Not every person in every situation should be ministered to in the exact same fashion, and not every sermon preached in every place should emphasize the exact same truths. Take, for instance, Paul’s instruction in 1 Thessalonians 5:14: “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” These instructions provide an invaluable manual for ministry in the Body of Christ. Paul provides three different categories of people that need the truth of God’s Word applied to their life in distinct ways.
First, Paul says to “admonish the idle.” The idle are those who know the truth but refuse to respond to it. Much like a car that is stuck in idle, these individuals remain unresponsive to the truth of God in their spiritual lives. How do we minister to such people? We admonish them. These individuals have spurned the comfort of gospel truth and now need the conviction of reproach in their life. In fact, to comfort such a person in their disobedience would be a detriment to their growth. To put it bluntly, they need a brotherly “kick in the pants” to get them started.
On the other hand, Paul says to “encourage the fainthearted.” The fainthearted is someone who knows the truth and is struggling to respond. They are discouraged by the battle for spiritual growth, but they are still engaged with God’s truth. Whether because of their weakness, immaturities, trials, persecution, or afflictions, they are deflated in their spiritual life. This person does not need admonishment, he needs encouragement. He does not need to be held accountable to God’s requirements; he is well aware of his obligation before God. What he needs is a reminder of the grace God has supplied for him as he seeks to move forward in imperfect obedience. He needs someone to walk with him as he pursues the means of grace and strives for obedience when he doesn’t feel like obeying. He is neither ignorant nor indifferent to God’s truth—he is struggling to live by God’s truth and needs a brotherly embrace.
Paul supplies one last category when he says, “help the weak.” The weak person is an individual who is not living according to the truth because he does not know the truth. More precisely, this includes those who do not yet understand the implications God’s Word has for their lives and have not developed the deep convictions they will need to walk in holiness. You cannot admonish or encourage this person with the truth because he does not know the truth. So what do you do? You help this individual by explaining the truth—with all of its implications— to him. It is not that he is indifferent or discouraged, he is just ignorant and needs brotherly instruction.
In each of these categories the goal is the same, a life submitted to God’s revealed will (1 Thess 4:3). In other words, each of these individuals needs the same thing: truth. What is unique about each of the individuals is distinct manner in which the truth should be applied to distinct individuals. It would be a mistake to prescribe gospel comfort, or spiritual conviction, or basic instruction for every person in all situations. Wise discipleship must acknowledge this reality and apply God’s truth with great care, even recognizing that sometimes an individual can fit into more than one of these categories. In part, this is what it means to speak the truth in love—our articulation of the truth must be fitted for the spiritual good of the one we are addressing.
By the way, did you notice that Paul ended his brief manual on ministry by instructing his readers to “be patient with them all.” The reason Christians need patience is because we are always going to struggle for spiritual growth. At times we will need the full weight of God’s law to jar us into action, other times we will need the full comfort of the gospel to encourage us to keep fighting, and frequently we simply need to be shown what that Bible teaches about something to obey. But no matter what situation our soul might be in, we will always need patience.
Paul Shirley is a graduate of The Expositors Seminary and has served as the pastor of Grace Community Church in Wilmington, Delaware since 2011.