September 27, 2009
1 Thessalonians 5:23-24
We’re coming to the end of our study in 1 Thessalonians. And as Paul often does, he’s saved the best for last. Our key passage for today is amazingly freeing. If you are struggling in your Christian walk, take heart. Sanctification is God’s work – not yours or mine. God is the only One who can make holy people. Let’s look at what Blackaby says about sanctification.
Henry Blackaby says that we are first Sanctified and Then Sent. As it says in John 17:17-18,
Sanctify them by the truth;
Your word is truth.
As You sent Me into the world,
I also have sent them into the world.
God will always sanctify you before He sends you. The Father set aside the twelve disciples and made them holy by the Truth, His Son. As they related to Jesus, the Truth (John 14:6), the disciples were refined by that Truth and were prepared to be sent out to preach the gospel. Jesus challenged their ambitions (Luke 9:46–48), chastised their lack of faith (Matt. 17:19–20), refuted Satan's influence (Matt. 16:23), and denounced their pride (Matt. 26:33–35). When Jesus had finished preparing them, the disciples were sent out in such power that their world was never the same again.
Satan will try to convince you that your sin renders you useless to God. That is a lie from the author and father of lies. As soon as you sin, the Deceiver will whisper, “You failure! You are now of no use to God.” This can bring a deep sense of defeat and hopelessness to a Christian. Yet, there is no freedom that compares to a soul set free by God's grace. When God's people allow God's truth to realign them to God's will and God's standard, then the power of God will be released through them the same way it was through the first disciples.
The Truth will set you free. The Truth is: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9), and we are restored to usefulness to God.
Please turn to 1 Thessalonians 5:23 – 24 and we’ll read today’s Scripture. May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who called you is faithful, and he will do it.
Vast portions of the Christian church in Canada seek assurance now by making holiness unnecessary. If holiness is not necessary to get to heaven, then an unholy person can have assurance that he will get there. They don't just deny that perfection is not required for entering heaven, but they go beyond that and say that no degree of obedience or holiness or purity or goodness or love or repentance or transformation is required for entering heaven. James4:1 says, You will be perfect and complete needing nothing. It is only through patient abiding faith and trust in the Lord we become perfect. A lot of us confuse “perfection” with “sinlessness”. The Greek word for perfect used here is “teleios”, and it refers to maturing growth. For example, an oak tree is the teleios of the acorn. It is the perfection of the acorn. So, when you despair of ever becoming holy, take a look at a mighty oak and what a little nut can do! Those who believe holiness is impossible, therefore unnecessary, say if God required any measure of holiness, it would do three terrible things: 1) nullify grace and 2) contradict justification by faith alone and 3) destroy assurance.
But that is not true. The Bible teaches that none of those things happen when the biblical necessity for holy living is rightly understood. There is a glorious assurance to the Christian, that his salvation is sure. But it is not found by denying the demand for holiness.
So, our question for today is, how can you have the assurance of salvation if holiness is necessary? That’s what we’re about to find out.
First, the necessity of holy living does not nullify grace.
It is based squarely on the pardon of grace. And it demonstrates the power of grace. In 1 Corinthians 15:10 Paul said, "By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain but I worked harder than any of them. Nevertheless it was not I but the grace of God which is with me." Grace is not only the pardon that passes over our badness; it is also the power that produces our goodness. If God says that it's necessary for grace to do that, it is not a nullifying of grace when we agree with him. We are saved by grace. As Ephesians 2:8-10 states, For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. GRACE! God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense!
Second, the necessity of holy living does not contradict justification by faith alone. Justification is God’s work too! It’s His pronouncement that we are freed from guilt or blame.
All the sins of God's people, past, present, and future, are forgiven because of the death of Christ once for all. This justification on the basis of Christ's death is the foundation of our sanctification—not the other way around. The only sin we can fight against successfully is a forgiven sin. Without a once-for-all justification through Christ, the only thing that our striving for holiness produces is despair or self-righteousness. We don’t strive! God strives to make us holy. He is faithful; He will do it!
