Six Marks of an Excellent Ministry
Living for the Pleasure of God (2): Sanctification
“Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. 2 For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. 3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, 5 not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. 7 For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. 8 Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.
9 Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, 10 for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, 11 and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, 12 so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.”
1 Thessalonians 4:1-12
With these words, the apostle turns from expressing affection for the Thessalonians, from rejoicing over them, to giving them instruction. And it must be clear: Paul isn’t writing to everyone without exception. Paul writes to a very specific group. This is so basic and obvious; and yet it isn’t. It must be emphasized. It must be underscored. It must be repeated again and again. Those to whom Paul writes are those to whom the Gospel came in power and the Holy Spirit. It came not in word only. It came with power, clothed in the Holy Spirit. Lives were truly transformed from the inside out. People loved Christ so much they became the targets of hatred. They no longer loved what everyone around them loved. They were different. They were the church in Thessalonica! And as that church, two characteristics marked it: (1) The were pleasing God in the way they walked and lived, and, (2) they loved their brothers and sisters in Christ.
That’s what Christians do. They please God. They’re obedient in that they love the brethren. These are heart things, not things of the ‘head.’ The faith that saves does involve the intellect. There are facts, Gospel facts, to be believed. But that’s not all. Saving faith involves the will; and it involves feelings. Facts are believed. Wills are changed. Wills are dramatically changed. And hearts are turned. There are new and real, consequential affections for God and His people.
In keeping with this, Paul gives two exhortations in this passage.
Exhortation (1): Please God more and more (v.1).
“Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.”
Believers then, are to walk in a certain way. But believers are often better at talking the walk than actually walking the walk. I won’t belabor this. But I do wonder if there is a ‘disconnect,’ a grand chasm actually, between what is often said, and even ‘liked,’ and what is applied and lived.
But there’s something else here we need to mark. These believers were in fact pleasing God. Their walk delighted Him. The way they behaved evidently brought God pleasure. It isn’t that they were doing so with perfection. Otherwise, there would be no need for urging them to do so ‘more and more.’ But believers evidently can please God and do please God.
Why I say this is simple. Much Reformed thought breeds nothing but gloom and doom and defeat in this area. ‘We can’t do it,’ ‘We’re nothing but no-good sinners, even wretched men’ is the message. And that’s what Reformed thought begets, misery and miserable people. It isn’t that believers are sinless. That would be far too much to say. But that believers are without the ability to please God is equally too much to say.
Grounds for the exhortation (vv.2,3,7):
Why Paul urges these believers to please God more and more, or better, the grounds upon which he buttresses his exhortation are 3-fold (not 2-fold like I said 2 weeks ago).
- First, it agrees with previous instruction from God. Verse 2 makes this clear. His exhortation agrees with divine revelation. It also makes equally clear that Paul was telling them nothing new: “For you know what instructions we gave you …” he says. What he’s about to tell them, there’s nothing novel about it. It’s going to be the same old same old. His instruction, his moral instruction, will not have changed. What he said when he proclaimed the Gospel to them will be in keeping with what he now says. No bait and switch tactics here. Just consistency. And obviously, Paul’s evangelism covered much more than what modern evangelism covers. He gave instruction concerning how one ought to walk, not just what one ought to pray. But we can’t pursue that now.
- Second, it agrees with the will of God. Please God more and more, verse 3, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification…” We’ll come back to this.
- Third, it agrees with the calling of God. Please God more and more, verse 7, “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.” The word rendered holiness here in verse 7 is the same word rendered ‘sanctification’ in verse 3. This is why God saves you. God calls whomever He calls to make them holy, to make them godly, grave, pious, pursuing righteousness, holiness, obedience, purity in all things, to make them Christ-like, to make them like Himself. That’s why God calls sinners. So while we may come as we are, do not think it’s okay to stay as we are. If we remain where we were when we came, we really didn’t come. God’s sanctifying presence obligates holiness. It requires change. It will happen.
Sanctification: What it is
Sanctification: what is it? I want to dwell on this a bit. Well, first of all, sanctification, or a believer’s holiness, is the will of God. God desires, He wills, that believers be holy, that they walk and conduct themselves in a way worthy of Him. “God’s sanctifying presence means [believers] must be holy” (TJD). It’s bound to happen. God wills this. God does this. He causes, by His indwelling, sanctifying, holiness-producing presence, personal holiness. This is God’s work. It’s fully His work. Scripture teaches this (This is surely good news!): “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thessalonians 5: 23-24). In 2 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul is abundantly clear: “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” Sanctification is by the Spirit of God. Again, Paul writing to the Romans chapter 15 and verses 15-16: “But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”
It’s so very clear. God sanctifies. It’s His work. It isn’t that believers aren’t active in it; they are. They’re very active. But they’re active because of God’s sanctifying presence, a presence that compels sanctified choices and holy walks and righteous behavior.
