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Lesson 22: The Wholly Holy Church (1 Thessalonians 5:23-28)

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January 1, 2017

I’ve read that 36 percent of us break our New Year’s resolutions by the end of January (Reader’s Digest [1/03], p. 17). I’d guess that the percentage increases with each succeeding month. But I hope that the high rate of failure doesn’t keep you from setting some biblical goals this New Year. As is often said, “Aim at nothing and you’ll hit it every time.” So I urge you prayerfully to evaluate your life before the Lord and set a few goals that will help you to grow in Christlikeness this year.

As Paul closes his first letter to this church of new believers, he offers a “prayer-wish” for their complete sanctification (holiness) in light of the Lord’s coming, followed by a reminder of the Lord’s faithfulness to complete the process He began when He saved us. Then Paul asks these new believers to pray for him; gives some brief final instructions; and commends them to the Lord’s grace. He’s saying that …

The church is a community that seeks to become wholly holy.

Paul has emphasized sanctification in this letter. In 1 Thessalonians 3:13, he prayed that the Lord … “may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints.” Then in 1 Thess. 4:3 & 7, he stated, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; … For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification.”

To be sanctified means to be set apart unto God from this evil world, or to be holy. God has always commanded His people to be holy, or distinct from this evil world. Citing Leviticus 19:2, Peter commands (1 Pet. 1:15-16), “but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” As we’ve seen (in earlier messages on 1 Thess.), there are three aspects of sanctification: (1) Positional sanctification, which was accomplished through Christ’s sacrifice at the moment of salvation (1 Cor. 1:2, 30; 6:11; Heb. 10:10, 14; 13:12); (2) progressive sanctification, which is ongoing throughout life (2 Cor. 3:18; 7:1; Phil. 3:12-14; 1 Thess. 3:12-13; 4:3-8; 1 Pet. 1:15-16); and, (3) perfect sanctification, which will happen the instant we see the Lord (1 John 3:2).

But, just as we need biblical balance in the matter of not quenching the Holy Spirit and yet being discerning (1 Thess. 5:19-22), so we need balance in the matter of sanctification. John Wesley and others in the Arminian tradition teach that it is possible to become totally sanctified in this life. Sometimes this happens over time, but it may happen at a moment of crisis. But invariably, they have to reduce the definition of sin to “the voluntary transgression of a known law” (Wesley), rather than as “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God” (Westminster Shorter Catechism; G. Walters, New Bible Dictionary [IVP], ed. by J. D. Douglas, p. 1141). I dare say that if anyone had talked to John Wesley’s wife, this imbalanced teaching would have been laid to rest!

In our text, Paul is looking at the progressive aspect of sanctification with a view to the perfect or final state when Christ returns. While we won’t be perfectly sanctified until we meet the Lord, we should be making progress each year that He gives us. Make it your aim to grow in holiness in the New Year. Our text gives us five insights to help us grow in holiness:

1. Holiness comes from the God of peace Himself.

1 Thess. 5:23: “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 303) admits that he does not completely understand why Paul refers to God as, “the God of peace.” But G. K. Beale, (1-2 Thessalonians [IVP Academic], p. 175) suggests that it is “to underscore that God’s sanctifying work is the instrumentation by which God gives peace.” In other words, there is a relationship between holiness and peace: as we grow in holiness, we will experience God’s peace more fully.

“Peace” is a Hebrew concept that refers to total well-being. Leon Morris (The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians [Eerdmans], p. 180) says, “Peace brings before us the prosperity of the whole man … especially including spiritual prosperity.” Spiritual peace refers both to peace with God and peace with one another, which come from being reconciled to Him through the blood of Christ (Eph. 2:13-15). We also enjoy inner peace or freedom from anxiety as we bring all of our needs to our gracious Lord in thankful prayer, walking in obedience before Him (Phil. 4:6-9). F. F. Bruce, Word Biblical Commentary, 1 & 2 Thessalonians [Thomas Nelson], p. 129) says, “The sum total of gospel blessings can be expressed by peace.” So we get peace with God, peace with one another, and peace within from the God of peace Himself as He sanctifies us, or makes us holy.

