1 Thessalonians: 4:7

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There’s another subtlety here I want to look at more closely.

(1 Thess. 4:7 ESV) 7 For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.

Paul says that his readers have been “called.” Now, when I was growing up in a north Alabama Church of Christ, “called” was considered the language of Calvinism — and it was taken to mean “irresistibly called.” Therefore, when we ran across this language in a text, we tended to either ignore it or explain it away. That is, we’d demonstrate the error of Calvinist without bothering to explain what it does mean.

I remember reading to our college class nearly 40 years ago a passage where Paul spoke of Christians being “predestined.” I explained that I believe in predestination, because Paul believes in predestination — but I don’t believe the Calvinists have it right. But our preaching and teaching should be perfectly comfortable speaking of predestination, foreknowledge, and being called — because Paul and the other NT writers are. 

It wouldn’t be for decades that I’d learn the key to the mystery: the Gentiles have been included in the Kingdom and Israel’s covenant promises. They are “called,” “predestined,” “foreknown,” and “elect” in the very same sense that Israel is called, predestined, foreknown, and elect. And while these terms may come into sharper focus thanks to God’s revelation of himself through Jesus and the NT, our understanding should be in clear continuity with the OT.

Call must not be understood in the sense of “shouting to,” but in that of “inviting,” that is, “inviting us to be Christians” (cf. 1:4)

Paul Ellingworth and Eugene Albert Nida, A Handbook on Paul’s Letters to the Thessalonians, UBS Handbook Series, (New York: United Bible Societies, 1976), 84.

True enough but really misses the point. The authors don’t connect “call” with the OT narrative of Abram’s and Israel’s calling.

The “call” seems to be a look back to their initial commitment to follow Christ. Both the nature of that call and the purpose to which God called them (cf. 2:12; 5:24) require not impurity but sanctification.

D. Michael Martin, 1, 2 Thessalonians, The New American Commentary, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 33:131.

Again, quite true. In fact, the grammar clearly implies that the call demands a change in ethics — how we live. We aren’t saved to be just as we were, untransformed.

Let’s put it this way: whatever it means for Abraham and Israel of the OT to be called, because the Gentiles have been grafted into the Jewish root (Rom 11), the Gentiles now enjoy the very same blessing — as people of faith.

Now, there is calling in the sense of who is invited, and there is calling in the sense of those who accept the invitation and meet its terms. Abram was called by God (Gen 12:1, Isa 51:2) —

(Isa. 51:2 ESV)  2 Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him.

Now, we ever-so-desperately want to study this in terms of free will vs. Calvinistic election. This is certainly not what Isaiah is talking about. Isaiah’s point is that God’s love for Israel is demonstrated by his call of Abraham — which led to God unilaterally blessing Abraham. Isaiah’s point (compare Eze 33:24) is that you should know God’s love from his actions, starting with his calling and electing of Abraham as a matter of chesed or grace.

It’s not that Abraham had no choice but to accept God’s election. The vast majority of his descendants ultimately chose to reject God’s election and calling! But to be saved at all, to have faith counted as righteousness, you must be among the elect and the called — which is true of all with faith in Jesus — even the nations, even the Gentiles.

In fact, a major theme of Romans, culminating in c. 11, is that those who are part of Israel may choose to deny faith in Jesus and so be damned. Indeed, only a “remnant” of the Jews ultimately chose to believe in Jesus.

So who are the called? Well, those in the Kingdom as it now exists — whether Jew or Gentile — as marked by faith in Jesus. You see, “the called” is another way of saying “Israel” or “God’s children” or “believers” or “the Kingdom.”

Paul celebrates in Rom, esp the second half of Rom 8, God’s decision to include the Gentiles among the “called” and the “elect,” a category that once referred solely to Jews.

(Rom. 8:29-30 ESV)  29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.  30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. 

Get some mental floss and try to clean the Calvinism and Arminianism from your brain and read this passage as a First Century Jewish believer in Jesus would have read it —

(Rom. 8:29-30 ESV)  29 For those whom he foreknew [Jewish and Gentiles believers in Jesus, whom the Prophets said would enter the Kingdom] he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son [as promised by the Prophets], in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers [because so many Gentiles would have faith in Jesus].  30 And those whom he predestined [those who would be saved by faith in Jesus as promised by the Prophets] he also called [through the missionary work of men like Paul], and those whom he called he also justified [through faith in Jesus], and those whom he justified he also glorified [by resurrecting with new bodies, as anticipated by our baptisms]. 

Read this way, the text is thoroughly Jewish and not neo-Platonic — unlike Augustine and Calvin. And the point is that the blessings once given only the Jews — such as the calling, election, and even predestination — are now open to the Gentiles. But, of course, Paul isn’t promising that we Gentiles will be any more immune to falling away by idolatry than the ancient Israelites were. They were called and elect, and when God ran out of patience, destroyed as a people by the Assyrians and then the Babylonians. God’s calling and election only assure them that a remnant will be justified but it does not promise individual salvation regardless of behavior.

