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Lesson 2: Are You Elect? (1 Thessalonians 1:2-4)

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July 17, 2016

I realize that my topic for today is a touchy one with many Christians. Differing views on the doctrine of election have created a huge divide in the Christian world. Some have left this church because they didn’t like what I have taught on it. So it would be easier just to skip it or touch on it lightly and move on. Why risk upsetting some people? Why preach on such a divisive subject?

There are several reasons: First, it’s in our text and I preach whatever the text says without dodging it. Paul didn’t say, “I thank God knowing how you all decided to choose Jesus,” but rather, “I thank God knowing His choice of you.” To accurately handle God’s word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15) we need to be faithful to what the Bible says, not to what we may wish it said. By the way, if the text says, “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13), I preach that. You can look it up!

A second reason to preach on this subject is that it’s a frequent theme in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. In Genesis 12, God chose Abram out of a city of idolaters and promised to work through him to bring His salvation to the nations. He didn’t choose Abram’s entire city or even his entire family. God chose Abram, but He didn’t choose anyone else in Asia, Africa, Europe, or the Americas. Then He refused to choose Abram’s son Ishmael and chose Isaac. He rejected Isaac’s son Esau and chose Jacob, whom He renamed Israel.

Centuries later, Moses said to Jacob’s descendants (Deut. 4:37), “Because He loved your fathers, therefore He chose their descendants after them. And He personally brought you from Egypt by His great power.” He repeated (Deut. 7:7-8), “The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the Lord brought you out by a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” To drive the point home, he repeated again (Deut. 10:15), “Yet on your fathers did the Lord set His affection to love them, and He chose their descendants after them, even you above all peoples, as it is this day.”

We would be here all day if I traced this theme through all of Scripture. The New Testament often refers to believers as God’s elect or those chosen by God (Matt. 22:14; 24:22, 24, 31; Luke 18:7; Acts 9:15; 11:18; Rom. 8:29, 30, 33; Eph. 1:4, 5, 11; Col. 3:12; 2 Tim. 2:10; Titus 1:1; 2 Pet. 1:10. See, also, Luke 10:21-22; John 6:37, 44, 65; 10:26; 15:16; 17:2, 6, 9; Acts 5:31; 13:48; Rom. 9:11, 15, 16; 18 11:5, 7, 28; 1 Cor. 1:27, 28, 30; Gal. 1:15; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 1:1-2; 2:8, 9; Rev. 5:9; 7:10-12). We can’t skip over such an important biblical theme. We need to understand it properly.

A third reason not to skim over what Paul states in our text is that this doctrine is profitable for us, including new believers. As Paul states (2 Tim. 3:16-17), “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” Although Paul had only been with these new converts, many out of pagan backgrounds, for a few months, he had taught them this truth so that here he just mentions it in passing and assumes that they were tracking with him. In 2 Thessalonians 2:13, he repeats it, “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.”

So if you’ve struggled with this doctrine or just skipped thinking about it because it’s difficult, I’m appealing for a hearing. Look up the many verses (listed above) and ask God to give you understanding and a teachable heart.

I’ve had people ask, “Since election is a mystery hidden in the secret counsel of God, how can you know if you’re elect?” Since we’re talking about the matter of our eternal destiny, it’s not just an academic question! Paul’s assurance that God had chosen the Thessalonians rested on what he observed about their faith and their changed lives. Thus we can say:

You can know that you’re elect if God has powerfully changed your life through your reception of the gospel.

As a result of preaching the gospel, Paul saw that these people had received the word in spite of much tribulation (1 Thess. 1:6). They had become imitators of the evangelists and of the Lord. Their faith in God was evident by their good works (1 Thess. 1:3, 8). So he was confident that God had chosen them for salvation.

There are a number of objections that are often raised against the doctrine of election. One of them is, “If God has predestined everything, including who will be saved, why pray? What will be, will be, right?” Wrong!

1. Election does not negate prayer, but rather encourages it, since salvation is God’s doing.

1 Thess. 1:2: “We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers.” Also, “constantly bearing in mind” (v. 3) refers to Paul’s frequent, repeated prayers. Later, he exhorts these new believers (1 Thess. 5:17), “Pray without ceasing.” He didn’t mean “without a break,” which would be impossible, but rather that we should pray repeatedly and often.

Some who deny the doctrine of election argue that God has done everything that He can do to save people, but now the choice is up to them. They say that God never forces His will on anyone. So salvation depends upon people’s free will. But Jesus said that if we sin, we’re slaves of sin (John 8:34). We’re not free. If salvation depended on free will, then you shouldn’t waste your time praying for anyone to be saved, because God would be in heaven saying, “I’d like to see them saved, too. But they’ve got that free will. I can’t override their choices. Let’s hope they decide to choose Me!”

But Scripture shows that God always accomplishes His purposes (Isa. 46:10; Job 42:2). He sent His Son to earth to save a people for His glory (Eph. 1:4-12). He doesn’t leave that purpose up to sinful human will. Jesus said (John 6:44), “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.” Although some of His larger company of “disciples” grumbled and turned away from Him because they didn’t like this teaching, He repeated (John 6:65), “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” If the Father is able to draw lost people to Christ, then we should pray that He will do so.

