Sanctification and Holiness
1 Thessalonians 4:3
This is Paul’s call to holiness for the believers. It’s important to notice that, up until this point, there is not really any other thing that he spotlights so bluntly. Up until this point, he’s been very elegant, almost poetic at times, not so with this topic. It’s important to notice that fact, because it’s important to understand the dire need for this in our walk. Peter exhorts us that “we have spent enough of our past lifetimes in doing the will of the Gentiles; when we walked in lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties, and idolatry.” (1 Peter 4:3). John tells us that “if we say we have fellowship with Him and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.” (1 John 1:6). In Hebrews, we are warned to “pursue peace with all people and holiness, without which none shall see God.” (Hebrews 12:14). Paul admonishes Timothy to not “share in other people’s sins; keep yourself pure.” (1 Timothy 5:22). See, it’s this idea that all throughout Scripture, especially in the New Testament, we see this consummate calling to holiness for the people of God. See, it’s such a popular thought to consider a doctrine called “imputed righteousness,” which is the idea that we ourselves are not able to become righteous, but rather are considered righteous because of Christ’s sacrifice, thus we should never do anything to be made righteous. Yet, look at some of these passages, if we walk in darkness, we do not PRACTICE truth. Without holiness, none shall see God. KEEP yourself pure. These are all actions on our behalf. The very means of describing our faith is to WALK with God, a verb. Jesus commands us to FOLLOW Him. It is not our deeds that makes us worthy of entrance to the kingdom, however, it is our deeds which display the faith that is required for that entrance. It is by our fruits that we know that we are walking in the true faith. Jesus calls us to deny ourselves. When the rich young ruler asked Him how to be saved, He first answered to keep the commandments, which the young man said he had done. Then He tells him to sell all that he has. It’s this idea that, to follow Jesus means that there are works and commandments that we must obey. To die is an action, and to die to ourselves is an action that we don’t like, so we do whatever form of theological contortion we must to explain away the command, but it’s there no matter how wisely we think we can erase it.
There’s an expression that I’ve heard that I absolutely love. “God loves you enough to take you just the way you are; and too much to allow you to stay that way.” And, that’s kind of this image that Paul is presenting to us here. Think about to whom this letter is addressed. This isn’t some random church down the street with a decent band that he’s never met and doesn’t know anything about. No, rather, this is the church that the word has spread all throughout the land. It’s a church where, from city to city, people are raving about their faithfulness. People are constantly talking about how they’ve endured persecution, how strong their faith is, how much they believe, and how great their love is. And Paul has affirmed each of these statements to be true. They are like the model church. But, in spite of all of that, he wants to make sure to stress to them the importance of their sanctification, of their holiness, “without which no one will see the Lord.” See, it’s this idea that Paul wasn’t convinced that, just because they were believers. and just because they had faith and went to services, that they were “covered.” He wasn’t concerned about their faith and if they believed or not, because he knew that they did. No, he knew that in spite of their faith, their belief, that “you believe God is one, you do well. The demons believe and tremble.” (James 2:19). JC Ryle admonishes us that “The union with God which produces no effect on the heart and life is a mere formal union, which is worthless before God. The faith which has not a sanctifying influence on the character is no better than the faith of devils.” See, as any father with their children, Paul didn’t want them to strive for the bare minimums, but rather to be able to be assured of their salvation. In the Book of Hebrews, we read that “it is impossible for those who have tasted the heavenly gift and become partakers of the Holy Spirit; if they fall away to again renew them to repentance.” (Hebrews 6:4-6) and again “if we sin willfully after receiving the knowledge of truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for our sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment.” (Hebrews 10:26-27). Peter teaches us that “judgment begins at the house of God.” (1 Peter 4:17).
See, we like to think that everything is fine. We like to think that we go to church and say His name, acknowledging that Jesus is God. And we like to think that, because of that, we’re “saved.” And we’ve had generations and generations of teachers, priests and pastors, who have proclaimed this; as though we’re safe just because we’re in the church. Jeremiah admonishes us, however, “do not entrust yourself to lying words, for they will not profit you when you say, ‘this is the temple of the Lord.'” (Jeremiah 7:3). See, the priests in Jeremiah’s day were teaching people that the Lord would never destroy His own temple, thus the people were safe so long as they were in it. The Lord goes on to say of His nation, His own holy people, “falsehood, not faith, prevails in the land. For thye went from evil to evil and have not known Me.” (Jeremiah 9:2). Our generation has been taught, and thus teaches, that all of the commands, all of the expectations, all of our personal responsibility, was “nailed to the cross,” and yet, in the Epistles even, we see otherwise. We’ve been taught that there is no wrath, no judgment to come, for those of us who “intellectually acknowledge” that Christ is God, and because of that, multitudes walk away from a service on a Sunday morning “feeling good.” Through the Prophet Ezekiel, we see the Lord’s warning concerning this very topic, “I shall stretch out My hand against the prophets who see lies and utter worthless things…they have deceived My people saying ‘peace, peace,’ and there is no peace.” (Ezekiel 13:9-10). And, isn’t that sort of our culture? “God made you that way, He would never judge you for it,” or “all roads lead to heaven,” or “God’s will for you is that you be happy, healthy, and prosperous,” or even, “God is a God of love, and in Him there’s no room for judgment, just be yourself.” Ultimately, it becomes this idea that Bonhoeffer wrote about when he describes “cheap grace,” it becomes “Christianity without the cross.” We create a God that allows us to seek after ourselves instead of Him, and that God isn’t the God in the Holy Scripture, it’s an idol that makes us the one whom we are truly worshipping. We need to be honest with ourselves, when we pray, we pray “Your will be done.” What does the rest of our prayer look like? Are we truly praying for His will to be done? Or, do we spend 20 minutes or so focused on our will and then sort of pay lip service to Him by casually making the statement, your will be done?
Paul exhorts the believers here to holiness, to sanctification, because he understands the temptation to practice this easy, workless/worthless faith. He understands the temptation to give in to sin, to “continue in sin that grace may abound.” (Romans 6:1). He understands that it is easier to sit and twist Scripture to grant free license to sin than to strive for this holiness that Jesus and all of the apostles admonished believers must be the guiding force in our lives. And, he understands the desire within each of us to justify that teaching. As he admonished Timothy, “the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but ACCORDING TO THEIR OWN DESIRES, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). This is exactly what we have done. We have removed the demands of the Lord that teach us the importance of denying ourselves, and the judgment to come if we ignore that warning. When we teach justification in absentia of sanctification, we create this easy-believist theology where there is no accountability, no sanctification, no obedience, no holiness…this theology where God was our Creator and everything else is our decision. Should we be holy? “Sure, but we don’t have to be.” Should we deny ourselves? “Sure, but it’s not necessary for salvation.” And, regretfully, that ideology is unbiblical. In Scripture, we find the exact opposite. We find a theology that states that grace is a gift freely given, but we must receive this gift, and we receive that gift through “seeking first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all of these things will be given to you.”
“Every Christian should find within himself the imperative and incentive to become holy. If you live without struggle and without hope of becoming holy, then you are Christians in name only and not in essence. But, without holiness, no one shall see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). It is a trustworthy saying that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15), but we deceive ourselves if we think that we are saved while remaining sinners. Christ saves sinners by giving them the means to become saints.” (Philaret of Moscow, Sermon, September 23, 1847).
May the grace of the Lord be with you all, my beloved family.