1 Thessalonians 4:1-7
Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that, as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you may excel still more. For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification.
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
I begin each sermon with those same words; "My Brothers and Sisters in Christ". I chose them carefully and deliberately. They may seem almost automatic to you, because I always use them, but they are not. They are a purposeful reminder at the beginning of each sermon for you and for me. Hopefully they remind you that you are, in fact, my brothers and sisters in Christ. We are equals in the presence of the Lord. The words also are to remind me that I may never forget that we are equals. I am not lording it over you, or superior somehow. I have my office - to teach and preach and administer the Sacraments - and you have your office as the holy people of God, a holy priesthood to show forth the light of glory of God in the face of Jesus. I never preach to order you about, but to teach the Word of God and to exhort and remind you to walk as the people of God that you are.
This morning, I am called upon once again to 'request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus Christ', as St. Paul does in our Epistle, to be the holy people of God - which you are, and yet to encourage you to be so all the more. Our text tells us that we have not been called for the purpose of impurity but in sanctification. God has not, according to Paul, called us to live in sin or to be content and secure in our foibles and frailties. He has called as sinners, that is true, . . . but to repentance, and holiness. He has called us to sanctify us - to make us holy. In the words of our sermon theme, we have been called to purity.
Back in the times of Paul, to many people the freedom of the Gospel and forgiveness of sins meant that they could now go out and sin deliberately and do whatever their hearts desired and it didn't make any difference to their salvation. They appeared to think that anyone who called themselves a Christian was going to go to heaven, no questions asked.
It is not much different today. Many people think that anyone who can pronounce the name "Jesus" is going to heaven - whatever they may imagine that means. And, to be honest, calling yourself a "Christian" back in the early church was a lot different than it is in modern America. Christians were hated, hunted, persecuted, and killed for just being a Christian. Christianity was illegal. Confessing Christ made you an outlaw. The Christian faith and confession required a risk and a commitment back then that it just doesn't demand today. Not here in Missouri.
Risk or no, Paul tells them that they were to walk in Christ to please God. That exhortation also applies to us. They and we were called with a purpose, and part of that purpose, at least, is sanctification. Paul writes that those who have been called into a relationship with God in Jesus Christ have been made holy by the forgiveness of sins and we are to live out that holiness. Paul further tells his readers that confusion on this issue can be dangerous, because God, who we call "Father" and hope in for salvation, is the Avenger of those who have been injured by the immorality of others. There is no cover from God in merely claiming Him as your God - He is the Judge and He is just. He is impartial, and He is the Avenger of Immorality. And we have been called to purity!
The specific topic Paul addresses appears to be sexual morality - or immorality - and the instruction is that we are not to engage in sexual immorality, or lustful passion, or impurity. We have a command of the Lord Jesus on this. We are to learn self-control, and possess our bodies in sanctification and honor. Sexual morality is the issue because it is so very difficult for people, and being a Christian does not insulate us from the temptations of the flesh. It makes us a target of the Tempter in this regard, and we still face the other two great enemies of godliness, the world around us and our own sinful flesh. The culture around us in steeped in sex and lust and permission, even invitation, to wanton sexual desire and activity. Our flesh also fights against God's holy will in us. Our flesh wants, and our flesh hungers, and our flesh lusts. And we, the holy people of God, are called out of sin into holiness, and God's purpose in making us His holy people is that we abstain from sins and live in that holiness. We are called to purity.
This isn't a call in which God demands everything from us, and gives us nothing from Himself. Just the opposite. God has sent His Son, and Jesus has lived the holy life, and then laid down His own body for us. He purchased your holiness with His own, and by the cross and the agonies there. Look at the cross, see Christ nailed there and dying in agony. That is how important and precious your sanctification was and is to God. He has purchased holiness for you - - - and poured it out on you, - - - and chosen you from among all mankind, - - - and called you to live before Him in faith and in sanctification. Your sins are forgiven. You have been made heirs of eternal life in glory with God. It is a gift to you by grace through faith.
He knows how difficult living in this corrupt and sinful world is for us, and the weakness of our flesh. That is why He has given us this holy meal, which we shall eat this morning, to strengthen us and purify us for holy living. Here is the very body of Christ, under the form of the bread, for your forgiveness and sanctification. It cleanses you! Here is the very blood which He shed for your sins to cleanse you and raise you up from sin to holiness and everlasting life. Come and eat and drink and be refreshed and cleansed and strengthened, for you have been called to purity, and here Christ would prepare you to fulfill that call.
When the Christian faith was illegal, the pious and holy conduct of the Christian was a tool of evangelism. The sanctification of the Christian bore silent witness that the illegal religion was not evil, and the followers of Christ were different only in the good effect of Christ in their lives, causing them to live in purity and decency and compassion for their neighbors.
Today Christianity is slipping once again into the unfavorable category in the perception of our culture. Paganism and pagan immorality is rising to dominance in the world around us. The witness of many who call themselves "Christian" is not good, or clear, or faithful, or holy. Church bodies hurry to give approval to those things which are expressly condemned in Scripture. Sanctification is tolerated as a personal option, but not as public doctrine, or an expectation. Personal sanctification of individual Christians is under assault. The devil is hard at work, and succeeds all too often, as divorce and homosexuality and other crimes and sins arise with greater frequency among those in even the more conservative churches - sadly more and more even among the clergy.
The world today needs the witness of our holy lives to contradict the growing persuasion that faith in Christ does no particular good, and that Christians are just like everyone else. Our holiness continues to be a silent witness to the presence of Christ in us, and brings glory to God even when we are unaware that it our sanctification observed, or that it has any influence whatsoever. It is, at least in part, the purpose of the Lord for calling us into faith in Christ. If God did not have that purpose, He could summon us to Himself in glory just as soon as we came to faith. But God has called us for the purpose of purity.
For those who may be tempted by the deceptive philosophy that it does not make any difference how a Christian lives, or whether or not you sin, since our sins have been atoned for, or the notion that God will accept from us just any sort of behavior that we may give to Him at any time, this text is a caution. God's will and His purpose in calling us to Himself is our sanctification, and those who transgress and defraud one another must remember that the Lord is the Avenger in all these things.
Now I didn't tell you all of this because you strike me as particularly evil people or liable to such sin. We are all tempted in one way or another, but that is not my purpose here. You are God's holy people. I begin there, as I indicate in every sermon. You are my brothers and sisters in Christ, forgiven and made holy by His great work on the cross. So walk as God has taught you to walk, and live in the holiness He has given to you and poured out on you, for you have been called to purity.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
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