As I’ve written before, Paul’s epistolary thanksgivings serve as a kind of holy eavesdropping on divine gossip. Considering the opening to Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian church, the Thessalonians could hear Paul brag to God about God’s work in their church. Through the inerrant Scriptures, we too possess the same letter that Paul sent to that church. We can join in thanking God for what he did 2,000 years ago in Macedonia. But we can also thank God for the pattern of church birth and growth that accompanies churches in general and our church in particular. We can use the thanksgiving section of 1 Thessalonians as a foundation from which to pray, strive, plan, and work for the maturity of our local congregations. The thanksgiving section of 1 Thessalonians 1 reveals six things we should look for in a church and be thankful for when we find them.
The Virtue Triumvirate of Faith, Hope, and Love
Faith, hope, and love (1 Thess. 1:3) are Paul’s triumvirate of Christian virtues, appearing in several places in Paul’s writings. Paul had multiple definitions and illustrations to explain what to look for in a growing Christian and a growing church. One of those ways was by employing these three words. First, a growing church should be a group of Christians growing in their faith—their trust in God as he reveals himself in the entirety of the Bible. Second, a growing church should be growing in their hope—their expectation that things that God has promised are true and will come to pass, culminating in the return of Jesus Christ. Finally, a growing church should be growing in love—a love defined by God’s character and God’s Word, a love displayed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Pastor, elder, church member, are these the things you pray for and look for in your congregation? Do you even know how you would measure such things? These three virtues can’t be tracked on a spreadsheet and don’t fit neatly onto a PowerPoint presentation in an annual business meeting. But when God created a church in Thessalonica, these three virtues marked that growing church.
Paul goes on to give his assurance of the electing grace of God present in that congregation when he writes, “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you” (1 Thess. 1:4). We typically speak of assurance of faith when we refer to an individual. But Paul is using assurance here to talk of his confidence in the genuine work of God in that church. Indeed the other things Paul lists are a fruit that lead him to believe that the church at Thessalonica was a true church. But we don’t need to only focus on the fruit. As a church planter, Paul possessed a God-given assurance in the legitimacy of the Thessalonian church and was grateful to God for it. So we must pause and thank God regularly that he has placed us in a faithful local church, a fantastic work of God in saving individuals and bringing them together in a covenant community.
There is something miraculous about a true church. It is unique because, like salvation, the birth of a church is a monergistic work of God, bringing together Christians to form a faith community under the leadership of called and qualified elders. In an era where there is a civic group or club for every possible preference, opinion, and hobby, it is essential to stand in amazement at the divinely created organization that is a local church.
The Fruit of Election
Then Paul describes the fruit of election. Election is not a lonely action of God. It is monergistic but is also followed by other works of God. When we’re talking about a local congregation and our assurance that it is a legitimate local church, we must judge by the fruit, the attendant consequences of what we believe was a successful church planting, by looking for that congregation’s response to the Bible. Paul tells the Thessalonians what he saw in them, saying that the “gospel came to you not only in word but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5). These four things—word, spiritual power, the Holy Spirit, and full conviction—could be taken as four individual fruits. It makes better exegetical sense to combine them into one fruit. What did God do when he created a church in Thessalonica? He brought the preached Bible to those new converts, causing them, through the powerful work of the Holy Spirit, to respond with full conviction that it was what Paul said it was—the very Word of God, how God calls sinners out of darkness and death into light and new birth. That was the fruit that God grew in Thessalonica, and Paul was thankful for it.
Godly Imitation and Examples
Paul also wanted to thank God that he did not just create vigorous intellectual assent in that new church. Paul didn’t set out to start a school or a lecture hall. Instead, Paul writes that the Thessalonians “became imitators” of Paul and his traveling companions, receiving “the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit,” and that they became “an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia” (1 Thess. 1:6–7). God changed the lives of the Thessalonians, using Paul’s life and ministry to train the Thessalonian Christians in how to apply the gospel to everyday living. This divine work was so effective that the Thessalonians became an example to other Christians and local churches in a short time on how gospel centrality changes people and communities.
