This is a passage in which we can clearly see the basic Pauline cast of mind. How does the apostle Paul think about the relationship of gospel truth and gospel living? How do the two fit together?
“But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: Whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle. Now our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God, even our Father, which hath loved us, and hath given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts, and stablish you in every good word and work” (2 Thess. 2:13–17).
Summary of the Text
Paul acknowledges that he has an obligation to be grateful for the Thessalonians (v. 13). They were brothers who were beloved of the Lord, and his gratitude includes the fact that God had chosen them for salvation, using the two instruments of sanctification by the Spirit, and their belief in the truth (v. 13). God called them to that salvation by means of the gospel (v. 14), so that they might come to obtain the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ (v. 14). We enter into that glory through the cross—if we die with Him, we will also live with Him. That being the case, they were instructed to stand fast (v. 15). Hold on to the traditions you have received, the apostle says, whether verbally or through an epistle (v. 15). He then wraps up this exhortation with a benediction. May the Lord Jesus and God the Father—who has loved us, and given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace (v. 16)—comfort your hearts and establish you in every good word and work (v. 17).
This section of Thessalonians is one of two places in the Bible where tradition is mentioned positively (see also 1 Cor. 11:2). Everywhere else it is negative. Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for setting aside the commands of God for the sake of human traditions (Mark 7:8-9, 13). Paul warns the Colossians to beware of philosophy, vain deceit, traditions of men, and the rudiments of the world (Col. 2:8). Paul states that in the time of his unbelief, he had been “exceedingly zealous” of the traditions of his fathers (Gal. 1:14), which was not a good thing. The apostle Peter reminds his readers that they had been rescued from their vain way of life received by tradition from their fathers (1 Pet. 1:18). Protestant Christians are therefore justified in giving a wary stink eye to any exorbitant claim made on behalf of tradition.
But there are several places where tradition is lauded, and one of them is here in 2 Thessalonians. Fortunately, we are given two important clues about the content of this apostolic tradition. First, in our text, Paul says that “the traditions” were what they had been taught, whether by spoken or by written word. In other words, we should expect the oral traditions, which we do not have, to be very much like the written traditions, which we do have. We see the same in 1 Corinthians. And second, in the next chapter, Paul gives us a sample, using the word tradition. “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us” (2 Thess. 3:6). So what was that tradition? Work hard. Show up on time. Don’t call in sick when you aren’t. Don’t be a malingerer. In short, the apostolic tradition is not esoteric at all. Change you oil every three thousand miles. Rotate your tires.
The Pauline Cast of Mind
Earlier I mentioned the Pauline cast of mind. Here it is.
When Christians live as Christians should live, this is an occasion for gratitude to be rendered to God. When we live right, we should thank Him. The initiative in salvation lies with God. God is the one who chose you for salvation. And why? Because He wanted to. He chose the slave to sin that He was going to liberate, and His method of liberation was to give the holiness of the Spirit and the faith that enabled us to believe the truth. When we abandon all attempts to hang onto our own glory, surrendering all of it in a God-glorifying gospel, what is the result? He calls us by that gospel, and He calls us up into the obtaining of the glory of the Lord Jesus. When we surrender the glory of man, He invites us up into the glory of God. These things being the case, we should contemplate them, and respond in an appropriate way. What is that?
First, stand fast in the truth of what we are saying. Second, hold to the apostolic tradition, which is that you should get a job. Here is the gospel, so stand up straight in it. When you stand up straight in the gospel, the Father and the Son, who called you to that gospel in the first place, will preserve you there. God will do this because He loves you. He has given you an everlasting consolation. He has given you good hope through grace. He will comfort your hearts. And then what will He do regarding the rest of your life? He will establish you in every good word and work.
God tells human masters not to govern through threatening. In the gospel, God’s Spirit governs us without threatening, without condemnation.
What This Established Work Actually Is
There is consolation here, indeed. There is hope and there is comfort. The grace of God is abundantly present. But we must take care not to import our own “traditions” into this picture. God’s comfort is not a Big-Rock-Candy-Mountain kind of comfort.
Notice that God does not promise to float you like a feather on a zephyr up to Heaven. It is not that kind of a good time.
He establishes us in every good word and work, and work is what? It is work. The fact that there is the promised glory of a golden harvest does not erase the fact that there are months of work out in another kind of golden reality, the heat of the summer sun.
This is the way of Christ. It is the apostolic tradition. Salvation is all of grace, which is why we work so hard. Salvation is all of Christ, for all of life, which is why it sanctifies all of our work.