Sanctification, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-3

“Sanctification”

1 Thessalonians 4:1-3

July 31, 2022

The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn

Text Comment

v.3       You are familiar with Paul’s use of the term “walk” to mean “way of life, conduct, or behavior.” We are, he writes elsewhere to “walk worthy of the calling we have received,” or “not to walk as unbelievers do,” and so on. But this morning I want to draw your attention to “more and more.” These Christians were living the Christian life, but Paul urges them to do so more and more. That is, to live still more consistently as the followers of Jesus Christ, to please him more and more by their thoughts, words, and deeds.

In the sermons I have preached here from time to time since my retirement, I have concentrated on some of the fundamental themes of the Bible. These have been subject sermons; that is, not expositions of a particular text of Holy Scripture, but rather of one of its doctrines or subjects, indeed one of the Bible’s “fundamental subjects,” if you will. For example, I’ve considered human sin; the presupposition of everything in the Bible’s teaching about salvation. I’ve examined the Bible’s teaching of the new birth; that is, how salvation begins in a human life, and so on. Today I want to take up the subject of the moral renewal of our lives, our transformation from sinful living to righteous living that is one of the great purposes of God’s grace, the result of that grace in human life, and a principal theme of the Bible. This moral renewal in Christian theology is usually referred to as “sanctification,” or “making holy,” and so my choice of a text this morning. This is one of the few places in the Bible in which the actual term “sanctification” is used to refer to that moral renewal. J.C. Ryle, the Anglican champion of biblical Christianity in the 19th century, defined this moral renewal as “the increase in the degree, size, strength, vigour, and power of the graces which the Holy Spirit plants in a believer’s heart.” [Cited in Rogers, A Tender Lion, 166 (from Holiness). Put that way, we may say that sanctification is the fulfillment of the promise of the new birth. One is reborn to be a Christian and out of that new nature comes more and more a new way of life.

The Bible refers to the same thing in many different ways of course. Paul teaches that those whom God saves through Christ are his workmanship, created to do good works. That is the objective side of sanctification, God’s intention and God’s work within his people transforming them from one sort of people into another. He saved us to make us holy; pure, good, and loving! Sanctification is not the forgiveness of our sins; it is the increasing eradication of sin in our lives. This moral transformation is what Robert Murray McCheyne called “the better half of salvation.” Christ didn’t die simply to get us off the hook, to free us from the punishment our sins deserved; he died to make us good; he died to transform us into the people we ought to be.

Then, Paul, speaking of himself as a Christian, says that he presses on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of him; that he has forgotten what is behind and strains forward for what is ahead. That is the subjective side of sanctification, every Christian’s effort to put on a righteous life and to do so more and more; to put his or her sins more and more to death and to strive more and more to live a godly life, or, as Peter put it, “to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord.” What that means, of course, in practice, is that we must grow more and more in faith – which is the master wheel that moves all the other graces – and more and more in love, which is what all the other graces are at their root. The deeper the faith, the greater the love; the deeper the faith and the greater the love, the more like Christ we will become. So, it is a fixed law: because sanctification is the purpose of God’s grace in our lives, because it is nothing less than becoming more and more like Christ, it becomes our most sacred obligation to devote ourselves to the pursuit of that sanctification in our daily lives, every day, all our lives.

Moreover, the Bible teaches us in many ways that God always sanctifies those he saves. “Without holiness no one will see the Lord,” we read in Hebrews 12. And the Lord in his Sermon on the Mount put it more strongly still: they and only they who do the will of God will enter the kingdom of heaven. Forgiveness is one thing and moral transformation is another, but in the salvation of sinners they are always found together. You can distinguish them; but you cannot separate them.

I don’t have to prove to you that the whole Bible is preoccupied with the different life God’s people are to live; so different from the lives of those who do not know and follow Jesus Christ. The Bible everywhere teaches us and then shows us both what that life is to be and how it is to be lived. Most simply, it is God’s will that you and I be more and more conformed to the image of his Son; to become more like Jesus himself. Peter reminds us, remember, that Jesus “left us an example that we might follow in his steps.” One does this by loving God and keeping his commandments. Holy Scripture is chock full of illustrations of both the failure and the success of God’s people to live like Jesus, both their moral tragedies and their triumphs. And all of those illustrations are meant to warn us or inspire us, to teach us how important it is, how necessary, and how beautiful it is to live a godly life.

