1 Thes. 4:1-8 (ESV)
Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to live and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.  For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.  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.
For God has not called us for impurity, but in Holiness.
Here is the gist of the text, you are holy, so be holy.
Too many get this wrong, they get started out wrong. American Evangelicalism infects the fiber of our being as church. It sneaks into Lutheranism through Bible Studies put together by evangelicals and consumed by our people. It is consumed by those so called Christian books people find at Walmart, or on the best seller list, or over Christian radio and so on. And the message is generally this, sanctification is up to you.
American evangelicalism slips legalism in through the back door of the church and calls it sanctification, and this is the verse they reach for when asked to explain themselves, but it doesn’t say what they want it to say, not really. If you were to read it as if sanctification was up to you, then it would be at odds with everything scripture says about sanctification elsewhere. Such as 1 Cor. 6 where we are told that we were washed, we were justified, we were sanctified. That is that when we were washed, or baptized we were justified and sanctified. Or in Eph. 5, where it is said that Christ sanctifies his bride the church with the washing of water and the word. In fact the Bible, this passage included, locate our sanctification outside our works, in the work of God who alone can sanctify, that is make us holy. Sanctification and holiness are the same thing, in fact it is the same word that is translated both as sanctification and holiness here.
No, sometimes I read verses in the English translation and my eye stops. I say, no I don’t think that is quite what is written, and I look up the Greek and normally find I am right, sometimes glaringly so. Last week I was reading Galatians, and came across a verse in the third chapter “what then has become of the blessing you felt?” And I thought, no I don’t think it says that. I’ll tell you it went against everything I have ever learned of Lutheran Theology, from confirmation to this day. And the thing is, the theologians I have learned from were not biblical slouches, so I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt in these places and check it out. Of course there is nothing in Galatians 4 to warrant the “you felt” part. Blessings aren’t necessarily felt, they aren’t liver shivers. You may not feel a thing. But you see that is they way I often operate. I’m willing to go with scripture but I want to make sure it is scripture I’m going with, and not the thoughts and interpretations of men.
Over the years that has made me change my views on a lot of things, that is reading and understanding scripture has. It’s exposed a lot of hypocrisy in me. But I have also found it has strengthened my convictions as a Lutheran, things like Sanctification is the work of God, and not my work. Either God makes me holy or I’m just not holy.
That doesn’t mean I can’t grow in faith and love, to do these things more and more as Paul says here, but it is not a matter of becoming more and more sanctified. We are never more sanctified than we are right now, than we are the minute we are baptized, because that is God’s work. He called us in holiness, in sanctification. It is the Holy Spirit who calls me by the gospel and sanctifies me with his gifts. That is what makes the Holy Spirit the Holy Spirit, he is called that because he makes us holy.
What funny about the translation of this text, This is the will of God, your sanctification, that you abstain from sexual immorality. It is almost sounds as if your sanctification is nothing more than you not having sex with your neighbor’s wife or husband. When in reality the text is trying to say, God is your sanctification so listen to him concerning his will, don’t neglect it for neglecting it will be a denunciation of your sanctification.
What is being said is you are sanctified. You are holy. You have self worth, don’t debase yourself. It’s hard for us sometimes to see it this way. Sexual immorality. Paul is writing to a culture that was highly permissive sexually speaking. There was no hiding pornography from your children in this culture. No one in Thessalonica would think that raising pure children would be as simple as protecting them from pornography. Or making sure they didn’t have sex until they were twenty five and had graduated from college.
In taking that approach our culture has sinned and is sinning against our youth. Yes, I hear people brag about how long they have gone without sex before they get married in conservative magazines and blogs etc. I don’t care. These days I find it even more tackier than guys in the locker room talking about their latest escapades. We’ve done, as a society, a grand disservice to our children in that. I’m not always sure what the answers are in all of it. In Paul’s day it was a bit simpler, no one blinked when someone got married at fifteen. It was as expected and normal as it is today when you hear of teenagers being sexually active, hear of them being pregnant and so forth. And I do wish our society would get rid of the stigma of the pregnant teenager that right there causes more abortions than Obama’s healthcare plan will ever be guilty of. Of course, in Paul’s day marriage for the grand majority of people to whom he was addressing about marriage was little more than that which we call today shacking up. The upper middle classes and the upper class might have their marriage formerly registered somewhere, Pre-nup contracts were a common form, and frequently broken. But the majority of the people to whom Paul is speaking this was not necessary or sometimes even possible, for most of them it was a matter of them moving in together. It was rarely celebrated by a big party. People didn’t spend thousands on white dresses, flowers and so forth. They certainly didn’t go into debt for the marriage. And the divorce of which Paul speaks was in most cases nothing more than moving out.
Yeah, his society was not that different from ours, inside the church or out. But sexual immorality was shunned. You did not take your neighbor’s wife, your neighbor’s spouse. Christians weren’t about casually hooking up for one night stands or engaging in orgies. They didn’t do these things because they had respect for themselves and others. They knew they were holy, and they knew their Lord had died for these other people. They knew that to engage in sexual immorality was to trespass on their brother and their sister. It was to treat them as sexual objects, not to respect them for who they were, people for whom Christ died, it was to violate their integrity, to cheapen them as an individual. In short, it was something not in line with the love of Christ.
Intuitively we know that. They knew it then too. We are holy. So we don’t abuse ourselves, and we don’t abuse others. We abstain from sexual immorality. At the same time, we love, because Christ loved us. We live in a world that is full of those who do not share the morality we have on account of Christ, our morality does not make us better than them. In fact, our morality is supposed to communicate Christ’s love for them. This does not happen when we shun and shame others for not being strong in the face of temptation. No, if we are honest with ourselves, neither have we been all that strong in the face of temptation. We are and will remain for the rest of our lives, sinners in need of forgiveness. Our sanctification just cannot depend on us, if it did it would never be realized, we would be lost and without hope. No, finally our sanctification rests in Christ who died on the cross for our sins, in God who is our sanctification, who gives us the Holy Spirit that we would be Holy despite our failures. He gives us the Holy Spirit who constantly picks us up, and constantly forgives, constantly sanctifies anew that we might continually grow in understanding, be strengthened in faith, and learn to love more and more in him who first loved us.
Now the peace of God who surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.