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“Sanctification” 1 Thess. 4:1-3a August 6, 1995
We have been away from 1 Thessalonians for these past four weeks and so let me remind you where we are in the letter. Chapters 1-3 are really complete in themselves and Paul’s letter to the Thessalonian Christians might well have ended with the prayer that ends chapter 3. His two chief objects in writing to them have now been accomplished: he has assured them of his love and interest in their welfare and explained why he has, so far, been unable to return to see them; and, he has provided a defense of his ministry there from the accusations that the enemies of the gospel have brought against him in his absence.
All of this is in the indicative. Now he moves to the imperative, from narrative to exhortation.
He has received word from Timothy of some confusion in the church on the subject of Christ’s second coming and so he will include some instruction on that point. But, before he does that, he offers some general exhortations on the Christian life and urges them on in that holiness and purity and goodness that is to be the mark of Christ’s followers in the world.
We should not begin to consider Paul’s specific exhortations without first paying some attention to the fact that, in all his letters, Paul lays such stress and emphasis on ethics, on Christian behavior. We live in a day, brothers and sisters, when Christians as a whole largely neglect this area of the Bible’s teaching both in doctrine and in practice. You virtually never hear a sermon on Christian ethics on Christian television and Christians in Bible-believing churches are hearing such sermons more and more infrequently. There are exceptions, of course. Abortion still receives a great deal of attention. And Christian television does emphasize the ethics of tithing! And we continue to hear that we are to love one another and bear with one another’s weaknesses. But most of the subjects Paul characteristically raises in his ethical sections are getting less and less attention.
The result is that our community — we Christians in the world are not — as a matter of simple and tragic fact — conspicuous for our manner of life: for our commitment to justice and social righteousness, for our personal integrity and inflexible honesty in all our dealings, for the circumspect and honorable way in which we do business, run our companies, treat our customers, for the simplicity of our lifestyles and our happy contentment in contrast to the grasping envy and hunger-for-more so common in our consumer society. We are not known any longer, painful as it is to have to say it, for the stability of our homes in which infidelity and divorce are virtually unknown and our children grow up in the secure atmosphere of their parents love. At least in the statistics of marriage and family life nowadays, Jewish families do better than Christians.
There may be several reasons for that but one of them surely is that we do not take with full seriousness the ethical demands of the Christian faith as Paul and the rest of the writers of Scripture taught them. We hear today Christians say that they are not under law but under grace. That is true, gloriously true of real Christians. They are not under law but under grace. But that does not mean they are not obliged to keep the commandments of God, it means rather that their acceptance with God is due not to their own observance of the law but by the righteousness that Christ gives them as a free gift.
Paul never ceased in his teaching, even of very young converts, to insist on the obligations of a holy life as the second half of any true, authentic Christian faith and life. And the church needs to follow Paul in this once again. In our relativistic and pluralist age, when people find it increasingly difficult to believe that they must live only one way, that they must keep commandments that no one else is keeping, that they must behave according to the law of God and not the tastes and standards of our time, when people find it increasingly difficult to accept that such a pure and holy life is even possible, even desirable, much less absolutely required by God, we must return to Paul’s practical, plain-spoken, emphatic insistence on Christian moral behavior.
We must pay attention to the fact that Paul did not and would not end his letter to the Thessalonians, persecuted and downtrodden as they were and young Christians as they were, without once more insisting that their lives be lived in conspicuous obedience to the will of God.
He indicates in this letter that, when he was in Thessalonica and was forming the church there, he spoke plainly of the new life that they must live. In v. 1 he writes: “we instructed you how to live so as to please God;” in v. 2 “you know what instructions we gave you;” in v. 6 “as we have already told you and warned you;” and, earlier in 2:12, “we urged you to live lives worthy of God.”
He further reminds them that in all of this instruction regarding the behavior required of them, he is only reminding them of the Lord’s own teaching and the Lord Jesus’ own commandments: “we urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this;” and, again in v. 2 “these instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.” And, as he begins his specific exhortations: “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified…” It was Jesus Christ himself who said: “If you love me, you will….:
Now Paul is going to remind them in vv. 3-12 of three important aspects of Christian holiness, of that life worthy of God that they have been saved to live, empowered by the Spirit of God to live, called to live, and commanded to live. Those three areas are sexual purity, brotherly love, and a hard-working, honorable quietness and simplicity in one’s public affairs. Next Lord’s Day, Lord willing, we will say something about those three particular areas of Christian ethics.
This morning I want to take up the whole subject of Christian holiness in general, considering Paul’s statement at the beginning of v. 3: “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified…”
Now Paul is going right on to tell them in what particulars he especially is concerned that they be sanctified, but he does not mean that sanctification includes only these matters, sexual purity, brotherly love, and a hard-working and quiet life.