2. Holiness encompasses the entire person: spirit, soul, and body.

1 Thessalonians 5:23 is the classic verse for those who argue that men and women are composed of three parts: body, soul, and spirit (“trichotomy”). The more commonly held view is that people are made up of two parts, body and soul, the material and the immaterial (“dichotomy”). Usually those who hold to trichotomy teach that our soul is the carnal or natural part of man, which must be brought under the control of our spirit, where God dwells.

Those who hold to dichotomy point out that the immaterial part of people contains not only soul and spirit, but also heart, mind, will, and conscience. The Bible even refers to the kidneys as an immaterial part of man (Pss. 16:7; 73:21; Prov. 23:16; Jer. 9:20 [Hebrew]; Rev. 2:23 [Greek])! The distinctions between these different terms is not always uniform, precise, or technical. For example, in Luke 1:46-47, Mary uses the terms in Hebrew synonymous poetry when she says, “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.” (See, also, Phil. 1:27.)

God commands us to love Him (Mark 12:30), “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” But, there is no mention of “spirit.” God is spirit (John 4:24), and yet He has a soul (Heb. 10:38; Lev. 26:30; Ps. 11:5). In other texts, Paul refers to body and spirit, but doesn’t mention the soul (Rom. 8:10; 1 Cor. 5:3; 7:34; 2 Cor. 7:1). In our text, it is clear that both soul and spirit need to be sanctified. So my understanding is that Paul is not giving us here a technical description of the nature of man, but rather is emphasizing that the process of sanctification should be entire. It should involve every part of our being, both material and immaterial. It begins with the inner person, but it also extends to our bodies.

Unlike some false religions that teach that all matter, including the body, is evil, the Bible teaches that our bodies, while fallen in sin, are to become holy or set apart unto the Lord. In 1 Corinthians 6:18-20, Paul writes,

Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.

He goes on to show that God ordained a legitimate, holy purpose for sexual relations between a man and a woman in marriage (1 Cor. 7:1-9). When you are tempted with sexually immorality, remember that God commands you to glorify Him in your body.

In the fundamentalist church where I grew up, the verse that says that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit was used to condemn smoking, drinking, and the use of illegal drugs. That is a valid application, but most of the church members already avoided those things! But it was never applied to overeating, although many of the members needed to reduce the size of their temples! But the ancient church identified gluttony and sloth (which may be a cause of not exercising) as two of the seven deadly sins. If our bodies are unhealthy because of gluttony or sloth, we won’t be fit to serve Christ.

Paul ties in disciplining our bodies with serving the Lord. After saying that he does all things for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:23), Paul explains (vss. 26-27), “Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” Recent studies have shown that there is a link between physical fitness and mental fitness. If your body is in bad shape because you overeat and under-exercise, you won’t be mentally and spiritually sharp as a witness for Christ. So setting a goal to become more physically fit so that you will be a better servant of Christ is legitimate.

Thus, holiness comes from the God of peace Himself. It encompasses the entire person: spirit, soul, and body.

3. Holiness has a Godward focus in view of Christ’s coming.

After praying that God might sanctify us entirely, he adds (1 Thess. 5:23b-24), “without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.” Note three things here:

A. Holiness means to be without blame before the Lord and others.

To be without blame does not imply that we can reach a state of sinless perfection in this life. Even when we are not aware of any deliberate sins of commission, we always are plagued by sins of omission. We never love God or others perfectly. We never “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and in everything give thanks” (1 Thess. 5:16-18). We can never perfectly control our tongues (James 3:2, 8). To be without blame is not to be perfect in this life.

Rather, to be blameless means that we have no legitimate grounds for accusation before the Lord and we haven’t wronged others without seeking to make it right. We have a clear conscience before God because we judge and turn from our sin on the heart level. And, others cannot bring a valid charge against us because we wronged them and didn’t make it right. To be blameless means to live uprightly before God and before others. As Paul says (1 Thess. 2:10), “You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers.”