God ordains the means as well as the end. Prayer and proclaiming the gospel are His ordained means to save His elect. So we should pray for open doors for the gospel, both for ourselves and for other believers (Col. 4:3). God works in response to our prayers. We don’t know the ones to whom God has granted that they will come to Jesus until after they get saved. None of us would have predicted that Saul, the persecutor of the church, was one of God’s elect. Even after he came to faith, many of the disciples were skeptical that his conversion was genuine (Acts 9:13-14, 26).

But God’s hand is not so short that He cannot save whom He chooses to save (Isa. 50:2). If He wants to save the wicked people of Nineveh, He does it in spite of the lackluster preaching of His reluctant prophet, Jonah. So we should pray for God to accomplish His sovereign purpose by saving a people for His glory.

2. Because election is God’s purpose which cannot fail, it results in changed lives.

1 Thess. 1:3: “constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father.” Paul knew that God had chosen these people for salvation because he could see the results in their lives: work stemming from faith; labor motivated by love; and steadfastness flowing from hope in the Lord Jesus Christ in spite of severe persecution. He goes on to mention how they had become imitators of himself and of the Lord and that the gospel was sounding forth from them all over the region (1 Thess. 1:6-10). So their dramatically changed lives were evidence that God had chosen them for eternal life.

Paul mentions three cardinal virtues, faith, love, and hope, which showed that the Thessalonians’ faith was genuine. John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 239) called these three qualities “a brief definition of true Christianity.” Gene Getz builds his book, The Measure of a Church [G/L Regal Books], around these three qualities, showing how they are a biblical standard for maturity (Paul mentions them in Rom. 5:2-5; 1 Cor. 13:13; Gal. 5:5-6; Eph. 1:15-18; Col. 1:3-6; cf., also, Heb. 6:10-12; 10:22-24; 1 Pet. 1:21-22). Paul mentions them again in 1 Thessalonians 5:8: “But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation.” Later, the Lord indicts the church in Ephesus because although they had deeds and toil and perseverance, they did not do these things out of love for the Lord (Rev. 2:1-7). So motivation is important.

A. A changed life is evidenced by work stemming from faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The genitive (“of”) points to the source: work that comes from faith. This mainly points back to their saving faith in Jesus Christ. While Paul taught that we are saved by grace through faith apart from works, he also taught that genuine saving faith always results in works. If you know Ephesians 2:8-9, you should also be familiar with verse 10: “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. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”

Paul and James are not at odds. Paul was battling the Judaizers, who taught that you must keep the Jewish law to be saved. So he emphasized that we are saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. James was confronting those who claimed to have faith, but had no works to show for it. So he emphasized that genuine saving faith produces good works. But both men agree that we are saved by faith that necessarily works (see my sermons on James 2:14-19 & 20-26 on the church web site).

By “works,” Paul is referring to all of the good deeds that we are called to do as believers. This includes helping the poor, visiting the sick and helping them with whatever they may need, giving comfort to the grieving, or spending time listening to and counseling a needy brother or sister (1 Thess. 5:12-14, where Paul uses both “labor” and “work”).

It also includes sharing our faith, which the Thessalonians were actively doing (1 Thess. 1:8). A frequent charge against the doctrine of election is that if God has determined who will be saved, then they will be saved. So we don’t need to share the gospel. But as I said, God ordains the means along with the end. He has ordained whom He will save, but He does it through our proclaiming the gospel. As Paul said (2 Tim. 2:10), “For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory.” God has His elect, but Paul had to suffer and preach so that they would obtain salvation. (See, also, Acts 18:9-11.)

B. A changed life is evidenced by labor motivated by love for the Lord Jesus Christ and for others.

“Work” and “labor” are somewhat interchangeable, although “labor” emphasizes the difficulty and toil. I understand “love” here to refer both to love for the Lord, which is our motivation, and love for others, both believers and unbelievers, which is the result (1 Thess. 3:6, 12; 4:9; 5:13). As we’ve seen, love is a self-sacrificing, caring commitment that shows itself in seeking the highest good of the one loved. The highest good for every person is to know Christ and be conformed to Him, to the glory of God. And, love for Jesus is the primary motivation for serving Him. When Jesus restored Peter after his denials, He asked three times (John 21:15, 16, 17), “Do you love Me?” As I mentioned, the church in Ephesus was doing good deeds and toiling for the Lord, but He rebuked them because they had lost their first love for Him (Rev. 2:1-7).

This labor motivated by love should be evident in our homes. We should display the qualities of love that Paul mentions (1 Cor. 13:4-7), “Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Such love often involves labor or work. It isn’t effortless ecstasy! Husbands, loving your wife often means getting out of your recliner in front of the TV and helping her with the dishes or dealing with the kids. It involves putting down the newspaper and listening to your wife’s concerns. It’s labor motivated by love for the Lord and for her.

This labor motivated by love should also be evident in our church. Helping those in need is usually inconvenient. It sometimes requires physical work, such as helping an elderly person clean up their yard or house. It will cost your time and sometimes some money. By using the word labor, Paul implies that it’s not always easy. It involves self-sacrifice.

