It must have pleased the Apostle Paul, in writing to the churches, to be able to express thanks to God for what had been accomplished in them and through them.
To the Roman believers he wrote:
“First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world” (Rom. 1:8).
The Ephesian epistle appears to have been an encyclical letter. At least it is the most impersonal of all his letters, so we would not expect it to contain any such word of commendation as the above.
To the Philippians, however, he exclaimed:
“I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making request with joy” (Phil. 1:3,4).
What a church they were! Every time he thought of them it was with thanksgiving! Every time he prayed for them it was with joy! How faithful they had been in their witness for Christ; how generous-hearted in their care for him and the work he represented! And in all this they had not changed since “the first day” he had been with them (Phil. 1:5 cf. 4:10-16).
For the Colossian believers too, he thanked God, though he had never seen them, and prayed for them without ceasing:
“Since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus, and of the love which ye have to all the saints” (Col. 1:4).
To the beloved Thessalonians too, he could write with joy:
“We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers;
“Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father” (I Thes. 1:2,3).
And their faith and love and patience of hope had all grown by the time he wrote his second epistle to them (See II Thes. 1:3,4). How such demonstrations of the Spirit’s working must have gladdened the apostle’s heart!
But what is this we find in the salutation to the Corinthian believers, in I Corinthians 1:4? Here he is very cautious, as he writes:
“I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ.”
Note carefully: He does not say he thanks God for the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. He rather thanks God on their behalf, that God has been so gracious to them.
This was a letter of reproof, and II Corinthians the follow-up. God had saved them and had enriched them with various supernatural gifts of the Spirit, but these gifts had caused them to become puffed up and contentious and careless about their conduct as Christians.
So the apostle thanks God only for the grace given to them, and earnestly reproves, rebukes, and exhorts them to honor the Lord Jesus Christ in their lives. What more could he say?
As we come to the salutation to “the churches of Galatia,” we are struck with the total absence of any word of commendation. As with all the churches, he wishes them grace and peace, but then immediately launches into a stern message of reproof and disputation. Indeed, he does not hide from them his deep misgivings over their spiritual condition, saying: “I am afraid of [concerning] you, lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain…I stand in doubt of you” (Gal. 4:11,20).
As with the Corinthian believers, so with the Galatians, we ask: What else could he do? What more could he say? Should he have praised them when they had “fallen from grace,” when “the blessedness” they once had known had been forfeited for a legal program that God had set aside?
And what about us, my friend: you and me? What if the Apostle Paul, that faithful warrior for “the preaching of Jesus Christ according to the revelation of the mystery”—what if he were to write to us today? Could he salute us with joy and with thanks to God for our testimony, or for our faithfulness and generosity toward the Lord’s work, or for our faith, love and patience of hope? Or would he have to write cautiously, knowing how little we deserved such commendation, or, worse still, would he have for us only words of reproof, rebuke and exhortation, standing in anxious doubt of our very salvation?
May God help us to face up to these matters thoughtfully and prayerfully, and to act upon them with resolution, so that any letter from Paul to us would contain those blessed words:
“I thank my God upon every remembrance of you.”