Reasons to be steadfast - 2 Thessalonians 2:9-17
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Aims: (1) To warn any non-Christians about the great danger of refusing to believe the gospel when they hear it. (2) To encourage the Christians to be thankful, to be committed to evangelism, to hold on to the Bibleís teachings and to pray.
Theme: Paul uses the truth of Godís election to encourage the Thessalonians to remain steadfast.
I want to begin by asking you a question. Do you think it is fair that God chooses some people to be saved and leaves other people to face his judgement? Normally choice is one of our favourite words. We are a generation that loves to choose. Shopping trips used to last under an hour but now they frequently turn into family expeditions. Enter one of the big supermarkets, like Asda Kingswood, and straight away your eyes are dazzled with a whole new world to explore. Gone are the days when a bag of pasta simply came in small, medium of large. Now we can choose from Rigatoni, tri-coloured fusilli, lasagne verdi and I could go on and on - although if I did, I fear I would continue to offend anyone with a love of the Italian language! Or just think about your last visit to a coffee shop. I was in Planet Coffee about two weeks ago and was simply overwhelmed by the number of different coffees on the menu in front of me. If I wanted to be boring I could choose the Americano (which I understand is simply what used to be called a black coffee but when you call it an Americano you can apparently charge more money for it), but if I wanted to be more daring there seemed to be no limit to the number of different alternatives before my eyes. I was being offered what our generation has come to expect Ė a whole variety of different options. We are a generation that loves to choose. And so normally we are glad when people use words like selection and choice. Normally, these words are music to our ears. We love them and we live for them.
But have you noticed how uncomfortable you felt when I asked you my initial question. Do you think it is fair that God chooses some people to be saved and leaves other people to face his judgement? Many Christians would rather not talk about our subject for tonight. Yes, they love to talk about choice when the focus of the discussion is on human choice but mention Godís election of a certain number of human beings from the total number of human beings and you can see them squirm in their seat. How can such a doctrine be true? How can such a belief be fair? And how can we be held responsible for the decisions we make if God is in the business of selection? Now I donít know if you have ever asked yourself those questions but Iím fairly certain that for some people in this building these are the sorts of questions that deeply trouble you. Perhaps they continually gnaw away inside your mind. So let me say at the very beginning, Iím not proposing to answer all your questions about Godís election tonight. I donít want to give you false expectations. But, hopefully, as we focus in on these verses from 2 Thessalonians, all of us will appreciate why Godís election is such good news for Christians to hear. It is not something to be embarrassed about. It is not something to block out of our minds. It is not something to run away from. Instead, it is a wonderful truth that will keep us thankful, regardless of our circumstances. It will keep us committed to evangelism. It will give us the motivation to keep on persisting as Christians to the very end and it will even inspire us to pray to the Lord, more and more, both for ourselves and for each other. So, if at the moment, you donít feel very thankful to the Lord, maybe you donít see the point in praying to him, maybe you have lost your confidence in evangelism, or, who knows, perhaps you are even fearful of not making it to the end - well, if that is you then have a look at verses 13 and 14.
Paul says, ďBut we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14 He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.Ē
When I was attending a church in London one of the new ministers asked me to think about, what he called, the Bibleís Order of Salvation. Essentially, he was asking me to look at my bible and see if I could put together the logical steps that had to take place for someone to become a Christian. Now to do this properly we would need to examine quite a number of different bible verses but, nevertheless, we can at least make a good start as we turn to verses 13 and 14, of 2 Thessalonians chapter 2. Because in these verses we find a great summary of the Bibleís Order of Salvation. So let me show you what needs to happen for anyone to become a Christian.
