But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. 14 To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.
16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, 17 comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word. – 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17 [ESV]
Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “Preach the Gospel. If necessary, use words.” This statement is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, but he never really said it. The idea is that our good works, actions of kindness and love may communicate the gospel as well (or better than?) words. That’s simply not true. Yes, the Word became flesh. Jesus was a visible demonstration of God’s mercy and love. And when he was on the earth his very presence as God in the flesh communicated the Good News of great joy for all people. The Son had been born. He was walking among us, full of grace and truth. His very presence was the Good News of God.
But ours is not. For we are broken and flawed people. We never fully communicate the love of God; his grace and truth is never fully expressed in our best moments. We must speak the Word. We must speak of Jesus. He alone is the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father apart from him. And while he lives in each of us, we sully and mar his perfect representation to others in more ways than we can count. Even though Paul urges people to follow his example as he follows Christ, he communicates that imperative in words. And in those words names Jesus Christ as the One he is following.
The Gospel message is valid no matter who proclaims it. The validity of the sacrament is not dependent on the character of the celebrant. This is important to us all. For there is no one righteous, not even one. That includes pastors. That includes me. If you’re basing the certainty of your salvation on my character, beware! I will let you down. I’ve done it a thousand times to the ones closest to me, and I’m sure I’ve failed many people in the churches I’ve served. Never on purpose. But failed nonetheless. We all live in grace. God’s word alone has the power to save. We do not.
This is not to say, however, that our actions and our character don’t matter. Even though the validity of the Gospel is not dependent on the one who proclaims it, a lifestyle at odds with the message of Jesus will definitely undercut people’s willingness to listen or to hear. And the most competent leader of any kind devoid of character can cause great harm. Jesus commands us to love God and to love our neighbor. These are the two great commandments of God. Not suggestions. Not mere ideals. This is a command to reflect God’s nature, character, and love for others.
But let not God’s name or fame be forgotten. Because we have been saved, forgiven, brought into the fellowship of the redeemed, we are God’s royal priesthood, his holy nation, a people of God who are to declare the glory of him who has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.
That’s why Paul here prays for the Thessalonians and us to be established in every good work and word.