The Lord's Day Morning
August 19, 2012
“Living Life in Light of Jesus’ Return: A Benediction for Sanctification”
1 Thessalonians 5:23-24
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to 1 Thessalonians chapter 5. We’re going to be looking at verses 23 and 24 together. You may want to look back at verse 22 because it will help you understand what Paul is doing in this passage. If we were to devote ourselves to verse 23 alone, you would find hidden in that little verse two very significant theological controversies that have occupied the attention of Christian theologians over the course of many centuries in the history of Christianity. In verse 23 you will see the phrase, “may God sanctify you completely,” or “entirely” and from that has arisen a doctrine called “entire sanctification” which was a part of the holiness movement, for instance, in the 19th century, a teaching that has often been called “Christian Perfectionism” or “The Higher Life Movement” or “The Victorious Christian Life Movement” — movement that teaches that Christians can attain a time in this life in which they no longer sin, in which they cease to consciously sin. It's been very controversial in the church and this is one of the passages that proponents of that particular view go to and so there's a theological controversy hidden in that phrase.
There's another theological controversy hidden in verse 23. If you look at the phrase, “may your soul and spirit and body,” which is in the next clause of 1 Thessalonians 5:23, that has raised the question of trichotomy. Are we, as human beings, made up of body, soul, and spirit — three parts; are we tri-part type beings? Or are we, as the Scripture usually uses the language “body and soul,” bi-part type beings, dichotomous beings? So there's been a significant debate between dichotomy and trichotomy in the history of Christianity and trichotomy has often been associated with certain pernicious kinds of teaching, in fact, sometimes combined with the teaching of “Christian Perfectionism.” But that's not where we're going in this passage today.
I think what Paul is doing here is actually very clear from the context. What's the last thing that he said to us in verse 22? “Abstain from every form of evil.” Now that's a fairly clear, comprehensive, demanding imperative. It's almost like he pulls up close to us and says, “Don't ever sin!” And the response to that, from a tenderhearted, sensitive conscious Christian, must be to be discouraged, because we know that even when we love the Lord Jesus Christ and we believe the Word of God and we're growing in grace we don't abstain from every form of evil; we do continue to sin. And so we could be discouraged by those imperatives that Paul has just rolled out and summed up with that grand, inclusive, comprehensive demand that we abstain from every form of evil. So now, Paul is going to give us some sweet encouragement in a prayer, in a blessing, in a benediction that he is going to pronounce. That's what we're going to read today in verses 23 and 24. Before we do, let's pray and ask for His help and blessing.
Heavenly Father, we ask that You would use Your Word because it is Your Word and by Your Spirit open our eyes to understand the words which He inspired so that we might love what You love, aspire to Your purposes in us, and find encouragement for the living of the Christian life, all the while firmly understanding that our salvation rests on You and Your grace alone, for You are faithful. We ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.
This is the Word of God. Hear it in 1 Thessalonians chapter 5, beginning in verse 23:
“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.”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
Paul's purpose in this prayer, in this blessing, in this benediction that he's pronouncing over the Thessalonians and over you and me, is to encourage us in the Christian life. To hear an exhortation like, “Abstain from all evil,” might drive you to despair. In fact, the more serious you are about sin, the more aware you are of your own sin, the more concerned you are to grow in grace, to be like Christ, to see God's purposes worked out in you, the more susceptible you might be to being discouraged by that kind of an exhortation, “Abstain from all evil.” And so Paul, knowing that, wants to encourage the Thessalonians. He's just told them that he wants them to engage actively in living the Christian life. He wants them to respond affirmatively to these commands, these imperatives that he has given, but he doesn't want them to be discouraged. You know, there are many who say we shouldn't preach holiness to Christians because it might discourage them. And it's interesting that Paul never ever, never ever is afraid to call us to holiness, but what he always does is he comes alongside with the encouragement of God and His grace and His purpose for us. That's what he does in this passage. He calls us to holiness and then he gives us all the encouragements that we need that come from God and from His grace. I want to look at five of those encouragements that he gives to you out of this short passage.
