Although sin separates us from a holy and sinless God, we can be grateful that our sins can be forgiven and forgotten (Ps. 32:5; 130:3-4; Heb. 10:17). Before answering the question, we should realise that there are two main types of confession and forgiveness in Scripture. One is when an unbeliever comes into faith in Christ and the other is when they confess sins committed subsequently as a believer.
In the first case, we face Jesus Christ as the judge and the penalty of our sins is spiritual death, which leads to hell. When this person confesses their sins they are forgiven by God because Christ’s death paid the penalty for their sins – past, present and future. Their destiny changes from hell to heaven and they can enjoy daily fellowship with God. This can be called judicial, unconditional or positional forgiveness, which happens once in a believer’s life (Rom. 8:1-2; Heb. 10:14).
In the second case, the person has sinned, but is spiritually alive. This is the situation in the case of the question. As part of God’s family on earth, they are separated from God the Father in terms of daily fellowship, but they are not separated from going to heaven as the penalty for their sin has already been paid. When this person confesses their sins they are forgiven by God because Christ’s death paid the penalty for all their sins and their daily fellowship with God our Father is restored. This can be called parental, conditional or practical forgiveness, which should occur regularly in a believer’s life (1 Jn. 1:5-2:2). This is the kind of forgiveness that the Lord’s disciples were to practise: “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt. 6:12, 14-15NIV). It includes forgiving others: God cannot forgive us when we are unwilling to forgive one another (Mk. 11:25; Lk. 6:37). If we fail to forgive one another, we will miss being rewarded when we get to heaven (Mt. 18:35).
The two types of forgiveness were illustrated when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet (Jn. 13:2-10). As they wore open sandals, the disciples needed to wash their feet regularly after walking on dusty roads even though they may have bathed recently. The bath was like judicial forgiveness and the feet washing was like parental forgiveness.
William MacDonald summarized the differences between the two types of forgiveness as follows:
|Judicial forgiveness||Parental forgiveness|
|Person’s status||Sinner (unbeliever)
|Child of God (believer) (1 Jn. 3:2)|
|RelationshipTo God||Judge (Ps. 96:13)||Father (Gal. 4:6)|
|Result of sin||Eternal death (Rom. 6:23)||Broken fellowship (1 Jn. 1:6)
Prayers hindered (Ps. 66:18)
|Role of Christ||Savior (1 Tim. 1:15)||High Priest (Heb. 4:4-16)
Advocate (1 Jn. 2:1)
|Means of forgiveness||Faith (Acts 16:31)||Confession (1 Jn. 1:9)|
|Consequence averted||Hell (Jn. 5:24)||Discipline (1 Cor. 11:31-32)
Loss of reward (1 Cor. 3:15)
|Outcome||New relationship (Jn. 1:12)||Renewed fellowship (Ps. 32:5)|
|Frequency||Once (Jn. 13:10)||Many times (Jn. 13:8)|
Therefore, although a Christian’s unconfessed sins affects their relationship with God, they are still a child of God whose ultimate destiny is heaven.
Written, February 2012
In this Series on 1 Thessalonians we have seen that Paul visited and preached in Thessalonica and a church was established. Because he couldn’t visit them for some time, he wrote a letter of encouragement. From 4:1 to 5:11 Paul reminded them how to please God – avoid sexual immorality and excel in holiness and brotherly love. Instead of grieving for those who had died, they were to look forward to being reunited with them and to be awake and sober as they looked forward to the Lord’s return. Paul ended his letter with practical guidelines on Christian living. He addressed godly attitudes and behavior in relationships with the elders, other believers and God.
Living With Church Leaders
“Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.” 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 NIV
These verses address leadership in the local church. The Bible teaches that each church is to be led by a group of qualified elders who share this responsibility. Several characteristics of elders are mentioned here. They are to “work hard” at caring for people. They are to be “over” the congregation, meaning that they are to maintain or rule. In other letters Paul said that they “direct the affairs of the church” and “lead” (1 Tim. 5:17; Rom. 12:8). Both Paul and Peter likened their care to spiritual parents caring for a family (1 Tim. 3:4,5,12; 1 Pet. 5:2-3). Elders are also to “admonish” or gently reprove the congregation. Paul used the same word when he told them to warn anyone who didn’t obey his instructions (2 Th. 3:15). Elders are to remind the church of God’s truths and the dangers of living a self-centered life.
In this passage, the congregation was given two responsibilities with respect to the elders. It was to “respect” them. This Greek word is translated as “acknowledge” (TNIV), “know” (KJV), “recognize” (NKJV), “appreciate” (NASB) and “honor” (NLT). The congregation needs to know the elders if they are going to trust and follow them. They are also to “hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.” This means to value them because of their important work, not because of their personality, spiritual gifts, wealth or anything else.
