Sanctification, Part 1
Topic: Expository Passage: 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24
1 Thessalonians 5:19-22 | Sanctification, Part 1
Good morning! Turn in your Bibles to 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24. I had originally planned to finish 1 Thessalonians this morning, but that is not going to happen. So what we’ll do is go back and hit that application I ran out of time for last week, and then begin discussing vv. 23-24. I hadn’t originally planned to spend a lot of time there, but as I got into those verses, there were just so many truths that I wanted to bring out! So we’ll start discussing those verses this week, and then after Fred’s series on how to study the Bible (which I am really looking forward to), we will go back and finish vv. 23-24. And from there, it will be really easy to finish up the book. So let’s begin by reading 1 Thessalonians 5:19-24 (5:19-24).
Review from Last Week
So just by way of review, last week we talked about prophecy. Now, the theme of our lesson was broader–it was on giving and receiving Spirit-empowered ministry–but the emphasis was on prophecy. We talked about how New Testament prophets were a vital part of God’s plan for establishing the early church prior to the close of the New Testament canon. Do you remember that?
We also spent a good deal of time discussing these two views on New Testament prophecy, and we concluded that New Testament prophecy consisted of direct revelation from God and that it was held to the standard of perfection. Do you all remember that?
So that brings us down to the applications from last week’s lesson, the first of which was “Give and receive Spirit-empowered ministry with confidence.”
Verse 19 says, “Do not quench the Spirit.” So, in this context, what does that mean? Is this just a generic, stand-alone command that means something like, “Do not say ‘no’ to the Spirit and sin”? –and then in v. 20, Paul goes on to the next topic, which just happens to be prophecy? No! One would quench the Spirit by despising prophecies! In other words, v. 19 is not so much about quenching the Spirit in yourself as it is about ignoring or belittling the Spirit-filled ministry of others. Again, here is a summary of the meaning of v. 19 that I put on the screen last week: “do not quench what the Spirit is doing through spiritual gifts, or do not quench spiritual gifts which are inspired by the Spirit. Quenching is accomplished by depreciating what the Holy Spirit is doing, by not allowing people to use [their] gifts, by suppressing [your] own gifts, or ignoring what such people say or do.” So does that make sense? Are there any questions about what it means to quench the Spirit?
In our last few minutes together last week, I talked about how this applies at Life Point. I said Life Point ought to be a place where people are encouraged to “go for it” in using their spiritual gifts! We believe that prophecy has ceased, but we certainly don’t believe that Spirit-motivated ministry or spiritual gifts have ceased! So if the Holy Spirit has laid some ministry burden on your heart or gifted you in a particular way, our goal is to fan that work of the Spirit into a flame rather than snuff it out! Now, that does not mean that every idea will automatically get a thumbs up? No, but Pastor Kit and I do not want to be a bottleneck for ministry here at Life Point! The church should behave like a living, breathing organism that is constantly growing and adapting.
So, the first application was not to quench the work of the Spirit in our midst, or you could say to fan into flame the work of the Spirit. But my second application (which I did not get to last week) was to exercise biblical discernment. Let’s read vv. 21-22 (vv. 21-22).
In context, these verses are specifically about testing prophecy. However, just like v. 19, they can be applied more broadly to any truth-claim.
Let me lead with this question: the Thessalonians were apparently dealing with false prophecy, and so they needed to be discerning. Is our need for discernment today any less today than it was back then? No! In fact, I would argue that we may have a need for greater discernment! Why? Because there is so much more coming at us every day! We consume more media (including books, magazines, TV, radio, and the internet) than any other generation before us! And here’s the scary question: how many of those ideas pass through our brains without any biblical filter?
I have ended up recently reading several books that I disagree with. There is a book about a Christian who converted to Catholicism, a popular self-help book written by an unsaved psychologist, a book about Amillennialism, and a book about a more progressive style of church ministry. Can I tell you, reading those books is exhausting! I have to constantly fact-check, evaluate arguments, and ask myself, “How does this line up with Scripture?”
I’m not suggesting that you go down to Barnes and Noble and pick up a book that you blatantly disagree with. I have my reasons for reading all four of those books. But reading those books has forced me to keep up my guard has made me wonder, “How often do I go through life with my guard down?”
How often do you watch a movie without giving one thought to the worldview implications of the film? Does Hollywood have a worldview? You bet it does! You say, “But movies aren’t all that dangerous! After all, there’s no propositional teaching in it; it’s just a story.” Don’t say, “It’s just a story!” Stories have always been powerful tools for communicating important ideas! After all, what did Jesus use to teach? Parables! What genre makes up a huge portion of the Bible? Narrative–story! Stories are effective!
