Does 2 Thessalonians 2:13 Teach That Our Good Works Are An Instrument Of Salvation?

In 2 Thessalonians 2:13 Paul wrote, “And we ought to give thanks to God for you brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you (to be) the first fruits1 unto salvation in sanctification of the Spirit and in faith of the truth.”2 Discussion of this verse has arisen in the context of the claim that there are (1) two stages of salvation, justification sola gratia, sola fide and a “final salvation”; (2) that initial justification is maintained through good works; (3) the instruments of “final salvation” are faith and works.

Paul’s language here of salvation “in” (ἐν) or “through” sanctification or holiness (ἁγιασμῷ) and in or through faith (πίστει) in or of the truth (ἀληθείας) is teaching essentially these same doctrines or should be interpreted in the context of a similar two-stage doctrine in which good works are co-instrumental in salvation. It has also been suggested that this “two-stage” reading of 2 Thessalonians 2:13 is the traditional Reformed view.

Thus Calvin’s commentary on this passage is illuminating:

In sanctification of the spirit, says he, and belief of the truth. This may be explained in two ways, with sanctification, or by sanctification. It is not of much importance which of the two you select, as it is certain that Paul meant simply to introduce, in connection with election, those nearer tokens which manifest to us what is in its own nature incomprehensible, and are conjoined with it by an indissoluble tie. Hence, in order that we may know that we are elected by God, there is no occasion to inquire as to what he decreed before the creation of the world, but we find in ourselves a satisfactory proof if he has sanctified us by his Spirit,—if he has enlightened us in the faith of his gospel. For the gospel is an evidence to us of our adoption, and the Spirit seals it, and those that are led by the Spirit are the sons of God, (Rom. 8:14,) and he who by faith possesses Christ has everlasting life. (1 John 5:12.) These things must be carefully observed, lest, overlooking the revelation of God’s will, with which he bids us rest satisfied, we should plunge into a profound labyrinth from a desire to take it from his secret counsel, from the investigation of which he draws us aside. Hence it becomes us to rest satisfied with the faith of the gospel, and that grace of the Spirit by which we have been regenerated. And by this means is refuted the wickedness of those who make the election of God a pretext for every kind of iniquity, while Paul connects it with faith and regeneration in such a manner, that he would not have it judged of by us on any other grounds.3

Pace those who have argued (to me on the HB) that Calvin did not do text criticism, just above these comments he wrote that he preferred the reading, “from the beginning” (απ’ αρχης) rather than the reading that appears in most modern editions of the New Testament, “first fruits” (ἀπαρχὴν). He argued that “from the beginning” fit the passage better than “first fruits” but that it did not change his reading of the passage fundamentally.

Notice that, for Calvin, sanctification serves as “tokens” or evidence of our election. He did not take sanctification as the instrument of our salvation.

Grammatically, the preposition ἐν (in) could be taken as a locative, i.e., as an indication of place (so the 1901 ASV) or it may be taken instrumentally, as most modern English translations do. In favor of the latter is that the preposition controls both “sanctification” and “faith” and the latter could be instrumental.

Paul does not, however, teach any of the doctrines that are being claimed as Pauline and Reformed in the current discussion. There is in Paul no two-stage doctrine of salvation, wherein one is initially justified sola gratia, sola fide and finally saved through faith and works. The salvation in view here is present. The Thessalonians are not said to be beloved of the Lord because they have been obedient. God is not said to have chosen them (either from the beginning or to be first fruits) on the basis of anything in them or done by them.

Second, sanctification is not good works. Justification and sanctification (or collectively, salvation) produces good works or better, God the Spirit graciously produces good works in those whom Christ as justified and whom the Spirit is sanctifying. He is the Reformed definition of sanctification from the Westminster Shorter Catechism:

Q. 35. What is sanctification?

A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

It is not a sound handling of Scripture to find a passage where the words sanctification, through, and salvation, and faith occur and treat them as if they are saying something that they are not. Paul is discussing these topics together but he relates them differently than is being suggested.

The Thessalonians are said to have been chosen (εἵλατο) “unto salvation” (εἰς σωτηρίαν) in or through sanctification and faith. Paul is not saying that we are saved because we are sanctified nor is he saying that we maintain our justification through good works nor does he say that we enter into final salvation through good works.

