Election in 1 Thessalonians

In the opening verses of 1 Thessalonians, Paul declares his knowledge of God’s divine choosing of the Christians in Thessalonica, “For we know, brothers and sisters beloved of God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (4-5). Paul’s statement of God’s election of the Thessalonian Christians is clear. He does not say that he merely thinks or suspects that God has chosen the Thessalonians. No, Paul and co-authors declare their knowledge of God’s choosing of the Thessalonians. They point to the power of God displayed in the preaching of the gospel which resulted in conviction of sin.

This bold statement of God’s electing purposes is particularly interesting in light of what Paul says in chapter 3. Having heard that his Thessalonian converts were experiencing some sort of tribulation or persecution, Paul says that, “For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith; I was afraid that somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labor had been in vain” (5). Paul here expresses his fear that the Thessalonians had succumbed to temptation and forsaken the faith which would have made his evangelistic work among them empty. If they did not stay the course, his would would have been in vain. Paul conveys a deep sense of worry and concern over the state of Thessalonians’ faith.

This is so striking because it doesn’t seem to fit with what Paul says about the Thessalonians in 1:5. If Paul is so confident that God has chosen the Thessalonians, why is he so fearful that they may forsake the faith? These texts demonstrate that we cannot simply conclude that God’s electing of the Thessalonians ensures their final perseverance. Whatever Paul means when he speaks of God’s choosing (ekloge), he cannot possibly think of it as unconditional. If Paul really thought that the Thessalonians had been chosen unconditionally, then he would have no reason to be concerned about their faithlessness. Rather, we must conclude that Paul understood God’s choosing of the Thessalonians to be conditional upon their continued perseverance in faith. In Paul’s mind, one can be chosen by God and still potentially fall away.

6 thoughts on “Election in 1 Thessalonians

  1. Zac,

    Thanks for stopping by. It was good to visit with you and Allison last week.

    Your suggestion that Paul's fear in 1 Th 3:5 was that the Thessalonians were failing in disciple making and equipping is, of course, a possible interpretation of this passage. However, it is unplausible for at least two reasons.

    First, Paul doesn't mention their lack of positive ministry. Rather, he sends Timothy “for the sake of [their] faith” (3:2). He was fearful that they had been “shaken by these persecutions” (3:3). Paul sent Timothy specifically “to find out about [their] faith” (3:5). Paul is not expressing a concern about their work at ministry. He is expressing concern about their own faith in light of persecution. Thus, the suggestion that the Thessalonians were failing to make and equip disciples is reading into the text something that is not there.

    Second, the word that is translated “vain” is the Greek “kenos” and it has the sense of empty, devoid of value, useless, worthless, or without purpose/result. Paul uses this word at least two other times in reference to his missionary vocation. In 1 Cor 15:14, Paul says that, “if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain (kenos) and your faith has been in vain (kenos).” This could hardly be referring to anything other than lack of eschatological salvation because it is dependent on the condition that there was no resurrection. This is confirmed in 15:17 where Paul says that, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” So, “your faith has been in vain” is parallel to “your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” There is a connection between the uselessness of Paul's labor and the lostness of his converts.

    The word appears again in Phil. 2:16 where Paul says, “It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain (kenos) or labor in vain (kenos).” Again, we see the connection between Paul's missionary work and the eschatological standing of his converts. Here the language is more positive though affirming that when Paul's converts receive eschatological salvation, Paul's labor is demonstrated to have not been in vain. This suggests that when Paul speaks of his labors being in vain, he is thinking that his converts would not receive eschatological salvation.

    In summary, then, you have a rather difficult exegetical task to demonstrate that Paul is worried about something other than the final salvation of the Thessalonians. He does not suggest that he has anything other than their continued faith in mind. Furthermore, when Paul uses the term “kenos” in reference to his missionary vocation, he has in mind the eschatological standing of his converts. I see no reason why this usage should be any different. Thus, the suggestion that they are failing at disciple making is unpersuasive.

    As you note, Paul does find the Thessalonians faithful. And for that we can be thankful. However, he still later confirms the need for their continuing faithfulness to stand firm in the Lord (3:8).

    Grace and peace brother,



  2. Perhaps Paul's fears were not that the elect in Thessalonica would lose their salvation, but that they would turn cold and the gospel would cease to perpetuate through them, in other words they would fail in making and equipping disciples. It strikes me as a big extrapolation that Paul was fearful of God removing salvation from His elect because of their works in the flesh.

    Paul wanting news of Thessalonian Christians is no different than a pastor wanting to hear of God's work in the lives of people whom he had seen saved, and that with some nervous anticipation. Knowing that anxiety is not from the Lord, Paul was likely enduring a lot of spiritual warfare in addition to the knowledge of the persecution he and the Thessalonians would endure. I’m sure it was enough to make any loving shepherd nervous.

    Also, what did Paul find there? Amid their strife and suffering they were faithful. Timothy brought good news. God had sovereignly upheld his precious children. Blessed be the Name.

    Matt, I can let you demonize us no further, love,

    Zac the Evangelical Calvinist


  3. MP,

    Thanks for your comment. I'm not sure I'm following though. I am arguing that because Paul was worried about apostasy among the Thessalonians that he doesn't see election as unconditional. Whatever Paul means by “chosen” in 1:5 must be read in light of his fear that caused him to send someone to see if the Thessalonians had been tempted causing Paul's labor to have been done in vain. He knows they've been chosen. Why is he so worried? It seems that we must conclude that Paul thinks of their ongoing election as being condition on their ongoing faithfulness.


  4. Unconditional election, along with its logical attendant doctrine of unconditional reprobation, is against God's character as revealed in Scripture. It's hard to imagine why one would hope for God to unconditionally elect some and damn others.


  5. Likewise, we cannot argue that because Paul was worried about his labor, that God's election is not unconditional. The knife cuts both ways – depending on your preconceptions and what you hope the text means.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s