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37

III.

THE SIGNS OF ELECTION.

"How that our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance; even as ye know what manner of men we showed ourselves toward you for your sake. And ye became imitators of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost; so that ye became an ensample to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia. For from you hath sounded forth the word of the Lord, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith to God-ward is gone forth; so that we need not to speak anything."—1 Thess. i. 5-8 (R.V.).

THE Revised Version renders the ὅτι, with which ver. 5 begins, "how that," the Authorised Version, "for." In the first case, the Apostle is made to explain in what election consists; in the other, he explains how it is that he knows the Thessalonians to be among the elect. There is hardly room to doubt that it is this last which he intends to do. Election does not consist in the things which he proceeds to enlarge upon, though these may be in some sense its effects or tokens; and there is something like unanimity among scholars in favour of the rendering "for," or "because." What, then, are the grounds of the statement, that Paul knows the election of the Thessalonians? They are twofold; lying partly in his own experience, and that of his fellow-labourers, while they preached the gospel in Thessalonica; and partly in the reception which the Thessalonians gave to their message.

I. The tokens in the preacher that his hearers are 38 elect: "Our gospel came not unto you in word only, but in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance." That was the consciousness of the preachers themselves, but they could appeal to those who had heard them: "even as ye know what manner of men we showed ourselves toward you for your sake."

The self-consciousness of the preacher, we see from these words, is a legitimate though a perilous study. Every one has been told that there is no relation whatever between his own consciousness when preaching, and the effect of what is preached; but has anybody ever quite believed this? If there were no relation whatever between the preacher's consciousness and his conscience; if he did not know that many a time neglect of prayer or duty had separated him from God, and made him useless as an evangelist, it would be easier to believe it; but as our life is, the preacher may know quite well that it is no proof of God's good will to men that he is sent to preach to them; or, on the other hand, he may have a humble but sure trust that when he stands up to speak, God is with him for good to his hearers. Thus it was with Paul at Thessalonica.

The heartiness with which he speaks here justifies the inference that he had had experiences of an opposite and disappointing kind. Twice in Asia (Acts xvi. 6 f.) he had been forbidden by the Spirit to preach at all; 39 he could not argue that the people so passed by were specially favoured of God. Often, especially in his intercourse with the Jews, he must have spoken, like Isaiah, with the depressing consciousness that it was all in vain; that the sole issue would be to blind their eyes and harden their hearts and seal them up in impenitence. In Corinth, just before writing this letter, he had come forward with unusual trepidation—in weakness and fear and much trembling; and though there also the Holy Spirit and a divine power brought home the gospel to men's hearts, he seems to have been so far from that inward assurance which he enjoyed at Thessalonica, that the Lord appeared to him in a vision by night to reveal the existence of an election of grace even in Corinth. "Fear not: I have much people in this city." In Thessalonica he had no such sinking of heart. He came thither, as he hoped to go to Rome, in the fulness of the blessing of Christ (Rom. xv. 29). He knew in himself that God had given it to him to be a true minister of His grace; he was full of power by the Spirit of the Lord. That is why he says so confidently, "Knowing your election."

The Apostle explains himself more precisely when he writes, "not in word only, but in power and in the Holy Ghost and in much assurance." The gospel must come in word at least; but what a profanation it is to 40 preach it only in word. Not preachers only, but all Christians, have to be on their guard, lest familiarity rob the great words of the gospel of their reality, and they themselves sink into that worst atheism which is for ever handling holy things without feeling them. How easy is it to speak of God, Christ, redemption, atonement, sanctification, heaven, hell, and to be less impressed and less impressive than if we were speaking of the merest trivialities of every-day life. It is hard to believe that an apostle could have seen such a possibility even from afar; yet the contrast of "word" and "power" leaves no room to doubt that such is his meaning. Words alone are worthless. No matter how brilliant, how eloquent, how imposing they may be, they cannot do the work of an evangelist. The call to this requires "power."

No definition of power is given; we can only see that it is that which achieves spiritual results, and that the preacher is conscious of possessing it. It is not his own, certainly: it works through the very consciousness of his own want of power; "when I am weak, then am I strong." But it gives him hope and confidence in his work. Paul knew that it needed a stupendous force to make bad men good; the forces to be overcome were so enormous. All the sin of the world was arrayed against the gospel; all the dead weight of men's indifference, all their pride, all their 41 shame, all their self-satisfaction, all their cherished wisdom. But he came to Thessalonica strong in the Lord, confident that his message would subdue those who listened to it; and therefore, he argued, the Thessalonians were the objects of God's electing grace.