Sanctification, secondly, is a heaven or hell doctrine. “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). So, this is not something we can afford to ignore or treat with indifference as if inconsequential. Eternity is at stake.
Sanctification & Sex
Now, Paul further defines sanctification, applying it to sex. He describes it in three ways: (1) abstaining from fornication, from any and all forms of sexual expression outside the marriage bed, (2) controlling oneself, exercising self-control, not walking around like a baboon in heat, not in the passion of lust like those who don’t know God. Those who know God know how to control themselves sexually. In fact, I do not think it’s too much to say sexual immorality is the ‘typical manifestation of a Christless existence” (TJD).
When the apostle says “that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor” he speaks not of an act performed or mere head knowledge. He instead speaks of a state or power, an acquired power. It’s the same kind of thing, the same kind of knowing, that he speaks of when he said he knew how to be content in all circumstances, whether he was in plenty or want. He knew how, i.e. he was able, to be content no matter what. It’s the same kind of thing he spoke of when giving Timothy instruction concerning eldership. If a man does not know how to manage his own household, then he’s not qualified for eldership in God’s household, the church. Ability is the issue here, the ability to take care of things in the lesser before assuming the greater. And then there’s this illustration given by Peter. He writes in his second epistle chapter 2 verse 9: “then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, 10 and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority.” To know in these contexts is to have a power, an ability, to do something, like knowing how to control one’s own body in holiness and honor. This isn’t a one-time act (like getting a wife), but a continuous, habitual state.
This is why we must exult in not just what God has done for us, but also what He does in us – if in fact the Spirit of Christ dwells in you. God’s presence is a sanctifying presence. What He wills He causes, even in a triple X, ‘R’ rated world. To those who receive the word of God as the Word of God – and not like some magazine article or other religious commentary or even newspaper- to those who so receive it, it works in them. The word works in those in whom God dwells. That’s power. That’s consequential, fruit-bearing, holiness-producing, gospel power.
There’s a third aspect to this. It’s conveyed to us in the 6th verse, namely “that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter.” (1) Abstinence, (2) self-control, & (3) that a brother, or sister, be not sinned against: There’s a corporate aspect to sexual sin. Sexual impurity affects more than one or two people. At the very least, it affects three people. At the most, it of course affects the entire human race. But somewhere in between it affects an entire fellowship of believers. A little leaven leavens, or pollutes, or influences, the entire loaf, the whole body.
My point is simply this: no man’s an island to himself. There’s a ripple effect, sometimes a massive tidal wave, that goes with even one act of impurity. With adultery, a man or woman wrongfully takes what isn’t theirs. A man sins against his brother by robbing him of his wife. And she herself gives away what isn’t hers to give away. With pre-marital sex, there’s a giving and taking of that which rightfully belongs to a future husband or wife. Boy says ‘I love you.’ Girl says the same. Boy says ‘Prove it.’ These are selfish acts. These are acts, fruits of unbridled passion by those who get what they want, who aren’t walking by the Spirit if they in fact know the God of Scripture.
And Paul underscores the gravity of the issue here when he reminds us that God is an avenger in all these things (v.6). God punishes the sexually immoral. He avenges, that is, He carries out His wrath on the evildoer. “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Hebrews 13.4) Why? It’s because God is both just and holy.
But listen to this: The more I studied this the more convinced I became that the way to read this phrase in context is not so much as a warning (though it is that to be sure) but as cause and reason to further rejoice in God. Read the whole passage, pay close attention to the small connecting words like ‘for,’ and this is what you get: God wills our sanctification to save us from Himself! From the top: The exhortation: Please God more and more. The ground: for this is the will of God, your holiness. The description: that…that…that… The bottom line: because God is an avenger in all these things. God wills our sanctification, i.e. He causes it to happen, why? To save us from His avenging self!
Conclusion: Ignoring this exhortation equals rejecting God Himself (v.8).
Then Paul comes to a conclusion. Verse 8: “Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.” I can do no better than simply echo the words of two others here. The first comes from William Stevens:
“Do not think how you can justify yourselves to us: it is no human authority that you will impugn [call into question] and challenge by disobedience, but that of God himself. A reminder of what is much insisted on in these epistles, that the apostles were not the bearers of their own or any human message, but of a direct revelation from God” (W.A. Stevens).
Ignoring Paul’s exhortation equals a rejection of God Himself. We defy God when we ignore and disobey the apostles. From the top again: Please God more and more for what we exhort is in keeping with our previous instruction from God, agrees with the will of God, and with the calling/purpose of God. Therefore, disregard this and you disregard Him.