It is God’s will that Christians be made holy or sanctified…in every way! Now sanctification is a large idea in the Bible. The basic idea of this set of words in its biblical usage is that of being set apart to God and for God. The words “holy” and “holiness” come from this same word group. For example, in 3:13, just above, “that you will be holy” is the verb form of the noun translated “sanctification” in 4:3.
The idea of holiness or sanctification is a very important one in the Bible. The Hebrew word group for “holy” occurs nearly 1,000 times in the OT and the Greek word group nearly 300 times in the NT. No wonder! God is holy! That is the most wonderful and distinctive and important fact about him — and it is in this that we who are his children are to be like him. “Be holy,” Jesus said, “for your Father in heaven is holy” which is what Moses had said time and again to Israel.
The general sense of these words — holy, holiness, and sanctification — is always in one way or another that of separation, that of being set apart. God himself is set apart — he is apart from, above, and beyond all his creatures and man especially. The Bible always is urging upon us the recognition of this fact: God’s name, we are told again and again, is “Holy.” The word with reference to God himself suggests all that makes God high above us and worthy of our awe and reverence and service, all that makes God, God — his divine character, his transcendence, his being so far above and beyond us. But it has, in biblical usage, a special application to God’s moral purity and righteousness, especially in contrast with the sinfulness of human beings.
Often we are told in the Bible that God must show himself holy to sinful men, must demonstrate that holiness and cause men to see it, because otherwise, blinded by sin as they are, they will not. And this he does both in the salvation of his people in a way that is consistent with his purity and in the judgment and condemnation and punishment of the wicked.
Our holiness then is to be a reflection of God’s. We are to be holy as he is and our lives are to be a reflection of that separation of God from all that is impure and sinful and wrong. As in God himself it has a negative aspect — our avoidance and rejection of behavior that is impure and sinful — and a positive aspect — our practice of those virtues that we find in God and which he has displayed in his gracious dealings with us: faithfulness, goodness, kindness, mercy, purity, and so on.
Like every other aspect of the Christian life, this holiness is also a gift that God bestows on his children through Jesus Christ. “I, the Lord, sanctify you…” the Lord told his people Israel. “Sanctify them in truth,” the Lord Jesus prayed to his heavenly Father that night in the Upper Room. And, Paul says, God made Christ our sanctification. Christ loved the church, he writes in another place, and gave himself up for her that he might sanctify her.
And we know that this gift of holiness has two dimensions. There is a once-for-all sanctification that occurs when a person first becomes a Christian, when God makes him or her new within, and brings him or her into his fellowship. He separates them to himself, places within them the new principles of a holy nature, and sets them facing a new direction. It is on the strength of this once-for-all sanctification or holiness that all Christians are called “saints” or “holy ones” in the Bible.
But there is likewise a progressive, a continuing aspect to this gift of holiness, by which it is cultivated and by which it grows and by which a believer more and more comes to resemble the Lord Jesus himself in his character. It is of this progress in holiness that Paul is speaking here. In verse 2 he urges them on “more and more” in the holiness they have already begun to practice.
It is of this aspect of salvation that the Bible so frequently speaks, as when Peter speaks of our “growing up in our salvation” or our “growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus” or when Paul prays that God “may sanctify us through and through” or when he calls on us to put to death what is sinful in our lives and to practice more and more the good works our Savior has called us to perform. John Owen speaks of a Christian’s holiness as a seed which God has planted in the new birth but which now must grow up and bear fruit. [Ferguson, 56-57]
This summons to become more and more in the fact of our daily the lives the Christians we are already in principle is one of the great themes of the Apostle Paul, the second great interest of most of his letters. And characteristically it surfaces here in 1 Thessalonians. He must say this once again to his new converts in Thessalonica. “Go on in living the Christian life! Go further! Don’t stop! There is more holiness still to put on, to practice, to weave into the fabric of your lives individually and together.”
This is clearly a part of the Christian life in which we are not passive. We are called to act on behalf of our sanctification, to pray, to resist, to fight, to practice obedience. Paul teaches clearly enough that we cannot do a single good thing or advance a single step in holiness without the grace and working of the Lord Christ by his Spirit in our lives. But the Keswick/Holiness hymn that has the line
Holiness by faith in Jesus, not by effort of our own
draws a false antithesis. Holiness is by faith in Jesus, we cannot advance an inch in holiness in any other way than by faith in him and prayer to him and by his work in us. But a true faith, a true dependence upon him will express itself in a great deal of our own effort. Advances in holiness are no more faith without effort than they are effort without faith.
As Paul so memorably put it: “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God who is in you both to will and to work his good pleasure.” God will provide the experiences to water the seed of holiness, but we must rake the soil, pull the weeds, and tend the crop. And God will use our efforts to grow the seed.