C. A changed life is evidenced by steadfastness produced by hope in the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is the hope of His coming that enables us to endure trials and even persecution with joy because we know that Jesus is coming back to reign. In New Testament Words ([Westminster], p. 144), William Barclay comments on the Greek word for “steadfastness”:

It is the spirit which can bear things, not simply with resignation, but with blazing hope; it is not the spirit which sits statically enduring in the one place, but the spirit which bears things because it knows that these things are leading to a goal of glory; it is not the patience which grimly waits for the end, but the patience which radiantly hopes for the dawn.

He goes on (p. 145) to tell of the Scottish hymnwriter and pastor, George Matheson. Even though he was blind by age 18, he wrote a prayer in which he pleads that he might accept God’s will, “not with dumb resignation, but with holy joy; not only with the absence of murmur, but with a song of praise.” That kind of steadfast joy under trials comes from hope in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will right every wrong and reward every good deed done in His name.

Paul adds (1 Thess. 1:3), “in the presence of our God and Father.” Some translations (NIV, ESV) and commentators connect that phrase with Paul’s “constantly bearing in mind.” In other words, his prayer was “in the presence of our God and Father.” But others (e.g. F. F. Bruce, Word Biblical Commentary, 1 & 2 Thessalonians [Thomas Nelson], pp. 12-13; Gary Shogren, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, 1 & 2 Thessalonians [Zondervan], p. 60) argue that the phrase is grammatically too far removed from the start of the verse to be connected with Paul’s remembrance of them. Thus it probably means that the Thessalonians’ work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope are exercised in God’s presence. We should be aware that all we do for the Lord is done in His loving presence.

So the point of verse 3 in the context is that if God has chosen us for salvation, it will be seen in changed lives. Faith in Christ results in work for Him. Love for Christ results in labor for Him and love for others. Hope in Christ results in steadfastness through trials and even persecution. Finally,

3. The main reason we receive the gospel and our lives are changed is that God loved us and chose us for salvation.

1 Thessalonians 1:4: “knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you.” Here, as elsewhere (cf. Deut. 4:37; 7:7-8; 10:15; 2 Thess. 2:13), election is linked with God’s love. As Paul says (Eph. 1:4-5), “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.” The doctrine of election means that God took the initiative in our salvation because of His great mercy and love.

But this raises an objection: Doesn’t God love everyone (John 3:16)? And if He does love everyone, why doesn’t He show mercy to everyone? But we need to recognize the obvious fact that God has not shown His love and mercy to everyone in the same way or to the same degree. He loved Abram and chose to reveal Himself to him and bless him, but He didn’t choose any others around the world. As Paul says (Acts 14:16), “In the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways.” God showed mercy to the Jews in Egypt, but He did not show mercy to Pharaoh or to any of the Egyptians (Rom. 9:15-18). The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s already hard heart and he and all the Egyptians lost their firstborn in the final plague (Exodus 12).

Was God unloving or unfair to do this? In Romans 9, Paul argues that He is the potter who has the right to do with the clay as He chooses, and that we don’t have any right to challenge Him. He does not owe us an answer! The only answer Scripture gives is that God does what He does, including the salvation of His elect and the judgment of other sinners to display His glory (Rom. 9:17, 22-24). Rather than causing us to stumble, this should fill us with gratitude that in His kindness, He chose us to hear His gospel and respond in faith.

Conclusion

So, how can you know whether you’re elect? Have you truly repented of your sins, received God’s word as true, and put your trust in Christ to rescue you from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:6, 8, 9, 10)? If so, you’re elect. Your repentance and faith did not come from you, but from God, who chose you in love and grace.

But why does Paul bring this up in verse 4? Why mention this doctrine here? We can’t say for sure, but John Stott (The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians [IVP Academic], p. 28) offers a plausible thought: “Because he knew the insecurity felt by a young and persecuted church, he wanted to remind them that in the midst of their trials their security was in God.” He adds (p. 31), “The topic of election is nearly always introduced for a practical purpose, in order to foster assurance (not presumption), holiness (not moral apathy), humility (not pride) and witness (not lazy selfishness).” Or, as Leon Morris states (The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians [Eerdmans], p. 55), “Nothing gives security to the idea of salvation like the concept of election. Salvation, from first to last, is a work of God.”

My desire and prayer is that if you struggle with assurance of your salvation, this biblical truth will make you feel secure in His love. And if you’re going through trials, I pray that this truth will comfort and encourage you that you are His child and that nothing can separate you from His love.

Application Questions

  1. To further study this difficult topic, I recommend The Doctrines of Grace [Crossway] by James Boice and Philip Ryken.
  2. How does the doctrine of election encourage prayer, not negate it?
  3. Why is evangelism a futile prospect if it depends on the fallen sinner’s “free will”? See Rom. 8:8; Eph. 2:1-3; 2 Cor. 4:4.
  4. Does the doctrine of election bring you comfort or consternation? If the latter, why? How can this be changed?

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: Election

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