He is saying that we were unconditionally chosen unto a final outcome (salvation) either in sanctification or through it and in or through faith.4 These are the twin parts of the process of salvation. Both are the result of grace. We receive Christ and his salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), through (or in) faith alone (sola fide). As Calvin wrote, sanctification is the evidence or token of that reality.

We have already been justified. There is no future justification through our faithfulness. Francis Turretin spoke for the mainstream of the Reformed tradition when he denied any idea of a future justification through faith and works. Faith alone is the instrument of justification and salvation.

This reading of this passage is not much different (although somewhat) from that proposed by my former colleague (at Wheaton) Gene Green, in his commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians. He writes:

The purpose of God’s election was that they might be saved (see 1 Thess. 5:8–9 and comments), and this through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. In 1 Thessalonians Paul exhorted the believers again and again to dedicate themselves to sanctification (1 Thess. 4:3, 4, 7), reminding them that sanctification was God’s will for them and that God called them to the same. But he also assured the Thessalonians that sanctification was a work of God (1 Thess. 5:23) that he effects through the agency of the Holy Spirit (1 Thess. 4:8). The process of sanctification began at their conversion (1 Pet. 1:2) and is being worked out throughout their lives so that the believers might be blameless before the Lord at his coming (1 Thess. 5:23; and see Rom. 15:16; 1 Cor. 6:11; 1 Pet. 1:2). Far from its being auxiliary to their salvation, the apostle understands the sanctifying work as the action of the Spirit of God that brings about salvation. It may be possible to understand Spirit as the human “spirit,” the object of sanctification as in 1 Thessalonians 5:23, but the focus of this verse is rather the powerful divine operation in their lives by means of the Holy Spirit and the truth. These Christians entered into the realm of salvation through belief in the truth, that is, through their faith in the gospel that was proclaimed to them (see vv. 10, 12). Although the divine decision and activity in bringing about salvation are the primary focus, the apostle does not lose sight of human responsibility in this process, which is indicated by the word belief.5

To be sure, it is true that it is we who believe. It is also true that salvation and the faith through which it is received is the gift of God.

The view argued here was that of John Chrysostom (d. 407 AD):

How unto salvation? By sanctifying you through the Spirit. For these are the things that are the efficient causes of our salvation. It is nowhere of works, nowhere of righteous deeds, but through belief of the truth.6

Note that Chrysostom explicitly ruled out works and righteous deeds as “efficient causes” of our salvation. “Belief of the truth” is the “efficient cause” of our salvation.

The good news is that our sovereign God has graciously chosen, in Christ, his people to salvation, that Christ accomplished our salvation, that the Spirit is powerfully applying that salvation in faith and sanctification. Believers are being graciously and gradually conformed to Christ our Savior.

NOTES

1. Stephanus (1550) has απ’ αρχης, “from the beginning” as does WH (1881) and Scrivner (1894). The 3rd edition of the UBS was not terribly confident in the reading ἀπαρχὴν, giving it a C. The 4th edition of the textual commentary gives it a B on the ground that the expression απ’ αρχης does not occur elsewhere in Paul but notes that the external evidence for it is strong. It appears in ℵ D (Codex Bezae) K L, among others and in most minuscules.

2. Ἡμεῖς δὲ ὀφείλομεν εὐχαριστεῖν τῷ θεῷ πάντοτε περὶ ὑμῶν,* ἀδελφοὶ ἠγαπημένοι ὑπὸ ⸀κυρίου, ὅτι εἵλατο ὑμᾶς ὁ θεὸς ⸁ἀπαρχὴν εἰς σωτηρίαν ἐν ἁγιασμῷ πνεύματος καὶ πίστει ἀληθείας Kurt Aland, Barbara Aland, et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), 2 Th 2:13.

3. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, trans. John Pringle. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 342–43. Franciscus Gormarus took this view in his Analysis secundae epistolae pauli ad thessalonicenses (Amsterdam, 1644), 274. “Electionem autem agnoscimus ex effectis, vocatione efficaci, fide & sanctificatione Spiritus, v. 13. & 14.” See also David Dickson, An Exposition of all St. Pauls epistles…(London, 1659), 156.

