God’s Will: Your Sanctification

This week in our 1 Thessalonians study we begin chapter four. Here we see the succinct phrase that “this is God’s will, your sanctification.” So before we continue further, look at some all encompassing definitions, from the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Larger Catechism. After reading these, it is comforting to note that this is the work of the Spirit in us; He empowers us to walk with Him in this work, but we are not to expect perfection this side of heaven.

Lastly, I encourage you, if you’ve never, to read Sinclair Ferguson’s “The Christian Life.” In this book, which is very encouraging and worth re-reading often, he reminds us of the vital truth that sanctification is neither instantaneous, nor a long and tedious and wearing/discouraging drudgery.

It is the way of the cross, and the way of the abundant life He has called us to!

In the New Testament we frequently see that the intense desire for Christ’s coming was matched by the intense hatred of ungodliness and worldly desires (cf Titus 2:11ff).  The goal of salvation was never limited to this world, and so this epistle reminds us constantly of the role of hope–and the true ‘end game’ of our salvation–as seen in last week’s prayer: to abound in love so that He may establish us in holiness at His Coming!  His Advent.   

And we transition from a prayer for holiness into a command concerning that holiness, practical holiness.  But the command is not simply given, rather it is requested and exhorted.  As was his custom, Paul made a request in the Lord Jesus.

“In the Lord Jesus” shows that this request is founded in Christ, has authority from Christ.  We dare not question whether this command is for us.  Of course it is.  

Exhortation to Please God  

Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us…  This is not a new teaching, they had already received it.  When the apostles delivered the gospel, they followed it up with “what was Jesus like, how did He live, what does it mean to be like Him, the Spirit is conforming us to His image, let us walk like Him!!!” 

When they first preached the gospel, they also passed on the tradition of how to walk, pleasing the LORD in all respects.  

Are there legalistic believers?  Yes.  Does that mean we should shy away from saying there are ways in which we are to walk?  No.  There are far fewer grey areas than the current generations allow for.  We simply don’t know how to pass on the “how then shall we live?” instructions.  

But these believers received such instructions!  “Instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk)…” Paul spent time clarifying, instructing, making it known that there are ways to walk that please God, and ways that displease God. He taught the narrow way, the way to imitate Christ, and how to imitate his own walk. He gave commands.

Excel!  Grow!  Abound!  Flourish!

We are tempted to think our true flourishing is in feeling good about the life we are living…living our best life, enjoying material blessings, lots of time off, peaceful easy feelings.  Hmmm,  where do you find this in Christ’s teachings?  (It is not there.)

On this side of heaven our true flourishing is more in living with and like Him, and storing up for ourselves treasures in heaven.  Actually living in the moment with a view of our hope, rather than merely living for the moment.  See the difference?

When the grace of God appeared, He Instructed! (Titus 2, Matthew 28)

So we excel, ‘for you know the commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.’  Jesus commanded His disciples that as they made disciples, they should “teach them to obey all I have commanded you,” and this is indeed what the apostles taught.  The preaching of the gospel must be accompanied by this teaching.  

Titus 2:11  “For when the grace of God appeared, bringing salvation to all men, He instructed us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously, godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ!!!”  

When we pass on the faith, to our children for example, do we also pass on this teaching, that we need to be careful how we walk, so as to please God, and to excel in pleasing God?  This teaching must come after the good news, because we do not clean up to earn salvation.  But this teaching may not fall to the wayside.  

How can we teach it rightly? Make these part of your daily prayers, and let them guide you as you pass on the gospel, and train others up:

For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience…  Col 1:9f

And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.   Phil 1:9-11

Sanctification is more than sexual purity, but it is not less!!! 

It is more than how we possess our vessel, but it is NEVER less.  It involves our whole being, never leaving out the body.  But also, no metaphysical dualism.  We fall into dualistic heresies when we affirm that how we use our bodies is of no consequence, or when we think “well, I’ll get a new body, so it doesn’t matter what I do with this one;” or when we think our inner man is good and that is what God truly cares about.  God cares about how you view, care for, and use your body. 

For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honornot in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God;  

How do we possess this vessel? We clothe it, and God cares about how much clothing. The current trend to buck the purity culture has had many saying: how foolish that we once tried to wear tank tops to cover cleavage; or that we used to care about how form fitting things were…we used to reserve our curves–each for her for own husband, but now we don’t have to; my body is a work of art, no such thing as “naked and ashamed,” I’m free to flaunt! Freedom has become license for many, where does it stop?

We assess according to Scripture, not according to various cultural practices. Just because a people group has never worn clothes, does not imply that God’s standards change for that cultural setting.

Before you try to assess which view is godly, ask–why do we wear clothes? Who instituted the wearing of clothes? As Adam and Eve watched multiple animals being killed to clothe them, did they quickly ditch those clothes reveling in their freedom from shame? Did God say “nakedness is not shameful, here, for no reason I’ll slaughter some animals?”

He covers our shame with His blood. He redeems us from our sin, and frees us from slavery to lustful passion. He cleanses us, and renews us, that we may enjoy the pleasures He designed us for.