In this context Paul encouraged Thessalonians to “live in peace with each other.” Harmony should be characteristic of all Christian relationships, as peace is a fruit of the Spirit and we follow the God of peace (1 Th. 5:23; Gal. 5:22). There is a need to value all the elders, as favoring one divides the congregation. Also, elders should serve the whole congregation, not just part of it. Paul wrote elsewhere that we should “make every effort to do what leads to peace” and “as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 14:19; 12:18).
Living With Believers
“And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.” 1 Thessalonians 5:14-15
Here Paul shows us how we are to live with three types of people. We are to “warn those who are idle.” Apparently, some Thessalonians had stopped working in order to prepare for the second coming of the Lord (2 Th. 3:10-11). They lived off others, were disorderly and became busybodies disrupting the local church. Paul’s solution was that they get back to work to support themselves and their families. He warned that “anyone who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” Paul said don’t help them by feeding them; instead let them experience the consequences of their behavior (2 Th. 3:10-13). This admonition is followed by two examples of caring.
“Encourage the disheartened.” Those who are disappointed with life are to be encouraged by individuals coming alongside and empathizing with them. Circumstances can cause people to think they don’t belong and have nothing to contribute. But we all have God-given gifts. We need to help such people find their place in the church and encourage them in their work.
“Help the weak” refers to those who may not be sure of their salvation because of their past, or who may doubt God’s power. Paul also taught that we shouldn’t stumble those who are weak in the faith (Rom. 14:1-15; 1 Cor. 8:13). They need our encouragement, friendship and help.
Paul then mentioned three attitudes required when warning, encouraging and helping others: First, “Be patient with everyone.” This means trying again and again even though there may be no response from those you are warning, encouraging and helping. Second, “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong.” Christians are called to forgive, not retaliate (Mt. 18:21-22; Rom. 12:17). When someone hurts us, we should not get angry and retaliate, but rather seek reconciliation (Mt. 18:15-17). Be patient and continue to show Christian kindness and love. Third, “Always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.” The goal of warning, encouraging and helping others should be to achieve what is best for them in the Lord.
Living Before God In All Circumstances
“Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
It is God’s will that believers be characterized by joy, prayer and thanksgiving. Paul began with “Be joyful always” to encourage us not to let things get us down. In Philippians 4:4 he added that our rejoicing should be “in the Lord.” This joy is to be shown in all circumstances including suffering and persecution (Jas. 1:2-4; 1 Pet. 4:13). The Thessalonians were persecuted (1 Th. 1:6; 2:14; 3:3-4). Paul sang while in prison (Acts 16:22-25). How can this be? Their joy was an internal attitude that was not overtaken by external circumstances; it is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), with Christ as its source and subject. He controls our circumstances and through Him we have victory. We develop joy by focusing on God’s promises and spending time with joyful believers. Joy is contagious.
Then Paul urged them to “pray continually” – at regular times and as needed. When trials come we need to pray our way through them. For example, when Peter was in prison, the believers prayed and he was released (Acts 12:1-19). We should “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests … and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people” (Eph. 6:18).
Paul also told believers to “give thanks in all circumstances.” Believers should be “overflowing with thankfulness” (Col. 2:7) even in the trials and difficulties which mature us. We don’t have to give thanks for everything that happens to us; it says “in” our circumstances, not “for” them. But we shouldn’t complain or grumble. Thanking God is not a feeling, it’s a choice. Daniel prayed three times a day, “giving thanks to his God” even though his life was in danger (Dan. 6:10-12). We can develop an attitude of praising God in all circumstances.
Living Before God As He Guides
“Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22
“Do not put out the Spirit’s fire” is a metaphor for hindering or extinguishing the operation of the Holy Spirit in an individual or the church. This may be caused by sin, disunity or suppression of the Spirit’s gifts. Instead, we are to keep the Spirit’s fire burning by following Paul’s instructions to be joyful, prayerful and thankful, and by following the Spirit when He prompts us to do what is right or stop doing what is wrong.
“Do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything.” The early Church did not have a completed Bible so the gift of prophecy was God’s way of getting His message to His people. Now that the canon of Scripture is set, this takes place as His Word is taught and preached. Instead of despising prophecies, the Thessalonians were to evaluate them. Paul also said that those listening to prophets should discern or “weigh carefully” what they say (1 Cor. 14:29). They were to test them against the apostles’ teachings. Then they could accept what was good and reject what was bad. In Acts, Luke told the Jews in Thessalonica to learn from the Bereans who “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).
