The Lord’s Day Morning
July 1, 2012
“Living Life in Light of Jesus’ Return: A Call to Sexual Purity”
1 Thessalonians 4:3-8
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to 1 Thessalonians chapter 4. We’re going to be looking at verses 3 to 8. A number of years ago when Phil Ryken was beginning to write his book called, The Message of Salvation, which was going to be a book which focused on the main New Testament themes that describe different aspects of what God does for us in redemption — justification and adoption and glorification — he wrote to me and we had a conversation for several weeks about what passage he was going to choose to use to preach, to teach, on sanctification in that book. And we batted back and forth a number of ideas and I’m not sure whether I really gave him good counsel. Since that time I have thought that if I only had one passage to go to, to address the issue of sanctification, it would probably be either Philippians 2:12 and 13, or the passage we’re going to look at today. This passage is that significant in terms of articulating Paul’s view of sanctification.
Now before we go any further, let me be very clear about what I mean by sanctification. I know you’ve already got your Bibles open, but if you would take your hymnals and turn back with me to page 872, not hymn 872 — there isn’t a hymn 872 — but if you look at the bottom of the page and look at page 872 and then go all the way to the top on the left-hand margin and look at the question number 35: “What is sanctification?” What do we mean by sanctification? “Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man, after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin and live unto righteousness.” So sanctification is about growing in godliness. It’s about more and more living to righteousness and dying to sin in our lives. And this is a passage, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8, in which Paul tells us much about sanctification.
As we read this passage, in fact, I want you to be on the lookout for three things. First of all, for what Paul says about sanctification, and you’ll see him emphasize the will of God, the call of God, and the empowerment of God in sanctification as you look at verses 3, 7, and 8. So be on the lookout for the theme of sanctification.
Secondly, in this passage Paul’s big pastoral concern is sexual purity. He’s writing to a congregation that lives in a crazy time of sexual immorality. Do you ever look around at the world now and kind of get discouraged, especially those of us who are a little bit older and can remember when it wasn’t quite too crazy? There are some of us in this room that can remember before the ‘60’s hit and it’s a very different landscape today, very different world today, with regards to sexual morality in our culture. Well Paul is writing to a congregation that’s in a worse situation than ours and he’s calling them to sexual purity. And if you look at the second half of verse 3 all the way down to verse 6 that’s what his focus is on in speaking to this congregation. In fact, it’s very clearly one of the two major pastoral issues that he wants to talk to them about. The other is going to be about the second coming. If you can remember all the way back, we’ve said all along that the theme of this book is “Living Life in Light of Jesus’ Return” and he’s going to get to that issue in this section but before he even gets there he wants to address the issue of sexual morality.
And then finally, I want you to see the very strong warnings that Paul gives in this passage. He gives solemn warnings for us, and look especially at verse 6 and verse 8. So be on the lookout for what Paul says about sanctification, sexual purity, and this solemn warning that he gives. Let’s pray before we read God’s Word.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your Word. Every word of it is inspired; every word of it is profitable. And so we ask today that You would bring to bear the truth of Your Word in our hearts so that we would acknowledge practically its authority. It is the only rule of faith and life. So we want, O Lord, by the Spirit, to have an attitude of believing and accepting and sitting under Your Word. We pray today that Your Word would search our lives out and find if there is any unclean thing in us and then not only apply the Gospel to us but apply the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit to us, O Lord. And we ask these things in Jesus’ name, amen.
This is the Word of God. Hear it:
“For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives His Holy Spirit to you.”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
We live in a confused and confusing world with regard to sexual practice and societal norms. If any of us in this room had gone to our grandparents and told them that a federal judge was going to rule in our time that gender was of no significance to the societal institution of marriage, I am almost certain among a number of horrified responses that our grandparents would have had, they would have thought that we would have lost our minds. And yet that’s the world we live in, where we’re not even sure how maleness and femaleness relate to marriage; we’re not sure that they’re essential to marriage. We live in a confused and confusing society with regard to sexual practice and societal norms. And I think sometimes we look at that, especially those of us who can remember saner times, and we think, “Boy, it couldn’t get any worse than this.” But I want you to remember that Paul is writing to these Christians in Thessalonica from Corinth, not Corinth, Mississippi, the Corinth. And Corinth and Thessalonica both were famed for their sexual immorality. It would be kind of like Paul writing from Amsterdam to San Francisco in our own day. He’s at the epicenter of the prevalent immorality that persisted in Greco-Roman culture.
