But we ought to thank God always for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God has chosen you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, so that you might obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold to the traditions you were taught, whether by what we said or what we wrote.
May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal encouragement and good hope by grace, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good work and word.
2 Thessalonians 2:13-17 CSB
We’re continuing to talk about Holy Things this week by looking at living a holy life. We already talked about living by the Spirit and living according to the impossible standard of the law over the past couple weeks. So, the question begs, at least in my mind, If God is calling us to such a great level of holiness, how do I get there? And what if I fail? How do I get holy? And what if I fail along the way?
Those are the questions of the text we’re looking at today and surprisingly, I believe the answer to both questions is tied up together, because God uses our failures to make us holy. Failure is the route to actual holiness.
Notice what the author of Hebrews says,
Similarly, Solomon wrote,
Our lives consist of a series of failures train us to live holy lives like Jesus Christ. Our failures are the fire that refine us from crude ore into pure silver.
Moving to our text for today, it is evident that the Apostle Paul saw this process of failure and refining as a critical element in the experience of salvation of a Christian. He wrote,
For the Apostle Paul, there are 4 forces at work in the salvation of sinful humans. Those are: God’s choice, the Gospel call, Belief, and Sanctification, which is a word used in the Bible to describe the lifelong process of becoming holy.
So, first, Paul says that…
In other words, before creation even began, God knew that the humans He would create would rebel against Him and that He would have to be personally responsible to save them from His own wrath and restore them into His good favor. And God made a plan to do so. That plan, made before the dawn of time, is salvation through Jesus Christ. Jesus was the plan to save sinners that God laid out in the beginning and Jesus is the plan He is carrying forward to this very day.
Salvation is not something that you are able to achieve, it is something that God has chosen for you according to his sovereign purpose.
This is so important because people always want to know, What if someone is a really good person and believes in God, but they don’t know Jesus; are they saved? Or what about Jewish people? They claim to follow the one true God, they just don’t believe in Jesus? If they’re faithful to God, shouldn’t they be saved?
And that answer, as far as the Apostle Paul is concerned is flat out no, because, if you don’t believe the truth of Jesus Christ and Him crucified, then your faithfulness is to the wrong person or thing. You are saved by your faith in Jesus Christ, so if you don’t believe in Jesus, then you are faithful to someone or something else, and that’s the classic idolatry that resulted in the destruction of the nations all over the Old Testament. Worshiping the god Baal is not the same thing as worshiping the LORD God. You have to believe the truth.
So then salvation occurs, because of…
The word Gospel means message and it refers to the message of Jesus, that He died and rose to new life, then ascended to the right hand of the Father where He rules over His People, His Kingdom, His church, as King. The Gospel is the truth that must be believed.
Now, the Gospel is the call to salvation, but it is not the agent of salvation. Jesus is the agent of salvation. He did everything that you might experience salvation. You do nothing, but believe the truth. Then, when you believe, the Spirit of God begins to work in you to sanctify you or to make you holy.
Now, all of seem to point forward to a moment of salvation. God chose you in Christ before creation. The Gospel was proclaimed to you and you believed the truth. And there’s a moment when that belief is made manifest.
But, that moment is just the tipping point in the process of salvation, because Paul also says that…
Don’t get too hung up on that word, sanctification. Again, it is a word that describes God’s process of making you holy. It is God using your failures to purify you.
So, notice, if becoming holy is a life-long process, then your salvation is not yet complete in every sense. When Jesus hung on the cross and proclaimed, ‘It is finished,’ the work was done. But, until you stand before God in judgment and He proclaims you innocent, ushering you into His eternal Kingdom, it will not be fully realized.
You are still moving forward towards the ultimate moment of salvation.
And I like this idea that salvation is a process moving forward from a catalytic moment when you believed. I think we put far more emphasis on a moment of salvation than the Apostle Paul or any other New Testament writer does. Paul proclaimed that our salvation comes through our transformation in holiness when he said, “God has chosen you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit.” There is something about the life you live and the molding and shaping that the Spirit of God performs on you according to your failures that culminates in salvation from God’s wrath at the end of your life.