"Power" stands side by side with the "Holy Ghost." In a sense, the Holy Ghost is the source of all spiritual virtues, and therefore of the very power of which we have been speaking; but the words are probably used here with some narrower meaning. The predominant use of the name in the New Testament bids us think of that divine fervour which the spirit kindles in the soul—that ardour of the new life which Christ Himself speaks of as fire. Paul came to Thessalonica aglow with Christian passion. He took that as a good omen in his work, a sign that God meant well to the Thessalonians. By nature men do not care passionately for each other as he cared for those to whom he preached in that city. They are not on fire with love, seeking each other's good in spiritual things; consumed with fervent longing that the bad should cease from their badness, and come to enjoy the pardon, the purity, and the company of Christ. Even in the heart of apostles—for though they were apostles they were men—the fire may sometimes have burned low, and a mission have been, by comparison, languid and spiritless; but at least on this occasion the evangelists were all on fire; and it assured 42 them that God had a people waiting for them in the unknown city.

If "power" and the "Holy Ghost" are in some degree to be judged only by their effects, there can be no question that "much assurance," on the other hand, is an inner experience, belonging strictly to the self-consciousness of the preacher. It means a full and strong conviction of the truth of the gospel. We can only understand this by contrast with its opposite; "much assurance" is the counterpart of misgiving or doubt. We can hardly imagine an apostle in doubt about the gospel—not quite certain that Christ had risen from the dead; wondering whether, after all, His death had abolished sin. Yet these truths, which are the sum and substance of the gospel, seem, at times, too great for belief; they do not coalesce with the other contents of our mind; they do not weave easily into one piece with the warp and woof of our common thoughts; there is no common measure for them and the rest of our experience, and the shadow of unreality falls upon them. They are so great that it needs a certain greatness to answer to them, a certain boldness of faith to which even a true Christian may feel momentarily unequal; and while he is unequal, he cannot do the work of an evangelist. Doubt paralyses; God cannot work through a man in whose soul there are misgivings about the truth. At least, His working 43 will be limited to the sphere of what is certain for him through whom He works; and if we would be effective ministers of the word, we must speak only what we are sure of, and seek the full assurance of the whole truth. No doubt such assurance has conditions. Unfaithfulness of one kind or another is, as our Lord teaches (John vii. 17), the source of uncertainty as to the truth of His word; and prayer, repentance, and obedience due, the way to certainty again. But Paul had never been more confident of the truth and power of his gospel than when he came to Thessalonica. He had seen it proved in Philippi, in conversions so dissimilar as those of Lydia and the jailor. He had felt it in his own heart, in the songs which God had given him in the night while he suffered for Christ's sake. He came among those whom he addresses confident that it was God's instrument to save all who believed. This is his last personal reason for believing the Thessalonians to be elect.

Strictly speaking, all this refers rather to the delivery of the message than to the messengers, to the preaching than to the preachers; but the Apostle applies it to the latter also. "Ye know," he writes, "what manner of men we showed ourselves toward you for your sakes." I venture to think22   With Godet and P. Schmidt; against Ellicott. that the word rendered "we showed 44 ourselves" has really the passive sense—"what God enabled us to be"; it is God's good will to the Thessalonians which is in view, and the Apostle infers that good will from the character which God enabled him and his friends to sustain for their sakes. Who could deny that God had chosen them, when He had sent them Paul and Silas and Timothy; not mere talkers, cold and spiritless, and dubious of their message; but men strong in spiritual force, in holy fervour, and in their grasp of the gospel? If that did not go to show that the Thessalonians were elect, what could?

II. The self-consciousness of the preachers, however, significant as it was, was no conclusive evidence. It only became such when their inspiration was caught by those who listened to them; and this was the case at Thessalonica. "Ye became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost." This peculiar expression implies that the signs of God's election were to be seen in the evangelists, and eminently in the Lord. Paul shrinks from making himself and his companions types of the elect, without more ado; they are such only because they are like Him, of whom it is written "Behold my servant whom I uphold; Mine elect, in whom My soul delighteth." He speaks here in the same strain as in 1 Cor. xi. 1: "Brethren, be ye imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ." They who have 45 become like the Lord are marked out as the chosen of God.