But the Thessalonians did not just act in new ways, changing habits according to gospel principles. They also shared their faith; they evangelized others. Paul writes that he doesn’t even have to tell other churches about God’s glorious work in Thessalonica because other churches are hearing about it from the Thessalonians themselves. Paul wrote to them, “not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere so that we need not say anything” (1 Thess. 1:8). When God saves individuals and creates a church, he makes a community primed to declare his praise. God is not in the self-improvement business. The people he remakes don’t boast in themselves and their programs; they boast in the greatness of God and his gospel. This is precisely what happened in Thessalonica.
Lastly, Paul gives thanks that the transformation that happened in the Thessalonians followed the pattern of biblical conversion—repentance and steadfast hope in the imminent return of Jesus. Paul writes that the Thessalonian church is filled with Greeks who had “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 delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:9–10). A living and thriving church starts and continues in repentance and eschatological expectancy. These core themes of rejecting idolatry, worshiping God, and cultivating a joyful and holy waiting mark churches for which we should be thankful. And the work it takes to create those things in a church is the work of God alone. He gets all the praise and all the thanks.
And so we see Paul giving thanks to God for his work in the Thessalonian saints while simultaneously providing us a pattern of thanksgiving to follow and a pattern of what to look for in a true, healthy, and growing church.
Thanksgiving as Growth Model
I believe the Pauline epistolary thanks provides an excellent focus for planters and pastors to assess and respond to what is going on in their churches compared to the next best ministry method, planting scheme, or best practices. We operate from the wrong foundation when we think God is waiting for us to discover the best way to plant churches. God plants churches. We are left to thank him for it and learn what to watch for when he does it. Calibrating our approach to church birth and health in this way provides us with at least three benefits.
First, a thanksgiving pattern of planting and growth is both Scriptural and pragmatic. In many growth paradigms, the choice is between these two things. But we don’t have to choose when we use the Pauline thanks as our guide. It is Scriptural as Paul provides ample thanksgivings in his letters for churches and church plants. But it is also pragmatic. It is practical because it incorporates our work and because it is work that God has proven he is pleased to bless. God loves to grow churches that prioritize faith, hope, and love. God loves to grow a local church that knows that it is a biblical church and is pursuing a deepening conviction about all that is written in the Bible. God loves to bring together saints who want to work the gospel into every area of their lives and share it with others. God is all about taking sinners, breaking them of their idolatry, re-centering them on himself, and producing in them a holy longing for the return of Jesus. We are most practical when we are most scriptural.
“Paul’s epistolary thanksgivings serve as a kind of holy eavesdropping on divine gossip.”—Joe Holland
Second, the thanksgiving model helps mature a congregation in worship. You cannot implement the thanksgiving model of growth in your church without intentionally becoming more thankful to God and calibrating your thanksgiving according to Scripture. This kind of emphasis enlivens every sphere of worship in a church—corporate, family, personal, and vocational. I have never heard a church say, “We’re good on gratitude. We don’t need to grow in thanksgiving. We’ve reached where we need to be.” But sadly, many churches don’t emphasize thanksgiving to the same degree that Scripture does.
Third, thanksgiving reminds saints and churches that the work of planting and growing churches is God’s sovereign work. Often more in success than failure, churches are tempted to believe that their slick Sunday service or novel outreach is why more people are coming. Nonsense. God opens and shuts churches, all of them. Naming the things we are thankful to God for in our church reminds us that all we have is from his grace. He is the sovereign and good God. He is the one working in our churches.
Whereas there has been a significant amount of interpretive work done on the Pauline epistolary thanks, there is still work to apply these texts to local churches. We have a habit of breezing past these sections of Paul’s letters to get to the meatier theology. Or we forget that these thanksgiving passages are written to churches rather than to the individual reader. We need pastors and planters, Sunday school teachers, and community group leaders to look for ways to apply and teach these passages to groups of Christians. As they do, and as local churches become more biblically thankful, we will all have the chance to join Paul in his thanksgiving, boasting about our great God and his unique love for churches.