1) God must have chosen them from the beginning (Vs 13)
Verse 13. ďBut we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved.Ē Before a Christian was even born, God had freely decided to save them from their future sinful rebellion. There is no doubt that God knows the future. He is able to visualise in his mind events that have still to happen. So what did God see as he gazed into the future of the human race? Did he see anyone who willingly wanted to submit to his loving commandments and enjoy a relationship with him as King? No, his mind was filled with the agony of human rebellion. Trillions of his creatures throughout eternity who would accept his gifts but who would want nothing more to do with him.
Trillions of human beings who would commit a monstrous act of spiritual treason against their great King. As God looks forward he finds no one who deserves to be saved.
As he stares across the vastness of eternity he realises, in a moment, that every human being will freely choose to rebel against him and so be liable to his judgement. So what does he do? Amazingly, he decides to have mercy on a number of sinners. Now letís get this clear. God did not choose some of us for damnation. We need to remember that all who face Godís judgement have chosen this particular destiny for themselves. We all deserve his judgement for the choices we have made. But for a reason we are never told, God chose to save some of us for salvation. He chose to save some of us from his wrath so that we might share in the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. Because that is what salvation is all about. There are two big dimensions to it. We are saved from something and we are saved for something. We are saved from the coming judgement, the eternal destruction that we read about 1:9 of 2 Thessalonians. And we are saved for an eternity of bliss in the presence of our glorious King, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now at this point itís very tempting to ask, Ďis any of this fair?í Many people find the whole idea of Godís election a very difficult belief to swallow. But let me tell you why I think this is the case. If those who struggle with the doctrine of election were asked to visualise the entry gates of heaven many of them would picture the following scene. The whole of humanity is banging on the doors, with a keen desire to come inside. ďPlease God, let us in. We really want to be in your presence.Ē But they picture a cruel, monstrous deity who stands on the ramparts and says, ďIíll have you, and you but not you. Off you go. Get out of my sightĒ Itís a horrific picture, isnít it? Of course it is. But itís not the picture of humanity we find in the Bible. The truth is rather different. Itís not that the whole of humanity is banging on the doors of the heavenly mansion to be Godís friends. No, the truth is that we have tried to take over the running of the castle by attempting to get rid of the King. And so we are now in the dungeons awaiting the sentence for our wicked crime.
But here is the wonderful news! Although we all deserve his judgement, God, in his mercy, decided to choose some of us to be saved. What needs to happen for anyone to become a Christian? First of all, God must have chosen them from the beginning.
2) God must call them through the gospel (Vs 14)
Verse 14. ďHe called you to this [that is, salvation] through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.Ē How does God make sure his past decision to save people actually becomes effective in the present? How does God make sure his eternal decrees are carried out? Through the public preaching or the private speaking of the gospel. Godís normal method of saving his chosen people is for them to hear the good news about Jesus explained by another human being.
In 1761, a man called William Carey was born in Northampton. He worked as a shoemaker from the age of 16 to 28, but after his conversion at 18 he became a Baptist lay preacher. In 1792, he preached his now-famous missionary sermon, ďExpect great things from God, attempt great things for GodĒ, and four months later he founded the Baptist Society for Propagating the Gospel amongst the Heathen. Itís a catchy name isnít it? But in spite of Careyís enthusiasm to form missionary society, he encountered severe opposite from a number of senior ministers of his day. In fact, at one such meeting, when Carey was trying to persuade the others to support his idea, the chairman stood up, looked at him and said, ďSit down, young man, when God is pleased to convert the heathen, He will do it without your aid, or mine!Ē
But, not according to verse 14. Godís normal practice is to save those he has chosen through the preaching of the gospel.
So what needs to happen for anyone to become a Christian? First of all, God must have chosen them from the beginning. Secondly, God must call them through the gospel.