That God makes you holy through your failures is a critical element in the salvation of the Christian. Without failures, there is no holiness. And that’s what we are waiting for, the day when we are holy and we go to be with Jesus for eternity. So, becoming holy needs to be a priority for the Christian. And if it’s a priority, then you will have to learn how to deal with your failures.
Not all of you deal with your failures well. In fact, most people don’t.
• Maybe you’re a quitter. You fail at something and you just give up.
• Other people never try for fear of failure.
• And especially when it comes to moral issues, this next one is so common. Many times you fail, you fall into sin, but you do one of two things. Either you 1) give in to the sin entirely, or 2) you avoid any situation that might give you opportunity to sin.
Some of you, no doubt, have pet sins. These are sins that you’ve given up fighting. You’ve just determined they are going to be a part of your life and you have no will left to fight it.
Others of you are ashamed that you are disposed to certain behaviors. But instead of seeking real change to you heart and your mind, you are just hiding from the sin. You pretend it isn’t happening or you keep it behind closed doors.
The reality is, for all of us there is work to be done. When you fail, I’m going to suggest that you embrace that failure, you own up to the failure, you confess the failure, you reflect on the failure, you pray about the failure, and especially when that failure is a clear issue of sin, you go to the scriptures to seek out God’s heart regarding your failures. Don’t be ashamed of failures, but allow your failures to mold and shape you into the image of Christ.
We need to do that because we are all being made holy through our failures.
But, I want you to be equipped so that when you get knocked down, when you fail, you can get back up again. Today, I’m going to present to you 3 treasures of the Kingdom of God that help us to get back up again when we fall and that sustain us so that we will not fall so easily the next time.
The first treasure Paul mentions in our passage is the…
Some translations say teaching, which makes the passage take a little different meaning, although related. But, traditions encapsulates Paul’s sentiment better. For Paul the traditions or even, the practices of the church serve to equip us to deal with failure. He wrote,
In other words, since God has chosen you for salvation and is using your failures to make you holy, stand firm by holding to the traditions you were taught.
Sometimes when we read the Bible, we try to drop our name right into the text. There is a danger when you read the Bible that way and this passage is a good example of that.
If I take this to mean that I am supposed to stand firm by keeping the traditions of the pastor I grew up with, I am missing the point of this passage. I cannot simply drop myself and my circumstances into the text, because Paul is referring to the traditions that he taught the Thessalonian church as an Apostle of Christ Jesus.
I’m sure your pastor and my pastor were great and godly men, but they do not have the gifting, calling, or authority of the Apostle Paul. When we read this, we must read stand firm and hold to the traditions of the Apostles, not the traditions you learned in a contemporary church.
The reason is that many of the traditions of the church are the traditions of men. If you study church history, you find that to be true of the High Church model—such as Catholics, Lutherans, and Presbyterians—as well as the low church models—such as Baptists, Pentecostals, and most non-denominational churches.
Jesus chastised the Jews for following the traditions of men. He said,
Further, the Apostle Paul warned the church in the city of Colossae,
Here you can see the specific danger, that the tradition has a basis which is either in the world or in Christ. And when the tradition fails to point people to the grace and mercy of God through Christ, our traditions fail. And I think they fail on 3 points.
The late Doctor F. F. Bruce gave a warning about the traditions of men. He wrote,
I’d like to briefly address the three issues he noted: false traditions, inadequate traditions, and outdated traditions.
Traditions that are false are traditions that don’t point people to the truth of Jesus Christ. Churches have lots of traditions that have to do with operations: what kind of building we meet in, how to set out chairs, how to hand out bulletins, how to handle money, and things like that. We have others like how we dress, where we sit in the auditorium, whether or not we bring in coffee, stuff like that. Those may be wise or foolish, but the reality is they are not traditions that communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ and so we should never be offended when someone breaks that sort of tradition. We should hold those traditions very loosely, because they don’t effect the truth of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Do not treasure those traditions.
