Summer in Thessalonica – Grace and Work

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall…Humpty Dumpty had a great fall…all the Kings’s horses and all the king’s men….couldn’t put Humpty together again

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound….that saved a wretch like me…I once was lost, but now am found…was blind, but now I see.

God shows his love for us in this…while we were still sinners, Christ died for us – Romans 5:8

I wonder if sometimes we forget the simplicity of it all? Certainly there is the danger that faith remains a shallow, self-centered, overly simple, completely focused on me, my problems and going to heaven when I die sort of thing. But another danger is of making it too complicated and complex. Do not misunderstand: there is a complexity, profundity, depth and beauty to our faith. But in the midst of this, we cannot forget the simplicity of it.

Grace. God loves you just the way you are. Jesus, God in the flesh, became human and sacrificed himself in order to save us. There is nothing we did to earn this love, nothing we can do to earn this love. Nothing we do can make God love us more or make God love us less. To put it most simply, grace is the fact that God loves us just because…just because that is who God is.

This simple truth is one of the foundations of our faith: God loves us just the way we are, just because. God wants a relationship with us, which is why Jesus came to us.

Along with such simple truths is another one: God loves us just the way we are but refuses to let us stay that way. Jesus died for us while we were still sinners, and the Holy Spirit lives in us to make us holy.

This is what Paul prays for the Thessalonian church as he closes his letter:

23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.

25 Brothers and sisters, pray for us. 26 Greet all God’s people with a holy kiss. 27 I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers and sisters.

28 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

Sanctify” means “to make holy“. To be sanctified, as Paul is speaking of here, is to be more like Jesus Christ. We are reminded that Jesus called on his followers to be perfect as God is perfect (Matt. 5:48).

The vital truth to remember is just as we cannot save ourselves in the first place, so we cannot make ourselves holy in the second place. To bring the two things together: grace is not just what gives us forgiveness in the beginning, as we believe in Jesus, grace is also what makes us holy as we live with Jesus.

Notice that Paul does not tell them to work to make themselves holy. Instead he prays that God would do this in them. We are empowered by God’s Holy Spirit to become holy. Further, we can be confident that God “will do it” (v. 24). Or as Paul puts it in his letter to the church at Philippi: “confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). We are made holy by the Holy Spirit of God, who grows the fruit of the spirit in us (Gal. 5:22-23).

Perhaps here is where we must wade carefully into the deeper waters of theology, as the question naturally comes to mind: if God does this in us, do we just do nothing? Do we sit around and wait for this to happen? If I do not feel particularly holy, is it because God has not made me such and therefore I am off the hook and able to do as I please?

God making us holy, sanctifying us, by his Holy Spirit does not mean we too do not have things to do. We have to allow God to work in us. Back in 4:1 Paul says he instructed them on how to live and he urges them to do this more and more, a few verses later he says that God calls us to live a pure life and those who reject this instruction reject the Holy Spirit (4:7-8). The obvious implication is that it is possible to reject this instruction, possible to choose not to live in this way, to not allow the Holy Spirit to work in us.

Other scriptures tell us to set apart Christ as Lord in our hearts (1 Pet. 3:15) and to offer our bodies as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1). Clearly, our role is to open our lives to the Holy Spirit, to allow God to change us.

When we fail, when we mess up, as we will, there is always forgiveness. There is always additional grace, because God still loves just the way we are but does not want us to stay that way.

The goal of this, at least just a few examples from the letter to Thessalonians, is to strengthen us so “that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders” (3:12) and so that we will “be kind to each other and to everyone else” (5:15).

Left to ourselves, we cannot do these things. But if we remember that God loves us just the way we are (grace) but refuses to leave us that way (makes us holy, also by grace) I think we’ll be on the right track.

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