confident that Jesus was risen and coming again that they were willing to suffer and die for that truth. Our salvation is based on God’s promise of eternal life to all who believe that (1 Cor. 15:3), “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.” In our text the future tense, “we will live together with Him,” refers to the culmination of our salvation when Jesus comes again (as we saw in 1 Thess. 4:14-17).

But I need to clear up an interpretive matter in verse 10. A few (Thomas, ibid.) argue that by the phrase, “awake or asleep,” Paul means (as he discussed in 5:1-8), “Whether we are spiritually alert and expecting Christ’s coming or spiritually asleep and insensitive to His coming, we will live with Him when He comes.” In other words, since our salvation is based on Christ’s finished work, it cannot be nullified by our lack of readiness. But such a meaning completely undermines the exhortation to spiritual alertness that Paul has just given. F. F. Bruce, Word Biblical Commentary, 1 & 2 Thessalonians [Thomas Nelson], p. 114) puts it more strongly: “It is ludicrous to suppose that [Paul] means, ‘Whether you live like sons of light or like sons of darkness, it will make little difference: you will be all right in the end.’”

Rather, the Bible consistently teaches that those who are new creatures in Christ will live differently than the world. It’s not automatic or there wouldn’t be the many exhortations to obedience that we find in the New Testament. But if God has changed your heart through the new birth, you cannot live comfortably or complacently in sin (1 John 3:9). First John 2:3-4 states, “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”

So when Paul says, “whether we are awake or asleep,” he means it in the sense of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17, “whether we are living when Christ comes or whether we died before He comes.” (BAG Greek lexicon and most commentators interpret it this way.) Living or dead, we will be given eternal resurrection bodies when Jesus returns and live forever with Him. That’s God’s promise to all who believe in Jesus!

Paul concludes with a practical exhortation:

4. We should encourage and build up one another with the wonderful truth of salvation.

1 Thess. 5:11: “Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing.” When Paul exhorted the Thessalonians to walk so as to please God, he added (1 Thess. 4:1), “Just as you actually do walk.” When he exhorted them to love one another, he acknowledged (1 Thess. 4:10), “for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren ….” So here, when he exhorts them to encourage and build up one another, he adds, “just as you also are doing.” In each case, he is trying to motivate us to “excel still more” (1 Thess. 4:1, 10). We always have room to grow in pleasing God, loving one another, and encouraging and building up one another.

To encourage means continually to strengthen by one’s words (Leon Morris (The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians [Eerdmans], p. 163). To build up implies the need for continual growth in the things of God. Paul combines the concept of using our words to build up others in Ephesians 4:29: “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” “Unwholesome” means “rotten.” Rather than hurling rotten tomato words at someone, our words should be aimed at building up the other person according to the need of the moment. If you think, “But the other person deserves a rotten tomato,” Paul adds, “so that it will give grace to those who hear.” Grace is undeserved favor. We should not return evil for evil or insult for insult, but rather give a blessing instead (1 Pet. 3:9).

This process of encouraging and building up is the responsibility of the entire church, not just of the leaders. If you know Christ, as a member of His body, you’re responsible to encourage and strengthen others in matters pertaining to salvation. The church will only be strong when every member seeks to build up other members. As Paul writes (Eph. 4:15-16), “but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.”

Conclusion

John Stott (The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians [IVP Academic], p. 115) points out that although the Thessalonians’ problem was personal and pastoral (they were grieving about the loss of loved ones and anxious about the Lord’s coming), his solution was theological. Their problem was emotional, but Paul gives them a solid dose of God’s sovereign election, the substitutionary death of Christ, and His second coming. In other words, properly understood, theology is not abstract, impractical theory that doesn’t relate to life. Rather, sound doctrine is the foundation for solving our personal and emotional problems.

One final thought: To encourage and build up others with sound doctrine, you’ve got to be learning and applying that truth to your own life first. You can’t impart what you do not possess and practice. Preach the gospel to your own soul every day! Go deeper in your understanding of biblical truth. When you consistently experience the encouragement and hope of your salvation, then you can encourage and build up your brothers and sisters with that glorious truth.

Application Questions

  1. What do you find difficult about the doctrine of predestination? What do you find personally helpful about it?
  2. Why is the doctrine of Christ’s substitutionary atonement for our sins absolutely essential to the Christian faith?
  3. Does the teaching that true Christians obey Christ undermine the truth of justification by faith alone? Why/why not?
  4. Some Christian psychologists contend that to preach sound doctrine to an emotionally hurting person is “worthless medicine.” Agree/disagree? Why?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2016, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Christian Life, Soteriology (Salvation)

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