Church: The Assembly of God’s Elect (2 Thess.2:13-15
from The Church under Fire sermon series . . .
The current state of the Southern Baptist Convention was not created in a vacuum. The spiritual and theological downgrade we are witnessing has evolved over many decades. To help our members at Grace Life Baptist Church of Lebanon, TN, to understand better the issues at hand, we recently began “The Church under Fire” sermon series. I thought it would be helpful to post blog versions of my sermon notes throughout the course of this series for our membership, and others out there as well.
Church: The Assembly of God’s Elect
As the people of God, the Church of Jesus Christ is always in Satan’s cross-hairs to one degree or another. In the Old Testament, the assembly of God’s people called Israel was persecuted at different times by many different nations. In the New Testament, the assembly of God’s people called the Church was persecuted by both the Jews and Gentiles within the Roman Empire from city to city and region to region.
At the heart of all the persecuting “fires” the Church has endured, it has always been a battle over the truth. This is no less true for the modern church than it has been in the past. The purpose of The Church under Fire series is to identify the most troubling “hot-spots” facing the twenty-first century Church, particularly in the Western world.
But before we launch straight in, we’re going to use the first two weeks of the series to recenter ourselves on the correct theological understanding of who and what the Church is. We’ll be in 2 Thessalonians 2 today. But before we read our text, we need to establish the overall context of why Paul says what he says.
2 Thessalonians 2:1-2—Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our 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.
Paul is addressing the deceptions of false teachers who are leading the Thessalonian Church to believe that Jesus had already come back. So tricky are these heretics that the Thessalonians feel “shaken in mind” and “alarmed” (v.2). Paul responds by telling them they have no reason to be afraid or anxious.
2 Thessalonians 2:3-4—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, 4 who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.
Paul is speaking of the very last anti-Christ to come. Many anti-Christs have come and will continue coming, but the way we’ll know the final anti-Christ has come will be the Second Coming of Jesus.
2 Thessalonians 2:8-12— And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. 9 The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, 10 and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, 12 in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
Our text immediately follows this stream of thought by highlighting the origin of the Church’s salvation and our holy position in Christ that further ensure that we have nothing to be anxious about when it comes to deceivers and persecutors of the Church.
2 Thessalonians 2:13-15—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. 14 To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 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.
Although these verses do not literally use the word Church to refer to God’s people, we know Paul has the Church in mind for several reasons. First and foremost, Paul is writing this letter to the Thessalonian Church (1:1). Therefore, everything he is saying has application to all the Church of Jesus Christ. But we also know Paul is speaking about the Church because he specifically uses the language of God’s election. “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved” (v.13b).
1. The Church is the elect people of God (v.13). To say that the Church is God’s elect people is to say that God chose those whom He would save out from the world of the lost. Notice first of all, God’s sovereign election is not a cause of confusion or debate among Christians but a reason for us to give thanks for His grace. “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” (v.13a). The word “chose” means “to choose”. It’s a word that carries the same idea of the words election and elect that Paul uses so often in his letters to describe the work of God the Father from eternity past.
It is sad to me that many professing Christians say the doctrine of election creates fear and anxiety in them when it’s obvious that every time the Bible speaks about election it’s for the purpose of encouraging us not to be afraid or anxious. It is God’s election that protects us from the “strong delusions” that God sends among unbelievers to keep them from believing the truth (vv.11-12). God Himself chose us as His “firstfruits,” reminding us that we have received His saving grace—therefore, no one can toy with us or try to deceive us without God rising up to protect us.
And God Himself chose us according to the effectual power of the Holy Spirit. “Through the sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (v.13b). Sanctification by the Spirit is another way of talking about the doctrine of regeneration—that we were “dead in the trespasses and sins in which” we “once walked” (Eph.2:1) but have now been “made . . . alive together with Christ” (Eph.2:5). And the evidence that we have been regenerated to life is our “belief in the truth”. And what is the truth that we believe?
2. The Church believes the gospel (v.14). Paul highlights the centerpiece of the gospel in verse 14. “To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v.14). There is such a thing as God’s general call of all the world to salvation—“For God so loved the world” (Jn.3:16a). But here, Paul is talking about God’s effectual call of His elect. Effectual means God’s call of His chosen people is always successful.
1 Thessalonians 1:4-5a—For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.
In our evangelism, we don’t know who will believe the gospel, but we know some will.
Romans 1:21-24—For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleas-ed God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucifi-ed, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
Also, notice Paul calls the gospel, “our gospel.” By this, he means the true gospel that he and the other apostles had faithfully proclaimed in opposition to the so-called “gospels” that false teachers had been peddling. The true gospel is not a salvation by God’s grace plus human works. The true gospel is salvation by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone so that God gets all the glory alone. This is the only way we could “obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v.14b) because there is no room for our own vain glories of trying to earn His salvation. And the mention of Christ’s glory also connects the certainty of our salvation to its completion at the glorious Second Coming of Jesus.
The true gospel is what we believe as the Church; and when we truly believe it, there can be only one practical result.
3. The Church lives according to the gospel (v.15). Paul gives us a bold exhortation that reminds us of the kind of lives we have been called to live. “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” (v.15). By “traditions,” Paul’s talking about the content of teachings and instructions he handed down to them and the genuine letters he had written to them.
As deceptive as false teachers can be, the way to protect yourself from them is really simple—examine closely how they handle the Scriptures that the apostles have given us. False teachers are known for at least one of three fatal errors when it comes to their handling of the Word:
1) Contradict what the Scriptures say
2) Give lip service to the Scriptures
3) Contradict themselves with their own teachings
Paul exhorts us to “stand firm” on God’s Word and “hold to” God’s Word. In using these phrases, he’s connecting the reality of believing the gospel to living our lives according to the gospel. But don’t take this to mean you and I are able to live out the gospel. This is a common misunderstanding. The gospel cannot be “lived” any more than you can live in perfect obedience to God’s law. As Christians, we don’t “live” the gospel—we can only live “according to the gospel”. But what does it mean to live “according to the gospel”?
Living according to the gospel is done the same way we became Christians in the first place—By faith alone!
Romans 1:16-17—For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.”
Having been justified in God’s sight by grace through faith, we now continue living our justified lives through faith. And this life of faith that we live every day will be characterized by good works—but even this is not simply “our” good works.
Ephesians 2:8-10—For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
The lives we now live according to the gospel are the result of God creating us “in Christ Jesus for good works”. And these good works were “prepared” by God “beforehand”—meaning in eternity past when God chose us to be a part of His assembly, His congregation, also known as His Church.
Therefore, whatever the fire of lies and deceptions that come up against God’s Church, we are called to keep believing the gospel and living our lives according to the gospel. Are you discouraged? Do you have doubts? Are you afraid? Whatever the fire that’s threatening your faith, be encouraged, renew your faith, and drink of the living waters of God’s Word and find rest for your weary souls! For “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved” (v.13b).