The work of God in justification does not make the work of God in sanctification optional. The Bible doesn't say that forgiveness makes holiness optional. It doesn't make holiness optional, it makes holiness possible. What we will see today is that the God who justifies also sanctifies. The faith that justifies also satisfies—it satisfies the human heart and frees it from the deceptive satisfactions of sin and the burden of striving to be free from sin. Remember what I said, “we don’t strive! God strives!” Thomas Chalmers says, faith is the expulsive power of a new affection. Again, faith is the expulsive power of a new affection. Justification and sanctification always go together. Faith expels all other affections. Justification and sanctification come from our faithful God. Perfection comes at the end of life when we die or when Christ returns, but the pursuit of holy living begins with a mustard seed of faith. That's the nature of saving faith. It finds satisfaction in Christ and is weaned away from the satisfactions of sin.
Third, the necessity of holy living does not destroy assurance.
The human mind might reason like this: if some measure of holy living is required and — if you can't tell me exactly how much is necessary — then that requirement will always leave me unsure if I have done enough. This is much like works as a way to heaven. How much work will get me there? I will never know, so I will never have assurance. I’ve worked hard enough. Measuring destroys assurance. We’re saved by the grace of God, saved to live a holy life. Not saved because we live a holy life. So any requirement for holiness or obedience at all destroys assurance.
This is simply not the reasoning of the Bible. The Bible shows abundantly that there is a "holiness without which we will not see the Lord" and we are told in Hebrews 12:14 to "pursue" it. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. It does not imply that our measure of holiness is being tabulated by God to use against us if we fall short. Nothing will destroy your assurance that God has a mansion in heaven waiting for you faster than wondering if you measure up. God loves you. He chose you to be His child. He called you into His kingdom. You believed and received the sacrifice of His Son. You are justified! Now you are being sanctified – God’s work in you! That’s what today's sermon is about. Namely, God's commitment to sanctify us — to make us as holy as we need to be in this life — it is as sure as his election and his predestination and his justification and his call. What gives us assurance is not focusing on the measure of our holiness, but on the measure of His holiness, God's faithfulness to do the sanctifying work he promises to do. There's the key.
So let's look at this in our text for this morning. Turn once again to 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24. Notice three things: the commandments, the prayer, and the promise.
1. The Commandments
Paul has just finished giving a string of commandments in verses 14–22 which comes to an end in verse 22, "Abstain from every form of evil." So we know that God uses commandments to sanctify us. He does not say: "I am the one who sanctifies you, so I have nothing to tell you to do." The way he sanctifies is not merely subconscious. He deals with our minds. That's the first thing to notice. His Word, His commandments, infuse our minds to help us along this road to holiness, that He has each of us on. It’s called the straight and narrow path or the center of His will. Holiness!
2. The Prayer
Then in verse 23 Paul shifts from exhorting or commanding us to be holy to asking God to make us holy: "May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." So not only does God use commands to make us holy, he also uses the prayers of his people. He not only deals with your mind in the way he makes you holy; he deals with the minds and motives of others so that they pray for you. We all need to reach out and touch someone with prayer. Our prayers include asking God, as Paul did, to sanctify us wholly – ourselves, our families, our church, the church universal. All need to be made holy by our God and Savior.
3. The Promise
Notice not only the commandments and the prayer, but most important the promise of God. After commanding us to pursue holy living in verses 14–22 and praying that God would sanctify us in verse 23, Paul says the decisive thing in verse 24: "He who called you is faithful, and he will do it."
This is the way Paul handles the assurance problem. Let it shape your thinking this morning. It is mere human reasoning that says: "Well, God is commanding us to abstain from evil, so it must be up to us to get holy. It is mere human reasoning that says: "Well, Paul is praying for God to sanctify me, so it depends on Paul's prayer and God may or may not answer." All that is wrong thinking. It's not what the text says. Right thinking moves on to verse 24 and says: God's faithfulness combined with God's call proves he WILL do it! "He who calls you is faithful, and he WILL do it." What's the IT? The "it" is what Paul's been commanding and what he's been praying for, namely, sanctification. God will do it. Whew! Isn’t that freeing? God will do the sanctifying!
That is the foundation for full assurance. Paul did not say that you have to make holy living unnecessary to have assurance. He said that God is faithful and he WILL do it. The issue of assurance is: will we trust him not only for the grace to forgive our sins, but also for the grace to make headway in overcoming our sins? Will we believe what verse 24 says: "God is faithful; he will do it"?
When Will God Do It?
