A Model of Covenant Exhortation
Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that, as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you may excel still more. For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. Consequently, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives his Holy Spirit to you. Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you; so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.
Everyone Needs Regular Exhortation
Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that the only people who need to be called to account are those who have one foot in sin already. We think that if a person is doing well the only thing they need is either to be praised or perhaps they need nothing at all from us. We tend to think of exhortations and promptings and urgings and warnings as things you use only for the wayward.
I say that's a mistake because experience and Scripture teach us that every believer needs regular exhortations, and challenges, and wakening calls, and stirrings, and inspiration, and warnings, and cautions.
Yesterday morning I was on the phone with a friend in the Los Angeles area and he was stunned again by another well-known pastor who, after 31 years of ministry, at the age of 61, was exposed in sexual misconduct. My friend said, "John, I don't think it would have happened if he was in a small group of men who had held him more closely accountable." But we Americans (and humans) do not like people pressing in our soul-space. And we are all the more hesitant to tread in when things are going well.
But that is not the biblical approach. The biblical writers do not get into people's lives only when things are falling apart; they get in when things are going well. And they exhort them and urge them and stir them up to keep on doing well and to do better and better.
"Excel Still More"
You see this twice in our text: in verse 1 and verses 9–10. Verse 1:
Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that, as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you may excel still more.
Notice the phrase, "just as you actually do walk," followed by, "that you may excel still more." Paul's "exhorting" is not mainly prompted by hearing that the church is failing. It is prompted by the belief that successful churches and successful people need to be exhorted to press on and be vigilant in faithfulness and growth.
The same thing turns up in verses 9–10:
Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more.
Even when someone seems to be in such close fellowship with God that it can be said they are "taught by God" (not just man), and even when someone is practicing love not in a narrow limited way but in large and expansive ways, do not think that there is no use in exhortation and prodding and inspiration and motivation for those people. These Thessalonians were being "taught by God" to love each other (v. 9). And their love is extending well beyond their own community to believers throughout the district of Macedonia (v. 10). And yet Paul said, "We urge you [we exhort you] to abound still more and more."
So in verse 1 he says, "You are walking in a way to please God; excel still more," and in verse 10 he says, "You are loving as God has taught you; excel still more."
So it's not true that the only people who will benefit from exhortation and accountability are those who have one foot already in sin. Exhortation, encouragement, and accountability will benefit all of us. Hebrews 3:12–13 makes this very explicit:
Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart . . . But encourage one another day after day . . . lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
No one has run the race so long or so well—not even 31 years of ministry—that he can say, "I don't need exhortation or accountability or warnings or encouragement."
A Model of Exhortation and Accountability
1 Thessalonians 4:1 is a model of exhortation and accountability that we could well follow in our covenant life together as a church. What I mean by model of exhortation and accountability is mainly that it shows us the way small groups might use the church covenant in stirring each other up to excel in faith and hope and love.
Notice four things in this model:
1. A Way to Walk to Please God
There is a way to walk—or to live—to please God. Notice in the middle of the verse the words: "how you ought to walk and to please God." There is a way to walk that pleases God.
2. A Reminder of What's Been Received
The Thessalonians had "received" that way of life and had made a good start in walking in it. " . . . as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you actually do walk." Verse 2 reminds them what they had received: "For you know what commandments we gave you through the Lord Jesus."
So verse 2 says Paul had given commandments which summed up "how you ought to walk and to please God," and verse 1 says that the Thessalonians had "received" them and submitted to them in a changed life.
Another way to put this is that the people had been called by God into the new covenant and were fulfilling the terms of the covenant in love and holiness to one another. You remember that one of the marks of the new covenant is that God writes the law on the heart. Well that's what Paul was referring to in verse 9: "You have no need for anyone to write you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another."
Verse 2 says that Paul had given commandments, and verse 1 says that those commandments are "the way to walk and to please God." But verse 9 clarifies that it was God himself who was writing these commandments on their heart so that they loved to do them, and did not experience them as a letter that kills but as the power of the Spirit who gives life (2 Corinthians 3:6; cf. Romans 6:17).
So the first thing we've seen about this model of exhortation and accountability is that there is a way to walk to please God. And the second thing to notice in this model is that when this covenant way of life is presented by Paul to the Thessalonians, it is "received" or accepted by the Thessalonians, and it is taught by God himself, and they begin to walk in it.
3. A Request and an Exhortation
The third thing to notice is that Paul "requests" something from them and "exhorts" them. Notice how the verse begins with these key words: "request" and "exhort." "Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus . . . "
This is what God wants us to do for each other at Bethlehem, just as Paul set an example for us here in his letter. First, there is a way to walk and to please God. Second, we have heard and received it. It is summed up in our church covenant. Third, there is a "requesting and exhorting" that should go on here.