4. See e.g., David Pareus, In divinam ad Romanos S. Pauli apostoli epistolam commentarius…. (Geneva, 1617), 672–73 where, in his commentary this passage, he rejected the doctrine of fides praevisa in favor of unconditional election and salvation received through faith alone.

5. Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans Pub.; Apollos, 2002), 326–27.

6. John Chrysostom, “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Second Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to the Thessalonians,” in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. James Tweed and John Albert Broadus, vol. 13, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), 390.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
    Author Image

    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


19 comments

  1. It is completely beyond me, how the words, “first fruits” can be misapplied to mean our good works, since the subject of the sentence is “you” and not good works. YOU are chosen to be sanctified–set apart for God’s purpose through the Holy Spirit working in us to conform us to the image of Christ. YOU are the first fruits of God’s purpose in creating adopted sons in the image of His only begotten Son by the work of the Spirit through a process of sanctification and faith in the truth. How this can be twisted to mean your works are the first fruits required for final salvation, and actually accepted as a true exegesis of the passage is very sad. Luther would laugh, he would say, you boys need a lesson in elementary grammar!

  2. Excellent article. Calvin, as so often is the case, gets right to the heart of the matter. Sloppy exegesis leads to erroneous doctrine like final justification.

    By the way, I know that you appreciate grammatical corrections. I had to read this a couple of times before I realized (I hope) what you were saying. “To be sure, it is true that it is we who believe it is also true that salvation and the faith through which it is received is the gift of God.” I think you want a semicolon between “believe” and “it”?

  3. Anglicans want to know: Do you consider the Absolution in the Morning Office to be contrary to Protestantism?

    ALMIGHTY God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who
    desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he
    may turn from his wickedness and live, hath given power, and
    commandment, to his Ministers, to declare and pronounce
    to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission
    of their sins. He pardoneth and absolveth all those who truly
    repent, and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel.
    Wherefore let us beseech him to grant us true repentance,
    and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him
    which we do at this present; and that the rest of our life
    hereafter may be pure and holy; so that at the last we may
    come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

  4. Bill, notice that the Anglican absolution prays for sanctification but does not make sanctification part of the reason, “that at last we may come to His eternal joy,” but rather that our coming to eternal joy depends on, “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Sanctification is part of the process of bringing us to eternal joy, but only trusting in Jesus Christ can qualify us for acceptance with God and eternal joy. That is what is so insidious about Piper’s definition of faith. His definition of saving faith is not trusting in Christ for our final acceptance but in trusting in sufficient fruit which God will enable us to do, provided that we trust God to enable us to produce sufficient fruit of good works, and by perseverance in trusting in God’s enabling us to maintain that trust, not in Christ’s imputed righteousness, but that God will give us sufficient fruit so that we will qualify for final salvation. Do you see how that is completely different from trusting in Christ alone, and replaces it with final salvation by works?

    • Actually, as an Anglican, I can tell you, Anna that you are incorrect. The absolution does not envision us coming to eternal joy apart from repentance and our lives being pure and holy – all through Jesus Christ. But we arrive at eternal joy as the end of a road paved with repentance and a a way of life that is pure and holy.

  5. I think the key to avoiding error is to properly distinguish the difference between law and gospel. The law shows us God’s righteous demands. It terrifies us because if we are honest, we will see we can never meet those demands. The gospel shows us how those demands have been met for us by another, who not only obeyed perfectly in our place, but suffered the wrath of God, the death curse in our place.
    The neonomians want to make the law the gospel. They think the law is the good news that tells us how to be right with God. What they all have in common is that they make the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness unnecessary if our own righteousness will provide acceptance with God. They have confused the law and gospel, and in doing so turn God’s plan of salvation on its head.

