One of the most difficult tasks of any Bible teacher, pastor, or missionary is to speak truth to broken people. We all are a work-in-progress, which makes teaching extremely challenging.
On one hand, faithful leaders are overwhelmed with the desire to express great encouragement to fellow Christians under their care or influence. We want to inspire. We want to love. We want to help, to be gentle, and to extend hope, especially whenever people are struggling.
However, we are also confronted with the painful commission of correcting error and confronting sin.
In practice, many skilled teachers use the pattern of + – +. Back in the day of my own public speaking training, I was taught that a wise instructor will often begin with an encouragement, then offer a difficult insight or correction, and then end with a positive encouragement again. It is like providing happy bookends to a hard message.
This plus/minus/plus method is not exclusive to Christianity by any means, but it can be often found employed in Scripture. In reality, any good teacher will likely be aware of the effectiveness in using this approach, because we all find medicine hard to swallow without a spoon full of sugar to help it along.
Those who are less familiar with this method, especially as used in God’s word, are prone to misinterpretation and distortion of the gospel. Those who miss this detail, can easily assume that the encouragements given, especially at the start of an epistle, are statements of absolute fact, rather than statements of general encouragement. Encouragements are never wrong, but they seldom are given either as universal promises, or as unconditional facts. They are general statements of truth that Paul hopes will fit with that audience. They are more like broad expressions of hope, not specific promises or personal guarantees. When this occurs, the temptation is to form doctrines and theological beliefs beyond the context for which they were given.
Paul was a master at this + – + style of writing. Every letter he wrote uses this approach. This pattern can be found by examining the start and ending of letters, and in some cases by looking at sub-topics in the middle of letters. Following are several examples from the start of letters:
“To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…For in him you have been enriched in every way…He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.” (1 Cor 1:2-9)
In his letter to the Corinthian believers, Paul begins with a gushing of encouragement that almost sounds as if that church was the pinnacle of godly living. They had it all—not lacking any spiritual gift and enriched in all knowledge. But anyone who has read the rest of the letter, knows very clearly that they were a messed-up church with many, many distorted practices and incorrect beliefs.
If, by way of interpretation, one views the above introduction to this letter as a statement of universal truth, rather than as statements of encouragement, then it could easily follow that the phrase “He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord”, as an unconditional promise that applied to every person who attended that church. For many in the church today, this is a classic passage used to prop up the doctrine of once-saved-always-saved, and it sure sounds appropriate, so long as we don’t read the rest of the letter. However, notice what Paul says shortly hereafter about this church:
“you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers. Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived” (1 Cor 6:8-9).
Christians in this church were sinning right and left, in almost every conceivable way, and he warns them that “you” who persist in doing these things will not enter the kingdom. Again, to those who thought they were guaranteed salvation he warns:
“These things [destruction by God for disobedience upon those who were baptized into Christ] happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.” (1 Cor 10:11-12)
Those believers in that church who did not retain the gospel as specifically taught by Paul, were at risk of losing their salvation.
“By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.” (1 Cor 15:2)
In other words, the opening lines of general encouragement, that Jesus was faithful to keep them safe and blameless, would only specifically apply to those who obeyed the gospel, repented of their revealed sins, and maintained the original gospel message, not to everyone who heard the encouraging words at the start.
The encouragements are always true. The issue is in understanding why they are being given. Very often, especially at the start of letters, they are offered as encouragements, because somewhere in the details of the letter, there will come some corrections or instructions that are more difficult to swallow, and are likely to be more easily received after hearing Paul’s personally-felt hope for them.
Another classic in this regard is found in the letter to the Philippians:
“To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi…I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you. I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phi 1:2-6)
It sounds like a guarantee to “all the saints”, that “for all of you” there is evidence that they had become Christian, and so Jesus will always bring that profession of faith to completion in salvation when the Lord returns. In other words, this is very commonly referred to as a biblical promise that a believer can never lose their promised salvation.
However, when one understands the context, it is revealed for what it is: a statement of general encouragement, for which Paul hoped it would apply to every single person, although he knew that would not likely be the result. Notice how he clarifies this statement:
“It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart” (Phi 1:7)
The very next sentence tells us why Paul said what he did, because his heart wants it to apply to all of them. It does not say this is guaranteed to apply to every member of that church, because God declares it so, or because their individual names are predestined, or because Paul’s desire for them is the same thing as God’s unconditional promises, or any other reason like it. It is purely a statement of hope, just like any loving parent would offer to their child who is about to step out into difficult territory. We believe in our children and we want to encourage them, but that is not the same thing as a divine guarantee that they will always succeed.