Not only that, but today’s movies are so well-packaged with compelling storylines, talented acting, beautiful music, and special effects, that they are extremely potent! It is very easy to let your guard down and let in the message. And because that message comes to you indirectly by means of a story rather than through some kind of a sermon, you tend to receive it more passively. I’ve heard it said (and I think it’s true) that many people leave the theater after some of these films having their worldviews altered, and they don’t even realize it!
So what’s the answer? Is it never to watch a movie ever again, or to watch only Christian films? No! (Although, there are lots of movies you should avoid altogether.) But the answer is not cut ourselves off from the world.
So then what is the answer? The answer is 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22! “Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” Never let down your guard! Run everything you read, see, or hear through your biblical filter! Not only that, but constantly work to improve your biblical filter! Whatever passes through the filter, keep and hold on to. Whatever doesn’t pass the test, discard and avoid.
Does the command to “test all things” apply even to so-called “Christian” books and resources? You bet! In fact, that is the main point of these verses! The false teachers claimed to be prophets! They claimed to be speaking for God! And yet, some of them were “evil.”
In the same way, there are lots of books and other resources out there that claim to be “Christian,” but are full of rank heresy! The cults claim to be Christian! I was just reminded recently of an individual I knew who got caught up in a strange kind of cult. Be careful with what you’re reading online! This is so important!
Of course, you’ve got to realize that every Christian resource will have its flaws. No book is perfect besides the Bible. That doesn’t give us the right to a critical attitude, but it does mean we should always test what we read. Chew up the meat and spit out the bones. If you aren’t sure about something, ask a more mature Christian. As you become more familiar with the Bible, you will get better at spotting the errors.
A church that fails to encourage Spirit-empowered ministry looks more like a dead institution than a living, breathing organism. But a church that fails to exercise biblical discernment gets off track and may even go off into false teaching. Let’s be a church that gets the balance right.
That brings us to the next two verses in our passage and the next topic that we need to discuss, which is progressive sanctification. These are glorious verses! Let’s read them together (vv. 23-24).
Before I go any further, I should ask, do you know what the word “sanctify” means? It means to set apart, or to make holy. So that brings up the basic question, “What are we set apart from and what are we set apart to?” What do you think? We are set apart from sin to God. That is the base-level definition of sanctification. However, that base-level definition can be broken down into several aspects, which we will talk about next.
I found six truths about sanctification in this text that I think are very important for us to discuss. However, because of time constraints, we will only get to two of those truths this morning. So take good notes, and when we come back Lord-willing on June 16, we will review these two points and go on to the next four.
So, like I said, I am going to state two truths on sanctification. And because sanctification is such a difficult doctrine to balance, I’ll include a clarifying statement along with each point. The first truth about sanctification has to do with its nature.
Its Nature: Progressive
Think about this: why did Paul need to pray for the Thessalonians to be sanctified? Because they weren’t–or at least, they weren’t finished yet! Were they saved? Yes! They were justified. But was God done with them? No! Sanctification is a gradual process that occurs throughout the believer’s life.
This is not to deny the existence of either positional sanctification on the one hand or final sanctification (i.e. glorification) on the other.
Do you know what positional sanctification is? Positional sanctification takes place at the moment of salvation. We are set apart for God and for special service. 1 Corinthians 6:11 says, “But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.” That’s referring to a past event that happened to the Corinthian believers. Jesus said of His disciples in John 15:19 that they were not of the world because He chose them out of the world. And Hebrews 10 similarly refers to sanctification as a past event. It says in v. 10, “By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
So, in one sense, you have been sanctified! You’ve been set apart for service. But then listen to what the writer of Hebrews does just four verses later! He says in v. 14, “For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.”
So which is it? Have we been sanctified or are we being sanctified? Well, it’s both! If you are a Christian, then you have been set apart for God. However, you are still right smack in the middle of working out the implications of that consecration. How do you work out the implications of being a person who is dedicated to God? By gradually becoming a person who is increasingly devoted to Him. You work out your positional sanctification in progressive sanctification by gradually becoming more like Christ.
To say that sanctification is progressive is not to deny the reality of initial sanctification. But it’s also not to deny the reality of final sanctification. Am I confusing you enough? “So, let me get this straight. I have been sanctified, I am being sanctified, and now you’re telling me that I will be sanctified?” That’s right. Sanctification is past, present, and future.
Final sanctification is essentially glorification. It’s what happens when we see Jesus, never to sin again. We’ll talk about that more in a minute. But before we go on, I want to stress that 1 Thessalonians 5:23 is not about final sanctification, although it’s easy to make that assumption. We can see words like “complete” and “blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” and assume this verse is saying that after I see Jesus, I will be complete. That’s not what Paul is praying for here! He is praying that the Thessalonians would be complete and blameless when Jesus comes–in other words, before they see Jesus! He prays the same prayer in 3:12-13 (3:12-13). Why does Paul want the Thessalonians to increase and abound in love? It’s so that their hearts would be blameless in holiness when Jesus comes! Paul is talking about progressive sanctification!