But, I also don’t need to prove to you that here too, as in regard to so much of the experience of salvation in any believer’s life, there are difficulties, confusions, and deep mysteries. There is much that the Bible does not say and does not explain. You may be aware – at least some of you – how many controversies have been spawned through the years by the Bible’s teaching of sanctification: controversies about what a holy life is exactly and controversies about how such a life is to be achieved. Even in our Bible-believing Presbyterian circles, sanctification has again, of late, become an issue. In the present dispute regarding believing homosexuals, a dispute that has roiled our church in recent days, the very definition of sanctification, as well as its experience in a Christian’s life, have become newly controversial. Questions are being asked. Questions like these: can Christians say, as many earnest Christians who struggle with same sex desire say (as do many who struggle with sinful heterosexual desires), that their sinful inclinations, such as same sex desire, are deeply rooted in their psyche and, in this life, are unlikely to change? Is that a failure to take God’s promise of sanctification or our duty to pursue it seriously? Can Christians say that they can only prepare for a lifetime of resistance to those sinful passions that come naturally to him or to her? In such a case, is sanctification not the eradication of sinful desires, but simply the courage and spiritual strength to say “No” to them? By thinking so are we denying God’s power to transform us and make us holy?

So, this morning, my purpose is not simply to remind you that God intends to purify your life; that it was always his purpose to remake you from sinner to saint, and that it thus becomes your sacred duty, every day, to bend your efforts to become a more faithful, useful, a more holy man or woman. My purpose is to go deeper and, only briefly of course, to explore the many-sided experience of sanctification in the life of God’s people.

Our Shorter Catechism defines sanctification this way: “Sanctification is a 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.” That “more and more” comes from our text this morning, 1 Thessalonians 4:1. As a general definition, that suffices. However, as any thoughtful Christian and careful reader of the Bible knows, the reality is a great deal more complex and complicated than that! It is not the case that Christians grow gradually, steadily more holy as they live their lives in this world, as the Catechism might be taken to suggest. The fact is, as the Bible teaches us and as we all know, there is nothing gradual about sanctification and its arc is hardly steadily upward.

In the life of most Christians there is nothing gradually upward about our spiritual progress. Our moral life is a long, sometimes painful, series of ups and down, of successes and failures, of sin and repentance, of foolishness giving way to wisdom and, alas, sometimes of the reverse. What is more, times of progress and times of regress are often separated by, what seems to us anyway, to be plateaus in which very little happens. In my experience, and that of many others, while much of what the Holy Spirit is doing in our lives must happen below the surface, deep within our hearts, much of which is invisible and insensible to us, at least on the surface, at least where we can see our sanctification and measure it, it happens not gradually, but violently; in crises: crises of failure and repentance, of temptation and obedience, crises of illumination, sometimes crises of ecstasy and the joy of salvation, or contrarily, crises of disappointment, doubt, and spiritual anxiety.

What is more, progress is not inevitable and the sad fact, confessed by many faithful, godly Christians is that we can lose the holiness we once obtained and finish our course at a lower level of spiritual achievement than we once enjoyed. The Bible is candid about this sad reality and gives us examples. David was not the man after God’s own heart at the end of his life to the extent that he had been years before. Solomon’s spiritual life collapsed almost altogether in his later years. Asa, so faithful a king of Judah early in his reign, was a deep disappointment by the end. So was Hezekiah, perhaps Judah’s greatest king. And a great many thoughtful believers have admitted the same about themselves. They may be much wiser, in some ways much sounder Christians than they were when they were young in the faith; but they have lost their zeal; their passion for God does not burn as it once did. They have more light but, alas, they have less heat. I will tell you that I think this is true of me. I treasure the wisdom and discretion that long experience of the Bible and the Christian life have given me, but I want back the first love. I have read so many Christians of the past saying a similar thing. Richard Greenham, a 16th century Puritan and, like many Puritans, a master of Christian psychology, said of himself that it was very difficult for him to “keep together his older discretion and his young zeal.” [Sermons of Christopher Love, 92] That is my difficulty as well. I suspect some of you, perhaps many of you, would say the same.