To this church, Paul reminds them to live according to the pattern he gave them, and to take note of those in the church who were also are striving to live that way, because
“as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.” (Phi 3:18)
He is not suggesting that such enemies are only in other churches, since they were all guaranteed to have their salvation completed. Rather, he even reveals that at the point of this writing he himself is still striving to win the prize, and that he does not view himself as already having obtained perfection or “attain to” the resurrection. As he revealed elsewhere: “Those who have been given a trust, must prove themselves faithful”—and he confirms here that he was still proving himself faithful. Sadly, there were many in the church at that time who didn’t see the need for living in the difficulty of suffering under the Cross. The likelihood is that they thought they were guaranteed to be saved, so why struggle?
In a third reference, consider Paul’s encouragement to the Thessalonians:
“To the church of the Thessalonians in God…we ought always to thank god for you, brothers, and rightly so…as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God”. (2 The 1:2-5)
It sounds like a statement of fact, that they were guaranteed as a church to all enter the kingdom. But once again, Paul is stating this as an encouragement, not as an absolute promise. He offers the result of worthiness for salvation per the evidence he gives of their growing love for each other and their endurance in suffering, but most Christians are well familiar with the theology that believers don’t earn their salvation, but that is sure what this sounds like.
Once a reader understands that this is a general statement offered to encourage the group, rather than a specific promise that applies without any other expectations, then it becomes clear that this is not promotion of salvation-by-works, nor salvation in spite of ongoing sin. Rather, Paul is cheering them on in this statement. He is suggesting that the evidence of their obedience is confirming what Jesus has called them to. In other words, it is not about earning, but rather about transformation and demonstration.
This worthiness is being referenced to those who have already been declared worthy upon the righteousness of Christ, but who are still being transformed. This is why he follows up with a future-tense reference on the same topic:
“With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith.” (2 The 1:11)
It is in the context of this personal effort that helps to confirm our profession of faith, that Paul commands this church to keep away from fellow Christians who don’t live in line with the gospel: “to take special not of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed.” Those who refuse to obey the gospel, show themselves as unworthy, and “will be punished with everlasting destruction”.
A fourth and final (for this writing) example is found in the opening comments to the Christians in Ephesus:
“To the saints in Ephesus…For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Eph 1:2-5)
This passage is widely used, as if it were a statement of theological fact, to promote the doctrine of individual predestination, rather than as a statement of general encouragement. As such, many have erred in taking this section out of context and formed spurious ideas that mislead well-meaning believers from the truth.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is one of the most encouraging letters in Scripture and rightly so. There is great truth in it, and a lot to inspire a weary traveler. However, as he warns in another letter, we ought to consider very carefully the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.”
The footnote in my Bible suggests that the theme of this letter is about “unity of believers”. However, ever since the Enlightenment period, interpretation has historically inclined itself toward individualism, rather than the preceding ideas of holistic community. In other words, the natural inclination is to think of unity of individuals, rather than unity of community. This is one of the likely reasons for the tendency to read an Enlightenment view into the concept of predestination and end up with views that are not biblical.
Since Paul was not encumbered with Western intellectualism, when he wrote “For he chose us in him”, he did not likely have in mind the individual person as much as the church as a whole. It was not individual names that were predestined here, but the plan of God to reveal himself and his salvation through his body of believers known together as The Church.
The encouragement being offered here is that God has established a plan from before creation to provide salvation through Jesus, and to express it through his gathered body of believers. This is a revelation and reminder that God knows what he is doing and that his plan has been established right from the start. Based on such sovereignty and certainty, the church as a body ought to find great comfort as each congregation and each individual finds their place in it. That is the context to this letter.
Notice Paul’s shift in reference, from the general encouragement regarding what God had designed from the very beginning to do through his overall body of believers, as he then narrows the application:
“And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit” (Eph 1:13)
The saints in Ephesus were also included in this Church “when you heard”, not when their personal names where written down for guaranteed salvation. As a group, they each had the same experience of being “marked in him” specifically because they believed the gospel when Paul or others had taught them.
As far as their own personal and individual identity, Paul’s view is that they were all initially “by nature objects of wrath”, not predestined saints. In fact, he specifically states that their original condition was one of separation and exclusion, “without hope and without God”. Their inclusion into the church was an act of eventual divine grace, not either a result of their own personal goodness or personal identification. That grace was extended to each person “through faith” in their own time and space when they heard and accepted the gospel, so that they would no longer be foreigners, but at that time become fellow citizens with God’s people.
Even when Paul wrote in this letter regarding individuals in marriage, he declares this same distinction with which he opened the entire epistle: “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.” The letter begins by offering overall encouragement to believers on the basis of God’s eternally predestined plan through Christ and his church.
“His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Eph 3:11)
May we learn to recognize encouragement for what it is, and may we each strive to humbly live up to such glorious expectations, to the glory of God and the honor of our Lord Jesus.