Some people may be uncomfortable with the language Paul uses in this verse to describe the goal of progressive sanctification. After all, it almost sounds like he believes in the possibility of sinless perfection in this life! (And in fact, this is one of the first passages that those who believe that false doctrine will turn to.) Did Paul believe in sinless perfectionism? Read Romans 7. No! He didn’t! But he did believe very strongly in the power of God to completely change a life, and that is something we must never diminish!
So first of all, we see that the nature of sanctification is progressive. Second, let’s talk about the agent of sanctification.
Its Agent: God
Who is the agent of sanctification according to this verse? It’s God! How do you know that? Because this verse is a prayer! Think about it: every time you pray, you are making a statement about the sovereignty of God. You may not even have realized it, but you are! Why would you pray for God to save that lost person you are so burdened about unless you believe He is sovereign? Why would you pray for Him to sanctify that believer you are so burdened about unless you believe He is sovereign?
The sovereignty of God in sanctification is emphasized especially in v. 24 (v. 24). What was the basis of Paul’s confidence that God would answer this prayer? It was the faithfulness of God! He saved you, so He will finish what He started in your life! Paul says in Philippians 1:6, “being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.” So you can pray for your fellow-believers’ sanctification with confidence, knowing that it is God’s will to answer that request!
And so the agent of sanctification is God (more specifically we see in other passages, God the Holy Spirit). Paul prayed for the Thessalonians to be sanctified, and his confidence was in the faithfulness of God to finish what He had started in them.
However, this is not to deny the fact that we are to work at sanctification! It is vital that we maintain a balanced emphasis when addressing the divine and human aspects of sanctification. Let’s take a look at Philippians 2:12-13. Paul says, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.”
I’ve heard it said recently that there are two wrong ways of reading that passage. One is this: “Work out your own salvation [timidly]… because GOD IS AT WORK IN YOU!” But there’s also another wrong way of reading that passage, isn’t there? What’s the other wrong way of reading it? “WORK OUT YOUR OWN SALVATION!... because God is at work in you [timidly].” So how should we read that passage? “WORK OUT YOUR OWN SALVATION, BECAUSE GOD IS AT WORK IN YOU!”
How do we maintain the balance between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility when it comes to sanctification? I’d like to show you two diagrams that illustrate possible ways to maintain this balance. Some would say that you need to maintain the balance this way: God does half and you do half. The assumption being that you get out of balance when you try to give God 51%, or conversely, take 51% upon yourself. But I don’t think that is a healthy way to think about this balance. Sanctification is not about you and God working together to lift a boulder, as if He needs any help from you! So then how do we maintain the balance? Let me show you a second diagram. Do you see any overlap there? It’s all overlap, isn’t it!
I wish I had the citation for you this, but I have heard a quote Jonathan Edwards in which he essentially says this exact same thing. He says, “The proper way to construe this balance is that God does it all… and you do it all.”
Sometimes we use the phrase, “Work as if it all depends upon you; pray as if it all depends upon God.” And that is not far off. Work as if it all depends upon you, because in one sense, it does. For instance, if you don’t read your Bible and pray and attend church regularly, you will not grow like you ought to, and God will hold you responsible for that! We cannot allow the doctrine of God’s sovereignty to render meaningless human responsibility! Actions have consequences, and issues of tremendous import hang on your choices every day!
However, you must also depend on God for the grace, and that’s where the second half of the phrase– “pray as if it all depends upon God”– comes in. In addition, you must realize that whenever you do anything good, it is always because of God. Apart from His work of grace in your life, you would never pursue holiness.
But the promise we have from Philippians 2:12-13 is that God IS working in us, and that should motivate us to work harder than ever! You can never sin and then say, “It’s God’s fault. He didn’t give me the strength today.” That is never the problem. Christian, God IS working in you. The question is, are you working?
In conclusion, what about those times when you’ve failed? You give in to that stubborn habit. You lose your temper again. One of the things for me would be you show up late or miss a deadline. And you think to yourself, “It’s no use; I’m never going to change. I might as well just quit now.” Have you ever felt that way?
It’s times like that when you need to fall back 1 Thessalonians 5:24–God is faithful, and He will finish what He started in you. His goal for you is holiness, and He is on the move, making you more like His Son.
So if there’s someone you’re burdened for and they just never seem to change, take heart, and keep praying, just like Paul did. God will finish what He started in that person. And if it’s you that you’re discouraged about, also take heart. Keep praying and keep working. God will finish what He started.
 Richard C. Blight, An Exegetical Summary of 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: SIL International, 2008), 165–166.