And then there is this. It isn’t the case that all our sinful desires gradually weaken and then disappear to be replaced by holy ones. It has been the united testimony of the Christian ages that, while some desires may be once and for all eradicated by the grace of God, others we drag with us as if a ball and chain to our dying day. After all, it was the Apostle Paul himself, so great a Christian man as that and so favored with the power of the Holy Spirit, who, far nearer the end of his Christian life than its beginning, admitted that he remained a bondslave to at least some of his sinful desires. Even then, 30 years into his believing life and his apostleship, he was still doing what his true self did not want to do and failing to do what his true self wanted to do. Even then he acknowledged the still great power of his sinful desires by saying that, even wanting to be holy as much as he did, he remained far too much a captive to his love of sin.

There is no man of Christian history who I admire more than the Scottish theologian and pastor of the late 17th and early 18th century, Thomas Boston. I would enjoy, if I could, spending a great deal of time telling you about his life and why it is I admire him so much. He was a man who suffered greatly but who served the Lord with an astonishing faithfulness. Near the end of his life, when he knew that he was not long for this world, Boston, serious Christian that he was, conducted an end-of-life self-examination. He was a man who took salvation and eternity seriously! If he was to die, then he wanted to be sure he was ready to die.

First, over the course of some days, he went over the gospel piece by piece in prayer before God and once again confessed his faith in every part of it: his sin, God’s love, Christ’s sacrifice, faith and repentance, forgiveness and sanctification, and the promise of eternal life. He believed it all! Then he went over the covenants he had made with the Lord through the course of his life. That was something they did in those days: writing out a set of confessions of their faith, of their promises to God, of their willing dependence upon his grace and love. Almost a sort of formal contract with God. In effect, Boston took each one of them out of the drawer, read them over, and re-signed each one. He was as committed to the Lord then as ever he had been when younger. In effect, he, in his own words, took “hold of God’s covenant of grace, for life and salvation to me, with my whole heart…and rising up from prayer, I stood, and lifting up my eyes to the Lord, I silently read before him the acceptance I had written, and subscribed it with my hand.” [Memoirs, 396] That was followed by a lengthy and detailed confession of his sins. He wished to hide nothing of his moral failure from the Lord, but to confess it all and ask once again for God’s forgiveness.

But, then, comes this. One of the most remarkable few pages I have ever read. What of his besetting sin? What of his failure to overcome it? Could this cancel everything else that he had so far said and done? Did not God say that to him who overcomes God will give a place in Paradise? But Boston had not overcome this sin! He had mentioned his besetting sin many times throughout his Memoirs. He had never identified it, but he did not deny that the story of his Christian life would be seriously incomplete without including it. It was, he said, “the special continued trial of the most part of my life” and that it “had often threatened to baffle all my evidences for heaven, as being the one thing lacking.” [Memoirs, 399]

Then comes one of the most illuminating exercises in spiritual theology you will ever read. He listed 5 reasons why he believed that his failure to overcome this sinful desire did not mean that he was not a true Christian, did not mean he was not a true child of God, not a true heir of eternal life, and did not mean that sanctification had not really happened in his life. And interestingly, he didn’t list among his reasons those we might have expected him to, such as the fact that in Holy Scripture even the finest saints struggle with sinful desires to the end of their days. These were his reasons.