If the church were not a covenant community in which people voluntarily make a covenant to live a certain way for each other and for the world and for the Lord, then "requesting" and "exhorting" like this would be intruding. But if we have made a covenant with each other to be one body in Christ and to model our life on Scriptures like these, then "requesting" and "exhorting" is not intruding, it is love and faithfulness and loyalty.
4. The Aim of Excelling Still More
Finally, notice that the aim of the requesting and exhorting in verse 1 is (at the end of the verse) "that you may excel still more and more." In what? In what you "received" from the beginning. Not in a long list of new commandments. You received (what Paul calls in Romans 6:17) the "form of teaching"—the "how you ought to walk and please God." You received the terms of the covenant.
That is what I urge you to walk in still more and more. Yes, it is God who teaches you (v. 9). But he uses words spoken by men. "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth" (1 Corinthians 3:6). Humans "request" and humans "exhort" but God writes the terms of the covenant on the heart. God gives the heartfelt obedience.
So here we have a model for how to use our church covenant (among other ways) in our small groups. First, we acknowledge that there is a way to walk and to please God. Second, we receive it—we accept the covenant and make our commitment to one another with it. Third, we "request" and "exhort" each other again and again. We don't coast. We keep the covenant before us and stir each other up. Fourth, we do this not just for the weak but also for the strong, not just for the wayward but also for the stalwarts, not just for the failing but also for the successful, not just for the cold but also for the fervent, not just for the laymen but also for the pastors. We exhort each other day after day to "excel still more."
No one is above sinning and covenant breaking. And the best protection against it is not coasting or even commending. The best protection is stretching forward. This is why Paul requested and exhorted successful saints to "excel more and more" in love and holiness.
The Role and Place of the Church Covenant
The Church Covenant should not be something we read periodically and forget about in between. It is a summary of "the way we ought to walk and to please God."
It is not meant to be exhaustive. It is meant to steer a middle way between excessive detail that goes beyond Scripture and vague generalizations that give no guidance. I think our Covenant does this admirably.
Take a few examples from paragraph 3.
"We also engage to maintain family and secret devotions." It does not say what they should look like or when you should do them or how often. And so it honors the tremendous variety of ways that we all meet God and deal with him and cultivate our devotion to him. But it also honors Matthew 6:5–6 that there is a closet of prayer to go into where our Father sees in secret what our hearts desire.
So in our small groups we may say to each other without being picky: How are you doing in your secret devotions? And we may encourage each other and inspire each other with stories and testimonies and biblical promises.
Raising of Children
Or again: "[We engage] . . . to educate our children in the Christian faith." Again: it does not say that home-schooling is the only way or that Sunday School is mandatory or that Christian schools are better for kids than state schools in every case. The Covenant is not a blueprint for all the details of life. It leaves room for discussion and differences as we grow together. But it does honor Ephesians 6:4, "Fathers, bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord."
And in our small groups (with single parents or married parents) we can ask how it is going in teaching the children. What is working? What isn't? Can I pray for you and your children? What is the cutting edge of crisis right now?
Or again: "[We engage] . . . to seek the salvation of our kindred and acquaintances." Again it does not say whether this is by prayer or by loving service or by "The Four laws or by "Quest for Joy" or by long friendships or immediate confrontations. But what it does is take seriously is Romans 10:1, where Paul says, "My heart's desire and prayer to God for [my kinsmen] is that they might be saved."
So in our small groups we can say, "How did the lunch meeting go last week? How can we pray for your witness this week?"
And so it goes in our Church Covenant, steering what I think is a beautiful course between excessive and unbiblical detail on the one hand and vague generalization on the other hand. It is a balance between the opposite errors of legalism and lawlessness.
Paragraph Three of Our Church Covenant
Let me finish reading it with you so that you can see this in the rest of paragraph three.
(3) We also engage . . . to walk circumspectly in the world; to be just in our dealings, faithful in our engagements, and exemplary in our deportment, to avoid all tattling, backbiting and excessive anger [that is, to avoid gossiping and idle chatter about people, and unkind vengeful remarks about others, and anger that comes from offended egos or breeds bitterness without redemptive effect; and finally, a sentence that we added ourselves in 1982]; to seek God's help in abstaining from all drugs, food, drink, and practices which bring unwarranted harm to the body or jeopardize our own or another's faith.
Through and through this Covenant does not settle the detailed questions of life (Which drugs? Which food? Which drink? Which practices?), but it sends us back again to the guidance of the Scriptures and the illumination of the Holy Spirit, and to the corporate wisdom of the body of Christ.
Which simply means that this Covenant is part of the New Covenant and depends on 1 Thessalonians 4:9 coming true at Bethlehem: are we being taught by God or only by man? Is the covenant being written on our hearts, or is it only on paper?
There is a way to walk that pleases God. We have made a covenant to walk in that way. Let us exhort each other and hold each other accountable. And let us pray that in it all God himself will be our teacher and write the covenant on our hearts and make us excel more and more.