Neither should we treasure traditions that are inadequate. I’ll give you an example. Some churches celebrate the Lord’s Supper once a quarter or once a month. To me, that is an inadequate tradition.
I believe the sentiment of Paul’s statements about the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11 is that we should celebrate the Lord’s Supper as often as we gather. So, to do it quarterly is fine, I guess, from a doctrinal standpoint. It’s a good practice. But, I believe the practice is wholly inadequate, therefore we celebrate the Lord’s Supper weekly here at Sonrise.
The Lord’s Supper is one of the most significant traditions handed down directly by the Apostles in the scriptures and if that tradition is going to equip us to deal with failure by it’s proclamation of the Lord’s death on our behalf, then let’s get that equipping as often as possible. That’s my thought, and I believe, Paul’s thought also. Don’t hold to inadequate traditions.
And finally, Dr. Bruce says that traditions that are outdated need to be done away with. There are lots of traditions that fall in this category, but I think the way we worship with music is the most pertinent example. There are many contemporary songs that make you feel very good, but don’t teach any significant realities about Christ and His saving work on the cross. We simply choose not to sing those songs here at Sonrise, because they appeal to our emotions instead of teaching us about Christ. It’s not that they have an unbiblical message, but they have the wrong purpose.
Because of that many people prefer the hymns sung by past generations of the church. But, as the generations pass, the language of the hymns gets more archaic. Most hymns lack the clarity that other music has. And if I’m honest, most of my connection to the hymns is nostalgic. I find that they make me feel good more than they edify me—and that means they have the same problem as songs that are just emotional appeals. Nostalgia is more about feeling than teaching about Christ and so I don’t find many hymns to have the value they once had. And so here at Sonrise we are careful to sing hims that communicate clearly the message of Jesus and we often pass on ones that lack that clarity as they have simply become outdated. You know, we don’t sing Latin hymns for the same reason.
But, the early church did sing Psalms from the book of Psalms and hymns that reflect the Gospel of Christ like the hymn in Philippians 2. That’s the apostolic tradition. When we follow that tradition, we don’t just feel good, but we are reminded of the gloriousness of the Gospel and the mercies of God. And that’s exactly the reminder we need when we fail. So, that’s what it means to follow the tradition of the Apostles when it comes to music. It means to sing songs that continually remind us of the sovereign glory of God and the mercy of God given us freely through Jesus Christ. And all of our traditions, down to preaching, need to come under the scrutiny of the apostolic traditions.
In every regard we ought to follow the traditions handed down to us in the scriptures by the Apostles, because they are treasures that keep us from looking to ourselves, our desires, our preferences and constantly direct our eyes towards the Lord Jesus Christ.
Human traditions lead us away from Christ, but the Apostles traditions are treasures that draw us near to Christ. When we fail we need the apostolic traditions to set us upright that we might grow in holiness.
But, what are the apostolic traditions?
There are many and I don’t wish to unpack them all here, because we’ve already done that through the past weeks messages to some degree and will continue to do so later in this series, but here are a few practices and sacraments, or traditions, that come directly from the Apostles.
Holy things we’ve talked about already in our series on Holy Things are…
• The celebration of the Lord’s Supper
• Church Membership
• and Marriage
Practices that we will address in a few weeks are…
• and Fellowship
Other topics that I’m not hitting specifically in this series, but that we have talked about are…
• Writing and singing of creeds, hymns, and the Psalms
• Serving in the church
• Serving in the community
• and very importantly, Evangelism — telling other people the Gospel of Jesus.
There may be more, but these traditions of the Apostles are a treasure to us. As we focus on these things and we give up our focus on human traditions, God will use that to turn your failures into holiness. Failure is only failure if you refuse to learn from it. But, if you watch for God in it, He will use your failures to transform you into the image of Christ.