But these are nonetheless vital blessings, because the alternative is hopelessness and futility. The only way to eternity with God is through faith in Jesus as Messiah — and many have not been called — not yet. In the First Century, for the call of Abraham to be extended to include the Gentiles to whom Paul and others preached was a blessing beyond comprehension. Until then, it was almost just Jews who were called and so could be justified.

We try to soften and Post-modernize this lesson by pretending that those not called might be saved — and yet nowhere in the Bible does “not called” mean “saved” or “justified.” It doesn’t necessarily mean damned, but it sure doesn’t mean saved. And if we get this wrong, then Paul’s language makes no sense. The extension of the call to the Gentiles is a great blessing because it means that the entire world might one day be saved. On the other hand,

(Rom. 10:9-17 ESV)  9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.  11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.”  12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him.  

13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?  15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”  16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?”  17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. 

In fact, underlying much of Paul’s writing in 1 Thess is the danger of falling away as a result of rejecting God’s commands — especially his commands regarding fornication. This sounds a lot like the Prophets’ warnings to Judea before Babylon took them into captivity.

(Jer. 5:7-9 ESV) 7 “How can I pardon you? Your children have forsaken me and have sworn by those who are no gods. When I fed them to the full, they committed adultery and trooped to the houses of whores.  8 They were well-fed, lusty stallions, each neighing for his neighbor’s wife.  9 Shall I not punish them for these things? declares the LORD; and shall I not avenge myself on a nation such as this?”

(Jer. 13:25-27 ESV)  25 “This is your lot, the portion I have measured out to you, declares the LORD, because you have forgotten me and trusted in lies.  26 I myself will lift up your skirts over your face, and your shame will be seen.  27 I have seen your abominations, your adulteries and neighings, your lewd whorings, on the hills in the field. Woe to you, O Jerusalem! How long will it be before you are made clean?”

Why is Paul so focused on sexual sin? Because he knows that God will soon destroy the Temple and Jerusalem, even though the Jews are his elect people — and if his church is found guilty of fornication, it too may just be destroyed. He’d read the Prophets!

Amos 3:1–2 constitutes a powerful commentary on the responsibility entailed in being YHWH’s elect: “You only have I known among all the families of the earth; therefore I will visit upon you all your iniquities.” This passage does not contain the key word bḥr, yet it does speak of a unique relationship established at YHWH’s initiative. Being “known” (ydʿ) by YHWH is indeed tantamount to having been chosen (see Gen 18:19, and for an individual, Jer 1:5). Amos here appears to be refuting a natural, but spurious, extrapolation from the concept of election: YHWH will side with his people in their conflicts with enemies and show indulgence toward their iniquities. To the contrary, YHWH says through Amos, since I have chosen you and revealed my law by which my people can preserve a righteous and just community, I will especially hold you responsible for your corruption.

Dale Patrick, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 1992, 2, 438 (emphasis added).

In short, being called does not promise perseverance. Indeed, as Paul explains in Rom 5, God’s choice of a people makes that people more accountable because God reveals his will to those he calls and elects. God responds to this greater accountability by providing greater grace (Rom 5:20) — but grace has its limits. We can still rebel and so fall away (Heb 10:26 ff), and because we know God’s will better, we have more ways to rebel.

And so the Gentiles who’d never heard of Jesus were without hope. When they were called, this changed. Those who came to faith in Jesus received not only hope but abounding grace. But they also received a far greater knowledge of God’s will. They became held to a higher standard, with ample grace to cover their sins, so long as they didn’t engage in rebellion against God’s will. And sexual immorality was the area in ancient Greece where the will of God and the local culture were at the greatest odds.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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11 Responses to 1 Thessalonians: 4:7

  1. dwight says:

    I think we get hung up on “called” when the focus is on “not called us for impurity, but in holiness.”
    Even though we are called, we called upon to be pure and holy. While we may never achieve 100% of these qualities, we are still supposed to aim for them. And set apart meant apart from sin and the world, not from each other in Christ.

  2. Alabama John says:

    Belief in Jesus was not started with His coming to this earth and being born of Mary.
    Jesus is God and was around long before this earth was created and appeared to many people way before Abraham and the beginning of Israel and the Jewish nation.
    Our God we call Jesus has been called by many names on this earth and no telling how many others in other places in the universes.
    To think all those that lived throughout time were lost before Jesus was born of Mary is wrong.
    He’s been around a long time, no one knows how long, in many forms, and been having humans worshiping Him in various ways since this world was created.
    Those called was not limited to Abraham’s decedents only. and all those others like Gentiles that lived on this earth lost and burning in hell.
    There have been many called, throughout time but not all answered as their heart was not right. The emphases is on how many have been called, not the limiting the calling to those few mentioned in the bible.
    God didn’t create any humans, what ever we call them, purposely willing them to be lost and burn from birth without a chance of salvation but every human has had an opportunity at heaven if their heart was right.