SANCTIFICATION IS THE WORK OF GOD IN YOU
And here's the first one. The first thing that Paul teaches us is that your sanctification is the work of God in you. Look at what he says in verse 23. “May the God of peace Himself sanctify you.” Did you catch that? “May the God of peace Himself sanctify you.” He's praying that God would work to make you holy. He's blessing you with this blessing — the God, who is the God of peace, is going to sanctify you. He doesn't say, “May God aid you as you sanctify yourself.” He doesn't say, “Lord, would You help them as they try as best as they can to make themselves holy.” He says to you, “May the God of peace sanctify you entirely.” Sanctification is God's work in you. Now Paul's of course said that there are things that we must do in the Christian life but it's so important for us to understand that God is far more engaged in our sanctification than we are. We say from time to time that our God is so kind and loving and good that He is more ready to forgive you than you are to ask for forgiveness. So you know, sometimes you dread that He's going to be severe with you. He's more ready to forgive you than you are to ask forgiveness.
And you know what else? He's also more interested in your sanctification than you are. Even if you’re an earnest Christian, a serious Christian, a Bible-believing, Bible-studying Christian who wants to grow in grace, God is more interested in your sanctification than you are. In fact, the entire being of God, the triune fellowship of the Trinity, is purposed, is focused on your holiness. We’re told in Ephesians 2:10 that we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works.” We’re told in 1 Thessalonians and elsewhere that God's purpose for us is sanctification; that His will is our sanctification. In Ephesians 1:4 we're told that He chose us with a view to making us holy. He is deeply concerned for and at work in our sanctification. And so what do we draw from that? Some people would say, “Well since God is at work with us in our sanctification then we don't need to worry about it; there's nothing we need to do.” That's not the logic that Paul uses, ever. The point is, if God is so committed to this in our lives, we ought to be as well. But don't miss his encouragement. His point is this — however committed we are to growing in grace, God is even more committed to our growing in grace and He will not let up, He will not tire, He will not falter, He will not fail in pursing your growing in grace and in Christ-likeness. He is that committed to it. And Paul wants to remind the Thessalonians, even after he's given them these commands, these charges, these imperatives, these directions, these challenges to live the Christian life, to abstain from very kind of evil, he wants to say, “It's God who is at work in you to make you godly.”
THE GOD OF TOTAL WELLBEING AND BLESSING IS AT WORK IN YOU
There's a second encouragement though and you see it as well in verse 23 and it's in what Paul calls God — “the God of peace Himself.” The God of peace Himself. Paul is reminding us that the God who is at work in you is the God of total wellbeing and blessing. Peace, you know, is a very rich Old Testament word that means more than just a cessation of hostility. Peace doesn't just mean you’re not at war with somebody. It stands for – we especially hear it when someone uses that Old Testament word, shalom. It stands for total wellbeing, complete satisfaction, unmitigated happiness and blessing. And the apostle Paul is pausing to remind you that the God who is at work in you for your sanctification is the God of total blessing, total wellbeing, complete satisfaction.
Why? Why is that so important? Because Satan continually plays this trick upon us. He says, “If you want to be happy, you’re going to have to throw happiness overboard. If you really want happiness in this world, you've got to chuck holiness over the side because that holiness is a drag on your happiness,” whereas, in fact, happiness and holiness are inextricably connected. You cannot have one without the other. And because God is concerned for your total wellbeing, He is concerned for your holiness. And so the apostle Paul in this passage is saying that your total wellbeing, your happiness, your satisfaction is inextricably connected with your sanctification and that's why the God of total wellbeing is irreversibly committed to your sanctification because He wants your total wellbeing and happiness and satisfaction and you cannot have that apart from sanctification. And so the apostle Paul is encouraging us that the God who is at work in us is the God of total wellbeing. It's from Him that that wellbeing comes. And it is in Him that we find our ultimate satisfaction. We’re not made to be satisfied in anything less than Him. Isn't that one of the things that is so much a part of all of our growth in the Christian life when we realize that nothing can satisfy instead of Him or apart from Him or more than Him? And so the apostle Paul just reminds us it's the God of total wellbeing who is at work in us for our growth in holiness and sanctification.
