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2 Thessalonians 2:13-17
The subject of the third article of the Apostle’s Creed is Sanctification, the work of the Holy Spirit. What does this mean? You may remember from Catechism class that the base meaning of the word “sanctification” is to make holy. The Holy Spirit makes us holy by calling us out of the unholy darkness of sin and unbelief in which we were born, to saving faith in Jesus. Then he continues to work to strengthen and keep us in that saving faith, and moves us to show ourselves to be God’s children, until we reach heaven.
Luther starts his explanation of the third article by reminding us that it is not by our own thinking or choosing that we believe in Jesus Christ our Lord or come to him. Contrary to what the world thinks, and many false religions teach, we do not have free will by nature when it comes to spiritual things. Yes, we have the free will by nature to choose what we want to eat, or what clothes to wear, or to plan what we might like to do tomorrow, but we cannot choose to believe in Jesus.
God could have just told us this in straight prose, “you cannot choose to believe in Jesus.” But this is such an important teaching of Scripture that he also chose to give us a number of word pictures to make sure we get the point. He tells us that we are born physically alive, but spiritually dead. We are born enemies of God, so that, even if we were born spiritually alive, we would not want to come to God and put our trust in Jesus. He tells us that the way of salvation that he has provided, in fact just about anything he says in his word, will seem like foolishness to us by nature. That’s why the world dismisses what God says out of hand and seems to accept without question foolish things like astrology, and evolution, and life on earth being caused by a blast from some alien’s ray gun, or that humans can solve every problem there is if just given enough time and money. He pictures us as spiritually blind so that we couldn’t see the truth even if it were right in front of our faces. The fact that anyone has saving faith in Jesus is a miracle, a miracle worked by the Holy Spirit.
With that in mind, Paul, who knew better than most that saving faith is a miracle worked by the Holy Spirit, gives thanks to God for the fact that people in Thessalonica had that miracle worked in their hearts too. He wants them and us to know that our salvation is 100% God’s work, 0% ours.
Something that surpasses even our best sanctified understanding but makes it clear that our salvation is all God’s work, is the doctrine of election. Paul says, God chose you from the beginning for salvation. Even before we were born, before we could do anything good or bad, before we were able to make any decisions, God loved us and chose us for salvation. There are all kinds of questions we might like to ask about this, but God doesn’t answer them. He simply says, “trust me. I’m telling you this to let you know how much I love you and to assure you that your salvation is my doing, not yours. That’s all you need to know about it.”
Before time began God chose us for salvation, but in time, once we were born and living in this world, we still needed to be brought to saving faith. That’s the way God has determined that people are saved, only through faith in Jesus as their savior. So how would God bring those he has chosen to faith in Jesus?
Pauls says, He called you through our gospel. As Luther says, the Holy Spirit calls us by the gospel and enlightens us with his gifts. He makes sure that we learn the truth about God and the way of salvation in Jesus. As he tells the Thessalonians, this teaching of the truth about salvation can come either by word of mouth or by a letter from us, from God’s apostles and prophets.
This reminds us that part of the work of the Holy Spirit is to make sure that what was taught by Jesus and the apostles was recorded and preserved so that people still today can learn the truth by word of mouth, from those who tell them what the Bible says, or by reading for themselves the letters, the words that the Holy Spirit caused the Apostles and Prophets to write. Remember that Jesus promised that when the Holy Spirit came upon them, he would enable them to remember everything Jesus had taught them.
The Holy Spirit caused men of God to record the good news that God fulfilled his promise and sent his one and only perfect Son into this sin filled world. They recorded what they saw and heard, that Jesus showed himself to be the Son of God by his many miracles, that he suffered and died on the cross, that he was buried, and then rose again on the third day, just as he said he would. It is this gospel, this good news, that the Holy Spirit uses to enlighten us, to overcome our spiritual blindness, to create a pure heart and a right spirit within us and give us the new birth that we need. As Paul told the Corinthians, no one can say that Jesus is Lord, except by the Holy Spirit. If you believe and confess that Jesus is your Lord and your only hope for salvation it wasn’t by your own thinking or choosing, it was by a miracle of the Holy Spirit worked in you through the gospel.
Through Spirit-worked faith in Jesus we have salvation, we have the gift of eternal life. But the Bible doesn’t teach once-saved-always-saved. Paul warns that those who think they are standing firm in the faith need to watch out or they may fall from the faith. Remember Peter and how he bragged that he would never deny his Lord, but then he did deny him three times in one night! Paul says, stand firm and hold on to the teachings that were passed along to you.
The way that we remain in faith to the end is the same way we were brought to faith. It is the work of the Holy Spirit through the gospel in word and sacrament. That’s why it is so important that we continue to hear, read, learn, and take God’s word to heart. A spark of faith that is fed and fanned into flames by constant reminders of the fact that God’s word is truth and Jesus is the only way of salvation, will grow into a blazing heart-warming fire as we face the coldness of the world around us. But a spark of faith that is not fed or fanned into flames because it rarely if ever receives reminders of the fact that God’s word is truth and that Jesus is the only way of salvation will easily be blown out by the mockery of the blowhards of the world, or be drowned out by the constant bombardment of anti-god, anti-Bible messages that flood the airwaves and social media today. The Holy Spirit sanctifies and keeps us in the one truth faith through the gospel in word and sacrament.
As you continue to grow in the faith and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ you appreciate more and more that he has graciously, without any merit on your part, given you eternal encouragement and good hope. The Holy Spirit, the encourager, doesn’t say, “keep working, keep trying, and maybe someday, if you work hard enough, you will make it.” No. The Holy Spirit says, “you are fully and freely forgiven in Jesus. Because Jesus died and rose again you have, right now, eternal life. You have a living hope, not a maybe hope, because Jesus lives and is already preparing a place for you to live with him forever.
It is this eternal encouragement and good hope that motivates us to do what is impossible without faith, to love God and to love our neighbor. We are motivated by what God has done for us to gladly do the good things that God sets before us to do. Not in order to gain anything for ourselves by them, we already have everything we need in Jesus. But to bring honor and praise to the God who loved us before we were born, called us to faith in Jesus, and continues to provide us with everything we need for our lives now and forever.
Sanctification. What does this mean? It means that the Holy Spirit works through the gospel in word and sacrament to call us out of sin and unbelief into the light of faith so that we believe the saving truth that Jesus died and rose again for us. It means that the Holy Spirit continues to work through the gospel in word and sacrament to strengthen and keep us in the faith in the midst of the doubts of our sinful nature, and the constant attacks of the world and Satan. It means that the Holy Spirit continues to use the gospel in word and sacrament to encourage us, pointing us to the eternal inheritance that is ours in Jesus, so that we are eager to do and say what is good and pleasing to God until we stand before him in glory.