  3. Larry Cheek says:

    Alabama John,
    The concept that you are presenting is true, but things have changed since Christ and no longer will anyone be able to come to God except through Christ. The way has been narrowed.

  4. Alabama John says:

    Larry, there are many different way to come through Christ. The CoC way as we have been taught is not the only way.

  5. Larry Cheek says:

    Alabama John,
    You have presumed that I am locked into the CoC way. I do not uphold the CoC way as is it is the only way to Christ, in fact I cannot remember any CoC teachings that expressed that the CoC of was the author or owner of the pathway to Christ. They simply did not believe that what the early church obeyed to become a disciple of Christ was wrong. Do believe that what the early church obeyed was wrong? How do you see the actions of the early church being modified today into a different obedience?
    you mention that you believe, “there are many different way to come through Christ”. I believe that I can provide ample communication from Christ and his Apostles, identifying how to obey the instructions Christ gave us. Are you sure you can show multiple different avenues to come through Christ.
    What it appears to me that you are actually saying is that there are different plans or concepts used by different people to come into Christ. Christ stated that he is the only door to reach the Father and anyone who attempts to come any other way is a thief.
    Christ is the “through path, there is no other”.

  6. Dwight says:

    One scripture by Jesus’ own words should be sufficient, John 14:6 “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”
    No church or group has a path that leads to Christ path. His is the only path.
    In some ways the path has been narrowed and in other ways opened up.
    While Jesus is the way to God, the calling was expanded to all nations and the Law was done away with, allowing grace to rule.
    ‘the straight and narrow” is not defined by a group, but by God. It is interesting, but the application of the narrow gate in the city walls was meant to keep groups out by allowing individuals to pass through one at a time.

  7. Alabama John says:

    Larry,
    I totally agree all must come through Christ. I just see doing so is done many ways and by many different peoples throughout time.
    Its the COC preaching and teaching so many of us grew up hearing and believing that only we, and in many cases only at our location, doing just as we are doing, will obtain heaven is considered wrong by me today.
    The narrow way, and only a few will go in was the theme.
    Many since Adam all went through Christ before and after Christ was born of Mary. They just did it in many different ways of worship and obedience based on what they believed to be right in their hearts.
    Remember God WILL negotiate, Abraham is a great example of negotiating with God and God was very gracious toward mercy and grace by lowering and lowering the number.

  8. Dwight says:

    AJ, I think I understand your thinking, but in a way it is backwards thinking and many think like this.
    I’m sure Larry, from previous post by him, understands that when one comes to Jesus, they are baptized, not into or by the church, but into Christ by God. The way to Christ before, during and after baptism is a personal one, that has little to do with who you are associated with. But it is still the same from person to person, we are converted, we by faith through repentance are baptized, we through the Holy Spirit are on a journey living in Christ, growing in Jesus in a state of grace, we will sin, we can ask for forgiveness, we should repent, we should worship God by ourselves and with others, then one day we will die and stand before God. There is no one I know that will bypass these things. Each of us has our own journey, but our journey isn’t mapped by the church or any congregation, but by us. While we live we can “negotiate” if you will or pray/ask forgiveness/repent, but after we are dead this is all over, we have either lived our life to God or not.

  9. Alabama John says:

    Dwight,
    Well spoken. I agree!!!
    Around here the big majority, all but three churches that I know of, of the COC still teach that if you are not doing, and obeying, exactly like they are you are lost just as all those in the denominations are. Same with all those on earth that were not under Abraham are lost and in hell with the devil and his angels before Christ was born of Mary and gave His law through His words or Apostles for us to follow or burn.
    Hell fire and damnation, all but a few of us are lost, is still the COC teachings every few miles in every direction.
    What some of you, including me, post on here would cause you to be withdrawn from.
    That’s why this COC site is so important to use for teaching different thinking most of you are not familiar with and would be amazed at.

  10. JohnF says:

    I traveled some 2000 miles to officiate the wedding of a very good friend. The bride’s mother asked, “Just what kind of minister are you?” I replied in a non confrontational manner (weddings are not the place for theological discussions). The mother explained in NO UNCERTAIN terms that her family was Lutheran, had been Lutheran for more than 300 years, and would die Lutheran. I complimented Luther’s stand for “sola scriptura” and a couple of other comments. The bride explained than “Mom” was “old line Lutheran” and that in Mom’s view everyone else was headed to hell. The cofC (some “branches”) has had much company in exclusivity.

  11. Dwight says:

    John F, many still do, even though they do this as an undercurrent teaching that rises to the top. It goes something like this, “We don’t say we are the only ones going to heaven, but unless they become like us, they are.” It is like taking the sharp point off of the nail and yet still driving the nail.

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