3) God must change their desires by his Spirit (Vs 13)
Verse 13. Paul says, ďBut we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.Ē Now weíll focus on our human responsibility to believe the gospel in just a moment. We need to recognise that God does not do our believing for us. But before anyone has the ability to believe the gospel they need to be sanctified by the Spirit. The order of these events is crucially important. We cannot believe the gospel until God has worked a miracle in our hearts. In fact, we cannot believe until God has given us a new heart. He needs to change our desires, because by nature we want nothing to do with him. And for those he has chosen, he does this by his Holy Spirit. Itís what Jesus calls being Ďborn againí or what some Christians call Ďregeneration.í It is a mighty work of Godís Spirit in his elect people, which enables them to believe the gospel. Christians often talk about sanctification as the process by which we are made more like Jesus Christ. But, here in verse 13, the word sanctification does not refer to a process but to the event, when God the Holy Spirit gives us the desire, and so therefore the ability, to believe the gospel about Jesus Christ.
What needs to happen for anyone to become a Christian? First of all, God must have chosen them from the beginning. Secondly, God must call them through the gospel. Thirdly, God must change their desires by his Spirit. And, finallyÖ
4) The individual must believe the gospel (Vs 14)
Verse 14. We are saved ďthrough the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.Ē God does not do our believing for us. He may give us the desire to believe the gospel but, nevertheless, it is still our responsibility to obey the message that we hear.
So let me ask you: Have you ever done that? Have you ever obeyed the gospel of the Lord Jesus? Or as it says in verse 13, have you ever believed in the truth? The gospel is a particular message about the identity and the mission of Jesus Christ. It proclaims Jesus as the rightful ruler of our lives and it proclaims him as the only saviour from our wicked behaviour. But itís more than just a message containing interesting information; itís a message that calls us to make a decision. Itís a message thatís either true or false. And if we believe itís true then we need to act, we need to repent and believe. We need to allow Jesus to be the King of our lives and we need to ask him to forgive us of our sin. So let me ask you: Have you ever done that?
Sometimes I meet people who deliberately delay the decision of becoming a Christian. For some reason they think life will be more enjoyable without Jesus Christ. They often picture God as some giant killjoy in the sky who is determined to spoil their fun and so they think to themselves, ďIíll put off my decision and become a Christian just before I die.Ē Now when someone says that to me I normally respond in two different ways. First of all, I try to assure them that life without Jesus Christ is no life at all. He is the key to life, the meaning of life, the bread of life and the water of life. Without him there is no depth of life available to anyone. And then, secondly, I like to ask them to show me their death certificate. Because they need to realise that they have no idea when they will take their last breath on this earth.
There is an urgency for us to believe the gospel. There are good reasons not to delay responding in a positive way to the message of Jesus when we hear it. And if youíre not fully persuaded by the two reasons I have just given you then have a look at verses 9-12. Weíre told, ďThe coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, 10 and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie 12 and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.Ē
These verses are primarily about a future time in history when someone called the man of lawlessness will appear to deceive anyone he can. But what is promised to intensify at the end of history is also a feature of life in the here and now. We saw last week that although the man of lawlessness is not yet here, the secret power of lawlessness is already at work. And so, although, verses 9-12 are primarily about the end of history, we can also apply them to our situation today Ė particularly to those who repeatedly refuse to believe the gospel. The fate of such people is mentioned at the end of verse 10. ďThey perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.Ē Now we need to be clear about this. Rejecting the gospel does not move a person from a position of neutrality to a position of perishing. Before we hear the gospel we are in a state of perishing already. But when we reject the only message that can save us we seal our fate forever. And here is the scary thought. We might even seal our fate before we die. Not everyone who spends the last few days of their life in a hospital bed, knowing that the end if near, is able to believe the gospel. Have a look at verse 11. ďFor this reason [that is, because they have refused to believe the gospel in the past] God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie 12 and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.Ē
Or in other words, if we keep on rejecting the only message that can save us, we may find it impossible to believe at some point in the future. God may ensure that the choices of our past seal our fate forever. So let me encourage you, if you are someone who is sitting here tonight and you havenít yet believed the good news about Jesus, then please donít keep on putting it off.