Don’t forsake this great treasure. Remain committed to the traditions of the Apostles. A second treasure given to the church is our…
As you probably know, I work at Littlerock High School. Seniors crack me up. They get so close to graduating and then they just stop doing any work as they get close to the end of the year. Even kids who are on track to be valedictorian, kids with great grades, they struggle to remain focused. There’s a term for this. They call it senioritis.
Senioritis is caused by the stress of graduation. There’s so much going on that they lack the motivation to do anything well at all. The solution to it, is to remain focused on the goal. Stop looking at the immediate circumstance and look forward to the promise of graduation.
Similarly, for us as Christians, what allows us to remain faithful to Christ, to continue growing in faith and holiness, is the treasure of eternal hope. We can get jaded like high school seniors and that stunts our growth in holiness. But, we have been given eternal hope to keep us focused on the prize. The Apostle Paul wrote,
Notice in this passage, three encouragements.
(1) The first is that God loves us. Romans 5:8,
This is one of the most staggering realities of human existence. It’s amazing to me that every religion in the world recognizes the moral failure of humankind and yet, most religions think the answer to our problem of sin is to just try to be a better person.
Only Christianity recognizes that sin runs so deep within your soul that you could never honor God if you tried. Trying to be a better person isn’t even a step in the right direction, because the authors of the Bible teach clearly that you can’t be a good person no matter how hard you try.
You were born as an enemy of God and as an enemy of God you deserve nothing less than the full wrath and condemnation of God. We couldn’t be less deserving of God’s love.
But then, Romans 5:8, God loves you nonetheless. God’s love for you runs so deep that Jesus died to take the wrath of God upon Himself so that you could know God and His goodness forever, for eternity.
That is why the Apostle Paul wrote, one verse before: Romans 5:7,
You might be willing to die to save a good or a just person, but the reality of God’s love for us is that he was willing to die for wretched, rebellious sinners like us. That’s a far more immaculate love than any person deserves. Be encouraged that God loves us.
(2) The second encouragement from the passage is that our hope is eternal. That means, it’s not just a hope for now. It is for now, but God’s love is not just something that is for this life. It’s not temporary.
When your kid scrapes their knee and you try to distract them from the pain by giving them candy, that’s temporary hope. It’s just a distraction from temporary pain. But, our hope is for the life to come. It’s an everlasting hope.
So, when you fail in life because of sin or you fail in other ways, you don’t have to become depressed and pessimistic, or try to distract yourself from pains in this life with sensual pleasures. Instead, you reflect on the love of God that produces in you eternal hope and you know you can endure the troubles of this life, because of the glory that awaits you eternally. Eternal hope is promise. It’s a guarantee of victory. Be encouraged because this life is fleeting, but there is hope for eternity.
(3) And third, the hope that God has given us is a good hope. It’s not a bad hope, if that’s even a thing. It’s a good hope.
This is one area where I think contemporary Christian teaching has drastically missed the mark. So much teaching about eternity is so bizarre to us that we have no idea what eternity will really be like. We often get this picture that eternity is a place where we float around as spirits singing songs day and night, and frankly that doesn’t sound good to us, because it has no basis in reality. All you can do with that kind of teaching is hope that it will be great, even though, if your honest, you don’t really want it.
If you look at heaven this way, then the entire concept of eternal hope breaks down, because you don’t get hope from something you don’t really want. That kind of hope is not hope at all.
I’ve often been told by people that heaven sounds boring and that’s the failure of preachers to proclaim the magnificence of our good hope.
Thankfully, that picture of a purely spiritual eternity is not what the scriptures teach. Rather, the scriptures teach of a perfect, but physical reality. It’s a return to the perfection of the garden, except in the end Jesus has built the garden into a worldwide city of God. This is our eternal hope, that we will be like we are now, except free from death, free from pain, free from failure, free from sin, free from sorrow. It’s a place of eternal joy, and peace, and righteous pleasure, but it is joy, and peace, and righteousness that is a perfect version of the joy, and peace, and righteousness we experience in life right now. Eternal hope is completely relatable and yet unfathomably wonderful!
