Note: The Reformation of the sixteenth century dealt with reforming what had been deformed by the church of the day, bringing it into conformity with the revealed Word of God. That reforming recaptured the essence of the gospel taught in holy Scripture. Today, the integrity of the gospel is threatened by the forces of legalism and antinomianism. In the spirit of the Reformation, this article takes both of these forces into account, with an eye to preserving a biblically-formed gospel.
Reformation Sunday is upon us. If we were to boil the turmoil of those times down to one issue, it would have to be the authority of the Bible. Of the five planks of the Reformation—Scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone and glory to God alone—preeminence would have to be given to the first, Scripture alone. It is the Bible, not the traditions of men or the rulings of councils, that is the absolute and final authority, from which all doctrines are derived. It is by the plank of Scripture alone that all the other planks are aligned.
How could a true church be recognized, one that had the plank of Scripture alone as its foundation? The Reformers came to identify three marks of an authentic church: the pure preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the faithful exercise of discipline. In contrast to the excesses and abuses of the church of the day, the Reformers zeroed in on these three characteristics by which a true church became recognizable.
In his first letter to the Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul sorts out three marks that distinguish a true believer.
Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to live and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. (1 Th. 4:1-2)
Up to this point in his letter Paul has done two things. One, he has defended himself against the attacks of his opponents. Two, he has rejoiced in the fact that his gospel ministry at Thessalonica had, by God’s grace and purpose, produced genuine conversions.
Now at the start of chapter 4, as is typical of Paul’s letters, he turns his attention to practical matters. The opening word of chapter 4, “finally,” signals a new section. He’s not moving to close his letter but rather get down to brass tacks in some issues he wants to cover with them.
In so doing, Paul touches on three distinguishing marks of a true believer. He deals not so much with what a true Christian believes, as much as how a true Christian behaves in the outworking of God’s grace.
Mark #1—a Christ-ward orientation
Paul addresses the Thessalonians as “brothers.” From what he has said thus far, they are ones who are chosen of God, delivered by Christ, and empowered by the Spirit. By God’s grace, they have turned from idols to know and serve the living and true God.
Constantly throughout the letter, Paul has identified Jesus as “the Lord Jesus Christ.” He opens his letter on the note of Christ’s lordship. He reiterates it in the body of the letter. And he brings it to bear again as he begins the practical section of his letter.
What is Paul saying by emphasizing the lordship of Jesus? It means two things. One, it means that Jesus is Messianic King. All rule and authority and dominion have been bestowed on Him by virtue of His saving work. Two, it means that Jesus has authority over our lives. When we work for a company we have people over us—bosses, supervisors. But if we leave that company, those bosses have no authority over us. We are now under the authority of our new boss.
That’s the way it is for us as believers. Jesus is lord over us. The gospel is not merely a new status but a new state of being. We have been taken from one kingdom and transferred to another. That’s what Paul points to when he says “you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Th. 1:9)
That means we operate under new authority. The gospel has posted a sign on our hearts that says, “under new management.” Our direction in life, our way of living do not come from our own inclinations but from the will of Him before whom we have bowed as Lord.
We are to live by what we have “received.” Just what have we received? Paul told us earlier:
And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. (1 Th. 2:13)
We’re back to what the Reformers saw as the primary mark of the church. That mark is also primary in our lives as true believers. We are a people of the Word. It is that authority that is the basis for Paul’s “asking” and “urging” in the Lord.
Mark #2—a Christ-ward obligation
An imbalance exists in the church today. It regards the gospel as admission to the dance but a free-for-all on the dance floor. Like Thomas Jefferson cut all the supernatural from the Bible, this imbalance cuts all mention of the law from its pages, or at least relegates it to the wallflowers on the periphery.
But an orientation that sees and serves Jesus Christ as lord, brings with it the obligation of obedience. That is basic to the call to Christian discipleship:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”(Mt. 28:18-20)
The gospel that brings us to the dance is the gospel that directs the steps on the dance floor. Paul gives this balance in his letter to Titus. On the one hand, he speaks in Titus 3:4-8 of a salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (not by works). On the other hand, in Titus 2:11-14, he speaks of a gospel that is by faith alone but not by faith that is alone. The gospel makes demands of obedience in contradistinction to lawlessness.
Paul says that what we “receive” leads to an “ought to live.” We have lost the “ought” of our walk with Christ. Obedience is not an enemy to grace. Nor is it a co-worker of grace. It is a follower of grace. Obedience is not legalism. The law leads to legalism only if we think our obedience contributes to our salvation, standing or acceptance before God. Obedience is native to true conversion and genuine faith.
The word for “instructions” in v. 2 carries the sense of military orders. Orders from a commanding officer are passed along to be carried out. We obey not in a sense of sterile religious duty but in compliant service to Him who is our Lord, who calls us to submit to, serve and obey Him.
When a new boss comes on board, everything changes. Former ways of doing things are set aside for new ways. And there is a learning curve as employees adapt. The same is true of Christian discipleship. We learn, progress, correct, adjust, mature. Paul acknowledges this growth in saying, “just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.” Sanctification involves increasingly dying to sin and living to righteousness, both of which are identified for us in the Word of God.
Mark #3—a Christ-ward motivation
I grew up in a home that was big on religious observance. I had to go to mass and to confession. Holy days of obligation were just that—obligation. I towed the line and did the religious thing. It didn’t really spill over to the rest of my life. It was pretty much compartmentalized. I can’t say I didn’t get any satisfaction out of it, but if I did it was mainly because I checked off the duty list, just like you would in getting a household chore behind you.
But true Christianity is marked by a radically transformed center of operations. Instead of the law and religious obligations being a burden on the back, they become a desire of the heart. By the Spirit of God, the law is written on our hearts. Jesus says His yoke is easy and His burden light.
We move from jumping through hoops to what Paul highlights in v. 1: “to please God.” Those who maintain the imbalance will protest, “I am always pleasing to God. My standing, my acceptance is completely and continually wrapped up in Jesus.”
Here’s the thing… To say “I am always pleasing to God” is not the same as “I am always pleasing God.” Just like we can displease our earthly fathers, so we can displease our heavenly Father as wayward children.
We see that illustrated in Jesus. He says: “And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him” (John 8:29). Certainly, Jesus was pleasing to the Father. The Father said at Jesus’ baptism, “this is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.” But Jesus lived to please the Father, to do things pleasing to Him.
Pleasing God drove the Apostle Paul. Earlier in his letter to the Thessalonians he says, “but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts” (2:4). This was a matter for prayer as an ongoing goal for believers:
… we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. (Col. 1:9-10)
The motivation of a true believer flows from the inside-out. Obedience is an expression of love for Him who is our Lord. It drives us, compels us, satisfies us. But pleasing God is something in which we need to grow. Check out Romans 7 and you will see the struggle of Paul’s heart that is true of all of us. We are beset with mixed motives. We struggle because of the gravitational pull of sin in our heart—selfish, pragmatic, worldly. As long as we are in the flesh, we carry the inclination to please ourselves and please others.
How can we grow in pleasing God? It needs to be the plea of our prayer, as Paul showed us in Colossians. Just as we pray, “I do believe, help me in my unbelief,” we might pray “I do want to please You, help me in my double-mindedness.”
An authentic disciple of Jesus Christ is characterized by a Christ-ward orientation, a Christ-ward obligation, and a Christ-ward motivation. These marks of a true believer are hallmarks of God’s handiwork of grace.
The Reformers provided marks of a true church. Those marks that served to identify the church also became targets to pursue in faithfulness to the One who was its Head. In like fashion, the distinguishing marks of a Christ-ward life both confirm and compel the true believer.