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.