GOD’S WORK IN YOU BEGINS NOW
AND IN THE END RESULTS IN COMPLETE PERFECTION
There's a third encouragement though and again you see it in verse 23. Two phrases — “May the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely” and “May your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless.” Notice how he emphasizes the completeness of the task that God is at work in us to perform. “May He sanctify you completely…May your whole spirit and soul and body be blameless.” That's why that language is used. He wants to show how complete this work of God is going to be at the coming of Christ. Now there are two things we need to see here. Paul is telling us that it is God's purpose to make you completely perfect in the end and to begin that now. It is God's purpose to make you completely perfect in the end and to begin that now. We’ll never be completely perfect in the now, we will in the end, but He will begin that process now and complete it in the end. One of the reasons it's so clear that Paul is not just thinking about what God is going to do in the end is he's praying this prayer now. And if you look back at 1 Thessalonians 3 verses 11 and following, which we've already studied, he clearly wants the Thessalonians to make progress in holiness now. So he wouldn't be praying this prayer if he didn't want us to make progress now. But the perfection, the completion, will not come to the end.
But that, in and of itself, is a huge encouragement. Maybe you have experienced encouragement from other Christians who say things to you like, “I do admire the way you selflessly care for other people. It's a clear sign of the Gospel at work in you.” Or, “I so admire how you love the Word of God and you seek to study it and memorize it and teach it and live according to it. That's clearly an evidence of grace at work in you.” I've even talked in this series that we're doing in1 Thessalonians about how we ought to encourage one another when we see evidences of graces in one another. But you know what often happens? Even the very mature Christian, when a brother or sister in Christ comes and gives you that kind of encouragement, sometimes you’re thinking, even while they’re encouraging you, “Yeah, you don't know that I did not even want to get out of bed this morning because I'm so downcast.” “You don't know about this besetting sin in my life that I have been fighting against for thirteen years and I cannot beat it.” And so though you truly appreciate the very, very real and sincere encouragement that you’re receiving from that brother or sister in Christ, at the same time, you may well in your heart of hearts be thinking, “Boy, I'm really glad that you don't know what I'm really like.”
And here's the apostle Paul saying that there is coming a day when you will never feel like that again because God will have taken all of that away and there will be a morning when the sun rises that will be the last time that you’ll ever experience that again because His purpose is to completely eradicate that from your experience and to entirely sanctify you at the coming of Jesus Christ. My friends, if that won't get you going, I don't know what will, and without it, I wouldn't want to go on. If I didn't know that those things in me were not going to be eradicated, I could not go on. I'm so thankful for the forgiveness of my sins, but if I thought that I was going to be forgiven and have to eternally deal with those profound disappointments in myself, I couldn't stand it. And He is going to eradicate it.
IT IS GOD’S PURPOSE TO KEEP YOU UNTIL THE END
And then fourth, Paul gives us this encouragement. Look again at verse 23. You thought I skipped over a word; I did it deliberately. “May your whole spirit and soul and body be kept.” You thought I'd skipped over that. I was saving it until this point. “May your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul is saying that it's not only God's purpose to make you completely perfect in the end, but that it is God's purpose to keep you until the end, to hold you and not to allow you to be snatched from the palm of His hand to the end. The older I grow in Christ, the more meaningful that is to me because I've seen people that I know very well and love who have made a profession in Christ and who have fallen away from that profession and they have stumbled and they give no evidence of loving the Lord anymore or wanting to walk with Him. And it reminds us how precious it is that the Lord is upholding us.
