It is Monday and I just about to set off for Ming Hua our theological college for my lecture. It's Virtue Ethics today! Quite a busy week this week. Tonight it is the Church Council meeting with a very full agenda.
Regular readers will know that I am at present posting a series on Predestination. This is a reflection in the light of it on yesterday's second reading from Thessalonians.
Paul has already described the Thessalonian Christians using these words: ‘For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you …’ (1 Thessalonians 1:4) This is a very different perspective than that adopted by most Christians today. We are more likely to describe ourselves as those who have chosen God. While we focus on our choice to be a Christian, Paul here focuses on God’s choice of us. This leads him to write the words that are in are passage this Sunday: 'For God has destined us not for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ ...' (1 Thessalonians 5:9)
Paul’s thinking is clear. God has chosen the Thessalonians to be his people and his plan for them is that rather than experiencing the wrath that others will experience on the Day of the Lord, they will instead obtain salvation. The obvious question (apart from whether we agree with him, of course) is in what sense does Paul think the Thessalonians are chosen?
This question immediately lands us in the debate about predestination: the idea that God choose some, and not others, to be Christians. Christians have, historically, been very divided over this issue. It is fair I think to say that many in former generations were more able to accept the idea than we are today, although there was still much argument over it. John Wesley famously disgreed strongly with his fellow evangelist George Whitefield in the eighteenth century over it.
There are a number of options when it comes to understanding what Paul means:
1. God chose the Thessalonians in the sense that he chose them to hear the message that Paul and his co-workers, Silvanus and Timothy, preached to them. This much, at least, is true. Paul had been prevented from preaching the Gospel in Asia Minor and had been lead to the Philippians and Thessalonians in Macedonia by a vision.
2. However, while 1 above is clearly true. It seems that Paul means more than just that the Thessalonians were chosen to hear the message. Consequently, others have argued in addition that God chose the Thessalonians, not only in the sense that he chose them to hear the Gospel, but that he chose them as a group, that is, as the Church, to be his people and to obtain salvation. It is, then, the Church that is chosen rather than individual Christians. This is the view taken by friend Ben Witherington in his commentary on Thessalonians.
3. Others have argued, though, that you can’t really choose a group without also, by implication, choosing those who are in the group. Those who take this position then divide into two:
a) Firstly, there are those who think that God chooses individuals because he knows in advance who will accept the message. The Thessalonian Christians, then, were singled out by God to become Christians because God knew in advance that they would accept the good news as preached by Paul and his co-workers.
b) Secondly, there are those who think that God chooses without pre-condition those whom he will bring to faith and that this choice is based solely on his own decision without any reference to us. The Thessalonian Christian, on this view, were chosen by God before they were even born. God then lead Paul to them and enabled them to come to faith in a way he didn’t with other people.
As I have said, this has caused much division in the Church in the past and it would be wrong of us to let it do so in the present. What discussion of this issue does do, however, is to remind us that salvation is God’s idea and whatever role we have to play in our becoming a Christian, the fact that God is willing to accept and save us is a much bigger deal than you and I deciding to become a Christian.