SCRIPTURE ANNOUNCEMENT & INTRODUCTION
We said this morning the pursuit of holiness demands an all-out, 100% effort, fueled by the power of the cross and the resurrection, the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, who has given us new hearts and is re-fashioning those hearts to be like Christ. In this pursuit of holiness, we need practical, powerful strategies for the day-in, day-out battles that we face as we seek to put sin to death and become more and more alive to God’s will.
I just got back from a conference for church planters held at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, where John Piper is the senior pastor. Out in the foyer of the church they had some books for sale, and on the book table was a packet of Bible verses to memorize, and on the front of the packet it has the title “fighter verses.” That’s the mindset we want for this evening’s message. This text provides us with “fighter verses.”
This battle for holiness is a fight to the death. Our souls are at stake, the Lord’s honor is at stake, our families are at stake, and our usefulness in the kingdom is at stake. We need every possible weapon in our arsenal to wage this war against the flesh, against the enemy’s temptation, and against our world’s obsession with sexual immorality.
By the way, throughout the sermon I’ll be mostly using sexual immorality as the example of a sin that needs to be fought, because that’s the particular sin that Paul focuses on in verses 3-8. In verses 1-2 he set out the more general principle of holiness, and then he applies it to sexual purity. But of course as we go through these weapons they can certainly be applied to almost any sin, so I would encourage you to apply this text to the particular sins that you most frequently have to fight. Take to heart the arguments that we will seek to mount against sin.
We already made our textual comments this morning, but let us once again hear God’s Word from 1 Thessalonians 4.1-8…
So we want to store up in our hearts and minds as many weapons as possible, and when I say weapons, I have in mind the storing up of reasons, motivations, arguments that we can call to mind in the moment of choice, when we are faced with those choices we described this morning, those moments when we are confronted with the question, “Who am I going to please? Am I going to please God, or am I going to please myself?”
The battle is intense no matter if you are just starting out in the Christian life, or if you have been a Christian for many years. The enemies that are arrayed against the life of holiness – worldly ways of thinking, our own flesh, our own sinful desires, and the devil himself – are always crouching at the door. The battle plan is the same at every stage of the Christian life. As one US military officer in Iraq said, “Basic training ends on the day you retire.”
There are at least four key arguments that Paul makes here as he urges the Thessalonians to a life of holiness. He points these young Christians to the following things.
- God’s authority
- God’s justice
- God’s call
- God’s Spirit
First, God’s Authority.
We respond differently to instruction or advice or commands depending on the source. If I tell you out in the foyer my opinion about the US economy, or I suggest to you that interest rates might be going up, you ought to take that with a grain of salt, because I know nothing about economics, and I don’t have any significant way to effect such a change. But if you receive a knock on your front door, and there standing in front of you is Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, and he proceeds to tell you his thoughts about the likelihood of a change in the interest rates, you would take that very seriously. Not only does Mr. Bernanke know what he is talking about, he also has the authority and the power to effect that change.
If one of my daughters issues a command to one of the other girls, you can bet that the recipient will not embrace that command. It will be resented and disregarded. But if mommy or daddy issues the same command, they know that it must be obeyed.
That same dynamic is important for us to see in the text before us, because when it comes to the issue of sexual purity, often people will say, “Well, that’s just your opinion,” or “that was just Paul’s teaching for his day and it doesn’t apply to us today in our culture.” But the reality is that here in God’s Word, the standard for sexual purity is not man’s opinion, it is not just Paul’s opinion, and there is no indication whatsoever here that what is being said about sexual purity is culturally bound. This transcends culture, and it is a divine command.
Paul says in verse 1 that he is asking them and urging them “in the Lord Jesus” – meaning, with the full authority of Christ. Paul is the Lord’s servant, entrusted with the authoritative commands. It’s also worth noting that the phrase which the ESV renders “how you ought to live” and the NIV has simply “how to live,” could actually be translated, “how it is necessary for you to live” or “how you must live” – it’s a very strong statement. And in verse two, Paul uses an unusual word for “instructions,” a word that normally occurs in a military context, for the commands that an officer would give to his men. So in a number of ways, Paul makes the point that these are the authoritative instructions from the commanding officer himself, the Lord Jesus Christ.
He also says in verse eight that if we ignore this calling, this sacred obligation that we have to glorify God with our bodies, then we are disregarding not man, but God. The verb translated as “disregard” in verse 8 carries the idea of “holding something as null and void” – to treat something as if it were invalid or nonexistent, or not worthy of recognition.
If we disregard or ignore these commands about sexual purity, we are treating Almighty God as one who doesn’t even exist, who is not worthy of recognition. We are treating God as though he were of no significance, as though our desires were all that mattered. You see how evil, how wicked a thing it is to disregard these commands, something that should be repulsive to anyone who loves God, who wants to bring glory to the name of Christ, who wants to bring our heavenly Father great joy as He looks down upon his children.
We live before the face of God. In every situation, it is God with whom we are chiefly dealing. He is the main factor, and that ought to weigh on us and shape our conduct. We ought to fight sin because God commands it.
Second, we should fight sin because of the justice of God.
Sometime a person will say, “Well my sexual problem – whether Internet pornography or illicit emails or private fantasy – doesn’t affect anyone else. It is a private thing, it’s not doing damage to my family or to my brothers and sisters in Christ.” Sometimes people will argue that an adulterous affair is justifiable on the basis that the participants are “consenting adults” or that the marriages that are being violated aren’t really true marriages because there is no love, and the marriage bond has long since ceased to hold any real value, but is only an empty shell or a formality.