At Together for the Gospel back in April of this year, John Piper got ready to stand up and preach from that glorious benediction in Jude and he stood up and he said these words. “I am amazed when I wake up in the morning that I am still a Christian. And I realize the fact that I awake in the morning and am still a Christian is entirely due to the preserving grace of God. God has preserved me.” And how much power does it take for Him to preserve us? Well just take a look at that word at the end of Jude. That's how much power it takes. We should never ever fail to be thankful that the Lord upholds us and preserves us. He has indeed been our dwelling place in all generations. He is our refuge. He is the one who prevents our foot from slipping. He upholds us. And Paul is saying, “Christian, don't ever presume upon your perseverance. You did not create your perseverance; God has, in His kindness, caused you to persevere. It is He and He alone who can keep you til the end.”
I do want to say this, though — if you’re here today and you've stumbled and you've fallen and you feel far from God, today is the day of salvation, today is the day where you can reach out your empty hand in faith and beg to God, “Lord, help my unbelief. I believe.” And do not despair that He will not hear and answer. There will be no one on the last day who will stand before our Lord and say, “Lord, I wanted to be forgiven, but You wouldn't do it.” There will be no one who says, “Lord, I wanted to be forgiven, but you didn't forgive me.” There will only be those who never asked for forgiveness, who never asked for forgiveness, who never cried out for mercy, and then it will be too late. Today is the day of salvation. If you feel that you've stumbled and fallen and you feel that there's no hope for you, cry out in the day of your need, the day of your distress, and He will answer.
GOD HAS PROMISED AND GOD IS FAITHFUL
One last thing, Paul gives as an encouragement to us, and you see this finally in verse 24. “He who calls you is faithful and He will surely do it.” It's almost like Paul is saying, “Now, as my culminating thought, I want you to understand why you should be encouraged by what I've just said, by what I've just prayed. I want you to be encouraged not because I prayed it” — now there’d be some encouragement in that, wouldn't there? The apostle Paul personally prayed for me that I would be encouraged by these things — there's some encouragement in that, but Paul doesn't say, “Be encouraged, Thessalonians, be encouraged, Jacksonians, because I've prayed this prayer and pronounced this benediction over you.” He says, “Be encouraged because of this — because God is faithful.” Now that's why we sang 602. Look at the very first line of hymn 602. “O God, my faithful God.” He says, “This is why you should be encouraged — because God has promised and God is faithful. We may be confidence of these things not because of Paul's prayer but because of God's promise and faithfulness. His promises are yea and amen in Christ and He will do them.
Because of that, we will be able to sing, when we turn to number 677 in just a few moments, in that final stanza, “Then we shall be what we should be” — why? Because He who has called us, He who has promised, is faithful. What Paul is saying is that the whole of the Christian life hangs upon God's grace, upon God's promise, upon God's power, upon God's faithfulness, therefore, be encouraged, therefore, live with boldness, therefore live with assurance. And if you are in the dread fight today and you feel like you are losing, hear your pastor say to you, the fact that you’re in that fight and you feel like you’re losing is certain testimony to me that God is doing these five things in your life right now. You know what worries your pastor? What worries your pastor is if you’re not in that fight. If you’re not in the fight against sin, if you’re not in the fight for sanctification, that worries me; please come talk to me. But if you’re in that fight and you feel like you’re losing, I know that He's at work in you. I know that He's at work. He is faithful.
Heavenly Father, grant that we would not only rest on Your faithfulness but that we would strive against our sin and for new life with all our might not because You have accepted us because we're really trying hard, but because You've accepted us in the life, death, and resurrection of Your beloved Son and therefore we want to serve You with everything that is in us because we know that one day everything that is in us will be for You and we want to have a taste of that right now, as much of it as we can get by Your grace, by Your Spirit. So grant, O God, that we would use Your means of grace but that we would look to You and look to Jesus who is the author and perfector of our faith. We ask this in Jesus' name, amen.
Now would you take your hymnals and turn with me to number 677 and let's sing praise to God for His work of sanctification.
How will we ever be in that place where we want to be? How will we ever be what we should be? By what God provides. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.