  6. Bill, does that mean that you are trusting in your way of life that is pure and holy for your acceptance with God rather than in Christ alone? I think not, because then you would not be trusting in Christ alone but in faith and works for salvation. As I said, the absolution prays for sanctification through holiness, but the final clause makes it clear that our acceptance with God is through Christ, not our intrinsic purity and holiness which will always be imperfect in this life. Progress in sanctification is evidence that we are regenerate, it is a fruit of salvation, but it does not save us, salvation is only through the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. Does that accord with your understanding? That is the way I understand it, and I would say that, if I understand it correctly, I would consider it to be a Reformed statement. If I am wrong, please explain why.

    • The point is that “through Jesus Christ our Lord” does not refer exclusively to justification. It refers to the whole of Christian life till we come at last to eternal felicity.

  7. The amazing self-delusion, both about oneself and about God’s required standard, namely in imagining that our sin-shot deeds could amount to a positive reception at the Great White Judgment Throne, is seemingly ingrained. Is it because of our upbringing? Or is it a simple universal human arrogance?
    Winston Churchill said he was not afraid of the Judgment. Peter, he averred, would in fact be glad to see him, because, Churchill said; “On balance, I think that I shall qualify for entry.” On balance! An imagined moral balance sheet – in credit!
    It is tragically sad that in all the many times Churchill went to church, his innate adamic disqualification had either never been pointed out to him, or if so, he had tuned it out.

  8. Bill, out of curiosity, I looked up Article 12 of the Anglican 39 Articles on Good Works: “Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away sins and endure the severity of God’s judgement, yet they are pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith; insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree is discerned by the fruit.” It seems to me that this statement is in accord with what we have been discussing and with the Reformed statements, that good works are fruit and evidence of true faith, but we find our acceptance with God in Christ alone. I also think that the absolution is praying for repentance and holiness, but that it ends by pointing to Christ alone as the reason for our acceptance with God. Again, please correct me if this is incorrect.

    • I agree fully with Article 12. In the absolution (absolving the repentant sinner) the point is that it is the pronouncement is throughout on the repentance – both at the time of the confession of sin then throughout life. I pointed out earlier what I think is the mistake in your understanding “through JX our Lord.” My point is that the absolution, being a part of the liturgy (of worship) is like Scripture (before we do the legitimate work of writing systematics and confessions) is not overly fussy about the words and actually reflects (as does the whole liturgy which is “Bible-drenched”) texts of Scripture.

  9. Bill, please translate. What is your issue with how I understand the absolution and article 12. Perhaps you could explain how you, as an Anglican understand the relationship between justification/salvation and works.

    • Angela,

      The Anglican Articles are very clear on these issues.

      XI. Of the Justification of Man.
      We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only, is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.

      XII. Of Good Works.
      Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s judgment; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.

      XIII. Of Works before Justification.
      Works done before the grace of Christ, and the Inspiration of his Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ; neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or (as the School-authors say) deserve grace of congruity: yea rather, for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin.

      XIV. Of Works of Supererogation.
      Voluntary Works besides, over and above, God’s Commandments, which they call Works of Supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety: for by them men do declare, that they do not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for his sake, than of bounden duty is required: whereas Christ saith plainly When ye have done all that are commanded to you, say, We are unprofitable servants.

      XVIII. Of obtaining eternal Salvation only by the Name of Christ.
      They also are to be had accursed that presume to say, That every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth, so that he be diligent to frame his life according to that Law, and the light of Nature. For Holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.

      XXXI. Of the one Oblation of Christ finished upon the Cross.
      The Offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone. Wherefore the sacrifices of Masses, in the which it was commonly said, that the Priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, were blasphemous fables, and dangerous deceits.

      The (39) Anglican Articles are Protestant. Anglicans do not confess a “two-stage” justification nor do they confess that salvation is maintained by good works, nor do they teach a final salvation through faith and works. Anglicans do confess that we are justified (once) through faith alone and the good works are the fruit of faith. They do no justify nor is there any mention of salvation through works.

      The declaration of absolution in morning prayer reflects this confession and is not substantially different from the the language used in Strasbourg and in Heidelberg.

  10. Thank you, Dr. Clark. That is exactly the point I have been trying to make, that the Anglican understanding accords with the Reformed understanding, that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, and in Christ alone. Sanctification necessarily follows justification but it is never co-instrumental in our salvation.

Comments are closed.