They call Thessalonika (present day spelling) “Greece’s Hippest City”. Want to visit? Book a room at the Plaza hotel online at http://www.booking.com/hotel/gr/plaza-art.html?aid=314342,
Paul, at Corinth in 50 A.D., worried about how the new Thessalonian believers were holding up in the face of persecution. Having no computer for email, he sent Timothy to find out (1 Thessalonians 3:1-5). When Timothy returned with a glowing report, Paul wrote the letter we call 1 Thessalonians. Here’s chapter 1 . . .
Paul, Silas and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you. We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia– your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead– Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath. (1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, ESV).
At first reading it might seem the Thessalonians’ persevering faith in persecution’s face was due to their determination, their strength of character. That’s partly true. They made choices to hang on to faith. After all, it was their work faith produced, their labor love prompted, their endurance hope in Jesus inspired. They imitated the missionaries and the Lord, welcoming the message in spite of severe suffering. They turned from idols to serve the living God and to wait for God’s Son from heaven.
As I understand it, the doctrine of God’s sovereignty (“The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all”—Psalm 103:19. NIV) doesn’t preclude human choice. For example, when Joshua challenged the Israelites, ” . . . choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15), they were confronted with a real choice—the gods of the Amorites or the LORD. And they would be blessed or cursed accordingly.
I love this quote by Charles Spurgeon (19th century British Baptist preacher), but we might infer more than we should about God’s sovereignty and human’s choice . . .
“I believe that every particle of dust that dances in the sunbeam does not move an atom more or less than God wishes – that every particle of spray that dashes against the steamboat has its orbit, as well as the sun in the heavens – that the chaff from the hand of the winnower is steered as the stars in their courses. The creeping of an aphid over the rosebud is as much fixed as the march of the devastating pestilence – the fall of . . . leaves from a poplar is as fully ordained as the tumbling of an avalanche.”
Humans aren’t dust or spray or chaff or aphid or leaves. While God surely must first awaken us out of sin’s deadness, we are still able to choose much. Especially as reborn-by-the-Spirit believers we can choose to welcome the gospel though we’ll incur persecution, we can choose to labor in love for a friend, we can choose to drive our idols to the dump.
When we more carefully read 1 Thessalonians 1 it becomes clear Paul is celebrating what God has ultimately done. He thanks God for the Thessalonians. That “thanks” sets the chapter’s tone: even for all the Thessalonians have done Paul thanks God.
Yet, before any action by the Thessalonians, they were “loved by God” and chosen by him. That choice was evident by how the gospel came to them—namely, “with power, with the Holy Spirit, and with deep conviction.” (I take Paul to mean that the power of the Holy Spirit produced deep conviction in the Thessalonians.) Despite knowing they would face severe suffering, “they welcomed the message with joy given by the Holy Spirit.” Jesus’ physical resurrection dynamically demonstrated he is “the living and true God.” The promise of his coming again from heaven offered hope of rescue “from the coming wrath.” Therefore, both God’s act in historical resurrection and in future coming moved them to turn from dead idols.
Question: did the Thessalonians’ conversion experience result from God’s acts or theirs? Answer: yes. God the Holy Spirit was the prior and prime Actor. The Thessalonians were thereby enabled and responsible to answer; but they weren’t compelled to believe and rejoice and persevere as if God’s sovereignty made them puppets.
So today. It’s possible for us to be into the doctrine of God’s sovereignty so much that he is the ultimate cause of everything and we are responsible for nothing. (In the same way, it’s possible for us to presume God’s not active in his creature and everything’s pretty much up to us.) At what point exactly does God’s sovereign act end and man’s responding act begin? I don’t know. Here, it seems to me, is knowledge too high for us. It’s enough for us to know God is the prior and primary Actor, and we are responsible to respond accordingly.
We are not Deists or Moral Therapeutic Deists who believe God “wound up” the world and left it to run on its own, except to help us when we can’t go it alone. God is directly, deliberately involved in his creation and with his creatures. For that, with Paul, we can be most thankful.
But that doesn’t give us license to do nothing until we “feel moved”. Scripture is chock full of commands and directives. Obedience isn’t meritorious, but it is required. So, knowing God is acting, let’s do the good we know to do.
Then, let’s celebrate—our accomplishments with a small-scale celebration and God’s accomplishments as if we’re practicing for an eternity of effusive praise in the hippest city ever. (We are.)