My Bible reading this morning took me to 1 Thessalonians, and I was struck by a few things Paul had to say. When he writes to the Thessalonian church, Paul begins by extolling them for their Christian virtues – that is, for their way of faith, hope, and love.
“We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” – 1 Thess. 1:2-3 (ESV)
I think what he says here is super instructive for many Christians. In much of modern evangelicalism, for example, there is an unfortunate tendency to separate “faith” from “works.” For us evangelicals, we have an allergy of sorts toward “works” out of fear that we will become “legalists.” Instead, through the years, many evangelicals have been taught to understand “faith” as mere “intellectual assent.” Similarly, our common practice has been to equate “conversion” with something along the lines of an “emotional experience.”
To be sure, “faith” includes intellectual assent, and “coming to faith” is an experience that can be emotional. And while I’m at it, let me be clear: I’m a committed Protestant. Heck, I’m worse than that – I’m a Baptist (we still do altar calls at my church, by the way, and we don’t have plans to change this important part of our worship service). But, at the end of the day, the Christian faith cannot be reduced down to intellectual assent or to emotional flutterings in the belly (the latter of which could be due to having eaten a bad taco).
Instead, the Christian faith is about, well, faith(fulness) that is oriented toward the Triune God and toward our neighbors (Mark 12:28-31). If you call yourself a Christian but live contrary to the ways of Christ (even though you may very well have intellectually assented to, or had an emotional experience about the fact of, Christ’s Lordship), then that’s a problem.
Apparently, though, the Thessalonian Christians did not have this problem. They weren’t evangelicals; they were Christians.
According to Paul, after all, their faith worked. Their faith was faithful to the ways of Christ. Similarly, their love was such that it labored and toiled for the benefit of others. Their hope, likewise, was “steadfast,” says Paul. Their hope was more than a mere dreamy wish; it could stand fast under less-than-optimal circumstances.
I highly doubt the Thessalonians were perfect and sinless. Rather, I believe they were Christians – a people so immersed in the ways of their Lord that, despite being sinful, they constantly focused their work of faith, their labor of love, and their steadfast hope on “our Lord Jesus Christ” (v.3). And that’s the crux of the matter. For the Thessalonians, their efforts and work were not exercises in legalism; rather, they were the marks of devotion.
Let us have faith(fulness). Amen.