  1. He sincerely desired to be rid of this desire and to live in this dimension of his life as in all others as would please Jesus Christ.
  2. He had sometimes enjoyed victory over this temptation from spiritual principles and motives, out of his love for and loyalty to God.
  3. Though it often had held him down, he was heartily ashamed of himself for that. The recollection of that fact was the main reason why the review that he had been making of his life was so loathsome and shameful to him. And, in that way, it had made him more anxious to have Christ and Christ’s salvation. He knew and he continued to feel his desperate need for God’s grace. His sin, deeply wrong as it was, had this good effect!
  4. He could tell the Lord from his heart, as the Lord was his witness, that he would rather have a cross of Christ’s choosing for him than a crown of his own choosing for himself. And,
  5. He could say with complete honesty that he would always have been willing to abandon this sin altogether and would always have been satisfied to have God and Christ without that sin but never to be satisfied with that sin without God and Christ. In other words, at any time, day or night, if the Lord had told him that, if Boston really wanted to be free of the sin, he would take away that sin, though it would cost him something, Boston would have said in a heartbeat “Yes, Lord, take it away; whatever it takes!”

All of this led him to the conclusion – an absolutely fair conclusion given the whole of the Bible’s teaching – that he loved God in Christ above all, that he loved God more than he loved his sin, and that he was not a hypocrite. He was simply weaker than he wanted to be and than he should have been. Here was a great Christian man, and there have been a great many like him – indeed, every great Christian man or woman is like him in just this way – who admitted that he would leave this world with some sinful desires still powerfully waging war against his new life in Christ. The wearying battle would continue to the end of his days. The new Christian is rarely prepared to understand that sanctification will be like that!

But there is still more that is mysterious about sanctification. 1) There is so much in any Christian’s life that only God can measure. There are those whose start in life was so hurtful – the family in which they were raised, the abuse they may have suffered – leaving scars that never go away in this world. So many homosexuals, for example, have been sinned against, sinned against greatly, and must carry with them through life the consequences of the sins of others. 2) Much depends upon the culture, the time and the place in which a Christian lives. For some, righteousness is made so much more difficult by the evil of their times. Many Christian lives have been diminished by the weakness of the church when and where they lived. The teaching they were given was poor. The examples of other Christians weighed them down instead of lifting them up. 3) Other believers suffer so much affliction in their lives, troubles and pains that preoccupy them year after year: illness of body or mind, the loss of loved ones, massive disappointments in life, war, famine, poverty, and persecution; while others live in comfort, amid pleasures that weaken and enervate the soul. Only the Lord knows how to calculate all of this; only he can measure the sanctification of a believer’s life; how much there was; how much more there should have been; how difficult his or her path to holiness. To whom much is given much is required, we read, but who knows but God how much or how little has been given to each and every Christian.

Then consider this. The Bible makes clear, perhaps more often than you realize, that in regard to a righteous or holy life, some Christians have more of it than others. There are those who will receive a great reward and there are those who will be saved, but as through fire, with their work in the world burned up because of its poor quality. So we read in 1 Cor 3. There are theological depths here, I admit; much that we struggle to understand. There is Christ’s perfect righteousness, but there is also our very imperfect righteousness, and that, the Bible teaches unmistakably, is measured too.

I read over my recent vacation Ron Chernow’s magisterial biography of Ulysses S. Grant. And I was arrested by a remark of Abraham Lincoln, when asked whether he ever doubted the North’s final victory in the Civil War. “Never for a moment,” he replied. And then he quoted William Seward, his Secretary of State, saying “that there was always just enough virtue in this republic to save it; sometimes none to spare but still enough to meet the emergency.” [479] Well, the Christian life of some believers, I think, must be like that. How much holiness must we have to see the Lord? Well, for some there will be just enough. If we must do the will of God to enter heaven, as the Lord Jesus says we must, how much of his will must we do? There will be some, the Bible seems to say, who will have done just enough. Again, deep and in some ways unanswerable questions here, but it is what the Bible says again and again when speaking of a believer’s life. It matters how we live! It matters for time, and it matters for eternity. Sanctification is not an extra, it is part and parcel of salvation itself! And every Christian has his or her measure of it.

And what should we do with all of this? As we ponder the Bible’s straightforward teaching that God intends to change us and that we are duty bound to seek that change with might and main; to read the Bible for it, to pray for it, and to practice it; that we are never to content ourselves with some holiness, but are to seek it more and more; I say, what should we do with all of this mystery, all of this Christian experience that is so much more complicated than we might first have imagined it to be?