Make sure you believe the message before you find it impossible to do so. And if that is something you want to do, please come and ask me for a booklet at the end, which explains how you can make a new start with God.
Now Iím very aware that most of us in this building have already put our trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, so let me end by applying what we have learned, about Godís Order of Salvation, to Christians.
First of all, what we have heard tonight should make us thankful. The circumstances of our lives go up and down. And so therefore if our thankfulness is dependent on external circumstances there will be countless moments in our life when we feel we have nothing to thank God for. But not if we remember Godís election of us from the beginning. He saw what we would become and yet despite our guaranteed rebellion the Father chose us, to be sanctified by the Spirit, so that we could share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Itís wonderfully Trinitarian isnít it?
A number of years ago I heard the moving story about an American who, on the night of an awful Ferry disaster, risked his life time and again to fish 17 people out of the freezing water. When he was later asked about the episode and what stood out in his memory of that terrible night he replied, sadly ďYes, one thing stands out - not one of the 17 has ever written to thank me for saving their lives.Ē
Are you a thankful Christian? Am I a thankful Christian? Is thankfulness a feature of our daily experience? And if itís not then have we forgotten that from the beginning God chose us to be saved?
Secondly, what we have heard tonight should make us committed to evangelism. What an encouragement to hear that God uses his servants, you and me, to call his elect children home. Verse 14. ďHe called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.Ē
Donít you find that you keep on doubting if the gospel will ever be effective? Will this message about a crucified man ever convince anyone? Will it convince my friends, my neighbours, my work colleagues and what about my family? Is it worth them hearing the gospel? Absolutely! Because hearing the gospel is the way God has determined to save his chosen people.
Now can I say to you that if it were not for Godís election I would have to resign? I could not keep going. I would either be filled with pride if lots and lots of people were becoming Christians because of my preaching or consumed with despondency if no one had become a Christian through my ministry. But the doctrine of Godís past election and Godís present call, through the gospel, enables me to keep sane regardless of the number of people I see becoming Christians. What we have heard tonight should make us committed to evangelism.
Thirdly, what we have heard tonight should give us the motivation to keep on persisting as Christians until the very end. Have a look at verse 15. And notice, in particular, the words that link verse 15 with the great truths we have been discovering in verses 13 and 14. ďSo then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.Ē Do you ever worry that you will never make it to the end as a Christian? With all this persecution, false teaching and even a massive apostasy from within Godís church at the end of history, how can we be sure that we will make it to the end? We know that the way to persist is to hold on to the truth of the Bible but how can we be certain our grip will remain tight throughout the storm?
Our confidence is to be found in God. His election of us guarantees that we will make it to the end. But please notice something. Verse 15 does not read, ďSo, then, brothers, relax and take it easy.Ē Godís election never removes our responsibility to act in the present. Just as he does not do our believing for us, he also does not do our persisting for us.
We have a responsibility to get our feet secure and hold on, as tightly as we can, to the truth we find in the Bible. But the wonderful news of Godís election assures us that when we do cling on, he will make sure we will persist to the very end.
Finally, what we have heard tonight should inspire us to pray. Have a look at verses 16-17. Paul prays, ďMay our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, 17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.Ē As Christians we do not believe in a Watchmaker God. You know, a God who makes the world and then has no further involvement with it. No, as weíve seen tonight, not only do we have a God who makes eternal decisions about our future salvation but we also have a God who sends his Spirit to change our hearts in the here and now. And so therefore because we have a God who acts in the present it is worthwhile to pray to him. Which is exactly what Paul does at the end of chapter 2. And notice what he prays for. Verse 17. He wants the Sovereign God to encourage and strengthen them in the face of opposition. Heís just told them to hold on. Heís just told them to make sure they persist. But now, without any sense of contradiction, he appeals to the God who chose them in the first place and prays that he will make sure they do not buckle under the pressure. What we have heard tonight should inspire us to pray. And so letís do that as we finish. Letís pray.
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