One of the primary realities overheard in the New Testament is a heart-felt concern that those who claim Christ are indeed truly converted not only for their sake but for the sake of the gospel itself. For example, Paul expressed his genuine concern for the believers at Thessalonica with particular reference to their spiritual well-being which was no doubt grounded not only in his love for them but in his love for the gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Thes. 3:1-5).
That concern connects with our contemporary setting in that The Barna Group reports that while America is growing in its spirituality, 76 million adults regularly avoid going to church. “"One-third of the adult population (34%) has not attended any type of church service or activity, other than a special event such as a funeral or wedding, during the past six months...Six out of ten unchurched people (62%) consider themselves to be Christian."
The fact that 62% of unchurched people claim to be Christian is problematic and the problem is compounded by the fact that "in the eyes of these individuals, absence from church life does not indicate a lack of commitment to the Christian faith. Three out of four unchurched adults who consider themselves to be Christian (77%) contend that they are either absolutely or moderately committed to the Christian faith."
A central question that emerges from such statistics is this: should we be concerned when others claim to be committed Christians but demonstrate little resemblance to committed Christians in the biblical and historical record? No one will argue that there are no problems with the contemporary church. However, should we not argue, in light of Scripture, that a lack of commitment to church life is indeed a lack of commitment to Christ? Should we not be concerned with the spiritual well-being of those who contend otherwise?
An error is being propagated in today's evangelicalism as some contend that the contemporary church is irrelevant to the present world and for that reason spiritual revolutionaries should leave the church and find enrichment for their lives through non-traditional means and avenues. Coffee shop conversations and days on the lake suffice for Christian discipleship and the means of growth. Preaching is outmoded and individuals need only the leadership of the Spirit apart from the word. This neo-Gnosticism is pervasive and at the same time destructive of genuine faith, biblical spirituality, and what Francis Schaeffer called true truth.
At one point in his ministry, the apostle Paul referred to the Thessalonian believers as his joy and crown of rejoicing. His love for them was heart-felt and he was concerned about the condition of their faith and the effectiveness of the gospel in their midst. Some implications may be gleaned from his example and applied to the contemporary context of professing Christians who are unchurched.
First, genuine concern for professing Christians and the gospel itself is displayed through sacrificial action. Paul had great consternation of heart in that he could not go to the church at Thessalonica to find out what was happening with the saints. But, because of his inner struggle, there came a point in time when he could no longer endure not knowing what had become of their faith in Christ Jesus (1 Thes. 3:1).
His concern was for them as persons and of course the state of their souls. At the same time, the gospel itself was at stake in light of their testimony. If they were to walk away from the faith it would not only mean spiritual disaster for them but it would bring reproach upon the gospel of Christ and indeed the Lord Himself. Thus, Paul sent Timothy to find out what was going on (v. 2). He did not want to part with Timothy, but he felt he had to for the sake of his friends and the gospel. How many of us have such concern in our hearts for professing Christians who may be going astray?
Second, genuine concern for professing Christians and the gospel itself is displayed through ministerial encouragement. Paul explains that he sent Timothy to establish and encourage them concerning their faith (v. 2). As noted, he did not want to part with Timothy, but, the plain message to the Thessalonians was that they were so dear to the apostle and their souls were so important and the gospel itself was so valuable that he was willing to part with Timothy to find out what was happening and to provide ministry to them as well.
Timothy was to go and establish their faith, if indeed it was genuine. The word Paul uses means to set fast or to turn resolutely in a certain direction. The idea is to strengthen. Their faith must be set in concrete, not mud. They must be looking resolutely in one direction, not turning here or there. They must be looking to Christ. Their faith must not be weak but strong in the Lord.
Timothy was also to encourage their faith. He was to put his arm around the Thessalonians, as it were, and minister grace and comfort to their hearts in light of their trials and temptations. We must do the same when we are in doubt concerning our professing but straying friends.