And if that is what you have to look forward to, then when you fail in this life, you can allow that failure to build character into you so that you can take one step closer to the good and eternal reality God has designed for your future. Eternal hope is a treasure.
The tradition of the Apostles is a treasure to us. Our eternal hope is a treasure to us. And, finally…
…is a treasure to us.
In our text works and words should be seen as one thing. They are two correlated principles, so intertwined that they must work together. The principle is that our deeds or works reflect what we truly believe. Jesus said,
The produce of our hearts, whether words or works, are a reflection of our hearts, whether good or evil.
Further, the Apostle Paul wrote in our text for today,
Paul prays that God would strengthen us to good works and words, but not just for righteousness sake. For sure, Paul wants us to live righteously, but there are practical implications. Being strengthened to good works and words will keep us from failure.
The best way to avoid doing what is wrong is to be intentional about doing what is right. That means that you can avoid failures by being intentional about doing good works and speaking good words. When you are busy with good works, you will be less inclined to struggle with immoral works. And when you are busy speaking good words, you will be less inclined to speak unkind or harsh words.
It’s like grocery shopping … hear me out. It’s like grocery shopping. Everyone knows you shouldn’t go grocery shopping when you are hungry. When you do, you always buy the wrong things. If you eat a healthy, high fiber dinner and then hit the store, you’ll buy what you need for the week. But, if you go shopping on an empty stomach, you’ll end up buying high-fat, high-sugar foods that are attractive to the carnal desires of your flesh.
It’s why people dieting try to eat lots of raw, high-fiber vegetables. It a protection to keep you from craving sugar.
In the same way, the best way to suffocate the sinful desires of the flesh are to fill yourself with righteousness words and works. Keeping yourself busy with righteousness will prevent failure. It will keep you from desiring the sinful and unrighteous works of the flesh.
Christians are to keep themselves busy with good works and good words.
How do I do that? What do I actually need to do?
Well, first, you fill yourself with God’s words. You read the scriptures, you listen to sound preaching, you read books from biblically accurate authors. You follow podcasts and social media channels that fill you with the Word of God. And don’t say you don’t have time for that. Watch less television. Listen in the car. Listen at work. Listen with your wife. Read the Bible to your kids.
Make the best of your time. It’s that important.
And then you speak the word of God that you are learning back to God in prayer. You thank God for His promises and you pray for strength to live according to the standards of God. And you speak the Word of God to others by telling them the Gospel, the message of Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
The number one reason people say they don’t pray is that they don’t know what to pray for. Strikingly, the number one reason people don’t tell people about Jesus is that they don’t know what to tell them. Fill your life with God’s word and the words will flow from you. And trust me, when you are proclaiming Jesus, you will not be comfortable proclaiming lies, course words, or hateful speech. The Word of God will be a treasure to train you in holiness.
And then as you understand the words of God, you’ll understand the works of God. So you prioritize your time in order to carry out the works of God. Jesus made that pretty simple. He said we are to love God with all of our heart, mind, and strength. But, then we are to express that love for God in loving the people that He created. That’s the greatest commandment, to love God and neighbor.
To carry out the works of God is to sacrifice yourself for the good of others, to give up yourself—time, wealth, energy—that they might see Christ in you. And that effort will be a treasure to you as it will produce in you righteousness and holiness and perseverance as you await the return of Christ when you will be with Him forever.
Christian, isn’t that what we are about? Isn’t that what you want? Isn’t a lack of holiness what caused you to confess Christ in the beginning?
Don’t allow yourself to become jaded, depressed, stagnant in your faith, but gather together these treasures of God. Renew your commitment to the tradition of the Apostles and be humble enough to cast away your allegiance to the traditions of men. Embrace your eternal hope. Allow yourself to dream of the wonders of the Kingdom of God to come. Your hope is a priceless treasure to you. And practice good words and works. They are treasures that bring you near to Christ and protect you from the desires of the flesh that seek to destroy your soul.