You have to understand, in Greco-Roman culture, fornication was not only common, it wasn’t even illegal. Adultery was illegal if you were in the upper class and the woman that you were committing adultery with was in the upper class but fornication was institutionally and legally pervasive. If you were upper class in the Greco-Roman world, you were a male, it would be not uncommon for you to have a wife to run your household and to bear your children, but in addition to that to have a concubine, to have slaves with whom you would be allowed to have sexual relationships, and even to have young boys attached to you who would give you sexual favors. This is the world that the Thessalonians were living in. Do you know that the Jewish rabbis — so pervasive was the sexual immorality of the Greco-Roman world, that Jewish rabbis had determined that no Gentile woman could be assumed to be a virgin who was older than three years and one day. The Jews were just horrified at the pervasive sexual immorality of the world in which they lived.
And here’s Paul and he’s writing to the Thessalonians and he’s wanting to address this issue. He’s wanting to do this not because he’s a prude, not because he’s repressed, but because he cares about the Word of God and because he’s a pastor that loves his people. And as he does so, he wants to speak to them about three important things — sanctification, sexual purity, and then he wants to give a solemn warning about the importance of these things. And so I’d like to look at those with you today very briefly.
SANCTIFICATION: THE PURPOSE OF GOD’S GRACE
TO US IS OUR GROWTH IN HOLINESS
The first one is sanctification. You see it right out of the bat. If you look at verse 3, Paul says this: “This is the will of God, your sanctification.” You hear what Paul is saying? God’s will for you is that you grow in holiness. You know pastors get tons of opportunities to talk with people, especially young people, about what God’s will is for them in their life. That’s why there are so many books written on that subject. If you talk to young folks who are in high school or in college of just out of college in that career stage, they’re all trying to figure out, “Lord, what did You put me here for? What do You want me to do for the rest of my life? Where do You want me to work? Who do You want me to marry? Where do you want me to live? What do You want me to do with the gifts and abilities that You’ve given to me?” And pastors get to have those conversations all the time. And some of the time we don’t know what the specific will of God is for you in your life in terms of who you’re supposed to marry and where you’re supposed to live and what job or career you’re supposed to pursue. But I can tell you this, on the basis of 1 Thessalonians chapter 4 verse 3, if you ask me, “What is the will of God?” for your life, I know this — the will of God for your life is that you grow in holiness. Every Christian, no matter where you are, no matter whether you’re male or female, young or old, whether you live in Jackson or whether you live in Darfur, it is God’s will for you to grow in holiness.
And Paul makes that crystal clear in this passage and he reinforces it in three ways. Notice how he does this – in verse 3, in verse 7, and verse 8. First of all, he says God’s purpose, God’s plan for your life, is for you to grow in holiness. Look at what he says in verse 3. “This is the will of God, your sanctification.” So he’s saying God’s will, God’s plan, God’s purpose for every Christian is that we grow in godliness. In fact, if I had to give a one sentence summarization of this whole passage it would be — God’s will is for you to be godly. God’s will is for you to be godly.
SEXUAL PURITY: OUR BELONGING TO GOD OUGHT ESPECIALLY
BE EXPRESSED IN OUR SEXUAL PURITY AND FIDELITY
Secondly, in verse 7 he says, “God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.” In other words, God has not called us to live impure, immoral lives. He has literally called us into holiness. Just as we are called into Christ to be His disciples and to be in fellowship with Him, so we are called into holiness. We are called into a life of holiness. And Paul is saying that the reason God has called you out of darkness and into His marvelous light is not just to be forgiven, not just to be justified, but to be sanctified, to live in holiness. So we’ve been not only — is it the will of God that we live in holiness but God has called us in order that we would live in holiness. And notice what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t say that we were saved by that holiness and were therefore called. That’s good news because if that were true none of us were going to be in heaven. If we were saved by our holiness we’re all in trouble. But he does say, having been saved by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, saved by the grace of God, God’s undeserved favor shown to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ so that all who believe on Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel are forgiven and accepted only because of what Jesus has done, having been saved, we’re saved into a life of holiness, into a life of growing godliness. God’s called us to that in our salvation.