Well, the one thing you cannot do, must not do, and would do to your peril and the peril of all who depend upon you for a genuinely devout, faithful Christian life, I say the one thing you cannot do is to think “Well, if I can get to heaven with less than perfect righteousness, I need to stop worrying about my lack of godliness and relax. I believe in Jesus; I’ll be fine. After all, every Christian remains a great sinner until the day of his or her death. I’m never going to kill all my sins, so why spend my life trying and failing?”

Read again the Lord Jesus at the conclusion of his Sermon on the Mount. Read again his teaching in Matthew 25: the parables of the wise and foolish virgins and the separation of the sheep and the goats. And read again the Apostle Paul in 1 Cor 9, who, though a far, far godlier man than you, said nevertheless that he beat his body and made it his slave lest having preached to others, he himself be disqualified from the prize. No one who takes the Bible seriously, no one who realizes what is at stake in salvation, no one who gives a thought to eternity, and to heaven and hell will think it wise, will even think it possible to ignore the Bible’s “more and more” and content himself or herself with less and less. As John Duncan, Scotland’s famous, “Rabbi” Duncan, tartly put it:

“Christ came to save the contrasts of Himself; but not to leave them such. There’s nobody perfect: that’s the believer’s bed of thorns; that’s the hypocrite’s couch of ease.” [Moody Stuart, Life of John Duncan, 166]

Or as an English Puritan warned: “The garments of Christ’s righteousness must never be made a cloak of sin.” [William Woodward in The Grace of Law, 208] It is one thing to struggle with our sinful desires, even to suffer from repeated defeats. It is another thing altogether to give up the struggle in hopes that it won’t matter to God when he has said so plainly that it matters to him very much! There is a great, great difference between a deserter and a prisoner of war! There can be no justification for you to do less rather than more and more. And there is every reason for you to press on to take hold of that for which Christ took hold of you! Think of the reasons: God’s love, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for you; your loved ones; your responsibility for Christ’s reputation in the world; and what you are going to want so much to have done when you are on the threshold of eternity.

But it is something else I want to leave with you this morning in thinking about sanctification and Paul’s “more and more.” Thinking about how incomplete our sanctification remains; considering how poorly we so often live as the followers of Jesus Christ – he having done so much for us and we doing so little for him – remembering how often we have fallen prey to sinful desires and then later regretted our pathetic weakness; it leads us to wonder, surely it does, why God puts up with us, why he is willing to have us on such terms. C.S. Lewis in his The Problem of Pain, refers to this as “God’s humility.” If God were proud, he said, he would hardly have us on such terms, having made such terrible sacrifices for us and we so unwilling to make comparatively minor sacrifices for him. But God never stops loving us or working for us and in us; he forgives us no matter our countless transgressions of his will. We may far, far too often demonstrate that we seem to prefer almost any other thing to him, but he never prefers anything to us! That, brothers and sisters, is love! And that is the greatest mystery of sanctification! That it should happen at all to people like us! And if we only would remember that we would say “No!” to sinful desires much less often than we do.

Let J.S. Bach be our example and our model. His work is the perfect illustration of sanctification, of Paul’s “more and more.” He would write J.J. at the top of his manuscripts, “Jesu Juva.” That means, “Help me, Jesus.” At the bottom he wrote the letters S, D, G. Soli Deo Gloria; to God be the glory. But, he never stopped working on a piece. With every new performance of his work – some of the finest music ever written – he would make corrections. Even his most famous work, his most beautiful work was being improved more and more.

You are Christian people. You have come some way in your Christian life. But there is much more distance to travel. “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” “More and more; always, more and more. I remember that our Dr. Buswell, the first Professor of Theology in our Covenant Theological Seminary, an old man then and recovering in the hospital from a stroke, was found by a friend drilling himself by flipping through Hebrew vocabulary cards in his hospital bed. Right to the end he was at work mastering the Word of God. Well, let it be said of all of us that we were doing more and more to follow Jesus until the last breath escaped our lips! Here’s then a motto for your life and mine: “More and more!”

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