Why Jesus Is My Hero #28 of 52
On Sunday I was preaching down in Hastings on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12 – mostly all about sex. It’s a fantastic passage – at once raising the bar and reminding us how serious purity is in the life of a Christian, but also giving great encouragement to us when we fall short, and the motivation to carry on in the fight.
At its heart, it’s a passage all about the big question: “What is God’s will for my life?” It’s the kind of question that we can tie ourselves in knots over – frantically stressing over exactly what we should be doing and whether we’re making the right decisions. But the answer we find in this passage is really very simple: “This is the will of God, your sanctification“. He doesn’t much mind if we’re a baker or a barber, a tailor or a taxidermist: God’s will is that we should be sanctified. Simply put, to be “sanctified” is to be set apart, to be made holy. In other words, to have our characters conformed to the likeness of Jesus, the true model of humanity. Paul says that we are to live to please God, in all areas of life – perhaps our sex life is one of the areas in which many of us are most conscious of the struggle, but he also includes in this passage how we relate to others in the church, how we work, perhaps even how we use Facebook!
On the one hand, 1 Thessalonians 4 functions as something of a manifesto for the Christian life: let us strive for absolute purity and holiness. We are to avoid sexual immorality in all its forms – Christians are to be utterly uncompromising, despite all the voices from the prevailing culture which tell us that how we use our bodies is our own business and that nobody has any right to tell us how to behave, least of all God. We need to be clear that God’s design for sex is that it is to be enjoyed within the one context where it truly belongs: within a lifelong, faithful marriage relationship between one man and one woman. It perhaps sounds overly strict, maybe downright out-of-date, and no doubt ridiculously idealistic. But that’s the command we’re given by the God who designed sex and who designed us, with all of our passions and desires. Paul is adamant: “whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.” To obey the maker’s instructions is for our good – he’s not just being stingy because he hates us having fun! Sex inside marriage is an experience to be enjoyed without regret and with thanksgiving, and to settle for anything less is downright foolish. The consequences of disobedience in this area are serious and far-reaching, hence his instruction 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.” Even when it feels like our actions affect nobody else, it’s inevitable that there will be implications for how we relate to one another in the church, and in our future relationships.
But Paul knows only too well that Christians are far from perfect and that we all struggle to be pure and holy. And so on the other hand, there’s a great deal of grace within this passage, and encouragement for us to keep pressing on in the battle. After all, if he thought the Thessalonians were perfect, Paul wouldn’t need to be writing in the first place! He begins by encouraging them for all the little ways in which they are fighting – for all the little evidences of God’s grace already at work in their life. “You received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing“. Sinful as we are, and as hard as the struggle is, we need to celebrate those little victories of God’s grace in our lives. But Paul urges us that just as we are already aiming for holiness, “that you do so more and more“. The Christian life is one of daily repentance, daily confessing where we fall short, and daily striving to grow, in the power of God’s Spirit that he graciously pours out upon us.
Ultimately, the only thing that can keep us from being discouraged is a clear grasp of God’s grace. Look ahead to 1 Thes 5:9: “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.” On the cross, Jesus took all of our sin and shame upon himself. He died the death that we deserve – the price is fully paid!
And let’s keep clinging to that great promise: “This is the will of God: your sanctification”. God is utterly committed to our holiness. It is his great project in our lives. Every experience that God puts us through, every trial and every disappointment, all of it is God’s training regime to make us more like Jesus. We are not in this fight on our own. Our sanctification is his will even more than it is the longing of our own hearts. And God will complete that good work that he began in us.