Third, look in verse 8. Notice that Paul emphasizes that God has given us His Holy Spirit. And interestingly in the Old Testament, what is the most common name for the Holy Spirit? Spirit of God. That’s the most common name for the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament — Spirit of God. Here, Paul calls the Spirit of God the Holy Spirit. That has become the most common name that we Christians use to designate the third person of the Trinity because Paul is drawing attention to one of the things that the Holy Spirit does. The Spirit of God indwells us in order to grow us in holiness. Paul will talk to the Ephesians about this in Ephesians 3:14-19. Go read what he says about what the Holy Spirit does in your heart when He indwells you as a believer.
Now what’s Paul doing? He’s telling you that God’s will is your holiness, God’s call to you was into holiness, and He has indwelt you with His Holy Spirit so that you would grow in holiness. Paul is describing for us why sanctification is so important. The purpose of God’s grace in us is that we would grow in holiness. God has called us by His grace into holiness and God has given us and indwelt us with His Holy Spirit so that we might grow in holiness. Sanctification is both a process and a pursuit. It’s something that God is at work in us to do and it is something that we are to pursue ourselves. And he’s exhorting the Thessalonians to pursue this kind of holiness and to recognize the importance of it. It is the will of God for us that we would grow in holiness.
The second thing he says in this passage is to specifically apply this issue of broken holiness to one hugely important pastoral issue — sexual immorality. And look at what he says: “That you abstain from sexual immorality.” This is the specific application of your growing in holiness, your sanctification, that you abstain from sexual immorality. “That each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.” Paul is exhorting the Thessalonians to sexual purity.
Now very frankly, he has us in the crosshairs and this is a very uncomfortable place to be with Paul because his words are just as applicable to us today as they were to those Thessalonians. You know when we look around today and we live in a world where same-sex attraction is not simply celebrated but it’s now increasingly legalized, fornication has become a societal norm, the very definition of marriage has become murky in our own time, and we think it’s really bad. Well think of how it would have been for these Thessalonians to be rearing children in the crazy kind of culture that they had with regard to marriage, family, and sexual morality. That’s the kind of culture that they had to raise them in.
But don’t you love the way that Paul speaks about this to them? Look at what he says to them in verse 5. He says, “I don’t want you to live in the passion of lust like the Gentiles.” Now just pause and glory in that for a minute. Most of this congregation was not Jewish. You know if there were Jewish members of this congregation it was a fairly small core. Paul’s pattern was typically to go into town, preach the Gospel to Jewish folks there, gather up a little core group, study the Bible with them, and then reach out to the Gentiles. And so in most of his congregations the Gentiles far outnumbered the Jewish people and that was certainly the case with the Thessalonians — they’re a majority Gentile congregation. But he says to this majority Gentile congregation, “I don’t want you to act like Gentiles.” Isn’t that interesting? He says to a majority Gentile congregation, “I don’t want you to act like Gentiles.” In the Old Testament, there were two kinds of people in the world – Jews and Gentiles; Jews and everybody else. For Paul, there are two kinds of people in the world — those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and pagans. And he’s saying to former pagans, “Don’t act like pagans. Don’t act like the Gentiles. Don’t act like the culture around you. You don’t get your marching orders for how to live with one another and relate to one another sexually from the world. You get it from God’s Word. God’s Word gives us our marching orders in terms of how we’re going to live in this way.”
And he says three things in particular about sexual immorality. One, he tells them to abstain from it. Look at verse 3. “Abstain from sexual immorality. He uses a general term there that refers to all kinds of sexual immorality. And he says, “I know that the culture around you does not abstain from it, but in here, in the church, we are going to abstain from it. We’re going to be different from the world around us.”
Secondly, if you’ll look with me at verse 4 he tells them that he wants them to control their bodily appetites. “That each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.” So they’re going to control their bodily appetites, their lust and their passion, whereas the Gentiles — “Just let them go! Just do whatever you feel! Do whatever you like!” They’re not going to do that. They’re going to be in control of their bodily appetites.
And then third, if you look at verse 6, he tells them do not transgress. Now that’s interesting. Transgress means to cross the line, to trespass, to break the law of God. But here he’s not just talking about transgressing against God, breaking His law, he’s saying that in your sexual morality if you act inappropriately, immorally, not with purity, you are not just transgressing against God — what does he say? “No one should transgress and wrong his brother in this matter.” So there are horizontal ramifications for sexual morality. It’s always the case. And you think, “No, that’s only the case if you’ve got a situation of adultery.” No, because all of us are responsible not only to the spouse of other people but we are responsible to our own spouse or our own potential spouse in our sexual behavior. And when we are immoral, we are sinning against our brethren in any and every instance because there are horizontal requirements for our sexual purity.