Now if you are looking at verse 23 carefully, you may have the question I had: When Paul prays that God would sanctify us and keep us blameless "at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ," does he mean that God will change us then in the twinkling of an eye when Jesus comes, or does he mean that he will work in us now so that we will be holy when Jesus comes? Are verses 23 and 24 a prayer and a promise for what God will do all at once only when Jesus comes? Or are they a prayer and a promise for what God will do now in the lives of believers to prepare us for that day in holiness?
My answer is that it's a prayer and a promise for God to do what needs to be done now. My reason for this is not only that sanctification usually refers to the process of becoming holy now, but also because of the parallel in chapter 3:12–13 shows that this is what Paul means. Listen to what Paul says: May the Lord make you increase and abound in love to one another and to all men, as we do to you; so that he may establish your hearts unblamable in holiness. This is the same thing Paul says in our key passage. He wants us to be blameless and holy.
Paul is praying is that God would do something NOW, namely, make us increase and abound in love. And the goal of this progressive work in us is that when the end comes, we might be established before God in holiness, because love is the essence of holiness.
1 Thessalonians 5:23–24 really does teach that God is the one who sanctifies and He’s doing it NOW. He does it through commandments, in His Word that speaks to our minds. He does it through prayer, our prayers and the prayers of His people. But however he does it, and however slowly it comes, and however imperfect we feel, the main thing is that GOD does it, and he WILL continue doing it. That is our assurance. "He who calls you is faithful. He will do it." Assurance comes from knowing God is faithful, as we all know, we can be pretty unfaithful at times, can’t we?
"He who calls you is faithful. He will do it." It's as if Paul said, "He called you! Don't you see? He called you! And if he called you, then he WILL sanctify you. That's what God’s faithfulness means. Don't you get it?"
And you scratch your head and say, "Why does the fact that he called me mean that he has to sanctify me?" And Paul says, "It's because his purpose in calling you was that you might become holy. Holiness is the invincible purpose of God in your call. He would be unfaithful to his purpose if he just called you and didn't sanctify you. That's what I said back in 1 Thessalonians 4:7, "God has not called you for uncleanness, but in holiness." "God called you with a holy calling" says 2 Timothy 1:9. His purpose in calling you is your holiness. He will do it. He's faithful.
I hope you begin to feel what this means for your assurance and your freedom. It means that every successive step of your salvation is rooted in the certainty of all the steps that have gone before. Your sanctification is rooted in your call and guaranteed by your call. Your call is rooted in the death of Christ for sinners. The death of Christ is rooted in predestination and predestination is rooted in election. Turn with me to Romans chapter 8 – in verse 29 -31 it says: For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? Once you feel yourself caught up in this great, objective, God-wrought salvation, you know yourself loved with an omnipotent, everlasting, electing, predestining, atoning, calling, sanctifying, saving love. And you sing, "God is faithful. He will do it!"
Let’s look at a few more verses that prove that the aim of God in your call was your holiness. Ephesians 1:4, "God chose us in him before the foundation of the world that we might be holy and blameless before him in love". Your holiness is as sure as your election.
The aim of God in the death of his Son was your holiness. Listen to Ephesians 5:26, "Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her that he might sanctify her" — make her holy. Your becoming holy is as sure as God's invincible purpose in the death of his Son.
In choosing you his purpose was your holiness. In predestining you his purpose was your holiness. In dying for you his purpose was your holiness. In calling you his purpose was your holiness. And so we can say with Paul in verse 24 not only, "He who called you is faithful, he will do it — he will sanctify you," but also, "He who chose you is faithful, he will do it. He who predestined you is faithful, he will do it. He who sent his Son to die for you is faithful, he will do it.
2 Thessalonians 2:13 says, "God chose you from the beginning to be saved through sanctification" — not apart from sanctification. Salvation comes through sanctification, and no other way. Romans 6:22 says, But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. We have a great and glorious assurance of our salvation because holiness is a vital part of God’s plan and because God is faithful. He will do it.
Lord, when I listen to each of these verses about my holiness, I realize I can rest in You to do it for me. I now put down all my strivings to live a holy life and rest in the assurance that You want me to be holy and that You are right NOW in the process of making me holy. Thank You, Lord for not giving up on me. Keep reminding me Father that sanctification is Your work not mine and that You are faithful and you will do it. Amen.