Lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.

1 Thessalonians 2:12

What does it mean to lead a worthy life, a life “worthy of God”? Paul’s New Testament letters have led me to ponder that question again. I have been reading my way through the New Testament and recently finished Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. When I read Paul’s encouragement in Chapter 2 “that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:12), I thought it sounded familiar. I looked it up, and it turns out that this is the fourth letter in a row with a similar statement! It must be pretty important, right? Here they are, in order of their appearance in the New Testament:

Ephesians 4:1 – “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Philippians 1:27 – “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.”

Colossians 1:9-10 – “We have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.”

1 Thessalonians 2:11-12 – “ As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”

What does Paul mean by this? What does it mean to live a worthy life? Well, to figure that out I first looked up the word “worthy” that Paul uses – it is the Greek word “axios.” (It is where we get our English word, axis.) And it literally means “bringing into balance.” When we lead a worthy life, we are leading a life that brings something into balance, but what? Looking back at these four passages, it seems to me that Paul is encouraging us to bring into balance God’s call to us with our response to that call.

God calls us “into his own kingdom and glory.” It is the “calling to which you have been called.” But how will we respond? That is the question that, you might say, hangs in the balance. It starts with God’s call. And that call does not depend on our worthiness, thankfully! But it doesn’t end with God’s call. Because God’s call demands a response, as all calls do. So, how will we respond? Will it be in a way that is worthy of the gospel, that is worthy of our calling, that is worthy of the Lord, “fully pleasing to him,” or not? 

Pondering the call to follow Jesus and to lead a life worthy of this call brought me back to one of my favorite books, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Discipleship” (which when I first read it had the title, “The Cost of Discipleship”). In this book, Bonhoeffer describes our call to follow Jesus as “costly grace”: 

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which has to be asked for, the door at which one has to knock.

It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live. It is costly, because it condemns sin; it is grace, because it justifies the sinner. Above all, grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it costs God the life of God’s Son—“you were bought with a price”—and because nothing can be cheap to us which is costly to God. Above all, it is grace because the life of God’s Son was not too costly for God to give in order to make us live.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Throughout the rest of this powerful book, Bonhoeffer continues to challenge us to respond to the call to follow Jesus, to “lead a life worthy of the calling.” It is not easy, as Bonhoeffer reminds us in many and various ways. And it must be sought again and again, as he also reminds us. But it is the only life truly worth living, because it is the only life built on the costly grace that Jesus came to offer us.

I have long loved this challenging book by Bonhoeffer on the cost of discipleship, but I have also long cherished this follow-up quote from Dallas Willard, about the cost of non-discipleship, which he offers in a more recent book, “The Spirit of the Disciplines”:

It was right [for Bonhoeffer] to point out that one cannot be a disciple of Christ without forfeiting things normally sought in human life, and that one who pays little in the world’s coinage to bear his name has reason to wonder where he or she stands with God. But the cost of nondiscipleship is far greater – even when this life alone is considered – than the price paid to walk with Jesus.

Nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, nondisicpleship costs you exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring (John 10:10).

Dallas Willard

Yes! This is the life worthy of the Lord, and it is the very life that Jesus came to give us. It is this very life, the life of costly grace, to which Jesus calls us. Jesus calls us to die that we might live, to take up our cross and follow him, and discover the costly grace that leads to the life that is truly worthy. 

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