Paul’s teaching here undercuts all of those lines of thinking. Sexual immorality always impacts someone else. The language that Paul uses here conveys the sense of defrauding someone. There is always someone else that you are wronging – whether someone’s spouse, or the person himself or herself, or someone’s future spouse. Even in private fantasy which is often excused as harmless, a man is sinning against his spouse or against his future spouse, or against women in general, thinking of them in a way that views them in a way that makes a mockery of the dignity and honor due creatures made in God’s image.
And of course, often the impact is quite tangible. One single episode of sexual immorality can wreak absolute havoc on a person’s life, family, business, children, grandchildren, and so on. And there is a devastating impact on one’s own life. It cheapens you, it dehumanizes you, it makes you less and less the person that you were created to be.
Above all, it provokes the Lord’s vengeance upon sin. If you look at the second half of verse six, it’s as if he is saying, “Sexual sin is an act of injustice against someone – whether your spouse, or someone else’s spouse, or your future spouse, or another brother or sister in the Lord, and the Lord will not allow that act of injustice to go unpunished. God’s justice demands that he avenge the wrongdoing.” Paul is saying, “We told you about this. We came into this culture of sexual license, where promiscuity is seen as a relatively harmless thing, and we solemnly warned you that the wrath of God is coming because of these things.”
The Lord Jesus will come as the avenging Judge, exacting his perfect justice upon those who practice these things. Paul says in Ephesians 5.5-6:
For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.
The idea that “no one is getting hurt” by sexual immorality is ludicrous. It’s not just that relationships are damaged, and that one’s humanity is cheapened by sexual sin. Above all, sexual sin will incur the holy vengeance of Almighty God. And that holds true for all sin that goes unchecked without repentance. We ought to remind ourselves frequently of God’s holy hatred for sin. We should fight sin because of the justice of God.
We’ve seen so far God’s authority, and God’s justice.
Now, as a third argument to mount against sin, we can speak of God’s call.
Verse seven is a statement that really summarizes the entire passage – “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.” The greatest motivation for us to pursue holiness is that God has personally and effectually called us to himself. We belong to Him. Paul says in verse five, “You’re not like those who do not know God, and are subject to the whims of their passions of lust.” You know God! You’re not in darkness; you’re in the light. You’re not a slave to the flesh. You’ve been given a new life!
You may recall the story from last summer about a former Army Ranger who masterminded a Tacoma bank robbery. I was reminded of this story, because they just last week they capture the man up in British Columbia. Last summer, four men stormed a Bank of America branch armed with AK-47s and semiautomatic handguns. They were wearing body armor in case they got into a shootout with police, and they made off with about $50,000.
These men had a particular calling. They had gone through intensive training to fight with great skill as Army Rangers, but instead of putting that training to use for good, they twisted the calling, putting it to a completely different use. They abused their calling.
As Christians we are soldiers with a particular calling, a calling unto holiness. We should frequently remind ourselves of this, to stir our hearts in the fight against sin.
The fourth and final weapon or argument in this text that we can use as a motivation for holiness is the presence of God’s Spirit.
The word order in the Greek of verse eight puts a special emphasis on the fact that the Spirit of God is holy. The Spirit is the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes Christians speak of being led by the Spirit, and usually when we say that, we often in mind the guidance of the Spirit in connection with making plans or making decisions, about having peace about where God is leading you. But it’s interesting that in the two places in the NT where it is said that believers are “led by the Spirit” – the context isn’t really talking about that kind of leading:
For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. [and then Paul goes on to list some examples of the works of the flesh, and the fruit of the Spirit]
In both of those places, the only two places in the NT where we find the phrase “led by the Spirit” applied to the believer, the immediate context has to do with fighting sin and being alive to righteousness, in other words, the fight for holiness. If you belong to Jesus, you have been given the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in you, enabling you to put sin to death.
We’ve seen four weapons in this text, four arguments we can mount against sin. Four lines of reasoning that we can remind ourselves of in the moment of temptation: God’s authority, God’s justice, God’s call, and God’s Spirit. Those are powerful weapons. But I want to conclude by drawing your attention to an even more powerful weapon.
A minute ago we spoke of the only two places in the NT where we find the phrase “led by the Spirit applied to the believer. But if you do a NT search for that phrase “led by the Spirit” you will get four hits. We mentioned two of them – Romans 8, Galatians 5. What are the other two?
The other two are parallel texts – Matthew 4, and Luke 4. Here is Luke 4.1:
“And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness….”
Jesus faced the ultimate, head-on battle with the tempter, the devil himself. He was tempted in every way during the course of his earthly life. And he withstood every temptation. He fought every battle. He died to every sin, and was always fully alive to the will of his Father.
And yet, the Sinless One, the Holy One, who always obeyed the Father’s will, was condemned as a criminal and was executed on a cross, taking upon himself not only the judgment of the Roman government, but the ultimate judgment, the wrath of God. He took that judicial punishment not for any sins that he had committed, but for our sins. He was delivered up to death for our trespasses, but then gloriously raised for our justification.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
(READ the rest of Romans 8.1-14 – end on “all who are led by the Spirit are sons of God”)
Brothers and sisters – I want to again ask you and urge you, as I did this morning, to make a fresh commitment to the pursuit of holiness. Let the love of the crucified and risen Lord compel you and control you – so that you might no longer live for yourself, but for him who died and was raised. Amen.