Third, genuine concern for professing Christians and the gospel itself is displayed through biblical instruction. Biblical instruction is grounded in sound doctrine and applied in real life. Paul gave a theological lesson to the believers in Thessalonica (v. 3). While the error Paul was concerned about was slightly different than the error under consideration with the aforementioned survey results, those results indicate that large numbers of professing Christians today need a lesson in theology as well.
"Adults disassociated with a conventional church have a wide range of beliefs: 64% contend that Satan is not a living being but is just a symbol of evil; 62% believe that a good person can earn eternal salvation; 51% believe that Jesus Christ sinned while He lived on earth." Is it any wonder the church is not important for these people? Should not our hearts break over such error from those who say they are committed to Christ?
"George Barna, who directed the study, also pointed out that a minority of unchurched adults has a biblical view of God. In addition, less than one out of five say that involvement in a community of faith is necessary to become a mature and complete person. Interestingly, nearly one-quarter of the unchurched (23%) say that a person's faith in God is meant to be developed mainly through involvement in a local church." The need is great even within the context of professing evangelicalism.
Fourth, genuine concern for professing Christians and the gospel itself is displayed through internal turmoil. That turmoil is connected to our love for others and our love for the gospel. Paul wrote, "For this reason, when I could no longer endure it, I sent to know your faith, lest by some means the tempter had tempted you, and our labor might be in vain." Paul begins by saying, "for this reason." Because he knew they were being persecuted and lied to, he had great consternation in his heart and sent to know their faith.
Paul now says he sent to know their faith "lest by some means the tempter had tempted you, and our labor might be in vain." Satan is the tempter and is no mere symbol of evil in Paul's mind. He is a very real and very power being. Satan is crafty and seeks whom he may devour (Eph. 6:11; 1 Pet. 5:8). Paul was fearful that somehow Satan had tempted them. The force of the word "tempted" here, by way of context, is that of falling away. He was fearful that Satan might somehow have snatched the seed of the word of God from their hearts and that they in turn might have been in danger of or that they might indeed have fallen away from the faith (Lk. 8:5). The fear we ought to have in our day for revolutionaries is no different.
The interpretation above is sealed with the phrase "and our labor might be in vain." Paul was concerned that their gospel labor was for nothing, at least in the lives of the Thessalonians. If they had been tempted to the point of falling away, then the labor of Paul and his partners in the gospel would have come to nothing. Oh how we ought to lament the possibility that our labor might be in vain as we see so many disassociating from the church and in particular so many who have no understanding concerning even the most basic truths of who Christ is.
This was Paul's great fear and ultimately explains why he could endure being away from the Thessalonians no longer and why he was willing to allow Timothy to go to them. The souls of the Thessalonians, the truth of the gospel, and the gospel labor they had expended in Thessalonica were too important. Paul sent to scope out the faith of the Thessalonians to preserve them, the gospel, and his own gospel labor for the glory of God. How can we do less?
Fifth, genuine concern for professing Christians and the gospel itself is displayed through spiritual awareness. We are aware of the reality of Satan's activity and the possibility of false converts even as Paul was concerned for the same. It must be pointed out here that one cannot lose his salvation (Jn. 3:16; Rom. 8:28f; 1 Pet. 1:5; etc). Those who fall away from the faith were never saved to begin with. Paul's concern here has to do with human responsibility. We do not preach the gospel without love for God and concern for His glory and without love for man and concern for his good. We do not preach the gospel and then not worry whether or not it is received or whether or not it produces genuine faith. We leave the results to God, but, we do indeed care for souls and the reputation of Christ Himself. Thus, we do all we can to express and live out our concern for those who profess Christ and to demonstrate our concern for the gospel of God. Let us be concerned, and, let us do something about it.
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About Paul Dean
Dr. Paul Dean is a pastor, cultural commentator, and author. He serves as a Regional Mentor with the International Association of Biblical Counselors, speaks at several conferences throughout the year, and provides training for ministers and churches on a regular basis. Paul resides in the Upstate of South Carolina with his wife and three children.
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