But the Apostle does not rest in this generality. The imitation in question consisted in this—that the Thessalonians received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost. It is, of course, in the last part of the sentence that the point of comparison is found. In a sense it is true that the Lord Himself received the word which He spoke to men. "I do nothing of Myself," He says; "but as the Father hath taught Me, I speak these things" (John viii. 28). But such a reference is irrelevant here. The significant point is that the acceptance of the gospel by the Thessalonians brought them into fellowship with the Lord, and with those who continued His work, in that which is the distinction and criterion of the new Christian life—much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost. That is a summary of the life of Christ, the Apostle of the Father (John xvii. 18). It is more obviously a summary of the life of Paul, the apostle of Jesus Christ. The acceptance of the gospel meant much affliction for him: "I will show him how great things he must suffer for My name's sake." It meant also a new and supernatural joy, a joy arising from, and sustained by, the Holy Spirit, a joy triumphant in and over all sufferings. This combination of affliction and spiritual joy, this original, paradoxical experience, is the token of election. 46 Where the children of God live, as Christ and His apostles lived, in the midst of a world at war with God and His cause, they will suffer; but suffering will not break their spirit, or embitter them, or lead them to desert God; it will be accompanied with spiritual exaltation, keeping them sweet, and humble, and joyful, through it all. Paul knew the Thessalonians were elect, because he saw that new power in them, to rejoice in tribulations, which can only be seen in those who have the spirit of God.

This test, obviously, can only be applied when the gospel is a suffering cause. But if the profession of the Christian faith, and the leading of a Christian life entail no affliction, what shall we say? If we read the New Testament aright, we shall say that there is a mistake somewhere. There is always a cross; there is always something to bear or to overcome for righteousness' sake; and the spirit in which it is met tells whether God is with us or not. Not every age is, like the apostolic, an age of open persecution, of spoiling of goods, of bonds, and scourging, and death; but the imitation of Christ in His truth and faithfulness will surely be resented somehow; and it is the seal of election when men rejoice that they are counted worthy to suffer shame for His name. Only the true children of God can do that. Their joy is in some sense a present recompense for their sufferings; but for suffering 47 they could not know it. "I never knew," said Rutherford, "by my nine years' preaching, so much of Christ's love as He hath taught me in Aberdeen, by six months' imprisonment." It is a joy that never fails those who face affliction that they may be true to Christ. Think of the Christian boys in Uganda, in 1885, who were bound alive to a scaffolding and slowly burned to death. "The spirit of the martyrs at once entered into these lads, and together they raised their voices and praised Jesus in the fire, singing till their shrivelled tongues refused to form the sound:—

"'Daily, daily sing to Jesus,

Sing my soul, His praises due;

All He does deserves our praises,

And our deep devotion too.

"'For in deep humiliation,

He for us did live below;

Died on Calvary's cross of torture,

Rose to save our souls from woe.'"33   Life of Bishop Hannington.

Who can doubt that these three are among the chosen of God? And who can think of such scenes, and such a spirit, and recall without misgiving the querulous, fretful, aggrieved tone of his own life, when things have not gone with him exactly as he could have wished?

The Thessalonians were so conspicuously Christian, so unmistakably exhibited the new Divine type of 48 character, that they became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. Their conversion called the attention of all men to the gospel, like a clear and far-resounding trumpet blast. Thessalonica was a place of much coming and going on all sides; and the success of the evangelists there, being carried abroad in various ways, advertised their work, and so far prepared for their coming. Paul would naturally have spoken of it when he went to a new city, but found it unnecessary; the news had preceded him; in every place their faith to God-ward had gone forth. So far as we learn, it was the most impressive incident which had yet occurred in the progress of the gospel. A work of grace so characteristic, so thorough, and so unmistakable, was a token of God's goodness, not only to those who were immediately the subjects of it, but to all who heard, and by hearing had their interest awakened in the evangelists and their message.

This whole subject has a side for preachers, and a side for hearers of the gospel. The preacher's peril is the peril of coming to men in word only; saying things which he does not feel, and which others, therefore, will not feel; uttering truths, it may be, but truths which have never done anything for him—enlightened, quickened, or sanctified him—and which he cannot hope, as they come from his lips, will do anything for others; or worse still, uttering things of which he 49 cannot even be confident that they are true. Nothing could be less a sign of God's grace to men than to abandon them to such a preacher, instead of sending them one full of power, and of the Holy Ghost, and of assurance. But whatever the preacher may be, there is something left to the hearer. There were people with whom even Paul, full of power and of the Holy Ghost, could not prevail. There were people who hardened their hearts against Christ; and let the preacher be ever so unworthy of the gospel, the virtue is in it, and not in him. He may not do anything to commend it to men; but does it need his commendation? Can we make bad preaching an excuse for refusing to become imitators of the Lord? It may condemn the preacher, but it can never excuse us. Look steadily at the seal which God sets upon His own—the union of affliction with spiritual joy—and follow Christ in the life which is marked by this character as not human only, but Divine. That is the way prescribed to us here to make our election sure.


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