Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. (1 Thess. 4:1)
In a couple of recent sermons, I have had the occasion to paraphrase these words of Paul in my exhortations to the congregation at Providence. In our study of 1 Peter, we have come across imperatives that our church obeys very well. Therefore, I have been moved to acknowledge that to you, while calling you to “do so more and more.”
Our natural inclination as humans is to notice a job well done and relax. We’re done. For that reason, it would make more sense—humanly speaking—for Paul to note the Thessalonians’ obedience, and then write, “Great job. Now I want you to work on this other thing.”
But consider the verbs at the beginning of the verse, “we ask and urge you.” Paul likes to stack synonyms for emphasis, and these convey a sense of immediate necessity. We might expect the apostle to use such an urgent rhetorical device on those pesky Corinthians, who seemed to be doing nothing right (1 Cor 1:11, 5:1, 6:1-6, 6:15-16, 11:17-21). Yet, he presses hard for action among the Thessalonians, where there was already such remarkable faithfulness that word about them was spreading to other churches throughout Macedonia and Achaia (1:8-10).
There is a great principle at work in 4:1, which is demonstrated again a few verses later… “Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more” (4:9-10). The great principle is this: our current obedience should lead us not to complacency, but to press further into faithfulness.
Complacency is a sense of self-satisfaction accompanied by unawareness of danger. The rest of the passage indicates that danger is lurking and that complacency is on Paul's mind. Among those things the Thessalonians were successfully doing to walk and to please God was pursuing sexual purity. How striking then that Paul not only repeats previous instruction to abstain from sexual immorality, but includes the warning, “the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you” (4:6) and “Whoever disregards this disregards not man but God…” (4:8). Again, we might expect such a warning in an area of current disobedience, yet Paul has just acknowledged their faithfulness in this and other areas. How easily must we be able to regress if the Holy Spirit inspires warnings for those who are obeying? How persistent must indwelling sin be if we are called to “do so more and more” when we are already “walking and pleasing God”?
Paul is calling for urgency where there may be the temptation toward the opposite—complacency. The warning helps us to understand that the call to “do so more and more” may not only mean “let’s not be satisfied with our current state of holiness,” but may include the idea, “let’s be wary of the terrible danger of complacency.” From this we can deduce a principle related to the first: The danger of spiritual regression lurks behind spiritual complacency.
You see, there is no maintenance phase of the Christian life. As Spurgeon famously stated: “If you want to know how to backslide, leave off going forward. Cease going upward and you will go downward of necessity. You can never stand still.” Paul’s pressure on the Thessalonians to do so more and more indicates he is aware of the danger of settling for any level of faithfulness. Satisfaction breeds apathy, which will lead to a regression in our walk.
You may recall those sermons in which I was moved to paraphrase 1 Thess 4:1 regarding 1 Peter 4:9 (“Show hospitality to one another without grumbling”) and 5:5a (“Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders”). As the church at Thessalonica stood out for their faith and love, so also does Providence Bible Fellowship. Let us not become complacent in these things, but recognizing how easily we regress, purpose to walk and to please God more and more.