(1 Th 1:2–3 ESV) 2 We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul normally begins his letters with a complimentary salutation, expressing his thanks for the congregation he’s writing to. (Galatians is a notable exception, evidently because Paul couldn’t think of anything nice to say to a church that was divided along racial lines.)
Paul speaks of mentioning the church in his prayers to God. We likely should think of this as intercessory prayer, that is, prayer to God for the benefit of someone else. Our children are often very good at this, while we adults tend to focus on our own problems, I think.
In Paul’s two earlier preserved epistles (1 Thes and 1 Cor), Paul speaks of faith, hope, and love. Some see this as a clever bit of rhetoric, but I think it’s an insight into Paul’s theology.
I’ve said several times before that the NT concept of faith (pistis) includes three elements, all found in the definition of pistis. These can be expressed through definitions of pistis found in the Greek lexicons, by the triad: Faith/Hope/Love, or by titles given to Jesus.
- Faith / Belief that Jesus is Messiah / Messiah.
- Hope / Trust / Savior. Christians must trust that God will keep his promises, especially his promise to save those with faith. Abraham’s faith that was counted as righteous was his trust that God would keep his promises.
- Love / Faithfulness / Lord. If we are faithful, then we’ll keep the most central of the commands, the command to love. Gal 5:6.
Now, Paul doesn’t appear to have read the theologies based on his writings, because he speaks of “work of faith” and “labor of love.” “Labor of love” has become an English cliche, but Paul uses the phrase in a different sense, I believe. “Labor” translates kopos, which Paul almost always uses of missionary or related work:
(1 Thess. 2:9 ESV) For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.
(1 Thess. 3:5 ESV) For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain.
(2 Thess. 3:8 ESV) nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you.
In the Greek, the word’s meaning is fatiguing labor. The emphasis is on being worn out by the work — and it’s easy to see how Paul would choose such a work for his own missionary activity, given how much he suffered to preach the gospel.
For our present purposes, it’s enough to note that Paul associates “labor” or “hard work” or even “evangelistic work” with “love.” And then he turns around and speaks of the “work of faith.” Given his reference to “labor of love,” it’s hard to imagine that by “work of faith” he means simply “faith.” He is surely referring to the work that faith produces (Eph 2:8-10).
Although the object of their faith was God (1.8), this faith was given active expression in their work. Paul states categorically that salvation is by faith and not by human works (Eph. 2.8–9), but he also interjects that faith has its fruit in good works (Eph. 2.10). The apostle speaks in one place of “every work of faith” (2 Thess. 1.11), and in another of “faith that works through love” (Gal. 5.6). The Roman and Greek understanding of fides/pistis (faith) can help clarify the close association between faith and works in these verses. In the relationship between patrons and clients, the client was said to be in the fides/pistis of the patron, for their part clients owed fides/pistis or loyalty to their patron, and this was shown in their actions. The type of work that flowed out of the Thessalonians’ faith is not specified.
Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 89.
In short, Paul borrows the language of the Greek patronage system, in which a benefactor or patron did favors for clients — completely undeserved and with no requirement of any reciprocation (called charis or grace). But although the client wasn’t required to reciprocate, good manners insisted that he be a loyal supporter of his patron (called “faithfulness” or pistis, sometimes translated “faith”). To do otherwise would have been unthinkable.
This language must not be distorted as supporting a supposed works salvation. I’ve heard it argued, in defense of the necessity of baptism, that we are saved by works, that even faith itself is a “work,” and therefore those who are not baptized in strict accordance with our standards are damned. (This same logic damns all who commit any sin at all, which is a terrifying thought and plain disproof of the theory. There are other arguments in support of the necessity of baptism, but this is among the most popular — and has left many a Christian with no confidence in his salvation or, worse yet, an arrogant belief that he is doctrinally perfect enough to merit salvation.)
Paul is fully capable of using, and quite often does use, a word in more than one sense, expecting his readers to pay attention to the context. Koine Greek has only about 7,000 words (counting verb forms of a noun and vice versa separately), compared to the 500,000 word vocabulary of English. Of course, the ancient authors had to let their words serve double duty at times.
“Work” in 1 Thes 1:3 is not a reference to the works of the Law that Paul deals with in Gal and Rom.
Indeed, rather than seeking to distort this verse into a means of winning debates over the Baptists, we’d do well to ask what he means for us! And what it means is that God expects Christian faith to result in changed lives and good works — including the “labor of love,” which seems to mean evangelism. Not as a means of salvation. Not as a marker of the saved. But as a sacrifice given to God in gratitude for his immense generosity to us.