Text: 2 Thessalonians 3:1-5
Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you (v. 1).
Is It Really Necessary?
Some people argue that making their bed is an unnecessary task. (“I’m going to mess it up again tonight anyway.”) An argument in favour of making your bed: Studies suggest that those who regularly make their bed are happier and more productive. An argument in favour of leaving your bed unmade: Leaving a bed unmade allows dust mites to die off. So do you want to be happier and more productive or not sleep with dust mites?
Earlier in the apostle Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, he wrote, “God chose you … to be saved” (2:13). Now he writes, “Pray for us, that the word of the Lord [i.e., the gospel] may speed ahead and be honored” (v. 1). If God has already chosen who will be saved, is it really necessary for us to evangelize (i.e., share the gospel with others)?
In verse 1, Paul asks the Thessalonians to pray for his ministry (“Finally, brothers, pray for us”)—specifically, that the gospel (“the word of the Lord”) would (1) “speed ahead” (i.e., be unhindered) and (2) “be honored” (i.e., be accepted). In this prayer request, Paul uses the imagery of a runner in the ancient games. (The runner would “speed ahead,” and, if he won the race, he would “be honored.”)
Sometimes the gospel is accepted (“as happened among you,” v. 1b; see Acts 17:1-4), but other times it isn’t (“and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith,” v. 2; see Acts 17:5-9). So Paul wants the Thessalonians to pray for more occasions of acceptance of the gospel and fewer occasions of hostility to the gospel.
The Bible presents two doctrines that appear to be incompatible: divine sovereignty and human responsibility.
- “[God] chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4). • “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
- “As many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). The people were “appointed to eternal life” (divine sovereignty), but they also “believed” (human responsibility).
- Jesus declared, “No one can come to me unless the Father who send me draws him” (John 6:44). But earlier he said, “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37).
How should we handle the apparent incompatibility between divine sovereignty and human responsibility? J. I. Packer, in his book Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God, offers the following counsel:
Accept it for what it is, and learn to live with it. Refuse to regard the apparent inconsistency as real; put does the semblance of contradiction to the deficiency of your own understanding; think of the two principles as, not rival alternatives, but, in some way that at present you do not grasp, complementary to each other. Be careful, therefore, not to set them at loggerheads, nor to make deductions from either that would cut across the other… (p. 21).Paul obviously didn’t believe that divine sovereignty and human responsibility are incompatible. If he did, he wouldn’t have traveled from city to city to preach the gospel and he wouldn’t have asked for prayer that people would accept the gospel. The great preacher Charles Spurgeon was once asked if it’s possible to reconcile divine sovereignty and human responsibility. He replied, “You don’t reconcile friends.”
Avoiding Extreme Views
When it comes to evangelism, we must avoid two extreme views. First, we must not think, “I have to do nothing.” This view puts all the emphasis on divine sovereignty and waters down human responsibility. Second, we must not think, “I have to do everything.” This view puts all the emphasis on human responsibility and waters down divine sovereignty.
From Paul’s preaching and prayer request, we can find two principles for evangelism.
1. We must evangelize, believing that any person can be saved (i.e., the gospel invitation is open to all).
The invitation to salvation is genuine: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:12). And evangelism is necessary: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching [i.e., sharing the gospel]” (Rom. 10:13).
2. We must pray for people to be saved, believing that God is sovereign.
The person who prays for someone to be saved reveals that he or she believes in the sovereignty of God. Can prayer change the mind of God? No, but God can choose to use our prayers to accomplish his sovereign plan.
Is It Up to Us?
So is evangelism up to us? It is and it isn’t. We are commanded by God to share the gospel, but only God can save people.