A Christian is sanctified (separated to God) the moment he believes. Old Testament temple vessels were holy – set apart for special use. So Christians are set apart for God’s use. This is positional sanctification. Like a full stop, it takes a moment. Progressive sanctification, like drawing a line, goes on throughout your life, incomplete and imperfect until death. It is this ongoing holiness Paul speaks of. God’s will is that we be increasingly set apart to him, ever more holy in order to please God.
We need God’s instruction. Paul never assumed conversion would automatically lead to holiness but taught people how to please God. His letters are full of teaching. He wanted not only to preach the gospel but to ‘make disciples… teaching them to obey everything…’.
Some holiness is almost spontaneous. Paul says not only that he taught them but also that they lived that way. He says something similar about brotherly love – God had taught it to them. Paul was aware of their love and a tendency to please God. It is difficult to trace where we do good because we are instructed to, and where it flows from faith and love. It is hard to be sure. Some good things are almost spontaneous.
Avoid complacency. As with brotherly love, Paul urges more and more holiness. You do few things obviously sinful but what of your words? You say little that is evil but what of your thoughts? You avoid doing bad things but what good things replace them? Onward and upward is our motto.
‘It is God’s will that you should be sanctified.’ Do not oppose his will. Paul reminds them that God punishes for all such sins. Why would we want to do the very thing that bring God’s wrath on the disobedient?
‘For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.’ God did not call you with the idea you would stay as you are. Do not lose sight of his purposes.
‘Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.’ God’s commands cannot be rejected. Paul subtly adds that God does not expect us to act alone. If I say to you, ‘Lift this weight’, it may not happen. If I say ‘Lift this weight; I’m at the other end’ that is different. This is what God does. Live a holy life, he says. Obey. He also sends his Spirit. Paul pleads in the Lord Jesus. He gave instructions originally by the authority of the Lord Jesus. It is all about Christ – justification, sanctification; beginning the Christian life, going on.
Avoid sexual immorality; learn self control
The call to sanctification has many implications. Paul highlights avoiding sexual immorality. Our various appetites vary in strength – person to person, time to time. The desire for intimacy, for sexual pleasure, is not wrong but it must not reign. This has often been difficult. Today we face increased temptation with the widespread availability of pornography on the internet.
Paul says each one must learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honourable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, ignorant of God. Avoiding sexual immorality is a matter of self-control, not allowing passion to reign. Paul probably writes from Corinth where nightly hundreds of sacred prostitutes would leave their temples to ply their trade.
A Christian cannot give himself to prostitutes or pornography. He either remains celibate or, if married, confines sex to the marriage bed – not always easy. We must learn self-control, as with other appetites (food, alcohol, drugs, exercise, conversation, etc.). Pagans do not know God so it is unsurprising when they disregard God’s rules against fornication, adultery, homosexuality, auto-eroticism, etc. Those who know God must be self-controlled, treating their bodies in holy and honourable ways.
The (slightly cryptic) warning against wronging your brother or taking advantage of him in this reminds us that other people are often involved. We must not only control our bodies but avoid causing others difficulties.
The mention of not wronging a brother leads to the brief note about brotherly love. Paul does not really need to write of this as they almost spontaneously love each other. Yet he urges it on them more and more. Perhaps your fellowship is similar. Your love for each other is evident. Nevertheless, do so more and more. Work at it.
Careers advice for holiness seekers (1)
The next thing may seem unconnected. Verse 12 says the Thessalonians must do as Paul says so that their daily lives may win the respect of outsiders and so that they avoid dependence on anyone. It is all about relationships – with insiders, with outsiders.
Be holy to win the respect of outsiders; avoid dependence. Progressive sanctification is necessary not only to be in God’s will and because it is our calling but also because of its effect on outsiders. Holiness can repel unbelievers but if we live as described, the Christian life becomes attractive. In the Thessalonian letters, we see a growing problem in the church arising from the fact that some poorer members felt that as Christ was coming soon, richer members should share their wealth and they need not work. It is a little like Christians today wondering should they live on state handouts and spend their time evangelising. Paul very much opposes such thinking. He wants believers not to be dependent on anybody. What about brotherly love? There is a balance, a little like the contrast ‘Carry each other’s burdens… each one should carry his own load’ (Gal. 6:2-5). We must help each other but we must also help ourselves.
Careers advice for holiness seekers (2)
Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life
Should Christians be ambitious? Yes and no. Their ambition should be to have none. They should live a quiet life. Do not seek adventure. As a rule of thumb, when you become a Christian, stay as you are. Married? Seek no divorce. If an unbelieving partner divorces you, do not fret. Single? Do not seek marriage, though it is no sin. In a dead end job? Fear not; move up if you can. Stay in the same place, do the same job, keep the same friends, if possible.
Mind your own business
Similarly, do not delve into other people’s business, volunteering here and there, offering help on this or that. It may be that God will expand the horizon of your influence but do not seek it.
Work with your hands
Greeks despised manual work, a view Paul opposed by precept and example. If you can, do an honest job for an honest wage. Being an elder is noble but be slow to assume God wants that. The way to holiness is not by way of a monastery but of getting on with mundane lives, working hard, unambitiously minding our own business, which includes our sanctification.
God wants you to please and obey him. Be holy. Shun sexual immorality, learn self control, practise brotherly love, lead quiet lives, mind your own business, and work hard. This is how we must live.
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