Now I say all of that as an explanation and introduction to Paul’s statement: “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified…”
Before we come to the table this morning, to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, which is and has always been one of the Lord’s great engines of sanctification in the life of his people, I want to say just a few words in commending sanctification to you, in making you desire it afresh, in making you feel it is the very thing you want most in all the world because it is what Christ wants most for you.
And you simply must have this conviction about sanctification and how precious and important it is and simply must carry it always about in your heart. Because if you do not, you will never advance in holiness.
And the simple reason why that is so is because such advancement is so difficult and requires such laborious effort and such intense concentration of mind and will, only the highly motivated, only those whom the Lord Jesus described as hungry and thirsty for righteousness will keep up a work as hard as this work will be.
Those of us who have been Christians a long time can say to those of you who are recently Christians, “you will not believe the effort it takes, to put one single sin to death in your life; you will not believe the prayer, the attention, the guarding and watching of your heart, the battles with temptations from the world, your own flesh, and the devil. You will not believe how easily you are lulled to sleep, how hard-won are the steps forward and how easily you slide back to where you were before; how agonizingly difficult it is to be faithful in prayer even for your own soul but how surpassingly easy it is for your heart to run after what is impure and what distracts from the great interests of holiness in your life. You would not believe it if we told you; you would think we are indulging in exaggeration for effect, to make a point. But you would be wrong.
And the proof of that is all around you — it is in every one of our lives, if you would simply look carefully and think as a Christian man or woman while you are looking. How many Christians do you know who are clearly, noticeably, measurably advancing in holiness, in obedience, in reverence, in love, in service, in purity. Who are not the Christians they were a month ago, and clearly not the Christians they were a year ago: for prayer, for the mastery of God’s Word, for good works, for kindness, for unqualified commitment to Christ’s name and cause in the world — for all that holiness is and sanctification is in a Christian life.
On the contrary, how many Christians do you know who seem to have stopped, dead still — and are not in any obvious way — even to themselves if the truth be known — further in holiness than they were five years ago, or ten, or twenty? The fact is, the difficulty of the work, the wearying demands of sanctification have done them in and they have largely given up and haven’t taken a significant step forward in their inner or outer lives in a long, long time.
There is so much to say about this, so much that should be said. But I must be done; we hurry to the table of the Lord. So I conclude with these two thoughts for those who are just beginning to follow after sanctification for those who have left off following hard after it, and for those who are, after long years, still seeking it with their whole heart.
The first is this: sanctification is, in Robert Murray McCheyne’s phrase, “the better half of salvation.” You are mistaken if you think your forgiveness is the best part of your salvation; if you think your pardon from your sins is Christ’s greatest gift to you. No! It is the transformation of your life; it is your coming to be holy! Listen to Samuel Rutherford make the point in his unique and beautiful and powerful way [Letters, CLXX]:
I have now made a new question, whether Christ be more to be loved, for giving sanctification or for free justification. And I hold that he is more and most to be loved for sanctification. It is in some respect greater love for him to sanctify, than to justify; for he maketh us most like himself in his own essential portraiture and image, in sanctifying us. Justification doth but make us happy, which is to be like angels only. Neither is it such a misery to lie a condemned man, and under unforgiven guiltiness, as to serve sin, and work the works of the Devil; and, therefore, I think sanctification cannot be bought: it is above price. God be thanked for ever, that Christ was a told-down price for sanctification. Let a sinner, if possible, lie in hell for ever, if he make him truly holy; and let him lie there burning in love to God, rejoicing in the Holy Ghost, hanging upon Christ by faith and hope, — that [would be] heaven in the heart and bottom of hell!”
Sanctification is the greatest part of your salvation. Don’t neglect it, don’t fail to thank God for it, and, by all that is holy and good and wise, in the strength the Lord will provide to the hungry and thirsty, make the most of the sanctification Christ has provided for you.
And the second thought is this: this is the great adventure of your life! You have a great thing to do with your life. Whatever else may be your circumstances; however modest, however difficult, you have a great work to do in this world — a work greater and more important than any of the works that make men and women famous in our world. Sanctification — the calling to put on holiness in the fear of God — should supercharge, does supercharge, every Christian’s life with significance, huge, vast, eternal meaning! We all should rise from bed each morning thinking what a great thing we have to do this day — to take another step forward in holiness for the glory of God. The day is soon coming when we will see this life we have lived in those terms only — no others — and will rue every day we did not give over to our sanctification.
And so, in Rutherford’s words once more, let us, every Christian here this morning, resolve to “break off a piece of sin every day.” Or in the famous motto of the ancient painter: nulla dies sine linea: not a day, without a line, a stroke of the brush on the canvas of a holy life.