Jesus, citing Isaiah, condemned the Pharisees because they honored God with their lips, but their hearts were far from Him (Mark 7:6). God always looks on our hearts (1 Sam. 16:7). Thus to be holy, we’ve got to confess and turn from our sins on the heart or thought level. As Jesus pointed out in the Sermon on the Mount, to lust after a woman in your heart is tantamount to adultery in God’s sight (Matt. 5:27-28). Envy, jealousy, greed, and pride are sins of the heart. So holiness is not outward only, where you stop doing certain sinful behaviors and start doing other religious behaviors. Rather, it’s a matter of walking uprightly before God and others, dealing with our sins on the heart level.

B. Holiness is motivated by the fact that Christ is coming to reward His people and to judge the wicked.

For the fifth time in five chapters, Paul refers to the Lord’s coming (1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:13-17; 5:23). As the Lord emphasized in the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-46), He has entrusted certain gifts and resources to us to use for His kingdom purposes. When He comes again, we will have to give an account of how we have used what He entrusted to us. We should be motivated by the desire to hear (Matt. 25:21, 23), “Well done, good and faithful slave.” With Moses, we should constantly pray (Ps. 90:12), “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom.”

C. Holiness relies on God’s calling, His faithfulness, and His strength.

1 Thess. 5:24: “Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.” Paul often encourages us by referring to God’s faithfulness toward us: (1 Cor. 1:9): “God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Philippians 1:6: “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” In each of those verses, Paul mentions God’s initiative in our salvation. He effectually calls us (every time the divine call is mentioned in the NT, it refers to God’s effectual call of His elect to salvation; cf. 1 Thess. 2:12; 4:7; Rom. 1:6, 7; 8:28; Eph. 4:1, 4; 1 Tim. 1:9; 1 Pet. 2:9; 5:10; 2 Pet. 1:10). This means, as Leon Morris puts it (The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians [Eerdmans], p. 183), “It is profoundly satisfying to the believer that in the last resort what matters is not his feeble hold on God, but God’s strong grip on him (cf. John 10:28 ff.).”

At the same time, we would be mistaken if we concluded that we are to be passive when it comes to holiness. Some wrongly teach, “Just let go and let God!” Or, “You’ll have victory over sin when you learn the secret of resting in Christ.” They use Jesus’ analogy of Himself as the vine and us as the branches to say, “Branches don’t strive to bear fruit. They just abide in the vine.”

But many verses contradict such teaching. As we saw, in 1 Corinthians 9:26-27, Paul uses an athletic example to say that he disciplined his body for the sake of the gospel. Later (1 Cor. 15:10), he says, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them [the other apostles], yet not I, but the grace of God with me.” Colossians 1:29: “For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.” We are to work out our own salvation, realizing that God is at work in us (Phil. 2:12-13). We are responsible actively to flee immorality and idolatry, not passively to let God deliver us (1 Cor. 6:18; 10:14). We are to perfect holiness in the fear of God (2 Cor. 7:1). We are to strive against sin (Heb. 12:4). The process of growing in holiness requires both relying on the Lord and responsible effort on our part.

Thus, holiness comes from the God of peace Himself. It encompasses the entire person: spirit, soul, and body. It has a Godward focus in view of Christ’s coming.

4. Holiness grows in loving community with other believers.

Sometimes we emphasize our individual responsibility for holiness, but neglect the need for other believers in the process. But note that Paul repeats the word “brethren” three times in three verses (5:25, 26, 27). Certainly, holiness is an individual matter, but it also involves being in community with other believers. Much more could be said, but briefly:

A. The church is a community that prays for one another.

1 Thess. 5:25: “Brethren, pray for us.” Although Paul was a veteran apostle, he asks these new believers to pray for him! He knew his own weakness and need for God. He did not have it all together with no needs. So he often asked for prayer (Rom. 15:30; Phil. 1:19 Eph. 6:19; Col. 4:3-4; 2 Thess. 3:1-2). Please pray often for me and the other elders here. Pray for one another!