“May God Himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The One who calls you is faithful and He will do it.” 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24
The Thessalonians couldn’t live like this in their own strength, so Paul prayed for them as only God could make their efforts successful. There are different aspects to sanctification (holiness), and here he addressed progressive sanctification. Paul prayed that their sanctification would extend to their whole being – spirit, soul and body. The spirit is our link to God, the soul is our mind, emotions and will, and the body is the physical part housing the spirit and soul.
It is God who makes us holy, and Paul was confident that He would complete what He began (Phil. 1:6). He is faithful to keep His promises. The end of this progression is the coming of our Lord, at the judgment seat of Christ, when each Christian’s life will be reviewed as he/she stands before Him.
“Brothers, pray for us. Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss. I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:25-28
After he prayed for them, Paul asked the Thessalonians to pray for him. The kiss was a normal greeting of that day, similar to a handshake in western countries. It expressed friendship with fellow believers. Paul wanted “to have this letter read to all” brothers and sisters, a statement not found in any of his other letters (5:27); he thought it was that important. We should read it with this in mind.
Three keys to living together as Christians alluded to here are prayer, fellowship and Bible reading. Paul ended this letter with a benediction of grace for the Thessalonians – God’s unmerited favor through the saving work of Christ.
Lessons For Us
Let’s develop godly attitudes and behaviors in our relationships with church elders, with other believers and with God. Get to know the elders of your church, and value them because of their work. Obey them and encourage them in their work. The same principle applies to ministry leaders within the church. Believers should serve one another through encouragement, practical help, patience, peaceable living, and by treating everyone as equals in Christ. Our attitude toward God should be one of joy, prayer and thanksgiving in all circumstances. We should not stifle the work of the Holy Spirit in an individual or in the church. The standard by which we should test all preaching and teaching is the Word.
May we use the resources God has provided to live for Him until the Rapture when Christ returns to take us to be with Him forever.
Published, June 2009
See the next article in this series: Encouragement during trials and suffering (2 Thessalonians 1)
From The New Zealand Landscape
We enjoyed a family holiday in New Zealand last year. Most of our time was spent as tourists travelling around the countryside and admiring the scenery. While I took photographs and did some hiking, my wife made teddy bears and visited craft shops, and our teenage children socialized and did some in-line rollerskating whenever possible. We also renewed friendships with our relatives and other Christians.
In many areas of New Zealand white wooden crosses along the roadside mark the site of fatal accidents. These are memorials to those who have died, but they can also remind drivers of the dangers they face. For example, upon seeing a cross, drivers may check their speed and drive more carefully. Of course, vehicular accidents happen despite road safety campaigns and warning signs. Similarly, couples and families have accidents in life despite warnings in the Scriptures.
The landscape of New Zealand is characterized by mountains, lakes and sheep. These three features remind me of three things that healthy marriages and families need: enduring partnerships, power for each day, and Christian fellowship. We can also view these three needs as commitments – to our spouse, to God and to a local church.
New Zealand’s Southern Alps feature snow-capped peaks and glaciers. At Mount Cook National Park climbers prepared to scale the alpine peaks. Some advertised for climbing partners as the terrain was too dangerous to explore alone. Those climbing alpine mountains require reliable team mates and proper equipment. Connected by ropes for hours each day, this is not a place for weak commitment. In such situations, if you stopped and did your own thing you would be endangering yourself and others. In this way, climbing reminds me of marriage.
Paul referred to Titus as his “partner and fellow worker” (2 Cor. 8:23), which is an ideal description of the relationship between husband and wife. At times those who are married will need to depend on the endurance, strength and patience of the other partner. But if both are committed to Christ, then He is part of the team and promises to help through difficult circumstances (Mt. 11:28-30).
God invented marriage (Gen. 2:24-25), and Jesus endorsed the importance of marriage between one man and one woman when He said that no one should separate a couple that God has joined together (Mt. 19:4-8). Christians are commanded to always be faithful to their marriage partners (Heb. 13:4). This means that marriage is a lifelong commitment, which is consistent with God’s command that the love between a husband and wife be like that between Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:22-23). Therefore it is wise to count the cost beforehand rather than to leap into such a commitment too quickly. Do not be deceived. The idea of a marriage only lasting as long as it “works” or until one finds a more attractive partner comes from Satan not from the Scriptures. Similarly, the idea of living together as a couple outside of marriage shows a lack of commitment to each other and lack of obedience to the Scriptures.
Two other great dangers that can destroy a marriage are sexual immorality and selfish ambition (Gal. 5:19-20). It is good to have ambitions as long as these are shared and agreed upon. But when little regard is held for the views and/or the welfare of the spouse, then the marriage is in danger of breakdown. Likewise sexual immorality or unfaithfulness always hurts the marriage relationship. One reason for this is that unfaithfulness to one’s spouse indicates unfaithfulness to God. Building a lasting, faithful partnership with your spouse improves your relationship with God as well as with each other.
