The Work of Faith
“We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3 NRSV).
Paul’s second missionary journey began as an excursion to revisit churches planted throughout Asia Minor on his first missionary journey (Acts 15:36). Along the way, the Spirit of God gave Paul a vision of a Macedonian man and compelled Paul to cross the Bosporus Strait into Europe (Acts 16:6-10). After preaching the gospel in Philippi and experiencing strong resistance, Paul journeyed to Thessalonica. In Thessalonica, Paul began preaching the good news about the Messiah at the local synagogue. Some Jews believed Paul’s message, as well as some Greeks, and the Church took root in the city. However, some Jews became jealous of Paul and stirred up a riot that forced Paul to leave town (Acts 17:1-9). Paul then continued to Athens and Corinth. While in Corinth, a place where he spent a significant amount of time, Paul most likely penned his first canonical letter, 1 Thessalonians (Acts 18:11). In the letter, he encourages and exhorts the Thessalonians to continue the work of faith that Paul began when he first visited them and preached the gospel.
Modern Christianity seems inevitably mired in an endless debate between works and faith, and their place in the Christian life. In this dichotomy, some denominations stress the centrality of faith and deny any need for works. By correlation, other denominations put so much emphasis on the necessity of good works that it relegates faith to the margins. Paul’s letters, however, do not utilize such simplistic dualities. In Pauline theology, faith is active and dynamic. For example, in his letter to the Romans, Paul says that his mission is “to bring about the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5). Faith is not merely an inner heartfelt sentiment or an intellectual belief system; it moves a person to obey God and complete the good works ordained by God. Faith, therefore, takes effort, or, as Paul puts it to the Thessalonians, it takes the “work of faith” (1 Thess 1:3).
The Work of Faith
Paul’s letters consistently use this kind of language in regards to the dynamics of faith. In Philippians, Paul says, “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel” (Php 1:27). His instructions are peppered with action-oriented phrases–”standing firm” and “striving side by side.” From a modern perspective, Paul’s words could easily be viewed as a motivational speech for a football team. Faith, in a manner of speaking, is a kind of spiritual athletics requiring rigorous effort and training.
In a similar spirit, Paul writes to the Corinthians, saying, “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (I Cor 16:13-14). Here again Paul exhorts believers to “stand firm.” Keeping in mind the context of persecution faced by many believers living in these urban areas, simply remaining steadfast in the faith is a monumental task. Imagine a person trying to stand still in the midst of hurricane force winds. Such is the nature of following Christ in a hostile culture. From this point of view, the work of faith is the work of holding fast to Christ, not the work of doing good to earn God’s approval.
The realization that faith takes work, might trouble some believers. It is convenient to imagine that faith is a pure gift, requiring no movement or activity on our part. On the contrary, faith is a gift that requires some level of maintenance on the part of the gift receiver. Faith is not earned through works of charity or good behavior. However, faith is kept alive and vibrant by a strong commitment to endure to the end. The work of faith, of remaining true to our Lord and Savior, is one that requires courage, strength, and endurance.
Featured image from Flickr user Anthony Auston. Used under creative commons license.