B. The church is a community that warmly shows the love of Christ towards one another.

1 Thess. 5:26: “Greet all the brethren with a holy kiss.” Should we apply this literally? I had an uncle and aunt who went to a church where the men greeted the other men and the women the other women with a kiss on the lips. It always grossed me out! I would argue that the holy kiss was a culturally appropriate means of greeting in Paul’s day that we can adapt to culturally appropriate greetings in our day. There are still some cultures where people greet each other with a kiss on each cheek, but that is not done in America and I don’t think it’s required. Rather, Paul was urging the church to give one another a loving greeting in a culturally accepted manner. The church is family and we should show it when we greet one another.

Be careful, though, about greeting the opposite sex inappropriately. A pastor friend of mine told me that he used to hug all the women in the church as he stood at the door after church. But he stopped doing it when an unbeliever in his town winked at him and said, “Yeah, I see you hugging all those babes at church!” It conveyed something inappropriate to an outsider. So, we need to be careful to show Christ’s love in an appropriate manner when we greet each other. If I’m counseling a sister in the Lord who breaks down crying, I’ll hand her a tissue, but I won’t hug her. I’m not being unsympathetic; I’m being discreet!

C. The church is a community that takes God’s word seriously.

1 Thess. 5:27: “I adjure you by the Lord to have this letter read to all the brethren.” “Adjure” is a strong word, meaning to put them under oath before God. Probably Paul was countering his critics who said that he didn’t care about these new believers or he would have returned. He wants the letter read (probably repeatedly) so that the church could hear of his tender love for them.

But, also, Paul viewed his apostolic letters as authoritative revelation from God (1 Cor. 7:12; 14:37; Col. 4:16). Peter also commended Paul’s letters as Scripture (2 Pet. 3:15-16). Apostolicity was a major criterion for a writing being included in the New Testament canon. The application for us is that we will not grow in holiness unless we take God’s word seriously. It should undergird and determine all that we do as a church and as individuals. Paul’s final greeting shows:

5. Holiness grows when we experience the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Thess. 5:28: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” That is a greeting, but it’s more than a greeting. It’s a prayer that has enormous implications. The abundant grace of our Lord Jesus is behind our salvation (Eph. 2:8-9) and should bathe and motivate our sanctification. As Paul told Timothy (2 Tim. 2:1), “You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” Peter closes his second letter (2 Pet. 3:18), “but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.” Jesus is full of grace and can impart grace (John 1:14, 16, 17), which shows that He is God. Legalism often arises in the church as an attempt to promote holiness, but it never succeeds (Matthew 23). When we understand and live under God’s grace, it always results in true holiness (Rom. 6:1-2). Let’s pour out God’s grace on one another.

Conclusion

I encourage you to make growing in holiness one of your main goals this New Year. You might begin by committing to spend a few minutes each morning reading the Bible and praying. Memorize some key verses on holiness. Read J. C. Ryle’s classic, Holiness. You can read it online at gracegems.org, which says, “This volume is considered the best book on the Christian life that has EVER been written.” Read a good book on using your time wisely. I’m currently reading Matt Perman’s What’s Best Next [Zondervan], subtitled, “How the gospel transforms the way you get things done.” Get in a small group where you can encourage one another to grow in holiness. I pray that this year will be a year of unprecedented growth in holiness for each one in our church!

Application Questions

  1. When you think about holiness, are your thoughts positive (“It’s beautiful!”) or negative (“It’s restrictive!”)? Why?
  2. What one thing more than any other would help you to grow in holiness this year? Put that one thing in your daily schedule.
  3. How can we know whether we’re in balance between our effort and God’s power (Col. 1:29; Phil. 2:12-13)?
  4. How can we as believers be in the world, but not of the world (John 17:15-17; 1 John 2:15-17)?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2017, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Ecclesiology (The Church), New Year's