Power For Each Day
New Zealand has many lakes that have formed as a result of volcanic and glacial activity. Much of the water in these lakes is harnessed to generate hydro-electric power. Because electricity cannot be stored, the power generated must, on a moment-by-moment basis, exactly match the power demanded.
Similarly, God’s power and strength for the believer cannot be stored; it needs to be available for use on a day-by-day basis. This power comes from the Holy Spirit as we participate in the divine nature (Acts 1:8; Eph. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:3-4). It relies on God-given faith, the truth of the Scriptures and prayer (Eph. 6:10-18).
In a Christian marriage the order of priority should be God first, spouse second and children third. Do not neglect your relationship with God as you need His divine power in your marriage and your family. Those who pray together are more likely to stay together. When both partners are committed to God, they have a solid foundation for their marriage. It also shows children what is really important in life.
According to the Old Testament, parents should remind their children daily about God’s promises and how He is working in their lives (Dt. 6:6-7). This can help children realize that God cares for them.
Our top priority should be to build a strong, lasting relationship with the Lord. Communicate with Him daily. Read and apply the Bible to your life. Ask God for guidance by praying about the needs in your marriage and family. Share the vision God has given you and help others in your family to develop their gifts. If God has put you together, then you should complement each other. He wants you to work together as a team in your mission for Him. Know what you are to do day by day and God will provide the power for you to do it.
New Zealand has lots of sheep. They are kept in flocks and follow one another as they move around the countryside. One day we spent about five minutes attempting to drive through a flock of sheep that was travelling on a road. This reminded me that God sees us as His sheep (Jn. 10:11; Heb. 13:20). He puts us in local churches (or flocks) because we need ongoing relationships with other believers. Just as children are to grow up within families, believers are to grow up within local churches.
The local church is where we are to “encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Th. 5:11). We are to talk regularly with local believers and not be isolated from them (Mal. 3:16). God said, “It is not good that man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18). Likewise, neither couples nor families are meant to be isolated. Instead we should “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24-25). Unfortunately, some give up the habit of meeting collectively with other believers, which leads to a lack of mutual encouragement, and increases the likelihood of being deceived by sin and hardened against God (Rom. 1:12; Heb. 3:13).
Marriages fail when communication ceases and people who once worked together as partners begin to lead separate lives. Some believers also give up on Christian fellowship and choose to isolate themselves from other Christians. For various reasons they may drop out of the local church, not realizing the importance of ongoing fellowship for their spiritual health. Did you know that statistics show that married people are physically more healthy than unmarried people of similar circumstances? This research not only promotes marriage, but it also indicates the benefits of companionship and fellowship.
Some couples and families stop attending a local church when they move to another city. Since one of the purposes of marriage is to raise children to become believers (Mal. 2:15), if the family does not attend a local church, the children will miss out on Christian fellowship. It is clear from Scripture that parents should endeavor to pass on the Christian faith to the next generation. For example Timothy’s mother and grandmother were believers (2 Tim. 1:5) who passed on their “sincere faith” to him in such a way that it was evident to Paul. To hear that their children are “walking in the truth” should give parents great joy (2 Tim 2:2; 3 Jn. 4).
Communication of the Christian faith should begin in the home and be supported by the local church. Is your home used for Christian fellowship such as Bible study and prayer? When Peter was in prison “many people had gathered and were praying” in Mary’s house (Acts 12:12). This kind of home fellowship is a great witness to your children and to the community.
Couples and families should build lasting relationships in a local church. This means sharing your lives with your Christian brothers and sisters (Mt. 12:49-50; Jas. 2:15) and praying collectively about your situations and needs. Stay where you can experience spiritual growth; where there are those you can learn from and follow and those you can help and encourage. How can you expect to have a lasting relationship with God if you cannot have a lasting relationship with other Christians (1 Jn. 4:20-21)?
Healthy Marriages And Families
Hopefully, New Zealand’s mountains, lakes and sheep have reminded us of the foundations of strong marriages and families. The health of your marriage and family depends on the strength of your commitments to God, your spouse and believers in the local church. These are important in a day when it seems difficult for many to make and keep commitments.
Keeping your marriage together affects your spouse, children, co-workers, friends, neighbors, fellow Christians – your whole life!
We began this article by mentioning the white wooden crosses that mark the sites of auto accidents in New Zealand. You may drive carefully to survive, but do you live to survive? Don’t back out of your commitments. God doesn’t want you and yours to become another marriage/family accident statistic along life’s highway.