Churches are not merely organizations. They are organizations (at least they should be organized) but they are not merely organizations. As is often said, churches are organisms. They have a life of their own. Consequently churches can be healthy and strong, or they can be diseased and sickly. Churches are kind of like people. In fact, one of the writers of the Bible compared the church to a body. The human body is made up of many parts. They all have functions. If one part of the body becomes diseased or does not function properly, the other parts are usually affected. That’s what it means to be an organism. Now all kinds of things can go haywire with our bodies. Some things are noticeable to others; some are not. The appearance of the body does not tell the whole story of what is going on with that body. Do you see where I am going with this?
Just as we can see some people and conclude quickly that they are not in good health. On the flip side, we can look at other people and think they are in good health, but they are not. The same is true with churches. We may look at a small, shriveled congregation and conclude that something is wrong. Usually that is the case, but not always. We may look at a large, rapidly growing congregation and think it is the healthiest church around. It may not be. In the human body, cells that grow very rapidly and abnormally are called cancer.
In this series, we are going to look at the first chapter of 1 Thessalonians. In that chapter Paul says some marvelous things about the church there. In fact, what he is doing is remembering them and thanking God for them. What does the apostle to the Gentiles thank God for when he thinks about a church? I call them ten marks of a healthy church. These are not the only marks of a healthy church, but I think they are perhaps the most important.
The first three marks of a healthy church come to us from a single verse, verse three, and reflect the Pauline trinity of godliness: faith, hope, and love: “remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” These first three are what Paul remembers about them.
Today we are going to consider the first – your work of faith. Paul highlights their working faith. The Thessalonians possessed a faith that works.
The word for “faith” occurs in the NT 243 times. That is not counting its verbal forms. It is an essential element for any church, because it is essential to being rightly related to God. Faith is our posture toward God. It is that expectancy, dependency, trust, and confidence that keeps us going. Faith is the antidote to anxiety, pride, fear, shame, impatience, covetousness, bitterness, despondency, lust, and a whole host of other ills that plague us. The church at Thessalonica possessed an active, productive faith.
One day, a friend and former student of mine, out of the blue, sent me a definition he found of faith. It comes from Art Azurdia, a pastor and seminary professor in Oregon:
“Authentic faith is the confident assurance in events not yet seen. Faith is not a call to believe in things when common sense tells you not to. Faith is not a mindless stab in the dark. It is not a crossing of the fingers and hoping for the best. It is not a leap into apparent nothingness. It’s a word that speaks of reasoned, careful, deliberate, intentional thought. Thought upon what? God and his promises. If you are absolutely gripped by the coming realities that have been promised to you by God, then how you live your life in the present will be radically different than if you did not possess that certainty. This is what faith is, my friends! Positive certainty expressed in action.”
He points out in his definition what Paul highlights – a working faith. The word here for work is ergon, and it means simply the day-to-day work that one normally does. Other ways to translate ergon are workmanship, handiwork, occupation, business, or job. Now I really like this pairing of terms, because it expresses the true nature of strong faith. We do not see strong faith in flashes of brilliance, but in the day-to-day persistence in the mundane and the ordinary. Faith gets up every morning and goes to work.
Some years ago, I saw a commercial for Monster.com, the online job search site. In it, everyone in the city begins climbing out of bed and they start running . . . to something. They grab umbrellas, furniture, mattresses and all sorts of things. It is just before daybreak when they all dash up a hill and throw up their possessions as if to block this massive tidal wave. Then, as it always does, the sun comes up and its rays peek over the hill. When it overcomes the crowd, they all sigh and give up. They groan and head back to their houses dragging their implements behind them. Then the screen says, “Don’t fight Monday. Monster.com. Your calling is calling.”
You may have trouble welcoming Mondays, too. But perhaps it would help if you had faith. If you saw your day-to-day responsibility not as showing up at the job site or punching a time clock or having to do this job or task, but as expressing faith in God. Your calling as a Christian is a calling to walk by faith. Faith works.
Another passage of scripture that has to do with this subject is James 2:14-26. An active faith, according to James, is a real faith, a genuine faith. Genuine saving faith produces works.
Now Paul has made very clear elsewhere in the New Testament (Romans 3-4; Galatians 2) that salvation is by faith alone, apart from works of the law. You cannot work your way to heaven. The only one who works for someone to be saved is God working to save us. Salvation is a gift. However, let us not be confused. One who is saved and transformed by God will produce works. “It is faith alone that justifies, but the faith that justifies is not alone.”
When Paul surveyed the Thessalonian church, he saw fruit, the produce of a living faith. If I may paraphrase James here, and pose a question: What use is it, brothers and sisters, if a church says it has a relationship with Jesus but is content to do nothing of significance? Is that not a self-deceiving illusion? Can that “faith” be real? Healthy churches put their faith to work.
Let’s look at a few more scriptures. Romans 1:5 indicates that Paul’s purpose as an apostle was to bring about the obedience of faith among the Gentiles. And in Romans 1:17, Paul quotes Habbakuk saying that the righteous shall live by faith. Then, Acts 16:5 says that one of the results of a church’s growing faith is the addition of more members. Authentic faith draws others to Christ.
You may want to know, How do I boost my faith? The Bible says, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). If you want to boost your faith, meditate on the Scriptures. Ponder the things of Christ. Focus on the greatness of God. Faith does not grow when we look at the world. It does not develop when we look inside ourselves. We must look beyond ourselves, hear the testimony of the scriptures, fellowship with the faithful, and cast ourselves on the all-sufficiency of God. When we do that, the results are immeasurable.