Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 5:14–18 in Relation to Carl Holmgren
Bonnie Williams, Carl’s niece, suggested to me a few days ago that 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18 is a suitable description of her uncle’s life. I read this, especially in context, and agreed. As I knew him, this is true. So what I want to do is flesh out this text in relation to Carl, and then draw our attention to one phrase in the text that changes everything about the way we look at it, and is the greatest truth of all.
I will start reading at verse 14:
And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle [that is, troublesomely idle, like busybodies, that is, the unruly or disorderly], encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. 15 See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
I knew Carl as a counselor. The founder of Pathfinders. We visited him and Dorothy in Washington, and he shared some of his vision and experience in that ministry. Verse 14 of this text describes the need and the nature of counseling.
And we urge you, brothers, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.
When it comes to troubled people, there are — very broadly speaking — three kinds in every community. The unruly or disorderly, the fainthearted (small-souled), the weak (those who are not well). The dysfunction of these three are on a continuum from strong to weak.
- There are the unruly who are dysfunctional in their strength;
- there are the fainthearted or small-souled who are dysfunctional because of being disheartened by some circumstance or experience;
- and the weak are dysfunctional because they are physically or mentally broken.
For these three groups of needy people, Paul prescribes different approaches: “Admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.”
- Admonition (noutheteo) — direct and forthright exhortation to change!
- Encouragement (paramutheo) — an emotionally empathetic alignment that strengthens
- Help (antecheo) — a closer attachment and coming under to lift up
But all of them with patience, even the unruly.
Counseling in the Local Church
Picture your arm pointing to the unruly saying, “No more.” Picture it touching the shoulder of the fainthearted to let them know you care and are beside them for encouragement. And picture your arm actually holding and lifting the weak since they need extraordinary help.
This is the ministry of counseling in any local church. This was Carl’s life.
Then verse 15 makes sure that we realize that in all this counseling, we are always seeking the good of the other, never acting with malice or revenge, no matter what they have done:
See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.
For the unruly, the fainthearted, the weak, we are only to do them good.
And then come the very verses (16–18) that Bonnie suggested were so relevant for Carl. These give the tone and the flavor to the counseling process:
Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances.
All our counseling is to be joyful, prayerful, and thankful. This is where Bonnie saw Carl most clearly: He lived out his counseling life with a joyful, prayerful, thankful spirit. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.”
That was my experience as well. He was amazingly earnest. But it was never an oppressive earnestness, but a happy, prayerful, thankful one. People like that are not oppressive. They are burden lifters.
The Decisive Phrase That Changes Everything
That’s the fleshing out of the text in relation to Carl I wanted to do. Now I draw your attention to a phrase that changes everything — and is the greatest truth of all.
Up till now, this could be a description of people’s problems and of counseling that comes from Eastern religions, Judaism, Islam, or New-Age mysticism. There hasn’t been a distinctive Christian word spoken in the text, or in this sermon. So if we stopped now, we would dramatically dishonor our Lord Jesus and distort the life and ministry of Carl Holmgren.
The decisive phrase comes next, and it is enormously important here and in all of the New Testament. The last part of verse 18: “. . .for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Admonish the unruly, and encourage the fainthearted, and help the weak, and be patient with them all, seeking their good with no malice, and with a joyful, prayerful, thankful spirit because” . . . why? Because “this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Not just the will of God. But the will of God in Christ Jesus. What does that mean?
Carl Holmgren was not a free-standing human being making up his approach to counseling and to life. Carl Holmgren was “in Christ Jesus.” That means he was united to Christ Jesus, in union with him. Bound to him. Not united to an idea, but to a person. A living person. Crucified for sinners, raised from the dead, reigning over all. Carl was in — in union with — the living Christ.
And the reason he was in Christ Jesus in this way is that God had made it so. 1 Corinthian 1:30: “From God are you are in Christ Jesus.” God brought Carl to faith in Christ, and that faith is the instrument God uses to unite us with Christ. We are in Christ by faith.
What It Means to Be in Christ
Being in Christ is a stupendous reality. It is breathtaking what it means to be in Christ. United to Christ. Bound to Christ. This is the phrase in the text that changes everything. Now we can really see who Carl Holmgren was and is. Listen to what it meant for him to be in Christ Jesus.
- In Christ Jesus, Carl was given grace before the world was created. 2 Timothy 1:9: “He gave us grace in Christ Jesus before the ages began.”
- In Christ Jesus, Carl was chosen by God before creation. Ephesians 1:4: “God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world.”
- In Christ Jesus, Carl was loved by God with an inseparable love. Romans 8:38–39: “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
- In Christ Jesus, Carl was redeemed and forgiven for all his sins. Ephesians 1:7: “In Christ we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses.”
- In Christ Jesus, Carl was justified before God and the righteousness of God in Christ was imputed to him. 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake God made Christ to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
- In Christ Jesus, Carl became a new creation and a Son of God. 2 Corinthians 5:17: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Galatians 3:26: “In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.”
- In Christ Jesus, Carl was seated I the heavenly place even while he lived on earth. Ephesians 2:6: “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
- In Christ Jesus, all the promises of God are Yes for Carl. 2 Corinthians 1:20: “All the promises of God find their Yes in Christ.”
- In Christ Jesus, Carl was being sanctified and made holy. 1 Corinthians 1:2: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus.”
- In Christ Jesus, everything Carl really needed was supplied. Philippians 4:19: “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”
- In Christ Jesus, the peace of God guarded the heart and mind of Carl Holmgren. Philippians 4:7: “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
- In Christ Jesus, Carl had eternal life. Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
- And in Christ Jesus, Carl will be raised from the dead at the coming of the Lord. 1 Corinthians 15:22: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” All those united to Adam in the first humanity die. All those united to Christ in the new humanity rise to live again.
Yes, Bonnie, the words printed on the front of the worship folder are a beautiful portrayal of your uncle Carl. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” Yes. He admonished the unruly, he encouraged the fainthearted, he helped the weak. He was patient with all. And he did it with a joyful, prayerful, thankful heart.
But in Carl’s case, all of that had roots in Christ. This is the phrase that changes everything. This was God’s will for him in Christ Jesus.
The life and ministry of Carl Holmgren was the fruit of union with Christ. Because he was in Christ, he was able to do God’s will for Christ’s sake.
In short, he was a Christian. A Christian counselor.
And for us, the wonderful news is that being in Christ is a gift for all who believe in Christ. You don’t earn it. You receive it by faith. “To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). And so we are — in Christ Jesus. Amen.