Now this is hugely important for us. Over the last twenty years I’ve seen marriages that have been broken apart by pornography, by same-sex attraction, and by adultery. This is a standing issue in our culture and Paul is putting this right in his crosshairs and he’s saying to the Thessalonians and he’s saying to you and me, “This is vitally important.” Now you may ask, “Well why? Why can’t we just relegate sexual behavior to just something that’s between individuals and it doesn’t have anything to do with the church and it doesn’t have anything to do with God?” Well actually, the Bible gives a lot of answers to that question and I don’t have time to give all the answers that the Bible gives to that question but I want to draw your attention to three answers that the Bible gives to that question.
The first reason is, if you will remember in the Old Testament the major metaphor for being unfaithful to God is? Adultery. When Israel goes after other gods, what do the prophets consistently accuse Israel of doing? Committing spiritual adultery. Now there is a reason for that. There is a reason for that. Part of the reason for that is, of course, in many of these other religions, especially in Baal worship, actual prostitution and adultery was involved in the ritual of the religion. You would go to temple prostitutes and participate in sexual immorality as a part of the ritual for the religion. But much deeper than that is this understanding that there is a fundamental connection between physical adultery and spiritual adultery.
I’ve told you before when I was working with college students, one of my best guys in high school, one of my most mature guys in high school, who’d gone off to college and then gotten out of college and was starting off in his career, came to me really struggling and he said, “I’m not sure I believe in the existence of God anymore.” Now I’m a college director and I’m trying to figure out, “Okay, how am I going to follow up on that conversation?” And so my first question was, “Are you sleeping with your girlfriend?” And he looked like a ghost. And in the course of the conversation it unfolded that yes, he was, and there were a whole variety of things going on. But there was a direct connection between his spiritual crisis and his sexual immorality. And until he understood that, his spiritual crisis was not going to be addressed. God has made us, He understands how we function as sexual beings, and we cannot ignore Him in this area and think that it will not impact our relationship with Him.
And so I just want to say to husbands of the congregation, this means that you have got to declare war on pornography. It means to the young people in this congregation that when you’re in high school and in college and everybody else around you has a different moral code than the moral code that your parents have inculcated in your home and you just think, “This is the season of life where we just kind of enjoy ourselves and it’s okay to engage in fornication. It’s fine. I can go off to State and Ole Miss and Vanderbilt and Millsaps and MC and Belhaven and I can live it up and then when I get out of college I can settle down and get more serious about Jesus and one person and it will all be fine.” It doesn’t work that way.
And Paul is saying to this congregation, “We’re not going to live that way for a second reason — because of the boundary between the church and the world.” It’s not only important because of that spiritual connection between adultery and idolatry, it’s important for the boundary between the church and the world. Paul is saying, “One of the ways that we’re going to show that the Gospel is true and that the Holy Spirit is real and that regeneration is a miracle of God that is verifiable, is through the lives that we live that are distinguishable from the pagan world around us. We’re not going to live like they live and they’re going to see it in our fidelity to our spouses in our sexual purity.”
Thirdly, it’s absolutely essential for harmony in the congregation. It’s not only the connection between adultery and idolatry, it’s not only that boundary between the church and the world so that the world can look at us and say, “You know, they’re different from us. They act differently with regard to their sexual behavior” but it’s also significant for the harmony in a congregation. Does adultery and sexual sin help the unity of a congregation? I’ve never ever seen it help the unity of a congregation, never once. It always does what? It always breaks it up. People take sides. People decide that the elders should have done this or they should have done that. It’s always fragmented the unity of a congregation. And so Paul is concerned about sexual morality because of its connection with our spiritual fidelity to God, because of the boundary between the church and the world, and because of the harmony within the congregation. I could give you hundreds of other reasons, literally, from the Scriptures, but these are some of the reasons why Christians care so much about sexual purity. It’s not because we’re repressed, it’s not because we’re prude, it’s not because we’re Puritanical — although I can’t imagine a better compliment to be given to somebody than being like the Puritans. What a compliment. I wish I were. It’s because we love people, it’s because we love God, it’s because we care about their everlasting souls.