Second quote is from Sinclair Ferguson:
”Those who have almost forgotten about their own spirituality because their focus is so exclusively on their union with Jesus Christ and what He has accomplished are those who are growing and exhibiting fruitfulness. Historically speaking, whenever the piety of a particular group is focused on [its] spirituality that piety will eventually exhaust itself on its own resources. Only where our piety forgets about itself and focuses on Jesus Christ will our piety [be] nourished by the ongoing resources the Spirit brings to us from the source of all true piety, our Lord Jesus Christ” (Sinclair Ferguson).
That is absolutely splendid. God gives believers the Holy Spirit (verse 8). Which is to say He gives us Himself; and not just as a one time shot. This is, as Sinclair rightfully says, ‘ongoing.’ ‘God GIVES [present tense which means continuous action] His Holy Spirit to you.’ So, the implications are obvious aren’t they? Focus on self, and you’re dead in the water. Focus on Christ and His life, the one that is yours by faith, the one that indwells each and every believer, and fruit happens. But there has to be this death of self first, even a crucifixion. “I have been crucified with Christ, said Paul. “And it’s no longer I who live but Christ lives in me…” This is true of everyone who receives the Word of God as the word of God, who has turned from idols to serve the living and true God.
There are a number of directions we could go from this point. I’ll just say this much: free sex is a god. It’s an idol. It’s an idol because it’s really the worship of the creature rather than the Creator. It’s an idol because at the center of it it’s all about self. It’s all about me. And it’s not something that is exclusive to the world. I need not tell you it’s infected the church. It always has. There’s good reason Paul speaks of it as much as he does. Sexual immorality in fact takes pride of place in all his lists of sins; it’s first up. It’s first up because it’s a big issue; it’s a major, and even defining issue. It always has been. I agree that it’s the blazing battle between the City of God, the Church, and the City of Man, the Satanic realm of darkness, his playground with all kinds of “attractions.”
Sex is used everyday. It sells. It begs for and grabs our attention. And it’s no longer a question whether or not an unmarried couple are sleeping together; it’s just assumed. After all, they love each other. Love is the justification for all kinds of immorality, isn’t it. Premarital sex, extramarital affairs, and even homosexuality and I suppose polygamy would fit in there.
But there doesn’t have to be any such justification for sex. All there needs to be is a desire for it; Sex, so-called casual sex, friends with benefits, sex with no strings attached, emotion, or consequences. I was struck yesterday when I read an excerpt from one of MacArthur’s sermons. Let me share with you here:
“The extent to which that satanic system will go for freedom to commit sexual sin is nowhere better seen than in abortions. We read about murders and we read about killings all the time, but just remember this, ninety-nine percent of all murders in the U.S. are abortions. That’s how much we want our sexual freedom. People are willing to murder to maintain it. As one writer put it, “Abortion is the willingness to kill for the sake of the willingness to copulate.” That’s it. So here we are in this society redefining love in connection with its sexual demands and sexual freedoms and nothing could be further from a proper understanding. In fact, it’s exactly what Ephesians 5 expects, that instead of the real thing, the world is going to come along and substitute immorality, impurity, driving lust, filthiness, silly talk, coarse jesting, all the dirty talk that goes with a sexually oriented, promiscuous culture.”
It’s so painfully true. But sinners put their babies on the altars of the sex god. The voice of the flesh does in fact say: “Take your sexual fulfillment. If you don’t like the consequences, kill it” (JFM). I cannot think of a more unloving, selfish act… I’ve never stepped foot inside an abortion clinic. But I gather many professing Christian females have. “Now the works of the flesh are evident: (first up) sexual immorality.” Why not kill the flesh and not the baby? Why not let the baby live and kill the flesh? Answer: The flesh! The sinful desire to please self, not God! But then again, having the baby may equally be about self, since it does put mom in the spotlight, at least for a time. It’s so messed up and twisted.
Nothing in all this resembles love, not even for a nanosecond. It’s really all about the ‘ego,’ the self, getting what one wants at the expense of another. In fact, the very opposite of such impurity is charity, i.e., love. First, Paul speaks of chastity. And beginning with the 9th verse he turns to charity. Both are under the umbrella of pleasing God. But charity will have to wait for next time. That God would press these things on our hearts unto our growth in holiness is enough for now. Let there be much repentance where required. And let there be a ton of focusing on the God who gives us His Holy Spirit that we not be exhausted, but nourished, feeding on the source of all true piety. Amen.
Pastor Braye studied at Canadian Theological Seminary and the University of Alberta. Presently he labors for “Pastoral Leadership Development at Action International Ministries” In the past he served as pastor of Sovereign Grace Baptist Church and Beckwith Baptist Church. He is From Edmonton, Alberta