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God Wants Your Sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4.1-7)

Second Midweek Lenten Service

“God Wants Your Sanctification”
Philip G. Meyer, Pastor Emeritus   

1 Thessalonians 4.1-7

16 March 2022



We Lutherans speak more often of justification than sanctification. Good works do not go ahead of faith. Faith is created in us by the work of the Holy Spirit through the hearing of the Gospel. We are justified by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith. But once that happens in Holy Baptism you are renewed and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Another way of saying it is that in sanctification the whole territory of the new life is active. On Ash Wednesday we spoke of the renewal of our actions as well as the deepening of our faith. Faith and good works go together. They are not separated. In other words, God the Holy Spirit is active to change our hearts and minds to follow God’s will. Renewal means that we are to make progress in our lives because of faith. You will hear more of this next week in Vicar’s homily.

Our age is obsessed with sexual matters. It is part of a plan to deconstruct—really, destroy—society as we have known it. Taboos define what a culture considers most important and what it hates most. What was once unthinkable as being evil is now applauded as normal. We’ve heard a lot about “pride” for the sinful behavior of homosexuals. Michael Knowles wrote, “Pride insists on our own perfection just the way we are . . . social ills seem always to stem from others—from “society”—never from ourselves.” [Speechless, p. 148f]. Living a “sexually pure and decent life in what we way and do,” as we learned it from Luther’s Small Catechism, is ridiculed in a society where any perversion is called “normal” and any line between right and wrong has been erased, except for the line of intolerance to such behaviors.

Such hostility to sexual purity was not unknown in the days of the Apostle Paul. We sometimes think that this is the first time Christians have ever faced such pressure to conform in a pagan society. Paul addressed that numerous times in his Epistles to the Churches. Throughout the Roman Empire Christians were a distinct and hated minority for insisting on sexual purity. In this First Letter to the Thessalonians Paul exhorts them to live lives of sanctification. Another word for that is holiness, or to be separated from something. The Third Commandment tells us to “sanctify the holy day,” that is, to set it apart as belonging to God. So sanctification can best be understood as a life that is sacred, dedicated to God, to be set apart from the world’s standards and aligned with God’s eternal will. 

This reading is not about justification, how we are made right with God through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, but it is about God’s summons to live out our lives in accord with his will. It means growing in the faith so that we willing do what God commands. The Thessalonian congregation was not deficient in doctrine for the most part, but they were being assaulted by the customs of the Roman world. 

The Thessalonians had newly come to Christianity from a culture where chastity was an unknown virtue. The infection of an “anything goes” culture surrounded them and threatened to pull them back into the darkness of paganism. Morality in the Empire was dead, just as it seems to be in our society. 

What seems to be obvious to Christians about sexual purity is no longer so obvious. Marriage rates are declining in our nation. More than 50% of births are outside of marriage. In some parts of our culture it is 70%. The family consisting of father and mother with children is getting to be a distinctly minority position.

Paul aims at the lack of sexual purity in his letter. He does not speak on his own but from the authority of God himself:

Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.

This, he says, is “your sanctification.” It is how the Christian pleases God, not to win forgiveness, but to obey because of love for God. Skipping to the end of our reading Paul reminds us, and I’m adding the next verse as well:

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. 

While many think these things are not important Paul states very clearly how seriously God takes them. 

. . . the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.

You and I do not have the right to engage in sexual relations that God has prohibited. We are to abstain, yet sadly, many Christians engage in these sins without a thought of receiving God’s wrath for them. It is unpopular to call out such sins as deserving the wrath of God because some think that God is not serious with his threats. Upholding marriage as holy and giving it our highest esteem should be true among all of us. Treating it as a bygone custom of man is merely spitting in God’s face. God is not speaking empty words. He will hold us to account, and before him all hearts are open. The writer of Hebrews warns us:

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. [Hebrews 10.31]

In writing to the congregations in Galatia Paul warned:

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. [Gal. 6.7]

A Lenten theme is practicing self-control.Here Paul says:

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;

God certainly bears with those who fall into sin, but let there be repentance and not a continuance of that sin. God does not want us to presume upon his grace and use it as a cloak for what he has forbidden. Only a fool spits into the wind. 

Unbelievers know nothing about God and his will. They live in blindness and they shall reap disaster. But you do know God! He has redeemed you in Christ! You are not of this world but of Christ’s eternal kingdom. Therefore, put away all that is contrary to his will. Repent and confess you sin. Uphold marriage and the family. Strive to please God with your words and actions so that he may continue to bless you. Practice self-control. Do the right thing! 

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. 

May we reflect God’s will in all we do with regard to marriage and sexual matters that we do not grieve God’s Holy Spirit!

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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