And yes, possessing our body in sanctification and honor is more than just clothes. It is body language. It is how and when and where we touch. It is knowing what is alluring. It is knowing what is reserved for godly marriage. It is knowing how to show others this vessel, how to use this vessel, how to care for this vessel (that is not in any particular order, don’t read into it!).

To get a more robust understanding, and to remember that this is not an isolated teaching, revisit 1 Corinthians 6. “…such were some you,” but the Spirit is now at work in you!  Therefore, we walk with Him, working towards the sanctification that He is working in us.  We walk in obedience.


 As Jesus’ disciples, we love what He loves–we love purity of all kinds: outer man and inner man, body and soul.   When His Spirit is at work in us, we walk in His ways without redefining sin, shame, purity, sanctification and honor.

For God has not called us for impurity, but in sanctification. 

Follow with me through the Gospel of John briefly: Jesus said His words are spirit and life, and that we ought to abide in them, that the truth sets us free, that those who love Him keep His commands, and then He prayed for us: sanctify them in Your truth, Your word is truth.  

So we see that there is no sanctification apart from the Spirit massaging the Word into our hearts.  All our earthly means fall short.  Asceticism and the desire to be a monk in the wilderness fails (Col 2).  Yet, as we abide in Him, as we grow, and learn, then in His strength (remember Col 1:9ff) we will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in our knowledge of God!!! 

Unclean vs. Holy

He says “be holy,”  and here we see that this applies to how we are to “possess our vessel in sanctification and honour, for God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness.”   This may bring pictures of the consecration done of both priests, and instruments/tools used by them. 

All set apart, all consecrated for holy use and worship.  We are to possess our vessel knowing we are to be holy.  How we view our body, use our body, display our body, care for and tend our body, share our body…it all matters.  God cares about how you view, care for, and use your body. 

He has cleansed us from all sin, therefore we glorify God in our body. This is God’s will, that you be (Romans 8:29) conformed to the image of His Son, who though accused of being a drunkard and glutton did not actually go about committing all kinds of indecency to prove a point, nor did he actually commit those sins.  He was grieved by sin, and knew that bearing the wrath of God to cleanse us from our sin was a grievous task. He did not treat it lightly.

Think about it not as rulekeeping, but dedication to God as Sovereign, for the purpose of living as His image bearer.  Does your possession of your vessel display His honour?  His glory?  His desires for how you use your vessel in all your relationships?  How you display your vessel to those who know you, those who merely see you out and about?  Because we are His representation. 

Some don’t want to hear that, they feel this is an immense pressure–but here’s the thing, as you listen to Him and walk with Him–that attitude changes, wanes, and disappears.  Jesus wanted to please His Father.  If you grow in Christlikeness, you will want to please Your Father.  Your attitude becomes one of “how may I glorify You today?!!!”  Rather than “well, but appearances don’t matter, body language doesn’t matter, body stuff is messy and messed up, and You only care about heart, right?!”   

The idea that God doesn’t care about the body is old, and false.  Many other religions and philosophies taught that we must be delivered from this shell.  Body evil, spirit good.  Yet–we will not be unclothed, but further clothed!!!  2 Cor 5. We long for a body freed from the dominion of sin and death.

For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification.  8  So he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you. 

1 These. 4:7-8

Again, impurity and purity is more broad than simply sexuality; yet it is never less, never isolated from.  CF 1 Cor 6:19; again, we are called to holiness which is worked out in us by the Spirit of holiness, the Holy Spirit; we are in fact a sanctuary or dwelling or temple of the Holy Spirit.  We are not our own!  We were bought by the precious blood of Christ, we are His, we will reflect Him, we will possess our vessels in such a way as to please and honor Him!

There are not so many shades of grey…  

What are we up against these days?  Oh my, what are we not…This epistle was written in the context of a culture that saw marriage as a means of producing heirs, but sexuality was to be carried out by men on whomever they willed. A Roman citizen could rape a young boy and no one would care. He could have as many mistresses and concubines as he preferred, no wife was entitled to jealousy. Women were bought as entertainment, brought to all the drunken feasts at which men did “important business.”

Christianity gave women dignity, and brought in the message that sex belongs inside of a monogamous loving marriage. This is still a countercultural message. In our own day we now have to teach our children sexuality in the context of defining male and female according to biology rather than ‘feelings.’ It seems as though we face situations previously unknown, and can seem intimidating. We also pass on the same strange message that your body is freely shared with a spouse, but not with the world around you.

There is so much we will need to be ready to to talk with the upcoming generation about; be prepared! I’ll refer you to the books The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution by Carl Truman; and Love Thy Body by Nancy Pearcey.

How would you prepare a son or daughter for the cultural mess he or she will face in just a few short years?   What must we pass on as we teach the way Paul did, because we love Jesus and want them to truly know Him, and walk in a manner worthy of Him, knowing how to possess their vessels in a way that honors Him?  It is not all grey, and up to me to decide; the One Spirit of holiness will lead His people; are we listening?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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