A SOLEMN WARNING
You know you understand that in this issue our biggest concerns aren’t even the dramatic heartbreaking temporal ramifications of sexual impurity — marriages breaking up, families breaking up, lives being wounded and ruined. It’s eternal concerns and that’s exactly where Paul goes in this passage. Look at what he says in verse 6 and in verse 8. Why is it that we shouldn’t transgress and wrong our brother? Look at the second half of verse 6. “Because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.” Look at verse 8. “Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives His Holy Spirit to you.” Paul is warning here that the unrepentant, sexually immoral, face God’s avenging justice and wrath and that those who disregard God’s call to holiness and disregarding God Himself. Now what this does not mean is that sexual sin is the unforgiveable sin. Paul will say, of course to the Corinthians, after he lists all manner of sexual immorality, “such were some of you but now you have been washed and cleaned and glorified.” So Paul understands that it is possible to repent of these sins and be not only members in good standing but gloriously, graciously accepted by God, nor does this mean that true Christians will never struggle with these things. I remind you that the man who wrote more psalms than anyone else was an adulterer. His name was David.
But the Christian may never make peace with these sins, ever seek to justify them, and whenever we have succumbed to temptation in these sins, our souls are in danger. And Paul’s telling it to us here very, very clearly in this solemn warning. He’s saying unrepentant, sexually immoral people, face the avenging justice and wrath of God. If God has called us to live in holiness, then to live in sexual immorality constitutes a rejection of that call and that rejection brings God’s wrath and that rejection of God’s call to holiness constitutes a rejection of God. You can’t say, “Jesus, I want to be Your disciple but I don’t want to live like You’ve called me to live.” Can you imagine saying that to Jesus? “I want to be Your disciple, but I don’t want to live the way that You’ve called me to live.” Those who have attempted to justify their sexual immorality are doing exactly that. And my friends, we see that happening more and more in this culture. People want to say, “I want to live in a way that is diametrically opposed to God’s Word and I want to call myself a Christian and I want to sue you if you say that I can’t.” That’s what they do in this culture. So your culture is not going to help you think straight in this area; only the Word of God is.
Now, if you’re struggling, if you’re struggling in any of these areas of immorality — pornography, same-sex attraction, adultery, fornication — we want to be your allies in that fight against those sins. And I haven’t told you enough how to begin to fight those battles except to draw you attention to Paul’s pointing of the work of the Holy Spirit. If you attempt to fight those battles on your own, I can just tell you right now you will lose because this is a spiritual battle and it must be done in dependence upon the Holy Spirit and there’s no easy 1-2-3 solution in any of these areas. It is a long, grueling, bruising battle, but it’s the battle that every Christian is called to. I promise you, if we went around this room and if we trusted one another enough, for each of us to stand up and announce what our three greatest besetting sins were, there would be no one in this room who named a besetting sin and said that it was an easy sin to fight against. That’s why it’s a besetting sin. But we never ever can make peace with those sins or justify them. Paul says, “For those who are unrepentant in sexual immorality, the wrath of God awaits them.” And it’s because we care about people eternally that we say these things, not because we’re all narrow-minded and bigoted and repressed; it’s because we love people and we want them to be with God forever. And I’ve seen people literally look at the choice between sexual immorality and God and look me in the eye and say, “It’s going to have to be sexual immorality.” And when I’ve seen them take that fork in the road, I have also often seen many who never come back. This is serious business and we need God’s help and we need God’s grace to stay in this fight together.
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your Word. We ask that You would work it deep down in our hearts. We do want to be different from the world but Lord I recognize that many of us in this room are in grave, terrible battles right now with sexual immorality. Lord God, by Your Spirit, give us freedom from bondage to sin and newness of life and the will to continue this fight. If we have to fight it to our last breath, O God, with no relief, then give us the grace of perseverance to fight it to our last breath with no relief because, O God, a blessed rest awaits. Lord, help us, by Your Spirit. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.
Now let’s sing about this. What I’d like you to do is open your hymnals to 335 and I want us to sing just the fourth stanza of “Gracious Spirit, Dwell with Me” and really take in those words. In fact, let’s sing the fourth stanza twice.
Receive now the Lord’s blessing. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.